Michael Phillips, The Airstream Chronicles - A fond farewell to the Airstream

A fond farewell to the Airstream

I woke up yesterday shivering and thirsty, the wind rocking the trusty old Airstream like the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, what's-her-name. I sat up and pulled the thin, musty army blanket up around my shoulders, and noticed Bell staring in through the semi-transparent plastic in one of the window holes. Now that's not too unusual, but I was feeling a bit out of sorts and that morning his normally harmless peeping really pissed me off, so I picked up an old Dr. Marten ("With bouncing soles") and tossed it through the plastic, where it caromed off Bell's melon, fell to the ground and was carried off and devoured by the half-starving pack of coyotes that live in the scrub just beyond the old outhouse. I didn't even get the satisfaction of hearing Arty shriek, since I was racked with another coughing spasm, a remnant of the respiratory infection that'd been dogging me for the last month.

I got up and rummaged through the tiny cupboard looking for my secret stash of Glenlivet (for purely medicinal purposes), but it was gone and I could only assume Bell had skulked in sometime during the night and robbed me of all the single-malt yet again. When it comes to good whiskey, Bell has a nose like a homing pigeon, or one of those city dogs whose owners take it out to the country and throw it out of the car, only to have it show up on the doorstep the next day, tail wagging, all slobbery and pitiful. I hurried into the double-wide to see if there was a salvageable swallow, and ran into Mrs. Bell whipping up Arty's favorite breakfast; sausage and egg yolks wrapped in bacon, covered with Shake N' Bake and deep fried in a corn oil/barbecue sauce mixture. Bell himself was nowhere to be seen.

"Ramona, where's the old man?"

"He was here a minute ago licking the bowl. I don't know where he went. If you see him, tell him that his 'nigger steaks' are just about ready."

"His what? Never mind, I don't want to know." Ramona giggled coquettishly and lifted the hem of her housecoat ever so slightly, but I had no time for that. Important things were on my mind.

I tracked Bell down in the broom closet, where he was rubbing a stick of margarine on the knot in his forehead. The red outline of the bottom of the boot was clearly visible. "You bastard," I said, "lifting my whiskey was the last straw. I can't stand this shithole anymore and I'm getting out, understand? You can have the whole Airstream to yourself for your god damn vacuum tube collection and Chuck Mangione albums."

"But MJB, I didn't touch your scotch!" Bell whimpered as the empty Glenlivet bottle rolled out of the closet. Arty turned as red as the footprint on his head and stammered, "Come on MJB, I know how you love the Airstream, you ain't foolin' me with your talk of leaving."

Ramona shouted from the kitchen, "Little soldier, come out, come out wherever you are! Your nigger steaks are getting cold!"

Bell grinned and let out a little groan of pleasure, sprung from the closet and was seated at the breakfast table in seconds. Of course the breakfast table is no more than nine feet from any other room in the double-wide, but it still seemed very quick. I followed him in and sat down.

"You like some breakfast MJB?" Ramona winked.

"That's okay," I said, "I have a boar roasting over a pit out in the yard."

Ramona screwed up her face and threw a greasy spatula at me. I ducked and it hit Bell on the shoulder, glancing off and landing in the litter box (kept in the kitchen because, as Bell says in the baby voice he uses to communicate with the cats, "That's where my widdle kitties like to make pee-pee"). Ramona scooped it out and put it back into the thickly crusted frying pan. Bell didn't miss a gulp of his "steaks."

"Arty, listen to me. I'm leaving. It isn't the scotch, or the bats in the Airstream, or even the old National Geographics I have to use to wipe my ass, it's everything. I can't take it anymore. I can't take you anymore."

"But you can't go," he mumbled through a horribly ugly mouthful of food, "you got no car."

"Don't worry, I found a ride."

"A ride?!" Bell was beginning to panic. "Who? When?"

"Lets just say I've been in touch with a sympathetic compatriot." His eyes widened in disbelief. He thought he'd cut me off from civilization months earlier. "That's right," I said, "you didn't get all the phone lines out to the Airstream. I still have a secret line that runs underground, right past the pile of old 'collectors' sinks and asbestos shingles. I've been connected since the day you thought you'd cut off my phone and electricity for those 'building code violations.'"

His demeanor changed immediately, and he stood up from the table pacing back and forth agitatedly, until he stepped in the litter box and slipped, hitting his head on the counter top as he fell into the greasy cat shit. He seemed to be unconscious, so I picked up the Morning Pahrumphian and read up on the high school lawn bowling team while waiting for him to come to. He was quite used to the occasional loss of reason, and he'd gained the ability to snap back surprisingly quickly. He was back up at the table before I could finish the article on sign-ups for the Clod Judging openings at the annual Pahrump Dirt Festival.

"Well, anyway, you can't leave now! We have a verbal contract...you haven't done any of the work you were contracted for around here, and you have to, um, you have to clean the insulators on the antenna mounts!"

"You're panicking now Bell. Talking out of your ass. You know this operation will sink without me around to prop up your sad, Mayberry version of a real business, but I can't worry about that now. I don't owe you anything. In fact, I may just take one of the Geo Metros for services rendered."

"No! You son of a bitch! You touch any of the Metros and I'll rip out your heart! I'll kill you!"

I had no interest in any of the decaying glorified go-carts that littered the compound. Bell had eleven Geo Metros, and between the lot of them he could usually scrape together enough parts to keep one of them running. Barely. But as usual, I enjoyed taunting him, so I kept piling the bullshit on.

"That's right, I'm taking the tan Geo, welding that trailer hitch onto it and pulling that fucking Airstream right out of here and selling it for scrap. That's like, oh, I don't know, a million beer cans worth of aluminum rotting out there. I can get fifty bucks for it, easy."

Bell clenched his fists and began to tremble, his face turned red and a thin line of spittle leaked from the corner of his cracked lips. "No you won't...no you won't...no you won't!" he fumed, repeating the mantra over and over, louder each time. The words seemed to shoot directly from the base of his tightly wound spine. He began stomping his foot, "No you won't...no you won't...no you won't!" he was practically sobbing as he spit out the final "No you won't!" and ran from the kitchen, tripping on the Pic-N-Save Persian-like™ rug in the hall and tumbling into the bathroom where his momentum knocked the mirror off the door. He watched helplessly as it shattered over his head. Ramona came out and dragged Bell into the bedroom, slamming the door behind them.

* * *

I was in the Airstream stuffing my belongings into plastic trash bags (Bell had lost my luggage to the manager of the Dairy Queen in a poker game one night while I was asleep) when my ride pulled into the compound. I stepped out into the brutal desert sun as Dr. Hill climbed out of the car.

"Well look at that, the infamous Tim Hill," I said, "I'd offer you a drink, but Bell sucked up all the good stuff."

"I figured as much," Hill said, opening the trunk of the car and pulling out a large cooler, "so I didn't come empty handed."

We headed for the shelter of the tin worm, and once inside, Hill began to cough and gag dramatically. "Jesus! This can't be the Airstream! What a hellhole!"

"Home sweet home," I said, "I don't know how it happened. I woke up one day, and this was my pad."

"Is that right? I wouldn't know about that. I mean, this can't be the Airstream!" he kicked half-heartedly at a dark spot near the door and his foot popped through the thin aluminum wall. "Well, I see why you're leaving." he opened the cooler and cracked a wicked grin. "We have it all here: whiskey, vodka, homebrew..."

"Homebrew? What the fuck are you trying to do, poison me?"

"Please, don't be an asshole. If I wanted to poison you, I'd rinse out the beer mugs in that sink. You'll see, wait until you try my Oatmeal Stout!"

"Oatmeal beer...well, it is early..."

"So come on, let's take this stuff inside. I can't wait to raise a glass with Arty. Did he know I was coming this early?"

"Tell you the truth Doc, he doesn't even know it's you coming to crash the party. You have to understand, the last time I said your name out loud he was rolled up in a ball on the bathroom floor for hours, rocking back and forth and weeping quietly."

"Oh, man, I wanted to see the look on his face when we met."

"Well, you'll see something. You may be sickened and disturbed by the scene, but oh, yeah, it'll be something."

"Come on then, let's take some of this into the double-wide and rouse the son of a bitch!"

"It's as good a time as any I suppose."

We picked up a variety of nicely chilled bottles and moseyed on over to Bell's palace on wheels. Stepping into the modern "living room" of the double-wide, Tim was once again dumbfounded.

"Time warp! This reminds me of that TV show, 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father!' He picked up a gigantic "crystal" bowl in the shape of a seashell and beamed, "I love this stuff! Look at those brass giraffes! And the dark green shag carpet! This is too good to be true."

Bell poked his head around the corner and mumbled, "MJB...come here..." I went into the hallway and he collared me and whispered, "Who is that? What sort of deviant have you brought into my home now?"

"That's my ride, Arty. I told you, I'm leaving. Come and say hello. He's a big fan."

"Oh, a fan? Why didn't you say so?" Bell puffed out his chest and strutted toward Hill and in his best professional radio guy voice, said, "Pleasure to meet you young man, I'm Art Bell, host of radio's popular 'Coast to Coast' program."

He put out his hand and Dr. Hill grabbed it and pumped it up and down, "Mr. Bell! I'm honored. My name is..."

"...Tom Hall," I said, "Arty, this is my pal Tom Hall. A big fan."

Hill looked at me with raised eyebrows, and I just nodded. He picked up the ball and ran with it. "Yes," he said, "Dr. Tom Hall, and again, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance Mr. Bell, a real pleasure."

"I see you fellows have come bearing gifts." Arty said, hungrily eyeing the bottles. "Why don't we repair to the broadcast studio. Would you like to see that, Dr. Hall?"

"Would I ever!" Hill said, as Bell led the way to the spare bedroom/studio.

"Dr. Hall?" Tim whispered, "Come on man, don't deny me this moment!"

"Take it easy...in due time. Let him get a few belts in him first, he's very sensitive you know."

Bell stood in the middle of the messy little studio smiling like a poet on payday. He raised his arms and proudly pronounced, "Here she is! Do you know anything about radio technology? Over there is a Peavy 1712X bidirectional polarity filtron unit. And right here is the Tandy stereo simulation synthesizer..."

"Arty," I said, "You know what he wants to see, eh?"

I gave Bell a conspiratorial wink and he said, "Oh, yes, yes..." and slid a two liter bottle of Mr. Pibb across the card table/console revealing his prized possessions: a raggedy nude of Shannen Dougherty clumsily torn for the Pahrump library Playboy magazine, and a grainy dot matrix printout of a screen grab from an MCI commercial (The Crystal Gayle CD booklet had been reclaimed by Ramona, who needed the disc for her step aerobics class). "My ladies!" Bell crowed, and took the bottle from my hand. "MJB, get us some glasses! Where are your manners?"

"I don't know what I was thinking," I said. I was a bit nervous leaving Hill in there alone with Arty, but I figured if he let anything slip we could always make a run for the car and get out of there before Bell suffered any heart palpitations or debilitating seizures. I grabbed a couple of dirty tumblers and a mason jar from the backed-up kitchen sink and rejoined the unlikely pair.

"Mr. Bell was just telling me about the auxiliary power supply he has in place in case of emergencies."

"Or civil unrest!" Bell shouted, excited to get to work on the booze. "It's not so much power grid failures or HARP that frighten me, but a police state. Hell, the first thing those cocksuckers do is cut your juice! Silence the people, that's all they want." he sloshed a half a quart of vodka into the jar and barely gasped out a "Bottoms up!" before swallowing most of it down in one gulp. "Jesus, what is this, some fancy imported stuff?"

"Oh yeah," Hill said, "That vodka comes from Sweden, Mr. Bell."

"Call me Art, Doctor," he burped, "Holy shit, this is the smoothest god damned hooch I've ever savored! You're a man of distinction my friend, a man of obvious taste. When I was in Russia - you do know, Dr. Hall, that I was in the former Soviet Union recently? - well, when I was in Russia the vodka was cheap and plentiful! The only thing they did right as far as I could tell. None of the other Americans could drink the stuff, but I found it refreshing."

"Come on Arty, let's go sit down so you can fully enjoy your beverage." I steered Bell from the studio and we sat down at the kitchen table, where he filled the jar again.

"So Dr. Hall, how do you know my good friend MJB?"

"Oh we met for the first time just this morning, Mr. Bell."

"Art, call me Art, Doctor!"

"Okay, Art. Well, yes, I only know mjp through the Internet."

Bell's eyes became cloudy at the mention of the "I" word. The Internet as a whole confused and frightened him. usenet especially had been a thorn in his side, for reasons obvious to anyone reading this. When he'd stray outside the friendly confines of AOL he'd become disoriented and queasy. IRC reduced him to tears on several occasions.

"The Internet?" Bell peeped.

"Yeah, I sent him some e-mail after I saw some...uh, photographs on his web site."

"MJB, you have a web page?"

"Sure Arty. Well, I like to call it a web 'site.' Of course you have your web page, and you know what a great achievement I believe that to be."

"Well, well...I don't know what to say...did Kenneth Keith Rowland design it for you? How did you get his number?"

Hill held back a chuckle, and I said, "No, no, I can't afford a professional. I have to do it myself."

"I've seen your web site Art, and I think it's the best darn thing on the net!" Tim enthused. "In fact, I was on your mailing list, and I was very disappointed when your associate had to discontinue it."

"Yes, yes, a sad day indeed. We'll be transferring a lot of that information to the 'After dark' newsletter. A lot of the more important topics, you understand."

"Of course," Hill said. "You know, I actually found myself on that crazy newsgroup..." The only word Bell had a worse reaction to than "Internet" was "newsgroup." He seemed to visibly deflate at the mere mention of it. "But I didn't stay. No, it was much too negative there. A zoo full of immature monkeys, if you ask me!"

"Well," Bell said, "I have to go into that snake pit from time to time to kick some of their asses." He was getting a little loopy, and the bullshit was beginning to flow. "In fact, did you know that that isn't even an official newsgroup anymore? It was shut down by the authorities and a group of homosexual pedophiliac hackers cracked the code and kept it going on some systems, like CompuServe and the FTP, I believe. Those are the only ways to get it."

"I have to admit though," Tim said, "I did see one or two kind of humorous things there."

"Humorous? What? What was humorous? You must have seen my holiday posts. I went in there and flamed some of those bad citizens while I had a week away from the show during the holidays. Oh, you should have seen it! They didn't have any response to my barbs, I tell you."

"No, actually, I don't think I saw anything you wrote. There were some damn funny things though...let me remember..."

I tried to change the subject; "Arty, you were sure right about that Super Bowl, boy!", but Bell and Hill had already locked horns (though Bell didn't yet realize it) for what would be their epic, perhaps fatal battle, and I could no more stop the slowly advancing boulder that was about to crush us all than I could stop the dust devils tearing ominously through the compound.

* * *

Bell tossed the empty Absolut bottle over his shoulder where it fell to the yellowing linoleum and shattered, frightening one of the mangy cats, and badly injuring two or three rats.

"Listen," he said, reaching for the second bottle, "There's nothing funny about anything that any one of those idiots writes. Nothing at all!"

"Oh, I don't know," Hill taunted, "I have to admit, I did laugh at a story I saw there...what was it again? Something about your trip to Hollywood..."

"Hollywood meets the Airstream!" Bell exploded. "Don't even get me started on those vile, libelous scrawlings! If I had the motherfucker who writes those here in front of me right now, I'd rip his balls off and feed them to the fish!"

"You don't have any fish, Arty," I reminded him.

"Well I'd get some god damned fish! I'd get a hundred piranhas and one of them rabid dingo dogs, and I'd take the dog, and I'd..."

"You don't read those, do you Art?" Hill asked, "A busy man like you? An important man..."

"Ramona reads them to me while she's administering my prostate treatments." Bell turned glum and broke the seal on the bottle. "I fail to see the humor in them. A man of my stature deserves more respect than that." He re-filled his jar and poured a splash into each of our glasses. "I didn't claw my way to the top of the late night radio ladder to be ridiculed by a gang of retarded punks who couldn't tell their asses from their melbows!"

He actually said "melbows," so I knew it wouldn't be long until he was face down on the table (or the floor) snoring into a puddle of drool. I decided to return Tim's favor. "Well Arty, even you have to admit that the 'Art Bell Parody Page' is damn amusing. What's that guy's name again?"

"Tim Hill, Tim Hill! Don't you ever mention that name in this house!"

"Funny how he's taken to calling himself 'Dr.' Tim Hill, eh Arty?" I prodded.

"Yeah, imagine," Dr. Hill said, "Dr. Tim Hill, how ridiculous." But Bell still didn't get it. I'm not sure if it was his natural thick-headedness, or his body not being accustomed to the quality liquor, but he wasn't yet cognizant of the fact that he was sharing his breakfast table with two people he considered to be incarnations of Beelzebub himself. "And who writes those Airstream stories?" Hill continued, "mjp? What the hell kind of name is that?"

"Well Arty," I said, "You don't have to worry about a couple of lowlifes like Tim Hill and mjp. Nope, Tim Hill and mjp pose no threat to you boss, mere gnats on your ass are Tim Hill and mjp."

Hill was laughing out loud by now, and repeating the taunt over and over, "Tim Hill and mjp, Tim Hill and mjp..."

Bell's lips began to move as a dim flicker of something resembling recognition clawed it's way into his cranium. "Tom Hill and MJB...Tom Hill and MJ..." he rose from his chair and continued, his voice growing louder with each repetition, "Tim Hill and MJB...Tim Hill and mjp!" It seemed he'd finally put two and two together (though the sum he got was five, an anomaly that couldn't be explained by even the greatest scientific research team at the "Far Sight Institute") and was about to let loose with more than a year's worth of pent-up anger, frustration and impotence.

"Tim Hill and mjp?! This simply can't be!" He cast a blurry eye in Hill's general direction and screamed, "You are not Tim Hill and mjp!" He attempted to slam his fists on the table, but misjudged the distance and missed the table completely. He did a sick, slow motion half-roll over the tabletop and onto the floor, where the water heater broke his fall with a sound blow to the head, sending him back to dreamland.

Hearing the commotion, Ramona ran in and saw her faithful husband laid out yet again and looked to me for an explanation.

"Now look MJB, you've killed him!"

"He's not dead Ramona. Look, he's still breathing."

"No, he's dead and you've killed him! You've killed Arty like I always knew you..." she then noticed Tim and stopped her grieving widow rant very abruptly, composing herself and asking, "Who is your friend?"

"Dr. Tim Hill," he said, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Bell."

She batted her eyelashes and said, "Oh please, call me Ramona," and took Hill by the hand and led him into the master bedroom.

* * *

It was almost eleven p.m. When Hill emerged, rumpled, well pleased and five dollars poorer. Bell was still laid out on the kitchen floor. I'd covered him with a blanket, to which the cats had begun to apply territorial markings.

"He still out?" Hill mumbled, tucking in his shirt.

"Yeah, looks like I'll have to do the show one last time." We walked into the studio and I flicked the "Master Control" switch and sat down in front of the microphone.

"From the high desert of the great Southwest, this is Coast to Coast a.m., and I'm Art Bell! Tonight I have a very special treat for all of you. For the first time ever, we have a guest live in the studio." Hill cracked a big grin and pulled up a chair. "We have him for the full five hours, and he'll be taking your phone calls and answering all your questions. I'm very excited to have him here with us tonight, so let me introduce, exclusively on the American CBC, O.J. Simpson! We'll get to 'The Juice' in a moment, but first, are you making too many trips to the bathroom?"

mjp
1/31/97

This is the final installment of the Airstream chronicles.

Note: I had intended it to be the final installment, but there were eight more, so I guess I was a liar.

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