But those were the best of times and the worst of times. After all, Dickens was not the only one doing it.
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In the Dust of American Lives
Hardly anyone tells a good story. We settle for the narrative junk food of television and movies dumbed down for massive sales. It may be that most of us no longer have much worth telling, but I’m hopeful it’s nothing worse than a loss of skills.
On a slow night at Buffalo General Hospital, early in the Seventies, Frank settled into the chief engineer’s chair to tell Pat and me about a deer hunting trip in the Adirondacks. Shooting deer with rifles wasn’t fair sport in Frank’s opinion, shooting a defenseless animal at a distance. Instead, he hiked into the hilly woods with a bow and arrows over his shoulder.
Frank described walking in silence until he heard hooves pounding down a ravine behind him, a deer flushed out of hiding by other hunters. In the first days of the season, the woods teemed with overweight men carrying rifles once a year. He caught site of the deer, above and to his right, and raised his bow as it disappeared, racing past a thicket, calculating its progress.
His arrow flew ahead of the thicket, piercing the deer’s neck, both at full speed. The animal kept running. Frank followed, unhurried, giving the wounded animal time to give up its life slowly. A trail of blood led him to a hollow where a compressed area of grass and small trees drenched in fresh blood suggested that the fleeing animal had laid down to die.
“Jesus, how much could he have left? But he must’ve got up and kept going. By now,” Frank elaborated, “it’s snowing. I’m following the blood out into a field. All of the fucking sudden, it stops. I’m standing out in the middle of a field, not another spot of blood in sight. The snow’s falling like crazy. That deer could be two feet from me or two-hundred. I don’t even know where to look. And you know what’s worse?”
“I’m fucking lost. In a snowstorm, out in the Adirondacks, and I’m fucking lost.”
“I never went deer hunting, but I’ve always remembered Frank telling that story, like it was a life lesson. Nothing profound, Val, but a variation on a theme it was worth being reminded about.”
“Not just victories and defeats?”
“No, really. Most of our lives are spent inconclusively, on the road to find out.”
Okay, I stole that line from Cat Stevens.
“Baby, baby, it’s a wild world, hard to get by, just upon smile, girl,” Val sang, flat again. “Sort of patronizing, wasn’t it?”
“Still the Sixties — what did we know? We thought women could be lost sheep in need of rescue.”
“You didn’t think I was a lost sheep, did you?”
“You were an elusive sheep.”
“Hm.” Val turned serious. “Are you getting why that is?”
“The continuum thing?”
“Was that sort of like a lifeline?”
“You never let go, did you?”
“Not really. Even on the day I was getting married to Maggie…”
“A lifeline, then. Do you get it or do you still think you were resourceful enough to make it alone, with no help? Was being a loner really a sign of strength or a predicament?”
From Kirkwood, Missouri, I got lucky, catching one ride all the way to Kansas City. Sunday warming up now, trying to catch a ride on a highway sweeping around buildings downtown, I lifted my blue sweater over my neck and shoulders and laid it across my suitcase. Then, I got luckier, picked up by a guy traveling with his wife and three children in a station wagon. Usually, nuclears didn’t welcome strangers.
Sunday travel was slow going. I had no theory about why that was so. Maybe drivers got behind the wheel for mainly short hops. Maybe they weren’t feeling as lonely or alienated as they were on weekdays.
One thing I will never forget from the day spent crossing Kansas is being dropped off at an exit near Junction City in a slow dusk, climbing up to a diner where the ramp released traffic into the fringes of a community. What I’ll never forget about it is ordering a slice of strawberry chiffon pie. It tasted exactly like heaven and was nearly impossible to find again.
I climbed down the opposite ramp as darkness settled, the chill reminding me that I’d left my sweater behind when I got out of the nuclear family’s backseat, a fairly large mistake as I approached the Rockies, knowing it was likely to get damn cold in the mountains.
I caught a ride with this wiry, older guy who insisted on feeling me up before driving on.
“Making sure you don’t have a gun,” he explained.
I knew what gun he was looking for, and it wasn’t loaded. Fortunately, he was latent enough that he took it no farther. One recent encounter pushed me to threaten a fast talking guy who offered me a “French massage,” whatever that was. Such a treat, he told me, “Costs you fifty dollars in the city.” He wanted me to go to Philadelphia with him, to enjoy the fifty dollar treat for nothing.
“Let me the fuck out of this car,” I’d growled as threateningly as my still somewhat reedy voice made possible. If he didn't my only option was jumping out at sixty miles an hour.
My brother’s advice that, “A queer’s always a coward,” paid off, and he finally pulled over a quarter-mile past my road.
“Motherfucker asshole,” growled to myself as I crossed a field, taking a shortcut toward home. Then, even while I was shaking, I started to laugh. Stories are better when you’ve escaped the danger.
The latent son of a bitch in Kansas let me off without trying to close the sale near Salina. It was cold and my bearings were off, but I was happy to get out of his car. The wholeness of the world tries balancing itself, and one of the good guys soon pulled over along the windswept highway.
“Where you headed, partner?”
The driver was in uniform.
“You can’t get there tonight. Are you cold?”
“Yeah, it’s freezing.”
“I’ve got an almost empty house with an empty bed, if you’d like to get some rest. I can drop you off at the highway on my way to the base tomorrow.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Gregory was a pilot, flying out of Schilling Air Force Base.
“They’re closing us down. Next month, I go to Germany. My roommates already shipped out. That’s why the place is so empty. I miss the guys. I’ll be happy to have some company.”
In the kitchen, he brought out bread, bologna and mayonnaise, and we fixed ourselves sandwiches. He brought a bottle of milk from his refrigerator along with tall glasses.
“What’s in Germany?”
“Nothing really,” Gregory said, with a shrug. “We have bases there, since the war. You know, nobody trusts the Russians to stay put, but I’m thinking I’ll be flying over some jungles soon. They’re making some noise over there, in Vietnam, in Asia. The commies… Dumb asses attacked us, now we’re stuck for a while. I think they’re going to want us to bomb the living hell out of them, put an end to it pretty quickly.”
The war to come was silting up the river of American values with destroyed lives.
“You’re welcome to take a bath upstairs,” Gregory offered.
It was the first time I soaked in a tub after a few days on the road. The grit and grime turned the water brown. Inside my suitcase, I found clean underwear.
“What’s that?” Gregory had asked when he watched me opening it up.
“Oh, it’s a photo album. My mother asked me to bring it. It has her family pictures in it, but my farther wouldn’t send them.”
“Your father going to miss it, isn’t he?”
“One or the other’s going to miss it, wherever it ends up. Somebody always loses when somebody else wins,” I reasoned.
And if the old man gave a shit about me, I’d give a shit about him, I thought. The story was too long and too depressing to tell. I left the details out.
“I guess that’s true,” Gregory agreed. “Well, have a good soak. I bet you’ll like that.”
Freshened up, I called Mom collect from a phone in the kitchen.
“We were just wondering about you today. Judy and me, we got a map out, trying to figure out how far you could’ve gone so far.”
“I’m in Salina, Mom. In Kansas.”
“That’s farther than we thought.”
“I’m making pretty good time.”
Without the detour with Milton, I’d be even closer.
Judy was Mom’s idea of enticement. A neighborhood girl who babysat for her and with whom she regularly gossiped, Judy wrote me a couple of letters, telling me how excited she was about meeting me.
Never having enjoyed the pleasure or annoyance of a mother’s meddling, I was amused at seeing it for the first time. It really was a put up job. Judy was about as excited over meeting me as she was about mowing a lawn.
“If I’m just as lucky getting rides from here, it should just take a couple more days.”
“Do you have enough money?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “A guy paid me to drive him from Chicago to St. Louis.”
“Honey, I didn’t know you could drive.”
“Neither did I, but some things just happen.”
Mom and I shared a laugh of recognition, both our lives lived in aquariums of accident.
On a cool, clear morning outside Salina, Gregory dropped me off near a highway that went from grain silo to grain silo across the fields of Kansas until the Rockies crowded the horizon. It was my last day hitchhiking.
Taken off the road by the Colorado Highway Patrol, I crossed the Rockies at night, straining my eyes through rain streaked windows on a Continental Trailways. The stark deserts of Nevada told me how lucky I was to be sitting in the back seat with a friendly black man who apologized after taking off his shoes. Together, we rolled down the Sierra Nevada toward Sacramento as sun swelled the fertile valleys.
“California, finally,” I said.
“Yep, this is it,” my traveling companion agreed, “the Golden Gate. First time?”
In Oakland, Mom was waiting at the bus station, she and her third husband, sort of, wearing matching motorcycle jackets, beaming when she spotted me stepping off. We hadn’t seen each other in ten years. I discovered in an instant that I’d forgotten what she really looked like.
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