Killing is Easy, Living is Hard

Killing is Easy, Living is Hard

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Killing is Easy, Living is Hard

I did my best to kill Bobby Ackerman late one April night when we were both seventeen.

We were speeding down a two-lane highway, a narrow trail of asphalt that sailed off a ridge and down into a long, sweeping right-hand turn and then rushed past a white stucco house with a tile roof, a house that crowned the hill beyond a quaint covered bridge over a dry creek bed running parallel to the road. We were descending toward a little town named Crane, and we were flying.

"Geez, man," Bobby said. I looked toward the passenger seat as the Plymouth dug into the arc of the curve. Bobby’s eyes were wide.

"Slow down, slow down."

Bobby grasped the armrest with one hand and braced his left leg against the hump in the floorboard. I could smell the beer on his breath as he fought to stay in the seat.

The old sedan wallowed back toward the right lane.

It was the first time I'd driven his car. But it wasn't Bobby's car, really. It was his dad's. His dad was a railroad engineer, complete with the traditional bib overalls and cloth cap.

Bobby was my friend, trapped like me in the last year of high school. But he was different. I was secretive, sullen, and sarcastic, but Bobby was outgoing, with an ever-present desire to please sometimes amplified by a brittle manic energy. I liked beer, the drug of choice for our generation, but Bobby liked beer too much. That night he needed someone to drive him home.

Now I had the old car racing down the road and off the ridge at something close to 80 mph simply because that was all the speed I could wring out of it. I'd made one turn, but there was one more ahead before we entered the valley and the town that lay astraddle a creek. The next turn was a sharp, banking left-hander, edged by a dozen or so white posts laced together by steel cables, and oncoming traffic was obscured by a little hill.

I caught a glimpse of a yellow sign ahead, one marked with a black arrow curving around the words 35 mph, but I didn't lift my foot from the accelerator. My hands chased the steering wheel, persuading, begging the car to stay off the limestone bluff to the right, and the old sedan was reluctant, never steady, demanding one correction after another.

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That's the way I remember that night. Alone within the dark, chasing a black ribbon of road, the sour stink of Bobby and the beer, the wobbling of an old car forced to its limits, an adrenalin buzz pushing fear aside while I played to a captive audience.

And I lived to remember more. Like the story of the man who owned the house at the top of the ridge, the place with the little covered bridge. He served forty-two months overseas in the big war, rose in rank to command a tank destroyer unit, and came home without a scratch. He came home, hired on with the railroad, worked twenty years or so, slipped on an icy railcar ladder, and had his legs nipped off above the knees. He built the miniature covered bridge after that.

I remember that Bobby was an only child. In a small town dependent upon the railroad, his dad, a locomotive engineer, was a working man's aristocrat. Bobby's father eventually went blind, around the time he would have retired anyway, but he still had his fiddle. He fiddled for dances, playing old tunes brought across from the moors, hills, and bogs of the old country. He fiddled for college professors who came to his house to record the old mountain music, and he fiddled simply because the music sang to him for as long as he could draw his bow. "Soldier's Joy." "Devil's Dream." "Mahoney's Reel."

I could tell you more, but the only thing you need to know to understand that night is that Bobby was drunk, and I was stupid.

I was stupid, but I knew enough not to hit the brakes and send the car spinning, tumbling off the road.

I was stupid, but I followed the instinct to turn in from the right and push the car into the apex of the curve in the left lane, the wrong lane, the blind lane, the only lane that resulted in the correct combination of mass, motion, and traction to traverse the arc of pavement.

Blind curve. Blind luck. I pointed the Plymouth in the direction of its headlight beams and let momentum and the banking of the roadway carry us home.

"Shit, shit, shit," Bobby said.

But no one was coming north in the left lane to meet us. No truck. No car. No one heading out for the night shift or home from a church or club meeting. No family who'd been to town to visit grandparents. No other fool or angel.

We traveled alone in a perfect April night. Every star was visible, horizon to horizon, and it was warm enough that we wore only light jackets and had the windows cranked partway down. We rode on in silence, the radio crackling with a song I cannot remember.

And so I drove the old Plymouth on to Bobby's house. It was late, and the house was dark. He slipped in the back door. Another friend had followed us there. I got in his car and went home.

I think about that night often. If Bobby thought about it, he never said a word about our wild flight along that deserted highway curling down the dark ridge. I think maybe he already knew what I was still learning. Killing is easy. Living is hard.

Bobby proved that fifteen years later when he killed himself with a pistol while parked in front of his ex-wife's house waiting for her lover to leave.
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