A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
News is not my thing, but sometimes it falls into your lap.
That’s what Bubba did — literally.
He was half in the bag and he stumbled and tripped and landed his sloppy self right on me.
For a while he just laid half across my lap, grinning stupidly at the sky, his arms flailing, directing traffic for the stars. He looked at me and his smile weakened. He said, “Ain’t this the shits?” Then he belched. The smell was… unforgettable.
He sat up and slouched on the bench on his own weight, throwing his arm across my shoulder like an old friend. His bouffant gray hair was a mess, finger-raked into deep furrows. The skin of his face was a greenish white and it hung on him like an old sheet. Like the last time I saw him, he was wearing a pink chenille bathrobe embroidered with the initials ‘HRC’. His pockets were stuffed with paper tissues and Big Mac wrappers.
I had been watching him for a while. It was a cold night and I was bundled up on a bench in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. There were news crews camped out over there, of course, and Bubba had been wandering from crew to crew, trying to get someone to pay attention to him. He had gone through the Mood Cycle of the Mentally Adrift: Bravado, self-effacement, supplication, disturbingly plaintive supplication, anger, rage, distressingly uncontrolled rage, resignation and finally a good-humored kind of drunken aplomb. It was in this frame of mind — fatalism amused by its own futility — that he landed in my lap.
“Gotta laugh, don’tcha’?” He hiccoughed.
“Sure you do! You can run, but you can’t hide! My ol’ granddaddy usta say that. O’ sinner man, where you gonna run to? They made me sing that ol’ hymn ever’ Sunday, and I usta just smile behind my hymnal. I thought I knew better. Right up to the bitter end, I thought I knew better.”
I said nothing. I really, really wanted Bubba to take his arm off of my shoulder.
So of course he pulled me tighter to him instead. He said, “You want me to tell you how it is? You want me to give you the big picture?” He swept his hand across the sky in a broad arc — and I took advantage of his grand gesture to pull away from him.
He didn’t seem to notice. “It’s like this,” he continued. “You can’t pick up a newspaper without hearin’ how we got us a divided society. Rich or poor, white or black, educated or ignorant, armed with computers or pencil-whipped — we’re divided up in half, and ever’ differn’t know-it-all says we’re divided a differn’t way.
“But here’s the actual fact of it, no fake, no lie.” Something about those words was funny to him and he giggled stupidly for a moment. “Seriously, seriously — here’s the way it is. We are divided up in two, but it ain’t the way the know-it-alls tell it. You know what way we’re divided up?”
“You could at least pretend to be interested in what I’m sayin’…” He had a hurt look in his eyes and his lips were pursed in a pout.
“Oh, fine. In what way are we bifurcated?”
“Hey! I like that word! I bifurcated a gal back home, but her daddy stopped threatenin’ to kill me once I paid for the abortion. But, see, the thing that splits us in two is this: Some of us are cool and some of us are straight.”
I said nothing. Bubba took a pull on his bottle of wine and I watched in silence as he carefully screwed the cap back on. He was staring at me intently and the silence was beginning to hang in the air.
He said, “You think I’m funnin’ you, don’tcha’?”
I gave him a tight little smile, second cousin to a wince.
“It’s the god’s honest truth! I’d swear it on national TV, and I ain’t done so good at that lately. Think about that ol’ boy that’s been houndin’ me. Ain’t that a good word? He’s just been houndin’ me and trailin’ me and tailin’ me and sniffin’ me in places no normal dog would go. He looks like ol’ Droopy Dawg and that’s just the way he acts! He took a bite into my ass and he ain’t never let go!”
“And the point is…?”
“Don’t you get it? He’s a straight! Straight as an arrow, straight as the line from here to the moon. That harpy I married and her pack of wolves have tried to call him ever’ dirty name in the dictionary, but don’t none of it stick. You can’t but look at him to know he’s a straight. If he ever did anything wrong, he’d turn his own self in!”
“So he’s a straight and you’re a cool, is that it?”
“Have you seen me in my dark sunglasses? Have you see me with my saxophone? Didn’t I look cool to you?”
“Ha! You must be a straight, to tell the truth so plain! But you’re right, damn ya’. I wasn’t born to be no cool, and neither was that peroxide princess I got hitched to. We just wanted it both ways. She’s a born straight, just like ol’ Droopy Dawg. But then she heard from Herr Doktor Marx that scruples are for suckers and that’s how she became the fine specimen of unscrupulousness we all know and fear.”
“And what about you?”
He sighed. “You want the truth?”
“I want it. I don’t expect it.”
“Naw, I’ll tell you true. I ain’t got no more reason to hide. I wasn’t no straight and I wasn’t no cool. I was just a fat boy with a big fat need to be liked. Ain’t nobody ever gets tired of havin’ his ass kissed. When they ask you why you’re stickin’ your hands in their pockets, you just tell ‘em it’s to get a better hold, so you can kiss their asses that much harder. I’m a bastard son of trailer trash, but I ass-kissed my way right up to the very top. It’s the American Dream, ain’t it?”
“Why sure! At one time folks thought democracy meant that a man born in the mud could rise up to the aristocracy. Well, thanks to me and my wife and all the friends of Herr Doktor Marx, y’all found out that real democracy amounts to pullin’ the aristocracy down into the mud. Just think of all the sleazy things I did in that big ol’ mansion across the road! How cool is that!?”
“…I’m not sure I’m understanding this distinction.”
“The truth is the red-hot truth but it’s cooler when you shade it. He’s good-bad, but he’s not evil. A nod’s as good as a wink. A miss is as good as a mile. It’s close enough for government work, damn it! Ain’t that the flamin’ blue shits!? Close enough for government work!”
He was laughing uncontrollably and I was pretty sure he was going to throw up at any moment and I didn’t want it to be on me.
“Close enough for government work!” he wheezed, wiping tears away from his eyes. “Ever’body knows the truth and ever’body says the truth all the time. That’s what cliches are for, for sayin’ the truth and not hearin’ it. The cools cook up lies and ever’body eats ‘em up. And the straights don’t serve nothin’ but the truth and mostly people push it away. Ain’t nothin’ tastes so sweet as a sweet little lie…”
“But the straights don’t quit, do they? This contradicts that, that can’t be reconciled with this, you said this but then you said that. Ol’ Droopy Dawg don’t ever, ever let go of your ass, and that’s a fact! Catch ya’ stealin’, catch ya’ cheatin’, catch ya’ carousin’, catch ya’ killin’ even — it ain’t no big deal. But don’t ever let a straight catch you in a lie, or you are finished. I’m hangin’ on by the threads of my wife’s housecoat, and she’s goin’ from portrait to portrait, swearin’ at all the dead presidents…”
“I guess this is news, isn’t it?”
“Folks across the street didn’t think so. I think they thought I was a bum. Joke’s on them, ain’t it?”
I thought for a moment. “This is the best I can do for a newsman’s question: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”
“Ha! I ain’t got no idea where I’ll be ten minutes from now! I’m flat broke. Three million dollars in debt. Ain’t got no house, just an ol’ car in storage back home. Maybe I’ll drive that car up to Vegas and see who I can do. Look out ladies! The big dog done slipped the leash!”
“Ten years,” I repeated.
“Ten years. Hell, I’ll prob’ly be cadgin’ quarters on The Strip. Ain’t that where all the trailer trash end up?”
I shrugged. Who am I to argue with the president?