" 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.