Peaceful Sundays - Jimmy Pete - ebook
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The breakout first novel from author Jimmy Pete, Peaceful Sundays is a laugh-out-loud parody of American society: a rollicking ride through the world of corrupt cops, white collar criminals, racists, sexists, homophobes, and Jesus Christ the Heavenly Father Almighty. Hilarious and poignant, the story follows Da'Ndre Goldstein, a 29-year-old biracial orphan drifter, as he flees the deep south with the dual intentions of both evading prosecution and finding his long-lost mother. Struggling against The Man, Da'Ndre cons, cajoles and escapes a cast of physically and emotionally scarred characters, until he finds the redemption that he never knew he was looking for. “More fun than reading the Bible!”

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PEACEFUL SUNDAYS

by

Jimmy Pete

Peaceful Sundays

by Jimmy Pete

Copyright © 2016 Jimmy Pete

All rights reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

ISBN: 9781370498871

To Cannabis Sativa

"I will not become that which you worship," he said to the heavens. "Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion."

PROLOGUE

“When do I get my money?” Mrs Kingery was a bear of a woman, with giant mottled fists that looked like bricks of raw pork sausage.

The two women talked about Da’Ndre without looking at him, like he was a ghost that wasn’t really present.

“This will make seventeen children for you, Mrs Kingery.” The social services lady looked like she could have been an assistant librarian or a crossing guard, but she wasn’t smart enough, so they put her in charge of children’s fates and futures instead. “It takes two full months before you get the first direct deposit.”

“I ain’t takin him outa here without no money up front.” Mrs Kingery crossed her varicose veins and fumbled a Winston from a hard pack. She flipped the lid of a classic chrome Zippo that said HARLEY DAVIDSON, corrupting the office atmosphere with its nauseating aroma of cheap lighter fluid. Before she rolled the wheel on the flint, she made a poker face at the socialist bureaucrat. “I ain’t runnin no goddamn charity.”

“You can’t smoke in here, Mrs Kingery.”

“So call the fucking cops.” Mrs Kingery flicked her Zippo and lit the cigarette. She sucked her cheeks concave and exhaled a bitter gray cloud. “Free country. You don’t like it, you can come over to my house and take all your goddamn rug rats back.”

“Ursus, please. Me and you, we go way back. This boy is twelve years old. That sets you up for six full years of solid income from the county.”

“I need cash now.”

The social services lady heaved a sigh. “I’ll go see if I can get you some emergency funding.” She got up from her desk and waddled away, revealing a fluorescent lime Post-It smashed flat over the bullseye on the ass end of her drum-tight skirt.

Mrs Kingery leaned over and watched that green Post-It disappear around a corner. As soon as she knew she was alone with Da’Ndre, the big woman stung the boy hard with a nasty slap across his cheek, knocking the red-stained bandage on Da’Ndre’s forehead cockeyed. “Don’t you never give me no shit, you hear me, boy?”

Da’Ndre rubbed his stinging face with one hand, restored the bandage with his other hand, and wiped a tear from his affected eye with a dip of his cheek against a shrug of his t-shirt. “Yes, ma’am.”

She slapped him backhanded, stinging Da’Ndre’s other cheek. “Quit yer cryin before you get us in trouble!” she yelled in a whisper.

Da’Ndre rubbed his head and tried to hold his emotions in.

The woman reached over onto the bureaucrat’s desk and bent the ear of the file folder up so she could read the label. “D-a-apostrophe-N-d-r-e,” she said. “That your name?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How you say it?”

“DON-dray,” the boy said.

She examined the label. “Duh-ON-dray,” she murmured. “What a stupid name.” Then she tossed the file back onto the bureaucrat’s desk, turned, and throttled the lad’s throat with her talons. “Don’t you never call me momma, ya hear me boy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“My name is Mrs Kingery. And you will do what I say because I’m all you got in this world.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Your daddy is in prison and your momma is dead, boy.”

“My momma ain’t dead!” Da’Ndre said. “She’s declared unfit is all!”

“They’re just telling you that because they don’t wanna hear you cry like a baby,” the bearlike woman said. “Your momma was buried with a bullet in the back.”

Da’Ndre tried to inhale through a noseful of snot, but had to open his mouth to gasp for a breath. “How do you know that?”

“Quit yer whimperin! Here she comes.”

The paper pusher came back into the office carrying a fluorescent lime green Post-It in her fingers. She held it out toward Mrs Kingery.

The grizzly old gold digger withdrew from the Post-It in horror, like it was a snake that the bureaucrat had farted on.

“I wrote down a phone number for you to call,” the bureaucrat said, fanning the green paper in front of her client’s nose. Then she noticed the little boy crying. She knelt down beside him. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“Oh he’s cryin because I told him what happened to his momma and daddy,” Mrs Kingery said, standing and grabbing the boy’s upper arm. “I’ll go ahead and take him right now. You just make sure you get all that money put into my account by close of business on Monday or I’m bringin him back.”

And then the witch dragged Da’Ndre away.

CHAPTER ONE

THE SABBATH

It could have been the flashing blue police strobes in the rear view mirror that started Da’Ndre Goldstein’s death spiral. Or it could have been Da’Ndre’s own life choices.

It could have been the busted taillight. Or it could have been decisions made by his mother and father, a long time ago.

It could have been the borrowed license plates. Or it could have been the drunk teenage white girls that got their thighs sliced open on the Rumbly Wumbly Ride for Toddlers.

It could have been destiny. Or it could have been a six thousand-year-old karma tsunami, snowballing its way down through the generations from Adam & Eve or monkeys.

Or it could have just been the color of his skin.

The Galaxie was an old Detroit road boat with worn-out shocks and creaky springs, probably 25 to 30 years old. It would have floated like a dream if only Rupert the retard hadn’t attempted to balance the wheels. It was covered with dribs and drabs of flicked paint, an abstract paint job, like it had been driven through a Jackson Pollack car wash that pissed primaries out of a gay rainbow. It was a veritable orgy of ejaculated color. It had four-forty air conditioning because the windows were stuck open at various heights and angles. It had an antique cassette deck and a pair of Jensen six-by-nines mounted in the rear. Those speakers were so powerful, Da’Ndre could turn the jams up loud enough to eliminate the screech of the v-belt strangling the water pump under the hood.

Da’Ndre had started his road trip off by fishing three dusty cassettes out from under the driver’s seat. He had shoved the first one in without even looking at the label. As soon as he heard the intro, he knew it was one of his daddy’s old Motown mixes.

He had discovered that the cruise control and all of the electric seat servos worked if he wiggled the buttons just right. He had set the cruise on five under the limit to stay below the radar. He had tilted himself back in the seat and had been belting duets with Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Luther Vandross. The wind was blowin, a doobie was burnin, and his head was reminiscin about his past: a curriculum vitae which any random parole officer might call “checkered,” but which Da’Ndre himself considered to be more like a game of chess. A game of chess he was always playing against The Man.

He had been driving on autopilot. The dark plains of Georgia made waves as sexy as the pods of his Rumbly Wumbly. His mind was engaged in a mental review of his own life experiences, flowing past like Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day.

For nearly an entire decade, Da’Ndre had been the Rumbly Wumbly’s proud Head Nigga In Charge, but then suddenly he was out on his ass, after them girls got their milky white thighs cut open. It was either because they were drunk and unhooked the safety bar and stood up, or because some shiftless nigger neglected to hook the safety bar, or intended to leave it unhooked, depending on whose story you believe.

Da’Ndre had just merged the old Galaxie between a couple of struggling 18-wheelers, and was headed north out of Shannon County when the flashing blues slithered out of a cut-out camouflaged by overgrown poke sallet.

Da’Ndre wasn’t speeding, so he knew the cop wasn’t pulling him over. He figured the cop would rush past, on his way to chase some actual lawbreaker up ahead. So he just kept doodling along, still on cruise, still five under the limit.

Lean on me, sang Bill Withers, when you’re not strong... Da’Ndre sang along, his voice becoming one with his dad’s old mix tape. And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on...

The cop stayed on Da’Ndre’s ass for half a mile before rudely interjecting a series of chirps from his siren.

Da’Ndre examined the situation in the rear view. He felt a twinge of emotion. It was an unexpected upwelling from within, some emotion he couldn’t quite place. Regret, maybe it was regret. Or some other emotion he couldn’t figure out. Dread, maybe. Or grief. He turned the volume up louder, wiped a tear, and kept ignoring the cop.

For it won’t be long, til I’m gonna need...

The siren went full bore like the cop was dead serious about pulling someone over.

...somebody to leeeeean on....

Da’Ndre wasn’t like none of the other guys at Marblee’s Amusements. Those other guys had bald heads and broken teeth. They rolled dice, talked trash, smoked cancer sticks. A few were white and a bunch of them didn’t even speak English. They had dry legs and ashy elbows and rancid breath. They all wanted to operate the Tilt-a-Whirl because they thought they might get a chance to bang some of the jailbait that lined up to ride it. They were fools.

Da’Ndre, on the other hand, was well groomed and trendy. He had a genuine GED diploma and buckwheat dread spikes. He had a cubic zirconia stud pinned in his left earlobe because he didn’t like conflict diamonds. His front left incisor was a fake tooth made of solid gold. All of his other teeth were perfectly straight, because he had had braces when he was a teenager. And since he had got the gold tooth, he had made it a policy to put a stop to every potential physical altercation — before it even had a chance to start — by throwing the first punch.

The cop jerked his steering wheel, swerved into the breakdown lane, and gunned his engine. He flew past the Galaxie in a hail of dust and gravel like he was Dale Earnhardt. Once he’d passed, the cop whipped his wheel back, swerved directly in front of Da’Ndre and stood on his brakes.

Da’Ndre saw the rear end of the cop’s cruiser zooming in like it was a bad horror movie. He could swerve off the road, but when the guardrail failed, he’d surely end up dead and embarrassed at the bottom of an ugly looking culvert. He decided it was a better idea to ram right into the rear end of the cop car. So he lined it up to happen.

A split-second before the cars crashed, however, a gray jowled K-9 — an innocent old dog — raised her head into the beams of the old Galaxie’s headlights and looked right into Da’Ndre’s soul from the back seat of that cop car.

Da’Ndre didn’t wanna hurt no dog, even if it was a cop dog. So he swerved away.

He was surprised when his hulking vehicle bounced off the galvanized rail like a ping-pong ball. This guardrail turned out to be stronger than the last one he’d taken out.

The car spun around and came to rest in a cloud of black rubber smoke, sideways across the breakdown lane. Its right front light was busted out. A geyser was blowing from under the hood. The left rear fender was jutting into the traffic lane.

There was nothing Da’Ndre could do. He just sat there while the old Galaxie’s heartbeat struggled in its death throes. Its radiator wept. Its engine gasped. Bill Withers warbled like a bad 8-track.

Lean on me...

At that moment, Da’Ndre realized what the elusive emotion was that he had been feeling. It was loss. That’s what it was. Loss. His chin trembled. What the fuck is it that I have lost that’s making me feel this way? he thought. Don’t everybody else in the world go through the exact same shit as I do?

He looked into the evening sky. The stars twinkled. The moon smiled.

All Da’Ndre Goldstein wanted was his momma. Was that too much to ask of God, or fate, or destiny, or even the goddamn poe-leese?

He just wanted his momma. That’s all he wanted.

The cop rolled out of his cruiser, juggled his pistol from its holster, and directed the blue steel barrel toward Da’Ndre’s nose. The cop was about thirty-five, visibly shaking. He had a pronounced beer gut, a greasy black comb-over, and a wad of snuff puffing his lower lip out. He was a dangerous and frightened white man. “Put your hands where I can see em, boy!”

Da’Ndre realized his hands were clamped over a bleeding egg that was growing out of his forehead. Blood trickled down his nose. He let go of the egg and gripped the wheel at ten and two, so the cop could see his hands plain as day.

The cop reached behind himself and dragged his dog out of the car by a studded steel choke collar on an eight-foot chrome chain leash. The dog was an elderly mix of black lab and slobber, with a dime-size hole right through the middle of one ear. It gave her master a sidelong glance of guilty panic, then squatted.

“Git over here, Missy!” The cop shouted without looking back at the dog. He focused the barrel of his pistol and all his attention directly on Da’Ndre’s face. “Put yer hands up, boy!”

“I think your dog’s gotta take a shit, officer,” Da’Ndre said.

“Boy you shut up,” the cop said, dragging the arthritic dog by its choke collar. “Git over here, Missy!”

Missy prematurely pinched one off and obediently slunk over beside her master, obviously expecting to be slapped. When she got close enough, the cop kicked the dog’s hind end and pointed to Da’Ndre’s car. “Go sniff it.” The poor dog hunkered down like an abused rescue.

“Hey, man, you shouldn’t treat your dog like that,” Da’Ndre said.

The cop, still pointing his pistol toward Da’Ndre’s face, stepped close enough for Da’Ndre to read the name badge pinned on the breast of his starched gray uniform.

[ NIMROD ]

“What’s in your trunk, boy?” the cop asked.

“This ain’t my car, sir.”

“Missy here got ya,” Nimrod said, waving his pistol toward the dog, who was lying in the gravel, her head down, her eyes clinched tight against the shock waves of 18-wheelers passing at full speed. “How about you just tell me what you got and save us both a buncha trouble.”

“That dog didn’t say nothin. Look at her. She’s lyin down, scared and shakin. You’re abusin that poor animal.”

Officer Nimrod filled Da’Ndre’s window with his gut. He pushed the barrel of his pistol up to Da’Ndre’s temple and shoved him backwards against the headrest. With his other hand, he reached through the window and groped for the car keys in the ignition. He extracted a solo key, not a key ring. “Where’s the key to your trunk, boy? I’m gonna look inside it.”

“I ain’t got one.”

“You a lyin sack of shit. Get out of the car real slow,” Nimrod said, stepping back and gripping his pistol with both hands in a firing stance. “Keep your hands where I can see em, boy.”

Da’Ndre kept both his hands visible to the cop as he reached out the window and popped the exterior door handle. He rode the door open, stumbling out of the car with his hands still on display through the Galaxie’s window frame.

Nimrod stepped behind Da’Ndre, grabbed the collar of Da’Ndre’s t-shirt, and twisted it tight around Da’Ndre’s throat. He jerked Da’Ndre backwards and then threw him face down across the Galaxie’s trunk lid. He ground a knee into Da’Ndre’s assbone, skull-fucked him with the barrel of his pistol, and shoved the long arm of the law into Da’Ndre’s front pocket. The cop played hacky sack with Da’Ndre’s balls before extracting a little baggie of weed. He tossed the three buds of kush triumphantly on the hood and keyed his collar mic. “Ethel, we got a Quad-N. Repeat we got a Quad-N.”

“Roger. Quad-N,” said a drawling fuckwit of a woman through the radio.

“Quad-N?” Da’Ndre shouted onto the trunk lid. “I ain’t done no Quad-N! What’s a Quad-N?”

“Northbound. Ninety-Five. Narcotics.”

“Hey! That’s only three N’s,” Da’Ndre said. “What’s the other N you’re accusing me of?”

“I know your kind, boy,” the officer said, humping Da’Ndre’s haunches. The cop grabbed a hunk of mini-dreads and shoved Da’Ndre’s face back down onto the car’s multicolored paint job. “You ain’t got nothin, boy, do ya?” the cop said. “You ain’t got no kids, you ain’t got no wife, you ain’t got no family at all, do ya? Nobody gives a shit about you and you don’t give a rat’s ass about nobody else, ain’t that right?”

Da’Ndre twisted around and saw the cop’s “Officer of the Year” medallion glint in the headlights of a passing semi.

“I bet you ain’t even got no momma and daddy that taught you how to behave like a civilized human being,” the cop said.

And then Officer Purvis Quackenbush Nimrod III, Shannon County Police Department’s Officer of the Year, made the tactical error of attempting to slap a handcuff on Da’Ndre Goldstein’s brown left wrist.

CHAPTER TWO

A FEW DAYS EARLIER

“Hello?”

Da’Ndre gulped. He could hear a hellish cacophony of angry noise coming from the other side of the line. “Yo Daddy, it’s me. It’s Da’Ndre.”

“Well I’ll be a mothafucka. Seventeen years of nothin, not even a goddamn post card, and now when I’m finally gettin out, you calling me up? What you want with me, boy?”

“I, uh, I just wanna know...do you know...I just wanna know...is Momma still alive?”

“How in the fuck should I know?” the old man said. “All I know is, she ain’t never called or wrote, and nobody never told me shit about her one way or the other. Kinda like you, boy. One minute ago, I didn’t know whether you was dead or alive.”

“I, uh... Are you gonna go lookin for her when you get out? Cause I wanna go lookin for her.”

“Well how about you get your sorry black ass up here on Monday at one minute after noon and pick me up,” the old man said. “We’ll talk about it over a tall can of ice-cold Colt 45.”

“Well, I would, but I ain’t got no car.”

“You ain’t got no car? How old are you, boy?”

“You know how old I am.”

“Twenty-nine years old and ain’t never even got hisself no goddamn car,” the father said to his son from the confines of Aberdeen State Penitentiary. “I am so ashamed of you, boy.”

“You in prison, Daddy,” Da’Ndre said. “You ain’t got no right to be ashamed of me or nobody.”

“I can be ashamed of whoever I wanna be ashamed of, especially if it’s you.” Andre Turnipseed said. He laid down a dramatic pause before dropping to sotto voce, as if the prison wasn’t recording his call to be transcribed for the court at their future discretion. “You remember where we wrecked?”

“I was twelve years old,” Da’Ndre said. “My head went through the windshield and fucked me up. I can't remember a lot of shit.”

“Well, it was down in Shannon County, Georgia, boy. That’s where you and me said goodbye for the last time.”

“What does that have to do with Momma?”

“There’s a white chick down there, name of Sugarplum Dingledine. Write that down. She used to be married to the county sheriff. Long blonde hair, skinny as a toothpick, smokes like hell and chain chews Juicy Fruit. Got a retard for a kid. She’s been sendin me letters. Sexy letters. I think she wants to fuck me.”

“What you got me writin this bullshit down for?”

“Bitch runs a junkyard,” the old man said. “Says she’s been saving the old Galaxie for me all this time. Said I can come down and get it whenever I get out.”

“Saving the Galaxie? That car was an old piece of shit seventeen years ago. That’s one thing I do remember.”

“When you pick it up, don’t open the trunk, aight?”

“I ain’t going to no goddamn junkyard looking for a rusty old car because you wanna fuck some white ho.”

“You hear me boy? I said: Don’t. Open. The. Fucking. Trunk.”

“You hear me, old man? I said I ain’t pickin up your goddamn old wrecked car.”

“You wanna see your momma, you come and get me on Monday. And don’t open—”

The line went dead.

Da’Ndre looked at his clamshell’s screen. It was a burner, and it was out of minutes.

He threw it in the trash.

# # #

After Da’Ndre stuck out his thumb, he got within six miles of his destination in only three rides, but then walked the next four miles backwards with his thumb out. The last two miles he gave up hitching and trudged down a dusty gravel road until he finally stumbled through a welded steel gate that looked like the entrance to Auschwitz. He walked into the focal point of Sugarplum’s Classic Automotive Parts, a subtle euphemism for what was actually a straight-up car dump.

Da’Ndre quickly spotted the old Galaxie under a rusty tin lean-to. Memories returned like magic. It was indeed an unforgettable car, a big American hawg with an easily recognizable paint job.

He walked over to it like a hypnotized child and ran his fingertips across the once-shiny passenger door handle. The chrome was pitted with age and felt rough to the touch. He circled the car. Thick sheets of multicolored lacquer were peeling off its body. A pox of rust had infected everything. The entire length of its driver’s side was rippled from smacking into those two Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs. A taillight lens was busted. The tires were flat and dry rotted.

He peered through the driver’s window, which had lost transparency due to a milky cataract. He admired the once bright, smooth leatherette upholstery, now faded with age. He saw the hand controls rigged to push the brake and gas pedals. And he saw Buzz Lightyear laying twisted, dead on the passenger floor, the little action figure’s chest blackened with a crust of dried blood.

He opened the driver’s door; the hinges complied with a rusty complaint. He laid down across the bench seat, reached over and tore his little friend off the floor. He knew the congealed blood that held Buzz to the carpet was his own childhood blood mixed with his own father’s blood and his own mother’s blood.

Da’Ndre reached up toward the busted windshield. The broken glass looked like a sheet of diamonds. He touched the interior of a concave orb that was molded into it. He knew the one on the far right was the outline of his mother’s skull. Then he felt his father’s on the left side, and finally, he felt his own, the little one in the middle with the curly black hair still stuck in the bloodstained cracks.

There were three bell-shaped protrusions, made by three human heads, in a sudden stop, seventeen years before.

# # #

Da’Ndre Turnipseed had been twelve years old back when weed was Mexican, gas was free and niggas was still strugglin. He remembered the coal black bunion of his dad’s bare foot, chokeholding the Galaxie’s pedal to the floor. The old man was overloading the rich running 302, making it gulp hi-test like he was flying it to the moon.

They bottle-rocketed past 60, 70, 80, Daddy barely holding the wound-up small block between the ditch and the double yellow, faster and faster, the three of them, father, mother and son, for some confusing reason pursued by several police cars, red lights flashing — they were red back then — as the speedometer’s needle jiggled past the century, and the stupid tractor rolled out from the farmer’s dirt driveway.

And then he was in a strange hospital bed, orphaned.

# # #

Da’Ndre dropped to a knee. He hunched down and let his eyes adjust to the dark ripples of the car’s belly. Underneath, bushels of corn stalks, milkweeds and cattails were still jammed into the linkage and brake lines, like shards of bamboo shoved under fingernails.

In addition to the windshield and front bumper, Da’Ndre figured the old car needed a new battery, four new tires and some Quaker State. They probably had a used taillight laying around somewhere in the junkyard to replace the busted one. If the engine started, fine. If not, Da’Ndre knew he didn’t have enough scratch to get this beast back on the road. He figured the only hope he had, was if this Sugarplum bitch — whoever she was — really wanted to fuck his daddy bad enough to help a nigga out.

Da’Ndre became aware of the floral scent of Juicy Fruit gum, commingled with the locker-room stench of sweaty rubber shoes. He caught sight of a pair of piggy pink feet shoved into avocado Crocs. His eyes followed the sight line up to a solar eclipse of a dominatrix standing over him. She was an antique amazon with straight gray witch’s hair. Her sunburn was medium-rare. She was poured into XXL spanx knockoffs that were escaping the confines of her cherry hotpants. Her boobs were freeballing in a pink bandanna halter. “I thought you wasn’t gettin out til Monday,” the she-giant said.

Da’Ndre stood up. The woman was open-mouthedly chewing gum, spewing fructose fumes directly into his face. As she chewed, Da’Ndre caught a glimpse of her rows of molars: once-proud teeth that had surrendered to a lifelong love struggle with Mr Wrigley. “I’m lookin for a skinny blonde woman, name of Sugarplum Dingledine,” Da’Ndre said. “She’s a real sexy woman.”

“Oh hells bells, I remember you now, you’re that kid, the one right there.” She pointed to the centermost orb punched into the Galaxie’s windshield. “I thought you was your daddy, fell down in a bucket of Clorox or somethin.”

A skinny retard suddenly jumped out from behind the woman. He pirouetted a complete circle like a clumsy ballerina, and then kicked the air, faking a kung fu move. “Huuuwwwaaa!” Then he flashed his balled fists, hunched over, holding his elbows tight to the sides of his pelvis. “You want me to fuck him up, momma?” He had straight hair from a center part down to his tramp stamp. It was hair just like his momma’s, except it was an unremarkable shade of acorn brown.

“Shut up, Rupert,” the woman said, and turned back toward Da’Ndre. “Don’t mind him none. He’s retarded.”

Rupert the retard hopped around like he wanted Da’Ndre to pop him in the mouth, except just out of Da’Ndre’s reach. He looked to be somewhere between seventeen and twenty-six. It was hard for Da’Ndre to tell with retards.

“I’ll fuck him up if you want me to, momma!” the boy said, karate dancing just out of range. “Punk ass nigga!”

“I said shup boy!” and the momma backhanded her retard silly with a wallop to the chops that left the boy pink cheeked. He immediately stopped hopping. His fists froze in midair. His chin trembled.

Da’Ndre followed the woman and her idiot son into the dank shipping container that served as her junkyard office and nighttime residence. Pinched stalactites of masticated rubber clung to every surface, even the corrugated steel ceiling. The entire shithole smelled like cotton candy.

Sugarplum plopped herself behind a gray metal desk, where she lit up her last Camel. The retard slid along the wall until he was behind his momma. The woman punched buttons on her electromechanical adding machine. “Less see,” she said, snatching the paper tape. “Seventeen years times three hundred and sixty-five equals six thousand two hundred and five, times one hundred and five dollars per day, that comes to six hundred and fifty one thousand five hundred and five United States dollars.”

“I ain’t got that much on me.”

“I’ll give you a twenty percent discount, so that’s...well hell we’ll make it an even five hundred thousand and Rupert here will have her ready to drive first thang in the mornin.”

“My daddy said you and him was in love.”

“Ha! That’s a good one.” The woman leaned over, pulled a dirty curtain to reveal a picture window overlooking the junkyard panorama. “You see them seventeen cars out there all lined up?”

Da’Ndre peered outside. Sure enough, there were sixteen other wrecks in a row alongside the hand-painted Galaxie.

“Every one of them seventeen cars is all owned by men that Police Chief Red Dingledine done set up and sent to prison,” she said. “I was married to that asshole for twenty-three long years. We had what you call ‘sex’ once every decade, always in the dead of winter.” She punched buttons on her adding machine, totaled it up, snatched the paper tape and held it two inches in front of her nose. “That’s three times we had sex.” She balled the paper up, shot a basket, missed, and didn’t give a shit. “Two of them times it was by mutual consent. First time he got twin boys. Second time I got this piece of shit.” She flipped her gray hair backwards to indicate she was talking about Rupert. “Third time I got Planned Parenthood and a Jew lawyer from Lanta.” She lifted her belly with one hand and adjusted her spandex with the other.

“Most I can do for that car is twenty bucks,” Da’Ndre said.

“He got custody of the goddamn twins, which is why them two is still locked away in the penitentiary to this very day. Meanwhile, I got Rupert here, and I ain’t never got a lick of child support from that motherfucker. Not. One... Thin... FUCKING DIME!” She pounded the gray metal desk with the butt of her fist. “And I can’t even take his sorry ass to court no more, neither, cause he’s got all the judges in the tri-county wrapped up in a tight little bow.” She dropped the curtain, flopped back in her desk chair. “Your daddy’s a felon, son. He’s a thief, a drug smuggler, a child abuser, might be a murderer for all I know,” she said. “But Red Dingledine... Red Dingledine is one fucking son of a bitch!” She drove her fist down on the desk with a force worthy of the Richter scale.

“I’m gone kick your ass, mister,” the retard said, dancing behind his momma with his fists balled up again. “You just a chicken-ass nigga.”

“Shut up, Rupert,” Sugarplum said, and threatened her son with the back of her hand. When the boy stopped dancing, she directed her attention back to Da’Ndre. “Well I got me the scoop on Red Dingledine just when them Japanese VHS cameras first started showing up for sale down at Wal-Mart. And I got him recorded on videotape laying down in a bed with another man just like in the wicked parts of the Holy Bible. And I give that tape to my lawyer. So now, when Red Dingledine meets his maker, I get all his goddamn life insurance. I get his house and all his furnishings. I get all his money, his So’Security, his retirement. I get every fucking thing he owns. That’s all been wrote down in black and white by lawyers, and I got all the papers stacked up in that safe right there.” She waved a pudgy mitt toward an old claw-footed steel box, a gesture that made Rupert take a step backward in fear. “That’s why I’m saving all them seventeen cars outside. Cause one of them men that Red Dingledine done up and sent to prison is gonna come along one day and help me get my reward. As it happens, your daddy is the first of that bunch to get out.”

“Well, Miss Sugarplum, I don’t know if we’ll be able to smoke the police chief for ya,” Da’Ndre said. “But it sure would be nice for me and my daddy to have a car.”

“Oh, you got the car,” she said. “You got the car out of the goodness of my heart.” She threatened to backhand her son even though he wasn’t doing anything. “You take that car and go meet your daddy when he gets outa prison. But you better heed my advice, son. You make sure you ain’t within a thousand miles of his black ass when he comes back down here to get his revenge, cause the business he’s got to tend to down here, you don’t wanna get involved in.”

# # #

Da’Ndre laid down on a makeshift bed rigged out of three bucket seats lined up in a row and duct taped together. He couldn’t sleep because Rupert made so much noise working on the car right outside the door all night.

At 11:14 a.m. the next morning, Da’Ndre was awakened by sunlight leaking through the curtains. He staggered outside, finding Rupert still dicking around with a replacement windshield taken from a similar style of vehicle in the back lot. It appeared that the junkyard windshield didn’t quite fit properly, despite the amount of physical persuasion Rupert was applying.

When the car was finally ready to roll, it had three new used tires and a new used battery. Rupert had legalized the broken taillight with an X made of red electrical tape. The engine was full of oil so black, when Rupert revved it, it was easy to see it dripping out of the tailpipe.

As long as the car could propel itself down the road, Da’Ndre figured he didn’t mind the vertical crack in the glass directly in front of the steering wheel.

Sugarplum waddled up and handed Da’Ndre a single car key. “That’s the only key I got,” she said. “I ain’t never had no key to the trunk.”

Da’Ndre recalled his dad’s warning, not to open the trunk. “I don’t give a shit about no trunk key,” he said. “I don’t need to get in it.”

“Aight then, suit yerself,” the big woman said. “You go on up I-95 to the penitentiary and meet yer daddy when he gets out on Monday.” She thwocked a loogie into the dust, watched it bounce, and then caught Da’Ndre’s eye with an unexpected flash of feminine mystique. “Tell him I said howdy.”

CHAPTER THREE

TUESDAY AFTERNOON

Launjeray listened for an eternity to the metallic scratch of a key on the face of a deadbolt. It was either a kid or a drunk. Could be her little girl. Could be her man. “ZAT YOU, MUTHAFUCKA?”

Industrial springs creaked open and then slammed the steel door shut like an ice-cold bear trap. The cracked glass on Launjeray’s rear projection flat screen TV chattered. An assortment of Afrocentric hair care products tinkled. A bong staggered. The entire apartment floor shook.

But there were no family photos rattling on the walls. There were no books falling off shelves. No fridge magnets losing their grip on elementary school artwork.

The only decor displayed in the entire apartment was a black star thumbtacked to the drywall on Launjeray’s side of the bedroom. It was printed on a ragged circle of cheap gray newsprint that had been chewed out of a larger target by small caliber machine gun. The slamming door didn’t bother it much. Maybe there was a puff of air that caused it to wave a little. But mostly, it just hung there, silent, insignificant, static, unnoticed and ignored by everyone except Launjeray.

“It’s me, Momma!” T’Whirl peeked around the door into Launjeray’s bedroom, grinning the incisor-lite salutation typical of six year olds.

“I thought you was T-Bone,” Launjeray said, relieved that it was her daughter. “He’s been gone so long, like he’s on CPT.”

The little brown second grader had seen her mother lying naked in bed countless times before, so today was no different. “I got in trouble today,” she said.

“What for this time?”

“You know how you say there is no Santa Claus? That everything I get for Christmas you done bought with your own hard-earned money?”

“I told you not to tell no one that.”

“Well they got mad at me and sent me to the office.”

“Just for sayin there wasn’t no Santa Claus?”

“No, ma’am,” T’Whirl said, “for kicking Billy Perkins in the nuts.”

Launjeray considered the information. “He hit you first?”

“He tried to.”

“Why he try to?”

“For sayin there ain’t no Santa Claus.” T’Whirl wrangled a wrinkled envelope from her backpack. “Here. They sent you a letter.”

“Set it down on the dresser, I’ll read it later.”

Launjeray watched her daughter put the letter on the dresser. The little girl’s hair was braided tight to the scalp, capped off with an eight-pack of Family Dollar pink plastic bow clips. If one of her front teeth grew in made of gold, Launjeray thought, T’Whirl would look just like her daddy.

# # #

On the night of T’Whirl’s conception, Launjeray had been hastily assigned the job of tailing a pasty-ass white trash bitch. It was a warm summer Saturday night, and for some reason, that honky tornado bait drove her sorry ass, in her sorry ass hand-control panel van, out to some sorry ass county fair, way out in the sorry ass country somewhere, and Launjeray had to follow the sorry ass bitch the entire sorry ass way.

The county fair was set up in a park beside the courthouse. The white trash bitch made a show of heaving her lard ass out of the cripple-equipped van’s driver’s seat and into a wheelchair. Then she lowered her chrome-and-blubber rig using the van’s wheelchair elevator. It wasn’t hard to keep the bitch in sight, what with the matching pair of rebel flag tattoos on both her arms like stripes on a soldier’s uniform, the “Forget, Hell!” bumper sticker she had pasted across the ass end of her wheelchair, and the Stars-N-Bars tank top busting with her huge boobs. A civil war battle raged across her exposed belly. Her frizzy bleach-blonde mullet was so distinctive, it might as well have been a blue light flashing over Moon Pies in K-Mart.

If there was any possibility that the bitch would forget her fraud and stand up, or demonstrate any other normal physical capability below the waist, it would be at the fair, and Launjeray would get the video, and that would get her a $300 bonus from the detective agency. But the bitch just used her monster biceps to roll her big-ass chrome wheelchair through the entire fairground. She rolled across the lumpy park grass, from one carnival employee to the next. She yelled shit at them. In response, they gave her a shake of the head, or a shrug, or a scalp scratch. And then she moved on to the next ride, the next game, the next food stand, the next employee of some nomadic carnival company called Marblee Amusements.

It appeared to Launjeray that the rebel bitch wasn’t at the fair for the rides or the games or the food or the fun of it. No, she was doing some sort of systematic interrogation.

As the fat white trailer trash twit rolled her wheelchair away from the ferris wheel, Launjeray flashed her badge at the machine’s operator. He was a brown skinned septuagenarian who leaned on a six-foot control lever. She gave him just enough time to register sight of her badge, but not enough time to read the fine print. “What’s that lady want?” Launjeray asked the old carnival worker, nodding toward the back of the rebel flag bitch, who was wheeling toward the next employee.

“You a cop?” the ferris wheel operator asked. He casually abandoned his control lever and stepped toward her as the huge ride revolved over their heads.

“Yeah,” Launjeray said.

The ferris wheel operator liberally examined Launjeray as if he had x-ray vision. “You ain’t no cop,” he said, soaking up the glory of the young brown woman standing before him. She was dressed in electric orange shorts, with a fashionably ripped tee and baby blue toenails displayed in citrus colored rubber thong sandals. “You too dishy to be a cop.”

“Undercover,” she said, “so what did that redneck woman in the wheelchair want?”

“Wanted to know if I heard of a man.”

“Who ain’t heard of a man?” she said. “What name was she lookin for?”

“Some man name of Dondray Turnipseed or somethin.”

“Dondray Turnipseed? Who’s he?”

“She says he’s her long-lost son.” The old ferris wheel operator stepped back to his control levers and leaned on one. “She says he’s supposed to be workin here.”

“You know him?”

“We got a Dondray but he’s black and he’s a Jew or somethin,” the ferris wheel operator said. “We ain’t never heard of no Turnipseed nobody round here.” He hocked a loogie but didn’t spit it. “People come around here wantin all sorts of shit.” Then he pulled on the long steel arm to stop the wheel. Two kids jumped off. “Get on, I’ll give you a free ride,” he said.

“No thanks, I got work to do.”

“I ain’t talkin bout ridin no ferris wheel, babydoll,” the old black dude said, humping his control lever in an inappropriate manner for a man his age.

By 10 p.m., the fat white supremacist fake cripple bitch had queried every single one of the ride operators, game hawkers, ticket booth attendants, food vendors and port-a-john cleaners at the fair, and appeared to have reluctantly surrendered to a humiliating defeat. She fought her wheelchair back to her handicap van like Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was retreating heavy artillery by mule. Then she screwed herself up the van’s cranky elevator, and made a phenomenal show of hoisting herself out of her wheelchair and into the van’s driver’s seat.

Throughout the excruciating process, Launjeray kept her video camera rolling. She was hoping to catch a slip-up, some flicker of false injury, some physical capability or evidence of fraudulent intention. But the redneck bitch managed to fake it the entire time. She even used her hand controls to drive away.

Maybe her back really was fucked up, Launjeray thought, shutting off her video. Maybe she really did deserve a payout. Who knows? Not everybody is a crook or a criminal. Sometimes the insurance companies gotta settle up with people like they’re supposed to.

Launjeray made a mental note to request a different assignment. This one was going nowhere and she needed a whole string of bonuses to cover the bad check she wrote for last month’s rent, plus the two late fees, penalties and interest.

She was burnt out on tailing the bitch for the day, but no way in hell was she going back home to T-Bone. Yesterday the moon was full, and as usual she experienced the tell-tale pinch of her left ovary as it laid yet another egg like a goddamn Tyson chicken, right on time as usual. Twenty-three years old, with a teeny belt of extraneous belly fat, she was at the peak of feminine fertility. In fact, probably wasn’t a woman walking the earth more fertile than Launjeray was on that night.

And she knew T-Bone would be waiting.

And she knew T-Bone would demand his poontang bareback.

Launjeray found herself idly observing a pudgy adolescent boy who was machine-gunning a paper target with a BB gun. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt underneath overalls that he’d turned into cut-off shorts. His arms and legs were white as fresh cream. His face was pink, as dimply as fresh-plucked poultry. His countenance was pocked with explosive, hand-molested acne.

The boy’s adoring future bride brushed a bra full of wadded toilet paper against his bicep, but the boy’s BBs were disinterested, and the young chicken-skinned soldier quickly descended into military failure. It was a sad sight. He was having less success eradicating the black star taunting him from the target than he apparently had talent for swallowing foot-longs. The boy’s air gun petered out like a disappointing money shot as the bell rang, and the disgraced loser of a lad shuffled his girl toward the solace of rodent-infested carnival cuisine.

Launjeray watched the defeated pair wander away, wishing she had a relationship like that, instead of goddamn T-Bone. She asked herself every day, how in the fuck had she ended up stuck with that bastard?

When he first moved in with her, he was a walking vaginal orgasm. She first saw him dancing in corduroy, a hundred percent Marlboro from his ten gallon to the silver tips of his roach-killers. He had a job, a decent middle management job down at the supermarket, making good money. And he had opportunity for advancement.

He didn’t punch her til a couple months after he’d moved into her place, when he was pissed off after being fired. And by then he was already claiming her paycheck every payday and snorting all the profits from his white powder sideline straight up his bony schnoz.

Since that time, he hadn’t done shit but drink, sell dope, pay zero rent and play the pathetic martyr. He was so stupid, he couldn’t figure out how a paper clip worked. He farted up half the breathable air in the apartment and choked up the other half with his nasty liquor breath.

The only affection Launjeray got from T-Bone was the moderately accurate flight of his balled fist, the rotten stench of his perpetually unbrushed teeth, and the abnormal angle of his erect penis, all at his convenience.

Ordinarily she wouldn’t have bothered, but this particular evening, she was frustrated enough to slap two bucks on the counter and pick up chicken-skin’s rifle, still ripe with the pheromones of his adolescent sweat. Maybe she was a better shot.

The passing crowd ejected an anonymous, sinewy brown man. He had lean legs under white dress pants. His masculine sternum peeked between loose buttons on his lively silk tropical shirt. His ass was to die for. He was a handsome brotha with a headful of baby dreads. He had a perfectly straight, white grille, except for a solitary tooth adorned with 24k.

Launjeray studied this man. The only flaw she saw was the diamond on a gold stud stuck through his left ear. She didn’t like no child-mined rocks.

The man slapped his two bucks down and picked up the rifle directly to Launjeray’s right. He sat down beside her, even though there were a dozen vacant spots he could have chosen instead. He bumped his naked left elbow into her right. It was well manicured and lotioned, not all ashy like T-Bone’s. The man smelled like cocoa butter.

That diamond in his ear wasn’t so bad, either, Launjeray thought. Nobody’s perfect. By now, those kids in the diamond mine were probably dead from some tragic underground collapse, or in UN custody as refugees, better off than she was. But even if those children were still deep in the diamond mines, Launjeray knew she couldn’t expect every smokin hot black man she ran into to have as sensitive a social conscience as she did.

The bell rang and they began firing.

Launjeray took out her frustration on the black star, but quickly realized she had no chance of eradicating it as the rules required. Lucky for her, though, the handsome young brown man sitting beside her turned his own rifle toward her target, and he was a fine shot. He abandoned his own target for hers. He helped her along, and poked a string of holes around Launjeray’s black star like arrows shot straight from Cupid’s quiver.

Together, the two made short work of the mission. They blasted a ragged, victorious wound in Launjeray’s target, until her black star hung by a tatter, and then fluttered to the floor, dead, just as the bell ended the round.

“Excellent shootin, ma’am.” The strange young man winked at Launjeray and smiled a gorgeous golden heart-melt, illuminated by the animated lights of the merry-go-round.

The hawker inspected Launjeray’s target and fired her a suspicious glance. “Awright,” he said with a resigned growl, “take yer pick lady.” He motioned to all the stuffed animals surrounding the machine-gun nest.

Launjeray gazed around at the fuzzy rainbow of furry prizes. She entered the dreamy realm of teen years she never had, but had always wanted. Her imagination conjured the feminine bedroom of the blonde Disney princess, a girl without a care in the world, except which handsome prince she would choose to marry. In this royal fantasy world, there was no argument, no pain, no violence, no fucking T-Bone. The harem of fluffy stuffed animals beckoned her with ersatz love and adoration, and then she noticed her glorious knight in shining armor had disappeared.

Launjeray zigged and zagged through the crowd, her elbow choking the giant lime teddy bear. The black star souvenir was clenched between her fingers. She searched for the stranger, the mysterious and handsome young brown man who had sacrificed his own score for hers.

And then, like magic, she was lying on her back in the matted, unmown, thick bladed county courthouse grass behind the Tilt-A-Whirl. She snaked out of her shorts and panties, and spread her naked thighs wide to allow the young, sinewy stranger with the gleaming enamel and golden dental repair to indulge himself in her beauty, her moistness, her fertility.

The dew was heavy on the prickly sharp blades. Black electrical wires, each as thick as a man’s emboldened member, lay around and underneath her body, randomly crisscrossing, hither and yon from the power poles and generators to the millions of blinking lights on dozens of spinning machines that were hurling hundreds of humans into delightful nausea. She felt the sixty-hertz vibration of alternating current escaping from a nearby nick in insulation. The electric buzz flowed from a crack in rubber, through the dewy grass, and into the marrow of her spine. The sensation radiated to every pore of her body, a stimulation that she had never felt before, nor since.

She returned the stranger’s kisses. She gave her privates to his fingers. She was surprised to find that his penis was circumcised. It was the first time she’d ever touched a brotha without a turtleneck. She found it so sexy, she couldn’t keep her mouth off it.

He laid her back, stuffing her giant green bear underneath her hips. The grinning toy’s googly eyes peered out from the crack of her crotch as if panicked by the sight of incoming. Launjeray’s short-cropped neo-afro nestled between the bear’s androgynous legs as the nameless man smooched his way to heaven.

A flip to the left, a flop to the right, and her bare soles worshiped the gods of the erotic starry sky. She was in ecstasy. She didn’t care if she got electrocuted, or worse. She could only get knocked up once, and if this dude shot up the club, then that son-of-a-bitch T-Bone couldn’t, and the world didn’t need another goddamn T-Bone, not even another half of a T-Bone.

The Tilt-A-Whirl spun overhead, directly above them as they made love. She didn’t care that the kids on the ride were staring right out the sides of their pods and pointing excitedly at their naked bodies screwing in the grass on top of a green bear.

The handsome young man’s thrusts mimicked the mechanical arms of the steel beast, lifting and dropping, lifting and dropping, as the lights from a distant spinning disco ball illuminated him, streak by streak, raking across his glistening chest, his sweat-dripping nose, and his wild, bloodshot eyeballs.

She didn’t care about her clitoris. She reached up from underneath, grabbed his hips, and rocked him hard. She knew where her cervix was. She made it kiss his frenulum, back and forth in perfect time to the beat of the woofers until all the stars in the entire universe aligned.

And then he lay on top of her, catching his breath, slippery from the commingled, salty sweat of both of them, as the Tilt-A-Whirl pods full of the screaming teenagers rose and fell above.

She studied the handsome young man’s features, memorized his face.

That diamond in his ear, she realized, was way too big to be anything but costume jewelry.

# # #

“Are you mad at me, Momma?” T’Whirl asked, jarring her mother back to the present.

Launjeray found herself staring at the black star thumbtacked to the wall. “No, T’Whirl,” Launjeray said, “Actually, I’m proud of you.” She saw the image of that handsome stranger captured in her daughter’s face. “Will you please do me a favor, sweetie?”

“What, Momma?”

“Would you please untie me from the bedposts?”

“Sure.” T’Whirl took a step toward her mother’s bed and then froze.

Both of them heard the sharp tip of a second key, an alarming key, spastically stabbing at the front door’s deadbolt like the snap of an alligator’s jaw.

CHAPTER FOUR

SUNDAY NIGHT

The Reverend JC Pagans drove the rickety short bus north on 95, occasionally awakening to a Franciscan chant of rumble strips engraved along the pavement’s edge by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

“Keep it on the goddamn road, dipshit.” Gaia’s disembodied, nicotine-infused rasp fog-horned from her private feminine sanctuary in the back of the bus.

JC flipped his long brunette curls off his right eye, but his bangs returned to block his vision. He took a fist off the wheel to more effectively backhand his glorious locks completely over his shoulder. This time they landed on his back as he intended, out of his way, so he could catch a view in the interior mirror. He stared into its reflection, focusing on Gaia’s mysterious rear-seat boudoir.

He saw her silhouette, translucently suggestive behind a curtain of colorful hippie beads. She was wearing her florentine socialist nightgown: her anti-Victoria’s Secret sleepwear that JC found sexy in an intellectual way.

And then, just like that, she had her hundred-decibel shout hole beside his sensitive, pitch-perfect ear. “WAKE UP, DOUCHEBAG!” It was as if she had flown to the front of the bus in zero time by witchcraft.

JC swerved the bus in response. The top-heavy rig rocked back and forth, briefly going up on two wheels. “I’m awake, Gaia!”

“You’re weaving all over the fucking road!”

“I’m clipping the curves to save gas,” he said. “We’re down to an eighth of a tank and we’ve got three more hours to go.”

Gaia heaved a melodramatic sigh and applied a butane flame to the tip of a Virginia Slim.

JC told himself it was just a lover’s spat. The stress of the tour, financial issues, premenstrual syndrome. He whispered a little prayer to his personal Jesus, the one who stared back at him from the dashboard.

Gaia gazed at the dark deciduous silhouettes lining the interstate like hungry ghouls. “Look at this, we’re out in the middle of fuckville nowhere goddamn Georgia hillbillyland,” she said, “In the middle of the goddamn night when any sane person is home asleep in bed.”

“Well what do you wanna do, Gaia?” he asked. “What’s the alternative? We’ve got a tour, baby. The show must go on.”

Gaia’s celestial blonde braids — a halo draped round the fair symmetry of her obstinance — reminded JC of the innocent, faithful, angelic girl he had married. She was Eve to his Adam, his obedient God-sent companion. He had never mourned his rib one single bit.

“I wish I had a fucking skill, any fucking skill other than beating a goddamn electronic drum kit to tweens at some goddamn evangelical house of superstition while you drop to your knees on their plywood stage and air fuck them like a pervert.”

“Look,” JC said, turning toward her with an angry stare that inappropriately landed on the outline of one of her persistently erect nipples. “This next gig is a big one for us, alright? If we can get there, we’ll sell twenty or twenty-five CDs. Maybe more.”

“And if we run out of gas?” One of her hands was white-knuckled around the old bus’s vertical chrome safety rail. Her other hand’s index finger pointed to the sad-looking fuel gauge.

“We’ll stop in a town somewhere and play a little gig on the street like we used to, til we raise enough money to get going again.”

“Jesus F. Christ, this lifestyle is bullshit,” she exhaled.

“Jesus Wants Me To Love You...” JC romantically crooned the opening lyrics to their signature song. “Jesus wants you to love me, too,” he sang to her with one hand on the wheel and the other performing the song’s hand motions. “That song is going to get us over the top, baby. Have faith.”

“You look like a goddamn pedophile when you sing that,” she said. “If I see your hips suggesting you’re fucking that jailbait one more time when we’re on stage, I’m gonna shitcan your goddamn autotune right in the middle of it.”

“But honey, it’s just an act,” he said. “The kids love it. Everybody’s doing it now.”

“From now on, everybody except us. You’re too old for that shit, Jonnie.”

The interior of the old school bus exploded with disorienting bright blue strobes.

“Doggone it,” JC said. He looked in the side rear-view and saw a cop car behind them. He laid his hand on dashboard Jesus. “Dear Lord, please help us get through this earthly test—”

“Oh, shut the fuck up! Quit yakking at your plastic idol,” Gaia said. “Have some goddamn self-respect for once.”

As JC negotiated the shoulder in unquestionable submission to the police, the old bus’s brake linings grated metal-on-metal, crying for mercy like they were being crucified. When the bus finally screeched to a full stop, JC recalled a mental image of the front tires. Their tread was threadbare; pockmarked with a random array of beige fabric ovals peeking from underneath slick black rubber. JC suspected that a cracked exhaust manifold was to blame for his drowsiness, nausea, and pounding skull. With all their neglected equipment, plus his shitty driving, JC figured he could get more punishment from the State of Georgia than Jesus ever got from Pilate.

The cop pulled in behind them and slowed to a stop. The police car’s disco lights were blinding. Its high beams winked back and forth, glaring through the interstate’s airborne dust and their own filthy bus windows.

A thin, authoritative silhouette emerged from the cop car, followed by the outline of a wobbly legged dog. As the cop approached, JC’s Warriors watched his features materialize from the darkness. He was a handsome young African-American man under a regulation broad brim. His dog, however, looked like it should be on Medicare.

“Game faces, Gaia,” JC said. “We gotta get out of this ticket or we’re doomed.” He demonstrated the expression he wanted her to adopt. He faced her, contorting his lips into an exaggerated friendly grin — the grin which displayed his two unusually underdeveloped upper incisors. His bunny teeth were tiny and pathetic, off-color and brittle. The enamel at their tips were ragged as a bucktooth saw.

“Don’t you ever give me that shit-eating grin again,” Gaia hissed.

JC pursed his lips. His embarrassing physical flaw was an unfortunate remnant of his teen years, collateral damage from the battlefield of his parents’ wickedly expensive divorce. Mr and Mrs Pagans’ marriage had unexpectedly dissolved like rock salt around the lip of a margarita. As a result, the money that had been carefully saved for the lad’s braces was instead blown on courtroom death matches between the couple’s greedy lawyers. In the end, young Jonnie was shuffled off to the care of his grandma, and his defective front teeth were neglected. Despite promises from both of his parents, procrastination dictated that they were never destined to be cosmetically corrected.

By the time he had graduated from high school, JC had become an expert in hiding his prominent physical flaw behind toothless, lip-locked smiles, sullen silence and strict abstinence from humor. That is what led him to the Lord.