I’d never heard a stadium get that loud before, not even back when our rallies used to sell out. The stands were probably half full, but the roof lights swung from the rafters when they chanted for Larsen to pull another run. You could see dirt rising up off the track from everyone stomping in their seats when his rig idled, and you could barely hear him revving up through the roar. You’d think they were calling out for deathblows in some match where a local kid had a contender on the ropes. None of us knew a driver could rile a crowd up like that. Watching him ride, we almost forgot our summer tour was canceled, or that we weren’t making enough from ticket sales to haul our rigs around anymore. The Yankee monster truck circuit had been lost for years, and we were losing Dixie to dirt bikes and cage fighters. All we had left was Texas, and even those crowds were thin most nights.
Afterwards, people said they came to see Larsen ride—to watch Mr. Quiet, as they called him—blow more carnage skyward than any hissy fit Satan could muster. But his rig wasn’t top billing that night. People won’t admit it now, but they were there to watch cars get eaten by the robot or maybe see Carl pull some tricks with Spitfire, one of the last few rigs still making money back then. Sure, Larsen’s rig was heavy enough to crush most things, and his jumps got pretty high. He could pull off a wheelie or doughnut every now and then, spit up mouthfuls of dirt for fans in the front rows, but he just didn’t have the showmanship a guy like Carl had.
That’s why they called him Mr. Quiet. He never climbed out and waved after a run or signed calendars or posters for the kids. It’s like he wished he was still riding back home in Nebraska, spinning in some grimy flats with no one around to watch him. This one show in Meridian had to be the only time he ever won at freestyle. Our manager took him up to the booth afterwards to say a few words to the crowd, but he wouldn’t thank them for coming out or anything. He just grumbled about God’s mercy and climbed down the ladder, the microphone still buzzing.
People wanted to take pictures with him in front of Mammoth, and he stood there with his mouth buried in the collar of his jumpsuit. If you don’t at least pretend to like people, our manager would say to him, you’ll be selling your rig to a junkman by next week. But threats like that didn’t scare him.
Back then a rally would bring out whole families. No one came to see some tight-ass driver who acted like he drove out of spite for the crowd. He said he didn’t need any fancy stuff like the rest of us. No death metal intros or fireworks or smoke bombs. For him, it was about his rig. He spent so much cash on that thing, I could see why. For each show he had another airbrush layer of wooly brown hair put on, and he claimed the tusks sticking from its hood were real ivory. He always had the best shocks and rubber. And when his engine revved, it was like a huge beast bellowing from some icy pit. But after spending all that money, he barely had any left over. His jumpsuit was torn, his helmet all scratched up.
He was also the only one of us who had to take his family with him on tour, putting them up in a trailer hitched to one of our carriers. His wife was from the prairie too. Serious, God-fearing. Their kid had a problem with his bones and had to use crutches and leg braces. Probably on account he had his family with him, Larsen never wanted to go out with us after a show except for this one time in Amarillo where there was this laser tag place outside the city that had cheap beer, and Carl said he’d cover him and his family.
Carl never did trust Larsen. He thought he was too quiet, but he liked to throw around the money he made off a line of action figures from back when promotions people used to sign us. One of these toys was superglued to his dashboard so he could kiss it for good luck before each run. It had to be at least twenty years old because it showed him with a full head of hair.
Before playing laser tag, we had a few drinks and some pizza near the arcade where a birthday party was going on and kids were fighting over quarters while their parents were getting drunk around a pool table. Because Larsen was there with his family, we couldn’t talk about the stuff we usually talked about after a show, like who was going to the strip club that night, or if anyone had coke to sell. We sat there watching Larsen’s wife cut up the kid’s pizza into little pieces. She wiped his mouth after each bite until Larsen told her to leave the boy alone. The boy can feed himself, he said. She dropped the plastic knife and fork. The kid stared at the arcade, where sirens were going off.
The rookie rider on our crew got up to rent us some guns. Carl boasted he had the best aim there while he changed into a pair of tennis shoes.
How’d you two meet? I asked Larsen.
He shook his head. No one wants to hear about that, he said.
Maybe they do, his wife said.
He grabbed another slice and stuffed it in his mouth. My dad almost killed him is what happened, she said. The kid looked over again at the sirens. He was done eating and wanted to go play, but his mom told him to sit down. She glared at Larsen, who sighed, stood up, and pulled a small wrench out of his back pocket.
When my dad went out in his field each morning, she said, he’d see his rows knocked over, tire tracks everywhere, and one night he sat at the edge of his field in his truck and waited for you know who to come bursting out of the windbreak in his old Chevy.
Larsen kneeled down next to his kid and tightened up his braces with the wrench.
My dad, he followed him out to this trailer in the woods, she said.
So much for moving up in the world, Carl blurted across the table.
Larsen didn’t laugh, but you could tell from his smile he liked thinking about his Nebraska days. His kid giggled and spit soda out of his straw at the sound of Carl laughing, but Larsen’s wife didn’t think it was funny and told the kid to put the straw back in his cup. She asked about the kid’s helmet, but Larsen said he didn’t bring it.
If only you thought half as much about him as you did about that truck, she said. They got helmets here. Besides, that thing’s too heavy for him anyways. It does him more harm than good.
She was looking down at her plate with a sour look on her face when the rookie came back and leaned all of the guns against the wall. Carl slammed a helmet down in front of me. Let’s go, he said, time to get shot to hell.
I told him I’d be in there in a minute and poured the rest of the pitcher into my glass. He winked over at Larsen’s wife and before long the rest of them head off to the arena. She waved at her kid as he went through the doors, then started scraping her paper plate with a piece of crust.
So what happened?
With your old man and Larsen?
I don’t know what the two of them talked about, but whatever it was, it scared him enough that he replanted all those crops and helped with the harvest that year. He hadn’t worked a week before he came up to the house with his hand cut up and bleeding all over the front porch. He said he’d gotten it caught in a tractor fan belt, so my mom bandaged him up. I asked him was why on earth he was racing through cornfields in a beat-up old truck, and he told us he did it cause he liked feeling the steering wheel shaking under him. He said it had to be God talking to him.
She looked over at the parents who were stumbling across the arcade. She threw the piece of crust onto the metal pan.
Larsen had convinced her to run off with him by spinning these stories about how mud-bogging could take them all over the world, and she wouldn’t have to be trapped on a farm her whole life. But neither of them had known what travelling really meant for people like us. Instead of double beds with clean sheets and valet parking and four-course meals, it was bedding in a stadium parking lot, eating baked beans and tuna. Ten years later, here she was sitting at a table with guys who’d also made that same choice, guys who were long gone from stealing a farmer’s daughter, or telling stories anybody wanted to hear.
We must’ve been sitting there for half an hour when Larsen busted through the arena doors, carrying his kid to the table. The kid had played good at first. He even shot Carl a few times, but one of his legs buckled under him. The guys heard him screaming, and it took them awhile to find him in that foggy maze.
Why didn’t you watch him better? his wife asked him.
The kid sat up on the table, saying he wanted to play another round.
Look at him, Larsen said. The problem is you’re watching him too much. He never gets to do anything. They looked at each other like they were about to bicker some more. I want to go home, she said. Larsen put his helmet back down and reached for her hand. He pulled her closer to him and hugged her.
The guy had a lot to worry about, what with his wife and kid and not making enough money. Of course, he didn’t do much to help himself either. Having all that scorn for crowds, never waving or smiling. Maybe it was growing up and hearing about the blindness in people’s souls, how bright the fires were when Sodom and Gomorrah burned. He thought nobody could see glory in Mammoth because their sins wouldn’t let them, but for him riding was the only way of getting closer to that glory.
We all put ourselves into what we did. Even though we weren’t good at much else, we also knew we were lucky to be riding. You could probably make more money doing most other jobs, but the thrill of soaring past camera flashes never got old, even if you were two months into a four-month leg, hungover in Tuscaloosa or Ardmore or Sugarland with your engine one mile away from its pistons melting. The rest of us, we could always boil potatoes, drink watery beer, but Larsen had to be serious. He had a wife and kid counting on whatever cut the manager could throw his way.
Maybe because he took things so seriously, he was always the last one in the holding yard after a show, polishing up his rig. We couldn’t understand how a guy so uptight about cleanliness could make his living crushing cars. There’s nothing noble or godly about it. You got to thrive on not knowing how your wheels will fall, on all the twisted steel and screams and mayhem.
And the thing was he kept himself clean too. We shot up, popped pills, drank to get locked in or to wind down, but he wouldn’t so much as have a heavy meal before a ride. He should’ve been a small-town mechanic or something, tools all laid out every morning, no one to bother him while he was under the hood, earning enough to buy a small house and some medicine for his kid, shaking hands on church steps each Sunday after service.
Thinking about it now, what happened wasn’t too surprising. The guy had no way of getting relief. He put everything into his rig, but the crowds were thinning out. Standing in the holding yard, all you could hear was a V8 droning through the rafters, and you had to look up to see if anyone was out there until diehards showed up because they knew they wouldn’t see us until next year. Even Carl was badgering our manager for an advance so he could go to the strip club. We all probably should’ve sold off our rigs, opened up body shops back home or bought a fleet of bikes to sponsor a motocross team before it got any worse.
As boring as Larsen was most of the time he rode with us, he was a showman that night. We were on our last stop. Dallas was the only place where people would still shake and cry when our rigs soared overhead, where kids from church groups would funnel through whole rows, antsy with soda and caramel popcorn, where young couples would get so riled up they’d frolic in their seats or run off to the bathroom the second a bolt went flying.
The stadium was decent enough. Nice, fluffy dirt. A wide track. An announcer who knew when to shut up. First we raced each other and Carl won, as usual. He had the best engine out there and a special fiberglass chassis that let him glide from ramp to ramp. For us, racing was a poor man’s thrill anyways, done more out of honor or pity for the past than because anyone paid to see it.
Most people didn’t show up until the intermission. To see the robot, this remote control seven-story oil derrick propped up on tank wheels with a steel serpent’s head that blew out fire and chewed up cars. None of us liked to admit it was the main draw, but as long as we were getting part of the ticket sales, we stood back and hoped its red eyes would short circuit. But that night it mangled up our track, its eyes cutting through the smoke wafting from its nostrils as shreds of cheap imports dribbled from its jaws.
We all had our little ritual before freestyle. Pop a few pills or swig a cabin flask. Put our helmets on and run headfirst into our tires. Larsen usually stayed up in his rig during intermission with his visor on, his hands on the wheel, but that night, he walked out onto the track, past our manager, and stared up at the guy in the booth who operated the robot like he wanted to climb up there and throw the guy over the edge. Then he turned around and asked our manager for some uppers. He popped a few while he watched the robot slice a car in half with its pincher.
The serpent’s head slithered back one last time, opened its jaws, and spit out a bright blue flame, and the crowd stood up and cheered louder than they had all night. Finally, its eyes went cold, its head drooped between its puny pinchers, and everyone sat back down and got quiet even after the announcer yelled out: Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s show these drivers who the baddest monster out here is! Give them some noise! They’ve come out here from all over this great land to shred some metal!
Another round of fireworks shot out while the rookie Juggernaut peeled out of the holding yard. He still had a lot to prove, so our manager thought he could rile the crowd up something nasty. He had a feathery rig with skulls painted all over it. The rig soared pretty high but still kept cars nice and ready for the rest of us. Even though he launched over a school bus during his ride, the crowd barely grumbled for him after he was done, and it took Vulcan, the husband and wife team, groping each other on the hood of their rig to get people clapping.
I was up next. I knew the only way I could compete with Vulcan was to tease the crowd with a few tricks I’d practiced out in the desert when we went through El Paso, then top that off with some pure wreckage. I pulled a doughnut number, teetering on my back wheels, and doused some fans good like in my mud-bogging days. Then, I went full speed off a ramp onto a camper van, but my tires had been patched over so much, and my engine a raspy ghost, that it took me three or four launches before the van was buried up to its luggage rack. I leaned out my window and waved, idling so I could hear them, but they were quieter than they’d been all night.
I pulled into the holding yard and saw Larsen and Carl wrestling in the dirt. Our manager was calling for security on his walkie-talkie. Larsen said that he wanted to go last, and the way he said it you’d think he was taken over by the same evil spirit he’d been trying to ward off ever since the preacher dunked him in water. We all gathered around them as the announcer was reading off the names of some raffle contest.
C’mon, Carl, I said, just let him go after you. You can go last all you want this summer.
The others backed me up, mostly because they wanted to go rub vapor on their necks and nurse highballs. But Carl wasn’t going to be upstaged. I ain’t opening for anyone, he said, his knee pinned into Larsen’s back. I don’t care how much y’all pity him.
Larsen’s face was red and he spread his arms out like he’d given up. Carl stood over him, brushing his hands on his jumpsuit. Crazy bastard, he said. You know who they came to see. Go out there and get them ready for Spitfire.
Larsen stood up and walked over to his rig. He climbed up on the hood, unscrewed the tip of the tusk, jumped back down, and stabbed its point into one of Spitfire’s front tires. Carl lunged at him, but Larsen swung the tusk in front of him while air hissed out of the tire. Larsen screamed something about how he wasn’t afraid of the beast.
I’m driving right into its heart, Larsen yelled and threw the tusk at Carl, knocking him on his ass. Then he climbed inside his rig, revved it up as we helped Carl back to his feet.
Larsen pulled that one-tusked behemoth onto the track and cleared the school bus, landing on his back tires. His rig went up more ramps on his back wheels and slammed down with scorn for all that mangled steel. If that crowd was restless before, they were damn near berserk now, storming the guardrails to watch Mammoth rear, all bathed in camera flashes.
After the next jump, he crashed down on his roof, rolled over a few times, and ended up on his wheels. Mammoth got even more air on the next jump. It pummeled down, scraps of the chassis shedding off, one door drooping down, the lone tusk twirling into the crowd while people fought to catch it.
Smoke fluffed out from the hood and no telling how many valves were busted under it, but he hit the throttle with more vengeance, locked the pedal, and climbed out of the window without his helmet on, hoisting himself onto the roof, the smoke almost covering him up as he kneeled with his arms outstretched above his head. He stayed like that while his rig hurled off one ramp after another.
All of us drifted closer to the track except for Carl, who was still up in his rig, holding onto the steering wheel. We didn’t see any clamps or hooks holding him on. Here he was, Mr. Quiet, fearless and adored, a rodeo rider on a mastodon. It was like all the grandeur we thought our sport had lost had come barreling back headlong, ready to tame us with its rumble. We could hang onto those tusks, let them drag us into an early retirement, maybe even help us pay for a boathouse, or a summer condo.
As Larsen climbed back into his rig, I clapped for him, and so did Juggernaut and Vulcan, and our manager pocketed his walkie-talkie and cheered too. But because he’d smothered all that wreckage into the ground, there wasn’t much left to maim, and the crowd was getting antsy again. Larsen was revving Mammoth heavy, smoke billowing around it like Larsen was letting us know he wasn’t done yet. He slowly turned around till he was facing the robot, which was about a hundred yards away, hunched over with its eyes faded to a pink fizz.
Larsen gassed a few bursts before hauling off the nearest ramp and soaring straight through the robot’s neck, shit, guillotining the bastard, so there were just two sparking cords for its eyes. The crowd got louder. As much as they’d cheered on the robot for its hunger, they were even happier to see it destroyed alongside all those puny cars.
A front wheel popped off when Mammoth landed. It was going so fast it would’ve piled into the crowd if it hadn’t crashed into a ramp, one door flapping like a fiery wing as the rig spun around, gathered speed, and drove off another ramp, landing this time with flames spilling from his cockpit.
The firefighters were out there trying to chase Mammoth down as it bounced off the camper van and school bus until it finally came to a stop. Once they were done with the extinguishers, you could barely make out that it was ever a rig at all. Security guards were already in the stands, leading people to the exits while the announcer gave a roll call of our sponsors.
We ran out there and gathered around as steam lifted off of Larsen, whose charred hands were still on the wheel. Some cops came and taped the rig off, and our manager told us to get back to the holding yard.
I went up to Carl’s rig and asked him who was going to tell Larsen’s wife.
Cops probably, he said.
As much as that guy pissed us off, we owe it to him to tell her, I said. You want her to be waiting for him to come home and seein it on the 10 o’clock news?
All right, he said, but you’re the one who’s going to tell her.
We went out to the loading dock where Larsen’s trailer was hitched. The lights were on inside. I knocked on the door. The whole time I’d known her, I’d never asked her name.
I knocked again. When nobody answered, I opened it. The place was quiet and something was rotting in the sink. In the living room, there was an engine block laid out on a sheet with tools scattered around it; a tv against the wall; greasy boots on the floor. A light blinked on the answering machine, and Carl pressed the playback button. On it was the voice of an older man with the same prairie accent Larsen and his wife shared. Please stop calling up here so late every night. My daughter doesn’t want to talk to you right now. Don’t worry about your boy. He’s doing fine.
Carl erased the message. Man, it stinks in here, he said. I went into the bedroom where there was a couch with a foldup mattress and a closet full of empty hangers.
How long you think she’s been gone?
Carl didn’t answer me. He sat on the floor, tinkering with the engine block.
Through the doorway I could see our manager leading two cops across the parking lot past the other trailers. This is a nice one, Carl said.
This could make Spitfire really purr.
Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez