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Posted on 2004-07-16 09:38:06 by Denver

The Willows Women (part 1)

It was a fine spring evening to be in a stolen car and Austin was happy to have stolen it. No matter that it was just Mickey's parents' '82 Chevrolet Starcraft Van, a suburban couples retirement vehicle. It was still stolen against his parents' wishes. And the thing got about eight miles to the gallon, but that didn't matter either. Wisps of cloud dotted the pink sky and the dusky horizon opened its steamy mouth to the five boys as they drove westward towards the river. Last Friday three girls from Glenn County had flirted with them in the Carl's Jr. Drive thru line. They were having a party the following weekend. An oral invitation had been extended. All week they had waited to leave town and visit these girls and at last they were on the road to Willows and the odometer read forty mph.

"Can we go a little faster?" Lance asked.

"Nope." said Kent, "If I get pulled over I go back to jail."
His left hand reached into the cool breeze whistling through the orchards and slapped the door.

When you hear the music you make a dip
Into someone else's pocket then make a slip

Wind muffled Billy Idol's snarl. Cuffed jean pant leg on the pedal. Black hair perfectly feathered.

"Kent. You've never been in jail." says Mickey, exasperated.

"As a matter of fact I have."

"For what?"

"For shooting at a guy." Kent's eyes darted from the road to his inquisitor.

"With what?"

"My dad's pistol."

"When was that?"

"A coupl-, two years ago."

That would have been in eighth grade when Austin had first met Kent and he told him he had been banging Christy Lewinski all over town, at One Mile, under the water tower, at the Chico Junior High pool during PE class.

"Do you think these girls drink?" asked Lance.

"I bet they do. They're like, seniors." said Mickey.

"No. There are two juniors and a senior." Austin corrected them.

"That doesn't mean they don't drink." replied Kent.

The song ended. Mickey worked the stereo.

"Do we have to listen to those guys again?"

Austin could guess what Kent was thinking. The selection in Mickey's hand, The Smiths, was not virile enough music for this kind of road trip. Kent was a man in a boy's body. He had already broken the seventy five yard dash record for ninth graders at their middle school, sprouted a nest of pubic hair, gotten a driver's license, displayed a fluent grasp of American economic policy, slept with several virgins, and apparently, at least in his own mind, shot at a live human target.

"What do you want to listen to?" Mickey asked him. Mickey was bouncing up and down on the shotgun seat, rifling through the cassettes in the glove compartment.

"Tattoo You."

The Rolling Stones met very exact lyrical requirements for their budding aesthetic. The boys sung Shattered gleefully to each other as a coded text for a variety of situations in the high school drama in which their lot had been cast. Their social and academic experience was shattered. In his sophomore year at Chico Sr. high Austin had already experienced third string bench warming all season on the basketball team, auditioning and then being cast as an extra with two lines in the school play, intellectual humiliation and a D grade at the hands of his Pre-Calculus teacher, and rejection by the cheerleader Darcy Davis whom he had incautiously asked to the spring dance. These indignities were compounded by those suffered by Kent, Lance, Mickey and Bruce; together they had suffered so many affronts they would lose count when they met each lunch hour to plot their extravagant revenge. Most of their plotting was directed at their Principal- Roger Miller, and those doing his bidding; including the Assistant Principal, the entire Student Government, all of the cheerleaders, the varsity football team, the school librarian, and the teacher supervising the school paper. Although they had already thumbed their noses at the homecoming tradition by constructing their own float with a post-apocalyptic theme and disrupted the student government electoral process by stuffing the ballot boxes with votes for a fake candidate - they were still dissatisfied and still disenfranchised and they had long been pondering deliverance and retribution. The Stones were a quick fix. Mickey switched tapes and Mick purred from the dashboard-

love and hope and sex and dreams are still surviving on the street

Years later, when he lived on 7th Avenue in Manhattan and the song came on in a cab or when he was buying beer in a late night deli, the lyrics would run through Austin's mouth by rote and he would smile at the idea of dirty dreams and shattered hopes in the mind of a white middle class kid from northern California.
But when Lance began incanting the verses in the backseat of the van, the veins on his neck engorged with blood, he filled the air with an electric current of hope.

Hope for what?

That if these Willows girls turned out to be a glenn county version of their own high school cheerleaders- rejecting their bravura, abnegating their strengths, and sinking their spirits- they would hold their collective breath and emerge into some faster, broader stream of opportunity.

The van rolled up and down the asphalt byways of the flood prone River Road traversing a different watershed each time it crossed a sugar beet farm or almond orchard. They had been driving fifteen minutes and already their quiet, suburban imprisonment was receding and being replaced by sexual fantasies. They crossed over the Sacramento River bridge on its titanium steel girders and passed by an enormous aluminum sided warehouse with a tall metal silo and a small mountain of splintered wooden boxes stamped "Property of Western Nut" in faded black ink. Next to them piles of pallets were stacked twenty high, awaiting a forklift driver and the summer harvest where each of them would find employment years later during their summer breaks in college. At the stop sign they took a left turn onto Highway 45 and passed a small market, closed, with one lonely pump and an old Chevy pickup truck abandoned for the evening under a dim fluorescent sign- "Ord Bend Station".

They followed the river south as evening light coated the tops of the gravel bars and an egret lifted itself out of the tree shadows. The current meandering lazily down to the Princeton Ferry marked the line between Butte and Glenn counties. Twisting their heads to the right they could see walnut trees dissolving into the distant humps of the Pacific Coastal Mountain range on the western edge of the valley. The Love Craft (thus anointed on this voyage) twisted narrowly along the 45 Hwy following the scrape of God's finger into the alluvial plain of the Sacramento Valley, home of Ishi, home of Native American fisherman and farmers who lived here for centuries before white men began to trap the river current and pull out its fish and squeeze its channels. The water they followed carried ice melt and residue from the tip of the great mountains in the north to Princeton, Sacramento, and into the bay of San Francisco. Lance sat in the back with Bruce singing their favorite song.

Friends are so alarming
My lover's never charming
Life's just a cocktail party
On the street
Big Apple

Austin was sitting in the back of the van because he was tired of fighting with Kent. Kent's parents sold Amway and were Republicans and had made their son read a book called "Chasing the Elephant's Tail" that had made him a neo-conservative political ideologue. He and Austin fought about Ronald Reagan, who Austin's parents hated and whom Kent's parents claimed was a proponent of sound economic wisdom. Kent used terms like "free market" and "inflationary index" to dismantle any critique that Austin tried to make about the President's disregard for domestic social programs or his preoccupation with expensive science fiction defense weaponry. In Kent's family's living room there was purple shag carpet and a purple and brown painting hung over the couch with the number 8 prominent in the foreground. None of his friends understood the meaning of this numerical symbol and Kent himself had never given them a satisfactory answer. It was modern art. It was the elephant chasing his tail.

"Maybe it's the sign of the devil." Mickey's idea: his mind never far from the subject of necromancy. A thin, gangly sixteen year old with a short white afro who dressed in old tennis pro outfits distressed with oil paint and salvation army thrift wear. He and Austin were, bewilderingly, on the tennis team; their one acquiscence to school authority besides class attendance. Two decades later Austin will find a picture of Mickey in one of his photo albums smashing a forehand down the line on the courts at Chico High. He is springing forward from a low center of gravity with a grace and quickness they often saw on the court and on the dance floor. His friends called him "the little chimp". Mickey's dad was a painter, teacher, and weight lifter who listened to female big band vocalists and read thick Norman Mailer novels. His mom was the assistant librarian at the high school and a regular at the North Valley Racquet Club. Mickey liked to affect his disdain for their lifestyle through his disregard for their decorum including use of the family vehicles. Through Mickey they had all been introduced to the music of Bauhaus, The Cure, The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, and especially, New Order. In his cramped, darkly lit bedroom there were piles of obscure vinyl records, a piano, books by Edgar Alan Poe, and an accordion. Mickey was a Godless creature; there were no grounds for believing anything but sensual experience. He had no morals or loyalty to anyone or anything. He was drawn to the light of the sub-universe and to this circle of friends because they pretended to be lawless just like him.

The only boy in the van who did not pretend to be anything he was not was Bruce. He and Austin had been in school together since the second grade and dueled on the high school tennis courts for years; they kept a cumulative total of wins and losses that stretched back over numerous summer vacations. Bruce was always the toughest kid on the school ground and he had proved this over a dozen times beginning in second grade when he rattled Robbie Brown's brains over a dispute about stolen popsicle money. He came from the poorest family; abandoned at birth by his father, he was raised by a single, chain-smoking mother who was a secretary at the local university. Once, when Austin was in seventh grade and being attacked every day by ninth grade bullies on the way home from school, Bruce had accompanied him home and given the bullies a few gut punches and a saliva shower, subsequently ending their reign of terror.

"Great. We're almost out of gas." Kent reported, two hands on the wheel, doing his best impression of Han Solo in a meteor storm.

"We have a quarter tank." Mickey said.

"That's nothing in a beast like this. We better hope there's an open station between here and Willows."

"I don't think there is."

"I hope we make it."

Everyone's attention shifted to the gas gauge.

Austin felt certain that they had more than enough gas to make it the thirty or forty miles to Willows but he didn't say anything. He let Kent introduce fear and suspicion into the atmosphere. He didn't believe that Kent even hoped they would make it. The gas scare was meant to induce paranoia in the group and take center stage and he had succeeded; Lance has stopped channeling the spirit of Mick Jagger.

The problem was that Kent had a girlfriend. He didn't care if they ever got to the party as long as he got to play captain of the ship. He'd probably never even been to Willows although Austin was sure his dad had probably sold something to someone there at one time or another. That was the trouble with being raised by Willy Loman. You never knew if your star was shining brightly enough and so you had to continually prove it to your friends. Bet if he asked Kent he'd say he won a track race there or banged a girl on the team bus. Austin wanted to believe him but he just couldn't. It wasn't coming from the right place. And he was so short. Everyone was outgrowing him now and he was trying to make up for that. Still he had that tanned, athletic, brainy self confident aura that girls found attractive in high school. And that Austin wished he had.

Austin had to admit that Kent had been kissing girls for a long time, much longer than the rest of them. He started in seventh grade. Seventh grade! He had been frolicking in the erogoneous pastures for years. Kent didn't even try to date cheerleaders or other popular girls. He would discover someone; a wallflower, or a hippy sitting next to him in algebra II class and who was never even discussed by the boys and then ask her to an upcoming dance. And he never needed their assurance that she was pretty or smart, he just knew. He had that miraculous quality in a high school kid; aplomb.

Austin took pride in the variety of his friends. Kent had the social skills of an aristocrat. Bruce was a street fighter. But all of them had a common taste and a loyalty to certain causes that held them together. Surveying the group in the back of the van, Austin had reason to believe that if he were to die tomorrow they would mourn him, and his memory would live with them in their actions.

In the years that followed their drive to Willows these friendships melted away. First Kent, then Lance, and finally Mickey. Everyone except Bruce departed for different colleges after high school. Eventually they chose girlfriends or jobs and found their safe ports and from then on Austin lost contact with them. He did not blame anyone for that. He understood that it was a natural turn of events in life. But with these three boys he knew it was the decline of lasting feelings and the necessity for clear choices that led to divorces of friendship. Austin did not complain about this or blame anyone. Although life seemed a bit more empty without them it also became more clear.

A figure emerged from the darkness, in the radius of the lighted highway, signaling for them to stop. Kent slowed the vehicle

"A hitcher!" cried Kent.

"I don't know. I don't think we should stop." said Mickey.

"Yes we should." Bruce called from the back.

He looked like an Arabian Sheikh. He wore a white head dress and a maroon gown that flowed down his body and covered his feet. His weathered hands gripped a golden staff. Mickey reluctantly rolled down his window-

"You need something?"

The man stood silently observing them with his grey wispy beard and tired eyes. He could have been a ghost or a phantom except for the dust particles collecting in his head dress. Gravity troubled him so that he had to lean on his staff to stand upright. He sneezed. The boys winced. Austin surveyed the field behind him for Bedouin gypsy thieves lurking in the weeds. Lance silently kicked the back of Kent's seat, seeking to provoke a dialogue between the driver and the Arabian mystery man.

"Can we help you with something?" Kent asked.

He was a silence artist. He drained their nervous chatter and created a vacuum of noise.

"Hey buddy, you got four quarters for a dollar." Kent aimed this at his brow. He turned his head slightly and caught Kent in a withering gaze.

"Egypt's the other way." Lance shot from the back. The other boys cringed.

The Sheikh absorbed this, turned, and slowly descended the side of the embankment.

"Where's your flock of sheep?" Kent yelled after the disappearing figure.

"Yeah," Mickey said sarcastically, "Good one."

"That was an old dude. You think he was a rice farmer?"

"He was Arabian."

"There are actually a lot of Arabs living in this area, farming. I'm sure he was one of them." said Kent, "He probably lost his flock."

"No way does he have a flock of sheep."

"Actually, he probably does. If you know anything about immigration."

No one else did. Finally Bruce spoke.

"That man was so ugly, I could of stuck his face in some dough and made gorilla cookies."

Laughter erupted and Kent started the car again. The sunset had faded out and the road ahead was dark and endless. Something had transformed Kent and he was bent over the steering wheel studying the markers on the road.

"Alright you guys, we take a right on twenty, is that right?"

"Jesus Kent, I don't know. I thought you said you'd been there."

"I was in the back of a bus. And I was a little busy."

"Right, with the triple jumper."

"Yeah. Thanks for remembering Lance."

"Listen, I'm driving and I'm not the navigator. Is this the road we turn on to get to Willows?"

"I think so." said Mickey, looking at the map, "Yeah. Take it."

And they did. But it was just another flat highway surrounded by duck blinds and rice fields like the one they had just left, this one running westward toward the starlit ridges of the coastal range and the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding them now was a murky owl light of the constellations reflecting off the tulles and the rippling liquid surface of irrigated agriculture. Around him Austin could feel the buoyant mood and elevated expectations that accompanied their departure being submerged by a slow dawning of possible logistical failures.

"I'll tell you something, if this isn't it, we're gonna run out of gas and we're gonna find ourselves in Clear Lake." said Kent hammering home his earlier theme.

"I don't think we want to go to Clear Lake." said Mickey.

"No." said Bruce. Rumor had it that meth labs dotted the shoreline and criminal gangs on houseboats patrolled the circumference. It was a depressed, out of the way, pirate zone hidden by heavily forested foothills and patrolled only by passing CHP helicopters and dope growers. Not the kind of place for sixteen-year old boys from comfortable, middle class suburban homes. Bruce's dad probably lived in Clear Lake; he was last seen fifteen years ago riding off in that stated direction on his Harley, leaving Bruce and his mother with only a twenty inch panasonic screen that blinked nervously encoded messages about different strokes that ruled the world.

They spotted a house. Kent wanted to ask directions.

Thin leafless branches of oak and walnut trees covered the driveway and facade of the run down farmhouse. Their shadows played on the peeling, white window frames and shingles of the roof. A circular driveway of gravel pebbles cut through to the road and the van pulled onto its surface on the side of the highway.

"We should ask these people." Kent declared.

"We're not lost. It's twenty miles down this road." Austin shot back. He was not sure exactly but he was tired of this command.
A shadow appeared in the corner of his eye. A figure, moving across the driveway.
"Did you see that?" he asked.
Of course no one had.
A broken, bent over trellis, overgrown vines, curtains over every window, a crooked metal railing, porch light off, rusted farm equipment, no signs of life whatsoever. All from an earlier age, and all-except for the tree, pruned to within a inch of their life-looking abandoned, as if the bodies inside had died and been forgotten.
The house was built in the fifties, with that kind of cheap clapboard architectural flair that farmers in this region favored. (It couldn't be occupied, could it, he wondered. Who would live in such a desolate run down place?) Another figure moved in the driveway. And then another. Goats. Disturbed by the van's approach.
Was this someone's home? Yes, of course. It was someone's home, many years ago. It could be squatter's place. Or the meeting hall for wandering Arab sheikhs.
Kent's eyebrows went up, his grin widened, as if to project confidence that this was an answer to their questions. He pulled them into the driveway and slowly circled toward the front door. He said, "Guess we should knock on the door."
"No." Austin lowered his eyes.
"Ah," he said, as if a debate had started. "And how do you want to get to Willows then?"
"Keep going."
"I want to. But I don't think we're on the right road. Might as well see if we are, right?"
But he persisted.
"So. Who wants to go up there?"
"I'm not going by myself."
Everyone looked at Bruce.
"I'm not going" he said, looking down and trying hard to escape their gaze. But something-his upbringing, his embarrassment, perhaps his pride-was too strong for him, and Bruce sighed and hunkered down off his seat and opened the side door.
"I've got a cousin that lives out here." Kent continued, "Right around here. I visited her and her family a couple of times. They said something about cannibals living in this area. I hope this isn't the house. You guys ready?"
He kept flapping the door open like he was going to get out.
No more, Austin thought. No more.
"This might be our last trip. If we don't come back, nice knowing you guys."

Bruce stood silently at the foot of the porch stairs. The goats shifted nervously under the walnut tree.

"We're just gonna find out if this is the road to Willows and see if they have any gas or if we can get any at a station nearby."
At those words, "see if they have any gas," a cold turbulence rose in Austin. He understood that Kent was trying to turn a trick. One of the stereotypes "city boys" like Kent had in their heads was that country folk had hearts of gold, implying that they were from the country and should be generous with their food and other supplies. But that wasn't true. Mean, cantankerous people lived out here as well. People with guns.
Austin knew that, to the other boys, he might seem to be argumentative, with Kent at least - and so, in a way, he was. But he had also been raised by a paranoid father from a small town who slept with a gun under his bed. He knew you didn't startle someone who was sleeping peacefully in the middle of his farm. Be helpful, don't reveal too much, and don't surprise anyone, especially in the middle of the night.
Kent bounded up the stairs and rapped insouciantly at the door. Bruce sighed and stood behind him, but there was a twitch of alertness in his shoulders, like a squirrel ready to pounce up to the nearest branch.

"Hello there?" called Kent, somewhat timidly, for he had lost some courage as the darkness enveloped him under the porch awning.

"What the fuck is he doing?" Lance asked. Austin shook his head.

"Don't think anyone's there." said Bruce.

"Yeah." Kent replied and began to knock again.

Then Mickey laid on the van horn. It sounded like a fire alarm shattering the thick country silence. The boys on the porch jumped three feet in the air and Mickey doubled over with laughter. A light blinked on somewhere in the lens of the front window and Austin could hear the shotgun being cocked in the dark, shells falling onto the ground in a rush to stuff the chamber, muttered cursing under breath. The goats neighed, kicked and stampeded into the darkness. Bruce and Kent flew down the steps and crashed thru the van doors. There was shrieking and wrestling for position on the ground and Bruce commanded everyone to shut up and told Mickey to start the car. As the van slid on the gravel and emerged on the highway Kent popped his head out of the pile in the back and gave Mickey a withering stare.

They were silent as they drove away, Kent fuming and trying to control his temper and his tongue-it was possible that he might lean over and attack Mickey, but he restrained himself. To Austin, Mickey had simply been sabotaging an unpopular act of dangerous self glorification and so it was impossible to be too mad at Mickey for endangering all of their lives. Lance and Austin stifled laughter and sighs of relief and Bruce glared at Mickey in the shotgun seat, deliberating over the degree of danger from which he had just escaped. Mickey grinned wildly, like he had accomplished a great practical joke.
"What were you thinking?" Kent asked him finally.
"I was just trying to wake them up." Mickey replied.
"Like that?"
"Why not?"
"I was knocking on the door."
"It didn't seem to be working."
"Oh yeah," Kent said with vicious sarcasm, "Then that was a good idea Mickey. I'm glad you thought of that."

Eventually they found a sign that said their destination was ten miles ahead and they calculated their gas reserves and assured themselves they would make it.

"A girl's legs are her best friends, but the best of friends must part."

Their mood shifted again as even Bruce began to relax and joke and think of those girls from Willows.
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