The summer of 1979 was the last time we saw the high school. We spent that summer and fall just hanging out. Rickie Lee Jone’s first album was the background music we danced to, dated girls to, and watched the desert blow past on hot days that drag on forever. We looked over her album cover alone and together. Her shoulder-length attitude hung like a switchblade shadow on a lightning night. Rough boys hid behind frozen headlights, leaning on cars like it was where they belonged.
Me, Tracy William Bods (who hated the name Tracy. We called him Little Willie), Charles Edmonds, Skinny Danny Razoto, Toby Bono (we called him T-Bone), Trey Fields, Brit Wilson, and Bobby Daniels, and an ever-changing list of girlfriends – all were trying to get past the slow-motion desert town somewhere off I-40. Every flash of lightning and burning thunder in some endless bebop jazz chorus, repeated until it was tattooed to our bones.
They reached for souls from their greasy hair to cruise on I-40 where little Willie Bods hit the guardrail and lost his fantasy world along with his life. All of us froze in time at the last goodbye until the rain quit. The piano reached our marrow like Rickie’s silhouette spilling on the windowsill in silent tiny brush strokes. All those grey and blue lines cross the night stepping cool inside the neon rhythm. Snapping six-eight gusts of windy railroad poetry for the drugstore men, bent and wilting from too much of the same empty pockets. If you look long enough, it binds you to a road that ends in a diner near the interstate.
The white and black checkerboard floors shine under James Dean and Marylin Monroe. The nocturnal coffee hounds wait to be something they never will be, no more than a reflection fading off into the never-was horizon. Rickie plays cool breezes, the ones that blow past her from the railyard to the cavern where her vandalism scored a hit. The boys still lean on cars looking for cool under every major seventh, while the girls braid their hair and stand back hands-off, but not too far off. The days spill from coffee mugs with someplace embossed onto eyes liquid with summer, slipping into tomorrow without seeing it hurry past with them in tow. Sill hanging on to Willie Bod’s haunts, slow talk on hot sunsets reminiscent of the night he left for the last time, speeding his coup into their memories. Rickie still hits the right notes on back roads and alleys burning with damp mist hanging in moonlight, designed for just that song.
Charles Edmund strolls past the pool hall looking for Skinny Dan the Juke Box King. But he’s lost over at Caddy’s Bar, listening to Papa Joe play his stand-up with Earl Wayne and the “No Mo’s.” It’s a slow groove meandering between the bar and midnight. Sleepy smoke turns blue and heads for the interstate, a last chance to make it back home before the wind stops blowing saxophone lonesome. Still, it’s easy to find Rickie singing low somewhere FM on a dark river road. Moody women look for a lasting tribute to their forms and The Never. Just the lonesome music sealing the promise of starlight and hair- spray, or that other star in your desert sky. It’s the lonesome sound of music from a passing roadster fading around the bend.
It doesn’t feel right walking lonely blocks just to end up hearing people reminisce as you fade from memory. We deserve so much more than Willie Bods, so much more than our initials carved into a forgotten tree near the school we ran from. How can we be “us” forever? Maybe her music, when it drifts through our hearts, can let us go back. It was hell not knowing how to feel when they told us Willie never made it home. Yet her music tried to soothe a wound that would never go away. Suffering in silence when we laid him in the ground. Suffering in hope when T-Bone’s mother got sick and nearly died. She said Last Chance Texaco was all that kept her alive. My sister Janis said it was Lane Bono’s cold presses and chicken soup. Or maybe just the Lord giving out another chance to a widow raising a boy by herself.
There’s no letting go. Even when bones rust and nights no longer find the girls we used to know. Gazing from my window, I listen to a woman’s jazz colors pull me back as they push me forward. Trey’s wife shot him while they were driving home from the lawyer’s office. He held on, borrowing cool days and nights from us when we hung low at Jimmie’s Car Lot where we were filled with dreams. The radio dressed the night hanging with the boys who planned the future as if they owned it. She was always with Brit until he couldn’t hear her anymore until he wandered off and faded from memory. Trey died after three days. His last words were, “She’s on the radio.”
So Rickie played her piano, she played her hand, played us a place that we held onto as we drew cards looking for a hand to play. Hungry deals, windblown streets shaking like tremolo dice falling into a place in a seven-come-eleven record shop, swimming in the shallow end. How can you win if the night already knows you’re gone? There’s no need to whisper. Everyone has seen it all. Peeking through apartment windows, betting on an outcome that’s written in glass. Still, you’re drawn to that place, tossing bottle caps at the kids walking past, having pizza and beer in a bar that smells like garlic and booze.
That’s the picture the day my mom passed. We were on the front porch at Lonnie’s house. My sister, pale with shock, called me from down the street. It was so sudden. I knew the game from the memories of Willie’s funeral. Everyone crying. I didn’t want to be there, but I couldn’t leave. My mother was lying on her bed, a stream of sunlight crossed her silent face. The road seemed so far away. Leaving was all I could think about. The mailman walked by, an ice cream truck drove past playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Two boys raced on skateboards challenging the wind with speed and “who gets there first?” Mom used to hug me and sing “We Belong Together.” She held fast after her old man drove away one day and never came back. We stayed by her, always looking out for the hucksters and sidemen trying to win back what they lost at her expense. We chased a guy away once, throwing rocks at him. Looking at her lying there turned sour in me. I wanted more, so much more.
I walked out with my car keys jangling from my hand, rolled into my car, and drove away. Not another graveside rant from a man that never felt our lives or knew us from the person at whose funeral he spoke the day before. Now I sit where everyone ends up, at a roadside diner staring out the windshield, listening to the radio. Wouldn’t you know it? “Weasel and the White Boys Cool” was playing for the lost rough boys hanging out for a chance at something better. For little Wille Bod, who drove himself to death on a desert road when the night took no prisoners. For Trey, whose wife lost her cool and had as much as she could take. For my mom, whose body I left lying in a bed inside the house where she raised me and my sister.
Roadside diners all sound the same, the low hum of waitresses and cooks buzzing in the kitchen. The smell of coffee and fried potatoes. The old couple across the room planning the next stop on their way to somewhere else. I stared out the window past its red frame, past the walls dripping with 50’s memories, dead legends who only became legends ‘cause they died. A jukebox sliced yesterday from faded watercolor visions and me gazing out the window. Some shadow came across my face looming like rain clouds shouting down the walls. Pieces of someone watching my eyes dance out the window. It was a sad feeling, easing itself over my chest, crawling over me like a threat I wasn’t sure was really there. I followed the feeling around the room and caught an old man staring at me from the counter. I heard a voice from inside my pathway crying, begging, then the sound of a car making its way out of our lives.
It was him, my mother’s old man. He lifted the bag of dust that he lived in and shuffled toward me. He stood and stared for longer than I could stand it. I spoke. “I have no music to dance to with you.”
“Sure you do,” he said.
“Yeah? Why don’t you sing it to me?” My tone was dark.
“Why didn’t you cry at little Willie’s funeral?”
“Why didn’t you go see Trey when he was in the hospital?”
“Why didn’t you stay to bury your mother?”
I looked at him and asked, “Why didn’t you stay and raise your children?”
The sun tottered on grey horizons. Moonlight drew a jigsaw puzzle on the dusty pavement. A cool beer turned to memories inside my head. The rough boys, trying on cool for the girls wandering through their lives. Bobby married Tina and they promised each other a lifetime. That lifetime lasted ten years. One day he went out, got into his ragged Chevy, and drove away. His reasons seemed quite clear at the time, then faded into the winter night when he heard Rickie play the standards. He meant to come home a thousand times. He meant to keep his promise. He walked away an old man who lost his life to the sinister road. A road that took Willie Bod for real and my old man for life, leaving every one of us longing for something better. Something better inside the music that played during the long night, hanging with Ricky at the public leaning post as long as she let us.