The Legendary Leroy and Earl
Storytellers draw on an almost endless well of characters, some based on people they’ve encountered in real-life, others thumbnail sketches of people they’ve observed that have been provided a backstory and behaviors plucked from the teller’s imagination. The purpose of the latter is to serve as a kind of verbal shorthand for presenting characters that an audience can immediately recognize, much the same way a character actor in a film presents a “type” that viewers can immediately relate to.
Back when I was running a movie theater, one of the things we used to do – while sitting around in the dead-time between shows – was make up stories about a fictional duo of redneck stereotypes we named “Leroy” and “Earl.” As far as characterizations go, there’s was nothing special about these two – they were variations on the oft-used literary theme of the big, burly, not quite intelligent, but making a good show of it, “boss,” and his tall, slender, and somewhat simple-minded companion; dumbed-down versions of the tragic George and Lennie from “Of Mice and Men.” There was little tragedy to our tales, however, as for us, Leroy and Earl’s served as an example of how not to make one’s way through life. They were two stooges upon which we foisted more misery than Lot, all as a way to provide a humorous counterpoint to the travails of our own existence.
We had quite a lot of laughs at Leroy and Earl’s expense. That is, we did until that one rainy night when the imaginary became real, and two characters stepped out of the screen and into our lives.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere how much I enjoyed working at the theater, but the greatest gift was the relationships formed with coworkers, bonds that had deepened into friendships, confidants, loved ones. One of the stronger bonds was with a fellow named James, a true compatriot possessing the same sharp wit and tongue as myself. Even after moving on from his job at the theater, James would continue to drop by, usually to hang out before one of his many dates, or to suggest that we head into town to visit our favorite nightclub so that he could find another girl for future dates. Whatever the reason, James would show up at about closing time, and the two of us would hang out in the lobby, catching up while we waited for the last of the customers to leave. As soon as the last was gone, we’d pile into the car for a preliminary trip to the convenience store for “supplies” (i.e., beer and snacks) before pulling onto the expressway for the long drive into town.
On this one night in particular, a soft summer evening with a fine mist hovering in the air, we’d picked up our ablutions and had been on the highway about ten miles or so when I noticed an orange glow coming from the rear axle of a tractor-trailer in front of us. Pointing out the glow to James, I sped up a little to get a closer look and was shocked to see that the truck had somehow managed to get it’s back brakes locked. After God knows how many miles of driving and friction, the shoes of the driver’s side had reached the point where they were not only cherry red, but also on fire.
“Holy shit!” I said, pointing, “I don’t think they know their brakes are burning!”
“Pull up next to them and blow the horn,” said James, “I’ll holler out the window and let ‘em know.”
Speeding up alongside the driver’s side door, I tooted the horn a couple of times to get the driver’s attention. When he finally noticed us, he rolled down his window, dropped his elbow out and cocked his arm in preparation for flipping us off.
“YOUR BRAKES ARE ON FIRE!” bellowed James, pointing toward the back of the trailer. “THE SHOE IS ON FIRE!”
The driver’s eyes widened and we saw him mouth the word “Shit” before turning his head to the passenger side to say something to an apparent partner. After a second, he turned back to us and waved a thank you as he flipped on his hazard lights and began moving into the breakdown lane. I suggested to James that we pull in behind them and use our headlights to help them see the problem, and hopefully get it worked out in the murky light.
As we pulled over, we had no idea how memorable the following minutes would become. Initially enthralled by the flames coming up the glowing metal, we had barely payed attention to the two figures approaching us until they stepped into the lights and James began to giggle.
“They look like Leroy and Earl,” he said.
I looked up and, sure enough, there before us were the spitting images of the mental models we had conjured up as the source for so many make believes. The driver was a balding burly man, short but stocky, wearing jeans and a Budweiser t-shirt and a look of constant irritation. His companion was a good foot and half taller, similarly dressed, but lanky and bearing an air of permanent confusion. As they fussed around the back of the truck, squatting to take in the specifics of their situation, one of them spoke and the magic began:
“Shit, Earl,” said the driver, “The whole shoe’s on fire!”
James and I turned to each other, eyes gaping.
“Did he just say ‘Earl?!?'” I snorted.
And then, the moment achieved sublime perfection…
The slender fellow knelt down, looked, stood, whistled, and scratched his head before saying, “You need me to go get the toolkit, Leroy?””
James, who had been sipping a beer throughout this exchange, suddenly spewed a mouthful of foam and fluid all over the inside of the windshield and turned to me with a face flushed with absolute joy.
“It’s THEM!” he roared, “IT’S LEROY AND EARL! THEY’RE REAL!!!”
Suddenly realizing that we could probably be heard, we immediately rolled up our windows and bumped the volume on the radio up a notch or two to cover our howls of laughter. Thankfully, we had parked far enough back that neither had been able to hear our hoots over the sound of passing traffic.
Leroy was now on his hands and knees crawling between the mud-flaps and the taillight bar of the truck, slowly making his way to the flaming brake. When he got to the driveshaft, he dropped flat on his back and began to wriggle across the asphalt to get closer view. As he shimmied back and forth trying to find the perfect position by which to apply his intellectual expertise, the bottom of his t-shirt, worked its way gradually up to his midriff, revealing a beer gut impressive to behold. From our vantage point within the car, Leroy had gone from the short, stocky man in charge, to little more than a belly with legs and a surprising aptitude for profanity.
After a minute or so, Earl returned to the lights bearing the tools of his trade. These consisted of: an unpromisingly small toolbox, a two-foot long crescent wrench, and an ominous looking length of metal pipe. Bending over , he slung the toolkit under the trailer, narrowly missing Leroy’s chin, and provoking a blistering tirade of abuse.
“GODDAMMIT, Earl!” screamed Leroy, “Watch where you’re throwing that shit!”
“Sorry, Leroy,” mumbled Leroy, squinting back at us sheepishly through the lights. “How’s it look under there?”
“It looks fucked up, is how it looks!” said Leroy, “The whole damn coupling is locked and the shittin’ thing is hotter-n-hell. Run get me some water. I need to put this fire out.”
By now, James and I had become fascinated by the drama unfolding before us. Reaching into the back seat, James brought forth the bag of snacks we’d bought earlier, and withdrew a canister of chips, which he opened and tilted in my direction. I reached in and took a sizable handful, then shoved it back in his direction so he could do the same. Returning our gaze forward, we munched on our chips in silence, captivated with the drama playing out before us.
After what seemed an abnormally long absence, Earl returned carrying what appeared to be a partially empty jug of antifreeze. Ducking his head down once again, he waved the jug in Earl’s general direction and said, “This good?”
James and I looked at one another, then back at Leroy’s jug.
“Oh, I don’t think you’re going to want to do that…” I began.
But it was too late. Without looking, Leroy grabbed the jug by the bottom and upended it over the still glowing metal, then reared back in shock as the flourescent green liquid came in contact with the flames and exploded, spattering scalding hot liquid and sending a scorching steam into Leroy’s face. James and I recoiled in shock, stopping in mid-chip chew to marvel that, despite the less than optimal side-effects, the dousing had managed to successfully snuff the flames.
“GODDAMMIT, Earl!!!” he bellowed, “What the fuck did you just give me?!? You don’t put fucking antifreeze on a fucking fire, you fucking idiot!”
“You said you needed water,” said a perplexed Earl, “But we ain’t got any in the truck. I was asking you if you thought that jug’d be alright to get some water from the ditch, but you took it from me before asking. I didn’t mean for you to use it.”
Leroy drew a hand across his face to clear away the tears and the fluorescent green spray, then angrily tossed the now empty container back at Earl’s kneecaps. “Shut the hell up and get me some water. I can’t do nothing with this as hot as it is.”
James and I were now spewing potato chip bits all over the inside of the car. It was going to take a lot of work to clean it up later.
Earl made his way into the ditch by the side of the road and began dipping the now empty jug into a shallow puddle of muddy water. As Earl tried semi-successfully to refill the jug, Leroy set about trying to get to the bottom of the mechanical problem with the brakes. Opening up the toolkit with one hand, he reached in and fumbled about looking for the proper tool for the job: a giant screwdriver.
James turned to me with a puzzled look on his face. “What the hell do you think he’s gonna do with a screwdriver?” he asked.
As we looked on with much curiosity, he began stabbing furiously at the underside of the brake assembly, seemingly convinced that this homicidal pantomime would accomplish something only he could perceive.
I suggested to James that he was just pissed off and taking it out on the truck, and James, nodding sagely, tilted the chip can in my direction.
Earl made his way back up from the puddle carrying what was now a mud-covered jug of what was undoubtedly filthy water. This time, rather than risk another misunderstanding, he crouched down next to Leroy’s feet and asked if he thought the muddy water would be okay. Leroy apparently grunted an assent, because he took the jug, then began wriggling to the right, trying to place himself as far from the inevitable steam orgy as his pudgy short arms would allow. As he wriggled, his belly swayed side-to-side like harbor buoy in a riptide. Once again gripping the jug by its bottom, he slowly turned it upside down over the brake. As the steam burst forth yet again, he wriggled a bit further away to avoid the heat, swearing profusely as a few drops of super-heated water sprang from the metal to splash his exposed belly.
“Dude,” said James, wiping his eyes, “I think I may be crying…”
“To hell with this,” said Leroy, wriggling out from beneath the truck and bending over to take up the length of metal pipe. Handing the wrench to Earl, he dropped back to the ground and shuffled back under the axel and placed one end of the bar against the edge of the locked shoe, which was right above his head..
“I’m gonna hold this here, and you give it a whack with the wrench,” he said.
“No, no, no, no, no…,” moaned James.
Earl swung the wrench, and his aim was true. Unfortunately, Leroy’s grip on the pipe was less so.
“GODDAMMIT ALL TO HELL!”
The force of the blow had caused the pipe to slip off the brake and conk Leroy firmly on the forehead. He rolled out from beneath the truck in a white rage, holding one hand to his head while bashing the pipe accusingly against the back of the truck. Earl just stood there, wisely avoiding commentary of any kind, allowing Leroy to get the fury out of his system on his own terms. James and I sat in the car with muffler hands clamped over our mouths, holding in a combination of shock and laughter with tears squirting out the corners of our eyes.
Once Leroy had finished punishing the truck for its insolence, he collected his bearings and set about pacing as he reevaluated his approach. You could see the gears turning. James and I opened a second canister of chips, and popped the tops on fresh can of beer.
“Aa-ight,” said Leroy, “Let’s try it again. I’ll hold it more level this time, and you give it a whack, only this time don’t hit it as hard.”
Earl nodded and took his position as Leroy scuttled back under the truck and re-positioned the bar. True to his word, he gave the bar another, less forceful whack. Nothing happened, so Leroy hollered out to give it another go. Again Earl’s wrench descended, and again another less forceful blow was delivered. Again, nothing happened. James passed me another handful of chips, and the two of us began hunching down in the seat to try and get a better look at what they were trying to do. Based on what we could see, it looked as if Leroy had positioned one end of the bar against the seam between the two halves of the brake shoes, apparently thinking that Earl’s blows would drive the wedge in enough to give them leverage to force the shoes apart. Due to the dark and the distance, we couldn’t see how well things were going, so we munched on the chips and exchanged opinions on the intelligence of Earl’s approach. James felt that the plan had merit, but I was less sure.
Leroy barked some more commands, and Earl’s wrench descended a few more times. Each time his wrench made contact, we heard a satisfactory CLANK, and saw the jolly jiggle of Leroy’s belly as it echoed the blows. They had a rhythm going now, and the bar seemed to be holding in whatever notch Leroy had managed to find.
Silently, James tilted the can, and I grabbed another fistful of chips.
After about five or six whacks there was an audible “pop” and, fearing that the bar had popped loose and Leroy was about to get crowned once again, James and I both involuntarily flinched. Instead of a cry of pain, however, we heard a whoop of success and saw a tighter, more satisfied jiggle from the moonlit belly.
“Hit it again!” Leroy yelled, and the wrench swung down one more time to deliver the final clanging blow. As soon as it connected, we heard another whoop and a holler as Leroy shot sideways to avoid a scorching hot shoe assembly that had broken off the rotor and fallen to the ground dangerously close to his exposed tummy.
They had done it! The brake was free!
James and I were laughing and clapping as if we’d just witnessed the mechanical equivalent to a successful brain surgery, both of us caught up in a moment of genuine joy. We opened the doors to shout out our congratulations and offer our hand to the two mismatched men, and couldn’t help but laugh a little as they looked back at us with something akin to shock, as if they had forgotten we were there.
“Way to go, guys!” I shouted.
“Awesome job, dudes!” James concurred.
Leroy gave a little grin and shuffled his feet as if embarrassed by the attention. Earl gave a little smile as well, and tipped up the end of the monster wrench in salute.
“Thanks for letting us know about this, guys,” said Leroy, “I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t spotted that fire. And thanks for the lights, they was a big help!”
“So what are you going to do now?” I asked.
Leroy rubbed his hand across the still-forming lump rising on brow. “Well,” he said, “the hard part’s done. But we still gotta drive with a busted brake. We’ll toss that show in a puddle to cool it off, then probably make our way up to the truck stop in Conyers and get it fixed.”
James and I congratulated them again, and wished them well on the journeys before returning to our car for the long drive into town. I don’t know whatever became of the now legendary Leroy and Earl, but I do know that I sleep more soundly at night knowing they are out there, somewhere, traveling the highways and byways of America, armed with insights into the physics of flame, and gifted with wonder of a +5 magical wrench of repair.