7. The Trip, Chap. 3: The Desperado Connection

The Desperado Connection (Ch. 3)

July, 1973

 “I sure need to take a shower,” I complained as I jammed the stick into reverse to hold the van on the steep slope of the driveway. Safely back down the mountain once again. Juli, Rob, and Charlie piled out of the back and began to climb the stone steps up to the lake house.

Helen Ashley gingerly stepped down from the front seat and headed for the lower level entrance. I hustled around to catch up with her, and she smiled and patted my arm. “We thoroughly enjoyed that little jaunt in the woods, John. Thank you for taking us out.”

“Glad y’all came up,” I replied. “Sorry I made you nervous on those curves. And thanks for letting us move back in the cabin.”

“You’re quite welcome. We enjoy having you boys,” she said politely as she entered the house.

“We’ll get that gutter cleaned and fixed up for you tomorrow,” I called to her, wondering if she heard as I began to climb the steps. We’ve got to get to that fascia board too, I thought, trying to press the thought into my mind so I wouldn’t forget again to do the chores I’d agreed to do in return for staying in the old cabin. Hope she’s not upset; she seems a little formal….

Climbing the steps, I thought about the time we’d climbed Mount LeConte, remembering Mrs. Ashley’s excitement over the wildflowers along the way , how thrilled she’d been when I brought her the rare yellowwood blossoms. She was my mother’s best friend in the world and I had to do right by her.

“Camping out is fun, but it gets old after awhile,” I said as I caught up with the others at the top of the steps. “I really miss showers!”

“I miss ice cubes.” They all looked at Charlie and laughed. It was his first comment since they had begun the ride down the mountain. He squinted up at me with a smile, cocking his head to one side and running a hand through his long, thin hair, stringy from two weeks without shampoo. “I need a drink.”

“Well, y’all come over and take a bath,” Rob said. “Soon as Miz Ashley’s gone, we’ll party! Time to boogey!” He grinned broadly and shook back his mane, winking at us and doing a quick pantomime of a drum solo.

Charlie smiled back and flashed a thumbs-up, drawling, “Aw-right!” trying to imitate Rob’s Southern good-time rock’n’roller attitude. We headed for the little cabin that sat on the steep embankment next to the two-story A-frame. I remembered the summer I had helped Mr. Ashley clear the slope of poison ivy and lay the flagstone path that led to the old cabin. Another summer, we’d lined the bedroom with knotty pine to help his allergies.

I shuddered for the second time that day as Charlie and I entered the porch. The screen door slammed loudly behind us, and I snorted at the musty smell, trying to shake off the strange chill that descended despite the warm July evening. North Carolina is cool in the summer, I thought, not comforted.

We spoke little as we settled back into the cabin we had stayed in for several weeks before another set of Mrs. Ashley’s guests had pushed us up the mountain to a creek-side campsite for two weeks. I thought about the camping as I grabbed a broom and began stirring the dust on the cabin floor. I had enjoyed the woods and the stream, although I spent most of my days working at the packing plant in Waynesville. The long drive up and down every day was wearing, however, and I was glad for the simpler routine being back in the cabin promised; and I was glad for the company of Juli and Rob. They would be staying next door with Juli’s mother for the next week.

It’ll be good to have old friends to talk to, I thought. Normal conversation. Charlie and I have about run out of things to talk about. Too much silence. Been over a month since we left Orlando, and we’re not a lot closer to Canada. Or wherever the hell we’re going. Savannah was fun, seeing the family was great, stopping here to work, get a little money together had seemed like a good idea, especially since the cabin’s available. Now I’m not so sure. We’re spending all the money I make at the tomato packing plant on partying. I’m starting to get pissed at Charlie. Doesn’t want to work, just sits around drinking and smoking all day. I should try to be cool about it, but it pisses me off. His money’s long gone, and the guy that supposedly owes him money is still scarce.

So I’m starting to wonder. Wonder if Charlie really has a friend in Kentucky, or at that commune or whatever in Oregon. I’m just beginning to wonder about him a lot. Something’s not right. I keep getting these strange feelings. What the hell’s that about?

I knew he was on probation when we started out, knew his background, at least the stuff Brian had mentioned, so I knew what I was getting into. We had some good times, in the orange grove, a few weeks of hanging out; he had seemed like somebody I could relate to, even though he didn’t talk much, it seemed like he understood. Hell, I could sure understand not talking about the war after what he’s been through. At least he knew what it was like. Hard to relate to people who’d been oblivious to it all – like most everybody I ran into.

The memories eddied around confusingly as I stood at the ancient sink, looking out the tiny window past the Rolling Rock bottles at the green moss on the damp rocks of the retaining wall. How did I get myself into this? Really wanted to get on the road, I guess. We did have some good times. And it’s not so bad here. Working at the packing plant sure beats those Florida jobs.

I remembered the nursery in Apopka. Damned ornamental capital of the world. I’ll probably get lung cancer from breathing the shit we sprayed. Worse than defoliant and JP4 for your health. Iridescent rivulets running down to the creek every time we turned on the sprinklers, the mist blowing over you, poison dust from those hellacious mixing vats. Four or five bags of shit, each says “Do not mix with other chemicals!” We stirred ‘em up with a stick, leaning over the vat. I shuddered at the memory. Maybe not as bad as napalm and cluster bombs, but it’s all the same shit.

The cool, quiet nights at Champagne Color had been better, though probably not much better to breathe, I reflected. It had been nice, though, sitting by the drying drum watching the pictures roll out. Interesting to see the things people took pictures of, like a secret little window into people’s lives. Kids’ birthday parties and vacations, dogs, cats, swimming pools. Whole rolls of some guy’s girlfriend twisting around naked on some tacky bedspread, the same dull smile in every pose. Kids in cowboy suits or jungle camo, pointing their toy guns at the camera. Sheriff’s Department pictures of dead bodies on bloody kitchen floors. And Mickey and Goofy. Roll after roll of kids and inanely-smiling adults posing with Disney characters. A cross-section of life in the United States.

Interesting at first, but the vague sense of irritation and frustration had grown into anger. Then I had started flashing on scenes from my head, seeing them instead of the pictures on the drum: I’d be sitting there looking at some boring pool party and suddenly I’m seeing bomb craters in the Ashau Valley, a C-141 burning on the tarmac, or tracer fire coming up from the ground, helicopters crashing in rice paddies, empty faces and broken bodies.

Then one night it had hit me: exactly what I’ve been seeing night after night roll off that drum, exactly this banal life had been going on the whole time I was in Southeast Asia.

Disney built the Magic Kingdom while the Bongos turned the Ashau Valley into a quilt of craters.

That had been it for the job. My mouth got dry as I thought about it now. A few more long days, unable to sleep for the heat, and it had been easy to just walk away and say ‘fuck it.’ It was the fourth job I’d quit since I got back. Fifth if you counted quitting the Air Force. The war and the six months they had raked me over the coals after I got back had pretty much killed my motivation. I think I had some career aspirations, back in college: grad school, academia, diplomacy or something. Now I just want to keep moving… find myself a liquor still!

Yeah, I had been ready to go, get out of Florida, get out of the country maybe. Hell, I’d been wanting to go to Canada since graduation – probably should’a gone – so why not? It had been easy to take Charlie’s suggestion. I was lost in my thoughts now, lost in the anger, half-scrubbing at the counter, absently putting away pots and pans…. I don’t even want to stay in this country any more, not after what it’s done to us. Disemboweled, that’s the word. The War, and what they’ve done to everybody so they could keep having the war, it’s all just spiritually disemboweled us. That’s why we feel so empty. We eat and drink and smoke and snort and it all just blasts out the bottom. There’s nothing there, so we just keep moving. Blow it out your ass, the jet jockeys loved to say. That’s what we’re doing. Just like that F-4 jock that lost it in the O-Club at DaNang, jumped up on the bar and started shooting up all the mirrors and the bottles with his Smith & Wesson .38 Caliber Combat Masterpiece, the sidearm we all carried so we could get rescued or otherwise if we crashed in the jungle. Blowing it out his ass, they said.

I shook my head to clear the memories. Yeah, Charlie had seemed like he’d be a good traveling companion. I knew he liked to drink a little too much, get high a lot, but shit, who didn’t? But he was a lot more fun then, in Florida. Now just wants to be fucked up all the time. And when he’s not, I can’t stand the silence.

Suddenly I realized Charlie was in the kitchen with me, poking around through the pots and pans. “Oh, hey!” I said, shaken momentarily. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Is there a large, heavy pot of some kind here anywhere?” he asked. “And a pepper mill?”

“Yeah, I think I saw one.” I looked under the counter for the large pot I remembered stuffing away. I pulled it out and set it on the stove. Charlie smiled. “And I think there’s some pepper somewhere, probably not a pepper mill. Did you take a shower already?”

“Yeahhhh,” Charlie said, dragging out the word and tilting his head in pleasure. “I feel good enough to start some split pea soup!” A smile lit his wan face.

Must’ve sneaked a snort, too, put you in such an expansive mood, I wanted to say. I looked for the pepper, set it on the counter, and kept my mouth shut.

I guess that’s how I got myself into this, I thought, finding the thread I’d lost somewhere on the way to re-living a moment of my personal war. I guess it’s because he knows what it’s like to feel disemboweled. He doesn’t give a shit anymore, just like me. He carries around that notebook and he might have thoughts about City Lights, but it’s not like he really cares. Recon in Laos taught him about life in the USA, just like it did me. And he must have told them the same thing I did: “Fuck this. This is crazy. I’m not going back.” So they kicked him out. Just like me.

“Well, I think I’ll go take a shower myself,” I said, shaking off my thoughts again and heading for my pack. I glanced back at Charlie, making soup-starting meanders in the little kitchen.

Yeah, we’re just two desperados, nowhere to go, nowhere to go back to. Just go.

Clean clothes in hand, I headed for the door. Charlie had come out of the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, which sat out in the main room by the entrance because it was too big for the tiny kitchen. I stopped, blocked by the refrigerator door, and waited as Charlie peered into the moldy white cavern, the appliance light casting a greenish pallor over his face. Again, an icy finger traced down my spine, an unnatural chill descended over me.

“Well, shit!” Charlie said, laughing as he scanned the meager contents of the old Frigidaire. “They could have left us some tidbits!”

“Oh well,” I said flatly, impatient. “S’cuse me man, I’m heading for the showers.” I squeezed by and double-timed it up the path and down the steps to the shower in the lower level of the A-frame. I caught myself wondering in irritation if Charlie had again substituted Ivory for the Dial – “That yellow shit is poison!” he’d said – normally kept in the shower stall, and It hit me: the “desperado connection” is wearing thin.