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A Midnight Rider and the Flyin' Florida Omelet

AMERICA

By Timothy Carlson

WHEN WE got back to the trailer, Patty said baby Sarah needed some milk and eggs and could we go to the store? I offered to take my car, but Kenny said naw, we'd go on the motorcycle. He handed me a Bell crash helmet with a wraparound visor and we went out behind the trailer. "I came within a gnat's ass of bein' a road racer a while back," said Kenny. "But you begin to look at things a little different when you got a wife and kid to support."

"It's a real good bike," he said. Black, polished, stripped, Kenny's 500cc bike didn't look very special, though. "I had it set up by a guy from Cincinnati down for the big races here in March. You just take all the cylinders and parts and balance them to the thousandth of an inch, and she'll go."

Two kicks and Kenny turned it over, he backed it off the grass and onto the dirt road that led up to his house, and I hopped on gingerly, looking for footholds and handgrips. We chugged through a few deep potholes that had bounced me against the ceiling of my VW coming in, then banked off the edges of the road going around them in a quickening rocking rhythm. These were Kenny's home roads.

Then Kenny ducked into a full racer's crouch and the hurricane struck me again. With some difficulty, much like swimming a few inches back to a levee against a flood, I managed to bury the bottom of my visor against Kenny's bowed back. Barns, fences, houses, cows, trailers, bridges, gardens, signs, dogs and clotheslines flew back. A calm center within me, which had long ago abandoned the idea of bailing out, began to consider two things. One, how far would we roll if a crash occurred. And two, how fast we were going, which would explain the number one. I counted telephone poles. We passed two poles in two seconds. Poles about fifty yards apart. A hundred yards in two seconds. Let's see, eighteen times a hundred yards is a mile. A mile in thirty-six or so seconds. That's that's over a hundred miles an hour! Mississippi one, Misssssippi two. Two telephone poles! How far apart? Over the distance from home to second in a major-league park. I got calm scared. I tried to put my center of gravity in tune with Kenny's every move. When Kenny banked into a corner, I banked, but not too much.

When we stopped we were by a vast dairy farm, and when the buzzing in my ears faded out, the scream of thirty-thousand chicken lined up in cages gradually replaced it.

"How fast were we going, Kenny?" "Maybe a hundred. Little over. That's as fast as she'll go with a passenger and no faring."

"It seems like the only speed you're comfortable with. Course on the way back, we'll have to go a little slower. For the eggs."

"Sure, Tim." Kenny bought an open cardboard tray of two dozen large eggs, and we got another tray to put on top of them. The man, who was watching pro wrestling from Orlando, offered to tie the eggs up with string, but Kenny said naw, he had an elastic rope he used for books on the back seat. When we hooked it up, it stretched taut in the center, but the eggs on the sides had to be held down.

ABOUT a hundred yards down the road, I knew Kenny only drove his motorcycle one speed. Since I had to hold on to the handgrip with one hand, that left only one hand to hold on to the eggs. There was not enough room to put the eggs completely behind Kenny, so one side stuck out into the breeze. When we reached fourth gear, the egg trays were fluttering so hard they began to make a loud roaring sound, almost like a siren. By fifth gear, I could tell the only thing making us go slower was the wind resistance of the egg trays. When I tried to shift the eggs from one hand to another, I felt my hand go wet with goo. Again, in the calm state of shock at top speed, I began to observe what was happening. The eggs were bounding out both left and right. First the vibrations would crack the shell, then the wind would suck the omelet out. As we zinged past the telephone poles and around curves, I twisted my neck around to see what they were doing. It took each egg about a second to hit the ground, so there was a string of yolk and goo streaming out fifty yards behind our cycle. Leaving several very stringy omelets baking on the hot September asphalt.

I tried to point out to Kenny what was happening, but it was no use with the noise. After a couple of miles, he pulled off the road and cruised past a sign that said Spruce Creek Farms. This was the road to the old airport where there were both sanctioned, that is Don Garlits and the Green Monster popping parachutes at the end of a 240 mph run, and midnight drags, which were accompanied by the popping of several kegs. After cutting through several roadblocks, we reached the old runway, which was clogged with grass busting through the cracks in the concrete. This time Kenny ran through a running quarter hitting the familiar top speed before the line and then started to shift down. Having no parachute to stop us, again I fell forward and mashed the eggs some more against Kenny as he braked down near the Mobile shed at the end of the runway. The shed was the headquarters for a projected development. Before I had time to show Kenny the eggs, we both concentrated on a white pickup truck that was bearing down the runway toward us.

"That's Will Perdy," said Kenny. "He owns this land here. Gonna turn it into a development where you can taxi your private airplane right up to your house."

A large rawbone man with a swarthy face got out of the pickup truck. He had on black plastic sunglasses and a very crew cut. A boy about fourteen got out of the truck with Will.

"How ya doin Sam," said Kenny.

"Fair. You still drivin crazy, I see."

"Just thought I'd take her out for a little ride and clear the pipes," said Kenny.

"When Miz Draper told me she saw a guy on a motorcycle goin down Route 415 at 95 I knew it was you. Some day you're gonna ride that thing right off the road."

"It was a nice day."

"Say, you know that big dog 'o yours and the little one with mange been gettin into my hog traps. Last time they was in there for days when I let 'em out."

"So that's where Mike and Sport been for a couple of days. Looks like I gotta tie em up."

"They've gotten in my traps a couple of times."

"It won't happen again, Will. I promise you."

"Say, you haven't seen a blue car around here lookin to drag, have you?"

"No. Can't say as I have."

"Well, there's a bunch of kids in that car lookin for a place to run it. And if I see their license plate, it'll be the wrong place. If you see 'em, tell em to get out of here. OK?"

"Sure enough, Will."

Just then down the runway there was the hungry rumble of a mufflerless stocker in racing trim. Just at the end of the runway, they turned the corner, then saw us, and zoomed off. Will Perdy and his boy jumped in the pickup and were on the chase. Kenny yelled at me to hop on, and said, "I'll try and head 'em off the other way, Will! I'll tell 'em to clear out for you." And gripping the eggs tight, I held on as Kenny charged off into the blazing Florida afternoon, down the runway, chasing after the would-be dragsters.

They had disappeared. After several forays down deserted runways and back roads, Kenny turned home. On the main highway before the cutoff to his land, the motorcycle lost speed. Then we coasted to a stop, out of gas.

I showed Kenny the eggs, the two trays all spread out beside the elastic band and the goo dripping out the sides. He laughed.

"How many are left?"

"Eleven out of twenty-four."

"Hell," he said, "that's still better than the price you'd have to pay at the Jiffy."

THE NIGHT of the motorcycle ride Kenny invited me to a spare rib barbeque at Rick Stacy's trailer just up the dirt road from his place. Somebody had collected a big baggie full of mushrooms from the fields, and they were tucked in the glove compartment of an abandoned car to be enjoyed after the ribs. A lot of people had collected for the big feast, and Rick Stacy was slowly basting the ribs with barbeque sauce, not concentrating on anything in particular. There were 27 pounds of ribs to be gone through that night, and Mike the four foot tall Great Dane decided he would avoid the hog traps that night and hang around the rib fire where he occupied himself scratching hard, trying to fit parts of his body against a bush which shook like a storm all night.

"Hey remember that night when Mike caught himself an armadillo and was walking down the road with it in his jaws?" said a tall boy who was the son of a big dairy farmer nearby. "Let me tell you, that wasn't no chocolate bunny!" Patty, Kenny's wife, couldn't picture it. "Aww, he wudn't do that!" she said. Rick's little boy cruised around with a football helmet, riding his trike. People wafted in. One of the principals was showing around color snapshots of his marijuana farm out in the woods. The plants looked to be five or six feet high. There was what later looked like a laundry bag full of grass from the farm somewhere around. Three or four joints were always circling among fifteen people, so one passed every five seconds. There was potato salad, lasagna, big loaves of bread, a huge salad, cases of beer, coca-cola, and other things proper to a feast. More people stopped by.

"You know, rednecks, real hard core rurals, are gettin' high now. Sure. They drink all their lives. What the fuck, they musta been lookin' for a high."

"Always was. I remember when I was just big enough for a bicycle, little kids could always go bong-bongin it."

What in hell was that?

"We'd ride our bikes up to a gas pump and buy two cents worth of gas. Then we'd go out in the woods and put it right up to our noses and," here he imitates a gasoline pump, one arm as the handle and the other as the spigot, eyes blinking and rolling upward like the gallon counter and mouth making the sound of the machine as it fills the tank, "Bong bong! Bong bong! Bong bong!"

"Then we'd pass out. That's bong-bongin it."

That reminded someone else of the times when they were kids that they'd hear the mosquito control truck coming into their neighborhood. They'd race out of bed and into the garage and hop on their bikes and a whole pack of buddies would pedal like runway fools into the thick white cloud of kerosene and DDT sprayed out of a nozzle at the back. "There wasn't any chemical high to it," said the son of a dairy farmer, "but it sure was cool looking into that cloud for a while." And about the time their lungs got filled with stuff, after a couple of blocks, they lost too much energy to keep up and, like a squadron of tired mosquitos, fell back out of the cloud and rode home to bed.

Kenny and the rest decided to go to Spudnick's for more action, so they left, and I went home to sleep.

I RETURNED late the next afternoon to Kenny's trailer. I knocked on the door and waited. I was about to leave when I heard Patty tell me to come in. I sat in the living room and watched the local news as Patty said Kenny would be out in a minute. One of the items was about the trial of an Orlando man for possession of marijuana. The fellow was caught by an agent with an ounce or two of grass and maybe a tablet of something. The man was in his mid-forties, and it was his first offense. Believing the marijuana laws to be more relaxed, he pleaded guilty, expecting to get probation. The judge sentenced him to a year in prison and asked if he had anything to say. The man said why not put him in jail forever if he was going to go to jail at all. The judge immediately complied by giving him the maximum--five years.

When a newsman asked whether he would appeal, the man said no he would not. He said if the American system was so rotten as to put him in jail for that offense at his age, he didn't care, he didn't want any part of its procedures. He didn't appeal.

When Kenny came out of the bedroom the sun was shining in on my eyes so I didn't him very well when I asked how he was doing. Kenny shuffled along dragging his foot carefully on the floor, and I could see that he had a pained look on his face. He braced his hand against the chair and sat down very slowly and carefully. "Not too good," he said between several short intakes of breath. His voice was wheezy. "Didn't you hear? I had an accident last night. Coming back from Spudnick's on the motorcycle."

Now I could see. There was a big swath of raw flesh just below Kenny's ribs. His elbow was swollen really big, and so was his hand. There was a deep gouge near his wrist. He showed me a big sore on his hip, and he showed me his shirt lying in the corner. It was a strip of rags.

He said he had a lot of mushrooms, then went to Spudnick's for a couple of beers. On the way home he just nodded out at 60 or 70 mph and woke up as his bike hit the loose gravel at the side of the road. "I bailed out," said Kenny, "so the bike wouldn't fall on my leg, but held onto the handlebar so the bike wouldn't roll back on me while we were both spinning around. It's sort of good to know it happened when I was so fucked up that I didn't know what I was doing. Riding around drunk. Cause I would hate to make a mistake in riding. Never had an accident except when I was messed up. Now I'll probably learn not to do that again, and I'll be all right.

"Then I had to walk half a mile back to Spudnick's and get some help. Sheriff took me home, and Rick picked up my motorcycle. Last bike I had a wreck and somebody saw two sheriffs pack it in the trunk of their cruiser and drive away with it. I was in no position to demand it back at the time. It's kinda fucked up, but at least I got it."

RELATIVELY SPEAKING, Kenny was new to the country. His father worked as a bartender in a Northern country club and was partial to games of chance. But Kenny had broken with that past. He bartered in watermelons, sold hay, worked on his cars and bike out front and tended his horses. He planned on growing some kind of crops on his land, but back of it all he wanted something bigger. What he had didn't sound like quite enough to support a family yet.

Kenny may not have been a Southerner by blood, but he wanted the freedom to get loose and do crazy things, and his major if seemingly impossible ambition was to acquire a lot of land in the state which professors at the University of Florida said had the fastest rising population and biggest land development rush in the history of the United States. Kenny took some good natured kidding about how "speedy" he was. He would need all the courage and speed he could muster to get that plot of land before the developers did.

But I didn't think he would even have a chance of getting more than the 13 acres he had now until I heard about some of his midnight rides on the black bike to cities around the state. I never asked him about them, but during the course of my visit he would talk every now and then about night trips at 100 mph in his T-shirt in the rain to places like Jacksonville and Tampa and Cocoa. One time he said he was stopped by a state trooper on the interstate. "I didn't think he could see me in the rain," said Kenny, "but I couldn't outrun him so I pulled over. I had been runnin without lights, but he was sitting by a bridge and heard this sound go by real fast, although he couldn't see anything. He caught up with me after a couple miles and that was that. I told him, 'I just had a big argument with my wife and I had to bust out.' He believed it. Those troopers, they understand a guy with a problem like that. He probably felt the same way himself sometime. He told me to cut down the throttle and he followed me for a while, then pulled away." So I think maybe he does have a chance to get what he's dreaming of, but he'll have to survive quite a few more of those trips. Kenny's wife Patty told Rick Stacy's wife that she wouldn't be surprised if a "trooper showed up at the front door to our trailer one night and told me Kenny had been killed in an accident."

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