Thirty-one years after Chuck admires the big, blue California spring sky, his son Lonny-Donny looks up at slate-gray winter clouds in Dogbone. California's gotta beat this, thinks Lonny-Donny.
He stands shivering next to his cousin Stanley's van. He's waiting to load his backpack. Stanley is relocating to Vallejo via Los Angeles and asked Lonny-Donny to drive out with him. Stan just got booted from the Air Force.
Lonny-Donny has $200 left over from his Christmas work at the Post Office. His GPA at Wayne State is just high enough to prevent expulsion. Two months past his 19th birthday, Lonny-Donny decides the time is right to visit the place he's known for years would be his future home.
His brother Chuck is working as a gaffer on a low-budget horror movie. Chuck made the mistake of extending an open-ended invitation to Lonny-Donny months ago.
Stanley's van is rigged with a full-size couch and a 40-gallon gas tank. Stan isn't going to let any oil embargo sabotage his travel plans. After he finds a spot in the back of the van for Lonny-Donny's backpack, Stan gets in the driver's seat and shifts the van into first gear.
Lonny-Donny settles into the van's passenger seat and spots the clutch pedal. "Stick," he says flatly.
"You don't drive stick?", Stan asks.
"Yeah, sure," Lonny-Donny lies. A second later, he asks, "How hard can it be?"
"You'll be a pro by Indianapolis," Stan answers and gulps.
Night has fallen by the time they reach Indianapolis. The freeway has dumped them onto surface streets. Lonny-Donny fights with the gearbox. Lonny-Donny's first driving shift started smoothly. But that was before they encountered the stop signs and traffic lights of Indianapolis.
Stan smells the clutch burning as Lonny-Donny attempts to find second gear. The van stalls as it rolls onto tracks at a railroad crossing. Right on cue, the crossing's warning lights come on and the gate starts to drop. Lonny-Donny nearly breaks his thumb as he turns the ignition switch.
"No hurry," Stan says much too calmly as the train's headlight comes into view. "Plenty of time," he says as his hand grabs the door handle.
Stan has the door handle tugged half way when the ignition catches. Lonny-Donny slams the gearshift into first, floors it, pops the clutch. He avoids the crossing gate as it drops into the van's path across the tracks.
Stan says, "See? Driving a stick's a piece of cake."
By the time they reach St. Louis, the sun is coming up and Stan is driving. He reaches into a large paper bag and pulls out a sausage roll. "Breakfast of champions," Stan says as he offers the bag to Lonny-Donny in the passenger seat. Why not?, thinks Lonny-Donny as he takes one.
As they cross the Mississippi River, Lonny-Donny expects to feel something. He doesn't. Long way to go, he thinks as he takes another bite of the sausage roll.
Stan and Lonny-Donny alternate behind the wheel every four to six hours: Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas panhandle -- a sausage roll per state. They're an hour into New Mexico as the sun sets. Stan spots a sign: "Historic Marker: 1/4 Mile."
"This I gotta see," he says as he slows up.
In the twilight, Stan and Lonny-Donny read the world's wordiest historical marker about a frontiersman neither of them has ever heard of. By the time they reach the end of the roadside history lesson, it's so dark they can barely make out the bottom lines of the florid text.
Stan stomps back to the van, feigning disappointment. Lonny-Donny looks back at the marker. In just seconds it has become nearly invisible. In the corner of Lonny-Donny's eye, something sparkles. He looks up. The moonless sky is jam-packed with more stars than he has ever seen.
From horizon to horizon, brilliant points of light burst through the firmament. Lonny-Donny gets the feeling they're all shining on him. Lonny-Donny can't make out any constellations. The dippers, swans, hunters, virgins, and bears are camouflaged in a riot of illumination.
The Milky Way looks like daylight trying to crack the night sky in half. I never been anyplace like this, thinks Lonny-Donny, and I like it.
Stan's been honking the van's horn for a full minute before Lonny-Donny notices. As he walks back, he looks up and thinks, Better already.
Lonny-Donny drives the 10:00 p.m.-to-2:00 a.m. shift, then he sleeps on the van's davenport while Stanley takes them to the dawn. In his dream, Lonny-Donny is walking a dusty path through a treeless landscape. The sky is every color but blue, the earth all shades but green.
He's looking for something. The water bags he buried earlier for his return to the village. He feels panic rising in his parched throat. Lonny-Donny wakes choking. He looks out the van window and sees the landscape of his dream: the Painted Desert at dawn. He thinks, I'm back.
"Look at these colors," Lonny-Donny says to Stan, who is slouched over the van's steering wheel. "It's like somebody slipped me some acid."
"Huh," says Stan. "You ready to take over?"
"Sure," Lonny-Donny answers. He takes a can of Coke from the cooler and downs it in one pull.
After a quick roadside stop to stretch and switch places, Lonny-Donny guides Stan's van back onto the freeway, shifting gears like a pro. "You ever tripped?" Stan's question catches Lonny-Donny by surprise. He thought Stan was asleep.
"I'm kinda clumsy," Lonny-Donny answers.
"Ellis D.", Stan clarifies.
Oh, thinks Lonny-Donny. He means drugs. Lonny-Donny has enough trouble with reality. Getting high? Ridiculous!
"Nuh," Lonny-Donny answers after a pause. "You?"
"Not lately," Stan answers ."Why'd you think you were on acid when you woke up just now?"
"Have you taken LSD?", Lonny-Donny asks tentatively as he drives the empty morning interstate.
"That's what they called it," Stan replies.
Lonny-Donny's curiosity overcomes his embarrassment. "What's it like?", he asks Stan.
After a few seconds, Stan says, "I don't remember. It was a few years ago, summer of Woodstock. Before I went in the Air Force." Lonny-Donny thinks of his brother Chuck.
"Who knows what it was?", Stan continues. "I didn't hallucinate. Never have. Maybe I've never dropped acid. Maybe I'm tripping right now."
Maybe you need some sleep, thinks Lonny-Donny. Hard to see cousin Stan as a druggie -- joined the Air Force in '70, out three years later. Stan and Lonny-Donny's brother Chuck were always up to something when they were in high school, but they rarely got into any trouble.
By mid-morning, a few locals have joined them on the desert highway. Their van is conspicuous among the westbound pickups and family sedans. Lonny-Donny expected Stan to hit the Green Monster davenport in the back of the van. Instead, he's sitting silently in the passenger seat.
Lonny-Donny asks Stan, "What made you think to ask me to drive out with you?"
"Chuckles," Stan answers. The nickname makes Lonny-Donny jump.
If Lonny-Donny said "chuckles" within earshot of his oldest brother, he'd be sporting fresh bruises. A select few had "Chuckles" privilege.
Stan continues: "Chuck knows I'm coming west, knows you're laid off and flunking out, figures you'd prefer California winter to Dogbone's."
Lonny-Donny doesn't believe a word of Stan's story. Chuck has never done anything that didn't benefit Chuck more than anyone else involved. Just because Chuck and Stan are up to something doesn't mean Lonny-Donny isn't glad he came along. Not much is worse than a Dogbone winter.
In his pocket Lonny-Donny has the last $200 he made as a Post Office temp at Christmas. He's one more D away from flunking out of college. Whatever they've got in mind for him, Lonny-Donny decides it probably won't kill him, and he might even squeeze a modicum of fun out of it.
Halfway into Lonny-Donny's driving shift, Stan is still awake, munching on the crust of a leftover sausage roll. Flagstaff's two hours away. Lonny-Donny never spent much time with his cousin Stan, who is four years older. Lonny-Donny was a spectator at Laffingstock family events.
Stan joined the Air Force soon after Lonny-Donny started high school. Stan in the Air Force seemed like a bad idea to everyone but Stan. It wasn't just the Vietnam War being in full swing. It was mainly that Stan refused to do anything he was told to do, strictly on principle.
Lonny-Donny asks his cousin, "How'd you get out of the Air Force so fast?"
Stan pops the last of the sausage roll in his mouth and chews. "Medical," he says after he swallows. Lonny-Donny waits. Stan looks at the road through the van's windshield. He opens a bottle of 7Up.
"Feeling better?", Lonny-Donny asks after a pause.
"Than what?", Stan asks.
"Than you did in the Air Force."
"I felt fine in the Air Force."
Lonny-Donny considers dropping it, doesn't. "Then how did you get the medical?"
"You'd have to ask my robot."
"We should see Uncle Royal," Stan says out of nowhere. Lonny-Donny has been driving since dawn, and now the winter sun is nearing midday. "Turn left at Flagstaff," Stan says and leans back in his seat.
"Left?", Lonny-Donny asks.
"Seventeen south," Stan replies with eyes shut.
Stan heads for the davenport in the back of the van. "I'll take over at Phoenix," he says as he settles down. "We'll be in L.A. tomorrow."
L.A. so close almost makes Lonny-Donny forget about having to meet Uncle Royal, his grandpa's little brother, 92-year-old family trustee. Lonny-Donny was the only cousin his uncle's trust ever turned down for a college grant. He was also the only cousin who ever applied for money to attend Wayne State.
The same Wayne State Lonny-Donny is near to getting kicked out of. Lonny-Donny can't think of why he would want to meet his Uncle Royal.
Turn left at Flagstaff, thinks Lonny-Donny. Dinner with an ancient relative who has him pegged. Career Navy, 55 years. Lied to join at 15. Ran away from home to join. Hated his father. Nineteen-oh-one that was. Lonny-Donny wonders why he remembers things about relatives he's never met.
Lonny-Donny pictures the pinched, bearded visage of his great-grandfather in mid-pique, a man who died 40 years before Lonny-Donny was born. Andrew Laffingstock hounded his six sons out into the world as soon as the boys could swing a pick. His three daughters he spoiled rotten.
Three of Andrew's nine children who made it to adulthood were still kicking near or past 90. Royal was the oldest of the surviving sibs. And now Lonny-Donny and his cousin Stan are about to drop in on Royal unexpectedly. "We just happened to be in Tucson" might not go over.
"Phoenix," Lonny-Donny announces as he exits the van and heads for the gas station rest room. When he returns Stan is still snoring away. "Phoenix," Lonny-Donny repeats as he takes the passenger seat and reaches inside the rumpled sack for one of the last of the sausage rolls.
As his teeth attempt to break through the rock-hard crust, Lonny-Donny notices Stan is no longer snoring. "How far to Tucson?", he asks.
Stan emits a high whistle. "Have you met Uncle Royal?", Lonny-Donny asks.
"Once that I don't remember," Stan answers."I was, like, four. We're to take him to a restaurant and give him a bottle of Sanders chocolate," Stan says once they're back on the freeway. "I promised."
"Promised who?", Lonny-Donny asks.
"My parents," Stan replies.
"Because they know if I didn't promise, I wouldn't go," Stan says.
"Dad says you gotta meet him," Stan continues. "Something about Grandpa. Or maybe Grandma. Anyway, they said we gotta see Uncle Royal, so."
"They'll know if we don't and say we did," Stan says, anticipating Lonny-Donny's next question. "An hour, tops, and we're back on the road."
"He's not here," says Lonny-Donny.
"He's here," says Stan. "Where else would he be?" Stan knocks louder and shouts, "Uncle Royal, it's us!"
Lonny-Donny looks up and down the dark, narrow hallway. "It smells in here," he says.
"C'mon," says Stan. "The guy's a million years old."
"Can I help you boys?" A large woman with her platinum hair in a bun atop here head makes her way down the corridor, a wrench in her hand. "I was working on a terlit downstairs and heard the to-do," she says, a little winded. "Who are you now?" She looks them over, half smiling.
Lonny-Donny starts to answer but gets cut off by Stan, who gets cut off by the woman. "Don't bother. Those faces. You're Laffingstocks. Your uncle's been livin' here since my pa runt the place 'n I was a girl. Ol' Royal gets a nephew or niece visit pretty regular," she says.
"Royal!", the woman shouts, knocking hard and steady on the door. "Open up, you got family out here now!" She whispers, "What's your names?"
"I'm Stan, he's Lonny-Donny," Stan whispers back.
"It's Stan and Lauderdale," the woman shouts at the door. "What kinda name's that?", she asks Stan.
The door opens a crack and the woman enters, shutting it behind her. Stan says to Lonny-Donny, "I bet Uncle Royal's got a girl in there."
"A girl?", Lonny-Donny asks. "You think?"
"Geez," says Stan. "Dontcha know a joke when you hear one?"
The woman exits Uncle Royal's room. "Royal needs a few minutes to get presentable," the woman says. "He'll meet you at the Bijou across the way." She shoos them down the hall.
"We saw him, let's go," Lonny-Donny says to Stan as they exit the apartment building. "His door anyway."
Stan shakes his head. "Nice try."
"Maybe they have blueberry pancakes," Stan says as he leads Lonny-Donny into the cafe. Lonny-Donny thinks, Blueberries? Tucson? January? They sit at a booth near the door.
The server, a small woman in her forties, drops two laminated menus. "Something to drink?", she asks. Before they can answer, the server asks, "Say, aren't you two of Royal's kin?"
Stan and Lonny-Donny gape in reply. She picks up the menus. "We'll take care of you fellas," the server says. "I'm Rose," pointing to her name tag. "I feel like I know you already, Royal goes on so."
Stan and Lonny-Donny are finishing their split pea soup when Royal Laffingstock, their grandfather Deuce's younger brother, enters the cafe. Royal is tall but stooped, thin but puffy. He shuffles steadily to the booth occupied by his grand nephews and sits down without looking up.
"Hello, Uncle," says Stan. "You may not remember me."
"I remember you, Stanley," Royal replies. "Spring of 1959. You were eight years old."
Lonny-Donny hasn't budged since Royal sat down, spoon poised above the nearly empty soup bowl. Royal slowly raises his head, takes him in. "Do you recall your grandfather?", Royal asks Lonny-Donny.
"Sure," he answers. "He taught me checkers. Told me stories. You were in one."
"Me?", Royal asks. "I would like to hear that story. Very much. First, I have some questions for Stanley." Stan sits up and folds his arms.
Rose sets plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and lima beans in front of Stan and Lonny-Donny. "Macaroni okay for today, Royal?", she asks.
"Yes, ma'am, and coffee," Royal answers Rose. She hurries off without a word. Royal turns to Stan. "Where do you stand now?", he asks him.
"I'm thinking HVAC might be a good way to go," Stan answers.
Royal remains expressionless. "With the Air Force," he adds. "Oh," says Stan. "Discharged." He takes a bite of mashed potatoes.
"Medical exemption?", Royal asks.
"Something like that," Stan says as he chews.
"'Unable to adjust to military life.' Was that it?", Royal asks Stan.
Stan pokes his meatloaf with his fork. "Something like that," he says.
Rose brings Royal his coffee and a bowl of macaroni and cheese. "You fellas catching up okay?", she asks the table. Royal nods and smiles.
Royal drinks his coffee. "You're feeling better now," he says to Stan, not quite a question.
"It was all a misunderstanding," Stan explains.
"For the best," Royal says and smiles, sort of. He turns to Lonny-Donny. "Off to visit your brother Chuck, eh?", he asks. Lonny-Donny nods. "Then back to school," Royal continues. Lonny-Donny stops nodding. "I wonder about the stories you say your grandfather told you about me."
He showed more than told, thinks Lonny-Donny. "When you were young in San Francisco," he tells Royal. "Grandpa, your Uncle Joe, and Mary."
"And Mae, and Papa," Lonny-Donny adds.
Uncle Royal drinks his coffee with both hands. "My brother told you about Mary Bartoli?", Royal asks.
Lonny-Donny replies, "Grandpa said 'I have to tell their story, someday you'll have to, too.' But I don't understand it, so what's to tell?"
"You were very young," Uncle Royal tells Lonny-Donny. "Did the stories scare you?"
"Parts," Lonny-Donny says. "Most were nice. Your mom."
Uncle Royal sips his coffee. "Your grandfather told you about our mother, Alice McCreary," he says flatly. "I would like to hear those stories myself."
"I can try, but they don't come out right most times," says Lonny-Donny. "Like I don't know where they are or what all their words mean."
"Did my brother tell you about San Francisco?", Uncle Royal asks Lonny-Donny.
"Lots of hills and boats," he replies. "And muddy streets."
Stan laughs. "You said you've never been west of Indiana," he says.
"But I've seen it," replies Lonny-Donny
"In pictures maybe", Stan says.
Pictures, thinks Lonny-Donny. Alice McCreary Laffingstock's summer kitchen in back of their flat on Rincon Hill -- her son Royal working beside her.
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