Redeemed and Blessed (continued)
Joe takes it all in stride. My son seems happy enough after one idea that he might come down and join me after I find a place to live. That evening he helps me cram an aluminum-framed backpack with a few essential clothes, and we secure it to my ten-speed, along with a bedroll. Then after getting my check cashed, I’m eager to say so long to Midland, and so begins the trek southward.
The vastness of Texas can be experienced easily enough from a car or bus, but to appreciate it, one should try riding across it on a bicycle.
On the way out of town I stop and pick up a road map, and at the edge of the city I stop along side the road to unfold it. Off in the distance, the landscape undulates away into a haze of slight hills marked with juniper and little else. There’s not a cloud to be seen in the sky. The empty highway lays before me like a thin, draped ribbon.
The next town I estimate to be fifty miles away, and the space on the map looks less than a tenth of the journey ahead. Determined to make it before nightfall, I fold the sheet, slip it in one of the side pockets of the pack, mount the bike and start peddling. High in the currents overhead, a bird of prey glides along for company.
I don’t wear a watch, but at least two hours elapse before a lone pickup truck comes flying by, and then it slows and pulls to a stop. A friendly man behind the wheel acts surprised to see me out here in the middle of nowhere, but he asks,
“Hey, you want a lift?”
“You going as far as Crane?”
“Farther than that…I’m heading on in to Ozona.”
That’s twice as far as I had hoped to go today, so I gladly lay the bike up in the bed and climb in his cab.
Two hours later I peddle out of Ozona with a new cooking pot dangling from my backpack and a few groceries inside. I stop before dusk to make camp and eat.
Sleeping under such a magnificent universe that blankets Texas can only enrich a mortal’s earthly soul, as well as ease the guilt that can fester there. Soon after a smoky meal of beans and franks, I fall fast asleep listening to coyotes barking close by.
At sunrise I rekindle a small fire, heat a cup of water and make coffee. San Antonio looks to be less than two hundred miles away, so after breaking camp and stowing my things, I tackle the foothills again. Not far down the road another truck offers a another ride through this land that shimmers with unmerciful heat. I might be on to something, I think, as I thankfully haul the bike up into the back.
I make my next camp somewhere just south of San Antonio, and the next morning I begin pushing the bike along the shoulder of the roadway. Ten minutes later, the bike and I are speeding well over seventy, thanks to another generous motorist, and yet I am still surprised to reach Corpus city limits before dark.
My last ride drops the bike and me off at a pancake house where I sit out the remainder of the evening at the counter, and I meet the cook on-duty. Elias is a heavy-set Mexican, and the two of us swap more than a few stories between us whenever things slow down. Then at some point I learn the manager is looking to hire. By nine o’clock the next morning, I have a new job, starting the following evening, but it’s at another restaurant across town.
After counting up my cash, I find I have enough left to get a cheap motel for maybe two days. That’s fine with me -- whatever happens next, I can adapt and play it by ear. And I’m thinking this will be one easy gig to take.
World war three passes by without a hitch, and after my first four-hour shift is done, I’m told to come in early the next day and work a full eight. I bike back to the motel, store it next to my bed and go shower. I’m bushed, so I turn in early.
Day two I wake up feeling fine. Then I look at the bike and see that the rear tire has gone flat. I am supposed to turn in my room key before I leave, plus I need to be at work in less than a half-hour, so I drop the key off at the office and hurriedly push the thing all the way there, arriving with minutes to spare, and out of breath. Then I see the sign.
It’s an official-looking sign, taped to the inside of the glass entry door of my restaurant, and on it is printed a lengthy explanation as to why the place is now closed for good. I stand outside in the hot sun, sweating and holding on to the bike with its flat tire, and read the words twice and wonder.
The manager from the other place had driven me and my bike over here, and I recall it took a good half-hour to make the trip, so there’s no way I am walking all that distance under these circumstances.
Across the highway there’s a strip mall with one of those stores that carries everything, including bicycle tire repair kits. But at this point I don’t have enough pocket change left to buy a pack of smokes, much less anything else, so I make a decision to steal what I need. I have to get across town and find out what happened -- see if I still have a job or a chance of getting another one. And the only sensible way to get there means to ride.
Twenty minutes later a lady cop has me handcuffed and sitting in the back seat of her squad car while she finishes making out an apprehension report.
Her eyes rise up to look at me through the rear-view mirror.
“So how did this security guard with a broken leg and a pair of crutches catch you anyway?”
I had to think about that one.
Seven days later the county decides to release me. Another officer wheels my bike out of storage. I notice the tire is still flat like my wallet. Out of funds, out of good ideas, but full of Corpus Christi, I steer the bicycle toward the nearest interstate, and hitch a ride from there back to Midland.
A stranger picks me up right away. He asks where I’m headed, so I tell him. He sits quiet for a moment while he looks up the highway, and then he mutters,
“Midland. That sounds like as good a place as any.”
And he goes the whole ten-hour distance, taking me right up to the parking lot of the diner. The time is close to midnight, and the place looks busy. I can see a different waitress inside, rushing from one booth to another.
I have no plans in mind except for one, but this particular one I thought out ahead of time. Having suffered jail house fare for an entire week, I seize this opportunity to not only to even an old score, but to pay my kind driver back as well, so I offer to treat him to a steak dinner for all of his troubles.
I don’t, however, mention any details.
The two of us get seated after a ten-minute wait. By then I’ve figured out the place is in chaos. Some skinny young girl is standing at the grill. She has over a dozen tickets clipped above the stove, and by the way she keeps wiping her hands on her apron and bent over trying to read the orders, she appears to be under stress. Our hapless waitress is getting yelled at by several parties at once, while my pal sits across from me, calmly studying his menu.
I catch the eye of the lone waitress and do a coffee-drinking motion. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
The girl at the stove reaches up and begins jerking the tickets down, one by one. I watch as she collects the whole stack in her left hand, and then with her right, she reaches around and removes her apron. It falls to the floor at the same time she pitches the order forms into the air, and before they land, she turns to pick up her spatula. It gets hurled on the floor as well, and her voice carries above the chatter and other noises as she yells out,
“That’s it. I am done! I am out of here!”
The place stays quiet as the front door swings shut, but then our waitress begins to wail.
“This is my first night on the job! What am I supposed to do?”
Mrs. Dee comes in at seven the next morning. I have on my red tee shirt that has Coca Cola written across the front in white Chinese characters, and I go over to personally pour her a cup of coffee.
She grins and tells me later,
“If he wants to fire you again, he will have to fire us all.”