Fiction by Marco Etheridge
It was in the time before killers stalked the roads, when Kerouac was dead but not yet forgotten, and the hippies were slipping into a post-war irrelevance. I had been on the road for more than a year, or so I remember it. I am broken now, an old man before my time, but I remember some things. I was young then and believed myself invincible. I wasn’t any such thing, but it is a good belief to cling to when one is sixteen.
We were somewhere southeast of New Iberia, about as close to middle-of-nowhere Louisiana as you can get. When I say we, I mean myself and the no-good bastard I was traveling with.
Sam was his name, and Sam liked Seconal. He needed someone to watch over him while he passed out; a pretty frequent occurrence. No more than a hundred miles out of San Diego, I realized traveling with Sammy was a big mistake. Two thousand miles later, he was still stuck to me like flypaper. I tried giving him the slip more than once, but Sammy had the uncanny radar of a drug addict. I’d be snapping the last latch on my guitar case when one of his rummy eyes would blink open, followed by his slurred growl. Where the hell ya think you’re going, Ty?
Tyler, that’s me. Even now, most folks here at the home call me Ty. At least those that still have the power of speech. The orderlies, they call me Mr. Evans, same as the nurses, but they don’t put any stock in it. It might as well be a number the way they say it.
It was a long, lonely stretch of US 90 that Sammy and I stood on, our thumbs stuck into the wet air. There was nothing but empty cane fields lining an empty highway; no place to be choosy about a ride. We were both damn glad to see those brake lights come on. I remember that Cajun’s car. He was driving a beat-up Chevy Impala, a big old four-door sedan. I can see it like it was yesterday, but I can’t for the life of me recall the driver’s face.
He was real friendly, that much I remember. We piled our crap into the back, and Sam after. I rode up front with that smiling bastard. He got busy asking us where we were going and where we’d been; said he was going all the way to New Orleans, be happy to help us out. I figured a ride was a ride, so he could talk as much as he wanted.
The miles rolled by and New Orleans got closer, but Sam started bitching about having to piss. That Coon-Ass just smiled, said it was no problem. He wheeled his Chevy onto the gravel shoulder and pointed out at an empty cane field. You go on and pee out there in the cane.
You might say I was stupid, and you’d be right to say it, but keep in mind I was but sixteen. I stood up to stretch my legs, that was all. I didn’t take so much as one step away from that old car, the back door standing open just the way Sammy had left it.
The second my ass was clear of the seat, that friendly driver stomped on the gas. The rear door slapped me in the backside as he fishtailed the Chevy back onto the highway, spewing gravel and laughing like a maniac. I remember that, him laughing like a madman at his own dirty little joke.
Sam came running out of the cane, yanking at his fly and cursing a blue streak. He cussed the disappearing car, and then he fell to cussing me. When he ran out of curses, he just stood there looking up the road as if he expected that Coon-Ass to come driving back with our gear.
We were a sorry sight standing there on the side of that road with nothing but the clothes on our backs. There wasn’t anything for it except to start walking, and that’s what I did. Sam dragged along behind me, bitching and moaning, but I didn’t give a shit if he lived or died. I didn’t care about my rucksack of old clothes either. All that mattered to me was my damn guitar, stolen by a laughing son of a bitch.
About a half-mile along there was a crossroad and a lonely phone booth. My hackles were up over that guitar, so damned if I didn’t march over to the payphone and plunk in a dime. Sam asked me what the hell I was doing, but I slammed that folding door in his face.
Calling the Lafourche Parish sheriff was about as stupid a thing as I have ever done. Well, maybe not stupid so much as just plain ignorant. My young sense of right and wrong believed those parish cops might care about some no-good thief robbing two fellas. I was in for a rude awakening. My phone call made that sheriff’s day a whole lot merrier, so some good came of it.
That old boy was smiling when he rolled up at our crossroad. Sammy wasn’t smiling, that’s for sure. I’d forgotten about that big bag of Seconal tucked up under his shirt. Or maybe I hadn’t forgotten, truth be told. Either way, Sam was real damn quiet.
I spilled out my story, and that sheriff’s smile turned to outright laughter. He didn’t know which was funnier, that we had let ourselves be robbed that easily, or that two long-hairs were stupid enough to ask him for help. He told us that it was about thirty-eight miles from Des Allemands to New Orleans. He figured it would take us about three days to walk it if we got a quick start and stuck to it. The quicker the better, unless we wanted to see the inside of the parish jail. Said he’d be back to check on us, make sure we were heading in the right direction. Then he drove off, laughing in a way that was getting all too damn familiar.
It was a couple of old Black guys that saved us. We were about three miles down the road, trudging and sweating. A big rusty Buick pulled onto the shoulder and rolled up next to us. The old man in the passenger seat was yelling at us before the car crunched to a stop. You two stupid white boys get in the car. Ain’t you got no sense in your heads? These crackers round here hate long-hairs, white or not. You get yourselves killed walking down this road.
We spent the next thirty-five miles in the backseat of that Buick. The two old men took turns telling us what chuckle-headed peckerwoods we were. Every time Sam opened his mouth, I gave him an elbow to shut him up. Those fellas could call us any damn thing they wanted long as they got us over the Mississippi River and into New Orleans, which they did. They pitched us out near Lee Circle and drove off, still shaking their heads and muttering, probably convinced that they had saved our lives. I was happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. Hell, it might be true.
New Orleans hadn’t changed much. I knew Lee Circle, and I knew the St. Charles streetcar, and I knew where the mission was. When we got to the mission door, I was sweet as pecan pie. Yes, Ma’am, we’re both eighteen. No, Ma’am, we don’t have any bags, we were robbed. By the time I got done with my spiel, she was clucking like a mother hen and showing us to our bunks.
Sam was bitching about being hungry and asking how were we going to get something to eat. There was a bit of folding money stashed in my shoe, but I wasn’t about to give up any of it. That meant we were going down to the French Quarter to try and cadge a meal.
Now in most of your big towns, there is generally someplace to find a free meal. There’s free food because there is usually some group of do-gooders waiting to prey on the unfortunate, the desperate, and the hungry. The cost of a bowl of watery soup at the Salvation Army is sitting through a tired sermon delivered by a tired preacher. Back in San Diego, it was the Hare Krishnas who had the best grub. Sure, you had to put up with an hour of that godawful chanting, but it was better than a worn-out street preacher. In New Orleans, it was the Bat People that were the best bet.
I don’t know what sort of cult the Bat People belonged to, but they wore long black capes. They hovered around the French Quarter and swooped down on street kids. If you sat through one of their indoctrination sessions, they would dole out the tucker. All I had to do was keep Sammy awake long enough to get to the food. If he’d been into his red pills, that was easier said than done. I managed to keep Sam awake that evening, and we got our bellies about half-full without joining any weird cult.
Out on the street, a fella needs three things to keep going: Shelter, food, and a bit of coin. Everything else is just window dressing. When that laughing Cajun stole my guitar, he stole my means of earning the coin. That bastard had my guitar, and I had nothing to busk with.
As much as I hated Sammy, he wasn’t completely worthless. Sam had one talent besides eating pills and passing out. You would never think it to look at him, but the boy could sing like a bird. We just needed some tools to turn his talent into coin.
We ducked out on the Bat People and wandered up Burgundy Street. Our luck took a turn when we met a kid packing a beat-up guitar case. The kid hit me up for a smoke. Sharing a cigarette, we struck a deal. One guy would play the guitar, Sammy would sing, and one guy would do lookout. Whatever we got from the drunken tourists we’d split fifty-fifty; half for the kid and his guitar, half for me and Sammy.
The night was getting on and the tourists were getting drunk, so we put our plan into action. We staked out a likely corner and kept an eye out for the cops. The kid couldn’t play for beans, but Sam’s voice drowned him out. When the kid gave me a turn on the axe, I ripped into the Saint James Infirmary Blues. A busker needs to know his audience, and we were in the Big Easy.
We made about eight bucks that first night; money enough for streetcar fare, a night at the mission, and a plate of red beans and rice at Buster Holmes. The kid agreed to keep the partnership alive. Things were looking up.
The next night we found the kid right where he said he would be. Sam was already into his pills, but at least he could walk. We chose a corner just off Bourbon and set up shop. The kid wanted to play first, so I let him go. After all, it was his guitar.
Luck wasn’t with us that night, at least not for those two. Sam was growling out a good blues over the kid’s feeble guitar. There was some decent foot traffic on the sidewalk and a few coins were hitting the empty case. I saw two big beat cops step around the corner and gave a sharp whistle, but it was too little too late. Before I could holler, those cops were on them.
Sam was well into his song and more than halfway into a barbiturate nod. I don’t know if he even noticed the cops until the one big bastard gave him a poke with a billy club. That poke in the belly woke Sammy right up. He proceeded to cuss the cop and the cop’s mother. That beat cop laid his billy up against Sam’s head and Sammy dropped like a wet sack. The other cop gave the kid a few shots, just for good measure. Me, I faded back against the wall and tried to disappear.
A squad car pulled up and before you could say Preservation Hall, the cops tossed those unlucky boys into the back. That cruiser hauled Sammy and the kid away, leaving me alone with cop eyes boring into me. I got real busy looking down at my shoelaces, making myself as small as possible.
I’d like to tell you I was brave, that I tried to help my fallen comrades, but that would be a lie. The two cops got bored and sauntered off swinging their billy clubs. I waited as long as I dared, then I snatched that guitar off the concrete and stuffed it into the case. Didn’t even bother to latch the thing; just slammed the lid shut, yanked it up under one arm, and bolted with it.
New Orleans may be a big city, but the French Quarter is a small town. Once a fella has been noticed by the walking cops, it’s best to keep a low profile. I had acquired a guitar, but it was too risky to use it. My New Orleans welcome was worn thin and my chances for busking along with it.
It must have been a few days later when I saw the handbill, a four-color flyer tacked up on a telephone pole. It announced that the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus was hiring roustabouts. With nothing to lose, I caught a bus out to the fairgrounds.
The grizzled old foreman looked me up and down. He asked me was I a drunk or a doper. I told him No Sir on both counts and looked him dead in the eye when I said it. He let on how I was probably lying, but he figured I’d do. He told me to fetch my bindle and be back that evening, ready to work. The pay was twenty-five dollars a week, plus meals and a bunk in a semi-trailer.
I rode that gravy train across the Alabama and Georgia, getting fat and sassy on grits and greens. The circus would roll into some new town, and we roustabouts would bust our asses getting the big-top set up. After that, there was nothing to do but sit around for two or three days while the locals enjoyed the show. Then it was tear everything down and head off to the next burg down the road.
It goes without saying that I never again laid eyes on Sam or that kid. I figure that bag of pills bought Sammy a good long stay out at Angola, the poor bastard.
The circus cut me loose when we got to their wintering grounds in Southern Florida. I drifted down into the Florida Keys, where I met a decent woman whose old man was doing time for robbery. I settled in for the winter, with a roof over my head and a job washing dishes at the local Holiday Inn. I stepped off that road without even knowing it, at least for a little while.
I don’t play the guitar anymore, not with my fretting hand a useless claw. I was sixty when that stroke took my hand, the same stroke that turned me into an old man overnight. It wasn’t just my hand, either. My whole left side is pretty much useless now. That’s what landed me here in this place; a cheap home for broken folks with nowhere else to go.
I could get around better if I had even the slightest use of that damn arm. It’s a hell of a thing, trying to roll a wheelchair with one wing. Mostly a fella just goes in circles.
The Doctor tells me there is not much hope for my arm, but not no hope. He’s from India; a young man just out of medical school, trying to pay off his student loans. He tells me how much he misses India. I tell him stories about wandering his homeland, which brings a smile to his sad face.
There are tough days in here, that’s a fact. I find myself thinking about the shabby nurse’s station at the end of the hall. There are lots of pills behind that counter, more than enough to do the job. If I could pilot this wheelchair in a straight line, I might get it done.
Other days, better days, I find something to laugh about. I look back over the wide gulf of time. It stretches across more than four decades and thirty countries. I see a sixteen-year-old kid turn seventeen, see him place a careless foot back onto that road. He is invincible, with oceans yet to cross, and no doubt that he can make the crossings.
I guess there is a trace of that kid in me yet. The pills behind that nursing station aren’t going anywhere, but I think I’ll pass on that, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, I’m learning some new tricks. If I tuck my right foot under this damn chair, I can push with my toes. Between that, and wheeling with my good arm, I end up traveling in a sort of a zigzag that almost equals a straight line. I figure moving forward, even erratically, is enough to keep a man drawing breath for one more day.