Back in the seventies, J-Bee drove a cab in New York. Tips were in nickels and dimes. When he’d saved enough, he hitched across the country. He arrived in Berkeley in summertime, land of eucalyptus trees and soup kitchens where the sun sets backwards, over the vast, sleepy, amnesic Pacific. There he ran into old classmates who had dropped out of college the year before, wandering the streets with blank eyes and vacant expressions, drugged out, delivering newspapers to scrape by, burned out before their time.
“Hey Phil!” he called to a guy on the street, someone he recognized from school. Phil blinked through a haze, eyes like black-socketed bore holes, wells of deep emptiness. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no sound came. He stood for a moment, facing J-Bee, and then, slowly turning, he shuffled away.
Too much LSD.
But before J-Bee reached California and the shores of the dozy Pacific, he met Doreen. It was Durango, Colorado, at the peak of summer in late July. It was forty-six degrees as the sun went down, and he arrived in tee shirt and shorts on empty, dusty streets. He had left his backpack at a truck stop locker just outside town, and now he shivered with goose flesh, rubbing his arms for warmth. He stood on the corner, lampposts and storefronts blank and empty, no trees or grass, no people in sight, a bounding wad of newspaper blowing past. He reached into his pocket and pulled out money: six dollars and thirty-two cents.
Poor planning. Never thought it could be so cold in summer. Never thought the money would go so fast. Never thought young men could be so Goddamned stupid.
Dust was blowing off the street onto his shoes. Someone had said there was a curfew in Durango, and if he were caught on the street, he would be busted on a vagrancy and thrown in county jail.
Not what he needed.
His friend Garr had left across country before him. Garr was hitchhiking too, but he took the north road through the mountains, passing through Leadville, highest city in the lower forty-eight. By the time J-Bee caught up with Garr, it was in Nebraska, and Garr was headed back east as J-Bee went west.
Garr was a mess: blackened rings around his eyes and pale white skin, cratered with flaming acne. The reason Garr was going back home was that he had been busted for “having long hair” and thrown in Leadville County Jail where he was tied to a bedpost and raped by an inmate as others watched.
“Animals,” said J-Bee. “Why didn’t you fight?”
“He had a knife. He was big. I had no idea what he was going to do when he tied me up. I didn’t see it coming.”
Who, in a normal state of mind, would?
“So what happened?” asked J-Bee, horrified and disbelieving with non-rational hope that the story might change if he heard it again.
“Like I said,” Garr took a pull on a cigarette and huffed smoke. “He tied me to a bedpost and fucked me up the ass.”
Garr was rattled, shell-shocked, smoking like a chimney. “I couldn’t do a Goddamn thing.”
“What about the cops? The jailers?”
“Didn’t do a thing,” said Garr. “They said it happens all the time. Probably take bets on it. They couldn’t give a damn. I heard them from the cell—joking around, laughing with their rotten teeth, their bellies hanging over their belts.” Garr had had enough of The West.
Later that same summer, some guy in Alabama confessed to murdering 200 hitchhikers and transients. He was killing for fun and when he confessed, he’d forgot where he put them.
The road was a dangerous place. J-Bee continued west, but doubt crept in. On a street corner in Durango, sun disappearing, tumbleweeds tossing by, he felt desperate for a place to stay. He was hungry too, not having eaten since morning. If someone had told me, when I met Garr in Nebraska, that I’d be stuck with not enough money and no place to go, I’d’ve headed back east with Garr.
He found a greasy spoon like they had back then. It was busy, considering how empty the streets. Inside was warm with a jukebox jangling country tunes. There were tables, booths and a counter with swiveling stools. He took a table and scarfed a bowl of chili, saving a few bucks for coffee in the morning.
He tried talking to people sitting nearby, but it didn’t work; they were laboring men with very little talk, pretending they didn’t hear him. They kept to themselves, slurping their soups, grit under the nails, big stubbled faces and big rolling shoulders. Most were bald or had crew cuts; some had ten-gallon hats. Cut from the same stone blocks as the canyons, they lived out west because they belonged there, needing space for undisturbed lives, keeping to themselves, avoiding the bother of social interaction. So this, J-Bee discovered, was the essence of The West, the real West of little towns, sprinkled with enough women to hold it all together, providing the talk. Just a bunch of lone wolves staking out territories, pissing out the borders of their plats, etching lines in the dust with sweat and secretions, keeping their distance from one to another.
The servers were women.
J-Bee asked his waitress, a handsome weathered blonde in her thirties, “What time do you close?”
“Any place to stay in town?”
“There’s the hotel down the street. You’re not from here, are you?”
“I can’t afford a hotel. Is there any place else? A youth hostel?”
“A place where young people coming through can stay for a dollar or two. Like an inn, or even a piece of floor to sleep on.”
“Nothing like that, hon. No young folks coming through anyways.”
She looked him up and down and then walked to the counter where she and the second waitress smoked and bantered, waiting for plates from the chef. They whispered cheek to cheek and glanced towards him.
He waited for the blonde to refill his cup; then he asked, “Do you have a place where I could stay? Just a piece of floor? I won’t be a nuisance. Just a corner of the floor to stay off the streets?”
“I know what you mean about staying off the streets, hon. The police in this town will throw you in jail. I’d give you a place to stay, but my old man wouldn’t like it. He doesn’t take to strangers.”
J-Bee imagined her “old man”: big-boned and broad-shouldered, grunting for food, arms thick as bridge cables. He didn’t want to be in a house with such a man.
“You have a car?” she asked.
“You better not be seen hitchhiking by the cops—boy would that be trouble.” She looked him up and down. “Sure wish I could help. I surely do.”
He got the feeling she thought he was pretty, like a bauble she would like to have. “Well, when we close, there’s a curfew. And you better not let the sheriff find you, or he’ll throw you in jail for sure. Better get way the heck out of town, if I was you. And stay away from cowboys and truckers you see—they won’t like your long hair. I heard one time they strung some kid on a barbwire fence and left him, miles from town.”
Unlike Garr Winters, his hair only touched the tops of his ears. Not that it made any difference to cowboys. So he sat sipping coffee, wondering whether Lady Luck would shine down or whether he was facing a night of fear and pain until, just like that, the place emptied out. Alarm and desperation closed in. The second waitress smoked at the counter as the blonde cashed out her last table.
If the blonde can’t help me, how about the other?
He would try his luck, signaling to the second waitress to bring his check. She nodded, stubbed her cigarette and tilted her mouth up to blow smoke.
His heart beat fast; he felt oil on his face which came from the grease lining every surface in the diner. He wiped his brow with a napkin and shifted in the chair, plucking up nerve as the second waitress approached, check in hand.
“Hi,” he said, forcing himself to speak through the grease and fatigue.
“Hi there,” she smiled. She could have been pretty. She was just under thirty, nice dark hair, but teeth were missing, and one front tooth had a black rotten hole.
“Is that everything?” she said.
“Well,” he said, pushing himself to speak. “I’m in a bad situation. I just hitched in from the East Coast. I have just about no money after I pay this check. No car, no place to go.”
“We got a hotel.”
“I can’t afford it.” He was thinking rejection, but he had no choice. He had to forge ahead; he would see it to the end. See it through or get fucked in jail.
She examined his face, eyeing him carefully.
“I need a place to stay—just some floor space. I won’t be any trouble.” His voice was quavering.
Her eyes locked his. She appeared serious but made no movement. He heard the cosmos take a breath. He felt the Great Mandala yaw.
“Well,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“I could sleep in your garage. Even outside on the ground. Anything.”
He heard himself panic and tried to stay calm.
“I don’t know. You paying, hon?”
She went for change, and he waited. He sipped his cold coffee and occasionally glanced at the dark-haired waitress, trying to avoid her seeing it.
There is no choice—she has to help me.
The blonde went over to the dark-haired waitress, and they laughed. The blonde pulled on a sweater and left out the back.
“We’re closing,” the dark-haired waitress announced, and the last two men drifted out.
J-Bee didn’t move. He waited patiently for the opaque judgement of the gods, hoping that a flip of a coin would yield clemency over condemnation. He could be in no hurry. If he had to hit the streets, he would hustle out of town. He was in shorts and a tee; it was cold, and he couldn’t remember where the highway was.
The dark-haired waitress closed up. It was just him and her; all the others were gone. She put on a sweater and waved to J-Bee.
“You can come. Get your jacket.”
“I don’t have one.”
She smiled at him in that sizing-up way. “You’re just a kid, aren’t you.”
“I’ll be twenty in September.”
“Nineteen. A nineteen-year-old boy in Durango, goin’ down the road.” She shook her head and laughed a phlegmy, smoker’s laugh. Then she coughed. “Well, let’s go.”
He followed her out to a beat-up van without hubcaps. He opened the door, and cans clanked to the ground. She brushed cake crumbs off the seat and more cans to the floor.
“Get in.” He winced as the skin of his legs touched cold vinyl. He rubbed his legs to get warm, and she saw it.
“Pretty cold evening for summer,” she said, turning the ignition.
All he could think was: I’m saved!
“Sorry about that stuff on the seat. I was in a rush this morning, and that was my daughter’s breakfast. I wish I had something to cover you up. Wait—I’ll turn on the heat.”
She turned a knob, and cold air blasted, making his mouth shiver loudly.
“My name’s Doreen,” she said. “What’s yours?”
J-Bee saw the rotten tooth.
“J-Bee,” he said. He looked at her, and a sudden gush of unstoppable testosterone raged through him, flooding his mind with images, taking control of his brain. Her face was pretty, and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He saw that sprinkling of dark hair on her neck, and he remembered—from the diner—that she had the same dark hair on her arms. It excited him, as this was just the way he liked it, and he imagined it meant she had a nice muff somewhere else. Her breasts were just the way he liked, full enough to pull her blouse and rounded in just the right way. Then she smiled again, and he saw her teeth. She coughed, and he heard the mucous, and his hormonal storm shut down. He remembered his word to behave. He would sleep wherever she told him.
But what if she wanted sex—what then? Would he let himself go? Should he decline any offer? Was he too cold to perform? No, she would have a blanket, and it would be warm. Did she expect him to suggest sleeping with her? Would she be insulted if he didn’t?
He sniped a glance and guessed she was at least ten years older. He decided that she’d call the shots. She had saved him from vagrancy, possibly jail; he would have to utterly trust her.
The road became bumpy; he jolted in his seat.
“Sorry,” she said. “No pavement, just dirt road.”
Outside the window, the world was black except where the headlights beamed. He saw a trailer with a dull façade of corrugated metal, raised off the ground on blocks. Behind the trailer, he saw mounds of compost and piles of trash.
Aluminum steps led to the door, and they entered.
“I have to check the kids,” she said and disappeared in the dark.
He stood inside, rubbing his arms, trembling and hugging himself. He was in a small open area with a beat-up couch and a small kitchenette to one side. In the middle of the kitchenette was a table; beyond that the back door had its screen gashed open.
“I know its cold in here,” she said. “Back door’s broken. Have to get that fixed. Here, I brought you a blanket; it’s my only spare.”
I may be cold, but I’m safe.
“You can sleep on the couch,” she said, and then she was gone.
He took off his shoes and lay down. He tried to cover himself, but as he pulled the blanket to cover his neck, it was short and exposed his feet.
He lay and shivered but saw his good fortune, off the streets and not behind bars. In a moment, he succumbed to fatigue, drifting to sleep in the Colorado night.
He resurfaced from slumber by movement nearby. He lay still, listening acutely, wondering what it was. There was some sort of breathing and occasional flapping. Something was slapping, wet against the floor. First it was near him, then it went toward the kitchen.
He glanced at his watch: three A.M. Sitting up and listening, he slid on his shoes and stood up, but the noise had stopped. A shaft of dim light came through the back door, maybe a lamp outside. He scanned the kitchen from next to the couch and then took a step forward. As he took the next step, his front foot slipped on wet sticky gel, and he skidded forward, just about holding his balance.
In the dim glow through the back-door screen, the glint of a figure caught his eye. It was upright and whitish, about two feet tall with a bandana around the neck. It saw J-Bee and scuttled behind a table, waddling fast as its feet slapped the floor.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He thought of the floor and knew what it was. There was nothing more to do in the dark and the cold, so he lay back down and slept.
In the morning, he awoke to a clatter of dishes and children. He sat up.
“You’re awake,” said a woman. “We didn’t want to wake you, but it’s hard to clean up without noise.”
He rubbed his face. It was so cold that he looked for his breath in the air. He had a hard-on, and he didn’t want anyone to see. He was embarrassed; he kept the blanket on his lap.
“Bathroom is through the doorway,” said Doreen, pointing and giggling. She had seen his embarrassment. She anticipated his needs.
Women know things.
He washed up and then went to the kitchen. Three new faces: children, all partly clad. The oldest was a girl, maybe eleven, in shorts and a tee. Looking at J-Bee, she had a vacant stare. The others had grime on their faces and dirt on their clothes. A ten-year-old boy stood in boxers without a top; the youngest was a girl in a nightie. Neither had shoes or socks, but neither seemed cold.
“I forgot to tell you about our pet duck,” said Doreen.
“I think we met last night. Where is he?”
“Well—Jack’s his name—well, Jack died.”
“Yeah. My youngest had a hard time with it. She wouldn’t let go of him. I had to pry her loose from around his neck. He got diarrhea, and then he just died.”
“Jack died!” the youngest one blurted. “He died!” She screwed up her eyes and mouth, trying not to cry, then buried her face in her mom’s bosom.
“We buried him in back.” Doreen motioned over her shoulder with her thumb. “It was very sad,” she said, hugging her little girl and patting her back.
“I’m so sorry,” he said to the girl, heartsick from the squalor and now from the loss of poor Jack. So different from my childhood.
Doreen fed J-Bee. He offered to clean dishes, but she laughed and said, “No,” rushing him to the car.
“Who’ll watch the kids?”
“Well,” she said, “Stacey’s old enough. She’ll watch the others. She knows what to do. She’ll feed them. She’s the one who put them to bed last night.”
As they drove out, J-Bee saw that Doreen lived behind a dump. Pools of murk sat next to towering piles of scrap metal and useless cars. There were piles of garbage, bursting diapers and scattered trash bags, some ripped open from desperate prowling animals.
“Sorry about the car,” said Doreen, motioning to the empty cans and bottles which were rolling on the floor.
“I keep meaning to trade them in for money down at the incinerator, but I always forget.”
She took out a cigarette, lit it and sucked smoke.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“You mean Durango? About six months. We were in Oklahoma, but I had to leave my husband. He was beating me up. I couldn’t take it no more. Besides, he didn’t do nothin’ except lay around, drink beer and watch TV. I didn’t need him—I was the one working.” She took a deep pull on the cigarette. “I really thought if I stayed, he would end up killing me. Yeah, I think he probably would. I was in hospital twice. He broke my face and jaw one time. He’s a drunk. Thirty-three and that’s all he is.” She shook her head from side to side. “So one night when he was out drinking, I took the kids, put them in the car, and just drove west as far and fast as I could. I don’t think he’s going to find me, but I get nervous. I probably won’t stay here much longer. But some day I’m going to get a divorce, so I’m saving up to get me a lawyer.”
J-Bee was amazed and outraged at her plight. Doreen was in a different world from the book-read women he knew back in college. Here was a woman as vulnerable as Garr, but when Garr had had enough, he went back home. Doreen had no way back.
She has nothing, but she helped me.
“Give me your address,” said J-Bee, “and when I get home, back east, I’ll send you some money.” He had a small savings account back home.
“No, that’s okay, hon.”
“I want to help. I can send you something.”
“No, hon.” She gave him a motherly smile, the same one she’d given her children. “A nineteen-year-old boy helping a grown woman? No, hon. Besides, I can’t give out my address. I can’t ever risk him finding where I am.”
“But,” J-Bee protested, “I don’t know your husband! And I would never tell a soul—swear to God.”
“Listen,” she said. “Save your soul and don’t swear to God. Anyways, by the time you get back home, I’ll be long gone from this place. Either dead or moved on. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, I ain’t never lookin’ back.”