BACK AND FORTH by Peter Nolan Smith CHAPTER 6 – LUCKY IN LOVE

The dawn sun peeked over the eastern mountains and a stark brightness flared through Sean’s eyelids. He crawled from his sleeping bag and rose to his feet. A hissing wind pelleted his face with ancient brine and his body ached from the night’s sleep on the hard desert surface.

The New Englander had woken in the Bonneville Salt Flats before. The only difference this time was that today was his twenty-second birthday.

Sean swigged water from his canteen and gathered up his sleeping bag, pounding off the dust. Reaching the Ford Torino he leaned over to the window.

AK and Pam lay inches from each other in the back of the station wagon, but they obviously hadn’t touched each other throughout the night. Sean could have let them slept another hour, but his skin itched from the alkaline salts, The truck stop in Wendover had showers. It was only thirty minutes away to the west.

When he opened the driver’s door, AK sat up with a jackknife in hand. Seeing Sean the pianist lowered the short blade and sighed, “Oh, it’s you.”

“Who were you expecting?”

“Some of Charlie Manson’s followers roam the western deserts. Where and why no one knows.”

“Whatever that mad crew is doing never makes the news.”

“And that’s a bad sign.”

Pam eyes blinked in the glare.

“Enough with the ghost stories. Manson’s in prison forever and a day.” She surveyed the Salt Flats. “I’ve never been anyplace so desolate.”

“The Salt Flats are uninhabitable for man or beast, but I-80 is just down there.”

A half-mile away cars and trucks sped on the mirror mirage of the interstate.

“I’ve seen this place on TV. The Bonneville Salt Flats, right?”

“Yes.”

“And this is the fastest place on Earth.”

“Not here, but farther north rocket cars and super-charged motorcycles race a measured mile. The Speed Week is in early August when the salt flats are driest. Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame hit 630 in 1970.”

“Didn’t you sleep here with Marilyn last year?” AK crawled into the front seat and handed his friend the keys.

“Who’s Marilyn?” asked Pam, whose sleep-tousled blonde hair reminded Sean of young Brigitte Bardot in AND GOD CREATED WOMEN.

“She’s how we know each other. Last summer Sean was hitchhiking from Berkeley with a friend. The two of them were stuck on Telegraph Avenue for hours with some thirty hippies leaving town. A few had been stuck there for over a day.”

“I had to be at school and Nick needed to pick up his BMW in Tulsa, where he had crashed his car at the State Fair. Oklahoma was out of my way and a Ford Maverick pulled over driven by a woman with her daughter. She was on her way to Boulder and had room for one person. I asked Nick if he minded me leaving him.”

“And he was alright with that?” Pam sipped water from the canteen.

“Boulder was almost halfway to Boston and I was down to my last twenty dollars. He told me to go and I left with Marilyn.”

“That’s a friend.” Pam regarded Sean with questioning eyes. “And?”

“She was leaving her husband, who had become a transvestite dancer in the Cockettes. They’re a psychedelic drag queen dance troupe out of San Francisco.”

“And then what happened?”

AK was dying to tell Pam about Sean’s making love to Marilyn on the salt flats, while her daughter slept in the crowded car. Pam’s roommate had been Sean’s girlfriend in 1973 and Sean interrupted to edit the love scene from this tale, “The next day she drove me to Cheyenne, saying that she might come see me in Boston.”

“And now comes the weird part,” added AK. “Sean and I lived next to each other in Boston. I didn’t know him, but one day a Maverick pulls up in front of his house and this woman gets out of her car with her daughter. My girlfriend and I were surprised, since we had gone to college with Marilyn. Only she’s coming to see him, instead of us.”

“But once she sees you two, she decides to stay at your place.”

Marilyn and Sean never made love again.

“We had a bigger place.”

“After that you and I became friends.”

“Unlucky in love.” AK handed the canteen to Pam. “Lucky with friends.”

“Marilyn and I weren’t lovers.”

“Was this before or after Jackie broke up with you?” The blonde wanted the facts straight.

“Jackie ended us earlier. “Sean shrugged the acceptance of his fate and asked, “You know what today is?”

“It’s your birthday.”

“You remembered?”

“Last year I helped celebrate your 21st in Buffalo. You hitchhiked there.”

“Maybe five times over the summer.” Pam’s roommate was that cute.

“Jackie, you, and me drank tequila sunrises on the American side of Niagara Falls. Later that day we played softball against her ex-boyfriend’s team in Delaware Park. You smacked two balls over the railroad tracks. Her boyfriend had been playing centerfield.”

“That night Jackie said that she felt sorry for Jerry. It didn’t take me long to find out how sorry.” Not making love for my birthday had been a bad omen.

“Maybe today you’ll have better luck.”

“Yes, here in the middle of nowhere. You know I share the same birthday as JFK and Bob Hope. It’s also the day that the Turks stormed Constantinople.” History had been his college minor.

“Happy Birthday to you.” Pam sang the entire song. She had a pretty voice and AK backed her lead with a solid baritone.

“And you know what I’m doing for my birthday.”

“I can?t wait to hear.” Pam shivered in fake anticipation.

“I’m driving this car as fast as it can go.”

“I’m not sure the owner meant for you to put his car to the test.”

AK was the more cautious than Pam and Sean about speed.

“Jake would love it. He boasted about the Torino?s Cam-Jet injection and 428 FE V8 back in Boston. After all this is the Bonneville Speed Flats.”

“What the fastest you’ve driven?” Pam had exhibited a heavy foot on the gas throughout this trip. Her destination was a boyfriend, ours was the beach, although the ocean was more faithful than a man.

“About 110 in my father’s Olds 88 on a straightaway.” His town’s road crew prided themselves in the condition of Route 28 from the parish church to the Blue Hills.

“This car should beat that.” AK drove a Pontiac Firebird. “Knock yourself out, but if anything goes wrong, you pay for the damages.”

“What could go wrong?” Sean started the special edition V8 engine. “If you want to play it safe, you don?t have to come along for the ride.”

“He doesn’t, but I do.” Pam jumped into the front seat and strapped on the seat belt.

AK’s reservations were overruled two to one and he folded up the rear seats, then clinched the seatbelt tight.

“Roll up the windows.”

Speed was all about better aerodynamics.

Sean revved the Cobra-Jet engine and stepped on the gas. The tires responded to the acceleration on the salt surface without a shimmy from the steering wheel.

The speedometer in the second dashboard pot climbed to 60 within seven seconds. The needle hit 80 and his grip tightened on the wheel. At 110 the Torino was traveling almost two miles per minute and Sean gritted his teeth, as the speedometer passed 120. The saltpans shivered in the morning light and Sean pinned the needle at 125. The car had more goose in its go, but there was no way of telling how fast was its fastest and Sean lifted his foot off the gas.

“How fast?” AK was a convert to the religion of speed.

“I figure it topped out at 130.” The Torino decelerated to a long stop and he lightly tapped on the brake.

“Now it’s my turn.” Pam was eager for her attempt and the three of them traded places.

125 seemed faster from the back seat and she might have hit a top speed of 135. AK didn’t come close to her best, but drove the Torino with a broad smile on his face.

“I didn’t think it would be that much fun.”

“Some cars are built for speed,” Pam said with admiration for the V8?s power. “Like your speed freak driving so fast in that Super Bee.”

“His speedometer only went to 125. Same as this car.”

“Shame we couldn’t go 300,’ said AK and he got a laugh out of Pam.

“What’s so funny?”

“Just that you’ve driven the speed limit the entire trip and beat your record. Ten hours from Boston to San Francisco.”

“None of us will ever drive 300, but I’ve always wanted a GTO. My friend Moon had one and bet people $20 that they couldn’t grab the bill off the dashboard before he had shifted into fourth. He never lost.”

“They’re $4500 new.” AK burst his balloon. “And a second-hand one costs $2000.”

“Maybe I will get lucky one day.” He had to pay his college loans at the end of the summer.

“You’ll be lucky as soon as we stop for breakfast. Bacon and eggs are on me.” AK turned on the radio.

A local country station played Ray Stevens’ THE STREAK.

The radio received no other signal.

They were on the wrong side of nowhere.

“What’s up ahead?”

“Wendover is a town with an Air Force base at the foot of those mountains. It will have someplace to eat and wash up.”

Then let’s go.’ Pam loved to be clean and AK drove off the salt flats onto the Interstate.

The shriek of two jet fighters greeted their arrival to Nevada. US troop levels in Viet-Nam were down from a half-million in 1969 to the present token presence of a few hundred, however the Air Force still provide support to the South Vietnamese Army and Sean imagined the two F-14s striking fear into their prey. They killed anything that moved on the ground.

“What are you thinking?” asked AK.

“About the War.”

“It’s almost over.”

“For America and soon South Vietnam.”

The jets were out of sight and Sean said, “Stop here.”

AK pulled into the truck stop for gas.

Pam grabbed her towel and strolled over to a detached building next to the gas station. AK parked the car. Once Sean filled up the tank, they headed to the showers.

Two steps inside the entrance was a bank of slot machines. Neither of them expected a miniature casino inside the truck stop and AK asked, “You ever gamble before?”

“My great-grandfather gambled heavily and skipped out on his debts. No one saw him again. My great-grandmother and her two daughters were forced to live with her uncle in Augusta, Maine. No one in my family explained the causes of his misfortune, but my father had once said “Roulette.”

“They don’t call these machines one-handed bandits for nothing.”

AK frowned with disapproval. He was half-Protestant. “Just remember that money in your wallet has to last the summer.”

“Okay, four quarters and I’m quits.”

Sean slipped a coin into the slot and pulled the arm. The cylinders spun to hit a row of cherries. Quarters cascaded into the payout slot.

The jackpot was a half-tank of premium gas.

“Beginner’s luck.” He stuck the coins in his pocket and walked into the showers, while AK paid for gas. The shower room had no walls and Sean stripped off his jeans and tee shirt.

“Hey, hippie boy, where are you bound?” A rangy man with long sideburns soaped an enormous erection two showers to the left.

“San Francisco.” Sean lowered his eyes to the tiled floor. The only word men are supposed to say to each other in a bathroom was ‘huh’.

“I’m going your way.” Tattoos sprawled across his rawhide skin. “I could use the company.”

“I have a car and a girlfriend.” The first was the truth and the second was a pure lie. He swiftly soaped his body.

“Maybe she’d like to watch. Some girls do.”

“Not mine.”

“Too bad, I figured maybe you and I could have fun in Frisco. It’s a wide open city. If you get there, try the Castro. Maybe we’ll have some fun.” He dawdled rinsing off the suds.

“Yeah.” Sean grabbed his clothes and dressed without toweling dry. Exiting from the shower room he warned AK of the bushwhacker.

“He’s looking for a friend.”

“I survived the last shower room without a problem.”

“Don’t tell me that I didn’t warn you.”

Sean entered the diner and sat at the counter. He didn’t need a menu and the waitress wrote down his order for eggs over easy, bacon, and toast.

Thirty seconds later AK joined Sean in the dining room.

His face was a bright red.

“He certainly wasn’t interested in holding hands.”

“No, that’s for sure.”

Pam appeared in a clean dress and wet hair. Tomorrow they were delivering the Torino in Lodi and she would join her fiancee in Mendocino.

Time was running short for AK.

Breakfast for the three of them came to less than $4, since the truck stop served cheap food to entice travelers to the one-arm bandits. Sean reached into his pocket for change and then got up to walk to the slots.

“Very few people know when to walk away a winner.” AK backed away from the machines, as if they were smeared with contagion.

“It’s my birthday.” He put a quarter into the slot and pulled the arm. Within fifteen minutes Sean accumulated another $5 of quarters. The coins had a nice heavy feel in his pocket.

“Lucky at last, but I’ll take your advice for now.” Sean pocketed the coins and AK led the way to the door, where they passed the trucker. He was entertaining the buxom cashier, who laughed, as if he had told her a dirty joke. The trucker winked at AK and Sean hurried to the station wagon.

“You guys make a friend? Pam asked at the car.

“Not at all. Let’s get out of here.”

Nevada resembled the moon. The tortured underbrush was scarred from the waterless weather. Treeless mountains skirted the horizon, as I-80 followed the trail of the Forty-Niners. The first town up the road was Oasis and the four lanes of asphalt shrunk to a two-laner divided by a yellow line, as they rejoined US 6.

Without the road this community had shriveled to its original double-digit population of the late 1800s. They drove past the gas stations, restaurants, and stores without braking for a light. Oasis had none.

Outside town the interstate resumed its trek toward Nevada. Jack Kerouac had traversed this wasteland on a bus following old US 6. He had written very little about this segment of his trip in ON THE ROAD.

Dirt roads vectored off the interstate into the distance.

“Two years ago I passed through here.” Sean asked AK, “What do you think is out there?”

“Ranches, mines, and dirt.” AK studied the map. “And heat.”

The temperature climbed into the 90s and he maxxed the AC to H. AK renewed his efforts to find a radio station, harvesting more static. He lifted his hand over his shoulder.

Pam handed over Joni Mitchell’s BLUE.

The opening chords of the title song rolled like a mist off the Pacific into Monterey Bay. After hearing it for the tenth time in five days the three sang backing vocals for Joni. They almost were in tune and the interstate stretched west into the desert.

Approaching Wells Sean slowed to 40 mph on US 6.

Local cops notoriously set speed traps for out-of-state travelers. Sean checked the gas gauge. It read half-empty and he pulled into a gas station to top off the tank in order to reach the California State Line in one go.

AK bought three cold Cokes, as Pam talked with the pump attendant.

The tall teenager was a younger twin to the young cowboy back in Sterling, Colorado with whom she had spent the better part of an hour in a pick-up. Neither AK nor Sean had criticized her detour from being the faithful girlfriend. Pam was on summer vacation until Mendocino

A neon sign blinked CASINO from long one-story log cabin. Two men in jeans exited from Well’s casino. They squinted in the sunlight and shook hands, as if they had spent the night successfully challenging the odds.

“I’ll be back in a second.” Sean got out of the Torino.

“Where you going?” AK knew the answer.

“To take a look. A year ago I passed through Las Vegas on the way to LA without playing craps or shooting dice.”

“A wise move, but don’t do anything stupid.”

“I won’t.” Sean had $50 in his wallet. The rest of his money was in his bag. He strode across the sun-bleached pavement of Rte. 6 and pushed on the glass door.

The interior decor paid homage to the town’s pioneer past and the casino’s ACs provided a cool refuge from the desert heat.

Sean passed a gauntlet of slot machines to where a dozen green-felt tables arced in two semi-circles on the red carpet. Three men sat at the table farthest from the slots. Tall piles of chips were stacked before them. A motherly dealer in a cowboy hat shuffled a deck of cards with the speed of a Japanese cook slicing meat at Benihanas, then flicked the two cards to each man and herself.

“Feel like joining us in some blackjack.” Her voice sounded like she might have been the Lone Ranger?s aunt.

“It’s a friendly game.” A man in the suit pulled out a chair. “Us against the casino and we’re murdering her.”

“I’ve never played before.” Sean?s mother had only permitted Solitaire, Spades, and Rummy in her house.

“The rules and tactics are simple.” The oldest man at the table resembled his Uncle Jack, who had paid for college with his poker winnings from the Korean War. “Figure the down card of the dealer is a ten or face card. If she’s showing a six, then she’s probably holding a sixteen. The house has to take a card on sixteen. If she breaks 21, then you win.”

“Today’s my birthday.”

“Then your beginner’s luck is doubled by birthday luck. You can’t lose.”

Sean bought $20 of chips and placed a $2 chip on the table. She dealt him two tens. When dealer came him, Sean held up his hand like Steve McQueen in THE CINCINNATI KID.

“The hippie sticks.”

The dealer stayed with a nine and Jack. Sean’s 20 beat her 19. A chip came his way and the trio at the table congratulated his luck. They had also won their hands.

The next deals ran in his favor. Sean had a head for numbers as would anyone who had majored in math during his first years in college. Within thirty minutes he was up $100.

Pam and AK watched behind him.

She waggled the keys in her hand. Neither had any interest in a dusty gambling town in the Great Basin.

“We’ll be at the car.”

“Sorry, it’s time to go.” Sean cashed in his chips and bid farewell to the three men and dealer.

“Not many people quit when they’re ahead,” the old man spoke, as if he only left the table when his last dollar was gone.

“Beginner’s luck can’t last forever.” He stashed the dollars into his wallet.

“You’re not a beginner anymore.” The dealer was angry at his departure. The house hated winners.

“Just a birthday boy and a winner.”

Outside the car Sean said, “Funny, but I was feeling like I would never lose.”

“All gamblers think that way, until they’re busted. Probably your great-grandfather too.” AK leaned against the Torino. “The odds are always stacked in the casino’s favor.”

“And good luck has a funny way of going bad.” Pam started the car. “Like that night you came over to drink tequila with Jackie. You left our room and drove over some bushes, then got arrested by the police.”

“Okay, okay, I wasn’t lucky then. Give me a couple of minutes. I want to call my mother and let her know I’m okay. I won’t be long.”

Three minutes to Boston cost $1.20. His mother picked up on the first ring. She sang ‘Happy Birthday’ twice and asked if he was having fun.

“We’re in Nevada, almost in California.” He refrained from mentioning his winning streak. As a Catholic his mother regarded luck as a gift from God not to be wasted on sin, although Sean recalled a nun telling the class that St. Christopher was also the patron saint of luck and very popular on parish Bingo nights.

“I’ll call you from San Francisco. Love you and tell Dad I’m fine. He still angry?”

“No, but he thinks your trip is a senseless fling.”

“And you?”

“You’re only young once. Enjoy yourself. We miss you.”

“And I miss you too.”

Sean hung up and rang Jackie’s house in Buffalo. Her mother answered the phone, “Hello.”

He dropped the receiver and returned to sit in the Torino’s passenger seat.

“Everything okay?” AK had met his parents. They thought that he was a good friend, but also a bad influence on his future. Long hair was falling out of favor in the mid-70s.

“We can have birthday cake later.” AK’s parents probably felt the same way about him.

“I like chocolate.” AK pulled out of the gas station and the attendant waved to Pam from the pump.

“Me too.”

The next town on the map was Elko, which was slightly bigger than Wells judging from the larger print of its name. Halfway through town, Sean said, “Stop here. I want to play a few hands of blackjack.”

“You’re really tempting fate,” AK groaned, but neither of them refused his request to test Lady Luck and thirty minutes later Sean pushed away from the table $220 richer. The weekly salary at a Boston bank was $20 less than that and the blackjack dealers didn’t cared about his grades or long hair.

Sean repeated his wins in Winnemucca and Lovelock.

He counted the thickening wad of cash several times in the back seat and told Pam to put on Joni Mitchell, “She’s my lucky charm.”

“How much do you have now?” AK had avoided from the tables and flirted with the slots. He was down $10.

“Counting the money I left Boston with, almost $1800.”

“That’s enough for a second-hand GTO.”

“One more stop and I’ll buy a new one.”

Last year Sean had accompanied Marilyn and her daughter east with less than twenty dollars in his pocket,

“That’d be an extravagant birthday present.” AK was happy for Sean.

“And who deserves it more than me?”

Shutting his eyes Sean heard the sound of the GTO. They were driving to the Pacific. He was looking forward to being a beach bum with money.

A road sign was marked RENO 150 MILES.

Two hours later the night softened to a velvet blue, as they pulled into the Biggest Little City in the World.

“One more stop.”

“We could have been in California without all these stops.”

Pam groaned at the wheel.

“I’m on a roll. Thirty minutes is all I need.”

AK said, “I don?t think this is a good idea.”

“Don’t jink me.” Sean handed AK his travelers’ checks and $1000. They were probably right. No one came out on top, but he had the bug. “No matter what I say, don’t give me any money.”

“I’ll hold it.” Pam slipped the cash into her pocketbook. “I don’t trust either of you, but Joni Mitchell wishes you luck. One more thing. If you’re playing, then play to win.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Sean’s fingers twitched to hold cards. This was a whole new him.

Neon rainbows blazed above Reno?s main street. Sean picked the Horseshoe Club as his next victim. He liked its 50s facade. Pam gave the Torino to a casino valet. Sean tipped him a dollar.

“Whatever you do, don’t let this man sell the car,” she warned the skinny valet.

“I’ll try my best.” He must have failed more than once.

“A half-hour. Then it’s time for the best chocolate cake in the West.”

It was his birthday. Reno was at his mercy. Sean marched into the Horseshoe Casino.

Pam and AK detoured to an empty lounge, where Sean?s friend sat at a piano to play Joni Mitchell and Pam smiled at him for the first time on the trip, as Sean approached the blackjack tables like Genghis Khan on a raid.

After fifteen minutes he was up to $900. The balding dealer in the red vest congratulated his play. Sean placed a $100 worth of chips on the table. His two cards were an ace and a ten. The dealer paid out $150. A leggy redheaded waitress in a skimpy mini-dress asked, “Do you want a drink, sir.”

“Jack and Coke.

“I’ll be right back.” She gave him a wink.

He tipped her $5.

“It’s my birthday.”

“Maybe we can celebrate once I finish work at 11.” Her smile gleamed in the eternal neon of the casino.

“That would be great.”

“My name’s Kim.”

“Do you mind, if I call you ’21’?”

She gladly accepted his $20.

“And you can be Blackjack.”

“Call me what you want.”

Sean downed the first drink and pulled off a string of wins. Kim served one drink after the other and kissed him once on the ear.
“Be a winner for me, Blackjack.”

“I’ll do my best, 21.”

Sean lost a few hands and struggled to recoup these setbacks with larger wagers. That strategy failed to curb the luck of the house and AK pulled him away from the table.

“I’ve only been here a couple of minutes.”

“More like two hours.”

“Time flies when you”re winning.”

“Even more so when you’re losing.”

“I promise I’ll leave soon. I still have to have some birthday cake.”

Those were the last words that Sean remembered that evening.

The next morning acid sunlight seared his eye sockets and Sean’s head pounded like a drum crashing down a cliff. He sat up to discover that he lay next to a rushing river. Pine trees pierced the clear sky rising above the jagged Sierras and AK was washing his face in the shallows.

“Where’s 21?”

“Who’s 21?”

“The cocktail waitress from the casino. She called me Blackjack.”

“She left at 10. Just after you lost all your money.”

“Lost?”

“Yes, 21 suckered you. Got you drunk. She was only after the casino’s money.”

His hands searched his pockets. There was not one dollar in any of them and his wallet was empty.

“Damn.”

“You could say that.” AK walked to the Torino.

The car was parked close to the river. Pam?s face told a sad story. Sean didn’t need to hear the details just yet and stumbled to the rushing torrent. He washed his face in the icy water and then checked his pockets again with the same result.

Nothing.

Walking to the picnic bench his body ached with each step.

For an instant it felt like someone had rolled him and wondered how many Jack and Cokes he might have downed last night.

Reaching his boots he stuck his hand to the toes.

More nothing.

AK and Pam ate sandwiches and Sean asked, “Did I lose all my money?”

“Like I said before. You were a sucker.” AK confirmed the worst.

“What about the money I gave Pam?”

“Poof.”

“But I told you not to give it to me.”

“I never heard anyone beg like that. Not even a junkie in the emergency room.” Pam bit into her sandwich.

“So I’m broke?”

“Busted.”

“Shit.” Sean was 2700 miles from Boston. “At least I didn’t sell the car.”

“Yes, but you gave it more than one shot.”

“Last night I had it all. This morning I have nothing.”

“Your birthday cake is in the car.” Pam nodded over her shoulder. “It’s chocolate with white frosting.”

“My favorite.” Sean wheeled slowly in a circle.

“What is it?”

“I’ve been here before.”

“You lost all your money before?” Pam didn’t hold a high opinion of Sean this morning.

“No, this is the Truckee River. Two years ago my friend and I were hitchhiking to San Francisco. A Riviera stopped for us. Two convicts just out of prison were inside. They were drunk on whiskey and asked me to drive. Steve said it was a bad idea.”

“And was it?” Pam really wasn’t interested in this story, but she must have figured it was better than listening to his moaning about blowing his vacation cash.

“The drive over the Sierras was a dream, then as we neared San Francisco the least drunk convict insisted on driving and we refused to continue with them. They filled up at the gas station, then stopped and reversed like they had changed their mind, and smashed into the pump, which exploded on contact. They were too drunk to escape from the car. Steve and I pulled them out, while the station attendant extinguished the fire.”

“They were lucky you were there.” Pam finished her sandwich.

“Luckier than me last night. Where’s that cake?”

“In the backseat.”

After eating a few slices Sean pulled on his boots.

The sun was hot this high up in the Sierras.

“You ready?” asked AK.

“Yeah, there’s nothing keeping me here,” Sean said getting to the back of the Torino. “Thanks for the cake.”

Crossing over the Sierras into California his two travel companions mercifully refrained from rehashing last evening’s debacle, but Sean silently cursing himself for yet another disaster.

Upon reaching Sacramento at noon, AK dropped Pam at the bus station. They escorted the nursing student to the Greyhound counter and she bought a ticket for the next departure to San Francisco. Her boyfriend was waiting at the other end. Both of them were sad to see her go and AK said, ?You could always meet us in San Diego. Here’s my friend’s number.

“I don’t think Harry is into hanging out with beach bums.”

“Beach bums?” AK thought of himself as a musician.

“I don’t mean anything bad by that, but you are spending your summer hanging out at a beach.” Pam had them dead to rights and she picked up her bags. “It was fun and don’t worry, I won’t tell Jackie anything about Reno.”

Pam kissed Sean’s cheek.

Her words were a comforting promise not that it made much of a difference, since Jackie was in love with someone else.

“It was real.” Pam kissed AK on the lips for a good thirty seconds and ran to her gate. She didn’t wave good-bye.

“That was a surprise.”

“I only wish it was the beginning of the trip.”

“It is in some ways.”

The three of them were down to two.

Outside AK sat behind the wheel of the Torino for the last time. He turned the key in the ignition and reached under the front seat.

“Here.” He handed Sean a paper bag.

Sean opened it to find his traveler’s checks and $900. His next words came from Captain America in EASY RIDER.

“So I didn’t blow it?”

“You did your damnest.”

“And you let me suffer all this time.”

“Because I thought you might go back to the casino.” He shifted the column stick into Drive.

“It was the right thing to do.” Sean was almost in tears.

I hope you learned your lesson.”

“Two to be exact. First I’m no gambler and secondly drinking and gambling don’t mix.”

“Hopefully you don?t have to learn it twice.”

“I hope so too.”

The Torino pulled out of the bus station.

It was May 30, 1974 and Lodi wasn’t very far from Sacramento.

That town was the end of the first part of the trip, after which AK and he were heading south.

Sean smiled, because he was lucky in something and Sean was smart enough to not ask what that was after one night in Reno, because luck came in spurts.

Both the good and the bad.

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