The summer before her junior year of college, Mom began to crave new surroundings. Although she needed to spend that summer, as she had the previous two, earning money for college, she felt that if she didn't get away from Okemah, she'd go insane.
My grandfather, recalling the impatient restlessness he'd experienced in his own youth, was sympathetic to Mom's plight and convinced my grandmother, who was at first skeptical, to call her sister, Ruth, on Mom's behalf.
Aunt Ruth was the nearest approximation to a bohemian to be found in the Larsen branch of the family. At that, she did not live so very far outside society's norm; she was married, after all, and lived not in San Francisco, New York, or Paris but in hot, dusty Amarillo, Texas. But Ruth was an artist, a painter whose work vacillated between O'Keeffian landscapes depicting the bluffs and cliffs of west Texas and eastern New Mexico and simple constructions of triangles and squares in various shades of red, purple, and blue.
Ruth and her husband, Ben, had recently opened a combination filling station/café just east of town, at the intersection of U.S. Route 66 and State Highway 370. They hired a local Mexican couple to operate the café (which doubled as a gallery to display Ruth's paintings), serving enchiladas, tamales, and burgers, while Ben pumped gas and did minor repair work and tuneups for travelers bound for the West Coast, preparing their vehicles for the strenuous journey through the New Mexico, Arizona, and California deserts. Ruth agreed to have Mom spend the summer with them, living in the guest room of their modest home a mile away from the station and working as a waitress in the café/gallery.
Mom was a good waitress, at once efficient and friendly, and usually managed to sock away between ten and fifteen dollars in tips per shift. It was her plan to move out of the dorms that fall and into an apartment, and to do so, she knew she'd have to amass an sizable sum over the course of the summer. So she worked as many hours as Ruth and Ben would allow.
During the summer vacation season, the café was open 24 hours. Many travelers preferred to tackle the long drive through New Mexico and Arizona in the cooler hours of night and early morning. One Saturday found Mom working the counter for the 4 a.m.-to-noon shift. She'd just slipped on her apron when in walked a bedraggled trio of young men.
The threesome sidled up to the counter and slid onto the stools. One, a blue-eyed, brown-haired, square-jawed man of perhaps 21 years, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt yellowed by perspiration, looked exhausted; he barely glanced at the menu before plopping his head face-down onto his arms, which were resting, criss-crossed, on the formica counter.
The other two men, though bleary-eyed, had a bit more energy and showed a decided interest in the menu's offerings. One was a dark-haired, very attractive man who was by far the more gregarious of the two; he seemed relatively unaffected by their stint on the road and the early hour. Mom had gained a certain preliminary facility with accents while working at the café, and this fellow's rapid-fire way of speaking suggested to Mom that he hailed from somewhere back East--New York, perhaps, or Boston. His name, as he soon informed Mom, was Jack. He introduced the man dozing face down as his pal Neal; the third member of the party, a slim, soft-spoken young man whose right arm was swollen to a rather alarming extent from, as he explained it, an wasp sting acquired just south of Denver, was named Frank.
Jack roused Neal just long enough to extract his order: scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and coffee. Frank opted for fried eggs and sausage patties. Jack asked for enchiladas and was visibly disappointed when Mom informed him that they were not available at that hour. Unlike most of the weary travelers who stumbled into the café, Jack, Frank, and Neal were headed south on 370, not west on 66; they were bound for Mexico City, Jack explained, and he'd had his heart set on enchiladas for the last 100 miles or more. He finally convinced Pedro, the short order cook on duty that early morning, to grill him a cheeseburger with jalapeno peppers.
Soon the food was served, and all three ate voraciously. Neal, immediately upon polishing off his eggs and bacon, returned to the Ford and slept in the back seat. Frank, who was feverish from the insect bite, joined him soon thereafter, sliding into the Ford's front seat.
Jack, it seemed, required no sleep. He was far too excited about the prospects of their journey south of the border. They were to visit, he explained, their friend, Bill, who was living in Mexico City with his wife, Joan. He, who professed himself a writer, was enthused about experiencing a new culture, seeing a new way of life, hearing new sounds, smelling new smells.
Soon Jack, suddenly realizing he'd talked of little but himself, turned the conversation to Mom's life, peppering her with questions: what was her hometown like, what were her dreams, where had she been, what had she experienced? What had brought her to Amarillo? Had she ever been in love? What music did she listen to? Though his interest seemed sincere, Mom began to feel embarrassed, fearing that that she had no interesting answers to his questions, that her life had been typical and conventional when compared to Jack's. Though he was only a couple of years older than she, Jack seemed infinitely more worldly. He'd been in the navy and the merchant marines; he'd lived in New York City, driven cross-country more than once, spent time in New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, and Los Angeles; he'd even been in jail, charged as an accessory to a murder (a bum rap, he insisted, and one he'd beaten).
Mom found herself utterly smitten by this alien being, this fast-talking, hard-living man of the world. When Jack suggested that they step out behind the café and watch the sunrise, Mom asked Pedro to cover for her while she took a break. The café's only customer at the time was a truckdriver who'd already eaten and was loading up on coffee before hitting the road.
They sat in the tall grass on the gentle downward slope of the hill behind the café and Jack spoke of his childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts--how he'd grown up shy and awkward, how he'd found his confidence on the football field, and how he hoped to soon conquer the literary world, to become, as he put it, a "Beat Tolstoy." Mom hadn't a clue what he meant by that but, now feeling that she was in perhaps a bit over her head, she nodded as if she understood.
Mom was struck by Jack's fluid mix of confidence and insecurity. He revealed that Neal was, to him, a bit of a hero. He envied Neal's spontaneous, gregarious approach to life, his refusal to apologize for who he was and what he did. Neal occasionally hurt those he claimed to care for, Jack admitted--Jack himself, it seemed, had more than once been the victim of Neal's thoughtless self-centeredness. But Neal was on to something, Jack insisted, and Jack was trying to learn everything he could from him.
To Mom, Jack seemed in that moment like a small, unsure boy who worshipped an uncle or older brother. It was a remarkably appealing side to this man she'd only just met, and when he leaned over to gently kiss first her palm and then her cheek and finally her lips, she did not resist.
Before long, though, Jack reached in his pocket for a cigarette lighter and a odd-looking brown cigarette. It was pot, he explained--marijuana. Would she like to try it? Mom knew almost nothing of marijuana--she'd certainly never seen anyone smoke it--and though she felt safe with Jack, she couldn't bring herself to try it.
Jack took a couple of long, deep hits from the cigarette before tamping it out in the moist ground and placing it back in his pocket. He began to speak again of the coming adventures in Mexico. Had Mom ever been, he wondered? Had she ever wanted to go.
Suddenly Mom had the distinct impression that Jack was about to ask her to accompany him to Mexico City, and she felt a flutter of excited indecision in the pit of her stomach as she wondered how she might respond to such a proposition. It would certainly be the most outrageous leap she'd ever allowed herself, that much was certain, but after all, she was nearly 21; perhaps she was overdue for a bit of adventure.
She had all but convinced convinced herself to accept Jack's offer, should it be tendered, when Pedro appeared at the back door of the café, looking terribly worried. The west Texas wind quickly carried his alarums the fifty or more yards that stood between him and Mom and Jack. "Senorita!" he exclaimed. "Senorita, come quick!" Mom hadn't a clue how long they'd been out there--she'd let time get completely away from her--and her mind raced as she ran back to the café, Jack only a few steps behind her. What could be wrong? Had Pedro started a grease fire in the kitchen, as he had done twice already in the brief time Mom had been in Amarillo? Was the café being robbed.
As she rushed through the kitchen, where nothing was aflame, and out into the dining room, she saw that Neal and Frank had returned from their nap in the Ford. The jukebox was turned up full blast, blaring one of the conjunto records that Ben had stocked to keep the kitchen staff happy during the long, slow overnight hours. Neal--stripped to the waist, a lit cigarette in one hand and a half-empty bottle of tequila in the other--was dancing furiously on the tabletop in the rearmost booth. In his dervishian glee, Neal had kicked the ketchup bottle, the sugar dispenser, the salt and pepper shakers, and the tiny Tabasco bottle to the floor, creating a treacherous, shard-filled slick. Frank, who Mom had thought so meek and shy, sat two booths away, egging Neal on, shouting, "Go, baby, go!.
Just then, through the café's large front windows, Mom spotted her uncle Ben ambling across the parking lot. He'd arrived early on this Saturday and would be at the café's front door in just moments. Ben was a softspoken man, but he had a quick temper and she hated to think how he might react when he came upon this scene.
She shoved Jack into action, urging him to gather his friends and make a hasty exit.
By now Ben was standing, mouth agape, in the the café's entryway. He quickly stepped behind the cashier's stand at the front of the store and retrieved the baseball bat he kept there for emergencies. Workers from nearby oil fields made a practice of breakfasting at the café after a night of carousing, and he'd occasionally had to brandish--though never actually use--the bat to break up a drunken skirmish. Mom doubted he would actually use the bat on Neal, Jack, and Frank, but Jack clearly had no intention of waiting around to find out. He pulled Neal down from the tabletop with one hand, hauled the drunken Frank out of his booth with the other, and dragged them both through the front door.
To his credit, Ben let the trio pass unhindered, but he followed them out the door, bat in hand, to ensure that they were truly on their way. Mom was right behind him. The last glimpse she caught of Jack was his laughing face as he pointed the Ford south on 370 toward Childress. His left arm hanging out the window, he pounded the roof of the car in delight over their narrow escape.
Mom hadn't thought of Jack in years when, nearly a decade later, she spied his picture in a bookstore, on the back panel of the jacket of a novel entitled "On the Road." He hadn't been lying, she realized; Jack really was a writer.
In the ensuing weeks, she saw interviews and profiles of Jack in magazines and newspapers; she even happened to catch, purely by chance, his appearance on The Steve Allen Show. He seemed somehow changed since that morning on the hill behind the café--less insecure somehow but also less gentle and therefore less charming. Still, Mom, now married with two young sons, knew that she was no longer the girl he'd kissed that morning long ago, so she supposed it wasn't fair to expect Jack to remain unchanged. She bought a copy of "On the Road" and found its breathless style not really to her liking. And when she skipped ahead to Jack's account of the Mexico City journey, she was a bit saddened to learn that somehow he'd neglected to mention Mom in the book. She wondered if omitting an account of their morning together was a conscious bit of self-editing on Jack's part, or if he'd simply forgotten their encounter.
Even now, on those occasions when her travels take her through the Texas panhandle, Mom makes it a point to seek out the junction of old Route 66 and highway 370, since renamed 287. Though the café is long gone, Mom parks the car and wanders down the slope of the hill where once it stood; she sits in the tall grass and spends a few minutes thinking of poor Jack Kerouac, whose circumstances turned so sad, and wondering how different her own life might have been if Neal's drunken antics hadn't prevented Jack from whisking Mom off to Mexico City on that cool, sunny morning all those years ago.
Read next article.
Visit the BRETTnews Archives.