Old Mack’s Tales

July 28, 2009

Moving On

Filed under: Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 10:04 pm
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Young Mack Moving On

Moving On

By OldMack © August 7, 2006

The last time I saw mother she was wearing a starched pink uniform with an embroidered handkerchief pinned above her left breast like an orchid. It was the breakfast shift at Tiny Naylor’s waffle shop on Turk Street. The stools at the counter were all occupied by working men.

I stood near the counter until she noticed me and came over. She asked what I needed. I told her I needed three bucks. She reached into her tip apron and handed me a bunch of quarters. Without counting it I pocketed the change. She wet her fingers with her mouth and reached across the counter to press down the cowlick on the back of my head. She was obviously busy, so I said good bye, picked up my gym bag and walked out the door.

After crossing Market Street I walked to the electric train terminal and caught the A-train. I rode it across the Bay Bridge, where I began hitch hiking on the Lincoln Highway towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A sailor heading for Mare Island got me across the Carquinez Straits Bridge. An Air Force Sergeant carried me across the hills of Vallejo which were dry and golden. He stopped in Vacaville for coffee and bought me breakfast. That was as far as he was going. I thanked him for the lift and walked out to the highway.

It was still early in the day, but it was already hot in the Valley. I took off my heavy duffle coat and slung it over my shoulder. A grey Studebaker, one of the new models that look the same from both ends pulled off the road. I trotted up to the passenger door. The driver wore a dress shirt with French cuffs and a tie. His suit coat hung on a hanger from a hook behind his seat.

“Where you heading, kid?”

“Reno,” I said. I waited for him to lean across the seat and open the door. He picked up his blocked fedora and laid it on the rear seat. I got in and sat down, holding the door open as I sized him up.

“I’m going as far as Winnemucca, Shut the door if you want a ride.”

I pulled the door to until it latched, arranged my gym bag and coat at my feet. “I’m all set,” I said.

“Roll down your window,” he said. I rolled it down. The wind coming in was hot and dry. It was blowing my hair around and that irritated me. I mentioned it to the driver. He leaned across and opened the glove box and pulled out a plain khaki cap with a long bill. I put it on and it solved the problem. “Keep it, You’ll need it.”

After telling me that he had business in Winnemucca, the driver asked me to fill his coffee cup from the thermos behind the seat. I poured the coffee while he lit a cigarette.

“You smoke?” he asked. I nodded and took a pack of Camels out of my plaid wool shirt pocket. I lit up using the dashboard lighter, and then rolled up the sleeves of my shirt a couple of turns.

The shirt was fresh from the cleaners when I swiped it from my step dad’s closet; although the collar size was an inch too big, it fit in the shoulders and sleeves and looked good with my gray trousers. Mother had been too busy to notice that I was wearing Roy’s shirt that morning. He’d be pissed when he discovered it missing. Screw him, I thought, he had forged a check to buy it and mom had worked a double shift in order to pick up the check to keep the bastard from going back to prison.

Far up the road ahead stood a tall slim man in a denim shirt and Levis who looked like a farm hand. When he stuck out his thumb the driver pulled over for him.

“Where you heading?” the driver asked. “Michigan,” said the hitch hiker, opening the rear door.

“Watch out for my hat,” the driver said as he pulled the Studebaker back onto the pavement.

The man in denims wore laced up work boots. He carried no luggage, not even a duffle bag. When he pulled a sack of Bull Durham out of his shirt pocket, I offered him a Camel.

“Thanks, kid, but I prefer this.” He rolled his cigarette, wet the end and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. “You got a light, son?”

I passed him the Ronson I’d swiped off of Roy’s dresser. “You work on these farms?” I asked.

After lighting his smoke and handing back my lighter, he laughed. “Naw. I’m a powder monkey. Highways, tunnels and hard rock mines.”

“That’s pretty dangerous work, isn’t it?” The driver said.

“Only when you fuck up,” he said. “I been working powder since I was this kid’s age. How old are you, boy?”

I was turned in my seat so I could look at the guy. He was brown as a Mexican with plenty of lines in his weathered face. I stuck out my hand and said: “I’m Mack. I don’t know the driver’s name yet.” I had just turned fifteen, but I didn’t tell them or anyone else that.

“Bob,” said the man, “But friends call me ‘Cap’.” He was grinning. Thin lips gripped his cigarette that was burning close to the skin before he removed it and pitched the butt out the window.

“Nate,” said the driver, “short for Nathaniel.” The driver handed me his empty thermos cup and stuck his hand over the seat back and shook Cap’s hand. “Cap . . . were you a Captain during the war?”

“Naw. I was in the Sea Bees, built the runways for the B-29s on Saipan and Tinian . . . the planes that dropped the Atom Bomb on the Japs.”

“What’s the Cap stand for?” Nate asked.

“Well. . . .That’s a funny story. I always kept my blasting caps in my shirt pocket.? He pointed to the buttoned pocket on the right side of his faded denim shirt with his thumb. I was married to a dumb little Okie girl. I told her right off to be sure to check my pockets when she was doing laundry, but she forgot. She run the shirt through the wringer and blowed up a couple of blasting caps. It didn’t hurt her none, but sure scared the hell out of her. So she run me off. Told the Sheriff I had tried to kill her, showed him her busted clothes wringer, and got one of them whatcha call it, a legal paper said I couldn’t go home no more. So the guys started calling me Cap.” He was laughing as if it was a joke, but his laugh was hollow.

Nate down shifted to second gear. We were climbing the steep grade between Auburn and Cisco. The big pines shaded the highway now and it was cooler. Through the trees the Yuba River was visible now and then, way down in the gulch. In places the highway was close to the railroad tracks and a long train with two locomotives at the front and back ends slowly chuffed up the east bound tracks.

“I done some blasting up yonder, close to the summit at Soda Springs,” Cap said, staring at the train above us.

“No kidding? I went to school up there. I was the eighth grade at the little school off to the side of the snow sheds at the summit.” I felt foolish for telling the men that.

“How far did you get in school?” Nate asked.

“I finished the tenth and part of the eleventh.” I said, and then changed the subject. “Last summer I came up here and camped all summer, fished a lot. But then I got a job taking apart an old log cabin, bucked up the logs and split them for firewood.”

Cap reached over the back of the seat and grabbed my upper arm. “Make a muscle,” he said.
I flexed my biceps as hard as I could. Bob whistled. “Yep, you been working alright. You got a trade yet?” he asked. I had to think about that one.

“You see those power lines up there?” I said, pointing up to the right above the tracks. “Well, I worked for a crew topping trees near the right of way that were sold as Christmas trees. But that only lasted a month before we got snowed out. That was a lot of fun, so I don’t count it as a real job. But I could climb as well as anybody in the crew, and cut as many tops as the best of them.” I flushed with embarrassment for bragging like that.

“One of the guys I worked with had a hole the size of a quarter in the roof of his mouth and he was deaf as a stone. He taught me to make the signs for the alphabet with my hands. He’d be in a tree a ways off from mine and he’d point to himself and make the sign for “P” with his hand,? I said, showing them how to make the P sign. I thought it was a funny joke, but I was the only one laughing. To make matters worse, I went through the whole damned alphabet before I had sense enough to shut up.

It was the middle of October, and it was cold in the mountains, with the remnants of the first snow still lying in the shade of the trees and up in the gullies. Cap said he was cold, that he’d been a damned fool for leaving without a coat. I pulled a new cable knit sweater out of my gym bag that my aunt Mary had knitted for me and handed it to him. He was surprised to find that it fit him.

“My aunt always makes my sweaters too big. She says I’ll grow into them before I wear ‘em out.”

When Nate dropped us on the outskirts of Winnemucca, Cap suggested that we stick together. I agreed. Nate had stopped in Reno to let me out, but I admitted that I was going “back east.” Cap had commented that it was smart. “When you’re traveling alone, you want to leave yourself the option of getting out if the driver starts any funny stuff.”

“I learned that when I was ten,” I said. “I got ditched in San Diego with some bad people and had to hitch hike up to San Pedro to try to find my mom. I always carry a knife just in case. When I couldn’t find her, I was hitching back to San Diego. A queer picked me up and tried to grab my crotch. I cut his hand and he pulled over and let me out. He scared the shit out of me, and was lucky I didn’t stab him in the neck. I would have, but I was afraid he’d wreck the car and kill us both, so I just stabbed his hand.” It was the truth. I told Cap the story as sort of a warning that I didn’t put up with any funny stuff.

I didn’t know it was against the law to hitch hike in Denver. I started to thumb a car, but Cap told me not to, so we hiked a long ways out of town where a Mayflower van picked us up. The driver pretended to be checking his tires, pounding on them with a hammer. Then he opened the back door of the van and Cap got in and lay down on a sofa. I had to ride in the cab and keep the driver from falling asleep. I kept his coffee cup filled and told him my whole life story and the plot of all the Jack London books I’d read.

We rolled into Junction City, Kansas and went to the house of a soldier stationed at Fort Reilly. The driver hired me and Cap to unload the furniture and put it where the lady wanted it. It was on a Saturday, so the driver paid us helper’s wages at time and a half. He let us out at a truck stop east of town that had a diner. Cap and I were really hungry by then. We each ate two orders of chicken-fried steak and eggs with biscuits and honey..

Cap and I traveled together all the way to Michigan City, Indiana. He was heading north from there to Grand Rapids. He offered to give my sweater back, but I told him to keep it. I had a good warm Macintosh duffle coat, so I didn’t need it. After we parted company, it was damned lonely traveling alone.

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