We swapped seats near Albuquerque and I took the wheel. Warren didn’t want to disturb Nick and said he would drive again when I became tired. I knew Warren had a long day ahead of him so I told him I would drive as long as possible so he could get some sleep.
I-40 was under construction so I kept my eyes peeled for detours onto the old sections of Route 66. I listened to the radio and smoked cigarettes to stay awake. I made the air colder and turned the vents toward my face. The darkness insulated me from the outside world. I felt alone and insignificant. Nighttime is another world where the darkness takes on an identity that transcends time and space. You begin to think the night will go on forever when you ride through it long enough. The mind relaxes and enables one to reflect upon past, present, and future. I thought about many things that night.
I asked myself if I was simply avoiding taking responsibility for my life or if I really thought there was any value in chasing the moon. Did I want to read the news or did I want to be in it? I was 20 and I already had friends who were going nowhere except to work. They were governed by guidelines and schedules set by others. Be a good boy … follow the rules … get a gold watch … collect Social Security … die five years after you retire.
I was nodding off … but I continued driving. Warren and Nick were out cold. I tried racing the moon. I gave it my best but the moon won. I swore it would be different next time.
Somewhere I noticed the fuel was running low. I nudged Warren and he told me to keep driving until I found a gas station. “What if I don’t find one?” I asked. He told me to keep going until we ran out. I never found one … so I kept driving.
Around a quarter past five, I saw a glimmer of orange in the rear view mirror. We had been in the dark for so long I had forgotten about daylight. The rising sun followed me across the New Mexico landscape. transforming the desert, sky, and clouds into a three dimensional Salvador Dali canvas of surreal colors and shapes with no beginning and no end.
The gauge was resting on easy-does-it when I spotted a gas stop down on old Route 66 at a place called Thoreau. I overshot the exit ramp and pulled over on the other side of the overpass. Warren decided to hike down to the station to see if it was open for business. Nick was asleep. Warren told me to stay with car and not let anyone in unless he was present. I locked the doors and watched him walk down the embankment to the public road and cross over to the station on the other side. I put the seat back and turned the radio on. I tuned in an Albuquerque station. It sounded identical to a station I heard during the night. The same announcer was reading the same juvenile sounding messages from the listeners and playing the same records. I fell asleep.
Warren knocked on the window and jolted the daylights out of Nick and me. “They don’t open until seven,” he said. “May as well go back to sleep, there’s nothing to do until then.” He laid his seat back and closed his eyes. Nick went back to sleep on the rear seat. I was groggy, smelly, and strung out. The sunlight was killing my eyes so I removed my jacket and placed it over my face.
Warren woke me up around a quarter past seven to tell me he was going down to the station. I watched him shuffle down the embankment again and cross over the road to the station. I lay back and wondered why anyone would have a gas station in such a god-forsaken place. Warren soon returned with a jar in one hand and funnel with a length of hose in the other. He poured it into the tank and then we backed the car over the overpass to the exit ramp and drove to the station. On the way over Warren said, “I’ve got some really good news, boys. He’s got beer. It’s in the Coke cooler.”
“Good,” said Nick, “I haven’t had my breakfast.”
“Wait till you get a load of this guy,” said Warren. “This guy’s a real trip.”
We pulled up to the premium pump and a tall, thin, and well-tanned old man with sunglasses and a cowboy hat stepped out from the store to greet us. He gave a “Good morning, boys,” and began pumping while Warren, holding the jug and hose, talked to him. Nick and I walked beneath the canopy, skirted the ice machine, and stepped inside to look for the beer. An old Coca-Cola chest cooler sat to the right when you entered. Nick lifted the lid, took out a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and placed it by a rack of New Mexico postcards on the wood counter facing the front door.
I looked around the store while Nick used the rest room. The station was a 20-by15 box with sun-bleached clapboard siding and a flat roof. The tongue-and-groove floorboards were grayed and gritty from all the years of dust, dirt, and endless thousands of boot heels grinding into the grain. Men’s magazines were stored behind the glass beneath the counter. Shelves and racks stuffed and stacked with mousetraps, flypaper, fan belts, motor oil, Ronson lighters, cigarettes, cowboy hats, lip balm, and all sorts of sundries filled the place. An old wood burning stove sat by the far wall next to the restroom. I leaned against the rack with the car fresheners of trees and sexy girls and wondered how so much stuff was able to fit into such a small store.
Warren came in with the owner behind him.
“Where’s the other guy?” he asked.
“In the restroom taking a bath, I think.”
“Are you joking or are you serious?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m serious, he’s done it before,” said I.
Nick’s ears must have been burning because he emerged from the restroom, and he looked like a new man. Warren gave me a funny look and I grinned, raised my eyebrows, and shrugged my shoulders. Before anyone could say anything, the station owner stepped forward and said, “Fellas, my name’s Texas Jack.” He put his hand out and we introduced ourselves. “Welcome to the Land of Enchantment . . . and welcome to my fillin’ station. You’re my first out-of-towners for the day.”
Texas Jack was dressed just as I would expect a westerner to be dressed. He had on a white western style long sleeve shirt and covered his wrists, fingers, neck, belt, and buckle with Indian jewelry. I was barely able to see his face what with that big cowboy hat, dark sunglasses, silver beard, and moustache disguising everything.
However, I could see his jawline well … and I’ll never forget it. I’ve never seen a jaw like it. It looked like it was made of steel.
He liked the idea we were bumming it cross-country. “I wish I was goin’ with you boys. It’s too crowded here now, but I’m too old to leave.” He reached into the cooler, grabbed a beer, pulled the tab, and took a swig. “Goddamn that’s good,” he said. “You know, the only thing that beats a beer at seven-thirty in the morning … is a beer at six-thirty.”
He wanted to know where we were from. When we told him New Jersey, his response was, “They have good whiskey in New Jersey, do they?” Warren asked him how got the name Texas Jack.
“I liked it better than being called Texas Jackass,” he told us with a laugh.
We stood there dumbfounded.
“Nah, I’m just kidding with you, boys, although some people, mainly my ex-girlfriends, have called me that from time to time. What really happened was. I was picking cotton in Texas until it got too crowded, so I bummed a ride to New Mexico in 1937. Been here ever since. I know it looks like the moon, but that’s why I like it here. Nobody bothers me. That’s why I never married. I almost did once … but then I got to thinking about being in the same house with someone else all the time and I canned the marriage thing.”
I mentioned something about how barren New Mexico looked. He told me it wasn’t barren; life was all around me, I just didn’t know what I was looking at. “In fact, my boy, the state motto is ‘Cresciteundo.’ It means ‘It grows as it goes.’” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I figured as long as he knew, it must be true.
Before I could reply, he noticed my shirt and asked me what Mexican paid me to wear it. I told him a friend in San Antonio gave it to me. A big grin broke across his face and he said, “I got bad news for you shorty, he isn’t your friend.” Of course, everyone thought it was funny, except me. When Warren mentioned he was on his way to Gallup for a wedding, the old man removed his sunglasses, exposing a bad eye. He stared at Warren with the good eye, and said, “Not yours, I hope.”
Then he laughed.
We hated to leave but Warren had to get to Gallup so he could get a motel room and clean himself up in time for the wedding. We paid for the gasoline, beer, and cigarettes and said goodbye to Texas Jack. As we were walking out, he said, “If you ever pass this way again and are looking for a card game, call me.”
Absalom says he is “new to the writing game, having entered it in a desperate attempt make some quick money to pay a large volume of traffic tickets.” He is a native of Burlington County where he wore out his welcome following a nasty divorce in 2003 and fled to Mercer County. He does not expect to return soon. He dedicates the majority of his time to heavy drinking and railing against authority of any sort, real or perceived. He lives in Princeton Junction.