Rabu, 04 Januari 2012

WEST AHEAD by Peter Nolan Smith

I-80 weaved over the wooded Berkshires down into the tree-drunk Hudson Valley. The smooth four-lanes skirted Albany to shadow the Mohawk Trail past the small cities of northern New York. After the Finger Lakes the gentle hills flattened into a fertile plain of farmlands. The Ford Torino was running smooth at 65 mph.

The three of us in the car planned to reach Colorado by Memorial Day. I added up the distance from a USA map. The Rockies were more than 1500 miles to the West. I dropped the folded map on the seat. There was little danger of us getting lost in the Midwest. I-80 ran straight across the country to Northern California.

“Aren’t we going to stop and see Jackie?” AK asked from behind the wheel, as the Ford Torino passed a road sign marked BUFFALO 35 MILES.

“I called before we left Boston. She’s gone south to Kissing Bridge.” Pam chimed from the back seat. The blonde nursing student was Jackie’s college roommate. Her minor was drama.

“Probably with her high school sweetheart.” I looked out the window at the familiar landscape. Last Memorial Day I had stayed with Jackie at the family ski lodge. The buxom business major had spent most of holiday whispering on the telephone and I had never asked who was on the other end. Now I knew. “Kissing Bridge is a long way off the highway.”

“Somebody sounds jealous.” AK took his eyes on the road. Traffic was light for a Tuesday. Gas prices were cutting into America’s wallets and pocketbooks, but within three days holiday hordes would clogged the road to satisfy the national obsession with the car.

“Not jealous.” The ex-cheerleader wasn’t coming back to me. She was happy where she was. Her boyfriend was studying Law at Yale. “They’re a nice couple.”

“You’re right. He does sound jealous,” Pam declared with accuracy, for while a man’s ears was designed to capture the full pitch range of sound, a woman’s hearing was attuned to a broad prism of emotion.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little jealous. It’s not a sin.”

“One of the Seven Deadly Sins, if I’m not mistaken.” The New Yorker regarded someone falling down stairs as comedy and his getting a paper cut as tragedy.

“I can see that I’ll never be right on this trip.” We had been on the road less than five hours and I had been the butt of their jokes for two of them. California was six days from here and my payback could be exacted somewhere west of the Mississippi. We Irish liked our revenge cold.
“Men are never right,” Pam said with smug amusement.

“And we’re never more wrong that when we prove a woman wrong.” AK had been living with his girlfriend for over two years. He knew more about women than me.

“Someone had to be wrong, so we can be right.” Pam laughed at her joke.

“Pride. That’s another of Deadly Sins.” AK grasped the steering wheel with his hands at 10 and 2 O’Clock. A driving school on the South Shore had taught me the same hold.

“Sloth is one more.” Pam offered from the rear.

And what are the others?” The station wagon’s owner had maintained the special edition Torino in concourse condition, yet AK drove at the national speed limit of 55. We had plenty of time to kill and spent two minutes naming the remaining five of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Pam completed the Ten Commandments in under than a minute.

She was a good Catholic girl.

I was reeled off every state capitol in less than five minutes. Geography was my strongest subject in grammar school.

AK wanted to show off his musical acumen and recited each Beatles LP by release date, as if the information was stored to teach a future class in Beatles 101.

“BEATLES FOR SALE was their last record worth a listen.” I had rejected the Fab Four after hearing the Rolling Stones version of Chuck Berry’s COME ON.

“SGT. PEPPERS, THE WHITE ALBUM, LET IT BE and every other Beatles LP hit the top of the charts all around the world.” AK had all their records.

“That might be true, but when was the last time you listened to one?” I had given my Beatles albums with the exception of BEATLES 65 to my younger brothers.

“It’s been a while,” AK admitted with an apologetic voice.

“You know the Beatles are Jackie’s favorite band?” Pam had the right ammo to shut me up. “Didn’t you notice their poster on the wall of our dorm room? Your Beatlephobia is just another reason that you two were never going to make it in the long run.”

“She left me, because of the Beatles?” I could have faked liking them. Sex with Jackie was well worth shutting my mouth about how HEY JUDE was the longest seven minutes and eleven seconds in music history.

“I’ve already said too much.” Pam folded her arms over her breasts to terminate her indiscreet breach of a friend’s confidence and no one said anything for a minute.

AK put on her Joni Mitchell tape and we listened to BLUE for the second time in seven hours. It was the only tape that we had in the car.

I-80 bypassed Buffalo and we stopped for gas just over the Pennsylvania state line.

Pam assumed driving duties and I sat in back. She drove ten miles over the speed limit and I leaned against the door frame. The warm spring air buffeting through the open window deafened my ears to the small talk between AK and Pam. He was obviously attracted to the wholesome blonde, but his chances were non-existent. Pam was saving her virginity for her wedding night.

To the north Lake Erie glowered more brown than blue. Wispy clouds dissipated into a blank haze over the endless fields of green corn stubs. The sun was getting low in the sky, but night came late this far west in Eastern Standard Time.

AK and Pam were debating about stopping at a hotel and I leaned forward on the front seats. This was a democracy and my vote was as important as theirs.

“I say we keep going.”

“I agree. Wherever we stop will be nowhere.” Pam was obsessed with making time. She hadn’t seen her doctor boyfriend since Christmas. “With three of us driving we could make the mountains tomorrow afternoon.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a good night’s sleep.” AK’s pillow time was his second favorite drug.

“So name a city or town.” Pam threw the map at AK. “What about Cleveland?”

“Its river caught fire in 1969.”

“One strike.”

“In 1966 Cleveland burned for days after a bar on Hough Avenue put up a sign, “No Water For Niggers”. The governor had ordered in the Guard. He repeated that show of force at Kent State University.” I said firmly, “Cleveland doesn’t get a strike three.”

“What about Toledo?” Ak read the name off the map.

“No Cleveland, no Sandusky, no Toledo.” Pam’s closed the argument with her hands white on the wheel.

“I hitchhiked this way two summers ago. My friend and I didn’t stopped until Wyoming. There’s nothing in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, but cornfields and crapped-out factory towns.”

“What about Chicago?” AK loved live music. “We could see some blues. Maybe some Muddy Waters.”

“You know anyone there?” Driving into a city was an unneeded deviation. “Bad things happen to strangers in big cities.”

AK shook his head in defeat. It was two against one.

“So that settles it. No stopping except for gas and food.” Pam stepped on the gas. The Torino was the fastest car on the highway. No one had passed the station wagon since Buffalo.

AK popped off the Joni Mitchell to vent his frustration. He fiddled with the radio dial and found a college station from South Bend. Al Green was followed by Joe Tex and Ike Turner. The signal lasted past Gary, Indiana.

Two years ago the sky was ablaze with the glow of the fiery steels mills.

Tonight the clouds were black. The recession had cut the graveyard shift to a skeleton crew.

We gassed up and ate at a truck stop west of Chicago. The long-haulers in the diner stared at Pam’s breasts and I wished that she was wearing a jacket. They snickered with jokes about her ugly sisters. AK and I were not transvestites.

I opened my mouth to remark on their lack of front teeth.

“This might not be the South.” AK grabbed my hand and whispered, “But these good old boys would love to beat up a hippie. Keep cool.”

I smiled at the plaid-shirted truckers and a ravaged redneck in greasy overalls winked at me with a sly smile. At least one of them didn’t think that I was ugly.

The blue-haired waitress took our order.

“Don’t mind those hicks. They ain’t got a home or wives.”

“We do have wives.” The redneck defended his pride with a waved finger.

“Ex-wives you mean.” The waitress smirked, as if the truckers were deadbeat brothers owing her money. “All these bums have are their trucks.”

“Not such a bad thing to be on the road.” I had driven taxi to pay for my college tuition. Hacking those late hours were another contributing factor to my ‘sin laude’ status on my diploma. “Last year a Peterbilt gave me a ride from Cheyenne to Des Moines. He was hauling potatoes from Idaho.”

“A good cargo,” they murmured in unison and the redneck explained, “Potatoes don’t shift their weight.”

“Your rig jackknifes with a shifting load and sure enough a dead man will be shifting in his grave.” A white-haired trucker grimaced with a flashback to a brush with death.

“Yeah, trucking is better than working at a factory.” Another trucker professed from across the counter.

“Or a mine.” The redneck offered with a West Virginia accent. His fingernails were black with grease not coal.

After that comment we held a pissing contest to see who had held the worse job. My employment as a janitor in a morgue was beaten out by a shit-shoveler at a pig farm. Pam tapped her watch and stood up from the counter.

“Happy trails.” She blew a kiss to the truckers. Several of the hardened long-haulers blushed, as if they were school boys on a first date. Pam knew how to work a crowd.

Walking to the Torino, the throttling of big engines filled our ears and the parking lot smelled of diesel fumes. Overhead the stars clustered into the thickness of the Milky Way. The temperature was dropping into the 50s.

“America.” AK ran a couple of steps to avoid an approaching Kenworth.

“It is a big country.” I pulled up the collar of my leather jacket. May was another three weeks from summer.

“Those truckers weren’t so bad.” Pam shivered in the cool air.

“People can surprise you.” For the good as well as the bad.

“You had a nice way with them.” She tossed the keys in the air. “Your turn to drive.”

I caught them in my right hand and opened the passenger door for her.

“Jackie liked your manners.” She sat inside the car and shut the door without a further comment.

“So at least I was a gentleman.”

“And they want to be equal.” AK shrugged in submission to the wonders of the female mind.

“Go figure.”

I sat in the front seat and turned the key in the ignition. The V8 was raring for road and the Torino pulled out onto the highway. After the truck stop disappeared into the darkness I pushed the car up to 80. Pam was leaning against the door with her jacket over her shoulder. She would have been better off sleeping in the back.

“Aren’t you worried about cops?” AK had an unblemished driving record.

“They’re resting for the Memorial Day madness.” Cops worked triple shifts on the holidays. They loved the overtime.

“Last year the country saw a huge decrease in holiday traffic fatalities.” AK smoked pot and wore his hair long, but he was a fascist when it came to obeying traffic laws. “AAA attributed the drop to the new speed limit. 17% less fatalities.”

“It’s all bullshit.” America had been hit with the Arab Oil Embargo for supporting Israel. I had seen tankers lying low in the water outside Boston Harbor. The shortage was a fake. “Higher prices forced people to drive less. Less miles, less fatalities.”

AK tapped my shoulder and pointed to Pam. The sleeping blonde was curled up against the door. A smiled quivered on her lips.

“Guess she found a hotel room in her dreams. Why don’t you do the same?” I slowed down to 70.

“Wake me, if you get tired.” AK stretched out on the back seat and joined Pam in Never-Neverland

I drove for miles talking to myself. This interior conversation settled none of my problems about a real job or lack of a girlfriend. I silenced the bantering by telling myself that I was on vacation and reached for the radio. The antenna snatched stray soul stations from the static. The stronger signals were transmitted by country-western to small towns, farms, and travelers on I-80. Iowa was the heart of America.

The trucks rolled at 75. The drivers of the big rigs communicated to each other on CB radios. They knew where the cops were setting up speed traps. I followed their lead like a dance partner.

West of Ottawa a stretch of highway became free of trucks and cars in both directions and I stepped on the gas to test the engine. The V8 accepted its freedom and the Torino hit 100 within a half-mile. My foot buried the pedal and the speedometer hit 126 before I eased off the accelerator. The owner had been telling the truth about the Torino. It was built for speed and we reached the Mississippi Valley three hours after leaving the truck stop.

AK woke up with a groan. The fields were covered by a sheet of flood water. The highway was the only high ground.

“Where are we?” He rubbed his neck. Sleeping in a car was an invitation for muscle aches.

“A little east of Davenport.” I let off the gas and the Torino fell into place with the few trucks on the road. The economy was taking its toll on the traffic.

“What are you listening to?” AK was slow coming to his senses.

“A country station.” JOLENE by Dolly Parton was a big hit in the South. “I like her twangy voice.”

“Probably nothing else to listen to out here.” He looked out the window. Water was everywhere. The lights of a big bridge split the dark horizon. “Is that a lake?”

“No, the Mississippi is in flood.” I had heard that news from a local station.

“Reminds me of the bridges through the Florida Keys.” AK went back to sleep. “Are you sure the road is open?”

“Cars are coming from the other direction.”

“Be careful.”

“You got it.” He had a point and I dropped the speed to 60.

Across the river the highway climbed a bluff on the opposite bank of the Mississippi. The Torino was the only car on the highway. Its headlights lit up the dotted lines separating the two lanes. One came right after the other mile after mile.

I drove for another hour before closing one eye and then resting the other. It was not like flipping a coin, because within ten minutes I shut both of them on a straightaway and my hands dropped off the steering wheel.

“Yo, man.” AK shouted, as the Torino’s tires edged off the asphalt.

I snapped awake and righted the car onto the road. A half-mile later I pulled over to the shoulder. The landscape beyond the highway was buried by night.

“What happened?” Pam asked with alarm.

“Your gentleman fell asleep at the wheel.” AK got out of the car. “I think it’s my turn to drive.”

“Why don’t you sleep in the back?” Pam suggested with a renewed alertness.

My falling asleep could have happened to any of us, but I crawled into the back seat and lay my head on a pile of sleeping bags. Pam put back on BLUE. Like most college girls of the 70s she was a Joni Mitchell fan to the core.

Several hours later I woke with AK behind the wheel and the cornfields tipped with the rays on the rising sun in the East. Pam lay dead asleep against the window. The radio was playing country and I recognized the tune as Kenny Rodgers’ RUBY. The sign panel marked the route as I-80 and US 6.

“Route 6 starts in Provincetown.” The road was a thread back to New England.

“I spent my summers on those beaches. My father rented a place in Truro throughout the 50s and 60s. He loved the sea and bodysurfing in the Atlantic. Same as me.”

“No beaches here. None until we hit the coast. The Pacific isn’t like the Atlantic.”

“How so?”

“Last summer I spent a week in Seal Beach. The waves were covered by oil, but the waves were huge. What you think the beach is like in San Diego?”

“Dorothy says it’s heaven.” His friend had rented a place in Encinitas. Her house was a ten-minute walk from the beach. She had invited us to be her guests.

“Surf City.” I had enough money in my wallet to last the summer.

“I can’t wait.” The three of us had the different reasons for speed and AK stepped on the gas.

We crossed the Missouri at Omaha. Malcolm X had been born in this city. It was over 1200 miles from New York. The Torino sped through the sleeping city at 60. To the west a ribbon of mist mapped the course of the Platte River. The pioneers had followed it into Colorado. A century later we joined their path.

The cornfields were replaced by wheat. Low hills bordered the horizon. Men in pick-ups wore cowboy hats. None of us had bathed in a day and AK pulled off I-80 into a truck stop offering showers.

A young black teenager pumped gas. He stared at our sleeping beauty. When I got out of the car, he lowered his eyes. I tapped on the passenger window. Pam woke and rubbed her eyes.

“Time for a shower, if you like.” I pointed to the truck stop.

“Not like. Love.” She picked a towel from her bag and got out of the car with a smile for the black gas attendant.

AK parked the car and I headed to the men’s showers.

Nixon’s Silent Majority were right to call us ‘dirty hippies’, but everyone on the highway was dirty after a few days on the road. Crackers were dirty, families were dirty, and we were dirty.

I entered the shower room. A tattooed trucker was soaping his naked body. He nodded a hello. I grunted a greeting and avoided any eye contact. I stripped off my clothes and washed fast, then dressed in clean clothes even faster. I didn’t like the way that he was staring at my crotch.

“Watch out for the trucker in there.” I told AK on my way out. “He’s looking for a friend.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

AK joined me at the diner counter three minutes later.

“You can’t believe what he said to me.”

“Of yes, I can.” The trucker’s mind was easier to read than a dirty stroke book.

We sat together at the counter and accepted the waitress’ offer of coffee, while waiting for Pam. None of the truckers made any snide comment about hippies. Some of them wore their hair long too.

I picked up a discarded local paper and scanned the sport pages for baseball result. The Red Sox were still my team, despite the previous season’s epic collapse, and I turned to the front page. Watergate dominated the headlines. Nixon was looking more guilty every day. Patty Hearst was still on the run from the police after the SLA shoot-out in California.

AK was studying the menu, as if he might chose a breakfast other than eggs over easy with bacon, but lowered the plasticized folder the second Pam walked into the room, exuding the beauty of a healthy twenty year-old. Every man in the diner watched her, but several were snapping their eyes from the newspapers to our travel companion.

“I feel like a new woman.” Pam smiled with the pleasure taken from a good hot shower, then her mood shifted upon noticing the men looking at her. “They stare at me, as if they haven’t ever seen a woman in their life.

“They have a good reason.” I showed her the photo of Patti Hearst in the newspaper.

“They think I look like her?” Pam was upset by their mistaking her for the kidnapped heiress in the newspaper. “I look nothing like her.”

“I don’t think so either, but there’s also a reward of $50,000.” Mr. Hearst had offered this money for the safe return of his daughter.

“If they think she’s Patty Hearst, then we must be SLA.” AK studied the men at the tables and counter. “You think any of these cowboys have a gun?”

“Some.” Two men were glaring at us, as we had robbed the Hibernia Bank. $50,000 was a lot of money in a recession.

“Let’s get out of here,” Pam slapped down the menu.

“No, we stay where we are or else some idiot will call the State Police for the reward.” I waved to the middle-aged waitress.

“You ready to order?” She held a pencil to the pad.

“Yes, but we have a small problem.”

“I hope that it isn’t a vegetarian thing, because this diner serves bacon, ham, and steak with breakfasts.” She planted both hands on her hips.

“No, a few of your customers might think that our friend here is Patty Hearst.” I reversed the newspaper, so she could see the photo on the front page.

“Patty Hearst?” The waitress gasped with a start, then examined the picture and Pam two times before chuckling, “They’re blind as well as stupid. You’re much prettier than that poor rich girl. Let me handle this.”


The waitress turned to the other diners and shouted, “Keep your eyes on your food. This pretty girl ain’t no Patti Hearst. She’s just like the rest of us, so back to your grits and eggs. What will you kids have?”

“I didn’t think you looked like Patti Hearst.” AK muttered under his breath and then told the waitress. “Bacon, eggs, home-fries, and OJ.”

“Make it two.” I seconded his order and Pam made it three.

Thirty minutes later we exited from the truck stop diner. A state trooper was filling the tank of his cruiser. His gaze followed Pam across the parking lot to the station wagon. He smiled and tipped his hat to the blonde. To him she was another beautiful hippie girl on the way west.

I got behind the wheel and drove at a safe speed for the next five miles.

“That was weird.” AK looked over his shoulder to see if we were being followed by the trooper.

“Tania is wanted coast to coast.” I checked the rearview mirror. “It’s not everyday that a millionaire’s daughter joins the revolution.”

“That’s another reason Jackie didn’t like you.” Pam was angry at the men back at the diner, but they weren’t in the car. “You actually think there will be a revolution in this country. You see those men back there. They voted for Nixon. They will never let there be a revolution.”

“It is a lost cause.” AK had demonstrated against the war. “People in this country have forgotten the Days of Rage, Stop the War, and the Black Panthers. They’re tired of the fighting.”

“So all they want in a peaceful barbecue on Memorial Weekend.” Most of the troops were home, but B52s still bombing bombs on targets big and small in Indochina. “The war is not over.”

“Americans don’t care about the war anymore. They shut off the news about Viet-Nam like it was an old re-run on TV.”

“The SLA and Weather Underground are still fighting for freedom.” A week ago four hundred LAPD had surrounded an SLA safe house. The SWAT team shot tear gas through the windows. A gun battle lasted until the house caught fire.

“The high tide of rebellion is over and revolutionaries like the SLA deserve what they get from the police.” Pam came from a good family living outside of Washington DC. Her house was in the suburbs. Mine was too.

“Deserve? The LAPD killed everyone in that house without any attempt to end the siege peacefully.” There had been no survivors, but Patty Hearst was not among the dead. I didn’t think before I spoke when I was angry and said, “That’s another reason I hate the Beatles. Their selling out on the song REVOLUTION. “If you want to talk about destruction, then count me out.” I expect nothing else from a group who sold out rock for pop, so they could say they were more popular that Jesus.”

“Time out, time out.” AK lifted his hands to quiet me more than Pam.

“Another thing Jackie didn’t like about you.”


“You have a bad temper.”

“Only because I care.” The ranks of the armies of the night had been shrinking with the Vietnamization of the War and the end of the Draft. Attacking the status quo was not an option for college students looking for a job. Seniors cut their hair and wore suits to appointments with recruiters. I should have done the same.

“Well, I’m not a revolutionary.” Pam glimpsed into the rearview mirror. Our eyes met for a second. Hers were afire with an accusation based on Jackie joking about my belonging to the Weather Underground.

I was merely a sympathizer and breathed deeply to regain some calm. Pam was right. I did have a temper.

I stared ahead at the highway for several minutes, then said, “Sorry, Pam.”

“I’m sorry too.”

Neither of us explained our apologies and we drove in silence for a hundred miles. Small towns slipped by the highway with increasing distances. I-80 arrowed across the plains like a snake nailed to the dirt. The engineers had built the road with no curves.

After Kearney Pam took over the driving. Parched buttes rose to either side. The Torino was running easy at 90. I wanted to tell Pam to beware of cops, but we hadn’t seen few since leaving Boston.

I-80 split at Julesberg, Nebraska.

North led to Wyoming and I-78 angled south to Denver.

“First one to see the Rockies wins a beer.” I said before realizing that Pam had been with Jackie last autumn, when I had visited Jackie to ask her why she had left me. I bought her story about falling in love with a high school sweetheart and we drank a bottle of tequila together before making love for the last time. I should have never left her dorm room, for I had been arrested by suburban police after a high speed chase in a VW hatchback.

Jackie probably thought I had a drinking problem too.

“I don’t want a beer.” AK was a pot smoker not a drinker and small towns like this reminded him of EASY RIDER, which didn’t end good for the two hippie bikers.

“You’re on.” Pam accepted the wager, but I spotted the mountains first a little east of Sterling, Colorado.

“Break time.” I had the map in my hands.

“Here?” Pam pulled off the highway.

“Route 14 runs to Fort Collins.” I pointed to the distant peaks shining white in the west. “Straight to the Rockies.”

“And you think there’s a bar in this town?” Pam was driving the speed limit for once. A cop car sat at an intersection. The officer was eating a sandwich. Pam waved to him and he waved back.

“Probably on the outskirts.” I knew small towns and at the edge of Sterling was a bar on the right called the INFERNO LOUNGE. The dirt parking lot was empty, except for two battered pick-up trucks. The bar itself looked like it might have serviced wagon trains in the last century, if it weren’t for the Coors Beer sign blinking in the window.

“This looks like the place.” The road beyond the bar split calf-high fields of wheat.

“Looks good to me.” Pam parked the Torino near the entrance and got out of the station wagon. AK followed the two of us into the bar. The wooden interior was decorated with the stuffed heads of wild animals. Its clientele liked to hunt. The two older men at the bar regarded us for a second and then returned to their beers. They had seen hippies before.

“Guess you stopped looking like Patty Hearst.” I sat on a stool with a cracked leather seat.

“Don’t start.” Pam warned with a wagging finger. She didn’t need a repeat performance of the scene back at the truck stop. The blonde was happy being who she was and no one else.

“Sorry about before.”

“You said already said that.” Pam turned to me. “Sorry about you and Jackie. Not everything works out the way we think.”

“I know.” I wished that I was talking to Jackie instead of Pam, but my wish wasn’t coming true any time soon.

“What you folks want?” The bearded bartender placed both hands on the bar. The ancient wood was scarred with carved names.

“Coors.” The beer wasn’t available in the East.

“Three.” AK joined us and then went to the jukebox.

The beer was cold. Pam sipped at hers, then asked the bartender, if she could make a phone call.

“Payphone is out back.” The bartender gave her quarters.

“Pretty girl. She your girlfriend?”

“Nope, friend of my ex-.”

“Where’s your ex-?” The bartender had heard his share of bad ending involving old girlfriends.

“She’s seeing her old boyfriend.”

“Old boyfriends are always trouble.” The bartender was a better talker than a listener.

“Yeah, I confronted her about it.”

“How that work out?”

“We sort of made up over a bottle of tequila. I decided to drive home rather than spent the night.”

“A bad decision.”

“Tell me about it. I ran over some bushes and an unmarked car came up on my left. Two policemen were inside. They ordered me to pull over. I decided to run for it. I didn’t make it so far. I was driving a VW hatchback. It was late and every cop car in the town was on my tail. I pulled into a dead end and jumped out of the car, thinking to tell the cops that the car had been stolen. It wasn’t mine.”

“Was it stolen?”

“No, I had borrowed it from a friend.” I watched Pam put the coins into the slot several times without speaking on the phone.

“And you thought that the cops would believe your story?”

“They didn’t have to. I ran into a backyard and fell over a low ledge into a bush.”

“Bad night for bushes.”

“You got that right. The cops cuffed me and threw me in jail. My uncle paid bail in the morning. He got me off with a fine and paying $200 for the ruined bushes.”

“Damn expensive bushes.”

“I thought the same.” I sipped my beer. It was almost empty. “My girlfriend wanted nothing to do me after that.”

“Can’t say I blame her.” The bartender had regained his power of listening to a sad story.

“Me too.” I saw Pam slam the phone down. Her boyfriend wasn’t at home or wasn’t home. I knew the feeling.

“That’s your girlfriend?” A young farmboy asked with a pool cue in his hand.

“No, we’re just traveling together.” Saying Pam was just a friend sounded weird, even if it was the truth.

“You wanna play a game of pool?” His shirt was covered with shredded hay, his jeans were stained by dirt, and cow paddy rimmed his boots. Farm work was a messy job.

“Not for money.” I wasn’t into gambling.

“A game that’s all. I’m no hustler.” His earnest smile was a bond of trust.

“Eight Ball.” It required luck as much as skill. The farmboy’s name was Billy Bob. I figure him for nineteen. His life was this town and one day he’d end up sitting on a stool like the two older men in the bar, which didn’t seem to be a bad fate.

Pam returned to the bar without a smile on her face. I knew better than to ask why.

She watched us play, while AK nursed his beer. The next song on the juke box was URGE FOR GOING. Pam loved Joni Mitchell, but ignored AK’s choice.

Her eyes were on the farm boy. He was pure America.

I liked the Dave Van Ronk version better, but no one needed to hear another one of my opinions and I sunk three balls in a row. The last shot was pure luck.

Billy Bob won on an 8-ball scratch and Pam played the winner. She had another beer. We played teams, AK and I versus the farmboy and Pam. AK was a musician not a pool player and Pam ran the table, as if she was related to Minnesota Fats. Billy Bob was impressed as what the five other men in the Inferno Lounge.

Billy Bob and Pam walked out of the bar and I ordered another Coors. It tasted as good as the first. My driving was done for the day.

AK sat next to me and asked, “You think she’s all right.”

“We’re on the road. She’s fine.” Pam was taking a break from being someone’s girlfriend. Flirting wasn’t a sin.

“I mean…”

“I know what you mean.” AK liked Pam in the same way that I had liked Jackie. They were girls made to love. “She’s just having some fun same as me.”

“Good.” AK peered out the window.

“Yeah, good.”

Pam was taking photos of Billy Bob with her Kodak. The prairies crawled west to the wall of mountains crowding the horizon from north to south.

The blonde nursing student lowered her camera and held hands with Billy Bob. The Beatles had written a song about holding hands. I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND had been a huge hit in 1964. As a twelve year-old boy on the South Shore I had sung the song to a blonde girl named Ginnie. She was a year older than me. I put down my beer and went to the jukebox.

A quarter bought three songs.

My choices were all Rolling Stones.

SATISFACTION sounded good after three beers.

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