SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 23, 2015

An Alleyway in Austin, Four-Thirty A.M., Part Two

 

It was the last day of the second week of shooting on the film version of Noogie’s Time to Shine. For a low-budget production with a lot of things working against it, the shoot was going remarkably well. People who’d seen the footage were thrilled, the actors (mostly culled from the local improv comedy scene) were great, and even the cat the directors had borrowed for a few important scenes did everything he was asked to do, if eventually. After years of insisting there would never be a film version of any of my books, I couldn’t have been happier with the way things were turning out. As Erik, directing his first feature, kept saying, “It’s a real goddamn movie!”

            But that Sunday night was my last chance to witness the whole process, since Monday was the crew’s day off and I was heading back to Brooklyn early Tuesday. So given the situation I suppose it was only inevitable Billy would choose that very night to latch onto me.

            Billy, see, was the semi-literate cracker who lived in a shack on the outskirts of a small town some forty miles away.

            A junk picker by trade, over the past couple of years Billy had collected a small fleet of half a dozen outmoded police cruisers, which he’d refurbished and re-equipped with standard cop car accoutrements so he could rent them out to film productions at inflated prices. Noogie needed a couple of realistic police vehicles, and Billy was happy to oblige as soon as the check cleared. It was his ticket into showbiz, or at least his excuse to hang around the set making a nuisance out of himself and telling everyone he was an actor.

            He was also one of those people who seem to believe if they ever stopped talking, even for a moment, they would die. I was able to avoid him his first night on the set, but on his second I wasn’t so lucky, maybe because the rest of the crew was clearly too busy for his nonsense and I was just sitting there off to the side of the parking lot where they were filming some building exteriors. That was my bad luck.

            We had just returned from the eight-thirty dinner break, the sun had gone down, and the crew had a lot of scenes to shoot. It had been made clear from the beginning it was going to be another all-night run, and I had absolutely no escape available.

            Billy moved a folding chair over to where I was sitting and began with a few standard blindo questions, which I answered as politely as possible given my guts were clenching up. Those out of the way, he launched into The Billy Story, beginning with how he’d broken into the movie police car rental business—a story I’d heard almost verbatim not fifteen minutes earlier over dinner.

            “ . . . Then he calls me the next day if y’all can believe that, an’ says, ‘If y’all can get one o’ them Crown Vics down ta Galveston tomorrow, you gotta job!’ I mean, can ya believe it?”

            “Yeah, that’s really something.”

            Over the course of a rambling and repetitive monologue that continued almost without a pause for the next eight hours, I learned an awful lot about Billy. Along with being a film shoot groupie, he was also (like John Wayne Gacy and other serial killers) a cop groupie. He told me he sometimes liked to drive his own cop cars around while the dashcam was recording. Then he would go home and watch the recordings, apparently to remind himself where he’d just been. During his assorted adventures in junk picking, he’d come across a few discarded official traffic ticket pads, and so he sometimes liked to write fake tickets for friends and strangers alike, just for fun. It also came as no surprise that Billy had some interesting theories about race. The centerpiece of the monologue, however, and a story he repeated in whole or in part some seven times, went something like this.

So my friend, this guy who lives with me, was in Hawaii for a long time, an’ all kinna weird shit happened to him there. He was in this graveyard, right? In this graveyard just havin’ a talk with God. I do that too, y’know? Jus’ talk to God, give him an update about what you been doin’, like callin’ your dad on the phone or somethin’. But on his way home he got the feelin’ somethin’ was followin’ him, right? An’ back to his place he heard this woman’s voice, clear as day, ask him ‘Who are you?’ An’ he told her, but he didn’t know where the voice was coming from. So he went an’ got a flashlight an’ turned it on an’ he like heard her scream ‘Ah! The light!’ An’ ya know what? There was no one there. Really! She’d just vanished! Shit like that happens to him all the time. Real spiritual stuff like that. Me too. I don’t like spendin’ much time in the graveyard, right? ‘Cause that’s where the spirits live, an’ they’re real, so don’t let no one tell ya any different. I go there sometimes just to see my dad and my little niece, but I never get outta my car. Jus’ drive in, see everything’s okay, then drive out again. An’ every time I do, I say, ‘If there’s any spirits in this car, you are not welcome, you must go away,’ see? ‘Cause that’s what the Lord Jesus says you’re supposeda do. ‘Cause otherwise they’ll come home with you an’ haunt you. An’ they can take possession of you, too. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. They can make you hit your wife or take drugs like heroin or kill a buncha people. So when you hear people sayin’ the devil made ‘em do it, I believe ‘em, ‘cause that’s what Satan does.

            I was still most curious about the idea that wandering spirits actually hitched rides in people’s cars to get out of the cemetery, but before I had a chance to ask Billy for more details on that little number, he was on to the meat of the thing.

Me an’ him, we sell antiques outta our place, so we go pokin’ around ol’ abandoned houses, see what we can find, right? Couple nights ago he went into this ol’ house an’ found two big bags fulla papers. Didn’t know what they was, so he brought ‘em back home. Parked his car next to my big ol’ oak tree, brought them bags inside an’ told me to take a look. Well one of ‘em had all these letters an’ shit about this kid that died, all these papers. An’ there was this news clipping about it. Back in 1976 this guy, his daddy was a Baptist preacher, one night he grabbed his gun an’ went out. Twenty-six years old. An’ next mornin’ they found him, and he’d been shot right between the eyes. Right between ‘em sure as shit! So they checked him out, and there was no powder burns on his head an’ no residue on his fingers, so it weren’t no suicide. This was back in Seventy-six, and the cops called it—get this—they called it an accidental death. Got that shit? Now I dunno if it was just because he was just another dumb dead nigger or what. Maybe they knew a white guy did it or somethin’, or maybe jus’ some other nigger friend of his or somethin’, but they jus’ kicked that thing, like they says, under the carpet.

            “Uh-huh.” I was deciding it was about time to switch back from water to beer again.

But here’s the thing. My friend, when we went back outside, the two back windows of his car were all blown the hell out. I mean, this is tempered glass, right? An’ they jus’ fuckin’ exploded like someone dropped a grenade in there or somethin’. Some o’ the glass was all the way over by the concrete picnic table I got back there. So we called the cops an’ they came out, and they couldn’t find nothin’! No shell casings, no nothin’. An’ to do that anyway, way the car was parked someone wouldda hafta shot right through the tree. So it was a real mystery, but I knew what was goin’ on here. It was that boy’s spirit.

            Why did I already know that was coming?

He was real angry someone had come into his house an’ took them papers, an’ he followed my friend back there an’ jus’ blew out his windows with some kinda spiritual force, right?

            “Can’t see any other explanation,” I said.

Yeah, so’s I tol’ my friend right there, ‘You get all them papers back together and bring ‘em back to that boy’s house. An’ when you’re there you says in a real loud voice that you’re sorry ‘bout all that, and that you’s returning everything but the news clipping, ‘cause we’re gonna like investigate the case and find out what really happened to him.’ So he done that, an’ soon as he did, we didn’t have no more trouble with the ghost.

            Yes, it seems my new friend’s full understanding of the supernatural had been gleaned directly off those whiz-bang programs he’d seen on Fox. My god, but it was a hot night out there.

            “Ain’t that a weird story?

            “Sure is.”

            “Hey, y’all ever write horror books?”

            “Um, not really, no.”

            “Well you should write this one next! I bet people’d really love to hear that story, right?”

            “Um, I’d really have to think about that, umm.”

            Somehow, he took that to be a definitive yes, and promised to send me all the information he had. He then launched into another long detour about reincarnation and why I should stop smoking. Meanwhile, several members of the cast and crew, seeing what was happening and taking pity on the poor trapped blind fool, swung by when they had a chance and tried to distract Billy, but it was no use. Even as they relocated me around the set so I’d be out of the upcoming shots, he followed close behind and took his spot next to me again. I learned about his dogs, his sister who raises dogs, and how amazon.com works. He also told anyone within earshot that I was going to write his story.

            By four-thirty that morning, the crew had moved to shoot a few last quick scenes in an alley around the corner from the parking lot where most of the earlier action was concentrated. Billy was at last told his rented cop car was no longer needed, so he could go home. Please. Before he did, he reminded me once again what my next book was going to be. I was too delirious by that point to argue with him. The only saving grace was that given his level of literacy (something he had proven on several occasions over the previous hours) I doubted he would ever be able to spell my name.

            I finally got to bed about six that morning after what had turned out to be a twenty-hour day. Later, when I told Morgan about my encounter with Billy, she pointed out that I’d done my part for the production, by keeping him out of everyone else’s way that night. That made me feel a little better, somehow.

 

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