Christmas in the Heart of Dixie

It’s hard to find a vein when you’re driving. It’s even harder to find a vein when you no longer have any. Shit, my veins used to stand out like well-torqued E strings. I could just feel around with my fingers. You know, shoot up in the dark, by braille. But now a days I have to actually see the damn things. Then poke and hope. And yeah sure, I’ve my favorites, but even that really big-ass vein in the crook of my arm, old faithful, isn’t always willing or able.

Steering with your knees is the trick. My hands are free to hold the spoon and lighter. Then cook it up. Load the rig. That shit’s like remote. Never spill a drop. Not even when the road’s rough. Just keep the van parallel to the double yellow line. Tie off with my belt. Two tries and I hit pay dirt. A trickle of blood creeps into the syringe’s barrel, a hematologist’s wet dream, and I get off on it. It’s the little things in life that make it all worth living.

Gun Needle spoon confederate Patrick O'Neil

A not-so-subtle rush comes on from that twenty-dollar bag of white I scored three days ago in the Lower East Side and I’ve suddenly enough energy to drive again. It’s probably 3am, maybe later. I’m on I-65. A straight shot sideways through the forests of Alabama. Last night I dropped down out of Atlanta, through Montgomery. Now I’m right outside of Mobile. It’s dark as fuck. There are no lights on the highway. Back about 60 miles or so I was seeing distorted shapes materialize by the side of the road, lone pedestrians illuminated in my headlights, out in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t seen a fucking house or a town for miles, and then all of a sudden there’s some good-old-boy cracker out for a midnight stroll with a shotgun slung over his shoulder in the dark. Yeah, yeah, I know, shut up. I’ve seen Deliverance and all a them Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. Believe me, I get it, those cultural references are not lost on me as I drop further down below the Mason Dixie Line, mile by mile. Hell, just seeing the names of these southern cities on road signs sends a shiver through my psyche. Visions of old-ass grainy and scratched black-and-white newsreels, civil rights marches, and fat southern cops siccing pointy-toothed German shepherds on Black folks. KKK, In the Heat of the Night, “Strange Fruit,” lynchings; hard not to think about that shit when you’re all deep up in the South.

I’m 16 hours into a nonstop drive to Los Angeles from New York City. It’s the 24th of December and there’s major storms in the Northeast. Hurricanes and travel warnings were announced for the Midwest as I left Manhattan. While the precursory snowflakes started falling and my windshield became obliterated I turned on the wipers and made the decision to hug the coast for a bit and then take the scenic southern route. The weatherman said it was “unseasonably warm” across the Bible Belt—thank you global warming. Muggy swamp weather beats driving in a nor’easter and maybe getting marooned in a snowdrift by the side of the road.

The hum of the motor, the turning tires, and the entire van vibrating is hypnotic. I wipe the sweat from my face, glance at the dash, and see the fuel gauge is on E. In the distance there’s a glowing white sign. It’s hard to know how far away it is as there’s nothing out here but swampland and the darkened shapes of cypress trees smothered in kudzu vines. Ten miles later an exit appears with a huge sign for a convenience store with gas. I turn the defrost to high as the condensation fogs the windshield.

A small road winds down into a valley. A roadhouse with a lone gas pump sits in the center of a massive empty parking lot illuminated by a gigantic overhead arc light on an equally large pole, casting a yellow tint on everything. Every deadened, drugged-out sense of my being says ‘don’t go down there’. It’s deserted. I’m alone. It’s the dead of night.

I pull the van up to the gas pump and get out. Slamming the door, the noise reverberates in the small hollow, and there’s a stillness, like a cemetery. And then an owl starts hooting, followed by shrill screeching from some unseen creatures emanating out of the surrounding bushes and trees. I reach for the nozzle, but it’s padlocked to the pump. If I was nervous before, I’m downright fucking scared shitless now. I got the creepy heebie jeebies. I’ve seen this movie, and it doesn’t end well.

The front windows of the store are misted over with condensation. I can’t see in, but then they can’t see out either. And why I’m worried about that I couldn’t tell you. Hurrying to get this over with and be gone, I open the door and get a blast of damp cool air in the face. Inside it’s the usual mini-mart clutter. Racks of cookies, chips, candy bars, and pork rinds. Soft-drink dispenser and next to that that ever-present nasty coffee urn that all-night roadside stores are required to have. I make a bee-line for the counter and I’m immediately assaulted by a huge Confederate flag stretched out and covering the back wall behind the cashier. Standing by the cash register is a skinny white dude, his arms covered in bad jailhouse tats. A naked woman wearing a klan hood dances on his biceps and there’s a swastika poking out from the collar of his sleeveless plaid shirt. He’s eying me with more than a hostile manner, and then I notice the revolver strapped to his waist. To his right is a miniature Christmas tree with little AR-14s as ornaments.

“Gas,” I mumble, placing two twenties in front of him.

Dude just stares at me. His eyes are huge. There’s no pupils. He doesn’t blink.

“Pump’s locked,” I say. There’s country music coming out of a small portable radio on the shelf behind the counter. It’s turned down so low that all I can hear is the twang of the pedal-steel guitar and a woman moaning about her man.

“Am I missing something here? You do sell gas, right?”

Between us is a Styrofoam cup, and the dude casually reaches for it, never breaking eye contact. When he gets it to his mouth, he spits out a stream of dark liquid and then returns it to the counter. I break off the staring contest, glance around the store, scoop up my money, and head back out. The warm damp night air hits hard after the coolness of the store.

The guttural growl of a high-performance motor pierces the night as a blue-and-white State Trooper rolls down the entrance road. I slowly walk back to the van, unlock the door, and get inside. The trooper pulls up in front of the store, practically blocking my way. I put the van into reverse, back up, and then go around him. My urge is to hit the gas and hightail it out of there, but I hold it to 25 miles an hour and creep up out the valley, making for the highway onramp.

Stashed in a small zippered pouch, tossed on the center console, are eight glassine bags of heroin, a burnt spoon, three rigs, and a variety of pills. Under the front seat is a loaded .38. As I make for the highway I’m wondering just how bad the possession laws are in Alabama. I’m visualizing chain gangs, Cool Hand Luke, convicts in striped uniforms, and prison cops with mirrored shades. What high I had from the last shot of dope is wearing off from anxiety, and my gut tightens as I keep one eye on the rearview.

Three miles down the highway, around a sharp turn, and off in the distance the lights of Mobile come into view. Just knowing I’m within spitting distance of something resembling civilization alleviates my nerves. And then my rearview lights up with high-beam headlights and the strobing red-and-blue light of a cop car.

Pulled over on the shoulder, clocking the cop through the van’s side mirror as he checks out the license plate, I roll the window down.

“Y’all from California?”

“Yes sir. That’s what the plate says, right?”

“Long way from home, ain’t ‘cha?”

“There a reason you stopped me?”

“Whoa, slow down there, son. I’m the one askin’ questions.”

“Okay then. Ask away.”

“Son, I don’t like your attitude. Get out the vehicle.”

I’m thinking there’s the gun, drugs, paraphernalia, and maybe a few warrants in other states (who really keeps track of shit like that?). Probably getting arrested. We’re talking multiple felonies. A Technicolor vision of a sweaty Strother Martin as the Captain in Cool Hand Luke invades my brain and he’s saying, “You gonna get used to wearin’ them chains” and I freak the fuck out. I just can’t see doing time in a southern prison. And I seriously can’t envision myself clearing swamps of cypress stumps, wearing them black-and-white stripes, or eating cold lumpy jailhouse grits for Christmas dinner.

I reach for the door handle and lean down a bit so I can pull the .38 from under the seat with my other hand. My gun is level with the cop’s stomach as I step out of the van.

“What in hell….”

A bullet shot from a .38 produces 264 foot-pounds of force. Translated into rudimentary math means those said projectiles are coming out of the barrel at 750 mph as they rip through the cop’s torso. A series of booms so loud they startle both of us. A bemused look melts across his face. As if he can’t really believe this is happening. Then his eyes roll back in his head and he crumples to the ground.

I get back in the van. My high has been totally blown.

Capital Murder, Alabama Code 13A-5-40, is a Class A felony, with anywhere from ten years to a life sentence, or the death penalty. There are probably extenuating circumstances for the murder of a police officer. But hell, at this point it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. I’m already cooking up my next hit. Now it’s that age old scenario: I’ll do my job, getting away, and they’ll do theirs, trying to catch me. Beats sitting here waiting for handcuffs.

I’m thinking New Orleans. Oyster po’boy and a beignet. Then it’s a straight 1,900 miles to Los Angeles. But first I gotta get some gas.

Merry Fucking Christmas.

–Patrick O’Neil


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3 thoughts on “Christmas in the Heart of Dixie

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