by Rollie Tom
Second installment of "Greatest Hits," the novel.
Normally one of those individuals prone to experiencing uncommonly light and sporadic sleep patterns, Gabriel slumbered quite soundly in the vacant house and awoke to a bright ray of sunlight streaming in through a smudged window and directly into his eyes. Since a wristwatch was as much a luxury to him as a bar of soap these days he could only estimate that it must’ve been somewhere between eight and nine. The extra shuteye was a plus but now he’d be about as unnoticeable as a stray circus elephant as he made his way back out to the highway.
He waited until the neighborhood looked quiet enough and then crawled back out of the window. He got about a half block before a Hispanic woman hanging her laundry on a clothesline saw him, frowned and hurriedly ran into her house. Gabriel put his head down, picked up his pace to a near jog and silently prayed to whatever God might be listening that she wasn’t at that very moment on the phone, talking to the police. He’d spent enough time in small town jails already and had no hankering to visit another today, thank you very much.
This time fortune smiled upon him and within minutes he found himself back on the roadside in the familiar position of being dependent on some stranger’s charitable countenance. He got lucky right off the bat but, unfortunately, he only got a short-lived ride through the city that put him out on the west side of Albuquerque. Once again he was at the mercy of the brutal elements and he chastised himself for not filling up his tin canteen earlier. One or two more gulps of water and then he’d be in a real pickle.
An hour later he was still waiting for a ride. No drivers had even slowed down. One car loaded with rowdy, foul-mouthed teenagers had thrown a small carton of milk at him as they sped by but he was adroit enough to dodge it. Things like that unnerved him because he still carried a scar from being hit by a beer bottle that had caught him right behind the ear one evening just outside of Oklahoma City. It had taken twelve stitches to repair that little memento of kindness. But he’d chalked the incident up to being an occupational hazard and gone right back out on the highway.
He’d been thinking that Vegas might be interesting. Or not. Maybe Seattle would be a nice place to visit. Or not. Or Mexico. It didn’t really matter to Gabriel. He rarely ended up where he thought he would. These days he was dealing with the here and now and nothing more. The truth is that one doesn’t make very good progress when one is mostly walking backwards. Especially when one has no particular destination in mind.
To combat the rising heat, Gabriel concentrated on how great it used to feel to float lazily for hours in the backyard swimming pool at the house he grew up in. He was about to gulp down his last slug of water when a green and white Volkswagen mini bus pulled over about ten yards ahead of him. His heart leaped with joy. He ran up to the courteously-opened passenger side door and jumped in without even checking things out first.
A friendly voice addressed him.
“Get in, man. I gotta keep this baby moving or it’ll overheat.”
“Thanks a million. I thought I’d never get another ride.”
“I can let you off anywhere between here and Phoenix.”
“Phoenix will do fine.”
After he cooled off a bit Gabriel finally got a chance to give the fellow a once-over. He was instantly relieved to see that he was a hippie. He had on a bandanna, worn out jeans, a tie-dyed tee shirt with a peace sign on the front, leather sandals and he sported wild, kinky hair that hung past his shoulders. He also had a full pack of Marlboros sitting on the dash.
“I hate to ask but could I please bum a smoke from you? It’s been so long since I had a cigarette I’ve been having dreams about them.”
The driver chuckled as he grabbed the pack and handed it to Gabriel.
Gabriel took his first drag in what seemed like ages. The strong taste and smell of tobacco and the rush of nicotine hit his senses at the same time and it gave him a brief moment of pleasant vertigo. He stretched out his legs and put his head back. Life flowed back into his body.
“First one in a long while is always the best one,” the driver chirped.
“Yeah. Like a shot of whiskey to an alcoholic. I could smoke this whole pack by myself.”
“Be my guest. I’ve got a whole carton under the seat.”
Gabriel gave him a grin and a thumbs-up, then looked out the window across the expanse. An opaque dust devil whirled aimlessly and the hills in the distance shimmered in the layer of heat rising from the arid desert floor. They sped past a tiny town identical to the one he’d just spent the night in and about a hundred others he’d graced with his uninvited presence along the way.
A boisterous but gentle voice interrupted his reverie.
“My name’s Anthony. Anthony Hayes. Everybody used to call me ‘Buckwheat’ because of my crazy hairdo but nowadays it’s just B.W.”
They shook hands.
“Nice to meet you, B.W. I’m Gabriel. Call me Gabe.”
“Where you from?”
“Never been there. Is it nice?”
“Yeah. Lotsa hills and trees. Stuff like that.”
“Been away long?”
“A little over three years now. I grew up and got out.”
In a flash, Gabriel’s mind took a detour back to Tennessee. He remembered the day he left for college. That was a big, big day. Mom, Dad, siblings, relatives and friends crowded around his loaded Chevy Malibu. Someone had scrawled “UT or bust” on the rear window in shoe polish. He recalled his first heady impressions of being out on his own, living in one of the university’s crowded dorms. Everything was so exciting. The freshman orientations, the horde of new faces that included hundreds of naïve girls ripe for the picking, his dorky roommate from Cleveland, the intimidating lecture halls and all those heavy books. And football tryouts.
With that thought a dark cloud descended into his brain. He tried to block the ugly memories out but he couldn’t. He could picture the young man lying on the ground at his feet. He could see the other players standing around in a circle. He could hear the ambulance siren blaring and the paramedics running towards them. It played like a surreal documentary in his mind yet it only took a second to run its course. He was there, living the horror again.
“You headed anywhere in particular, man?” a voice seeped in from nowhere.
“Hello! Where you going?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Never do.”
“That can’t be healthy. I hate to be presumptuous but that kind of answer makes it sound like you’re trying to get away from something. Or someone.”
Gabriel paused for a long minute before speaking but B.W. seemed like a guy he could talk to without regretting it. One of those good souls who you know intrinsically will listen to every word you say and yet never judge you by the content. So he opened up a little.
“It wasn’t just something or someone I decided to get away from, it was everything. I was one of those privileged kids who had it all and did everything expected of me. I honored my mother and father, I went to church, I made good grades and I achieved recognition in sports. I was on my way up the escalator of success, man. Then one afternoon I experienced the worst, most tragic moment in my life and, in the span of a few terrible seconds, I realized that all that good upbringing and growing up in the best part of town and being looked up to by my peers didn’t amount to a pile of crap when confronted with the fragility of life. I had one of those humbling epiphanies when you suddenly see through the pretentiousness of everything, you know? So I dropped out. I decided I would take life one heartbeat at a time from then on. I don’t want structure or responsibility. I want to exist at the mercy of the elements, not asking for or demanding nothin’. I want to be dangerously free. Not dangerous to others, mind you, just dangerous in terms of my own well being. My personal safety. My security. The way I see it, my solid roots didn’t prevent me from doing great harm so I’ve severed all ties to my past. These days I allow fate to guide my steps.”
B.W. nodded his head. “Just blowin’ about like a leaf in the wind, huh? I gotcha. And I know exactly where you’re coming from. I did the same thing for about a year and a half myself. Hitchhiked all over the place and even rode in railroad cars with the hobos for a spell. Gabe, I went so far as to trying out life on a commune in Wyoming for half a year but I got tired of starving and hit the road again. I was looking for something but I didn’t know what it was. Then out of the blue I met a great gal and her incorruptible goodness caused me to reassess everything about myself. I wisely married her and we settled down in Phoenix.”
“Cool. You like it there?”
“Apartment or house?”
“House. The neighbors don’t like us but we don’t care. We just mind our own business. It’s not me they hate, it’s the little head shop I run that they despise. Evidently in their eyes I’m corrupting the youth of America single-handedly but that’s not fair. I’m just a hard-working Joe, meeting a demand in the marketplace. That’s why I was in Taos, picking up some stuff for the store.”
“A head shop? Really? You make a lot of bread?”
B.W. guffawed. “No. Just enough to keep us going and to be able to help out a needy brother or sister every once in a while.”
“Sounds like a good life.”
“It is. Look, you seem like a trustworthy sort. If you need a place to crash when we get to Phoenix you can stay with us. We have an extra bedroom and you’re welcome to it for as long as you need.”
“Wow. Thanks. I just might do that.”
“Look behind you and grab that little blue box on top of all that junk in the back. There should be a joint in there. A friend in Taos gave it to me.”
“Now you’re talking! Even better than a Marlboro!”
He turned and snatched the box. The back of the van was filled to capacity.
“What is all this back here, anyway?”
“Trinkets, used records, eight track cassettes, incense, posters. Anything I think I can sell alongside the usual array of rolling papers, pipes and bongs.”
Gabriel grabbed the Zippo in the ashtray and fired up the joint. He sucked in a huge toke and held it in for five seconds before his lungs exploded and he almost choked himself unconscious. B.W. laughed heartily while Gabriel struggled to catch his breath and clear his throat.
“That’s good weed,” he finally croaked, “but harsh.”
“Yet it takes the edge off wonderfully. Certainly beats taking stress pills,” B.W. chortled as he took his turn. He pushed an eight track cartridge of an album by The Allman Brothers Band into the player, turned up the volume and eased back in his seat. They still had a long drive ahead of them.
The smoke-filled Volkswagen rolled on down the road and Gabriel kept on moving closer to his destiny.
By the time B.W. and Gabriel crossed the border into Arizona they were chattering away like a couple of monkeys, laughing at each other’s corny jokes and swapping stories as if they’d been buddies since childhood. No topic was off limits from religion to music to politics and sports. Neither could recall the last time they’d enjoyed a casual conversation as much so the time and the miles seemed to fly by.
With the onset of dusk they reached the outskirts of Phoenix.
“You ever been through here before, Gabe?”
“I think I was in and out of here the first time I hitched to California. I saw it passing by me in a blur from the cab of a big rig.”
“It’s nice in its own baked, crispy way. Not too big. Not too small. Just right for this teddy bear. I can think of worse places to call home.”
“Actually, it looks greener than I remember it being.”
They drove along the city’s freeways and avenues for fifteen minutes before pulling up in front of a small brick house in a cozy neighborhood. Four highly excited, tail-wagging dogs of thoroughly-mixed breeding came running up to the van as they got out. They created a loud cacophony of barking.
“These are my children, Gabe,” B.W. shouted over the din.
“That’s odd. They look like dogs to me.”
B.W. laughed. “Don’t let them hear you say that. They think they’re humans with certain inalienable rights. I never had a pup of my own when I was a kid so I guess I should be happy now.”
Gabriel looked up to see a woman with long, braided brown hair standing on the front porch with her hands on her slender hips. She was short but lean, her dark brown eyes glowing with an inviting, inner warmth and she beamed a smile that could disarm a marine drill sergeant.
B.W. finally shooed the slobbering canine gang away and motioned to Gabriel.
“Come on in, Gabe. I want you to meet my wife.”
They walked gingerly across the small green lawn so as to avoid stepping on the exuberant dogs who had resumed their demands for undivided attention. B.W. kissed and embraced his wife, then turned to introduce Gabriel.
“Michelle, this is another brother, Gabriel Brewer. He’s going to stay with us for a while.”
She put out her hand and Gabriel was tempted to kneel and kiss it regally. He just grinned, instead, and shook her hand gently.
“Nice to meet you, Gabriel,” she said. “Come inside and take a load off. I’ve had supper keeping warm in the oven for thirty minutes.”
“You’re too kind.”
As he followed them into the house Gabriel couldn’t help but swoon slightly as the enticing odor of fresh green beans, candied yams, cornbread, pork chops and apple pie hit him like a tidal wave. It was a heavenly aroma and he almost drooled on his shirt while she set out the food.
“I reckon you could call this our weekly soul food feast,” Michelle said as they sat down at the table. “I was raised in the heart of Dixie so it’s in my blood, I guess.”
“It smells out of this world. I’m not sure I deserve this,” Gabriel said.
“I’m not sure any man does!” B.W. said, reaching for the butter dish.
The taste of the food lived up to its scintillating billing. It was easily the best meal Gabriel had eaten since leaving home and he stuffed himself to the point of misery.
After supper Gabriel and B.W. drove the van packed with boxes of trinkets, necklaces, rugs and what-all down to the store. The day-glo, can’t-miss-it-in-a-snowstorm sign hanging over the front door read “The Atomic Dandelion.” Everything counter-culture was inside. Posters of rock & roll stars, underground comics, bins of incense, a waterbed display, and a vast array of pipes and paraphernalia were arranged neatly everywhere around the establishment. It was fashionably funky but organized and tidy. Gabriel set down a large box on the floor, looked about and nodded in approval.
“Hey, B.W., this place is far out. I am impressed!”
“It ain’t much but it’s all mine. Keeps me off the streets.”
“Um, you aren’t in need of any help, are you?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. Hell, you didn’t think you were going to hitch a ride all the way in from Albuquerque for free, did you?” B.W. guffawed.
“Oh, so that’s how it works, huh? I’m on to you now. You pick up desperate derelicts on the highway and bring them back here to work off the tab they ran up. I see. You’re running a scam, right?”
“Damn! And I thought I was being so crafty and all. Can’t slip nothin’ past you, can I?”
“Well, I guess I can arrange my busy schedule to do a little slave labor around here. As long as you toss in Michelle’s cooking, that is.”
“Of course. She’s in on the scam, too!”
Gabriel fell back onto the waterbed and stretched out. He stared up at a poster taped to the ceiling overhead that read, “When You Get What You Want Will You Want What You Get?” He smiled. At least this time he wanted what he was getting.
Gabriel spent a peaceful night sleeping in a real bed with real sheets and real pillows for a change. It had been well over a month since he’d even reclined on a cot and that was in a noisy YMCA in Fort Worth. B.W. woke him up at nine out of a deep slumber by playing Jimi Hendrix’s spectacular version of “The Star Spangled Banner” loudly on the stereo in the living room. They ate a huge breakfast of homemade biscuits, eggs, bacon and milk before heading down to the store.
“Michelle’s quite a girl, B.W. The way she cooks, though, I don’t see how you keep your weight under 300 pounds.”
“I have no idea, either. Must be my high-octane metabolism or something. Michelle’s everything to me these days. I’m blessed to have found her. She’s a good Christian girl, you know. She taught me how to be generous and forgiving of others regardless of how they treat me. Life runs a lot smoother when I do those things because that way I don’t waste so much time being pissed off!”
“I think you’re on to something there, my friend. Stick with it.”
The streets were crowded with cars and people when they pulled up in front of the shop. It was in a great location. Right across the street was a large Sears & Roebuck department store, a Burger King and a retail strip center containing a variety of businesses. The “Atomic Dandelion” itself was book-ended by a hardware establishment and a record store.
B.W. motioned toward the latter as they approached the door.
“That record place really helps my business. A lot of their customers come over here after buying their LPs to get some incense or rolling papers,” he said as he unlocked the door and put up the open sign.
They busied themselves with stocking the shelves with items from the many boxes they’d unloaded the night before. There weren’t a lot of customers that particular day and the ones who did venture in just browsed for the most part. Gabriel enjoyed having something to occupy his mind for a change and the camaraderie he felt being around B.W. was rejuvenating his spirit. They both shared a love of music and it seemed like every album B.W. put on the turntable was one of Gabriel’s favorites. Songs from records like Cream’s “Disraeli Gears,” The Beatles’ “White Album” and Yes’ “Fragile” filled the shop with good vibes all day long.
The sole “disagreement” that he and B.W. had was when it came to who they considered to be the best rock guitarist. They’d agreed that, according to gender, Janis Joplin and Robert Plant were the top vocalists, that Keith Moon was the most exciting drummer and that Keith Emerson was the finest keyboard man on the scene but on the subject of six-string virtuosos they found themselves at an impasse. B.W.’s axeman of choice was Duane Allman while Gabriel opined that Jeff Beck had no equal and in this matter an un-erasable line was drawn between them. Of course, this difference of opinion became the basis for a lot of good-natured ribbing and snarky wise-cracks from both parties that even the store’s patrons found entertaining.
But if Gabriel thought the angels were favorably smiling on him by supplying him with gainful employment in a fun, relaxed atmosphere, he didn’t know the half of it. He had no idea that the best was yet to come. Around 4:30 that afternoon a woman strolled into the store and right into Gabriel’s lonely life.
She was everything he’d ever dreamed of and he was thunderstruck the moment he noticed her. She was the whole intoxicating package. Blonde hair that flowed to the middle of her back, pale blue eyes, pixie smile, soft voice, petite, around 5’3”. Perfection on two feet.
It was obvious that she and B.W. were close friends.
“Well, hello, Amy,” his boss said. “How are things in your corner of the cosmos?”
“Just the same old same old,” she replied, turning towards Gabriel and smiling. “New employee?”
“Oh, that’s Gabriel. Gabriel, meet Amy Allen.”
The usually outgoing, flirtatious Gabriel was tongue-tied. All he could muster was a stupid grin and a meek “Hi.” He was spellbound. Amy walked right over to him and looked him in the eye.
“So. Where you from?” she asked.
B.W. interrupted before he could speak. “Oh, Amy, come here and see what I got in New Mexico. You’re going to freak.”
She walked around the counter and stooped down next to B.W. who was rummaging around in a box. He pulled out a turquoise necklace and held it up in front of her.
“You like?” he asked her.
“Oh, yes! I do like it. A lot,” she said.
Amy stood up and turned to Gabriel who was still caught in a trance. She held the necklace up to her neck and modeled it for him.
“What do you think?” she purred.
“Beautiful,” he mumbled.
“I agree. It’s you, Amy,” B.W. said.
She glanced up at the Mickey Mouse clock hanging on the wall above and behind Gabriel, then quickly handed the necklace back to B.W.
“Oops. I didn’t know it was so late. I’ve got to get going. Be a dear and save that for me, B.W., will you? See you guys later,” she said as she left in a rush.
Gabriel slowly walked over to the window and watched her as she jumped into her yellow VW bug and drove away. He looked back at an amused B.W. with an astonished look on his face.
“Is she for real?” Gabriel inquired.
“What do you mean, ‘who?’ Amy!”
“She’s real, alright. Great girl. An old friend of Michelle’s. Comes in here all the time. You like her?”
“Like’s not the word. I didn’t know a woman could look that good.”
“She’s a sweetheart, too. You’ll see her again, I’m sure.”
Gabriel looked out the window and down the street she had driven away on.
“Good,” he said softly.
For days afterward Gabriel inquired about Amy often, grilling both B.W. and Michelle for any information he could glean about her. He told Michelle to get a message to Amy that she needed to come visit him at the store as soon as possible. “And tell her that’s an order,” he added.
B.W. didn’t have a closing time, per se, he just shut things down when the customers left, usually somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00. One night later in the week it was getting closer to 7:30 and B.W. was still talking to one of his regular customers like he had nowhere else to be. Gabriel leaned up against the counter, quietly playing a harmonica to a B.B. King record spinning on the turntable. Just as the man left Michelle and Amy came in.
“Aren’t you closed yet?” Michelle asked B.W. “It’s starting to get dark.”
B.W. just shrugged on his way to the front door, key in hand. Michelle turned to Gabriel.
“Was that you playing? Don’t stop. It sounds great!”
He put the harmonica down and shook his head.
“It’s just a hobby. Hi, Michelle. Hi, Amy.”
Amy walked over to him and gave him a mock salute. “Amy Allen, reporting as instructed, sir.”
Gabriel swallowed hard and grinned sheepishly. “Oh, that. I was just kidding around. I… I’m just glad to see you again.”
Amy smiled at him. “So you’re a musician, I take it?”
“Kinda sorta,” he said. “I dabble.”
B.W. finished locking the front door, walked up and hugged Michelle.
“Don’t let him fool you. He’s talented. Been playing that thing like a pro all day,” B.W. announced.
Gabriel blushed ever so slightly, then reached into his shirt pocket for something. He handed it to Amy. Her eyes lit up when she saw that it was the necklace she’d admired earlier.
“I wanted to make sure you got it.”
“Thank you! That’s so sweet!”
“I saw how much you liked it and couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else wearing it.”
“Good line,” B.W. said. Michelle elbowed him and shot him an accusing glare.
“Smartass,” she said.
Amy put the necklace on and Michelle came over to look at it.
“Ooo, Amy. I like it. So pretty.”
Amy smiled at Gabriel again.
“You make it look expensive,” he said to her.
“Oh, smooth. Another zinger! Yes!” B.W. exclaimed. Michelle gave him an annoyed, go-to-hell-and-don’t-say-another-word stare, then turned back to Gabriel.
“Amy and I want to know if you’re up for a night at the pub.”
“I’m in,” he said without hesitation.
Michelle turned to B.W. “One more smart remark from you, buster, and we’ll go without you.”
“Roger that,” he replied. “I’ll be a good boy. I promise.”