A continuing and occasional series of short pieces featuring legends who have slipped into an alternative universe. This time - Polanski and Nicholson in Midnight Express.
Polanski dropped change into the drivers hand, thanked him, and watched while the old Ford, smoke belching from the rotten exhaust and the pistons beating through the block, disappeared into the darkness. He checked the smeared screen on the closed circuit TV and saw it was gone three. He sat down in the canvas fishing chair and felt his back twinge.
‘What were you just saying?’ his colleague said.
‘I said, I met Charlie Manson once.’
‘Just walked into my back yard and dipped his feet directly in my pool. Sharon wasn’t there, don’t recall where she was. But he just sat there and started talking. I gave him a beer.’
‘What the fuck for?’
Polanski looked up from where he’d been picking at the skin around his thumbnail. ‘Because it was 1968, that’s why. You aren’t that old, Jack. Don’t you remember all that shit? Free love, my man. What belongs to you belongs to your brothers, all that kind of thing.’
‘I remember. It seems like a lifetime ago.’
‘Not to me. Feels like only days since I last saw her sitting on the porch, sunlight in her hair, smiling as I drove away.’ Polanski looked back down at his hands, made as if to say something more, didn’t. Jack sat watching him for a moment, feeling sorrow for the pain his old friend still carried.
‘She was a beautiful lady, Brother,’ he said. ‘I know you still miss her.’
A nearly new Taurus pulled up at the booth window, the steady throb of a hip-hop bass line coming from the vehicle. Jack pulled himself up from his stool and leant against the counter, his expanding belly pushing into the wood. The driver’s window rolled down and he saw white tattooed skin, wiry muscles, smelt the dope that came from the car. He suddenly felt hungry.
‘Evening fellas,’ he said. ‘Welcome to Ohio. Four bucks.’
The drawling voice on the driver suggested a long session had taken place. ‘Four dollars? That’s robbery, man.’
‘Take it up with the State Governor,’ he replied, giving the trademark grin that had lit the screen for the last forty years. ‘But if you’re driving across the border, I’m gonna need four bucks.’
A general grumble came from the Taurus and then the driver leaned out the window, the harsh sodium lights from the tollbooth making his skin gray, almost translucent. His smoke hazed eyes were a deep pink. ‘What say you just raise the barrier, old man, and let me through,’ he said, revealing gapped and nicotine-stained teeth.
‘Sorry, I can’t do that,’ Jack replied calmly. ‘It’s against the law, and I could lose my job.’
There was a quick movement, and a short, dull knife blade flashed in the drivers hand. ‘Better your job than your eyes, son. Now raise the Goddamn barrier.’
Jack wasn’t shocked at the sudden threat. You worked the midnight express for long enough and you saw the spectrum of human behaviour. He didn’t rush, didn’t change his expression, just reached down below the counter and bought the shotgun up and into position in one easy movement. The barrels had long ago been sawn off and the walnut stock fitted comfortably into his hand. He pulled back the cocks with his thumb and with his freehand carefully removed his sunglasses. ‘Four dollars.’ Behind him he heard Polanski sigh.
The knife disappeared, and Jack saw the whites of the drivers eyes, his trembling hands raised. ’Okay man, be cool. Be cool. I was just playin’ with you.’
Jack grinned, kept the gun raised. ‘That’s what I thought. Now pay or be on your way.’
The driver slotted the gear into reverse, his hands tight on the wheel, but before the car moved the passenger peered out the window, stretching across the driver. He was middle-aged, lank hair and equally stoned. ‘Hey, ain’t you the dude used to be in movies?’
Nicholson slid the dark glasses back onto his face. ‘Yeah, used to be. Now I’m the dude who’s gonna fuck you up if you don’t turn around.’ He paused. ‘So move.’
The Taurus backed quickly, tyres squealing, virtually spun on it axis and ground gears as it returned to the highway and headed back into Indiana. Jack watched for a few moments before sliding the weapon back into it’s leather holster and returning to his position on the stool. He felt good, felt the adrenaline in his muscles. Polanski looked at him with amusement.
‘What?’ said Jack, knowing full well.
‘Don’t you think you’re getting a little too old for this cowboy act, my friend?’
‘Hey, I’ve still got the moves, Roman. I’m still here.’
Polanski smiled and gave his head a small nod, reached for a well-used pack of cards on the shelf behind him and snapped the deck between his tanned fingers, started dealing. ‘We both are my brother. We both are. Let’s just stay alive long enough to enjoy it…’
(c) Rich Wilson 2012