My cousin Jubal kicked me out after a week and I had to hitchhike back to Carolina to face Mama, hat in hand. It took me all day to get up to Shreveport, but then I caught a break. A rusty Datsun pickup rolled up and I threw my backpack in the bed on top of a raft of large white trash bags.
“Careful of my stuff!”
We rattled and shook up to about the speed of a one-car funeral procession.
“Gotta go slow. Got no choice.”
“I ain’t in no hurry.”
“Where you headed?”
“Goin’ home. Carolina. How ‘bout you?”
“Goin’ to Hotlanta!”
I did the math in my head. Some 500 miles away and only three hours from Mama’s front porch made it one of the longest rides I’d ever scored. I tried not to sound too happy. It wasn’t difficult.
“That oughta help.”
You don’t look much at the people you ride with – you’re both facing the same way – but from the quick anti-psycho glance I took as I got in I caught late twenties, greasy cap, tinted eyeglasses, straggly stache.
We didn’t bother with names but I took to calling him Dumbass in my head after he told me a story about his bum luck.
“I passed out in my car and this lady cop comes knocking on my window; she starts giving me a hard time, acting all big, so I call her a dyke, and she busts me, for nothin!”
Back home I might have said something but on the road you learn to keep your hair under your hat.
“Yeah, man, cops suck.”
There wasn’t much else to talk about. The sun set behind us somewhere east of Monroe and a big, yellow moon rose dead ahead. We passed by Rayville, Delhi and Tallulah but you couldn’t see anything from up on the slab. As we approached the Mississippi river Dumbass shared a thought.
“There’s a little roadhouse just this side of Vicksburg I like to stop.”
“I reckon I could use a beer.”
We took the last exit in Louisiana and wound down a back lane until you could smell the rot of a thousand floods on the land around. We turned into the gravel parking lot of a place called the Mississippi Queen and took a spot toward the end of the building. It was Friday night and all the peckerwoods had flown up out of the understory to gather and strut.
The Queen wasn’t much more than a doublewide trailer perched on stilts against the moods of the river. Plank steps led up to a deck where the old sliding glass door had been converted into an entrance with plywood and tin. A single room inside with a half-wall partition down the middle, it had green outdoor carpet on the floors and bare fluorescent tubes for light. One side had a bar with wooden stools bolted to the floor and a few video poker machines along the wall. The other side had a couple pool tables and a jukebox. That’s all you need.
We ordered a couple of Buds and Dumbass starts right in on the bartender.
“Say there, sugarfoot, is it hot in here or is it just you?”
She glanced my way and I just smiled. I figured she put up with shit like this all day and as long as I didn’t say anything stupid I’d stay a biscuit ahead.
We walked into the other room and put some quarters on one of the pool tables. We took pulls from our beers and watched other people play while we waited our turn. I flirted with a girl in a Neil Young T-shirt who came up to put some more songs on the jukebox and she flirted right back.
“I dunno. You wanna pick one?”
Everyone was real friendly considering we were strangers. Some places are like that.
She walked off with a smile and our quarters came up so I turned my attention to the felt. Our opponents were a couple. The guy had his shirt tucked so I guessed it was a date. We played two games against them and acquitted ourselves reasonably well but lost both on the 8-ball, which suited me fine. If we’d won we would have had to defend the table, and I got three games in me, tops.
We went back to the bar for more beer and decided to add a Wild Turkey to the order, pleased with ourselves as if no one had ever thought to try that before. I threw a five dollar bill on the bar like it was nothing and felt like a big shot.
After three months on the road, hitchhiking from South Carolina west through Colorado, California, Oregon and Montana, I could have made that fiver last all day. Now, in a sudden reversal of fortune, I had plenty of money but almost no time – a couple hundred bucks from my week’s wages with Jubal even after he made me pay him back for room, board and tools. My plans to winter in Austin and learn the carpentry trade, then resume my travels, lay in shambles. This epic adventure, when my life could finally begin, would limp to its pathetic end sometime in the next 24 hours and I’d be right back where I started. Some joke.
The hot breath of the whiskey cut through the dust of my defeat and restored to me a measure of self-regard. When Dumbass decided to play poker, I decided to take a lap. The place had started to fill up and I squeezed between clots of folk as I worked my way into the pool room. I ran into Neil Young T-shirt again but she was standing with some surly looking dude so I kept steppin. As I passed by I heard her say, “C’mon Jimmy, it don’t mean nothin.”
I hopped out of the flow into the stag line along one wall where guys pretended to watch pool while they scouted for females in season. The fights wouldn’t start until later. I talked to a long-faced Okie on his way to New Orleans. He’d heard you could dance on the street for tips there and the tourists would give you free drinks. He’d spent his last dollar on the beer in his hand and figured he’d have to siphon gas to get the rest of the way, “but that’s OK. They’s cars everwhar.”
I wished him luck and moved along the wall until I found a hallway that led past the bathrooms and back to the bar. I took an open barstool in the corner next to an old man who neither moved nor spoke. You know how they do.
The bartender drifted back to our position to scrape the dried chili off the sides of a crock pot and I asked for another beer. Up close she looked a tired 30, with pouches under her eyes and creases in the corners of her mouth. Her jiggly mams blossomed above the rim of her tank top as a tattooed butterfly struggled to fly from the crevasse. She smiled that smile older women used to give me and I took a shot.
“Looks like everybody’s here!”
She looked over her shoulder at the crowd.
“Friday night, first of the month.”
“Full moon, too!”
She cocked an eyebrow.
I tried to salvage the line and went, “Ah-ooo,” but lost the courage of my conviction and let it die off in disgrace.
So much for my biscuit.
As I sagged, the opening strains of “Werewolves of London” came up on the jukebox. We looked toward the sound, then at each other, and both kind of laughed.
“You’re going to be alright,” she said as she went to take her next order.
The old man cleared his phlegm.
I smoked a cigarette and stewed for a minute then looked around and noticed Dumbass wasn’t anywhere in sight. I downed my beer and went outside to make sure he hadn’t ditched me. I found him in the shadow of the deck with a group of five or six local boys. They were fixin to fire up a jay so I insinuated myself into the crowd.
The leader of the group was one of those undersized, wiry types that learns to fight dirty early on. I called him Little Boss. He and Dumbass did most of the talking. I chatted more quietly with the guys closest to me, but when Little Boss wanted to make a point we all stopped to listen. Eventually, he asked us about ourselves. “How’d you boys come to be here tonight?”
Dumbass answered, “Passing through. Goin’ to Hotlanta. I always stop in here. I picked him up hitchhiking.”
Everyone looked at me.
“Goin’ home. Carolina. I like this here bar though.”
The last thing I wanted to talk about was my own sorry self.
The misdirection worked. Little Boss was reminded of a story.
“Yeah, the Queen, goddamn! You know that song by Mountain?”
He sang the next part accompanied by a little air-guitar. “‘Mississippi Queen, You know what I mean!’ That song’s about this place right here. Goddamn straight. Listen to what it says, ‘Down around Vicksburg, down Looziana way, there’s a Cajun lady called the Mis-sis-sip-pi Queen.’” He spoke the name slowly to emphasize his point.
I mirrored his solemnity, “Damn.”
About this time a ripe young girl, maybe 19, maybe 14, bounced up and hung out for a minute. Barely contained by her Daisy Mae blouse, her cutoffs ran so high upriver you could see all the way to Memphis. When her eyes met mine they glowed with carnal fire. She took a toke and exchanged a few words with some of the boys before she turned around and gave us a little action as she went back inside.
Dumbass, whose ability to step in the turd had begun to impress me, piped up as soon as she disappeared, “Wonder what’d cost to get a piece a that tonight?”
Now, there were a lot of things that might have happened next, most of which were nothing, any of which would have been preferable to, “That’s my wife you’re talking about, friend.”
It was Little Boss. He straightened up and the other boys formed a circle around us. One of them stepped in behind Little Boss and handed him something. My life now hinged on Dumbass’ ability to come up with a timely and appropriate response.
I guess I’m going to die. At least I won’t have to face Mama.
My heart ticked a hundred ticks in those two seconds, but then the god who looks after children and fools intervened. The door to the bar burst open and a scream rang out. A blur of a man bound down the steps, tumbled to his car, got in and peeled out, kicking up a back-blast of gravel as he went. Two guys came after him, pounding his windows and pulling at his door handle, only giving up the chase as he made the main road and accelerated out of sight. They shouted after him, “Get back here, Jimmy Pugh, you son of a bitch!”
At the top of the steps now stood the Okie, supported by Neil Young T-shirt and Mrs. Little Boss, his left arm and shirt soaked in blood. He staggered down and slumped over the hood of a parked car.
A wave of relief came over me as the gang around us broke in favor of this new excitement. Dumbass went right with them. I followed up just close enough to see.
The knife wound to the man’s shoulder was profuse but not mortal. The bartender came out with towels to pack it. The Okie grimaced and swooned.
“You’re going to be alright,” she said.
The bar had emptied out. A flock of peckerwoods now filled the thick night air with chatter and squawk.
“It was Jimmy Pugh!”
“I saw him do it!”
“Stuck that fella right in the arm.”
“He just asked me to dance is all,” added Neil Young T-shirt as they looked down on the Okie like a three-legged dog.
Little Boss told a couple of his boys to take him to get stitched up and they drove off with him in the bed of a truck, yelping with every bump and bounce.
A sheriff’s deputy had arrived. From his casual demeanor it seemed that this was no more than a regular stop in his nightly rounds: check the lock on the feed store, make sure no one had parked out on the levee, go see who got cut at the Queen. The deputy took statements and drove off to pick up Jimmy Pugh. He always ran to the same place.
The excitement died down and I suggested we get going before anyone remembered we were there. On the way back to the highway I saw the full moon reflected off of the obsidian face of an oxbow lake. The oxbow, a piece of the river long ago left behind by the main stream, sits there like an old man watching the young river go by. He knows the mad ambition of the waters to break the banks that hold them, to course the open field, to find new ways to reach the sea. He knows most will fall back to the channel, and a few will burn up in the sun, but some will gather in the low places and there they will remain.