Willie returns for the New Year. If you need to remember or catch up on the narrative to date, start with Stage 1 and then come back to 29.
Willie Stage 29
Light from the electric plant took over as dusk settled in. Their campsite was about 200 feet back from Cape Cod Bay in a sandy area under some fir trees. When it was too dark to read, Willie stretched, stood, and said, “I’m gonna go for a walk.”
Rose waved at him as she crawled into her sleeping bag and said, “By the time you get back, I’ll probably be checked out.”
He walked along the shore toward the lights of the power plant. With darkness, cool air meandered in off the ocean as water lapped against the shore. The tide was in and there wasn’t much of a sand beach to walk on. Rocks large enough to turn an ankle were everywhere, so instead of continuing, he chose a spot on top of a grassy hummock and sat down.
In all of his wanderings he usually ended up by water somewhere. He couldn’t imagine being too far from its movement, whether from wind, current or tides, the rhythms infinite. The world that borders it enriched its power and serenity.
On a grey, malevolent, wind-driven day, it could push over towering rocks and deliver its opinion of any barrier, its prerogative to shape whatever it wanted to. At the same place on a different day, in the radiance of a setting sun, it was inconceivable that the gentle swells could ever be anything but reassuring and sustaining.
On his property back in Pennsylvania, Willie had fashioned some primitive steps down to the stream that flowed through his property, taking advantage of its graceful decline into the valley. In between the tree roots he carved out cradles to hold rocks for steps, and made the 300 foot drop to the creek bed manageable in all but the nastiest conditions. A few feet above the natural flow he arranged some rocks in the shape of a chair, where he’d spend time.
In the morning it would be a place to have coffee, at mid-day, a spot where he could escape the house on a hot summer day, and in the evening a venue for “deep thoughts”, although he doubted they were more profound than the shallow watercourse. It didn’t matter, water and its ways drew him.
After sitting for a time, he grew tired and annoyed by the incessant hum and brightness of the plant. There were a lot better places to enjoy the sea than this, but this beggar could not be a chooser, especially when he was passing through. On the edge of consciousness lingered an urge for something more permanent, perhaps a change in attitude would shift his perspective instead of wandering in vexation. Maybe he should drift for delight alone rather than flight. He didn’t know. He shrugged, stood, and wandered back to the campsite.
Willie – A Modern Odyssey – Stage 1
Willie walked down the road. He’d had it. Enough was enough. No more bullshit, no more waking in the middle of the night, the house cold and empty. He had his sleeping bag, a knapsack full of maps and a tattered suitcase with what little clothes he had.
The house had been a refuge for a time. It was stuck back in the woods, hidden behind a rock outcropping below a hill. Even when the trees around it were stripped bare of leaves by late fall winds, it couldn’t be seen from the highway above the hill. The steel gate across the road with the rusty lock hadn’t been opened in years, grass on the narrow lane waist high, and interspersed with volunteer elm and aspen.
The traffic on the road was sparse. This time of day it was mostly commuters heading to Barnet, to work at the factory. He’d put in his time there until the rising sun in the Pacific and general incompetence in Detroit, sucked the life out the area. He could see it coming.
They were a supplier for the Big Three, making transmissions. You’d think the hot shots with accounting degrees but no common sense would want to make the best gears in the world – fat chance. He didn’t know the fine points of the engineering, but could see the results of cost cutting. Every time he reached into the bins for nuts, bolts and pinion bearings he could feel it. Even when he touched the gear housings, the bean counter’s hand was there. It showed in the final product. Willie got a buyout and bailed. Pissed, he hit the road; wanted to see America before it changed forever.
He put out his thumb as a semi went by and started walking backward down the road. He figured he might end up walking all the way into town before he got a lift. He wasn’t dressed for success. It had been a long time since he had crossed paths with a shower and a haircut. His long, thinning, gray hair and worn, scuffed motorcycle jacket didn’t inspire confidence in the passersby in their Mercedes and BMWs. After about ten cars, an old rusty Toyota convertible pulled over. He hustled down the road, scuffing his shoes in the gravel as he went.
He opened the passenger door and leaned in saying, “Thanks. Thought I was gonna have to hoof it all the way into town!” He stopped before he moved his stuff to the back seat, stunned at who he saw……
Willie – Stage 2 (Inspiration provided by Jim Hill, Carter’s Corner, Ohio)
He was looking at Santa Claus; full white beard, wire rim glasses, and a red watch cap planted squarely on his head. The face had a Wilford Brimley kind of look, but more weathered, as if the wearer had spent years on a trawler on the Grand Banks. Then he heard the voice.
Where you headed son?”
Willie laughed as he swung his rear end onto the cracked leather seat of the old car. “What the hell – – Heavy Nolan! I’d like to say you haven’t changed a bit, but that would be a god-damn lie. How are ya?”
Heavy crunched the car into gear and moved forward, just missing getting side-swiped by a Lexus barreling by, the driver leaning on the horn and flipping him off. He cackled as he accelerated, shifting into second gear, “Guess I shoulda paid more attention. Hate to think about this beauty getting a crease in it!” He turned and smiled at Willie.
“I’m doing adequate, not great, but okay.”
“Well thanks for picking me up,” Willie said.
They road along in silence, tires and transmission whining a duet, each reluctant to say more. Their parting years ago had not been a good one. A woman, too much alcohol and time in the county jail had complicated their relationship. The woman, gorgeous at midnight in an ill-lit saloon, by daylight lost some of her glow when Willie saw her behind the counter at the Shell station a week later.
“So what you been up to Heavy?”
Heavy shifted in his seat, focused on the road ahead. “Takin care of my brother Ernie.” Ernie was his downs syndrome brother, a grade school classmate of Willie’s. “He’s kind of sick lately. Had him to a doctor in Columbus last week. They can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong. Guess he’s just getting old.”
“Sorry to hear that.” The wind whistled through the car’s black vinyl top. Willie stared out the window. The water tower appeared on the horizon as they crested the top of a hill.
“Where can I take ya Willie?”
“To the bus station I guess.”
“The bus don’t stop here no more.”
“Yeah, the nearest town ya can catch it is Willowbrook. I’d take ya there, but I gotta get Milt’s medicine and get back home.
“When did the bus quit coming here?”
“Bout ten years ago,” Heavy replied.
“I’ll be god-damned,” said Willie shaking his head. He thought for a minute and said, “Why don’t ya just drop me off on 95 before we hit town.” Heavy nodded.
At the intersection of 95 and Hi-way 62, Heavy pulled over. As Willie pulled the last of his belongings out of the car he leaned over and said, “Thanks Heavy. – You know, that woman wasn’t worth it.”
Heavy cackled again, “Water over the dam. You take care and good luck.” He drove off.
Willie turned and shuffled down the road.
Willie – Stage 3
He shook his head, wondering what he was going to do. He had been alone for a long time, never lonely, but by himself – his choice.
He sustained a life of isolation by becoming a modern day Eull Gibbons without the press releases and rugged good looks. He hunted and trapped squirrels and rabbits for protein, foraged for the rest in the state forest behind the house, and occasionally walked the ten miles to town in the winter to dumpster dive behind the A&P and Burger King.
The house he had taken over below the hill had belonged to a cousin long dead. As a kid he had come there in the summers for weeks at a time to stay with his Aunt Mae. The whole family was killed in a house fire in Pittsburgh and the house had stood empty for years, the road in overgrown with Norways, Spruces, Catalpas and brush.
When he first got to the property after his journey across America, he ripped out any indicators that someone had ever lived there, including the old mailbox, and strung some barbwire across the entrance between two fence posts. When he had to leave the property he would walk down to the creek below the house and follow it out to the bridge a mile down, climb out of the streambed and up onto the road for trips to town every few months. He kept a PO Box where his disability checks came.
In all the time he’d lived in the house he’d only been bothered twice by people he didn’t want to talk to. His twelve gauge, a cold stare and unresponsiveness to attempts at conversation by interlopers usually meant quick exits by the invaders from the outside world.
The wind along 95 was strong from the east, the moisture direction – not a good sign. He had an old poncho in his backpack that would keep him partially dry, but anything more than a light rain would create serious problems. Refuge underneath overpasses could provide temporary shelter, but he didn’t relish the idea of being wet and cold. The cars on the highway zipped by, semis throwing up dust when the trailers swung to the dirt on the side of the road, the hum of the tires announcing their approach.
By midday the rain came, light at first, then a more substantial driving fall. He looked for a bridge.
After walking a couple more miles he saw a good prospect for shelter. He swung his legs over the guard rail and worked his way down the bank to a small creek below. He smelled smoke.
Willie – Stage 4 Inspiration provided by Sue Bruns – Bemidji
There under the bridge abutment, tucked out of the wind and rain was a small campfire. A person was hunched over a faltering flame, poking a stick into a pile of twigs in an attempt to coax more of a blaze from the small branches. Trying not to startle them, Willie coughed.
With lightening quick reflexes, the person leapt over the flames, spun around and reached into a bulky jacket and produced a foot long knife that looked like it had been lifted from Jim Bowie.
Willie raised both his hands and shouted, “No, no. No need to worry! I’m just trying to get out of the rain same as you. I ain’t gonna hurt nobody!”
A young woman with a finely featured face and long black hair spilling out of a navy blue hoodie, stared back at him with cold-day blue eyes. Piercings above the eyebrows and under the lower lip accented her grungy appearance. He caught a strong whiff of body odor as the wind eddied under the bridge.
“Look. I’m just trying to stay dry. I’ll go sit farther up under the bridge and stay out of your way,” he said.
She gestured with the big blade, indicating to Willie that he could pass.
Willie walked cautiously below her, keeping a wary watch and worked his way up to a corner under the abutment out of the wind. This was an older bridge, in a rural area and didn’t have the uneven surfaces underneath it that made it impossible for a person to sit or lie down. He dropped his backpack and leaned against the concrete wall. He pulled out one of the last cigarettes in his pack, a tobacco addict’s luxury, and lit up, inhaling deeply. With about forty feet between him and his reluctant companion, he felt he could relax a bit. He stared at the water as it rushed by below.
“Ya know lady, if this rain keeps up, you’re not gonna stay dry down there,” he said, “This river’ll fill fast when the creeks start draining into it. It can become dangerous fast. I’d advise you to move higher up on the other end before it becomes a problem.”
He got no response. The young woman kept adding larger sticks to her fire, increasing the size of the blaze. After a while she dug in a shoulder bag she was carrying and opened what appeared to be a bag of granola and started eating from it.
The rain was coming faster now. The wind had died, but the deluge continued. The water below had risen a foot or two up the bank. The girl gave up on the fire and climbed further up the embankment under the bridge on the farther end. The water reached the level of her abandoned campfire, extinguishing it. As she sat down, she lost her footing and slid down the embankment.
Willie Stage 5
Willie stood and watched as she slid toward the rushing water. He was propelled into action as she continued her skid down the embankment. With resigned determination the young woman tried to regain her grip on the wet rocks below, but each time she gained a purchase, the rocks gave way, moving her closer to the water. A final effort proved fruitless and she tumbled in.
The current was swift with debris in the water all around. Her panicked face swept back to where he stood as she mouthed a plaintive, “Help.”
Never the most agile person, Willie raced down the river bank, keeping his eyes trained on the terrified girl. He knew if he didn’t move quickly, he would never have a chance to get to her. Fortunately the watercourse took a swing to the right not far ahead. As she approached a deadfall, the girl’s hooded sweatshirt snagged on one of the lower branches, holding her in place. The force of the current was bending the branch toward its breaking point. Willie climbed out on the main trunk of the tree and reached for the girl and had a firm grip on her hand as the branch snapped. Her grasp failed and she slipped out of his hand. With his other hand, Willie grabbed for the hood of her sweatshirt and held firm. Tugging her along he inched his way backward to a point on the tree trunk where she was able to grab it and help herself to shore. They both tumbled onto the river bank and struggled higher, away from the water. Breathless, both of them stood staring at the water as it surged by. Finally the girl turned to him and said, “Thanks.”
Willie stood and said, “C’mon. We need to get back to our stuff and make sure it’s safe. You need to get out of those clothes and get warmed up.”
The girl started to shiver. He helped her up and they struggled back to the bridge. The rain had slowed for the moment, and the water appeared to be rising slower. Willie said, “I’m gonna start a fire with the left over brush you pulled up earlier and then go look for some drier stuff back in the woods to burn. You get out of those wet clothes and climb into your sleeping bag and try to get warm. Again, – – I ain’t gonna hurt you or look at ya when you get undressed. Just get to it.”
The girl retreated up the embankment to her pile of belongings and Willie turned his back and started to work on getting another fire going. After the dry tinder caught fire, he went out from underneath the bridge back into a more heavily forested area and found some damp wood to bring back. By this time the girl had worked her way down in her sleeping bag to the small blaze and was feeding it larger branches.
“Careful there now lady, we don’t want to run out of dry stuff until I can make this big stuff take off.” She shivered. “You getting any warmer?” he asked.
Willie Stage 6
The girl nodded yes.
“You got a name or do all I get is a head shake?”
“Sunflower,” she said, at the same time shivering, her teeth chattering.
“Humph,” Willie replied. “You choose that or your parents?”
They sat in silence. The fire sizzled and smoldered, pouring out clouds of smoke that the wind pushed from underneath the overpass into the countryside. The rain fell. Cars and semis rumbled overhead, tires whining as they traversed the bridge.
The river continued to rise, but Willie figured barring a major flood, they would be safe where they sat. He took more branches and sawed them into shorter lengths and carefully placed them on their little fire. He was a walking Swiss Army knife; always carried a set of essential tools for surviving in his wanderings. Among his equipment was the ever present cigarette lighter, a can opener, scissors, needle and thread, a vice grip, razor blades, although he had no intention of shaving, a small cook kit, camping silverware, a fillet knife and a small, powerful flashlight.
“I got some packages of Lipton soup if you’d like. Would you like some?”
“Hmm, hmm,” she said.
He rummaged around in his back-pack, found the soup and pulled out the cook kit. He wasn’t real crazy about taking water from the river, so instead he went over to a drain pipe that channeled water off the roadway, held it out for a minute till it filled a small pan and put it on the fire. After he had a boil going, he poured the contents of the soup package into the pot where he let it sit for a minute or two. He took out an old package of crackers, poured some soup into a war surplus metal cup he was never without, and handed them to the girl.
“Here ya go Sunny.”
The girl glared at him.
“Hey. I don’t do flowers. Just eat damn it. Your lips are turning blue.”
She sipped the contents of the cup with its tiny pieces of meat, left by a disintegrated chicken that had generously donated its’ life. Willie figured the chicken probably provided enough protein to fill a gross of little soup envelopes.
“Ya know Sunny. What you’re doing is dangerous. I don’t know why you’re on the road, but it’s a rough place for a woman. I choose it, but most people your age and gender aren’t here because they wanna be.”
She shrugged and stared at him, sipping the soup occasionally.
Willie laughed. “You’re quite a talker Sunny. I don’t know how if I’ll get a word in edgewise.” He snickered.
“None of your damn business old man,” she said glaring.
Willie shrugged and replied. “Naw. I guess it isn’t. I had a daughter once, bout your age, and I wouldn’t want her doing what you’re doing.”
Willie Stage 7
The girl shrugged her shoulders, sipped the warm soup and stared at the fire. Willie kept feeding sticks into the blaze and leaned back on his pack and stared at it. “You warmin up Sunny?”
“Yep,” she replied – the silence extended and then, “Where’s your kid?”
Willie turned, looked at her and replied. “Someplace in California. I haven’t talked to her in years.”
“How come?’ came the reply.
“She’s pissed at me. Didn’t like what I was doing, wandering around all the time. Christ, she was old enough to be on her own – school, job, decent guy she was living with.”
“Where’s your wife?”
Willie turned away. “For someone who won’t tell me shit, you sure ask a lot of questions. This is a two way street ya know.”
The rain continued falling, varying between a light drizzle and heavier showers. He fed the fire.
“My parents are in Oregon,” the girl offered.
“Where?” asked Willie.
“What do they do?”
“Sit around and smoke pot.”
“Doesn’t sound real exciting.”
“It isn’t. They’re toasted,” she said.
“Why’d you leave?” he asked.
“No reason to stay.”
Willie stood up, went to his back pack, rummaged around and came up with a package of beef jerky. He ripped open the top, and tossed half of the contents to the girl. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Hope you’re not a vegetarian.”
The girl smiled and tore into the dark meat, chewing vigorously. “Not really,” she said. “I eat anything – except lima beans.”
Willie laughed. “Ah, a kindred spirit. They are nasty aren’t they?”
They sat in silence, chewing, the sky getting darker as evening approached.
“So where are you headed, Sunny?”
“The name’s Rose. To Cape Cod. I have an old boyfriend there. He works in a coffee shop.”
“The Cape is nice, especially when all the tourists leave in September. It’ll be a good time to be there.”
“How do you know about the Cape?”
“Used to live there – P town.”
“You gay?” she said.
“Hate to disappoint you. Not really,” he smiled.
Willie stood and moved his gear higher up under the bridge onto a cement shelf. He opened his sleeping bag and spread it out on the concrete, after putting down a closed cell pad. “I’m gonna turn in Rosie. You good to go for sleeping?”
The girl nodded her head and replied, “Yep. I am gonna watch the fire for a while. Do we need to do anything with it?”
“Naw. Just let it burn down. Good night,” he said and crawled into his sleeping bag.
He lay there, occasionally opening his eyes to check on the girl. She was preoccupied with the fire. He rolled over and shut his eyes.
The talk with the girl had roiled him. He was not an obsessive type, but their short conversation kindled dried debris inside his head. It spun around, ejecting chunks of history that smoldered like the fire under the bridge.
Willie – Stage 8
Willie and Mary had a good life together early on. They met through family friends at a wedding. She had long blonde hair that weaved and bobbed as she danced. Energetic, Mary left no move behind. She danced with everybody, never stopping. If a line had been allowed for dances with the women in the room, Mary’s would have been out the door, probably making any bride scarlet with envy. When the night was over, everyone knew who she was.
Willie wasn’t the best dancer, but loved the chance to be close to a woman’s body as they swung to various rhythms. He liked slow dancing, although the raucous energies of a good rock ‘n roll song made him laugh and feel like he could live forever. It was only after they married and had two kids and increasing conflicts about where they should live, that he understood the blues.
Mary worked in an insurance office the next town over. After their boy Robert went off to college in Illinois, she started putting in more time. She was good at what she did and started to work her way up the corporate ladder. When an opportunity for a promotion came up that would require a move to the Midwest, Willie’s lack of confidence and rigidity made negotiation about a move just about impossible. He was stuck, liked the routine of the assembly line and pay, loved the town where they lived. He would have none of it.
For a while they tried living apart and saw each other monthly. This arrangement was especially difficult for their daughter Carol who finally ended up moving in with her mother in Omaha. Willie stayed behind in Pennsylvania. He soured.
Things came to a head when on a surprise visit to Nebraska, Willie discovered Mary was having an emotional affair with a coworker. He felt betrayed. They spent a lot of time talking about what needed to be done and in the end Willie’s intransigence and Mary’s anger set in motion the mechanics of a dissolution.
As in many divorces, the kids ended up being ping-pong balls between the parents. Robert withdrew and remained distant from both his parents. Carol talked with both of them, but ultimately stayed with her mother, taking the position that her father was an “asshole with a stick up his butt”. Needless to say, this did not enhance their relationship. When Willie lost his job, instead of seeking new opportunities out West, he hit the road, trying to forget it all. He wandered, picked up odd jobs throughout the Northeast, and ended up for a time in Provincetown. There he worked as a mechanic in an independent garage fixing foreign cars.
Willie rolled around in his sleeping bag, trying to get comfortable. The rain had stopped and now a strong wind blew under the bridge. The girl had taken her sleeping bag, and as far as he could tell in the dim light, burrowed up under a bridge abutment farther down. With ache and regret, he turned to the wall of the bridge and B.B. King’s song, “The Thrill is Gone” held him in its wasted arms.
Willie Stage 9
Morning came cool and crisp. Burrowed down in the depths of his sleeping bag, he woke frequently during the night. Towards morning his dreams took a hallucinatory turn. Faces and more faces appeared, each one making requests, demands, that he couldn’t fulfill. He opened his eyes, frustrated.
He laid there for a while, trying to sort out the last day and a half and gave up. Fresh coffee would make it better.
Rose was still asleep in her little cove at the other end of the concrete apron. Willie dragged out his primus stove, purified some water from the river and heated it. He put the coffee in a small French Press and waited for it to brew. He poured it into a small metal cup and sat back and watched the shadows disappear as the sun crept along the river bank opposite.
“Is that coffee?” he heard from the sheltered bay under the bridge.
“You bet lady,” he replied. “It’ll take me a few minutes to get ya some.”
“No problem,” she said.
He went to work making another cup of coffee and had it ready in short order, pouring it into a mug provided by Rose. They sat in silence, watching the river.
“So what’s the plan Rosie?”
She shrugged. “Haven’t figured one out yet. What about you?”
“I’m headed east. Figure I’ll go up to Nova Scotia. I haven’t been there in years, maybe stop in P- town on the way. Want to come along with me to P – town?” He still didn’t like the idea of the girl traveling on her own, but if he could see her to the Cape and her boyfriend, then he could head north.
Rose replied, “Sure, if it’s not a problem.”
“Not one for me lady,” he said.
He rummaged around in his backpack, dug out some granola bars and tossed her one.
“How’d you sleep old man?”
“Willie’s the name. Slept horseshit. Too many dreams.” It was quiet.
“What do you think about dreams?” she said.
“Think they’re there for a reason. Stuff we haven’t figured out or things we’ll see again and we’d better have a plan for.”
“I don’t like the scary ones,” she said.
“Neither do I, but they have their purpose.”
He stood and went to the river to get some more water to make another cup of coffee. He turned and asked, “Wanna split a cup?” She nodded yes. After he poured equal portions for them he sat down and said, “Dreams are out of time. Not on our nickel. They’re like doors in a cluttered desk, full of scraps of paper we’ve kept. They might mean something, so we try to put them in order, cause that’s what we do, trying to make sense out of life. But dreams come from a timeless place. The scary ones warn, the nice ones give us some comfort when we need it. But it’s not our call.”
“You shoulda been some kinda philosopher or something,”
He snickered, “Not smart enough for one.” He stood. “Let’s go.”
Willie Stage 10
They packed their bags, Willie’s preparation had been more thought out, Rose’s haphazard. He’d learned over the years that if you didn’t plan ahead, have back up, the world would crawl down your neck and try to choke you.
“Rosie, how quick did you leave home?” he asked, looking at her meager supplies.
“I packed my crap one Friday night to stay with a friend. Didn’t even say good-bye to my parents. They were out of town. When I got to my friend’s house, she was having a fight with her boyfriend. I said screw it, stuck out my thumb and here I am.”
“Think your folks might be worried?”
“Naw, I’m 18. They don’t care as long as they don’t have to watch out for me.”
Willie shook his head and continued stuffing his back pack. When he finished he hoisted it onto his back and turned to Rose. “Yah ready?”
“Yep,” she replied.
They walked up from under the bridge onto the shoulder of the highway. Cars and trucks went by in a steady stream on the long entry ramp, a heavily traveled one from the town down the hill. Once they got on the interstate hitching would be a problem. The cops would be all over them if they tried to get a ride out there. After a half hour, an 18 wheeler grain truck pulled over. They hustled to the cab, threw their stuff in and climbed aboard. Rose sat on a stool at the edge of the sleeper, Willie in the passenger seat.
After they exchanged courtesies, Willie inquired, “How far ya going?”
“Baltimore,” the young driver replied as he shoved the truck into gear. He was a beefy kid with ham hands, who ran through the gears with practiced ease, never missing a rev or double clutched gear.
“Where you two headed?”
“Massachusetts and points east,” he said.
“I thought that was about as far east as you could go!” grinned the kid. He had an easy way about him, cordial and not overbearing.
“She’s headed to the Cape, I’m going to Nova Scotia.”
“Never been up that way. I hear it’s got awesome scenery.”
“Best in the world. Lotsa water,” said Willie.
hey drove for the next three hours, talking back and forth. Rose was quiet and leaned up against the side of the cab. She was drowsy and took the driver’s suggestion to nap on the bed in the sleeper.
As they reached the outskirts of Baltimore, the driver said, “I can leave you at a spot outside the terminal where you might be able to hitch a ride.”
“Sounds good,” Willie said.
The driver dropped them off a few blocks from his destination. They gathered their gear and walked down the street toward a Burger King. As they sat eating, Willie said, “I don’t know about you Rosie, but big cities creep me out. The sooner we get out of here the better.”
They talked about some options and decided a cheap hotel would be the best. They finished up and walked down the street.
Willie Stage 11
They shuffled by a series of warehouses before they came to the “Welcoming Arms Hotel”. Welcoming was stretching things a bit. The window on the lobby door didn’t need a shade for the late afternoon sun. There was enough grime built up on the outside to keep any stray rays at bay. The door had a spring closer that fought with him. He finally got it open and went in.
“Two rooms,” Willie said.
“That’ll be sixty bucks,” said the man behind the counter. He was rail thin with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and cheater glasses perched on top of his head. “The rooms have a sink,” he said. “The bathroom’s down the hall.”
“Works for me,” said Willie. He pulled three twenties from his money clip and handed them to the clerk. Rose made a move toward a purse she kept strapped around her neck. Willie waved her off and said, “Your treat for breakfast tomorrow. This ain’t no Hampton Inn with free waffles.”
They walked up the well-worn steps barely covered with thin linoleum that at one time had a floral print. Each step had its own sound.
The hall was dimly lit by a window on the end and bare florescent bulbs.
“Rosie. I’m gonna get a little quiet time and do some reading. See you later. If you need anything just yell. Hope to hell I’ll hear you – – although,” he said looking up and down the hall, “I can’t imagine I wouldn’t. You good to go?”
Rose was digging in her pocket and pulled out a cell phone. She smiled, “I always pay my Verizon bill.”
He snorted and said, “Say hello to all your Facebook friends for me.”
“I’ll text you if I need you,” she said. “Good night.”
Willie went into his room and dumped his backpack on the floor. He walked over to the window and looked out toward the Baltimore skyline. A neon light for the hotel flashed outside. “Christ, I am in the middle of a bad B movie.”
He settled in to his room, did a quick check for bed bugs and decided he would use the bed as a place to put his sleeping bag, even though the sheets looked clean. He reached into his pack and took out The Plague by Camus. He had read it a number of times and came back to it frequently. He liked the doctor in the book. He made sense to him. The other piece of reading material was an old “People” magazine – mind candy. One had to keep up with the Kardashians.
As he turned pages slowly in the dimming light from outside, he could hear Rose in the room next door moving furniture around. What the hell was she doing? He didn’t think there were many options when it came to enhancing the Feng shui of their rooms, but maybe the kid had a plan. Then there was a thud and the sound of glass breaking.
Willie: Stage 12
“Get the hell out of here!” Rosie shouted from the room next door, then the sound of furniture being moved around.
“Shut up bitch. You got so many pokes in your body, who’d want to touch you? What are you doing in my room?”
“Your room. This is mine. Get out of here!” Rose shouted.
Willie got up from his bed, unlatched his door and rushed next door to Rose’s in his stocking feet and pounded on the door. “Open the door Rosie!”
“I’m trying.” More moving furniture noise could be heard and a few of the doors down the hall were opened and people peered out. “Ouch! Stay away from me! Rose yelled.
Willie tried opening the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He threw his shoulder into the door and just as he hit it the third time the door opened and he flew into the room and landed on the bed. Rose was standing next to the door with a knife in her hand. In the opposite corner, next to the window was a thin, wild-eyed man with a tattered jean jacket and greasy, stringy hair. His eyes kept shifting back and forth between Rose and Willie.
“I’ll kill you bastards once I get my gun!” the unkempt man shouted.
There was no weapon in sight, but Willie grabbed Rose and yanked her behind him and backed out of the room. By that time the desk clerk made his appearance, cussing as he came down the hall. “What the hell is going on here?” he said.
“You might want to ask him,” Willie replied. “Seems he found a different way to get in the room beside the door.”
The clerk surveyed the broken glass on the floor and looked at the man lurking in the corner. He gritted his teeth and said, “Joey, get the hell out of here. I told you, you aren’t welcome here anymore. Go find another place to wreck!” He extracted his cell phone from his shirt pocket, scrolled down to a number and punched it in. “I’m calling your PO.”
At this, Joey made a spectacular exit, vaulting over the bed, climbed out the window and scooted down the fire escape. The clerk went to the window and yelled at the retreating figure. “You can run Joey, but you can’t hide. Dumbrowski will find you and kick your ass!” The clerk pushed past Willie and walked down the hall.
Willie said, “You got another room for Rosie here?”
Without turning the clerk said. “Figure it out for yourself!”
Willie turned to Rose. “I guess this ain’t the Hilton. Grab your stuff and bring it in my room. You can have the bed, I’ll take the floor.” He paused. “He hurt you?”
Rose a bit shaky said, “Naw. He just pissed me off. I was looking forward to a quiet night.”
“Guess you’re not going to get that.
Rose picked up her gear, shook out some glass from her sleeping bag, all the while muttering under her breath. With little drama, she moved into Willie’s room.
Willie Stage 13
“Well Rosie, I was just settling in to a little Camus. What were you gonna read?”
“I don’t read much,” she replied.
“How come?” he said, opening the sleeping pad and bag on the floor and lining them up against the wall.
“Never liked it I guess. Just listen to music.”
“Head banger stuff?”
“Sometimes, but I like Brubeck, Coltrane and Henry Cow.”
“Holy Cow?” he asked.
“Not Holy, Henry”
“Oh,” he said blankly.
“I’m gonna lay down on the bed and chill now,” she said.
That kid sure can carry on a conversation! Willie sat down on his sleeping bag and leaned his back up against the wall and dove into the world of Camus. It was a grim one, but redemptive in ways that were real.
He was tired, and finally put the book down. He looked over the edge of the bed and saw Rosie was out — snoring. I hope she doesn’t get any louder than that! He shut off the light.
Willie woke up for the day about the time the first few rays of sunlight fought their way through the grimy glass. Road noise outside was picking up as big trucks wheeled by on their way to the nearby loading docks. Rose stirred.
“Morning sunshine,” Willie said.
Rose turned and gave him the Death Stare, her hair even in more disarray than usual. Her head looked like it had exploded.
She leaned over and grabbed her backpack, stepped over his legs and went down to the bathroom down the hall.
When she came back she was marginally presentable for a kid with multiple piercings and tats. Willie smiled. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. He stood and walked to the bathroom, hoping to get there before the rest of the high class clientele commandeered it.
When he returned he said, “Let’s get some chow, Rosie. We got miles to go. Your treat.”
They went to the café down the street. Rose ordered a bagel and coffee, Willie oatmeal.
“So what do we do today?” Rose inquired.
“That depends. Do you want to see the sights or just get on the road?”
“I’ll take the road.”
They finished their meals and walked back toward I 95 down Key Highway, past high-end condos and brew pubs.
They stood on the entrance ramp with thumbs out for a half hour before an old Dodge Caravan pulled over. Willie opened the passenger door and was greeted by a skinny black man with well-kept dreads, Bob Marley playing on the radio. “Throw your stuff in and let’s go. I gotta make some time. Where you headed?”
“The Cape,” Willie replied.
“Good enough mon. I’m going to Newark. Getcha part of the way.”
The van accelerated and they merged onto the freeway, passing under the Patapsco River, the Marley drowned out by the roar of traffic in the tunnel. Rose settled down in the second row seat with ear buds locked onto her head.
When they could talk, Willie asked. “So how long you been driving?”
Willie Stage 14
“Just coming from Savannah.”
“You driving straight through?”
“Yep, gotta make time. My girlfriend is going to have a baby.”
“Well congratulations!” said Willie.
“Thanks. What you and the little lady doing?” he said gesturing toward Rose in the back seat.
“Aimless traveling,” Willie said as he stared out the window as the scenery scrolled by.
“You live out here – on the East Coast?”
“No, farther back in Pennsylvania. How come the girlfriend is way up here and you way down in Georgia?”
“Good money, good job. I run a restaurant. Cayden went to be closer to her mom for the baby. She’s gonna have a C-section, so it’s coming soon.”
“Well, I hope things go well.”
They crossed the Susquehanna River on the Tydings Bridge. Willie stared out the window toward Perry Point. His driver had Marley again and was busy managing the traffic. Rose, in the back seat, had her eyes closed listening to music.
Aimless wandering. Seemed like this was the way his life was right now. He had his place back in Pennsylvania, but no traction when it came to a reason for taking one breath after another, a poor excuse for living. The sky was getting darker ahead. They were following the rain of the last few days. Willie closed his eyes.
There were days when he ached for simple routine and intimacy. His life with his family had been a rudder, never an anchor, keeping him on a steady course. He’d blown it.
One or two times he’d come close to ending it. The way he figured it, no one would miss him. Then he’d go to sleep, and the next day it would be marginally better. If it got too bad, he would hit the road; new places, new faces, and a chance to reshuffle the deck. Never a whiner, doing himself in wasn’t an option. He liked sunrises. He smiled.
They had been driving for three hours, making good time, Newark sneaked up on them on the horizon as they passed by Staten Island.
Their driver said, “I’m gonna be getting off soon, just on the other side of the Essex Freeway.”
“Sounds good. We’ll wander around a bit and then try to get a ride through New York.”
They exited I 95, said good-bye to their driver and wandered down some streets looking for a place to eat. They settled on another Burger King, slammed down Whoppers with fries and worked their way back to the Freeway.
They stood on the entrance ramp with thumbs out for two hours with no takers. Finally they gave up and jumped a fence into a wooded area next to a decimated industrial building, and found a place to rest, anticipating it would be their spot for the night. They had a view of Jersey City across the Passaic.
“Great view, huh Rosie?”
She shrugged and reached into her back pack.
Willie Stage 15
Rose rummaged around in her backpack for a minute or two and pulled out a slim mahogany case. She opened it and lying in the case was a flute, carefully wrapped in a white silk cloth. Without looking up, she assembled the instrument carefully, leaned back against the nearest tree trunk and started playing.
Willie didn’t say anything, just kept digging around in his pack, trying to find The Plague. Once he found it, he spread out his foam pad and laid down, using his sleeping bag as a pillow. A warm gentle breeze blew across the river, carrying traffic sounds from nearby roads.
Rose was warming up, playing scales and then started moving through a series of tunes he wasn’t familiar with. For a while he read, but concentrating on the sometimes dense narrative with music playing in the background wasn’t going to work. He closed his eyes and dozed. He woke when Rose paused in her concert.
“Don’t give it up Rosie. It’s very nice.”
She shrugged and said, “Got any requests?”
“No, not really. I like what you’re playing. I didn’t know you had that magic buried in your bag. How long you been playing?”
“Ever since I was a little kid. Even took lessons for a time. Dad is a musician when he’s sober.”
“What did he play?” asked Willie.
That is a cool sound when done right.”
“Yeah it is.”
“There’s a lot I don’t know about you Rosie.”
“Don’t get too excited about me,” she said.
Willie rolled on his side, looked at her and said, “You know Rosie, I’ve come to the conclusion there’s a lot we don’t know about others or for that matter about ourselves. Even the things we think we know have layers that surprise us when we take a look at them.”
Rose smiled. “You know, you really should be a philosopher.”
He laughed and rolled over on his back. “Well Rosie, since the great American industrial machine spit me out, I have the luxury of thinking deep thoughts. Ever hear of Eric Hoffer?”
“Just look him up on that “I” whatever you have some time. You might find it interesting.”
She put the flute in her lap and pulled out her phone and typed on it and then spent some time scrolling through it. Willie continued to read.
“Here’s something to go along with this Hoffer guy, Willie.”
Willie thought, she called me by my name!
Rose picked up the flute and started playing. Willie recognized the song right away. He started to hum along and then started singing in a low voice.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
Willie Stage 16
“Rosie. That was nice, although I don’t think old Camus would agree with the sentiments.”
“I looked up that Camus guy. He writes some harsh stuff,” she said.
“He does. If you look a little deeper though, it is hopeful, in a way.”
Rose shrugged her shoulders and asked, “So what’s the plan?”
“I’m not feeling real energetic and if you don’t mind, I’d like to just stay here, think about a way of getting through New York and then get on with it. Hitching is sketchy. What do you think about my popping for a bus ticket around this mess?” he gestured with his hand.
“Fine with me. I am in no hurry. I can get by with a granola bar for supper.”
“They both settled in to reading, Willie his book and Rose her phone.”
That night they slept fitfully under the trees, with traffic and sirens sounding off. There was a big fire to the west of their spot that lit up the night sky and made sleep difficult. They woke in the morning, the sun already well on its way to noon.
They packed, jumped the fence and continued on their way to a fast food place down the street in a quest for coffee and a breakfast burrito, garnering stares from men on break standing outside a warehouse. They found a bus station and got tickets for Norwalk, Connecticut. Willie had no idea why he picked it.
It took them a better part of the day to get to Norwalk. They checked in to a motel on Westport Avenue, opting for a clean room and shower and caught a meal at a KFC down the street. It was warm enough to sit outside so they parked themselves at a concrete picnic table.
“Fine dining huh Rosie?”
“The best,” she said.
He smiled. “So what do you really like to eat Rose?”
She thought for a minute and replied, “Well, I really like wild game.”
Willie laughed and almost choked on a chicken wing. “Wild game! What the hell!”
“No shit, especially venison,” she said straight-faced.
Willie leaned toward her across the table. “Did you ever hunt?”
“Naw, but my dad did. He used to go elk hunting with some of his music buddies. We ate well. Kinda strange for hippies ain’t it?”
“So it wasn’t all granola, kale and magic mushrooms?”
“No, the venison sausage was great – any time, and he used to mix the hamburger with a seasoned pork. It made a great meat loaf.”
Willie could barely contain himself. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “You ever hunt?”
“Naw,” she said. “Why would I freeze my butt off in some deer stand? I’d rather wait till he brought it home.”
They finished their meal, tossed the remains in the trash container and walked back to the motel. As he opened the door to their room he said, “You are a revelation to me Rosie.”
She scowled at him. “Don’t get religious on me.”
Willie Stage 17
They slept well that night, got up in the morning and walked to I 95 and hitched a ride to Wareham MA, where they were able to scrounge a lift on Route 6 to the Cape. Roses’ old boyfriend had a small house with a couple roommates off of 6 in South Yarmouth not too far from the Bass River. They got there about three in the afternoon.
South Yarmouth is a resort community, most active during the summer, with homes and beach property. Sea food restaurants abound. Roses’ friend Robbie was a cook at one and had managed to keep working during the off season. They got to the small house as Robbie was coming home from his shift. Like Rose, he had multiple piercings with a variety of tats. Introductions were made and they went inside.
The house could have been cleaner, the smell of cat pee mixed with heavy pot use assaulted the senses as they opened the front door. At least Willie’s eyes didn’t water from the odors. He could handle one night here. He didn’t really care. He wasn’t going to live here, just make sure Rose was safe. It was his intention to continue on to P-town the next day to see an old friend.
Robbie’s roommates, a young couple from England, were in Boston for a couple days playing some gigs, their specialty heavy metal music.
Robbie offered beers and they sat around talking. “So how did you and Rose meet up?” he asked.
Rose talked about their meeting and subsequent travels, keeping things short as she was apt to do. Willie followed suit with a truncated biography.
“So what do you want to do for fun tonight?” Robbie said.
Rose was non-committal and Willie just wanted a good meal. He offered to pop for supper. Robbie suggested “The Skipper”.
It was about a half hour walk. The day was warm and they ate outside on the veranda under the canvas roof. While waiting for their food, Robbie started pounding down Hendricks Martinis. By the time they were served, he had a hard time managing his knife and the filet mignon with lobster tail. Willie figured the bill would be north of 200 when all was said and done. Robbie finished off the meal, made inappropriate remarks to the waitress and had an expensive Brandy after the meal. They walked back to his place as dusk descended.
Fortunately for the party of three, Willie remembered where the house was. Robbie was in no shape to navigate. When they got to the house he slurred directions for sleeping, Rose went to the bedroom with Robbie and Willie spread out his bag on the floor in the living room.
About an hour after falling asleep, Willie woke to the sound of Robbie having an extended conversation with the toilet bowl. This continued off and on for two hours. Rose slept through it. What a waste of good gin,” he thought.
Rose was up early making coffee and had one ready for Willie while he packed. Before he left, they went out and sat on the front step.
“You gonna be OK here?” he asked Rose.
She shrugged and said, “We’ll see. He has issues.”
“No shit,” muttered Willie. “Let’s make sure we have each other’s cell numbers.”
With this done, he stood and lifted his pack to his back.
“Good luck kid,” he said. “Promise me you’ll call if you get in a jam?”
She nodded and then abruptly gave him a hug, turned quickly and went back into the house.
“I’ll be god damned!” he thought.
Willie Stage 18
Willie hitched a ride on Massachusetts 28. After an introduction, he engaged the driver of the old delivery truck in a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of living on the Cape. For a while the conversation bounced back and forth and then the driver wound up and gave Willie his two cents and a couple quarters more.
“Getting too god damned expensive to live out here for most people. Most of the places are for rich summer people. Folks like me try to scrape by hauling stuff for farmers that can still make a living here. We have to slam it pretty hard to make it work”
Willie nodded in agreement, staring absentmindedly out the window, preoccupied with his leaving Rose in Yarmouth. He hoped she had the common sense to call him if things went south.
The driver continued, “I think people forget that the water’s what makes this place valuable. We gotta figure out a way to make it into a gold mine.” He then digressed into an extended rant on local politics, drifted into rumors of state office holder corruption and finished off with a critique of the “assholes” in Washington.
They came to Chatham and turned north. The driver had to pick up some supplies for his boss in Eastham. Before they got there, Willie grew weary of the long-winded lecture on local and national events. He bailed out at a stoplight, thanked him for the ride and walked east toward the Nauset Light Beach, enjoying the day without conversation. If he wanted to, he could always stick out his thumb for a ride.
His friend in P-town was an old classmate from high school. At the last school reunion, they had reestablished contact and found they had a lot in common, busted marriages, broken lives and poor prospects. Milt had ended up out here as he put it, “at the end of the USA”.
He’d actually done pretty well, running a little café that served the locals with a friend who’d become his lover and partner. He’d started writing and found an east coast audience that liked his rambling essays about life in “transition”.
When Willie got to the beach he headed north, finding the sweet spot for walking between waves rolling in and softer sand on the shoreline. The day warmed and wind was light off the ocean. He trudged along, not thinking too much, watching gulls whirl overhead and plovers skitter along the shore.
He found comfort in being alone. When he wandered, it drew him out of interior ramblings that sometimes despoiled an inner landscape. Then the roll and tuck of the earth soothed and cleared a way. While his time with Rose brought a kind of intimacy, it also stretched him with the tension of relationship, the dynamics playing across the surface of any day. Adjustments were always being made. He liked being accountable to no one. He shrugged. Guess this is why we need “alone” time. Even with that said, he missed the kid. His phone rang.
He looked, hoping to see Rose’s number. No, it was Milt.
Willie Stage 19
“Hey Willster,” a deep baritone voice boomed at the other end. “When you gonna get here compadre?”
Milt spoke in many voices. When you called him you never knew what you would get. His predominant one was Mexican, although he could segue into a Slavic intonation and when called for, do a passable French and Italian accent, with still others, vaguely sounded like Native American inflections, tribe undetermined.
One time when he was on a roll he got his butt in a jam with his partner Marnie at a raucous party when he mentioned to a friend within earshot of her, in the Slavic accent, that in the old days, “When horse get sick, woman pull plow!” Didn’t go well with her feminist sensibilities.
“Hey, Miltie. Just walking the beach right now but plan on heading back to Old King’s and thumb a ride. I should be there before dark.”
“Good. We got fresh “lobsta” waiting to boil, and Marnie’s got her special kale salad and homemade French bread waiting.”
“I look forward to it. Haven’t had a decent home cooked meal in forever.” They hung up.
Willie made his way from the beach and was able to grab another ride right away on King’s to just south of Wellfleet, where he hopped a transit shuttle to Provincetown.
Milt and Marnie lived above their cafe. Business collapsed in the fall and winter like tripping off a cliff, from close to 50,000 in the summer, to three to four thousand year-round residents in the cold months. They served breakfast and lunch, but canned the evening menu during the low volume times. Marnie was an escaped CPA, who put time in during the tax season with a firm in Eastham. Milt’s writing added cash to the pot also.
Willie got off the bus with a few others and walked toward the downtown where the café was. On the way he passed shops and stores that had a host of sales, trying to dump inventory before they closed for the season.
When he got to the café, he trudged up the wooden stairs on the side of the building to the apartment where Milt and Marnie lived, knocked on the door and was let in. Milt thumped a welcome on his back and Marnie came over to be introduced. “You don’t look to bad for a man who has been on the road,” she said.
Willie smiled and said, “You are very gracious. I have been taking a shower every chance I get.”
“Well, we have water and soap here too, so you don’t break rhythm. Why don’t you toss your stuff in the spare bedroom.”
Willie shuffled in to the room, dumped his backpack, pulled out a bottle of Red Breast Scotch Whiskey he bought on his way out of Yarmouth and went back into the living room
“I brought a little treat Milt,” he said, as he handed it over to his host.
“My goodness, your spirit and judgement have not been diminished by your road trip. So what’s it been like?”
Willie settled himself on a bar stool next to the kitchen counter and said, “Well, it’s been interesting.”
Willie Stage 20
Willie told the story of his adventure so far and talked about the country he’d seen and his time with Rose and where he had left her. Marnie was interested and asked some pointed questions, especially about his relationship with the girl. He finally put her mind at ease when he said. “No, no Marnie, it’s not like that at all. We are a lot alike, a bit lost, aimless, and out of sorts. After pulling her out of that river I feel kinda responsible for her, like she’s my kid or something.”
Milt asked, “What about your kids?”
Willie shrugged, “Don’t know. Lost touch.” He lowered his head.
Milt looked at Marnie, raised an eyebrow and said, “Like to have a little lobsta?”
“Sure,” Willie replied. “Been a long time.”
The three of them set about preparing the meal. Willie worked on setting the table, Marnie beat the kale up some more before mixing it with dried cranberries and toasted pumpkin seeds. Burt threw three medium sized lobsters into an already boiling pot. Willie thought Rose would not have liked the idea of throwing live animals into boiling water. They sat down to eat, adding warm homemade French bread to the meal.
The dinner conversation ranged over a variety of topics, from politics, business in P-town, hunkering down for winter, and Milt’s and Marnie’s plan for a Puerto Rican get-away. Willie didn’t see any island time on his horizon. Milt asked, “What got you wandering this time Willie?”
The food and good wine put Willie in a little more expansive mood, lowering his guard.
“Well Milt, just restless.”
Milt tipped back in his chair, cast a skeptical eye and said, “Nice try, Willster. Bet there’s more to it than that.”
Willie scratched his beard, smiled, hesitated and said, “Yeah there is. . . I’m just pissed off.”
“What about?” Milt asked
“If I’m really honest about it,” he said, staring out the window toward the fading sun, “myself I guess.”
Marnie threw in, “Not real productive is it?”
“Not really. When the wheels came off years back, never seemed like I could figure a way to get them back on the rails.” He paused, closed his eyes for second and continued.
When I think about it, losing the job, marriage and kids, and getting the disability payments with the company’s severance package, may not have been a good thing . . . And when the free housing showed up, I was set. There was no reason to change, to push out. I’m stubborn.”
Milt said, “Yep, when a person feels set, there’s the tendency to veg out. Everyone needs a little challenge, an edge, otherwise things sour.”
Marnie shook her head, agreeing and said, “That’s why we have the restaurant. It makes you hustle, but doesn’t kill you.”
Willie stood and walked to the window where the sun had set; the sky purpled, seeping into the windswept mare’s tails clouds overhead.
“Yeah, I need an anchor, a place to tie up. Just haven’t found the spot. Guess that’s why I wander.” He stretched. “That ice cream store still open downtown?”
Marnie replied, “Yep, till the end of the week.”
“Let’s go,” Willie said. “My treat.”
Willie Stage 21
They walked out into a cooling evening, night settled in with a breeze off the bay. The walk to the ice cream shop was short. They all decided on waffle cones of various flavors. The tastes were rich and full without being over-the-top. The mint chocolate chip Willie picked went down fast.
After they finished, they walked out on the quay in the harbor and inspected the various fishing vessels. A couple were off-loading the catches of the day, the fishermen sorting and tossing the fish into large bins. It had grown dark and they returned to the apartment, the street lamps along the dock provided oases of light they traversed.
Willie said, “Don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I am pooped, mind if I turn in?”
“Not at all,” said Milt. “We’ll follow soon, since morning comes early, even this late in the year. The usual breakfast crew will be ready to chow down.”
Willie went to his room and lay down on the bed to read. He had grabbed a Boston Globe and caught up on world events. He dozed until he woke with a start after a whole body twitch. He laughed, stood and went to the window that faced the bay. There was very little activity outside, a sliver of a moon climbed up the emerald sky.
These folks have been very nice to me. I am lucky – lost and lucky. He stared for a few more minutes, light dancing off the waves in the distance as if signaling. His phone rang – Rose.
“Rosie,” he said. “How are things in the southland?” No response.
“Rose?” he said. “This you?” Still no answer, then a mumbling incoherence seeped out of the phone.
“Things ain’t going too well, Willie.”
“What’s up? You OK?” he queried.
“I got my ass kicked out on the street. I’m under a bridge, trying to keep out of sight of the cops.”
“The cops busted Robbie and his roommates for dealing. I was lucky. They let me go. Told me to get out of town. Robbie’s roommates came back from Boston with a lot of smack. They held me for a couple hours, asked a lot of questions, and then booted me.”
“You got any money to stay in a safe place for the night?”
“Robbie took it all.”
“You got much charge left on your phone?”
“Yeah I do.”
“Well, shut it off and call me back in an hour. I’m gonna work something out.” He hung up.
He opened his door and looked toward Milt’s and Marnie’s room, light trickled out underneath the door. He knocked. Milt answered, “Come in.”
He opened the door, leaned in and said, “I gotta a problem.
Willie Stage 22
After explaining Rose’s situation, Milt offered to drive Willie to Yarmouth to retrieve Rose. They packed Diet Cokes and a Sandwich in a soft cooler, anticipating Rose would be hungry. It was 11 PM by the time they left.
Willie called Rose after a while. She answered, her voice trembling.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Just cold. I didn’t have time to get my sleeping bag. I was lucky to get my back pack out of there.”
“We are just south of Orleans, should be there in a half hour or so. You got enough charge to leave the phone on?”
“I think so.”
“We’re gonna need to know where you are. What does Dr. Google show?”
“I am by some river. Saw a sign that said, Bass River Park when I got here.”
Willie looked on his phone. “Got it Rosie. Be there in a half hour.”
“You sure care about this kid don’t you?” said Milt.
“Yeah I do,” said Willie staring out the window at the streetlights.
They got off six and drove south on 134 to twenty eight, turned right and got off at the park. No sight of Rose. Willie called.
“Rose, where are you? We’re here.”
“Flash your lights. I want to know you’re not cops.”
Milt tapped the lights and Rose emerged from under the bridge and hustled over to the car. Willie got out and helped her put her pack in the trunk of the car.
Introductions were made. Milt turned up the heat in the car and said, “There’s a blanket there on the back seat. Let me know when you warm up and we’ll turn the heater down.”
As they turned back on 134, a police car pulled up behind them. Just before they turned on six, the police car lit up the little Toyota and Milt pulled over.
“I wonder what the hell this is about,” said Milt.
The officer stepped out of the car and came to his window.
“Did you know sir your right rear brake light is out?”
Putting on his most respectful voice that barely covered his annoyance, Milt said, “I didn’t. Thanks for telling me.”
“Can I see your driver’s license and some ID from your passengers?”
They all complied. Willie and Rose handed over their passports.
The policeman walked back to his vehicle and was there for some time. As he came back to their vehicle two other police cars pulled up, one parked in front of their car and one stopped directly across from them, the street lit by wig-wags.
“What the hell,” said Willie, “A lot of cops for a busted brake light? Haven’t been keeping up with my laws lately,” he snickered.
Milt laughed, “Yea. This is serious shit.”
The policeman asked Milt to exit the vehicle and open the trunk. They pulled out Rose’s back pack and took it over to the one squad, an SUV, with a K-9 notation, and laid out the contents in the back end.
“I hope they’re not getting off on my dirty undies,” Rose said.
The dog sniffed the contents of the pack and was then brought over to the car, where it circled the vehicle. The officer then requested Rose put her belongings back in her pack. She walked over to the SUV. Willie remained in the car.
“Thank you for your time,” he said as he handed their IDs back to them and said, “You may go.” He handed Milt a warning ticket about the light
Willie was irritated and asked, “So what’s with the search? We look like ISIS?”
“No sir, just a hit on the lady’s ID. We had to follow up. Again, thank you for your time.”
Milt started the car, turned on to 28 and headed back towards Provincetown. He chuckled, “Willie, you and Rose put a little excitement into my life.”
“Thanks,” said Willie, “I owe ya.”
“Me too,” said Rose.
Willie Stage 23
They were back in P town 45 minutes later. Marnie met them at the door. “Well, that was pretty quick. You hammer it the whole way Milt?” she said.
He gave Marnie a peck on the cheek and said, “Naw, law-biding all the way babe. Even had a visit with the local gendarmes on the way out of Yarmouth: Chamber of Commerce welcome.” The two men laughed. Rose scowled. Burt relayed the night’s adventure. “Well, let’s get some sleep,” said Burt. “Rose, you can have the couch. We’ll scrounge around in the morning for another sleeping bag for you. There are some extras in the basement from old camping trips.” Burt and Marnie retreated to their room.
“I’m glad you’re OK, Rosie,” said Willie.
Rose grabbed Willie in a fierce hug and held on. After a minute, she let go and wiped tears from her face with the back of her hand. “Thanks Willie. It was ugly. I ain’t ever been grilled like that before. I know they were just doing their jobs, but it was scary.”
Willie patted her on the back and said, “Try to get some sleep. We’ll all talk in the morning.”
Willie went back to his room, closed the door, undressed and crawled into his bag. He tried to sleep, but just stared at the ceiling. Rose had filled a hole in the last few weeks, a place he had been determined to never look into. He was all the things people called him, stubborn, a circumstantial misanthrope, and man of few words who gave even little comfort to those he came across. Her presence pushed him in a different direction. He fell asleep, waking periodically with unsettled dreams.
Early in the morning he heard Burt and Marnie stir and get ready for the day. After cleaning up, Rose and Willie went to the café and pitched in with the morning rush, such as it was. Rose bussed dishes, Willie acted as a kind of sous chef and dish washer. They worked till mid-afternoon.
After he took a nap, Willie and Rose went for a walk, stopping at the town library housed in a remodeled church and browsed the offerings. The second floor held a replica half-scale model of the fishing schooner Rose Dorothea, built by a crew of volunteers with a mast that extended upwards into the old church’s steeple, honoring the fishermen of Provincetown and New England’s ship-building tradition.
On the way by a local market they picked up some fresh produce and seafood for supper. Rose had a recipe for sautéed scallops in garlic and butter deeply embedded in her consciousness. Her family’s traditional meal at Thanksgiving was an overabundance of fresh ocean-going fare. Willie was assigned the task of prepping a Caesar salad.
“Rosie. Have I told you, you amaze?”
“More than I care to hear, old man,” she said.
“You really know how to hurt a guy,” he smirked. He turned and looked at her pointing with his paring knife. “You are a gem, and you don’t even know it.”
Willie Stage 24
Milt and Marnie returned to the apartment about 5:30 after spending some time in the basement, scouring shelves for a sleeping bag for Rose. One thing lead to another and they cleaned up some of the mess that always seemed to migrate there. They walked in to a table already set, the smell of fresh garlic in the air. In a few minutes the scallops were sizzling in the frying pan.
“Smells mighty good you two,” said Milt as he sat down.
“I always like it when someone fixes supper,” Marnie added.
“Well, I wish there was more we could do for you two. You’ve made this place a safe harbor for a couple wanderers.”
Rose turned, spatula in hand, scallops done and garnished with fresh parsley. She nodded her head in agreement with Willie and said, “Thanks.”
They sat down to eat, washing the meal down with a light white wine. Talk ranged over a variety of topics, finally settling on the travels they had over the years. At one point Rose became engaged and shared some of the trips she had with her parents when she was younger.
“Mom and dad used to take me to all these music festivals. There was one up in Canada that they really liked. We tried not to miss it. I think it was in Winnipeg? That name was kinda funny, like Winnie the Pooh getting nailed to some tree or something.”
Rose continued, becoming animated by the topic, wine adding impetus. “We used to camp in this campground that was never quiet. No one ever went to sleep until about the time the sun was coming up. People were playing drums and dancing all night long, doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It was fun.”
Marnie asked Rose. “Do you miss your folks?”
Rose twisted her mouth to the side, took another sip of wine and said, “Sometimes,” she shrugged her shoulders. “They do their thing and I do mine.” She stared at the floor, quiet.
“Rosie and I gotta talk plans,” said Willie. “We don’t want to start to smell bad and wear out a welcome.”
“You stay as long as you want,” said Milt.
“Appreciate that Milt, but I got a mind to see the Maritimes before it gets too cold. I figure we’ll head out in a day or so.”
Conversation lagged, wine and the late hour was taking its toll. They cashed it in for the evening. Before Willie turned in, he sat down on the coffee table next to the couch where Rose was reading, tucked in to her sleeping bag.
“You ready to go Rosie?”
She nodded her head. “Yep. Time to see more of the world old man,” she smiled.
He stood, yawned, and said, “Sometimes I wonder if the next stretch of asphalt, the next hill or bend in the road is just a way to avoid questions we don’t want to answer.”
She shrugged and turned her attention to her book.
“Sweet dreams kid.”
Willie Stage 25
The next morning Rose and Willie again pitched in at the restaurant. Customer traffic waxed and waned. With the end of the season approaching and the turn to fall weather, locals made up the bulk of the diners. The hours for the café would be curtailed even more shortly.
After the afternoon clean up, Willie snagged Rosie and told Burt and Marnie they were going for a walk to “talk plans”. They left the café and went back to the library, where they sat down at a table in a conference room with maps and a computer, to sketch out what came next.
Before he started, Willie turned to Rose, “You know kid, you can quit this little walk-about any time you want and it won’t offend me.”
Rose nodded her head and said, “I know that, but I ain’t got nothing going right now, so seeing the world works for me.”
“You’re sure about that?”
Willie spread out large detailed maps of the US and Canada.
“I’d like to hitch most of the time, walk a lot and when we get funky, find a cheap place to stay.” He started talking and tracing with his finger, a route up the East coast that ran through Boston, along the coast to Salem, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Portland, Maine, on to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor. After that they would make their way to the Maritimes.
“I been this way before, years ago with my ex and kids. There are a lot of beautiful places to stay.” He stopped and stared for a second — shook his head, and continued. “Way up here is a Buddhist Monastery that might make a good stop. Never seen it. The kids were wild the day we drove past it, but I’d like to go back there. . . So whatcha think Rosie?”
“Sounds like a plan . . . You know, I been thinking.”
“What?” said Willie.
“Well, all this costs money, and I ain’t been pitching in much at all. I do have some cash I can get out of a savings account to help out.”
Willie leaned back in his chair, balancing on two legs. “You save the cash for emergencies. Despite our rough start, I like having you around. It makes the trip a lot less lonely. Besides, I’m learning a few things.”
“Like what?” she frowned.
“Well, the course I’ve set the last few years hasn’t been the greatest. The other thing is I didn’t realize that someone like you could be so important to me, even with all those pokes in your skin and stuff.”
Rose blushed. “Works both ways ya know old man. She stood. “Let’s go, I’m getting antsy.”
They folded up the map, returned it to the librarian and left the building.
“Maybe we should take our two roommates out for supper,” Willie offered.
“How bout tacos. Could use the grease.”
Willie Stage 26
Rose and Willie went to the Bradford Natural Market and found ingredients for supper including soft shell tacos, cheese, refried beans and after a discussion about the relative merits of beef in tacos, Willie won out when he spied some venison hamburger. Grease would be kept to a minimum. There was no disagreement about the importance of guacamole. They found appropriately ripe avocados, paid for it all and made their way back to Marnie and Milt’s.
Meal preparation was a joint venture with Marnie pitching in. Milt was in charge of Margaritas.
“You’re not done yet buster,” Marnie groused.
“I gotta rest sweetie-pie. Fine tuning the subtle blend of Tequila, lime juice and salt requires great concentration and effort,” he paused, pondering. “You will note dear one that I had to search at great length for the appropriate salt.”
Marnie rolled her eyes and said, “I don’t know how you do it Milt. Your life has been one of continuous suffering and great personal sacrifice!”
He stood and walked toward Marnie drink in hand, pecked her on the cheek and said, “I’ll do clean up.”
“Fair enough,” she said.
The meal served twenty minutes later, was consumed with considerable gusto. When it came to dessert, they all declined. They were stuffed.
Milt said, “So, you two wanderers, where’s the next stop?”
“No clue Miltie, wherever the thumb take us.”
“Tell you what, Marnie and I are taking tomorrow off to drive to Sagamore to our dentist. Been awhile since we had our mouths mined. You can catch a ride with us. We can dump you off anywhere you want.”
“Sounds good, I had a mind to go up 3 through Plymouth on the way north.”
They continued with Margaritas and played poker, until they all grew tired of Rose winning just about every hand. Milt’s comment was, “You guys oughta stop at a few casinos along the way!”
Milt fulfilled his clean up commitment, and Rose and Willie adjourned to Rose’s room to start the packing. It took some time.
At one point, Marnie came to the door and leaned against the jamb. She watched for a time and then commented, “You guys are amazing. I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing.”
Willie stood up from leaning over his pack and said, “Well, if you do it enough, you figure out quickly what matters and doesn’t matter. The first time I did this I had all kinds of useless crap I threw in dumpsters along the way. If you haven’t used something during half of a trip, it’s time to evaluate and maybe pitch it. Having back-up food is probably the most important, along with good rainwear.”
“What about you Rose? What have you learned?” Marnie asked.
“Keep your head down, keep away from creeps, and carry a knife.”
“Sounds like a survivalist.”
“Sometimes it is.”
Willie said, “Rosie carves her own way,” he grinned. “Oops, poor choice of words.”
Rosie shook her head and said, “You are such a butt!”
Marnie said, “I’m calling it. Sweet dreams, catch you in the morning.”
Willie Stage 27
The next morning they had a quick breakfast of bagels and coffee, packed up everything in the Subaru and left before 8 AM. The trip would take a little over an hour. Milt’s and Marnie’s appointment was at 9:30. This time of year getting off the Cape was not a problem. Heaven forbid you should try it in the summer and expect to make it to Sagamore in less than two hours.
They talked little on the trip. Rose and Willie sat in the back seat and dozed. The radio was tuned to WGBH in Boston. Morning edition droned right along with the car. At the intersection of 3 and 3A, they said their good-byes to Milt and Marnie in the McDonald’s parking lot. Willie and Rose crossed the street and put out their thumbs on 3A, hoping for a ride. Fortunately the day was crisp but sunny.
They had to work for a ride. It took over an hour before they managed a lift in an old Suburban pulling a trailer. The driver, a 50ish man named Allen, in work clothes, welcomed them and after a short conversation about the weather, he tried a little evangelization. Willie could see Rose grinding her teeth and moving her foot up and down as she sat behind the driver in the second seat.
Willie listened to the man’s salvation epic, but when the guy asked him about his own faith position, Willie thought for a while and said, “Oh I believe all right. Just don’t have any reason right now to do much about it. Mostly I just try to respect the mystery of life as it unfolds . . . My hope is that someday it will all become clearer. Life is a mystery, best observed than explained.” He hoped his comment would end the conversation, but the guy kept hammering the Jesus deal and his interpretation of the biblical message.
Finally Willie said, “I appreciate your insights, but I am waiting for revelation.”
Then the man looked in his rearview mirror and tried to engage Rose. Early on in the evangelization campaign Rose had feigned drowsiness and pretended to fall asleep, although her foot kept bouncing up and down; some automatic responses die hard. She tried to ignore his inquiries, but then faked waking from a deep slumber, looked perplexed and mumbled a few things about alignment of the planets and stars, shrugged her shoulders and closed her eyes.
Allen straightened himself out in the worn leather bucket seat, gave up talking and at the corner of 3A and Sandwich Street, pulled over by the side of the road. He said, “Well, I’m turning here. God bless ya and have a good day.”
They thanked him for the ride, bailed out of the truck, and pulled their stuff from the back, closed the door and watched the vehicle continue down 3A to the north.
Willie smiled, looked at Rose, shook his head and said, “Guess he didn’t need to turn here. I thought for a minute there he had your attention Rosie.”
She looked at him cross-eyed, flipped him the bird and continued down the road toward Plymouth.
Willie Stage 28
Willie yelled at Rose. “Hey Rosie. How about we go look at Plymouth Rock as long as
we’re here? I saw a sign back up the road just before our buddy Allen left us in the lurch.”
“Naw. Who wants to go look at some dumb rock?”
“I do, ya load. This may be the only time we catch a little history on this trip.”
Rose did her best imitation of a down at the mouth frog and said, “All right Mr. History, we’ll go look at the damn rock. Which way is it?”
“Just over this way.” He pointed back the way they came.
They walked toward the historic district in downtown Plymouth. On the way they went by eateries and shops, busy, but not as crowded as they would have been in midsummer.
They took a left on North Street and walked down to the monument. They wandered around, reading placards on the area, before going over to the stone underneath its enclosure.
Rose looked at Willie and said, “So that’s it?
Willie laughed, “What did you expect, Mount Rushmore?”
She shrugged. “Nooooo. Let’s go down to the beach and catch a snack from our packs.”
They walked over to Pilgrim Park, found a bench and rummaged through their food supply. It had been a long time since the bagel earlier. They found some beer sticks, beef jerky and granola bars and watched pleasure boats come and go out of the harbor. When they finished their time in the mid-afternoon sun, they walked down to the Mayflower II to have a look.
After some back and forth, Willie convinced Rose to come with him on a tour of the ship if he paid for it. They wandered around the deck of the vessel and descended the steep steps below deck. As they finished the tour, Rose’s only comment was, “Wouldn’t catch me on this thing!”
They retrieved their gear from the ticket kiosk and talked about a place to camp for the night. The weather was warm, so finding one wouldn’t be difficult. They made their way toward Ryder Way, but instead of going out on the sandy spit, turned the other way toward the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant, walked through some neighborhoods adjacent to the rocky beach and slipped into the woods north of the plant.
They found a good spot to set up, choosing not to put up tents, as it might draw attention to them. They were in view of the ocean and that was good enough.
Just before dusk, they shared a simple meal of sardines and crackers, washed down with bottled water; a Hershey bar was dessert.
As they extracted the oily fish and spread them on the crackers, Willie asked, “So Rosie, what have you learned from our little time together?”
She munched thoughtfully, wiped the back of her hand on her mouth and said, “There is a lot to learn.”
“You know, that never quits,” he said.
She nodded. “I suspect . . . What happens if you quit?”
“Guess you might as well die then. At times it’s hard to put one foot in front of another, especially when things are grim and you don’t know if you can muster up enough energy to continue. Life gives us a road. You never know what’s up ahead.” He leaned back on his sleeping bag and raised his bottle to his lips. “And that dear Rosie is the thought for the day.”