Our aim was this: Alaska.
To abandon Mobile at dawn without telling anybody, not even our girlfriends or our boss at the plant. Bruce knew a bail jumper who got a deckhand job on a crab boat off the Alaskan coast where she made five hundred dollars a day. Bruce was divorced for the third time and I’d never been married, so we planned to sell our cars and Bruce’s house trailer and buy an olive drab Ford four-wheel-drive pickup with a camper, fill it full of those sharp green pinecones hard as hand grenades. Bruce’d heard you could sell those suckers for five bucks apiece in New England.
They’re crazy up there, he said.
Driving through Georgia and Tennessee, we’d look for tent revivals where they had faith healing. If we found a good one we’d stop and visit a service. Bruce would fake heart disease and I’d be an alcoholic—to make it convincing, he said, I’d have to belch and stumble and splash on rum like aftershave. He would grimace, moan, and clutch his left arm, until we had the whole congregation praying for us. When the ushers passed the KFC buckets for donation, we’d shrug and say we were flat broke, just poor travelers. Homeless.
Bruce had stolen his second ex-wife’s Polaroid camera, which we’d keep handy for making pictures—hawks on fenceposts, grizzly bears, church marquees that said THE LORD IS COMING SOON, then right under that BINGO 8:00 EVERY TUESDAY. We’d have a stack of books-on-tape from the public library, too: John Grisham, Stephen King, and even self-help. In the Badlands of South Dakota, when we pulled off the road to sleep in the back of the truck with our feet sticking out, we’d play an Improve Your Vocabulary tape, learn words like eclectic and satyr.
At night we’d stop in dives, me in my dark glasses and Bruce in his eelskin cowboy boots. There’d be smoky harems of women interested in such eclectic guys, and they’d insist on buying us boilermakers. When I picked up a babe, I’d take the truck and leave Bruce arm-wrestling a drunk welder at the bar. Or if he got lucky and split with a startling honey, I’d amble to the jukebox and punch up John Prine and lure my dream girl away from the line-dancing bikers and cowboys. In the middle of the fight, I’d crawl bleeding out the back and sleep on a rock next to a cow skull and wait until the olive drab truck topped the hill in the morning.
We’d make pictures of the girls, too. You’d be surprised how many get off from posing in motel rooms, Bruce said. He would “let on” to some of the drunker ladies that we were advance photographers for the swimsuit issue, our names Abe Z. and Horatio. At the other end of the bar I’d be telling them that we were scientists from Texas researching barn owls. But to that adventurous woman running the pool table, the redhead wearing tight cutoff jeans, the kind of woman you know has a green iguana tattooed on her hip, to her we’d tell the truth: Alaska. Bruce said she could tag along, but he was sure she’d get homesick thousands of miles before the crab boat. Imagine the scene: some dusty Wyoming ghost town and this woman sobbing and hugging our necks, angry that she’s such a crybaby. She would climb the steps and we’d watch her pretty sad face in the window as the bus lurched off, and when she was gone Bruce would sigh with relief and, after a few drinks, we’d get in the truck and go north.
I’d miss her terribly.
If we saw the right brand of dog—it was a mutt we wanted, the ugliest in the lower forty-eight—we’d stop and bribe him with fast food. He could sit between us on the seat and lick our hands, and if he farted we could look at each other and yell, “Was that you?” and crank the windows down furiously. And, of course, we’d pick up chicks hitchhiking. When we got one, she could sit between us and hold the dog (we’d name him Handsome) and croon to him. We’d go days out of our way to get her home, but we wouldn’t be crass and say, “Ass, gas or grass.” All our rides would be free.
Because manners were important, we thought. So eating in truck stops, we’d put our napkins in our laps and remove our caps and say “Yes, ma’am” to the flirting women at nearby tables, even the Yankees, who wouldn’t be used to such gentlemen. We would smile and wink and gather our doggie bags and leave 50 percent tips. Our waitresses would long to follow us, and the pretty gas station checkout girls would lean over their cash registers to read our names off the backs of our belts—because of not only our unusual looks and ugly dog, but our cultured southern manners.
And, sportsmen to the end, we’d skid off the road when we saw a private golf course. We’d step out of the trees in our loud pants and vault the fence and drive our used balls into the clouds, needing binoculars to watch the hole-in-ones three hundred yards away. The serious golfers, in their berets, would frown at each other as we played through, carrying only one driver each, and when the stern club attendant came, we’d disappear into the woods like satyrs and reappear magically at the clubhouse bar.
Or we’d stop if we found a good secluded pond, rig our rods with Snagless Sallys and pork rinds, cast into the hard-to-reach, around cypress trees, into grasses, keeping our lines flexible as the largemouth bass tore through the murk with the rind whipping against its gills. We’d set the hooks like pros and play the fish perfectly, then grill the shining wet lunkers over a campfire that night and sip the moonshine we’d stolen from bootleggers in Virginia. Handsome would prowl the pond and court his first she-wolf, the two of them baying softly, and in the firelight Bruce would uncase his mandolin and I’d warm up my harmonica, and we’d play tender ballads, love songs, so sweet the woods would grow still and sad around us, and just before we’d begin to lament all the people and places we’d left behind, things we’d never see again, we would stop playing as if on cue and look at each other, suddenly happy, remembering Alaska, waiting for us.
© by Tom Franklin. From the collection Poachers.
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