"Lord have mercy, it's a hitchhiker!" Homer gasped as he gaped out the bedroom window of his brand new 1969 Fleetwood motor home nestled deep in the Oregon piney woods. "And it's a girl!" Homer jerked upright on his satin red sheets and shook the sleep from his eyes. "A hitchhiker girl! And a big one, too. Right in this here roadside park!" He stared at the figure crouched on a duffel bag by the highway. "Why, Dorothy Elizabeth would just die."
Homer pushed off the red blanket, exposing his lime-green pajamas, and slipped on his blue robe against the chilly fall morning. He jumped up to jiggle the kitchen door bolt-- ah, fastened tight -- and yanked apart the curtains for a wider view. The round figure sat, plump as a plum, by the highway. "What's a girl doing alone out here in these woods?" He let the curtains drop. "Maybe she'd want some breakfast." He shook his head. "Nah," he muttered. "Can't be too careful." He opened the curtains again. "But heck, it's just a girl."
Homer slid on his orange plaid polyester pants, lemon shirt, and honey-brown shoes, combed down his tufts of cotton-white hair, and grabbed the kitchen door handle. His hand froze on the knob. He clicked his tongue: tsk-tsk-tsk. "What would Dorothy Elizabeth say?"
Homer'd never seen a hitchhiker up close. They simply didn't pass through his home town of Hollow, Oklahoma. Back in June, after giving his departed wife a proper burial (her heart got her), he'd locked up his little yellow house on the edge of Hollow and headed west. Free as a cowboy. He'd had enough of the bolted brown shutters, the tight trim fence, the prickly close-cropped lawn.
He remembered that magical morning a few months back, how he'd kicked open the front gate and marched on through like he owned the heavens. How he'd started the ignition of his shiny, new RV and watched the little house fade in the rear view mirror as he turned toward Route 169. He'd vowed to leave the flat land behind, embrace the mountains, the peaks. Maybe even chat with a stranger or two.
But a hitchhiker? Well, that might be taking it too far, though he didn't mind gawking from a distance. In July, he'd spotted three of them along the road in the Colorado Rockies, then two more in Idaho in August. He'd craned his spindly neck to get an eyeful as he whizzed past them at 45 mph. Ha, he thought, there's nothing to be scared of, even for an old man like me... unless, of course, the engine conks out. "Not likely," he'd said aloud as he watched the strangers disappear in the rearview mirrors. "Not in my brand new Fleetwood, complete with full kitchen, shower, spacious bedroom nook with cherry red pillows and satin sheets."
But now that he was safely hidden away in the woods, there one was -- a hitchhiker -- not 50 feet away. And a girl! In a jumbo-size red coat.
"Aw, a girl wouldn't do no harm."
Homer puffed up his scanty frame as best he could, turned to the door, and bravely opened it a crack. After sucking in the sticky scent of conifers, he descended the aluminum steps and crunched his way down the gravel drive to the highway.
"Mornin'," he ventured. The hitchhiker rose and spun around like a towering maypole, swinging a mass of shady-orange hair and side braids woven with beads of turquoise, copper, and bone. Silver hawk feathers hung down from her hair and bobbed along her pudgy, weather-beaten face. She stared down at him with small, gray ferret eyes.
"I... uh... thought I'd just come out here and... uh... say hello." He fidgeted with his lemon sleeve. "Besides, I ain't never seen a hitchhiker before . . . up close, that is. No offense, or nothing." He looked at his hands, then back up at that round face. "I was just fixin' to cook me up some eggs. When I saw you was a girl, I thought, well, heck, she's probably hungry for some breakfast. Besides," he added, glancing at his honey-shoes, "I don't mind the company."
The girl shrugged, snatched her duffel bag and walked toward breakfast with Homer trailing behind. She stomped up the steps, tossed her bag on the floor, and squeezed her substantial body between the table and the built-in navy-plaid bench at the kitchen table. Homer rolled up his sleeves, lit the stove and laid out six strips of bacon in a frying pan.
"You got a name?" he asked, then chuckled. "Of course. Everybody's got a name."
"Rainbow," she said, her voice raspy as gravel under a truck tire.
"Rainbow? Hmmm. Now that's a name. I ain't never heard a name like 'Rainbow.' Dorothy Elizabeth would think that's a mighty odd name. But I kinda like it." He popped two slices of white bread in the toaster. "Say, how'd you get that name 'Rainbow'?"
"It's a secret." She jerked a paper napkin from the stack on the table.
"I can keep a secret." Homer glanced at her and smiled.
"It's going to cost you. And plenty." She tore the napkin into little pieces.
"There's ketchup for the eggs. And Coke." Homer turned up the flame under the pan.
"Well... okay, deal!" She leaned forward. The bench squeaked. "Ever hear of the Stone Freedom Festival?"
"The What Freedom Festival?"
"Stone! You know, like rock, like rocking out, like stoned!"
"Stones? Like gravel?"
"Yeah. Right up the road near Paisley." Her gray eyes took on a sparkle. This Great Stone sits all alone in a field, like a Buddha." Her arms stretched around an imaginary rock; the bench creaked and swayed. "It's so cool. Like God just dropped it there. Or a goddess, you know."
Homer flipped the bacon with a fork and turned to stare at her.
"It's got, like, this energy, this Spirit." She clapped her hands together and slammed them on the table. Homer jumped. "As soon as the sun was settin' low," she said, "all these brothers and sisters, like, at least a hundred of 'em, stripped down naked as bare-assed babes, and called out to The Great Stone to give me a Spirit name. Everyone shouted 'Rainbow,' and circled and twirled around that Stone, twisting and whipping their arms and reaching out. Like this!"
She pried herself loose from the bench, jumped up, and spread her arms high, scraping her knuckles on the ceiling.
"Hey!" She yanked her coat open. "That's where I got this cool shirt." Homer got a glimpse of a black T-shirt, low-cut and heavy with flesh. Green, purple and gold letters -- THE GRATEFUL DEAD -- swirled around a grinning skull with rose-petal hair. She lifted her mouth and howled, "Rainboooow!!!," jumped up again, and thrashed her arms about. Her grand cleavage widened, her bulky bosoms drooping and trembling like a pair of piglets. Homer turned quickly to fetch the plates.
"Cool, huh?" she said. "So, after they shouted 'Rainbow,' we leaped and stomped our feet, and the meadow moved! It shook! It trembled!" She stamped her boots. The floor, the walls and the stove shuddered and swayed like a land tremor. Homer held tight to the counter. "I swear," she went on, "it was like all the gods were in the ground, talking to us! Talking to me! It was like, wow." She rolled her eyes. "Then they swarmed me and tried to kiss me all at once. All hundred of 'em!"
Homer gripped and grasped his way back to the stove, regaining his land legs. He fixed his eyes on the bacon as it sizzled and spit. "Er... you got a hundred brothers and sisters?" he asked, staring into the pan.
"Yeah, like, everybody's my brother and sister, you know. The whole universe. And even, like, the snakes. Even the buzzards. You know what I mean?"
Homer shook his head. He laid the bacon on a plate and set it on the table.
"Maybe I'll get a new name this year." Rainbow reached for the bacon and stuffed it into her mouth. "That's where I'm headed now, the Stone Freedom Festival -- heaven! That is, if I ever get to Paisley," she said, her lips smacking. "Man, what a dead stretch of road. I been here for days. The Big Circle starts at the full moon. On Friday, I think. Yeah, on Friday."
Rainbow paced across the little kitchen, stomping her boots. "Wait a minute." She parked her thick arms akimbo on her red coat. "Tomorrow's Friday, ain't it?" She shook her head and muttered. "Damn!" She looked at Homer. "Say, you ain't got nothing to do. Why don't you drive me?"
"Oh, I don't know." He cracked four eggs and scrambled them into the bacon grease with a wooden spoon. "I ain't never picked up a hitchhiker before. Dorothy Elizabeth would just die."
"Who's that?" Rainbow wedged herself back onto the bench.
"That's my wife, bless her soul. Buried her six months ago." He set the toast, butter and jam on the table. "That's why I got me this home-on-wheels." He crossed his arms and grinned. "Put my memories behind me."
"So what's your name?" Rainbow piled wads of butter and strawberry jam on the toast and shoved it into her mouth.
"That's a funny name," she said, mauling the toast. "Like a man heading home."
"Not me. I'm leaving home. Done it twice." He turned to the stove and stirred the eggs. "First, left the farm when I married. Dorothy Elizabeth didn't care much for pigs." He scooped the eggs onto a plate. "She picked out a little house in town for us. Wasn't long before I got to fidgeting like a hog in a harness. Itching to leave, get out, see the world. But Dorothy Elizabeth wouldn't have it." Homer set the eggs and bacon on the table and pulled a bottle of ketchup from the fridge. "'The world's full of the devil,' she used to say." He glanced at Rainbow and smiled. "Been on the road three months now, and I ain't met the devil yet."
Rainbow grinned. "So you just took off, huh? Like me?" She poured a flood of ketchup onto her eggs. "First time I ran away, was just a kid, maybe ten. Then I up and ran off again when I was 12."
"You know how old I am?" Homer asked, standing up tall. "Go ahead. Guess. And I ain't even bald."
"I don't know." Rainbow spooned up the scrambled eggs, and chewed and smacked. "Old. Like, really old. Like maybe more than 50."
"I am 92 years old," he answered proudly as he cracked three more eggs. Rainbow gulped and coughed, spewing bits of egg across the table.
"Wow. That's really old." She sucked egg off her sizeable lip. "That's older than my old man. And he was old! Don't know much about him, though. Ain't seen him since I was a kid. They threw him in the slammer in Huntsville for beating up on my mom and my brothers and me. That was the first time. Then they nabbed him again for armed robbery. Except he wasn't 'armed' -- he forgot the gun! Ha ha. Got ten years extra for being stupid." She devoured the last bit of egg, licked her fingers, and looked around.
"Hey. You know, you got a nice place here." She unwedged herself from the table, slipped into the bedroom nook, and hoisted herself onto the compact bed, slapping the red blanket and pillows. "You ever ball your old lady here?"
"What's that?" Homer turned from the stove and continued stirring the eggs with one hand.
"Ball! You know, screw!" Homer's arm jerked back. His elbow smacked the table. The stirring spoon flipped and freckled his arm with hot grease. He wrenched forward, slammed his head on the cabinet, and slid to the floor, gasping, his arms writhing like a downed propeller. Homer lay slumped against the stove, quivering. His eyelids fluttered. His mouth gaped.
Rainbow peered at him from the bed. "Hey!" She walked over to him. "Hey!" She nudged him with her size-12 hiking boot. No response. She shut off the stove and squatted, slid his head onto her lap, slapped him twice, and shook his head till his dentures shifted loose. "Damn. Now I'll never get to Paisley."
Homer took a profound breath. As if dreaming, he shuddered once, then twice. Rainbow gathered his arms and pulled him to standing. In a daze, he reached out his arms and wrapped them around her thick neck. They staggered together to the bed. She folded back the red blanket and laid him out on the satin sheets.
"You're going to be okay, Homer, my man," she said. He let out a hacking cough and shivered. Rainbow sat on the edge of the mattress and loosened his shirt, slid off his honey-shoes, then pulled the blanket up, tucked him in tight, and furnished his forehead with a wet, gummy kiss.
Homer opened one eye a crack. "You're not at all like Dorothy Elizabeth," he mumbled. He reached for her neck, squeezing himself up close, lost in the bulky folds of her cranberry coat. She engulfed him in her arms and pressed her lips against his thin sliver of mouth with a loud smack. Then she stood and lifted her duffle bag.
"Hey, where you going?" Homer asked. But with a clomp-clomp-clomp, she was out the door. "Hey," he yelled out the bedroom window. "You're going to want some lunch."
The mid-morning sun was stealing over the pines. Homer slept. His eyelids quivered. He found himself floating across the portal of a boyhood dream he'd had at age eleven, maybe twelve. In the dream, he lay as a naked infant in a barren field. His tiny arms waved as a mule team passed. His father passed too, sweating and moaning, and breaking up sod. His mother drifted by in a ghost-walk, and the cows and the pigs followed behind. He wanted to scream -- I'm here! -- but he heard no sound, just the whirr of dust in a funnel that filled his baby mouth.
Homer-the-boy had awakened to the smell of dust and the taste of grit. He'd lain in bed and watched his mother's stiffened back as she folded graying sheets and stacked them into a cracked wooden chest. On that dark morning, a terrible truth had come crashing in on him like thunder, like lightning, like a crushing wind -- LIFE IS HARD. Awful hard. And that was that. Homer-the-boy had crawled out of bed in a choking silence to begin his chores in the chilly barn.
Now, Homer-the-man lay napping on his deluxe red bed, his eyes rolling in a dazzling dream of cream puffs and honey and cake, when The Big Truth kicked him swiftly like a vengeful mule. "Owww!" He jerked awake and bolted upright in bed. "Dang!" He fingered his head-knot and his arm burns. Homer felt grit on his tongue and teeth. He yanked a tissue from his bedside box and spit -- pitewy.
But then he grinned, for this bigger, sweeter truth had landed with a thud, like Santa crashing down the chimney -- LIFE AIN'T HARD! Finally, he knew what he wanted, what he'd been robbed of his whole life. And now he just might get it.
He wanted sandwiches in bed, with thick slabs of Velveeta cheese and shovels of mayonnaise. And someone to bring them. And maybe more. He wanted chocolate cake, and milk. With cream. He longed for someone to tie his laces and fasten his lime pajamas. He wanted... a mother... a sweetheart... a wife.
He didn't want his mother. Or his wife. He wanted a mother that didn't get cranky, or crack the switch on his leg when she was tired or disappointed, or stare past him when he babbled and beamed. A wife that would bring him warm pea soup with ham, and rub his tired shoulders. A sweetheart who would nestle him, laugh and coo, and kiss his neck, for no reason at all.
Homer leaned to the window and peered at Rainbow perched in her ruby coat like a great strawberry. "Rainbow," he hollered. "Hey!" Rainbow sat by the highway as still as a drowsy heifer. "Life ain't hard," he announced. "Mother was wrong. Dorothy Elizabeth was wrong. Life is easy. Why look!" With his arm he drew a wide, elegant arc, remembering the big-city salesman in Tulsa. "Just gaze at this new Fleetwood, complete with full kitchen, shower, spacious bedroom nook." He looked at Rainbow. "It's easy!" he shouted at the strawberry-lump. "Isn't it, Rainbow? Isn't it?" He waited. "Rainbow!" She didn't move.
A rickety black pickup chugged along the highway, its gears grinding, and slowed to a crawl. Rainbow jumped up and grabbed for her bag. "Wait!" Homer yelled. "Don't go!" A farmer in faded overalls got a lingering look at Rainbow as he drove by. Rainbow ran for the truck. "Rainbow, wait!" Homer shouted. The pickup spun its tires and disappeared down the highway. She hurled her duffel bag to the gravel and collapsed on it, her hair and feathers flying in the draft.
Homer sank back with a relieved sigh. He chuckled. "Never in my life," he exclaimed, "have I seen such a girl." Not that he knew much about girls. He remembered how, as a youth, he'd gazed sweetly at Gladis and Ella, the red-haired sisters of his friend Jack, but only from a distance. Back then, girls came chaperoned.
Then one day -- ah, Dorothy Elizabeth -- his life spun around like a top. At the church picnic, Homer's friend Blake had said, "Come meet my cousin," and hauled him through the crowd while he resisted like a sow to slaughter. But then he saw her, and all the chatter of the picnic faded -- that slim figure, shiny auburn hair and sharp gray eyes, that lovely scent of lavender, and her voice like clover honey. Oh, how he'd stammered, and yet she smiled!
How sweet, that courting and sparking time, when the air smelled of apples and vanilla, and everywhere the colors of spring blossomed -- crimson and purples and apricot. As summer turned to fall, she let him stroke her delicate white hands. Oh, how he'd longed to run his fingers along her fragrant neck, down her slender back, and then... uh... well, he could only imagine, not being fully versed in these things. But heaven and angels hovered near. He knew it. Time would bring all pleasures.
What time did bring was Dorothy Elizabeth's rules. Homer learned the rules on their wedding night, that summer in 1907, at the country inn at Oologah Lake. His 18-year-old bride had emerged from the bathroom in a white flannel nightgown buttoned to the neck. She'd kneeled at the bedside, mumbled a prayer, and slipped quietly into bed. After dimming the lamp, he'd pressed his body against hers. His fingers fumbled amidst a mass of clothing. His head sweat. His heart raced. That's when it struck him: no one had ever explained. What was he supposed to do with his hands?
Eventually, when he got at least a part of it right -- bingo -- she fulfilled her duty like a dead thing in the darkened room, her nightgown, a fortress around her chest. Afterwards, she'd turned away and sobbed. "What's wrong?" Homer asked, feeling his own tears well up -- tears of tenderness, and disappointment. She tried to mouth the words, but they emerged only as: "My father... My... No... no...," and finally, she shook her head with a violent twist and turned away. Over the years, she continued to submit on occasion, her nightgown a citadel. She never cried again. She never answered his pleas. And she never, ever, wavered from Rule Number One: Hands are for keeping to yourself.
"Rule Number Two," Homer stated emphatically as he fluffed up his red pillows in the bedroom nook of his brand new Fleetwood. "Life is not hard! I will show you, Dorothy Elizabeth. I will show you, Mother. Do you hear me?" He shook his fist. "I will have sandwiches in bed. With mayonnaise. And cake. And milk too. And someone to bring them! Life is not hard, darn it! Darn it!" he howled to no one.
Then, out the window, he yelled, "Rainbow!"
Rainbow sat swinging her arms, batting at bugs. Homer slumped back, nestled into the bed, and sighed. "Life is not hard!" he shouted to the air. "You will see!"
The next time Homer peeked past the curtains, heat waves shimmered off the blacktop under a towering sun. Rainbow sat still in her strawberry pose.
"Yoo hoo," Homer called. "Rainbow." He waited. "Raaaaain... booooooow. Life is not hard!" She cocked her head. "And," he yelled, "you're probably hungry for some lunch."
Homer heard metal doors bang in the distance. An engine throttled up. The crunch of gravel under tires sounded up the drive and came closer. A blue and white Silvercrest motor home edged into Homer's view as it crept toward the park exit. Rainbow stood up and presented her thumb.
"Rainbooooow," Homer called again. "Wait!"
The Silvercrest reached the highway. A blonde in the passenger seat spotted Rainbow, hit the door bolt, and rolled up her window. A boy in the back mashed his fleshy face against a side window, slid it open, and hurled a soda can at Rainbow. The Silvercrest gunned out onto the road, shooting a spray of pebbles. Rainbow shielded her face in the crook of her arm. She snapped up her duffel bag, stomped back to Homer's place and clomped up the steps.
"Come in, Little Red Riding Hood," Homer growled, showing his best wolf teeth, as he eyed her from the pillow. She chucked her bag and approached the bed.
"So where's the lunch?" she demanded.
"I can't make lunch. My head hurts."
Rainbow yanked open the fridge and laid out baloney, mustard and mayonnaise, slapped it together, and gobbled it down with a Coke. She stood chewing, her ferret eyes fixed on nothing.
"What?" She focused on him as if for the first time.
"I'd like a glass of milk, please." Rainbow seized a carton of whole milk from the fridge, slopped some into a glass and handed it to him on the bed. He sipped at it and set it down. "Now, could you please rub my back?"
"Hey, you taking me to Paisley?"
"Oh, maybe." Homer shrugged.
Rainbow swigged the last of the Coke, then yanked down the blanket, twisted him around, and gripped his shoulders, kneading and pulling. "Ooooh," he moaned.
"Did your wife ever do this?"
"Oh, no. She'd never approve."
"You're kidding." She kneaded his neck, his head, his ears. "Or this?"
"Nope. Never. Not once."
"Wow." She reached down and kissed his neck, her beads and feathers wispy on his back. "This?"
"No," he muttered, his voice a little thin.
"Are you going to take me to Paisley?"
Rainbow heaved her legs onto the bed and squeezed herself under the blanket by his side "Did she do this?" She blew hot breath into his ear.
"No," he whispered. She rolled him over again, wrapping her arms around him like a bear, squeezed him tighter and reached under his lemon shirt, twiddling her fingers along his peach-fuzzy chest.
"Or this?" She propped her body up and towered over him.
"N... no," he mumbled under a migrating blob of breast-laden T-shirt. "D... Dorothy Elizabeth would never approve--"
"BUT DOROTHY ELIZABETH AIN'T HERE!"
"I know, but... but... oh, heck... heck! I've got to tell you something." He bolted upright. "I'm going to say it. Are you ready to hear something terrible?"
"Whatever." She sat up and leaned back.
"Here I am, six weeks after the funeral -- six weeks! I'm sitting all alone at home. Suddenly, I'm running through the house, like a mad man." His eyes teared up. "Laughing! Yes, you heard me. Laughing!" He clutched the blanket. "Oh sure, I done my crying, too. Days and nights of it! Remembering that vanilla time -- the courtin' and sparkin'. And all those nights, laying in my little bed, listening to her -- those whispered prayers, the soft breathing in her little bed just four feet away, and me wonderin' and wonderin'."
He grabbed Rainbow's arm and shook it. "But LISTEN! Now, here I am, running through her kitchen and her laundry room and down the hall. Throwing up my hands to God. Thankin' Him! Thankin' Him, I tell you!"
"Cool." Rainbow grinned.
"It's lucky the drapes were closed." He coughed and sputtered. "I ain't never told this, not to nobody, Rainbow. Never. Nobody knows but you and me. And God. But that ain't the worst of it. She... she... knows!" He wiped his cheeks. "She watches me."
With a final belch, Homer's face collapsed onto Rainbow's cleavage, his tears running down her rift. He lifted his head. "Every time I whiz past a state line, I think I'm free. But she chased me up and down the Rocky Mountains. She turned into a waitress at the Idaho Grill. She tracked me across the Wallowa Woods. I want to be free. Free!"
"You are free, Homer, my man. You are free." Rainbow wrapped him in her cranberry coat and squeezed. He pressed himself hard against her softness and sobbed, engulfed in her arms and legs. Her skin tasted of sweat and candy.
Rainbow laughed and shouted up to the ceiling, "Hey! Fuck you, Dorothy Elizabeth!"
Homer's face surfaced from the sea of skin. "It's strange... I feel free." He sniffled. "'Cause now I know. They lied!" He wiped his wet cheeks on his sleeve. "It's a terrible thing to say, 'cause lying's a sin. But they lied! LIFE AIN'T HARD!" He buried his face again.
"That's right, Homer, my man," she said, gripping him close. "Life ain't hard." She lifted his slender hand, opened his pale fingers, and ran her tongue between them, then licked his palm, and sucked on his thumb till it disappeared into her generous mouth. Homer gasped. Rainbow straddled his orange plaid polyester legs, swinging her hair and feathers to the right, to the left. "Yea," she yelled. "Hooray!" As she shimmied forward, her hog-size breasts slipped free from that rose-skull T-shirt, dancing and dangling over Homer's wide eyes. They jiggled in a slow descent till they came to rest on that tender face like a mother's caress.
"Milk in bed," Homer whispered from beneath the freckled flesh. "With cream. And mayonnaise. Cheese. And cake too. Life... is... easy."
Rainbow yanked opened his lemon shirt, licked his tummy, and tickled him with her frizzy orange hair, her braids of turquoise, copper, and bone, and her silver hawk feathers, dragging the whole concoction up his chest and down to his navel, and back again.
Homer clutched at his shirt. He shuddered and sighed. His legs went rigid. His back arched and released. Then his head slumped to one side, his fragile arms flopped to a stretched-way-out position in a peaceful, reaching pose. A bit of grayish tongue parted Homer's thin, pale lips -- fixed into an eternal half-smile.
Rainbow glanced at Homer's ashen face.
"Say, you taking me to Paisley, or what?" Homer didn't answer. "Or what?" she yelled. She got up on hands and knees and stared down into his face, as her breasts swayed over his gaping eyes. "Homer?" Rainbow poked at his sagging cheek. "Hey!" She fingered his tongue. She tugged at his hair. "Homer..." She jiggled his chest, shook it hard, and waited.
Rainbow squeezed herself down along his thin frame, wrapped her arms around his torso and kissed his limp, pasty face. "You're going to be okay, Homer, my man. You're going to be okay." She sat up on the edge of the bed, dragged him onto her lap, and rocked and rocked him. "Yes, yes," she said, swaying to and fro. "You're right, Homer, you're right. Life ain't hard."
Rainbow laid Homer back on his satin pillows, pulled up his candy-red blanket, and tucked him in tight and cozy. "Hmmm," she muttered, then rummaged in his pockets for his keys and planted one last slippery kiss on his pasty face. She slid off the bed, clomped through the kitchen, wedged herself into the driver's seat, and gunned it onto the highway, heading for Paisley.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Casey Robb. All rights reserved.