Tulsa was a very religious town in 1974. Sundays belonged to the Lord. The bedroom windows were open for the fresh morning air and the numerous church calling for the faithful bells woke me from sleep.
My good friend AK and I were guests of the Speare sisters. Both were long-legged blondes. Valerie had been going out with a schoolmate, Nick. He was out in the Philippines studying medicine. It was over between them, but she was happy to see me. Tulsa was a small town in the middle of the country. Long hairs like AK and I were an anomaly in Oklahoma.
Merle Haggard had scored a hit with I’M AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE in 1970. That city was one of the most diverse in the state, but Merle Haggard was right in saying that its patriotic citizens didn’t smoke marijuana, take LSD, wear beads or sandals. Okies had special words for people like AK and me. They were dirty hippies and we had bathed twice a day to prove the crackers wrong.
Mr. Speare knocked on the door. It was a little before 8am. His church was a walking distance from their tidy ranch house several blocks east from the Arkansas River.
“You boys awake?” The voice belonged to an older male.
AK groaned and pulled the covers over his head. Every free room had its price. I shut my eyes hoping that Mr. Speare would go away. The next knock was a little louder. I sat up in bed and told AK to do the same. My friend pushed his long hair out of his face and I scrapped order from my mop with a rake of fingers. We were Mr. Speare’s guests and I answered, “Yes, sir, we’re up now.”
The lanky banker entered the room in his Sunday finest. He looked like he could have played back-up for the Johnny Cash band. The family Bible was nestled under his arm. It was the Baptist Guide to the Universe and whatever wasn’t written in the Good Book wasn’t good.
“You ready for church?” His question was directed primarily at me, although Baptists regarded the conversion of a Jew as a great challenge and AK had the look of the Tribe, even though he ate bacon.
“No, sir, I’m sleeping in.” I hadn’t been to church in a long time. My Catholic mother prayed for my soul. She worried that her son was doomed to burn in Hell. My father was content that I kept my non-belief to myself. The government hadn’t put IN GOD WE TRUST on our money as a joke.
“Never to late to save your soul.” Mr. Speare had heard that I was distantly related to the founder of the Mormons and twice intoned what a great honor it would be his church to bring Joseph Smith’s ancestor back into the faith. This was the second time since we left LA that someone was desperate to save our souls. The last attempt had been by a Jesus freak promised salvation with cute hippie girls. It had sounded too much like heaven to be true and we had kept traveling east.
“I know, sir, but I have a head cold.” Valerie had taken us to a speakeasy last night. They served their own alcohol. The owner swore that it wasn’t moonshine. AK had played piano for the wicked and Marilyn had danced an Okie boogie to his rendition of LOUIE LOUIE. I stopped them from getting serious. Marilyn was only 17. The night had ended someplace called the Boom-Boom Room.
“Well, that old shine will break your head good. Believe me I was once young too. Drank the Demon Rum with my evil friends. I could have ended up in a bad way. In prison or dead or both, but I found the Light and God loves a sinner that has found his way back home.” The fifty year-old turned to AK what an outstretched hand. He was about the same age as our fathers. We had been brought up to obey our elders and I recognized the wavering of AK’s resolve. “I know that you young people thought that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but it’s four years since they broke up. Jesus is God. God never breaks up.”
“I was never into the Beatles. I was more into the Rolling Stones.” This was as close as I could come to telling Valerie’s father that I did not believe in God.
“The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll band. They played here in 1965. The Stones were my band too, but I gave them up for Jesus.”
“That’s quite a sacrifice.” Almost as much as the Jews and Muslims rejecting bacon.
“You can’t always get what you want with the Stones, but you can with Jesus.” Mr. Speare wasn’t giving up on both of us. He turned to AK. “I know you’re a Jew, but my church has sent many missions to your people in hopes of bringing them back to the Way of God. Get out of bed and come with us. It will do you good.”
“Thank, you sir, but I’ll sit this morning out.” AK was half-Jewish. His mother was a Yankee same as my father. He existed a step down from the hierarchy of atheism on the plane of agnosticism. Doubt was much more acceptable to the believers than downright dismissal of God, however AK’s sacrament was marijuana and no preaching could make him abandon his Search for the Ultimate Holy Bong of Reefer.
“Can’t say that I didn’t try.”
“It’s the first syllable in triumph.”True Believers in the My wife, the girls and I will say some prayers for your souls, then come back here with some nice young people for a fried chicken dinner with all the fixings.”
“Your wife’s fried chicken?” I swung my feet onto the floor.
“The word KFC is sacrilege in this house.” He moved to the door. We’ll be back around 11.”
“We’ll be waiting.” I had eaten Mrs. Speare’s chicken on my previous trip to Tulsa. The taste was beyond finger-licking good.
Mr. Speare shut the door and AK faded back into the pillows.
“That felt like a sermon after a Salvation Army dinner on the Bowery.”
“No one forced you to drink last night.” He was a lightweight when it came to drinking and last night he had downed three tequila sunrises. “Another hour sleep, a shower, Mrs. Speare’s chicken, and we’ll be ready for the road around 1.”
“That’s a late start.” AK was eager to get back to Boston. His girlfriend was waiting at home. He hadn’t had sex once on our trip across America.
“Days last long this time of year.” It was only three weeks after the summer solstice. Depending on where we were in time zone, sunset could be as late as 9 O’clock. I pulled out a map. “Eight hours of travel puts us in Illinois by dark.”
“And where will be stay?” Our nights in the Speare’s house were the only time that the road hadn’t been our place of rest.
“We’ll find someplace.”
There was another knock on the door. It was Valerie. She came into the room and sat on my bed. Her sister was standing by the door. Both of the long-legged blondes were dressed in virginal white dresses. The hemlines were hanging at mid-calf. Their ankles were covered by sheer white sox. After a summer with hippie girls the Speare sisters were a breath of straight American sex appeal.
AK stirred under the sheets. He was having trouble hiding his erection. My problem was even worst, since I was sitting on the edge of the bed. I pulled the covers over my lap. Valerie and i were just friends. I didn’t want her to think any different. Even with Nick on the other side of the world, she was still his girl.
“Both of you. Out of bed.” Her voice expressed an unexpected urgency. “We have to be at church in ten minutes and you have to be out of the house in five.”
“What about the chicken dinner?” I hated hitting the road on an empty stomach and my funds were down to less than $10.
“My mother cooked the chicken this morning.” Marilyn held up a paper sack. She gave it to AK. “I packed you a doggie bag.”
“What’s the hurry?” I was up on my feet and pulling on my jeans.
“My father is coming back here with about ten Oral Robert football players dedicated to Jesus and they’re going to try to strong-arm you into becoming believers.” Valerie was stuffing my dirty clothing into my grandfather’s leather doctor’s bag. I rolled my sleeping bag tight and tied it shut with rope.
“Sounds like a lynch mob.” AK was dressing faster than a Polish Jew fleeing the Nazis. He looped his sleeping bag over his shoulder.
“My father has become a little too gung-ho about Jesus.” Valerie was apologizing for her old man. It wasn’t necessary. “Thinks the world is coming to an end. He’s not a bad man, but he’s worried that you’ll be condemned to Hell.”
“He should meet my mother.” She would have thanked Mr. Speare for the help.
“No time. We had a good time. Hope to see you again. Marilyn and I are getting our own place. We believe in God, but my father has gone off the deep-end. My mother is hoping that he’ll find a way back to reason, but that isn’t happening this morning. Hurry up and we’ll drive you to the highway.”
Seven minutes later Valerie jammed on the brakes of her Tempest convertible at the entrance to I-44. The sky was a blue eggshell from horizon to horizon. It was promising to be a hot one. Marilyn gave us two canteens filled with water. Valerie kissed me on the lips. Her were soft. She pushed something into my hand.
“We had a good time.”
“Us too.” It was a $20 bill.
“Be careful on the road. This state has some funny laws. Like no spitting on the street or taking a bite from someone else’s hamburger.” Valerie was showing off her education as a law enforcement major.
“Or wearing your boots to bed.” Marilyn added from the passenger seat. Her skin shone with the glow of an angel.
“Call us from Boston.” Valerie waved good-bye and then stamped on the accelerator. The two girls looked like holy virgins of desire. Before AK and I could jump back in the Tempest, the V8 spun the rear tires at with a squeal of rubber. The both of us covered our faces to keep from breathing the dust.
“That’s what I call a bum’s rush.” AK put down his canvas bag and stuck out his thumb to a passing pick-up truck. The farmer glared at us, as if he had been cheering for the rednecks in EASY RIDER. AK rubbed his face. “What a great way to start the day.”
“You want to wait for a football squad of Bible-thumpers?”
“No, those Jesus freaks forget the Messiah was a Jew a little too easy for my tastes. At least we have fried chicken and water.”
“A miracle.” I was starving, but resisted tearing into the chicken. It would taste even better when I was really hungry.
“A better miracle would be us getting a ride out of here.”
“I agree.” Muskogee lay to the south. I wrapped a rubber band around my long hair and AK followed my cue. We slipped on baseball caps. Any motorist not looking to closely might take us for college kids instead of long-haired hippies and ten minutes later a Cadillac stopped in the breakdown lane. The driver was heading to Justice, Oklahoma. It was about forty minutes up the road.
I jumped in the front seat and AK spread out in the back. The AC chilled the interior to a spring in Maine. The crew-cut driver was late for church. He had spent the night in Tulsa with a cousin.
“We drank beers until dawn.” His driving was a classic example of what law enforcement officers called weaving. I grabbed the wheel at least once a minute to prevent us from veering off the highway.
“Sorry about that. I couldn’t find my glasses this morning, so I can see shit.”
“Damn.” AK muttered from the rear. He wanted to get out of the car. I was in the same mind, but north of Tulsa was the middle of nowhere and a lot of it.
Luckily traffic was light, but the windows of passing cars were filled with angry faces. The driver slurred out swears in return.
“Damn Methodists think the road was built for them.”
“How you know they’re Methodists?”
“Because all good Baptists are in church. Damn Methodists.” We were barely going 30 mph.
It took an hour to reach Justice.
We got out of the Cadillac and AK kicked a stone in the wake of the exhaust.
“I hate America.”
“You don’t want to say that. It’s a big country. There’s the good and the bad in every country.” He had enough money in his pocket to take the bus back to Boston. “You could catch a Greyhound home from here. Let us do the driving.”
“And what about you?” AK was a true friend.
“I’ll make it to Boston when I make it.” I had nothing waiting for me back in my hometown.
“I’ll stick it out with you.” He looked to the right. Justice was a small town.
“I’d wait with you till the bus came.” A gas station was a few hundred feet from the exit. It probably doubled as the bus stop.
“No, I’ll take my chances on the highway.” He was cursed by having read Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD.
“Let’s see if that gas station has food.” I cleared my mouth and spit on the ground.
We were lucky. A small diner was open for breakfast. AK and I ate a full breakfast of bacon and eggs. The price of a bus ticket to Chicago was $20. I was down to $27. AK didn’t offer to loan me the money and I didn’t ask for the $20. I was committed to the road.
We washed up in the bathroom and headed back to the highway. The temperature had risen several degrees in the low 90s. The sun was getting strong and the only shade was beneath the underpass. A state trooper backed up the ramp. His cruiser was a Plymouth Grand Fury built for speed.
“Where you boys going?” The young officer spoke through the open passenger window. He was about our age. His radio squawk out bulletins instead of the Rolling Stones.
“Back east. We just left our friends in Tulsa. The Speares.” At least Mr. Speare hadn’t reported us for missing church, but it was against the law to spit in the state.
“I don’t know any Speares in Tulsa, but I don’t want to see you down on my highway. That’s against the law in Oklahoma.” His sunglasses were the same ones that Boss Godfrey sported in COOL HAND LUKE. “Stay up here on the ramp and you don’t get no trouble from me. Have a good day.”
The trooper accelerated down the ramp. We stood in the sun. Only three cars passed us in the next hour. Two of the drivers pointed to the right and exited onto a dirt road a half mile in the distance. The third gave us the finger. Two hours later a Greyhound bus heaved up to the gas station. AK looked over at me.
“I’ll buy you a ticket.”
The panel across the top of the bus said CHICAGO. We had taken a bus out of Victorville. The temperature had been in the 100s. People at the back of the Greyhound smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Neither AK nor I were into tobacco.
“Thanks, but I feel good about this place. We’ll get out of here in a little while.”
The Greyhound passed us a minute later. The driver and his passengers on the right side of the bus regarded us as if we were the descendants of the hobos. This was Tom Joad country. THE GRAPES OF WRATH started in these farmlands. I looked at the fields stretching to the hazy horizon. Dirt roads ran straight lines through the crops. Back out beyond the highway still was 1930.
A steady processions of vehicles exited from the highway. Most of them were hauling speedboats. Two dammed lakes provided water recreation for the Tulsans. A couple of cars passed us in the next hour. Their plate were from Oklahoma. The drivers didn’t look our way. I suspected that the police officer had aired a warning to motorists about two hippie hitching a ride. AK suggested walking to the next exit. It didn’t have a name.
“We are where we are.” I finished off my water. The sun was sucking sweat from our skin. AK’s canteen was empty too and I went to the gas station to refill them. The gas station attendant said that he had seen two longhairs wait at this on-ramp for over a day.
“How they get out of here?”
“Don’t know. They were there one second and then they were gone the next. Might have been extraterrestrials.” The boy seemed a little touched by the isolation. “You’ll get out of here sooner or later.”
“Thanks for the good thoughts.” I planned on keeping this information to myself, but if another Greyhound bus showed up, I fully intended on taking up AK’s offer of the $20 or pay for the fare myself. As I approached AK, a car screeched through the stop sign. I turned my head to witness a Ford Falcon bat-turn into the gas station. Three men piled out of the midnight-blue convertible. They wore new jeans and their hair was short.
“What you think?” AK asked with the right degree of apprehension.
“I think they’re drunk.” It was barely noon. I picked up a rock in my right hand. AK started to do the same. I warned him ‘don’t. He wasn’t a fighter.
The attendant filled the car with gas and I saw the driver give him money. At least they were trying to imitate Charles Starkweather on a Nebraskan killing spree. The for of them got back in the car and AK said, “I hope they’re heading for the lake.”
The driver wasn’t the type to use his turn signal. The Falcon swerved right at the last second and the car fishtailed down the ramp. AK backed away from the road. I stood my ground. The car came to a stop and the three young men examined us, as if they were making up their mind whether they wanted to make today a bad day. They were born crackers and would die crackers, but the radio was playing FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY. The driver with the slicked back hair lifted a beer and said, “Damn, we’re fucked up. Can either of you drive?”
“Say no.” AK whispered behind me.
“You like the OJays?”
“You mean this music. Shit, we listen to anything as long as it don’t have no Jesus in it,” the pale-faced passenger in the rear right said with a laugh. “I hate God.”
“Shut your mouth. It’s the Lord’s Day.” The heavy-set man with tattoos writhing up muscular arms punched the blasphemer.
“My apologies for my passengers. I just picked my cousins up at McAlester Prison. They finished their sentence and are respectable citizens now they have been rehabilitated. Ain’t that right boys?” The driver raised his PBR and toasted their release.
“Definitely no.” AK was ready to flee into the cornfields.
“Yes, sir, we’re good citizens now. We done learned our lesson.” The thin rake on the right had an easy smile. He might have been the brains, except the strongman possessed sharp eyes. “Can you drive or what? We’re wasting gas.”
“Hold your horses, Garrald.” The driver wasn’t in such a hurry. “We’re heading to Springfield, Illinois. That out of this cow-paddy state through Missouri and halfway up to Chicago. It will be a little tight, but we had more people in this Fal-coon that six.”
“I can drive.” The Falcon had custom rims. I dropped the rock on the ground.
“Shit.” AK hated crackers.
“Then you get behind the wheel. My name’s Earl.” He popped open his door and stumbled to the ground. He gave me the keys and I opened the trunk. They had no bags, but wrapped packages with OSP stamped on them.
“OSP. Oklahoma State Prison. You got nothing against cons, do you?” Earl flipped back a fang of jet-black hair with his hand.
“Not me.” Something about the way the engine purred dissipated my reservations.
AK had his eyes shut. I told him to get in the back. I put our bags in the trunk and got behind the wheel. It had a four on the floor.
“Earl, what year is this?” Garrald had switched to the back seat with his brother. AK was between them. He didn’t look very happy.
“This here is the 1964 Sprint with a 302 Cubic Inch Windsor V8. It got a stiff suspension and a loud pipe. I probably shoulda got a Mustang, but the dealer gave me a deal I couldn’t refuse. Nothing down.”
“It ain’t hot.” I adopted a twang to make the accusation.
“Not stolen. My uncle sold it to me. The papers are in the glove compartment.” He whipped out his license. “You think I’d drive a stolen car with my cousins just out of Big Mac. Even I’m not that stupid.”
“I don’t know about that?” The one with the grin leaned forward. He smelled over harsh soap. “You’re related to us.”
“Only on my mother’s side, Jay Bob.” Earl shoved his cousin back from the front.
“We goin’ or we goin’?” Garrald asked from directly behind me. His spit hit the back of my neck.
“We’re goin’.” I shoved the stick into first and stamped on the gas. The Falcon was light even with the weight of five men and the tires peeled an extra layer of rubber on the hot asphalt. I turned up the music and we hit the highway, the fastest car of the road.
“Try and keep it under 70. The cops hate hippies.” Earl advised popping open a beer.
“Okay.” It was hard throttling back on the speed, but any police officer searching this car was bound to find something wrong.
The two boys in the back dedicated their new freedom to sucking down beer. AK wasn’t keeping pace. Earl handed me a cold PBR. The wind blew back my hair.
“Where you comin’ from?”
“The Coast.” It sounded better than San Diego.
“I never been out there. Girls fun out that way.”
“Fun enough.” I told him the story about meeting two lesbians in Big Sur.
“Whoowee. Better not say that too loud. My cousins ain’t had a touch in years. Felt the same way they did only three months ago.”
“You were in prison?”
“Same as them. It’s a hard place, but it used to be harder.” Earl rubbed his face. He was tired from driving, but he kept on talking. “Back in the bad old days the guards liked to torture inmates more than kill them, so the prison commissioner sent two squads of inmates to build a new prison. The women at that time were held in Kansas, so the warden had them build a women’s prison.”
“What you do?”
“Do?” He looked over his shoulder. “I followed bad advice from my cousins. We cousins tried to rob a church. Stupid idea, since it was a Friday and if you’re gonna rob a church better you do it on the Sunday. All three of us were drunk. The judge was hard on us, since we were long-hairs and they don’t like longhairs in the Sooner State. Only reason we didn’t do more time was that we were related to the preacher. I got me two years and them got three. I was 19.”
Earl was my age. We were the same size. He had probably made more than one mistake, but he had to pay for his. I tried to explain about my life, but Earl had a motormouth to match the Falcon’s V8.
He told me about the first prison escape from OSP and how the killers were shot dead on a ridge.He played DJ with the 8-track. GIMME SHELTER set off a long rant about the Hell’s Angels subverting the prison system.
“They play the race card, but all they care about is themselves. Set poor whites agin poor blacks like they cud make Helter-Skelter come to pass. Fuckin’ Beatles. I hate the Beatles. They never played in Oklahoma. They did the goat-roper state, but never Oklahoma.” Earl hailed from Guynon in the Panhandle. With ten thousand folks it was the biggest city in the west of the state. “Rodeo and prison are the only two ways to get out of that town.”
I drove and Earl spoke. AK and I shared our chicken. The two cousins said that it tasted better than anything they ate in Big Mac.
“I wish I had the recipe.” Garrald picked off the last meat and chucked the bone behind the Falcon. It almost hit the car following us. The Chevy blew its horn and I picked up the pace.
We stopped for gas outside of Joplin, Missouri. His cousins stalked into the KFC like they were casing it for a robbery. Earl was in the store, buying more beer. AK was picking the wind out of his ears.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can handle.” Wedged between the two cousins couldn’t have been a party. “All they talk about is fucking women, but I don’t like the way Garrald’s been looking at me.”
“I’ve been listening to Okie 101 for the past hour, but them boys ain’t no trouble.”
“Since when have you started talking like an extra in OKLAHOMA?”
“I like to fit in with the locals. Listen, we’re heading in the right direction and I’m behind the wheel. If anything changes in that equation, then we get out of the car polite like.” It was a little past 2 pm. A regular car would take five hours to cross the Show-Me State. I planned to do it in three with the souped-up Falcon. I had a friend in East St. Louis.
“I would rather be with bible-thumpers than sitting between two cons.” AK had sat on the hump all the way from Justice.
“You’re only thinking about Marilyn. She’s 17.” The image of Valerie driving away from us was stuck in my mind.
“I know that she’s too young for me.” AK easily repented for evil thoughts. His mother was an Episcopalian. They were almost Catholics, which had been the religion of my youth.
“Not really, AK was twenty-four, which was a much more acceptable age differential than that between Jerry Lee Lewis and his ‘fifteen’ year-old bride, a cousin once removed too. “But neither of us want to live out here.”
Joplin didn’t look as prosperous as Tulsa. The woods surrounding the truck stop were yellow pine. The forest surrounded the city with a thick belt of green. Joplin was mentioned in the song ROUTE 66. No one ever sang about stopping here. The boys were taking their time in the store. I had the keys. Stealing the Falcon crossed my mind. It had nearly a full tank of gas.
The price per gallon had been about twenty-six cents before last year’s oil embargo. The cost at the pump in Joplin was more that twice that in the beginning of 1973. My $20 bought about thirty gallon of regular. The Falcon could make Chicago on that much gas. I showed AK the keys. He shook his head. Neither of us were Bonnie or Clyde.
A month earlier I had left Boston with the words of BORN TO BE WILD as my philosophy of the road. I had sought ‘whatever comes my way’ and found it in California and few other places. Now a little over a thousand miles separated me from my hometown. Back in Boston I would resume my life as me. Time for ‘whatever comes my way’ was running out.
The two cousins exited from the store, carrying cases of PBR and a box of fried chicken. They were wearing sunglasses. Earl followed them, holding a brown paper bag. Glass clinked against glass.
“Sorry about the wait, but the chicken took some cookin’, plus I had a special order delivered.” He lifted the bag. “White Lightning. Hard to find in the Sooner State.”
“It’ll be a welcome change from the Pruno we made in Big Mac.” Jay Bob was in the back seat, opening a beer. “I’m lucky I didn’t go blind from that shit.”
“Well, you look like Ray Charles in them glasses.” His older brother pushed AK back onto the hump.
“Do not. I’m better looking and a lot more white.” Jay Bob gave a big grin. He had most of his front teeth.
“Ain’t nobody 100% white in this world. The only reason white people think they’re white is, becuz artists painted their kinfolk white in them old pictures. Everyone got a bit of tar in them.”
“That’s some very advanced thinking you got back there. What you been doin’ at Big Mac? Getting educatified?” Jay Bob laughed to himself like he was on nitrous oxide. I drove out of the truck stop and the wind ripped through my long hair to baffle out the conversation in back.
Earl put on Deep Purple. The boys were more into rock than country. Earl drank his beer without talking. I guessed that he had driven down to the Oklahoma State Prison from the Panhandle last night. He might have slept in the car. He pulled sunglasses out of the bag and put them over his eyes.
“Don’t mind me none. I’m gonna get me some sleep.” He placed the open PBR between his thighs. Within a minute he was snoring like a buzz-saw through ice. I stepped on the gas. The speed limit had been changed to 55 around the nation with the passage of the Maximum Speed Law to conserve gas. President Nixon had wanted it to be 50, but his time in the White House was coming to an end. Nobody on I-44 was traveling less than 70. The country was too big for slow this far from the cities.
Sunday traffic through Missouri was heavy around Springfield. Church was out and the older people in their cars stared, as if we were monkeys in the circus, while their kids smiled like we had fallen from the sky. The land got very country on the way to Lebanon. Cars with boats on trailer hitches were heading south from the Ozarks. The weekend was fading with the setting sun. I pulled off the interstate and drove down old Route 66.
“Where are we?” Earl sat up in his seat.
“About four miles west of Cuba. I was getting tired on the highway.” I kept under the speed limit of 40. People like us made a Sunday for cops in small town America. “We need some gas and I want to stretch my legs.”
“I can drive from here.” AK volunteered from the back.
“Okay.” The last drinks at the Boom Boom Room had sapped my strength. It was time to take a break and I pulled into the Fanning Outpost. The stop offered gas, food, and lodging to travelers. Once spots like this dotted Route 66 from Chicago to LA. I-44 was putting most of them over the edge into extinction.
“Sad to think that one day there will be no Route 66.” I got out of the car and started pumping gas. My legs were stiff from sitting in one position for the past three hours. The Mother Road had run over 2400 miles from end to end. “Only a few parts left.”
“All the Okies drove to California on Route 66. Reckon I got a lot a family out there.” Earl stepped out of the Falcon. He wiped the hood with a finger. Dust was laying deep atop the steel.
“Probably.” People with his background would explain how the conservative streak in Orange County. Whittier was the home of Richard Nixon. “It had its time.”
“My grandfather worked on the Chain of Rocks Bridge crossing the Mississippi. That money saved my family from having to leave our farm. Plenty of times I cursed that old man. If he hadn’t been working, we would have moved to California and I might have ended up being one of the Beach Boys.”
“That’s a laugh.” Jay Bob was helping his brother out of the car. Garrald had no idea where he was and lifted his sunglasses. “Damn, we there yet?”
“No, we are not there yet.” Earl shook the cramps out of his back. “We’ll be in Carbondale some time this evening.”
“What’s Carbondale?” This was the first I heard of a destination.
“A college town in southern Illinois. We have family.” Earl and his cousins had family everywhere. “There’s work there and we need jobs. The police don’t like ex-cons that ain’t workin’. We’re not even supposed to be in the same car together.”
“Speak for yourself. We’re free men. We didn’t get out on parole.” Garrald scratched his head and examined his fingernails. They were crusted with dirt. “Our uncle promised us jobs in the university kitchen. I learned a lot about cooking for numbers at Big Mac. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get me a hippie college girl. I hope she shaves her legs. I don’t like hairy women.”
“Just as long as you don’t mistake any long-haired guys for girls you’ll be fine.” I didn’t like how he was looking at AK.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” He took a quick step forward. Earl got between us. AK stood behind me just in case.
“Just a joke. I come from Maine and the women up there are twice the men you and I will ever be. Moose women we call them.”
My insulting the female of the Pine Tree State placated the big man. AK headed off tot the Men’s Room and Jay Bob led his brother into the store. I finished pumping $5 worth of gas. “This one is one me.”
“Be careful with Garrald. He had a hard time up there. I got out last June and was glad to get out. Things were getting bad. The COs treated us like dead men. Food was crap. Something happened in the mess. An inmate shanked two officers. The cons took hostages. Buildings got burned to the ground. Three inmates ended up dead. Garrald and Jay Bob were lucky to be working on the grounds, when the trouble started. None of us want to go back again. Never. But it ain’t easy for ex-cons. People think of you as just waiting to go bad and they ain’t too wrong. You see how fast Garrald got in your face.”
“Yes.” My temper belonged in Girl Scout camp in comparison to Garrald’s volcano. I had been arrested in grammar school for vandalizing an abandoned missile base. The cop knew me, since I had saved his son from a beating. He cut me loose and never said anything to my parents about my crime. Earl never received that break.
Garrald came out of the store and shook my hand.
“Sorry, I have to keep my mouth shut more often.”
“Me, too.” I was surprised by his hug, half-expecting a knife in my back.
“You’re good people and so’s your friend.” He embraced AK with the love of a young man freed from prison.
We switched places in the Falcon. I sat on the hump between Earl and Jay Bob. We opened the jar of shine. It was clear as light in the dying rays of the sun. My first sip ripped a layer of taste buds from my tongue and it sluiced down my throat like burning lava.
“Damn.” I was reborn with the spirit of Moonshine and happy to not be driving a car. AK and Garrald were talking in tongues. Between patches of the wind I heard the words Sly and the Family Stone, Brooklyn Dodgers, The Battle of the Bulge, the Gold Rush, and a thousand syllables distorted by the breeze.
Night closed on the sky tight north of Bourbon. The chicken was finished south of St. Clair. The ‘shine just kept coming and I kept drinking until we were surrounded by bright lights of a city. A ribbon of steel owned the stars and a moon was straight ahead above the highway. I recognized it as the St. Louis Arch. A baseball game was being played under the lights. AK drove past the stadium without slowing down. His father came from Brooklyn.
“Welcome to St. Louis. We’ll be turning on the other side of the Mississippi toward Carbondale. You can come with us to Carbondale or we can drop you at the Indian mounds. I’ve crashed there once or twice. It’s a good night for sleeping under the sky.”
The moonshine erased the decision ability from my mind and fifteen minutes later AK and Earl helped me from the Falcon. I was in no condition to walk and stumbled into a grassy meadow. The world swirled around my feet and my head hit the ground without me feeling a thing as I fell through the Earth to bury myself in a stupor designed to last eternity.
I woke with the dawn. It took me forever to find my glasses. A large grass mound rose from behind the line of bushes shielding AK and me from sight. There was no mistaking that the shape of the mound was a pyramid. I rose to my feet. The taste of sick was in my mouth. I had slept on my bag. It was clean, but my jeans and shirt were covered by dirt.. AK and Earl must have dragged me here last night.
“How you feeling?” AK asked from his sleeping bag.
“Not good.” My speech was reserved for sentences missing verbs and articles. My head pounded with flashes of drum thunder. “Damn, that mound is big.”
“You tried to climb it last night.”
“Any success?” My legs and back must have been bruised by several falls.
That explained the dirt.
“Earl and the boys said good-bye.”
“I wish I had stayed in the car.” My arms were dotted by mosquito bites.“Probably better that you didn’t. You got sick last night.”
“Yeah, I guess as much.” I picked up my canteen. It was empty.
“You offered your last water to the gods.”
“I guess they spared my life. You have any left.” The sun was a red ball to the east. The morning air was thick with humidity. Today was going to be hot. I said as much to AK.
“If we’re lucky, we can get to Boston tonight.”
“If we’re lucky.” I walked forward toward the mound. It rose a hundred feet from the ground. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
“I know.” AK shucked his body from the sleeping bag. “You have nowhere else to go.”
And nowhere else was the truth for the right now.