Senin, 09 April 2012

UP HIGH by Peter Nolan Smith

After my fourth beer the Rockies blurred in the window of the Inferno Lounge. AK tapped my shoulder and I swung my gaze away from the distant mountains to the interior of Sterling, Colorado’s only bar. The long room was more crowded than before. Most of the bar stools were filled by heavy men in dirty overalls. Their faces were weary from hard labor. Johnny Cash was playing on the jukebox. Pam was nowhere in sight.

“It’s time to go.” AK whispered in my ear. We were the only strangers in the bar.

“We just got here.” My fifth beer was half-full. It was going down slow.

“We’ve been here two hours.” AK nodded to his left. Three big farmers in the corner were eying us, as if we had rustled their cattle. This was Nixon country and his followers blamed us for Watergate. My friend repeated, “It’s time to go.”

“You might have a point.” Our hair was longer than the two women with the pig-faced sodbusters. They were trouble spoiling for a fight and I was the best target within sight. I finished my beer and signaled the bartender for the check.

“Let’s find Pam and get out of here.”

“You leaving so soon?” The bearded bartender was happy to see us go. AK wasn’t drinking and the supply of trouble met demand fast after his customers downed a few drinks.

“We’re trying to reach the Rockies before nightfall.” I dropped a $20 on the bar.

“Best you take 141 out there to Fort Collins, then head up Route 14 to Big Thompson Canyon. Try the Big Bear Lodge.” The old bartender made change. “No police are on this road too. It’s almost a straight line to the Rockies.”

“So we won’t get lost.” I picked up my cash and left a $2 tip.

“You’ll reach the frontline in about ninety minutes. Better get your girl or else Billy Bob will kidnap her to his farm.” The bartender knew his clientele. “He won’t make a fuss. Billy Bob’s a good boy unlike some of these fellas.”

We rescued Pam from a Chevy pick-up. The blonde re-arranged her clothing, as we walked to our drive-away car.

“Write me.” The young cowboy hastily wrote an address on a piece of paper.“I’ll try.” Pam blew him a kiss.

“I really like you.” Billy Bob stood in the dirt like he was waiting for our station wagon to turn into a pumpkin. I opened the passenger door for Pam and sat in back of the Ford Torino. She was no Cinderella.

“Sorry, I disappeared.” The blonde nursing student was flushed red from a make-out session with the lanky teenager.

“Nothing to be sorry about. We’re on the road. We don’t have to be who we are or who you will be once you get to the coast.” I was planning on introducing myself as ‘James Steele’ to the next stranger.
“Nice bar.” I settled into the backseat like a cracked egg. I was drunk for the first time since leaving Boston.

“You are right about being someone else. Billy Bob asked me to say with him and for a little while I stopped being me and became Billy Bob’s girlfriend. We’d get married, have kids, and get old looking at those mountains.” Pam hadn’t forgotten the boyfriend in Mendocino for the last hour. The intern had just slipped her mind. She threw the paper with Billy Bob’s address out the window.

“Living someplace like this is not the worst thing in the world.” The truth was that small towns get much smaller once you lose your way out of them, but most people don’t discover that until they’re stuck someplace like Sterling for the rest of their lives.

“It’s not the worst thing in the world. Living someplace like this.” The truth was that small towns get much smaller once you lose your way out of them, but most people don’t discover that until they’re stuck someplace like Sterling for the rest of their lives.

“Yes, but then I realized that I was like Dorothy clicking her heels in THE WIZARD OF OZ, except I wasn’t back in Kansas.” Pam was saddened by losing this little dream as well as guilty for having betrayed her boyfriend.

“No, you’re in Colorado heading west to California.” The frosted teeth of the Frontline loomed larger, as the Ford Torino station wagon sped along the two-laner. 141 possessed a few curves hugging the rising elevation of the prairie. The roadside fields were fuzzy with spring wheat. By mid-summer the new crop would be reaped by the combines. This was the end of the Great Plains. “Don’t think nothing bad about you and Billy Bob. It was Cinderella’s last dance.”

“Hopefully not the last.” Pam was amused by the fairy tale comparison. “And it was more like a wrestling match than a waltz.”

“Okay, not the last, but I won’t say anything about this to anyone.” This was 1974. Women had the right to do what they wanted with their bodies. The Pill had freed them within a decade. Losing their chains would take much longer.

“Me neither.” AK broke his silence. Billy Bob was behind us. He was glad to be rid of him. One rival for Pam was already enough.

“Two days ago we left Boston and now we’re almost a mile high.”

“By night time we’ll be even higher,” AK said with a sidelong glance at Pam.

The pianist was hurting from our companion flirting with the cowboy in Colorado. He had fallen for Pam hard, but so had every man who had seen the blonde on this trip. Even in her hippie outfit he co-ed was the epitome of the girl next door.

“Wait until tomorrow.” I checked the map. Every day brought something new. “The passes through the Rockies topped out at 9,000 feet.”

“I’ve never been that high,” Pam said with enthusiasm. “Is it hard to breathe?”

“I don’t know. The highest I’ve ever been was the top of Mount Washington and that was as a little boy.”

“Same as me.” AK stepped on the gas. Three seconds later was the first time that AK had driven over the speed limit on this trip. We had an open road ahead of us.

The three of us sang ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH. Pam knew all the words. I joined her and AK for the chorus. They spoke with eager anticipation about the mountains and I enjoyed my beer buzz in the back. The air pouring in Ford’s open windows smelled of earth, wheat, and the road.

At sunset we drove up the Big Thompson Creek. The mountains were bigger than anything in the east. The shadows of peaks formed an uneven crown beneath a darkening sky crowded with stars. The Big Bear Lodge had fifteen cabins by the river. The owner knew the bartender from the Inferno Lounge and gave us a big cabin for the night. The motel had a small restaurant overlooking the powerful stream.

“Where are you from?” Ralph recognized my accent.

“Boston.” It sounded better than my suburban hometown on the South Shore.

“I’m from New Hampshire.” The thick-muscled owner was a Manchester native.

“How’d you end up here?”

“I was hitchhiking back to New England after serving in Korea. I met the woman cooking here. She was the boss’ daughter. We fell and love, then had kids. Sounds fast when you don’t include the ups and downs.” The fifty year-old pointed to a busy woman in the kitchen. The happiness in his eyes showed that they had survived for better or worse with flying colors. “Have a seat. I suggest the trout.”

The fish wasn’t frozen and the apple pie was close to heaven.

After dinner AK and Pam retreated to our cabin. They had separate bedrooms. I was sleeping on the couch, but wasn’t tired. Ralph patted his wife on the shoulder.

“Don’t stay up late.” Her voice was an instrument of love. “I know how you New Englanders get when you run into your own.”

“I’ll be in bed before you know it.” Ralph grabbed a few beers and we sat by the river driving Coors.

“Nice place to end up.” The Big Bear Lodge had a good grip on happiness.

“I see hundreds of hippies coming up and down this road. Thousands of families taking their summer vacations. Every day I fight the urge for going. How the White Mountains looking these years.” He hadn’t been back East in ten years. His wife hated flying.

“I camped in Tuckerman’s Ravine last June. Snow stayed until July. There’s more cars and motels there, but once you’re on the trails, you’re in the woods.”

We spoke about the Saco River, the bars in Berlin, skiing Wildcat in below zero, playing pond hockey, and meat balls subs by the factories in Manchester. On the second beer we veered onto sport. The Boston Bruins had lost the Stanley Cup to the Philadelphia Flyers earlier in the month. Neither of us were happy about that defeat, but the Celtics made up for the loss by beating Milwaukee in seven games to win the NBA championship.

“I didn’t think hippies liked sports.” We admired the clearness of cosmos balanced by beers in our hands.

“We are who we are no matter how hard we try to be someone else.” I was my parents’ son. My hometown was Boston and I preferred the Rolling Stones to the Beatles. None of that would change in the years to come.

“Now if only the Red Sox could win the World Series.” Ralph had high hopes.

“Let’s not push our luck.” The curse of Babe Ruth was stronger than the power of the universe.

“Have a good night’s sleep.” Ralph went inside the office, which served as his home.

“Should be a problem.” I put down my beer and walked back to the cabin, expecting my two companions to be asleep. Pam was sitting on the porch. A blanket was wrapped around her. The night was cold this high in the mountains.

“Are you okay?” I pulled up the collar of my leather jacket.

“I couldn’t sleep.” Pam played with a loose shank of hair. “I spoke with my boyfriend. He said that he loved me. This afternoon was wrong.”

“Nothing really happened, did it?” Billy Bob and her going all the way wasn’t possible in the front seat of a pick-up truck.

“No, but I wanted it too.” Her head lowered in shame. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing is wrong with you. Same as nothing was wrong with Jackie going back to her old boyfriend. People do what they want, even if that not what other people want. It’s called freedom of choice.” I sat on the steps. The pines were tall on the other side of the creek. “Do yourself a favor. Stop thinking you did something wrong. It was only kissing, right, and even if it wasn’t, then that wasn’t wrong either. The birds and bees do it and so do we.”

I couldn’t believe that I had said something so stupid.

“The birds and bees.” Pam laughed at the mention of them. “My mother tried to explain sex with the birds and bees. She didn’t have a clue. Why you think they use that allegory?”

“Because it makes no sense. That way you don’t know nothing, but what you learn yourself.” I stood up and took Pam by the hand. “C’mon, it’s time to sleep. We got a long day ahead of us.”

“Thanks for listening.” She kissed me on the cheek. It was as tender as a mother’s good-bye.

“It’s what I’m here for sometimes.” Her gratitude made me feel good and hitting my bed felt even better.

It had been a long day.

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