Midnight in Amarillo

Long black hair draped over the hippy kid from Philly’s shoulders, like the dripping leather thongs that hung off his split-leather jacket. He wore fancy red-toed cowboy boots, although the first time I scoped in on him I knew he wasn’t any kind of Western hand . . . no calluses or rough spots on his palms, his fingers. And then he talked—no cowpoke I ever knew spoke with an accent like busted-up asphalt. But he had some money and he liked me, so Wayne and I stuck close to him. The pickup ride across the Mojave from Barstow to Williams, Arizona. We could have ridden into Flagstaff but all the road men told us, “Stay out of that town. The cops pick hitchers up and they disappear.” Somebody used the word, “Kilt. They git kilt.”

From Williams to Albuquerque in a Chevy with a broken trunk lock. Highway patrolmen stopped us seven times on Interstate 40 because they thought the car was stolen. We got bored. No pot in the back, no guns in the driver’s trouser pockets. Just careful cops with their heavy flashlights good for battering things, their pieces concealed in black holsters.

At Albuquerque we went in to eat, burning up half our cash. We met a kid going back to the University of Texas, had to make some classes. He seemed too urbane, no long locks, no experience in war, just avoiding the draft by going to college. Said, “I need to be there by 10 o’clock in the morning.” I didn’t have a map in my head, but guessed the distance to college a pretty far piece.

We stood by the on-ramp to I-40 at the last exit out of town; Central Avenue where all the Chicanos cruised up and down, up and down the street. Some sneering, some grinning, some shooting us the peace sign, some shooting us the finger.

A red ’62 Impala stopped.  A guy stuck his head out. “Where you headed?”  “Austin,” and “Springfield, Missouri” and “Iowa City.” The hippy kid from Philly didn’t say anything.

“Git in,” and we did. Texas kid in the front, in the middle. The hippy kid from Philly, Wayne and I in the back. We settled in. The driver and his sidekick, each discharged after six years in the Navy.  “We were career men,” one of them said. “But hell, it’s gotten too chickenshit.”

I nodded off.

A lot of screaming and cussing. One of the Navy men—not the driver—waving a pistol around as I woke up. His tight blond curly-haired head like a ping pong ball bouncing as he jabbed the whiney Texan in the chest with the mouth of that gun. “Get out. Get out,” as the tires screeched on the asphalt.

Fuzzy-muzzled with sleep still in our brains.

That shrill, “Get out, get out.”

Wayne asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Shut up and get out, all of you get out.” A Marlboro stuck out of the corner of the driver’s mouth. Smoke poked him in the eyes and he squinted, then glared into the rear view mirror. “Get out.” A freeway sign that read, “Lubbock, thirty miles.” We were headed in the wrong direction. The knappy-headed Navy dude slapping the Texan on the top of the head. “What are you trying to do to us, Texas boy?”

“Hey, cool it man. Just trying to get to Austin before class tomorrow.”

The driver shouted, “All of you get the hell out.”

The barrel of that pistol glared directly in my eyes. It bared its canines. Wayne mused, “Wait a minute, we didn’t do anything.” Shouts rattling around the head liner, “Get out and shut up. Damned Marines, anyway.”

“We didn’t do anything.”

The driver banged his head on the steering wheel. “We lost an hour coming down here ’cause that loud-mouthed Texan steered us in the wrong direction.”

Wayne mentioned, “I appreciate your dilemma, but that’s not our fault. If you’re heading to Ohio, you need to turn around. You can haul us, too. We didn’t do anything.”

Pistol man bared his canines at Wayne and waved the weapon around. An old .32 revolver, not much of a piece, but deadly enough in close quarters. I didn’t appreciate the way his finger sat on the trigger. His blue eyes reminded me of those squirrely things Australian Shepherds use to see with. He waved the muzzle at the back door, “No way. No way.”

The driver jammed the tranny into neutral and yanked on the emergency brake and jumped out and stomped around in front of the headlights. He looked like a gangster-movie goon the way he disappeared into the night through the grasshopper-gut-pocked windshield. Blondy climbed out too as the Texan struggled up the freeway in front of them with his thumb out at everything that roared, whooshed or jangled past. I looked at Wayne. He said, “I’m scared.” I shrugged and giggled and the hippy kid from Philly grinned. I said, “Time to get scared is when the shooting starts.”

The two ex-swabbies charged back up to the car and each one put a foot on the front bumper. They wrangled. The knappy-headed wild man’s face shaded scarlet. They both nodded and got back in and the driver pointed at each one of us. “I’ll take you, you, you, back to I-40 and then you are out on your asses.”

Wayne whined, “But wait, we didn’t do . . .”

I grabbed his arm and said, “Great, thanks.”

Later, standing in a drizzle, we thumbed but it was too late or too early, the traffic dead, only a blare of air horns from passing diesels.

I quit trying.

The hippy kid from Philly strutted in his fringed leather jacket and his red-toed boots, taking his turn, trying to hitch us a ride.

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