The Jimbo Project
As soon as the car stopped, Nick jumped out and started pulling his gear out of the trunk.
"I want to get the shot before we lose our light," he said.
The sun was down behind the western mountains, and it painted the sky with orange candlelight. The desert floor reflected the dying light, glowing in shades of pink and fuchsia all around us.
I helped Nick carry his cases over to a spot behind a rock formation, and then I sat down on one of the big boulders to watch him set up. He talked about "Golden Time" like it was a scriptural verse while he positioned his Beta Cam to frame the road coming towards us. With the camera set up, he waved toward the car.
Kerry was driving. He swung the rented Lincoln around and drove back down the road toward San Diego until he was out of sight. I heard the horn blast. Seconds later, he rocketed out of the asphalt horizon to shoot past us. Nick motioned for him to do it again.
Nick is a pro. He is one of my two best friends from junior college. He started his own video production company when he was nineteen. He's German, with cornflower blue eyes and chestnut brown hair. Women always mention his striking eyes. He looks like a Viking in an engraving from a Wagner opera. We called him pretty in college. We had no idea age would only make him better looking.
In the wash behind us, Nick's brother Kyle picked stones off the desert floor and pitched them into the pine barrel cactus that dotted the landscape. Sharply handsome like his brother, he looks like a male model. His face may be photographable, but he can't produce a genuine smile and his eyes lie flat as rocks below his dull black hair. I don't like him. He ruins even the simplest things. Out in all that sparse beauty, all he could do was destroy it.
The emptiness of the desert amplified the chirping of the Lincoln's tires on the asphalt. I sat on the boulder, reviewing regrettable scenes from the last ten years of my life. The divorce had been final for a month. I woke up that morning staring at the ceiling, thinking, "This is it, this is the feeling."
Out on the black top, Kerry brought the Lincoln by us again, driving like he was landing the space shuttle.
Kerry is my other best friend. He is the dictionary definition of mellow. In twenty years of trying, I've only pissed him off a couple times. He claims he is a Buddhist. That was the religion he liked most in a world religion survey course he took in junior college. He's open about everything, and he'll talk about it, too. One morning after we walked home from a beer party, he mentioned the chafing on his inner thighs from the walk. There was no embarrassment in his voice.
Kerry conceived The Jimbo Project during Friday afternoon Happy Hour. Drinking after work in our local dive bar, we started talking about all the partying we did in junior college.
"Have you heard from Jimbo lately?" I asked him.
Jimbo was our party mascot in junior college. Looking at him passed out drunk on a couch always gave us the strength to party onward.
Six feet tall, and skinny as a pipe, he has a baby face that looks innocent until he shoves a cigarette in it and cracks open a beer.
"Remember Old Town?"
Twenty years ago, we all went down to San Diego's first settlement on a Saturday night. We ended up in a restaurant where they served beer in three-foot-tall glasses. Jimbo got kicked out at 11 p.m. for laying his head down on the bar for a nap. We assumed he would go sleep in the car. Instead, he walked across the street and lay down on the broad step of a big stone building. And that's where the parishioners found him sprawled out like a drunken Christ on the cross when they began arriving for morning Mass.
When Jimbo needed to crash, he wasn't particular. I took several pictures of Jimbo bundled up in a brown blanket, an oblong couch cocoon in my living room. I was the last one to let him crash on my couch. I finally moved him out because my marriage was nosing downward and we didn't need an audience for the continuous bickering.
A month after that, he moved to Vegas. Kerry and I had not seen him for three years.
"We should drive out to Vegas to find him," Kerry said "and we should film it." He had just seen that Blair Witch film again. He thought anybody with a video camera could produce a major motion picture.
I was ready to road trip. I saw a camper on the way to work that morning and it got to me. The camper was headed east. East is away from the ocean. That damn camper was headed to almost anywhere on the continent, and I was going to work.
Kerry shifted his position on the bar stool and called Nick on his cell phone. He asked him if he had a video camera at his house. Twenty-four hours later, we were in the Anza-Borrego desert filming the opening shot for our road movie to Las Vegas.
Nick brought Kyle along, though I gave him an ugly look when he mentioned it. Kyle irritated me like a foxtail stuck in my sock jabbing me with every step. Nick was always putting him back on the payroll when he lost yet another job, so I wasn't too surprised that he wound up tagging along with us.
Jimbo did come back for a visit the summer after he moved. We all sat around Kerry's backyard patio while his kids tried to raise the dead in the background and his wife ran the blender non-stop in the kitchen, making endless rounds of margaritas.
"Every job in Vegas is union," Jimbo told us, "you can make thirty bucks an hour if you can push a broom."
He said he made more than that, working in a slot machine factory, fitting the cabinet down over its mechanical guts. He told us he liked it.
Nick wrapped it up and I helped him stow his gear back in the Lincoln. It was dusk, and the cicadas were sawing away. They sounded like a chorus of one-note fiddles. Kerry swung the Lincoln off the shoulder and headed for Vegas. Inside the car, I felt like one of the Two Other Guys. Kerry and I are definitely not as pretty as the two brothers. Kerry is bald, with a pale horseshoe of hair curtaining the back of his skull. I comb back my own dirty blonde hair over an increasingly visible scalp, hoping for a genetic miracle. His skin is like one of those stones you can pick off the desert floor cloudy white and smudged with brown freckles. My own skin is the texture of sandstone and continues to break out in clear defiance of my age.
In Barstow, a neon sign for an ice cream stand caught our attention, and we stopped for a date shake.
Kerry walked around to the back so he could talk to his wife on the cell phone. It sounded like she was worried that he was joining a religious cult and didn't have the guts to level with her.
Twenty years ago, we spent the night in the Borrego desert listening to a Barstow radio station. We all laid around a campfire, deep into a mushroom experience. The midnight DJ came on. He had a severe lisp. From his sand chair, Jimbo spoke up and said "can somebody tune the radio? It's making this guy sound like he's got a speech impediment."
Back in the driver's seat, Kerry pulled out a pack of cigarettes. We both quit five years before. We used to smoke like movie stars did in the 1940s on trips like this. It was a ritual, pull out a smoke, light up and stare at the passing landscape.
"Remember that time Jimbo kept shaving cream on his face for the whole Super Bowl?" Kerry asked me.
The bet was that he would shave a strip through his beard every time the Dolphins scored on the 'Niners. Being Jimbo, he shaved the first one right down the middle. That turned out to be the only touchdown, and he had to shave it all off anyway. And the shaving cream dried his skin out so bad that he had to wear cold cream for the rest of the night.
Nick handed the Beta Cam over to Kyle.
"Did you hear that Owen died?" he asked me.
Owen was our old editor on the student newspaper. Another ex-staffer e-mailed the news to me.
"Did he apologize to you at the reunion party last year?"
"Yeah. He came over and said he was a drunk in school, and he was sorry for being such a dick."
"Almost like he had a premonition."
"Almost like he was in a twelve step program."
"Hey, don't bag on the dead!"
"Quit talking about death," Kyle said, "it makes me think about dying. I never think about dying unless I'm around you clowns."
"I never thought about dying 'til I had children," Kerry mused.
"That's great; maybe you should get a job with Hallmark writing cards for them."
The desert highway rolled under our headlights like celluloid unspooling from a movie reel.
"I just hope Jimbo's not dead," said Nick as he reached over to take the camera back from Kyle.
We finally drove into the lights of Vegas. It was midnight. That city is just so damn American. It's more American than Washington, DC. The greed is on the table in Vegas, not hiding in chambers. Nick had called one of his connections to score us a room on short notice. I hadn't been to Vegas in twenty years, since before they turned it into a collection of theme parks. I just kept staring at the lights and the exotic buildings.
We checked in, went up to the room and spontaneously crashed. I may have started it by lying down on the couch. I don't remember anything after that.
In the morning, we faced our handicap. We had no current address for Jimbo. The only scrap we had was the phone number of a motel where he had stayed when he first came to Vegas.
"The guy who answered the phone didn't know who Jimbo was," Kerry said, "and that was last year."
"None of you has a phone number for the guy?" Kyle asked, incredulous.
Nick rolled over in his sleeping bag.
"Relax," he said, "every job in Vegas is union. All we have to do is call the union and they'll track him down for us."
So he dialed up the Manufacturing Union and hit the jackpot.
Two hours later, we parked the Lincoln out in the desert behind the Strip, in front of a steel and glass toad where Nick said Jimbo worked. We planned our entrance in the elevator up. Kyle held the Beta while Nick counted down to three and flung the door open. One by one, we dove into the deep pile wine colored carpet. On tape, it looks pretty funny. Each one of us yells "Jimbo!" as we dive in. It looks like we're jumping out of a plane; then you hear the thuds and grunts of middle-aged men hitting the floor with their flabby bodies. I'm a big guy, so naturally I traveled to the bottom of the pile. Thrashing to turn over in the pile, I looked up to see Jimbo peering over the desktop at us through the thick John Lennons he still wore.
"What's up guys?"
He sounded like an older brother, slightly annoyed, with no time for horseplay.
We got up off the floor and sat down on the couch.
He looked the same as he did back in junior college: six feet tall, skinny with hair so curly he could grow a white guy afro, with a baby face that looked blank without the cigarette he usually had sticking out of it. He always looked like one of the Little Rascals who just bought a pack of smokes and a Hustler.
But now, he actually wore a shirt and tie. Amazing.
"I've got a three o'clock, and I really can't cancel it," he said, and sat back down in his leather office chair.
"Oh," said Nick, "alright, we'll just leave and come back in another five years. We did come a long ways, though ..."
Our old buddy grinned his goofy, leering Jimbo smile, and jiggled his head like a demented bobble-head doll.
"Sounds good to me, assholes!"
We all jumped up and went over to sock him on the shoulder and shake his hand. He told us how he met the union chapter president in a bar and how impressed the guy was by Jimbo's ability to get along with everybody in the place. The guy took Jimbo golfing. Jimbo is an excellent golfer. He broke eighty regularly at Torrey Pines when he lived in San Diego. It seemed natural for him to excel in a sport where drinking is encouraged. Jimbo's new buddy got him a job in the liaison's office at union headquarters. He did so well they promoted him several times. Now he was Deputy Liaison for all chapters in Nevada. He said he traveled a lot for the job.
"If it wasn't Friday afternoon, I wouldn't have been here," he said.
An hour later, we stood drinking in a bar with a polished dance floor and stand-up tables. A row of slot machines lined the wall behind us. We could hear the electronic jangle over the music. Single men and women stood at the bar with cell phones pasted to their ears. The Foo Fighters blared out from the speakers hung over the dance floor. Nick looked at me across the table.
"Dave Grohl was just waiting for Kurt to burn out so he could come out from behind his drum kit and become a superstar," he said.
"Cobain never would've put out this kiddy tune," I shot back.
"Have you heard the new Kurt Cobain song?" Kerry asked me across the table.
"Oh yeah," he said sarcastically, "there is no new song, because he killed himself!"
Now, here was a button I could push.
"Do Buddhists resent suicide because it upsets the order of reincarnation?"
"Screw you, Parrot Head. Buffet's whole catalog doesn't have the poetry of one Cobain song, and you know it."
Jimbo sat listening to us argue, drinking the free beer supplied by his union bartender friend.
Nirvana faded out and Roy Orbison came on.
"Yeah well, this guy's pretty good too," he chortled.
Suddenly, a woman careened out of the darkness and landed next to me. Brunette hair tumbled down around her shoulders in waves of curls. She had a beacon of a smile. And she moved constantly, bubbling little dips and fidgets, like she was just too overjoyed to stand still. I was drunk on free beer and I could hardly get a fix on her face. She looked like a blur of fair skin, perfect teeth and button noses. She looked across the table at Nick. Women always look at Nick. I waited for the inevitable.
"Did you guys know it's Irish night here?"
"Liar!" Jimbo yelled at a glamorous television commercial playing on a monitor over the bar.
The woman didn't know Jimbo. She looked startled.
"No, really, it's Irish night here. If you have an Irish name you can drink for free 'til ten."
"I know, because I'm Irish," she added.
Kerry was already drinking for free, and he still looked over at the bar.
She kept talking.
"My parents are missionaries to the Philippines," she said, "for five years."
I realized she was talking to me.
"They left me all alone, with no help."
Her voice sounded drunk-sad.
"Maybe those people need more help than you," I told her.
Improbably, she laughed and leaned into me. Her curls bounced over to rest against my face as she whispered into my ear.
"I like you," she breathed.
"And I like you," I replied, automatically.
She kept her face next to mine. Only minutes had passed since she arrived at our table. I turned and talked through her hair into her ear.
"You know, you're the hottest woman in here."
It was the truth. I was too drunk to make up a line.
"I want a cigarette. I only smoke when I drink," she told me, "Find me a cigarette and then you can walk me back to my room."
She grabbed my hand under the table and squeezed it.
I bolted away from the table, leaving my friends without a goodbye, holding her hand as she walked behind me through the crowd. We went down the bar line-up asking everyone if they had a cigarette. Finally, we found one and she lit up. I hate cigarettes, but I could watch her smoke. She told me her story between puffs. Her name was Sheila, and she was a public school teacher. She said she had broken up with her boyfriend of 5 years. We stood in a corner of the bar. She kept her thumb hooked in my belt loop while she blew smoke away from my face. I had a hand on the gentle slope of her hip. It felt like holding crossed wires from a battery like soft electricity.
This was a much better movie to star in. The room was only a backdrop and all the other people were props. She stubbed her smoke out and reminded me we were walking up to her room. We staggered into an elevator. Her hair covered my face again and she finally stopped moving long enough to let me kiss her. The acrid taste of cigarette smoke covered the softness of her lips. She kissed like a high school girl, lips tight and tongue darting out into mine.
"Where did you come from?" she wanted to know.
"San Diego," I told her.
Wriggling out of my arms, she giggled, and then burrowed her way back in. I looked down at her beaming up at me. The walk had sobered me up a little. I could see the Irish in her dusty brown eyes and high cheekbones, set in a face as open as a field of wild heather.
"I bet you don't have any tattoos, right?"
"No, Honey, no tattoos."
She turned around, rubbed against me, and placed my hands on her little baby belly. It was Soft-core Christmas.
We reached her floor and the elevator stopped.
"Remember," she said, suddenly serious, "you promised to leave."
We walked down the hallway. She stopped in front of her door.
"Sorry if you wanted something else, but I'm not that kind of girl."
She did give me her cell phone number. I keyed it into my own cell. She stood framed in the doorway, with the hall lights splashing through her hair and down onto her face. Like a flashbulb in the darkness, the image stayed burned into my eyes for hours.
I walked back to the elevator, feeling like now I really was all the way back in junior college.
Back down at the bar, the guys were a public wreck.
Jimbo had his head down on the table. Kerry slumped on a stool like a drunken Buddha. I looked over and saw the bartender staring at us like we were no longer friends.
"Hey, rock star!" Nick said, "Thanks for leaving me with the baggage."
We had to lead the others out to a cab.
I woke up feeling like an axe blade was lodged in my forehead. Shards of daylight coming in around the edges of the motel curtains made it worse. Jimbo got up, said he had to take care of some business and bailed. I got up and stumbled to the bathroom. I swear I heard white noise on the way. In the mirror, my face stared bitterly back at me.
Kyle came into the bathroom after me and started peeing in the toilet like he was all alone. He looked over at me.
"It's not going to get any better, no matter how long you look at it," he said.
I looked over at him, touchy as a wounded bear.
"Isn't that one of Nick's old shirts?"
"No," he said defensively.
Nick's cell phone started ringing in the other room. I went out and stood on the motel room balcony. The standard asphalt parking lot lay spread out in front of me. I could have been in any dive hotel in Denver, Nashua or even back home in San Diego. I thought about calling her, but that was against the cool rules. Inside the room, Nick started whooping like a frat boy.
"It's on for tonight, boys!" he said, "Jimbo's going to hook us up at a strip club. He says he knows the owner through the union and he can score us a shitload of funny money. We're gonna get free lap dances all night!"
I went back inside. Kerry looked concerned.
"I'm only going if you guys swear not to tell anybody," he said, "I don't want Jill hearing about it later."
"Oh yeah," Nick promised, "bachelor party rules absolutely apply. Anything that happens inside the room stays in the room!"
I walked back into the room. The two brothers grinned lecherously. They were already at a bachelor party in their heads.
I stayed in the car when we got to Jimbo's and finally made the call.
"Oh hi," she said.
Her voice was sandy; she sounded tired out.
"Listen," she said, "I have to tell you something. I've got a boyfriend."
Twenty years dropped out, and I was back sitting in the student newspaper office, listening to two girls talking in the corner.
"... so she had to blow him off," Julie said, solemn and low as a preacher, preening her long hair and fanning it out over her shoulders.
Then I was back in the Lincoln listening to Sheila. Her voice sounded like she was speaking in front of an audience determined to do it but not liking it.
"I'm sorry. We've been having problems, so I got a little drunk. I shouldn't have done that."
I snapped the cell phone shut and stretched out in the back seat. I never met a beautiful woman who didn't have at least an ex-boyfriend still on her mind.
I stared up at the pale grey fabric of the Lincoln's headliner, and fell asleep.
"Hey, get up man!"
It was dark outside. The guys were back and they were stoned. They had spent hours smoking weed and listening to the '80s Album Rock Channel on Jimbo's satellite radio. I got up, took the car keys away, and drove us back through the desert shadow box of sand drifts and creosote stalks.
In the strip club parking lot, Kerry and I exchanged looks across the Lincoln's rooftop. The inside of the club smelled like disinfectant and perfume. We picked a booth and sat down. Some dancers crept on stage like a lizard skittering under a door. Others strode up the steps like a sheriff breaking the door down. They all stopped at their g-strings. Afterwards, they tied their bikinis back on and trolled through the audience for more tips. Kyle pulled an ice cube out of his drink and held the cube up for Kerry while making fellatio motions with his other hand and mouth.
"Hey man," he said, "have you ever had a frosty? You know, that's when a chick puts an ice cube in her mouth beforehand. It's amazing."
"Jill's not really into that whole thing," Kerry replied.
"Hey Bro, did you just proposition Kerry?" Nick snickered.
He leaned over to me.
"So how did your date go last night?"
"It's kind of complicated."
"Man, you have to quit moping," he said, "this divorce is your opportunity to upgrade!"
"Well it's a good thing I'm in a strip club, then."
Kyle chipped in.
"You need a woman who responds to your raised voice," he said, "like this."
"HEY," he barked at the stage.
The dancer froze in shock. He did it again. Two bulky men in loose shirts began making their way towards our table. Nick got up quickly and went over to tip them. Coming back to the table, he rounded up five dancers and led them over. Jimbo and his brother joined the caravan, and they all went into the Champagne Lounge, leaving Kerry and myself as prey for the others. One of them came over and sat down next to me.
Her skin looked like peach ice cream. She wound her brunette hair back up into a tight secretarial bun while she talked.
"You're the one who called me 'gorgeous,' huh," she said.
"That was me."
"You have a really cool face."
"Thanks. You have a really cool everything." (Damn! What a dork I am, I am ...)
She laid her hand on my shoulder and ran it almost casually down my bicep to my forearm. I was solid from working out every day for a year, ever since the married sex stopped. She did it slow, openly feeling me out. I couldn't do that to her in the club without getting bounced. She kept her legs crossed and talked with all her perfect, white teeth.
"Are you a player, or did you used to be a player?"
"Used to be a player," I answered.
I was lying, whatever she meant.
"I suppose they frown on dating the customers?" I asked her.
"Yeah, but they don't follow us home."
The dancer onstage finished her set and one of the bulky men trotted up the steps with a dust mop. He swept the dollar bills into a pile at the dancer's feet where she crouched, strapping back into a bikini.
The brothers bragged about their porno exploits on the drive back. Nick snuck a Handi-cam into the Champagne Lounge. He held it under his jacket and got a lot of the action on tape. He shot Kyle and Jimbo lying back and feeding the girls funny money while they humped the guys' legs, knees and upper torsos.
We're still working out the licensing of that footage.
Jimbo was fully cocked. He started babbling about Pete's Pizza, a franchise he was starting up. The ad campaign was going to feature a parrot on Pirate Pete's shoulder.
"Pete's Pizza, Pete's Pizza. Brakk!" he croaked.
Apparently that was the Parrot's tag line.
"It's going to be huge out here, Nick," he said, "you should come in on it with me."
"Maybe I will," Nick replied.
We reached Jimbo's place. Stepping out of the Lincoln, I heard the dirt crunch behind me. Something big was moving towards me fast. Ducking out of pure instinct, I felt sharp pain on the side of my head above my right ear. It hurt, but it just nicked me. I straightened up to see a thug out of a cop show cocking his arm for another shot. Looking over his shoulder, I saw two of his brothers moving in on my buddies.
I had an uncle who taught me to box when I was a kid. Assuming a boxing stance in a brawl only gives your opponent more time to beat you up. I really learned how to fight on the playground.
I feinted like I was going to punch the goon in the nuts—his hands dropped—and I launched into him with my whole forearm. It was an illegal hit by either football or boxing rules. But it was satisfying to see his whole gorilla head snap around and then watch him drop. His face darkened with blood. Charged up, I bounded over to tackle another member of the welcoming committee and held him for Nick to pummel. Kyle and Kerry jumped on the third thug and stomped him into the ground. The whole thing took about three minutes, but the adrenaline strung it out. We beat up three semi-pros and left them lying on the Vegas dirt. Cops train to not underestimate the average citizen in a street fight. Thank God these weren't cops.
Back at the Lincoln, we found Jimbo slumped against a fender. They must've jumped him the second he got out of the car. He only weighed about a hundred. Beating him up was like snapping a stick over your knee.
His face looked like some gory candied apple, dipped in blood.
"Come on," I told Nick, "open the door for me."
I picked Jimbo up and stuffed him into the back seat. We headed for a hospital through the traffic on the Strip. Kyle worried aloud about Jimbo bleeding onto the upholstery of the rental. I looked over at Nick and told him if Kyle wasn't his brother, he would be dead by now.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kyle said.
Skipping the Lincoln around through traffic, I thought back fifteen years to another hospital run. That night, Jimbo got too happy at a college party and flicked a lit cigarette into a football player's lap. The guy dragged Jimbo outside and tossed him into the side of a parked truck so hard it took four stitches to suture his scalp. I stood there in the ER, watching them close him up.
We finally got Jimbo to the hospital in downtown Vegas. We waited out in the lounge. None of us said too much.
After awhile, the nurse said we could go in. Jimbo had a couple of stitches in the gash over his eyes. I always forget how much the face bleeds. His cheeks were purple and swollen. He told us the goons were probably sent by the shark he owed for his share of Pete's Pizza funding.
"It looks like you're a big shot in the union; didn't you save any money?" Nick asked him.
"Uh, you know," Jimbo said, picking at the gurney cover sheet, "it's Vegas."
Back in the Lincoln, Kerry was pissed off.
"He's just the same fuck-up he always was," he snapped, "I guess we didn't need to come three hundred miles to figure that out."
None of us had anything to say to that. After a few minutes of driving, Kerry spoke again. His voice was calmer, but every word sounded like a lock closing.
"I want to get out of here," he said, "I'll go looking for mob trouble back home if I want it. My wife and kids are home alone."
And so, that was the end of The Project. We've boiled the raw footage down to about an hour. It makes a pretty good documentary; it's better than watching the Beatles break up. Now we're just waiting for a few licensing issues to clear up. Nick swears he'll blow Sundance away with it. Even if we never get the film out, it was worth it. When I was a kid and ran away from home, I only got a block away and turned around. And I didn't learn a thing. So this time was better.
Kerry drove us out of Vegas in the morning. We left Jimbo there to deal. The sun was coming up behind us as we drove past the Leaving Las Vegas sign. The bleached desert was brightening up again in the orange glow. My cell phone started ringing.
"I still have your number in my cell phone," she said.
There was a pause. She breathed into the electronic air.
"Is this okay? That I called you, I mean ..."
Published November 2005