FLATLANDS by Peter Nolan Smith

I-90 weaved over the gentle Berkshires in the shadow of Mount Greylock and dropped into the tree-drunk Hudson Valley. The smooth lanes shadowed the ancient Mohawk Trail past the cities of northern New York and the escort of low hills faltered after the Finger Lakes, as the interstate straightened out on fertile farmland between Phelps and Batavia.

AK was at the wheel of the special edition Torino. Its owner had maintained the station wagon in concourse condition and the V8 engine purred at 65 mph, begging for faster.

Pam was in the back reading FEAR OF FLYING.

“You know Jack Kerouac started his trip for ON THE ROAD south of here at the Bear Mountain Bridge. He had $50 in his pocket.” A paperback copy of his book was stashed in my bag.

“We’re not picking up any more hitchhikers.”

The blonde had been put off picking up strangers by a bad-mannered Southerner less than five miles from our starting point. AK had thrown Bill out of the Torino. I had watched the entire thing from the driver’s seat.

“I’m not suggesting that.” I had promised not to stop for anyone. “Just saying that he took US 6.”

“There were no highways in the 1947.” AK had been a Literature Major at college. “Kerouac traveled the only road there was until Eisenhower built the Interstates.”

“Eisenhower traveled across the country in 1919.”

“On the Lincoln Highway.” AK’s minor had been history. “The trip took them almost two months. Almost none of the roads were paved.”

“And we’ll do it in less than a week.” I added up the distance to the Rockies from a map of the USA. Colorado was more than 1500 miles from here, but there was little danger of us getting lost in the Midwest. I-80 ran across the plains without interruption.

“Aren’t we going to stop and see Jackie?” AK asked, as the Ford Torino passed a road sign marked BUFFALO 35 MILES.

“I called before we left Boston. She’s gone south to Kissing Bridge.” Pam mercifully fielded his query. The blonde nursing student in the back seat was Jackie’s college roommate. Her boyfriend had been the fourth wheel on several double dates with Jackie and me.

Yesterday I had tried to phone my ex-girlfriend. Her mother had answered the phone and I had hung up without a word.

“Jackie’s probably with her high school sweetheart at her parents’ ski chalet,” I declared hoping to not show my bitterness at being better by an old boyfriend.

Last summer I had hitchhiked back and forth from Boston to Buffalo five times to see the doctor’s daughter. Jackie was that cute.

“I’m sure she’d be happy to see us.” AK tapped on the steering wheel. He was having a good time at my expense.

“You and Pam maybe, but not me.”

“Somebody sounds jealous.”

“I’m not jealous.”

Her boyfriend had been admitted to Yale’s law program. His future was bright in comparison to that of a rookie substitute teacher at South Boston High School.

“Really?” AK wasn’t letting go.

“The last time I saw her, she looked very happy with her choice.”

“You’re right. He does sound jealous,” Pam declared with certitude, because while a man’s ears were designed to capture the full pitch range of sound, a woman’s hearing was attuned to deciphering the prism of human emotions.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little jealous, but that’s not a sin.”

“Actually it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, if I’m not mistaken.” The New Yorker’s sense of humor regarded someone falling down stairs as comedy, while getting a paper cut was a tragedy.

“I can see that I’ll never be right on this trip.”

We had been on the road less than five hours and I had been the butt of their jokes for all five of them. California was more than two thousand miles from here and my payback could be exacted somewhere west of the Mississippi.

We Irish liked our revenge cold.

“Pride’s another of Deadly Sins.” AK grasped the steering wheel with his hands at 10 and 2 O’Clock.

A driving school on the South Shore had taught me the same technique in 1968.

“Sloth is one more.” Pam offered from the rear. She was an Honors student.

“I’m not lazy.” I had worked my way through college driving taxi at night. “And I bet ten dollars neither of you know the other Deadly Sins?”

“You’re on.” AK lifted three fingers. “We have envy, pride, and sloth. Greed and lust make five.”

“Gluttony is six.” Pam was a good Catholic girl.

“And what is the Seventh?”

“Bias.” AK was half-Jewish.

“Wrong.” I was half-Irish. The English hated us. Their troops had killed thirteen unarmed protestors on Bloody Sunday.

Pam and AK offered a dozen wrong answers before I ended the contest by saying,


“I should have guessed that first.” AK laughed at my answer.

“What do you mean by that?”

“You do have a temper.” Pam offered from the back. “You can’t say that you don’t.”

“No, that would be a lie.” I would run out of fingers and toes counting my fights in grammar school, although most of them had been to protect myself from ritual beatings by two bullies in 8th Grade.

“But I wasn’t the one who threw Bill out of the car.” I stared at AK.

“So I beat you to the punch.” My friend had been protecting Pam.

“So where’s my ten dollars?” I let him have his glory.

“Double or nothing for the Ten Commandments.” AK countered speeding up to 68.

“You’re joking? I’m a Catholic school boy.” My palms had been blistered by the nuns for any mistake in catechism class. “You don’t stand a chance.”

“What about state capitols?”

We had just passed Albany.

“Geography was my strongest subject in grammar school.”

“I give up, but I have my own vast abyss of useless knowledge.” AK revealed his pop acumen by reciting the release date of each successive Beatles LP, as if his brain had stored the information to teach a future class in Beatles 101.

“BEATLES FOR SALE was their last record worth a listen.” I had rejected the Fab Four after hearing the Rolling Stone’s cover of Chuck Berry’s COME ON.

“SGT. PEPPERS, THE WHITE ALBUM, LET IT BE and every other Beatles LP hit the top of the charts all around the world.” AK owned all their records.

“That might be true, but when was the last time you listened to one?” I had bequeathed my Beatles albums with the exception of BEATLES 65 to my younger brothers.

“It’s been a while,” AK admitted with an apologetic voice.

“You know the Beatles are Jackie’s favorite band?” Pam had the right ammo to shut me up.

“They are?”

“Didn’t you notice their poster on the wall of our dorm room?” She shut her book.

“No.” My attempt to visualize the poster conjured up a vision of Jackie lying on her bed. Naked she had been a Playboy centerfold.

“Your Beatlephobia is another reason that you two were never going to make it in the long run.”

“She left me, because of the Beatles?”

Sex with Jackie was well worth shutting my mouth about how the seven minutes and eleven seconds of HEY JUDE was the longest hour in music history, but now was too late to change the past.

“I’ve already said too much.” Pam concluded this indiscreet breach of a friend’s confidence by re-opening her book. FEAR OF FLYING had sold millions to women readers seeking freedom from the chains of marriage.

AK slipped on her Joni Mitchell tape and we listened to BLUE for the second time in seven hours. It was the only tape that we had in the car. CALIFORNIA was her paean to coming home. We were leaving ours and AK looked out the window.

“Not too late to make a stop.”

“Keep going.” This trip was about what lay ahead and not old stories destined to get older.

I-90 bypassed Buffalo and we stopped for gas just over the Pennsylvania state line just as THE LAST TIME I SAW RICHARD came to an end. We had been driving for eight hours and Boston was almost 500 miles behind us.

“Anyone feel like stopping to eat?” I pointed at the diner. The windows were grimy with grease.

“Not yet.” Pam assumed driving duties and drove fifteen miles over the speed limit into Ohio.

“You’re not scared of getting a ticket?” AK eyed the speedometer.

“I never get speeding tickets. Maybe when I get older, but not now. Cops like a pretty face. If a smile doesn’t work, then I go for tears.”

“Maybe you could teach me your magic.”

“A magician never gives away her tricks.”

The warm spring air buffeted through the open window and deafened my ears to their small talk.

My friend was attracted to the wholesome blonde, but the pianist’s chances of conquest were near zero, since Pam was saving her virginity for her wedding night.

To the North the afternoon surface of Lake Erie glowered more brown than blue. The steel mills of Erie and Cleveland had been polluting the Great Lake for close to a century. The sacrilege of nature hovered overhead as a blank haze. I took out my journal and wrote down single words to describe the scenery.

“Sky, earth, lake, highway, cars, trucks, trees, barns, silos, birds, steel, bridge, flowers, clouds, haze.”

After several minutes the pen dropped from my hand and I dozed in the back seat until sharp voices woke me.

“What’s the problem?” I leaned forward to the front seat. The lowered visors were blocking the setting sun. It was getting late in the day.

“Your friend wants to stop for the night and I say keep driving.” Pam’s face was firmly set by her determination to reach California. She hadn’t seen her doctor boyfriend since Christmas.

“And you?”

“I might have never been past Buffalo before, but the last hundred miles seems like the same place.”

“This is the beginning of the flatness.” The Midwest stretched from Ohio to Nebraska.

“So I say the less time we spent in the Midwest means more time in the Rockies. With three of us driving non-stop we could reach the mountains tomorrow afternoon.”

“What about sleep?” AK wasn’t giving up on his hopes for a bed, since pillow time was his second favorite drug. “We could stop in Cleveland. It’s about fifty miles away.”

“Three years ago I spent a night in Cleveland drinking beer next to a junk yard. There’s nothing there.” Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa offered a sad connection of crapped-out factory towns separated by cornfields.

“Strike one.” Pam stepped on the gas. No one was passing the station wagon, while she was at the wheel.

“What about Toledo?” AK read off the map.

“No Cleveland, no Sandusky, no Toledo.” Pam’s closed the argument with her hands white on the wheel. Her America consisted of the East Coast and the West Coast.

“What about Chicago? We could see some blues. Maybe some Muddy Waters. Jack Kerouac had stopped in the Windy City in ON THE ROAD.

“We’ll hit Chicago around two in the morning.” I calculated our arrival time by dividing the distance by 75 MPH. Kerouac had listened to Be-Bop on the South Side. Charlie Parker had been dead since 1955 and I said, “The bars are probably closed at that time.”

“Have you ever been to Chicago?”

“I hitchhiked through it in 1972.” I had been coming back from the Northwest with Peter. We were late to the first semester of our sophomore year. “But I didn’t stop.”

“And we’re not stopping this time either.” Pam shut her book.

“Okay, no blues, but what about a motel?”

“You can sleep in the back of the station wagon.” Pam pointed behind her. Something had gone off between them.

“Fine.” AK popped off the Joni Mitchell to vent his frustration and fiddled with the radio dial to find a college station playing soul music.

Al Green was followed by Joe Tex and Ike Turner.

None of us spoke for the next few hours.

A quarter moon rose into the night sky deepening black behind us.

A little east of Angola, Indiana we filled up the tank at a truck stop charging 60 cents for High Test. I ordered $10 at the pump and then checked out the diner. The clean windows were a good sign.

“I’m hungry. Anyone else?” A cheeseburger and fries were good most anywhere.

“I vote for a thirty minute break.” AK raised his hand.

“I’ll go with the mob to make it unanimous.” Pam got out of the station wagon and stretched her body. Boston to here had been a long run.

“We’ll see you in the diner,” AK said to me and walked with Pam to the diner.

After filling the tank I paid the attendant and parked the Torino.

The truck stop was wreathed by a mist of diesel fumes and the whine of bloodthirsty mosquitoes competed with the low growl of idling engines.

Women wandered from truck to truck. Several checked me out as a potential customer. I shook my head and hurried inside the diner, where the long-haulers at the tables were gawking at Pam and I wished that the blonde co-ed was wearing a jean jacket instead of a filmy peasant shirt.

Several truckers snickered out jokes about us being Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

I started to open my mouth to remark on their lack of front teeth.

“This might not be the South.” AK grabbed my hand and whispered, “But these good old boys would love to beat up a hippie. Keep cool.”

A ravaged redneck in greasy overalls winked at me.

At least one of them didn’t think that I was a threat to America.

“Excuse me for a second.” I stood up from the counter.

“Where you going?”

“To make a phone call.” I pointed to the payphone on the wall.

I took out of pocket of change and dialed a number in Buffalo. The call cost $1.75 for three minutes. It rang for a half-minute without anyone answering. Jackie was not at home. I hung up and returned the quarters to my pocket, then joined AK in the diner.

“How’d it go?” AK was reading the menu.

“No one was home.”

“It’s a holiday weekend. Try later.” He didn’t ask who I had called, because he knew the answer.

So did Pam.

A blue-haired waitress took our order; cheeseburgers and fries for three with iced cokes.
‘Doris’ was scrawled across her name tag .

“Don’t mind those hicks. They ain’t got a home or wives.” She regarded her clientele with a friendly sneer.

“We do too have wives,” the redneck protested with hurt pride.

“Ex-wives, you mean, Chuck.” The waitress smirked, as if the truckers were her deadbeat brothers. “All these bums are married to their rigs.”

“As long as the banks don’t know where we are,” a heavyset trucker joked with an outlaw smile.

“We’re happy men.”

“It’s not such a bad thing to be on the road.”

“What do you know about the road?” a bearded long-hauler in greasy overalls demanded from across the counter. His tattooed forearms were thicker than Pam’s calves and his eyes were pinned from Bennies.

“Not much, but I drove taxi to pay for my college tuition.” Hacking those late hours had been a contributing factor to my ‘sin laude’ diploma. “I know it’s not the same as hauling potatoes from Idaho to Texas, but I made money on wheels.

“Potatoes are a good cargo,” The bearded long-hauler murmured with an accompanying nod and the redneck agreed, “Potatoes don’t shift their weight.”

“A squealing load of hogs will jackknife your rig and sure enough the next day a dead man will be shifting in his grave.” A white-haired trucker grimaced from a flashback to a near-brush with death.

“Yeah, but trucking is better than working at a factory.” Another trucker professed from across the counter.

“Or a mine.” The redneck offered with a West Virginia accent. His fingernails were black with grease not coal.

After his comment we held a pissing contest to see who had worked the worse job. My employment as a janitor in a morgue was beaten out by a shit-shoveler at a pig ranch, but there were worst jobs to be had in America.

“My worse job was my first job,” a skinny man missing a little finger on his left hand said without any hate in his voice. “I was about 15 years old in Prescott, Arizona and this restaurant was opening up. I asked the boss for a dishwashing job, but the place wasn’t opening for another two months, so he gave me a job digging the stones out of where the parking lot was going to be. $1.20 an hour in the summer sun and I weighed about a hundred pounds sweating wet. Tearing up those stones tore the ‘heck’ out of my fingernails.”

“My worst job was smashing knives.” An older man lifted his empty coffee cup and Doris gave him a refill. “This pawn broker in Dallas was buying silver sets and needed the stainless steel blades taken out of the handles. He gave me and my brother a quarter for each knife. We did about thirty an hour. Good money, but we started out like Thor and ended up like a convict on the chain gang.”

Pam had heard enough bravado and said, “I worked at a DC restaurant for Albanian gangsters. They thought they were Stalin and had as many hands as an octopus.”

Not a single man said a word. They were thinking the same thing as Pam’s Albanian bosses, but Doris laughed, saying, “That sounds like my house after payday.

The waitress’ comment broke the ice and every male in the diner returned to his meal. Doris came over to the counter and patted Pam’s hand.

“You boys take care of this girl. She’s special.”

“And so are you.” Pam got up from her stool and blew a kiss to the truckers. “Happy trails.”

Several of the hardened long-haulers blushed, as if they were schoolboys on a first date.

Pam knew how to work a crowd and I followed her after paying the bill.

AK left the tip.

We walked to the Torino and the big engines throttled out of the truck stop. The night temperature was dropping into the low 70s and by midnight it might lean into the 60s.

“Those truckers weren’t so bad.” Pam shivered in the cool air.

“Most people have some good in them.” The stars overhead clustered into the thick marvel of the Milky Way.

“Bill?” Pam wasn’t forgiving the redneck hitchhiker in this lifetime.

“Maybe not Bill.”

He had no good.

AK caught up with us.”

“I loved how you stopped being a hippie and became a trucker like you were shredding your skin. You even started to speak with a drawl.”

“I have a gift for language.” I wiped my face with a napkin from the diner.

“More accents than language, which is a good trick for a Boston boy.” Pam tossed the keys in the air. “Your turn to drive.”

I caught them in my right hand and opened the rear door for her.

“Jackie liked your manners.”

“So at least I was a gentleman.”

“On some occasions.” Pam shut the door.

AK was looking back at the diner.

“What’s the matter?”

“You and me. Our families came off the boats and dropped anchor. These people came inland. They’re not like us.”

“They’re still Americans. We watch the same TV shows, played the same games, and eat the same food.”

“I know that, but both times I crossed the country I felt like a spaceman on an alien planet.”

“Or Captain America and Billy in EASY RIDER.” Dennis Hopper’s biker film had instilled longhairs with a healthy fear for rednecks and crackers.

Knuckles rapping on the car window cut short our conversation.

“Our mistress calls.” I nodded to Pam.

“As long as she’s with us, we have nothing to fear.”

I sat behind the wheel and turned to Pam.

“We weren’t talking about you.”

“I know. My ears weren’t burning.” She wore a protective toughness with ease, then again staying a virgin required a special devotion to purity in the 70s.

I started the Torino.

The V8 was raring for the road and the souped-up station wagon raced onto the highway. The truck stop disappeared into the darkness and I pushed the car up to 80.

The dashes between the lanes shrunk to dots.

“What about the cops?” AK had an unblemished driving record.

“They’re resting for the Memorial Day madness.”

Cops worked triple shifts on the holidays. They loved the overtime.

AK tapped my shoulder and pointed to Pam. She was sleeping with a quivering smile on her lips.

“Guess she found a hotel room in her dreams. Why don’t you do the same?”

A distant radio station was playing Tommy James’ CRIMSON BLUE PERSUASION.

“Wake me, if you get tired.” AK muttered and joined Pam in Never-Neverland within minutes.

The trucks rolled at 75. The drivers of the big rigs communicated with each other on CB radios, pinpointing the location of rolling cruisers and speed traps. I followed their lead like a taxi-girl at a dime a dance hall.

Indiana was the heart of America and every mile was a mirror of the last and the next. I felt stuck in the same place. Only different road signs indicated my progress west.

AK and Pam slept for two hours and I drove in the throes of an interior conversation about a real job or lack of a girlfriend. I finally silenced the banter by speaking to the DJ. He was a better companion than the voices in my head.

West of Michigan City a stretch of the Interstate broke free of traffic in both directions and my foot buried the gas. The Torino hit 100 within a half-mile and the speedometer touched 126 before I eased off the accelerator. The owner had been telling the truth about the Torino. This station wagon was built for speed and we reached the old steel town of Gary three hours after leaving the truck stop.

Two summers ago the night sky over the mill town had shimmered with the glow of blast furnaces burning at full tilt.

The recession had killed off the graveyard shift and tonight Gary was black as the midnight hour.

The Torino fell into place with the trucks on the road. Their drivers had slowed down for a reason and a mile farther west we passed a state trooper hidden in the bushes.

AK woke with a groan and crawled carefully over Pam into the front seat.

“Where are we?”

“A little west of Gary.”

“I was hoping you would say we were heading to Chicago.” His eyes blinked reading the night.

“It’s about seventy miles north of here. We made good time.”

I-90 had become I-80. We were 900 miles from Boston and only two thousand from California. I was ready to miss about three hundred of them.

“It’s 1. You ready to take over?”

“No, but I’ll try my best.”

We stopped on the side of the interstate and changed seats in less than twenty seconds.

Before getting behind the wheel, AK tapped Pam on the shoulder.

“What?” She was startled by being in a car with two men who were not family or her boyfriend.

“Let me fold down the seats, so you sleep like a human being.”


AK arranged bedding with our sleeping bags and Pam slunk into the back without asking where we were. I wished that I could have joined her, but I wasn’t so sure that AK would stay awake. We shut the doors and resumed our journey across the flatlands.

I lasted another ten minutes before falling asleep, praying that we were out of Illinois by the time I rose from my slumber.

I woke to JOLENE on the radio. Dolly Parton’s song was a big hit in America.

“What time is it?”

“About 3:30.” AK’s face drew a silhouette in the dark.

“You’re listening to country?” I sat up in my seat and checked the odometer. We had covered about 160 miles. AK was still driving the speed limit.

“I like her twangy voice, plus there’s not much else to listen to out here.”

“No, I guess there isn’t.” I looked out the window. Water was everywhere. The lights of a big bridge split the dark horizon. “Is that a lake?”

“No, the Mississippi is in flood. A radio station warned that the flood crest with hit Davenport tomorrow.”

“We’re lucky to pass through now.” The moon’s shining reflection on the black flood plain offered a watery alternative to the highway. High waters lapped against the banks of the Interstate. A rise of three feet would close the Interstate.

“The Army Corp of Engineers says there’s nothing to worry about. Cars are coming from the other direction. You ready for another shift?” AK slowed down to stop on the shoulder.

It was Pam’s turn, but she was out cold.

“Not really.” I stepped out of the station wagon and I craned my head to a sky lit by the galaxy.

“Regretting that vote against a motel for the night?” AK asked outside the station wagon.

“Just a little.” I liked my sleep. “But I like being on the road.”

Two trucks whipped past us at top speed.

Their rear lights faded into the night.

“This land is our land.” AK quoted Woody Guthrie, because no matter where we went in our lives we couldn’t escape being Americans. “From the New York Island to California.”

“This land was made for you and me.”

The altered lyrics were a testament to a singer’s love for his country and I took the keys from AK.

“You know I like Pam?”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“And what do you think?”

“Play it cool. She’s in love with someone else.”

“Okay.” AK nodded and sat in the passenger seat.

He draped his jean jacket over his shoulder and laid his head against the window. I had tried the same thing for the last two hundred miles. It wasn’t a comfortable position.

He raised his head to say, “Stay between the lines.”

“I’ll do my best.” I pulled into the right-hand lane.

Ten seconds later AK was asleep.

I checked the rear view mirror. Pam slept head to toe in the direction of California. The interstate was black ahead and black behind. I was the only person on the road.

My foot pressed on the gas and the Ford Torino hit 70 within seconds. The Rocky Mountains were closer than our departure point of Boston. I wanted to see them this speed was a good speed. I pushed the speedometer to 80, because fast was the only speed to drive at this time of night in America.

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