Three hours driving the dirt tracks just to get to the T junction didn’t seem such a hard thing for Barry. He liked to drive, he liked the dusty, dirty roads and the smell of earth and hot air, and he loved his friends; though he wouldn’t say love to them, they’d get all strange if he expressed this emotion openly. ‘This was their big adventure,’ John had said, ‘the one they had been waiting for all their lives,’ well, at least twenty three years, Barry liked to correct. He thought they had at least another twenty three years until they were old and incapable of enjoying life. His mother was fifty-two and miserable, and he wondered what he’d be like when he got that old.
“Road’s bad,” Hank said from the passenger side of the truck. John sat in the middle, his legs near the shifter. The 4X4 was old and the road was rough and little used since the new tarmac road was laid down fifteen years back. The dirt road brought back memories and for now Barry needed a few of them to keep him moving forward.
“It’ll be okay once we’re at the junction.” Barry knew the truck didn’t really like the back roads but according to his Dad, Ford didn’t make a bad truck and most of their failures were bad drivers and poor maintenance.
“Need only get there by sundown and we are done for the day.”
“I need a whizz,” John said, moving about nervously on the seat. “And I can’t wait until you find a tree or bush.”
Barry pulled over to the side of the road, keeping clear of the soft edges. A thick dust cloud that had been trailing them flooded forward blocking out all sight for a moment. John waited until the dust had settled before getting out after Hank and moving to the rear of the truck to have a whizz. There was little fear in anyone coming along, these back roads were seldom used anymore and the only reason they used them now was because none of their parents would consider checking this junction when supper time came and went, and they hadn’t shown.
Hank lent into the cabin looking at the leaflets Barry had got in the mail several weeks back; images of white sand and sea seemed to sparkle off the glossy paper and a young woman in a bikini looked far more enticing that some of the cattle girls in town. To Barry leaving the town was a way of escaping his family, the hard-nosed, righteous man who made it clear he always knew he was his father and often exaggerated the point with a slap or a solid fist punch to the guts. Barry loved his father, the man was tough and rugged, a straight shooter and the best he’d ever seen with a skinning knife, but he couldn’t live with him. If he just moved out and boarded on the ranch where he worked he would never really be free of his influence; he had no choice and even if that image of blue water and white sand had been of barren rock and sewage he would still be making his way there. He thought of the city as well and for now he still had a choice, but he really wasn’t just thinking for himself anymore and that bothered him the most.
“I think John’s having second thoughts,” Hank said, keeping his voice low. “In two years, his father was going to hand over the hardware store to him and he still thinks he’d got a chance with Becky.”
“You know Old Frank won’t leave the store, and he’s been playing that line ever since John turned eighteen.”
Hank carefully folded up the leaflets, offering a quick glance to the back of the truck. “I know, but he still thinks Becky will see the light.”
“She sees the light alright,” Barry snorted. “She’s been seeing it shining from Brewster Dray’s eyes since high school.”
“You spend far too much time combing hair, everyone in town knows it.” Barry checked the rear view mirror and saw John was heading back. “Let’s get back on the road.” Hank stepped away from the truck and let John climb in.
“Man, I needed that, shouldn’t have had that 6 pack for breakfast.” John settled into the bench seat making sure he didn’t knock the stick shift with his knee. “We sure this is the right thing?” He asked, once Hank had climbed in and slammed the door.
Hank offered Barry a knowing look and by his face it was expected Barry would also have to offer an affirmation. It was true the whole running away from their home town had been his idea, but the other two hard urged him on and signed on for the trip without hesitation. Barry knew anything planned over a case of beer wasn’t really any kind of committed contract, but they had done worse things on less drink.
“If you’re thinking about Becky again, she’s committed to her church, John, and unless you are going to be a fully sworn in and head whetted Baptist you aren’t even close to in with a chance with her.”
John said nothing but out of the corner of his eye Barry could see he was thinking, his lips were pressed tight and his hands were two clenched fists in his lap. Maybe he had gone too far in mentioning Becky but John did have to look at the immediate reality, even if he didn’t know about Brewster. Barry had to stay focused on the old pot holed road. The brown dirt of the road was sticking to the red of his truck and dusted the windshield to give everything a softer view; every now and again he would use the window washer to clean the glass, creating first an impenetrable smudge on the glass before clearing to two large half circles before his eyes. The clock on the dash said four thirty three and he knew his father would just be getting in from the ranch, his face stained from dirt and sweat and his back aching. It was his mother he really felt for, she didn’t know he was going but he was sure she would understand what he had done and accept it for what it was. She was a struggling woman, thin and weary, hair long and pony tailed during the day and her jeans well-worn and boots scuffed till you could see the metal in the toes. The horizon was flat just like the stares he would see his mother give his father after a full hour of moaning about the world after dinner. Barry wanted to never see flat again.
“Which way we gonna go when we hit the junction?” Hank held up two leaflets, the one with the sea vista and the other with tall, glass-fronted buildings and what looked to be a snaking river in the foreground. Hank’s smile was forced, and his ruddy face and blue eyes said he was trying to distract John.
“I could be one of them Baptists if I wanted to be.” John said. He slapped his now open palms on his thighs.
“Becky would appreciate a man who would do that for her.”
“I’m sorry, John, but you could never be a Baptist,” Hank laughed, but John’s face reddened and his dark eyes seemed to smoulder with anger. Barry had to stay focused on the road, he had somewhere else to be and he wanted to be there much sooner than the conversation suggested.
“Could you ever give up beer?” Hank said as he slapped John on the shoulder. A little cloud of dust rose up from his brown, plaid shirt. “What about whisky, do you really think you could spend the rest of your life without another shot?” With that he opened the glove compartment to show a bottle of Jack Daniels. “Could you say no to this?”
The grumbling was answer enough for Barry and the subject of Becky was expertly put aside for now and he would make a definite effort to thank Hank when they got to the junction. They wouldn’t head off into the night either way, the journey was to be contemplation under the stars with a case of beer and the bottle of Jack, and then after a cook-up on the side of the road they would make the big decisions, city or coast? He hadn’t decided yet but he knew what the others needed to do. The sun was still screaming down heat and given they were on daylight savings time it wouldn’t really be dark until after eight, just about the time their parents would be ringing around to find them. Barry had insisted none of them bring their mobile phones so they couldn’t be contacted and threatened to return.
The air-conditioning in the truck blew warm air but it was better than the open window and the hot, gritty air off the road. His green Batman T shirt was wet through and he figured they all smelt about the same, only Hank seemed to wear the weather better than most, his cropped hair always looked neat and his collared, black cotton cowboy shirt had the eternal crisp look about it. Hank was the town’s barber and hair dresser and while he got a lot of lip from the punchers about his sexuality Barry knew he was gay and needed to be well away from home if he was ever to have a normal life. Some folks accepted him without ever saying so, but most of the old hands and the young men taunted Hank daily and he didn’t know how Hank could take the open and hidden abuse.
With wrists starting to ache from the vibrations of the road through the steering wheel Barry considered handing over the last leg of the driving to John, who was about the only person he would trust to drive his truck; Hank could drive but he had only ever seen him in a Hyundai hatchback and didn’t trust the man with a big V8 4X4. He wiped at his eyes, pulling at the strain of driving into the sun and wishing for the hundredth time he just buckled and put on his sunglasses.
‘Real men don’t wear sunglasses,’ his father would say if Barry ever went to put on a pair.
“Hank,” he said as the ache behind his eyes grew stronger. “Next to the Jack you’ll find some glasses, hand them over, I can’t see for shit.”
“Glasses,” John said an obvious break from his moroseness. “You feelin’ alright?”
“Just give them over and enough with the jawin’. This is a new life we’re heading into so I’m going to start out doing new things.” He snatched the glasses from Hank and slid them on, the dark lenses creating immediate relief and the question of why he didn’t just do this after Noon and be done with it? He thought of a tune his mother would sing to him when he was a child to drown out the abuse his father would have hurled his way. It was just enough to distract him from his own stupidity and thinking about stars and angles felt right for the moment.
“Now you’re talkin’.” Hank reached behind him and into his discarded denim jacket and pulled out a pair of star shaped glasses and put them on with a huge grin. “Been wanting to wear these ever since we cut town.”
“They don’t look right.” John said, eyeing both of them with a stern frown.
“They look girly, Hank, maybe you mixed them up with a Halloween costume?”
Given they were all wearing blue denims and badly worn boots Barry did think the star glasses were a bit much but he knew what was happening and he was not about to get in the way of his friend’s new sense of freedom.
‘Freedom is a place where you can be yourself at all times and where others can be themselves around you,’ his mother had said when he had be put in jail overnight for underage drinking. Now he was twenty three the act of getting drunk all the time didn’t seem so relevant. He checked the fuel gauge and saw he was low, so he reached down and flicked the exchange switch that brought the 50 gallon long distance tank on line. The tank took up a quarter of the trucks extra-long tray space and was pretty heavy when full but given the long range it gave him it was the best addition to the truck he’d ever done. ‘Waste of good steel,’ his father had said before slapping across the back of the head. ‘Where you ever goin’ to go to need that much fuel, you fool?’ Barry had wanted to punch him that day, really knock him down and tell him to go to hell, but he didn’t, and the memory of that day still tightened in his gut.
Not having to squint through the windshield any more help alleviate the pain in his head and remove some of his annoyance at getting sore wrists; it would only be an hour until they reached the junction, then he’d rest properly and he would make the most difficult decision of his life; left or right? He didn’t really care if he went to the coast or to the city just so long as he wasn’t where his father was and the prejudices and judgements of small town life couldn’t touch him. Barry wondered what it would be like. How would it feel to be anonymous and unknown without a single person with a vested interest in you within hundreds of miles; thousands of miles? He checked the speedometer and sighed; even after moat of the day travelling on rough roads and side tracks they had only covered one hundred and eighteen miles, and given the strain on his wrists and the ache in his backside it felt like two thousand. You really couldn’t get much speed on back tracks. Hank was mumbling about music and John seemed to be far away with that vacant look he got when he was some place he really didn’t want to be. The junction would be a reckoning of sorts, the coming together of all their dreams and aspirations while they emptied the cool box and drained the last drops from the whisky bottle. Would Jack really have the last say in the end? Or would everything be decided before hand? Barry thought the latter.
“Sun’s near done,” John said, a statement of fact they all knew.
“Junctions about a couple a miles round this next bend,” Hank offered.
Barry looked to Hank, who shrugged.
“Took the trip once before, never quite had the guts to get on the bus.”
It was a big deal leaving town, breaking away from everything you have known, even if it did contain all the mess that drove you crazy. Barry figured the decision would be tougher on Hank, as he was not only saying goodbye to the old country way, but saying hello to something he might not fully understand in himself yet. At least Barry knew something of what he wanted from his freedom; a job where he didn’t smell like cow shit and dirt, a better car which wasn’t a yokel truck that drank gas faster than his father could down a can, and a decent woman. He’d thought about the decent woman thing for bit long and hard, maybe too long as it stopped him from dating either of the Jackoby twins, who made it very clear he was indeed on their radar, and going to the county prom because he refused to go with Gilly, the prettiest and most popular girl in school. ‘Damn fool,’ his father had said smacking him across the side of the head. ‘A man’d think his son’s a pussy.’
The junction was coming up and the sun still had some time to get to the horizon. The land was flat in parts and rugged in others. Maybe John would find solace in the long shadows of evening, maybe not. Barry pulled over, turning the truck so they faced back down the road towards home.
Hank said nothing, and John grunted one of his couldn’t be bothered expressions he was well known for in the hardware store. None of them spoke as they climbed from the truck.
Barry stretched out the kinks in his back and stomped his feet a few times to get feeling back in his legs. John walked to the back of the truck, flipped off the cover restraints over the back and dropped the tailgate. In the back were a mattress and a roll of blankets.
There were a number of fathers in town who thought their daughters were destined for that mattress and while Barry didn’t entertain such things he didn’t really go out of his way to dispel any of the town talk. For what it was worth, it actually helped to keep girls away and in the end made it easier to pack up and leave. As he watched Hank staring off into the distance he thought of what he really wanted in a woman, the very thing he could never get from town. A woman who wouldn’t take any of his surly shit and who just might know a bit more about life other than cooking shows, horses and cows. For the last two years he’d tried convincing himself there was nothing wrong with that kind of life, only it failed every time his father balled his fists and started punctuating his anger.
“Wanna beer?” John handed him a Millers, something his father also frowned on. ‘Coors was the beer of all Americans. None of this Millers shit.’
“Hank, get on over here, we have some jaw’n to get on with.” He sipped the Millers, enjoying the cold crisp taste.
Unlike Coors the beer actually had body, it tasted like a beer should.
Hank took an offered beer, twisted off the top and took a very long, thirsty pull. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve then belched; something Barry had never heard him do before. “So, this is it?” Hank took another sip before looking at Barry and John. “We’re really gonna do it?”
“I never had doubts.” Barry sipped and let the beer sooth his dusty throat.
“Just needed to decide which way for me.”
They sat talking for hours, hovering over old tales as children together to things they were supposed to be doing for work next week, which they knew someone else would have to do. John said little in the end. He drank slowly and peeled the labels of his beers.
Hank travelled the memories of pain and except for their friendship he didn’t seem to have much good to say about town, even though he had run his business cutting hair successfully for the last 5 years. They lingered on the fact that unlike many of their friends they didn’t head off to college and while the talk softened under the weight of consideration and what ifs they brightened again at the prospect of a new future on their own. New beginnings, Hank had toasted more than once, his smile growing wider with each clink of their bottles. The sun was dipping and the cooler, well stocked was now showing the open necks of empties. They all took one of the last beers and looked at the depleted stocks. They day was nearing its end and already they had hit the drink hard.
John stood in the coming darkness his beer unopened and his face sad, the pinkish glow of the sky washing him in light and showing something Barry suspected all along.
“I’m not going.” John sat on the tailgate. He twisted off the bottle cap and drank from his beer. “Sorry guys, but I can’t.”
“Becky doesn’t want you, John,” Hank said, the frustration from the drive finally showing through his tone of voice. “She will never want you.”
“Hank,” Barry said, putting out his hand and grabbing Hank by the arm.
“Shit, I know that,” John said, trying the peel off yet another label. “She was only ever a bit of a fantasy. You said it yourself; I can’t even be one of those Christian folks.”
“Then why?” Hank couldn’t hide the disappointment.
John sipped at his beer, the dark falling across his face coming with the deeper hues of coming night. He was a young man like them all, but was he somehow approaching his own twilight? He sighed, took another swig and offered a dull, straight lipped smile. Barry had expected as much and had, in a way, prepared for it though most of what he prepared for was still a guess and hope.
He approached John, stuck out his hand in friendship. John reached out his right and clasped Barry’s, they shook on the decision and all was right between then, whatever his reason Barry knew he had to respect it.
John looked to Hank, his eyes now dark orbs in the brightening moonlight.
“I like the town, Hank, I like the people, hell; I even like Old man Fisher and his yapping dogs.”
“But what about our plans?” Hank joined them at the back of the truck, his shirt a dark stain in the evening.
“I promised to come to the junction, talk and get drunk, and I’ve done this for you, but I can’t go any further and I can’t go letting my pa down with the store.” He looked to the pair. “I like the idea of being the store owner one day and having my own business and a real future.”
“Well I ain’t going back,” Hank said, throwing his empty bottle into the back of the truck and pulling another out of the cooler. “I can’t. Even if I have to walk to where I’m going, I’m not going back.”
“I’ll walk home,” John said, tipping out the last dregs of his bottle and placing in the back of the truck before taking another bottle. “I have my phone, there’s reception about three miles back, I’ll call Max at the garage and he’ll come get me.”
“No one’s walking anywhere.” Barry had lost the taste for his beer. He left his friends and went to the cab, leaned in and pulled out the Jack, now was the time for hard truths and old friendships and longevity shit. He returned to the rear of the truck, unscrewed the cap and drank, the whisky burning just the way he liked it.
“What about the beer?” John looked down on his bottle and Hank took a long pull; his starry glasses looking too weird in the night.
“Gone past time for just shootin’ the breeze over the future and what ifs.”
Barry handed the bottle to John then took off his own glasses and hooked them through his belt. Hank put his beer down on the tail gate and took a quick belt and his face contorted as the woody flavour did its darnedest to shake him alive. Barry needed John to remember this last night and not just store it away as something that happened once and to someone else.
“How’s he gettin’ back?” It was Hanks turn for a drink.
Barry pulled his wallet out of his hip pocket and extracted two bus tickets. He handed one to Hank and held the other in both hands, just thinking and hoping this decision was indeed the right one to make.
“What’s this?” Hank held the ticket up, trying to read its writing.
“Bus for the coast comes by around 9AM, that’s your ticket outa here.”
Barry reached for the bottle; Hank moved it away from his grasp. “You’ll do better there.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“This is our last time together, guys. We all reached this same point at the time and in a way it is right we all go our own ways. I’m going to the city and maybe, just maybe, I’ll find what I am looking for there.”
“You only bought two tickets?” John stood. “You knew I wouldn’t go all the way.”
In a way he supposed he did know John wouldn’t really come, but in all truth he only bought two tickets so they would all head their separate ways. He had planned on giving John the truck anyway, he’d decided when he drew out the tickets that Hank would do better on the coast and while he didn’t cope well with town life, he thought the bigness of a city could be ideal for getting lost in.
“I didn’t think like that, well not originally, but your silence on the way out confirmed my doubts, so things are working out anyway.” He snatched the whisky and before Hank could grab it back he took a swig and swallowed hard, letting it burn all the way down. “I decided to go left,” he said pushing the ticket into his trouser pocket. “The city, the big smoke.”
Silence descended on them, the moon started to paint everything silver and the sweep of the stars across the night looked prettier than Barry had ever seen them, there was freedom in those stars, distance and isolation. They passed the bottle around until there was nothing left but a gentle sway and the need to lie down. All three of them climbed into the back of the truck and lay on the mattress, shoulders pressed tight together, just like they did as kids when they went fishing or toad catching. This was going to be the last time and for the first time since making that drunken grand decision back in town three days ago Barry felt a real sense of sadness. Using a couple of rolled up blankets they shoved them under their heads so they could sip at the last of the beer while looking at the night sky. He wanted to speak, to say how much his friends meant to him and how hard this moment was going to be, how he was really going to miss them in his life, but he couldn’t and knew why.
“The bus for the city comes round 10AM.” Barry sipped the beer and stared at the stars, his stomach lurched a little, as he fought down a sudden urge to sob. “You take the truck back, John; you’ll find I’ve already signed the registration over to you; so there should be no problems.”
“Want me to say anything to your parents?”
“Maybe tell my mom I’ll call once I’ve settled in, Dad will just be angry and shit and not worth talking to.” Barry knew his father would yell at his mother and blame her for everything, but he couldn’t let that make his decisions for him anymore. “Maybe tell her I love her and all.”
“What about you Hank?”
“No one left to matter much about me.” He was right of course, while the town might have had suspicions about his sexuality his parents knew for sure and as far as Barry knew he hadn’t spoken a word to them in the last three years. “You could tell Missy at the hairdressers that Mrs Mannerol doesn’t like it when you call her Manny.”
John fell silent, Barry could hear him mumbling to himself, something he did when the situation was a bit too much for him; like the time they were caught shop lifting from the general store, Barry ran with the story but John just mumbled and played with his fingers. In the silvery light he could see John fidgeting with the beer label. He sighed, yes; it was all a bit much, all a bit real.
“You have to leave come dawn, John.” He nudged his friend with his shoulder.
“Hank and I really aren’t coming back with you.”
“John,” Hank said. “I have to tell you, I’m gay. I wanted you to know, no I needed you to know before… before someone in town started off and you got all defensive.”
“So those glasses weren’t a Halloween gimmick?”
Barry laughed, Hank laughed, and then John started laughing as well. “I always thought you were a bit funny.” All three started laughing loudly, an effect of the drink and of the sadness each was trying not to show.
“So, are you okay with that?” Hank sounded a bit more serious while the laughing ebbed.
“No business of mine, but don’t expect a kiss goodbye.” They laughed again.
Through the night they drank the last of the beer and shared the last of their stories, Barry deciding to keep the secret of his father’s brutality to himself, but he felt the others might have understood, they seemed to know stuff without ever really asking or without ever really being told. Like he knew Hank was gay and didn’t mind and how he knew John really wouldn’t go through with the plan and in the end none of it mattered. What did matter is what they would remember was the junction.