Richard owned a Volvo, one of those 1950s jobs with a rounded back that looked like a ’48 Ford only smaller. Once the tour ended, people scattered. He and I teamed up to drive the Volvo back to San Francisco. I was thrilled. Richard had become a model for me, colorful, articulate, in charge of his destiny. Tired of touring and the New York winter, we both wanted out. We piled into that car with our battered luggage, guitars, a box of contraband Cuban cigars, and a bottle full of black beauties. Eager to hit the road, we threaded our way through uptown traffic on the West Side Highway and headed for the Holland Tunnel.
Excerpted from Rocked in Time, a work in progress.
Through the wet snow, I spotted two hitchhikers walking in the trafficked slush toward the entrance to the tunnel. It was a stupid place to hitch from and we knew nobody would pick them up, so we stopped. They were young and grateful and had no idea what they were facing. We let them crawl into the back seat where they arranged themselves around our jackets and discarded coffee cups. The trunk was full of gear and musical instruments, so they had to hold their suitcases on their laps. And that was how they rode across America, crammed into the back seat of that Volvo. Their enthusiasm rose and fell, and the exhausted boys grew silent as Richard and I careened westward, cranked on speed, gasoline, chocolate, and coffee.
We’d made it out of Jersey and crossed most of Pennsylvania before we had to stop for gas. Richard disappeared into a phone booth. The two hitchhikers stretched their cramped limbs while the attendant filled the tank, checked the oil, and cleaned the salt off the windshield. Up to then, the trip had been a tour de force. The weather was for shit — rain, snow, and sleet slathered across much of the east and Midwest, the highway flicking from Eisenhower’s smooth, broad six-lane interstate to the narrow two-way concrete ribbon with a suicide lane, but the Volvo kept humming, and we were making wicked good time. Through Ohio, the hitchhikers lapsed into forced hibernation. Up front, Richard and I popped a black beauty apiece and rocked out to the radio while we chewed through the cigars.
In Iowa, where you begin to feel like you’re making progress, before Nebraska’s desolation bums you out, Richard began to get antsy. “Look for the Ames exit,” he kept repeating. “The Ames exit. Did we miss it?”
We’d done a show in Ames, at the University of Iowa, but I saw no reason to sightsee. The speed had worn off and it felt like we’d been on the road forever.
“We’re gonna stop here for a little while,” Richard said.
“What? Here? Why?”
The hitchhikers stirred.
“There’s somebody I gotta see.”
“Who.” I was annoyed. We were on a roll.
“No. Who’s Kim?”
“When we did the show.”
“Yeah. Where else?”
“How the hell would I know, Richard? Maybe there’s somebody you could see back home instead.”
“I want to say ‘hello.’”
“Uh huh. Or hey, I got a good idea.”
“Maybe you fucked somebody in Texas. We could hang a left and head south to ol’ El Paso, eat some barbecue, learn a couple of cowboy songs…”
I heard a groan from our back seat captives.
“Just kidding, guys. Come on, Richard,” I said. “It’s cold and dark out here. Cut the crap.”
“I won’t be long. I promised her I’d stop.”
“And she’ll die if you don’t.”
Richard drove on, silent, determined, preoccupied. We zigged and zagged, looking for an address on Maple Avenue or Elm Street. One of those tree boulevards.
“There it is!” He shut off the car and reached for the keys.
I grabbed his wrist. “Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “You want us to freeze to death?”
“Hey, I won’t be long.”
The way I said “asshole” reminded me of that night in Detroit when I’d mistreated the curious girl with no name and unceremoniously dropped her off outside her apartment. “Asshole,” was all she had said. Was this karma? Payback for my cavalier indifference toward that Detroit girl?
I started the Volvo. “Sorry, guys,” I said. “His car. His fucking world.”
“His fucking world,” one of the back seat boys said.
“Yeah,” I said. “His fucking world.” I pulled my jacket over my chest and shoulders and put my feet on the driver’s seat.
The stopover did nothing for our hitchhikers. Their suitcases remained on their laps, their knees had become frozen into 90-degree elbows of galvanized pipe that ensured that no blood reached their feet or returned to the warmth and comfort of hearts and lungs.
I endured the humiliation of waiting outside while my brother in art and politics indulged himself. We had not been invited in. When I could stand the mortification no longer, I left our whimpering hitchhikers to stretch in the cold night air and went to fetch Richard.
An irritated young woman in bunny slippers and fuzzy pajamas opened the door. She was incredulous that Richard had left people freezing in the car. “They’re in there,” she said, jerking a thumb toward the bathroom. “I can’t believe he did that,” she muttered as she shuffled back to her bedroom.
I rapped on the door. “Come on, Richard,” I hollered. “Let’s get outta here. We’re freezing to death out there.”
He was actually angry. Son of a bitch.
“Hi, I’m Kim.” She held out her hand. Small, dark, round, bright brown eyes snapping. She, too, was incredulous. “You actually left people out there in the cold? So we could do this?”
I looked past them. They had been fucking on a bath towel in a narrow corridor between the bathtub and a toilet.
What an idiot, I thought later, after I stopped bragging about the near record-breaking 3000-mile marathon. On and off the partially constructed freeway, it took us 54 hours coast-to-coast. With a stopover so Richard — or should I call him Dick — could get laid. I was scattered for weeks afterward. Everybody took the holidays off, but I had nowhere to go. I had gotten rid of the truck before the tour. Sold it for junk. I had watched it fade into the wrecking yard, its apple-green TRUCK shouting to the world even as death approached in the gleaming jaws of a wrecking yard metal press.
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*Excerpted from a work in progress.
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.