Sunday, September 6, 2009

INTO THE YELLOW WOODS--PART SEVEN

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Thus, he entered Samaria


I had to pee. Forcing my gummy eyelids open I learned it was daytime. The sun was shining through the jalousie windows in the bathroom and onto the bed. Motel room. Still sick. Still alive. Still had to pee.

Gathered myself, got to my feet. Whoa, too fast. What’s that smell? Oh. Me. Turned on the shower. Scrubbed myself with the bar of motel soap. No little bottles of shampoo in those days. Washed my hair with the soap in the hard, limey water. Bet my hair is going to look swell. Scrubbed my tongue and teeth with the wash cloth. Better than nothing.

Clothes. Wet clothes. At least she let me sleep through the night. Shit, what did she do with my clothes?

My clothes, washed, pressed, were hanging on the back of the door. She had thrown my one disreputable sock away and substituted in its place a pair of used, but clean men’s socks. My boots and belt were dry. How? I got dressed in the clean, warm clothes and ventured out into the new day.

The storm had passed. From the feel of the air I could tell it was early morning. I went into the office and found the inn keeper behind the counter . She gave me a sardonic greeting, probably along the lines of “Well, look who finally woke up.” I thanked her for letting me stay through the night and for cleaning my clothes. She waved it off. I asked how she was able to dry my boots and belt in just a few hours. She laughed.

“This is the morning of the second day. You’ve been asleep for two nights and a day. I kept checking on you to make sure you hadn’t died. You didn't. Just left you alone.”

Have you ever had one of those moments when you grace just washes over you? Tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn’t swallow. I tried to speak.

“Aw, zip it. Your trousers, too, while you’re at it. Get on across the street to Dottie’s. She’s still serving breakfast. Tell her to put it on your tab.”

“My tab?”

“Breakfast comes with the room. All you can eat.”

I tried to express my gratitude, but like most seventeen-year olds, I wasn’t very good at it.

She asked where I was going.

Good question. I hadn’t made a plan. The family of a high school friend, Lanny Brady, had a house somewhere down in Bradenton, south of Clearwater. Or I could head up north where I had some family in the Carolinas, a much longer trip with no money, but I was pretty sure they would let me stay for a while. Pick one.

“North, I guess. I got some folks up north.”

Then you better get going. It’s a long way up north.

I tried to give her hug, but she was on the other side of the counter. Awkward, heartfelt, seventeen. She shooed me out of the office. I didn’t even think to ask her name. Damn.

I ate as much of Dottie’s southern-style breakfast as I could stuff into my mouth without getting sick. Three helpings of grits with red-eye gravy. I thanked the waitress, embarrassed that I didn’t have as much as a penny for a tip, and walked out on to the street.

Stuck out my thumb.

It was pretty easy for a teenager to hitchhike in 1965. I worked my way across central Florida without further mis-adventures.

Somewhere around Daytona Beach a man picked me up and said he was heading to St Augustine. He was nice, maybe too nice. Uh oh. I was instantly on guard. Just before we got to St. Augustine, as it was getting dark, he said he had to make a short "side trip" to see some friends. Maybe they would invite us to dinner.

OK, friends, stop worrying. This is going to turn out fine.

He bought some beverages and then drove us back several miles into the pine woods until we came to a house . . . well, a shack. I had yet to see the movie Deliverance, but if you want to imagine a banjo playing, you can set the appropriate mood. A backwoods family of about ten people lived there. We were, indeed, invited to supper.

One fellow asked me if I knew how to skin a snake? I thought it was something sexual, but, no, he meant exactly that, taking the skin off a rattler. So you can eat it. He was just being polite, so I helped. By the way, nail the rattler’s head to a tree, cut around the neck, and jerk the skin off with a pair of pliers. In case you’re interested.

Dinner was wild meat. Wild meat! One of the most memorable meals I ever had. Along with the ubiquitous hushpuppies, collard greens, and, yep, grits with red eye gravy, the women served anything and everything the men had managed to shoot or trap. The rattler was deep fried with deep fried squirrel, deep fried possum, deep fried dove, and other delectables I didn’t recognize, also deep fried. In lard. Scrumptious!

Dinner over, we took our leave and finished the drive to St. Augustine. My Good Samaritan, whose name I have also forgotten, damn, begin to talk seriously about the rest of my trip. He said he didn’t like the idea of me trying to hitch through Jacksonville at night, a rough town then, just as it is today, but he especially didn’t like the idea of me trying to tackle to stretch between Jacksonville and Brunswick, Georgia where I was going to pick up Highway 17, the coastal route north. That piece of road cautiously creeps through some of the worst swamps and marshes in the south Georgia.

He decided he was going to drive me all the way to Brunswick, a trip of about 3 hours. I protested, but feebly, because I really wanted the ride. Matters settled, we continued north through J’ville, our conversation getting deeper and more profound. We talked about a lot of good stuff. After a while I dozed off while he drove. When I woke up, he was pulling up to the bus station in downtown Brunswick, Georgia. It was the middle of the night.

We got out of his car. He came around to my side and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, a lot more money in those days, maybe enough for a bus ticket all the way to North Carolina. Again I protested, making noises about repaying him somehow. This is what he said to me, an exact quote, I never forgot:

“Someday, when you get all this behind you, and get your feet on the ground, you’re going to meet someone who needs a hand. Help that fellow out, and that’s all you ever need to do to repay me. Just pass it along. You understand? Just pass it along.”

I told him I did understand, and promised repay him many times over. He drove away.

Twenty bucks. Wait for the bus station to open in the morning, and ride as far as twenty bucks would take me, but hungry? Use the money for food and keep taking my chances on the road?

I headed for a truck stop down the road.

Shook out my hand.

Got my thumb ready.

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2 comments:

Alys Milner said...

No! No, no, no. I want you safe and thin, not well fed and dead. Well...of course you're not dead because you lived to tell the tale. But still...more, more, more.

Rosi said...

Terrific story. There really are good people in the world.