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Edd Byrnes

Edd Byrnes heard a girl’s high-pitched giggle, and then he heard a man’s voice, mean and nasty, like a dull but deadly knife: “Kookie, we’re gonna mash your face—so even your own mother won’t know you!” He heard everything: the man’s words, the girl’s giggle and then only the silence, before two other men clambered down from the truck’s cab. The horror of it was that he could not see them.

The glaring yellow-green spotlight on the side of the truck was focused in his eyes, more blinding than any studio lights had ever been. At first he’d ducked his head, then darted from one side to the other to avoid it, but it didn’t help. The blinding light followed him as if it were a hunter’s gun and he were a clay pigeon being set up for the kill. Finally, he backed away slowly, trying to make out the faces and forms of the men coming toward him. Until suddenly he felt metal in his back. In a flash he knew what it was. His own car’s open door—the edge of it. He could retreat no further!

It was a nightmare, and for no special reason he laughed out loud. The crunching of the men’s footsteps stopped as his laughter rang out and then slowly died, leaving silence again. For a few seconds, there was complete silence in the desert night and he was aware of a noise louder than any he’d ever heard before: the triphammer beating of his own heart. Then he knew this was not a nightmare. He was awake. And in terrible danger.

He’d read someplace that a drowning man, or a man face to face with death, relives his whole life in a second. It didn’t happen that way now with him. His entire life didn’t pass before him—just three hours of his life, these last nightmarish 180 minutes.

He’d been barreling along the lonely desert road in his T-Bird, singing along with a Fabian record on his radio, when suddenly zambo his car vaporlocked from the heat and conked out. He could do nothing but sit there by the side of the road for more than half an hour letting the motor cool. Finally he tried to start the engine again, but the whirr-whirr-whirr of the starter, not making contact, told him that his battery was stone dead.

Why must people be so miserable?”

He took a flashlight from the car and stood by the side of the road waiting for help. The sun dipped down behind a mountain, and darkness settled over the desert. Off to his right, near a sagebrush bush, the skeleton of a dead prairie dog gave off an eerie orange glow from the last rays of the sun.

The sound of a motor far off in the distance broke the stillness. He stood near the center of the road and waved his flashlight back and forth vigorously. The headlights of a speeding car came closer, closer, and without slowing down wussshed by, making him jump back out of the way.

“A fine spot to be in,” he thought. “Stranded in the middle of nowhere. Fifty miles from the nearest town in either direction. Somewhere in the middle of the desert about halfway between Vegas and L.A. Battery dead. Radio dead. Prairie dog dead.” The inky blackness pressed in all around him so that the thin beam from his flashlight hardly made a dent in it.

Two tiny flickers of light far, far down the highway caught his attention even before he heard the low purr of an oncoming car. “This proves light travels faster than sound,” he thought, recalling his high school physics course. “Or is it the other way around? Man, if it’s just the opposite, then I’m screwy. But in this God-forsaken place, I bet it’s possible to prove the world’s flat. All laws break down here,” he thought as he waited.

He jerked his flashlight up and down frantically in the face of the ever-enlarging eyes of the approaching automobile. He heard the welcome sound of brakes jammed on, and he jumped back to the side of the road. But the driver must have changed his mind at the last minute; he gunned his motor and the car caromed on into the blackness. Its lights made a rapidly receding path that was swallowed up by a sharp curve.

Edd Byrnes climbed into his Thunderbird and slumped back against the seat. “Why must people be so miserable?” he thought. “Why can’t they help each other? Why is everyone so selfish and so scared?” But even as his lips formed these words, he shook his head emphatically knowing that he was wrong. Why, in the more than four months that had passed since he’d been on the outs with the studio, people everywhere had gone out of their way to try and give him advice and help. Most of them were strangers. And he’d received more than a hundred thousand letters and postcards—he never could keep the figure straight because it increased so rapidly every day—from fans all over the world pledging to stick by him. “Okay,” he said half aloud. “So two drivers had sped by without stopping. How could he make a judgment about people on the basis of such little evidence when more than a hundred thousand others proved how nice and considerate men and women and boys and girls could really be?

“Maybe all that’s bugging me is that I’m not working, not doing what I love to do best,” he thought. “That, and my friend over there.” He flashed his light at the prairie dog skeleton and shuddered.

He was hungry, but there was no food in the car. He opened the little door on the dashboard, unscrewed the top of a tiny bottle, and counted out twenty pills into his hand. Without water he downed them one by one with great difficulty. In a few minutes he felt better, although he knew it was impossible for protein pills to work that fast. “It’s all in my mind,” he thought, “but it works. Faster than Popeye’s spinach—and easier to carry!”

The radium dial on his wrist watch showed it was almost midnight. Two cars and three hours had gone by since his T-Bird had first conked out. He closed his eyes knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep and, yet, hoping against hope that he might doze off. But in a few minutes, he gave it up for hopeless.

This time he heard an engine in the distance before he saw the headlights. “Eureka,” he shouted to the prairie dog, “Einstein—or whoever—was right sound travels faster than light. Or is it the other way?” But it didn’t matter now. He ran out onto the highway and flashed his light at the car that was coming nearer. The sound was different somehow. Then he realized why. A truck. “Truckdrivers are used to emergencies,” he thought. “And they’re pretty regular guys.”

The piercing blinding light

Instead of swinging his flashlight back and forth, he clicked it on and off in rapid succession—three times on and off and then a pause, three times on and off and then a pause, three times on and off and then a pause—the standard signal for danger. As the truck loomed large out of the darkness, he had a wild desire to throw himself down on the road to make it stop. “That would be really kookie, Kookie,” he said to himself. “Suppose his brakes don’t hold? Then I’d be a permanent part of the highway!”

But the truck did stop. It ground to a halt and he backstepped to his car. A broad grin spread across his face as he raised his hand in greeting. He stepped forward, trying to make out the face of the man behind the wheel. Immediately the beam of a yellow-green spotlight hit him smack in the eyes.

“Hey, cut it out,” he yelled. “I’m not a robber! My name is Edd Byrnes. I’m from L.A. My car broke down. I need a lift to the next town so I can get somebody to come back and change the battery.”

There was no sound from the truck. Just that piercing, blinding light. He threw his arm up over his face, and at that moment he heard the high-pitched giggle, the girl’s giggle, and the raucous laughing of some men—more than one man, but just how many he wasn’t sure.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. “What’s the joke?” He moved his head and body trying to duck out of the glare of the spotlight, but it followed him no matter what he did.

“You’re funny, Kookie,” a man’s voice hollered. “You’re the joke . . . the hero . . . the big man . . making a personal appearance just for us. We’re going to see how tough you really are, Mr. Big Man. We’re going to make you crawl.”

“Why?” he yelled back. “Why? What have I done to you? Why?”

“For kicks, daddy-o,” another voice chimed in. “Just for kicks. We’re going to kick you for kicks. . . . Isn’t that comical? Isn’t that a scream? Kick you for kicks. Why don’t you laugh, Big Man? Let’s hear you laugh!”

He heard the men—he was almost certain there were three of them—climbing down from the cab. He heard the girl’s giggle as she played the light on his face. Then he heard the third voice. “Kookie, we’re gonna mash your face so even your own mother won’t know you.” And then he felt the edge of his car door against his back. No place left to retreat.

Behind him, the desert lay desolate and dark. The three of them could surely track him down if he ran. Besides, he was dead tired. For one crazy moment he thought of popping some more protein pills into his mouth. What a notion at a time like this—that was what made him laugh.

But the laugh stopped his attackers in their tracks. He followed up his advantage. If he stalled even a minute another car could come along and scare them off. A miracle could happen. Maybe.

“The least you can do is turn off that spotlight,” he yelled.

“He wants to see us when we’re kicking him,” one of the men hollered, and laughed as if he’d never stop. Then he regained control of himself. “Well, that’s fair. Never let it be said we’re not fair. Okay, Myrna, do what the Big Man told you. Douse the glim.”

Then he saw them

The light went out. For some fifteen seconds he still couldn’t see their faces. Then slowly, like an old TV movie coming into focus, he saw them. They weren’t men exactly—maybe in their late teens, maybe in their early twenties. But they were all alike. Not brothers probably, but still alike. The same glazed, expressionless faces. The same powerful, animal builds. The same clothes. Black leather jackets studded with cheap metal. Huge black belts, at least eight inches wide around the waist, dotted with glass jewels. The same tight black pants. The same heavy boots. And what was her name—Myrna—back there in the truck: probably cut out of the same comic book pattern! He flashed his light toward the cab, but she ducked her head quickly.

Spurs clinked across the macadam. The first of them leaped directly at him, and he sidestepped quickly, bringing his flashlight down hard. It hit the thug behind the ear. The glass broke and the batteries spilled out. The fellow dropped to his knees next to the Thunderbird.

The other two separated and came at him—one from the left, one from the right. It was pitch dark now, but their cheap metal spurs, the glass jewels on their belts, gave them away.

The one on his left dived low for a flying tackle. Edd jumped high in the air to avoid him (as high as he had jumped years ago to catch the flying rings at the Turnverein Gymnasium in New York City where he worked out on the bars and the rings twice a week). His attacker’s head and outstretched arms passed under him and crashed full speed into the side of his car. His breath went out of him and he plunked down unconscious.

“Two down,” he thought panting. “Two down, one to go!” The fellow on the right was crouching warily just out of arms’ reach. Then Edd felt hands grabbing his throat. He fought to loosen them, realizing that attacker number one had recovered and was trying to choke him. He kicked his feet out from under him and the hands slid off his neck. His assailant rolled over in the highway and got up.

So there were still two! They inched closer and closer to him. He was awfully tired. His breath stuck in his throat. He dropped his hands to his side as if in surrender.

Three against one

Suddenly, crazily, he started talking. Fast. Shrilly. Almost incoherently. “Come on. Get it over with. Three against one—nice safe odds! Come on . . . rough me up . . . work me over . . . kick me . . . that’ll make you feel good. It’ll make you feel strong—real brave! You’re all cut out of the same cloth. You know what that makes you? A mob. A brainless, spineless mob. You’re afraid to be alone. Afraid to face yourselves. So you gang up because you’re afraid to be weak, afraid to be human. You look alike, you act alike, you think alike. Together you’re brave. Alone you’re cowards. Come on, fight in a pack—like rats!”

One of them stopped and slowly straightened up. The other kept coming. He forced Edd back into a fender and bashed his fist into the side of his face. Edd sank down on his knees. “This is it,” he said, and waited for the first kick.

Suddenly the yellow-green spotlight came on—but above his head, aimed at his attacker’s face instead. “Hey, I can’t see,” the thug hollered. “Douse that light so I can finish this guy.” But the light seemed glued to his face.

Myrna,” Edd thought, stunned by the miracle. “Myrna, back there in the truck.” Then her voice—not silly like her giggle. It was sharp, firm. “Enough. I’ve had enough.”

Edd looked up from the ground just as the other guy, the one who’d been a spectator so far, rushed forward. He covered his head with his hands to protect himself. But the kicks didn’t come. Instead, the newcomer grabbed the other from behind and dragged him to the truck. Then he returned, hoisted the unconscious one into a fireman’s carry, over his shoulder, and hauled him back to the cab.

Edd gripped the open door of his car and dragged himself, hand over hand, to his feet. His head was spinning and he couldn’t tell the sky from the ground. For a moment the truck’s headlights shone on him again, then dimmed. A voice called “I’m sorry.” But in his fog he couldn’t tell if it was the girl’s voice or a man’s. Or if he imagined it altogether. Then the truck roared down the road.

He half-climbed, half-pitched into his car where the door stood open. Exhaustion slugged him like another fist. He fell asleep immediately.

In the morning, a state trooper’s knocking on his car window woke him. “Boy, you’re a mess. What happened to you?” the officer asked. Edd told him.

“Would you recognize them again?”

“Anywhere,” Edd answered.

“Got their license number?”

“I’ll never forget it.”

“Want to press charges?” The trooper got out his black notebook.

“No,” answered Edd slowly. “Let it go.”

The trooper pointed to Edd’s cheek, “That’s some bruise,” he said, “but I bet you gave them something yourself.”

“I think so,” he said. “Yes—I gave them something to remember me by. . . .”

A pretty rough story

Edd Byrnes leaned back in his chair and said to me reflectively, “You know, I never wanted to tell any of this before, it’s a pretty rough story. But I feel that playing it clean is still the only decent way, no matter what goes with the hoodlums. The dirty fighters might seem to get on top, but in the long run they generally lose out. This bunch that roughed me up—I think they finally caught on that an ordinary decent Joe can have more guts than a rat who only dares to fight in a pack. That’s what I hope they remember me by.”





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