As a boy, I believed in good. A mother’s love was unconditional. Fatherhood was an undying pledge. Brother and sisters were ultimate protectors. Schoolmates were a gift. Life was a promise of success.
I did good things. I made friends with a black girl and a Down’s boy. I worked hard in school and earned good grades. I delivered four paper routes. I bought my own bicycle and motorcycle. I did not fight.
I confess, I wasn’t always good. I stole from Mother’s purse. I detested my stepfather, but he wasn’t really my stepfather. I loathed my brother, but Biggy picked on me all my life. I hated the Andersen boys, but they ganged up on me behind the high school. The meanest thing one human can do is to take away his self-respect, and that’s what Biggy and the Andersens did. That’s why I tried to commit suicide. That’s why I sneaked away from home.
My story is mostly true. I’ve changed the names to protect the most despicable bastards, so I guess that makes me an unreliable narrator. I’ve made up a few details and I’ve hidden ugly secrets, the way people do over fifty years. That’s how long it’s been since I came out second in two fights, got scared, screwed up suicide, stuck out my thumb, and hitched to California.
So here I go. Once upon a time in Oklahoma . . .
I stepped onto U.S. 81 at six A.M. Hell Creek was a mile behind me; Palo Alto was seventeen hundred miles down the road.
Uh oh. I don’t know how to hitchhike. Which way? California is west, same as Lawton? I need a better sense of direction. A car passed. Of course. The driver won’t stop if he can’t see my face.
I had to figure out how to walk backwards and face traffic at the same time. I turned sideways, but that felt ungainly. I backed down the highway and glanced behind every few feet so I wouldn’t fall into a storm drain.
Still no sign of the sun. Good. Mother wouldn’t be up for a couple of hours. By the time the cops caught up with me, I’d be with Daddy. He’d teach me how to fight. He’d train me like a Marine. My body would harden. I’d come back looking like a warrior, surprise Scooter and Spit and Pickle behind the high school, karate chop their necks, and leave them wiggling on the sidewalk. Biggy too. His eyes would X like a cartoon. Everyone would respect me. Then I’d take Murph with me to California.
A Mustang passed and a Neil Diamond song leaked from the passenger window. Was that the ’64 and a half? It looked a little different from Big Guy’s ’65.
Bingo. A car stopped, a fire-engine red, 1967 Plymouth Barracuda fastback playing the same radio station. Thank the Lord for my very first ride. I could make out the driver’s haircut from the yellowish highway lamps. Flat top. Whitewalls on the sides. Starched olive drab uniform. My defenses lowered. Dogface. A lot older than me, maybe twenty-five. But at fifteen, everyone seemed older.
The soldier leaned toward the passenger window. “Where you headin’?”
Oh shi– Stop cussing. You’ve started a new life. Don’t sound coarse. Use euphemisms. Feces sounds funnier.
What if Mother woke up early, read my note, and had the cops put out an APB for me? This doggie was probably stationed at Fort Sill. Lawton was just forty miles away, so dogfaces hung around Hell Creek in packs. What if the cops tracked him down and the doggie told them where I was going? “Uhh. West.”
“West? You’ll have to let loose of a little more info if you’re hitchhiking, Joe.”
“California.” Joe. I slid into the Naugahyde bucket seat.
“I can get you as far as Fort Sill. So, dude, how you doing?”
I don’t think people actually want to hear about my problems. “Ginger peachy.”
He smiled. “That’s original.”
And that was easy. I might be out of Oklahoma in a few hours. I was glad he was only taking me to Lawton, though. It was only May, but the weather had already turned hot and sticky, and this brand-spanking new ‘Cuda didn’t have an air conditioner. I cracked the window.
He hung a left at the Lawton-Hell Creek Y. “Don’t see many hitchhikers around here.”
“Sorry. Were you a thousand miles away?”
About six, according to the road sign. My vision adjusted to the green gloom from the ‘Cuda’s dashboard.
“You go to Hell Creek High? Wife teaches there.” His face turned. It’d been pounded like a chicken-fried steak. Three stripes on the doggie’s collar insignia.
Oh feces. I think I know who you are, Sarge.
“Gotta song for you. See that box of eight-tracks in the back seat?” Sarge asked. “Grab the third one. They’re in alphabetical order.”
I reached behind the slick plastic seat and grabbed a green rectangle. A square of broken window glass dropped into my hand. That settles it. You’re O’Murphy’s doggie.
His eyes shifted to me. “Stick it in the tape player.”
“Thanks. I’ve only had it a few weeks.”
“Yeah? Already had an accident?”
“Something like that.”
His car passed a corner streetlamp. I could make out his nose and cheek; both roared yellow and purple and blue. I guess we both came out second in a fight with a high-school thug. “I like the sound of the engine.”
The doggie smiled. “That’s not the 273. It’s the 383-cube four-barrel.”
I love muscle cars too. The tape interrupted KOMA and played “I’m a Rambler, I’m a Gambler.”
“So. You like Joan?”
“Baez?” The sergeant crunched a smile. “Mythic voice. Wife and I saw her two years ago when I was stationed near London. She toured with Bob Dylan, but he wasn’t with her. They had broken up. We also watched the concert later on the BBC. This was her first hit, ‘There but for Fortune . . . ’”
Go you or I.
Three songs played before the eight-track skipped to the middle of “She’s a Troublemaker.” The tape fluttered, fluttered, fluttered, then jammed.
“Eject! Eject!” he ordered.
I was startled, but I pushed the button and the cassette popped out. The tape snagged.
“Halt!” Sarge barked, then softened. He pulled down his sunvisor and withdrew a ballpoint pen. “Slip this inside that little door and–real careful–lift up the heads.”
I unspooled a yard of Hershey-brown film.
“Good. The tape isn’t broke. Got a knife?” he asked.
I pulled Grand’s Barlow from my left pocket.
“Pry off the cover. It’s a Möbius strip–a continuous O. That’s how an eight-track works.” He talked me through respooling and threading the tape through the cassette guides.
I slipped it back into the deck. “ . . . a hundred miles, a hundred . . . ”
“‘500 Miles,’” the doggie mused. “That’ll be your song now.”
Right you are, Sgt. Dogface.
“Whatever possessed Dylan to give her up?”
Whatever possessed you to cheat on your wife? Why would you take a chance on losing Mrs. Lane? Okay, her bod is crammed into a short waist, but she isn’t overweight. And she isn’t half-gorgeous like O’Murphy, but she enlarged my world. Sarge, your wife may be the grooviest chick on this planet.
Sarge stopped the ‘Cuda at Gore Boulevard. “Got a map?”
I shook my head.
“Then I wonder where you’re gonna wind up, because it may not be where you want.” The doggie introduced himself with a departing handshake. “Pepper Lane.”
My hand felt limp, even to me. If you want to be treated like a man, shake hands like a man. “Curtis. Pye.” I said it like “Bond. James Bond.”
“Yeah. I thought it was you. My wife talks about Cutie Pye all the time.”
Oh, feces. Does everyone know my stupid nickname?
“Says you’re ‘hyperliterate.’ Is that the term? Read every book in the high school library? Brighter than the teachers? But you’re not going back to school?”
I shook my head. Got kicked out. She hasn’t told you?
“Don’t worry. I won’t have a chance to say anything till I get home tonight.”
“Thanks.” And it’s more like a quarter of the books, but I want to read every one.
He pointed west. “Cache Road is U.S. 62, Curtis. Stay on it as far as it goes. And first chance you get, buy a map. Know how to read one?”
Thumb out, I backed down Cache Road. I should’ve written to Daddy before I left. My plan–I didn’t really have one–was to sit by his post office box in Palo Alto until he found me.
I wondered who Daddy really was. Maybe some of what people had told me was true, and some was a protective blanket of lies that grandfathers and mothers and sisters spread over kids who didn’t know their parents. I had few memories of Daddy, and those were from the last times I’d seen him.
Is it possible to forget a father? I’d been nine the last time he’d seen me. Would he know the fifteen-year-old me? I wouldn’t know Daddy if he passed me on the street.
Before I left Oklahoma, I’d wanted to take Murph to a movie, hold her hand, and trace those long, delicate fingers. I’d wanted her to snuggle against me and fall asleep. I’d wanted to stroke that hollow spot at the base of her throat.
But I’d given up; now my life would be a highway. No matter how much I’d wanted life, life hadn’t wanted me. I’d been the most invisible kid in high school. And when you’re the most invisible kid, it’s hard to believe you matter. In the past two days, I had realized that life had been better when I was invisible, that mistakes had the greatest consequences, and that sometimes we risked everything on bad choices because the other choices were worse. I had desperately wanted to leave Hell Creek. What I hadn’t understood was that Hell Creek would never leave me. Maybe it would’ve been easier to die.