On The Road
I’d gone a hundred-fifty tranquil, miles by midnight. There were few cars on the highway that late night. I enjoyed the temporary isolation, beyond the reach of outside influence. I mused the future, my next moves, a new beginning with no recent history. I had survived my odyssey with scars, but none that would not fade in time. I’d been beyond Wood River, and St. Louis. I’d be twenty-one in April, less naive, a bit more confident. I felt like I’d been lifting mental weights, and had just left the gym, taking a deep breath of fresh air. Life would be easier on the familiar ground of Southern Illinois. ‘Man who survive scorpion will not fear toad,’ I told myself.
I drove past Bloomington, then just outside Champaign-Urbana, a police car, red light spinning came up in my rear-view mirror, appearing out of nowhere. Oy. My stomach tightened. I’d been doing eighty something, but it came around me, speeding on its way. I slowed to sixty-five, and vowed to watch my speed as I relaxed again, slid back into my muse. There was no hurry, floating down the silver, moonlit highway though the white noise, silence of the night, secure within the steel and vinyl comfort of my car. No reason to get home before the sunrise.
I pulled off the road to take a short break at a truck stop with a single eighteen wheeler parked outside. The place was almost empty, just a weary waitress, reading yesterday’s newspaper, and fry cook with a cigarette. The only customer sat at the counter, wearing jeans and work shoes, red and green-plaid, short-sleeve shirt. He’d gone half-way though a plate of scrambled eggs and toast with bacon, and now gestured to the empty stool beside him.
“Where you headed?” he asked as I took the seat.
“Wood River.” It’s due north across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
“Refinery town,” he said. “I drive the rig outside for Shell . . . on my way to Chicago now. That where you’re coming from?”
“Yeah, been there the last six weeks . . . summer vacation. Going home now.”
“Sounds like fun. You have a good time?”
“Went both ways. I lost my girlfriend, for a while at least.”
“There’s lots of girls. Like buses. They come by, you only need to wait. Name’s Raymond.” He stuck out his calloused hand. We shook. “Just call me, Ray.”
“I’m Dave.” The way he talked reminded me of Dad, the same blue-collar toughness born from years of dawn to dusk hard work, beyond the realm of desks and carpets. “I been married twice. He took another scoop of eggs. “Not easy being on the road so much. I’m on the second now. This one’s a keeper, been together thirteen years.”
The waitress came to stand in front of me. “You need a menu?”
“No. I’ll have the same as him.” The eggs and bacon seemed just right.
“You have a summer job?” Ray asked.
“I was a draftsman for Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. Didn’t like it very much, but it was educational, I guess.”
“What did you learn?”
“I haven’t thought about it much. I guess I learned not to get drunk on weeknights, and it’s better to stay out of places where there is no law. I found out I don’t want to stay at one job, or one place thirty years, or twenty, even ten . . . or less.” I found it easy being candid, knowing we would never meet again, two strangers passing in the night.
“It’s better to stay independent. Got no stomach for white collar work myself. Was this your first time in Chicago?”
“Sounds like you learned enough for openers.” He cleaned his plate and lit a cigarette with a brass Zippo.
“Spent an evening in Cal City,” I said hoping to impress him with my manliness.
He laughed. “I’ll bet you learned a whole lot there!”
“Enough to not go back.” I grinned.
The waitress brought my breakfast. “Coffee?”
“Black,” I told her.
“Got a job back in Wood River, Dave?”
“No. I’m still in college, my last year. Plan on moving to Chicago when I graduate.”
“Maybe you’ll start a business on your own. Stay independent.” Ray drank the coffee he had left, got up to leave, and left a dollar on the counter. “You be careful drivin’. There’s a speed trap ten miles south of Springfield. Cops are there all day and night.”
“I’ll watch for it.”
“You’ll find another gal. The best way not to miss a woman is to not allow yourself to think about her. Hemingway said that.”
He must have read books at the rest stops, miles away from home ─ roadside philosopher. I couldn’t think of anything to say as he walked off. The screen door slammed behind him. When I heard the big rig’s engine start I left my stool to watch a grid of tail lights disappear into the darkness. Ray must have a lot of time to think, I thought.
The small café was strangely quite when he’d gone. The waitress had forgotten me, lost in the newspaper she’d spread across the far end of the counter as I finished breakfast and my coffee. I left three half-dollars by my plate, not waiting for the check, then left and stretched my legs with a short walk around the gravel parking lot. I felt clear headed, wide awake. The sadness of my leaving Dearie had begun to lift. I wondered if we’d ever write.
By this time next year I’d be living in Chicago, I’d was thinking as I got back in the car.
I’d have my bachelor’s degree. There’d be a final presentation of my work, a last critique—the big one I’d been dreading. Four professors who were thus far unimpressed with me would stand in judgment. By the time a false dawn faded late night stars, I’d conjured up a mural that would be my opus magnum, a collage, a big one, using Dearie’s wall as a preliminary sketch. I’d call the piece Chicago, add the Katzenjammers peeking from behind the El commuter train, Cheshire cat grins, and Snitzer with his Wall Street Journal. Perfect. I would need an image of Cal City, maybe Max, the tattooed bouncer, and for sure one of the prostitutes, the frizzy red-haired, Angel. She’d be sitting on the white piano from the ‘Ersatz’ night club, floating on Lake Michigan, surrealistic, with Chicago’s skyline as a background, maybe the Prudential Building.
I’d find Photos of the latest, diesel engine trains to cut and paste along with Dearie’s photograph, the one I taken on the day that I’d arrived, my straw hat on her head. What else? Marvin of course, complete with laurel wreath and lecher’s grin, and my cubistic Linda, naked, coming down the stairs. Shards of sheet metal, maybe, pieces cut from tin cans glued onto the surface like exploding shrapnel from an upper corner over Linda’s staircase. It would take time, but was already taking form inside my mind.
A truck came toward me heading north as I passed by Springfield, and the speed trap Ray had warned me of. Now sixty miles from home at thee a.m. I’d get back earlier than planned, but wouldn’t need to wake my folks. We never locked our doors. I thought of Dearie, who so often left hers open, so a summer breeze might pass through her apartment unimpeded. What might this September have in store for her? I doubted Norman would be coming back, and her refusal to divorce eliminated any chance of finding someone new, and starting over. Surely there were men without the need for having children, or already had them, but were missing wives. She had so much to give. Without me she would be alone again, no one to cook for, no more Charlie Chan. I hoped she would find happiness. I’d be forever grateful for that summer with her in Chicago. I would not forget.
The End of 8th Revision