The Road Home
Northern California, April 1969
A painfully thin young woman in a blue calico dress ran a hand through her long, thick, dark-brown hair. She stood amid a haphazard circle of ramshackle VW buses, small cars, vans, and motorcycles that ringed a makeshift campsite butted up against a grove of trees.
"All that I am saying is," she said struggling to keep her voice level. "That we need to be organised. We need a more equitable sharing of the tasks."
A blurry-eyed man with a scraggly beard took one last tote from his joint before flicking the roach into the flames of the small fire that he sat before. "Mellow out, Helen. We're free. We aren't mindless robots shackled to routine."
"You like eating every day, Bilbo," Helen countered. "It would help if we knew who was going to cook that night. Neither Wren or E.Z. has bothered to lift a finger since we left Florida."
"You sound like my mother. That's messin' with my buzz," Wren lethargically replied flicking her hand at her from when she lay on the thick grass. Helen was amazed that she had the willpower for even that small gesture. Wren downed phennies by the handful and was rarely awake for more then ten hours in any given day.
"Yeah, Helen," E.Z. added. "You don't have to bring us down. Things work out, ya know."
"They work out because I work them out," Helen retorted.
"Hey, as I said, things work out," laughed E.Z.
Helen growled in aggravation. She spun on a heel and stormed from the camp. Bitter, angry tears clouded her vision as she stomped through the dry grass entering the trees. It was not suppose to be like this. She was supposed to be following in Jack Kerouac's footsteps finding adventure on the open road in the company of poets and musicians, far from her stifling, mind-numbing Virginia gentry upbringing.
Instead, the last ten months found her with people who were usually too stoned to carry on a coherent conversation let alone create music or poetry. She crossed the country crammed in the back of a van with an ever-changing cast of characters that had only their desire for sex and drugs in common. There was never any money for enough food but they never ran out of grass no matter how much they smoked.
She viciously swiped at the tears that ran down her cheeks. She refused to let any of them see her cry. Not that any of them would understand why she was crying anyhow even if they noticed. They were footloose gypsies who had reached the promised land of California. They would be mystified if Helen told them how unhappy she was.
The trees ended at the edge of the cliff. A hundred odd feet below, the Pacific Ocean crashed endlessly onto the shore. Without bothering to take in the vista, she plunged rapidly down the narrow trail. The sea would not sympathise with her plight but the sound of the surf was far preferable to the tedious voices of her companions.
An errant wind crept past her. Her nose wrinkled in disgust. Away from the massed bodies of the camp, the rank odour from her own unshaven armpits assailed her nostrils. She needed to bathe but like everything but weed, soap was in short supply.
As she reached the end of the footpath, she heard someone yell, "Dammit!"
Helen's head spun about searching for the voice. At the base of the cliff, a wiry, naked young man with shaggy hair and long sideburns was standing beside a small waterfall that fell from the cliff. He was washing himself and suds had evidently gotten into his eyes. Near him, a large, ten-gallon, metal pot sat on a ring of rocks. Flames licked the pot from the pit below it. Two smaller cheerfully coloured plastic pails rested on the sand close by the fire. A course, green-grey blanket was spread on the ground.
"Score," Helen thought. "Soap and shampoo."
By the time she crossed to him, the young man had rescued his stinging eyes. They were bright red but not unfriendly when he looked up at the sound of her approaching steps.
"Hi," he grunted unabashedly indifferent to his nudity. He noticed her yesterday when he and his girlfriend rode into the camp. She looked vaguely familiar but he could not place her. "I'm sorry but I can't think of your name."
"Helen," she replied. "You're Thumper, right?"
He snorted as he shook his head. "My name's Jake. Thumper was just...just call me Jake, please."
"Thumper was a pet name that your girlfriend gave you, then?" Helen asked
Jake chuckled ruefully as he towelled himself dry. "You would think that tagging me with that would have been warning enough," he sourly replied. "I should have run like a scalded dog the first time Rain called me that. I'm not going to miss her or that dumb ass nickname but I tell you, her taking my bike was low."
Helen nodded. She was one of several people who had to dive out of the way as Rain recklessly tore out of camp earlier in the afternoon on the back of Jake's Triumph Thunderbird.
Jake snorted again. "Rain. Her name was really Roberta. Everyone seems to adopt the most ridiculous aliases on the road. It's not like anyone gives a damn enough to look for any of us so why bother?"
Helen cleared her throat uncomfortably. For the first few months that she was on the road, Helen called herself 'Breeze'. In hindsight, it was as ridiculous as he said.
"Jake, I really need a bath but I'm out of soap and shampoo. Can I borrow some of yours?"
Jake smiled. "Sure but I don't think that borrow is the right word."
She smiled back at him. He had a dry sense of humour. "No, I suppose not."
"All that you need is right there," he answered pointing at the bar and bottle resting on a rock. "Help yourself."
"Thanks for sharing, man," Helen said gratefully.
"You're welcome," he replied casually. "Nobody has anything out here. We can only get by with everyone helping each other."
"There's a few that haven't learned that yet," growled Helen.
Thinking it best not to ask about her comment, Jake ignored it. "I'm about to wash my clothes. I can add your dress to the mix if you like."
"Keep being this nice and I'm going to have your baby," Helen kidded. "Thanks again. It needs washing as bad as I do. We came up through the desert."
She pulled the dress over her head. She wore no undergarments. Inwardly she laughed at the ease with which she stripped outdoors in front of a man who was a near complete stranger. Not too long ago she had been uncomfortable changing for gym class and there was naught but girls present in an enclosed room. "I was a lot of things not too long ago," she thought. "With uptight virgin being at the top of the list."
"Sorry but I have only the one wash cloth," he said accepting her thin dress.
"Beggars can't be choosers." She answered shoving her head under the cascading water.
Jake tossed her calico dress into the pot of boiling water. Humming to himself, he stirred their clothes with stout piece of driftwood. He paid no attention to the woman scant feet from him narrowing his focus to his simple task. With the rhythm of an ancient galley oarsman, he slowly raised and lowered each article of clothing, suds bubbling up and bursting as he worked. Like the dirt leaving the clothes, each stroke drained a bit more of the residue anger over the theft of his motorcycle from him. By the time he was satisfied that the laundry was clean, the ire was gone leaving only some mild regret and steadfast determination in its place.
After meticulously rinsing the clothes in the small buckets, he draped them over some bushes. Only then did he turn to Helen who was still luxuriating under her improvised shower.
"Whoa," he thought, truly looking at her for the first time. He gazed at her raptly for a few moments before shaking his head. "Forget it, clod. A woman like her would not have anything to do with a loser like you."
He was about to walk away when Helen noticed him. "Will you scrub my back, please?"
"Sure," he squeaked.
He coughed. "Yeah, sure," Jake replied in a steadier voice taking the cloth from her. He winced secretly as he moved his hand firmly over her body. He could feel every rib easily. The girl had been through some lean times.
The young woman peered over her shoulder as Jake washed her back. "So what caused you and Rain to break up?"
Jake exhaled in a loud sigh. "I guess you can say a divergence of opinion as to future direction."
"What? She wanted to go to L.A. and you wanted to go to Alaska?"
Jake bent down and swirled the washcloth in the water before wringing it thoroughly. "Somewhat more involved then that," he finally replied. "But I just don't have the energy to go into it right now."
"Left all of it in D.C. trying to raise the Pentagon last summer?" Helen quipped.
Jake blinked in confusion before bursting into laughter. "You were there, weren't you?" he said. "I remember you now."
"Yes, I was."
Jake chuckled at his own foolishness. "I was so high on mescaline I really thought that I could levitate the building. Just further proof if any more was needed that I am a complete idiot."
"Hey man, the power of positive thought and all of that, you know," Helen answered.
Jake shrugged. "I'm positive about some things."
"And one of them cost you a girlfriend today," Helen guessed.
Jake grinned. The scrawny girl was nothing if not tenacious. She would not be satisfied until she had her questions answered.
"I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest," he quoted.
"That's from Psalms," she replied. "Religious differences broke you apart?"
"No," Jake replied. "But the sentiment behind that line did. The thing is Helen; I'm tired of drifting. The Old Man showed me the door nearly four years ago and I've been on the road since then. It was cool for a while. I backpacked across Europe; cruised through a good chunk of North America on my bike. Even got as far as Australia working as a deck hand but now I'm just so damn tired travelling. All I want to do is find a job so that I can sleep in my own bed every night instead of whatever patch of ground I find myself on when the sun sets. That might make it easier for the government to find me if you want to draft my ass but I'm willing to take that chance. Rain thought that made me some kind of sell-out to the man."
Helen nodded at him but did not say anything as she dried herself.
Jake frowned. Suddenly and inexplicably, it was very important to him that she understood.
"I know that it's not about things but look at that," he said pointing at his clothes hanging on the bushes. "Thanks to the light-fingered Rain, that's all I own in the world; two pairs of jeans, three tee shirts, and a pair of boots. I mean, damn, I don't even have any socks. I've become the bum my old man always said I was."
"The fact that you're willing to work to make a better life for yourself I think proves your father wrong," she said. "And Rain was wrong also. Wanting a home doesn't make you a cog in a fascist machine. There is always a middle ground."
"Yeah," Jake agreed. "The problem is that the ground keeps crumbling under me. I haven't known anything solid since I've been on my own."
"So you're going back to your hometown?"
"Never!" Jake roared. "I'm only going back there when that son-of-a-bitch is dead so I can piss on his grave."
Helen took a step back in the face of Jake's sudden fury. She had disagreements with her parents and sisters but nothing to excite the sort of passion that exploded from Jake. "I really hit a nerve," she thought to herself.
"Look, I'm sorry," Jake apologised seeing Helen's frightened reaction. "It's...I'm just screwed up, okay?"
"Sure, it's cool," she replied. Jake might have some problems but her intuition told her that he was harmless. "So what are you going to do?"
"Hitch a ride with my buddy Coyote," Jake replied. "He's heading for Boulder in a couple of days. His brother started a commune near there. I'll stay with them for a while, find a job, save up a few bucks then get a car or another bike and go back east."
Jake chuckled. She was definitely tenacious. "Like I said, I'll go the bourgeois route and find another job and work for the rest of my life. It's pure establishment but that's what I'm going to do."
"So why a job and not college?"
"College?" Jake laughed. "Are you kidding me? What college would accept me? Trust me, one look at my high school grades and I'd be chased off any campus for having the audacity to try."
"You're wrong," Helen replied. "I think that you are intelligent."
"Maybe, maybe not but it doesn't matter," he said. "I don't have the bread and I'm too old."
"Now that's a cop-out," Helen countered. "You're what? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? Many men came home from World War Two and Korea older then that and went on to college and more then one person has worked his way through school."
Jake started to say something but stopped himself. Instead, he eased his body down onto the blanket. Helen sat down beside him but it was several long moments before anyone spoke.
"Why aren't you in college?" he finally asked.
Helen exhaled slowly, regret written large on her face. "Because I was a spoiled brat who, when she did not get what she wanted, scorned what she had."
"I don't understand."
"I applied to five schools, Jake," Helen answered. "Only my safety, Middleton College, accepted me. Instead of going there, I stuffed some crap into a backpack and split."
"And now you're here."
"Yeah," she sighed.
"Yeah," Jake quietly echoed watching two sea gulls squabble over something that washed up on the shore.
Helen joined him in his silent contemplation of the seascape. From time to time, she would steal a covert glance at the young man sitting by her. He was so lost in his own thoughts that she was not sure if he even remembered that she was even there after a while. When it became evident that Jake was not going to make a move, she decided to seize the initiative.
"Jake, can I go with you to Boulder?" she asked hopefully.
"Go with me?" he asked in surprise. "Sure, if you want to. We'd have to ask Coyote. It's his car but I'm sure it'll be cool with him."
"Thank you," she said sliding a hand across his thigh.
A small gasp of pleasure escaped his mouth as her hand slid even further. His kindled desire notwithstanding, he, nevertheless, lifted her hand from him. "Look, Helen, when I said that I didn't mean to imply that there were any strings attached. You don't have to do anything you don't want to."
"And if I want to?" she asked leaning over to kiss him.
The sun was a fireball on the horizon when Coyote made his way with trepidation down the trail to the beach. He hated heights so he kept his eyes resolutely on his feet until the ground mercifully levelled out.
"Hey, Jake," he shouted. "You around here, man?"
He laughed as he spied his friend untangling himself from a woman. "Damn, dude, that was quick work," he said as he walked over to the couple.
"What is it, Coyote?" Jake asked not completely successful at keeping the irritation out of his voice.
"Change of plans, hoss," he replied. "We're splitting tonight."
"Oh, okay," Jake said as he stood. "Can I bring Helen along?"
"Helen, I assume, is that lovely girl beside you," Coyote chuckled.
"Yes, I am," she replied. "May I join you?"
"Hi, Helen," Coyote said with a friendly wave of his hand. "Yeah, sure, no problem. you'll be company for Willow."
"Who's Willow?" Jake asked
"Hey, man, you're not the only dude the chicks find irresistible," joked Coyote. "She's a girl that rolled into camp t a couple of hours ago. The people she's with want to stay here but she wants to go on to Colorado so I offered her a ride. See you in a few minutes."
"Be right there," Jake said to his friend's back.
He helped Helen to her feet. "I thought that it would be cool with him. Coyote's all right."
"He's cool but he was wrong," she said.
Jake frowned. "What was he wrong about?"
"That wasn't quick work," Helen answered puckishly patting him on the buttocks. She giggled when he actually blushed.
"Thanks," Jake gushed.
Helen was slightly taken aback. "He jumped on that compliment like a dog on a bone," she thought. "Just how bad has his life been to make simple praise so precious?"
Jake started to pull on a tee shirt when Helen stopped him. "Coyote and Willow might appreciate it if we washed first."
"Yeah, the smell of rut..."Jake began. "I'm sorry that was crude. I don't want you to think ...you're not just..."
"A piece of ass," Helen supplied. "A warm body."
"Yeah," Jake stammered. "I mean...yeah, you're more then that. Damn, I ..."
"I understand what you're trying to say," Helen said walking toward the waterfall. "Now, will you wash my back again?"
"My pleasure," Jake quipped joining her.
It was nearly dark as Jake threw on a sky-blue tee shirt, a pair of jeans and boots before quickly folding his remaining clothes forming a neat pile with them.
"Are you sure you weren't in the army?" Helen asked watching him.
"No, just six years of military school," he replied.
Helen nodded but before she could speak, Jake continued in an increasing strident voice. "School, my ass! Freaking prison. The Old Man wanted me to be trained as cannon fodder but Jakey wouldn't cooperate would he, Mad Dog? He would not go along with your plans to get him gloriously killed!"
He spun and savagely kicked one of the plastic pails sending it bouncing across the beach. Helen took a cautious step back but Jake made no further move other then hanging his head and taking several deep breaths. Such outbursts were beyond Helen's realm of experience. Uncertain as to what to do, she stayed still. The silence lengthened uncomfortably until Jake finally broke it.
"I'll understand if you would prefer not to come with me," he said quietly keeping his eyes away from Helen. "You're probably afraid to be with someone as messed up as me."
"Where does your father live?" she asked in a harsh, savage voice. "Have Coyote drive us there and we'll kill him."
Jake whipped around. "Are you nuts?"
Helen abruptly laughed pulling him into a hug. "If you won't harm someone you hate that much, I think that I'll be safe around you. I don't think that you'll hurt me."
"Hurt a woman!" a horrified Jake exclaimed.
Helen cocked her head inquisitively. "You really respect women, don't you?"
"What few decent people that I've ever know have all been women," he replied.
"Whether or not I still qualify as decent is open to debate," Helen said. "But now, let's grab everything and go find Coyote. He and Willow are probably ready to leave."
"Ah, yeah, Coyote did sound impatient," Jake stammered. The girl had him confused. She saw him at his worst yet it did not seem to perturb her, at least not enough to scare her away. Was she that desperate to leave or did she ...no, he dared not hope that she truly liked him. A man like him does not have a girl fall into his lap, a better girl then what he had yet here she was.
"Just run with it, idiot," he thought as he followed her up the footpath. "Sooner or later, she'll figure out that you're not good enough for her. Until then, enjoy the ride. It's not like you have anything else to lose."
"Where is Coyote parked?" Helen asked as they reached the top.
"Over there," Jake pointed. "That blue Beetle. Go get your stuff and we'll be off."
"This is it," Helen answered, waving a hand over her ensemble. "What little I brought with me on the road has long since been ripped off and there is no one here I care to say good-bye to so we can just book. What's so funny?"
"Nothing, really," Jake replied stifling his mirth.
"C'mon, out with it," Helen said.
Jake shrugged his shoulders. "I just thought that if we ever had kids, we could honestly tell them that we started with nothing."
Helen smiled enigmatically at him.
Coyote was standing beside a tall teenaged girl with long auburn hair. A large brown shepherd with a red bandana tied around his neck sat between them.
"You guys ready to go," Coyote called out.
"Yeah, man," Jake shouted back. "On the road to Boulder."
"No, Jake," Helen quietly said squeezing his arm. "We're on the road home."