Selasa, 29 November 2011

AN EAR FOR THE ROAD by Peter Nolan Smith

A dawn of rain, drizzle, snow, and ice pellets greeted Boston on the first day of 1975. The skies on the second day of January were overcast, but the temperature rose to the 40s, as I walked with a canvas bag over my shoulder to the Mass Avenue onramp of the Mass. Pike. It was the best place to start a trip out of Boston. The highway went for thousands of miles either West or South.

Dropping my bag at my feet, I tucked my newly-shorn hair under a watch cap and stuck out my thumb.

A hippie in a VW van stopped within two minutes. He was headed to Ohio. My destination was California, but the prairie states were gripped by sub-zero weather and I sought a more southern route to LA.

The hippie dropped me at Sturbridge and I caught a long ride to Washington DC. A blizzard was dumping snow on Tennessee. I was halfway to Florida. I-10 from Jacksonville was the warmest course across the continent.

My next lift was going to Richmond. I entered the Deep South without the watch cap. I cleaned my black-framed glasses with my shirt. The grease from the road painted a smear on the lenses.

Rides came easy on I-95. Truckers wanted company on the long stretches of highway and salesmen needed someone to keep them awake between cities. I hid my Boston accent with a broad drawl. The Civil War was not forgotten south of the Potomac.

22 hours after leaving Boston I crossed the Florida state-line. The palm trees swayed in the balmy breeze, as I drank a complimentary orange juice at the Welcome Center. I stuck my leather jacket in the canvas bag. A tee-shirt and jeans was a welcome change from heavy winter clothing. A Chevy SS stopped on the shoulder. The big engine throbbed with power. I jumped in the passenger side.

“Where you going?” The long-haired redneck was wearing a Lynard Skynard shirt. The residue of reefer smoke mixed with the fuel fumes. JJ was my kind of people.


“What for?” He stomped on the gas.

“To see a girl.” I adjusted my glasses on my nose.

“Long way to see a girl.” JJ gripped the wheel with a stranglehold.

“I know.” Over three thousand miles from coast to coast.

Diana was studying film at UC Santa Barbara. We had spent our Xmas holiday together. The blonde athlete was the kind of girl that slept around, but 6 days and nights in a cold-water apartment on Beacon Hill had seemed to soothe the wanderlust in Diana’s heart. When I had called to tell her that I was coming out west, Diana had said it was a good career move.

I agreed, since I was employed as a substitute teacher at South Boston High School. The city was on the verge of a race war and that school was the epicenter. I needed out, because I was a race traitor and hell had a special place for my kind in South Boston.

“LA’s west, not south.” JJ pointed to the right.

“There’s ice storms and snow in Iowa. The passes through the Rockies are snow-packed, plus I’m a little too white for LA.”

“Too white.” JJ was a die-hard cracker.

“Yeah, I need color before I hit Hollywood.”

“If you mean sun, then you come to the right place. This is the Sunshine State.” He stuck in the Allman Brothers in his 8-track.

“Newcomers were easy to spot in Southern California.” They had no tan.

5 days in the Miami sun would transformed a pale-skinned hippie into a bronzed godling. Prescription sunglasses, a hair cut, a convertible car, and a movie studio job would complete the metamorphosis from substitute teacher to screenwriter. I had big dreams.

Hollywood treasured young minds. My name would appear on ‘coming attractions’ ads under the words ‘Written By’. Fame and fortune were within my grasp at the age of 23. I had $1300 in my pocket.

“Plenty of sun here and plenty of other things.” The hippie cracker turned up the MIDNIGHT RIDER on the stereo and shifted into a higher gear. We were rolling at 100. “Where you thinking of going?”

“I already been to Fort Lauderdale.” I had stayed across from the Elbow Room during Easter Break 1971. The bar was famous from the 60s movie WHERE THE BOYS ARE. We thought that we would meet Yvette Mimieux, the blonde star of the film. My friends and I drank beer the entire week. None of us got a tan or kissed a blonde. It had been my only trip to Florida.

“You should check out Miami Beach. Good town. Cheap hotels. Try the Sea Breeze.” Speed ate up the road fast paced by Dicky Betts’ guitar.

Around midnight he turned off the highway.

“Goin’ see my baby too. You have a good trip.” The muscle care was aimed into the swamps.

“You too.”

The moon was rising in the east. This exit was about 100 miles short of Miami. I didn’t like hitchhiking this late at night. Crackers get mean when they were drunk and weirdos thrive in these hours. A golf course lay across the highway. The 17th green served as my motel for the night.

The next morning a spray of sprinklers spurted from hidden hoses. Soaking wet I scurried to the rough. A red sun rose over the low horizon of the grassy fairways. I had breakfast in a little Cuban diner and then stuck out my thumb on Dixie Highway. My clothes were dried in a tropical wind from the South.

A Cuban farmer stopped in his pick-up truck. He was heading to Little Havana to see his sister. I gave him $5 to drop me at the Sea Breeze. It was almost 10 O’ Clock by the time we reached Collins Avenue.

The temperature was in the low 80s. The sidewalks were empty and the wide strand of sand was dotted with a few sunbathers. I could count them on two hands.

Decrepit beach hotels were lined the beachfront. The Sea Breeze was no different from the rest. The rooms were $15/night, $90/week, $250/month. There was no pool.

The breezy art-deco lobby embraced a decade of neglect. The open windows were covered with sea salt. Mold creep up the wall in the corners. The furniture had been battered by overuse. The absentee management was relying on the flaking pastel blue and chalky white paint job to carry the into the 1980s.

“I want a room.” I told the lank-haired teenager behind the desk.

“Day, month, or week. We don’t do by the year.” He spoke slow like he had to remember every word before he spoke it.

“Week.” I chiseled him down to $75 for a week. Dozens of keys hung on the wall. Vacancy was at an all-time high. Miami Beach had lost its luster for the American tourist. They wanted the Caribbean and not the Gulf Stream, so I could play hard ball with the clerk. “Beach view.”

“That’s ten dollars extra.”


“You got it.”

The desk clerk was the youngest man in the lobby. I was number two. The gap of age with the other guests was a chasm of decades. The white-haired men and women were in their late-60s and early 70s. They sat in groups of two or three. An elderly man wearing sunglasses plinked out STORMY WEATHER on the piano. He had a light touch with the ivories.

I hummed Etta James’ version on the elevator up to the 5th floor. Room 514 faced the ocean. The blue-white color scheme matched the view of sea and sky. I tested the AC. The old machine wheezed like a full TB ward. I shut it off and slid open the glass door for the balcony. The gulf breeze filled the room. The TV was a Zenith black and white. Three channels were available. One was in Spanish. The show was coming from Havana.

After a tepid shower I descended on the creaking elevator to the breezy art-deco lobby. It was too early for a drink, so I ordered a beer from the raw-boned desk clerk. He said his name was Nick. He looked like a young baseball player from the 50s. The can of cold Busch was a good wake-me-up for my first day in Miami Beach.

An old geezer at the scarred piano was one-fingering an unfamiliar tune.

The afternoon light bounced harshly off the tiled patio. A steady mumble fumbled off the piano player’s lips. Choice expletives dotted his tower of babble and the other residents steered cleasr of him and the sun-warped piano.

I tried calling Diana from the hotel lobby’s pay phone.

There was no answer from the other end of the continent..

The time was three hours earlier in LA.

I told myself that she was at class and went out to the veranda. My flip-flops whisked over the cracked tiles. A set of chairs lay in the shadow on the hotel awning. I sat on a distressed rattan chair and drank my beer sheltered from the noontime sun.

Pedestrians were scarce on the sidewalk. The midday sun torched the cement. Only yesterday my fingers had been numbed by the cold.

I dozed off to the pianist’s rambling monologue of the blues, bread lines, and riding the rails. He spun patches of praise for the smell of the sea in Texas, Florida, and a place called Tulum. It must have been in Mexico. Coughs punctuated his rant often enough to create a rhythm. I fell asleep for a good half-hour. The sun shifted beyond the tree and fell on my feet. I shifted out of the chair and I ordered another beer from Nick.

“Who’s the music man?”

“Old Bill’s been here since before I got hired. A pain in the ass. Do yourself a favor and give the old bastard a miss. He’s meaner than a snake with a wire up its ass.”

I shuffled back to the patio with the morning newspaper. Hippies waiting for Zeppelin tickets had rioted at Boston Garden. Damage was over $30,000. I had seen Zep at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. I thought about asking the vile-tempered pianist to play DAZED AND CONFUSED except the gaunt septuagenarian exhibited a frightening mean streak just from his fingering of the keys.

No race was safe from his scorn, as he toyed with a tuning fork. No religion was beneath his contempt, while he tapped the keys. He called the male guests ‘bums’ and the blue-haired ladies ‘whores’. They ignored his epithets, as he riffed through EVERYTIME WE SAY GOODBYE.

It was a good track off John Coltrane LP MY FAVORITE THINGS.

His vile banter was getting on my nerves and I strode into the lobby for a third beer. I was on vacation and beer was better entertainment than TV.

“What’s with Old Bill?” I asked Nick without looking over my shoulder. “He’s got a serious dose of assholiness.”

“He wasn’t always like that so I hear.” The younger desk clerk whispered under his breath. “His wife died a year ago and since then he’s been on a roll.”

“Why doesn’t the management kick him out of the hotel?” I didn’t like bullies.

“First he’s blind and second he keeps the piano tuned and lastly the residents like his piano-playing. He even plays requests, if he likes the song.”

“Nick, what you and that hippie boy talking about?” Old Bill shouted from the piano.

“How he know I was a hippie?”

I had cut my hair before leaving Boston. The silent majority was in their seventh year of ruling America. They hated the counter-culture. Getting rides was what easier without long hair reminding the hicks of LSD and anti-war demonstrations. In their mind we had lost that fight and they wanted it to stay lost.

“Old Bill got good ears. Right, Bill.” Nick lifted his head, as if Old Bill could see the gesture. We were both impressed by the deductive powers of the blind man’s remaining senses.

“Hippie Boy, this C sound right to you.”

A crooked index finger poked at a key. I joined him at the piano. His t-shirt and khaki trousers were stained with fallen food and perspiration. Old Bill was not a man who cared much for his appearance.

“I think so.”

“Think so.” He scratched his buzz-cut. His hair was more white than gray.

“I’m trying to adjust the interval between tones to get the right interaction between notes. You ever play an instrument, Hippie Boy?”

“Sang a little and played bass.” My only musical training was singing in Our Lady of the Foothills choir and a three-month stint in a garage band. Neither really counted for much.

“You young people don’t know shit about music. Electric guitar solos by long-haired drug addicts. That ain’t fucking music. This is music.”

His spider fingers crawled across the keyboard. The tune was familiar. BLUE RONDO. His chording interpreted a more bluesy version than Dave Brubeck’s original track off TAKE FIVE. He stopped after ten bars.

“Hippie boy, you still there?” His head turned to me. Old Bill took off his sunglasses. His blank eyes were as blank as cue balls.

“Yeah.” My glasses were a testimony to lifelong myopia. Old Bill had me beat by miles, yet his eyes glowed like those of a statue coming to life.

“I know that, but was asking if you knew you were still there.”

“Yeah, I know that I’m still here.” I took a step closer and he flinched as if I was wearing a force field instead of a white tee-shirt and cut-off Levis. “How you know I was a hippie?”

“Everyone your age who stays at the Sea Breeze is a hippie. It’s cheap and close to the beach. Plus everyone your age is either a hippie or a straight or queer. You ain’t queer, are you?”

“No.” At least I didn’t think I was and you don’t sound like some uptight Jesus freak.”

“No, I’m not.” I kept my lack of faith to myself. America was a Christian nation.

“You don’t sound so sure about that?” Old Bill possessed about 50% of his front teeth.

“Oh, I’m damned sure enough about that.”

“You aren’t queer, are you?”

“No.” I had danced with a few men at the 1270 Club in Boston. Kissing them meant nothing. 1975 was deep in the sexual revolution, but I liked girls not gladiator films. I was annoyed by his accusation and I asked bluntly, “Are you queer?”

“No, but if I was I’d suck your dick?”

“Fuck you.” I took off my glasses. He may have been blind, but I didn’t take shit from anyone.

“I’d like snappy streak, Hippie boy. You have any requests?” His hands dropped to the piano. “A song.”

“What about IN-DA-GADDA-DA-VIDA.” I doubted if the bitter old coot had heard of Iron Butterfly.

Old Bill nodded his head and played the heavy metal classic’s strident opening chords. It was a peace offering.

“Surprised you, Hippie boy.” His self-satisfied grin was a tribute to no dental care. “I listen to everything on the radio. It’s my TV.”

“I like the radio too.” As a young boy in Maine I had listened to radio drama at night. My ears helped paint moving pictures on the interior of my closed eyelids. “All kinds of music too. I liked your rendering of BLUE RONDA.”

“Hippie boy is a music lover. You from Boston, Hippie boy.”

“That’s right.” My r-less accent was a dead giveaway.

“You be careful with that tropical sun. It burns northern white boys like you right to the bone.”

“Thanks for the advice.” I left him singing the words to IN DA GADDA VIDA to myself and went for a swim in the ocean. The water was ten degrees warmer than the beach at Harwichport in the dead of summer. I bobbed on the waves for a good hour and then returned to the hotel. The sun had had its way with my skin and I fell asleep in my bed before the sunset.

The next two days passed without incident.

The majority of the Sea Breeze clientele appeared to be harmless seniors with a short term on life. Nick, the desk clerk nicknamed the Sea Breeze ‘the Stairway to Heaven’. After the 3rd day people nodded hello with reservation. I was Old Bill’s friend and they maintained a distance.

My calls to LA went unanswered and my scorched skin deepened to a golden brown. I sent two postcards to Diana and paid for another week at the Sea Breeze. Old Bill and I spoke often at the piano.

More he talked and I listened to him.

His hometown was Baltimore. He had been blind since birth. His mother had taught him how to play piano. His father had died young in a dock accident. He was an only child. The state had sent him to schools for the blind. His entire childhood had been filled with the abuse from bullies.

“The punches came from nowhere.” He worked on the piano every day. It was never in perfect pitch to his ear.

His spindly nose wavered like a crooked road. Unseen fists had broken the beak more than once. His face wore scars, for Old Bill had not offered his assailants an easy target.

“I fought the bullies. They would laugh until I hit them. Made them think that i really wasn’t blind. The blows were easier to take than the whispers. My hearing is better than good. I heard them say everything. They thought they were funny. I could have hated their looking at me strange, but I had my music. It saved my soul.”

“I got beat up in 6th Grade. Every day.” The three boys didn’t like me for some reason. They never said the why.

“Then you know what I’m talking about. You fight back?”

“They were three of them.” Fighting only made the three of them meaner.

“Tough odds.” Old Bill shrugged with surrender. “I hate bullies. That’s why I hate most of the old coots here. Crackers used to lynching niggers and right-wing thugs looking to jail commies.”

“You seem to have a way with people.” The residents of the Sea Breeze were neither racists nor fascists, but Old Bill liked seeing things his way. “You have any friends?”

“If I wanted a friend, I’d buy a dog. I got my music. That’s my best friend now.”

He considered himself lucky to have learned piano tuning in his teens. His travels around the country were aided by sick pianos.

“Bad weather and heavy hands take their toll on pianos. New Yorkers treat their pianos with respect, while Texans beat the shit out of theirs. Fingers dropping on the keys like bombs. I make a good living out there finding the perfect fifth. Miami Beach is good too. The sun, sea, and humidity play havoc pianos. And all those rich motherfuckers thinks their spoiled brat is going to be the next Glenn Gould. Not one of them silver-spoon rats can play a lick.”

Old Bill and I argued about greatest pianist. He favored Thelonius Monk, while I sided with McCoy Tyner. His chordal phasing with John Coltrane placed the Phillie pianist in the top ten of all time.

“You wanna know something, Hippie boy.” Old Bill never asked my name.

“What?” Hippie boy had a good ring to it coming from him.

“Maybe there’s hope for you after all.”

I had written a long letter to Diana. It ended with ‘see you soon’. I figured I would leave in another week. It was a long haul to the West Coast.

Old Bill hated the hotel’s food and every afternoon we traveled to Wolfie Cohen’s Deli. We could have taken the bus. Old Bill preferred the exercise, his slender walking cane tapping out the way. The counter staff greeted Old Bill with warmth. He never spoke to them badly.

“I don’t want them spitting in my food.”

One day he pointed out a tidy woman at a window table in the famed deli on 172nd Street. Her two friends and she were eating the jello.

“That’s Mrs. Meyer Lansky. She comes here everyday with two old bags.”

The waiter delivered bacon and fried eggs to our table. They were a special every hour of the day.

“Meyer Lansky the mob mastermind?” He had added the 00 to the roulette wheel to increase the odds for the house.

“That’s the one.” Old Bill’s fork picked apart the eggs. His eating habits were a sight that sored eyes.

“She doesn’t look too prosperous.” The tiny woman could have been a regular at the Sea Breeze.

“Lansky supposedly had no money when he died.” Old Bill stuck a dripping yolk in his mouth and swallowed without chewing. “Her son from her first marriage was shotgunned to death outside his restaurant in Bay Harbor. An old debt being paid. So much for Lansky’s luck. The murdering bastard. I tuned his piano once. Tried to chisel the bill. Cheap yid.”

He waved to the old woman on the way out. She waved back like they were old friends.

Old Bill had lots of stories. He loved telling them at the Ace of Spades, the bar closest to the Sea Breeze.

“This place smells like New York to me. Sour beer, whiskey sweat, cheap perfume, and cigarettes.” He inhaled the air with a love for intoxication.

“I ever tell that I loved Jackie Gleason?”

“No.” I had watched THE HONEYMOONERS with my parents. His interpretation of a luckless Brooklyn bus driver was hilarious. “He was a funny man.”

“He was more than funny. You know he did his show down here?”

“THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW.” Direct from Miami Beach.

“That’s the one. You hear people say that they worked on that show here. It was a big operation. I wish that I was one of them, but Jackie only worked with union guys. Although one time I had drinks with him. The big man was really into UFOs. He thought they were going to kidnap him into Space. You really know about Jackie Gleason?”

“I loved him in SOLDIER IN THE RAIN.” Jackie Gleason had played a cool sergeant. Steve McQueen had been his protege. The ending had made me cry.

“You were never in the military, Hippie boy.”

The words were almost an accusation. Vietnam wasn’t my war. I tensed up in preparation for an attack.


“Chill out, Hippie boy. I wasn’t in the army either. I did get drafted. The draft board thought I was faking my blindness. Not only did I have perfect 0/0 vision, but they told me I had flat feet. Never knew that. Good thing I got a long nose. I can smell everything around me like a hound tracking a runaway slave.”

He raised his head and howled off-key. He was no singer.

The Ace of Spades was our bar. Old Bill drank Canadian whiskey and I downed Busch Beer. The rough and ready bar had a good jukebox, cheap drinks, and a clientele guaranteed to scare off any good citizens.

Old Bill’s favorite antic was to challenge a newcomer to a game of pool using his cane as a cue stick. All he had to do was sink one ball. The rube would accept the challenge and then Old Bill would accuse them of cheating. He was a good laugh.

Toward the middle of January I called Diana from a hotel phone booth. She was never home. LA seemed on the other side of the world.

We watched the Super Bowl at the Ace of Spades. Both of us bet on Pittsburgh. The Steelers covered the spread by 13. We celebrated our win with a long night of drinking rum and cokes. The bartender threw us out at dawn after an obscene toast to the MVP Franco Harris.

Walking back to the Sea Breeze he turned his head to the northern sky. A white contrail was pummeling the clear morning sky. A rocket was lifting from Cape Kennedy.

“Going where no one man has been before.” Old Bill chuckled when I confirmed his acute sense of hearing. He grabbed my arm, as he stumbled off the curb. “Damn, drunk doesn’t combo good with blind. Better watch where I’m going.”

Old Bill’s geographic memory prevented most accidents, but one afternoon he entered the hotel with blood streaming from a cut on his head. The piano-tuner went out for a job in Coconut Grove. His customer left him on the wrong side of the road and he walked into a coconut tree. His insults were aimed at his tropical surroundings and the bastard piano owner.

“Felt like Helen Keeler after her parents moved the furniture. Lucky a coconut didn’t fallen on my head.” He used his tee-shirt to wipe away the blood. “You know all pianists spread their notes over three or four octaves. McCoy Tyner was trying to stretch the sound. It’s all a question of string scaling.”

“Sorry, Old Bill, that’s Greek to me.”

“To most people too. I feel like the last of my kind, but that means I always have a job. You know the song HOUSTON.”

“Going back to Houston.” I sang the line from Dean Martin’s hit as best as I could.

“That’s the one. I got an old girlfriend out there. She wants me to come tune her piano. She’ll pay gas and food. You want to drive me there?”

“In what?”

“In my car. A Delta 88.”

“You have a car?”

“And why not? I bet no one asks Stevie Wonder if he has a car, Hippie boy. Fucking think I’m not normal?” These were the harshest words Old Bill had ever aimed in my direction. I tried to apologize, but he pushed me away.

“If you don’t want to drive to Houston with me, just say so.”

“No, I’ll drive you there.” I had originally intended to stay in Miami a week. That was a little more than two weeks ago. Staying at hotels, even one as cheap as the Sea Breeze, ate money. I thought about Diana in LA. Her blonde hair was flaxen gold. Her skin was smooth as the morning sea off Miami. Houston was almost halfway to the coast. “It’s time I moved along.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Hippie boy.” Old Bill was serious.

“No bullshit.” I had Diana’s address. She would be surprised to see me. The look on her face would tell whether the surprise was good or bad.

“Then pack your bag. We’re going now.”

“Now?” It was almost midday. Check-out was at noon. I could save $20.

“Yes, now. We can be in Houston tomorrow night.” Old Bill was heading for the stairs. I’ll see you down here in ten minutes.”

I showed up in five minutes. My bag was on the floor. I dialed Diana from the telephone booth. She answered after two rings. She sounded like she had been expecting someone else.

“Where are you?”

“Miami Beach.” I explained about the Sea Breeze and Old Bill. She laughed and said, “Sounds like it’d make a good film. I’ll see you in a few days.”

I paid my bill. Nick said that he was sorry to see me go. I was the only guest younger than 65.

“I’m driving Old Bill to Houston.”

“Whatever you do, don’t let him drive.” The clerk warned biting his lower lip. “That old man is dangerous. To himself no problem, but don’t let him kill you.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here. I’m blind, not deaf.” Old Bill entered the lobby with a leather satchel in his hand. He was wearing a black suit shiny with age. His rumpled white shirt was accessorized by a flashy red tie. The dust had been wiped off his shoes.

“You look good.”

“Of course I look good. I ain’t no Hippie boy. A man should make a good impression on the road. Let’s go. See you suckers in a week. Enjoy your vacation, but I’ll be back. I promise you that.”

No one in the lobby wished him ‘good luck’. They were happy to see his back.

Old Bill’s car was in the rear parking lot. I pulled the cover off the big Detroit boat. The Delta 88 steel was painted a somber gray. He walked over to the passenger side and opened the door.

It wasn’t locked.

“C’mon, get in. We don’t got all day. Hippie boys think the world one big Woodstock. Naked girls and LSD.”

“And would that be such a bad thing?”

“It would be for the clothing factories in the South and tobacco growers.”

We drove across the Everglades to avoid the Interstate. The noise of the semi-trailers hurt Old Bill’s ears. Small towns dotted the endless swamp. Clewiston, Venus, Lake Placid, Sebring, Lady Lake. He gave directions, as if the bumps in the road were written in Braille. We stopped every four hours for gas and a walk. I was given coffee and donuts.

Back on the road Old Bill fiddled with the radio. Florida radio was mostly country, but black stations ghettoed soul music at the end of the dial. Old Bill drank whiskey from a silver flask.

“None for you, you’re driving.”

By evening we passed through Ocala. I got on the Interstate after Tallahassee. Old Bill drunkenly bitched about the trucks. He stuffed wads of wet paper in his ears and fell asleep until Mobile.

“There’s a good crab shack before the bridge.” He lifted his nose to the open window. “The second one. We’ll eat there.”

Old Bill’s choice was on the money. He tucked a napkin into his collar and lay a handkerchief on his lap. “Only got one suit.”

The other late-night diners watched the ritual with interest. He gave them the finger. We ate succulent crab and drank cold beer. His table etiquette remained a disgrace. Shells and crab covered his side of the table. I averted my eyes from the horror of his enjoyment. At the end of the meal Old Bill wiped his mouth with the napkin.

“I get anything on my suit?” He stared down with an inquisitive sniff.

“Nothing.” None of the mess had touched his suit.

“I’m a lucky man.”

“How so?” I felt good too.

“I got me a full belly of crab.”

“Me too.” A warm wind was blowing off the Gulf and the road was open to LA. We got back in the Olds.

“This car belonged to my wife. She drove me everywhere. You might have noticed that I’m not an easy man, but she brought out the best in me. We must have stopped at this crab shack ten fifteen times. Tonight it was almost like she was there with me. She didn’t speak much and neither did you. That’s why I dressed up for this trip. She hated me looking sloppy. You have a girlfriend?”

“Out in LA.” Diana and I had yet to say the l-word, but she would that first night in Hollywood. So would I.

“That’s good. A man alone is not a good thing. Look at me. Old, mean, and alone. No one care a shit for me.” Old Bill scratched his nose, as if he were sharpening it to keen his whereabouts. “But I knew that would happen if I lived long enough. I thought Mary, that was her name, I thought Mary would outlive me. All women are supposed to outlive their man, but not Mary. I put her in the early grave.”

Old Bill took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, as I drove into the western night.

“Sorry, any time I get near New Orleans I get a little misty, I met Mary there.” He told about playing piano in a bar. “Never knew its name. Only the smell. One night a perfume caught my nose. A lady. Not a whore. A lady. Mary. She liked my playing. We went out and I stopped seeing other women. 30 years together. And not once did I sniff at another woman. Are you still there, Hippie boy?”

“Still behind the wheel.” My eyes were fighting to stay open after almost 12 hours on the road. The last coffee was wearing off fast and I suppressed a yawn.

“Don’t pay for an old man to think too much about the past. The old sentiments sneak up on you like the Japs at Pearl Harbor. You’re not feeling tired, are you?”

“Just a little. I could manage another hour.”

After that I’d be resting one eye and then the other. Good way to find yourself off the road into a tree. Pull off the highway round Bay St. Louis. We’ll sleep by the beach. Nice to wake to the see breeze. Unless of course you want me to drive. The road gets mighty straight around here.”

“No, another 20 minutes and we’ll be there.” I drove the speed limit. Southern cops hated hippies.

Pass Christian was our final stop for the night. The gulf was lit by a frail moon. The night air was gentle. Old Bill handed me the flask of whiskey.

“You earned it. Sleep good.” Old Bill dropped his seat into a deep recline. He was snoring several seconds later. I listened to the mosquitoes hunting my blood. I don’t remember falling asleep.

A rap on the car trunk woke us at dawn. A police officer was standing next to the Delta 88. His hand was on his holster. The gun was a .45.

“You boys run out of gas.”

“Just steam, officer.” Old Bill was polite. He righted his seat. “My young friend here drove all the way from Miami yesterday. He had to get some sleep or else drive into the beautiful scenery.”

“Something wrong with getting a hotel?” The trooper was standing by my door.

“Just trying to save money.” Old Bill was doing all the talking. “We have ID. Have money too. This is my car.”

“What’s a blind man doing with a car?”

“This used to belong to my old lady. She’s dead three years now. This young fellow offered to drive me to Houston.”

“He’s got hair long enough to be a lady. You ain’t queer, are you, boy?”

Men in uniform hated queers even more than hippies.

“Officer, hippie boy ain’t no queer. I ain’t a bum. You want to see our registration?”

“No, a blind man and a Hippie boy seem harmless enough. Just get moving. Don’t need your type in our town. Have a good day.” The officer returned to his cruiser. It was a souped-up Chevy. He 180ed in the opposite direction.

“Don’t say nothing.” Old Bill spit out the window. “I don’t like eating crow, but that’s all the cops serve around these parts. Let’s do like he said and get moving on.”

We crossed the bridge between Pass Christian and Port St. Louis. Both were old towns. A sandy beach lined with trees was to the left. Vintage mansions lay to the right.

“Go north of New Orleans.” Old Bill ordered at the turning. “Don’t much like the Pearl City anymore. Like I said it reminds me too much of Mary.”

We skirted the lake and entered Baton Rouge around 9. Donuts and coffee were breakfast. I called Diana from a gas station. The phone rang ten times. No answer. The day was getting hot. Lafayette, Iowa, Lake Charles.

Texas was less than 20 minutes away. Old Bill had me pull into a gas station in Beaumont. The men looked at me funny. Cowboys didn’t like hippies either. They also thought Old Bill was weird. He could hear their mutterings.

“Damn goat-ropers.” He fumbled for coins from his pocket and gave me a slip of paper. “Dial this number for me.”

The area code was same as the pay phone. The call cost 90 cents. I put in the money. A woman answered on the other end. Old Bill had better luck than me. I handed him the phone. Old Bill spoke for several minutes and then hung up. Walking back to the car, he said, “Not far now. Maybe ten miles. We get off the highway next exit. I ever show you a picture of my Mary?”


We got into the car and he fished out a tattered photo from his wallet. The woman was pretty. Her skin was jet-black. Living in the South as a mixed couple must have been hard on both of them.

“Good-looking woman.”

“That she was.” He put away the photo with a kiss.

When we left the highway, Old Bill smelled the air and said, “Stop here.”

“Here?”The straight two-laner disappeared to the north through bare fallow fields.

“Yeah, I know the way from here. I want to drive.” He pushed me hard.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Nick had warned me against just this.

“This is my damn car. If I want to drive it, then I’ll drive it. You don’t think that I know what I’m doing? Get the fuck out of my car, you Hippie boy. I’m not joking.” His fists were tight balls of old bone and flesh. He raised one in anger.

“This is fucked.” I opened my door and started for the passenger side.

“Where you think you going? The highway is behind you. You ain’t coming with me. Where I’m going, I’m going alone. Don’t need no one hanging on.”

I grabbed my bag. I had been expecting a better good-bye. I should have known better knowing Old Bill.“You got everything. Good. Have a good life.”“You too, Old Bill.”“What’s your name?”I told him.“Hippie boy suits you better.” Old Bill turned on the radio. Booker T was playing GREEN ONIONS. It was good traveling music. Better for a car than hitchhiking.“Thanks.”Old Bill waved in the air and drove away slowly on that long road. The Delta 88 wavered between the lines without crossing into the other side or the breakdown lane. He was not driving fast, but within several minutes the Delta 88 was a little black dot. I turned to the highway. No cars or trucks entered from the country road. An hour passed slowly. The sun was hotter than in Miami. Finally a semi-trailer stopped for me. The bearded driver was headed to Austin, Texas. The capitol of cowboy rock was home for Commander Cody and Asleep At The Wheel.“What were you doing out there?” He shifted the big rig into gear.“A friend dropped me off.” I squinted at the far distance. There was no car on the road.“Middle of nowhere.” He squinted at the flat East Texas landscape.“He knew where he was heading.” To see an old girlfriend and a piano. I was doing much the same. “I’m going to the West Coast.”“Anyplace not cold sounds good to me this time of the year.” The trucker shifted into first gear. The big truck lurched from a dead stop and picked up speed through grind of the gears.I started humming IN-DA-GADDA-VIDA.Old Bill’s version was a song I couldn’t get out of my head.Just like a tuning fork sounding a perfect fifth.It was a hum made to last forever.

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