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.

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