Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Sixteen

 

May 1974

The toothless driver left me off by the entrance to route 80. I was still unnerved by the electric fence and the collective stink eye that had been coming my way since I’d arrived in Salt Lake.  Outside of Phil, the health food motorcyclist, nobody had been close to friendly.  I wanted out of Salt Lake City. And then along came Maurianne in a Volkswagen bus.  She stopped said “hop in.” I hopped in.

Maurianne looked California, talked California, and was travelling all the way to San Francisco.   Blonde, blue eyed, friendly, and maybe a year or two older than me.  Jackpot.  Maurianne in her blue jeans, peasant blouse, and easy morning smile was what I needed after having been jolted backwards by an electronic fence.

She had to clear the front seat off for me and did so by tossing assorted junk behind us. I saw that the seats were down in the back of the van. Blankets, pillows, and sleeping mats were there without much order. A guitar case was open and in it was a guitar on one side and what looked like clothes ready for a washing machine in the other. Scattered around, I noticed an opened road map, candy bar wrappers, the board game “Chutes and Ladders” and a few YooHoo bottles that looked like they had been careening off the walls of the van.  

I settled in and we headed toward the Nevada border. We got to talking and I told her why I was hiking and about my kin in the San Francisco area.  She opened up easily like someone who wanted to talk. She had just dropped her kids off with “her old man.”  I wasn’t sure if she was referring to her dad or her husband, but it soon came out that she and her husband had separated. He was from Salt Lake and the kids were going to be spending the summer with him and his family. They had been living together in Pacifica, a suburb of San Francisco.  And it was to Pacifica that she was returning.  Leaving her kids, she told me more than once, was not an easy thing to do.  In an indirect way her burden resulted in my good fortune. She had, in large part, picked me up because she, now without husband or kids, did not want to face the very long 14 hour drive through the desert by herself.  

I did keep her company and think she did not regret her decision to stop for me.  But I disappointed her on at least two fronts. She thought maybe I played the guitar and we could sing together as we drove.  Also, she’d hoped I could share with the driving. Now a committed driver of standard transmissions, then I’d never driven one.   I did drive for a stretch, jerking it into fourth, and then driving for about 60 miles.  It was not a relaxing 60 for her since every time I had to slow down it was an adventure, so she took over the wheel for nearly the entire 14 hour drive.

There was not a whole lot between Salt Lake City and Reno.  It was miles of nothing despite exits appearing now and again that seemed to take drivers nowhere. We were both amused by the signs for exits and then the ramps to them.  Nothing at the end of these ramps. No Texaco, McDonalds, motels, nothing, just ramps that went nowhere.  She and her old man had made this drive before, but still she chuckled as did I when we saw an exit for nowhere and a ramp off the interstate that took you there.

Things had not gone especially well with Maurianne and her husband.  Alternately she described him as a dick and then moments later “basically a nice person.”  She told me he had a mean streak and had hit her—more than once.  This I felt was cause enough to dump the guy, but she was not so sure.  “I’d been messing around.” She told me.  “Not right. Still no reason for him to hit me. He scared me. I didn’t want to be frightened anymore. He sorta was a good dad. But he had this mean streak.”  Maurianne teared up, got a tissue, blew her nose. “It’s hard,” she said. “Hard.”

There is so much nothing on route 80 that we stopped whenever there was a bonafide something. Wendover, Wells, Elko, and Winnemucca—the four somethings on the way to Reno. We hit them all.  Got out, stretched our legs.  

It was around one when we approached Elko.  By that time we were getting along and joking at the same things.  When she decided that I was not a bad egg, Maurianne announced that she had a buddy who lived in Elko and we might stop and visit.

We exited off the interstate.  Maurianne found a pay phone, made a call and soon we had directions and an invite.   I got the back story on Barbara.  She had been wild, “like me” said Maurianne.  A partier and city person in San Francisco doing her share of drugs. Then--and Maurianne relayed this with more than a degree of incredulity--she met this guy close to twenty years her senior who was visiting relatives in San Francisco but lived in Elko. Within no time, Barbara decided to move out with Shel to the middle of the desert and share a life.  Maurianne could not really get it. She said they were apples and oranges; she a hippie, he a redneck. 

We pulled up to a cute white house sitting on a bit of a hill.  Three or four steps leading to a porch and then the front door.  A couple of rockers on the tiny porch.  Similar houses on the same block.  Barbara hugged Maurianne before we even got to the steps. Big hug right near the van. Shel was waiting for us on the porch. Maurianne gave Shel a hug with a little less oomph to it.  I was introduced: “This is Alan—he’s riding with me.”  Barbara was tall, close to 6 feet, with brown hair that curled all over the place, as if no one hair was particular fond of any other. Kind of a cool hippie look. Shel was clearly older and, as Maurianne had told me, just different looking.  He could have passed for Barbara's bachelor uncle there for a visit.  He was thin, almost scrawny, an inch or two shorter than Barbara.  Not much hair on top of his head, with a recently slicked down combover. Brown glasses, ready smile, but I could not tell how long it might have taken him to paste that smile on his face.

We came into their home and settled into a comfortable if spartan living room.  A couple of easy chairs, and a love seat. And there I sat with a stranger, Maurianne, in the home of someone stranger still, and her redneck husband Shel.  Barbara made bacon and eggs for us and Shel regaled us with tales of Elko. He said that there were times in Elko that were more fun than “you could shake a stick at. They’re called Indian Days.  Lots of tonto around here.  Sometimes not so much fun with tonto if you know what I mean. But Indian days are great.”  Barbara waved at him to criticize.  

A teenage kid stopped by.  There was a knock on the door and then immediately the door swung open.  The kid had not waited for anyone to answer the knock. She just came into the foyer holding a handful of mail.  Bathing suit top and cut off shorts.  Big California smile, a little surprised to see the group of us.

“Whoops. You’ve got company.”

“No problem. Come in. Come in.”

“They delivered the mail to the wrong house again. Mom asked me to bring it over.”

Barbara took the mail. While sifting through the items she absentmindedly introduced Maurianne and me. Referred to Maurianne as “an old friend” and me as “a hiker.”

“Hey,” said the teenager, “I’ve done my share of hitch-hiking. All over.  Great times.”

“They can be.” I say. “Not so much fun in Salt Lake City.”

“I would not expect fun in Salt Lake. ” says Shel chuckling at his quip.

We stood around for a second or two.  “Well, off I go." said the kid. "Nice to meet you all.”  And out she went, seeing herself out the door, and bouncing down the steps.

This Shel was nice enough to me, but there seemed something not quite right there.  Like Maurianne, I could not see the attraction between Barbara and him.  She seemed kind of cool, and he was like the guy you see at the bar who has been sitting there for hours with a sourpuss not saying anything, just pushing his glass toward the barkeep when it was time to reload.  We ate in silence after the teenager left.   

When we got back in the van, Maurianne told me that she did not want to say anything before we got there, but that Shel had spent some time in jail for stealing and assault.  “He’s calmed down now,” she said.  “At least I hope so.

“It was very nice of them to feed us, particularly me” I said.  "She doesn't know me from Adam."

“So what.  You're riding with me.  Besides,  Barbara told me that we saved her. She was supposed to go to some Historical Society luncheon that she'd dreaded."  

"She was real happy to see you. Not just to get out of the other thing. That was some monster hug you got when we got there."

"Always liked Barbara." 

It would be two and half hours more to Winnemucca. About halfway into this stretch, after speaking disparagingly about her own husband and how he had given her a shiner once, Maurianne paused and said, “Damn, Barbara is out here in the middle of nowhere.  I hope she’s okay.”

“Seemed okay” I said, not that I really felt she was or was not.

“The girl,” she said, “the girl who came in with the mail.  The neighbor.”

“Yeah,”

“Barbara took me aside when we were in the kitchen.”

“Yeah, so.”

“She thinks Shel is doing her.”

“What? Come on. She is a kid.  Probably not 18. He’s got to be pushing 40.”

“She’s 17. Shel’s 43. Barbara thinks he’s doing her.”

“Wow. Come on. I mean, she’s a kid.”

“You see that tattoo?”

“Well, sure, you couldn’t miss it.”   

“I bet you couldn’t miss it.”

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