chapter 40

The Man in the Gray Flannel Volkswagen

    When the farm road turned, the Volkswagen had gone straight. Well, it

couldn't have been exactly straight, because it left curved tire marks on

the asphalt and in the ditch, where it must have finally gotten sideways

and rolled over a time or two before starting to flip from end to end.

    Of course, all that flipping from end to end hadn't had any bad effect on

the driver of the car. He had been tossed out and rolled over early in the

game. When I found that V.W. it was laying there quietly upside down, all

bent and oily and covered with gray flannel dust, in the cold morning dew.

    The sun was not up yet, but the early light was starting to move across

the haze of the brush country. And it was cold. It would be 100 degrees in

another few hours, but right then it felt like the Arctic ice cap.

    It had probably been lying there for hours. As I started out walking

toward the wreck, I could hear someone moaning and gurgling somewhere

in the cold air. And who would I happen to have with me that particular

morning? Why, none other than Johnny, the madman flagman.

    When Johnny heard the moaning and groaning and gurgling, he gave a

little yelp, jumped, and raced ahead like the madman he was. He ran

around the wreck a time or two, stuck his head in the window, and

starting yelling, "Help! help!", and "Hello, Hello!". Then he started pacing

all about, raging in Spanish curses, and crying out, "Mother of Mary,

Mother of Mary!"

    While all this was going on, I was yelling at him that I was going to kill

him and fire him if he didn't shut up. I was trying to figure out where all

the moaning was coming from. I finally caught up to Johnny and managed

to get him to shut up.

    Everything grew quiet in the gray dust dawn. Then the moaning started

again, and it was eerie. Johnny gave a yelp, jumped straight up, and hit

the ground running back in the direction we had come from, the direction

the moaning was coming from. Somehow, with all my yelling and Johnny's

commotion, I had walked right past the guy.

    In the dawn I could see the man curled up on his side in the ditch, and I

could hear the loud moans. Johnny was running at the man, and I was

yelling, and running, and yelling, "Don't touch that man!" "DON'T TOUCH

THAT MAN!"

    Johnny paid no more attention to my orders than he ever did. He flung

himself at the man like Ty Cobb going for second base, grabbed him by the

shoulder, and gave him a mighty heave. The injured man was flipped over

and flung spread eagle on his back. Johnny jammed his face nose to nose

with the man, stared, and screamed like an animal. He erupted right back

onto his feet, and started staring at the man again.

    "I know that man," he screamed! "I know that man! HE'S DEAD! I

KNOW THAT SON-OF-A-BITCH, HE'S DEAD, HE'S DEAD!" Then he started

running again. The man on the ground was moaning and starting to jerk

around like he was on a fire ant bed. He was blowing bloody bubbles out of

his mouth. I was trying to talk to him.

    Johnny had wandered back over by the wreck and had started

mumbling to himself. He had grown much quieter. Ever now and then he

called out softly, "I know that son-of-a-bitch, I know that son-of-a-bitch."

After a while he started chanting, "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead." It

sounded like something from a voodoo ritual. He was prowling around

inside the wrecked Volkswagen, and I hoped to God he wouldn't find some

other poor soul to torment.

    The injured man was incoherent and bleeding from the mouth and

nose. One arm was all mashed and torn open, and when Johnny had flung

him over, that arm had been rolled up under his back. I managed to get

him straightened out, but the guy kept on squirming and groaning. All

that groaning was starting to get on my nerves as much as Johnny, who

was out somewhere in the distance chanting like a Hari Krishna.

    The guy smelled real strong of beer, and I finally concluded that he was

dead drunk. This realization greatly boosted my confidence. Although I

didn't know very much about medical care, I had had a great deal of

experience in dealing with drunks.

    Accordingly, I got right in the face of the injured man and told him to

shut up, and to stop all that damned groaning and squirming around. And

he did. I asked if he was hurt.

    On later reflection, I realized that that was a rather stupid question to

ask a man with an extra bend between his elbow and wrist, and with

bloody bubbles oozing out of one corner of his mouth. But at the time, it

seemed like the only practical question to ask.

    Just then I felt something by my sleeve, and Johnny's head, bug-eyes

and all, leaned over into the guy's face again. I stood up, carefully clawed

my fingers into Johnny's hair, and slowly pulled him away. I didn't want to

do anything that would get him spooled up again.

    "I want you to go back to the truck," I said sternly.

    Johnny just stared back at me. His eyes were like plates in the red

morning sunrise. He brought his face close to mine and whispered, "I know

that son-of-a-bitch. He's dead." His voice was very low and sincere. He

seemed to be sharing a great secret with me. He was talking very softly

because he didn't want the injured man to learn that he was dead.

    I told Johnny again to go back to the truck, but he just wandered off.

He didn't go back to the truck.

    I figured that by that time somebody else would come driving along

that road, but nobody did. Finally I helped the injured man sit up, and

used his shirt to tie his busted arm to his belly. I left him sitting there and

drove the pickup out into the field right beside him.

    Then I took a big chance. I called to Johnny to come over and give me a

hand. He came over, and he was very calm. He did everything I told him

to do, and between us we hoisted that busted-up drunk into the right seat

of my pickup. The guy must have weighed 170 pounds, and I couldn't have

done it without Johnny. Johnny behaved like a real pro and even helped

me get the man buckled into a seat belt. When I walked around to get into

the driver's seat, Johnny got right in front of me and looked intently into

my face.

    "He's dead," he said, "He's dead."

    I told Johnny to stay "right there." I told him that Santos would come

and pick him up very soon. As I drove away, I could see him staring into

my rear-view mirror, big-eyed and wild.

    I drove to the nearest emergency room. People in white coats hauled

the man away. A woman with a clipboard told me to wait right there. She

explained that she would be back in a few minutes because she needed to

ask me "...a lot of questions." When she came back, there was nobody

there.

    That night Santos asked me about "the dead man" that I had "hauled

away." I explained to him that the guy really wasn't dead. I also told him

that he and I were the two stupidest men on Earth for letting a lunatic like

Johnny work for us.

    Santos just shrugged.

    I hope that guy didn't die.

 

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