Fall of '69 Ch. 04bywilderness©
Around 4 a.m., with my arms around Becky's warmth, my face nestled in her hair, I sank into a deep, Mariana Trench sleep. A sleep so ocean deep, nothing, short of a bomb planted by Jacques Cousteau under the bed, would wake me up.
When I finally cracked opened my eyes, the clock next to the bed said it was 5 a.m.. After blinking out the blurriness, I realized the seconds hand was stuck on 10. Either time had stopped or I'd forgotten to wind it. Then I noticed someone was missing. Rolling over, I checked the room -- no Becky.
Basking in the memory of her tenderness, I waited for her return, and floated in the tropical current of dreams, only to wake up alone. Sunbeams, slanting through the window, hinted the hour was much later than I'd thought.
I put on my robe and walked out into the hall. The bathroom door was open, the light was off, and the house held its breath with a heavy silence.
"Beckster?" I yawned.
Maybe she was downstairs eating breakfast.
The kitchen was also empty, but in the middle of the table sat a paper towel with writing on it. I soon discovered a new way to wake up instantly, short of an under-the-bed-bomb. Hastily scrawled words exploded in my head.
I gave you something precious last night. I'm taking something precious of yours today. I'll return it when I can. I need to go home. I can't go back to school until I find out what happened to my brother.
Sprinting to the front door, I threw it open to confirm the driveway was empty. What was she thinking? Emotions raged. I felt hurt and angry, used like a fool. While staring at my 'Dear Don' letter, hoping to read something different, I decided I had to leave before my parents returned. Having to explain what happened to my truck would be an embarrassment beyond my endurance.
I opened my wallet to make sure I had enough money for a Greyhound bus ticket, and found it empty. Becky had needed gas money, too. Digging in the couch cushions, I mined two quarters for city bus fare and walked to the corner bus stop. The wind had a chilling bite. Ten minutes later, hypothermia was about to shake me apart, when a Lincoln Continental pulled up to the curb.
The window rolled down, and a woman asked, "Don? What are you doing?"
Bending down to look in the window, inviting heat and enticing perfume thawed my senses. The woman behind the wheel was our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ryan. Back in Junior High, before I was old enough to get a real job, I mowed her lawn and shoveled her driveway for spending money.
"Hi, Mrs. Ryan, I'm waiting for the bus."
She dragged her purse over to make room, and said, "They've changed the bus schedule. It only stops out here four times a day, now. The next bus won't arrive until noon. Get in and warm up."
Shit! My day was going from bad to worse. Teeth chattering, I gratefully got inside the warm car. "Thanks." I rubbed my hands together. "Man, it's cold."
Mrs. Ryan drove off toward home. "Where's your girlfriend, Don? Didn't I see her driving away in your truck early this morning?"
Shit! My parents would find out that I had a girl spend the night. "She's not my girlfriend. She's just a friend. I let her borrow it to go home. She had a family emergency."
"I saw you two raking leaves yesterday. It looked like you were more than friends."
Shit! "Mrs. Ryan, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't tell my parents."
"Call me Peggy, Don." She smiled. "You're not a little boy anymore, and Mrs. Ryan makes me sound so old."
"Okay, Peggy," I said, as she pulled into her driveway. "I was wondering... would you do me a favor and drop me off at the First Trust bank, downtown. I need to make a withdrawal, so I can buy a Greyhound ticket back to school."
Turning off the ignition, she said, "I'll give you a ride in a little while, but first I need you to do something for me."
Relieved, I followed her through the garage and into the kitchen, surprised to see boxes stacked by the door. "Are you moving, Mrs... Peggy?"
"Yes, I am."
She walked to the counter and poured three fingers of vodka from an available bottle into a waiting tumbler. Lifting the glass to her lips with the left hand, I noticed her wedding ring was missing.
Before taking a big swallow, she asked, "Would you like a drink," and then laughed bitterly.
"Uh, no thanks. Is everything all right, Peggy?"
"Everything is just groovy, Don. Do college kids really say that? How is college, by the way?"
The way she looked at me jangled my nerves. Her eyes kept wandering up and down, and her smirk told me the small talk meant nothing. Something else was on her mind.
"Have you joined the sexual revolution, Don?"
Shit! Change the subject. "I really need to get going Mrs... Peggy. What did you need help with?"
She put the glass down with a hard thump of displeasure, and said, "Fine. Come with me."
As we passed the living room, more boxes were stacked by the front door. We walked down the hallway, past two empty bedrooms, and into the master bedroom. Almost everything was packed, except for the bed linen and some women's clothes hanging in the open closet.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I asked, "Where's Mr. Ryan?"
"Damned if I know. Damned if I care," she said, sitting on the foot of the bed and crossing her legs.
She'd always had nice legs. I remembered many times during summer vacations Mrs. Ryan sunning on the patio, reading a paperback novel, while I walked back and forth, mowing their lawn for three bucks. Mrs. Ryan had been another boyhood fantasy of mine. I felt like a naughty little boy again, when she caught me glancing at her knees.
"Don, there's a box on the closet shelf that's too heavy for me to lift. I want to go through it, before the movers come. Would you get it down for me, please?"
The box felt like it was full of bricks. I set it on the floor, and Mrs. Ryan opened it immediately. She began pulling out the contents. Apparently, Mr. Ryan enjoyed adult magazines.
Throwing a Playboy across the room, she screamed, "He is such a pig!"
Angrily, she grabbed another one and opened it to the centerfold. "What is it with men? Why aren't they ever satisfied with what they have?" She broke down and sobbed, "Why didn't he love me?"
I didn't have an answer for her. After all, I was just a college kid, unfamiliar with the complexities of a long term relationship, so I kept quiet.
Before I'd met Becky, I would've said men can never be satisfied with just one woman. Then, in a matter of days, I believed Becky was everything to me, and no one could touch me the way she had. Seeing Mrs. Ryan so heartbroken reminded me relationships, even good ones, don't always last forever. The best thing for me to do would be to go back to school and resume my hedonistic lifestyle, and pretend Becky never happened.
"Aren't I pretty enough?" Mrs. Ryan stood up.
Her flooded, heartbroken gaze touched me. Sometimes the truth doesn't set you free. Sometimes the truth traps you. I said, "I've always thought so."
Mrs. Ryan smiled. "Always? Still?" She turned the magazine around, and I was confronted with Miss July. "As pretty as her?"
"Prettier, because you're real and she's just a photographer's two-dimensional fantasy."
She dropped the magazine on top of the pile, and whispered. "You're a very sweet young man, Don."
Not really, but I wasn't in the mood to argue, I just wanted a ride.
Her hands disappeared behind her back, and the fabric of her dress relaxed across her shoulders as the zipper went down. "When you mowed my lawn, I would intentionally lay on the patio to tease you. Did you know that?"
My answer had to fight its way around the lump in my throat. "No, I didn't, but it worked."
She smiled with satisfaction and shyly looked away when the dress fell to the floor, leaving her in bra and panties, less exposed than in her bikini, yet much more intimate. "I think I owe you this for all the frustration I caused."
Oh man, I had my own Mrs. Robinson. "Mrs. Ryan, are you trying to seduce me?"
"Do you want to be seduced?"
Why was it such a difficult question for me? "I'm flattered, and really tempted. You are a beautiful woman. Any other day, I would say yes--"
"But not today?" She sat on the bed, shrugged off her bra, and leaned back. "What's so special about today?"
I searched for a good reason written on her chest, but it wasn't there. I had to come up with my own. "I'm in love with someone."
"I don't believe that matters, Don. Sex isn't about love, anymore."
Averting my eyes, I said, "If it matters to me and it matters to her, then it matters."
Obviously annoyed by my rejection, Mrs. Ryan got up. "Fine, wait for me outside. I'll give you a ride as soon as I change."
It seemed to take forever, as I paced up and down the driveway, shivering and worrying my parents would come home early.
Mrs. Ryan finally came out. I wondered how much more liquid support she had to drink since I'd left her. We drove silently to the bank, without climbing any curbs and running over pedestrians.
As she stopped across the street from the bank, Mrs. Ryan said, "I'm sorry about what happened, Don. Good luck with your life."
Nothing profound came to mind, so I said, "Same to you, Peggy. Thanks for the lift."
I crossed the street behind her car, avoiding any revenge she might want to exact on men in general. Only a few customers stood in the teller line, and it took just a couple of minutes to withdraw three hundred dollars -- enough to get me back to school and through the month. Then I headed for the Greyhound bus station, two blocks away.
While I walked, I thought about all the classes I'd miss today and all the lecture notes I'd have to borrow. It was then that I decided every Sunday night would be prep-night. Beginning today, I would always plan my week ahead. Without organization, life is a meaningless lump of time. My future should be laid out like a road map. All I had to do was plan and execute the miles from start to finish. Planning and execution would become my strengths, my mantra. Planning and execution during the week, drunk and disorderly on the weekends. Now that was living the high life.
When the Greyhound ticket counter loomed before me, a recent quote I'd heard popped into my head: The tendency of organization is to kill the spirit which gave it birth.
Just like that, I walked away with my spirit intact and a bus ticket to Topeka, Kansas, instead of Lehigh, Pennsylvania. It felt more than right. It felt urgent. The road taken makes all the difference. At least I would get my truck back, if I could find Rebecca Jeffries. Ahead lay 900 miles and 20 hours for me to figure out how to do that, simple planning and execution.
One of the advantages of being from a well-to-do family is you don't ever have to take the Greyhound bus anywhere. So, I was unprepared for the adventures along the bus route never taken. The ride was uneventful, until we had a 15 minute stop in Dayton and I got off to use the restroom. Two men's room attendants, wearing ski masks, greeted me at the urinal with a knife, demanding a large tip. Lucky for me, they emptied my wallet and threw it in the sink and not into a toilet.
When I was finally able to zip up and wash my trembling hands, I noticed blood on the side of my neck -- a scratch from the knife. My body shook, as I held a paper towel against the wound to stop the bleeding. I thought about throwing in the towel and heading home. Obviously, I was out of my element, and not the worldly wise man I thought I was. But I had been wise enough to split my money up, and had enough left for a bus ticket home in my jeans pocket.
I made it back on the Topeka bus just before it pulled out. Greyhounds wait for no man, wise or otherwise. All the rows were at least half full. I picked a seat next to a black man in uniform. I figured he'd at least be quiet, and he was. He stared out the window, and then he nodded off. It's when he woke up, thrashing and screaming, that scared the shit out of me.
"Sorry," he said, when reality finally caught up with him.
"No problem, man. Where you headed?"
"Yeah? Me too."
He turned to stare out the window, signaling the conversation was over.
Fifty miles later, the weather turned bad, rain fell in slanted sheets and the bus jerked in random gusts of wind. The scenery disappeared behind a linear grey wall.
Boredom made me ask my neighbor, "You from Topeka?"
"Nah, I'm meeting a friend. She lives near Topeka. Maybe you know her brother. He's in the army. Jeremy Jeffries?"
"No, man. Never met him."
"He's missing in action."
"I hope he's dead."
A little pissed-off, I asked, "Why?"
"You'd rather be dead than a P.O.W."
"Maybe he's hiding from the enemy or wounded."
He gave me the you-don't-know-shit look, and said, "Maybe." Then he turned to watch the rain fight its way down through the wind.
It was a long ride, and I wished I'd brought a magazine or a book. Still wired from the encounter with the Dayton ski team, sleep was not an option. The rain eventually slowed to a drizzle. I kept track of our progress by watching the road signs. Indianapolis 120 miles, said the sign visible through the front windshield. On the shoulder below the sign sat a red pickup truck with a Pennsylvania license plate. As we passed by, I knew it was my truck.
Jumping up, I shouted, "Stop the bus!"
The driver looked back in his mirror. "Why!"
I walked up front, holding onto the handrails for balance. "That's my truck back there. I need to get off. My girlfriend must've broken down."
"I'm not supposed to stop--"
My army neighbor yelled, "Let him off!"
Others joined in.
The driver began to brake and pull onto the shoulder. "All right, but I'm not waiting. You got luggage?"
It was a mile run back to the truck. No one was inside. The hood was cold. Walking around to the passenger side, I found Becky's reason for stopping. The rear tire was flat. She had the jack under the frame and the spare tire lay ready and waiting. Why didn't she finish the job? Maybe she couldn't get the lug nuts off. Someone must've stopped and given her a lift.
Picking up the tire iron, I placed it on a lug nut and it turned without a Hulkish effort, but with a pressure that could've been easily applied by Becky's body weight. The rest came off the same. The soft rain soaked my clothes by the time the spare was on and everything stowed.
Pulling out my wallet, prepared to use the spare key I had tucked in a pocket, I noticed the keys were still in the ignition. The engine roared to life. The gas gauge showed half a tank. I didn't have to be Spiderman for my senses to tingle with alarm. While the truck warmed up, I pondered my options. I could go on, or I could turn back. Money was a problem, though.
Folded inside the truck's owners manual, I kept a blank check for financial emergencies, and wanted to make sure it was still there. As I reached over to open the glove compartment, I noticed my eight-track tapes were missing, so I began an inventory of my truckly possessions. Nothing was missing except the tunes and Becky. The tunes I could replace, and Becky, well, turns out she wasn't mine after all. Someone who'd steal from me wasn't someone I wanted in my life. At least I kept telling myself that, since I'd finally decided that trying to find Becky was so stupid even hillbilly Jethro Bodine wouldn't attempt it. It was time to head back to school.
Pulling the shift lever into drive, I checked my mirrors. The passenger mirror reflected a spotty view of the clouds, but was otherwise useless. I put the truck back in park, slid over, and rolled down the window. After a few trips from one side to the other, I got the mirror back in position, and began to roll up the window. Glancing out along the grassy swale, I spotted a familiar looking patch of red, partially hidden in the weeds. Red flags shot up in my head, and I bolted out the door and down the rain-slick hill. The wet slope might as well have been covered in grease, for all the traction there was. I fell hard, sliding the final ten feet on my back.
Sitting up next to the red object, I grabbed it, and my worst fears were realized. In my hand I held a soggy Red Ball Jet sneaker. The chances of the sneaker not belonging to Becky were like the chances of my ass not being wet.
Immediately, my plans changed. The sneaker came along for the ride. We had a matching foot to find. Terrible visions crowded my head. All I could think about was the Manson family. I would've never believed people so vicious existed before the summer of '69. Now, I believed they prowled the highways, searching for easy prey.
Becky was the perfect victim -- alone with no identification, driving a stolen truck from out of state, and no family to worry about her. I was her only hope, but my chances of finding her were like finding an inhabited planet just by looking up at the night sky -- astronomical. The only clue I had was the missing eight track tapes. If the kidnappers wanted my music they had to be young. Apparently there'd been a struggle, which knocked the mirror skyward and Becky's sneaker downward into the ditch, so it made sense there had to be more than one perpetrator. The word perpetrator, a new noun in my vocabulary, made my foot press hard on the gas pedal. Gravel clunked against the fenders, as I accelerated from the shoulder onto the blacktop.
As I sped down the highway, I tried to think like a criminal. How long would they keep Becky prisoner? The only hope I had of finding her was if they were traveling cross-country. If they didn't stay on the highway, and, instead, headed for some rural hideout, all was lost. They had a big head start. If I was going to catch up with them, they would have to stop for a break. What kind of break? Good for me, bad for Becky.
The rain stopped and, a few minutes later, the sun broke through the clouds. I flipped down the sun visor, and two twenty dollar bills dropped onto my lap. Becky didn't carry all her money in one place, either. From what I remembered, there had been about sixty dollars in my wallet. Becky must've stopped for gas at least once. So, that left around twenty dollars for the kidnappers. Not much of a haul.
I'd been driving a while, checking every gas station and every diner visible from the interstate, with no sign of Becky or any suspicious dirtballs that might lead to Becky. My gas gauge was down to a quarter of a tank. Before I entered the congestion of Indianapolis, I exited the highway at a town called Triangle. Bermuda Triangle seemed a better name. From the off ramp, the only sign of civilization was a rundown truck stop. Rusted semi-trailers ringed the gravel parking lot like Stonehenge monoliths. The grey hulks gave the appearance of an elephant graveyard. This looked like a place where criminals would blend in and be ignored. Adrenalin began to squeeze my heart, as I slowly explored the lot.
In the corner of the parking lot, farthest from the diner entrance, but still visible from the window tables, sat a delivery van the size of a milk truck -- hand painted in the flamboyant, Day-Glo, hippie style. Afraid someone might be watching, I didn't stop, I just drove by for a closer look.
The designs on the sides of the van were not the typical peace signs or florid flower-power symbols I expected. Instead, they were pentagrams, moons, and stars, like the occult symbols I'd seen around campus, associated with some of the freaky, fringe groups my fraternity made jokes about. I wasn't laughing now.
The van was backed in, giving me a clear view through the windshield. I didn't see anyone inside, but a curtain blocked the view into the back. The Indiana branch of the Manson family was probably inside eating dinner. At least I hoped they were, because that meant they weren't eating Becky.