Five Years Ago

On May 28, 2004, two newlyweds and I were just outside of Nashville, a few hours removed from Ralph Stanley's annual Memorial Day Weekend festival at the Hills of Home Park in Coeburn, VA, when we stopped at a gas station and encountered, well, a really odd dude. One of those newlyweds summarized the encounter in both the pages of Oneonta's Daily Star and, in the days before this here blog existed, on the criticalbutstable Yahoo! group in a livelier (i.e., with curse words) version.

Since I was thinking about the trip the other day, and because this is my blog and I'll do what I want to (and, hey, it's probably new to you), I thought I'd repost the livelier version, with my original comments included. Enjoy.

A trip really isn't a trip until you find yourself in a situation where it seems highly likely you will be murdered.

Whether it's been walking along Route 1 in New Jersey for 6 miles, having a can thrown at my head as I walked back to my Nashville hotel (first trip...and still I went back), or gripping my seat as a Charlotte cab driver guided me through the desolate backstreets of his fair city, I've always had a knack for winding up in precarious situations that are only funny in retrospect or if they're in a 1980s movie starring Chevy Chase.

Fortunately, I am usually the only person whose life is at risk in these predicaments as I travel alone, half out of desire and half out of a realization that I'm a strange man with strange travel destinations. Alas, there were other people involved in this trip to Nashville. And they were a perfectly lovely married couple (well, OK, maybe "lovely" isn't quite the right word for Bryan, but it'll do), unaccustomed to the kinds of encounters I have had in my travels. Poor things.

I'll let Bryan set the scene in the following uncensored, slightly shortened version of his recent Daily Star column. I'll chime in when appropriate:


Tennessee welcomed us that morning with banks of fog tucked inside the seams of rain showers. The sky was low--we broke through in the mountains of western Virginia--and it held the light close to the ground. It was a morning frozen for photographers; a green and stone amphitheater with walls climbing into the clouds. Perfect light, but hard on the eyes.

Speaking of hard: I fell half-asleep in Virginia the day before--we were traveling in a Jeep with a stiff suspension--and I woke up harder than Chinese algebra. I tucked it under my left leg and broke that fucker. I did not enjoy that moment.

Hey, it's James here. I feel it necessary to inform future traveling companions of Bryan Chambala that if he ever does get tired while driving and starts to act a little erratic, don't let on that you know. He will just deny everything. Just think hard for a good reason to stop. Maybe you have to go to the bathroom. (NOTE: This will not work if you are his wife, especially if you are traveling in a part of suburban Ohio that he deems "no good.") Or maybe you need to throw up (bring some ipecac to induce vomiting). But just don't tell him he looks tired. This will only enrage the beast. And that helps no one. OK, back to the story.

The mood was high after spending the previous night sitting on a blanket listening to bluegrass music on Clinch Mountain; home to Ralph Stanley and a road so steep and hooked I drove most of the way squinting through the passenger-side window to follow its ascending path. We ate pork sandwiches that night, and found ourselves lacking for words when Stanley's mountain people engaged us in genuine conversation. We slept well, later in the hotel, with the high sounds of the music fading in harmony and silence with the air conditioner.

I would have slept better, though, if the mutt at the front desk hadn't screwed us sideways on the room price. She told us "rooms are $49." Then, she said, the only available room is a suite with a jacuzzi, which she'll give us for $59. Then we requested a cot for Little Jimmy [NOTE: That's me. It's a nickname inspired by Little Jimmy Dickens. Screw you if you don't know who that is]. Woman at the desk says: "Ok, the cot costs $10, so what I'll do is give you the room at price and not charge you for the cot. That'll be $79."

You do the math.

I heard bluegrass in my head in the morning. The banjos and mandolins faded into steel and sawdust shuffle as we rolled closer to Nashville. We talked and kept ourselves awake with word games and candy. I smoked a clove cigarette and snapped my head into line with the highway. Soon, the little white elephants appeared by the side of the road, and Kelly knew, "you are done driving." Bitch. I was fine. A few more gummy bears and I could have driven us to Colorado, stopping only to pee.

The BP was closest. And conveniently, the shittiest.

I stood outside, waiting for her, joined by our traveling companion, the country music writer Little Jimmy Sigman.

Trucks blew past, and dust rose from the blacktop and hung in the air. It was unnatural wind, swirling and low and quiet. She was inside dawdling the fuck around, and we waited with little to say, tired.

A man stepped from the passenger side of a red car, jack-knifed his legs--intoxicated--and swung low to regain balance. He paused with knees bent, half-squatting, and flexed a bare chest spasmodically with arms straightened at his sides and veins running close to the skin. He turned in our direction and screamed. Screamed. "Fuckers!" he said. And some other shit along the lines of "Hey Fuckers!," and "Motherfuckers!," and "Motherfuck!," and "Shit!," and "Cunt!," and "Hi! How are you?"

James again. This is not hyperbole on the part of Mr. Chambala. Nor is it an excuse for him to just throw around vulgarities. It's all true. The dude was legitimately crazy. Even the guy traveling with him knew that. There were a couple of times during the "conversation" that he pointed to his buddy, who was busy attending to the car. Each time, the guy gave a look that said, "Look, I know he's deranged. But what can you do? Please let him be your problem for a minute so I can take a break." It is a look I am familiar with, having occasionally been the sober Abbott to Mr. Chambala's drunken Costello. And now back to Mr. Costel, er. Chambala.

The thoughts (white trash, drug-addled hillbilly, child rapist, child rapee) were very bare and came quick.

It looked as if he had been digging at his arm with fingernails, or a small knife. He was small, in constant movement, and smiling with unfocused eyes. Our conversation was banal, enough that my mouth operated with no guidance. My mind was at work.

He was disfigured, horribly, but not by accident. Across his chest, onto his shoulders and down to his wrists, he was marked with scars. They varied in breadth and length, but were in some cases 4 or 5 inches long, half-an-inch wide. It would have taken a knife--worked hard and twisted under the skin--or an iron. Or something else, unthinkable. Really. This was fucking disgusting. He looked like he'd been passed through a wood chipper running low on gas. I should have killed him.

Again, all true. I was reminded of the years when wrestler Terry Funk used to sear his opponents with a branding iron after winning a match. Of course, that was professional wrestling. This wasn't. It also wasn't 1987, I wasn't 10, and I wasn't fighting off sleep so I could watch the end of "Saturday Night's Main Event" on NBC. Plus, as far as I could see, Terry Funk wasn't around.

He showed me a wallet and a picture. Money fell out, a stranger's driver's license, and a story about a girl in downtown Nashville. He had scratched a man's face out of the picture. The girl looked like a whore, but, you know, the college kind. I laid a hand on keys in my pocket. Slowly, I slipped each between clenched fingers and watched. She was still inside and now his attention was drawn by a teenage girl filling her car's tank. Not bad either. He offered himself to the girl, and she lowered her head. James, who had spun away and let me--the talker--try to ease this thing away from our party, stepped closer and watched.

That's an overly generous way of assessing what I was doing. In situations where I am confronted by a dangerous gentleman, and there is another gentleman around to take care of the situation, I like to linger around, maybe whistle a little tune, without establishing too much of a presence. In the world of confrontation, the technical term for this is "being a big pussy." I am comfortable with that term. Back to the action...

It was a drug, I knew. He would smile and try to kiss me, or we would discover what it is for a tired man to attack the chemical with his hands, and keys, in the parking lot of a gas station outside Nashville.

Kelly pushed open the steel door and he turned and his mouth opened and she looked up.

There we were.

I put my hand on the man's chest, and his skin felt soft. (Well, now you know.) I can't remember the sound, and I can't remember being able to see. I just remember how the skin felt as if it would wilt in the rain like a tissue.

I said, "She is my wife." That was all. I didn't say: "And she gets pissed at me every time I'm 'home late,' even if that means 30 minutes late after driving to Ithaca to buy something--a gift for her--which I couldn't find even though I looked in every goddamn store in that godforsaken city."

He smiled and looked at me. "She's beautiful."

And we walked away.


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