Laying on his back, Billy watched his cigarette smoke curl and coil upward toward the slowly rotating ceiling fan. He’d take a drag, exhale and watch the blue-white dragon’s tail unscroll from the cherry of his Marlboro, constantly twisting and changing until it finally rose to the point where the fan would dissipate it. This was the first motel room with a ceiling fan they had stayed in, and the first motel room that was not on their original route.
Maureen lay nuzzled against his bare chest. She was a sound sleeper and the love of his life. The second they graduated from high school, escaping to California was a given. Cleveland was dead — literally. Everyone they knew was leaving. The city was in default. The cops and the garbage men were striking. The factories killed the Cuyahoga river and Lake Erie was so polluted that it caught fire back in 1969. The whole place was a grey-brown, soot-covered wreck.
Maureen had earned good marks in school, but she was more interested in working than going to college. Billy had really shined as shortstop since his freshman year — he felt like a complete, fully realized person on the infield — but as good as he was, his playing wasn’t at the scholarship level. That was okay, because neither were his grades. Going to a university wasn’t in the cards for either of them.
If they weren’t college-bound, they needed to live somewhere that offered decent prospects. Cleveland was a dump, but the rest of the country stretched out before them like a buffet, and the dessert tray was the west coast, full of beaches, surfers, movie stars and rock bands — and jobs.
So the two of them made secret plans to leave. They didn’t tell a soul. Their parents would have forbidden such a trip and their friends would have thought they were nuts, and probably would have ratted them out. They worked the summer after high school as though nothing was going on, Billy at the Shell station and Maureen at Hickory Farms. Mass-produced sausage and routine oil changes helped them save up enough money for gas, food, motel stays, and hopefully one or two months’ rent when they arrived in Los Angeles.
When they finally saved enough, Maureen and Billy sneaked out of their homes late at night, leaving apologetic letters to their families that promised they would call as soon as they made it to California. They threw their belongings in the trunk of Billy’s Dodge Dart and headed out on Interstate Seventy-one to Columbus where they connected with Highway Seventy with plans to eventually get onto Interstate Forty and head across the southwest. Their route would take them across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, the top part of Texas, then New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California, the promised land.
The first day went great. Billy and Maureen covered nearly six-hundred miles in the two-door Dart, arriving in St. Louis, where they took in the Gateway Arch at sunset. They opted to enjoy the monument from the ground rather than wait two hours to take the tram to the observation point at the top.
“I feel like this is a sign,” Maureen said as the two of them squinted into the intense orange light glinting off the stainless-steel behemoth. “We’re meant to head this way.”
Billy kissed her hair in agreement. It felt like the entire universe was telling them they were doing the right thing.
The Dart had other opinions. Early the next morning, three miles outside of Lebanon, Missouri, the car got louder, less powerful and started running hotter. Billy turned on the heater to help vent the engine, took it easy on the gas, and limped the Dodge into a service bay in Lebanon.
“Manifold’s cracked,” the lead mechanic matter-of-factly informed them. “It happens to these slant sixes all the time. I have the parts and can fix it tomorrow, and get you out of here and back on the road.” The man offered to drive them to the nearby Munger Moss Motel, an old Route Sixty-Six lodge that had withstood the onslaught of chain motels, and remained independent.
“This is going to set us back,” Billy told them as they lay in one of the room’s double beds. The intermittent nighttime traffic either hissed or rumbled past, depending on the size of the vehicle.
“How much,” Maureen had asked.
“Dunno,” he replied.
Uncertain sleep ensued.
The next morning, after Billy and Maureen breakfasted on coffee and donuts, the mechanic generously picked them up and drove them back to the service station where they waited out the repair. That’s when they found out how much the fix would cost them: roughly the two months’ rent money they had saved to get set up in California. The two exchanged worried glances as the mechanic handed Billy the keys.
Billy helped Maureen into the passenger seat and put their bags in the trunk.
“What do we do?” she asked as Billy swung himself into the driver’s seat and closed the door.
“Dunno,” he replied.
Calling home wasn’t an option. Neither of them wanted to admit failure (at least not yet). Instead, they used the morning to look around Lebanon for work. A month or two on a decent job could put them back on track if they could find someplace cheap enough to stay. And, if that was the case, they’d call their parents to let them know they were okay.
No such job was to be found, however. So they kept heading toward California.
“Let’s go for broke,” Billy suggested as they passed through Springfield, Missouri.
“You mean just head to California and figure it out when we get there?” Maureen asked.
“Yep, and we can keep looking for work on the way.”
“Seems kinda risky.”
“Well, at the worst, we can always call our parents and ask them to wire us money.”
“They’ll probably wire us Greyhound tickets.”
“Fair enough, but don’t you think we need to give this a shot? Remember the arch? Didn’t it feel right?”
“It did … It did … .” Maureen paused and thought. “You’re right. Let’s go for broke. Let’s do it!” She leaned over and kissed his neck, saying, “I love you.”
“I love you,” he replied, putting his arm around her as the Dart hurtled toward Oklahoma.
Billy didn’t say anything, but despite his cool exterior, their money situation had him worried. They had enough cash to make it to L.A., and maybe one or two nights at a motel once they got there, but after that, where would they stay? They might be able to find work, but it would take a while to get their first paychecks. Maybe they could ask for an advance on their first check, but it would be lucky if they found an employer who’d agree to those terms.
Another way to save money would be to sleep in their car on the way. He had suggested it as they drove away from Lebanon, but Maureen quashed the idea.
“No way,” she said. “There are way too many psychos out there — think of Son of Sam, or Ted Bundy — no way.”
“I have my twenty-gauge; we’d be okay,” Billy replied.
“You have your what?”
“Why in the heck did you bring that thing?”
“Sentimental value. My dad gave me that gun. I couldn’t part with it.”
“Do people even hunt in California?”
“We’re not sleeping in the car.”
Billy knew she was right. Sleeping in the car was risky. Still, they needed some way to save or make money if they wanted to put up stakes in California. That night they stopped in Amarillo for dinner and a bed. They chit-chatted with the waitress working the counter GoldenLight Catina as they ate hamburgers.
“Where y’all headed?” the forty-something waitress asked as she married two half-empty ketchup bottles.
“Albuquerque,” Billy said, slyly winking at Maureen while the server’s attention was focused on the bottles.
“Really?” the waitress asked, staring at the bottles. “Why’s that?”
“Heard there’s jobs there.”
“No foolin’ … in Albuquerque?”
“Yep. Have a friend that recommended the place.”
As they pulled away from the café, Maureen scolded Billy.
“Why did you fib to that nice lady?” she demanded. “There was no reason for it.”
“The less people know about us, the better,” he replied. He repeated the same lie to the clerk working the desk at the Nite Owl Motel.
That night, as Maureen lay sleeping, Billy pored over his Road Atlas under the low-wattage bulb of room’s desk lamp. His idea would take them off their original route, but it would also get them to California ahead of the game where money was concerned. Once Billy was sure of what he wanted to do, he clicked off the reading lamp, and went out to the parking lot for a spell. When he returned, he climbed into bed with Maureen, spooning with her. Her hand pulled his arm close over her, like a blanket, and he soon fell asleep. That night he dreamt of baseball. Fond memories of deft fielding and clutch plays flitted through his mind.
They grabbed some quick, early morning coffees and headed West the next morning. At Vega, Texas, Billy turned north on Highway Three-Eighty-Five.
“Where are we going?” Maureen asked.
“I got an idea last night that might get us some money,” Billy said.
“It’s tough to explain. We’ll stop in Hartley and I’ll explain it then.”
After an hour or so, Billy pulled up to the self-service pumps at a Philips station on the north side of Hartley, Texas, and rummaged around in the trunk while he gassed up the car. He closed the trunk just as the pump finished and went inside to pay.
“Just filled it up,” he said. “Nine fifty-eight — here’s a sawbuck.”
“Sure thing, young man,” the clerk working the register said as he opened the cash drawer. He had a large belly and looked like he was in his mid-fifties.
“Keep the register open,” Billy said as he raised the small shotgun he had be holding against the back of his leg and racked a shell into the chamber. “Hands where I can see ’em.”
“What the — young man, you think I’m afraid of a bird gun?”
“It’s got number three buckshot in it. You feel like taking a chance on that? I figure one good gut-shot might not kill you, but it’ll definitely see you crapping in a bag for the rest of your life, old man,” Billy flatly replied. “Now step back from the register.”
The man complied and Billy kept him covered with the shotgun in one hand, while he reached into the till and filled his jacket pockets with the bills. Once they were stuffed, he ran to the car, safetied the shotgun and slid it on the backseat, jumped in, and spun his wheels the whole way back onto the highway, whooping and yee-hawing like the Dukes of Hazard.
“Holee shit! Holee shit! I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed to a dumbstruck Maureen.
“What the hell is going on?” she demanded.
“Here, count this up,” he said, handing her the wad of bills in his pocket.
“No! I said, what the hell is going on?”
As they drove away, Billy explained his plan: knock over three or four gas stations on a circuitous route up to Interstate Seventy. If they kept telling enough people they were heading in various directions, it would make it impossible for the state troopers to determine where they were actually headed. They could score enough cash to get started in California and disappear in a day or two. To help cover their tracks, he had stolen a set of license plates from another car in the motel parking lot last night.
Maureen sat calmly for several minutes to think.
“It’s like ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’” she finally said. “I don’t want to go back to Cleveland, and this is better than going for broke.”
At that moment, a cherished memory flashed across Billy’s mind: him catching a line drive and then throwing a runner out at third during a mid-season game. He almost crashed the car as he pulled Maureen close and hugged her.
“I love you, baby,” he loudly exclaimed, kissing the side of her head.
“I love you,” she said, kissing him back.
After fifteen minutes, Billy pulled off behind some low, scrubby trees and replaced his original license plates. Then he emptied the shotgun shell from the chamber, wrapped the gun in a blanket and hid it under the black, felt trunk liner.
“There’s one hundred-eighteen dollars here!” Maureen enthused as Billy got back in the car. She had been counting up the bills. “A couple more gas stations and we’ll be set!”
Billy couldn’t help but feel electrified. It was as though they had been five runs down at the bottom of the eighth, but were now tied up and could easily take the win. That cracked manifold wasn’t going to stop them. No way.
At the New Mexico state line, they swapped the plates with the stolen ones and then into a station just outside of Clayton, New Mexico. It went like clockwork. This time Maureen took the wheel and Billy left the passenger door slightly unlatched. He put some gas in the car, ensured the coast was clear, opened the trunk, retrieved the small shotgun and carried it against his leg as he briskly walked into the station.
The transaction went pretty much as before. Billy pretended to pay up, once the register was open he held the clerk at bay with the twenty-gauge. This time it was a woman in her thirties who kept holding a smoldering menthol in her raised left hand the whole way through the ordeal. As they sped away, their total was now two hundred-thirty-four dollars.
They turned northeast on Highway Four-Twelve and headed for the Oklahoma panhandle. Midway toward Boise City, they pulled off at a disused exit onto an old farm road so that Billy could once again swap out the license plates and hide the shotgun under the trunk liner.
“I think we’re hitting our stride,” Billy enthused as he swung the Dart north on Highway Three-Eighty-Five toward Colorado. “Hitting the panhandle was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
“There’s no way the cops can know what direction we’re headed. We can jump around five states,” Maureen agreed. “They have to be totally in the dark.”
Just thirty miles into Colorado, at Campo, they turned east on Highway Fifty-One and headed into Kansas. After some zigging and zagging through farm roads, they hooked north toward Johnson City, Kansas, passed through that town and decided their next target would be south of Syracuse, Kansas.
They did the same routine: pull over, swap the plates, swap drivers, fill up the tank, get the shotgun and hustle inside. The only problem was that this time, the clerk — a lanky guy with long, brown hair, a beard, and a missing arm — wasn’t cooperating.
“Fuck you, man. I ain’t givin’ you and your stupid popgun nothin’,” he chided.
“Oh yeah?” Billy said. He chambered a shell and blasted a display of liquor bottles behind the register. Glass and booze went everywhere. “How about you open that fuckin’ register?”
“I didn’t spend three years in ’Nam for this kind of shit,” the clerk grumbled in defeat, pushing the button to open the register.
“Yeah, workin’ the PX, GI Joe. You just step back with your … hand where I can see it, and you’ll keep that other arm.”
Billy filled his pockets and hopped in the car.
“What happened? I heard the gun,” Maureen demanded as she peeled out. “You didn’t’ shoot anybody did you?”
“Just a warning shot. The guy was a real asshole.”
“Let’s quit,” Maureen said, turning her attention from the road to him. It was more of a question than a statement.
“We’ll get a motel. Let’s change the plates and head toward Denver. We can get a room somewhere on the way.”
After swapping the plates and hiding the shotgun, they decided to cross back into Colorado and snake around some farm roads until they could get on Highway One-Sixty headed west. That’s when they checked in here, at the Trinidad Inn in Trinidad, Colorado. They told the lady working the registration desk they were headed to Las Cruces, New Mexico. After getting a pizza and a couple Pepsis, they tallied their haul, and they now had three-hundred, seventy-two dollars, which was enough to get them started in California. The successful score and the excitement of the day had charged them up, and they made love with a wordless fury.
As Billy now stared up at the fan, he pondered how they had reversed their initial poor fortune. They had recaptured the universe’s desire to see them make it out west. In two days they would arrive at the Pacific Ocean. They would call their parents, let them know they were okay, and start their new life. He took one final drag, blew the smoke up into the ceiling fan, stubbed out his cigarette, and fell asleep cuddling Maureen.
The next morning they enjoyed a proper breakfast at the local coffee shop. Again, they mentioned in passing that they were Las Cruces-bound. Billy ordered scrambled eggs with sausage and Maureen asked for a short stack of blueberry pancakes. They held hands and lingered over a pot of coffee.
“Homestretch,” Billy said as they got in the Dart.
“Homestretch,” Maureen echoed.
“Let’s hit one more east of here, and then head back to Denver.”
“Let’s hit one more.”
“You’re kidding, right? We’re good. We have all the money we need. Let’s head to Denver and get on I-Seventy for California.”
“Right now, we’re back where we started. We’ve tied things up. Let’s bring in one more run and win this thing.”
“You’re pushing our luck.”
“I know, but it’s worth it. We’ll be set. One more score and we’re ahead of the game.”
“I really don’t like this.”
“Hey, just like ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ remember? Are you my Bonnie?”
Again, Maureen gave the idea a long pause’s worth of consideration.
“Okay, Clyde, one last gas station — but then that’s it. You have to promise. Remember why we’re doing this.”
“I promise. One more job and then we’re on our way to California. I’ll even ditch the gun and the plates so that we can’t do it again, even if we wanted to.”
Mauree cozied up against him and switched on the radio. They listened to a pop music station for as long as the signal held.
They set out northeast on Highway Ten toward La Junta, Colorado. They idea was try and hit a gas station somewhere near Timpas, then rush north to Highway Fifty and take that back west to Pueblo, where they could either travel north to Colorado Springs and then to Denver where they would head west on Interstate Seventy over the Rockies, or take a less traveled route, such as Highway Nine, which would get them to Breckenridge and then Interstate Seventy. Either way, they’d be on their way to California with their worries behind them.
About ten miles before Timpas, they pulled over to prepare for their final heist. Then they stopped at the Gas-her-Up just outside of town. Billy filled up, strolled up to the station with the twenty-gauge against his leg, and went inside.
“Just topped it off,” he announced nonchalantly. “It was six bucks and twenty-three cents.”
“Alirght,” the lanky attendant working the register said, and started ringing up the sale. Billy looked him over. The man appeared to be in his early sixties and wore wireframe spectacles and a blue baseball cap with Colorado’s state flag printed on it. He kept his shirt neatly tucked into a pair of Wranglers and his stitched-on nametag read Bill, which made Billy smirk. What were the odds?
Billy lifted up the shotgun, and said, “I’m going to need what you have in that register.”
“Sure thing, mister. I don’t want any trouble,” the attendant said, and pushed the button to open up the cash drawer.
“Neither do I,” Billy said. “Now just step back with your hands up.”
As before, Billy grabbed the cash while keeping the man covered. As he backed toward the door, he said, “Sorry to ruin your day.”
Just then he heard Maureen honk the horn on the Dart. He spun around and pushed the door open and sprinted out to the Dart to see what was the matter. Strangely, as Billy ran to the car, someone beaned him with a fastball in the hip. Confused, he kept running, but getting clipped with a hardball made the going difficult. He was stumbling a little. Who the hell was throwing baseballs, and why?
As he ran he started hearing loud noises and another fastball hit him in the shoulder. The impact made him drop his shotgun and spin to the right, but the whole movement took forever — things were happening slowly and in hyper-focus, like during an important play. As he spun, he saw two state troopers standing in front of a squad car, with its blue-and-red strobe lights rotating in slow-motion. They were holding pistols in both hands, just like on TV cop shows, and their mouths were opening and closing and their faces contorted as though they were yelling something, but the only thing that Billy could hear was the throbbing and rushing of blood in his ears.
Billy righted himself and kept running for the Dart, leaving the twenty-gauge behind. He could see Maureen’s face through the window. She looked worried and was yelling something urgent as she reached across to unlatch his door. He kept running for the Dart. He kept running for her.
The dash reminded Billy of his last run of the season. His teammate Ed Carver, their best batter, cracked a missile into right field, and Billy exploded from his perch on third base. He tore his way to home plate and notched the winning run for the team before the ball had traveled even half the distance from the right fielder. The catcher shook his head in chagrin as the umpire waved Billy safe.
Billy didn’t even stop as his teammates were pouring out of the dugout to congratulate him. He could see Maureen running down the stands to make her way onto the field, and he ran toward her like he was now rushing toward her in the Dart. Her rushing to him. Him rushing to her. Her rushing to him. Him rushing to her. Together. Rushing. Embracing. Forever.
Author’s note: Thanks for reading this story! If you liked it, the biggest compliments you can pay me are to leave a comment and to share it with your friends.