Chapter 1

 

GOD, IT’S cold. A fifteen-year-old car just can’t keep the cold out—especially when the heater’s not working. Yeah, I’m grateful Daddy gave me this old heap to drive, but it’s a far cry from the electric blue Chevelle I drool over every time the neighbor pulls out of his driveway. He gets my dream car, and I get to back a ’54 turquoise Chevrolet Bel Air coupe down the gravel path that counts as the driveway to our mini parking lot behind the house. There’s my car, Daddy’s car, and my grandma’s Ford, and my grandpa’s truck—a mint-condition 1950 Ford, lovingly kept and carefully driven. That’s a lot of cars, but our garage holds only one car, my mother’s ’68 Chevy. The garage is so tiny once she gets the car in, you can’t shut the overhead garage door. And don’t even think of getting into the passenger side until the car is skillfully pulled out.

Why so many cars you ask? And why the great divide, the eternal Texan debate: Ford or Chevrolet? Well, there’s an easy answer to the second question. My daddy is a Chevy man; my grandpa’s a Ford guy. As for the other, well, my grandparents live in a trailer house in our backyard. We have a double backyard, so there’s the lawn behind our house, then another lot on which sits the trailer. One day, my grandpa—my mother’s daddy—just upped and told Daddy, “We’re moving a trailer onto your back lot.” And they’ve been living there ever since.

But I am getting far away from where I started here. I guess the cold’s getting to me. North Texas can get as icy cold in the winter as it can get boiling hot in the summer. Yep, lots of subfreezing days in January, and tons of over-a-hundred-degree scorchers in July and August. But what can you do? This is where my parents had me, and this is where I’ll live. At least until college comes along and gives me other options.

Right now, I’m a senior in high school. Graduate in May—class of ’69. I’m pretty up at the top of my class and plan to stay that way. And that won’t be hard, considering all I have to do in life is read and study. Not many friends. At least not the kind you go out running around with, that you get into trouble with. Oh, people at school like me well enough, but I guess I only have one real friend, my girlfriend, Lisa. She thinks she looks like Audrey Hepburn. I guess she does—if you squint. She acts like a movie star too. Lisa and I have been going together since first grade. Weird, huh? Maybe she’s been my girlfriend that long because she sticks around. I don’t know. Right now, we’re cooling it a little bit because there was this new guy in history class—well, he was new this year at our school, and Lisa set her sights on him from the first day. Yeah, I know, I was probably stupid for even putting up with it as long as I did, but she’d been my girlfriend since forever, you know? Lisa told me on the phone the other night, “If you don’t stop looking at me in history, you’ll ruin my chances with Charles!” So, I decided to quit looking at her.

But I’m not sure she’s noticed.

Okay, back to the cold. I pull up to the red light near my house. This is the city bus stop where people who go to my school have to catch the bus. We live within two miles of the school, so there are no school bus runs to our neighborhood or the ones that surround us. If you need a bus to school, you have to ride the city bus.

So, I’m waiting at the red light, listening to a Peter, Paul and Mary song on the radio. They’re singing “The Times They Are A’Changin’.” I’m singing along, just hanging out, when I jump out of my skin. A fist is pounding on my window.

I recognize the owner of the fist. It’s the school hippie, Jeep Brickthorn. Jeep is unlike almost all of my classmates, crazy name and all. Certainly unlike me. Most of us dress in button-down shirts and pressed Levi’s. That’s the guys, all clean-cut and flat-topped—well, not me. I have a regular haircut because I’m an actor. I have to look like I fit the parts I want to play. The girls all try to look like whichever movie star is popular at the moment, hence Lisa’s Audrey Hepburn look. So Jeep Brickthorn…. Jeep’s Levi’s are faded, wrinkled, and tattered. He wears a tie-dyed T-shirt every day, and I’m reasonably sure he wears the same one. It’s hard to tell. As for his hair, well, there’s a dress code at school that says a boy can’t wear his hair over his ears. Jeep has been sent home for a haircut three times. The grapevine says he will be suspended if it happens a fourth time, and from the looks of him today, he is ripe for suspension.

Jeep motions for me to roll the window down.

“Dewey, isn’t it?”

I nod, not sure of what to do. I’ve never spoken to Jeep in school, much less out of school.

“Look, Dew, it’s cold as hell out here, and I missed the bus. If I’m late to school, they’re gonna can my ass. Catch a ride?”

I’m expecting that. I nod, and Jeep runs around the back of the car, jerks open the passenger door, and leaps in. He’s rubbing his hands all over his arms and talking a mile a minute. “Damn, it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there. You’re lucky you got wheels. I’m stone broke—my mama too. No car for me. So I’m stuck on that people wagon they call public transit.” He says that with a sneer. “And wouldn’t you know it? I got there this morning just as it was pulling away. I just about ran all the way from my house, but I got started late because I was trying to slick back my hair. Principal Nelson, the old fart, told me if I don’t get a haircut, I’m outta there. But I don’t have the bread for a haircut. You know anyone who’ll trim it up for free? Man, I don’t want to get it cut, you know? I’m a guitar player, and I need to look like one. But I also gotta stay in school. My ma would kill me if I got kicked out. So maybe you could trim me up a little this afternoon? Meanwhile, I’ll just have to keep it pinned back behind my ears and lay low. Don’t you have the heater cranked up?”

I think to myself, Will he ever stop talking? He’s going like he’s on something. For all I know, he might be. Everything I know about hippies tells me they are always hopped up on marijuana.

“Heater’s broke,” I say, hoping that my choice of two, succinct words will give the message I’m willing to just drive and have a nice quiet ride to school.

“Heater’s broke? Damn, man! You need to get that fixed. Fort Worth winters are too friggin’ cold to not have a working heater.”

I look at him. “You can get out and walk if you don’t like my car.”

He throws up his hands. “Whoa. Sorry, don’t go freakin’ out on me. I bet this little rod can really haul ass. Kick it up.”

I give him a withering look. “My daddy would kill me if I got a speeding ticket.”

“It’s cool, man. Just trying to be friendly. ’Cept for the lack of heat, this car is cherry. Better’n any I have, which is none. Look, I’m glad you picked me up. Are we cool?”

Despite the fact, or maybe because he doesn’t know when to shut up, I kinda like the guy. I’d prefer a little peace and quiet on the way to school, but he means well. And he’s a far cry from any other guys I know. And even though he’d insulted my car, he wasn’t insulting me. That was a plus.

A plus I’m not used to. My so-called friends at school don’t harass me, but there’s this guy—Butch Pollard—who is on my back all the time. He thinks it’s funny to mess with the fat boy, the quiet boy, the boy who carries a lot of books around with him. It hurts. Most of all, it makes me afraid. If I see him within range of me, I try to turn and walk the other way to avoid him. It’s endless, and I’m too afraid to fight him, much less tell a teacher.

“Name’s Jeep, by the way.” This strange creature next to me sticks his hand out for me to shake.

“I know your name, Jeep. Everybody knows you.”

“Guess that comes with the territory. Can’t be the school hippie freak without being notorious. That, and I bet you never met anyone with a name like mine.”

“You’re right. Never.” I keep my answers short and to the point. Maybe he’ll get the hint and shut up. Or not. At this point, I don’t know what I want him to do.

“My daddy gave it to me. He was a driver in the war. Drove General Eisenhower once. That was his proudest moment. He never stopped telling that story—or at least that’s what Ma tells me. Funny thing, he could have named me Ike, after the general who became President. Instead he named me after the car he drove the general in. That’s how I became Jeep.”

Now he has me hooked. He won’t shut up, and what he’s saying is intriguing.

“Your daddy sounds like quite a man.” I don’t know what I mean by that, but I feel like I have to say something.

“So I’m told. He left me and Ma when I was real little. Ma says he came back from that war feeling all important-like because he was a driver, of all things. Driving a general—and only once, mind you—did a number on him. He got back thinking he could rule the world. Found out otherwise right fast. Not much call for drivers in Fort Worth, Texas. Least not the kind that drive important people around. So Daddy finally just up and left, feeling like a total failure.”

What a sad story. I don’t have an answer for that. My daddy is great, despite some faults like we all have.

“Me? I’m not planning on following in his footsteps. I’m gonna be famous. Make records. Have little girls squealing at my songs.”

He has so much confidence, so much bravado. It’s hard not to like the guy.

“Speaking of singing, you’re in choir, right?”

I wonder how he knows, but then I remember I sang in school assembly the month before. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s easy for me to play a character for a paying audience who wants to be there, but to sing a solo as myself in front of everyone in school? It takes a ton of courage, and I knew Butch would be out there in the audience. I had to give myself a huge talking-to just to get on that stage. But I love singing, so I had to do it. And amazingly, everyone liked my solo. I never heard a word of negativity.

“Yeah,” I answer.

“Like I said, I’m a singer too. I’m in a band. Play lead guitar and do lead vocals. Rock.”

“Rock? I like the Beatles.”

“No, this is more like Vanilla Fudge. Heavy.”

“Vanilla Fudge? I’ve never heard of them. What do they sing?”

“Not on the radio. Unless you listen to the only station that plays their stuff. One of my favorites is ‘People Get Ready.’”

“That’s the Young Rascals,” I say, wondering why, if he’s a rock musician, he doesn’t know that.

“Oh, my man, you’re right. But you haven’t heard that song until you’ve heard the Fudge’s version. Tell you what, I’ve got an extra copy of the album. I’ll give it to you. To show my appreciation for the ride.”

“Okay.”

“You know, Dew, you oughta catch our band sometime. We’ve got a gig at a local club. You got a fake ID?”

I about choke on that one. I’ve spent my life as the good little boy. Not only do I not have a fake ID, but I wouldn’t know how or where to get one.

“No, I don’t have one,” I say.

“We can get you one, man. I know someone who knows someone.”

“Thanks, Jeep, but I’ll pass.”

“Your loss. The Bloody Cheetahs are a great band.”

“Bloody Cheetahs?”

“That’s the name of our band.”

“Great name.” I don’t know why I say that because it is the stupidest sounding band name I’ve ever heard, but I’m starting to like this wild hippie freak, and I guess I want him to like me.

“Thanks. So, you want to come to our band’s rehearsal sometime? You don’t need an ID for that.”

He is pushing it. Why is he hell-bent on being my friend?

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You think about it. ’Kay?”

“Okay.”

He picks up my geometry book from the floorboard. “Geometry? You any good at this crap?”

“Yeah. I get As.”

“Who’s your teacher?”

“Mr. Blevins.”

“I got Old Man Blevins too. Fifth period, right after lunch. I’m usually so full all I want to do is sleep. But even if I’m wide awake, I wouldn’t understand a word of what Chrome Dome says. Do you think you could give me some help sometime?”

Ten minutes ago, I barely knew who Jeep Brickthorn was, and now I’m giving him a ride to school, trimming his hair, accepting a gift from him, and signing up to be his personal tutor. What gives?

“Sure,” I say.

“Outta sight. We’ll talk about it later, on the ride home. That okay with you?”

Looks like I was going to be his afternoon chauffeur too. That was okay, though, because that afternoon was one of the rare days when I didn’t have a choir rehearsal, play practice, or a club meeting. I did keep busy being my lonely, no-friends self.

“Okay. But don’t think I can do this all the time. If you miss the bus and I drive by, I can pick you up, but most days, I have a lot to do after school.”

“Understood, man, understood.”

The school day goes by like lightning. I really like school, and it usually goes by fast, as long as nobody bothers me. Today, I guess my bully was picking on somebody else.

And as the day is coming to a close, I also realize something else: the day has gone quicker because I wasn’t dealing with Lisa’s drama. My plan to “quit looking at her” was working well. For me, anyway.

After school Jeep meets me at the car. He stands there, waiting patiently. He must have had to haul his big ass to get there before me. He’s no lithe-bodied sprinter. Jeep’s not fat, but he’s sort of a teddy bear-type body, tall and squishy-massive. His giant grin greets me as I put my key in the car door, get in, and reach over to unlock his door.

“Let’s burn some rubber, Dew,” he says, settling into his seat.

There is no way I am going to “burn some rubber.” My daddy—even as old and as big as I am—would tan my hide with his belt if he caught me mistreating his car.

I pull out of the parking lot with all the caution my grandpa taught me when he gave me driving lessons, and we head home. Jeep, just like this morning, never shuts up.

“Okay, so what about geometry homework? You done it yet? I tried to do it in class, but not only was I clueless, but I kept nodding off.”

“It was an easy theorem, Jeep. I can show you.”

“Come inside when you drop me off. I think we have some Cokes. You like Cokes? Ma bought some at the store yesterday, I’m sure. I told her to get some Grapettes, some RCs, some Dr Peppers, some Nehi Oranges, and some Big Reds, so we got all kinds of Cokes to choose from.”

Yep, I could tell Jeep was a Texan born and raised. Around here, we call any kind of cold drink a Coke, no matter what the brand is.

“I could drink a Nehi,” I say.

“Nehi it is.”

He tells me his address, which is in the subdivision right next to ours. Now, we’re not rich or anything, but our little two-bedroom house with my bedroom addition Daddy added is a mansion compared to the house Jeep lives in. It is about half the size of ours, the paint is peeling, and the screen door sticks.

I find myself in a tiny living room. There is a fold-out divan, a chair, a coffee table—with three legs and a stack of phone books propping up the fourth corner—and a little old black-and-white TV. I notice a small kitchen off this room to the right, and Jeep leads me through a door to a little bedroom in back of the living room.

“This is my room. Ma sleeps on the couch. She likes it. Says it helps her back.”

I don’t question him, but in my heart I know his mother probably chose the couch because she wanted her son to have his own room.

Jeep’s room has a single-sized bed, a little desk with chair, and a chest of drawers. There is a bathroom off that, and when I peek, I see also the bathroom opens into the kitchen.

Pointing to the bed, Jeep says, “Have a seat. I’ll get us our Cokes.”

I sit as he disappears. I look around. He has a battered stereo with a stack of record albums. The one on top reads Vanilla Fudge. In the corner is an electric guitar with an amp. That is about it for the room. Not much here.

Jeep comes back carrying two bottles: my Nehi Orange and a Grapette for himself. “These Cokes are icy cold. Just what we need after a hard day’s work.”

He pulls out the desk chair and plops down in it after handing me my drink.

He takes a long swig of Grapette. He lets out a moan of ecstasy. The boy likes his grape drink, I think. Then he jumps up, grabs the Vanilla Fudge album, pulls out the record, and puts it on the turntable. “Now you’re in for a treat.”

Very strange sounds come from the machine. He has it cranked up as loud as it will go. I recognize the song, but this version is a far cry from the Rascals’ record. It assaults me at first, but within thirty seconds I find myself responding to the look on Jeep’s face. His eyes are closed, and he is lost in another world. I close my eyes too. And that simple act is amazing. Shutting out the entire world, suspended in darkness, I get it; this group speaks to me. I’d heard my English teacher use the word enraptured to describe the Romantic poets. Then I just laughed to myself at her word. But listening to “People Get Ready” now makes me realize truly what enraptured means. It is an experience I will never forget.

The song comes to an end, and I open my eyes. Jeep reaches over to take the needle from the record. I swear I see tears drop from his cheek.

“What did you think?” he says, as he replaces the record in its cardboard sleeve, being careful to touch only the outer rim of the vinyl, like he cherishes it.

I can’t figure out what to say. I want to speak. But somehow, anything I say won’t describe what I felt, what I’m feeling.

Jeep looks at me. I look at him. Somehow, he knows. He knows how I’m feeling. And words aren’t needed.

And he breaks the spell. “Geometry?”

He pulls his book from the pile he’d brought into the room, and I spend the next twenty minutes explaining the homework to him. He’s a fast learner. Jeep is no dummy. He may be a hippie freak—that’s what everyone I know calls his kind; never just hippie, always hippie freak—but he is my hippie freak new friend. And he is funny, and smart, and sensitive. I’d learned that today about him.

We finish our homework, and then he bellows, “Now, how about that haircut?”

“Jeep,” I protest, “I can’t give you a haircut. What if I mess it up?”

He primps like a girl and says, “You can’t mess up these curly locks.”

He hands me scissors, and I very carefully trim around his ears. He looks in the mirror and pronounces me hairstylist of the year, even asks if he can make another appointment in two weeks at my “salon.”

We both laugh at his mimicry. And it is a good laugh.

As I start to leave, he thrusts the record album at me. “Don’t forget your Fudge,” he says. I feel like I’ve just been given the most precious gift he could bestow.

Somehow, I know he is going to “miss” the bus the next morning. And probably every morning thereafter.