Van Nuys, July, 1980
Flores introduced me to Fred as we drove off. He seemed cordial. I looked at Flores.
"I thought you said he had the weed?"
"Relax" was his rather typical reply.
Within seconds we were back on another freeway.
"How far are we going?" I asked.
"Not far", said Fred.
He looked at Flores with a sneaky grin. I felt like I was on the outside of an inside joke.
After pulling up to speed with the flow of traffic, Fred continued to accelerate. Incredibly I watched the red stick on the speedometer move past 60, 70, and then 80. Suddenly we were passing other cars like they were standing still. Soon we hit 95, and the focus of the driving became to avoid the vehicles that were going the proper speed. My heart began thumping in my chest and I could feel it pound in my head. Instead of sleeping soundly in my bed, I was hurtling along some god damn freeway at breakneck speed. It was all surreal. I tapped Flores on the shoulder from the backseat.
"Is there some reason we have to drive like this? I mean, why do we have to drive so god damn fast?"
He just laughed. A sadistic glare sparkled in his eye.
Fred was driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other rolling the radio dial from station to station. He was zipping around other cars, from lane to lane, with great dexterity and an eerie calmness. I buckled my seatbelt and said a prayer, which, as a matter of course, I simply never did. "Please, God, I don't want to die" I said to myself. It was one of those times when you really hope there is something, anything, that can actually hear your pathetic plea and somehow influence the outcome of an event like this.
After jamming through every possible signal on his radio Fred stopped dead on a Mexican station and turned up the volume. Here we were doing a hundred miles an hour on a half-deserted freeway at one thirty in the morning, and now Mexican music blasted in my ear at full tilt. The sound of Tijuana added to the delirium in the speeding vehicle.
We were really flying now, the gas pedal completely pressed to the floor, maxing out at something around 120, Fred banging the steering wheel in tune with the wild Latino beat that assaulted me from the tiny inadequate speakers behind my head. I began to lose my focus on everything as the outside world became a giant blur, passing by without form or recognition.
I was convinced a bad fate was seconds away. This was a recipe for disaster. This is exactly what the CHP is looking for, I thought, a late model American car hurtling through space, the bespectacled driver with madness in his eye, the mop-haired passenger laughing manically in the night and the Mexican musicians firing through bad speakers.
I watched helplessly from the backseat as Fred’s attention now diverted between the road and a little knapsack that sat on the front seat between the two of them. He fumbled through it with his free hand. His head was quickly alternating between the road and his knapsack, at close to twice the speed limit. The Mexican fiesta music blasted in my eardrums. It was as if all I knew as normal was left somewhere back near my car at La Tuna Canyon, my brain swimming in the distorted images of reckless speed and yipping Mexican musicians. Sweat began to bubble on my forehead. Breathing normally was difficult.
Flores was laughing, and now I realized the merchandise was in the car the whole time. Right there in the knapsack on the front seat.
Fred finally found what he was looking for, handing Flores a handful of small sealed bags from which to choose. My jaw hung open as I stared at the most unorthodox dope deal I’d ever imagined, on the freeway, at 120 miles-per-hour, in the middle of the night.
Suddenly Fred slowed down and pulled off the freeway. As I felt the safety of manageable speed unfold beneath the car, I sighed, a deep breath of gratitude to a god who apparently answered my personal plea. However this moment of reprieve was only a tease. Fred guided the car onto an overpass, made a left turn, and we headed right back onto the freeway, this time in the opposite direction.
"Ah fer chrissakes" was all I could manage. Flores was sickly amused.
Soon we were passing cars and the insane scene repeated itself. 60, 70, 80 and beyond, the motor buckling up to Detroit cruising speed as Fred reached down to the dial and began snapping off stations once again. This time he landed on KMET and Jim-fucking-Ladd who decided at that moment in time to play “The End”, the Doors apocalyptic anthem from their first album, a late-night Ladd favorite and such a perfect fit for this scene I could only giggle at the grand coincidence. I held on.
“This is the end, my only friend, the end...of our elaborate plans, the end...”
Jim Morrison's voice echoed through the speakers, the eerie tune filled the car. Flores chose his bag and paid for it. Fred counted out crumpled one dollar bills on top of his steering wheel while doing 120 miles-an-hour.
“...can you picture what will be...so limitless and free...desperately in need of some stranger’s hand, in a desperate land...”
We passed a matt-grey late 60’s muscle car of some kind. The driver’s head snapped to his left as we shot by him, our eyes meeting in a momentary glimpse. I had doom in my eyes and I know that guy saw it and recognized it.
“...lost in a roman wilderness of pain...and all the children are insane...”
I looked back to watch the muscle car recede into the night. The headlights faded into the distance for a few brief seconds, then they held their ground before, incredibly, gaining on us. Fred glanced in his rearview mirror, aware we had company.
“...all the children are insane...waiting for the summer rain..."
Morrison narrated and the band’s melodic tempo filled my head. I watched in horror as the muscle car caught up with its obvious advantage in horsepower.
“...weird scenes inside the gold mine...ride the highway west, baby...”
The muscle car was now only a few feet behind us. We had picked up a willing partner for a high speed dual, this moment of suspended sanity, this tempting of fate. Time seemed to slow down in the way I imagine it does only in preludes to catastrophe.
“...There’s danger on the edge of town...ride the king’s highway, baby...”
Fred was now engaged with the muscle car driver, both of them jumping lanes, three at a time, the mass of steel screeching diagonally across the huge concrete highway, playing a perilous game with one another without the slightest hint of fear or restraint or common sense. My breathing was quick, short, and I struggled to get enough air into my lungs.
“...ride the snake, to the lake, the ancient lake...”
Apparently I had reached the edge of a precipice and I was looking into an abyss. Had my entire life led me to this moment? The rush of thought was impossible to sort through. Adrenaline filled my veins and a high crept over me and through my body like a warm surge. I felt light, like letting go. Sweat was pooling on my body.
“...the west is the best...get here and we’ll do the rest...”
The muscle car was trying to pass us, his big block power evident. Fred was having none of it, cranking his wheel from side to side to prevent the move.
“...the blue bus is callin’ us, driver where you takin’ us...”
It was all a dream. I kept telling myself this couldn’t be happening. But then the muscle car nudged our bumper and I knew it was real and a dream would be too easy an explanation for this insanity. I felt a pain in my chest.
“...the killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on...he took a face from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall...”
The muscle car was trying desperately to get the lane and make the pass but Fred was presenting violent opposition with sudden jerks of the steering wheel, to which he now decided a few screaming “yeehaws!” would add just the right touch. I took this as confirmation the end was in fact, near.
And just like that, without warning, Fred pulled the car hard right to an off-ramp and the muscle car sped past and into the night. Fred turned the music down and looked over at Flores.
“Its good bud, man, it’s from Humboldt” he said.
I don’t remember getting out of the car and back into mine when we arrived at the rest home. In fact, I don’t remember anything from the rest of that night, only I'll never forget the buzz of danger, the irrational, and the extreme. I looked into the teeth of the beast, and I felt the rush.
Years later I learned Fred met his demise by his own hand. It was an outcome to a life I didn’t find difficult to reconcile.
(c) A. C. James