Monday, August 15, 2016

135 IN THE SHADE from BACK AND FORTH a hitchhiking novel by Peter Nolan Smith

Two days later Sean and AK swam one last time at Moonlight Beach. They bid good-bye to Helen, then got into the Benz with Victor and Cuchillo. Victor drove the Mercedes convertible on the San Diego Freeway. AK was in the passenger seat and Victor’s boyfriend sat in the rear with Sean.

“Good-bye summer,” said Cuchillo.

“Summer’s not over until the solstice.” Sean hadn’t ventured this far north since June.

“I was talking about Encinitas.”

“In that case you’re right.”

“All good things come to an end.”

“Some before their time.”

“Like you and Floe?”

“Yes, I was thinking of going up to Big Sur.”

“To find her?”

“Yes.”

“It’s big place and I’m not sure Floe would want to see you just yet.”

“Too soon?”

She hated violence and his fight on the beach with Bill was a vicious reminder of his temper.

“Yes.”

Cuchillo nodded to the two friends in the front of the Mercedes. Neither of them could hear the conversation, but the subject was obvious.

“Victor’s trying to convince AK to stay with us. What do you think of the chances that he’ll do that?”

“LA might be the entertainment capitol of America, but AK has a girlfriend back in Boston.”

“That didn’t stop him being with Pam.”

“He was on vacation, plus he has a job back there.”

“Teaching school.”

“He also has a car.”

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that old beat-up Firebird in LA.”

“There’s his music. He’s going to be in a band.”

“A funk band out of Boston. That’s about four strikes against staying there and living out here.”

“I have less than that.”

“I imagine you do.”

The interstate skirted the ocean as far as Capistrano Beach then headed inland into Orange County, since Victor was dropping them at the eastern end of the San Fernando Valley and Cuchillo said, “Pam’s leaving must have shocked AK.”

“He’s handled it better than me.”

“Not a good morning for either of you.”

“At least we have a ride north.”

“You know you could stay here in LA.” Cuchillo was a coke dealer. He had money.

“Doing what?” Sean wasn’t into selling drugs.

“My friends produces movies.”

“Gay porno?” It was a guess, but right on the money.

“Yes, but you don’t have to be gay to be in them. $200 a day.”

“No thanks.”

“It was just an offer. That audience loves straight boys.” Cuchillo was only trying to help.

“Thanks for the offer, but I’m heading back east.

“Hitchhiking? How?”

Before leaving Helen’s bungalow Sean had studied the western map and now explained, “I-8 cuts east straight from San Diego.”

“But it goes through the Mojave Desert.”

“As does I-10.“ It passed through dead man’s land. “So we opted for a more northern route of I-15, which is why we’re with you.”

“But not to stop in LA.”

“No.”

Sean's only reason to be in California was to be with Floe and that wasn't in his cards, so he sat back and listened to the wind.

The freeway passed through Anaheim before the Mercedes exited onto I-605. The suburban development yielded to the harsher landscape and San Gabriel Mountains loomed over I-210 all the way to Devore Heights.

Victor stopped at the onramp. After Sean and AK got out of the Benz, Cuchillo sat in the front.

“I wish you were taking a bus.” The handsome drug dealer was concerned about their upcoming voyage. “There are dangerous people there. Murderers.”

“And lesbians,”

“Yes, that too, but I doubt you’ll run into them in the desert, but maybe that drifter.”

“I doubt it, plus hitchhiking is free.”

“Don’t take a ride, unless it’s going to Barstow,” Victor told AK. “You don’t want to be stranded out there and don’t stand on the highway. The highway cops will arrest you and bring you to court for a fine.”

“Thanks for the advice.” Sean shook the blonde dealer’s hand.

“You take care of my friend,” said Victor from the driver’s side of the Benz.

“Same as he takes care of me.”

“If you’re stuck here, take a bus back to Hollywood,” Victor said to AK.

“Getting stuck would be a sign, we’re supposed to stay in California.” AK stepped away from the convertible and Victor drove away with Cuchillo waving good-bye. Ten seconds later the Mercedes disappeared into the westbound traffic.

AK and Sean surveyed the scenery.

A dry wash scrambled through desert brush. Willows and cottonwoods wavered along the waterless creek. AK and Sean drank water from their canteens.

“You ready for this?” AK stuck out his thumb to a four-door sedan.

“I am, but I don’t know about the people driving here.”

Passing drivers ignored them.

“They probably blame us for Nixon’s resignation.”

“Leaving any city is tough.”

“Especially when the next city is Albuquerque. It’s over 600 miles from here.”

“And nothing in between?” The West was a land of long distances.

“Just small towns probably populated by rednecks and son of Okies. Neither likes hippies.”

“There’s really nothing between Barstow and Needles.”

“Nothing at all.” Sean stuck out his thumb to a passing pickup. The cowboy behind the wheel gave them the finger.

“We aren’t on the coast anymore.” Sean changed from flip-flops into boots. “Damn, that feels strange.”

“Sandals aren’t manly footgear.” AK wore his sneakers.

“Not here.” They were once more in White People territory.

“You got that right.”

“Floe and Rockford are probably in Big Sur by now.”

“You thinking about her?”

“Yes.”

Days on the beach.

Nights in bed.

All gone after one punch to a redneck.

“That fight with Bill wasn’t in your best interest.”

“I thought I was protecting us.”

“Floe hated violence.”

“I know, I know.”

They dropped the subject and traded turns hitchhiking.

About twenty vehicles sped onto the Freeway. A Greyhound bus motored underneath the overpass. The warm morning was promising to get hotter.

“I could front you the money for the bus.”

“I don’t see a bus stop.”

“Then it’s back to hitchhiking.”

Thirty more minutes passed before a Monza convertible stopped for them. The blonde driver was a pretty teenage girl the same age as Floe.

“Thanks.”

“My parents would kill me, if they knew I picked up two men, but it isn’t easy catching a ride out of here. Get in the car.”

AK sat in the front.

“Where you going?”

“To Victorville to see my grandmother. You mind if I play Joni Mitchell?”

“We love Joni.” The folk singer was Pam’s favorite. Floe liked her too.

The cute driver played the new Joni Mitchell 8-track on the stereo.

The Monza struggled up the pass.

“My parents won’t let me listen to music, but her voice is so pretty, so I bought a tape deck for the car. I have to hide it from my family.

“You’re a Mormon?”

“Yes, but my people don’t believe in polygamy.”

Sean had never met a girl belonging to the Latter Day Saints.

“And you are into music. Are you a Jackie Mormon?”

“Only when I’m away from my family.”

AK glared Sean a warning to not mention his family connection to Joseph Smith.

“We’ll keep your secret.”

“Thanks.” She turned up the volume and Sean was lost in his thoughts until the young girl stopped on Roy Rodgers Drive. AK and he got out of the car.

“God be with you.”

“And you too.”

They waved good-bye.

“And you too?” AK was no stranger to his devout atheism. “Are you finding religion?”

“Not at all, but we are making good time, so why jink it?”

It was barely 11AM.

“What kind of town you think Victorville is?” asked AK.

Dust floated down the street. The sand bit into their skin. A car filled with young teens drove past without a smile on their faces.

“One that doesn’t like hitchhikers,” Sean said and they walked to the Interstate, where a long queue of hippies waited on the eastbound onramp.

“This doesn’t look very promising.”

“I count forty-six in front of us.”

“At least none of them are Bill.”

“I hope we don’t run into him again.” The violent drifter seemed to be have been following them around America.

“We should only be so lucky.”

AK and Sean proceeded up the ramp.

The dented guardrail was covered with graffiti cursing this exit. Across the interstate were a gas station and a diner. Sean smelled bacon in the air. It was almost lunchtime.

“What do you think?” AK asked with a canteen in hand.

“This doesn’t look good.” Sean sipped some water.

The hitchhikers in front of them licked their lips with envy.

“We’ll have to go easy on this.” AK put away his canteen.

Cars and trucks whizzed past on the Interstate faster than 55 MPH, but speed wasn’t an issue in the Mojave and a CHiP cruiser patrolled the onramp every twenty minutes to enforce the anti-hitchhiking law.

After an hour a van stopped to pick up three hippies.

“Was it this bad last year in Berkeley?”

“This is worst. That wait had only been an hour.

“Are you going to abandon me like you did your friend?”

“I don’t think a beautiful woman in a Maverick will stop here.” Marilyn had space for one. Nick understood his leaving. She and Sean had made love on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

“You never know if lightning can hit twice until it strikes you dead.”

AK was right and Sean strolled down the line to speak with the other hitchhikers, who all told the same sad story.

“Ten hours.”

“Twelve hours.”

“Fifteen hours.”

No one was going anywhere fast.

A New Orleans-bound couple was fortieth in the line-up and they were suffering the throes of cold turkey.

“Seventeen hours?” Sean surveyed the cloudless sky. “It has to be in the low 90s now.”

“It might hit 100 by the afternoon.” The junkie was too sick to feel the heat. His rail-thin girlfriend wore a wide-brimmed hat, but her face had been torched a torrid red by the merciless sun reflecting off the black asphalt and she said, “Thankfully the temperature drops at night.”

“Night.”

“You’re not getting out of here until tomorrow. Us too.

Four other hippies stood behind the couple. Sean and AK were #44 and 45.

“You two should split up. No one picks up two guys.” The skinny girl had calculated the probabilities of getting a ride countless time. “Anyone will pick up a single girl, but I don’t want to end up in the desert with some crazy cowboys.”

“So you’re stuck with me for better or worse.” Her strung-out old man had hair down to his ass.

“Unless you dig perverts.” His girlfriend sneered at her old man.

“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of offers from some sick fucks. They were into men,” he said, as if homosexuality was a sin.

“They wanted me to watch.” The young girl’s face screwed up with disgust. Sex was as distasteful to junkies as it was to nuns.

“Nothing wrong with acting queer.” Sean had danced with gays at the 1270 Club in Boston and the Brass Rail in San Diego. They liked a good time. “Especially if it gets us out of here.”

“These guys weren’t after sex.” The junkie hinted at murder.

“Earlier in the summer I traveled the PCH down from Big Sur. A madman had been caught for chopping up co-eds. Another murderer was shooting men in the Valley. Some of the Manson Family was at large. This desert had been their home.”

“Murder and death. That’s the desert for you.” The young girl shivered from fear.

“Good luck.”

“We all need it.”

“What do you think?” AK asked upon Sean’s return.

“That we might be here for a while.”

A Greyhound bus exited from the Interstate and pulled into the forlorn gas station. Its stop wouldn’t last long.

“Bus?” AK asked the obvious.

“Now?”

“Now.”

AK and Sean grabbed their bags and ran to the diner.

The Greyhound billowed diesel fumes in idle and its driver held the door open for the other passengers’ exit.

“How far we go for $5?” AK pulled out his wallet.

“$4.25 will buy you a ride to Needles.”

“Make that two.”

“I’ll be leaving in ten minutes.”

“We’ll be leaving with you.”

AK and Sean bought cokes inside the diner and they climbed aboard the cool bus. The driver had a schedule and pulled out of the gas station on time. They stared out the window at the stranded hippies. Ten minutes ago they had been them.

“Good move.” AK finished the Coke.

“You boys look hot.” An old black woman across the aisle was peeling an orange.

“We were stuck back there.” AK wiped the sweat off his face.

“Hitchhiking?”

“Yep.” Sean was still stuck on single syllables.

“You’d have a lot more luck, if you cut your hair. You look like girls and not pretty girls either.” The old black woman laughed with a friendly wickedness. “But these peckerwoods out here ain’t too particular about pretty after they drunk.”

“I’ve heard the same thing.”

“Sun fucks up pretty out here.”

The old lady handed them each an orange. They sucked on the sweet fruit, as if they might not taste another for a long time.

AK and Sean pored over the map, as the bus sped down I-15. With each mile the desert became more desert and the window was warmer to the touch, even though the bus interior was ACed to Alaska.

A few rangy cowboys and the old black woman got off in Barstow and the driver announced that the next stop was Needles, which lay on the west of the Colorado River on I-40.

Two and a half hours later the bus pulled into the desert town. Sean counted the number of trees in sight on both hands and said, “The Joad family’s first stop in THE GRAPES OF WRATH was Needles.”

“They drove through the night to avoid the Arizona heat and they arrived here in the morning.” AK had written a paper on John Steinbeck in college. “The California Dream.”

“A hot one.” Sean stood up to pick up his bags and peered out the window. Nobody was walking on the sidewalks of the dust-blown town.

AK didn’t want to get off the bus and said so.

"This is my stop."In this heat it was every man for himself and he told his friend, “You want to go, go.”

“No, I’ll stick with you.” He hefted his bag over his shoulder.

“Really?”

“Did you ever doubt I would?”

“Not for one second.” Sean would have bet his last dollar on AK’s ditching out on him.

The bus braked at the small terminal and the driver announced a thirty-minute break.

They exited from the bus to be greeted by a wall of torpid heat from what Sean figured to be the exhaust fumes of a thousand diesel engines, except the Greyhound was the only bus in the sweltering parking lot.

The sun beat down with a merciless intensity and his boots stuck to the molten asphalt.

Across the street in a small park a large thermometer displayed the temperature. It was next to a Dairy Queen.

135F.

“That can’t be right,” AK gasped for breath.

“No one else is outside.”

"For a good reason."

I-40 shimmered in the distance. Cars and trucks wavered like waterbugs on a mirage. It was less than a mile away. In this heat that distance tested human survival and the two of them looked at the Dairy Queen, then raced toward the promise of cold ice cream and AC.

Their entrance into the ice cream parlor was loud. “Shut the damn doors,” the counterman shouted from the cash register. “I’m not cooling the outdoors.”

“Yes, sir,” Sean answered, closing the glass door.

The other customers appreciated the gesture.

Hippies were not a common sight in the Mojave, but the farmers, teenagers, and young children re-directed their attention to spooning sundaes and floats into their mouths.

“Two vanilla ice cream sodas.” His mother had given the sweet slurry of cold comfort to Sean when he had strep throat.

“I'll have two two chocolate ice cream sodas.” Andy stepped up to the counter. “Two.” After the 3rd ice cream soda their core temperature had descended to 98.6.

“Is that thermometer right?” Sean asked a local rancher.

“Sun got to it. Ain’t right by 15 degrees. Makes it 120. Hot, but ain’t half as hot as July 2, 1967. That day it hit 122. The two degrees don’t sound like much until you been in 122,” he spoke with pride. “Not many humans can survive that heat. Felt like the Devil was burning my bones. You boys going east?”

“Yes, sir.” The heat brought out the polite in him.

“I can give you a ride to Topock. Some fifteen miles from here. It’s on the other side of the Colorado. You have some money for gas?”

“Sure.” Sean donated $3 to the driver's fuel fund.

“Every little bit helps with gas at 40 cents a gallon.”

“Same goes for us. Walking in the desert is life or death."

“Mind if I fill up my canteen?” AK lifted his metal water container.

“Make it snappy.” The Okie exited from the Dairy Queen. The back of his Ford pick-up was loaded with bags of grain. His dog sat in the front seat. When Sean approached the passenger door, the black dog snarled with bared fangs.

“Ranger don’t like the heat. Don’t like strangers too. You gotta sit in the back.”

“Okay.” Sean touched the truck. The steel was frying pan hot. He sat on a burlap bag and pulled on a baseball cap. The sun was high in the sky.

AK came out of the ice cream shop and jumped into the back.

“Damn.” He leapt off the steel flatbed like a fried egg with legs.

“Sit on a bag.”

The sign next to the Dairy Queen hovered around 131. It was the wrong reading, but Sean’s mind registered it as the real thing.

“I’m ready when you’re ready.” He rapped on the rear window.

“Go.”

Fifteen minutes later the pickup crossed the Colorado River into Arizona. The farmer pulled off the interstate. The town was two miles away to the north. He drove away without a word. His dog barked their good-bye. The only shade was a bullet-holed billboard some 300 feet in the scrubby desert.

“That wasn’t much of a ride.”

“Better than walking here.”

“It isn’t any cooler.”

“Maybe a little. We’re next to the river.”

Sharp mountains rose farther north. A railroad bridge traversed the river and another bridge for cars spanned the low stream. Weeds grew out of the pavement of the Route 66. Cottonwoods dotted the near shore before the river curved to the east, otherwise low scrubs and yellow dirt dominated the desert.

“I wish I was back in Encinitas.” AK loved Moonlight Beach.

“I wish we were back two weeks ago.”

“If only I was Dorothy and could click my heels.” AK had been brought up on THE WIZARD OF OZ.

“Then we’d end up in Kansas.”

“Kansas, Kansas.” AK snapped his sneakers together.

“No such luck. There’s only one way out of here.”

Sean stuck out my thumb and pretended to be Jack Kerouac’s illegitimate son. He had to have one somewhere.

“I look more harmless than you.” The Berklee School of Music graduate had perfect teeth and pushed him to the side. The second car stopped for them.

“We’re out of here.” He sprinted to the waiting Delta 88.

“Thanks for stopping.” AK jumped in the back. “It’s a life saver.”

“Nice car.” Sean’s father drove a gray version.

“Good AC.” AK sat in the rear. “Where you going?”

“Up to Kingman. When it get this hot, I haul ass out of here.”

“Here?”

“Topock. I know there’s not much here, but the Colorado runs natural here, not like down on Lake Havesu.”

“Isn’t Lake Havasu where they put the London Bridge?” Sean had read about its sale in LIFE magazine.

“Yes and no.” The husband was a full head of hair. He drove with both hands on the wheel.

“The developer bought the old London Bridge, thinking it was the Tower Bridge.”

“But it wasn’t.” His white-haired wife muffled a pleasant chuckle with her hand.

“Still they reconstructed the London Bridge and people come from all around to see it,” her husband explained with an apologetic tone.

“Bridge doesn’t really go anywhere.” His wife found it amusing.

“No, it goes nowhere.”

“Seems like there is lot of nowhere out here.”

“You got that right. I wish I hadn’t moved down here. Sometimes down here my head feels hot enough to fry an egg on.”

The driver might have said the line a hundred times. The punch line was funny, because it was true.

“It isn’t this hot all the time.” The desert sun had leathered his wife’s skin as brown as a Naugahyde couch and her silver-blonde hair honored the singer Dinah Shore. “We have grandchildren in Chicago. They come and visit sometimes. That’s why we picked you up.”

“They’re hippies too.” The old man smiled in the rearview mirror. “You must be thirsty. There’s lemonade in the cooler.”

Four glass screw-top bottles were stored in ice.

“Don’t be shy.” The driver floored the pedal and the big V8 ate up the road. “Drink as much as you want.

Andy and Sean drained one in thirty seconds.

Mountains rose from the plain.

They were leaving the desert.

Just before sunset the interstate was replaced by an old section of Route 66. Within a few years the legendary road from Chicago to LA would be replaced by the interstate. The old couple pulled into Kingman, Arizona and the man said, “We’re staying here for the night.”

A motor lodge offered rooms for $20.

“We’ll keep on going.” Sean shook his head.

“I’d pay for a room.” The old man had a kind heart.

“No, thanks, we’ll be fine now we’re out of that furnace.” AK opened the door to the mountain air smelling of pine.

“God be with you.”

“Thanks.”

This was God Country.

It was loaded with lots of white people too.

They bid the old couple good-bye from the shoulder of old Route 66.

“I can’t believe two hours ago it was 135 in the shade.” The cool air at 3000 feet was relief and Sean stuck out my thumb.

“The thermometer was broken.” AK sat on the guard railing.

“Broke or not it was as hot as I’ve ever been.”

“You can say that again.”

Sean didn’t bother to repeat the obvious and asked, “What do you think Pam is doing?”

“Probably with her boyfriend.”

“And Floe?”

“Sitting around a fire in the Redwoods with Rockford.”

“And us.”

“We’re on the road.”

The sun was setting in the west and a semi’s diesel engine throttled closer to Kingman.

“Together.”

“Yes, together farther down the road.”

“Are you okay with that?” Sean was hoping AK suggested turning around. LA was only five hours behind them. Big Sur was another five up the coast.

“As long as it’s not 135 again, yes.”

“There’s more desert tomorrow.” Their compass was pointing east.

“But not like that.”

"No, not like that.”

Wherever they would be tomorrow morning was a night away.

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