Stop what you’re doing, pick up the remote and start scanning the channels. No matter if you have 10 or 1,000 channels, chances are that right now — whether you’re reading this at 7 in the morning or 11 at night — you will stumble upon Roadhouse. There, on AMC, there it is. Patrick Swayze’s Dalton is talking about pain not hurting, never underestimating your opponent and always being nice. Roadhouse has been a cable staple for three decades and last week AMC put it on one of those loops where it played every six hours, drawing you in each time with bizarre set pieces — seriously, a monster truck? — and ridiculous characters (like, well, everyone, including Sam Elliott’s Wade, brought in by Dalton in a late-season acquisition, like the Lakers picking up Mychal Thompson in 1987 for the stretch drive, if the gregarious Mychal had ended up sprawled out on a bar with a knife in his chest instead of pouring champagne on his teammates after Game 6 of the Finals). I watched parts of it every time I stumbled upon it, and I like it for the same reasons everyone else does: How can you not like a movie about a philosophy-major bouncer — sorry, cooler — who kicks ass and cleans house?
But another reason the movie always stops my remote hand is it’s one of those classic films about life in a small town, even though it’s not any small-town life I’d ever recognize. Janesville never had a Brad Wesley, the movie’s villain who lives on a mansion on a huge acreage outside town, travels in a helicopter, intimidates the business owners into paying him a town tax, orders murders and generally runs amok, all while overseeing a small staff of henchmen, yes-men and half-literate goons. I never quite understood how Wesley had such a hold on the town of Jasper. When did he take over, or was he simply taking over what his father had started, a North Korea set on the Plains? Why didn’t anyone ever go to law enforcement — if not the locals who were probably paid off, then the state or feds? But rule it he did, at least until Dalton rolled into town.
I used to think about who in Janesville was the town’s Brad Wesley. No one fit the role, thankfully for the residents and small business owners. I would have hated to see Fury’s Barbershop handing over 10 percent of its money to an evil man who used the cash to build a compound on Lake Elysian. I also debated who in our town could fill the role of Dalton? Could anyone in town do it or would we need a drifter — someone who comes down from Duluth or Sartell or up from Sibley, Iowa — to finally stand up to this man? Of course I compiled a list of internal candidates — tough guys, yes, but good tough guys, the kind that want to help the weak instead of being the bully. The town had plenty of jerks — dumb, burly guys who once underperformed on the offensive line in high school I could easily see hooking up with the Wesley of Janesville and smashing the Dairy Queen’s windows for failing to use ice cream trucks provided by their devious boss. The closest I came to experiencing anything like this was when some visiting carnival workers threatened to beat me up when I was going to the park to shoot baskets. The next time I walked to the park I took my uncle Steve, an intimidating 6-foot-6ish presence whom I was certain could thrash any group of Ferris wheel operators. We passed them without incident.
Small town bad guys always caught my eye as a kid, and I always wanted to play the role of real-life casting agent. Take Little House on the Prairie. There was almost always a conflict in each episode, whether the Ingalls clan fought typhoid or Frank and Jesse James. The smaller battles allowed me to picture real-life people playing various characters from Little House. Strangely — blame it on being latch-key kid or simply an overactive imagination — I always placed my parents in the roles of Charles Ingalls and his doting wife, Caroline. The Ingalls’ always did what was right, stood up for their children and friends and occasionally stymied the most famous bank robbers in American history (it did seem they could have done a bit more to corral Nellie, but they also had to worry about being able to get goods from the Mercantile). I did have some evidence to back up my belief that Ma and Pa Fury had some Ma and Pa Ingalls blood running through their own prairie veins.
One time mom stood up for a kid who endured racial taunts from other children and confronted one of the parents on the phone. And in sixth grade, in their duties as chaperones for the inevitable field trip to St. Paul, they stopped a group of kids who were bullying a girl and told one of them to get back into his seat — and did it with the scary dad voice that can still terrify. At first I disagreed with this intervention, since the bullies told me at the end of the trip I’d be getting an ass-kicking for my folks’ meddling. But they were nothing but words and even then I admired what my parents did — they thankfully didn’t realize chaperones were supposed to just sit there, powerless. It felt like something Charles Ingalls would have done if he’d chaperoned a field trip to Sleepy Eye and Willie Oleson acted up.
Many Stephen King books are ideal for mentally turning horrific situations and characters into reality. Every old house on a lonely block could be home to vampires in the basement like in Salem’s Lot. A friendly new businessman who comes to Main Street could be a demon like in Needful Things. I’d battle the monsters, perhaps vanquishing them in one final clash in an abandoned school or in the church next to our house. There are still people from my hometown I don’t completely trust, simply because they committed the crime of being an unwitting character in my sick game. That’s life in a small town, or at least my life, fake and otherwise.
And now I must go — Roadhouse is on, and it’s been almost a week since I watched Brad Wesley die.