The Armadillo

By Paul LeDuc Pretzer Drawing by Kelsey Lynch Digital Alteration by Erika Rutz

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 We were somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a place  between hell and purgatory, deep in the heart of Oklahoma, en route from San Francisco to Grand Haven. We had cut the first tour short by a couple weeks and were driving straight home, a long and painful journey that David rightfully equated to a weekend prison sentence-nothing you can do but do your time. Broke and tired, nothing in our bellies but smoke and water, we just wanted to get home to our own beds and regroup.

We stopped at some nameless rest area in the middle of some bland, nondescript place, and the sun had just set, which was the only beauty we’d seen in many hours. It made us realize why they gave land away to free for settlers in Oklahoma, because who in their right mind would pay for it? It made me wonder why the settlers didn’t just keep moving west. What would make someone decide to plant themselves down and make a home in this godforsaken place, we wondered.

After taking care of business, so to speak, and stretching our legs, we started heading back to where the van was parked. There was a commotion in one area of the parking lot, up in the clearing along the edge of the woods, lit by a big overhead light. We walked over to investigate and found a big truck driver fella with a long pole, maybe ten feet or so, with a sharp blade on the end, and he was doing battle with an armadillo. He had the small creature cornered over by a fence. As we walked up, he was stabbing at the creature and trying to flip it over or take it off of its feet. The thing was frantic, trying to dodge the awkward long-distance jabs. Then with quick precision, hinting at how many times this guy had done this, he thrust his pole towards the armadillo one more time and speared it with the sharp, blade-like end. The blow was a mortal one, and the creature screamed its armadillo scream of death as it flipped, and flopped, and somersaulted around, blood pulsing profusely from the wound, somewhere between its head and neck, in the soft spot between the armor.

This all unfolded in a slightly surreal fashion. We had been driving nonstop since we left Oakland, and some of us were still half asleep. I was just starting to take in the fact I was looking at an armadillo, something you just don’t run into at a rest area up in Michigan, trying to appreciate seeing the animal up close like that, when suddenly the scene was interrupted with all of that carnage. But as taken aback as I was, Steven was traumatized. My attention, gladly enough, switched away from the armadillo in the throes of death to Steven’s reaction. I had never seen Steven raise his voice or say an unkind word to anyone in the entire time I was close with him in the band. He was a pacifist, in the extreme, and lacked any sort of temper. And he loved every creature, big and small, more than he did most people, probably, and was even known to go so far as to protect a bumblebee or two that flew into the van as we roared down some highway or another, saving it from a crushing blow from Chopper’s grey Chuck Taylor, cupping it in his hands calmly, and letting it out the window. At the sight of the armadillo, it only took a couple seconds to transform Steven’s reaction from questioning to something akin to utter panic.

“What are you doing?” Steven yelled. And although it was framed as a question, it was pretty obvious to all of the parties involved, including the poor armadillo, what he was doing. At that point, Steven, or any of us for that matter, could wrap our heads around the unspoken question, the question Steven really had on his mind, Why are you doing that?

I say Steven yelled, and I suppose it constituted a yell for Steven, especially taking into account the fact that we had never heard him yell like that before (discounting what he did on stage as our singer, but we were used to that, used to the transformation of the quiet, nerdy, art student who became Mr. Kaos on stage), and it came out in his unalterably passive, squeaky voice.

He was anything but imposing to begin with, about 5’10” and very thin and sporting round John Lennon style spectacles. I don’t know who was more surprised, us or the armadillo murdering truck driver as he turned to face his questioners and found accusers in the form of five scruffy, road dirty, long-haired (except for Keltor), hippie types.

All he did was stare at us with that long, sharp-ended pole in his hand, while the armadillo flopped its flop of bloody death in an ever decreasing perimeter.

Finally he said in answer, “They eat the crops.”

He let it hang there. I was working really hard to let that one sink in.

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to kill it!” Steven shouted-squawked back at him.

The armadillo’s flops were becoming weak, sparse.

“They’re all over the place,” he continued. “Like a plague.”

He just stared at us.

“How would you like someone jabbing at you with a big stick?”

To this point, the guy probably tolerated us, at best, and that any response he had given us was out of the kindness of his heart. But he didn’t like being talked to like that by some mangy glasses-wearing hippie like Steven. He shifted his weight a bit and tightened his grip on the death stick. “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

A few more things were muttered, and he walked calmly off in one direction, towards his rig, and we walked off in the other. We continued to bitch and mutter on our way back to the van, then piled in. I had been driving with Keltor, but I wanted to get some sleep, so he took over at the wheel and Steven rode shotgun. We pulled out of the rest area and got it up to cruising speed. We were all pretty riled up still, filled with adrenalin and probably excited to have had some event happen to break up the monotony of the two day drive straight through to Michigan. We were rolling down the now darkened highway, again, cruising along, and talk of the armadillo killing truck driver was just beginning to die, when a big semi got up too close to the back of the van.

“I think we got trouble,” Keltor said. He was calm, but Keltor didn’t sound the alarm for trouble unless there was trouble. “I think it’s that armadillo killer in his truck behind us.”

Keltor gunned it. This was the time of a 55 MPH speed limit, so when I say gunned it, it’s a relative term. First he went up to about 65 MPH, but the guy stayed right on our ass. Then he went up to 70, and then 75, and still that murderous bastard rode our ass. Meanwhile, we were trying not to panic, trying not to feel like we were unknowingly part of some lame 80’s Stephen King movie. We’re all filling the air with chatter, like a bunch of magpies, while Keltor is trying to concentrate on getting us away from the semi and getting us out of there. It was at that time I realized how far away from home we were (and this was the world before cell phones and wifi), how alone we were at that very moment. We rode for a few miles in this manner, speeding up, slowing down, and speeding up, until finally Keltor decided he would bring it down until we were stopped or the guy passed us.

It didn’t take long for the armadillo killer to decide that it was time to pass us. He’d had his fun, and he had places to go, weigh stations to navigate, and loads to deliver, and it was time to start chewing up a steady diet of white lines again and leave those long-haired hippie type kids in the stupid black van to their pathetic sympathies over some stupid armadillo, one of too damn many. The guy swung out into the passing lane and came up quick and steady alongside of us, pulling even, and then matching our speed, riding side by side down a flat, straight, endless stretch of godforsaken Oklahoma highway, through the newly darkened evening. Time oozed slowly, as the van and the big rig rolled side by side, alone. Keltor and Steven, simultaneously, turned their heads to the left, looking out the driver’s side window and hoping for a glance of our stalker. The armadillo killer was suddenly illuminated by the light in his cab, and we could just see his face and upper torso. He raised his arm and at the end of it was a gun that was pointed right at Keltor. He held it there in the weak light of that semi cab just long enough for us to take it in, understand it, and make a full accounting of the situation. Then time seemed to pick up pace again, slamming forward into real time motion, and the armadillo killer smiled, a smile that hid all intentions and left you empty inside, with nothing to show for it but a shitload of goose bumps. That bastard smiled.

As if on cue, Keltor put his foot on the brake, and the armadillo killer gunned his rig and left us as an afterthought, just something to mark time between weigh stations, just a funny story to tell all the other armadillo killers up at the next rest area. Thankfully Keltor didn’t slam on the brakes, sending all of the amps, cabinets, guitars, and drums hurtling forward in an avalanche of metal, wood, and electronics, killing us all, but instead only gave it enough brake to end the creepy stalemate. In truth, it was only going to be over when the armadillo killer wished it to be over, and the further his taillights faded in the distance, the smaller they became, the more we were all able to breathe again.

Keltor cruised at a slow pace for about another mile and then pulled over on the side of highway. Understandably, he needed to get his shit together. We all did, but since he was doing the driving, was closest to the gun and therefore the odds on favorite to take the first shot, if one were to have been fired, so it seemed reasonable that he might need to stop, get out, walk around for a minute, and eventually check his pants before we got back on the road. After all, Grand Haven wasn’t going to get any closer standing on the side of the highway in Oklahoma. It wasn’t going to get any closer if we tried to save all of the armadillos in Oklahoma, either. So it seemed best if we didn’t stop again until we were out of that state. I know that it isn’t very reasonable to blame a whole state for the actions of some truck driver that killed an armadillo in a rest area, and that the guy might not even be from Oklahoma, but there is a residual effect that comes with some incidents that just can’t be explained. It went on my list of places never to return to, and on the other three occasions that the band had the chance to go through, we drove around it. Between that and the tornados, I don’t think I’m missing much.

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Paul is a writer, editor, and musician who lives, works, and plays in West Michigan.