Riding the Pike

Just like in an old gangster movie, I pulled it off, escaped in a stinking laundry truck. I wasn’t far from the old Narragansett Racetrack when I gagged my way out just as it parked at the Colonial Cleaners. I only had to walk a half-mile or so imagining “Chase Hunter” posters on telephone poles, maybe a reward for information. It was a good thing I was wearing my new K-Mart gunboat sneakers. My sixty nine-year-old feet were in tough shape. The chill in the air made me glad I’d taken my pea coat and watch cap, worn a flannel shirt and corduroys. Behind Murphy’s Lounge sat the trailer where Trusty Tom printed up his selections to sell at the N.E. track grandstand entrances. After all these years, it looked good as new, maybe a gift of night. I moved close to the small windows, read the decals with the help of the moon: Suffolk, Rockingham, Green Mountain, Brockton Fair and Lincoln Downs. I tripped the padlock with the two inch safety pin I’d used to nearly stab my weird six-foot-five myopic roommate, Red Rhodes, a burly, foul-mouthed, son of septic system. I had hooking an eye or cheek in mind. He’d accused me of stealing one of his UFO magazines, took a swing at me.  All he talked about were alien invaders, claimed I was one. He said he’d sent a story about me to one of those lying rags that was going to be printed. I have to admit I brought it on myself leading him on with a few saucer sighting whoppers. Actually, I was half flattered at the prospect of my words being read even by whackos.

I opened my Zippo lighter, flicked the wheel and lit a nub of a candle sitting on a small table next to the platen press. Several mice scattered in a horizontal line as if they were horses flying out of a starting gate. Trusty’s flyers with successful picks covered the walls: names of winning thoroughbreds circled in thick, black marker, three, four and five winner days. Many rabbit feet were tacked here and there. Tom was a superstitious man.

When I was twelve or thirteen, he would give me a buck for handing out the successful orange sheets for publicity. I never threw them down a sewer as some kids did. As I eased my weary ass onto the desk chair the candle flame died. I reached into my coat pocket for my new Dr. Grabow pipe and Cherry Blend Tobacco, applied the Zippo. Using the dancing flame, I surveyed the five winner’s circle eight-by-ten photos to my left: Mr. Whimsy, Honest Harry, Sweep the Deck, Tara Host and Bonded Suite. I remembered them all, jockeys, owners and trainers too. My favorite jockey Darrell Madden was in the saddle on three of them. I located crossed candles in a drawer, like the ones priests lodged against worshiper throats on the Feast of St. Blaise. The Zippo was low on fluid but I had just enough flame to light both wicks. I held the set over a press that was set up for a run. I touched the ink disc using all the fingers of my right hand. I remembered being fingerprinted after a drunk and disorderly arrest; surprisingly some sticky to it. I read the date type, loosened the clamp, and changed the date to August 5, 1966. I’d dreamed that date two nights in a row. Placing a piece of paper, I slowly pulled the lever down. The result was amazingly clear. Who knew that this would be my discharge pass? I read the date out loud. When I started reciting horse names, I became faint, fell back nearly toppling the squeaky chair. My pipe fell to the floor.  

The next thing I knew I was entering Rockingham Park. I couldn’t recall any whirling pipeline trip, eerie music or blast of psychedelic colors. Standing in a structure like traffic cops once used was Tom. I looked down at my feet, saw sandals. I was wearing blue jeans and a bright madras shirt. Julie the exercise girl was standing beside me, braids, full lips, dark eyes, cutoff jeans and a Kansas State t-shirt. She hooked a finger over my belt, a habit of hers. We were an item for three weeks. I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket, checked my license. I was twenty-one. I felt unshackled even though inklings of my Elm & Maple life lingered. Shouldn’t all memory of it have disappeared on the trip back? I’d picked up a discarded program on the way in. Julie whistled a song from Guys & Dolls then sang a line, “I got the horse right here,” on a knee arms spread. The field was loading into the starting gate. Julie pointed at the smallest horse. I checked the seventh race, Fuel Carrier. I remembered he ran second and paid ten and change the first August 5, 1965. We’d bet him to win. I ran to the window but I was too late to wager the right way, which confused me since time travel TV shows and movies usually provided for corrections. When Fuel Carrier crossed the finish line first my head was spinning, shrill whistling deafened me. 

I couldn’t make any connection except that in a moment of moral weakness, I became a carrier myself, dope. My childhood friend Bobby Somers had connections in Boulder. A fortune could be made selling to rich hippies at and around the university. I landed at Seaboard Tires on Eddy Street in Providence. My father led me there in his 1950 wreck of a Studebaker. He couldn’t see driving to Colorado without extra tires. It was January 31, 1966. I picked up two Firestones, five bucks each. The owner waited on me. My dad talked about my trip as if he were the one making it, as if I were headed for Jupiter. The salesman said his son Samuel, Samuel Gardner was a professor at the University of Denver, gave me his card, psychology professor. “Sure, I’d look him up.” I wondered if he’d experimented with LSD.

The ’55 Ford that cost me eighty-five-dollars ran like a top but the radio didn’t work. The stuffing had been taken out of all the seats and filled with hashish, then professionally reupholstered by a friend of the mob on Federal Hill. Back at the Elm & Maple Rest, I’d be trying to finish the Providence Journal Sunday crossword puzzle. I remained both amazed and half-numb at the August launch into January. I found I-95 traffic easy going, exited onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike where I picked up a hitchhiker. He was headed home from Penn State for the weekend. An English Major, his favorite poet was Edgar Lee Masters. He was shocked that I’d never heard of the Spoon River Anthology, Masters’ major work about dead people talking about their lives from the grave. He recited a poem, “Fiddler Jones” about keeping work and play in perspective he said. It made sense to me although I couldn’t picture myself playing any instrument. He started another about Frank Drummer but the broken radio turned itself on blasting “96 Tears.” He reached to lower it but the knob wouldn’t turn. We were approaching his exit anyway. I pulled out too soon, misjudged the speed of an approaching car that backfired with the downshifting. The driver gave me the finger. The pale Penn Stater, face a sickly red, couldn’t wait to get out. “We could have been killed,” he said, before trying to slam the door off its hinges. I didn’t shout the scare would bring him closer to his beloved volume but I thought it and smiled to myself. The flat tire I recalled first trip did not happen. What the hell was going on? Like a fool I’d taken a small down payment from Bobby, remainder at my destination. Conserving cash, I stopped at a market in Carlisle to pick up a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. Trimble’s was still in business. I saw by the sign on the window that Skippy was on sale as it was before. However, the store was closed. An Amish couple and a kid were outside. Back on the highway, I exited onto the Harrisburg Pike. I wanted to spend the night at the Martin’s Motel but it was booked. I was the only guest last time #108. I’d tasted my first in-room courtesy coffee there. The vacancy sign at the Albright was lit and my Navy Inactive Reserve I.D. card worked; got me a five-percent discount. The size of the TV screen was a shock after the big one at the Elm & Maple. I took my Bluejacket’s Manuel from my gym (AWOL to sailors) bag, jotted down where I was and the 360 miles I’d covered in the note section. I wrote about the tire salesman and the hitchhiker. I’d lain awake many a night regretting not having jotted down my life on the USS Mullinnix DD-944. 

I concluded that this 48-year throwback was rife with free form: some events would be the same, some not. I was hungry as hell. I decided to splurge, drive to a Chinese restaurant I’d passed, by, The Panda. Maybe I’d hit Trimble’s in the morning. I brought my atlas with me.

I had a feeling I’d been in the Panda before but soon realized I had it confused with Joy Young’s in Pawtucket, RI, a Chinese restaurant where bread was served. Same feature at The Panda.  The dining room was bright but no customers, Christmas lights were still strung around the room. The usual paper lanterns; a spider and a corn plant completed the decor. Top-40 music played on a radio by the cash register. The placemat educated the diner about the Chinese Zodiac and animals used to date the years. Another connection with Fuel Carrier, 1966 was the year of the horse, and no kidding, so was 2014 where I’d come from. The waitress wasn’t Chinese. Matter of fact she reminded me of Julie. While I was making up mind my between chow mein and chop suey, she hooked a thumb her belt, close enough, same lips. Her jean zipper was down, peek of powder blue. Her fingernails were a nicely colored maroon, gold cross on each middle nail. Penance for past bird flipping I wondered. I chose the chop suey. The back of her t-shirt read “SAVED.” I steadied the wobbly table with a couple of napkins. Waiting for my meal, I studied my atlas. I set Maumee, Ohio as my next day’s driving goal. I remembered going through the Turnpike tunnels. I figured the wall tiles would provide the missing time-machine effect. Suddenly it struck me that the tolls put a big hole in my funds last time and I’d often told myself that if I ever traveled west again, I’d get on Route 80 West off I-95 in Trenton, NJ. I had the script in my head, why had I not acted on the highway switch? Maybe thoughts of revisiting the tunnels blocked out good sense. Longest tunnels I’d ever travelled. I memorized the names in westbound order, Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuskarora, Sideling Hill, Roy’s Hill, Alleghany and Laurel Hill. The rice was lumpy but the rest delicious, acceptable amount of crunchy, tasteless water chestnut filler. Her name was on the check, Minerva. I over-tipped a half a buck, took the fortune cookie with me and a clean placemat to memorize to kill the driving boredom. The waitress said, “Goodbye and God bless.” “Cherish” followed from the radio. It was charted number one.

Back at the Albright I wrote about the restaurant and Julie hints, holy Minerva and bread presence, awarded five stars. I snapped open the cookie, meant to let it melt in my mouth but failed. I read the fortune: “Horse Sense the Answer.” I jumped up went to the motel office, asked a chubby grey haired lady wearing tinted glasses if I could have a piece of tape. She gave me a quarter inch and looked at me like I should offer at least a coin. The chipped nameplate on the counter read “Hortense.” As I finished taping the fortune next to the placemat horse, a siren filled the air and got louder by the second. I pulled the curtain aside. I police car was blocking my Ford. The cop had a big German Shepard on a leash. He wore no hat, looked like a Boulder cop who’d ticketed me although I’d made it through a caution light before it turned red. Suddenly a gentle force nudged me until I stumbled onto the bed where I recovered and sat slumped. I could hear the clerk yelling. “Here’s the master key, officer.” The maverick energy took control of my hand. I drew an arrow on the horse year list on the placemat, from 1966 to 2014. That got me and my wheels mysteriously on our way but there was no restoration of senior citizenship as I’d expected. The police car had to be totaled. In a shard of flash I was speeding through the Blue Mountain Tunnel, an eerie sense of birth, death, sleep and runaway carnival rides took hold as lights flickered; repulsive laughing claimed the radio. Were muffler emissions at work? When I cleared the Laurel Hill burrow, the Ford’s engine was knocking. Then, I calmed, felt like a sleepwalker who’d been led back to bed.

I was back at the Elm & Maple. Charlotte, one of the good nurses was scrubbing ink off my fingertips. I was anxious to brush my teeth. I worked my tongue over a piece of stuck food. When it budged I tasted some kind of cookie. A local TV station was covering a classic car show. A participant was being interviewed, kept his foot on the rear bumper of his fifty-five Ford. “The gas cap is behind the license plate,” I blurted. Long, tall Charlotte put a hand on my forehead. Once she’d held my hand when I was feeling depressed, dwarfed mine. Anyway, that two-tone blue car kick started my jumbled journey. I pictured the wall tiles in the tunnels as equally pieced child’s jigsaw puzzles: the tiles of fickle memory. Gazing at the winner’s circle photo propped against my bedside table wall by my Bluejacket’s Manuel, I smiled at Julie Compton up on her mount, Bold Tank. His lineage was noted under his name: Bold Stroke, out of Octane Lady by Fuel Carrier. Julie was one of the first lady jockeys in New England. She and her husband Wendell visited the fifth of every month. I couldn’t wait to share his adventure with them no matter how confused. Looking askance, I saw my pea coat hanging in the closet, wrapped in plastic like it had just come back from the cleaners. A candy-striper pushed a lunch cart into the room. A tablespoon fell to the floor, bounced two-feet in the air. I rattled my head attempting to clear cobwebs. I tensed my lips and glanced at the TV screen. One of the two faces was the hitchhiker, the other the cop. Would I ever continue that road trip? Everyone except Red Rhodes was amazed at the utensil’s trajectory. “What solar system you visit this time, Chase Hunter?” he asked, clipboard and three freshly sharpened pencils in hand.     

 

Thomas M. McDade

Thomas M. McDade is a former computer programmer and analyst residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia, previously in Connecticut & Rhode Island. He is a graduate of Fairfield University. McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach. At sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE/FF 1091).

 

 

Edited for Unlikely by dan raphael, Prose Editor
Last revised on Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 12:10