PRINCESS XANAX AND THE RIDE TO KALISPELL
(From A Phobia of Walls)
By Don Kenton Henry
Chapter I – II
“Throw your leg over, Princess Xanax and get on this steel horse behind me. I promise by the time we hit the Bitterroot Range–three days from here–you’ll throw all those pills–in that thing you call a purse–in the Flathead River and never look back. Let the trout get high. You’re through swimmin’ upstream. This bike, those mountains and I – are what you been lookin’for. And we’re pawnin’ that purse before we get to Kalispell. From there we’ll drop down the Beartooth highway into Wyoming and I’ll show you the Grand Tetons. … And they can get a gander at yours. Now saddle up.”
“You certainly have a way with words, Buck. How could any woman resist an offer like that! Just sweep me off my feet and right out of that diner where you met me just three days ago. You want me to give up that dream job waiting tables and pouring Joe for every trucker, biker, loner and family seeing the USA in their Chevrolet on the cheap? And–on top of that– you promise to get me off the only thing that keeps me from going back to that rat hole apartment in that piss ant town and crying myself to sleep every night dwelling on all the other broken promises and dreams that can be made to girl.
“My promise hasn’t been broken,” I said, looking up from checking the oil level on my bike.
“Not yet, anyway. Why do I deserve the honor of such an offer. And please, don’t tell me it’s because of my big tits!
My mouth twisted into that little smirk and my eyes gave off that glint I know they do every time I know I’ve been caught at something and I said, “Well those didn’t hurt your chances any but it may also have had something to do with that red hair and the way those emerald eyes of yours flashed when I told you about standing in June snow at 14,000 feet–the highest point on the Great Divide–wearing nothing but a sleeveless T shirt, the sun over the Rockies shining down like it was on you alone, knowing not a soul other than your own knows where you are. Knowing you left no forwarding address so not even the IRS or your own mother can find you if you don’t want them to.”
“Unless you get in trouble with the law. Are you wanted for anything?” she asked. She looked me square in the eye as she waited for the answer.
“I don’t have any outstanding warrants. What about you?”
“No convictions other than moving violations,” she said with a wink.
“Just what were you moving?… No–you don’t have to answer that!”
“You know my real name but I don’t even know yours. Don’t you think a girl should know a guy’s name before she quits her job and goes riding off trusting her life to him?”
“Well, it was hard to miss ‘Clare’ since it’s right there on that badge pinned just over your left breast. Clare’s an old name you don’t hear often anymore.”
‘It’s Irish, you know. I’m named after my grandmother who came straight from County Cork. Now what is your real name for I only know your friends call you, Buck?”
“Preston. And I am named for my grandfather Henry who was also Irish.”
“Aye! And let me guess–was he from the County Cork?”
“Sorry, he was not. But he popped a lot of them you can be sure!
So now that we have proper introductions aside, Clare, just park that sweet thing on the back of this bike before I give you a non-moving violation. Let’s blow this state. We can be to Cincinnati by nightfall. Tomorrow night we’ll be camping in the dells just east of La Crosse.”
“Camping! You mean you can’t even spring for a motel? I thought you said I was through swimming upstream. What are we going to sleep in?”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t spring for anything. But there’s a pup tent in that bedroll, baby, along with a sleeping bag and my shaving kit. And before I go parting with our seed money, you’re going to sleep some nights under the stars and get your head as clear as the night sky that holds ’em there. The two of us are going to squeeze into that sleeping bag until you feel things–free of all those chemical that have numbed that beautiful body of yours for so long–so intensely that you’re going to think it’s your first time. So, unless you’re ready to sell that fancy bag of yours today, we’ll be saving the nights at the Motel 6–or better digs to come–for special occasions.”
“Special occasions! You mean like when I need a shower? Besides, this purse is a knock-off and won’t fetch much anyway. And it’s the only thing I have to put the few things in I’m taking with me.” Her face dropped as she finished these last words. It was a sad face and seemed to bear the look of someone ashamed and humbled at having to admit this is all she had to show for thirty-five years.
I put my index finger under her chin and gently pulled it up until those beautiful green eyes met my own and said, “Hell, I knew it wasn’t an original when I stole you from this Waffle House. But you are! And that’s what counts. You’re the only waitress I’ve ever talked to who could recite every line of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and most of Kipling to boot. But when you outlined the equation used to solve a puzzle Archimedes’s wrote an entire treatise on in 250bc–that wasn’t solved until a few years ago–you had me. I knew you were a special girl and if life hadn’t dealt you a bad hand a few times along the way there was no way you’d been serving cheese grits to truckers.”
“I didn’t solve that mathematical conundrum. I just memorized the solution.”
I laughed and said, “Well–that was a five napkin solution!”
She smiled big then and told me, “That’s what three years of being a math major with a minor in lit at Kent State before dropping out will get you. And–if you’re not going to make me go into the messy details in order to take this ride with you, let me say I had a hand in some of those bad hands life has dealt me and let’s leave it at that for now.”
I smiled back as I climbed on the bike and said, “Let the wine blush and keep a straight face, baby. We all gotta past and you ain’t heard mine yet either.”
“What the hell! To tell the truth, you’re easy on the eyes too, Buck. And pretty charming at that. So – if you’re willing to take a chance on me, I think I’ll just take a chance on you. I don’t have to hear your details either. So let’s make a wild charge, flash our sabers bare, break through the line and make for the Valley of the Bitterroot or wherever it was you suggested my dreams would come true!”
With that, she grabbed the hem of that waitress dress right in the middle, hiked it up to that beautiful red bird’s nest and threw one of those long, athletic legs of her over the rear fender seat of my ’68 Shovelhead, hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of my jeans and we punched it into the western sun.
We left Portsmouth in the wake of my rumbling pipes and rolled into the hills and hollows of southern Ohio. We rode dead even with a Chessie train engine for a mile or two and the engineer never took his eyes off us. His big forearm rested on the sill of his cab window until our paths reached a fork. As his engine was about to curve and disappear into a valley I saluted him. He was still close enough I could see a broad smile spread across his face and he gave me a thumbs up. I don’t know exactly what she did but I felt Clare fiddling around behind me with her wardrobe and that engineer damn near broke his neck looking back then sounded a long, loud blast on that engine’s horn and disappeared into a dark chasm of hard wood and was gone.
True to my word, we were 30 klicks east of Cincinnati when that orange ball in the sky was settling down in a little niche in the Ohio River. It beckoned me to drop gears and pull in along a stretch of Sycamore trees that lined the river. I parked the bike on a smooth bit of grass, found a flat piece of rock from a campfire pit and put it under the kick stand for support.
It was still early spring and that meant it would be a cold night–maybe down into the forties–certainly the fifties–so I tossed Clare my leather bomber jacket my Uncle had worn in WWII. Then I gathered some wood for a fire and put it in the pit. I always carried a flint and steel for emergencies, but that night I just used a couple of Diamond Strike On Box wooden matches and before long we had a raging fire. Clare threw my army blanket around her and sat on a log as I spread our bedroll a few feet from the fire pit. If the ground had been wet, a sheet of plastic I kept everything wrapped in would have gone down first but it was not. So I spread a Mexican blanket on the ground, unzipped my sleeping bag and put the bag on top. With that I went to fetch some more wood I knew would be needed throughout the night. When I returned with an armful Clare said, “So what is on the menu for tonight, Buck?”
“For you, Princess, it’s the House Special,” I said as I placed the firewood next to our bedroll and reached for my knapsack.
“And what’s this off the menu item, Chef?”
“Sardines. Sardines in olive oil,” I said as I smiled and produced two cans. One for you. One for me. And here’s a canteen of water to wash them down with.”
“Sardines! Sardines! You mean those dead little slimy fish that smell like cat food! You don’t really expect me to eat those do you!”
“They’re almost pure protein, Clare! You can’t find more protein in one little perfect package you can eat straight out of. Just pry that little key right off the top, hook it under the flap at the end of the can, roll that lid right up and here–here’s a plastic fork to indulge with. Go on now! They’ll make your hair shine like an Irish Setter at Westminster!”
“There you go with all that romantic talk again! . . . But I am so starved! I can’t believe you are going to make me eat this!”
“I am not making you eat anything, Clare. I’m just saying, if you want to eat, this is what we have on the menu. You have to remember that, before today, I was riding solo. I didn’t have to impress anyone with any gourmet cuisine. But since you’re so picky, I promise that I’ll buy you a big breakfast in the morning then we’ll find a Piggly Wiggly and stock up on all the caviar and croissants our chuck wagon will hold for the next few days of our trail ride.”
“Well . . . ok,” she said delicately spearing one of the little fish with her plastic ware while crinkling her nose in obvious disgust. “But don’t expect me to kiss you tonight with your breath smelling like these things!”
“My breath? I’ve got a tooth brush and paste in my kit! Where’s yours? . . . Uh huh! So you be the one sticking to your side of the sleeping bag!”
It could have been awkward for her. By the time she finished the last of her dinner, I had already brushed, rinsed my mouth with canteen water, threw a few more logs on the fire, buttoned on my wool lumber jack shirt, taken off my boots and lain down on one side of the sleeping bag. I pulled the other side over me and was already drifting off. But the cold night air settling in dispensed with any shyness Clare might have felt. She pulled one half the bag off me, spread it, threw the army blanket over our bed and climbed under the blanket with me. Honoring my request she stayed on her side as we both fell asleep under an Ohio full moon.
That lasted until that giant orb had traversed most the distance across the great river and I awakened to find Clare spooning up against my backside and both of us rolled up in that bag as tight as she could get us. I smiled as I shivered and knew tomorrow would call for more shopping then just for food at the Piggly Wiggly.
Dawn broke somewhere over West Virginia carrying sun light that had just left the Chesapeake Bay less than a second earlier and a few later found Clare’s countenance all the way at the end of the Appalachian Highway and a 22 rifle shot across the river from Kentucky. I rested on my elbow and watched it illuminate her face that was like that of a sleeping angel in an Italian fresco. Her skin was like alabaster, pink with the hue of morning light from the warm end of the sun’s spectrum. Like tiny brushes it painted her lips a color the envy of the prettiest rose and lit her hair in shades of red, orange and gold like a prairie fire aflame. Its fingers tickled the lashes of her eyes until they slowly opened and, like curtains on a stage revealed 30 carat emeralds which took my breath away. The curtains blinked and 30 became 50 and she smiled as she lay there, those green eyes gazing up at me. She was the creation of God and Michelangelo’s palette. She was too beautiful to touch.
“Where are we, Buck?” she asked.
“We’re about 18 or twenty miles east of Cincinnati. Look across the river and you’ll see the great Cane-tuck-ee, home of the smoothest bourbon and the fastest thoroughbreds.”
“I thought you were going to add the prettiest women,” she whispered.
“No. I can see that’s not true,” I answered.
She smiled and replied, “Well, you’re getting in smoother, Buck. Maybe you’re just sweeter in the morning–like the sugar d in the coffee I need about now.” She raised up on her hands and turned her head toward that river. We both gazed through the smoke of our dying fire and watched the steam rise off the Ohio as the sun warmed the air above it. “Bourbon and fast horses sound good, but if you don’t get me some eggs soon, Colonel Sanders is all I’m going to care about Kentucky. I’ll leave you for him, Buck–honest I will!
“Ok, ok! Eggs it is Princess. I’m sure there’s a Kettle somewhere between here and the city. Shake any bugs out of that waitress dress, take care of your business while I take care of mine and fold up our bedroll. Then we’ll be off.”
I found a place between a big sycamore and the river and waived my muzzle loader at The Sons of Kentucky and any other ghosts that might be haunting the opposite shore. Take this from the 3rd Regiment of the Indiana Cavalry!” I shouted. I heard Clare giggle and looked over my shoulder to see she hadn’t even bothered to take cover. She was just squatted low in that bluegrass doing her share for ecology. “The fire’s over here!” I said loudly. I heard Clare giggle again. “God, I think I could love this girl . . .” were the words I heard myself whispering.
The sun had heated the leather seats of my motorcycle and Clare pulled herself up more tightly then the day before and wrapped both arms around me and locked her hands. She rested the side of her face against my back as that Harley resumed its quest for the Rockies. But first–to find the girl some breakfast! We hadn’t gone far before we found a Flying J truck stop and pulled into the parking lot. Clare saw her reflection in the glass of the double doors as we entered the station and let out a scream, “Damn, Buck I look like a lot lizard walking in here!”
“Well then, this is my lucky day because I’m with you!” I laughed. “Don’t worry, Clare. I won’t let anyone get away with calling you that! Besides, you can get a shower here. In fact, we both will. We just buy a couple of tickets and they’ll call our number when our shower is ready.”
She took me by the arm and asked “Do they have showers for ladies or it co-ed?”
“See those two butch ladies seated at the counter, one of them wearing a Peterbilt ball cap and the other a Cummins? Do you think they want to shower with a bunch of fellows?”
“So you’re saying I have to shower with them?” she asked incredulously. “Can’t you and I shower together?”
“Clare. We hardly know each other. And you get your own separate stall in the lady’s locker room. So the question is, “Which do you want first? Your breakfast or your shower?”
“Those biscuits and gravy are calling, ‘Clare, Clare . . .’ so let’s sit at the counter,” she said. “I don’t want to wait for a booth.” As we sidled to the counter, I grabbed a ball cap which read, “Country girls take it in the grass!” and tried to put it on her. But she read it and slapped me across the face with it before putting it back and picking up a red Farmall cap which she put on and pulled down over her almost equally red tresses. With the price tag still hanging out the top over her right eye, she started to take a seat on a stool between me and the twin diesels, “Smoky” and the “She Bandit”. But when Smoky winked at her, Clare pulled up short, came around and took the stool on the other side of me.
“You’re sure the showers have separate stalls?” she said looking straight ahead and not at me.
“Good.” she replied.
“But just in case . . . don’t drop your soap.” I dead panned.
A waitress came to take our order and was staring straight at the price tag obscuring Clare’s right eye. “What can I do ya’ for hun’?”
Clare stared right back with her left eye and said, “put the cap on his tab along with my coffee, biscuits, gravy, two eggs over easy and a tall glass of orange juice. Oh yeah–and a side order of cheese grits!”
“Damn, Clare! Do you eat like this all the time!”
“Well, Buck. Do you always put a girl on the rear fender of a motorcycle, make her ride like that for 200 miles then put her to bed on cold, hard ground with nothing to eat but food only fit for a sea gull?”
“Fair enough, Clare. Would you like sausage with those grits?”
“I’ll have some of yours,” she said.
I put purchased tickets for two showers while Clare was finishing a short stack of pancakes. This was 1996. I was forty-two years old and smart phones were yet to be invented. So I got in the Yellow Pages attached to a pay phone and looked for a Woolworth’s where we could buy Clare some necessities. I suppose a K-mart would have done fine but I had a fondness for Woolworth’s since my childhood days of bird hunting with my dad. That’s where we bought all our supplies. Clare would need a coat warm enough for 11,000 feet and something to keep her warm in the lower elevations and miles of prairie on our way to the Great Divide. She was also going to need a pair of jeans, boots that doubled for riding and hiking, a few shirts or blouses, some more delicate items and toiletries. And we would need something to carry all these items in because my saddle bags certainly wouldn’t hold them, nor would the knapsack I kept the majority of my things in and certainly not that thing she called a purse.
Back at the counter, our first number was called and I gave it to Clare. “Here is some money for the soap and shampoo dispenser in the bathroom,” I said and handed her about ten bucks in change.
I sipped some coffee and waited for my number to be called. It finally was after what seemed forever and Clare was coming out of the women’s locker room and as I was making my way to the men’s. She shook those huge shocks of red hair as she exited, oblivious to my presence and looking like a model in those old Clairol commercials. And it was true. “The closer I got . . . the better she looked.” Clare was the Queen of The Flying J. And for the second time that day, she had taken my breath away.