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And Death Shall Have No Dominion

July 15
14:00 2012
DONALD O’DONOVAN

Los Angeles

(excerpt from O’Donovan’s novel Highway)

Roddy Joplin was a bona fide latter day cowboy. As reckless as Roddy was about most things, he was meticulous when it came to his image. He wore embroidered western shirts, a $300 alligator belt with an engraved silver ranger buckle and a Stetson Powder River buffalo hat that had set him back 150 smackers. And those Tony Lama reptile boots of his must have cost a small fortune. With his craggy face and brooding gaze, Roddy Joplin looked like a man who’d spent half his life branding longhorns on the Chisholm Trail.
O’Donovan’s Orgasmo being blogged at DDA — start here

 

All the way through Arizona and New Mexico, in the old days, when we ran together, we’d stop at every western clothing outlet and spend hours browsing while Roddy searched for a new belt buckle or for that special cowboy shirt. And whenever we’d park at a truck stop he’d carefully wipe his boots off with a red bandana before getting down from the cab. Roddy was a huge hit with the truck stop waitresses and with the girls in the cantinas, and even though I felt like a poor relation I was happy to ride along on his coattails. For me, it was like traveling with a celebrity.
Roddy’s first marriage had ended in disaster when his young wife, Jolene, ran off with a chicken hauler from Rapid City, and two and three marriages later he was still carrying a torch for her. Add the country western music and the beer and there you have Roddy Joplin, the original iron-assed loser with a ten-gallon hat and a broken heart.
Roddy also had a keen intellect and an encyclopedic knowledge of world literature, but he never trotted this side of himself out, except with me in the cab when we were running miles or when we were hashing things over at a bar or in a cantina somewhere. He had a slim, tattered volume, “Twenty-Five Poems,” by Dylan Thomas, that he carried with him everywhere, from coast to coast. That book of Dylan Thomas poems was Roddy’s Bible.
Whenever you ran with Roddy Joplin you’d better be ready to dance with the Devil. Roddy had a chip on his shoulder; he reveled in being an outsider. On our first trip out of Eureka we pulled a load of computer monitors down to El Paso and Roddy recited “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas, at the Crow Flite Truck Stop near Big Spring, Texas. 

It had been a blazing hot day and we’d worked up a powerful thirst, so we stopped for beers at a roadhouse called Big Peckers. They had a huge statue of a chicken on the roof. We got pretty looped, especially Roddy, as usual. He was spoiling for a fight, and we nearly got into it with three JB Hunt drivers. I had to drag him out. I was scared, I admit it. Those JB Hunt guys were tough hombres and I didn’t fancy tangling ass with them. 

After Big Peckers we moseyed over to the Crow Flite, and Roddy brought along “Twenty-Five Poems,” by Dylan Thomas. The Crow Flite was packed with truck drivers and field hands, real razorbacks, some of them, big sunburned farm boys, and pretty soon in walks the three mouth-breathers from Big Peckers. 

“Well, this is it,” I said to myself. But Roddy had other ideas. He ordered the bartender to turn the jukebox off, and then he climbed up on a table, opened the tattered poetry volume and began reading aloud. Roddy had great pipes, a rich baritone, as well as an appealing Midwestern twang, and even though he was drunk, excellent diction. 

And death shall have no dominion. 

Dead men naked they shall be one 

With the man in the wind and the west moon…” 

Roddy read the whole thing, all three stanzas, then closed the book. A hush had fallen, like filtered moonlight descending on the prairie, and the room seemed dimmer somehow, and the faces of the men—blank, twitching, scrubbed clean of comprehension—were rag doll faces with polka dot eyes and cross-stitched mouths. They were flabbergasted, utterly dumbfounded. 

 Roddy gazed defiantly around the silent room. “Anybody wanna say anything about that?” 

There were no takers. 

You always hear them say in the truck stops, if you miss a gear going down Donner Pass, you die. On our second trip out of Eureka I got a chance to find out if that was true. We had a load of cantaloupes for Pittsburgh. Roddy was driving and I was in the jump seat. We pulled the long grade up Donner, parked in the brake inspection area near the sign, “Donner Summit – Elevation 7,239,” and walked around the rig kicking the tires. After a little palaver about one thing and another we checked our brakes, and then we got ready to roll down toward Reno, with Roddy at the wheel. 

Roddy selected a gear and we started down, but somehow he wound up in neutral. The rig was picking speed. Roddy glanced quickly at me, then fumbled with the gear shift. He seemed to be doing everything in slow motion. 

“Jesus Christ!” 

The road was rushing up to meet us. Roddy gave me a challenging look: What’s the matter, bro, can’t you take it? 

We were now freewheeling down Donner Pass. Roddy seemed to be enjoying the danger, as well as my discomfort, and I strongly suspected that Roddy had missed that gear on purpose in order to scare the shit out of me in retribution for some the critical remarks I’d made about his novel, “The Bridge.” 

We zoomed past another rig that seemed to be standing still, then swerved to avoid an approaching driver who leaned on his air horn. It was eerie, because even if he hadn’t missed that gear on purpose Roddy Joplin was the sort of desperado who didn’t give a damn whether he lived or died. But I have to say that Roddy reacted perfectly, once he’d made up his mind to do something. He stabbed the service brake several times, reducing our road speed, then tacked us up, lightly, gingerly, with just a toe-tap, and deftly grabbed a gear. The engine roared as the transmission engaged, and our rig, now under control, settled in behind another rig and we continued our descent at safe speed. 

The whole thing consumed less than two minutes, and neither one of us said a word about it. I did manage, however, a few hours later as we changed drivers at a truck stop, to say a couple of nice things about his manuscript, even though I didn’t mean them.

Donald O’Donovan wrote the first draft of Night Train (Open Books, 2010) on 23 yellow legal pads while homeless in the streets of LA. His other novels include Tarantula Woman, The Sugarhouse and Highway. An optioned screenwriter and voice actor with film and audio book credits, Donald O’Donovan lives mostly in Los Angeles. He can be reached atdonaldo7777@yahoo.co

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Find a list of O’Donovan’s books here. See O’Donovan’s other pieces on DDA: The Novel As GraffitiCardboard VillagesSimon Rodia, Architect of Dreams, and I Live Under Your Wallpaper

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