Must Be Stopped
By Todd Morehead
â€œThe driver always chooses the song, man! Those are the rules!â€
Jeff cocked his arm on the dashboard casually, all hairy armpits and sweaty tattoos, and twisted his upper body around to better address us where we slumped on a mattress in the back of an Eighties-era Econoline van. He was wearing a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses and I could see my warped and puny reflection in the lenses. We were on the shoulder of I-40 somewhere between New Mexico and Arkansas, I knew that much, though I had given up tracking our progress in any formal sense, once the dysentery hit and left me cramped in a fetal position in the back corner.
He had been yelling about radio rules over the blare of traffic for a full two minutes, erratic bursts of wind from the highway causing his hair to tornado around his face. â€œThe driver chooses. Period. You knew that coming into this.â€
Weâ€™d been holding a steady Southeasterly course from Idaho and had passed through mountain ranges and deserts so remote that weâ€™d long since given up on finding anything but static on FM. Mp3 files, hell even CDs, seemed like a faraway dream.
Gibson, a fellow passenger, shot a desperate glance at the radio dial and then appeared to scan the floorboard for a weapon. An eighteen-wheeler blew by and rocked the van slightly. Jeff turned up the volume on the last song of Aqualung without taking his eyes off of us, though you could barely hear it over the traffic.
Gibson licked his cracked lips and made a lunge for the tape deck. Jeff was expecting him, though, and shoved him back against the wheel well. After another brief struggle, they sat panting and stared at each other in silence. That appeared to be the extent of it.
It seems a little ridiculous now in hindsight. But, at that moment I caught a glimpse of just how far weâ€™d slipped.
I had ostensibly been on assignment for a travel magazine, sent out to cover a hippie festival in the Sawtooth Mountains, though the storyâ€”and a little part of my soulâ€”was eventually killed after that fateful trip. Iâ€™ve even decided to only reveal partial names of those involved to spare them any personal or professional damages... and that says a lot considering most of those uninvolved are virtually unemployable anyway.
We were never what youâ€™d call company men. But, still, we were hardworking, tax-paying citizens. We had all simply hoped to take a break from the world, to escape the 40-hour week humdrum and blow our tax returns tooling around in a van for two kick-ass weeks. Maybe do some camping. But the van had started to overheat and the gas money was quickly being sucked away by faulty vacuum hoses and radiator repairs. Worry had taken the place of exaltation. Our faces had become gaunt from exhaustion and caffeine and we were oblivious to the alarm that buzzed through the decent young truck stop cashiers when we stumbled through their lobbies at 4 a.m., shirts tied around our heads and stinking, like extras that had wandered from the set of a bad Apocalypse Now remake.
I was starting to believe we were jinxed. Hell, we all thought it. And, we laid the blame at the smelly feet of our captain, who now grinned behind mirrored lenses and waited for the mutiny to come, here on the shoulder of I-40.
We had spent the previous few days sizzling out on the desert, our heater blaring to pull heat off the engine, with an underage hippie hitchhiker in the passenger seat pinching off bat hits from the half-pound in her knapsack. Weâ€™d picked her up in the dead of night on a barren mountain road in Utah and had quickly learned that she was letting her â€œlove bubbleâ€ guard her from harm as she hitched through the Rockies to a Buddhist monastery in Taos. And it was she, admittedly, who instilled in me a belief in omens:
Jethro Tullâ€™s song â€œAqualungâ€ had been playing when we were pulled over at a police checkpoint, but it hadnâ€™t been playing when the New Mexico cop, a Gamecock fan, let us go. It had been playing when our radiator hose blew and when the first waves of dysentery hit me after accidentally drinking unpurified creek water at a neighboring camp. And, like something out of the Twilight Zone, â€œAqualungâ€ hadbeen droning along in the background 150 miles out of Taos, when we realized that weâ€™d left the rest of the cassettes back at the monastery. I canâ€™t speak for Gibson or Shawn, but I wanted the album out of the van, not just because it is aural diarrhea, but mainly because I was afraid of what may come next.
Now, days from that desert, Jeff turned back toward the highway, mutiny quelled, and put the van in Drive. The tape stopped and then automatically clicked to the first song on the other side.
The paperbackâ€”a David Foster Wallace, if I recallâ€”hit Jeff in the back of the head seemingly before Gibson even realized it had left his hand. I heard Jeffâ€™s sunglasses fall to the floorboard. He jammed the van in Park and spun on us, eyes gorged with rage.
â€œThey are valid musicians!â€ he roared.
I lost my composure.
â€œHeâ€™s playing a flute, man! A fucking flute! There are no flutes in rock-n-roll!â€
â€œYou want rock-n-roll?â€ he stammered. â€œHuh?â€
In a single swift motion, he tore through the console, emerged with a screwdriver, stabbed it into the tape deck, and ripped it from the dashboard with one pull. A screeching feedback squealed through the speakers. He struck it again. And again. The tape continued to play weakly and then begaaaan toooo slowwwwww into baritone while he plunged the Phillips head into the metal casing again and again and again and again. Sparks started to fly out of it. It was pretty intense. For a moment, I think I was more impressed than alarmed. He must have pounded on it for at least a minute and a half with Gibson shouting him on. But Jeff wasnâ€™t just beating the shit of out that tape deck, he was beating credit card bills and thankless jobs and bad luck; man, he beat the shit out of that deck for all of us.
When it was over, he left the screwdriver jutting from the carcass, calmly put his sunglasses back on, put the van in Drive, and merged with traffic. No one spoke for a couple of hours. Just outside of Oklahoma City, Shawn placed a consolatory hand on Jeffâ€™s shoulder. Then he leaned down into the hanging mess of wires and metal and flipped the switch on the radio to see if it still worked. It did. Within minutes, weâ€™d found a booty rap station and soon the mood lightened again. The music was horrible, but to me it felt like eating cheesecake. I felt an appetite for the first time in days.
We pulled over for dinner at around seven and I made sure I was the last one out of the van. When no one was looking, I slipped the Jethro Tull tape out of the mangled deck and hurled it as hard as I could across the parking lot. Then I went inside and had the best omelet of my life; laughing to myself about that cassette laying in the scrub at the edge of the parking lot with wisps of prairie grass jutting up between its tiny reels.