Dreary Fluorescence In Tractor Country

The man was a redneck, more so than the the kind Nebraska traditionally produced, like he was born over an ancient redneck burial ground, or grew up over a redneck fault-line of some sort. Taylor and I clicked right from the starting pistol, meeting at community college and quickly bonding over a love of sock puppets, bucket chicken, and a penchant to fail every test we’d take. This was the kind of community college with actual dorm rooms, two tall buildings sticking out in the middle of some muddy midwestern farmland, carpentry students and diesel technicians giving the computer folk eery stares and aggressively close discharges of tobacco spit. You had to watch your ass in a place like this. This is tractor country. If you aren’t covered in a certain amount of axle grease, things are fixing to get nasty. Taylor spoke with a mild accent, not terribly thick, but I’d always wondered where it came from, since he was born over Husker blessed soil. Maybe his parents came from places elsewhere, or maybe stuff like that just happens when you’ve consumed a certain lifetime-level of Wild Turkey.

I’d first seen him shuffling down the dorm hallway toward the lunch bell, some weird grin on his face, flip flops scratching the floor and a strange fedora thing on his head, shuffle shuffle with wide elbows like he was doing a little dance. The guy was strange as hell, and I think that’s why we’d hit it off so well. He was in the same computer course as I was, and neither of us could explain exactly what we were doing there. The classes were little nightmares, atavistic lessons on COBOL, FORTRAN, and learning how to write RPG code for AS/400 machines—more capital letters than anyone would ever need, and just enough to make you start dreading a future career you’d never even heard of.

We were all being groomed to live out a life wearing a Peter Gibbons tie and arguing over Swingline staplers. Taylor and I saw Office Space in the theater, and after an hour or so of laughter, a real somber conversation occupied our drive back to the dorm rooms. “That’s not how it really is, is it?” he’d asked. “Not sure man,” I replied. “Certainly the casual Hawaiian Friday thing was garbage. People don’t do that.”

Skipping class wasn’t a doable something, this wasn’t real college. In real college, you can skip class, talk to the professors, take the final and just see how you fair—adult things and adult decisions. In this community college, you were given three passes—only three days to miss school—either via sickness or tardiness, and if you’d missed three days of any given class, you’re out, failed, goodbye. Thirty or so of us would drift from room to room in the same building, all day long, 8am to 4pm, just like the high school hovels I’d narrowly escaped only months prior. Dreary fluorescence swung over the asbestos, the canvas painted with a borrowed nightmare from the 1970s, orange cloth and blue chairs everywhere. I was very careful with my three days. Taylor and I had recently discovered how to play classic Nintendo games on the computer, and we’d also discovered that some benevolent hero made those mini-hotdog-weenies with cheese inside. Cheesy-weenies. We’d head into the town proper, empty the grocery store of cheesy-weenies, then spend the day with Sonic the Hedgehog, wiping our fingers on paper plates, and likely, programming homework.

In the late nineties there was a show on MTV called Sifl & Olly, a humor based talk show where the stars were two sock puppets speaking into a microphone. The stuff was classic gas, we’d loved it, and for those who remember, the theme songs from “Precious Roy”, and “Calls from the Public” will never leave us. For Taylor and I, this was medicine. We never wanted to be here, talked into it somehow—likely under the assumption we were learning how to make video games—and never with any enthusiasm for the subject material. We’d drift through the days, waiting patiently for the evening, when we could get together with a small group that gathered for general tomfoolery. Since this wasn’t real college, and was in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere, we had to get clever with our free time.

There was the video game thing, as well as Sify & Olly, along with the occasional visit to the place across the street: One part video rental store, one part gas station, and one part Amigo’s fast food Mexican restaurant, where they used mayonnaise instead of sour cream for the burritos. Basically there wasn’t a damn thing to do for recreation, and that the campus only housed less than fifteen female students in a mini apartment building didn’t help things. I wish I were joking. Once, we all crammed into Taylor’s truck and drove two towns over trying to find a skin flick. Nothing. We lived and schooled in a dark vortex of stimulation, a deep place brimming with boredom and creative new ways to trip the light fantastic over garbled static radio stations. We were Nebraska men, no stranger or exchange students here, left in the middle of a farmland educational experiment to see what boils. When we weren’t struggling to learn the intricacies of C++ programming and “library includes”, we were wearing diapers and shooting at tree stumps with shotguns full of pennies. We’d only lift the dusty goggles from our eyes when a peaceful suburban family came wandering through, bright eyed and lost, looking for directions in the wrong slice of the midwest… bowlegged hoots and hollers making the frightened vacationers reevaluate their religion.

Taylor’s ancient blue truck defied make or model. It was the same beat-ass thing we all drove out of high school with, only Taylor was fond of dangerous and questionable modifications. It ran well enough, likely fueled on tobacco and duck blood, and when I’d asked him why there was tiny pale surgical tubing coming from the drivers-side air vent, his eyes lit up and he got all peppy on me. “I made that,” he began. “Look here. It’s a tube that leads under the hood, near the engine.” He leans forward and pops the truck’s creaky hood. Prying it open, he points to a black box in the corner, near the electrical stuff. “That thing there, well, you fill it with booze,” he says.

I lean forward. “Booze?”

“Yeah, and the tube goes into the truck. It’s so I can have a nip or three when I’m out and about.” Taylor’s eyes have never been so proud.

I feel like I just made that part up, like the man will find me one day and send a sharp email.

To: Matthew D. Jordan
From: Taylor C. Realname
Subject: You dick.
“Dude, I never had booze near my engine, stop making shit up for your little story time. It was a tube coming from the arm-rest, and the booze was hidden under my seat. Now, if you’ll excuse me, these milk jugs full of gasoline aren’t going to shoot bottle rockets at themselves.”

I grill him on the whole drinking and driving thing, and he assures me it’s for parties, only used when parked and usually with a woman along for the adventure. Never underestimate a sober redneck’s ability to lie, they’re masters at the game. You may have met one to buy an old lawnmower, but before you know it, you’re driving away in a used Jeep and you’ve just married one of their kin. At least I’d never seen him actually use it when I was on a ride along. Our Friday night tradition was a drive into the city to catch a movie and bring teenaged violence to buckets of fried chicken. We’d do it to visit “chicken girl”, an enchantress whose schedule we’d memorized at the chicken shack, every Friday night an excuse to flirt with her for an hour and remember what a woman smelled like.

I never knew if Taylor graduated. We’d both been caught up in a scandal over a failed lab test, one of the few we’d passed on our own honesty and midnight study brigades. I left after the incident, but I think he stuck it out for a bit longer. We touched base a few times every couple of years, then as most long distance friendships go, we drifted out of the whole scene. About the time I was finding my trade as a graphic designer, he was finding his as a traveling electrician. I wasn’t entirely sure how it worked, but he was always moving with a crew, state-to-state, climbing telephone poles and sending me pictures of boggling switchboards, colored wires arranged in patterns that required a degree in advanced mathematics or a Jesuit priest to understand.

I miss him. He’s one of those abnormal day walkers who you always wanted to be around, either for the company, or the queer display of backwoods ingenuity he might apply to any given situation. Taylor was always encouraging. He was the dude who’d be just as happy for you if you’d passed a difficult exam, or survived an improvised long jump into a pool from your parents’ roof. The kind of guy who’d never look down on you, a smile on his face as he drove you to the hospital, telling you how “rad” everything you do is, punching your shoulder and helping you collect errant teeth.

 

 

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