R.C. Hampton died on December 17, 2001 of "natural causes," fourteen
years to the day after a rogue wrecking ball severed his spine
and rearranged his innards.
R.C. was as picky and persnickety about his writing as I was and
sometimes it seemed we fought over every word of every piece he
contributed to BENT. He was a remarkable writer because he was
a remarkable man. He learned hard lessons the hard way and the
truth he found shone forth in what he wrote. He was funnier than
just about anyone I know, he could write in a low-down or a high-toned
style, he could turn a phrase with the best of them, but best
of all he was deeply generous and forgiving and he demanded that
you, his readers and his friends, at least try to live up to his
Because I admired just about everything he showed me, R.C. and
I talked a lot about what kind of writing was appropriate for
BENT. He summed up his position on the matter by saying to me
once, "Well, look at it this way: I'm queer and I'm a crip,
so you should just relax and publish anything I give you."
"Road Trip," the story you'll find here, recounts a
time in R.C's life before "the accident," but it reflects
an attitude toward life that even a ten-ton wrecking ball couldn't
knock out of its author.
Some people, it's said, don't suffer fools gladly. R.C. didn't
suffer fools at all. We're all a little bit less foolish for having
Bob Guter, Editor
talkin' about this was a CAR, man.
TONS of old Detroit steel stone-cold-empty with no gas in the tank.
Five-hunnert-and-seventy-five-cubic-inches of the biggest damned
engine I have ever seen. Old Hydra-Flo transmission like they used
to make, so you never felt the gear changes. It wasn't quick off
the mark, but it kept on climbing after I pegged the speedometer
at 120, and it could cruise that way all day and not even breathe
hard. First time I saw it, I knew for a fact that it was full of
adventures that you remember for the rest of your life.
found it at some dumpy lot on Cornhusker. Said I should go check
out this "estate wagon." Knew I'd never go if I'd known it
was a damned ambulance.
when I saw it, there was no goin' back. Sittin' there, shining in
the sun... God put it there just for me. Gleaming cocksucker red
with white trim. BRIGHT. Tailfins for days. On both ends. A ton
of chrome. Massive grille. Big, diagonal dual headlights with those
things that look like chrome eyebrows over the top. Huge suicide
doors on both sides, and the big door on the back. A 1959 Buick
Flexible Ambulance with a light and a siren that looked like a rocket
on the top. In '59 ambulances and hearses looked just the same,
but for the color. Like the big Caddy "coaches" now.
talked the guy into trading me straight across for my '69 Karman
Ghia ragtop, (now that's another ride I'd like to have again) because
that was the last year they made them, and he was more farsighted
Buick had two air conditioners and two heaters, one for the front
and one for the back, and a sound-proof window in between, behind
the drivers' seat, I guess so the driver couldn't hear the victims
screaming, or something. In the back was a platform for the stretcher,
and a chilled compartment for medicine that was great for cooling
beers. I got a five-dollar mattress from Goodwill and threw it back
there, and there was still room enough left by the back doors for
a La-Z-Boy and a beanbag. No shit.
thought the fucker was haunted. The first time I drove it out of
town at night, I saw a ghost face in the rearview mirror. It took
me the longest time to figure out it was my own reflection from
the headlights and the sound-proof glass. All those images of bleeding
bodies in the back, they had me spooked.
took the meat wagon to Omaha to hijack this jailbait juvenile that
Casey had a thing for. The kid knew more mattress moves than all
the whores in Times Square, no lie. They were throwing down on the
mattress in the back, while I had to navigate that hunkerin' tank
back to town through a raging fuckin' blizzard.
was just getting ready to paint "C's Cold Cuts" on the
side when I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to fuck off my
job and go back to Alabama. Casey decided to come along, and some
friends upstairs at Roach Towers thought it would be a good time
to move on too, so we loaded everything up and formed a caravan.
Kirk had just gotten the last of his inheritance, and spent it on
the single most hellacious party we had ever seen, and a new Sedan
DeVille, which he didn't know how to drive.
all took off one snowy night. We were going as far as Des Moines
together and then Casey and I were peeling off for 'Bama. Kirk,
that fool, was learning to drive on the way, and whipped around
me doin' 85 and spun out on the ice. The Caddy almost rolled, and
I just missed it with that big Buick by inches. Kirk didn't get
to learn to drive on that trip. He died a destitute junkie a couple
years later, but that's a different story.
left our chums in Iowa with two gallons of orange juice behind the
grille chilling, and listened to AM skip radio stations from all
over the world driving through the darkness. We stopped in Arkansas
to see my friend Jackie and partied like fools for two days, and
then headed out the second night. Casey, who'd been wired for a
month, crashed and burned big time, but I was too stupid to realize
I should stop to rest. I drove from Little Rock to Montgomery stone-fuckin'-cold
asleep, no shit. Don't remember a THING.
next thing I do remember is the sun coming up in my eyes on the
bypass around Montgomery, and falling out from sheer fatigue as
I ran off the road and missed this black man by three feet. I was
out. What must that poor old man have thought? Dawn on a deserted
road when what looks lie a red-and-white hearse comes roaring out
of the distance to skid to a stop right at his feet. He must've
shit. I'll never forget the look on his face before I blacked out.
had been using my maxed-out Mastercard for gas and food, and when
we got to my brother's house I went to the bank and got some cash
on the card, hoping that the bank didn't know I was hundreds of
dollars past my limit. Thank God they didn't have computers in Alabama
then. Hell, they didn't even have picture IDs or vehicle titles
for another ten years. We got ourselves a house for ninety bucks
a month in a tiny little town called Coffee Springs and took jobs
working nights in a cotton mill in Geneva.
Springs had three buildings in the "downtown," a gas station, a
tiny grocery store, and Miss Merle's Golden Bear Cafe. The town's
one cop had his office in the corner of the cafe. Through a door
at one end of Miss Merle's was a pool table and a sand pile in the
corner to spit in, and at the other end two washing machines and
two dryers. One of each was broken. There was one phone in Coffee
Springs. It was outside Miss Merle's. There was a sign on the edge
of town that said that "niggers" could only come into
town on Wednesday afternoons, to shop for groceries. It was 1976.
That was Coffee Springs.
were a scandal waiting to happen. We did, but it took a few months.
sunny day me and Casey, and Tony, that hot as hell jailbird that
had my britches permanently in a knot, were idling around Enterprise,
my own hometown, and the only town in the whole world with a statue
erected to an insect. Really, it's in the history books. It's in
the middle of town. A seven foot silver Vestal Virgin on a pedestal
holding aloft and adoring a 40-pound bronze boll weevil on a platter,
with a look on her face like she could skate across the street on
her own lubrication. Fountains, lights, the whole story. Me and
the silver virgin, what a pair to come out of Enterprise, Alabama.
we took a notion to run over to Elba, another little burg I once
lived in, to take Tony's brother some cigarettes. He was in jail
there. Tony later wound up in prison forever himself, but that's
a tale of a crime of passion and a treacherous woman and adolescent
hormones on overdrive.
rolled out of E'prise all three of us in the front seat of the big
Buick, with room to spare. I had one foot up on the dash, driving
with one hand while trying to figure out just where on Tony to put
my other one. It was like driving a sofa at 80mph. The big Buick
rode the road like a Chris Craft cabin cruiser. There was this load
leveler deal in the trick suspension, a mercury-filled tube that
shifted the weight of the car as you went into a curve, that kept
it tight and steady, so the dips in the road just vanished.
afternoon I blew up two gearhead rednecks that tried to take the
meat wagon. The first kid blew by us in a beefed-up Merc, all jacked
up, with a 4-11 rear end. Now, like I said, the Buick wasn't quick,
but there was just no stopping it once it started to cook, and it
handled like a boat. I had to take
took us a mile or so to catch up, but we were into triple digits
when we sailed around him. He and his buddy kicked it in the ass
and passed us again. I stuck my foot in it and the wagon hunkered
down to the road and ate it up. We waved as we cruised by 'em again,
and they had a fit. Smoke was pouring out of the Mercury as they
caught up to us a third time. Then their spark plugs burst through
the hood. They were road kill.
few miles on down the road some fool kid in a hot bug passed us
by and after we rounded him the bug blew it's sad little motor trying
to take us again. Oh, we were hyped. The Buick was great for cruising,
the company was charged, and the day held great promise.
night we all decided to make a run down to Panama City. Eleanor
and her teenage lover Steve, Tony's bud, Hot Tony, and Casey and
me, we took off flyin'. It's over ninety miles to the Gulf, but
we figured we'd wire up the light on the roof. In the swamp country
in the south they still use cars like that old Buick for emergency
vehicles, so I just jammed my foot on the pump, cut on the light,
and cruised. People pulled over and let us by. We made the beach
in less than an hour, partied on the sand till dawn.
but trouble had to find me. After all, I was me and Alabama was,
well... Alabama. Casey was gettin' busy with all the local talent.
A true slut to the bone, and it was only so long before it all had
to catch up to us. One night there was a banging on the door and
I opened it to the town cop and six of his sidekicks... and seven
guns. They wanted to search the house for drugs. We hadda have 'em.
Even though I was local, I had gone North and fell in with Yankee
trash. No tellin' what had been goin' on in their clean-living little
town since we showed up. They gutted the place.
next day Casey and me, we went to Geneva County Lake to hang out
and catch a fish for supper. Behind in the rent, we were picking
up pop bottles for gas money. I was lying in the grass by the lake,
reading a book, something no true local would do for fun. Casey
was fooling with the big Buick up above me, and knocked it out of
gear and it came crashing down right for me. I rolled aside just
in time. It ran over my book and into the lake. The shallow end.
But still, we had one hell of a time getting that bitch out.
days later, we come back from someplace and Mrs. Sparks was in the
house. She was looking around for something she thought her son,
who had been running around with Casey, had left there. Casey came
off on her. Told her to get the hell out of the house and off of
the property. Exact words. She went to the cop. We were in Miss
Merle's, who had been feeding us on credit for weeks, when the cop
came in and hauled Casey off to jail. The charge was "Abusive Language
To a Lady." Where else but Alabama, I ask you? I pasted the
cop with a chocolate milkshake, courtesy of Miss Merle, and dared
him to take me too. Apparently you can't say "Hell" to a lady, but
it's okay to hit an officer of the law with a milkshake.
"Lady" showed her true colors when I went to beg her to drop the
charges. She stood on the porch of her shotgun shack with her old
man and his 12-gauge behind her and she said to me, "I don't have
to take such mess from a white trash Yankee like Casey Miller. I'm
free, I'm white, and," as she spit tobacco juice over my head, "I'm
a LADY!" No lie. Then she told her old man to shoot me and had me
slapped with a restraining order.
had to hitch hike to Geneva to try to get the Sheriff to let that
fool Casey out of jail. No luck. I hitched to Enterprise to Eleanor's
house to use her phone to call everyone in the country I knew to
beg money. I was tapped out. We'd been begging food off of Miss
Merle for a while. No rent. No gas in the meat wagon, and nobody
was giving any handouts. When I got back to the house Phineas Lewis
was there for the back rent and was not pleased with me. Big trouble.
sold the big Buick to a "colored only" funeral home in Enterprise.
They needed a hearse and nobody wanted to sell to coloreds. I paid
off Phineas, and hitching back from Geneva after I made Casey's
bail we decided it was time to move on.
last act of protest was to take the mattress from the back of the
wagon, write subversive slogans all over it in magic marker, and
haul it to the burned-out "nigger lodge" that the KKK had torched
years ago. That's where all the local teenagers went to fuck. We
thought we'd give 'em a mattress to do it on. After all, it had
seen lots of action.
next morning, as we were hitching to Enterprise with our clothes
in a paper bag, the cop tried to bust us again, but we got away.
We waited at a gas station in Enterprise for the Greyhound and bought
two tickets for as far as we could get on the money we had, then
hitched the rest of the way back to Nebraska.
was a long time before I went back to Alabama. 'Bout a dozen years
ago, after my Dad died, I went to my brother's after the funeral
and decided to cruise down to P.C., on the Gulf, to see an old "tender
friend,"who, it turned out, had died of a cocaine overdoseand
I passed through Coffee Springs. I always felt awful about running
out owing Miss Merle Graves for her kindness. She had fed us hamburgers
and kept us alive while we were there, even though we were "trash."
Miss Merle had lost the Golden Bear Cafe. She'd given too much credit
to too many folks, and too often they'd left her dry. She was way
older than I had realized, and she didn't recognize me, but she
remembered me right away when I told her who I was. I gave her a
check for a couple of hundred bucks, which I'm sure she needed,
by the look of things. She cried, and told me she had always thought
I was a sweet child, but who ever thought she'd see the money I'd
owed? Yeah, whoever would have thought? I'm
awful glad I found Miss Merle. Better late than never.
I've run a lot of miles and a lot of roads since then, but damn!
Me and that big old Buick, we had us some times!
©1995 R. C. Hampton
R.C. Hampton in BENT
Kinyesi, Part One
Kinyesi, Part Two
The Real & the Surreal