Five weeks into my sophomore year it was time to head home for a weekend. Just as during my freshman year-- I didn't have a car. That left taking Greyhound or hitchhiking. The only time I ever took the bus was once when a blizzard was coming. It didn't work out well since the bus got stuck in a snowdrift and the three hour drive took fourteen hours. Of course, hitchhiking would have been worse on that trip-- they would have found my body in a ditch when it thawed out in July. But this time it was early October, not bitter cold yet, so hitching was the way to go. I busted out of class at 2 that Friday, swung by the dorm for my white cotton laundry bag full of dirty clothes, and walked out to the highway ramp.
The unwritten guidebook for hitching home was that, since it was a three hour drive, you needed to make it in five hours or less by thumb or you were a loser. One time during my freshman year I actually made it home faster than I could drive it myself! A pitcher for the White Sox picked me up in his GTO. He was headed up to Chicago from Florida at the end of spring training. I watched for cops and he drove 80 MPH the whole way telling me about how wild the girls were in Puerto Rico where he played winter ball. I told him I already envied him for being a major league ballplayer, he didn't need to rub it in. He told me a lot about Latina pussy and how ,when they gave him handjobs or blowjobs, they'd giggle and say "leche, leche, leche!"
I said, "Milk?"
"Yeah, Billy boy, they loved to milk my cock."
I just shook my head and told him that shit like that didn't happen in my life, he was lucky. He liked hearing that, I think. Originally he was going to drop me off about an hour short of home and take a different interstate but I convinced him that he could get to Chicago faster via the turnpike. It ended up he took me right to my driveway two hours and 45 minutes after I tromped out to the highway. My all-time record to this very day. His major league career amounted to just over 200 innings pitched and a 5+ ERA. Not too great, but 200 more innings than I ever got in the bigs.
But that was last spring. Today it was cool, gray, autumnal, and rain was threatening. I stood by the road, school logo on my laundry bag turned to face the oncoming traffic. In this part of the state that would be an advantage. Later, in rival territory, the logo would face away. I was not some fuckin' rookie out here by the side of the road. Car after car went by. VW's were usually a good bet. Rusty Corvairs were good too. (Was there ever a Corvair that didn't rust out in three years?) Today, nothing. At least 45 minutes went by and I was losing my winning smile. It started to sprinkle. Shit. One thing I had with me though was music. Of course, not even the Walkman had been invented yet, so the music was in my head. Hmm, maybe roadside solo singing and dancing was hurting my hitchhiking success. I mean, maybe I looked like a lunatic out there. So be it... The Man couldn't stop my music!
"If you live on the road... there's a new highway code... you take the sumpthin' er other noise with sumpthin' er other dum de dum... It's gonna lessen your load.. 30 days in the hole! uh... Newcastle Brown... it can sure smack you down... take a greasy whore and a rollin' dance floor... it's got your head spinnin' round...30 Days in the Hole"
Then the strangest thing in my three year hitchhiking career happened. A 1971 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado Coupe pulled over. I picked up my backpack and laundry bag and ran towards it figuring it was about a 95% chance that it would roar away just as I got to it. Did stuff like that ever happen? Oh hell yes, it surely did. And worse, much worse. But as I ran to the ice blue Ell-Dora-Doo it just sat there rumblin' that motherfuckin' 500 cubic inch V-8. When I came up to the passenger side window the glass zipped down. Power windows, wow! Behind the wheel was an old woman who couldn't have been more than 5 feet tall. I was expecting a cigar chompin' tycoon so this was as shocking a development as the Caddy pulling over in the first place.
"Where ya headed, honey?" she asked.
I told her.
She laughed and said, "You're in luck. I'm headed right past there another hundred miles or so. You don't look too dangerous and I need somebody to talk to. Get in, sweetie."
I opened the door, threw my laundry bag on the back seat (thus breaking an unwritten rule), put the backpack between us on the dark blue leather bench seat. She powered the window back up and we were on the highway. The front seat was a split bench. She had her seat pulled all the way forward so she could drive that big boat but, luckily, I could power my side all the way back and relax. Well, relax as much as I ever could while taking rides from complete strangers.
Millie was a piece of work. Chain smoking Winstons all the way she didn't leave much of her personal history out as the miles went by. The way a guy paid for a free ride was sparkling conversation so I did my best. One thing about me, I always try to do my best. I figured this gal was about 60 or so. (Believe me, that doesn't seem very old to me now, but I was 20 then so, yeah, she was old.) The Eldorado was a birthday present in 1971 from her husband who dropped dead of a heart attack six months ago. She was dressed up like she was going to a cocktail party-- not heading off on a day's drive, no matter how plush the ride. Turns out she was going to visit her "special gentleman friend." He was somebody she knew from high school and got reacquainted with at her husband's funeral. I contemplated that at some length. Every picture I got wasn't particularly attractive to me. But, I plowed ahead with the conversation.
About an hour or so short of my parent's house and after a short lull in the conversation Millie asked,
"Do you like music, Willie?"
"I love music. In fact I was singing a Humble Pie song to myself when you stopped for me"
"What the hell is a humble pie song?"
"Humble Pie's a band, Millie," I said.
"Oh, rock crap. Do you like country music?" Millie said.
"Like Eddie Arnold? Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton?" I asked.
"Yeah. Although my current favorite is Merle Haggard," Millie said.
"I know some Merle Haggard stuff. He's great," I told her.
"You know anything besides 'Okie from Muskogee' Willie?" she said with a laugh.
"Well, 'Workin' Man Blues' I like a lot," I said.
"Seriously? Sing it, Willie." Millie said. She was calling my bluff.
Many nights sitting in a bar with a great country & western jukebox last summer were going to pay off big for ol' Wil now.
"Aw Millie, I can't sing worth a damn. But some of the lyrics go...
um.. the workin' man, the workin' man like me
I ain't never been on welfare,
that's one place I won't be
'Cause I'll be workin'
long as my two hands are fit to use
I drink a little beer in a tavern
Sing a little bit of these workin' man blues
Sometimes I think about leavin',
do a little bummin' around
I wanna throw my bills out the window
catch a train to another town
But I go back workin'
I gotta buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes
Yeah drink a little beer in a tavern
Cry a little bit of these workin' man blues.
How was that?"
Millie looked at me with an odd look in her eyes. She blinked a couple of times and looked straight ahead. She said nothing.
The silence was getting to me.
"Millie, please don't ever tell my friends that I like country music OK?" I said with a laugh, trying to lighten the mood.
"My husband loved that song. How did you know that?" she said finally.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel bad," I told her.
"Don't be sorry for the emotion a great song brings, Willie, even if it's your silly Pie band shit," Millie said.
The next morning I borrowed Dad's go-to-work car and drove over to Jackie's house. Beth was going to be at work all day Saturday. All day.
I ambled to the front door. Didn't want to seem too eager. I adopted sort of a James Dean walk from Giant before he strikes oil.
The door opened and Jackie stepped out on the front porch in cut-off bib overalls. No shoes, and no shirt under the overalls.
"Wil, get in here! I missed you, baby!"
I could see the curve of her breast.
So much for that James Dean amble.