My best friend Eric had introduced me to Nietzsche, who proclaimed that we could become Supermen, masters of our destiny. I believed that stuff until Eric died in a car crash.
All through high school, I had pursued Karen Flagstad. At last, disillusioned, the summer before college, I hardened my heart, declaring that I would value nobody enough to allow her or him to hurt me.
During my first semester in college, the Vietnam conflict escalated, Oswald shot John Kennedy, and the meaning of life continued to elude me. So I decided to chase it, the way Jack Kerouac had.
The Real World
Early in February 1964, Bob Williams, Frank Holmes, and I headed east. Bob was a lanky, cool-headed guy who had played offensive end in high school football. Frank was an acquaintance, the fast-talking ex-boyfriend of my future wife. With his slick hair and chino pants, he could have been a time traveler from a decade past.
We drove a ’47 Chevy we’d bought for $15. When it died we could leave it alongside the road. The tires were bald. By Phoenix two of them had already blown. Just after dawn, through the window of a Tucson coffee shop, we spotted a vintage Chevy like ours, with the same 16-inch rims and four new tires. Frank convinced us to snatch them. While Bob pulled our car into the alley behind the lot, Frank and I jacked and blocked up the other Chevy, removed all four tires, crammed them into the trunk of our car, and raced away.
That night in Texas, Frank filled our gas tank then zoomed off, while Bob and I pretended to doze. I had given up stealing at 13 and didn’t exactly approve, yet I preferred a guilty conscience to getting stranded on some desolate highway halfway to Houston on a bitter-cold night the first week of February. Besides, I was on a voyage of discovery, searching for the real world, of which crime and punishment were a fascinating part.
The third day, late afternoon, we made New Orleans and navigated toward the French Quarter. Streets were blocked off, others like bumper-car arcades.
The first parking we found was in a black neighborhood about a mile off Bourbon Street. We locked our gear in the trunk and hustled into the French Quarter. On every block stood a beer vendor. The drinking age was 18. I had swilled three or four by sundown when we found a saloon where the price of three drinks wouldn’t bankrupt us. The saloon was a few blocks off Bourbon Street. Its patrons were the kind of tourists who rode south in boxcars. After I’d swallowed my watery bourbon and ginger ale, as I refilled my glass with Jim Beam from a fifth I’d bought at Walgreens, a scar-faced man stepped over and instructed me that bringing your own bottle wasn’t allowed. He held out his glass. I poured it half full.
For an hour, he recounted his career as a welterweight boxer. He showed us blocks, jabs, and counterpunches while I filled my glass and drank until the night flashed away.
Sunlight refracting off the car window scorched my eyes. Sprawled on the back seat of our Chevy, I woke to the jolt of a speed bump as we pulled out of a suburban park where we’d slept in the car. Every cell of me felt scorched.
Bob said, “He’s alive.” Frank guffawed. “What’s his mouth look like?”
'“Hey, Kuhlken,” Frank gloated. “What do you remember about last night?”
“Never mind. Just get me some food.”
“You don’t remember shit. Where’d you go? Did you get in a fight over a babe?”
“Quit screaming, Frank,” Bob said. “We lost you for most the night. Twelve-thirty or so, we went searching. Finally, there you are, hanging onto a lamppost across Canal Street. I told you to stay put, but no, you stagger across to the island, trip on the curb, and do a belly flop. We had to drag you all the way to the car.”
“Then you puked on a guy,” Frank howled. “Yeah, we pick up a hitchhiker. He gets in back with you. A couple blocks down the road, you rear back, dive headfirst onto his lap, and spill your guts.”
“Get me some food,” I groaned. They found a large cafe with old maroon booths, jukebox selectors on the tables. The waitress stared as though I were a unicorn. I ordered three eggs, two ground-beef patties, potatoes, toast, a giant coffee. I trudged to the restroom, armed with the comb, soap, washcloth, toothbrush, and toothpaste Bob had handed me as he helped me out of the car. In the mirror — the entire right side of my mouth was a gaping wound, and both lips were swollen double sized, the skin pulverized and scabbed over.
I managed to wash, comb the debris out of my hair and beard, delicately brush my teeth. When I returned to the booth, the food had arrived. I nibbled, letting every swallow settle through a wave of nausea. One egg, a few bites of ground beef, a half piece of toast was all I could take. Then we drove to the same neighborhood as yesterday, found a spot across from a small park filled with booths and tables, people selling trinkets, Mardi Gras souvenirs, old clothes. There were three portable toilets. One for men. One for women. The other for “Negroes.” Beside them stood two drinking fountains. A stream jetted up from the white folks’ fountain. The “Negroes’ ” fountain trickled.
Walking toward Bourbon Street, Bob and I wondered out loud how any black person could survive a lifetime without murdering a few of the yahoos who took such pains to humiliate them.
We needed to earn our way by scavenging. All through the French Quarter, there was litter piled in gutters and wedged into bougainvillea vines. If beer bottles had been redeemable, we might have prospered. But they weren’t, and soda bottles were rare and half of those had gotten kicked, chipped, or smashed. Still, by mid-afternoon, we’d filled the laundry bag Frank had stolen out of somebody’s patio.
Since my lip continued to throb and ooze, I questioned derelicts until I located a free clinic sponsored by the Salvation Army. Just before closing time, a doctor gave me a prescription for antibiotics, which I filled with my last three dollars.
Frank nabbed small tips off the railside tables at sidewalk cafes, before he yelped, “I’ve got it!”
In our wanderings of that afternoon, several times we’d passed the makeshift stage on a corner where three transvestites pranced, sang, and told bawdy jokes. Now and then, one of them would pass a wicker basket, which Frank decided to plunder. Frank eased through the crowd, slipped behind the stage. His hand darted into the wicker basket and emerged with a fistful of bills, just as one of the gals turned and spotted him, but Frank had sprinted off and disappeared into the crowd. The performers yowled, cussed, and chased after him but soon returned and sat on the ground, consoling each other so gently that I wanted to go after Frank, grab their money, and return it.
As dusk shaded into night, the transvestites dejectedly went their way. Bob and I walked to Pat O’Brien’s, where we knew Frank would show. There was a half-hour line; by the time we’d reached the front, Frank appeared and subverted our criticism of his ethics by paying cover charge. Inside, a Dixieland orchestra blew. His pockets stuffed with loot, brain full of liquor, Frank ingratiated himself with a party of LSU girls and got us chairs in the midst of them.
In the dark, with my coat collar raised like a ’50s hoodlum, I hid my swollen lips out of sight. On my left sat a redhead with a glorious bosom and a squeaky voice, who seemed pleased to carry more than her share of our conversation. I answered her queries, about California and our travels, with brief, side-of-the-mouth declarations. Only after she clutched my hand did I turn and face her. From her yelp and jump, I might as well have grown fangs. She stared until the shock dissipated, then asked what had happened to me. While I confessed, her eyes roamed, scouting for somebody kissable.
Out on Bourbon Street, even in the midst of countless drunks, I felt as freakish as the legless beggar who pushed himself around on a Flexible Flyer similar to the one I’d owned as a child; or the hunchback who used a broom as his cane as well as the tool of his trade, sweeping the sidewalks in front of cafes and shops; or the handsome fellow who kept babbling and couldn’t utter three words without inserting a cat, dog, or duck noise.
The next afternoon we visited the Nasiffs at the Royal Orleans hotel. Frank used to hang out with their son. The plush old hotel seemed remote from the world outside with all its debaucheries. The bed, the lace-filtered sunlight, the colors — even the walls looked soft. From the iron-railed balcony, you could overlook a street full of fellow humans reeling past.
We each got a turn with the shower, while our hosts sent off our laundry, which returned sterilized and folded. They even bought ointment that soothed and partly concealed my scabrous lips. They treated us to a grand meal of stuffed oysters.
After dinner I felt so renewed, I decided to pursue a girl I’d spoken to the evening before who hadn’t recoiled from my face. She waited tables in a small Bourbon Street saloon.
Full of satiny dreams, I went in and blinked until my eyes adjusted. Her first pass across the room, I noticed something I’d missed before. Her belly was swollen, as if she had a small melon tucked under the waist of her jeans, beneath the smock she wore. Yet she walked with a bounce, her shoulders cast back. I lounged by the door until a stool opened at one of the long, high tables she was servicing.
As she approached, brushing wavy blond off her forehead, she offered the same wistful smile as yesterday. Her name tag read Corinne.
“I remember y’all. The nice guy with the busted lips.” Her voice was slow and dreamy. “Where you from?”
“San Diego. You?”
I ordered black coffee. She nodded as if that pleased her. As she turned, I looked down and noticed her fingers were bare, then I watched her go straight for the bar, without gathering orders, and wait until the bartender poured my coffee. On the way back, she passed several customers who tried to hail her, and instead of setting my cup on the table, she delivered it into my hand. “I like your beard. Y’all one of those beatniks?”
I shrugged, she smiled and turned to a customer who had whistled. While the drinkers pestered her, I kept pouring coffee into a spittoon so I could request another refill. Each trip, she gave me a wink or a smile and once stayed long enough for me to ask what had brought her from Houston.
“A guy. My mama and daddy. The whole mess.”
“The guy brought you here?” Her eyes pinched shut then beamed open.
“Lord, no. He’s nothing but a dick. He’s long gone. Joined the Marines or something. Look, I gotta hustle. We’re two girls short tonight. Y’all stick around?”
As I watched her glide, dodge, nudge through the aisles jammed with swaying drinkers, I dreamed of sticking around New Orleans. I could take a job, protect and provide for her and the baby. We could rent some back-street flat with a balcony or patio garden and walk along the river in the evenings. On my days off, we could picnic beside a bayou.
I might have let the dream carry into distant futures, only in time I remembered the vow to withhold my heart.
I got up and met her as she turned away from the bar balancing a tray of drinks. “Tomorrow,” I said. Tomorrow I would find a job.
Along with her smile, she gave me a delicate sigh:
First thing the next morning, the last day of Mardi Gras, I insisted we drive to the restaurant where we’d breakfasted. I’d seen a Help Wanted sign.
The hostess, an aging Creole whom I imagined a voodoo dancer, moistened her lips with her tongue. I asked for a job application. She smirked, turned toward the kitchen, and returned with the manager on her tail, a burly fellow in a wrinkled suit. He leaned on the counter and stared as though confronting a wise guy.
“You want a job?”
“Look around, boy. Who you see working except the waitresses and me?”
I gazed around and mumbled, “You’ve got a sign out there. I...”
“Kitchen help,” he growled. “Yeah, that’s what I do. Dishwasher, pot washer, bus-boy, all that. I make salads, and...”
“Kitchen help’s all nigras.”
“Okay by me. I can get along...”
As though I’d metamorphosed from a wise guy into a moron, he asked, “How much you work for, boy?”
“Minimum wage is fine. You know, buck and a quarter…”
“I pay 25 cents for kitchen help. A white boy don’t work for that, do he?”
All day I spent futilely job hunting. I ran into Bob and Frank at nightfall. They stood on a French Quarter street corner chatting with a mounted cop. As I approached, the cop dismounted, hitched his steed to a fire hydrant, and ushered us into a door stoop. He looked like a swashbuckler, pinstripe mustache and all.
“Looky here, just because they ain’t killed you up to now, don’t mean a thing. It’s tonight when all the niggers go crazy. The clock strikes 12, Mardi Gras’s over. See, Mardi Gras’s like the cease-fire. Clock strikes, the cease-fire ceases, they got the knives honed, zip guns loaded, razors gleaming. Y’all could be whacked into tiny morsels before you ever find your car.”
Bob said, “As long as we get out by midnight, though, we’re okay?” The cop nodded.
All evening, I ran back and forth between a storefront where old black jazzmen played and the bar where Corinne waited tables, but tonight she was absent I cornered another waitress, who groused that Corinne had ducked out early with some U.S. Marine.
I ran back to the storefront, but even the raw blues the men played seemed too jolly for me. All I could think of was putting miles between me and this forlorn, dream-killing city.
We planned to escape long before midnight, only Frank got drunk and disappeared. Bob and I found him out front of Pat O’Brien’s, haranguing one of the mounted policemen, who had tossed a new buddy of Frank’s into the caged rear of a police panel truck.
We tried to hustle Frank out of there, but he broke loose, and while the mounted cop was dismounted, occupied with another drunk, Frank grabbed the horse’s tail and yanked hard. The horse kicked, whinnied, and bolted up an alley. When the cop started chasing it, Frank dashed to the panel truck and tried to jimmy the lock on the cage. But another cop pounced on him, the one who’d warned that we would surely die trying to retrieve our car from “niggertown.”
Bob and I pleaded. Since we only possessed a few dollars between us, and we needed to reach Kansas City—if they jailed Frank, we couldn’t make his bail and would need to join the ranks of New Orleans derelicts. For ten minutes, the cop listened to our pleas while Frank stood cuffed to the wagon. Now and then the cop checked his watch.
At midnight, he loosed Frank. Grinning, he said, “Go get your car, boys.”
Frank laughed drunkenly until we left the French Quarter for darker streets where we crept and tiptoed, peering into the shadows for excuses to panic and run, expecting every soul perched on a balcony or leaning out a window to visit judgment upon us for the sins of our fathers.
Down a passage where the street seemed to narrow so radically a bicycle might scrape the sides, we walked in a clover formation with Frank out front, Bob at his right shoulder, and me at his left, which put me closest to door stoops and alleys. My peripheral vision examined every passageway large enough for human or rodent, but I didn’t see the old man until he was blocking my way. If he hadn’t worn a hat, a fedora, I might have looked over his head and trampled him. He was small and stooped, weighted down by the gallon jug he carried. As I skidded to a stop, he flashed a silvery grin. And before stating his business, he offered us each a drink of blood-red wine. It might be poison, I knew, yet I sipped it.
“Looky here,” the wino said. “I hate to ast, but there’s this li’l gal gonna take me home, all night, 85 cent, but I got 30 is all. How you boys doing?”
Frank said, “We got three bucks to make Kansas City.” The old fellow wagged his head sympathetically, passed the bottle once more, and asked where we hailed from. A crowd filled the darkness: a young couple, several large women, a trio of stocky, tattered men—including one with a pink scar on his nose and an eye in a permanent squint who invited us to his cousin’s place for a party.
Yes or no, we were doomed. So we followed the scarred man, the wino, and several tagalongs across the street, up a rickety, unlit staircase, and into a flat where a couple dozen folks, most of them around twice my age, stood awaiting our entrance. Each face spoke a different emotion. Murderous, curious, awed.
Beside the piano, where a fat man played boogie-woogie, a lady stood gazing serenely, assessing us each in turn. She was tall, slender, stately, pale brown, with scarlet lips and large, deep eyes. Her hips rolled as she approached me, propped up my chin, stared at my mangled lips. After a moment, she led me to a couch and sat me down.
“What you go and mess yourself up for?”
As I confessed my drunken antics, she ran her fingers through my hair, nodding as though at a familiar story. Her arms were tracked with welts from the wrist to the bicep. When I finished my tale, she patted my cheek. “You a good boy.”
For the next few hours, she kept wandering off then returning to me—to stand behind me rubbing my shoulders, to daub my lips with Mercurochrome, and to advise that tomorrow I should turn around and drive straight home.
I phoned my mother collect from a pay phone outside an Ozark cafe. Meanwhile, Frank was trying to sell our car to the mechanic of a gas station across the road. Planning to ask my mother to wire us ten dollars in care of the village post office, I gave the operator her name and the first two numbers before the pay phone dropped a jackpot on me. Dimes clattered out of the change slot, almost 70 of them.
At 18 cents a gallon, we filled the gas tank, then found a cafe and treated ourselves to pot roast, chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, carrots, hot buttered rolls, milk, coffee, apple pie à la mode.
After three days’ lodging with Frank’s aunt and uncle in Kansas City, where we labored heaving crates around a loading dock, a job Frank’s uncle secured for us, we separated. Frank’s aunt bought him a plane ticket home. Bob and I caught a Greyhound to Omaha, where he called his dad. I continued on to Chicago. As we sped across the Mississippi bridge between Davenport and Rock Island, my grandmother’s birthplace, a spell came over me. My mind started brewing words and images that clustered and spilled out of me, too fast even to write in the notebook I carried. I whispered them as if reciting an epic poem about the river, the fields and farms, the wind that rocked the bus and colored the night with drifts of snow. For an hour, I muttered every word that rose, while the snow fell steadily, blurring the lights, glittering the asphalt and chrome. I could become a poet or an inspired novelist like Kerouac.
After midnight, we disembarked at the Greyhound terminal in a part of Chicago they called the Loop. Rent-a-cops patrolled the terminal, rousting vagrants and winos. I checked my suitcase and walked on frozen concrete under mustard-colored lights, past caged pawnshops, saloons, card rooms, and peep-show arcades, to an all-night cafe on the ground floor above a cellar nightclub. The stairs ran down from the left side of the counter in front of the kitchen. The coffee shop was a long, narrow place like a diner, and all the booths were occupied. I sat at the counter.
A policeman entered, took the seat beside me, removed his hat, and laid it upside down on the counter. A man in a dark suit, maroon shirt, and white tie with a diamond stickpin surfaced out of the stairway and strolled around behind the counter and down our way, bestowing approval or chagrin on each waitress. The man had slicked hair and an upper lip that looked as if half an inch had been clipped from the middle. He leaned on the counter, chatting with the cop about mutual pals, while from the side pocket of his dark suit coat he extracted a stack of bills, palmed it, and dropped it into the cop’s hat.
In the lobby of an all-night theater, two guys in leather coats shoved and threatened each other, arguing about money and Brenda. I chose a row toward the front and sat through two showings of a film in which the royal entourage of a mythical kingdom had shipwrecked. An island native stole all the white folks’ clothes, so everybody would be equally naked. The white king retaliated by lustfully whipping the natives. Each time I walked the aisle to the restroom or snack bar, I noticed most of the patrons fondled themselves as if all they had left to hold on to in the world were their peckers.
After breakfast I called my friend Tony Russo, who had gone to my high school for a year. His folks had given California a try but moved back home to Bellwood. He picked me up and drove me there in his dad’s Plymouth.
Tony was short and mild-mannered, built like a gymnast. He walked on his hands as well as I managed on my feet, and he was fast and cagey. At a party, a guy three years older than us, a foot taller than Tony and 50 pounds heavier, had shoved him and found himself sprawled in a succulent garden. He rose, punched, missed, landed in the garden. The third time, he couldn’t rise anymore.
Over lunch, Tony’s family debated the benefits of Chicago and San Diego. Mrs. Russo, Tony, and his sister preferred Chicago and portrayed San Diego as though it were deep in the Sahara. Mr. Russo claimed he would have stayed out West except for the family’s nagging. At least in San Diego, he said, you didn’t need to keep a loaded shotgun in your closet.
Around the corner and two blocks down from Tony’s place, next to the post office, was a storefront with boarded front windows. Tony called it their clubhouse: three cubicles and a main room with some mattresses, cushions, and a television on a hardwood floor.
My first evening in Bellwood, I went with Tony to the clubhouse and met his gang, mostly Italian guys who wore silk shirts and alligator shoes even though there wasn’t a female in sight; only a few of the guys owned cars, and most lived with their families, like Tony, while attending a community college and working part-time for minimum wage. In old jeans, Army boots, a sweater out of the Sears catalog, and my checker-board lumberman’s coat, I looked like a bum next to them. My only valuable was a pair of supple leather fleece-lined gloves, which sat on the floor beside me as I sprawled on a cushion and fell asleep watching the recap after Cassius Clay danced, jabbed, and confounded Sonny Liston, an oaf compared to the contender.
When Tony woke me, I reached for my gloves and found them missing. I cussed.
Tony said, “Hey, that’s life in the big city.”
On Monday morning I found a job at a factory called Mercury Metals. They fabricated small parts, such as freeze plugs, mostly for the Ford Motor Company. Tony’s mom used to work there before she found a union job. Everybody at Mercury hungered for a union job. The punch presses and spot-welding machines created noise that made me imagine a blacksmith shop in hell.
On Friday, my first payday, Tony fixed me up with a girl from Cicero, the sister of a girl he was dating. My date was a keen judge of character. One glance at my beard, jeans, and Army boots assured her I wasn’t Italian, wasn’t rich, and was a chump.
Thereafter, when Tony got the car, he and I would drive the freeways, talking about old times while we listened to a deejay called “the real McCoy,” whose mellow voice and cool jazz swabbed the clatter of Mercury Metals from my brain.
Nearly every night Tony had a story about the latest atrocity. Once it was a gang-rape in the clubhouse. A couple of Hillside girls were caught on the wrong street and paid their dues. The next day, a Hillside gang drove by the clubhouse and shot holes in the plywood windows. Two days later, Tony rode along with four others into Hillside, where they dared two guys out of their cars and broke their legs by slamming the car doors.
I listened, amazed at the way Tony accepted these incidents as part of the natural order.
On Tuesday of my third week, Bob called from Omaha to suggest we remove ourselves from winter. I grabbed my final paycheck, ate a farewell dinner with Tony and family. Afterward, Tony and I walked around the corner and down the block to the clubhouse, where his gang was celebrating their anniversary with a birthday cake and whiskey.
I marveled at how these guys dressed better for a stag party than I might for a wedding. Then the only non-Italian in their gang walked in, tossed his hat to a rack, and peeled off his gloves, which used to be mine. As he dropped them onto the table, he raised his eyebrows.
He was tall and stocky, a pale blond with wavy hair. According to Tony, he was All Conference fullback at their community college. The way he kept glancing over clarified his intentions to assault when I went for the gloves, an action he knew I would take because of the code we lived by.
Standing beside the bar, I drank and gazed around, choosing to prime my courage with liquor. I had swilled four or five whiskey sours by the time the fullback strode over, offered his hand, and squeezed. “How you doing, bud?”
“I don’t know, maybe I’m nuts, but I’m thinking you don’t like me. That true?”
“I don’t know you.”
“Word is, you think I bagged your gloves?”
He patted my shoulder. “Okay. If you can pick out the right gloves from the rest on the table, they’re yours.”
The instant I turned my back the guy would hit me, and I could think of no alternative except hitting him first. By my California suburban ethics, that would be cowardly. If I walked toward the table, maybe Tony would break things up, allowing my escape with the gloves, mild humiliation, and minor bruises.
On my second step, the fullback’s shoulder caught me waist high. I tried to dive for the couch but got foiled by his grip on my feet. My head smacked the ground. I lost a few seconds, then was lying on my back with two Italians and a Polish fullback driving fists into my face, ribs, and belly. One of the Italians was straddling me, holding me down at the knees. I managed to draw back one leg and kick. When he reared up, yowling, I rolled away and heaved myself to my feet. Shouting curses and threats, I staggered out to the street.
Up the block, I only could see revenge. At the corner, I remembered the shotgun. There was a house key under a certain brick. I let myself in, invaded the bedroom and Mr. Russo’s closet, found the gun behind the overcoats. On the way out, I checked to make sure it was loaded. I clicked the safety off and hurried down the street, powered by lust to finish the deed, to make justice.
About 50 yards from the clubhouse, Tony met me. He stood with his legs spread, attempting to block the sidewalk. He stared at the shotgun. “I’ve got your gloves.”
“Thanks,” I snarled.
“What’re you going to do?”
“Kill that guy.” Tony nodded.
“You wanna talk about it first, make sure?”
“Hey, I’m damned sure. I didn’t do anything. He just comes out of nowhere, clips me from behind. He can’t do that.”
Tony laid his arm across my shoulders, got me to crouch, leaning against the wall, resting the gun on my lap while he talked about several occasions when he had experienced the same fury before he realized that the world was a jungle in which to survive you needed to be tough and cool. You don’t walk into a room where everybody knows you and blast a guy. You wait a day or two. If tomorrow I still wanted to kill him, he would show me where to find the Polack alone. He would even drive me there.
I met Bob at the bus terminal in the Loop. After a night in a dorm room in the downtown YMCA, we hitchhiked on Highway 41, which led south from the shores of Lake Michigan all the way to Miami. By afternoon we were catching short country rides and stumbling, slipping on the ice, through Indiana towns where in every other yard, a blond kid in a sweat suit practiced jump shots into a basket above the garage door. Through twilight we rode in the back of a pig delivery truck and finally bailed out at a rustic motel.
The next day we made a few hundred miles, across the Ohio River, through Nashville and Chattanooga, far enough south so it seemed we might survive the night without shelter. Highway 41 bisected Atlanta. After midnight, in a dark neighborhood of graffitied warehouses and fire-gutted dime stores, we sat on our luggage to rest. An old pickup screeched to a stop beside us. We heaved our suitcases into the bed and hustled to the cab, but the driver sat gaping at us from behind the door, which he had reached over and locked. Eyes flickering terror, he slammed the floor shift into low gear and rumbled off. We dove to catch hold of the bed and leap onto the running board. From there, we grabbed our suitcases, and when he slowed for a sharp right turn, we bounded off the truck into the gutter.
I turned my ankle. While I sat on the curb cussing the man, Bob said, “I get it. Do you know what just happened? Why that guy sped off?”
“He was insane.”
“We were sitting at a stoplight. He’d only stopped for the light, not for us. We just wanted a ride so bad, we forgot to think.”
After Bob walked and I hobbled another mile or so, a fat man picked us up and pointed out sites in the suburbs and wooded outskirts where he’d found hiding places to jerk off. “Sometimes,” he lamented, “the urge just comes over me, and I gotta screw my fist.”
At a rural truck stop, we walked past a Peterbilt semi with a wrecked trailer. The roof was gone. The sides on top were jagged and fringed with curlicues of metal. A young trucker stepped out of the shadows, eyes so red I wondered if he might be a space alien.
He had mutilated the trailer by taking a shortcut and discovering that a low bridge must be the reason his company hadn’t routed him that way. Bob and I could have both squeezed in the sleeper compartment for a dream ride, except he entreated us to talk, punch his arm, slap his face, or whatever would keep him awake. “Y’all know the reason I can pick you up is they already are gonna fire me for wrecking the truck, can’t fire me for taking on riders too. Anyway, they can fire me all they please, long as I get home to my darling alive. Hope to hell she don’t kick me out for losing my work”
He carried us all the way through Albany, to the yard on the southern outskirts where his car waited.
While we trudged into the countryside, I kept hoping that the exercise would warm me, but it only deepened my chills. Perhaps the twisted ankle had weakened my resistance. I shivered violently, slapped my ears, batted my free arm in the air, and finally gave up, sat on a bank that overlooked an orchard of withering trees. Bob thought we should rest a while then walk on, but I said, “Nope, I’m going to sit here and die.” I needed to weep or whimper, but I had lost the knack sometime between my dad’s death and Eric’s. I listened to my teeth clack and yelled silly cracks at God or nature, whichever ruled. “Go on, make it colder. Give it your best shot.”
When the sun rose, it appeared like a glacier floating in the sky. About 8:00 a.m., Bob removed the sweater from under his jacket, but I couldn’t stop shivering in two sweaters and a coat, even when a black kid who looked years too young to drive stopped and delivered us to a cafe a few miles up the highway. Even after coffee and a half-hour inside, as soon as we returned to the roadside, I shivered again.
A convertible with the top down pulled alongside. I told Bob, “Forget it. I’m not riding in a convertible.”
“Sure you are.” Slinging my suitcase into the car, Bob nudged me into the rear and slid in beside the driver, who looked uncannily like the fullback from Bellwood. He introduced himself as Johnny, didn’t give a last name. He had abundant curly blond hair, biceps that flexed with every twitch of his arm, and a large pistol on the seat beside him.
To Bob, he said, “If we get pulled over, the piece is yours. See, I just got out of prison, and I ain’t supposed to be carrying.”
He roared off. In a couple of seconds, the speedometer quivered at the 100 mph line. * He leaned back into the seat, drove with one hand and politely asked Bob, “What’s with your partner?”
“Hey, I’d roll the top up, crank the heater, but after two years in the joint I need all the fresh air I can get. You know how it is.”
He wore a sleeveless undershirt, many rings, a gold cross medallion on a chain. He passed every car on the highway. By noon we were deep into Florida. He bought us a six-pack and hamburgers, the medicine I needed. Even at double the speed limit with a beer-drinking, pistol-packing driver, I warmed enough to nap through late afternoon. The last time I woke, we were crossing the darkening everglades out of which plaintive caws and noises like foghorns issued. Johnny was asking Bob if we needed work.
Bob said, “Sure do. We’ve only got about five dollars left.”
“Hey, I can fix you up. I’m gonna take you to my boss. You’ll love the man. He’ll take care of you.”
The boss lived near the end of Highway 41, in Coral Gables, in a bayside place that might comfortably house a Mormon’s extended family. A black maid let us in. There were two adjoining living rooms, both furnished in antiques of dark wood and floral patterns. I expected the boss to swagger in, an older and slightly distinguished Italian version of Johnny. Instead, he came rolling out in a wheelchair pushed by a tall redhead not much older than Bob or I. Her blouse and shorts were stretched so tight, you hoped that any instant they would tear. Johnny whistled. The boss flashed him an evil eye, but Johnny rushed over and grabbed the boss’s hand off the wheelchair arm and pumped it. The redhead introduced herself as Carla, asked if we’d like some beer, and invited us to follow her into the kitchen. We exchanged capsule biographies, what brought us each to Miami.
Carla was from a big family in a small Arkansas town. A few months ago, unable to decide between coasts, she tossed a coin and jumped on an east-bound Trailways coach. At her first Miami job, with an escort service, she met “Mr. D.” and became what she called his girl Friday.
Johnny hollered. We hustled back to the living room. Carla handed Johnny a beer and Mr. D. a cocktail. Had he been able to stand, the boss might not have reached four feet tall. His crooked legs were as skinny as garden hoses. He looked about 50, was possibly Jewish, and talked with a heavy smoker’s rasp. Johnny introduced us. The boss asked a few questions and listened to our replies while studying us, probably to assure himself we were real bumpkins, not police. He kept scratching his ear as though tormented by a mosquito bite. Finally he said, “Being from California, maybe you boys drive a boat.”
I had once piloted my aunt’s cabin cruiser from Newport to San Diego, and Bob had driven a girlfriend’s ski boat. Thinking the man was going to offer us jobs as deckhands on his yacht, we bragged about our nautical skills.
The boss said to Johnny, “Okay, put ’em up someplace cheap.” He turned to us. “Tomorrow night, we’ll fix you up. You know how to hot-wire?”
Um, yeah,” Bob said meekly. “I’ve done that a couple times.”
“Don’t matter. Johnny can get you started. All you gotta do is motor out a few miles, pick up some turistas, drop ’em off where Johnny tells you to, and get the boat back safe where it came from. You can do that for me, right?”
Bob and I nodded vigorously.
In the convertible, Johnny talked about Carla’s knockers and compared them to those of Suzanne, with whom he would already be in the sack, he announced, if he weren’t chauffeuring us. He sped to a motor court in North Miami Beach outside of which middle-aged women in leatherette skirts sat on the hoods of derelict cars. Johnny paid the desk clerk for our room, two nights, said he’d meet us out front at 6:30 tomorrow and roared away.
The room was clean enough. We sprawled on the wicker couch and lumpy bed a few minutes, discussing how we felt about stealing a cabin cruiser and transporting Cuban refugees. The political issues we settled immediately, then turned to the urgent choice, between flying bullets and jail if we did the job; Johnny hunting us down for the kill if we disappeared.
Knowing we ought to flee Miami, but tired as we were and with my bum leg, we only managed to plod a mile north to another roach motel, where I slept so deeply I woke up lost. In the steamy air, I thought I smelled orchids. My head throbbed.
Bob used the pay phone beside the ruins of a swimming pool to call home and learn that his income tax return had arrived. He asked that it be forwarded special delivery, as we had spent all but our last dollar on the room. He also went exploring, discovered across the street, beside a coconut grove, a 19-cent hamburger stand called McDonald’s. He claimed to have shimmied 20 feet up a palm after a coconut. For the next hour he beat on the coconut with various rocks and hunks of concrete, trying to crack the shell while I lay with a damp washcloth across my eyes, cussing the noise. I got up and staggered around the motel asking for a handout of aspirin until a cranky old woman poured me a few.
All afternoon, though my head continued to throb, I persisted in reading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, because it was all I had to distract from the pain and my fear that Johnny would show up and lead us away at gunpoint.
Franny, about my age, tries to face her distress about life’s injustices and the phoniness of people by muttering, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.” While Bob sought to borrow a machete, returned with a hammer and screwdriver, and began pummeling the coconut, I tried muttering Franny’s prayer, but it didn’t touch the headache or fear any more than it had cured Franny’s ennui.
To apply for credit against another night in the motel, we had to convince the motel manager that Bob’s income tax return would arrive the next day. As collateral we offered the wristwatch and the leather suitcase Bob’s dad had given him. We spent our last dollar at McDonald’s on two puny hamburgers apiece and a small Coke to share. After dinner, at 5:30, we hid in the shadows of the coconut grove, watching for Johnny’s convertible until dark surrounded us and large birds squawked threats, as if they couldn’t retire until everybody left them alone.
The afternoon the check arrived, a week before Good Friday, we hitchhiked to Fort Lauderdale, where we intended to carouse with college girls who had driven a thousand miles to outrun their inhibitions. A dark-complected guy about 25 picked us up. He sported a goatee and New York attitude, drove a ’50 Chevy with a line of nails decorating each fender. He offered us floor space in his Fort Lauderdale apartment. A dedicated storyteller, he claimed to be the son of a Mafioso who had disappeared long ago, after the family home got perforated by machine-gun bullets. He was also a roofer. Every day while he worked, Bob and I walked to the beach and hung out, but the college girls didn’t care that we were the best body surfers in Florida. They were too busy nurturing their tans, as if the deepest brown would win the quarterback. We didn’t get invited to a single party, and the bars were off-limits to 19-year-olds. Phony ID would cost more than our life savings.
In hopes of escape from loneliness, horniness, and general despondency, we petitioned our host nightly for a taste of his beloved marijuana, but he responded by preaching the benefits of abstinence, using examples drawn from the job to which he returned every summer, tending bar at a dive called the Left Bank, on Long Island. He told of gifted people and happy families wrecked by addictions. One of the people was Jack Kerouac, who he said would drink at the Left Bank every night until closing and then go home with some sad, dilapidated woman.
I walked to the beach alone. The stars were dull, the Atlantic dark and foamy. The hoots from parties sounded wicked or fake. The road, I thought, with all its adventures and delights, was a sorry place. What Kerouac had glorified appeared as simple despair. A man I used to worship, now I pitied. And I pitied myself, because I hadn’t a clue where to look for another hero.
We bought our hosts' ‘50 Chevy for $20. It was an automatic with a dead battery, so we jump-started it in Fort Lauderdale and drove about 60 hours straight, coast to coast.
Part 2 of 6. Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6