Sharing another of my favorite scenes from Lucky Ride, my irreverent 60’s road novel. I made the hard decision to prune it while wearing my editor’s hat:
A Baptist preacher in a light tan Lincoln Continental Mark VII picked me up hitchhiking in the Arizona desert and whispered a prayer for my soul. My body appreciated the air conditioning, which blasted like the arctic wind from his simulated wood panel vents, but I detected no response from my soul. Reverend Kirby asked my name, shook my hand, and offered me a sandwich in that low, smooth voice the clergy share with undertakers. He wore a shiny black suit, black perma-shine shoes, a gold cross on a gold chain around his neck, and a heavy gold ring with a huge diamond. He wore enough jewelry to buy my soul. His black hair was slicked back, freshly cut, and oiled in place. I passed on the sandwich.
He asked about my spiritual and physical health, and he kept probing. He must have known his questions made me uncomfortable, not that it mattered to him. I began to feel a chill, fearing pneumonia more than his interrogation. My sleeveless T-shirt and sweaty bare shoulders stuck to his leather upholstery, but I had left my sweatshirt and jacket along with my baggage in his expansive trunk. I told him I felt just fine. He smiled benevolently, taking a sip from a huge, wide-bottomed coffee cup on the center console. “Decaf,” he said.
I wished I had smoked a joint between rides. Sometimes it helped, especially when my next ride felt like an alien spacecraft, even with a god‑fearing alien at the controls. We cruised over a hundred miles per hour, almost escape velocity, and I averted my eyes from the road. Emblazoned on the padded dash was a gold plate with raised letters reminding all passengers that “JESUS SAVES.”
Reverend Kirby invited me to pray with him and I went through the motions. After all, he bought the gas, and I mentally prayed for my safety, hoping he kept his eyes on the road while he chanted the usual litany for all sinners, the poor, the soldiers in Vietnam and their mothers and fathers. Whenever we passed another car and caught it in our airfoil, the Lincoln rocked in a sickening swerve on its soft suspension and kept skimming the concrete with no loss of speed.
His manner reminded me of the Rollers who lived in the apartment downstairs from my wife Ronnie and me back in Binghamton, New York, and I thought about how his shiny suit and his god-mobile must be the dream of Alex Roller and his twisted family. They would kiss his white fingers like they were those of Christ himself.
When Kirby finished praying he revealed he was headed to Bakersfield to preach a service for Pastor Stephens, who was on vacation with his family in Hawaii. He asked about my family and upbringing. I told him how I hoped to find work in California, and I was only hitchhiking because I was an unemployed veteran. As I described my trip to him, it sounded like a Vietnam War era Grapes of Wrath, though my shortage of money was hardly as desperate as those characters, not yet. I left my unraveling marriage out of it. The Reverend nodded his head sympathetically.
“Flash, are your mother and father Christians?” he asked, emphasizing my name and leaning toward me like we were sharing a great secret.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Are you a Christian?”
I was taken aback by the solemn tone of his question. I finally answered, “Yes.”
“Do you attend church regularly?”
“I go sometimes,” I said, stretching the truth.
“How frequently do you go to church? You can be honest with me, son.”
I wondered how far it was to San Bernardino. But I decided to come clean. Almost clean. “We don’t go very often,” I told him. “Mostly for Christmas and weddings.”
I glanced over, realizing the “we” had slipped out, a sure sign I was married, but I hoped he didn’t notice.
Kirby asked, “What denomination are your parents and your wife?”
So much for my unrevealed marriage. “My family is Catholic, but my wife’s family is Methodist.”
“Ah‑ah,” he concluded, as if that obscure fact explained my entire life, including my appearance on the hot, dusty interstate between Phoenix and San Bernardino. “Pray with me, son,” he enjoined, and he started to pray again. I suspected he was making mental notes for his sermon in a few hours where my life story might illustrate the text of the day. The Good Samaritan picks up an unwashed and wayward Catholic in the desert and prays with him, thereby saving his soul.
I loosely clasped my hands again out of gratitude for the ride and guilt for staining the supple leather upholstery with my crusty sweat, but I ignored his words. When he finished praying, our awkward conversation continued with lengthening moments of dead silence punctuating my recent pagan history, which I edited for his consumption so it sounded like a TV drama: all my friends wore clean, pastel colors and spoke in clearly enunciated clichés, alternately smiling or frowning, depending on the emotional context. None of them smoked dope or played loud music. I mentioned my marriage more explicitly this time, though I downplayed its significance. The Reader’s Digest condensation of my life sounded boring to me, but Rev. Kirby appeared to listen intently. He even showed occasional flashes of caring.
He asked about my marriage and why I was on the road by myself. I should have changed the subject. Instead I found myself telling him about my wife Ronnie’s affair with Bardeen, her boss and erstwhile lover, as if it were no big deal. My casual tone was not very convincing, even to me. I had told the story twice in as many days to other drivers, knowing I’d never see them again, but it didn’t come any easier. I paused and stared at the highway, watching the watery mirages disperse as we shot toward them. A dizzy rush of blood filled my temples and thickened my throat.
“Would you like to pray with me again, son?” he asked, breaking my dark reverie.
I evaded his gaze and his question.
“Prayer will help you relieve the burden of your marriage.” Kirby now sounded more like a doctor than a preacher. “What your wife is doing is evil. Her acts of adultery are influenced by the devil. You are under the influence of the same evil. That’s why you feel so bad. You need to renounce the devil and ask for the Lord’s protection, and then you will feel much better.”
I fought my emotions to keep Kirby from seeing the impact of recalling my marital quandary. Some of what he said was right. I had distanced myself from Ronnie and Bardeen by hitchhiking west, but I remained too close to New York in some ways. When I thought about her, my mind wrapped itself in a time warp. Ronnie was as far away as a retreating galaxy yet ever present in my mind. I could not let her go.
Kirby studied me, hardly watching the highway, waiting for me to say more. His offer pressed against the back of my head, pushing me toward his altar, his vision of my redemption. I took a deep breath.
“I don’t think her affair is evil,” I replied.
“What?” Kirby asked.
Turning toward him I realized I had spoken too softly, almost to myself. “She’s not influenced by the devil.”
“You don’t need to defend her,” the reverend responded. “She might not realize she’s doing anything evil.”
“She knows what she’s doing. She isn’t that innocent.”
Kirby furrowed his forehead like he understood. “I can tell she’s hurting you. She’s causing you pain. And you say she knows what she’s doing.”
“Her affair might be hurting me but that doesn’t make it evil.” I tried to smile. “She has poor taste in other men but she’s not evil.”
Kirby shook his head, but he recovered quickly and waited for me to say more. I glanced out the window again to make sure the Lincoln was centered in its lane. When my eyes swung back to his practiced look of concern, I caught a flash of sunlight reflecting off the diamond in his massive gold ring. An omen. I began to see the light myself, my reason overcoming emotion. Kirby’s job was to get sinners to open up and confess, leading them toward redemption and conversion, and he was good at it. Although my neck tingled slightly with embarrassment for revealing so much to him, I knew no harm was done. Like the rides before him, I would never see Kirby again. I cracked a smile.
He said, “It doesn’t matter what she has done or what you have done. Jesus loves you and will forgive you. It isn’t a question of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
I nodded my head and admitted, “Our problems are not all her fault.”
“Pray with me son,” he offered again.
“No thanks,” I replied.
Reluctantly accepting my refusal, Kirby told me about a young couple in his church who had agreed to marriage counseling and finally reconciled, once they asked forgiveness from Jesus and started their lives fresh. He recited another modern parable and another, a history of saved marriages and souls as if their saintly icons lined the highway, rising from the litter of fast food wrappers and beer cans. I continued to listen but both of us knew the moment had passed. I still felt dazed, but I was no longer in danger of an induced spiritual rebirth.
His tone grew more dejected and pedantic as we drove west, blaming my reticence for his failure to convert me. He conceded my weakness, my inability to confess my sins and save myself. But his droning monologue helped me pass the time. Between Ronnie, the Rollers, and other well-meaning and often self-righteous voices, I was accustomed to complaints about my inner self, and I instinctively shut them out like so much road noise. Now that I was only a few hours from the ocean, I envisioned my inner self recovering in the salty balm of sea air and crashing surf, finding a job and renting a place in Ventura, thinking about New York less and less as the weeks rolled by.
But mostly I imagined how I would share ideas and plans with my friends while we passed a joint around our circle with music like The Beatles’ White Album spinning on a portable stereo, the meter and lyrics connecting the spaces between our words. Maybe this was what I believed in, how I would purge myself of Ronnie and Bardeen. Joining my friends around a living room or campfire often felt timeless in its celebration of tribal awareness and oneness, like the Druids at Stonehenge, ancient Christians in the catacombs, and all movements of true believers before their spontaneous gatherings became diluted by doctrine and fashion. We only needed ourselves and our empathy for one another. Too bad if Kirby thought we were going to hell.
Soon enough his god-mobile breezed over the border into California, somehow invisible to the highway patrol’s earthly radar. He let me off at the first San Bernardino exit, near a Union 76 truck stop.
Note: I did not delete Reverend Kirby entirely. In the final version of Lucky Ride, his plush Lincoln appears later in Flash’s journey, speeding through a different geography and a shorter scene.
Learn more about Lucky Ride HERE