What Grandpa Saw on Route 66

The following is a story I wrote for my AP Literature class’s 4th quarter benchmark test this year. It makes allusions to every novel and play we read in class during the school year (except Fahrenheit 451, which I forgot to work in) and they had to answer questions to identify the source.

How many can you recognize? Put your guesses in the comments.

My grandfather was a truck driver based in Oklahoma City during the Great Depression. He had a favorite story about a run he made from Oklahoma City to the Santa Clara Valley in southern California. On that run he was delivering a Scotch shepherd bitch to some rich judge named Miller to be bred with his giant St. Bernard, but it wasn’t the female dog in the back of his truck that was the interesting part of Grandpa’s story.

“I come up on this fella lookin’ in the hood of the longest, shiniest yellow car I ever saw,” Grandpa said. “This was just east of the Oklahoma-Texas state line on Old 66. He heard or saw my old truck whining as it came up a low hill and he popped out from under the hood of that car. It was a yellow Rolls Royce, by gawd and he started wavin’ his cap at me.”

At this point Grandpa would usually pause, take a pull from a silver flask he kept in his hip pocket, wipe his lips, and look off into the distance. Then he’d shake his head and continue his story. “I didn’t like to stop. There was a time I’d a stopped without even thinkin’ ’bout it, but that was before I picked up that queer fella outside of McAlister. Wasn’t supposed to pick up hitchhikers, but I let this guy talk me into it. Just got outta prison, he had. Homicide. Put me off pickin’ up anybody for a while. But this other fella … it was a Rolls Royce as sure as hell. So I pulled over.”

Grandpa said the man was from Minnesota, a bondsman, who inherited the car from a deceased friend he’d known during a short time when he worked in New York City. They went on to Texola, where the man sent a tow truck back for the long yellow Rolls. To thank him for helping him out, the man offered to buy Grandpa dinner at a local hamburger stand.

“I usually only stopped for a cup of java and a slice of pie and to shoot the bull with the broad behind the counter, but who am I to turn down a free meal from a rich city fella?” Grandpa would always say with a chuckle. As they were eating, the mechanic came back with the news that the Rolls needed parts that would have to be ordered. The owner got all upset because he had to be in California in two days. He asked Grandpa if he could continue on with him.

“I knew it’d mean my job if the company ever found out about it, but I just didn’t like getting pushed around by people who make me carry a sticker on my truck,” Grandpa said. He agreed to take the man on.

“We was drivin’ across the Texas panhandle and the Dust Bowl was still in full force. Well, this fella looks over at a field that was half full of dead corn stalks. The farmer was out there plowin’ those dead stalks under, probably hoping to plant something else. This city fella looks over at me and he says to me, he says, He’s plowing that field twice.”

Grandpa snorted with disgust. “I told him off, sayin,’ ‘Your mama’s a twice-plowed field.’ I read that in a old book once. He didn’t know what to make of it, but it sure shut his hole for a few miles.”

They drove on until well after dark, when they pulled into another little town Grandpa didn’t even note the name of. They went into another diner to eat before looking for a place to stay for the night.

“There was the queerest collection of folks yer ever like to see,” Grandpa would exclaim at this point. “As soon as we got in there was this fella at the counter tryin’ to pay for the food he’d already ate with a bunch of glass animals. Glass animals! He pulled a fistful of them out of a beat-up jacket pocket and stood them up on the counter while the broad stood there watchin’ with a pot of java in her hand and a expression on her face like she was seein’ a five-headed billy goat.”

At this point Grandpa would hold out his hand, palm up, as if he was the one who’d displayed the pieces of the menagerie. “He held up one critter with a neck like a pencil and called it a giraffe. Stood it up on the palm of his hand like this.” He’d wave his shelf of a palm. “He did that for a bunch of the little things, a squirrel, a fox, a whole herd of horses. Well, the broad behind the counter and the cook, they wasn’t havin’ none of it. I thought the cook was about to bust the fella in the nose, but that’s when Carraway, that’s the name of the fella with the Rolls, he stepped in and offered the guy a cool silver dollar for the whole collection. Damnedest thing I ever saw, at least for a few minutes. The guy sold the little animals, paid for his food and left, and Carraway scooped those animals into his own jacket pocket.

“That’s when things got downright unholy,” Grandpa said. At this point he’d always reach up and stroke the silver crucifix I’d never seen him without. I’d always have to urge him to continue, and sometimes he’d have to take several more pulls from his flask before he could tell the next part of his story.

“Well, I’ll tell it, but it ain’t a good story,” he’d say. “I heard a commotion at a table behind us and when I looked over, I saw this tall, pale fella at a table with three women. Now, this fella, he had the longest white mustache I ever saw and he’d jumped up outta his chair and was leaning over the table and yellin’ at the women. They was real purty women, too, but something about their eyes. All of ’em. They’s like animal eyes, all fierce and hungry.

“’How dare you touch him, any of you?’ the man screamed at the women. He went on, sayin,’ ‘How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me! Beware how you meddle with him, or you’ll have to deal with me.’”

Every time I would have to prompt Grandpa at this point with a question. “Who was it? Who was he talking about?”

“Only the biggest damn crawdaddy I ever did see,” Grandpa would answer. “The thing must have weighed upward of ten pounds and was as red as a summer cherry. It was just layin’ there on a platter with the steam comin’ off it. One of the women had put a hand on the thing’s tail and she snatched it back when the old fella glared at her. Then one of them, the one with red hair, answered back at him.

“’Are we to have nothing tonight?’ she said with a low laugh, as she pointed to a bag the old guy had thrown down on the floor. The bag was movin’ like they was somethin’ alive in it. For answer, the fella nodded his head. One of the women jumped outta her chair and opened it.

“She pulled out the biggest channel catfish I ever saw, still shiny wet and flippin’ its tail,” Grandpa continued. “All three of them women let out a squawk and fell on it, right there on the hamburger stand’s floor, fightin’ and a-hissin’ and a-scrappin’ with one another like a bag of cats. They ate that fish raw and alive while the old fella sat down and started eatin’ on that big ol’ crawdaddy thing.”

Grandpa said he and Mr. Carraway decided not to stay at the diner, but got back in the truck and drove on through most of the night. They drove until Grandpa couldn’t stay awake, then pulled off the highway and slept in the cab of the truck. They awoke to the sound of barking. Grandpa took care of the animal he was transporting, then noticed that Mr. Carraway was looking up the hill beside the road to where two trees stood out against the morning sun.

“One of ’em was obviously a willow tree,” Grandpa explained. “T’other one, though, seemed to have some kind of fog movin’ round it. After what we’d saw in the hamburg stand, I wasn’t too keen on exploring, but Carraway’d already slipped under the barbed wire fence and was climbin’ the hill, so I follered him.”

At the top of the hill they learned that the second tree was a pear tree and the fog they’d seen was actually bees pollinating the blossoms on the tree. But the strange part was that under the willow tree there was a long, thin man in dusty clothes and an old floppy hat, while under the pear tree sat a pretty middle-aged black woman in a yellow dress. They were both singing, but didn’t seem to be singing to or even with each other. The black lady kept running her hands through her hair, which Grandpa said was very long and straight for a woman of color.

“Say, what is this?” Grandpa shouted to be heard over the singing. The people stopped singing and the thin man leaned forward and scratched between his toes as he studied Grandpa and Mr. Carraway.

“They’s just one big soul, and ever-body’s got a little piece of her,” the man said in a very smug tone. “They ain’t no sin and they ain’t no virtue. They’s just stuff folks does. Some’s good and some ain’t so good, and that’s all anybody’s got a right to say.”

The black woman rose from her sitting position and walked toward them, her hips swaying and her smile inviting as she lifted her hands to offer Grandpa and Mr. Carraway each a freshly picked pear. “You ain’t got the rabies, does ya?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” Mr. Carraway answered. Both men took the offered pears, but Grandpa didn’t bite into his right away. Mr. Carraway did, though.

“His eyes got real big like and he looked at that woman in a different way,” Grandpa said. “Kinda like I think Judge Miller hoped his St. Bernard was gonna look at the bitch I was haulin’ to California.”

“I’d fill ’em with the sperit, then I’d lay with the women in the grass,” the lean man under the willow tree said. “They was holy vessels and I was fillin’ ’em.”

Grandpa said Mr. Carraway and the woman started down to lie in the grass. He didn’t want to watch, so he went back down to his truck to find a place where he could turn it around to get back on the highway.

“Once I sat down in the cab I went to take a bite o’ that pear, and the thing was all shriveled up like it was a hunnert years old,” Grandpa said. “I looked at it for the longest time, then I chucked it out the window, drove up to the next mile section and turned around. As I was comin’ back I saw Carraway in the road, but he was weavin’ and a-staggerin’ like a workin’ man on Saturday night. As I got closer I saw why. He was holding that glass animal, the giraffe, in one fist and, my hand on a stack of bibles, boy, I watched him stab it into both his eyes.

“All the time he was stabbin’ his own eyes out he was yellin’ ’bout that woman. He was sayin,’ ‘She’s dead! She’s dead. I lay with a dead woman!’”

Here Grandpa would lean close and whisper the ending of his story. “I’d had about enough of that. I figgered he musta killed that woman after he lay with her. Well, he was a-staggerin around, anyway, so I just gunned the engine and run him down. Then I got myself back on the highway and didn’t stop again until I’d dropped off that dog with the old judge. When I got home from that run I took a correspondence course in radio repair and that’s what I did until I got the palsy too bad to keep workin’.

“You take my secret to the grave, you hear me?” he’d ask, and I’d nod my head because I knew a trip to the ice cream store was next.

(c) 2015 Steven E. Wedel

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