Anne Vidal's beehive wig smacked against the roof of the bus as she jumped up to take a look at the gas gauge.
"We just left a gas station!"
After coughing its last, the engine in the short bus ticked as it cooled. We were somewhere between Woodville and Natchez, and out of gas. At 2 a.m.
Judy Jetson. Think Carol Brady. Think Cyndi Lauper, Tracey Ullman, and an early incarnation of Madonna all rolled into one. Damn. I wish I could dress like that.
But even the Queen of Cool was beginning to lose hers. She looked around at the rest of us.
"What are we gonna do?"
"Do we have any Scotch left?" I asked.
I'm nothing if not practical. I pictured Tracey Ullman in her terrycloth bathrobe saying, "Go home! Just go home!"
Not a chance.
It had been a long and glorious night, and our little band of reprobates was feeling the effects of their age. It was time to go to bed. We COULDN'T be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a short bus that advertised itself as prison transport. Could we?
"How could you not know we were out of gas?"
"Gas gauge don't work," he replied his voice a quiet, studied calm.
We looked at each other.
It had all started out innocently enough. It was Wednesday, and Tommy was out of town. I was in charge of feeding the cats at Shantybellum. Reaching out to unlock the door, I spied an envelope tucked into the doorjamb. Addressed to Tommy and Elodie, I opened it and pulled out a card:
"She was nobody's doormat and had the tattoos to prove it."
It was a party -- a ride to Teddy's Juke Joint in Zachary, Louisiana, on Saturday night in a bus with other adventurous souls to listen to Li'l Jimmy Reed do his blues thang. It was Anne Vidal's birthday and she wanted to do it up right.
Blues Highway 61, toward Baton Rouge, Teddy's is the real deal in juke jointery (Is that a word?). Teddy, the proprietor, was born in the little shotgun house where -- dressed to the nines -- he spins his favorite tunes between sets of live music.
It's a fun, funky atmosphere with an eclectic clientele who leave their differences at the door and enjoy the music, each other and themselves amid a collection of Blues memorabilia, Christmas lights, disco balls and chaos.
Ten of us met up at Anne Vidal's little eatery -- The Pig Out Inn BBQ -- where she had the short bus prepared and waiting. Painted a kind of nondescript brownish/gray/green, it had "Angola Bound" painted on one side and "Prison Transport" on the other.
"What's the story on the bullet holes?" I asked, noticing the all-too-real set of bullet holes in the back window. "What's the story on the bus, in general?"
"I bought it from somebody who had a hunting camp," said Anne Vidal. "Somebody shot it."
"We don't have no turn signals on here," said Johnny. "And we only got one brakelight."
"Well, we've got one, anyway," said Anne Vidal. "We'll make do. Let's go."
We realized soon thereafter that we didn't have any inside lights either. Fortunately, Tommy had a flashlight. We could still find the food. We were having a grand old time, eating those duck aigs and telling stories. We'd passed the new prison down in Woodville, when Johnny said, "We're losing oil pressure."
We decided to call it quits around midnight and piled back into the bus to head home. We stopped again at the same little gas station to grab a coke and a bathroom break, then continued on our way.
About 20 miles outside of Woodville, we chugged to a stop and found ourselves in the aforementioned predicament.
"I can't believe we just left a gas station and didn't get gas," said Vidal, Anne Vidal's brother. "Unbelievable."
"But I just filled it up," protested Anne Vidal.
"Yeah, but we took it out the other day," said Johnny. "We drove a lot that day. Remember?"
I was beginning to think Johnny wished he'd never agreed to this trip.
"Well, I guess it's my fault, then," said Anne Vidal. "I should've remembered."
I felt bad for her. I think we all did.
"Aw, it's an adventure," I said and laughed, a bit hysterically.
I remembered a TV show on The Learning Channel I used to watch back in the 90s called Stories of Survival where people in everyday situations suddenly find themselves fighting for their lives. I looked at Tommy.
"Did you bring your insulin?"
I don't know who said that. More hysterical giggles.
"How can the gas gauge be broken, too?" asked brother Vidal. "Do you even have an inspection sticker on this thing?"
"Yeah. I peeled it off my car this morning and stuck it on the bus."
I knew Anne Vidal was smart. I'd have forgotten to do that.
"Who can we call?"
"We could call Doretta."
"She's halfway back to New Orleans by now,"
Somebody suggested the highway patrol.
"Nope. Can't do that," I said, sipping on my scotch (one for the road, you might say). "We've been drinking."
"But we've got a designated driver," said Roberta.
Have these people been adults so long they've forgotten how to get into trouble?
"Open container," I said. "We'd get busted for sure."
"We could spend the night here," someone else said.
"I want to go home!" cried Clara Nell. "I don't want to sleep on the bus. I want to sleep in my bed!"
Her Tempurpedic bed, no less. It's hard to feel sorry for someone who can afford a Tempurpedic mattress. We all looked at her.
"I'll call a tow company," said Mitchell, whipping out his phone. Kim, ever calm, snapped photos for posterity.
"Hello? I need you to bring us some gas right away," he said, adding, "I don't care what it costs. We've got to get out of here. Now!"
"Don't tell them that," Tommy protested. "They'll think it's true!"
He could see dollar bills flying away down the highway.
"We need to get off this shoulder," he said. "And we need some tail lights so cars won't hit us."
"Nope. Actually, it's better that we don't have them," I said. "Drunks tend to aim at them, thinking they're following the car ahead of them."
"I've got a friend in Natchez I can call," said Vidal.
And he did.
"It'll be 30 minutes."
The men climbed out to stretch their legs.
"I knew I should've used the bathroom back there," said Roberta. "I've got to pee."
I went around the front of the bus with her to make sure I could shield her should anyone drive past, memories of driving to Gulf Shores with my parents for summer vacation replaying in my head. We climbed back in to wait for help.
A few minutes later the bus filled with light as a vehicle pulled in behind us. I could discern some kind of lights across the top.
"Uh, oh. I think it might be the highway patrol," I said.
The idea of trying to hide the booze was laughable.
"You sure?" asked Vidal.
He stood outside the bus, peering into the light like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"Nope," said Vidal. "It's a truck."
Then another truck pulled in behind it.
Mitchell and Johnny went around to the back of the bus. Both trucks stayed where they were, their engines idling as their drivers took in the scene from about 50 yards back.
They looked at Mitchell and his upside down guitar, his white hair. They looked at Johnny, still unreadable under his little black fedora. They took in the bullet holes in the rear window, "Prison Transport" written on the side.
They peeled out like the hounds of the Baskervilles were after them.
I don't know for certain, but I'd bet they were thanking their maker for delivering them from a horrible fate. A fate worse than running out of gas on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi.
Shew! That was a close one, all right.
Inside the short bus, Roberta stretched across the seat and put her head in my lap. "I'm going to sleep," she said. "Wake me up when we get home."
We swapped stories, the atmosphere punctuated by Berta's soft snoring. An hour went by. Then another 30 minutes.
"I don't think anybody's coming," said Clara Nell, panic starting to rise again.
Just then Tommy pointed across the road.
"Isn't that a tow truck?"
We watched as its tail lights crested the hill and disappeared into the darkness.
"You think that was him? He didn't see us. Vidal! Call him back."
He got him on the phone and told him to turn around.
He came back and brought us our gasoline and emptied it into the short bus.
"Man, I went all the way to Buffalo looking for you guys," he said, the smell of gasoline settling inside the bus.
"Buffalo," said Tanna, puzzled. "Where's that?"
"New York," Tommy answered, which got a big laugh. Well, okay. It was funny, but I'm still funnier than he is.
With gasoline fumes thick in the air, we headed toward home. As we turned onto Canal Street for the final leg home, we all breathed a sigh of relief, joking about what a great story it would be. Then we ran out of gas.
Right by by the visitor's center.
"Johnny, don't stop! We're going downhill. See how far it'll coast."
We all leaned forward as though that would help it coast a little further as the short bus whispered hopefully, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can."
We made it all the way to Rosalie and cheered as we turned into the Isle of Capri parking lot.
It was 4:15 a.m. as our hapless little crew tumbled out of the bus and onto Natchez soil. Tommy knelt down to kiss the earth. Oh, scratch that. He tripped and fell.
"Ow! Gimme the ice chest and that flashlight."
We patted Johnny on the back, thanked him profusely and tipped him well. Call it combat pay. We started down the final stretch to The Pig Out Inn BBQ, a block and half away.
"What's that awful smell?" Miss Tempurpedic was not amused.
"This is where the Carriages wait to take tours."
"Ew! I just stepped in horse pee."
As we all stumbled down the street hoping not to see any cops, an old owl in the oak tree at Rosalie watched, our voices fading into the night.
"Watch out for that pile of poop."
"Oh, lovely. That's just great."
"Is there any scotch left?"
"Just point me toward a bed."
"I told you you should've brought a jacket."
Photos by Kim Kaiser