If you can't appreciate the beauty of Miles Davis'a classic album Kind of Blue, then we talk different languages. It is the coolest, cleanest, most expressive effort to catch God's attention ever. It was released in August of 1959 and was and is the best album of music ever released.
Thurman and I had lived in Corcoran for a little over year and a half and had done pretty well for ourselves. We both were working steady and were pretty much staying busy building a new life for ourselves. Thurman had already gotten his first raise, and I wasn't thinking too much about Stewie and Guinnie which, truth be told, was probably the reason I was out here in the first place
I suppose with things going that well that something had to change; I was kind of expecting it to tell the truth. I guess it was the just a big ol dose of backwoods suspicion in me. Way I figured it was that God doesn't want any of us to get to smug or certain about things. Lot of people would say that it was some kind of flaw in the ways of God, but not me. I had seen it happen too many times to think that failure and mischief of fate wasn't all part of the plan.
I remember growing up that whenever something good happened, I always waited for something bad to happen to level things out. I know I overdid it at times but that stubborn doubt I always felt, I could lay on my upbringing and my Pa.
I figured that sometimes things have to change for things to grow. I don't know where I got ahold of that notion, but it made some kind of sense to me. One night I was sittin in a tent revival listening to a fire and brimstone preacher talk about the mess that Adam and Eve got themselves into in the Garden of Eden, and he said something to the effect that all us humans are just trying to make our way back to the Garden. There was something in the way he said it that rubbed me raw.
Adam and Eve didn't put that apple tree in the Garden, the snake neither. And if it was God who laid out the plans for the place, then he must have had a reason, and the only thing I could think of was that he didn't want people sitting on their ass all the time living on nuts and fruits. Why else would he put the best fruit tree right smack dab in the middle of the place and then tell people not to eat the fruit. If he really wanted them not to eat it, he could've hid it in the darkest corner of the Garden providing it had one.
Ever one was calling Oklahoma the Dust Bowl and were always going on about how bad the situation was there. It wasn't always that way though. It was good country most of the time, a little humid at times, but still a good place.
It seemed to me that the dust, the dirt and the dark gray skies were like a thick membrane that separated the past from the future. Oklahoma was always hard country; don't get me wrong, but it was green and beautiful at the same time. There were lots of animals to hunt and raise, lots of water, and the ground was rich and bountiful.
There were plenty of rosy cheeked girls and lots of good people too, funny people with weird traits and strange ways of thinking. That's the way it's supposed to be, otherwise life would be boring.
Then the weather turned bad, the winds started to blow, and the bankers started clamoring for their money, and all the bad habits of the farmers were exposed for all the world to see. Ever body else saw it as a disaster of Biblical proportions. I did too at first, but once I got out on the road I started to to believe that it was God's way of saying, "Quit worrying about Oklahoma; the place is in good hands. It'll eventually make out fine, but I really need some of you folks to head out west."
If Guinnie and Stewie hadn't died, I woulda growed into a old fat-assed farmer and one day woulda died in the same bed and room as my Pa. Way I saw it, God wanted other things for me. I don't know if I had crafted this way of thinking to justify leaving my past behind me, or the bitterness of the loss and the pain had crafted it to justify me.
The one thing I knew was that I wasn't hankering to go back to the Garden anytime real soon. I had just left and there were way too many damned snakes there at the moment and way too many bad memories of Pa. I talked to Thurman about it later, and he said, "Hell no, why would I want to go back there. Remember, I played the Prodigal Son there once, and all I got out of it was watching Mama die of a broken heart."
"Well, you made her last years a lot easier, and you got your dumb-assed brother out of Oklahoma. You should be some satisfied on both accounts."
He thought it over some before saying, " Yes, I guess I did. I learned a big lesson too. Most folks spend they whole life trying to be happy, and I understand that smiles and laughter are kind of rare in this world. Those kind of memories need to be treasured and stored, but the satisfaction that comes from doing what you needed to be doing is the real object of life not eating grapes and sitting on your ass being happy all the time. "
I was amazed, "Damn, Thurm, that shit was profound. Maybe you ought to take that preacher's place. .... back to the Garden my ass. Something tells me that lil sumbitch never worked in dirt or had a Pa like ours."
"I dunno, the way he talks about his God, sounds a lot like Pa."
My way of thinking meant I kept my eyes on the ground looking for snakes. I read somewhere that was how us humans developed. It meant that I kept eyes off the skies and distant horizons a lot, probably too much, but it was necessary for the time being I guess.
Them snakes showed up too. They always do. At first, they were hard to see because these here were California snakes and were well adapted to their surroundings.
The first one was named Colton Welles, Uncle Bill's ne'er-do-well son by his first wife. He had spent the last five years in the state penitentiary for armed robbery. He had just finished his sentence and returned to Corcoran expecting to be welcomed home with open arms. He wasn't. Uncle Bill didn't even show up at the bus station to pick him up. Colton just showed up at their doorstep one day.
Colton was tall and gaunt looking. He had a hard look and two dark eyes that look like smoldering shotgun pellets. His head was shaved, and he had couple days dark growth of it coming back. His rumpled, blue work shirt was sleeveless, and he had a tattoo of a rattlesnake wrapped around a tree limb on his left bicep and word MOM written in blue ink on his right forearm. He was also missing a couple of teeth on the top right side of his mouth.
Aunt Jean told me later that Colton had it all worked out in his head that he was going to live in the house where Thurman and I were staying. She said he got angry when Uncle Bill put the kibosh to that plans. She did call around and got him a small cabin in a labor camp on the other side of town, and Uncle Bill called in a favor and got him a job a loading sacks on seed drilling crew.
They had us over to dinner that night and Colton was there. We was eating chicken and mashed taters when he up and asked Uncle Bill what Thurman was doing for a living, and Uncle Bill told him. Then he asked what I was doing, and Uncle Bill told him.
His eyes flashed with anger, his face turned bright red and he threw down his fork, "What the hell, Pa. I'm a mechanic too. I learned how to work on engines on the inside. I'm a damn good mechanic too. Why I gotta load seed for? And this here dude, he'a cutting meat! Why I got to live in a one shack when my daddy owns a two bedroom house that ain't even being used."
My Uncle Bill didn't bat an eye. His face didn't get red or nothing. He calmly stated, " Colton, you better mind your damned manners in this house. The house I own is being used. My nephews are living there. These boys came by their jobs honest. You think I would just hand over property to you after what you stole from me. You even took money out of Jean's purse remember. And how you expect me to set you up in a good job after all the stuff you done. Hell, most the people in this town are related to or know all the people you done wrong to. You got two choices. One, you can work it off in time and learn that there's a price to pay for everything bad that you do in this world. Or, two, you can go back doing what you were doing fore you got locked up. I don't suspect the state'd mind putting you up for a few more years."
You could tell at first his daddy's answer made him angrier, but Colton quickly sized up the situation and calmed down, or at least, pretended to. He sat back down in his chair, "Sure Pop, you're right. I knowed I got some rehabilitating to do. Sorry, boys. No offense. I guess I just dreamed about the way things were going to be so long, I fooled myself into thinking everything would be just waiting for me where I left off . . . . Mama Jean this here gravy is the best thing I et in five years, can I have some more."
He wasn't fooling no one at the table, not even himself. To a person we knew that Colton Welles was going to cause trouble.
Strangely enough, Thurman didn't even talk about what happened at dinner. We'd been around too many people like Colton to let his shit bother us. Thurman had told a lot of stories about all the carnies he had met when he ran away. Some of them, he held up as the cream of the crop, but some of them were the worse dregs that society had to offer.
That night he wanted to talk about Sersie, so I let him. I asked him though, "It's plain to me that you loved that girl. I saw how happy you was that night in Reno when you finally met up with her. The question I got to ask is why the fuck didn't you marry her when you had the chance?"
He looked at me and laughed, "Damned, Billy John, I thought you knew. I asked her, begged her actually, and she wouldn't have me."
"You never said nothing about that, how was I supposed to know. I thought you never asked her. Hell, I thought she was crazy about you."
He winced a little at the question and sighed before answering, "She loved me as much as she was capable of loving another human being, that's why she said no. She knew that she'd hurt me bad sooner or later, so, in a way, she was trying to protect me."
That got my curiosity up, but I was puzzled too, "Protect you? By breaking your damn heart?"
He laughed again, "I knowed it sounds crazy, but it was true. Hell, Junior, Sersie wasn't human, she was more like a force of nature. You just don't up and put a wedding ring on a storm wind or try to domesticate a lighting bolt. I woulda died in the trying." He paused and thought about what he had said, then chuckled, " Tell me you didn't have lustful thoughts about her too."
I tried to lie, "Naw.."
"Well, maybe once or twice.."
Thurman's laughter sounded crazier this time, " Man, she had those green eyes, and those ruby lips...." He eyes rolled back, and he went back in time to find some more words to explain her, " She told me once that her own daddy started messin with her when she was twelve years old, and that when she was fifteen her daddy, her Uncle John, and her cousin Fred got in a damn knock down brawl fighting over who was gonna sleep with her that night. Said they used to use her like that for quite a spell till she ran away..
Sersie was real sweet though once you got by all the needles and the thorns. Trouble was they kept growing right back. I think she loved me more anyone in the whole damn world but never trusted me completely. If God hisself had come down and promised her happiness, she would have gave him the side-eye."
"I don't understand how come her mom didn't put a stop to that kind of stuff."
"Hell, her daddy had beat her mama to frazzle a time or two. She killed herself if you remember. Told Sersie she was gonna do it too. Swallowed a bunch of rat poison."
I thought about it a while, "You know, iffn I was Sersie, I think I would have killed her dad."
Thurman laughed that strange laugh again, "What makes you think she didn't?"
"Sersie Miller's dead! And it's my fault."
Thurman arrived home from his job as a mechanic for Wellbos Farms and blurted the words out as soon as he walked through the front door. His eyes were crazy looking and his hair was ever where as if he'd been pulling it out with his fingers.
He normally cleaned up good after work and usually came home looking kind of neat despite the hours of working up to his elbows in grease and oil. His blue work shirt was untucked and his sleeves were still rolled up. There was a grease mark still on his forehead, something that wouldn't a happened normally.
"What happened?" I asked him. I had just gotten home myself. I was working at Anderson's Grocery Store as a butcher. My Aunt Jean's cousin Joe was head butcher there and took me on as a trainee as a favor. I half expected Thurman to say that her ex-husband had killed her because of her dalliance with Thurman in Reno.
" A drunk ran a stop sign and hit the car she was in. Sersie and her Uncle Dave died just outside of Ft. Sumner, New Mexico."
"Well, I don't see how you fit in considering she was heading back to Oklahoma to get back with her husband."
He repeated, "She was killed just outside of Fort Sumner. I told her all about our trip to Fort Sumner to see where Billy the Kid was killed. She must have told her Uncle about it, and he must have decided he wanted to see it too."
" And you know this how? Hell, Thurman it could just have been some random event that put them there."
"Seems unlikely. I just saw her in Reno 'member. There was no other reason for her to be near Fort Sumner."
I had just opened a cold beer. To give myself time to think, I went and got Thurman one out of the icebox, opened it with the opener mounted on the side of the counter, and handed it to him. He looked a question at it then took it.
" Thurm there's a lot of shit that life throws out at a person in a normal lifetime. Wouldn't you agree?"
He drank a big gulp of beer, " What's that got to do with anything?"
"It just seems strange to me, that a person would go out of his way to lay claim to all the random shit that's doesn't even seem to be aimed in his direction."
"How else would you explain it?"
"I'd say they went to visit someone they knew and got in a wreck and died."
Why he was so disappointed in me, I didn't understand. He looked at me strangely, finished his beer and went a sat outside on the porch. He took the empty beer bottle and placed it down next to him.
"You don't understand squat about the way the world works, Junior."
"I know that if you took the credit for ever sumbitch that died after coming in contact with you, you'd have to be the Grim Reaper his on damn self."
"Still, if I hadn't said nothing, she might still be alive."
"Maybe so, but I do got a grip on the fact that you didn't have nothing to do with her getting in that car wreck. Now, if she had come with us and got into a wreck, then maybe your driving skills, or lack thereof, might have had something to do with it. . . .. She made her own decisions, Thurm. She always did."
That final statement seem to give him some peace; he calmed down some, but it wasn't complete. After a moment of thinking, he said, " What Daddy did to her that day in Church might have led to her being on that road."
I knowed he had a serious soft spot for Sersie, but this shit was getting out of hand and was starting to annoy me, "You mean the day Pa try to sacrifice you to Jesus? Damn, Thurm. Ever one in that church knew that girl was snaky wild; that's how she came to be naked in that barn with you that day. No one needed Pa pointing it out to them. Hell, did you forget the rumor that she had the Preacher stealing money out of the collection plates trying to get her to elope with him?"
After a while thinking about it, he muttered, "Maybe, it wuhna my fault after all."
I just nodded and answered, "Prolly not," and went and got him another beer.
We had gotten our own place. It was a small two bedroom house owned by Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill. It was something of a luxury because so many families coming west were doubling up in small shacks or even living in tents on the outskirts of town.
We got lucky with our jobs too. Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill had came out to California early and were pretty well established by the time we followed. They'd helped a lot of our family and friends relocate and knew a lot of people. It sure paid off for Thurman and me.
Thurman was a good mechanic, another skill he had picked up as a carnie. It just so happened that the man who had lived in Aunt Jean's rental house was the butcher that I replaced. His wife's father had passed away back in Arkansas and owned a small farm near Mountain View. They went back to take possession of it.
We had it pretty good all things considered. We both knew a lot of people who didn't. Working at the grocery I would see them come in and count their pennies in front of the meat counter trying to figure out how much bologna or ground beef they could buy. I'd see some of them in the early morning when I arrived to get things ready for the day.
Groups of men and women would cluster in the parking lot next door hoping to pick up rides to the fields, or wait to see if anyone would come by needing someone for a day's work or two. A lot of time, they would be standing there hours for nothing watching as truck after truck drove out of the lot and turned south on Dairy Avenue and headed south towards the farms that surrounded Corcoran. Mr. Anderson put fresh pots of coffee out for them ever morning. He didn't have to do that. Sometimes his wife would bake bread all night and put it out there too.
One day, I went outside to dump the trash cans and saw a guy we knew as Elbert Lawson slumped down against a telephone pole. People were so busy attending to their own business that they hadn't even noticed he had died.
Elbert was about six feet two and weighed near four hunnerd pounds. He'd be out there ever morning trying to hustle up a ride. A lot of people wouldn't take him because he was so big. A lot of us felt sorry him because he was a lot older and all alone. Mr. Anderson not only gave me time off to attend the funeral, he went with me. There were only four of us there. Mr. Anderson asked me if I knew a hymn that we could sing. The only one I could think of was "This World is Not My Home". He knew it too, so we sang it and a couple of the others joined in.
While I sang, I thought of Guinnie's hasty burial. I had sang the hymn then, or tried to, but Thurman didn't join in though. He was too impatient to get the hell out of Oklahoma. I felt real bad for Elbert. We couldn't notify anyone of his passing cos none of us knew anything about him except he hung round the store in the morning trying to hustle up a ride. Mrs. Jennings, his landlady, said there wasn't nothing in his room but some clothes, a hairbrush, and picture of him wearing prison clothes. She was a habitual liar though.
After eating dinner at Mrs. Jones's Cafe on main street, Thurman and I mosied next door to get a drink at Chickadee's Poker Emporium. We nodded to my Uncle Bill who was sitting at a table in the corner when we walked in.
We was three beers into the night when Thurman proposed a toast to Sersie Miller. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't expecting it. I fished in my pocket, drew out fifty cents and paid the barkeep for a couple of shots of Three Roses bourbon, you would never would mistake it for the shit they made in Kentucky, but it was what they had, so we did what our kinfolks had done for untold generations and made do.
Thurman hoisted his glass, muttered," The wildest, sexiest, craziest woman I ever knew," tossed it back, and placed his glass down gently on the bar.
I followed suit after saying, "May she find more peace in heaven then she ever found in this here world."
After a minute Thurman asked me, "You think that God would have mercy on someone like Sersie, Junior? I mean knowing ever thing she done and all."
I thought about it some before I answered, "You know, Thurm, I do. I really do. He'd know the root causes of why she acted the way she did. Sides, if he up and barred ever woman who tempted a preacher to short change a collection plate, the place'd be kinda boring."
That brought out a hint of a smile.
"Tell me. You honestly think she found her own way to that road outside of Fort Sumner?"
This time I didn't hesitate, "I do, Thurman. I do."
I woke up early in the morning because I had a crick in my neck. I sat up and rubbed on it a while. I held the top of my head with one hand and turned my neck ever which way tryna get it loose.
When I laid back down, I lay on my back and was surprised at how much better it felt. It was then I remembered that I had been sleeping on my side ever since Mama died four years ago. For some reason, after she died, I couldn't sleep on my back without thinking I couldn't breathe.
I lost a lot sleep because of it and eventually had to go to see Doc Anderson who gave me some sleeping medicine and told me to sleep on my side. I was still taking the medicine whenever I got worried although Guinnie kept telling me not too. She even got Thurman on me about it. I took the last of it before I got in the truck to leave. Thurman tossed the empty brown bottle in the flames of the cabin.
Laying on my back for a change felt damn good. I took the bottom of my left foot and placed it on the calf muscle of my right leg. It was something I had done in childhood whenever I felt anxious about sleeping. I forgotten all about that I even done it.
Something relaxed in me. I thought it might be all the pent up energy in my body finally getting the freedom to flow. On the way to California, Thurman had been telling me about some of the stuff that them people over on China side of the world thought about things. He said that sometimes they would sit on the ground and try to control their breathing in order to let the energy flow freely around their body.
I told him that if most of the people I knew had to think about their breathing, they would probably forget how and die. He was on a roll talking about it though and didn't much like my stab at humor. When he ignored it, I repeated it.
"I said if most of the people I know had to think about their breathing, they would die."
"I heard you the first time; I didn't think it was particularly funny."
"You a lie. You know that shit was funny. You just mad cause I made a joke while you was talking serious."
"As usual you was making light of a serious subject."
"Well tell me, what's so damn hard about breathing? Every idiot I know can do it."
" Then why you still side sleeping for; think I done forgot that? Sides, it wasn't just about just breathing. It was about figuring out how control your breathing in order to free your mind up of all the clutter ."
"Now ya saying my mind is cluttered?"
"Naw, what I'm saying is you full of shit." He clammed up after saying that and didn't say nothing else for an hour or two.
I had to admit though, that turning over flat on my back in the bed did something good. And if I had to admit that, then I had to admit that maybe Thurman and them Asian people were on to something. I thought it could have been the energy getting loose inside me and maybe taking out some of that clutter that Thurman had been talking about.
I also had to admit that I had been moping around in a storm cloud ever since Mama took sick. After she died, Papa didn't have much use for this here world no how. Hell, he didn't have any friends to speak of, never did, and I suspect he was pretty lonely. Giving Mama and us boys hell had been his whole life for the better part of forty years. With Mama gone, and Thurman and I grown too big to take his sass, he might just have ran out of a reason to live.
He died barely a year later. Then Stewie, and then Guinnie. The once beautiful land of Oklahoma suddenly turned Egyptian with plague after plague being visited upon my family. I most surely learned to understand all the anger, hopelessness, sorrow, and rage of them Bible times when dead frogs, blood, locusts, and the Angel of Death swept across the Nile lands.
After we had stayed in Sacramento a couple of days and thought that we had saw whatever we need to see there, Thurman and I had driven over toward the coast to get ourselves a look-see at the Pacific Ocean. We had heard so much about it when we were young we really didn't know what to expect. Aunt Jean had even written Mama once telling her that the sunsets over the ocean must have been the reason that God had created the world and everything in it.
We found our self a place to park on cliff overlooking the ocean near a spot named Half Moon Bay. While we were looking at it, Thurman couldn't contain hisself and started prattling on about this feller named Francis Drake. Oh yeah, make that, SIR Francis Drake. Thurm sure did put a lot of faith in that Sir at the beginning of his name. Said it was given to him by Queen Elizabeth herself.
But the news only made me mad, "Goddamn it Thurman. We are standing here looking at the most awe inspiring thing I probably ever seen, and you keep goin on about some English feller with a girl's name. You amaze me some times. Normally, it's you staring all googly eyed at something like this." The sun was starting to sink out over the ocean and I was starting to realize that Aunt Jean's letter to Mama didn't do the scene justice. The sun setting was turning the sky into all kinds of purty colors I had never seen before. Sunsets in Oklahoma were pretty too, but this here was wondrous beyond words to describe. I pointed out toward the beautiful horizon.
Needless to say, Thurman got pissed, "That right? I bet you rank it right up there Hilda Spring's ass? I'm surprised you didn't say it's just a big bunch of water." He turned red. I understood that he was just embarrassed that I had cut him off on that Drake guy. " Tell me Mr. Most Inspiring Thing I Ever Did See what does it make you think about?"
I thought about it for a minute, but couldn't come up with a reply. We had backed the truck right up against edge of small cliff. The tailgate was down, and we were sitting on it on one of Mama's quilts, eating salted crackers and cheddar cheese, and sipping on a couple of Coca-Colas. I kept looking backwards over my shoulder towards the road the whole time.
Thurman noticed and asked, "Whadda you keep looking over your shoulder for, Junior? You reminding me of Old Billy Randolph with that old crooked neck of his."
I shrugged, " I don't rightly know. I guess I'm waiting for the Pharaoh's army to show up and drag our sorry asses back kicking and screaming to Oklahoma."
Thurman was first stunned, then started to laugh but stopped before he got it out. He looked at me, quickly turned and looked out at the ocean and took a drink off his soda pop. Something about what I had said struck a chord, "Damn it, Junior. That actually made some sense in a seriously dumbass way."
I was just starting to get use to him laughing at the things I said, I was caught completely off guard by his second hand complement. I didn't know what else to say, so I said, "Whadda we do, if they show up?"
He took another sip and thought about it some more, " Well, since Moses ain't sitting here eating crackers with us, I think we'd be seriously fucked.
I nodded and tossed a piece of cracker to a seagull that was eyeing it hard. "Then let's hope they don't show up then."
We sat there till the sun went down and the sky turned black. They didn't show up that day, or the next, and we finally made our way to Uncle Bill and Aunt Jean's house where we were received with a shit load of kisses, hugs, and open arms. It was great to see family especially Aunt Jean. She had taken care of both of us once when Mama was sick, and we had formed a very strong attachment.
She had only had one baby, and it died after six months. Uncle Bill had a son by a previous marriage, but he was bad news and was always locked up somewheres. She gave Thurman and me all that extra love that she'd been saving for her own children.
She cooked us up a whopper of a home cooked meal with bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy, greens, and taters. Uncle Bill even broke out a jar of shine he'd been saving for a special occasion. After eating, we sat up talked and laughed for hours about old times. Uncle Bill had to work the next day, so he hugged us both and stumbled off to bed. Aunt Jean and us went into the kitchen, sat down, and talked real low for more than an hour more.
It all reminded me of how I didn't want to go home after Mama had gotten better. It was hard to leave all the love in that house and go back into the gloom and doom of a bitter father and mother trying her best but too weak to withstand the worst of it. I was always ashamed of that feeling because I knew how hard it was on Mama trying to protect us from Papa's random rages. I always went out of my way to try to make Mama smile at least once a day and to lighten her load whenever possible.
Watching Aunt Jean talk and laugh while she was telling us a story about how she accidentally let loose a fart in church while everybody else was praying, reminded me of my efforts to bring Mama joy and that feeling of guilt that had prompted them. I made out like I needed to get something from the other room to keep her and Thurman from seeing me cry.
Later that nigh, as we both lay in dark trying to sleep, Thurman asked me a question, "Billy, I been laying here thinking. We didn't do nothing wrong. We was victims as much of anything. Why would we have to worry that the whole of Pharaoh's army be after us?"
The power of those words hit me hard and made my chest jerk. I had felt guilty my whole damn life and never really understood why. I always figured it must have something to do with some sin or another. I rolled over to face him, ' Bible says we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
"Yeah, but a whole damn army of Egyptians?"
I thought about it, then said, " You know, we never did pay Old Man Jewell for that mule we took."
I was more than a little surprised when he answered, "That's what you think. I took that mule back to him fore we left, gave him ten dollahs, and told him it was Pinky's fault we took it in the first place."
I smiled to myself in the dark. " Hell, it might be Pinky chasing us then."
"Whew!" he put on sounding relieved, " Thadda be great. Pinky ain't got enough sense to find his way out of Oklahoma much less lead an army."
" I don't think I'd pick him up, Thurm. He looks way too damned crazy." I knew soon as the words left my mouth that Thurman was going to pick him up anyway.
The old man standing on the side of the road looked a lot like my great-uncle Bo, and that didn't reflect well on either his character or his looks. Bo was one of my momma's Arkansas uncles and an ex-con who had spent a good deal of his life incarcerated. I knew the reasons why I felt reluctant to stop were the same reasons that inclined Thurman to pull over on a solitary back road that supposedly was leading us into the small farming community of Corcoran.
We hadn't been on that road five minutes before we spotted him standing at the side of road with his right thumb raised. He was a scrawny looking, tall, thin man wearing a dirty gray jacket, a high buttoned work shirt, a shabby looking homburg hat pulled down low over his eyes, and a battered looking pair of brown boots. One pant leg was over one boot and the other was tucked into a boot. He looked like he hadn't shaved for about a week or two.
"Howdy neighbor, thanks for pulling over. Been out here since dawn, and people just been passin me by like I's carrying the plague." He opened the door, I slid over, and the dingy looking fellow jumped into the cab. He stuck out a grimy hand, "Name's Wilcox. Orville Wilcox."
When he spoke, it revealed two missing front teeth. I also noticed he had a long scar under his left eye. I shook his hand and saw that he had a small tattoo of the Stars and Bars on his right forearm.
Thurm introduced us both, "I'm Thurman Jackson and this here's my brother BJ, or Billy John. "Where ya headed?"
"Going to this here town up the road a piece called Corcoran to see my Uncle Jed. I just got out the pen in Oklahoma, both my parents died while I was locked up, and I been hitchen rides out here ever since."
"Your uncle named Wilcox too?" Thurman asked.
" Yep; came out here from Marmaduke a couple years ago. Said he could get me a job ginning cotton."
"If your aunt's name is Belinda, I think I know ya uncle."
The man beamed, "That's her, my aunt Belinda Jean. She killed a man a bar fight once. You know her?"
Thurman answered excitedly, "Hell yeah, I know her. She was workin the ring game game for us when I was with the carnival. Ain't that somethin." Thurman got so excited about the coincidental meeting, that he didn't even notice the gun that Wilcox drawn out of his jacket.
Thurm was still talking when he turned and saw it. Things suddenly went silent.
"Lookie here boys. We don't need no more trouble than it needs to be. I can't go showing up at my uncle's door step like a bum. If you just hand me over what cash you got on ya, we'll call it all square and no one gets hurt."
Thurman looked at me and then at Wilcox; I looked at him then at Wilcox, then back at Thurman. We both started laughing. Wilcox kept trying to scowl and act all menacing and shit, but it wasn't having any effect on either of us.
Thurman was trying to get his laughter under control, " What kind of damn idiot comes out west, to rob a couple of broke ass Okies? Hell, you'd got out a week earlier, you could've robbed us in Adair."
That made me laugh even harder, and it was minute before I could add in my two bits, "What was you locked up for in Oklahoma, stealing church plates?"
Me and Thurman were laughing so hard Thurm had to pull over to keep from wrecking the truck. Wilcox was turning redder and redder and getting madder and madder and kept threatening to shoot us both.
Thurman, still laughing, told him, "That damn gun of yours looks older than dirt, and it probably ain't even got no bullets in it."
"Yessiree," I added, "You shoulda stuck up somebody for some bullets for you started robbing perfect strangers."
"It does too have some God-damn bullets!"he screamed. Then Wilcox turned the gun toward his face to look at the chamber before he pulled the trigger. There was a flash of fire, some blue smoke, and an explosion that blew a small round hole in the roof of the truck. While Wilcox was sitting there dumbfounded by the explosion, Thurman reached over and wrenched the gun out of his hands.
He pointed it toward Wilcox and spat, "Get your ass out this truck, asshole!"
Wilcox was still so shocked by the turn of events that he didn't budge an inch, but his face twisted up into the saddest looking image of human being that I had ever seen, and he started crying.
"I'm sorry fellas. I'm in desperate means. You know Belinda. She ain't gonna give me nothing but shit when I get there. I needed some money to buy her a bottle of gin to soften her up some, so she would let me stay till I got my feet under me."
Thurman was mad, "Ever body out here's desperate, Orville. You don't leave everthing you own come 1300 miles lessen you're desperate."
Wilcox persisted, "Please, Thurman, at least give me a ride the rest of the way. My damn feet are killing me, and I ain't et anything in three days."
Thurman glared at him for a minute before relenting, " Give him one of them biscuits we saved from breakfast, Billy." After I dug the biscuit out of the glove box and handed it to Wilcox, he added, " Only reason I picked you up was I felt sorry for ya. I knew you was a felon the moment I laid eyes on you. I worked with enough ex-cons during my days with the carnival to know how hard they got it."
Wilcox gobbled the biscuit down in one bite. I took out the whiskey flask I had bought in a souvenir store in Reno and handed it to him. He took a swallow, looked at me pleading, and I nodded, so he drank it down. He wiped his lips with his jacket sleeve and handed the flask back to me.
"I knowed I'm pitiful boys, and I wasn't planning on robbing no Okies, not lessen I had to.'
"Fuck that! Quit trying to steal off honest people, Orville. Ever body got it hard out here. Hell, we been on the road less than a month, and they already tried to rob us three times. That shit just makes it hard on people."
The outburst shut Wilcox up. He rode in silence the rest of the way staring silently out the window. Every now and then I would hear him sniffle and wipe something out of his eye.
We dropped him off at his uncle's house on a street on the outskirts of town but not before stopping at a small store and buying him a pint of gin. Thurman amazed me that way. He would have shot the fool before and not thought twice about it, but his heart was also as soft as a cloud at the same time.
As we pulled away from the front of Wilcox's uncle's house, I asked, " How did you know he wouldn't shoot us?"
Thurman almost started to laughing again, "I didn't. I couldn't stop laughing at the craziness of it all."
We both laughed at his answer, then I asked, "You said that people have tried to rob us three times. Counting Wilcox, I know of two times. You know something I don't know?"
He shifted gears then looked over at me, " Sersie tried to snake my billfold in Reno. When I grabbed her hand, she pulled out a knife on me."
" You didn't tell me this?"
"Hell, it wasn't your billfold. Sides, you didn't mention that family trying to rob you and that old man trying to sodomize you till we was in clear out of New Mexico."
He was right. I thought about it a minute then retorted, " Wasn't your butt."
Thurman laughed louder and harder than I had ever heard another human being laugh. The closer we got to where we were going, the easier it seemed to evoke a sense of humor in someone who had never had much reason to laugh before.
We had finally reached our destination, and while the episode with Wilcox was kinda of an ominous start to our new beginning, it, at least, looked like we would share some laughter in whatever that beginning turned out to be. For the moment, that was enough, that was plenty.
I looked over at Thurman. He was still smiling.
"This here map they sent says Uncle Bill's house is about a mile straight this road."
Thurman nodded and shifted gears.
Thurman and I stopped and spent the night in Hanford, a farming community on the way down to where we were going. Corcoran, the town where we were headed was only eighteen miles south, so I asked Thurman why we just didn't keep on going.
He grabbed his suitcase out of the back of the truck and tossed it down on the sidewalk in front of a large, bare wooden building with a sign in the front window that said in big, bold, red letters
We do Yur laundry by hand
I took one look at the sign and said, "I don't know, Thurm. Seems like we still might be in Oklahoma."
He shook his and replied, "Don't know about that. Whoever made this sign spelled laundry the right way. Besides it wouldn't do to go start off a new life by rolling into town in the middle of the day."
It took me more than a second to realize that he was answering my first question on the tail end of another idea.
The inside of the laundry room where the washing took place was bare wood too. I had been in California the better part of a week, and I saw a lot of unpainted wood. Made me wonder if there was a shortage of paint, if the people were too lazy or busy to paint, or if they just had an aversion to painted wood.
It did remind me of home in that regard cept people back home generally painted something once and called it good. I guess they figured they had made a go of it and felt that if the wind and rain reclaimed it that it was all part of the natural cycle.
The older looking Chinese lady wearing a light blue smock asked me a question, "You want starch?" I looked and she was holding up a bundle of my underwear.
I was half in the room and still half in Oklahoma evaluating the lack of paint on barns when she asked, so I didn't answer.
Thurman answered for me, "That's his undergarments, Ma'am. He don't like his stiff things in his undergarments ."
The woman said for us to come back in a few hours, so we left. The country kind of reminded me Oklahoma with lots of fields and trees. We were driving out west of town seemingly heading nowhere in particular, so I asked " OK, now I get it. Who shot who here, or what famous outlaw got hung from that tree." I pointed out the window at a random tree."
"Well, funny you should ask. That area where that laundry we was at was located where the Chinese leader Sun Yat Sen came to California on a fundraising tour. He stayed four days if I remember right."
"Thurm, I ain't got a fucking clue who that be. I have hard enough keeping up with us Mericans, I ain't got no room in my day to remember the Chinee or what they might have did. I do know of Confucius though. "
"He's the boss of China."
"So, we are driving out to see the place where this Sun Yat was born or what?"
"No, he was born in China; he only came here to raise money. We are driving out to see a place where a famous shooting took place."
I decided to just shut up reckoning it would save me the trouble of thinking, and that he would explain shit once we got where we were going. I don't know where he got all of his facts, all he ever read was the newspaper as far I knowed, but there were alot of times that I wished he keep more of them to own damn self instead of spraying them out like machine gun bullets.
Well, let me take that back. He never did spit em out all forceful like, but would just let them roll out like water rolling down the side of a mountain in a small stream at first, but if you didn't check it it right away, it would pick up momentum and turn into a river.
Sometimes I would just let him go like when we were driving across the flat, dusty, boring ass plains of West Texas. Listening to him talk then helped fill the time. Besides, it was easier to listen to him tell me about the Civil War battles that our folks had been involved in than to think about the graves up on that hill back home.
Other times, I'd try to turn the course of the conversation in as many ways as possible. He'd start out talking about the Kings and Queens of Europe and before too long we'd be arguing over the merits of different flavors of chewing gum. Even then, he would amaze me with what he knew and how seamlessly he could keep the water flowing downhill while it took everything I had to try and damn the flow.
After about fifteen minutes of driving, we finally arrived a place in country that looked like a million other places I knew; it look liked any damn field in the whole damn world, a whole big bunch of nothing. A field, a plain ass field with some trees around it. There was a slight depression to the north of where we stood that looked like it might have held water at some point.
Thurman jumped out of the truck and stretched his legs out. He was wearing his levis and blue work shirt and the flat brimmed cowboy hat that he had bought in Lincoln, New Mexico. He then walked a few steps out into the field, bent down a pulled a stalk of grass out of the ground and stood back up with his eyes searching the surroundings for something. I couldn't see nothing worth looking at, so I was slow to get out of the truck.
Someone had nailed a handmade sign to a tree by the side of the road. It read,
Mussle Slew Trajedy -
7 men lost there lifes here on May, 11, 1880,
In a disspute over land.
I immediately thought that this sign once again reflected upon the sorry state of general education in California.
It was like Thurman could read my mind, " Someone who cain't spell wrote it. Ain't no use you thinking ever body here cain't spell."
He went back to his searching, and I kicked over a rock and then bent down and dug out the top of a glass bottle that was buried in the ground. In the afternoon sun, it had looked kinda like a diamond ring. I was examining it when I asked Thurman, " Might I ask why you drug me out here in the middle of nowhere to look at a misspelled sign?'
He didn't even turn around, " Read the damn sign, Billy. Seven men were kilt here in the space of a few minutes."
I gave him a few seconds to further explain, and when he didn't, I stated rather petulantly, " Still don't see how it matters to me one way or another who killed who lessen it was me who did the killin or was on the receiving end of the killen.
Thurman kept on searching for whatever it was he was looking for, and it was a several seconds later before he replied. " I think we have firmly established the fact that you are as happy as pig in mud being the center of a very small world, and that nothing outside of that very small world holds much interest for you at all."
I knew he was going to go on a bit, so I interrupted, " I loved my wife and child. I like eating regular and having a drink at the end of the day and a good cuppa coffee at the beginning along with some bacon, eggs, and toast. I liked Oklahoma, mythology and books. I like knowing that Jesus died for my sins. I like reading about the Greeks and them stories. So excuse me if I appear to be uninterested as I see very few Greek mythological heroes running around these parts."
The outburst caught him by surprise. He turned around to face me before he had collected his thoughts enough to continue, then said, " But that's it! The fucking point I been trying a make ever since we left Oklahoma. Maybe you cain't see them, but them myths are here. So, are the heroes and their stories. They are everwhere we've been."
His face transformed as he continued. I don't know if was the sun shining through a gray cloud or what, but it seemed like his face was glowing.
"Seven men died here on day in a space of minutes. They were actin out a drama as old as human beings. It was like the story of Cain and Able except told with bullets." He could see I wasn't getting it, and so he slowed down some, Myths ain't no child stories. They are about the big, big moments in life masquerading as small things. What happened to you and your family was a myth; us being on this journey too. You just too damned dumb to see it.
You just rode across this country looking out the window and seeing nothing but a bunch of mountains, trees and shit. It's a bigger world than that and big things going on in it ever single fucking day."
" Bigger than Hilda Springs's ass?"
Whatever point he was about to make got stuck in mid-air. He had right index finger raised over his head like a Baptist preacher. He lowered it slowly, shook his head sadly, and spoke, "God damned, Billy John you are a dumbass."
"I was just grasping at things trying to come up with a comparison. You know trying to put it all into some perspective. You were talking about big things, and the biggest thing I could come up with was Hilda's ass. Woman had a humongous rear."
He quit talking for a bit and just wandered further out into the field. I didn't tell him so, but his words had moved me. When he had said that thing about life and myth being the same, I had felt the ground neath my feet move. I knew it was a big moment in a way, at least for me, but that feeling of the ground moving was kind of unpleasant, so I made a joke.
On the way back to town, Thurman was engrossed in whatever it was he was thinking about. We came to an intersection a couple of miles down the road before he spoke again, " I seen her ass you know?"
My jaw dropped, "Hilda Springs?"
"Yeah, when I about twelve, I was going fishing down at one of the feeders into Mud Creek one day, and as I was walking, I heard some noises in the bushes. When I went to investigate, I snuck up behind some bushes where there was this small clearing. I pulled some of the bushes aside, and I saw Hilda squattin stark neked on top of her dad's farm hand." He was acting out the story as he told it, "From the back, it looked like it was some gigantic, white, fleshy, space creature type of beast eating him alive."
"What was he doing?"
" He seemed to being enjoying hisself. Ever so often, I'd hear him say, 'Oh, God! Oh, God.'"
I thought about it for a bit then answered, " Only goes to prove I was right."
His eyes turned puzzled, "Right? About what?"
"Bout the size of her ass being a good comparison for all the big shit you was goin on about."
He was even more puzzled, " How the hell you figure that?"
" Well, it must have been pretty substantial if it had Moses evoking the Deity."
He didn't hesitate before answering " He coulda just been a Holy Roller. Them sumbitches get that excited over a blister."
We drove back to get the laundry and then stopped downtown at a cafe to eat. When we got out the truck in front of the cafe, Thurman said, " I guess we'll roll into Corcoran first thing in the morning."
When I didn't answer him, he added, "I thought, the trip would be an educational one, and you'd learn something. I guess that I was wrong on that account."
"Oh, I wouldn't be so quick to say that. I got a couple things out of it alright."
"Yeah, I got here. I'm in California, and I also got an image of Hilda Springs's ass gobbling up old Moses Moore that I probably ain't never going get shed of."
"Well, there ya go, another myth."
When night time falls on a border town
the wheels of time keep spinning round There's always a loss when the sun goes down
on the days that we remember
We found Big PaPa sitting by the side of the road that led into Maisie. It was a gray December day right before Christmas. He was wearing a bright yellow raincoat and sitting in a cheaply made kitchen chair. He had his fishing pole pointed out over the road with no hook on the end of his line.
When Mama and I approached him he looked up at me with dull surprise as if I had woken him from a troubled dream.
Mama didn't say anything. She was crying without shedding a tear or making a noise. Crying in perfect silence.
Always the curious one, I was compelled to ask, "Grandpa, you ain't got no hook at the enda ya line. How you spect to catch a fish?"
By that time he had quit shaving regularly, a thing that I believed that Grandpas always did, and the white stubble of a three day growth lined his face and poked out of the creases and the valleys of his wrinkled face. His big blue eyes, always bright and piercing before, were rheumy and half veiled.
He tried to answer my question twice but stopped both times. Then, while I helped into the cab of the truck, he turned his head and stared into my eyes. "One these days, Junior. You'll understand. One these days, it'll all be cleah."
The road home was kind of quiet. Mama laid her head against her PaPa's shoulder and rocked back and forth. His eyes were pointing out the cracked windshield, but he was somewheres else altogether. I tried my best to not say anything else, but time got the best of me.
"What kind of fish were you tryna to catch, PaPa."
It brought him back inside the truck, and, after a bit, he answered me with a question of his own, "Who said I was tryna to catch a fish? Don't ya think I knowed enough to put a hook on that line if I was tryna catch a fish?"
That made me laugh. He laughed too then spoke again, " We'll both laugh now, Junior, but you'll be cryin when ya finely understand." We rode in silence again till I made the turn toward home, and he burst out into the middle of a hymn,
"On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise, And the glory of His resurrection share
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there."
He sang the lines with such power and force that Mama and I felt compelled to join in on the chorus, and I forgot to even ask him about the raincoat. We were still singing when we turned into the driveway and saw Daddy standing on the porch with a coffee cup in one hand staring balefully in our direction.
"You're fishing with Grandpa again, Junior," That what Thurman always said when he caught me daydreaming. We were eating breakfast at an old hotel somewheres in the Gold Country of California. Thurman said that General Grant and Mark Twain had eaten there before us.
I snapped out of my reverie, "So what if I was? You was reading the paper, so I don't know which of was doing the most to advance the general cause of knowledge in this world."
"I just don't know why you don't give that shit a rest. Big PaPa was out his damn mind when he said that to you. Hell, he wasn't even big by then. Looked more like scarecrow in overalls than a full growed man."
We had finally left Reno two days before. Thurmond and Sersie Miller had spent three nights together at her motel before she decided to go chasing back to Oklahoma after the husband she had just divorced. Thurman didn't seem to be upset about it though; he just mumbled something about tying up loose ends.
"He wasn't crazy when he said it, Thurm. It's the only truthful thing he said in those grim weeks fo he died. Said I'd understand it all someday. That kinda shit stays with ya, lingers like an old beans and cornbread fart."
He laughed, I had finally made my stoneface brother laugh at loud. He quickly took it back though before answering, "Iffn I was you I wouldn't linger on it no how. I would wait up till the day it became clear, and I'd slap myself upside the head and say 'Oh, shit," but I wouldn't let it trouble me before then nohow."
"That's the difference between the two of us, Thurm. You'd wait right till the last moment and slap ya head. Me, I don't want end up sitting in a chair wearing a yeller raincoat and tryna to catch a fish out a blacktopped road. Least not iffn I can help it."
A few minutes later, I caught him doing some day dreaming of his own, and I called him on it.
"I was just thinking that maybe General Grant and Sam Clemens sat at this very table and broke bread. I knowed they were good friends, but I wonder what they had to talk about."
I let him chew on that thought for a bit longer, then asked, "Where to now?"
He stood up and dusted the bread crumbs from off his blue checkered shirt before he answered, then said, " I guess it's time to go find us a new home, Junior. Tulare or bust."
I liked the way he said it, so I stood up too and clapped my hands together, "Hell yeah, let's go find out if these transplanted Okies any crazier than them fuckers we left behind us. Our forebearers were called Sooners, I guess they'll just haveta call us Sooner or Laters."
Thurman laughed again. This time he was still laughing as he started up the truck.
"I don't care for Jesus personally, and I especially can't stand Christians," recently said some people who I hold fairly dear over some cheesecake and coffee.
"And as the sunset came to meet