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.

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