Listen to Black Firebird’s companion song.
Words by Mark L. Berry
Performed by: Matt Pierce
One morning Lip broke into my dorm room by pounding on the window near the locking pin with his meat-hammer fist, and once inside, he kicked my bunk. I was hung-over from sloshing way too many screwdrivers at a trendy beachside nightclub.
Lip put me in a chokehold and barked orders, “Put your sneakers on, we’re going for a ride.” I had no idea how useful the sneakers were about to become. Flip-flops were the rule in the Sunshine State.
Lip’s 1983 black Pontiac Firebird was idling out front. Nobody would dare drive off with his wheels. Maybe it was his excessively loud conversational tone, the devil-may-care way he’d ripped the lower portion off all of his sleeveless T-shirts, or the pseudo jabs he threw at anyone he passed, just to watch them flinch. Maybe it was the scowl he wore even while smiling.
Lip’s Firebird was trimmed with tinted T-tops that he carefully stowed in felt restraints mounted under the rear hatch, and a golden bird-of-prey emblem that stretched across its hood. The fresh wax was already glistening in the rising Florida sun, reminding me to grab my sunglasses. I hoped Lip would drive us to a greasy breakfast joint.
Instead, Lip drove around the airport to the nearly endless, straight, deserted perimeter road. He rambled about how his transmission was occasionally slipping, his odometer was about to roll over 12,000 miles, and his warranty was about to expire, while he eased the speed up over 80 m.p.h. The wind poured in through the open T-tops while the stereo blasted, and I empathized with David Byrne of the Talking Heads when he sang the line, You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Lip muscled the transmission into reverse without warning. I heard a metallic grinding clatter, and then a violent thud. The car fishtailed. Through the windshield, the firebird emblem on the hood looked like it was jinking for some invisible serpentine prey as we danced across both edges of the road, and all four skidding tires screeched as if inspired by the spread-winged, hunting emblem. I was thrown side-to-side while restrained in my now-locked seatbelt. I’m no mechanic, but I think the transmission seized—exactly Lip’s intention. He managed to stop on the right side of the road—mostly facing the correct direction. The air stank of burning oil and rubber, and there was a mix of gray and blue smoke. The smeared pavement marked our trail as if painted by a child just learning cursive writing. Or maybe the tires had spelled out lunatic in a long-lost foreign language. The Firebird that miraculously remained upright, wasn’t going anywhere under its own power.
This is where the importance of my sneakers came in to play. I asked him, “Why the hell did you do that?”
“You don’t think I want to walk back to the dorms all alone, do you?”
I couldn’t believe he’d dragged me into this mess just to become a hiking companion. “I thought you were in love with your new Firebird.”
“It’s not new anymore. The warranty is almost toast. Didn’t you hear anything I’ve been telling you? My dealership didn’t believe my transmission was slipping, and I want them to replace it, not me in a few hundred more miles.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
He stared at me with a toothy grin. His jaw protruded, and both his upper and lower lips curled out in the first hint of a snarl in spite of his smile. It didn’t require much imagination to guess how he’d developed his nickname. When Lip’s lips finally moved, he said, “Well, now you’re crazy too,” and we started walking.
This essay and companion song are a snippet of Mark’s memoir ‘13,760 Feet’ (no publication date yet).