UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 03/2012
CALIFORNIA OR BUST
If Mick Sullivan hadn’t thrown all those rocks at all those know-it-all psychologists and got himself thrown out of the state home and if the stray dogs hadn’t moved into his run down one-room house by the city dump and drove him out to the chicken shed where the mangy mutts had been living, he and Tommy Ryan wouldn’t have had to come up with a plan to go to California.
“They just tooken over the house,” Mick told Tommy by way of explaining the dogs’ new digs. “Ate up all my food and just started layin’ all over. I had to come out here to this little old chicken house to find any peace of mind.”
“I reckon it could happen to anybody,” Tommy said, rubbing the stubble on his dirty chin.
“Hell, yes,” Mick confirmed. “Happened to me.”
“What are you gonna do?” Tommy wondered.
“I ain’t come up with a plan yet,” Mick answered. “Got any ideers?”
Tommy leaned back in his chair and one leg gave way, dumping him onto the filthy, nearly petrified remains of chicken feed, chicken excrement, and chicken feathers on the floor of the shed.
“Damn,” he said, picking himself up. He tried to wipe his hands off but his own clothes were so threadbare and dirty that it was a waste of effort.
“You gotta watch them there chairs,” Mick belatedly warned his second or third cousin or something removed cousin or step-cousin or whatever it was that Tommy was to him, relative-wise.
“I can see that,” Tommy said, carefully propping the now three-legged chair up against a wall where he could semi-safely sit in it again.
Mick started to ask Tommy again if he had any “ideers” about what to do about the dogs and all but he was interrupted by the arrival of a couple of small dogs – no doubt new strays that didn’t know or had forgotten that the doghouse was Mick’s old house and that the cramped chicken house was the new human house where the put upon scion of railroad Irish now lived. Feeling a bit penned in, both physically and psychologically by the newest canine interlopers, Mick and Tommy unceremoniously chased the yelping mutts away.
“Damned fleabags,” Tommy cursed after the animals. “You oughta do somethin’ about that.”
“What can I do?” Mick wailed. “They just come in my house and kept comin’ until they made me leave.”
“Fleabags,” Tommy repeated, “nothin’ but fleabags.”
“You’re tellin’ me,” Mick sadly nodded his head.
“You oughta do somethin’ about it,” Tommy said again.
“If the damned mutts is goin’ to take over my house and this chicken shed, too,” Mick speculated, “I’ll be out on my ass. Nowhere to stay. Except under a bridge or somethin’.”
“I don’t like doin’ that,” Tommy commented, clearly from personal experience.
“It ain’t no fun,” Mick agreed.
The two men sat still for a few moments, cogitating on the problem and nodding their heads back and forth like they were considering good, reasonable ways for Mick to get out from under his dog problem. There had to be something they could do. Finally, Tommy stood up with a flourish.
“I got a idea,” he said.
“You do?” Mick asked doubtfully.
“Yes, sir,” Tommy said, “I got me one.”
“Well,” Mick said, “what is it? You gonna just set there thinkin’ and not tellin’ me?”
“Do somethin’ crazy to get yourself put back into that crazy house place,” Tommy announced proudly.
“That’s your ideer?” Mick said, astonished. “You know I cain’t go back in there. They done tossed me out forever. Throwin’ them rocks got me banned, they said. For life, too.”
“Why did you do that, anyways?” Tommy asked.
“It ain’t no never mind to you,” Mick replied. “I just did and they didn’t like it and they tossed me out. Simple as that. That’s all they wuz.”
“Seems kind of nutty to have throwed rocks at your doctors and all,” Tommy allowed.
“What do you care why I done it?” Mick asked. “‘Sides, I thought we was talkin’ about getting out of this dumb shed.”
“Just wonderin’,” Tommy said.
“Get another ideer,” Mick said. “Try somethin’ else.”
Tommy pondered the problem again. He scratched his stubbly chin. He pulled on one of his ears. He tried to knock some sort of dried, hard feces – chicken or dog, he couldn’t tell – off one of his thin-soled formerly working boots.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Mick yelled at Tommy.
“Alright,” Tommy said, “I thought of somethin’ else.”
“You gotta move, find somewheres else to live. That’s it. Just get the heck out and leave this all to the dogs.”
“Move?” Mick wondered, scratching his own stubbly chin. “I never thought of that. Where would I go?”
“California,” Tommy said, pronouncing the state name like it was a secret word in some magical incantation.
“California,” Mick echoed breathlessly. “California.”
The men looked at each other as if they had just spoken the words that would grant them leave to enter the gates of heaven. But Mick had a quick sobering thought.
“How we gonna get there?” he asked.
“Well, hell,” Tommy said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world to anybody in the world, “we’ll drive. We’ll drive to California.”
“Yeah,” Mick said, “yeah. But…how?”
“In cars,” Tommy explained, “or your truck.”
“Sure, you gotta good truck, don’t you?”
“It runs good. Burns some oil. But it runs.”
“There you go then.”
“It ain’t got no brakes,” Mick lamented.
If his truck just had brakes they could head right off for California. Why did the master cylinder have to go out on that damned truck last year anyway? That didn’t seem fair, or right.
“Life ain’t fair,” he complained to Tommy.
“I got me another ideer,” Tommy said, eyes widening from the onslaught of yet another great thought. “You know my old Dodge?”
“Well, it’s got real good brakes. The engine block’s got a crack in it, but the brakes is real good. Don’t squeal or nothing.”
Mick thought this new proposal over. It seemed like a real good plan. Except for one thing.
“There’s one thing I don’t get,” he told Tommy. “What good is it we have two automobiles with one good thing about each one but the two ain’t….oh…oh. We hook the darn things together!”
“Now you’re talkin’,” Tommy cheered. “We hook ‘em together.”
“What with?” Mick asked, mostly of himself.
“I didn’t get that far,” Tommy admitted.
Mick went to the door of the shed and looked out at the nearby junk yard. He shook his head and whistled.
“Follow me,” he told Tommy. “I done figured out how we can do it.”
* * * *
“What in the hell are you two dumbheads doin’,” George Sullivan laughed when he saw the contraption his weak-minded step-brother Mick and their barely stronger-minded step-cousin Tommy had put together out of parts and supplies from the city junkyard. “What is that supposed to be?”
“I ain’t talkin’ to you, George,” Mick said, his head bowed as if George would smack him a good one across the side of the face like he’d made a lifetime habit of doing. “You leave me alone.”
“I ought to kick both of your asses from here to Neosho,” George laughed. He made a small feint with his right hand that caused Mick to jump back from his bigger, tougher, and all-around meaner step-brother. “You won’t get five miles from town with that idiotic thing.”
“Why won’t we, George?” Tommy asked seriously. “They’s hooked together real good. And we got plenty of gas and oil from old cars in the junkyard. Mick found all that and the chain we used here.”
“If you don’t run up against each other and blow yourselves to hell, the law’ll pitch both of your idiot butts in jail, day one,” George laughed.
“They ain’t nothin’ illegal we doin’,” Tommy countered.
“We’re goin’ to California,” Mick added.
“You’re goin’ straight to hell, as far I’m concerned,” George said, shaking his head.
“Naw, we’re goin’ to California, George,” Tommy reassured his rough step-cousin.
“We’re leavin’ this place today,” Mick said firmly.
“Don’t forget to take your damned dogs,” George growled.
“Ain’t takin’ them,” Mick said, embarrassed.
“Well piss on both of you,” George said with disgust. “I hope you both do go to hell and take that thing with you. You dumbasses.”
“He don’t understand,” Tommy told Mick as George stomped away.
“He’s just plain mean,” Mick said. “Been that way his whole life. Good riddance to him.”
“Let’s get started,” Tommy suggested, “and get out of this here place.”
“I’m for that,” Mick said, “let’s go.”
* * * *
Mick and Tommy got out of Ash Hill and onto Highway 71 North about three-thirty in the afternoon. Usually managing about fifteen miles an hour and keeping their chain-linked vehicular contraption to the far right of the road to let faster cars zoom past them, they made it to the outskirts of Rich Hill, just about nineteen miles north of Ash Hill, a little before five p.m.
“What are them people lookin’ at, Mick?” Tommy called out the window of the Dodge, as the residents of Rich Hill, noting the peculiar-looking dual vehicle passing by, began to congregate alongside the highway to stare, gawk, and wave.
Mick leaned his head out the window of the pickup and cupped a hand over his ear to let Tommy know he couldn’t hear him. Tommy pointed to the gathering crowd beyond the road. Mick craned his neck for a better view. Some of the people seemed to be laughing, others were cheering, a couple of little boys had a rope and were pulling each other around in apparent imitation of the Sullivan-Ryan combination engine, brake-mobile.
“Let’s stop here for the night,” Mick suggested, turning the pickup onto the road leading into town.
Tommy carefully applied the brakes to keep them from roaring into town too fast, which as far as he was concerned was anything over about ten miles an hour. Sometimes Mick had pushed the truck up to as much as twenty miles an hour, which seemed just downright careless to Tommy.
In Rich Hill, the two men were treated like celebrities. When it was discovered they only had an onion and bologna sandwich apiece for eating and some brackish looking water in a plastic bottle, a couple of local women brought them a decent meal of meatloaf and vegetables and some good Samaritan offered them thirst-quenching bottles of beer.
Everyone wanted to know where they were going and how they’d thought up their tandem vehicles. It all went well until about bedtime when a couple of young roughs suggested in no uncertain terms that Mick and Tommy were stark-raving idiots and a hazard to public driving. Mick started to collect some rocks to throw at the boys but Tommy and one of the nice ladies restrained him. Calm was restored and the travelers spent the rest of the night in their vehicles in peace.
Next day they made it all the way to Harrisonville, south of Kansas City – despite frequent stops to tighten the chain, not to mention the oil that had to be added to the pickup engine or the flat tire they had to fix – but the second day they barely got to Grandview, still south of the big city.
The people of Grandview gave them a reception almost like the folks in Rich Hill had but with one difference: here the local toughs actually got physical with Mick and Tommy and they had to drive two or three miles outside of town to get a night’s sleep. Tommy allowed that at their current pace, it might take a spell to get to California.
“We ain’t got nothin’ but time,” Mick reassured him, as they sat on the tailgate of the pickup and looked up at the moon and stars shining down on west-central Missouri.
“Wouldn’t be bad to get there ‘fore next year,” Tommy said petulantly.
“It were your ideer,” Mick reminded his step-cousin. “You was the one what wanted to go to California.”
“Didn’t know it would take so long,” Tommy replied.
“We get there a whole lot sooner if you’d let me drive faster,” Mick said.
He couldn’t understand Tommy’s fear of not being able to brake the pickup. Shoot, that chain would stop him at fifty miles an hour, Mick was sure of that.
“It ain’t the speed so much no more,” Tommy said, “as all the stoppin’. And I ain’t too keen on how people is behavin’ at us neither.” “They been right friendly, mostly,” Mick countered.
“Yeah,” Tommy sniffed, “that’s why we is out here in the middle of nowhere with no hot food and nobody but our ownselves to talk to.”
“We can turn back if you want,” Mick said, “but ….”
“Naw, I wadn’t sayin’ that,” Tommy backed up a bit. “I was just thinkin’ how nice it would be if we could get on out to California. See them orange trees and stuff. The ocean and all.”
“We’ll make ‘er,” Mick said optimistically. “This two-machine deal is goin’ to work just fine. We’ll be out there before you know it.”
“Sure we will,” Tommy said, buoyed by the image of a land filled with food and easy labor for high wages just days beyond his reach. The land of milk and honey, he thought, manna from heaven like it says in the Bible.
* * * *
The following day Mick and Tommy actually made it through Kansas City. Despite Tommy’s insistence that they should turn west at Kansas City in order to go straight to California, Mick was equally insistent that Highway 71 was the only road that could possibly get them through Kansas City safe and sound. It was late in the day when the motorcycle patrolman signaled for the two travelers to pull their vehicles over to the side of the road just a couple of miles south of Platte City.
The officer wore tall, storm-trooper black leather boots that came almost to his knees. His uniform was solid black or deep, deep blue. He wore a blue helmet with a gold badge painted on the front. He removed his thick black gloves as he walked towards Mick and Tommy’s joined vehicles, his solid jaw jutting out like a challenge to all the Perps in the world who might mistake him for a soft touch.
At his side, a semi-automatic, 9-millimeter Glock was carefully strapped into its holster. The weapon stood out from the policeman’s utility belt, which had several hard leather pockets, snapped firmly shut and filled, no doubt, with ammo clips and other items designed to keep the errant citizenry in line. A mace can was held in place on his left hip by a Velcro strap. The officer was well prepared for any roadside emergency.
As he walked up and down the length of the two vehicles, the officer shook his head a couple of times, scratched his chin, and sighed deeply. Mick and Tommy tried to surreptitiously signal one another but their efforts were thwarted by the proximity of the somewhat perplexed but alert officer. After making two or three trips from one end of the linked vehicles to the other, the patrolman finally stopped just beyond Mick’s door where both men could easily see and hear him.
“Do you gentlemen know why I stopped you?” he asked calmly.
“Uh…” Mick began.
“We was just goin’,” Tommy interrupted, “to California.”
“You intended to tow this vehicle all that way?” the officer asked incredulously.
“Yes, sir,” Mick said.
“All the way,” Tommy said with conviction, “to California.”
“Uh, yeah, I got that part,” the officer said.
“It’s not really towin’,” Mick added, “so much as it is pullin’.”
“I’m sorry?” the policeman replied, raising an eyebrow.
“See I got a good motor in this here pickup,” Mick explained, “and Tommy’s got good breaks on his car back there. Together it’s a real sweet truck-car.”
The officer scratched his forehead and sighed again.
“You wouldn’t happen to have driver’s licenses, registration, proof of insurance – that sort of thing would you?” he asked.
“Somewhere’s in here,” Mick answered, beginning to dig around the glove compartment of the pickup.
“I didn’t think I needed none,” Tommy called up, as Mick held out some paperwork for the policeman.
“Thank you, sir,” the officer said. “If you gentlemen will remain in your vehicles with your engines, er, engine off, I’ll be right back.”
As the patrolman walked back to his motorcycle, Mick and Tommy resumed their waving back and forth. Neither could understand what the other’s arm-flailing signals meant.
“What do you reckon he’s checkin’ on,” Tommy finally just said, in the loudest low voice he could manage and still be heard by Mick.
“Hush, now,” Mick said, “I can hear him on his radio.”
“Well, what’s he sayin’?” Tommy asked.
“Sounds like they done heard of us,” Mick answered. “Somebody or other called in about us to ‘em.”
“Yeah, and … wait, the motorcycle cop is gettin’ red-faced.”
“Somethin’ about vehicle traveling violations and … oh, no, tickets, I heard tickets.”
“We cain’t pay no tickets,” Tommy said, “we ain’t hardly got enough to go to California as it is.”
“Hush up,” Mick waved for Tommy to be quiet, “listen.”
“…to deal with them,” the men heard the patrolman say into his hand-held radio, “…standard procedure …. what am I supposed to … well, hell … yes, sir, yes, sir … I don’t see how …. yes, sir, if that’s what you want.”
“Uh, oh,” Mick fretted, “here he comes back.”
“It seems, gentlemen,” the patrolman said when he had made his way back to the pair of linked vehicles and drivers, “that we have something of a precedent here.”
“A what?” Tommy asked, with a blank expression. The police officer’s face flushed and he rattled Mick’s papers which he still held.
“I don’t believe,” the patrolman said through clenched teeth and ignoring Tommy’s question, “that there is a single traffic law that you two have not violated here today in my jurisdiction.”
“I know what that means,” Tommy said with a crooked smile.
“Yes, well,” the officer went on, his grip on Mick’s papers tightening, “it seems that my superiors feel the best thing to do here is to allow you gentlemen to continue on with your, uh, journey.”
“That mean we can go?” Mick wondered. The patrolman leaned back, adjusted his shoulders as if they had a kink in them and then glared down at Mick.
“Don’t think for one second that that’s what I would like to see happen here,” he said, the grinding of his molars almost palpable.
“You not gonna write us no ticket?” Tommy asked. “We can just go?”
“Yes,” the policeman said firmly, “and if it were me, I’d be going right now.”
Mick started up the pickup. Tommy tested the brakes on the Dodge. They both looked at the officer. The veins on his neck bulged.
“What are you waiting on?” he asked the travelers.
“Can I … I have my papers back?” Mick said timidly. For a moment it looked like the policeman might draw his revolver and end the trip on the spot. “Please,” Mick added, “Mr. Sir.”
The officer shoved the papers at Mick. Tommy beeped his horn for Mick to take off. The patrolman stepped back away from the dual-vehicle contraption. He took a deep, long breath.
“Get this damned thing out of my county,” the officer barked at Mick and Tommy, “on the double, you understand me? I don’t care where you go. I don’t care how you get there. Just get yourselves and this thing out of my jurisdiction – and don’t come back, ever.”
“No, sir,” Mick said, “we’ll be sure not to do that.”
“See that you don’t.”
Mick shoved the pickup in gear and waved back to Tommy to release the brake. With a blast of black and blue smoke, the pickup lurched forward pulling the chain taut between it and the Dodge. The two vehicles began to slowly lumber up the highway. The exasperated patrolman stepped back and watched the vehicles move away with a final shake of his head.
“Hot damn,” Mick cheered, leaning out the window of the pickup as the officer walked back to his motorcycle, “California or bust!”
“Let’s go,” Tommy yelped from the Dodge.
He was so glad to be clear of the law that the fact they were going north and not west no longer seemed to matter much to him. He let out a big hoot and a holler of joy and leaned his head out the window to yell up to Mick.
“California here we come!” he cried. “California or bust!”
“Hot damn,” Mick cried out happily, “yee ha!”
Behind them, the patrolman started his motorcycle, hammered it in gear, and then shot out onto the highway heading south as fast as he could go. In seconds he was far down the road, nearly out of sight, his motorcycle rumbling loudly into the still Missouri air. He never once looked back.
Happily back on course for California, Mick and Tommy kept up a steady, if slow, pace. With any luck they’d make it to St. Joe in the next day or two and from there they’d figure out which direction it was to get out west. They weren’t too worried. They had enough gas and food to last for awhile. As far as they were concerned, it was just a matter of avoiding local bullies and the police and it would be clear sailing to the coast. California or Bust was the plan – and they were sticking to it.
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