UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
TOM BADYNA

A.W.O.L

         Before turning twenty-two, I had hitchhiked fifty thousand one-way miles at least. This might have been a lot, even by the standards of the day. Some thought it a condition that needed psychological addressing – in 1978,

I had eleven jobs in ten states, each a thousand miles, sometimes two or three, from the last – but I considered it mere restlessness caused by a preternatural ability to see what I would become by staying put. And I wasn't alone, not out on the highways. Interstate hitchhikers were fairly common, mostly young and rarely desperate. This was the last, great time an ordinary dope could feel the freedom of America was his. To walk along the road's shoulder with backpack, bedroll, thumb out, was to catch vibes of envy, not fear or pity.

         That's how it was.

         Then it ended.

         By 1981, we were few and less joyful. What had happened I couldn't say exactly, but knew, even before starting out, that that spring's hitchhiking hegira – from Los Angeles to the northern Cascades in Washington State – was about it for me. And the trip did turn into one more ordeal, one particularly slow and sorry. Two days in and I was hardly north of San Francisco. I commented on this to a ride taking me another eighty miles. He said I wasn't getting rides because of the I-5 Killer.

         I said, “That's a guy picking up women and killing them. He's not a hitchhiker, and I'm not a woman.”

         He said, “Maybe so, but that's why you're not getting rides.”

         This story, while having nothing to do with the I-5 Killer and the twenty-nine murders he was suspect in, not directly, not with any more logic than that exhibited by the drivers on California's Interstate 5, takes place about then.

1

        The road was U.S. 271, and in one direction it rose a grand swerve up from dark, Arkansas trees. In the other, it fell away into a broad valley of small, scattered homes amid quilted plots of farmland. Light fading, air turning gray, the sky yellow in the west, dark in the east, I walked with my thumb out, ready at any next minute to call it a day and make a short walk into woods, stretch out like Daniel Boone, have a few slugs of whiskey, a few tokes from a joint, a little food, the thoughts of a free man. But the chilled twilight came to an end in a sudden night of hard cold rain, and I kept on walking, thumb out, a long time spooked with the premonition of a car come skidding on the sheets of water that made the road illusory, killing me in the most senseless death ever. But I kept walking. What else was I gonna do? Sit down and cry prayers to my mommy?

         I walked hours to the next town, Spiro, Oklahoma, and stood in a deserted doorway in its one-block downtown. Every business was closed up. Lights were few. The rain came mad at me, punishing, unrelenting, teaching me a lesson. I shivered and smoked and was hungry. Bad thoughts came, but swung like a pendulum. I was swearing to run home, to apologize for my soul, get my life right. A bit later, I was back swearing a murderous rage. In between, at the arc's bottom, I was kind of Zen. That’s how it was.

         A cop car slowly passed then returned and shined a spotlight on me. He rolled down his window and shouted out questions. I shouted back a couple of correct answers, but that wasn't good enough for him. “It’s a free country, and I ain’t doing nothing wrong but staying a little dry.” I shouted that.

         He told me to get in the car.

         I said, “Fuck you.”

         He got out in the rain and handcuffed me roughly and took me in, and, in the morning, a higher-up said, “Let 'im go, Orville,” and this self-same cop who’d arrested me drove me a few hundred yards beyond the city limits, unhandcuffed me on the side of the road, threatened me with his nightstick, suggested I never return not only not to Spiro, but to the whole state of Oklahoma. He took it as credit to his character as an officer of the law and public servant that he didn’t plum shoot my ass in the greatest country on earth. He said it was too bad, too, that character required that.

2

        Eastern Oklahoma was the South, and I purely wanted out of the South, especially the rural South which had, more than any other region of the country, a feel to it that creeped me out. Three rides, nine hours, and there were still signs giving the miles to Spiro Fucking Oklahoma. Traffic was greater in the other direction, or seemed so, and I crossed over to the other side of U.S. 271. Then back. Then over again. I was wondering which way might be closest to a diner that might have roast beef sandwiches covered in hot gravy with mashed potatoes and served by a waitress to flirt with. I lit a cigarette, the six thousand one hundred and fifteenth of my life. Up ahead, purple thunderheads mounted from the western horizon, and their advance battalion made the sunlight shafts of white gold – the sky you’d film for Christ’s crucifixion. I thought about a motel. I could splurge on that. Twenty-six dollars for a firm, wide bed, a hot, forceful shower, hot, carry-out food ate while watching television, connected to America. For that, yeah, I’d have given up twenty-two percent of my net worth.

         The sun disappeared but yet lit the tree canopy’s top a spectacular green like irradiating frosting on the scary black woods below.

         Weird.

         A small sports car, a Triumph, shot by me like an emergency, but its brake lights brightened, and a furlong down the road, it swerved to a stop in the breakdown lane. The white, back-up lights had me saying “Hoo boy!” and stepping towards them as its engine whined at a scream as it came back to me in reverse at thirty miles an hour; but the driver I took to be maybe sixteen years old. I’d have thought he’d stolen the car but that he was wearing a retainer, the kind that goes around the back of the neck with two wire arms crossing in front of his mouth and connected by rubber bands to a mouth full of braces. Thieves, as a rule, did not wear their retainers when at work. Nor did they commonly wear pressed khakis and polo shirts. He had short hair, a military cut, blonde, a red, pimply face. Slight of build, likely less than five eight, his arms were surprisingly muscled, like a gymnast’s in the off season, relaxed with both hands on the small wheel as he accelerated to over a hundred miles an hour.

         “You’re going fast,” I said.

         “Can't be A.W.O.L. I have to be in San Diego, on the ship, by eighteen hundred hours tomorrow.” His voice was pitched unfortunately high. “And it’s eighteen hundred and fifty-six miles from here.” His eyes glanced at his odometer.

         “Eighteen hundred and fifty-six point two.”

         “So you’re a sailor,” I said. My hands felt about for something to grip. I didn’t like speed, not unnecessary speed, and being late to your ship in peace time didn’t qualify in my universe as urgent. The car, for my lanky, muscled, six-foot-three frame, was a go cart.

         “Fighter pilot, on the Kitty Hawk,” he said.

         I raised my eyebrows maybe in disbelief. The kid took it that way. “Open the glove box,” he said like a challenge back. I tried to find a place to move my knees without knocking the stick shift nor opening the door. “Open it,” he said sharply, and I did and took out a nickel-plated .45 and held it kinda gingerly, flat on open hands.

         “My fucking service revolver. Swabbies don't have that.”

         I looked at him.

         “It ain't loaded. I ain't stupid.”

         He said that, and I didn't like him, and we raced beneath the thunderheads and out into the purity of night and on to the Interstate, white lines, head lights and tail lights, all the miles the same, fifty thousand Eisenhower miles that got you where you were going without having been anywhere – which I liked, loved actually, the pure, abstract movement of it – and the kid decided to get me to like him and changed his tone to laconic cowboy, understate everything, and got to talking about landing a jet on a rolling deck in the middle of the Indian Ocean at night. That’s tough the first few times. When you start your final approach, fifteen seconds from landing, the deck looks like a floating matchbook someone’d tossed from a dock in the dark.

         Okay. Maybe I wouldn’t be so nervous. Still, as he zipped through light traffic at a hundred and twenty miles an hour, I looked at the dashboard clock and did a little math. “You know, eighty-nine miles an hour will get you there with some minutes to spare.”

         “I picked you up so I can take a little rest, if needed, and you're gonna drive at something less.” His natural tone was hard not to take offense at.

         “Sure thing,” I said –

         And thought to add, “Good idea, since you needed a valid, non-suspended license only for getting stopped, not for driving.”

         But I didn't, and he then, again taking the edge out of his voice, asked, “Where ya headed?”

         My head kinda jerked. I'd had possible destinations up the wazoo, but he'd given me the notion of the ocean. “Long Beach,” I said, recollecting being a kid and watching Long Beach State beat a dynastic, dominating UCLA team. They were a dirty tramp of a Cinderella, and maybe from that I had impression enough.

         “Your lucky day,” he said.

         “Yours too,” I said, meaning hitchhikers were scarce anymore, and he'd got one going all the way.

         And he tried to take it that way, but couldn't get it to sit easy.

         He was short. I was tall. He hadn’t looks to recommend him. I did. He likely hadn’t a thought that wasn’t put in his head pre-approved, and I couldn't agree with anyone. If everyone in a room agreed with me, I'd have had to change my mind. He was twenty-three years old and a fighter pilot in the Indian Fucking Ocean, and I was … what?

         This was, no doubt about it, a purely biological situation no philosophy could get around. Was I gonna apologize for myself? Or, maybe, tell him, “If we’d met on the playground ten years ago, I’d be kicking your ass.” Or , if I wanted to be honest: “If we were metaphorical baboons, you’d be the one with the big, coconut-sized, flaming-red balls.”

         It hurt to be in that car next to him, wounded my psyche.

         His name was Billy Preston – and he looked like one. From a small town in north-central Arkansas, Ash Flat, I think, maybe Pocahontas. He had been home on leave, visiting his parents, his girlfriend, his boyhood chums. He asked me if I could guess why he’d stayed until the last possible moment.

         I said, “You mean, why didn't you rush to be early to a ship you'd be six months at sea with five thousand guys.”

         He said, “You ain’t a fag, are you?”

         “You worried?”

         He said, “If you ain’t a fag, why do you care? If you ain’t a fag why wouldn’t you say my girlfriend, huh? That’s all that can a keep a man from his post to the last possible minute – pussy. Maybe you’ve never had any pussy. Maybe that, huh?”

         “Old women have a thing for me,” I said, thinking of this old bag who'd had it in for me the last town and saying it for the pure pleasure of going against his grain.

         “You like old women, huh?”

         “I like old women, young boys and guns. You know why?”

         “Why?”

         “There’s not much future in any of ‘em.”

         “You ain’t never had any pussy, I’ll tell you that. My girlfriend’s pussy – you can’t pull yourself away from it. It’s all you want to do, eat it, look at it, for hours, I tell ya, the sweetest thing, like fruit….”

         I tried to picture the town from which hailed Billy Preston and was home, apparently, to one remarkable pussy. I did like thinking about it as a kind of sacred site, the home of his girlfriend. You’d walk through that town as through Delphi, awed in a comic way, knowing that behind one of the non-descript doors was the oracle pussy, answer to all mysteries but its own.

3

        Oklahoma City was a long stretch of high sodium lights with their orange tint and the road four lanes wide in each direction and night deserted. We were on I-40, and I was falling asleep, thinking of food, that there wouldn’t be much chance Billy Preston would be stopping at a diner for a roast beef sandwich, mashed potatoes, gravy, hot gravy, a little flirt time with the crooked smile of a waitress, an almost-plain looking young woman serving food nights on the highway, then at dawn retreating home somewhere in the dark stretch of America beyond the lights of the road and there ascend to her throne, the same miracle between her legs as got better.

         I blinked awake at Amarillo, when we stopped for gas. The road west of there was dead flat, dead straight, dead deserted, telephone poles lined up as in a Road Runner cartoon, the landscape illuminated by a full moon rising or setting but fat above the horizon. We zipped through it at a hundred and thirty. Sleep came and went, my mind dipping in and out of it in timeless undulations.

         Then the road rose up and up and entered tight ascending canyons. I gave up on sleep, sat up, looked at the gas gauge for when I might get coffee. Billy Preston drove the highway through Albuquerque at ninety-five, talking how cops let servicemen go, especially fighter pilots.

         At Gallup, New Mexico, the high desert and cold, we stopped for gas. When I returned with coffee, he asked if I wouldn’t drive for a spell, if I had a license.

         “No problem,” I said.

         How far from Gallup to Flagstaff, Arizona I didn’t know, but if a road in America could be said to be magical, then this was it, I-40 through a red desert at the top of the world beneath a full moon. If there were Indian spirits haunting the white world, it was here they did it, whispering truths to truck drivers and mopes like me, speeding through on the trust that the infiltrating thoughts would disperse into the nothingness of dreams with the rising sun.

         Calhoun, are you still alive?

         Jennifer, do you miss me yet?

         Ester, are you looking for me on the Mississippi boardwalk?

         Mama, do you know where I am? Can you see me in your dreams? Do you know that I am tired, that I am cold and worn out, lost and hungry, that if I allowed it, I’d be scared?

         God, was that You fucking this up?

         Does anyone know, does anyone care, that I am absent from my own life, absent without leave?

         I drove eighty miles an hour, then ninety, then a hundred, my knees so jammed against the dashboard that if a semi did something sudden in front of us and I had to hit the brakes quickly, we’d be decapitated.

         The sun rose on Flagstaff, and there I turned south, off I-40 and on to I-17 rolling down sixty, eighty miles until the pinion pine forest gave itself up, and I drove twenty miles through desert until before me, ten miles away, a thousand feet down, lay Phoenix, a subdivided scab on the Salt River Valley, with at its heart, forty stories high, a glass-and-steel hard on.

4

        South of Phoenix, I-8, the road to San Diego, Billy Preston woke agitated. Or he had been awake and quietly thinking thoughts that led him to sitting up agitated. Or maybe it was as simple as that the east of Southern California was a landscape psychosis. “You were looking at my cock,” he said.

         I shook my head and kinda snorted a smile of contempt for the fighter pilot.

         “I was dreaming, and dreaming of pussy, and I must've had a hard-on, and you were fucking looking at it.”

         “I don't know what you're talking about.”

         “You don't know what I'm talking about, hippie boy? This is what I'm talking about.”

         He said that and pulled out of his pants his schlong, and it was blood engorged, half erect, porn-star size, a John Holmes wing wang.

         “Go ahead. You touched my fucking gun. This is genuine fighter pilot cock. You never seen nothing like that. Go ahead, touch it. I'll let you.”

         “Don't, man,” I said.

         “Your mouth is a fucking pussy. Did you ever think of that?”

         “I'm driving here.”

         “This is fighter pilot cock. I got testosterone, and I gotta be on a ship for six months.”

         “Man.”

         “Fuck you. You gotta suck my dick. That's what you gotta do. Your pussy mouth owes me.”

5

        I parked the Triumph off the shoulder and walked a mile to an interchange that was a marvel of engineering and design. White concrete, new, soared as banking overpasses in the multi-layered perfection of three, stacked cloverleaves. “Take in the beauty of it, and the sterility of it, the madness too,” I told myself. And I did, then began walking, thumb out, and in short order a California Highway Patrolman stopped to give me a ticket for hitchhiking on the Interstate. He took me back one exit, passed the Triumph on the other side of the freeway, to the top of a ramp, said I had to hitchhike there. I waited three, four minutes, then walked back down to the Interstate, North I-5, passed the Triumph, and an hour later the cop stopped again, drove me up to the next exit, across, and then back to where he’d put me the first time. I was heartily sick of passing that Triumph. The cop started writing out another ticket, but instead of going again through the long question-and-bad-answer rigmarole of dealing with a life that didn’t fit neatly on a police report, he said, “Let me see that first ticket.”

         “I threw it away,” I said.

         He put his ticket book away, flipped down his sun glasses, put a hand on his holstered gun. “I see you again on the Interstate I’m taking you to jail. Got it?” he said, jabbing his finger at me. “And don’t think I won’t be checking.” The instant he put his cruiser in gear and started to roll down the ramp, I followed, strutted cocksure after him wondering if he was looking at all in his rear view mirror.

         It was a curiosity about criminals, I’d noted, that almost all plundered and murdered to the minimum their peculiar circumstances permitted. They weren’t so unlike animals in that regard, and though there were exceptions, these were spaced so widely that the literary and Hollywood depictions of the same shed light only on these producers’ emotional hard-ons for the untrue. Humans, some, in bars and in jails, might brag like a screenplay, but when it came to looking a man in the eye and pulling the trigger, they were remarkably reticent. And it wasn’t risk aversion, either. A staple of my youthful reading was accounts of bandits, pirates, gun fighters, gangsters, bank robbers, hit men, assassins, the normal boyhood stuff. I preferred the real, the documented, to the fanciful, though it was most every time a pure and repeated disappointment to note the final tallies. Billy the Kid got four. Wild Bill might only have outdrew one. The whole Manson family didn’t tally ten. Son of Sam didn’t get seven. A church van on an icy road was more dangerous, numerically speaking. Again and again and again, near unanimously, a mug already done enough to hang twice would keep his finger off the trigger beyond all reasoning, if he were, indeed, the mad-dog killer of our fancies. Maybe I didn’t have the wherewithal to do a good job of moral analysis, but I had smarts enough to recognize that the myth of the remorseless killer on a lifelong bender of blood was a lie we knew to be a lie and pushed the myth anyway. If you’d asked me, I’d have said that the myths a feller bought said more about that feller than the myths did about truth.

         And that’s the truth, like it or not.

6

        A little later, I don’t know how long, I got a ride, then another, and when I got out, I was somewhere south of Long Beach, a mile from the Pacific, and there I walked, found a bar near the beach, had a half-pound hamburger and a basket of steak fries and three, four, five, six beers, waiting for dark to completely fall and settle securely down on the town; and me, I couldn't help it, I was drawn to the beach.

         I didn’t know who they were, how they would have identified themselves, what you would want to call them: surfer bums, hippy beatniks, bikers, a frat and sorority summer mixer, Deadheads or young Republicans. Didn’t matter. They were a group, a herd, and I kept away, laid low best I could in the darkest dune shadows I could find as might allow sleep. They were fifteen, maybe twenty, silhouetted around a bonfire, drinking beer, listening to music. Me and the porpoises listened to the hoorahs of the young men and to the squeals of the young women, and from a distance, a modest distance, the caws of separate colonies of crows were more distinct, more identifying of clan, than these hoorahs and squeals. If you wanted to know hatred, eye-burning hatred, the kind that opened a door to the blinding bright light of psychosis and had you sitting before it for a moment thinking you’re making a rational evaluation of the rightness of going through it, your hand on a nickel-plated .45 – well, I was there, and I didn’t think this was much unique to me then, something that set me apart. On the contrary, I suspected it was common as hell, and the marvel of it all was not how many went through that door, but how many didn’t. That was the story. That was what our romancers didn’t tell no more, what’d keep you awake, eyes burning through slits, even when you were too stir crazy to remember the last real sleep you’d had, watching their silhouettes dance before a fire and drift away two by two. It was a biological thing, the hatred then, and though philosophy could help, you kinda knew that it didn’t matter what philosophy you coddled to, for it too was a kind of biological thing, the impulse for it. You sat there, arms wrapped around your knees, and you were the kindest fuck in the world then. The poetic tolerance in your head was the alternative to getting up and going over to murder them. You were almost fucking Jesus Christ.








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