Tuesday, September 18, 2012

FLATLANDS by Peter Nolan Smith

I-90 weaved over the Berkshires into the tree-drunk Hudson Valley and the smooth highway shadowed the ancient Mohawk Trail past the cities of northern New York. The escort of gentle hills faltered after the Finger Lakes and the interstate straightened out across fertile farmland between Phelps and Batavia.

AK was at the wheel of the special edition Torino. Its owner had maintained the station wagon in concourse condition and the V8 engine purred at 65 mph, wanting to go faster. Pam was in the back reading FEAR OF FLYING. Sitting in the front I added up the distance to the Rockies from a map of the USA. Colorado lay more than 1500 miles to the West. There was little danger of us getting lost in the Midwest, since the highway ran all the way to Northern California.

“Aren’t we going to stop and see Jackie?” AK asked, as the Ford Torino passed a road sign marked BUFFALO 35 MILES.

“I called before we left Boston. She’s gone south to Kissing Bridge.” Pam mercifully fielded his query. The blonde nursing student in the back seat was Jackie’s college roommate. Her boyfriend had been the fourth wheel on several double-dates.

“Jackie’s with her high school sweetheart.” Last summer I had hitchhiked back and forth from Boston to Buffalo five times to see the doctor’s daughter. Jackie was that cute. “She’s down at her parents’ ski chalet in Kissing Bridge.”

“I’m sure she’d be happy to see us.” AK tapped on the steering wheel. He was having a good time at my expense.

“You and Pam maybe, but not me.”

“Somebody sounds jealous.”

“I’m not jealous.” The ex-cheerleader was happy with her sweetheart. He had been admitted to Yale’s law program and I said, “They make a nice couple.”

“You’re right. He does sound jealous,” Pam declared, for while a man’s ears were designed to capture the full pitch range of sound, a woman’s hearing was attuned to deciphering the broad prism of human emotions.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little jealous, but that’s not a sin.”

“Actually it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, if I’m not mistaken.” The New Yorker regarded someone falling down stairs as comedy and his finger getting a paper cut as tragedy.

“I can see that I’ll never be right on this trip.” We had been on the road less than five hours and I had been the butt of their jokes for all five of them. California was more than two thousand miles from here and my payback could be exacted somewhere west of the Mississippi. We Irish liked our revenge cold.

“Pride’s another of Deadly Sins.” AK grasped the steering wheel with his hands at 10 and 2 O’Clock. A driving school on the South Shore had taught me the same technique in 1968.

“Sloth is one more.” Pam offered from the rear.

“I’m not lazy.”

“Didn’t you graduate ‘sin laude’?”

“I wish you’d stop telling people that.” I glared at AK.

“Hey, graduating without honors is better than not graduating.” The New Yorker was not distracted by my discomfort. “Or going to Viet-Nam.”

“I might have graduated at the bottom of a class of two thousand, but I bet ten dollars neither of you know the other Deadly Sins?”

“You’re on.” AK lifted two fingers. “We have envy, pride, and sloth. Greed and lust make five.”

“Gluttony is six.” Pam was a good Catholic girl.

“And what is the Seventh?”

“Bias.” AK was half-Jewish.

“Wrong.” I was half-Irish.

Pam and AK offered a dozen wrong answer before I ended the contest by saying,


“Shit, I should have guessed that first.” AK laughed at my answer.

“What do you mean by that?”

“You do have a temper.” Pam offered over my shoulder. “You can’t say that you don’t.”

“No, that would be a lie.” I would run out of fingers and toes counting my fights in grammar school, although most of them had been to protect myself from ritual beatings by two bullies in 8th Grade. “So where’s my ten dollars?”

“Double or nothing for the Ten Commandments.” AK countered speeding up to 68.

“You’re joking?” Nearly my entire education had been under the tutelage of nuns, brothers, and Jesuits. My palms had been blistered learning the Old and New Testaments closing my eyes I reverted to a 3rd Grader at Our Lady of the Foothills.

“Thou shalt have no other gods.” I ripped off the other nine and said, “That makes twenty. You can put it in the gas kitty, unless you want to double or nothing of state capitols.”

Geography had been my strongest subject in grammar school.

“I give up, but I have my own talent.” AK revealed his pop acumen by reciting the release date of each Beatles LP, as if his brain had stored the information to teach a future class in Beatles 101.

“BEATLES FOR SALE was their last record worth a listen.” I had rejected the Fab Four for the Rolling Stones after hearing their cover of Chuck Berry’s COME ON.

“SGT. PEPPERS, THE WHITE ALBUM, LET IT BE and every other Beatles LP hit the top of the charts all around the world.” AK owned all their records.

“That might be true, but when was the last time you listened to one?” I had bequeathed my Beatles albums with the exception of BEATLES 65 to my younger brothers.

“It’s been a while,” AK admitted with an apologetic voice.

“You know the Beatles are Jackie’s favorite band?” Pam had the right ammo to shut me up.

“They are?”

“Didn’t you notice their poster on the wall of our dorm room?” She shut her book.

“No.” I tried to visualize the poster and only came up with Jackie’s bed.

“Your Beatlephobia is another reason that you two were never going to make it in the long run.”

“She left me, because of the Beatles?” Sex with Jackie was well worth shutting my mouth about how the seven minutes and eleven seconds of HEY JUDE was the longest hour in music history, but now was too late to change that part of the past.

“I’ve already said too much.” Pam folded her arms to conclude this indiscreet breach of a friend’s confidence.

AK slipped on her Joni Mitchell tape and we listened to BLUE for the second time in seven hours. It was the only tape that we had in the car. Pam resumed her reading and AK looked out the window. The wind through the windows did the talking for us.

I-90 bypassed Buffalo and we stopped for gas just over the Pennsylvania state line. The town was North East. We had been driving for eight hours. Boston was almost 500 miles behind us.

Pam assumed driving duties and drove fifteen miles over the speed limit.

“You’re not scared of getting a ticket?” AK eyed the speedometer.

“I never get speeding tickets. Maybe when I get older, but not now. Cops like a pretty face. If a smile doesn’t work, then I go for tears.”

“Maybe you could teach me your magic.”

“Sorry, a magician never gives away her tricks.”

I leaned against the rear passenger door.

The warm spring air buffeting through the open window deafened my ears to their small talk. My friend was attracted to the wholesome blonde. The pianist’s chances of conquest were near-zero, since Pam was saving her virginity for a wedding night with her fiancee.

To the North the afternoon surface of Lake Erie glowered more brown than blue. The steel mills of Erie and Cleveland had been polluting the great lake for close to a century. Overhead a blank haze hovered over the endless fields of green corn stubs. The sun was drifting toward the western horizon. I took out my journal and wrote down single words describing the passing scenery.

“Sky, earth, lake, highway, cars, trucks, trees, barns, silos, birds, steel, bridge, flowers, clouds, haze.”

The pen dropped from my hand and I dozed in the back seat until a sharp argument woke me.

“What’s the problem?” I leaned forward to the front seat. The lowered visors were blocking the setting sun. It as getting late in the day.

“Your friend wants to stop for the night and I say keep driving.” Pam’s face was firmly set by her determination to reach California. She hadn’t seen her doctor boyfriend since Christmas.

“I agree with Pam. The less time we spent in the Midwest means more time to spend in the Rockies. With three of us driving we could make the mountains tomorrow afternoon.”

“Non-stop.” Pillow time was AK’s second favorite drug.

“So name a city or town.” Pam threw the map at AK.

“What about Cleveland?” It was only fifty miles away.

“I spent a night in Cleveland in 1972 drinking beer next to a junk yard. There’s nothing there.” Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa had nothing to offer off the highway other than cornfields and crapped-out factory towns.

“Strike one.” Pam stepped on the gas. No one was passing the station wagon, while she was at the wheel.

“What about Toledo?” AK read off the map.

“No Cleveland, no Sandusky, no Toledo.” Pam’s closed the argument with her hands white on the wheel. Her America consisted of the East Coast and the West Coast.

“What about Chicago? We could see some blues. Maybe some Muddy Waters.”

“We’ll hit Chicago around two in the morning.” I calculated our arrival time by dividing the distance by speed. “The bars close at that time.” Driving into a city was an unneeded deviation.

“Okay, no blues, but what about a motel?”

“You can sleep in the back of the station wagon.” I pointed behind me.

AK popped off the Joni Mitchell to vent his frustration. He fiddled with the radio dial and found a college station playing soul music. Al Green was followed by Joe Tex and Ike Turner.

Night fell west of Toledo and a quarter moon rose behind us. A little east of Angola, Indiana we filled up the tank at a truck stop charging 60 cents for High Test. I ordered $10 at the pump and then looked to the diner. The bright windows were clean.

“I’m hungry. Anyone else?” I was thinking a cheeseburger and fries.

“I vote for a thirty minute break.” AK raised his hand.

“I’ll go along with the mob to make it unanimous.” Pam got out of the station wagon and stretched her body. Boston to here had been a long run.

“We’ll see you in the diner.” AK opened his door and walked Pam to the diner.

I paid the attendant and parked the Torino.

The truck stop was wreathed by a mist of diesel fumes and the buzz of blood-thristy mosquitoes competed with the low growl of idling engines. Women wandered from truck to truck. Several checked me out as a potential customer. I hurried inside the diner, where the long-haulers at the tables were gawking at Pam and I wished that the blonde coed was wearing a jean jacket instead of a filmy peasant shirt. Several truckers snickered out jokes about Pam’s ugly sisters. They were talking about AK and me. I joined my friends at the counter and started to open my mouth to remark on their lack of front teeth.

“This might not be the South.” AK grabbed my hand and whispered, “But these good old boys would love to beat up a hippie. Keep cool.”

I smiled at the plaid-shirted truckers and a ravaged redneck in greasy overalls winked at me. At least one of them didn’t think that I was ugly.

The blue-haired waitress took our order; hamburgers and fries for three.

“Don’t mind those hicks. They ain’t got a home or wives.”

“We do too have wives,” the redneck protested with hurt pride.

“Ex-wives, you mean, Chuck.” The waitress smirked, as if the truckers were deadbeat brothers owing her money. “All these bums have are their trucks.”

“As long as the banks don’t know where we are,” a heavyset trucker joked with an outlaw smile.

“Not such a bad thing to be on the road.” I offered to bridge the gap.

“What do you know about the road?” a bearded long-hauler in greasy overalls demanded from across the counter. His tattooed forearms were thicker than Pam’s calves.

“Not much, but I drove taxi to pay for my college tuition and spent more hours behind the wheel of that cab than in a classroom.” Hacking those late hours had been a contributing factor to my ‘sin laude’ status on my diploma. “I know it’s not the same as hauling potatoes from Idaho to Texas, but I made money on wheels.

“Potatoes are a good cargo,” The bearded long-hauler murmured with an accompanying nod and the redneck agreed, “Potatoes don’t shift their weight.”

“A shifting load of pigs will jackknife your rig and sure enough the next day a dead man will be shifting in his grave.” A white-haired trucker grimaced from a flashback to a near-brush with death.

“Yeah, but trucking is better than working at a factory.” Another trucker professed from across the counter.

“Or a mine.” The redneck offered with a West Virginia accent. His fingernails were black with grease not coal.

After that comment we held a pissing contest to see who had held the worse job. My employment as a janitor in a morgue was beaten out by a shit-shoveler at a pig farm.

Pam had heard enough bravado and stood up from the counter.

“Happy trails.” She blew a kiss to the truckers. Several of the hardened long-haulers blushed, as if they were school boys on a first date. Pam knew how to work a crowd.

Walking to the Torino the throttling of big engines filled our ears. Overhead the stars clustered into the thick marvel of the Milky Way. The night temperature was dropping into the low 70s and might lean into the 60s before the dawn. It wasn’t summer yet.

“Those truckers weren’t so bad.” Pam shivered in the cool air.

“Most people have some good in them.”

“I loved how you stopped being a hippie and became a trucker like you were shredding your skin.” AK caught up with us. “You even started to speak with a drawl.”

“I have a gift for language.” I wiped my face with a napkin from the diner.

“More accents than language, which is a good trick for a Boston boy.” Pam tossed the keys in the air. “Your turn to drive.”

I caught them in my right hand and opened the passenger door for her.

“Jackie liked your manners.”

“So at least I was a gentleman.”

“On some occasions.” Pam shut the door. AK was looking back at the diner.

“What’s the matter?”

“You and me. Our families came off the boats and dropped anchor. These people went inland. They’re not like us.”

“They’re still Americans.” We watched the same TV shows, played the same games, and ate the same food, but AK was right. Some of these people considered us as much the enemy as the Viet Cong.

“I know that, but both times I crossed the country I felt like a spaceman on an alien planet.”

“Or Captain America and Billy in EASY RIDER.” Dennis Hopper’s biker film had scarred every longhair with a healthy fear for rednecks and crackers.
Knuckles rapping on the car window cut short our conversation.

“Our mistress calls.” I nodded to Pam.

“As long as she’s with us, we have nothing to fear.”

I sat in the front seat and turned to Pam.

“We weren’t talking about you.”

“I know. My ears weren’t burning.” She had a protective toughness to her, then again staying a virgin required work in the 70s.

I started the Torino.

The V8 was raring for the road and the souped-up station wagon raced onto the highway. The truck stop disappeared into the darkness and I pushed the car up to 80.

The dashes between the lanes shrunk to dots.

“Aren’t you worried about cops?” AK had an unblemished driving record.

“They’re resting for the Memorial Day madness.” Cops worked triple shifts on the holidays. They loved the overtime.

AK tapped my shoulder and pointed to Pam. She was sleeping with a quivering smile on her lips.

“Guess she found a hotel room in her dreams. Why don’t you do the same?”

I slowed down to 70. A distant radio station was playing Tommy James’ CRIMSON BLUE PERSUASION.

“Wake me, if you get tired.” AK stretched out on the back seat and joined Pam in Never-Neverland.

Indiana was the heart of America and this late at night every miles was a mirror of the last and the next. AK and Pam slept for two hours, as I drove in the throes of an interior conversation. None of my voices settled future problems about a real job or lack of a girlfriend. I finally silenced the banter by speaking to the DJ on the radio. He was a better companion that the voices in my head.

The trucks rolled at 75. The drivers of the big rigs communicated with each other on CB radios, pinpointing the location of rolling cruisers and speed traps. I followed their lead like a taxigirl at a dime a dance hall.

West of Michigan City a stretch of highway broke free of traffic in both directions and I stepped on the gas to test the engine. The Torino hit 100 within a half-mile. My foot buried the pedal and the speedometer touched 126 before I eased off the accelerator. The owner had been telling the truth about the Torino. This station wagon was built for speed and we reached the old steel town of Gary three hours after leaving the truck stop.

Two summers ago I had passed the mill town and the night sky had shimmered with the glow of blast furnaces at full tilt. Tonight it was black as the midnight hour. The recession had killed off the graveyard shift. I eased off the gas and the Torino fell into place with the trucks on the road. Their drivers had slowed down for a reason and a mile farther west we passed a state trooper hidden in the bushes.

AK woke up with a groan.

“Where are we?” He rubbed his neck. He should have crashed in the back.

“A little west of Gary.”

“I was hoping you would say Chicago.” AK was slow coming to his senses.

“It’s about seventy miles north of here. We made good time.” I90 had become I-80. We were 900 miles from Boston and only two thousand from California. “It’s only 1. You ready to take over?”

“No, but I’ll try my best.” We stopped on the side of the interstate and made the change in less than twenty seconds. Before getting behind the wheel, AK tapped Pam on the shoulder.

“What?” She was startled by being in a car with two men who were not family or her boyfriend.

“Let me fold down the back, so you sleep like a human being.” AK helped her from the car and we arranged bedding from our sleeping bags. Pam crawled into the back without asking where we were. I wished that I could have joined her, but AK could use the company for the next hour. We shut the doors and the Torino pulled back onto the highway.

I lasted another ten minutes before falling asleep, praying that we were out of Illinois by the time I rose from my limbo.

I woke to JOLENE by Dolly Parton. It was a big hit in America. AK’s face was a dark silhouette behind the wheel.

“You’re listening to country?” I sat up in my seat.

“I like her twangy voice, plus there’s not much else to listen to out here.” I looked out the window. Water was everywhere. The lights of a big bridge split the dark horizon. “Is that a lake?”

“No, the Mississippi is in flood. A radio station warned that the flood crest with hit this area tomorrow.”

“We’re lucky to pass through now.” The shining reflection of the setting moon on the black flood plain mirrored a watery alternative to the highway.

“The Army Corp of Engineers says there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Are you sure the road is open?”

“Cars are coming from the other direction. You ready for another shift?” AK slowed down to stop on the shoulder.

“Not really.” Two hours of sleep had barely sated my weariness.

“Regretting that vote against a motel for the night?” AK asked outside the station wagon.

High waters lapped against the banks of the Interstate. Another three feet would close the highway.

“Just a little.” Two trucks whipped past us at top speed. AK and I watched their rear lights faded into the night.

“This is our land.” AK misquoted Woody Guthrie on purpose

“As much as Boston or New York.” No matter where we went in our lives we would be Americans.

“From the New York Island to California.” He got the words right this time.

“This land was made for you and me.”

The altered lyrics didn’t sound hokey without the music. They were a testament to a singer’s love for his country. I took the keys from AK. He sat in the passenger seat and draped his jean jacket over his body.

“Stay between the lines.”

“I’ll do my best.”

I checked the rear view mirrors. AK lay like a ragdoll underneath his sleeping bag. Pam slept head to toe in the direction of California. The highway was black ahead and behind. My foot exerted pressure on the gas and the Ford Torino pulled into the righthand lane. 70mph was a good speed for this time of night. The tank was half-full. Omaha was an Iowa away.

The Missouri River was the beginning of the West.

I accelerated to 80, for fast was the only speed to drive at this time of night in America.

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