“Tomorrow, two-thirty,” the guy with the car says. “This intersection—and don’t be late.”
“No sweat, I’ll be here.” From here, it’s another one hundred and twenty miles, miles over back roads he’d have to hitchhike by himself.
The car leaps forward, scratching gravel onto the pavement in front of him. He looks at his watch. It’s already after five. In her letter, she said she’d be there if he could get a pass. But the drill sergeants wouldn’t let them leave until late, almost three o’clock. He only has an overnight pass, has to make roll call at five on Sunday afternoon.
Across the road, there’s a Texaco station with a payphone at the corner. Maybe he should call her. He crosses the road, and as he steps onto the drive, a car sweeps by, going north. He enters the phone booth, eyes still on the car, watching it disappear over the rise. Going north, in the direction he wants to go.
The dorm phone rings and rings, but no one answers. It’s Saturday night, date night in the Age of Aquarius.
He presses his forehead against the back of his hand, his palm resting on the glass. Once an aspiring scholar of English literature, he still agonizes, broods in the language of Shakespeare: “My love is as a fever, longing still.”
She comes through the door wearing a white towel around her waist, drying her raven hair with a second white towel. He’s still gritty with sand and salt. She’s clean-scrubbed, red-tinged white, the hint of a tan line starting to appear above her small out-turned breasts.
“Will you put some baby oil on me?” she asks. “My skin is dry.”
“All over.” She drops the towels and lies down on top of the white sheets.
Slamming open the phone booth’s door, he hurries across the road. Two more cars roar past, headed north, headed his way. No going back. He’s committed. He has to see her.
Thumb out, he waits. No bag, just the civilian clothes and light jacket he wears against the fall air. No hat, no hair.
Twilight. A lonely two-lane road in South Carolina. Here among the pines, it’s already dark, the only sunlight glinting on a silver plane, long rose-white contrail drifting behind it, high in the still-blue sky above the expanse of gloom-filled woods. He breathes in the fall aroma of leaves burning somewhere beyond the trees. Nearby, the cool damp smells of football nights, of hay and corn stubble, of earth and decay and Octobers past.
Leaving home, even one not so good, always has a sadness to it. Leaving home in the rain—moving trunks, suitcases, and boxes of books into small rooms and making beds with fresh new sheets and blankets. Leaving to catch a bus, a train, a plane on a Sunday afternoon in autumn when the sky is a brilliant blue and the leaves on the trees are bright yellow against the sky, and some are falling, and some are rustling around your feet as you walk.
Leaving a house after death when all the furniture has been sold, the letters and pictures sorted and packed, and the old cards saved from holidays and birthdays long past thrown in the trash. Looking around at empty rooms, turning out the lights one last time, locking the front door in the dark.
Leaving is something you always remember.
The ladies from the draft board hand each of them a small plastic bag. In it are matches, a four-pack of cigarettes, toothbrush, gum, and a postcard and short pencil to write home when you get to Basic Training. A plump, white-haired woman, whose daughter he taught to swim, gives him a manila envelope.
“These are your orders,” she says. “For the officer when you get there.” She steps back and smiles at him. “Have fun.”
“Right.” He looks straight ahead as he climbs the two steps into the bus.
He finds a seat. Watches as another unwilling warrior saunters down the aisle toward him. This one has long hair to his shoulders and striped pants, in one hand next to his ear a transistor radio playing a local rock station, but everyone can hear the tinny echo—“that deaf, dumb, and blind kid …”
Striped pants takes a seat behind him. After a few minutes, he leans forward, hand on the seat back. The radio’s still playing.
“Got a light?” he asks, long hair flopping down over one eye, hair that will be gone tomorrow. He reaches out a hand with an unlit cigarette.
“You didn’t get a package?”
Striped pants falls back into his seat as the bus lurches forward. “Fuck no,” he says. “Don’t want any of their shit.”
They ride down the highway into the morning sun. The trees reach across the two-lane road to touch tips of branches, their fresh green bathed in a halo of sun-drenched mist that looks deep yellow through the tinted windows. Beyond his reflection, trees, telephone poles, cars, houses flash by—minutes, hours, years.
The news comes on the radio, just loud enough to be annoying. First from Vietnam, the Pentagon says that 219 American soldiers died in hostile action during the past week. But on a positive note, more than 3000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars were killed during search and destroy operations. U.S. troop strength will increase another 50,000 by the end of the year, over 500,000 Americans there now, allowing the South Vietnamese time to build up their army and force the communists to the bargaining table. So the Pentagon says. So Nixon says.
He tries not to listen, and the radio station cooperates by starting to break up in bursts of static. Before it’s gone, he hears: Judy Garland is dead. “No, this ain’t Kansas, Toto,” the disc jockey shrieks and then switches to the strains of “Somewhere over the rainbow.” As they slip through patches of shadow and sunlight, Judy Garland’s voice crackles and fades and dies in the static, and the striped-pants warrior turns off the radio.
A soldier from Fort Gordon, a real soldier not a trainee like him, gives him a lift to just over the North Carolina line. He declines a cigarette, and they go, windows open, in a cool whirlwind of air and eddying smoke. Beyond twilight—into black night.
Brash, buzz-cut blond hair and lean face, the soldier’s airborne “all the way,” a small blue flag tattoo on his flexed bicep. Ashtray full of cigarette butts, cracked windshield, radio blaring, “War, what is it good for?”
“Hey, man, don’t you fucking know it?” says the soldier. Going home before he ships out. Man/boy, where in six months? Acrid smell of dead cigarettes.
The hitchhiker is not a good soldier, eager to join the fight, never will be. When the lifers are gone, he calls cadence for his platoon marching to chow:
They issued us some jungle boots,
they issued us some jungle boots,
so we could run when Charlie shoots,
and we’ll all be dead in the winter of ’69.
And they believed it, every one.
He stands under a streetlight mounted on a creosote pole near the road, stands next to the pole in a wide circle of light. There’s a comforting scent from times lost: walking on railroad ties with his father, waiting by other telephone poles, still warm from the sun.
Hungry now, he eats the small pack of Lance crackers in his jacket pocket. All the food he has.
At the University, he took a course in Southern literature with all its dreamscapes and poetic lies. “O lost and by the wind grieved.”* What has he lost? Drudgery in the library, long hours of research and writing footnotes. Figuring out how to pay for the next semester. The best romance he ever had. No, not romance. The best sex.
She lies on the bed, propped up on her elbows, chin in her palm, studying anthropology for summer school. The white sheet is pulled up to her waist, leaving naked brown back and shoulders from the waist up.
He lies on his side next to her, rubbing her back.
“What does bipedal mean?” she asks.
“What?” He runs his fingers down her spine from the neck to just above the sheet and along the sharp tan line. He leaves for Basic Training in a week.
“B-i-p-e-d-a-l, what does it mean?”
“Upright, on two legs.” He leans over and places his head in the small of her back, then kisses the imaginary line where he had run his fingers. She shivers.
“You’re making it so-o-o hard to concentrate.”
“Just wait til I finish this.”
He looks down at her tan back and dark hair. “Lithe.” L-i-t-h-e. Her tan back against the white sheet, the form of her buttocks and her legs extending under the sheet to the crumpled-up blue bed spread at the foot of the bed.
“Promise me ….” He stops.
“Promise you what?”
“While I’m gone, date and all that, but don’t sleep with anyone else.”
“I hadn’t planned on it.” She rolls over, puts her arms around his neck, and kisses him as he leans across her body, still flushed from the afternoon sun.
He finishes the last cracker and sticks out his thumb at an old Chevy pickup. It slowly coasts past and rattles to a stop beyond the fringe of light. He runs over, and an old woman opens the passenger door, tells him to get into the cab with her and Earl. Her name is Annie, or did she say “Auntie”? She reminds him of his grandmother, small round face, hair pulled back in a gray bun, black print dress with small white flowers—Grandma dead now almost fifteen years, mind gone years before. The same musty smell of snuff and bath powders and age.
Earl looks like Tom Joad grown old—weather-beaten wrinkled face, bib overalls, and beat-up gray fedora, bent brim in front. Tom Joad hunched forward in great earnestness, eying the dark headlight-slashed road ahead over the steering wheel. A harmonica dangles by an elastic cord wrapped twice around the visor above the steering wheel.
“Only goin’ a short piece up the road heah to the home place,” Earl says.
“We knowed you was a soldier by the way you looked,” she says.
Their son had been a soldier, too, in the last war. But they don’t say anymore about him, and he doesn’t ask because of the way her voice drops and her face follows it down.
“Mind if we have a little music?” Earl asks and lifts his eyes from the road to the harmonica.
“No, no, not at all,” he says. He squeezes closer to the door and hangs on to the handle. Checks the lock.
The old man bats at the harmonica with a gnarled hand, grabs it on the second swing back, and pulls it to his mouth. He plays, sometimes with one hand, sometimes with two while bracing the steering wheel with his knee, driving slowly, other traffic whooshing around them, rocking the truck. And she sings. “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain when she comes,” and “Oh do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike,” only a verse or two of each, and claps her hands, while Earl plays a ragged, intermittent accompaniment. And gospel tunes, “In the sweet by and by.” And then, the harmonica swaying above the old man’s head, they sing together, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” and Annie, or Auntie, sings by herself, hands clasped in her lap, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. Come ho-me, come ho-o-ome, ye who are weary, come ho-ome.”
All is peaceful and safe in the warm cocoon of this rattling Chevy pickup truck on a dark North Carolina road. Simple folk, their son was a soldier, too.
They turn off the blacktop onto a dirt road into a forest of pines, and stop. Invite him home with them, to sup. Sparse victuals, she says—fried ham, turnip greens, cornbread, but enough for all of them.
“Come on spend the night, son. Don’t be out heah in no dark.”
But no. He has to move on. He looks at his watch, almost eight, but he can make it in a couple of hours. Too late now to turn back. Maybe she’ll be there. Saturday night? She said to come if he could. Maybe he can leave her a note if she’s not there, and they can meet in the morning, spend some time together.
Doubt wars with images from the spring.
Brushing her shoulder-length hair, she stands in front of the mirror, in orange bikini panties, one hand wielding the brush, the other gathering and smoothing her hair back. He watches. Her small breasts move in time with the brush strokes.
“Am I different from the others?” she asks.
“There haven’t been many. Only one really.”
They never talk much. In the two short months he has known her, most of their interaction has been physical, which suits them both.
He walks up behind her, puts his arms around her waist, his bare chest against her warm back, and stares over her shoulder into the mirror.
“How about me? Am I different?”
She doesn’t answer him. Instead, she puts the brush on the dresser, places her palms together in front of her, elbows raised, and flexes her arms. She laughs.
“I bet your other girlfriends couldn’t do this.” Her right breast jumps up and down. “Muscles,” she says. “From swimming.” Dark eyes in a pixie face look at him in the mirror. He kisses her neck, running his hands up her sides.
“I want to buy a poster,” she says. She twists around against his chest and nods at the cheap painting on the wall beside the bed. “Like that one.” In the painting, a bullfighter waves a bright red cape in front of a sepia bull silhouetted against a yellow background.
“Why that one?”
“I saw the bull when we were making love, pulling the room in circles. I want it to remember this, to remember us.”
Maybe she’ll sneak out of the dorm after curfew. She would have before Judy Garland died and he took the long bus ride. To get his head shaved.
He has to go on. He thanks the old couple and gets out of the truck, into the chill fall air, into the night, out among the towering pines.
In front of him lies a lonely two-lane blacktop road, a tunnel through a forest of pine trees rooted in the sandy soil of the coastal plain. He has to go on, on to Chapel Hill, up the road into the rolling Piedmont hills, hills covered with maples and giant oaks with red and yellow fall leaves, not the dark menacing pines of the lowlands, going to the University where he once was and she still is.
The last time he saw her he was in Basic Training. There had been only a few letters and a couple of phone calls, standing in line for the pay phone, dropping in dimes and quarters. But she said she would come, when he got a pass.
So he waits for her outside the Orderly Room as the sun goes down. He feels desperate, no longer just a physical, sexual need, but something more. Loneliness? Love? Despair? “O lost and by the wind grieved.”
For a trainee, there’s only a four-hour pass on a Saturday night, and then only if he has his shit together for the week. And he does.
What can they do in four hours, now nearer three? He had thought about getting a room. He’s never rented a motel room by the hour. But where? He doesn’t know Fayetteville, North Carolina—has never been there. Only Fort Bragg, six weeks inside this expanse of sand, red dirt, pines, and scrub oaks, crisscrossed by asphalt roads, full of callow trainees and jaded veterans, military trucks and jeeps, barracks and rifle ranges.
Everyone else with a pass has already gone, most clutching girlfriends and wives. Conjugal visits—off to motels or maybe a secluded spot under the pine trees, copulating in cars. Maybe to dinner.
Finally she comes, driving her blue Mustang into the parking lot from the main road, the sun low in the sky, casting long shadows through the pines on the other side of the lot. She gets out and floats across the asphalt in her sleeveless white dress, thigh length above bare, tan legs—drifting like a specter, a phantasm, in the slanting sunlight, dark hair gleaming. She looks great.
Going past the Orderly Room toward her, he hears the trainees on police call, without overnight passes, whistling. “Hey, babe, come to poppa. Got somethin’ here for ya.” Then the drill sergeant shuts them up and reserves the sight for himself.
They meet in the parking lot, hug, kiss. The feel of her body pressed to his, the taste of her lips, her mouth, her perfume, sweet and rich, blended by perspiration with the subtle smell of her skin, makes every cell in his body yearn for her.
They lock arms around each other’s waist and walk to the car. He’s in dress Khakis, and he takes off his garrison cap, a cunt cap the lifers call it.
“You don’t have any hair,” she says. Surprise? Shock?
“I told you they keep it shaved off.” He looks at his wristwatch, starting to corrode from his crawling through rain puddles and mud. “You’re late.”
“It took longer than I thought. Over two hours to get here.”
“It’s almost seven thirty. I have to be back by ten.” He pauses. “We could get a room.”
“Not now. I’m hungry. … I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
“Okay. Maybe we can find something in town.” Where he’s never been.
She’s the only nourishment he wants, needs; his every sensory receptor is popping, and he’s hornier than he can ever remember being in his whole life.
Maybe later? he thinks, but lets it go—for now.
She drives. He’s not allowed to, doesn’t even have a driver’s license at Basic Training. He obeys rules, fears punishment.
They get lost on their way off the base. He only knows the roads used for the ten-mile hikes and marching to the rifle range. They ride around on strange asphalt byways, past the rifle ranges, past parade grounds, barracks and buildings he’s never seen before, and down the fence line next to the runway for the airfield. He hears the roar of C-130’s taking off. Smells jet fuel and pine sap.
Finally, they’re on the main road—Bragg Boulevard—and it’s after 8:00pm. Less than two hours left. No room tonight, no soft bed and full length of warm nakedness entwined together. Maybe a dark spot off the road? But where?
Now there’s traffic, lots of it, cars moving slowly, then stopped, not moving at all. They talk and wait to move and talk some more. Irritating banalities. He lusts, looking at her tan arms and shoulders set off against the white dress, and the legs, white dress pulled up high on thighs as she presses the clutch, down shifts, and brakes to a stop. As she changes gears again, he reaches across the console and gently lays his hand on her bare thigh
Both maneuvers completed, hers and his, she takes his hand and moves it back across to his leg, leaving her hand on his thigh and saying, “Don’t do that. I have to drive. This traffic’s bad.” She squeezes his leg, then moves her hand to shift into third as the cars in front surge forward. It’s twilight, and the lights encasing the used car lots, pawnshops, and gas stations along the road have blinked on.
“Let’s just stop somewhere and make out,” he says, brightly.
“Don’t be silly.”
Eight thirty and they don’t seem to be anywhere near downtown. How many miles can it be? But the traffic still plods forward.
“Let’s just go eat somewhere … along here,” he says. “There’s a Shoneys over there.” He points.
She pulls the car into the Shoneys and parks in a dark corner at the back. They lean across the console and engage in a long, deep kiss, hands moving over each other’s body—but she breaks away when he runs his fingers along the inside of her thigh.
“Let’s go,” she says. “I’m hungry.” She turns away and opens the door.
The restaurant is teeming with sweaty bodies. Deafening noise: kids wailing, dishes breaking, patrons shouting across tables. Food on floor, glacial service, hamburger and ice cream sundaes, and it’s 9:20 by the time the check comes and he pays. Only thing to do is start back to base.
More traffic. After a few wrong turns and directions from an MP, who checks his pass, they reach Training Company B’s parking lot at 2155 hours. Time only for a four-minute kiss and feeling that body he so needs through the fabric and briefly underneath the dress before he sprints to the Orderly Room. He waves, and the car moves toward the road. She waves back—he thinks. It’s too dark to see.
He waits a long time for another ride, but no one stops. He walks to a Gulf station, where he buys a Coke and gets a lift from two high school boys filling the tank of an old Dodge Charger, a muscle car, boys on the prowl for girls, all-American boys with Beatles hair cuts and freckles turned to pimples and English Leather aftershave, just riding around on a Saturday night, no hope of finding any girls now, if there ever was, and—why not? Sure they’ll take him up the road a ways. The one on the passenger side pulls his seat forward, and he climbs in the back.
Leaning up, forearm resting on the seatback, he tells them, shouts over the radio racket, about Basic Training, the power and kick of the M-14, the scrawny kid who dropped the grenade in the bunker. The grizzly bear of a drill sergeant tossing the kid out and scrambling over the wall after him, two seconds before the explosion.
“Wow!” the one says, the passenger. The radio now soft.
He watches the speedometer needle. Sixty, seventy, eighty. The car careens around a curve and swerves back into its lane to avoid the huge lights of an oncoming semi. Showing him that they are brave, fearless, reckless of death, showing him how to take life now that he may soon be dead in a rice paddy half-a-world away.
On a straight stretch, going uphill at eighty-five, the car coughs and balks, and the driver, the quiet one, backs off to seventy. They deposit him twenty miles farther up the road, deep in the dark piney woods, turn and roar away, red taillights receding into the night.
Now it’s ten o’clock and miles to go. Can’t go back. He hugs his jacket to his thin body. The day had been warm, a sunny, Indian summer day, but now it’s cold. He stands under an old-style streetlamp, single bulb beneath a metal reflector. Intersection with a county road. Thumb out. Not many cars pass now, not at this hour, and most of those speed up when they see him.
Finally. A big car with bright double headlights approaches and glides to a stop close beside him under the streetlamp—a new Ford Thunderbird, not the sleek sports car, but the new expanded 1969 version. Lights come on inside as the driver reaches across and opens the door for him to get in. Leather bucket seats. Padded center console. The dashboard glows with lights like the bridge of a spaceship, limning a heavyset man, white shirt, tie undone, black-rim glasses, lots of well-groomed hair. A deodorant or aftershave, pleasingly subtle like a fine perfume.
Pleasant soothing voice. “Where you goin’, sport?”
He tells the man and gets in. The car glides smoothly onto the highway and accelerates, pushing its new passenger back in the soft leather seat. Instrumental late-night music plays on the radio, not too loud, not too soft, relaxing.
“You a soldier?” The resonating voice of a preacher or radio announcer.
“Could tell from your hair. Or lack of it. So, why are ya out this time of night? It’s a little late.”
Tells him he’s going to see his girl and got a late start.
“She expectin’ ya?”
He tells him yes … then no, not now, and the man is silent. Asks if the music is okay.
“Sure,” he answers.
They’re on a straight stretch of road, and the man turns his head to stare at him. Looks him up and down. His brow wrinkles with concern.
“You’re not dressed for this weather, sport. Gettin’ chilly out.”
“I’m warm enough.” He tugs at the zipper on the thin jacket. “Didn’t expect to be out this late.” Pauses. Shrugs. “It’s all the civilian clothes I have down there.”
Silence settles between them as the pine trees along the road slip by in the broad beam of the headlights. An ad comes on the radio, and the man lowers the volume. There’s only the hum of wheels on pavement and the throaty growl of the engine when the big car accelerates up another low hill into the Carolina Piedmont.
“You ever been with a man?” the heavyset man asks, leaning his elbow on the center console and glancing over at him again.
“You know, had sex with a man?”
He’s surprised, shocked, frightened. Doesn’t know what to say. Can’t jump out at this speed. So he says, “no.”
“Look,” the man says—hasn’t offered his name and he hasn’t said his own— “I’m goin’ to Raleigh. Why don’t ya come with me, and we’ll get a room at the Sir Walter for the night.”
“Let me out,” he says. They’re on a dark section of the two-lane road, and no cars are behind them. None have gone past from the other direction in a long time. No houses. Just pine trees.
“It’s okay if ya don’t want to do anything,” the man says, his fingers clicking and releasing the catch on the console between the seats. “But it’s almost midnight, and you won’t get to see your girl tonight anyway. … You can have a place to sleep.”
“No thanks,” he says. “I just want out.” He draws in his breath. “Now. … Please.”
“But there’s nuthin here. No houses. No service station for miles. Nuthin. … Just forget what I said.” The man sits up straight, clicks open the console, lifts it slightly, and then snaps it shut.
“That’s okay,” he says. “There’s a picnic area. Just let me out there.” He points to a sign in the penumbra of the headlights. White outline of a picnic table on a dark background. One mile.
“You may not get another ride tonight, sport. I’m not goin’ to do anything to ya.”
“Look, all I want is to get out at that picnic area.”
They’re almost to the pullout next to the table. The man pumps the brakes, and the tires squeal as the car jerks off the road, onto dirt and gravel.
He unlocks the passenger door and has it open before the car stops.
“Thanks,” he says and gets out.
The man leans across the passenger seat and says, “Sure you won’t—”
He shuts the door and walks back down the shoulder of the road in the direction from which they came. Behind him, the car slowly creeps out of the pullout and onto the asphalt, then edges forward, not accelerating, up a low hill.
Doubling back, he goes past the cement picnic table to the edge of the trees where he stops to watch. At the top of the hill, the big car pulls off the road to the right side and swings in an arc across to the other lane.
He sees the headlights coming down the hill, back toward him. He darts in among the trees behind the cement table, down a short embankment, and stops, listens. Hears the soft purring of the big Thunderbird as it goes by, slowly—then silence.
He waits. After ten minutes or so he picks his way among the trees and bushes to the forest boundary of the picnic area and stares out at the empty road. A half-moon has risen over the pines, and in the dim light, he can see the white cement table in the narrow clearing between road and trees.
He waits. Then he sidles across the grassy area around the table, to the asphalt. All he sees is empty road and pine trees. It’s after midnight.
He waits. No cars. What if the man comes back? He was going in the wrong direction for Raleigh, where he said he was going.
The air is dank, heavy. A lone frog or insect gives a low rasping, modulating call, then stops abruptly. The trees whisper above him. Still no cars.
He’s tired, sleepy, hungry, cold. He curls up on the bare ground beneath the picnic table, against one of the cement legs, grabbing his arms and hugging his thin jacket around him, the wide-spread table legs concealing him from the road, except right in front, and protecting him from the breeze that has picked up, rustling the bushes and the needles in the pine trees around the clearing.
A car with a broken muffler roars by, and he starts awake, watches, his eyes wide, as the headlights sweep past, until the sound fades into silence. He tries to go back to sleep, his mind plagued with dark thoughts.
He opens his eyes. In the dull, nearly-dawn light he can see the beer cans and paper trash on the ground around the picnic table—waxy McDonald’s wrappers, crushed cups, and white paper napkins—and can make out the outline of the trees. Down through the woods, fine wisps of ground fog rise among the pines. He takes off his glasses, closes his eyes—a minute … two … dozes—then puts his glasses back on, unbends, stands, and places one hand on the concrete tabletop. His hand comes away wet. Dew. Dew in the cool fresh morning. Dew glistening on the grass beside the table. He wipes his hands on his civilian slacks and looks up to see the sunlight hitting the tops of the pines.
A beautiful yellow morning, a new day.
“Good morning, star shine.” The song on the radio when they drove through another pine forest on an early spring morning.
But what if she’s not there?
He urinates behind a sun-topped pine tree and starts walking until he catches a ride with a black minister in a too-large polyester suit and a white shirt. A little girl in a bleach-clean white dress—solemn face, pigtails tied with red ribbons—rides in the back seat. Headed to church. Only a mile or two, but they couldn’t just leave him out there, all alone in that lonely spot.
The minister tells him how far it is to Chapel Hill, twenty more miles, and offers him a stick of spearmint gum in a mint-green wrapper. In a corner of the rear-view mirror, he sees the face of the little girl in the back seat, sees that she is staring wide-eyed at him, his skull-like profile, the white soldier, turned toward her father. Along with the mint taste of the gum, there’s a fragrance of Sundays he knows, he has known almost from birth: of sun-dried clothes, freshly ironed, a lemon scent of Octagon soap.
From a payphone at the Esso station across from the Mount Hebron Salvation Tabernacle of the Lord, he calls Fred, an old friend—now in law school at the University—and begs for a ride. Fred, half asleep, says he’s hung over, can’t come that far. Catch another ride and he’ll meet him outside Chapel Hill, at the Howard Johnson’s where they used to go for breakfast. Before Judy Garland died.
He looks up to open the door of the phone booth and sees the big Thunderbird easing off the road and gliding toward him. It’s two-tone, tan and white, which he couldn’t see the night before. The Esso station’s closed, but it’s daylight, and he feels no fear. Nor anger. Just numb resentment. He turns and walks in the opposite direction, toward the highway, where a few cars are coming and going by now.
Behind him, the Thunderbird’s engine goes quiet, idling. The car door opens.
He keeps walking away, and the man calls out.
“I was worried about ya, sport. I went back, last night … but you were gone. I couldn’t just leave you like that. Been all over looking for ya. Just in case …” The voice trails off.
He keeps on walking.
“I won’t hurt ya. That’s not … I’m not … I’m not like that. I - I’m sorry. I just want to help ya get there … go see your girl. If you’ll let me.”
He stops and turns. They must be thirty or forty yards apart. The man has his arms raised out to his side, in supplication. He doesn’t look as big as he had seemed. Overweight and ordinary and anxious is how he seems now. Middle-aged.
“I’ll take ya there. Let me help you, fella. … I want to help you.”
He looks around. There’s no one else there but them and, across the road, the congregation inside the small church. A hymn, accompanied by an off-key piano, rises in the quiet morning air. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine …”
“Okay,” he says. He nods. He could warn the man, tell him not to try anything. But he doesn’t have to. He knows the man will take him where he wants to go. But his girl won’t be there.
Fred chortles at the tale of his journey, which doesn’t include the man in the Thunderbird. He chides him about his quixotic quest for Dulcinea, whom he also knows, but not yet in the biblical sense. She’s probably moved on to new beds, he sagely offers. Not going to waste her time on a hairless army freak. Calls him a dumbass. Fred never minces words. Tells it like it is. Fred smells like stale beer and cigarettes and clothes he took back out of the hamper this morning.
From the restaurant, he calls the dorm again. A strange voice answers. After long minutes, her roommate comes to the phone and tells him she’s gone for the weekend, visiting friends, Greensboro or some place like that.
But she said she’d be there.
He hangs up, pounds the wall with his fist, and thinks. Fred’s right. What a dumb fucking idea.
“Freddy, good friend, can you give me a lift to Cheraw, South Carolina?”
“Hey, what are friends for? Let’s go,” says Fred.
And they go. Back down the road, he had come up in the dark, not many hours before—not the shortest or best way, Fred says—but he wants to see it in the daylight. Past the rest area, now spackled with sunlight and exuding warmth. Past the decrepit country filling stations with dirt and gravel drives, broken signs, and antique pumps, Texaco, Esso, Gulf, closed for Sunday, a day of rest.
He now sees—interspersed among the pines—dozens and dozens of dogwoods, maples and oaks, their leaves turning red and yellow and mauve.
A beautiful fall Sunday afternoon. A beautiful day for a ride through the Carolina forests of green pines and color-doused hardwoods, flashing by in sunlight that dances and shimmers on the car’s windows. Warms the body, soothes the soul.
*"O lost, and by the wind grieved" is from Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
[Check out James Garrison's back porch interview]