Rain, drizzle, snow, and ice pellets greeted Boston on the first dawn of 1975. Equally foul weather met January’s second morning, but by noon the temperature rose into the 40s and I walked from my Beacon Hill apartment to the Mass Pike in Chinatown.
The on-ramp was the good place to start a trip across America.
The highway headed in every direction, except east into the Atlantic Ocean.
Dropping my bag on a patch of dry pavement, I tucked my newly shorn hair under a watch cap and stuck out my thumb.
The silent majority was in their seventh year of ruling America. They hated the counter-culture and getting rides was easier without long hair reminding the squares of LSD and anti-war demonstrations. In their mind we had been supporting revolution and the Viet Cong. They weren’t 100% wrong.
A hippie in a VW van stopped within two minutes.
Cary was headed to Ohio and I told him, “I’m going to California.”
“How are you crossing the country?”
"I thought about taking I-90 to I-80.” The Interstates provided a straight line from Boston to San Francisco.
“This morning my girlfriend said on the phone that a blizzard was hitting Cleveland. A big one.”
“That’s not good news.” Hitchhiking through snowstorms was life-threatening and I plotted out a more southern route on a map of the USA.
“Guess I’ll head south on I-95.”
“It sounds like a smart move.”
“More like the only move.”
The hippie dropped me at Sturbridge, where I caught a long ride to Washington DC with Earle, a sailor returning to duty in Newport VA. We listened to soul music and discussed race.
“People up here think the South is bad, but Boston is just as racist as Dixie.”
“Recently I taught at South Boston High School.”
“How was that?”
“Mostly quiet. Staties guarded every class, but once the TV cameras showed up it was white versus black.”
“The city’s on the verge of a race war, because of bussing. Stupid idea sending poor blacks to school with poor whites. Courts should have sent them to good schools in the suburbs”
Sean came from the South Shore and said, “Boston’s the Selma of the North. Damned bigots shit in Bill Russell’s bed. The best basketball player in the world and they treat him like that.”
“If I didn’t have family, I’d never go back. Not the same for you, but no one from Roxbury ever said ‘Pak your Cah in Hahvard Yard’. Sorry. Just the way it is.”
“Nothing to apologize about. I had to get out of there before the hate got me too.”
We dropped the subject spoke of music. Earle was for Marvin Gaye and I was for James Brown.
South of DC Earle said, “I’m turning east. What about you?”
The radio had warned of deep snow in Tennessee.
“I’m continuing south to Florida. I-10 from Jacksonville looks the warmest course across America.
“Good luck with the peckerwoods.”
The next lift went as far as Richmond.
Virginia was the Deep South, but rides came easy on the interstate. Truckers wanted company on the long stretches of highway and salesmen needed someone to keep them awake between cities, however Civil War was not forgotten south of the Potomac and I hid my Boston accent under a broad drawl.
The radio continued to broadcast reports of a massive storm blanketing the Midwest. South was the one road open and twenty-two hours after leaving Boston I crossed a dark river into Florida.
The palm trees swayed under a moonless sky. I drank a complimentary orange juice at the Welcome Center and stuck my leather jacket in the canvas bag. A tee shirt and jeans was a welcome change from heavy winter clothing. After finishing the OJ I stood on the highway with my thumb in the air.
A Chevy SS stopped on the shoulder. The big V8 throbbed with power. I jumped in the passenger side.
“Name’s JJ. Where you goin'?” The longhaired redneck wore a Lynard Skynard shirt.
He pointed to the right and stomped on the gas. "Geography wasn't my best subject, but isn't California that way?"
"I know, but there’s ice storms and snow in Iowa and the passes through the Rockies are snow-packed head high, so I'll go south until I'm clear of the storm, then tur west to see this girl. She's studying film at UC Santa Barbara."
“Long way to see a girl.”
"It's not a one night stand. We know each other from college and spent the Christmas holiday together."
"Better than good." I had wanted to be with Diana for years.
"It sounds like you got it bad."
"Bad enough, but I could use a little color before I hit the coast."
“If you mean sun, then the Sunshine State is the right place to pick up a tan.” He stuck in the Allman Brothers in his 8-track.
“Newcomers are easy to spot in Southern California.” They had no color.
“You lay out for five days in Miami Beach and you’ll be browner than George Hamilton and he’s the blackest white man I ever seen.” JJ wasn’t saying anything bad about the star of WHERE THE BOYS ARE, the ultimate Florida beach movie.
“I don’t know if I want to go that far.” The Hollywood playboy was darker than a leather coach.
“LA is like Miami. Only undertakers don’t have a tan.” JJ turned up the MIDNIGHT RIDER on the stereo.
“I called my girl to talk about my coming out west and Diana said it was a good career move for a writer.”
Prescription sunglasses, a haircut, a convertible car, and a movie studio job would complete my metamorphosis from substitute teacher to screenwriter. Fame and fortune were within my grasp.
“Movie stars sure as hell get girls, but most writers are fags like that Truman Capote.” JJ shifted into a higher gear and we rolled at 100. “Where you thinkin' of hittin' the beach?”
“I’ve already been to Fort Lauderdale. I had stayed across from the Elbow Room during Easter Break in 1971.”
“George Hamilton had hung out there in WHERE THE BOYS ARE.”
“Yeah, we thought that we would meet Yvette Mimieux.”
“Fat chance of a movie star hangin' around that dump.”
“My friends and I drank beer the entire week. None of us got a tan or kissed a blonde.”
“You should check out Miami Beach. Good town. Cheap hotels. Try the Sea Breeze.” Speed ate up the road paced by Dicky Betts’ blistering guitar on IN MEMORY OF ELIZABETH REED.
Florida was mostly swamp and there wasn’t much to see from the highway at night. Around midnight he pulled off the highway and stopped on an empty road.
“I'm goin’ see my baby too. You have a good trip.” JJ aimed the muscle car into the Everglades.
“You too.” I stepped out of the car.
"Be careful, if you crash out here. Plenty of 'gators and they love Yankees."
The Chevy SS thundered away from the highway.
The exit was about 100 miles short of Miami. Hitchhiking after dark was not a good idea. Crackers turned rattlesnake mean after midnight.
A golf course lay across the highway. I walked to the row of scrubs at the 17th green and crouched behind the bushes. No one could see me from the road and I almost felt safe, so I lay down with my bag as a pillow. The Milky Way burst with stars and I counted a hundred galaxies before falling asleep.
At dawn a spray of hidden sprinklers woke me.
Slightly soaked I grabbed my bag and hurried to the rough.
A red sun rose over the grassy fairways.
Near the highway cars and trucks pulled in and out of the parking lot of a Cuban diner. I walked over to eat breakfast with farm workers heading to the sugar plantations in the Everglades. The conversations were strictly in Spanish. After eggs, beans, rice, and coffee I stuck out my thumb on Dixie Highway.
A farmer stopped in his pick-up truck.
“I’m going to Little Havana to see my sister.”
“Would you mind stopping in Miami Beach?” I offered him $5.
“No problem. It’s just a little out of my way.”
Two hours later Raoul dropped me on Collins Avenue.
Decrepit beach hotels lined the beach road.
The Sea Breeze looked better than the rest.
The rooms were $15/night, $90/week and $250/month. There was no pool.
The breezy art-deco lobby embraced a decade of neglect. The ground-floor windows were glazed by sea salt and the 60s furniture was aged from overuse. The management was relying on the flaking pastel blue and chalky white paint job to last into the 1980s. The Sea Breeze was no Holiday Inn.
“I want a room,” I told the crew-cut teenager behind the desk.
“Day, month, or week. We don’t rent by the year,” he spoke slowly like he had to recall every word before he spoke them.
“How much by the week.”
“$100 in advance.”
I chiseled him down to $65 for a week.
“A room with a beach view.”
“That’s ten dollars extra.”
“Five.” I played hardball with the clerk.
“Okay, but guests are five dollars extra, if they stay the night.”
“I’m good with that.”
I surveyed the Sea Breeze’s clientele in the lobby. The desk clerk was the youngest man in the lobby. The white-haired men and women sat in groups of two or three. An elderly man wearing sunglasses plinked out STORMY WEATHER on the piano. The seventy year-old had a light touch with the ivories.
I hummed Etta James’ version on the stuttering elevator up to the 5th floor. Room 514 faced the ocean. The blue-white color scheme matched the view of sea and sky.
The TV was a Zenith black and white. Three channels were available. One was in Spanish. The signal came from Havana. I tested the AC. The old machine wheezed like a TB ward.
I shut it off and slid open the balcony’s glass door. The gulf breeze filled the room. A few sunbathers dotted the beach.
After a tepid shower I descended on the creaking elevator to the lobby. It was too early for a drink and I ordered a beer from the raw-boned desk clerk. He said his name was Nick. He looked like a young baseball player from the 50s.
“You have any cold beer?”
“Busch is the # 1 beer in Florida.”
“I’ll have one, if it’s cold.
“Can’t drink it any other way.” Nick handed me a frosty can. “I’ll put it on your tab.”
I walked out of the lobby.
The late morning light bounced harshly off the tiled patio.
I returned inside the lobby to call Diana from the hotel lobby’s pay phone.
There was no answer from the other side of America.
I told myself that she was at class and walked to the veranda. My flip-flops whisked over the cracked floor. I sat on a distressed rattan chair and drank my beer. A ratty umbrella provided shelter from the sun.
Yesterday my fingers had been numbed by the cold.
I dozed off to the pianist’s rambling monologue of the blues, bread lines, and riding the rails, punctuated by patches of praise for the smell of the sea in Texas, Florida, and a place called Tulum.
Coughs punctuated his rant often enough to create a rhythm.
A half-hour later the sun shifted beyond the tree and fell on my feet. I slipped out of the chair and I ordered another beer and bought cheap sunglasses from Nick.
The old geezer at the scarred piano one-fingered a familiar tune. I identified the plunking arrangement as Art Tatum’s TIGER RAG. A steady mumble of choice expletives fumbled off the piano player’s lips and the other residents steered clear of the sun-warped piano.
“Who’s the piano man?”
“Old Bill’s been here since before God invented dust. He’s meaner than a snake with a wire up its ass. Do yourself a favor and give the old bastard a miss.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
I shuffled back to the patio with the morning Miami Herald.
Hippies waiting for Zeppelin tickets had rioted in Boston Garden inflicting over $30,000 in damages. I had seen Zep at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival and thought about asking the vile-tempered pianist to play DAZED AND CONFUSED, except the gaunt septuagenarian’s began toying with a tuning fork and small wrenches.
His muttering rant was horrific.
No race was exempt from his scorn. No religion was beneath his contempt. He called the male guests ‘bums’ and the blue-haired ladies ‘whores’. They ignored his epithets, as he riffed through EVERYTIME WE SAY GOODBYE from John Coltrane’s LP MY FAVORITE THINGS.
His vile banter grated on my nerves and I strode into the lobby for a third beer.
“You’re right about Old Bill,” I said to Nick without looking over my shoulder. “He has a serious dose of assholiness.”
“He wasn’t always like that from what I hear,” the desk clerk whispered under his breath. “Ever since his wife died two years ago, he’s been on a roll.”
“Why doesn’t the management kick him out of the hotel?” I didn’t like bullies.
“First he’s blind and second he keeps the piano tuned and lastly the residents like his piano-playing. He even plays requests.”
“Nick, what you and that hippie boy talking about?” Old Bill shouted from the piano.
“How he know I was a hippie?”
“Old Bill has good ears. Right, Bill?”
“Like bat radar.” Nick lifted his head and looked toward the desk. His opaque eyes were shrunken into the socket. He had a hard stare.
“Hippie Boy, this C sound right to you.”
A crooked index finger poked at a key and I stepped closer to the piano. He smelled unwashed and with good reason. His t-shirt and khaki trousers were stained by old food and stale perspiration. Old Bill was not a man who cared much for his appearance.
“I think so.”
He scratched his buzz-cut, which was more white than gray.
“I’m trying to adjust the interval between tones to correct the interaction between notes. You ever play an instrument, Hippie Boy?”
“I sang a little and played bass in a garage band.” Three months of covering Barry and the Remains and several years as a baritone in Our Lady of the Foothills choir were the extent of my musical training.
“You young people don’t know shit about music. Electric guitar solos by longhaired drug addicts. That ain’t fucking music. This is music.”
His spidery fingers crawled across the keyboard to interpret a bluesy version of Dave Brubeck’s BLUE RONDO. Old Bill stopped after ten bars.
“My wife loved that damn song.”
The way he said ‘wife’ indicated that she was dead. The residents at the Sea breeze were experts at outliving their mates.
“Hippie boy, you still there?” Old Bill pulled off his sunglasses. His blank eyes were as blank as cue balls, yet glowed, as if a statue had come to life.
“Yeah, I’m still here.” I stepped closer and asked, “How you know I was a hippie?”
“Everyone your age who stays at the Sea Breeze is a hippie. It’s cheap and close to the beach. Plus these days everyone your age is either a hippie or queer. You don’t have a lisp, so you ain’t queer, are you?”
“No.” I had danced with a few men at the 1270 Club in Boston. Kissing them meant nothing. “I like Russ Meyer movies and not gladiator films.”
“Ha, are you sure?”
Old Bill couldn’t have ever seen the buxom beauties in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and I asked bluntly, “Why? Are you queer?”
“No, but if I was would you suck my dick?”
He may have been blind, but I didn’t take shit from anyone.
“I’d like a snappy streak, Hippie Boy. You have any requests?” His hands dropped to the piano.
“What about IN-DA-GADDA-DA-VIDA?” I doubted if the bitter old coot had heard of Iron Butterfly.
Old Bill nodded his head and played the heavy metal classic’s strident opening as a peace offering.
“Surprised you, huh, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill’s near-toothless grin was a tribute to no dental care.
“I listen to everything on the radio. My wife Mary used to say it was my TV.”
“When I was a young boy in Maine, I listened to radio dramas at night. My ears painted moving pictures on my eyelids.”
“Dammit, you’re almost a poet. Sure, you aren’t queer?”
“100%. I listened to all kinds of music too. I liked your rendering of BLUE RONDA.”
“Hippie Boy is a music lover. You from Boston, Hippie Boy?”
“That’s right.” My r-less accent was a dead giveaway.
“You be careful. That tropical sun burns northern white boys like pigs at a barbecue.”
“Thanks for the advice.” I left him for a swim in the ocean, which was ten degrees warmer than the beach at Harwichport at the height of summer. I bobbed on the waves for a good hour and then returned to the hotel. The sun had had its way with my skin and I crashed in my bed before the sunset.
The next two days passed with my following routine. vBreakfast, beach, lunch, beach, dinner, sleep.
The majority of the Sea Breeze clientele appeared to be harmless seniors with a short term on life. Nick called the Sea Breeze ‘the Stairway to Heaven’. After the third day people nodded hello with reservation. I was Old Bill’s friend and they maintained a distance.
After a week my scorched skin deepened to a golden brown.
One afternoon I came down to the lobby with two postcards to send Diana. Old Bill was working on the piano. It was never in perfect pitch to his ear.
“My favorite turning fork is an A. It has a 444 frequency in hertz. Orchestras like that pitch.”
He stuck the piano with the tuning fork. Its hum prepared to last forever.
Same as his constant blathering.
I went to phone booth and called Diana.
It was morning in Santa Barbara.
No one answered the call.
As I walked toward the exit, Old Bill asked, “Any luck?’
“That girl you keep calling. Don’t be surprised. I may be blind, but I’m not deaf. You’ve been calling the same number for days. 1-805-962-4747. I can tell the numbers from the spin of the dial and men only call women so many times in a day. 805. That’s California. Long way to go for a girl.”
“You’re the second person to say that.”
“Probably cause he was right too. What she look like?”
“Blonde, thin, blue eyes, nice legs.” I stopped there. Diana was disappearing from my memory.
“She have big boobs?”
“Too bad. I like a woman with big breasts. You’d think a guy like me couldn’t get a woman, but I had plenty. I made them laugh and always said they were pretty. Women like that, but I haven’t had a woman in a long time. Not since my Mary died.”
Old Bill fell silent.
The other guests in the lobby lifted their head, as if he might have died, except he was simply wiping away a tear.
“Lots of women in my life. Only one Mary.”
His fingers struck the ivories like Cecil Taylor in a hurricane frenzy. The discordant chords echoed off the faded walls. Guest fled the storm. I fury was short-lived and the coda sank into ripples. I heard the waves on the beach and said, “Sorry for your loss.”
“Why, Hippie Boy? You didn’t kill her. I’m used to hardship. I came from Baltimore. I’ve been blind since birth. My mother taught meow to play piano. My father died young in a dock accident. I was an only child. The state had sent me to schools for the blind. My entire childhood had been filled with the abuse from bullies. The punches came from nowhere.
His spindly nose was twisted like a crooked road. Unseen fists had broken the beak more than once and scars laced his face.
“I was no Helen Keller and I fought the bullies. They would laugh until I hit them. That made them think that I really wasn’t blind, but the blows were easier to take than the whispers. I heard them say everything. They thought they were funny. I hated them, but music saved my soul.”
“I was beat up in 7th Grade.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about. You fight back?”
“They were three of them. Fighting made them meaner.”
“Tough odds.” Old Bill shrugged with one shoulder. “I hate bullies. That’s why I hate most of the old coots here. Most of them are crackers who’d love to lynch niggers or right-wing thugs looking to jail commies.”
“You seem to have a way with people.” The residents of the Sea Breeze were neither racists nor fascists, but his dead eyes saw things his way. “You have any friends?”
“If I wanted a friend, I’d buy a dog. My music is my friend. I was lucky to have learned piano tuning in 20s. My travels around the country were financed by sick pianos. Bad weather and heavy hands take their toll on the keys. New Yorkers treat their pianos with respectful neglect, while Texans beat the shit out of theirs. I made a good living out of finding the perfect fifth sun, sea, and humidity of Miami Beach play havoc with pianos. And all those rich motherfuckers think their spoiled brat will be the next Glenn Gould. Not one of them silver-spoon brats can play a lick.”
That sunset Old Bill and I drank beer and argued about greatest pianist. He favored Thelonius Monk, while I preferred McCoy Tyner’s chordal phasing with John Coltrane to the Phillie pianist. Both were in our top five.
“You wanna know something, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill never asked my name.
“Maybe there’s hope for you after all. My wife loved McCoy.” He drained the beer and returned to the piano to play a rudimentary GIANT STEPS.
That evening I wrote a long letter to Diana about Miami Beach, Old Bill, and the sun. The epistle ended with ‘see you soon’. I figured I would leave in another week, because according to the TV weatherman winter was losing its grip on Dixie.
Old Bill hated the hotel food and the next afternoon we walked to Wolfie Cohen’s Deli.
“Why don’t we take the bus?”
”Because you can’t smell the Gulf Stream on the bus. You know someone once told me about a painting called that.” He tapped the sidewalk with his slender walking cane.
“It’s by Winslow Homer showing a black man on a wrecked boat surrounded by sharks.”
“Some things never change.”
Old Bill squinted in the bright sunlight.
“You ever think about wearing sunglasses.”
“What and look like Stevie Wonder?”
Wolfie’s counter staff greeted him with warmth and he whispered, "I never say anything bad to them. I don’t want them spitting in my food.”
One day he pointed out a tidy woman at a window table. Her two friends and she were eating Jell-O.
“That’s Mrs. Meyer Lansky. She comes here everyday with those two old broads.”
The waiter delivered bacon and fried eggs to our table. They were a ‘special’ every hour of the day.
“Meyer Lansky the mob mastermind? He added the 00 to the roulette wheel to increase the edge for the house.”
“That’s the one.” Old Bill’s fork picked apart the eggs. His eating habits were a sight that sored eyes.
“She doesn’t look too well-off.” The tiny woman could have been a tenant at the Sea Breeze.
“Lansky supposedly left no money when he died.” Old Bill stuck a dripping yolk in his mouth and swallowed without chewing. “Her son from her first marriage was shotgunned to death outside his restaurant in Bay Harbor. An old debt being paid. So much for Lansky’s luck. The murdering bastard. I tuned his piano once. Tried to welsh me on the bill.”
He waved to the old woman on the way out.
She waved back like they were old friends.
“Let’s get a drink.”
The Ace of Spades was our bar. Old Bill drank Canadian whiskey and I downed Busch Beer. The rough and ready bar had a good jukebox, cheap drinks, and a clientele consisting of tragic drag queens, junkies, long-distance truckers, small-time dealers, sailors waiting a ship, runaway girls from the North, off-duty strippers, low-level scam artists, plus slummers from the U of Miami. Everyone was welcome at the Deuce.
“This place smells like New York to me. Sour beer, whiskey sweat, cheap perfume, and cigarettes.
Back in the 50s I used to go up to Harlem and tune whorehouse pianos.” He inhaled the air, as if to pick out a faint trace of that memory on the breeze. “Lilacs and a woman’s glow after a trick.”
A saccharine version of MISTY played on the jukebox.
“Jackie Gleason. People loved his music. He composed and arranged the theme for his TV show, even though he couldn’t read music.”
“I watched THE HONEYMOONERS with my parents.” His hilarious interpretation of a luckless Brooklyn bus driver won the big man fame and fortune. “How sweet it is.”
“He was more than funny. You know he did his show down here?”
“THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW.”
“It was broadcast live direct from Miami Beach. I wish that I could have worked there, but Jackie worked with union guys. I had drinks with him once. The big man was really into UFOs. He thought they were going to kidnap him into Space. Fat chance of them fitting the Great One in a flying saucer.”
“I loved him in the movie SOLDIER IN THE RAIN.” Jackie Gleason had played a conniving sergeant opposite Steve McQueen. “The ending made me cry.”
“You were never in the military, Hippie boy, were you?” The words were almost an accusation.
“No.” I tensed up in preparation for an attack.
“Chill out, Hippie Boy. I wasn’t in the army either, but I did get called up for induction. The damned draft board thought I was faking my blindness. After a check-up they wrote up that I had perfect 0/0 vision and flat feet too. Never knew that. Good thing I have a long nose. I can smell everything around me like a bloodhound tracking a runaway slave.”
Old Bill raised his head and howled off-key. He was no singer.
I ordered us another round.
The bartender served cheap Canadian whiskey to Old Bill and I drank Busch Beer. The rough and ready bar had a warped pool table. Two rednecks were finishing an eight-ball game.
“They any good?”
“How about you and me taking them on?”
“Are you serious?”
“Serious as death.” He listened to the click of the balls and then handed me $5.
“Our bet. Can you play?”
“Yes.” I had spent two teenage summers hanging out at a pool hall in Boston’s Combat Zone. I watched the winning cracker’s winning shot. “I can take them.”
Old Bill walked over to the pool table. He knew his way around the Deuce. The grits smiled and the winner asked, “What you want, old man?”
“My friend and I are challenging you to game. Hippie Boy, show him the money.”
I didn’t like the way the skinny Reb had called Old Bill ‘old man’ and slapped the fiver on the rail.
“Look at that, Bob Bob. A blind man and the hippie trying to hustle us like we were rubes from Ocala.”
Several people gathered by the table.
Everyone at the Deuce liked a free show.
“I’ve seen the old man before, JJ. He’s a blind as a bat in sunlight. I don’t know about the faggot Hippie Boy.”
“It’s $5. You chickenshits in or you out?”
“We’re in, old man.”
The Miami humidity had warped the remaining sticks and Old Bill asked, “You mind if I use my walking stick.”
“You could use a beer bottle for all the good it will do ya. Like you said. Our break.”
The skinny grit sank two solids on the break and deftly dropped two more in rapid succession. The two friends laughed in expectation of victory and Bob Bob asked, “What about upping the stake to $10?”
“What’s the table look like?” whispered Old Bill.
“He has one more open shot and then our balls block theirs.”
Old Bill laid out another $5.
“But only if the odds are 2 to 1.”
“You got it.” JJ put up $20 and then sank the obvious shot, but missed a difficult bumper shot leaving me with an open table.
I sank four balls and left the cue behind the eight ball. Bob Bob had no play. The two rednecks conferred and the big man unexpectedly airbombed the cue on the six. It fell in the side pocket. His next shot came nowhere near that brilliance. It was Old Bill’s turn and he asked, “Where’s the cue ball? And where am I shooting?”
Everyone in the Deuce was watching this game.
I explained the positions to Old Bill and he touched the green felt before the cue ball, then called out, “Eight ball ball in the corner.”
Old Bill’s cane tapped the cue ball, which sank the black ball. The bar applauded his shot. I laughed with joy. Old Bill bowed to the crowd.
We strolled home with the dawn stretching across the Gulf Stream in bands of blue.
“A good night, Hippie Boy,” said Old Bill before the Sea Breeze.
“And even better a good sleep ahead of us.”
I started for the phone booth and Old Bill grabbed my arm.
“It’s 5am in California. Your girl is asleep, plus there’s nothing you can do to a girl 3000 miles away.”
“I’ve never been lucky in love.”
“You’re lucky in ways you don’t see. Everyone loves you at the Sea Breeze.”
“No one has died since you came here, so stop worrying about that girl. She’ll be there. She’s going to college and schools don’t end till Spring.”
We rode the elevator up to our floors and I fell asleep to dreams of Diana. I had to get out of Miami soon.
That weekend we watched the Super Bowl at the Deuce Bar. Both of us bet on Pittsburgh. The Steelers covered the spread by 13. We celebrated our win with a long night of drinking rum and cokes.
The bartender threw us out at dawn after an obscene toast to the MVP Franco Harris.
Walking back to the Sea Breeze Old Bill turned his head to the northern sky. A white contrail pummeled through the clear morning sky.
“That’s a rocket was lifting from Cape Kennedy going where no one man has been before.” Old Bill grabbed my arm, as he stumbled off the curb. “Damn, drunk doesn’t combo good with blind. Better watch where I’m going.”
Old Bill’s geographic memory prevented most accidents, but the next afternoon he entered the hotel with blood streaming from a cut on his head.
“I went out for a job in Coconut Grove. The bastard customer left me on the wrong side of the road and I walked into a damned coconut tree. I felt like Helen Keeler after her parents moved the furniture. I’m lucky a coconut didn’t fall on my head.”
He wiped away the blood with his tee shirt.
“You know all pianists spread their notes over three or four octaves. McCoy Tyner tried to stretch the sound. It’s all a question of string scaling.”
“Sorry, Old Bill, that’s Greek to me.”
“To most people too. I feel like the last of my kind, but that means I always have a job. You know the song HOUSTON.”
“Going back to Houston.” I sang the line from Dean Martin’s hit.
“You can’t sing for shit either, but that’s the tune. I have an old girlfriend east of there. A town called Bumfuck, Texas. She wants me to come tune her piano. She’ll pay gas and food. You want to drive me there?”
“A Delta 88,” he said with pride.
“You have a car?” My father drove the same vehicle. It weighed a ton.
“I bet no one asks Stevie Wonder if he has a car, Hippie Boy. You fuckin’ saying I’m not normal?” These were the harshest words Old Bill had ever spoken to me and I asked, “Why you have to be so mean all the time?”
“Me mean? No, it’s not me. The world is mean and I been taught that lesson every day of my life. And you know who’s been good to me. My wife, Mary, and her people. That’s all, so if I want to be mean than I got a good reason.”
I tried to apologize, but he pushed me away.
“If you don’t want to drive to Houston with me, just say so.”
“No, I’ll drive you.”
Diana’s skin was smooth as the morning breeze off the Gulf Stream and Houston was almost halfway to the coast.
“Don’t bullshit me, Hippie boy.” We stood in front of the Sea Breeze.
“No bullshit.” I had Diana’s address. She would be surprised to see me. The look on her face would tell whether the surprise was good or bad.
“Then pack your bag. We’re going now.”
“Now?” It was almost midday.
“Check-out’s at noon and I want to be in East Bumfuck, Texas tomorrow.” Old Bill hurried into the lobby.
“I’ll see you down here in ten minutes.”
I showed up in five minutes and dialed Diana from the telephone booth. She answered after two rings, sounding like she had been expecting someone else.
“Where are you?”
“I’m driving Old Bill to Texas.”
She laughed and said, “Sounds like it’d make a good film. I’ll see you in a few days.”
I handed in my key. Nick said that he was sorry to see me go.
“Everyone else too. You know no one’s died since you came.”
“Old Bill told me the same thing.”
“Where you going?”
“I’m driving Old Bill to Houston.”
“Whatever you do, don’t let him drive.” The clerk bit his lower lip. “That old man is dangerous. To himself is no problem, but don’t let him kill you.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here. I’m blind, not deaf.” Old Bill entered the lobby with a leather satchel in his hand, wearing a black suit shiny with age and a rumpled white shirt. The dust had been wiped off his shoes.
“You look good.”
“A man should make a good impression on the road. Nick, I’ll be gone a week and I’ll see you suckers when I see you.”
No one in the lobby wished him ‘good luck’.
They were happy to see his back, if only for seven days.
Old Bill’s car was in the rear parking lot and I pulled the cover off the big Detroit boat painted a somber gray. He walked over to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Mary liked driving fast.”
“I don’t drive fast. I hate speeding tickets.”
“My wife never got a speeding ticket.” He stopped speaking, as if he were checking his memory, then said, “C’mon, get in. We don’t have all day. You hippie boys think the world one big Woodstock. Naked girls and LSD.”
“And would that be such a bad thing?”
“It would be for the clothing factories in the South and tobacco growers.”
We left Miami on US 27 and hit Lake Okeechobee at 2. Old Bill didn’t like the Interstate. The semi-trailers’ engines hurt his ears.
Small towns interrupted the endless swamp.
Clewiston, Venus, Lake Placid, Sebring, Lady Lake.
He gave directions, as if the bumps in the road were Braille. We stopped every four hours for gas and a walk. I drank coffee and ate donuts to save money.
Back on the road Old Bill fiddled with the radio. Florida radio played mostly country or Latin and black stations were ghettoed on the end of the dial.
“Can’t stand that peckerwood shit and I’ve heard enough spic music in Miami to last me a week in Texas.”
“But you’re okay with soul.”
“My wife loved that darkie R&B.”
Old Bill drank whiskey from a silver flask.
“None for you, you’re driving.”
An hour after sunset we passed through Ocala. The cowboy town looked mean and I drove at the speed limit. Florida was a big state at 55.
I joined the Interstate after Lake City.
Old Bill drunkenly bitched about the trucks.
“Not many other options.” I wasn’t keen on driving through the backroads of the Panhandle. “This is cracker territory.”
“I know, but those trucks sound like giant frogs fartin’.” He stuffed wads of wet paper in his ears and fell asleep until we reached Mobile around four in the morning. He lifted his nose to the open window.
“There’s a good crab shack before the bridge. The second one. We’ll eat there. My wife liked it.” Old Bill’s choice was on the money.
The crabs were big and juicy.
He tucked a napkin into his collar and spread a handkerchief on his lap.
“Only have one damned suit.”
The other late-night diners watched him crack the crabs and stuff the succulent meat in his mouth.
Shells and crab scattered all over his side of the table. I averted my eyes from the horror of his enjoyment. At the end of the meal Old Bill wiped his mouth with the napkin.
“I get anything on my suit?” He stared down with an inquisitive sniff.
“Nothing.” It was a miracle.
“I’m a lucky man.”
We returned to the Olds.
“How so?” I felt good too.
“My belly’s full of crab.”
“Me too.” A warm wind blew off the Gulf and the road was open to LA.
“My wife drove me everywhere. You might have noticed that I’m not an easy man, but she brought out the best in me. We must have stopped at this crab shack ten or fifteen times. Tonight it was almost like she was there with me. She didn’t speak much and neither did you. That’s why I dressed up for this trip. She hated me looking sloppy. You speak with that girl of yours?”
“Right before I left.”
“That’s good. A man alone is not a good thing. Look at me. Old, mean, and alone. No one cares a shit for me.”
“But you had Mary.
“Yes, I had her.” Old Bill scratched his nostrils, as if he were sharpening his nose to keen his whereabouts.
“All women are supposed to outlive their man, but not Mary. I put her in the early grave with my craziness.”
Old Bill took out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Sorry, any time I get near New Orleans I get a little misty, I met Mary there. I was playing piano in a bar. Never knew its name. One night a perfume caught my nose. Not a whore. A lady. Mary. She liked my playing. We dated and I stopped seeing other women. We had thirty-three years together. And not once did I sniff at another woman. Are you still there, Hippie Boy?”
“Right behind the wheel.” I suppressed a yawn.
“Don’t pay for an old man to think too much about the past. The old sentiments sneak up on you like the Japs at Pearl Harbor. You’re not feeling tired, are you?”
“Just a little.”
“Soon you’ll be resting one eye and then the other. Good way to find yourself meeting a tree. Pull off the highway round Bay St. Louis. Unless of course you want me to drive. The road gets mighty straight around here.”
“No, we’ll call it a night. “
Pass Christian was our stop for the night. We parked by the beach and opened the windows to the gentle night air. A frail moon illuminated the gulf. Old Bill handed over the flask of whiskey.
“You earned it. Sleep good.” Old Bill dropped his seat into a deep recline and he was snoring several seconds later. I listened to the mosquitoes hunting my blood. I don’t remember falling asleep.
A rap on the car trunk woke us at dawn. A police officer stood next to the Delta 88. His hand was on his holster. The gun was a .45.
“You boys run out of gas.”
“Just steam, officer.” Old Bill righted his seat and pulled off his Ray-Bans. “My young friend here drove all the way from Miami yesterday. He had to get some sleep or else drive into the beautiful scenery.”
“Something wrong with getting a hotel?” The trooper stood at the driver door.
“Just trying to save money,” Old Bill spoke like he had been reared in this parish. “We have ID. Have money too. This is my car.”
“What’s a blind man doing with a car?”
“This belonged to my old lady. She’s dead two years now. This young fellow offered to drive me to Houston.” “He’s got hair long enough to be a lady. You ain’t queer, are you, boy?”
“Officer, Hippie Boy ain’t no queer and I ain’t no bum. You want to see our registration?”
“No, just get moving. Don’t need your type in our town.
“Have a good day.”
“It’ll be good once you’re gone.”
The officer returned to a souped-up Chevy cruiser and 180ed in the opposite direction.
“I don’t like eating crow, but that’s all the cops serve around these parts.” Old Bill spit out the window. “Let’s do like he said and get moving.”
We crossed the bridge between the old towns of Pass Christian and Port St. Louis. A sandy beach to the left was lined with trees and antebellum mansions lay to the right.
“Avoid New Orleans.” Old Bill ordered at the turning. “Don’t much like the Pearl City anymore. It reminds me too much of Mary.”
We skirted the lake and entered Baton Rouge around 9, where we had donuts and coffee for breakfast.
I called Diana from a gas station.
The phone rang ten times.
The day grew hot, as we drove through Lafayette, Iowa, and Lake Charles. I turned on the AC. Old Bill liked the cold.
Old Bill had me pull into a gas station in Beaumont.
We were in Texas.
Cowboys didn’t like hippies and they thought Old Bill was weird.
Old Bill heard their mutterings.
“Damn goat-ropers.” He fumbled for coins from his pocket and gave me a slip of paper. “Dial this number for me.”
The area code was same as the pay phone. The call cost 90 cents. I put in the money. A woman answered on the other end. I handed him the phone.
Old Bill spoke for three minutes and then hung up.
Walking back to the car he said, “Not far now. Maybe ten miles. We get off the highway next exit. I ever show you a picture of my Mary?”
Once inside the Olds he fished out a tattered photo from his wallet. The thin woman was pretty with jet-black skin. Living in the South as a mixed couple must have been hard on both of them.
“That she was.” He put away the photo after a kiss.
When we left the highway, Old Bill sniffed the air and said, “Stop here.”
“Here?” A straight two-laner disappeared to the north through bare fallow fields.
“Yeah, I know the way from here. I want to drive.” He pushed me hard.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Nick had warned me against just this.
“This is my damn car. If I want to drive it, then I’ll drive it. You don’t think that I know what I’m doing? Get the fuck out of my car, Hippie Boy. I’m not joking.” His fists were tight balls of old bone and flesh. He raised one in anger.
“This is fucked.” I opened my door and started for the passenger side.
“Why? I don’t need to see. I have an ear for the road. Where I’m going, I’m going alone and I don’t need a seeing-eye hippie.”
“Have it your way.” I grabbed my bag.
“Hey, Hippie Boy?”
“What’s your name?”
I told him.
“Hippie Boy suits you better.” Old Bill turned on the radio. Booker T was playing GREEN ONIONS.
“You know what I said about California being a long way away to be with a woman?”
“It’s less of a long way now.”
“You’re right about that, Bill.”
“Good luck with that hippie girl.”
“And don’t worrying about me getting killed. If that happened the worst thing would be my ending up as a rabbit in Texas and you know what they do all day?”
“Yes, I do.”
“See ya, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill drove down that long road and the Delta 88 wavered from side to side without falling into the bordering drainage ditches. He was not driving fast, but within several minutes the Delta 88 was a little black dot.
I turned to the highway.
An hour passed with southern slowness.
Finally a semi-trailer stopped for me. The bearded driver was bound for Austin, Texas. The capitol of cowboy rock was home for Commander Cody and Asleep At The Wheel.
“What were you doing out there?” He shifted the big rig into gear.
“A friend dropped me off.” There was no car on the road.
“The middle of nowhere.” He squinted at the flat East Texas landscape.
“He was going to see an old girlfriend and a piano.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to the West Coast.”
“Anyplace not cold sounds good to me this time of the year.”
The big truck picked up speed and I started humming IN-DA-GADDA-VIDA.
Old Bill’s version was a song I couldn’t get out of my head.
Just like a tuning fork sounding a perfect fifth.
It was a hum destined to last forever.