USA: CONTINENTAL DIVIDE . MARGO . ROUTE 40
by Randy Ford
As for their old Studebaker, Jack always missed it. When people talked about Studebakers they talked about it’s sleek design and advanced technology. As a mechanic, Jack’s father knew cars and knew Studebakers. He knew which cars got best gas mileage and which needed to be lubricated less often and chose a Studebaker for those reasons. The sound of a Studebaker motor reassured him. He couldn’t see how it could be improved upon. He wouldn’t have to tinker with it much. He hated tinkering with his own cars. He disliked it, though his love of cars was incurable. So he bought a Champion Regal Deluxe, hoping he’d never have to do anything to it.
When on one Sunday morning (in1948) an urge to get behind the wheel got too strong for him and the rest of his family were in church, Jack stole his mother’s car keys and went for a spin. This for someone with sticky fingers wasn’t difficult. And his father had taught him to drive, and Jack considered himself an expert. Then too he thought he could get the car back to church before the service was over, and no one would ever know. And he knew a back road where he could see how fast she would go. Roll the window down, turn the radio up, and put his foot to the metal: this seemed simple enough. And as an exemplary son, he could get away with it because no one thought he was capable of it. .
He thought about racing down Main Street and out of town on U.S. 40. But U.S. 40 was probably not his best choice. It had too many stoplights and was the main drag. But more than that, he didn’t want to get caught speeding, when he intended to speed. Otherwise he would’ve taken U.S. 40.
So not wanting to attract attention, he drove south through town. A Champion Regal Deluxe Studebaker was hard to drive around without people noticing it. Knowing this Jack drove at a snail’s pace. He drove at a snail’s pace, but he couldn’t have thought that he could get away with it. The little fart was taken to the woodshed for lesser crimes.
Careful, no speeding! A superior engine was his worse enemy. For luck he patted the dashboard. His parents never understood him, and with this in mind he could’ve kept going.
Once he got his hands on his mother’s keys, the rest was easy. Power, speed, a smooth ride was what a Studebaker was known for. The car had style, attitude, individuality, and uniqueness. It was the first one in town like it. His father special ordered it. And he took a chance, forgot time, and wrecked it. All his skill couldn’t keep him from losing control and running into a ditch and into a barbwire fence. It hurt his pride. It hurt his pride more than anything. It hurt to think that he couldn’t control it. It hurt to think that he wasn’t an excellent driver. He’d have to face his parents. It didn’t make him feel any better to have to face his parents, having said this, there was very little damage to the Studebaker. Studebakers could take it.
“Where’s Jack?” Their minister calmed his parents by asking the obvious. He knew at once who the culprit was. Jack couldn’t get away with anything. It was impossible. He couldn’t get away with anything because his father owned a gas station on the busiest intersection in town and was everyone’s friend. Everyone knew him, and everyone knew Jack. Then what was the worse thing that could happen? He wrecked his father’s pride and joy and, while he was getting too old to spank, spanking turned out to be unnecessary.
From the cradle, Jack was taught right from wrong. He knew Christ. He confessed his sins, but it didn’t give him a pass at home.
When he was very young Jack already had an urge to get behind a wheel, and it didn’t help that his dad ate and slept cars. Then when he finally learned to drive, he didn’t get to drive as much as he liked. He assumed his father would give him a car, but it didn’t happen. His father thought he shouldn’t be handed a car but should buy one. It meant that Jack had to work. To buy car he had to work. He wouldn’t be handed one. The idea of working wasn’t foreign to him. He grew up around a gas station and saw how hard his father worked. He worked for his father some. He grew up around a gas station, so hard works wasn’t foreign. But the thought of getting stuck in one job never sat well with him. He considered his father stuck at the gas station. And he couldn’t wait, didn’t want to get stuck, and knew it would be a long time before he could afford a brand new Champion Regal Deluxe Studebaker.
Once he experienced freedom behind the wheel there was no stopping him. Once he experienced freedom it was impossible for him to stay in one place for very long. And he made no secret of it and ran away more than once. And while his parents fretted and worried, they soon learned that there was nothing they could do about it. He was truly a riddle. He was independent minded. They never understood why he wanted to run away. So what if he faced an uncertain future. What did it matter as long as he experienced as much of the world as possible?
Sitting under an oak tree, Jack weighed his options. He knew what would happen to him if he went home. He knew he’d be restricted. Restriction was like prison. He wanted his freedom and would do anything to avoid prison. He’d get restricted. He’d get punished. His parents were consistent; if not anything else they were consistent. There was a particular look he knew, and when saw it he knew he’d get punished. He stood back and looked at the Studebaker and studied scratches along its side. It was obvious that he was in trouble, and there was nothing he could do about it. He’d have to face his parents.
He supposed it could be worse. He knew very well that it could be worse. He could’ve totaled the car and gotten seriously hurt. Yes, it could’ve been worse. But there was nothing worse to him than getting restricted. So he decided to runaway again. And he judged now that he needed to hurry.
Now Jack could run, and people were used to him running. There were times in his life when he out ran everyone, and he was in pretty good shape. He also knew all the alleyways and shortcuts, and he could pace himself so that he could run all day. And for his age, he managed himself pretty well. Now he wasn’t thinking ahead. He just wanted to get out of town as fast as he could. He’d worry about essentials later.
Graduation was fast approaching, and would Jack graduate? Graduation, the day of truth, and Jack threw it away. Yes, he threw it away, but he was prepared to make it up later. And at the same time other kids were getting ready for life ahead of them. And he’d have to graduate to be highly respected. With graduation he’d soon be on his own anyway.
He could work for his father and had in the past. With summer coming he was pretty much assured a full-time job with his father, but he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He considered his options and thought about working for his father, with the idea of some day taking over, but it didn’t appeal to him. He saw what it did to his father.
Jack kept running. He had a few dollars in pocket, money he earned pumping gas. But he knew it wasn’t enough. Then why didn’t he turn around? There were more reasons for turning around than simply not having enough money. There was a matter of a girlfriend and plans they’d made, but it didn’t mean a whole lot to him. Keeping a girlfriend, keeping her happy was an added worry. It was an added worry he decided he didn’t need. Some of his buddies were getting hitched. Good for them, but they could have it.
Jack was more independent than most, so he was used to going out on his own. And he thought that many of his classmates didn’t know what they were doing, so they were getting married and it seemed like the worst thing they could do. A light bulb went off in his brain, and Errol Flynn came to mind. He already idolized Errol Flynn.
Now Errol Flynn didn’t belong to a class of people that most of us would want to emulate. The movie star became Jack’s hero the moment a Spanish teacher talked about meeting the actor on a freighter bound for Marseilles. This stuck with Jack. Here was a citizen of the world, someone engaged in careless living, with an enormous drive for sex and money. It didn’t matter to Jack that he was a drunk and a bum. Flynn traveled the world, and it didn’t matter to him whether was on top or not. Jack watched all his movies at least twice. He marveled over how Flynn rebelled against God and country. Making movies was always a side venture for him. But what Jack didn’t know was Errol had some will-o-the- wisp desire to please his mother. He placated her as much as he could, and they continued a lifelong feud. Stress the word feud. Whenever they were together, it was like a tiger and a lion in a cage. She tried to control him and treated him like dope. Even as a grown man, she treated him like a child. So “cheers mamma and damn you too!”
Flynn who entered Jack’s psyche served as a model for the young man, but the idea that they didn’t have a rudder was totally false. The two of them were simply a different breed. And Jack owed his mother more than he was willing to admit.
Both men felt impatient. Both men were always in motion. No shilly-shallying. Both of them believed that all they needed was a good head start.
Errol made bank, played with confidence, and his luck was better than most. How much better was it to win money than earn it? So, in Manila, he rigged cockfights. Bets were high; stakes, higher. He was loaded with dough and could afford to lose. You could say he was lucky. Who wouldn’t mind winning that kind of dough? And both of them … Errol and Jack … knew that it didn’t do any good to fight a bad streak.
Jack always regretted that he didn’t say goodbye. It wouldn’t have been a simple matter. Maybe they would’ve talked him out of it. Questions would remain unanswered for a very long time.
The sun told him that it was around noon and that church was just getting out. He didn’t know how long it would take them to realize that he and the car were missing. Then they would call the police, but the police wouldn’t immediately do anything. But how long would it take for them to find the car and put together a plausible explanation for his disappearance? All of this bought him a little more time.
Jack was never obedient, so they figured he’d come home by suppertime. He ran away before, so they thought he’d come back. He came back before, so they hung on, thinking he’d show up before dark. And calling police didn’t amount to much until they found the car abandoned not far from Jack’s home. Everybody thought Jack would eventually show up. But they didn’t know Jack very well.
They knew that he was impulsive. They knew he ate and slept Errol Flynn movies, just as his father ate and slept cars, but they didn’t know how obsessed he was or how big an urge he had. Or how much he wanted to be somewhere else. It was as though he was released from prison.
They never suspected he was running for his life. Since he was running for his life, he avoided highways and roads like a fugitive. He relied on his senses and avoided open fields and set a course through woods. And when he heard a brook, he said to himself, “At least, I won’t die of thirst.” Well, there he was without food, but he wouldn’t die of thirst. He then decided to condition himself by going without food for a week.
Some of his other ideas were more conventional. What else would you expect from someone determined to shake dust off his feet? But shouldn’t he have followed advice of teachers and graduated and enjoyed commencement? If he wanted to impress someone, shouldn’t he have graduated? He would’ve gone a different direction if he’d graduated. . But there was no danger of him now graduating. And the last thing he’d do was impress someone. There was enough to worry about. If he stopped for moment, he would’ve been frightened.
Two long days with nothing to eat, but wild berries … power of mind over body! But he couldn’t get his mind off food.
Since he hadn’t planned, he told himself that he didn’t believe in planning. He didn’t have a compass or a map, so he gave up an idea of getting lost. And he never did, and never would. But something had to happen or else he would starve. He could get sick, but that was out of the question. He was never sick in his life, if you didn’t count measles, mumps, and earaches, normal things kids got before there were shots. So getting sick was one less thing he worried about.
So who doesn’t like fried chicken, fried chicken, smoked ham and potato salad like mamma makes? A spread that none of us can forget? Mamma’s chicken loaf … mash potatoes and white gravy and mamma’s chicken loaf. And the thought of never tasting mamma’s chicken loaf again made him want to run home. For he loved his mother’s chicken loaf, ate and slept his mother’s chicken loaf, just as his father ate and slept cars. At the same time he learned to sleep on the ground. He didn’t have a sleeping bag or patting and soon had chigger bites all over him. And there was but one person in the world who could fry chicken right and for whom chicken loaf was a specialty and it was his mother. But she didn’t raise a baby. So since she didn’t raise a baby he didn’t see why he should turn back.
But he already missed her, and missed his dad and sister too. This surprised him. It surprised him more than anything, more than he ever imagined. For the first time he felt fortunate to have a mamma like his mamma. And although it wasn’t enough to make him turn around, he craved her cooking. Man, was he hungry!
All day long Jack marched along. He cautiously circled fields recently planted in corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, fields yielding a precarious living, and fields passed from generation to generation. Hay, cows, and horses, staying out of fields, away from farmhouses, and as much as possible staying in trees, Jack, never one to complain, thought about making a hog of himself. His stomach hurt. As he thought about making a hog himself, his stomach hurt and took it for punishment. He deserved it, he told himself. It was harder than he imagined. His stomach hurt. It cramped. It had never hurt so much. Still he didn’t turn back. He never experienced such desolation, and it was a lesson he never forgot, but still he didn’t turn back.
From Richmond, an inner compass guided Jack to the Ohio River. Before he left them he was tired of trees, though he appreciated the landscape. He took time to study everything. As if he were reluctant to let go, he studied everything down to minute detail. And without realizing it, he was preparing to leave a landscape he loved … a landscape he knew all his life. He noticed little changes, little things and open expansions … colors and smells, color of clay, sweetness of alfalfa, and smell of silage. He would miss fields of corn, soybeans, and wheat, round hay bales, and most all barns and silos. There was so much he would miss. Shooting the breeze with idlers at his daddy’s gas station and eating out at Oasis Diner were still things that were sacred to him. These were few of the things he missed. He was already homesick, but he didn’t head home. It didn’t add up, but he didn’t head home.
Only a week in the woods, but it seemed like a year. A farmer with a rifle and a fishing lantern surprised him as he tried to sleep. Jack had to think fast. He didn’t want to get shot. “Damn!”
“What are doing out here? I could shoot you for trespassing?”
“You almost stepped on me. I’m camping. I’m by myself.”
“Without a tent? Without gear?”
“Yes, sir. I’m a Eagle Scout.”
“And I’m Daniel Boone. Now son …”
“I’m not joshing you. I’m an Eagle …”
“Eagle Scout? And you’re truthful, loyal, helpful …”
“On a survival course. So do you mind?”
“You from around here?”
“I don’t think so, but …
And of course the farmer saw through Jack. Yes, and probably because Jack wasn’t the first or the last boy he saw on the road. And perhaps he had been on the road himself. And had a few stories of his own to tell. And some of them true. Perhaps there was something they had in common. Memories. Memories that last a lifetime. Tales. Tales so harrowing that they raise hair on the back of your head. About the Wild West, wild Indians and wild animals. Notions about cowboys, about drunk cowboys, about singing cowboys. Cowboys in general. Cowboys who shot up towns for the fun of it. About mad dogs, windmills, and weather vanes. About differences between truth and a lie and how to keep the two straight.
“So long,” the farmer said. “I hope you have a good trip.”
And that was when Jack knew that the farmer knew that he wasn’t an Eagle Scout, knew, yes knew, and not even close to being one. But it never occurred to him that the farmer could’ve given him a few tips. And suddenly he began wondering how the hell he got where he was. How did he get where he was? Where was he? And he started feeling sorry for himself. It was like he hadn’t learned anything. Every night was that way. Was he stupid or what? He wasn’t sure. And it kept happening over and over. Then something would happen, like it did that night when the farmer instead of shooting him returned with a plate of leftovers.
So it happened every time he began feeling sorry for himself. And those leftovers tasted better than his mamma’s chicken loaf ever did. The farmer also suggested that “roughing” it in his barn was probably more comfortable than “roughing” it in the woods. “And just in case it gets too rough I’ll leave my screen door unlocked.”
The barn was built so that a prevailing wind blew across the threshing floor. Jack never took it into account, and creaking and flapping and worrying made for a restless night. And as the night progressed, Jack felt more and more uncomfortable. He imagined the farmer on a telephone. He imagined him calling the State Police. It would only take one call. He knew that they were looking for him, and it would take only one call. He knew his parents were worried, and his dad wouldn’t stop searching for him. One call to the State Police would be all it would take. A search meant involving the State Police. So he didn’t wait for the sun to come up.
Jack refused to backtrack. Along the way he learned many things, but he refused to make the same mistake twice. He learned how to hitchhike and learned how to choose a ride by making mistakes. There were some rides that he wished he hadn’t taken and there were some rides that he wished he hadn’t refused. There were no rules, or if there were he hadn’t learned them. He relied on his gut. He never knew what he would run into, so he had to pay attention to his gut. It was a risk, but he thought it was a manageable one.
They circled back and passed him twice. You never know. He suspected they were okay because they were girls. Girls! Oh, goodness me. And they were stopping for him. Jack was thankful. It had to be his lucky day.
They liked to party. And they pretended they had nothing to lose but their virginity and losing their virginity came about easily enough for them. With nearly a full bottle of Schenley left, they sang, “As Sunny says, praises to the quality whiskey that wins your favor, try Schenley’s sunny morning flavor.” The kind of girls these girls were was obvious. They certainly weren’t virgins.
As they drove by him the first time in a new, blue Mercury convertible, Jack heard the girls over the motor sing, “Sun shining, surely one little drive in the country won’t do us in” and he smiled.
They were in a mood for love! Now they shouldn’t have picked him up. They didn’t know him. In those days it wasn’t proper for girls to pick up strangers, but girls were all different, though in some ways they were all alike. Girls that age were boy crazy, and those girls were boy crazy, and they probably figured that there was safety in numbers. There were four of them and one of him. With four of them, he had his hands full, but what did he care. It didn’t matter. They didn’t know him. It didn’t matter because he didn’t know them and they didn’t know him. Driving along he soon got to know them real well. It didn’t take long for him to learn that they were hot.
Man, were they hot! And this was not something he complained about. Who would complain? But it turned out that they were more he could handle. Hellzapoppin’, they were already bombed, bored and aimed to skip school. He was keen at first, and they were peachy keen, and oh-so peachy keen, and took a sportsman’s aim at getting laid. There were no Paris pin-ups in Indiana, and very few in America, but flaming red hair drove a young man from Indiana mad.
Jack saw his last apple and banana in Richmond. How many days had it been since he said goodbye to Richmond? He asked himself that, as he eyed the girls’ sack lunches. For a second or two, in the back seat between two babes, he tried to contain himself. Then as the speedster drove down the center of the highway, Jack tried not to look. He liked where he was but tried not to look. Then something occurred that he’d never forget.
He preferred not to talk about it. It can be imagined what affect it had on a young boy not out of high school when she placed her hand on the inside of his thigh and slowly inched it up. And he pretended he didn’t notice. Later it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But hellzapoppin’, it sure was then when his zipper felt like it was popping open.
Why wait for introductions? And in spite of him smelling and not having a shower since Richmond … and yes needing a shave … the girls wanted to kiss him. And French kiss him too. Now he wasn’t particularly a good kisser. He hadn’t had much practice and believed that everyone along way was a better kisser than he was. And those girls seemed experienced sure enough. He had not seen such a wild bunch. The driver was the prettiest, he guessed, in the whole world, he reckoned, and he didn’t know just how pretty she was until she exchanged places with one of the girls in the back. Until then he didn’t know.
They all took turns before he escaped. And it wasn’t only kissing but exploring, as though they’d never get an opportunity like this again. There was intensity in clutching. He went further with them than he ever went before. Each offered him something different, and he put his hands in places he never dared before. And he hadn’t brushed his teeth, but they didn’t seem to care.
If they didn’t care, why should he? So much for principles. Such was temptation. One of them even had a class ring around her neck. It wasn’t only girls but food also grabbed his attention. There were apples and sandwiches in those lunches. Ham sandwiches. He loved ham. He immediately eyed them. He would’ve done almost anything to get his hands on them, and they interested him then as much as girls.
They offered him a swig, and it didn’t make sense why they picked him up. They were absolutely crazy, or acted like they were, but his hunger was overpowering. Later he would ask for what he wanted but first he had to overcome Hoosier pride. The best approached was a direct one, but he hadn’t learned it yet. He played along, and you can’t say he didn’t enjoy it, but he kept his eye on the sack lunches, which was hard considering all they were doing. The best approach then seemed to be indirect, but it wasn’t easy. Since they should’ve been in school and shouldn’t have had anything to do with him, they should’ve treated him like poison ivy. This experience was new for all of them. Only they never let him know it. It didn’t matter to them because they knew they wouldn’t see him again.
There were so many ways that this could’ve gone. On his home tuff he would’ve known what to do. He would be in charge, instead of the other way around. You shave and comb your hair. You brush your teeth. You put on deodorant. You would know what to do. What to say. You would know how to make a good impression. You would know if they had steady boyfriends if they had them. They were dressed for school, but if they were schoolgirls would they French kiss a dirty stranger? Would they be drinking, drinking and driving? Would they be drinking if they were going to school? They were barely old enough to drive. If he thought about it, Jack wouldn’t have accepted the ride. If he had listened to his gut, what would he have done?
So Jack dove into map-less territory. Some ten minutes later and ten miles down the road, the girls exchanged places again. They took him for a ride, played stupid 1948 games, of flirt and tease. He didn’t care. They didn’t care. He was in heaven. Between kisses, they joked and laughed and fooled around. He didn’t know that they weren’t bad kids. It was fine. It was fine that he didn’t know. Would it make a difference if he knew? It was nice, but he was too hungry to take full advantage of them.
Instead he helped himself to their sack lunches. And why shouldn’t he? No sense in feeling guilty. They used him, and he took their lunches. Turn about was fair play. They left him alone when they went to the restroom. That was their mistake. Then when they returned and he wasn’t there, they never gave him a second thought.
And he soon found himself on the banks of the Ohio River. It was Sunday because as he approached a landing he heard a church choir singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It was Sunday, and it reminded him of home. “Umph!” He still didn’t feel drawn back. Every town had churches, and he avoided them as best he could. Now he was confronted with a whole congregation. Some of them were shouting rather than singing. Shouting Methodist!
He wasn’t opposed to churches. They just bored the hell out him. Now it seemed like everybody was down by the river, and they spotted him. Jack grew up going to church twice on Sunday and on Wednesday nights. And he went along because he didn’t have a choice. And since going to church wasn’t on top of his list, he now didn’t care rather he got involved or not. He liked music but didn’t care for persuasion. He considered it arm-twisting.
Converts stood in line waiting their turn in waist-deep water. They thought the best water for baptism flowed down the Ohio. It wasn’t as muddy as the Mississippi. The minister dunked one about every minute. In the course of a day it meant he baptized a great many people, but how many of them knew the meaning of baptism? The scene reminded him of his own salvation and his guaranteed ticket to heaven. He had a pass and was thankful. After French kissing a carload of strangers he was thankful. The good news was that he could sin and still go to heaven. Go to a camp meeting or a Revival, and see for yourself. Sing “When we all get to Heaven.” What a joyful drama!
Sure enough the best water for baptism flowed down the Ohio. And there were many reasons for shouting, both in English and in tongues. And the clear water of the Ohio was one. Shouting. It was irresistible. But Jack was a backslider, and maybe the trouble was, why he turned left when he should’ve turned right was that he was afraid of what he’d face.
The water at the landing wasn’t very deep, and since Jack needed a bath he waded in and splashed about. The preacher was taken aback. He didn’t know Jack, so he was taken aback. Jack wasn’t member of his congregation, so he shouted hallelujah! He shouted hallelujah because he had a new convert. The preacher was a gigantic, black man in a black-and-white gown and shouldn’t have been bothered.
Jack never thought ahead. He acted on impulse, and wasn’t out to steal the show but did on this occasion. And among things he did was holler “see the Glory-gate unbarred!” And he wasn’t black. He couldn’t remember when he had so much fun. Thus it was that on that Sunday morning that something strange and wonderful happened, and perhaps it was a first for all of them. All of them believed in miracles, and all of them believed in the power of baptism … though they may not have known the meaning of it … and here was Jack splashing about. Here was a new convert, so everyone shouted hallelujah! Remember they were shouting Methodist.
Actually their reactions ranged from horror to jubilance. Digesting it didn’t happen immediately. Yet each of them was transformed, and it was a miracle. At the same time Jack regarded it as nonsense until he ended the day at a potluck supper.
The next day Jack got an early start and put as many miles between him and home as possible. He aimed for New Orleans. After his experiences so far, he didn’t give a damn anymore. This attitude felt good. This kind of life agreed with him. He liked it. Beyond that he’d have to wait and see.
A towboat slowly pulled away. He’d have to decide, decide to jump or miss a chance. He was overly interested in the river and towboats, and had been for a long time. Now he had an opportunity he dreamed of and almost missed. When he finally jumped, and for a second time in two days, he landed in water. He hadn’t intended to land in water, but now he found himself having to swim. So much for gracefulness! Luckily, he caught someone’s attention. And it was a good thing too.
It was strange how they took Jack in, how a lady threw him a rope and hadn’t let him drown. Then there was a captain, who gave him a job in exchange for meals and comfortable quarters. He exemplified Wesleyanism. Jack felt so blue and miserable when she pulled him out of the water … blue and miserable but thankful, and thankful they gave him dry clothes. This got to him.
Jack had no money but intended to hitch a ride on a towboat. At first he felt uneasy and suspicious, but he knew he committed himself. He accepted a captain’s terms, and the terms weren’t bad. But why? Why did he do it? “Because,” said the lady, “he’s like that.”
But what about the pretty young lady? He never expected to find anyone like her working on a towboat, doing a man’s job and doing it well. How could she stand smells of bilge, tar, and fertilizer and work so hard? Jack couldn’t understand why she wasn’t married, married to the skipper. Married! “Nonsense,” said Jack’s new friend. “You don’t understand. Marriage can be murder and children a penalty. Now, let me introduce you to modern thinking.”
This skipper caught them together, and this lady stopped talking. He was a gallant figure and old enough to be her father. What thoughtfulness! The opposite of what you would’ve espected, but it would’ve been a mistake to misinterpret his thoughtfulness. You knew not to mess with him. And if Jack had he wouldn’t succeed. Indeed, Jack never met a nicer man. But because of him the Ohio lost some of its romance. Jack expected something else and felt disappointed. Still what a man the skipper was. Made of granite, while he subjugated himself to great rivers, silently as they moved along.
The skipper hardly said a word at the supper table. Taciturn was his nature. He rarely said a word, but there was also there a hard drinking river rat.
Jack was fooled, totally fooled. He always remembered a gigantic man, a man who was the opposite of a stereotype. A man who gave Jack a chance when he didn’t deserve one. A man who was the opposite of a red-blooded, rowdy like he should’ve been. And without being half horse, half alligator, someone who could out-run, out-dance, out-jump, out-dive, out-drink, out-holler, and out-lick anybody, he ran a tight ship. He was adjusted. Channeling and diesel engines changed everything. Gone were rough and tough pole men, men who had to be rough and tough. These rivers produced courageous men. They had to be courageous and strong, and privation made them resourceful. Still Jack was lucky that those days were gone. Not that he would agree.
On the long journey down the Mississippi, he spent a great deal of time just watching. He spent a lot of time sitting on the bow. He didn’t give anyone any trouble. It was so easy to let the day go by without doing anything until it became monotonous. It got him motivated, monotony. Nobody was paying attention when he took an interest in what kept the towboat humming.
One doesn’t have to be sensitive to learn something about towing – just observant, that was it. And if Jack hadn’t wanted to learn, it would’ve been acceptable, but he couldn’t stand boredom. And he wanted to learn and earn his way, so he helped out where and when he could. He started with the lady of the towboat. She stayed busy all the time. Jack helped her with numerous tasks, and he jumped each time she said to.
The captain sang and smiled and never gave an order nor suggested that Jack do anything. Jack liked to coil rope, and he coiled it until he could coil it without thinking. Liked to help cook and take the pilot chicory. He tackled all kinds of things. And he did things without being told and did things before people thought he could, and did while watching for the slightest frown. To put it plainly, he tried to become indispensable. And as he became more indispensable, his duties became more critical. There was nothing he wouldn’t try, which was why he was given responsibility. There were important things such as poking a flashlight into a little hole so that the engineer could fix a deck valve. Or help deckhands re-lash a tow. One day they let him tie up so that some of them could go duck hunting. He learned how to handle rope fenders and mooring lines during storms. The skipper even let him pull engine levers, causing diesels to throb and the towboat go faster.
With or without an education, many young men would’ve been happy with $275 a month including room and board and would’ve happily spent their lives living a dream. But not Jack. He had other ideas and, as we see, a determined constitution.
While waiting for a tow, the barge lady thought that she needed a break and that they should go tom-catting in a nearby town. “Raise some hell. It’ll do us some good.” Time to buy a Stetson and a pair of box-toed shoes. Jack planned to dance and showoff in front of her. To him life didn’t get any better.
The towboat lady wanted to show him a good time but also felt that she needed to watch over him. Happily, she demonstrated that she could do without sleep, and she checked out each bar acting like she was looking for a fight. She fought and swore, and never fought to lose and always won. She was a big girl, only little girls came home in tears. It was one thing Jack remembered very clearly … one thing that stood out. Other things he couldn’t figure out. He never met anyone like her. He knew that he couldn’t force her to do anything that she didn’t want to do. And in many ways they were equal, except she was nuts.
The lady leaned on the bar and yelled, “Set me up with a black eye or another set of teeth, please!” Then she swung first.
“By golly, gracious me! She landed a good one!”
And there was Jack, who after only the slightest hesitation and totally drunk, defending a lady. This was a colossal mistake.
“The idiot,” she thought t with approval, even affection, as she watched Jack hurl himself in front of her. She then popped the guy before he could hit her. Already known as a troublemaker (a compliment) she faced a dilemma of worrying about someone else more than she worried about herself. She hated feeling motherly. Cursing, she threw her arms around Jack and carried him into the street. Some of the men thought it was funny but didn’t smile. Behind her, instead of snickers, she heard smashing glass.
Jack was humiliated and hurt all over. Upset, he cried. He cried because she saw his downfall. That he no longer trusted his instincts made it worse. It surprised him and made it worse. How could she be a Christian? And she said she was a Methodist. It seemed like she gave him permission to have thoughts about her that were immoral.
They hurried to the towboat where everyone was asleep and where to follow her to her quarters was dangerous. Right in front of his eyes she changed. He never forgot how much she changed … how she loosened her hair and pulled him to her. He felt her breast heave, as she gave him a wet kiss. Forgetting preliminaries, he heard himself say, “What the hell!” And naturally wondered what his old friends would think. He never met anyone like her and figured he never would again.
A real buck-a-roo! Here was Jack, a hell seeker, cavorting with a rough Christian siren. Jack had but one thing on his mind, and she didn’t object. But naturally he worried about satisfying her. It was like he had a stick shift and she, an automatic transmission, and it wasn’t long before he got down on himself. But hell he couldn’t help it that a lady fell for him, a lady from the least likely place. Not content with getting down on himself, he said, “We could get married.” When in doubt, you could always get married. And he grew up thinking that marriages were made to last, but she came from a different world and considered a tryst an interesting triumph.
Bragging to the boys, she said, “He’s cute” and something about having to draw him a diagram. A spitfire, she was salty. In those days no one referred to her in terms of her pussy for she earned respect of the boys by referring to the length of their dicks.
The towboat now pushed additional barges of grain and gravel toward New Orleans. Getting there still required sweat and tears. Rather than fool themselves about taming a river, men were happy to go with the flow. Jack proved himself and made friends with the crew; so when they reached New Orleans they gave him their addresses, where they had wives, kids and yards. He knew little about them though.
Saying goodbye took him a while because for a while he lived a dream. Saying goodbye to the crew was like saying goodbye to a family, and saying good-bye to his family was something he failed to do, so it took him a while this time. As an only son, he gained a second father and would’ve been satisfied running rivers the rest of his life. It was a dream since Jack first heard of the Mississippi. M-I-S-S-I-S-S-P-P-I Mississippi! There were memories of the Ohio and the Mississippi that he never forgot. And Jack clung to these experiences, as if his life depended on it, memories of heavy fog and swift water, blinding rainstorms and lazy bends. He took with him more than he hoped for then, a reason in itself for living.
He especially remembered a towboat lady: “Fasten your seat belt, and get ready for a ride of your life.” Oh, yes, everybody knew it by then. Didn’t she remind him of Betty Davis? “A good spanking was too frivolous.” Thinking of her made him crave for more, and Jack smiled every time he thought of her. With a voice pitched between a taunt and a whine and obtruding eyeballs, she was no counterfeit, and Jack was amazed that sex never softened her. In comparison he was a pussycat. As often as she wanted she had her way with him.
The few dollars Jack saved gave him a few days in New Orleans. He saw sights, watched people, got drunk, and went through his money. He loved the city from Bourbon Street to Congo Square and did as he pleased. Seduced by crowds, pulled off streets by jazz and peep shows, honkytonks and beer joints, he set out to prove that he was a man and couldn’t escape that he was still a kid. There were stripping blondes and gyrating brunettes named Cup Cake and Tinkerbell, Cowgirl, and Annie Freeze. (Know how to make Annie Freeze? Take her clothes off.) Taking it all in, he rode up and down Canal Street, caught a street car named Cemeteries, got off, ate red beans and rice, added smoked sausage and all for a buck. He tried to talk to a bouncy lady at a counter. Never got beyond a smile and “hi darlin’.” Starving as much for conversation as for pork chops. Didn’t think he’d like collards. He learned to talk to strangers, people who told Jack about high stepping and strutting. Poor Jack, he kept thinking of Betty Davis. Found a place where pirate Jean Lafayette plotted to rescue Napoleon from the Island of St. Helena. Learned to love and eat chilled, salty Louisiana oysters.
Sex pumped him up. Sex got him down. Up and down, that’s how it went. Constant foraging which verged on theft, promiscuity and a taste for wicked women, these experiences were new and different. Letting impulse guide him, he achieved with strangers a degree intimacy that he never enjoyed before. But Jack saw danger in having too much freedom.
No, not all of us have strayed into a Y without knowing anyone there. You know the YMCA and good times that can be had there. Jack stayed the maximum time; but he wouldn’t have stayed so long had he not picked up an old, worn, dog-eared copy of Wendell Willkie’s ONE WORLD. Willkie also came from Indiana. ONE WORLD, a dollar book, sold a million copies faster than any none-fiction work ever had. Willkie loved bantering and loved long bull sessions. He was a politically inexperienced lightweight who ran for president. Willkie took a trip around the world, disregarding protocol by cracking stale American jokes and slapping the Shah, the King of Kings, on the back. Everybody loved it. Everybody loved him. He flirted with Madame Chiang Kai-Shek who flirted back, and became cozy with her husband. She loved Wilkie, and he loved her. As for Madame Chaing Kai-Shek, Willkie said it was the only time he was really in love.
He misunderstood, or misrepresented in his book, the truth about Generalissimo’s army and said Chiang was fighting “truly a people’s war.” Jack didn’t know that Willkie’s dream of a New World order had already been damaged by Mao Tse-tung.. And he didn’t know Burma was falling apart. The Communist plan, laid down in 1920, was to create Communist governments in all colonies of the world. And about then McArthur declared, “I will defend Korea as I would my own country, just as I would California.”
Do you think Jack knew about a great agrarian awakening, much less evils of a great agrarian awakening? Or knew about an international proletarian conspiracy? Willkie’s vision was best depicted in World War II movies, where a Brooklyn Jew, a Indiana farm boy, a Italian from Chicago, and a Polish emigrant from San Francisco all pull together to defeat Nazis. And who knew who lost China? Or who allowed Manchuria to be turned into a hell? His obituary should’ve read “Give General Cheng a stout rope and he’ll hang himself. Trust us, arm us and we shall fight Communist bandits.” Lying in a grubby room at the Y, not far from the French Quarter, how could Jack have felt blows amid shouts of “Get down!” “Get down!” and “Free speech!” “Free speech!” or understood the havoc those words caused in China? He couldn’t have heard wicked bandits sing bitter songs.
“Some say we’re Communist raiders.”
“Old Chiang, old Chiang, we feel sorry for you.”
With a possibility of becoming a river pilot, and maybe a skipper, why would he want to move on? He needed to consider every opportunity. Accordingly, a particular bend, where the Mississippi was so majestic, spoke to Jack in a way that he could never explain. So there he sat for hours, sad and adrift, trying to make up his mind. Hadn’t he already made it up? It took him several days to turn away from the Mississippi.
Which way to go from there? Without much drive, he turned west. It was west, west that first lured him away from home (a more palatable idea than being driven away), so it was west again for him. It was perhaps the West that would cure his sadness, the West where his passions would find expression. The West was big enough for him to lose himself.
From New Orleans, Jack hopped a freight train heading west. Before long his face got very dirty and was covered by a partial beard. He grabbed boxcar doors or ladders and swung himself up. Often challenged by railroad dicks yelling, “Where you goin’ boy?” “To the dogs, you fool!” became a pat answer. And it seemed to be what they wanted to hear. Often he shared a car with a bunch of bums, bums who never worried about having a frying pan or nothing. His plan led him through Texas.
He learned to worry about nothing, except sometimes shacking up with a goddamn whore without protection, which seemed a hell-of-a-lot better than with it. It sounded good, but there were customs and attitudes that he knew nothing about. While Jack wanted to know about everything, he soon learned that he could get into trouble because he didn’t know something. He couldn’t escape every time … everything. How about hominy and grits or getting arrested for having a gun when he didn’t have one? How about guys who wear tin stars and are called bulls? Some were natural-born, and some were not. And after bouncing an inch or so off splintery floors for days, he was less inclined to worry about shades of difference. He tended to think that it really didn’t matter about most things. For smoother rides, he looked for gondolas or flat cars and was glad it wasn’t winter.
Summer had truly come, and he couldn’t drink enough water and roasted. Drank from Clorax bottles and roasted. No substitute for water ‘cept for fifty-cent-wine drunk with fucked-up tramps, and when heat and wine burned from inside out. Shirts did no good. When he was hungry, Jack ate almost anything. But it wasn’t hunger that dogged him the most. His good looks helped. It was high incidents of accidents that plagued all of them. So Jack learned about hard knocks the hard way. He learned that tramping was no snap, but still ridin’ rails got into his blood. It got where he didn’t want to stop. It got where he had to keep going; and where he didn’t give a shit where he was going as long as he was going because things he was running from totally disappeared from view.
Friends on the road ate out of cans and heated beans on coals until they bubbled. They carried everything with them, frying pans, oleo, and eggs, except food never kept. So there was little waste and little to wash up. The only problem was that it made them feel righteous about how little they had. Jack liked listening to them talk, talk mainly about themselves. A want-to-be, he assured them that he wasn’t Jesus Christ. This surprised them because he looked like a choirboy or a Bible thumper. For sure he wasn’t telling the goddamn truth about being an atheist. When he paid lip service to something, his listeners seemed sympathetic. All of them sat around shooting shit and acknowledged each other with nods.
Painfully away from a daughter and grandchildren (too ashamed to look them up), Tex called boxcars home. He was crossing his native state, close to home. As a vagrant, he felt guilty as charged. This should’ve satisfied him greatly; and Jack saw that it did. But instead of boots, the old cowboy wore worn-out shoes. And he had nothing to prove that he once rode the rodeo circuit but healed breaks that still gave him fits when it turned wet and cold. More and more it hurt him.
Jack didn’t know then just how close to the end of the road Tex was. At one time he was a successful horse wrangler, a character familiar to those who go to movies and recognized as ranch foremen, people admired for independence and detachment. But Tex left his ranch after a bitter divorce. Sad and bitter, he never picked himself up again and expected to die a lonely death, lonely and meaningless. After experiencing a breakdown, drunken wanderings, drunken moments, drunken memories of drinking, drinking half-serious and half-staged on wobbling legs, Tex often spilt his whiskey.
Imagine Tex fighting an Apache with a rifle aimed at him. And he dives for cover. Then at the same time the tall cowboy spirals into a personal hell and feels bankrupt. No one can save him. Here was Jack, and no one could save him. Jack couldn’t save him. And here was Jack’s West, a parody of Westerns, where one man withstands a compulsion to shoot himself or stands in the line of fire of Apaches. Perhaps Tex was still waiting for the cavalry: Jack never knew.
Here was one man’s struggle made worse by a rough life. Tex was a bum and was one most of his life. Still he lived by a code that came from the frontier, a code that demanded that he stand tall and not sink into self-pity. But he still felt in his bones Texas, barren and savage Texas, and was preoccupied with a dream of someday being taken seriously.
Tex, same as Jack, always looked for a chance to break free. It was not hard for him to see himself as a lone rider, astride a horse, followed by a pack-pony trotting to keep up. He lost his bearings more than once. With his help, Jack entered a labyrinth of rocks and saw Apaches. He got off his horse. Naturally he had a gun and got off a shot. Just one shot. But in reality Jack couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot an Indian; while he was absorbed in speculation over rather he would or not, but he missed a section of the film that would’ve shaped his destiny.
Jack began to think that he had no guts. This was bound to get him into trouble. It took guts to do most things. It took guts to do most things, and it took more guts than most people had to ride rails … like riding broncos it took guts. Sitting close to Tex, sitting close enough to touch him, he asked, “Have you ever shot anyone?”
“No my friend, I only carry a pocketknife.”
A pocketknife, a handy tool. There were more things you could do with a pocketknife than a gun. If you had to choose between a pocketknife and a gun, Jack saw why Tex chose a knife. But the legacy of frontiersmen included packing a gun. There were times when Jack wished he had one.
A bond between the two grew stronger. They had plenty of time to get to know each other. Texas is a big state, and Jack wanted to see Texas, so they had plenty of time to get to know each other. Tex had been across Texas many times and told Jack all about the state.
As they crossed Texas, something happened that they hadn’t expected. They hadn’t expected to feel close to each other. Feeling close and responsible for each other was something they hadn’t expected. And it was painful for them both.
Jack listened while the old man, with a few words, make a frontal attack on society. He wasn’t trying to convince Jack, but he was convincing. As often as he could he included theory and chivalry. He said, “The highest good can be a source of evil, and too often heroes die an irrational death.”
Gone were easy answers. “Idealism suffers in the face of evil,” or “we’re all lost.” “Sheriffs carry long rifles.” “And heroes are roped and dragged through fire.” But what did any of it have to do with Jack? Yet he knew exactly what Tex was talking about. Heat, oppressive heat. Loneliness, frightening loneliness. There were times when he succumbed to heat and loneliness, and that was why he always talked to people he met.
Now Jack sat in an open door of a boxcar, with familiar click-clack, as he soaked up Texas. Now it was hard to do, Texas is a big state, but he gave it a try. Never before had he experienced such open and rugged land. Where buffalo roamed, he saw himself becoming a cowpuncher. Or a prospector. A man can’t pull a donkey if a donkey don’t want to move. Man against beast and lost on the plains with only a pocketknife, but no that was wrong. He never felt lost. Perhaps you may be like Jack and been on a great adventure and had time to ponder the vicissitudes of your fate.
“I’m mind of when I wuz young an’ roamed whar mountains riz on high,
An’ grassy prairies spread fur-wide a-neath a clean sky….
I’d nary care, nor tho’ it o’ fear, when youth wuz in my eye….”
How Tex sung and Jack saw mist in his eyes. Fancy a life of roamin’ whar mountains riz on high and dreams of grassy prairies spread fur-wide a-neath a clean sky. But how big a lie was I’d nary care? Was it a lie? Nor tho’ it o’ fear? Was there something to fear? Was youth ever in his eye? No, he was old, obviously old. So much for raising hell!
Tex caught rodeo fever, which carried off many a good cowhand. He never won more than what it cost him for entry fees, travel expenses, and grub, but he couldn’t stop. So he lost his wife. He lost his wife because he never brought home enough. He was gone all the time and never brought home enough. Thought he’d never give up bulldogging. “Yep,” he said, “for ten years I lived a life with most of my bones cracked or broken. And Maggie didn’t like it. Shouldn’t she have understood?” Here his voice trailed off. Why hadn’t pain vanished? He missed his kid and missed seeing his grandkids. His kid was no longer a kid; still he missed him. Once or twice he sneaked up to the front of the old ranch house at night, as close as he dared git, hopin’ a horse’s whinny wouldn’t give him away. “From another time until it was too late,” he said.
During uncertain times, he relived his errors, but it didn’t mean that he vacillated. He paid a heavy price, but it no longer mattered. He shared the only picture he had of his wife and kid and remembered a day when he lost them both. A look at a three quarter moon through a cracked window, when it was impossible to make love: that craziness, still not deciphered, occurred on a ranch in south Texas, where civilization only existed at the end of a long ride. It had its roots in endless isolation. O, bitter was his sorrow. One discovers too late what is important. Not until a love has been crushed does it come home to roast. Still he said he wouldn’t have done anything different.
On a rodeo circuit, Tex chased every skirt he could afford, but he left at home a woman he loved most. At the same time he said he left her to find happiness. Yet he was always happy to get home, and through big, salty tears, he always apologized. Then from those he wronged, he sought benefits.
“Y’u know,” he sung. “How it was. Sanctity of marriage, and how Maggie was … But ‘pears they helt a quarlin’ spree, which haulted their romance; and jealous Maggie figgered she’d humble Tex, first chance! He that followed every rodeo skirt that he could corral. He’d hug ‘em an’ kiss ‘em. Yep! They’d kiss him right back. So, wa-a-l, y’u know the rest.”
A jealous Maggie was what he often contended with. Now there were a few joyful moments still. And it didn’t mean it happened all of a sudden either. If he saw it coming he might’ve been able to do something about it. It? A cold chill settled over the ranch. A cold chill settled in the house proper, first when he was gone and later when he came home. It never warmed up after then. Let’s say he chose something different, and it confused him. He diligently tried to find what he lost but he never found it. And he never came up with a satisfactory explanation.
That was a reason Tex gave for drinking so much Black Velvet. Divorce. Jack, just like Tex, betrayed people who loved him most. Jack, like Tex, betrayed people he loved most. And he, just like Tex, was bothered by it. But very soon, both of them got arrested and detained for something else.
It seemed a great injustice and gave Jack an excuse to run some more. Now you might think that he didn’t need an excuse, but by then he was getting pretty tired of the road. In addition, he needed a reason, and until then he didn’t have one. ‘til then he never considered himself a criminal or a vagrant. Yet he and Tex got themselves arrested like criminals. They were arrested for vagrancy. It was simpler after getting arrested because he then had a record. Having a record gave him an excuse. And it carried with it a little prestige in certain quarters but certainly wouldn’t have pleased his parents. And there was something else he needed to prove. That something was that he was quite capable of taking care of himself, or if he got in trouble, he could get himself out of it.
They found no mercy in a tiny west Texas jail. Held for a night behind bars Jack felt rage and expressed it in a way that only made it worse for him. He tapped a reservoir of anger, a reservoir of hate that built up quickly after watching a bull beat the hell out of Tex. The son-of-a-bitch picked on a weak, shaky, old man, a fellow Texan whom Jack had grown to like. The bull got madder and meaner with each blow. The son-of-a-bitch tried to kill an old man, as the train pulled away, making it impossible for Jack to escape. As the bull’s face turned red, Tex grew pale. While Jack stood nearby and did nothing, fury kindled laughter. The bull said he wouldn’t take “no shit from a goddamn bum!” Some people go crazy with a bat in their hands. He said, “I won’t take no shit from a goddamn bum!” as he beat Tex with a bat over and over again. Fuck it! That’s how you get killed and earn a town’s hospitality. The bull threw them both into the back of his car when Tex instead needed an ambulance.
And yet Tex looked like he’d survive. And he said he’d been through this before. And there was no reason not to believe him. Even though his head bled, the old man sat up, and as Jack tried to stop the bleeding with the old man’s shirt he saw swelling spread to the old man’s left eye.
Silent they were to begin with because friends were often silent when strangers have to talk. An awakening was what it cost Jack. It was the nearest thing to Nazism that he ever saw, and it was something that they didn’t want to relive.
Fucked up with so much anger and hate … fucked up with so much to think about and even before Jack knew Tex wouldn’t make it. There are brave people who don’t make a fuss about anything, and cowards who let everyone know how tough they are. Tex didn’t say nothing about where he hurt. Jack could see that Tex was in bad shape, and Tex didn’t say nothing when he spat up blood. Jack was no doctor but he could see that his friend was really hurt. And he was just as hurt when early the next morning they were shoved back onto a train. The day before Jack had been in his prime, while by the next morning he was a hundred years older. He wondered what they did to justify what was done to them when nothing justified it.
In pain Tex found dying a challenge and found a friend in Jack. And this made him feel better. He hurt all over, but this made him feel better. It was the first time Jack watched someone die. It scared him. Made him tremble. Made him want to vomit. Where the Texan was going, he knew he’d follow. And it made him want to vomit. He could report this honestly and prayed, prayed his first honest prayer. He prayed and prayed and felt like no one else gave a damn.
Then Jack made Tex mad by saying, “You can keep your fucking Texas!” Jack said “You can keep your fucking Texas” with all of the emotion he could muster. And Tex got real mad and tried to defend Texas. That was the worse part for Jack. He saw he hurt Tex., when it was certain that he wasn’t talking about Tex’s Texas, or even the worst part of Texas. He was just talking about some people in Texas. And Jack had to admit that you could find bad asses anywhere.
“You bum, don’t die!” How could wantin’ to live be held against Tex? You couldn’t quarrel with his wantin’ booze to ease pain. And as much as he loved his booze it was probably rotgut that killed him as much as anything. His injuries didn’t seem life threatening, yet he was dying. And what could Jack say about Tex that was nice? Say something nice to cheer him up. He did his best to keep it light. Was he a bum? Was Tex a bum? No, he didn’t fall into the category. Of course, he drank, but he wasn’t a drunk with an unhinged brain or wild habits. It went deeper.
A monster lived while a gentle soul died. Nobody knew where he wuz. Nobody knew who he wuz with. Nobody, nobody ‘cept Jack. A monster out lived Tex in west Texas. No doubt he died of old age. There was no justice. He played cop, ruled the world, and made up laws as he went along. Mere necessity obliged men and women to follow them. All Tex ever carried with him was his social security card. His character was set before he knew it, and all he carried was his social security card. And the way he lived was his business; and that was how he was, from one end of the country to the other. In the short time Jack knew him Tex revealed as much as he ever revealed to anyone, and that wasn’t much.
A beating he didn’t deserve, jail time instead of medical treatment, and to lose his life because of it. It wasn’t right. Hell, no! Tex didn’t deserve it. No answer to why it happened. Jack never got one. It took tough men, hard working and hard drinking men in coveralls to run trains; and contrary to what you might think there was little sympathy for bums. There was no changing it. They had no sympathy for men who repeatedly got their ass kicked, or needed to dry out. And they didn’t see that Jack didn’t belong there.
Jack asked himself what he could’ve done and if he should’ve stayed with Tex’s body. He didn’t have a choice nor did he. It wasn’t right. He couldn’t do it. And hadn’t Tex himself urged him to jump off the train before it reached a town or else face too many questions. He planned to stay on the train until it reached California, but he was too afraid by the time they crossed the Rio Grande. He listened for the return of bulls for as long as he could stand it. It wasn’t right to leave Tex’s body, but screw ethics. The thought of jail got in Jack’s way. He had enough of jail.
Tex’s worst errors never amounted to much. He never committed a serious crime. He was generous to a fault and bore little malice. There came a time when he was too old to do hard work, and like most Texans were, he was full of bullshit. God loved him. His kid loved him. He surely did. Jack loved him. He surely did. Jack wished that they could remain friends forever. And learned from him about eating rabbit and rattlesnake. Which tasted better, rabbit or rattlesnake? Jack never knew if Tex knew his stuff when it came to horses and women. Could he have taught Jack how to tie a diamond hitch? How to rope a cow or how to aim straight? Or hunt mountain lion? He didn’t know that a scarred riding saddle that Tex once owned now gathered dust. Tex often yearned for his old spread, which was sold after the divorce. Remembering a corral, a house, and a barn were among his favorite memories.
Before doubting Tex … before kicking dirt on his ashes, and picking up cans he left behind, as Jack thought about jumping off a train, consider the direction the young man could’ve gone. He could’ve ridden rails for the rest of his life … just as he could’ve tackled rivers the rest of his life. But forever was a long time and forget any idea that there were constants. Jack might say he was going to do something one day and do the opposite the next. The only thing certain about him was his inconsistency. It was likely that he would change and terran he was going through wouldn’t appeal to him for very long. Distorted landscape. Nothing on the horizon. No way to judge distance. Nothing. Only sand and more sand. No shade. No trees. Only creosote and cactus. Not a cloud in the sky. And to think that some people thought it looked beautiful
And the last place he went through wouldn’t be the same if he went back there. There was nothing to see so why backtrack? And he would soon grow tired of long, cold nights and surviving by canning … scavenging aluminum, copper, and brass … and instead of in a house some times sleeping in a cardboard box.
Tex learned lessons of rope and how to avoid burns. Loosening his saddle girth gave him a chance to take a breath. All his life he enjoyed roping. It felt good and because he was a good roper. Not into praying … chose cursing instead. He took what life gave him. He wasn’t good enough for the Hall of Fame, and instead of fame and money, he ended up anonymous and broke. This hour was his last, and he didn’t have much left but memories.
Give a steer a lead, lasso it with a rope; reach down and grab it by its horns and slide off and plant your feet into the ground. It was magical. Give an old hand a rope and let him do his thing until his body no longer worked: that was what he deserved. And once a cowboy is finished, let him be it. While some died curzin’ and many died prayin’.
Hot. He saw white bones bleached by a very hot sun. O wind and heat, and clouds without rain, no sign of water. Water was crucial. It hadn’t been a good day, and the worst was far from over. When he jumped off a train, he got into cactus, or cactus bit him. Cactus jumped at him and bit him. For more than twenty miles a basin, and it didn’t seem like he was making progress.
Jack pushed on in spite of being on the verge of insanity. Suppose he met Cabeza de Vaca, or Yaque Indians. Imagine how he’d embrace them. For Catholic Spain and for God, conquistadors were determined to succeed in this land or die trying. Jack could see why deserts near there became a proving ground.
He finally reached a dirt track, and it so revived him that he took off running. A dirt track gave him false hope. He scoffed at anyone saying that it was a dirt track and not a road but felt lucky that it was something after so much nothing. He could’ve wandered for days. Now he had something, and it led to Paradise.
He thought of his mother’s piano that she never played and a sewing machine she never used. Thought about Indiana and Blue Hole Lake near Brazil; and a train that left a trestle and with three cars and an engine plunged to the bottom. His own train seemed derailed. He thought of his dad and wondered what he’d be like without a track to follow. His father loved fishing at Blue Hole Lake. Jack missed lakes and streams and roads and hills and hollows and missed Indiana, and always would. Thinking about catching bass, out of a hole or a sink, kept his mind occupied. Bob Ruby liked fishing. He liked fishing Frog Pond better than Blue Hole Lake. Firewater drove poor Bob loco, while like every Hoosier he spoke his mind, while he planted lies and debated weather. How could Jack forget soldiers for Christ marching like an army with banners, while they lived wicked lives with impunity? Jack let his mind wander like this until he collapsed from heat.
In Paradise, he slept between clean sheets. Whether he’d ever wake up seemed questionable. Did he dream of prospecting gold and of rougher and racier times, when money was easy and life was gay? Of drinking, fighting, gambling, and whoring? Of when a promise of Paradise meant good men caught gold fever and fever drove them mad? Imagine men with cyanide, sage, and silicate in their blood, and miners, promoters, and gamblers losing sight of everything else but gold. It was a crapshoot, when those who didn’t strike it rich lived or died for another chance.
Let’s suppose Jack dreamed. Let’s supposed his dream, which he enjoyed contained voices of senioritis and their intonation of “no sabe,” or “quin sabe.” To be enjoyed. You couldn’t know how sweet it sounded without being in Jack’s shoes.
What was in store for him? Suppose he caught a fever, suppose it was gold fever, would he trudge around in boiling and then freezing desert, searching abandoned cuts and tailing dumps and rocky canyons to satisfy his lust for gold? How would he conquer such an urge? This old camp nearly died and was too far-gone to be revived.
Abandoned except for four women. They lived there alone and between them owned the whole town. There were those who thought they were well off. Then Jack entered their world. Unceremoniously picked up and given supper, a bath, and a bed, after what he went through how could he turn it down?
It was Jack’s American face and his guileless nature that made Juanita’s heart skip. Was he the gringo of her dreams? Was he the young man of her imagination? Handsome, would he make her day? Dreams that she couldn’t distinguish from reality. Waiting for him to wake up, two of the three women sat close by. On each side of a bed he was in. Happily, Juanita watched Jack smile while he ate his first cooked meal in days. Before she knew him, she liked his smile.
Juanita was from Mexico, part Indian, and worked most of the time. She had muscles where Jack expected flab, muscles she used to wash and mend for him. She intended to take care of him. She was shocked by Jack’s condition, but she intended to help him recover. He was filthy and exhausted. He hadn’t bathed in weeks and slept in days, so he was filthy and exhausted. After riding rails and trekking through desert, he needed to bathe and sleep. She knew from childhood what wearing dirty clothes meant. She knew how it felt. So she fluffed his pillow, made sure his sheets smelled clean, gave him a razor and a toothbrush, and often checked on him while he slept. Nothing felt better to Jack than sleeping in a bed, between clean sheets so he never wanted to wake up. Assuming she burned his clothes, he let Juanita wait on him and was once again content. And while Juanita preferred a steady beau, his ideas fluctuated.
On the other hand, Hetty had nothing to do with him. She was an individual and was determined to remain an individual and was proud of it. She got her greatest joy from digging and panning for gold. Never content, she hoped that some day her sweat and toil would pay off. But a blazing sun drove her silly. Heavens! Could she have been a beauty queen? She had looks. Could someone so hard and coarse have been a beauty queen? Yes, she was a looker. Someone who could work all day as hard as a man and who left behind remains of a sewing machine and a kitchen stove? Yes. Yet she looked like she was born with a pickax and a shovel in her hand.
Much had changed for her, but some things never would. There was still a woman inside Hetty. There were still dresses in her closet. But since Jack’s appearance, she worked tailings all the time, with wind messing with her hair. She was always first to start digging and last to call it quits. She also was attracted to Jack but felt that she didn’t have luxury to wait for him. She was smart and thought while he slept that she needed to maintain a routine.
A widow, Lenora was a mestiza like Juanita. She had a white dad and an Indian mother. She had blue eyes, shiny hair, and expressed herself in a passionate way. There weren’t many women left like Lenora, who lived through hysterics, slurs, and banishment. Her eyes were a dead giveaway. They reminded people of scandal. And her intolerance wasn’t appreciated. Life hadn’t been fair to Lenora; so she felt she had more of a claim on Jack than the others. Agony made it certain that she told him about her Anglo Saxon father.
“O, Juanita,” implored Lenora, “can’t you see that you’re not giving him room?”
But no one could stop Juanita from hovering over Jack, so not Lenora. Yet Lenora knew that she would prevail and immediately started plotting. She viewed each difficulty as a challenge. So she sat close to Jack’s head, while she engaged in a stupid struggle with her rivals. How many times would they repeat this?
Lenora suggested, “Maybe he’s coy and is pretending to be asleep.”
Juanita paid her no attention. She never considered the allure of Lenora’s blue eyes, and it all soon came to a head. They had a real snit, which hadn’t happened before. It became a major rift that became impossible to bridge.
In charge of cooking, Christina was an excellent cook. A fifty-year-old widow, who marveled at changes in life, particularly changes in her body, she found joy in the kitchen. She often sang. Let her hasten from conflict to joys of the kitchen, where she opened curtains and escaped confusion. She couldn’t help herself, as she went back and forth.
Had Jack been a real prince, Christina would’ve done more to get his attention. A maid-of-all-work, she wasn’t shy. She had a hint of pink in her cheeks from pinching them. Voluptuous, Christina had a supple body and had as much pride as a duchess. She kept her hourglass figure in spite of having two babies, gifts of love, once from a husband and once from a lover. Her pleasant demeanor covered up any defects.
She of all people became a Catholic and wore a crucifix of silver. She sang like an angel and often as she sang thought of a good priest who gave her a special gift. It was with a loud voice that she proclaimed happiness, for he gave her a child. Public exposure might’ve driven a lesser woman away from the church. It certainly didn’t do this priest any good.
Christina got to a place where no one could hurt her. Cooking gave her sustenance; and Paradise was the only place she wanted to live. Contrary to many women, she wanted to remain a widow, though widowhood was new and sad for her. Jack could’ve been her son, her miracle child; and he let her call him any name she wanted. He was just a boy, too young for her, a boy who came out of nowhere and reminded her of her husband. An American, who rode into her life on a horse, Christina’s husband followed an unbeaten path. Her Bill may have lived long enough in the West to call it home but unfortunately mistook a chorus of coyotes for laughter of madmen. You can imagine how Christina felt and how her feelings were misconstrued. And there was Jack, wide-awake now, but not out of bed yet feeling embarrassed. But how could he object to so much attention and kindness?
Then Lenora saw Juanita caress Jack’s arm. Caught in the act, Juanita jerked her hand back. All she wanted she said was to make sure he felt comfortable. .
Excuses were made about the room, the bed, and the house; and there was a need for them. Lenora muttered something about Juanita being a bitch, about her shameful behavior, and a great deal more that wasn’t translated. She never had a reliable man; a reliable horse yes; but a man, no. Here was a possibility, a young and trainable male. Lenora, though, was not sure. She was as ready as she was at seventeen; but how to proceed eluded her. “You were sound asleep, beautiful sleep….” was all she said. She could tell Juanita liked him too. Christina protested that it wouldn’t be any trouble or would hardly cost them anything for extra food and, without consulting Hetty, asked Jack to stay.
Hetty felt abandoned, as she searched for a few flakes of gold. She pouted, cursed and picked through rubble at the end of Main Street near Piety Hill. Finding gold would’ve cured her pain. Gold enough to pay mortgage and a few other bills. Hetty held onto a notion that Paradise hadn’t died. It didn’t matter then that men didn’t understand how she showed affection. Sober or not, she cursed all gringos.
Poor, misunderstood Hetty, unlucky Hetty, stopped several times for shade and water. Healthy, barring fevers, she suffered from gold fever, silver fever, and yet boiled inside over being left out. She had a problem with it and clung to an idea that tasks around there should be equally shared. She, however, avoided an explosion. She stopped thinking about fairness. Look, there was no excuse for it. After ore played out and a ten-stamp mill shut down, everybody left Paradise, left town to wind that caught pieces of corrugated tin and made a terrible racket. The sound grated Hetty’s nerves until she nailed the tin down. She, unhappily, felt let down, but believed that her problems could be solved the same way as when she nailed down flapping tin.
Jack never forgot the women’s hospitality. Whenever he thought of Paradise, he missed it and wondered what would’ve happened had he stayed. He soaked up all the attention, and still young and essentially a boy among experienced women, he didn’t know what to make of it. He could’ve easily gotten used to it, but it wouldn’t have been long before he got lazy and rotten.
Jack rejected what his folks taught him. They were wrong, wrong about many things. He was learning they were wrong about many things … wrong about the amount of respect you received was proportionate to the amount of respect you gave. He couldn’t explain why it didn’t work. He just knew it didn’t. He had three women waiting on him; and couldn’t explain it. He soon got into a habit of sleeping late. He also ate and drank too much, but instead of disgusting them, it amused three of his hostesses.
Mornings he wasted. Lounged around half-dressed, loitered, and sometimes never got out of bed. He insisted on hot water. Cold water wouldn’t do; but shaving hardly mattered. He often nicked himself and rarely shaved all his whiskers off. Rising hours before he did, the women treated him like royalty. No wonder Jack felt guilty. Still the more he slept the more sleep he required.
Around noon he’d walk around outside and feel like it was a mistake. His gut told him to watch out for Hetty. By noon he knew that the best part of the day was over, and he knew he’d find Hetty sitting in shade. “Dama,” and he misused “Dama,” when he asked, “Find any gold?”
“Only fools gold” was her standard reply because she knew the first rule of prospecting was lying. While at the same time she muttered, “Where the hell did he come from?”
Hetty had no plan yet; but resenting any intrusion, it would be only a matter of time before she had one.
She gave him a tour of old streets, including narrower side streets, flanked by crumbling foundations and decomposed lumber. However friendly these tours seemed it wasn’t long before it became clear that Hetty wanted to concentrate on gloom, i.e., stop at an old cemetery where she placed plastic tulips on graves and fixed up fences around family plots. She showed Jack where so and so cut his throat during a fit of delirium. They walked streets of the ghost town and (as much as their imaginations allowed) relived dreams of the past.
All was quiet except for a hot breeze. There was no sign of the hustle and the bustle that was once Paradise. Two stores, a restaurant, two saloons, an assay office, and a butcher’s shop but just where was the post office? Hetty researched and identified each home and building, when someone less determined would’ve given up. She found old maps, old records, and old newspapers, but her focus wasn’t history. She was more interested in gold. So the two toured the town, while the guide told blood-curdling and hair-raising tales and before sunset she pretty much showed him Paradise.
Jack dreamed that he’d stumbled upon a lawless gang of women. Perhaps he should’ve been alarmed. Perhaps he should’ve been armed. Clearly the lawlessness past stirred his imagination. Now there was no evidence that connected these ladies with a crime. There was no crime on the books. Or no reason for them to be hiding in Paradise. They didn’t look the part, and he found comfort in not having seen them with guns. Then Hetty brandished a shotgun. Was it, as she said, for shooting rattlesnakes or was it for getting rid of another kind of nuisance?
Casually Hetty pointed the shotgun at him. She ordered him out of bed and told him not to say a word. But as they were going out the door, he caught a glimpse of Juanita with the saddest expression. Then their truck wouldn’t start.
Then Hetty ordered Lenora to saddle two horses, while Christina packed grub and plenty of water. That left Juanita, who infuriated the others by nervously prancing around. Jack was forced again into submission, yet questioned what was coming down. Things moved in slow motion until Juanita passionately grabbed him and kissed him on the lips. This sped things up. And under different circumstances, he would’ve enjoyed it. He appeared dazed, having been startled out of a deep sleep.
What was Jack facing? He soon found out that they wouldn’t harm him, but Hetty wanted to make sure he didn’t come back. By then he looked pale; and Christina said to him, “Please, don’t judge us harshly. We all wish you could stay. No doubt Hetty has her reasons. And she’s angry with us and not at you. She’ll get over her pouting and this snit soon.”
Juanita stood by and waited for her cue. After Christina, she said “Because she doesn’t have an ounce of sympathy in her, Hetty has been bitchy and has humiliate herself. She hasn’t learned that friendship is reciprocal.”
Lenora flirted with Jack as she saddled the horses. To this day Jack remembers what was said and how quickly his life changed. But no one overruled Hetty. Jack might’ve stood a better chance had he been more useful and pitched in as he had on the towboat. But could he satisfy four women? From the beginning Hetty sized him up. Now she was going to run him off or escort him away.
It was the hottest place on earth. It seemed like it anyway. Once more Jack entered a furnace, and without water they would’ve died. On a horse for the first time, he cursed the critter. Whenever he got off, it felt like his legs were dismembered. Without a horse and a guide, he would’ve perished
And as the sun bore down, the glare hurt, and as the wind blew, they plodded through sand dunes and lava beds. They had to drink water sparingly, rationed it. Jack wondered what was going on. Why he was being tortured? Should’ve brought more water. Horses also needed water.
Hetty knew where she was going, and she maintained a steady pace, but how long could they keep it up? Jack, a greenhorn, in his borrowed hat? He asked, “Why am I going through this?” Hetty showed no sympathy.
She kept her guard up, or else she would have killed someone. She feared the most ridiculous things and covered it up as best she could. Hetty liked some men, particularly the way some men smelled; but it wasn’t something she publicized. Now you see she’d been hurt and didn’t want every stray tom to see her weaknesses.
As she considered her next move, she felt a chemistry that she and Jack had. He was reasonably handsome. Suppose they weren’t about to say adios, could she bring him to his knees? She thought she could. She was pretty sure she could. While she imagined this, she prodded her mare up a wash that she discovered by luck, and so far thanks to her mare his horse kept up. Hot wind blew in his face, as if wind was conspiring to make him blush.
“Come on, Jack, hold on; you can make it.” And that from a woman who would giggle if he whispered the right thing in her ear.
He tried to keep his mind off his pain. His thoughts went from ruining his family jewels to standing in front of St. Peter. At the end of the day, he forgot about eating. As he lay on the ground, he worried about what still could happen. A chill alluded to how cold it would get. Morning wouldn’t come quick enough for him.
Meanwhile, Hetty thought about the young man lying next to her. All day she couldn’t clear her head. She couldn’t have been unattractive to him. A chill and his aches and pains opened an avenue for her. It was nice for him, nice in the sense that she helped him stay warm. He was clumsy, she was beautiful, and she wished she resisted. Amateurs like Jack weren’t suppose to be very good.
By the end of the next day, they arrived at Crossroads. Here they said goodbye, and with an onslaught of emotions, she admitted her mistake. She was forced to take stock of herself and felt really sorry. And she felt really sad. His age bothered her. She also surprised herself. And blamed herself. And she had been ready and willing and gave into romance and sentimentality and didn’t want the girls to know about it. Hetty reminded Jack of her address hoping that he’d send her a post card. PARADISE was easy to remember.
His parents would’ve liked to hear from him, if for no other reason than to let them know that he was still alive. And he’d gone through so much, but Jack couldn’t write home about any of it. He’d traveled across country, experienced good and bad, but how much did he really see? Did he question who he was? Did he lose his perspective? America, would he ridicule her?
Jack stayed in the Crystal Palace until it closed and sat in the furthest corner from the door under a mounted buffalo head. It was very nice. It was why he stayed there so long … because it was very nice. It was always a rule: if he liked a place he would stay there for a while. A spot chose him. A table in the Crystal Palace chose him. He felt sorry for the buffalo. Having crossed the plains where buffaloes once roamed and then end up in a crummy bar, “Christ!” he exclaimed. “Christ, what a pity and a shame.” Imagine taking aim for the hell of it. Imagine immense herds, with hundreds of thousands of buffalo galloping all at once. Then you single one out, the last of a breed, and take a shot. It was a slow time and after midnight. “Christ! What am I doing here?” He wasn’t from there, you see.
While he sat in a Texas jail, it all changed for him. Sitting in a Texas jail can make you feel small. Jack never got over it. And never got over Tex’s death either. He listened to Tex before he died talk about America the beautiful. Jack hadn’t reached a point of agreeing with him yet. Too much happened to him, and he hadn’t settled in yet. There was too much to take in. There was too much to take in, and he was too much on the go to appreciate any one place. Did he miss a turn somewhere? Get wrong directions? Why was he alone in a strange place? Why was he alone sitting in a dark bar under a buffalo head? Why did it seem inconsequential? He missed the Wabash, the Ohio, and the Mississippi as he soon missed San Diego, San Francisco, and LA. From the beginning, he had a sense that he was missing something. It got where he anticipated missing places … or something … before he got somewhere.
He went through spells of drinking a lot. He developed a familiar blind way of drinking. Once he got started he couldn’t stop. No stopping. No stopping him. And as long as he drank he didn’t have to think. He could hear his mother say never take that first drink. You’re bound to end up an alcoholic and a drunk, and he kept asking himself what he had to do with Tex’s death. He drank alone. He never drank with anyone else. There were intervals when he didn’t drink. He soon learned that drinking didn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t think. It didn’t keep him from thinking about Tex’s death … how Tex died. Choose his poison … all of it was poison. He knew the bull was a cop, and a cop murdered Tex, and a judge sanctioned it. It then seemed fitting that Tex died in a boxcar. Was he buried in a box? .
Jack spent his first days in LA walking around. He didn’t think about what to do. He wandered aimlessly. This allowed him to think. He wasn’t drunk and could think. He had no plan. He didn’t like to plan. Unable to sleep day or night, his situation worried him. Fear was inevitable. Fear was useful, except Jack couldn’t get beyond it. He felt nervous every time someone approached him, but he wasn’t going to give up, especially after successfully panhandling.
Wow, Hollywood! Follow arc lights to Hollywood. Tinsel Town. Hollywood and Vine! Walk of Fame roped off for stars … gold rope! Wouldn’t stop a steer! You see people who have followed those lights all the way from their hometowns, though not cognizant of it. Not sure of price of admission, Jack wondered whether he’d be turned away. He stood outside Madame Tussaud’s Hollywood Wax Museum and wondered if he could get in. Inside he saw a cast of characters, including Errol Flynn. “See Errol half-dressed, wearing only boots, tights, and a belt.” Jack was glad he wasn’t wearing lace and ruffles and didn’t want to hear how drinking affected Errol Flynn’s career.
Strolling west on Hollywood Boulevard, he walked over stars, and came to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with its Heaven Dogs. He wanted to take it all in. He didn’t want to miss a thing and asked directions to RKO. He wanted to run into a star. Would he recognize a star if he saw one? Who would recognize Ned Johnson, an eminent screenwriter, or Steinbeck, a novelist? What would he do if he saw Claire Trevor, who won that year’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress in “Key Largo”? As he slowly plodded along, he imagined people he could possibly see. That was how he spent three days.
Someone sang “Mean To Me,” which was his favorite song. From behind him, he heard someone call, “Hey, you, yes you, that’s right you!” Was it a casting call? No! A cop! A cop with a billy club. A cop with a billy club cornered him. Jack saw an irony in this. The cop never changed his tone, only intensified it until he screamed like a lunatic.
“Slime ball, what does the sign say? No Loitering! Look at me! Ain’t I making myself clear? No loitering! Soap and water are cheap; you hear me? Cheap!” And intimidated, Jack moved on.
Shaking, Jack tried to get on a bus. Driver took one look at him and yell, “Now, sir, please step back and watch it!” Jack did the opposite, and when he stepped forward, the driver dropped the please. “Off the bus, you stinking mother fucker!” Jack obeyed him and, as the bus sped off, felt stabbed in the back.
He talked to everyone, yet felt alienated. He dreaded tomorrow, felt shackled, and lost sight of his future. As if he could see in the future. Wandering the same streets alone, he ate and slept where he could. This became his routine. He cleaned up at the Salvation Army, after he learned he had to stay clean.
He finally wrote home, sent an unsigned postcard. He couldn’t explain why he didn’t sign it. He said nothing about himself. No more specific than a few sentences about a buffalo head. All alone. Unable to write anymore, he could’ve written about how quickly he developed street sense, which meant he never took his eyes off his stuff.
Around the Greyhound station and Whelan’s drug store, he asked for spare change. By the end of the day he usually had enough money for a meal and a ticket for a show. On Main Street, old men in tattered clothing lined up for a burlesque show. Jack could be seen there too. Afterwards, he walked streets thinking of the women of Paradise, of Hetty and Juanita, and of beauty and love. The thought of sleeping in the arms of Hetty drove him crazy. Time and time again, Jack went back to Main Street, but he didn’t expect much from it.
He listened to Girrls exchange dirty quips with a comic. Then standing in line for love, yes, there was love on Main Street. Catching Jack’s attention with a gesture from a second-story window, communicating with a forefinger, a lady offered herself. He hurried across the street, hastened through a door and up a flight of stairs. There was no need to knock. The lady eagerly took his money. Five in the afternoon imagine it. For both of them, it was serious business. So hurried, he didn’t notice that there weren’t any sheets to mess up and immediately afterwards asked, “Was that it?” The lady immediately answered, “More will cost you more.” He just got out of there then.
What happened next seemed to Jack too good to be true. For one day love seemed possible again. With a breath of spring and the smell of the sea, eternal hope once again gave him a reason to live. Almost instantly they connected. They were on a city bus; restrained their meeting seemed auspicious. For him a cosmic force seemed at work; and she should’ve known better. Next came a few awkward words from him about being new in town, which left him groping for something else to say. She took the opening, which then led to a long silence. Both of them had to catch their breath. Then he found out that she road this bus often, maybe as often as everyday.
On her way to school, she began naming districts: “Vermont and Hoover and Franklin and Sunset.” Then with exuberance, she told him that she had only one class that day….”Beverly Hills, Bel Air, La Cienega, Venice,” and by this time, she became his tour guide. Pointing out where movie stars lived, she smiled and gave him her name. Elaine. By then Jack could talk with strangers. He often felt closer to strangers than people he knew. If he didn’t talk to strangers he wouldn’t talk to anyone, so his conversations with strangers tended to be longer than conversations with friends.
Like a pair of cats exploring each other’s scent, they shared the essence of their lives. But Elaine, foreseeing where this might lead, tried to divert his attention. “Everybody,” she said, “likes to go to Hollywood and Vine,” and he pretended he hadn’t been there and kept looking at her thoughtfully. This made Elaine feel uncomfortable, so she told him about her boyfriend. But what did Jack care?
To think they had a deep conversation, a surprisingly deep one, and he could lose her at the next bus stop. The bus stopped, turned there; and it was apparent that he didn’t know when it would come to the last stop and then turn around. She found him pleasant and the attention flattering. Impressed by his clean clothes and very neat haircut, she didn’t think he had anything evil in mind. She sensed his determination but never guessed how much his appearance cost him.
On and off Arroyo Seco, bumper to bumper, there was more time to talk because the bus went all the way to Pasadena. Optimistic, Jack hoped he could follow Elaine home. “Hello,” he said for the fifteenth time, and Elaine repeated the word too. Neither one of them noticed any longer streets or other people on the bus.
On the verge of taking her hand, his mind jumped to other things. Having such thoughts bothered him, especially when Elaine seemed like a nice girl. But shucks, fuck! But so had the barge lady. He couldn’t help but think about how he scored before and felt screwed up. He slid the widow open and benefited from air.
“Such a nice girl.” It seemed for a minute like she was like the girl next door. It was if he were back in Richmond. He noticed Elaine had tiny breast, as he looked at her from head to toe. Her manner put him at ease and kept him from becoming tongue-tied.
Pasadena wasn’t far from LA; and before they knew it, they had to pay for a return trip. Elaine would have to reconcile missing her class and madness of spending a day with a stranger. She tried to rationalize her behavior but couldn’t come up with an excuse. A crazy idea, it remained inexcusable. If he found out, her boyfriend would be livid. She planned to write in her diary about how cute Jack was. There was even a slight resemblance to Errol Flynn. Certainly Elaine had reservations; but their conversation seemed natural. Jack appeared lonely and seemed like he needed her. He wondered if she felt his manliness.
Before too long they were back downtown. The bus then turned onto Main Street and filled up again, requiring people to stand. Suddenly Elaine said, “Let’s get off.” Whoo, they felt pushed and crushed until pushing became like everything else. They felt rushed. They felt trapped, though it didn’t matter to Jack.
“You look great.”
“So do you.”
But he doubted that she would later remember him.
Elaine’s thoughts jumped around. It seemed strange that she skipped class. Could she make up the work?
He took her hand, continuing a drama of possibilities, and guided her through a maze of people. Maneuvering down Main Street, they passed the theater where he spent so much time. Having enjoyed a ghost town never came up. They could’ve explored a Monastery, where within fifteen minutes you can say you’ve seen everything or spent a whole day there. But Jack wouldn’t confess to a priest. He wouldn’t talk to anyone about his confusion and disillusionment or illusions, or how death of Tex changed everything … how death of Tex changed him forever. Somehow, until Elaine came along, it seemed like he had been robbed of life’s music.
After passing up a movie or eating burgers and fries (he didn’t have nerve enough to ask for a kiss), she got so excited about going into a dress shop that she seemed to forget him. He didn’t have any money left and she wanted to spend. With money from her purse, she bought blouses and a skirt, and drove him crazy trying on the whole store. Doing that, Elaine ran out of time.
She almost broke her neck hopping off the bus. Jack hurried to keep up with her. If he lost her he wouldn’t know where she lived. Unhappily then, they ran into her boyfriend. He was waiting for her at her house.
Just being with Elaine had been super, super keen. Even considering she let him down, it had been super, super keen. The experience lifted him. Jack could now leave Main-street LA and take his chances someplace else.
Except he now needed a passport and knew nothing about visas. “One world or none,” Wendell Wilkie’s phrase stuck in his head. For good reasons he needed papers. At that moment in history, unknown to Jack was in good company: Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi and Einstein. They all shared this sentiment. On the spur of the moment, he decided that his chances for landing a job on a ship were better in San Francisco. On the spur of the moment, he found himself hitchhiking again; and on the spur of the moment, he started preparing himself to leave a country he just decided he loved.
From San Francisco Jack worked his way over to Manila, serving as a kitchen helper. He did his job well, but was never respected. The purser ran the ship and never stopped his extortion. Jack found himself a frequent target. Most of the rest of the crew accepted him. The captain appreciated him, because Jack reminded him of when he first went to sea.
Margo circled the day on her calendar. Though she circled it, she hadn’t made many plans. All she knew was that she had to get away. She would be eighteen and had just graduated from high school. She gave her parents notice, and that was more than could be said for her brother.
Conflict with her parents turned her into a rebel, but she didn’t want to disappoint them. She wanted to make a clean break but didn’t want to upset them. And she wanted her parents’ blessing, though she knew that she probably wouldn’t get it. Still, she tried.
After deliberating she adopted the following plan: a letter from a friend would arrive from Chicago. It contained an invitation and an offer of a place to stay. And why Chicago? Chicago. It was simple: Chicago wasn’t far from Richmond. It was a big city, yet it wasn’t far from Richmond. She could’ve chosen Indianapolis, but Indianapolis wasn’t far enough away from Richmond. And why would her parents let her go? They knew they couldn’t hold onto her. They knew that if they tried she would rebel even more. Now she was an adult, an eighteen-year-old adult, and by getting away she thought that she could avoid ruin in a small town and perhaps prosper in a big one.
That winter was unusually cold but invigorating. Without cold wind, people of Chicago wouldn’t have anything to complain about. Margo felt pushed along by crowds and her boss’ clock, as she came and went from work in dark. People hurried to unknown destinations while clocks ate up time. Margo, thinking about her new freedom, and losing herself, knew that she was no longer the same person she was in Indiana.
Margo escaped to a small brownstone apartment. That first night she slept on a hard wood floor. She survived and, in spite of her mother’s worst predictions, established herself in Chicago. She found a job by looking through The Chicago Daily News and discovered what brazen idiots did for a living. Her first taste of reality came when she discovered that jobs were hard to find. Who could blame her for not wanting to work in a gas station (her father owned one)? She wouldn’t accept just any job.
Thank goodness her mother hadn’t been a prophet, but she never let on that she was impressed by Margo’s success. With persistence the young woman found a perfect job for her … for someone who enjoyed people, who wrote books, drew pictures, and played instruments, and enjoyed writers, painters, and musicians. A sucker for authors and artists, she worked behind a counter at Book Mart, the one just off Michigan Avenue, and near the Art Institute. She could be seen there most afternoons, exchanging courtesies and during lulls nibbling on sandwiches and reading novels. She also spent too much time dreaming
She dreamed big dreams, and only a few of her dreams came true. She didn’t know it then, but she just left her inspirational source … her hometown … for it was the main reason for her flight. She started an epic poetic drama, an autobiographical, psychological study of a young woman. Her treatment in it of her brother and her parents, and other people she knew, embarrassed them. She wanted to expose their foibles and retaliate for unnamed crimes.
For one reason or another her poetry never jelled. She struggled to find the right words, which led to a predilection for procrastination. She made the mistake of waiting for inspiration. To write such a poem she would’ve had to reach beyond her grievances, which she wasn’t prepared to do. Without inspiration, she pretended to be writing and met other writers with the same problem.
With similar problems, most of them remained unknown. Some of them said that they were aspiring for something out of reach. Some of them were so self-occupied that they were never satisfied. Because of temperament, most of them wouldn’t recognize acclaim if it was handed to them, and most of them considered themselves members of the avant-garde.
There really wasn’t a way to judge the Michigan Avenue gang. Until Margo arrived, their work was dismissed, or only appreciated by a select few. Accept their art for what it was! In many ways the Michigan Avenue crowd was like the Top Hat Gang. Both gangs lacked direction. But had a Cezannes or a Hemmingway shown up it would’ve been different. It would’ve changed everything. People who showed up … even when they were disappointed … showed their appreciation for their art.
At first Margo didn’t show her work to anyone. An inner voice made it impossible. Snide remarks about her slim output made it impossible. She was well aware of her weaknesses. She was more aware of them anyone else. She was afraid she would never be ready. Consequently she was never ready. Ready for what? She didn’t know, but she always said she would know when it appeared. And she pretended that she didn’t care. So she chastised herself, continually chastised. Little did she know that one day she would be discovered, while she’d play it down. Her approach even then was messianic. Thus she began helping friends, who through her efforts sometimes succeeded.
For a while she liked the image of a starving writer, though she wasn’t exactly starving. An enthusiast, an amateur she experienced the usual ups and downs of a young woman turned loose for the first time. Helping someone else out might not have occurred to her had her own writing caught fire. She wasn’t really into helping, and she never thought of herself as being inspirational. She kept saying, “I’m not worried about those who are naturally talented. It’s the rest of us who deserve help.”
Was it possible to fall in between? Margo was a bit too apologetic, but she loved being the center of attention. She was lucky to have an outlet.
Her first apartment, before she knew Chicago, was on Addison, one block west of Wrigley Field. It was convenient. It wasn’t far from the L, the L her only transportation, and when she was running late it was only a short jog to a train. However, most of the time, instead of running, she chose to be late. And when she had time she wandered around without a purpose because she enjoyed the glory of wasting time. Escaping the common place was one of her goals.
Dressing like a gypsy didn’t last long. It was something she embraced for several months. By wearing something weird and strange like Druid stones, and dressing in green and scarlet like Hungarian gypsies, she thought that she could become part of one of the cliques that came in the bookstore. To find similarities, however, between Margo and members of the cliques was a stretch. For example, when Jasper tried to seal their friendship with “apo miro dadeskro vast!” or “by my father’s hand,” she, after asking what it meant, visualized her daddy chasing her with a hickory stick. Then with coins and pieces of silk woven in her hair, she began to view such exhibitionism with disdain. Cultivating a special jargon spoken ungrammatically seemed like a sham to her. It became apparent that she rejected conformity by rejecting nonconformity. Her rejection of Jasper, however, didn’t stop her from keeping bangles and rings he gave her or from cultivating an appreciation for Sartre and Liszt.
Instead of a writer she would’ve rather been a gypsy. Already enthralled with romance, she imagined swarthy men making love to her. Hearing gypsies called drunks or harlots made her angry.
When they couldn’t find what they wanted, Margo’s regular customers relied on her. They knew her because she often interrupted them with questions and answers. Protocol called for a less direct approach. (During winter conversations materialized more often because people browsed longer.) Some people felt uncomfortable with her friendly manner and avoided eye contact. Margo accepted this as a challenge.
In spite of herself, she brought baggage with her from Richmond. She needed to tone it down. Considered a gift in some places and more appropriate for a soapbox, her deep voice commanded attention. She’d just escaped the land of The New Testament, and she brought with her optimism and zeal of a new convert. It meant that she sometimes sounded pious.
On cold nights she read Eliot and Sartre. No longer in the fold, she forgot her Bible and tears of repentance. It was what brought her to her knees, while books filled a void. As for anger, she pretended indifference. She tried to be pleasant. Her bravado, called brazenness, fell somewhere between being a brat and a free spirit. Often she went overboard. She took great pains to match a person’s personality with a book, and before she left her bookstore job she could count on a steady stream of customers.
Having time to read, she almost only read modern classics, and her command of the English language separated her from her parents. This was how she began her journey. But with disdain for small towns and afraid to leave Chicago, she woke up one day feeling trapped.
Always on the look out for something new, Margo’s appetite for change grew. Consequently she never read anything straight through and read more novelists than poets, and Englishmen more than Americans. Heavier the volume the more pains she took to read it. James Joyce topped her list. The field of aesthetics, so boring to so many, excited her. She also delved into philosophy of art. She gave lectures about “naivete in judging” and “common place directives that were central to modern letters. ” Her lectures didn’t attract many people.
At odd times, a gem came out of her mouth. It was usually an unconventional remark. And often it tickled someone’s funny bone. Pretty much everything she said had a bite to it, and as she grew older and more critical she turned nastier. Her frankness gained her respect. It also turned friends into enemies.
Artists Margo knew craved attention. Posing was essential for them. By dressing like gypsies or acting like Bohemians and by being different, they made statements. Often their actions bordered on insanity. They could’ve also been nominated for a fashion parade. Yet, unless because of some quirk, they didn’t have a chance in hell of becoming famous. But it never stopped them, and for the most part they wouldn’t think of prostituting their art, while their heads swelled from adulation of friends. That was how they became preoccupied with outward appearances. This often led to craziness that gave the group cohesion. “Entertaining.” Yes, “entertaining” was how they described evenings they spent together reading poetry. When Margo read her epic poem “Alfred”, they all said they liked it.
After adoration she felt let down. She knew it was an inferior work. She called it trash. She then gave a treatise on the sound and sense and deception of trash and dismissed her work as mere entertainment. Too much was now at stake for flattery. Flattery seemed like a slap in the face to her. Anticipating failure she had a dreadful week. Accepting failure she felt like killing herself. It was followed by another week of misery, and returning to a job was particularly painful for her. She learned that no amount of hard work assured success.
That whole day, and into the night, she wrote unconnected phrases. Words didn’t come without expletives, and as her desire to write grew she struggled more and more. Silly words were mistaken for substance. Her second try, however, pleased her more. Outside snow began to fall, and it was easy to see why Chicago earned its nickname. A strong wind off the lake made walking unpleasant. There was no better excuse for staying inside and writing, especially since she began to enjoy it. Here then was what kept her from going insane.
For a whole month snow fell. She had graduated to writing vignettes. She wrote a piece about a happy family around a dinner table eating corn on the cob. In it she expressed all her hopes and dreams. It was how families were supposed to work and was the opposite of her experience. From an early age a part of her died every time she apologized for something. Chances of her becoming another Virginia Wolfe were indeed slim, but she certainly had material for several novels.
Margo noticed Harriot before Harriot noticed her. Harriot was a strong athletic girl who lived next door. Great many of their peers attended college and, during all seasons of the year, were preoccupied with pleasant froth, but these two were more interest in creativity. Harriot, more than Margo, had an appetite for sunlight and color. Her surprising enthusiasm, say for example, for a bright plumage of birds drew her into hat decoration, which made an immediate impression on a rather somber writer.
However they probably would’ve dismissed each other had their meeting not been serendipitous. On the day they met Margo was brooding over her unfulfilled destiny. Noticeably able to enjoy each other these women shared a chemistry that sealed their friendship. Curiosity led to long conversations. Sharp debate and definite opinions enlivened discussions.
Now Margo, all heart, longed for adventure, while Harriot tried to convince her that Chicago rivaled Paris. A tour of the city settled the matter. Everywhere the guide found something to prove her point. To a couple of artists sights and sounds of Chicago were well worth it. While Harriot loved light, Margo heard screams and noises and knifings and hawking of pizza. Harriot and Margo went together but often reached different destinations. Where Harriot saw gilded furniture, gilded-framed pier mirrors, and crystal chandeliers, Margo marveled at shapes and texture of brick, wood, and glass.
There was something else they shared, something surprisingly pleasant, but something that made Margo nervous. Back in Indiana it would’ve been unacceptable. Her parents would’ve been horrified. They would never have accepted it. Now, while Margo evolved plots around bricks and mortar and Harriot did the same thing around birds and butterflies, the two women frequently held hands. Margo soon realized that her new friend expected affection. This affection led to her wondering where this obligation would lead. Without talking about it, several times Margo came close to bolting. But Harriot reassured her. Margo, as their friendship grew, had to face biases out of her past.
At this early stage Margo came close to receiving recognition, recognition she desired. It pretty nearly ruined her. Praise never helped. Praise only exasperated her. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe people were telling the truth. She could’ve easily kept Harriot’s friendship, but she came to believe that because of her artist’s temperament she couldn’t have a close friend. Consequently, she neglected to invite Harriot to an opening of her epic drama.
Most Saturday nights they walked arm in arm down Halsted Street. They enjoyed lazily walking down Halsted Street, down crowded sidewalks getting lost in crowds. As they walked, they’d look for ice cream. Both of them loved ice cream and ate it daily. Margo didn’t have a weight problem, so it didn’t matter how much ice cream she ate. Harriot had a weight problem, but it didn’t make any difference to her when it came to ice cream. So she put on pounds. Another thing about Margo was her appetite for shadiness, which in Chicago wasn’t hard to find. And she never worried about risks. Over eating, the two women shared it in common.
Sometimes they went to dives to listen to black men play saxophones. They knew they shouldn’t go alone, but this didn’t mattered much because the spotlight wasn’t on them. Bands played jazz, and between sets singers smoked tiny, brown cigars. From about nine at night until two in the morning, bands played jazz, singers smoked tiny, brown cigars, and lost souls danced to whip-like rhythms.
To find it Harriot and Margo followed a circuitous route through Gates of Hell. It took between fifteen minutes and half an hour to reach the club. It was dark and scary. “Kind of swell, don’t you think?” “Going No Where,” while everyone was in a daffy mood and easily satisfied. Their main concern was pleasure and rarely found enough of it. Margo felt like they’d entered into Henry Miller’s Black Lace Lab and wasn’t knowledgeable enough to write about it.
A gentleman that she just met blew smoke in her ear. He talked tough about cheaters and swell-looking dames. Four or five other men vied for her attention, but none of them said that he’d waited all his life for her. He looked familiar, almost certainly was, and who could tell if he told her the truth. With such a big, handsome guy Margo felt flattered but at a disadvantage. Margo never knew how much she drank. Someone said that she should eat something. Swell.
With no time to lose Margo fired the first salvo. This stopped him cold. He hadn’t heard of Henry Miller and didn’t appreciate hearing a woman curse. His companions slid away and then rushed women who were still available. Thundering sound of ten studs all chasing after five mares gave an impression of a charge of a cavalry troop. With boots and spurs they descended upon a bevy of women. Then Margo heard herself say, “Everything’s swell; I’m telling you.”
Instinct told her that she shouldn’t dance. He wanted to hold her tight, and as he expected it proved easy. Harriot turned her man down. Margo suspected that she preferred a soprano on stage, a well-known singer. Her friend didn’t say anything all evening. Margo saw her standing there with the same posture, the same disinterestedness. Indifferent or not she should’ve had more fun. Instead her situation seemed to go from bad to worse. By now Harriot expected to be abandoned. It was like she could read Margo’s mind. Maybe Harriot already planned to walk home by herself.
Margo felt bewildered and sad for her friend and said, “I intend to get drunk. Won’t you join me?” Under different circumstances Margo might’ve humored her, but this time she wasn’t going to allow her friend to dictate her mood and ruin her evening. It wasn’t fair. It was never fair. She was always ruining her evening. Margo loved crowds, loud music, and love-me-love-songs. Harriot never liked forced encounters. She shut down when she saw her friend enjoying herself.
A few songs later and after the place filled up Harriot got worse. To Margo nothing was more interesting than bedlam and molls and guys sucking up to each other. Then a fight broke out. Rivals attacked each other, which was why Margo would go back there. A fight broke out, and someone got hurt. “Can you beat it? The Band’s still playing. God must love a good fight. And someone got hurt.”
So as not to alert police the saxophone player played even louder. A red-hot horn in his hot hands razzed and dazzled for two consecutive hours. After that midnight came around and a mood that stayed around until pretty near dawn, and Harriot seemed determined to ruin everyone’s evening. She wouldn’t stop staring at the floor. Never for a moment did anyone distract her.
It was funny how dying suddenly became important to Harriot. Moans came from somewhere inside her and rose in intensity and followed moods and rhythms of the saxophone. Thinking of death inspired her. It always inspired her. While still young and an only child, the idea of dying became an obsession. She fixated on a violent end and as it grew more intense it energized her. Finally she gave into an impulse, and it set her heart on fire.
Imprudently instead of stabbing herself, she slit her wrist with pieces of a broken mirror. If she really wanted to die, she would’ve stabbed herself. So we see her rushing into the women’s restroom and finding a way to break a mirror. But she didn’t have guts enough to do herself in. If she really wanted to die, she would’ve bought a gun. The last thing she remembered hearing before she lost consciousness was “The Beale Street Blues.”
They rushed Harriot to Pullman Psychiatric Hospital, one of Chicago’s great institutions. Fanfare over her attempted suicide gave her attention, attention that she was looking for, but she never understood why there was such a fuss. Her hospitalization made her laugh, and no one could be sure that she wouldn’t try again.
Like drones in a glass jar, patients stuck to an unreasonable schedule. Often, while they smoked, watched television, or become involved in some other time-filling activity, everything stopped. It was like they all lost something. Someone then invariably shrieked or started a monologue about a doctor’s use of a goofy diathermy machine, or that his or hers threats of killing his or herself weren’t serious. With thorazine most of them got better … became obedient … docile and obedient. Access to the hospital grounds was used as a bribe. Compliance meant privileges. Sometimes to keep them from hurting themselves (or hurting others) they were given tranquilizers or restrained.
There was a varied population there. After a few days most of them looked and acted quite normal. With psychiatric care and bingo and square dancing, and music and soft ball, tennis, talent shows, art shows, dancing, television, movies, public speaking and a lot more, almost all of them got better. Like with thorazine, they got better. Someone might sing “Moonglow” in a monotone. Their lack of expression might indicate schizophrenia or a lack of talent. One would hope they weren’t judged by their singing.
What motivated Harriot to begin painting? Was it attention she received at the hospital? She requested that people not fuss over her or consider her painting tigers crazy. She asked people not to comment on them. As a whole her paintings represented a body of work totally unprecedented for the hospital. Her doctor encouraged it. He told her painting was good therapy and important self-expression.
Her tigers obeyed her, and she felt proud of them. What a painting meant to her was frequently missed. No one knew that she felt responsible for her tigers. And what interested her most was that she could control them. She had tigers living with her, and it didn’t seem strange to her.
Margo visited daily, while Harriot hid in her room. Day after day she grew more defiant. She always responded in the same way. Was she afraid of her friend? No. Instead, she gravitated toward the blankness of a clean wall, toward blank canvases, on which she painted more tigers. When she was painting, no one could touch her. When she was painting, no one better touch her. But though she hid, she hid in vain. To touch her again proved useless. Praise depressed her and shut her down. There lay pain. Everyday Margo appeared, there would be the same unprofitable battle. It was painful. As a matter of course Margo thought Harriot’s tiger paintings were superb and felt that she had to own one.
Margo saw it as if she were paying off a small debt. But for Harriot there couldn’t have been a more affective ploy than blaming someone else for her suicide attempt … even a embarrassingly blotched one. Only blood and pain were real. By the same token landing in Pullman was more humiliating to her than death.
It wasn’t surprising then that Harriot’s bitterness became a major source of creativity for her. When she painted, she painted with madness and frenzy. The wildest expression of vengeance directed her brush. These beasts could never be trusted or considered cute or cuddly. They were dangerous. They were dangerous and could’ve bitten her head off. Indeed, they were ferocious. Harriot used them instead of guard dogs. But long before her discharge boredom of the hospital got to her. And as unreal as it may seem she accepted money for her first tiger. Margo proved her mettle too. She bought the painting, signed and dated, though it frightened her. Hanging it in her apartment had an extraordinary affect on her. Her desire to buy art was thus born. It was art of a friend that got her started. At the same time she was very pleased. Pursued by a host of friends Margo soon learned that she’d rather buy art than receive acclaim.
The big fellow had charm, and Egisto Rossi’s connections with Sicilian bosses gave him an additional advantage. He overlooked what his friends did and for the most part never got into trouble. Egisto ran a lucrative business but never made big money. He became renown for selling pasta by the pound.
He never thought that he would marry an outsider. However, as he’d say, “Those things happen.” Margo frequented his restaurant. They shared a passion for Italian food. Egisto was so bold as to ask Margo her name. She flirted with him, and one thing led to another. Margo was flattered by his attention, and he was equally flattered when she flirted back, and once it got started, they didn’t know how to stop it. In short, Italians don’t mess around.
One bright day, as it grew hotter, Margo sat with Egisto and raised her eyes to watch birds sunning themselves on the breakwater. Just as happiness to a fisherman meant having faith in a half-inch minnow, Egisto believed in the law of probability and that he’d eventually catch a fish in Lake Michigan. Even catching a small one made him happy. For Margo had come to Municipal Pier, not to fish for a fish but to fish for a man she thought was a millionaire.
Their marriage, however, never fulfilled the promise of their first few dates, or promises they made to each other. It was a continual challenge; but he gave her a comfortable life.
At the very least Egisto made a good living selling pasta by the pound. Margo liked it when his customers greeted him with “your Excellency.” It meant that he had at least four cents in his pocket and nobody could mistake him for a doctor or a priest.
Egisto ran his establishment in such a way that nobody worried about prices and nobody went home hungry. Besides providing him with a living the restaurant became a form of recreation, and he never worried about where to go on Saturday night. Pushing himself to become a cut above rabble or riffraff (the mob), he often said, “Snobbery is a necessary thing. Society has to have differences in order to run properly.”
He rambled in that way and promised Margo a home. He usually kept his promises. He gave her examples of what he could offer her, and again he usually kept his promises. (Still their marriage didn’t live up to its promise.) She saw that he really worked hard. (It was encouraging.) He worked hard and earned every penny he ever made. In many ways he reminded her of her father. Harking back to his roots he often sang arias from ID TRAVATORE. People who knew him weren’t surprised to hear him also sing something from LA DOLCE VITA, while Margo played in her head with an idea of becoming a nymph or a faun … on a solitary beach, or in a secluded cave … where she could bathe in the nude, drink wine out of sea shells, and eat messy food with her hands. He consorted with “contadini” and fishermen. In Chicago, forget it! Parts of Chicago may have had enough Italians to be called Little Rome, but parts of the city were also as far from the Vatican as you could get.
From the beginning Egisto stated his motives. Love according to him was delicious. He loved to eat and loved to make love. He liked nothing better than taking her clothes off. Liked it better than cooking and eating. Yes, it was okay. Priests endorsed it. She, however, sought a combination of sensuality and sincerity. And in the morning sex with fire works! He’d stand there, ogling and curling the tip of an imaginary mustache. “You’re sweet,” “delicious,” or simply, “mmm,” those were his words. Then by snapping his fingers he made her susceptible to a unique form of gallantry.
By and by he’d get around to asking her about her day. It would get her talking, and he couldn’t stop her. A revival of PASSAGE OF INDIA just opened at the Goodman Theater with marvelous reviews. She expected her husband to share her enthusiasm. His mere attention was never enough. She wanted him to recognize what was important to her.
First her achievement as a poet gave her connections and self-assurance to become a patroness. The first paintings (of tigers and other wild animals) she purchased, as she often proudly said, were only a start. In turn she actually launched Harriot’s career. It helped her friend overcome reality and poverty that most painters faced. Margo might’ve been famous herself had she not been so distracted by limited successes of her friends.
But this was only conjecture, conjecture that increasingly haunted her and made her question her talent. She only wrote three or four plays, which in some circles was considered phenomenal. Though measuring success was difficult she unfortunately and unjustly grew more and more dissatisfied with her work.
The couple often seemed sad. Often as they stared out over the lake, their conversation turned away from the god-almighty theater and the arts to volumes about nothing. But always there was confusion over Egistos’ drinking. Too often they pretended that his heavy drinking was necessary. Too often they pretended that he had to have a drink to have a good time. A great game called sympathetic drinking drew Margo into it. It was one of the things Egisto succeeded at. Often with an empty glass in her hand she endorsed her husband’s drunkenness. Wearing tinted glasses she’d ignore an evil genie … drinking. She was easily seduced, seduced by all of the places having fun took her, from the arms of Henry (as in Miller) to mad sex with Egisto, and the clamor, glitter and shrieks that came her way from being with celebrities.
With help of pain and misery Egisto, always playing host, fast approached now the last stages of a disease. Literally he drank himself to death. He could always afford another drink. He could always find a drinking buddy. He often drank with his customers.
Up until the end friends congregated around Egisto to eat homemade pasta, drink great wine, and sing his favorite songs. They were generally people he knew most of his life because he chose his friends well and never let them down. These people he nightly welcomed to his restaurant, but few of them sent Margo condolences. To Egisto, however, the possibility of death never seemed real.
Sometimes Margo worked beside her husband; and this was easier for her than one might’ve imagined. Often celebrities came for dinner, actors, writers, and singers, from the Opera company, Geridine Farrer and Marie Callas, people who Margo always personally served. Like at the bookstore, she served actors, writers, and singers. Egisto claimed he once out drank Hemmingway, though the famous writer never came into his restaurant. Meanwhile Egisto felt that he and his friends, many of them immigrants, were living an American dream and realized that it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Secrets they kept not only included pasta and pavlova but also crime.
Egisto knew Boo Boo, Max, Duffy, and Bugs. Preferring neutrality, he however never joined a Mafioso family. Instead he catered to them by offering cards, cigars, and meals. Rival bosses held celebrations at his restaurant, often ostensibly to raise money for the Maritime Society or a Catholic charity. Of course Egisto enjoyed prestige. Those who knew him thought he would make a great mayor or another Caruso or Tamagno.
He strutted and changed table clothes with the snapped of a wrist. Instead of war medals, he wore carnations. All the time, while serving his customers, and with hundreds of plots and thousands of characters, he carried on extended conversations. He shared with them joy, sorrow, hope, anger, relief, boredom, despair, love, and disappointment, which made him instantly likeable. Egisto could’ve been elected lamico degli amici, a friend of friends, or un gran signore. Again, he could’ve been elected mayor. By not saying much Margo allowed her husband to be flamboyant, juvenile, and often ridiculous. And generally he gave in when he saw that he couldn’t control her, but he increasingly stood in her shadow.
Margo’s tiny coffeehouse and gallery on Washington Street near Market offered unknown talent a shelter away from critics. Each evening, around eight o’clock, a responsive audience gathered. They sat around small tables, sipped hot chocolate or various kinds of coffee, sipped, talked, watched, and listened. Margo’s business attracted a mixed crowd. They came to hear and to see the gang, a group of artist and friends who sang, told fortunes, improvised plays, and basically performed their own work. Within this crowd Harriot’s popularity grew. Everyone knew her. Everyone applauded her, and her paintings began to sell. Her works were sensitive and sexually ambiguous.
Egisto gave his wife’s project his blessing. He did it without profit in sight. As far as he was concerned, owning a billiard hall or selling cigars on a street corner made more sense, but he still gave her his blessing. Rules and expectations to Margo were more inconsequential than distortions and excesses in modern art.
Each night her customers could expect a shock or two. For three hours performers delivered and dared to do things that artists elsewhere merely contemplated. Nightly skits outraged some people, while most people enjoyed them. It was one place where people could be themselves. Soon Margo found herself leading Chicago’s avant-garde.
Then Margo turned to social realism and decided the best use for Egistos’ money was to produce a movie of Upton Sinclair’s novel THE JUNGLE. All attempts to discourage her failed. No one could stop her. Nothing ever stopped her after she made up her mind to do something. No one could keep her away from slaughterhouses and slums. Such experiences kept her awake at night. Sleeplessness came with the creative process, but Margo’s work shared the same deficiencies as Sinclair’s novel.
Within some circles she was labeled a communist. While many writers of proletarian literature faced congressional hearings and were blacklisted, she never became prominent enough for it.
Caught up in Sinclair’s straightforward descriptions of meatpacking and pork-making, the whole process, the grisly accidents and the industrial diseases, “singe and smell of mass-produced death and dismemberment,” she shared the author’s ideas about humanity’s future. She wanted to capture rivers of blood and stench … unwashed walls, rafters and pillars caked with filth … a plague of flies descending on Packing Town … cattle driven through chutes … the killing bed … cleaver men, knockers armed with sledge-hammers, and butchers with long knives, men cutting, splitting, gutting, and scraping. A grisly scene, and cruel. She wanted to capture it all. At the same time Egisto was struck with pain and for the life of her Margo couldn’t sympathize.
But soon she ran into problems endemic to the movie business. The more the movie and her personal life became intertwined, the more difficult the juggling act became. It also soon became clear that she didn’t have enough money. From the beginning she didn’t have enough money. At no time did she have a realistic picture of a budget.
At the same time Egistos’ showed cautious enthusiasm for her work, which had to be placed in the context of a hospital stay. Pain returned, and he hadn’t stopped drinking. For Margo his death couldn’t have come at a worse time. And disappointingly, before she had a chance to complete the film, a backer backed out and doomed the whole project. This blow hurt Margo more than anything else.
Here ended her fling with Henry and Upton. Everyone, innumerable people rallied around her and tried to cheer her up. She needed a fresh start. But less importance was placed on her lifelong dream of creating a major work. As her dad would say, “No setbacks, no gain.” But subsequent projects wouldn’t be as long and painful as THE JUNGLE.
Margo felt old, as she viewed death as a cruel joke. She knew that her mother viewed death as a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “Robbery!” she cried. Her husband’s death caught her off guard and made her wonder where she’d been. She couldn’t say that she knew him, while people who did know him gathered around in a reverent manner. They only had nice things to say about him. From their conversations Margo couldn’t tell whom they were talking about. Maybe they were all mixed up, or not telling the truth. The truth about what? She didn’t have an answer, and everything seemed muddled. He suffered a great deal, and she hadn’t been there for him. She was incapable of it, and so he wasn’t your typical man. And it was humiliating for Margo. His epitaph simply read, “For God has called, and I must go and leave you all.” Simple. Nothing else could be said.
It was quite a spectacle. Mourners gathered and filed past the casket for one last look. Among them were the Sicilian bosses Boo Boo, Max, Duffy, and Bugs. Margo’s parents didn’t say a word about them, and she wasn’t quite sure whether they would or not. But most likely they wouldn’t. She was burying her husband, and they weren’t likely to confront her then. The slightest indiscretion hurt her.
She saw Egisto lying there in a tweed suit, as she came up to him. That was his Excellency, but she knew very well that he wasn’t there. You see, she was crying; he was gone; he had meant so much to her and no doubt everyone could see it because she shook the whole time. Excuse her for shaking. She hadn’t had a long cry yet; Margo’s time had come; she took the time for a long farewell to his Excellency, as a soprano sang his favorite aria from ID TRAVATORE.
Thinking of her dad, what changes did Margo see in him, suggested by changes along US 40? Whenever she went home she spent time with him at the gas station. Why? Why not! Why not spend time with him and her mother? It shouldn’t shock anyone that Margo didn’t remember US 40, except for names of towns…. Greenfield, Indianapolis, Brazil, and Terre Haute. Not that she’d recognized her hometown after a 1968 explosion totally leveled two downtown city blocks and spread destruction over a fourteen-block area. But while it upset all her family, she saw devastation in a way that the rest of them couldn’t. She tried to speak to her mother about it, but timing was wrong, which always seemed to have been the case. She concentrated on carrying on and kept her mind busy.
“Our journeys to the land of promise, varying in distance, takes us in unexpected directions. And when one wanders as a stranger in an unfamiliar place, or, when, not knowing what else to do, after settling on specifics, we cling to a few tangible things.” But Margo concerned herself more and more with intangible things and seemed filled with regret when she couldn’t do more.
U.S. ROUTE 40
During the summer of 1948, young Jack Fisher assumed control of his life. Emancipated, and hard headed, he just turned eighteen. And like so many of his generation, he profited from his parents having survived the Great Depression, but he hadn’t been tested. He didn’t know how strong he was or if he could live on his own.
His parents celebrated the Great Depression, as a time of challenge, challenges met and overcome. The need for thrift, and the remembrance of days before the war when people managed on cream and egg money, times when his mother and dad exchanged butter and eggs for kerosene and gas and called it even, led to a sense of insecurity and a need for possessions. Jack’s inheritance, therefore, was tied to the price of gasoline, sugar, navy beans, fig bars, and gingersnaps. Even after things improved, they were driven by memory of hard times; and from an early age Jack knew that one day he would escape this. He had to escape this.
He didn’t want to be like his pop and waste his life pumping gas. He talked of becoming a bum, which irritated his folks. He was also particularly good at exasperating Margo, his younger sister. The most tragic event of her young life came when Jack disappeared without taking her with him. He ran away without warning her. He could’ve at least warned her. They were close, yet he ran away without warning her. No sister could’ve hoped for a better brother, which made life without him more depressing. She told her friends that he died of cancer.
Teased by constant traffic … traffic of U.S. Route 40, Margo waited for her turn. She too would leave, would leave as soon as she could. As soon as she turned eighteen, she left home. She marked the date on a calendar but felt hampered by limitations placed on her by her sex. Unlike Jack, she felt hampered by her sex. But she had imagination and used it to go places and to get to know people. She liked to talk to strangers, and by talking to strangers she hoped to find someone who had seen her brother.
She pictured Jack traveling the length of Route U.S 40, back and forth, beckoned on by Burma-Shave sign sequences and welcomed by familiar flashing, pulsation signs that blinked “eat,” “drink,” and “sleep.”
Such were the ironies of life, that it was, in reality, his dad’s Asian experience that fired the boy’s imagination. Dangers not spoken of or exploits spoken of in almost a flippant manner, Jack’s dad tended to gloss over the reality of war. Jack knew that it was a harrowing time for him; but how could his dad talk about how it felt to plunge a bayonet into a man or seeing the helter-skelter spilling of blood. Pardon this sin of omission. Rather than the destruction of Manila, he preferred to downplay horror and dwell on his fondness for leggy stage performances and those places where the bitterness of war could be momentarily forgotten. He was very taken by Filipinos and the emotional reception they gave. They were so much more musical than people he knew in Indiana, while the same melodic and rhythmic variations were sung and played. “Aloho Oe,” as he stood and clapped in gratitude.
From the beginning of her patronage of the art scene, Margo was honest enough to admit her roots. Choosing Chicago was deliberate. Pragmatism ruled her thinking. With family near, if sweet life turned sour, she could always return to her small hometown. To announce her enmity toward her parents as her brother did seemed senseless; but, in hindsight, Margo later felt Jack said scurrilous things only to provoke their father and didn’t really mean them. Quite the opposite of her sibling, it seemed essential for her to keep in close contact with her family.
Her passions were kept in check by fear. It meant that she never followed her brother. His occasional letters spawn ideas that he lived an adventurous life, a life filled with exotic adventures, of a free spirit, who wore blue jeans and loose shirts that hid a money belt stuffed with a passport and $10 American Express traveler’s checks. As she read his letters, she gave her imagination free reign. She spent hours daydreaming. She calculated how to travel on a shoestring. She imagined meeting a decent headhunter or penetrating the Amazon without a guide. More than once, having packed a duffel bag, she hesitated and then gravitated towards Chicago, where she became more and more interested in choices that included a son of an Italian immigrant and enthusiasm for art and poets. They were her choices, not Jack’s.
Before Chicago, a highway best defined her life. In place of open land and sky, crickets and cicadas, there was a hodgepodge of contradictory visions. To see beyond constant traffic, signs and telephone poles and be amazed by a landscape of pastures and trees, to detect creosote between telephone poles and catch dim trajectories of birds high in the sky, all of it took an artist’s eye. Gas stations and motels, use-car lots and trailer courts stimulated her.
By 1950, to attract motorist off a newly constructed freeway, her father ranchified their gas station. The expense generated new business, but in no way could he compete with big truck stops of major oil companies. For the first time, Margo’s mom didn’t have to help with business. For the first time in her life she didn’t have to work. Since she didn’t have to work anymore, she kept an immaculate house and watched soaps. He insisted that their house be kept immaculate. It was only fair. He insisted on cooked meals, so between cooking and housework she watched soaps. So she lived a dream.
The utterly familiars soon lost its charm for her. So unhappy she was and ignorant of reasons for her malcontent that she often became irrational and irritated. She held onto her anger, her hurt feelings because her husband didn’t see her anger and hurt feelings. She didn’t talk about it. They didn’t talk. Depression debilitated her, and they didn’t talk about it while Margo was given run of the house. Margo’s mother recalled a simpler time, a simpler time when outdoors didn’t mean parking lots, junkyards, or billboards.
To cheer a teary-eyed woman up, Margo engaged in non-stop chatter. This turned into long rambling stories and gave her a reputation for being windy. It was true that she had a host of imaginary friends. And she had been on many imaginary adventures. Yes, it was true that she trained fleas and cockroaches for her mother. And her mother’s acceptance of her circus was always remembered as a triumph. There followed battles. They fought over opening windows, which was compensated by an invasion of no-see-’ems. Here was an idea, an idea that in its final stages grew into a three-ring extravaganza, with troops of trained June bugs, flies, spiders, daddy longlegs, katydids, hair bees, gnats, and dragonflies. Margo wanted to entertain her mother. She wanted to give her mother a reason clap and laugh.
Margo took her mission seriously. Before the first McDonald’s, before Disneyland, she turned their couch into a ride in the shape of a turtle, a ride that took them many places, through jungles and across seas. She also created rides in the shape of elephants and camels and birds. To Borneo, Hong Kong, Manila, except she placed maples and oaks in Borneo, ignored the hilly terrain of Hong Kong, and placed meadows of alfalfa near Manila.
So Jack, adios. To hell with Jack! But what did Indiana mean to him? What did his family mean to him? How could he run away? Look at all he missed. Margo’s wayward brother missed his sister’s adolescence, when she moved in a fast lane and gained a reputation for smoking and making out. Confused, and in extreme situations in conflict with her peers, she was labeled a misfit. Then she turned to making music and writing. In the spirit of Swinburne, and decadence of another century, a poet was born. And it embarrassed her plain-talking folks.
Margo sought controversy. Whenever possible, she acted outrageously. True to form she formed the Top Hat Gang, a circle of friends unto-themselves. That these girls weren’t pregnant amazed everyone. Unfortunately for Margo, her parents would’ve been happier with her having a child than with her proclamations of free love. In Indiana, family values were important, very important, which set the state apart from neighboring Chicago. Curses and vices of Chicago were well documented.
Now, ruin of more than one Church of God girl was reported from the pulpit. These grim lessons clearly illustrated what could happen if certain things were allowed. Hence, Margo’s mother worried about her daughter’s fall from Grace. It became particularly upsetting whenever she heard words like slut and tramp used. So, to stop the finger pointing she stopped Margo from seeing her best friends. Up until she graduated, the deprived teenager suffered the consequences, while her mother’s hysterics had little, if anything, to do with the Top Hat Gang.
Meanwhile, U. S. Route 40 continued to change. From an industrial base centered on grimy, smoke-belching, multi-storied, brick mills, such as once flourished along the river, to factories in prefabricated, horizontal metal buildings, Richmond changed. As Richmond changed from shopping at Greenfield’s to shopping at malls with acres of parking lot, families were irrevocably altered too.
To stay competitive, Jack and Margo’s dad relied on service. It meant he opened and closed the station. Yes, in order for his standard of living to modestly grow, he spent long days and nights away from his family. Human experience gives ample evidence of dads such as him, who would never deliberately be absent, but had to work long hours to make a living. Circumstances called for loyalty to his business. No wonder anger griped Margo’s mother. For the loss of her youth, and imprudence of marring young, she secretly kicked herself.
Yet again Jack’s dad had to enlarge his business. This included an office and service bays, a larger display room and larger storage spaces, room for tires, batteries, and accessories. Some stations, owned by major oil companies, were bigger. They simply replaced old stations with little more than huge canopies, but he held on by pouring more sweat into his business.
With a new and magnificent station, with full service and self serve, he started a new decade with great expectations. These he more than realized. Having the good fortune of having matured when opportunity existed on every street corner, and when rather like a comet the automobile epitomized an age, he fought gas wars with his prices announced on billboards. He won these wars. He won these wars by undercutting competition, but was overcome over the loss of a son who left in the middle of a church service.
Jack’s dad had a ritual. An early riser, Jack’s dad followed the same ritual most mornings. Before sunrise, along with two farmers and their sons, a truck driver and a policeman (all of whom he had known since childhood), he opened the Coffee Pot Restaurant. He always ordered the same thing: (you guessed it) tons of coffee and bacon and eggs. Here were like-minded men, who counted on each other. Besides a few words about grandkids, these friends communicated reams without saying much. No formalities were ever exchanged. Had Jack stuck around he would’ve been one of them.
Ted, Don, Max, and Ruby would be friends until the last two died off. In the Coffee Pot, even that early, there were always people coming and going, preoccupied with their activities, and blind to what other people were doing. But in this circle, feelings weren’t so well hidden: for example Jack’s father’s feelings of sadness and envy. With the loss of Jack, he envied his friends and the relationships they had with their sons. He saw their respect for each other, as shown to parents in earlier times, when boys and their dads went places together, which generally happened more on the farm than in the city. And he envied them for it.
After Jack ran away, his father’s tolerance for wholesomeness diminished. His contempt and anger also grew and was projected onto his friends’ sons. It just took looking at them, and his anger grew, anger and resentment grew. And it began to poison him. It poisoned him, and it was unfair. With these feelings came an awareness of what he was missing. .
Thoughts about the passing of his youth made him long for his son; memories from his childhood, of riding with his grandpa in an old wagon pulled by a team of mules, and of his dad shucking corn, it all hurt. It hurt to think that he had been too busy working to pay attention to his son.
He no longer had Jack to go coon hunting with. There was no one left to train his dogs. How much more could they have done together and taught each other? About the best places to go and the best weather for coon hunting: early fall when weather might get bad and snow fell and where there were a lot of trees and you could catch stragglers before they ran and hid and to know what a good coon dog was all about. Now that was what Jack’s dad’s had in mind.
Throughout long months of fearing the worse, and during a crisis filled with self-incrimination, this was when his family needed him the most. He could’ve taken Margo fishing and instead of buying his wife a new washer and drier could’ve paid her more attention. It would’ve helped them all. It would’ve been something that he would’ve been tickled and proud about.
He searched all cities and towns along U.S. 40 and never gave up. Thinking he knew his son, he thought Jack wouldn’t go too far, so he, in those first days, drove west as far as Terre Haute. He asked at every gas station, restaurant, and grocery store. He distributed fliers and offered a substantial reward. He followed every lead and prayed that something dark and sinister hadn’t happened. He did all this because he loved his son.
To him his wife seemed occupied and ill at ease. To ask more of her seemed too much to ask. So he left her at home. This made her feel useless. This made her feel useless and made her think her husband was an unemotional man. And she hoped he would change. In her mind, their failure was a typical failure, as typical as anything she saw on television. Her lack of excitement in life was well established and rooted in pretended happiness. How could he be happy when Jack was missing? All his searching he therefore did alone. He went alone to protect his wife from each disappointment.
But then, as he crisscrossed the state, he began to accept his son’s disappearance. He came to a conclusion that it was natural for a young man to seek his independence. He was sure his son ran away, but he couldn’t be completely sure. He kept hoping. Having grown up in a community nurtured by a national highway, with this road stretching clear across the country, San Francisco had to have been an attraction for his son. Whether you’re talking about trolley cars or the Golden Gate Bridge, here was a city that was more of a magnet than Indianapolis or Terre Haute. While at the same time, all roads in Indiana lead to Indianapolis, Indianapolis where a changing skyline was synonymous with prosperity, and where anyone skilled at gamesmanship could become an entrepreneur. Indianapolis had everything, from new buildings to opportunities any young person with ambition might’ve wanted, or as Jack’s father often said, “Indianapolis is a lovely city,” which he thought should’ve attracted his son and kept him close to home.