Back to Babylon

Wayne’s grandfather came and salvaged me in his big white Buick. We rode through the red-leaved hills and by the languid lakes and he railed on about Arkansas, and the Ozarks and the locals…flat-rock slingers, he called them. “Citizens of Babylon “. He owned a second home on Table Rock Lake. A house with a separate guest house. He put me up in the guest house. We had ham and cheese sandwiches and Michelob. I didn’t care for the lake-water taste of Michelob, but he told me he owned stock in Budweiser, so we drank Michelob. We watched—was it the Iowa Hawkeyes?—get their butts thumped. I said I was tired and went to my guest house to nap. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. I got out a book I’d been reading, The Naked Ape, and put it down and closed my eyes and pulled the sheet up over my head. She kept looming in my mind. Iowa City girl. I saw her laugh, I saw how she liked to start each walk with one giant step as if she was about to do a hop skip and jump. She’d often laugh, but I mostly recalled her crying that night, and the cold brush of her face on my lips when I left. I decided to change the subject and thought about those punks in the Ford Fairlaine and how I should have kicked their asses. But that didn’t help how I felt.

We had pot roast and vegetables for dinner, and of course, Michelob. I walked down to Table Rock Lake and looked for cottonmouths and water moccasins. Wayne’s grandfather had a boat dock and a big boat. He came out and asked me if I wanted a boat ride. I didn’t. I went back in the house and tried to drink as many Michelobs as I could, but he wasn’t going to let me get drunk. He talked about Wayne’s waist-length hair and hippies and marijuana and LSD and Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix. He wasn’t particularly critical, which surprised me. He just wanted someone to talk to while he watched Lawrence Welk and the Lennon sisters.  His wife stayed too busy to sit and visit; cleaning, knitting, sewing. He said, “You boys be careful out there in California. It’s like living in Babylon.” He grinned, “A city full of sin. “ He grinned bigger.

I went to bed. I slept with vivid dreams. Iowa City girl kept glaring at me. I got mad and swore she was…well, a lot of things. In the morning, ham and eggs and milk and cheese and biscuits. I thought about asking for a MicheIob. Wayne’s grandmother served a fruit plate.  I thought I’d pop. Wayne’s grandfather and I went for a ride into Branson. It’s a famous country music spot now, but then it was sleepy, sleepy. A resort for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois wealth. We went home and watched the Bears play football against the St. Louis Cardinals. The score was 20-17 in favor of the Cardinals. I rooted for the Bears because he wanted me to. I was hoping he’d give me more Michelob if I rooted for his side. He wouldn’t, though. Cheese, crackers, Red Delicious apples and Michelob, but only four. He said, “You’re leaving this afternoon. My grandson is meeting you in Springfield.”

I didn’t like not having a say in the planning. I packed my gear and we went north. He rattled on about his years in the Navy; WWI and WWII and Korea.  I heard very little he said. I saw the Jews in Buchenwald and her, her, her face looming in the dried moss hanging off the oak trees.

He left me off and said “Be careful back there in Babylon.” He grinned and  drove home. It started to get dark and Wayne finally showed. We stuck out our thumbs and headed on to Babylon.

We were hauled by a University of Kansas student coming down from an acid trip, an auto glass salesman, a family on their annual autumn migration from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to LA. We settled in with them for the long haul. As we rode in the bed of their red Ford Falcon Ranchero with a homemade plywood canopy, Wayne explained to me what I might have done so that Iowa City girl wasn’t so cold. We had to keep the tailgate down on the Falcon bed so the exhaust leak didn’t kill us. I thought about Iowa City girl:  maybe I should have told her I was coming to visit, but if she liked me that shouldn’t have been a problem. He also told me I needed to be more sensitive to social problems of ethnic origins and I knew that I’d always been a little insensitive to those kind of things, but hell, I just wanted to touch parts with the woman, not solve the world’s problems.

We camped out the first night and ate canned pork and beans with the Ft. Waynites and we learned about the strawberry jam in the LA County Jail. How good it was for reattaching the heels to the standard issue jailhouse footwear. Our host told us he’d spent 22 winters in the jail. I looked at his very young wife and their seven-year-old boy. They both shrugged and grinned.

That night the coyotes sang us to sleep and intermittently I awoke thinking they were the voices of the murdered, dispossessed, people (refugees) fleeing from pestilence and war.

Wayne woke and ranted about materialism and America. I wondered if he was talking about Babylon and I wondered if all the disadvantaged weren’t in despair because of things I had done, and did: get loaded, get drunk, drive a car, buy stupid stuff like fancy hats, eat things that caused harm to the world. And then—he felt compelled to bring it up—there was the girl in Iowa City, and my insensitivity.

Luckily for me, the coyotes’ yaps became a lullaby of sorts that lilted and skimmed over the tops of clouds hiding a half moon, and I went back to sleep. The next morning the Red Falcon Ranchero broke down, and after very short rides across Amarillo with college kids trying to score kilos of weed, we fell in with a man driving from Detroit to LA with a trunk full of Strohs. “The only beer I can stand,” he called it. I wondered how it compared to Michelob. Driving ninety-five and stopping very few times, we hit LA early in the morning after hearing from him again and again for hours and hours about how best to cheat on the wife, and if caught, how to act so she didn’t throw your butt out of the house. He dropped us off at 3 AM in Pico Rivera on I-5 and we hop-scotched south to San Diego, talking about coyotes and human rights. And of course, my insensitivity.

We walked from the freeway to Mission Beach Boulevard as the sun came up behind us. I thought about the girl from Iowa City and her obsession with the lives of so many already dead, so many yet to die. I pondered my role, but being hungry, we stepped into a café and had eggs-over-easy and hash browns, hot coffee and white bread toast. Wayne had rat-holed some money. We clinked our water glasses at the success of our venture. Our finding America, although the America we found wasn’t what we set out looking for, if we even knew what we were looking for in the first place. As for the refugees and the dispossessed, I just shook my head and stopped listening when Wayne began to rant about it. Unlike him, I saw no relief for them, or for us, if we get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in Babylon.


I hitched lifts with college students from Brooklyn, then a diesel driver, and then two farmers who drove a vintage ‘57 maroon and white Buick with round silver louvers on the front fenders. One farmer was old, and the other was his son. They wore cliché’d bib overalls and brogans, their ball caps dramatic with sweat stains where the bills met the crowns. They drawled at me about my part in the war. My San Diego Marine Corps universe was so far from their macadamed straight-road, white fence, perfectly-painted-red-barn world that I felt like an illegal alien.

My parting with the girl in Iowa City still rankled like wheat straw beneath my collar. I couldn’t help thinking if I’d articulated my feelings about concentration camp Jews and freedom-fighter Black folk better, she might have invited me in her knickers.

Later, a man picked me up on his way home from work and ranted about hippies and long-hairs. I kept my tongue shut up in my mouth. He dropped me in front of the Camdenton, Missouri football field and I paced and stomped in the approaching dark as Friday night gridiron crowds rooted for their teams. The sounds rose from the stadium like flocks of starlings and came at me like pain out of separate speakers, the sound waves a half beat out of time.

I was picked up by a short-legged man who had a problem with anyone who passed him, so we sped and caromed through the twilight Ozark landscape. I kept slamming my foot down on an imaginary brake every time he scared the hell out of me, which seemed like every five minutes. He was headed to Kingman, Arizona and wanted me to go along, and said he hadn’t slept in the last three days.  Leery, I got off at Springfield and found a pay phone and called Wayne’s grandfather.

He told me Wayne had ventured to Iowa City in search of me. We’d passed on the road. He said for me to find my way to Branson and he’d give me a bed, beer and hot chow. I walked all the way across Springfield in my Dingos, blisters soring up and ouching at me. On the south end of town I found a National Cemetery and against my better intuition rolled out my bag. I figured no one alive would come in there and bother me. The night was crystal and chilly. I slept with my boots on. The stars hung in the sky as if they might come down in one vast drapery of dust. A sickle-shaped moon hung over the tree line on the other side of the highway. I actually slept, the local haints deciding I wasn’t worth scaring. But my dreams were invaded by the night cries of that Iowa City girl and the emaciated grimaces of Jews in Buchenwald jammed into death barracks, their faces like the skull symbols on pirate pennants. Scenes of Little Rock, Arkansas Blacks being fire-hosed and attacked by Alsatian kill dogs crammed in between. I awoke shivering from the cold dew that soaked my bed gear. I watched the sun come up over a ground fog, water dripping off everything.

I stood out on the road to Branson and stuck my thumb out. The first car that came down the road was a ‘66 white and turquoise Ford Fairlane. It sounded like a rocket freighting into the perimeter of a combat post. About the time it roared parallel with me, the driver laid on the brakes and the smell of smoking tires singed the inside of my nose. Three men wearing big black cowboy hats stared at me. The one in the back seat opened the door and his long, Levi-ed leg, shod with a black riding-heeled boot, stepped out. He drawled, “Want a lift?”

I nodded and got in. The stench of old whiskey permeated the interior, and each man stunk of a long night ‘s worth of cigarettes. They called me Boy. The first time wasn’t so bad. They talked about roping steers and riding broncs and dogging bulls. They called me Boy again. I said, “How old’re you fellers?” They were nineteen and twenty, not as old as I. They said they were on the way back to work. They asked me, “Where you going, Boy?” That word, boy, started to prick me in the back of the neck. I wondered what would happen if I had to throw hands with one of them, or all of them, if it came to that. When I told them my short version of who, what and where, they started on about the war, how bad it was. One of them said, “You’re pretty stupid, hunh, Boy, for ending up over there doing the rich man’s calling?” He was the one in the back seat next to me. He owned one of those noses that looked like a hatchet head, but thin and weak-boned. I figured I’d bust his nose and that would take care of him. They were doing over one-twenty an hour as they laughed. One of them laughed about the girls they’d been trading off with all night. But they just couldn’t talk about it, they had to scream.

The one in the front passenger seat would be the biggest problem. He sat so he could watch me. He was doing the bulk of the talking, calling me Boy.  If I had to, I’d gouge one of his eyes out. I acted like I couldn’t hear what he was saying and leaned close to see if there was a weapon on the front seat. I didn’t see one. The driver would be easy. In eight seconds I could choke him to death or reach around and stick my fingers in his eyes. We came to a junction and they told me, “Git out.” Then they headed west to work, and I stuck my thumb out again, glad to be shed of them and the trouble that was coming.

I was still seething when a rusted old ‘56 GMC pickup with stock racks on the bed pulled up. An old cow and two white goats stood in the bed. A man and woman sat in the front. She rolled down the window and smiled, “Where you headed?”


She opened the door, slid into the middle of the seat and said, “Get in.”

I climbed in. They were old, in their fifties most likely. He wore a big brown cowboy hat.

“We’re going to Branson, too,” she said.

He said “Where you from?”

“I’m in the Marine Corps in San Diego.”

She laughed and slapped the man on the arm. “See Jake, I told you he was a Marine.”

She had a lot of silver in her teeth as she grinned at me. “Our son is in Vietnam right now.”

I wanted to say, “I’m sorry for that,” but just nodded. Iowa City girl’s face kept slipping into my thoughts.

The rest of the time, they ignored me, or maybe I ignored them. They seemed pleasant folk and talked a lot about southwestern Missouri, about Arkansas just across the border, the changing leaves, the cattle market, the garden she needed to harvest so she could put up okra and green tomatoes. I thought about the attack Alsatians in Little Rock. My hosts giggled a lot and she crooned off-key to a couple of Ferlin Husky songs playing on the tinny-toned radio. I thought about Buchenwald.

In Branson they took me to a Richfield station that had a pay phone. They waved as they pulled out. The cow and the goats had to set their hooves at a different cant to keep from being spilled onto the floor of the pickup bed.

I phoned Wayne’s grandfather and thought about the girl in Iowa City.

Iowa City

Older Sister hemmed and hawed and pranced around from one foot to the other. A grin spread across her face. She looked a lot like the lady I had come for, but more beautiful, mature, and nicer. If my target had been trapped like this, she’d have lashed out like an adder and stung someone, me most likely.

The hippy kid from Philly let out a shrill whistle that made the children in the yard giggle and the birds all explode out of the trees with cries like school bell alarms. She said, “Well, is that everything?” as she pointed to my knapsack. I nodded at her, and she canted her head and rolled her eyes in a goofy way and gave me a wicked smile. “I guess all I can say is ‘come in.’” Of course she could have said something else, but she was too kind and besides these were the 1960s and peace and love and dove adorned the world.

I said, “I’ll see them off,” and headed back to the car and bumped fists with the hippy Kid from Philly. I leaned in the window and said, “Thanks” to the car thief. The hippy kid from Philly grabbed my hand and slipped a ten spot into my fist. I said, as I smiled, “Naw, I can’t…” He turned to the car thief and said in his gravelly voice, “Let’s head out for better things,” and the back tires on the Biscayne burned a little rubber.

When I turned to the porch there was no one there and the kids had disappeared and I glanced up the street and the brown Biscayne turned the corner. I felt about as big as one of the red ants that toiled alongside the busted-up concrete in the old sidewalk. Then I heard the Volkswagen putter and I looked and the kids were in the back seat with both their mugs pasted up against the window as they made wild and funny faces at me, pulling on their ears and sticking their tongues out, putting their index fingers into the corners of their mouths pulling them wide. Older Sister sat in the driver’s seat staring at me. “Well. Are you coming?”

I looked at my gear and shrugged. She yelled, “Drop it inside the front door.” I hesitated. She said, “We don’t lock the door. This is Iowa.”

In the Bug she chirped, not unlike a happy house sparrow sitting in a maple tree, “She’s at class, today I think it’s chemistry.” The maple leaves hinted at turning and there was a bank of low clouds in the west. “She’s a freshman, says she’s going to be a psychiatrist.” She looked at me and rolled her eyes, “But you probably know all this.” I didn’t, other than my heartthrob was in college. What she wanted to be wasn’t related to my intent. “I don’t have any place for you to sleep unless it’s on the couch . . . We need to go to the grocery store . . . I’d like to stop and call my husband and tell him . . . You should make sure you go see . . .” I loved the old houses as we drove down the street.

We picked up my heartthrob in front of campus. When she saw me her eyes grew large and she got one of those, “Well, I’ll be . . .” looks on her face that changed suddenly like a window blind had been pulled. In the car she didn’t speak to me other than, “What are you doing here?”

Older Sister, “Tch, tch.”

I slept on the couch. For six nights. Older Sister’s husband worked nights. Once I went with him on the BMW motorcycle he was trying to sell. We roared to a lake near Cedar Rapids. He swam for hours. I smoked Winstons. I went to Burlington with him and we drank beer in an old bar frequented by Negroes. No other white guys, just us. We played old blues—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson—on the jukebox as the Negroes ignored us. Like we didn’t matter.

I shopped for groceries, cut the lawn, pruned trees, washed dishes, ran the vacuum cleaner, anything to help out so I wasn’t a leech. Anything to ingratiate myself so my intended target would pay attention to me, but she was busy with chemistry and English and French and elementary psychology. Deep down I knew if she’d been interested in me she’d have found time.

I found myself drawn to Older Sister. Helped her stir dough for peanutbutter cookies, roll out pasta for lasagna, wash lettuce for salad, chop carrots and onions for soup.

Two nights before I was supposed to leave, I phoned Wayne’s granddad but the phone service was so poor I didn’t get to finish our conversation. I decided to head down there and catch up with Wayne before he hitched up to Iowa City.

My last night there, Heartthrob was giving the two young boys a bath and somehow jammed her hand through the bathroom window and cut it. Blood shot over everything. They hauled her to the hospital and I was left with those two boys. They had climbed out of the bathtub and were in the bedroom coloring in coloring books. Their little pink butts were bare and water dripped off their elbows and made spots on the hardwood oak floors.

I scooped them up with both my arms as they kicked and squealed. Rage vaulted into my forehead like the heated tip of a bayonet. I bellowed, screamed, and cussed them out. Dropped them in the water like bombs, then gathered the busted window glass left on the sill and as the kids cried, I told them to “Shut the f**k up.” I wondered what was wrong with me.

Later, after Older Sister, my quarry, and the brother-in-law came home, we had a Strohs or two and then went to sleep. In the middle of the night I heard Heartthrob sobbing. Her bedroom was just down the hall from the front room. I heard her crying and I could have slipped down there and comforted her. I just laid there listening. She mumbled and sniffled. Finally she said, “Ken.”


“Are you sad?”

I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t think I was sad. I wasn’t happy that I’d come all that way to be ignored. But I couldn’t blame her either. She hadn’t invited me. I wasn’t sad.

“Are you sad for all the black people and Jews who have died at the hands of the white man?”

I thought, yeah I’m sad for them, but I’m sadder for all the Marines getting their asses shot off in Vietnam.



“Are you?

“No, well, yes…but let me explain what I mean…I mean…”, but then I didn’t say anything.

Brother-in-law and my quarry hauled me to the edge of town so I could thumb a ride. She stood leaning against the yellow Bug with her arms folded, looking down the street at a mattress shop. I walked up and tried to give her a goodbye kiss. She resisted. Only let my lips brush hers.  Some crows rasped out of an oak tree. I stalked off and stuck my thumb out, looking for a ride all the way to Branson, MO.

Highway 61

Dawn snaked across the Texas Panhandle llano on the heels of a cool breeze and mist that soaked us to the fibers of our cotton Levis. The hippy kid from Philly sneaked west a quarter of a mile. Wayne stood like a destitute man with his thumb begging for someone to pick us up. Down by the hippy kid from Philly, a brown 1968 Chevy Biscayne stopped and he jumped in. As the Biscayne sped toward us, water hissed behind the back tires. The car slowed and stopped. Wayne and I jumped into the back seat.

The driver said, “I’m heading east. Been to California.”

Wayne asked, “Where you headed?”

“Muscatine, Iowa.”

Wayne slapped me on the chest. “You’re in luck. Close to Iowa City.”

From Amarillo to Shamrock, Elk City to El Reno. Wayne and the hippy kid from Philly slept. I watched the back of the driver’s head. Short dark hair. Bad cut. Like he might have done it himself. Dorky clothes. Didn’t say much and then on Interstate 44 outside Miami, Oklahoma, he let out a litany of confessions. “I stole this car from my mom.” I started watching for the cops. “Headed to Venice, California, to get stoned on acid.” Wayne woke up and asked him if he had any acid.  The car thief liked to duck his head as if something was coming at him. “Naw, I turned around at Gallup and decided to come back.”

At Springfield, Missouri, Wayne handed me the rest of his cash, “My granddad will come up here and pick me up.” I nodded and he gave me a big hug and tried to kiss me on the lips just to blow everyone’s minds. He sniggered as he looked around at all the Springfield folks gawking at us parked in the middle of the street, him trying to embrace me like we were lovers of some sort.

We left him headed for a payphone. Sitting in the back seat I felt lost. We stopped in St. James and went into a restaurant. The driver announced, “I’m buying.” I ordered beef and potato soup. He wanted to know why I didn’t want a cheeseburger, or a hot roast beef sandwich. I couldn’t say it, that I was embarrassed to be out there with less than five dollars. Wayne had told me traveling without cash . . . living like the poor . . . was noble. Maybe poverty was noble, but I felt like a cockroach sneaking a ride inside an old bag of potato chips. No, no nobility there.

We motored on into dusk and the road to St. Louis, Missouri. At Sullivan we got some gas and the driver said, “You take over.” I got us to St. Louis just as dark smelted around the tops of buildings, the skyscraper lights like eyeballs from strange civilizations. Now, I often wonder if it is only a dream—the St. Louis Arch—or one of those memories of something you never really did, but wanted to do so badly you thought you did. I remember the arch in all its glory. I wanted to see it. Heading north I asked, “Where’s Hannibal and Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer?”

The car thief said, “Yeah, Highway 61, we’ll go right by it.” I’d had no sleep since before Albuquerque, and I wanted to drift off, but I was driving. Past Troy, and Whiteside, and Bowling Green, my eyelids like sarcophagus doors at the last breath of the funeral wind. The hippy kid from Philly and the car thief talking, rattling about Philly, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Canned Heat. At Frankford I stopped and staggered out and announced. “I can’t drive.” I slid into the back seat and battled to stay awake for Huck Finn and Mary and Jim and Injun Joe. My eyelids died. My eyelids died.

I woke as the sun knifed over a low cloud to the east. Flat land, some oak trees, a service station sign that said, “Argyle.” I thought of Scotland and Robert Louis Stevenson then Mark Twain and regret’s rapier needled at my innards.

I was sitting in the driver’s seat and wondered what I was doing there. The hippy kid from Philly woke up in the front passenger seat. He grinned. I said, “What’s up?” I exaggerated my arms as I threw a big shrug.

He stared at me. “Don’t you remember?  We almost ran out of gas, and we’re lucky you stopped here. Even though they were closed.”

“I didn’t stop here. I wasn’t driving.” He nodded at me as I shook my head. I frowned, “Not me,” and his grins pissed me off and I barked, “Stop fooling around.” The car thief woke up and said. “You drove.” I said, “I got out at Frankford.” They both laughed and shrugged at each other. “You drove straight through.”

“I don’t remember it.”  Was I asleep behind the wheel, a zombie loose on backwoods Missouri roads, an unmanned missile amok, slaughtering unsuspecting high school lovers sneaking home from a Mississippi River tryst in the woods?

I remembered one of my old saws. “You got to be lucky. You got to be lucky.”  I scrambled out. Dew hung off the service station’s white eaves, and smattered the glass on the gas pumps. Lucky.

I shook my head. “You drive.” I stomped my foot.

The car thief took over. We pulled off Highway 218 in Washington, Iowa, and ordered breakfast. The car thief offered to buy, but I didn’t want any more of that six-legged cockroach feel, so I bought black coffee and a sweet roll. The café was full of Elmer Fudd-hatted farmers talking about corn and bean yields, about their Berkshire and Duroc hogs and their Hereford cows. They smiled and joked at the hippy kid from Philly with his red boots and split-leather jacket, his long hair. Those Iowans didn’t care what we looked like. They talked to us, over us, at us.

In Iowa City we found the house, an old two-story down the block from a corner grocery store. Two little blond boys played outside. They had orange and yellow daisies painted on their cheeks. They wore shorts and t-shirts. The trees—oak, ash, maple—needed pruning and the blue paint on the old house was peeling. A little yellow Volkswagen was parked in the driveway.

The hippy kid from Philly bumped fists with me and the car thief asked if he needed to stay (I’d let them in on the fact that my coming was a surprise). I thought about it and nodded. I knocked on the door. After a while a pretty blond woman opened the door. I instantly saw her resemblance to the woman I’d come here for. She said, “Oh, have you come to look at buying the motorcycle? If you have, it’s out . . .” I was stricken by a dose of lust. It always comes at the most inappropriate moment. She reminded me of . . .

I said, “No,” I told her my name, but she looked at me like she’d never heard of me. I said, “I’ve hitchhiked here from California to see . . . I’d guess from what I know about her . . . you’re her older sister and I’ve come here to see her and . . .”

A look like shades dropping down over an open window, two or three “Oh’s” and then a double-take at me from top to bottom, my denim shirt and Levis, my dingo boots, my knapsack on my shoulder, the car in the street with the two young men in the front seat.