Maniac Grin



by Brian Haycock

When Charlie Quinn landed in Austin he landed hard like a sack of midnight mail. I was there. I saw it happen.

I was standing at a dirt road crossing on a Wednesday night, waiting for a long freight to pass. I was walking home from a neighborhood bar, like I did most nights. I happened to look up the tracks just as Charlie jumped from the railing at the back of a boxcar. He hit the gravel, bounced a couple of times, and rolled to a stop right at my feet. He looked up at me with that maniac grin, the one you’ve seen on the TV news, in the newspapers and magazines, the one that ran on the cover of Time, over the headline, “Has America Gone Crazy?”

I went home and called him an ambulance. The next day I took a walk along the tracks and found the shoulder bag he’d thrown out before he jumped and I took that to the hospital, talked to him for a while. We hit it off. I let him stay on my couch for a while and we stayed in touch after that. It was never boring. He bought his first bike a few months later, a ten-year-old Harley Sportster that looked like it had been laid down a few times. By then he was working at a Hot Lube, scalping concert tickets in his spare time, saving up so he could afford to make payments on a decent bike. When he came by to show me the bike he popped wheelies down the street for an hour, laughing so loud I could hear him over the roar of the engine. Finally he slammed into a row of hedges and rode off fishtailing, burning rubber down Slaughter Lane. It took a month for Charlie to wreck the bike. He was riding home at three in the morning, doing about seventy in a light rain. He lost it on an oil patch and slid sideways for about two hundred feet, then jumped a curb. He wound up lying in the parking lot of a Wendy’s with a broken collarbone and various lacerations, the bike lying sideways on top of a Volkswagen. After that he got into a pattern. He’d wreck the bike, spend a few days in the hospital, work on the bike for a few weeks, then wreck it again. He joked that he was learning motorcycle repair the hard way.

It wasn’t just the bike. Charlie had enjoyed riding the freight down from Illinois so much that he took up the hobby of “freight surfing.” He’d hop a boxcar where it slowed down going through town, climb up to the roof and ride it like a surfboard, flattening down for the bridges. He’d usually wind up somewhere like Waco, looking for the bus station. Sometimes he’d talk about trying out plane surfing, but he was probably joking about that. With Charlie you could never be sure.

Around that time he found a girlfriend, Evie. She was a few years older than Charlie and hard as uranium. She had tattoos of snakes and horned demons on most of her body, a regular Satanic zoo. No butterflies or cute unicorns for Evie. She scared the hell out of me, but Charlie thought he’d found his soul mate. Go figure. One night he showed up at my door with that maniac grin and said, “Man, you gotta come see this.” That was the night he tried bungee jumping from the top of the moon tower at Zilker Park. The Austin moon towers are like big cell phone towers, straight-up vertical with a little platform on top. The one in the park is about a hundred fifty feet tall, but from the top it looks like a mile. Of course, he didn’t tell me what he had in mind until we were hiding his pickup behind some bushes and it was too late to just walk away. I tried to talk him out of it, but I didn’t try that hard. I knew better. Even after a torturous climb to the top with a harness and fifty pounds of cords he was excited about the jump. Looking down from there made me want to puke, but it only made him more manic. I helped him secure the cords on the railing, then climbed down to watch the show. I should have set up a video camera, sent it in to “America’s Stupidest People,” or whatever they call that show where people get slammed in the nuts and light themselves on fire. We could have at least made a few bucks. The first mistake we made was, we’d assumed he’d fall straight down from the tower, but we were wrong about that. When he jumped, he arced away from the tower, but as the lines started to tighten they pulled him back in toward it. He slammed into the struts with a sickening clang and a wild scream, then kept falling from there. The second mistake was, he’d guessed wrong about the length of the cords. I watched in horror as the cords kept stretching and he kept falling. He slammed into the ground face-first, hung there a second, then started to rise. He yoyoed for a while, hitting the ground the first few times, and finally came to rest about fifteen feet up. I was in shock. I was sure he was dead. I stared up at him, thinking I could just take off, deny ever having been there. Then he started to move. He ran one hand up along his body as if trying to determine how much of it was left. Then he looked down at me and grinned through his remaining teeth. “What a rush. Hey, man. You want to try it?”

No, I didn’t. But it was nice of him to ask. It took an hour to get him down. He was too high up to just cut the cords. I had to climb up to where he was, grab onto him, then climb back down, stretching the cords as I went. At the base he had to hold onto the struts while I got a pair of shears out of his pickup to cut him down. The whole time he alternated between groaning and giggling. I thought there might have been some brain damage, but it was mostly Charlie being Charlie. Although the concussion might have been a factor.

At the emergency room the whole staff came out to say hello to him as he lay on the gurney waiting for x-rays. They all knew Charlie. He was one of their favorite patients. That was how he was. Always spreading good cheer, leaving everyone smiling. That time, he had a broken arm, two ribs, and a ruptured spleen. Plus the concussion. And of course, lacerations. There were always lacerations. And through it all he was smiling at everyone, having a good time.

That scared me. I started pushing him to be more careful. I tried to get him to swear off stunts completely and he said he’d think about it, but I could tell he wasn’t going to think real hard. I didn’t hear much from him for a while, just a “getting well” card he sent me from the hospital a month later when he wrecked his bike. A few weeks after that I went over to the Hot Lube to say hello but they told me he was home recuperating from injuries sustained while blade-skiing. Whatever that is.

It went on like that a while longer and I finally reached a point where I accepted the fact that Charlie was going to die a sudden and horrible death, and I realized I didn’t want to be too close when it happened. When I saw with that look in his eyes, I’d try to talk him down and when that didn’t work I’d make up excuses and get the hell out of there. Maybe that helped. Over the next few years he seemed to ease off the really crazy stuff, and I thought maybe he was straightening out, maturing. After all, he wasn’t twenty any more. Against all odds, Evie seemed to be a good influence on him. When she told him one of his ideas was crazy, he’d actually listen. The next few times he wrecked his bike it wasn’t much more than a casual laydown and an outpatient visit, another good sign. He started bungee jumping with a club, under controlled conditions, and he took up skydiving under the guidance of trained professionals.

In other ways he was doing well. The can-do attitude that led Charlie to think he could bungee off a moon tower was paying off for him. Thanks to his experience fixing his bike, he landed a job at a Harley garage. Not long after that he opened his own bike shop, specializing in custom body work. His specialty was fiberglass molding, and he got really good at it. He was even featured on one of those cable TV shows, fixing up a bike for some guy from the Partridge family. That picture of Charlie with his maniac grin that ran on the cover of Time was taken from a promo for the show.

Trouble, as always, wasn’t far away. One night he called me, said he and Evie had something outrageous planned, and he needed my help. That was the word he used. Outrageous. I knew it would be trouble. I knew I should say, no thanks, just stay home. I didn’t. I was bored. I said, what the hell. Why not?

If it ever comes up, I will deny every word of this. There’s no proof, and I’m not going to jail over it. I didn’t even know what they were going to do until it was too late to stop them. And besides, it never happened.

There was a speedboat race coming up on the lake out near Marble Falls and there were dozens of speedboats docked out there, preparing for the race. Charlie had the bright idea to steal one of the boats and use it to pull him around on a wakeboard. Charlie had never even waterskied, let alone wakeboarded on a tow rope at a hundred miles an hour, and he really wasn’t in shape for something like that. Besides, stealing a speedboat was probably a class A felony, but we were already in Marble Falls when they explained it to me, so I figured, again, what the hell. After all, Evie was going to drive the boat. All I had to do was meet them at the far end of the lake and drive them back to Austin. That wouldn’t be so bad. Unless something went wrong. Charlie had a wakeboard he’d constructed out of used surfboards and a lot of fiberglass. The thing was massive. He called it the Batboard. It had that kind of look to it. It had stirrups for his feet and a hook on the front for the tow rope. There was a line secured to the front of the board for him to hold onto. I thought he should just hold onto the tow rope so he could let go if he had to and still stay with the board, but I was outvoted. Once we got the board in the water I took off. I was willing to drive the getaway truck, but I wanted to stay out of jail if at all possible. I found a quiet place to park with a good view of the lake halfway down the course and I sat on the hood of the truck with a cold beer, waiting for the action.

It didn’t take long. I heard a speedboat start up, then stop, then start again. That went on for a while. I assumed that was Evie stealing the boat, then trying to figure out how to drive it. Then it was quiet while they hooked up the board. Real quiet. Here it comes, I thought.

When Evie got the boat going this time she didn’t fool around. She idled for about ten seconds, then just flat-out floored it. There was a roar from the end of the lake. It sounded like the space shuttle taking off. I could see the running lights coming at me, then I could make out the boat in the moonlight, a sleek bullet throwing up an enormous fountain of water. I wondered if Charlie had thought of that. I didn’t have long to wonder. In what seemed like seconds the boat was going by me, shaking violently, Charlie hidden in the spray. Suddenly the boat seemed to lift out of the water and hang in the air for a few seconds. Then it nosedived violently into the lake and seemed to explode in a cloud of fiberglass and machine parts. I thought I saw Charlie fly over the debris on his wakeboard and splash down ahead of it. Then it got very quiet out on the lake. Very, very quiet. I drove down to where they’d crashed and got the truck as close to the shore as possible. I studied the water. The wakeboard was out there, drifting toward shore. What was left of it, anyway. As it got closer I made out the figures of Charlie and Evie sprawled across it. I waded out as far as I could and pulled them to shore, using the broken end of the tow rope. As I loaded them into the bed of the truck, Charlie looked at me with that maniac grin and said one word. “Outrageous.” He wasn’t kidding. Then he passed out.

Somehow we managed to get out of there and back to Austin without being arrested. I dropped Charlie and Evie at the emergency room and got out of there before anyone asked me any questions. They were treated for the usual broken bones and lacerations and internal injuries and released a few days later. The case of the wrecked speedboat was never solved. And, like I said, this never happened. I’m denying everything. After that things started going downhill for Charlie. After his next bike wreck the insurance companies finally wised up and refused to insure him for much of anything. He got a liability policy through his shop, so he could still drive, but his next trip to the ER would come out of his own pocket. And no one would be paying him to repair his own bike. On top of that he’d been putting on weight and he was banned from bungee jumping until he got in better shape. He’d been a big guy to start with, and years of living on beer, pizza and more beer were catching up to him. Then he was banned from skydiving after having to pull his spare chute to keep from nose-diving into an airstrip. The clubs had two-man chutes, but they’d heard enough stories about Charlie to ban him with the first excuse they could come up with.

On top of that, Evie broke up with him. Apparently she’d seen the light as she was thrown from the speedboat. She said it was a blinding white light and she didn’t want to see it again. She went back to whatever West Texas town she’d escaped from, vowing to live up to whatever deal she’d made with God while she was airborne. I think even Charlie understood that when a girl like Evie thinks you’re too crazy to be around, it’s time to take a hard look at what you’re doing. Even so, I don’t think his last stunt was a suicide, the way people say. Charlie was never suicidal. He wanted to live more than any sane man would. And, of course, his judgment wasn’t the best. No, he wasn’t suicidal. He just loved the speed and the danger, and he didn’t care about the pain. I’ve been asked about it by everyone from the Austin police to Homeland Security, but I really don’t know much about that last stunt, other than the way it came out. I don’t know, for example, where he got the jet engine. Or where he got the design for the wings. Or why he thought it would be fun to fly a truck.

I just know what everyone knows. He welded a jet engine into a housing in the bed of his pickup and drove out to the interstate south of Austin late on a Tuesday night. He pulled into a rest stop and bolted on a set of wings he’d fabricated in his shop. They were just short wings, probably about eight feet long on each side, made mostly of fiberglass with a titanium frame, although it’s hard to say how long they were, since they were shattered into tiny pieces by the impact. Then he waited until the road was clear far ahead before he pulled out, put down a hundred feet of rubber, and fired up the jet engine.

I swear I had no idea what he was planning to do. And this time I’m not just trying to stay out of jail.

The first I heard of it was at four in the morning when I woke up to the sound of an Austin cop pounding on my door. They’d found a license plate from Charlie’s truck, traced it, and got my name because I’d bailed him out from the city jail a couple of times. They brought me out to the interstate to identify the body when — and if — they found one. I walked around the debris field with the police as they tried to make sense of what had happened, waited for them to come up with something for me to identify. I knew this was the end for Charlie. I knew as soon as I saw what was left of the bridge he’d hit. I saw it before they got the remains of the jet engine out of the concrete. Based on that, he’d been about twenty feet off the ground when he’d hit. Which is pretty impressive for a Ford F-150.

I was there when they found his head lying in a clutter of concrete and blue vinyl upholstery. I was about twenty feet away, and I saw the deputy faint when he saw it. It was easier to identify than you’d think. The head was pretty clean, considering. There was one thing about it that told me right off it was Charlie. That told me what it had been like for him when he slammed his truck into the concrete overpass and died.

He was grinning that grin. The one I’d seen so many times. That wide-eyed, gap-toothed, balls to the wall maniac grin.

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