Johnny Mitchum was going about 70 down Route 40 in his dad’s 1968 Dodge Dart GTS. Twins Hank and Frank Needham were in back, and best friend Clay Albright rode shotgun.
Aggie’s Diner was their destination, a last night of fun before the twins left to work in Texas and Clay headed to San Diego for basic training.
They’d been friends since kindergarten, but now at age 22, the “Four Screw-ups,” as Johnny’s father called them, were well past the age when people smiled and saw their misadventures as harmless teen pranks.
It seemed they were also beginning to realize that those days of doing a whole lot of nothing were nearing their end, and Johnny suggested, “Let’s ride to Aggie’s, sit in those old greasy booths, and have one last hamburger before we say adios.”
“We’ll be back, Johnny,” Clay said.
Johnny scoffed. “You fools are going to kiss this shithole town goodbye for good, and I don’t blame you.”
“You’ll find somethin’, Johnny,” Frank and Hank said in unison.
“Oh yeah, I’ll become the top stock boy at Walmart,” Johnny laughed, but his eyes were desperate and sad.
Life was changing for the “Screw-Ups,” and Johnny was the only one terrified by it.
“One last ride,” Johnny said quietly, and the others nodded in agreement.
“You gotta baby it, Johnny,” Vern Mitchum told his son. Johnny was ten when his father bought the old rusted GT.
Vern was usually sober when working on his baby, and Johnny was thrilled when the man asked him to help with the car.
Then Johnny accidentally knocked the refurbished carburetor onto the garage floor, and his heart nearly stopped when tiny pieces broke off in the fall.
“I’m sorry —” But Johnny didn’t get a chance to finish his apology before punches came at him in swift, concise blows, knocking Johnny off his feet. “You think this shit is cheap!” Vern yelled. “You owe me $62.50.”
Johnny sat on the ground crying. His dad took a long gulp of his beer and went back to working on the Dodge.
Johnny was hurtling down Route 40. The monstrous groan of the 440, V-8 engine could be heard for miles around.
Clay was worried about his friend. Johnny hadn’t been the same since they all told him they were leaving town. After finding out, he went on a bender for an entire week.
Johnny hadn’t said much since he picked the guys up, and Clay tried to get him to talk.
“I’m surprised your dad let you borrow his car,” Clay smiled.
“He didn’t,” Johnny said flatly, and Clay knew immediately not to push the issue further.
Johnny was fifteen the first and only time his father let him drive the Dodge. Johnny moved it along carefully down the road.
“Remember, son,” Vern said, “this is a delicate machine. Treat it like a good woman — if there is such a thing.” Then he fell into a wet, phlegmy laugh, slapping his thigh and pounding Johnny on the back.
Johnny pulled into the parking space outside Pete’s Tavern, and Vern, in a hurry to show off the car to his buddies, opened the door too quickly, bumping it into one of those yellow parking posts.
Vern’s face grew red. In his mind there was only one person to blame — Johnny.
Vern yanked the boy from the car and beat him right there on the blacktop outside Pete’s. No one even tried to stop him. Then Vern said, “That’s your first real beatin’. My daddy gave me mine when I was seven, so consider yourself lucky.”
Vern’s friends laughed, and Johnny sat there, humiliated, his face swollen and bruised.
Johnny’s foot pushed down on the gas pedal hard. Aggie’s was only a few miles away, and he was anxious to get there and relive old times.
“Johnny, man, you’re doing 80, slow down!” Clay said worriedly.
Johnny turned off of Route 40 onto an old blacktop road. They hadn’t been there since high school and Johnny thought he turned down the wrong road.
“Did you miss it?” Frank and Hank said in unison.
Then they all saw it. The Aggie’s sign, hanging above where the doors used to be. The burnt remains of their childhood hangout, gone.
Not Aggie’s too, Johnny thought. He’d driven for hours to have one last hurrah in the place that held the best memories from their time in high school. Something in Johnny just broke. He looked around in disbelief. “Where is it?” he said, looking panicked. “Where the fuck is Aggie’s?!”
“Johnny —” Clay tried to calm him, but Johnny snapped and began tearing to shreds what was left of the old diner, cursing, and crying, his hands bloodied and torn.
His friends could only stand by and watch.
“Come on, Dad, please …” Johnny asked. “This is the last time me and the fellas will be together, probably forever. Let us take the Dodge for one last ride.”
“Fuck no!” Vern said, slurping a beer and watching the Rangers/Astros game.
“But you rarely drive it!” Johnny screamed.
“Don’t yell at me, boy.”
Vern was a large man, but had gotten soft over the years. Still he was pretty formidable. Johnny stood up and grabbed the keys off of the hall table.
“Put them keys back, or you’ll wish you had,” Vern said, still sitting in his chair watching the game.
Vern resented his son since his wife ran out on him when Johnny was eight. So it’s no surprise that he didn’t see the growing rage, didn’t think he needed to fear a son whom Vern believed he had broken a long time ago.
Johnny stood there squeezing the keys until they left marks on his palms. An eerie calmness came over him as he walked over to the chair and unleashed years of frustration and rage upon his father.
When Vern Mitchum stopped moving, Johnny took the keys and went to pick up his buddies.
The last thing Vern Mitchum heard before he checked out for good was the Astros winning the game on a bases clearing home run.
Vern was a Rangers fan.
Sheriff Everly’s car pulled up behind Clay, Frank, and Hank, who were still watching Johnny punish the burned down diner.
The sheriff asked, “Why’s he beatin’ the shit outta Old Aggie’s?”
They all shrugged, then Clay asked, “What happened to it?”
“Burned down about two years ago, some fuckin’ meth head set the place on fire.”
Everly watched a few more moments, then said to Johnny, “Hey fella, that’s enougha that shit.”
Johnny turned around, his eyes wild, blood dripping from his hands.
Clay said Johnny swung at the sheriff; Frank and Hank said Johnny hurled a piece of burned wood at him. Whatever happened, Johnny ended up in the local jail, and after Vern was found, he was transferred to Clarksville State Prison.
No one was shocked that Johnny killed Vern. “I’m just surprised it took him this long,” a neighbor said.
Clay, Frank, and Hank went to visit Johnny before leaving town. At first, none of them knew what to say, so they just stared at each other like idiots.
Then Johnny, always the leader, finally said, “At least we had one last ride, huh fellas?”
They all smiled, then began reminiscing about old times at Aggie’s.