This is how the story begins. Not really, this is a gimmick. You know how the memoir works. We look back from a point in the present that makes that moment, those events in the past come back to mind and seem somehow present and alive.
I’m driving home from Alligator Point crossing the Ochlockonee River bridge, rising toward the sky and stars; the near full moon is shining in the water. It’s almost November and I have the windows down. Where the story begins is a thousand miles and almost forty years away. It’s in my prehistory, the time before writing and almost before I found this language. There were no stories written then, though many were beginning to take form. Back then there was just the life I was living and the seemingly random things I found myself doing.
It begins like this. Dean sang a love song with a line about a blender and now I am crossing the river in the moonlight and I’m about to tell a road story, a story about unrequited desire and its subsequent fulfillment. Sort of. Desire was consummated, but it didn’t really live up to the desire that the blender, in its odd and magical way, engendered.
Beaver, PA, January 1972, twenty miles downriver from Pittsburgh—the story begins. A few days before that night, whatever night it was, I had just flown up from Florida with a broken nose. At this point in my life I knew only two places—Beaver Valley and Palm Beach County. Disparate realities and climates, poles of hot and cold, flat and hilly, dark and light. I am, as I often am and will be, in the wrong place, since being warm is something I desire. So, after a few days in this dark, cold, sooty winter, I am going to hitchhike to California by way of Florida. The logistics of my travels were often suspect too.
Mark, the older brother of the kid I hung out with the previous summer, is a veteran hitchhiker. He hitches like other people go shopping—on a whim, for pleasure, to alleviate boredom, to be moving, and sometimes to actually get somewhere he needs to go. He has red hair and a long red beard, and I don’t know why he wants to go to California, but If you’re going to San Francisco . . . California Dreaming . . . So I say sure, let’s go. Mark knows how to hitch hike and I don’t know very much at all. We are a team, but I am sort of the second-string catcher.
Mark’s eyes shine and always seem to say why not. Even when he’s not high he’s grinning and bouncing and saying let’s go. Why not, I say to myself, though my fucking nose really hurts. It’s like having congestion and throbbing pain all the time and the freezing air just makes everything hurt more and breathing even harder to do. My nose will be twisted and clogged for forty years; there’s no reason not to hitch to California.
Mark’s been living in a fourth floor walk up in an old house by the railroad overpass in Beaver. Beaver Valley is a land of Slovak, Polish, Italian, and other Eastern European ethnicities with long strange names. Mark’s landlady’s name was butchered when her husband’s ancestor came through Ellis Island. Whatever mean-ass clerk did it, and however intentional the joke, this family was saddled with the name Slimo. There was probably once a “kivitz,” “vicius,” or “ski” on the end of it. I imagine there were no shortage of bad jokes and teasing about it, but I don’t know. I don’t know this family.
When Mrs. S found out that Mark was going to Florida she said her daughter was in college there (as if all of Florida was one place—and in a way it is, or was then) and she asked (insisted) that Mark take a present to her daughter in Gainesville. I figured, and maybe Mark did too, that it would be something nice (and small)—a bracelet, a necklace. So he said why not. Me too. And besides we were taught to be polite to our elders, to be generous. What did we care where we went in Florida? It was warm there.
Mrs. S didn’t know or understand that we were hitchhiking, so when she gave Mark this big ass box with a blender in it, I’m sure she didn’t think about the problems that adding a blender to a full back pack and carrying it over miles and days of cold hitching might cause. Her ancestors came to this country with all that they owned in bags, sacks, trunks if they were lucky. So Mark just grinned, said why not, and took the blender and the piece of paper with her daughter’s address from her hands. Later, after we were a short distance from the house, he took the blender out of the box, wrapped it in his clean clothes, and somehow stuffed it into his backpack. Mrs. Slimo’s daughter (we laughed every time we said those words) lived in a University of Florida sorority house. We never considered tossing or pawning the blender. We were good boys.
It was cold, really cold, and as we left it got colder. Then colder. The night after we accepted our blender mission, we were in a commune in Pittsburgh’s Mexican War district where we were going to hook up with two Navy guys heading back to their ship in Charleston, South Carolina. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Hippies, sailors, a commune, grass, a blender, a VW bus—America is truly a melting pot.
Snow and ice had shut down the turnpike. We spent a second night in Pittsburgh and then took off into the maw of a winter storm. Cars and trucks littered the shoulders of the interstate until we made it south of DC. A VW bus has little heat and none of it made it to the back where Mark and I were huddled under all the blankets we could find. We were near freezing and Maryland and Virginia were frozen, but the air-cooled engine rolled on and eventually the sailors dropped us off at a little college near Orangeburg, SC. We walked into the student lounge in the middle of the night and slept on cold plastic couches. Why not? In the morning when two students walked into the lounge, the sun glinted off the thin crust of ice on the brown grass. It was a Baptist college, I think, and the boys were a bit unnerved by our disheveled and possibly heathen appearance. But, Mark, eyes flashing, big grin above the red beard, said Good Morning. May the Lord bless you. Fine day for a journey. The students agreed. We packed our bags and walked back to the highway with our blender.
As it warmed up we started thinking again of Mrs. S’s daughter. She was a good distraction because we were not getting as many rides as we were angry stares and gestures from the local rednecks. Even though I’d lived in Florida for six years, hitching through the South with hippie hair and attire was not something I was comfortable with. Mark just kept his thumb up high. He believed a good hitchhiker faced the oncoming traffic—no walking down the highway with your back turned to the cars and your thumb halfheartedly raised. Mark had a lot of rules about hitchhiking, but I didn’t know them yet. As morning turned to afternoon, we engaged in blender fantasy. We figured Mrs. S’s daughter would be extremely pleased to get her blender; we even imagined that she really wanted it, that it was the only kitchen appliance that her fancy sorority house and her sisters did not have. And we knew that even if her mother didn’t understand the magnitude of the task that we had agreed to take on, the daughter would. She was in college, after all. She must have known something about the hero’s tale. We’d accepted being Called and we were well into the travails of Departure. Fulfillment, we dreamed, should soon be ours. We didn’t know Mrs. S’s daughter’s given name, and it was pretty hard to maintain our fantasies when saying Slimo.
This was Mark’s story. We get to Gainesville and find the sorority house. We ask for “her” and when she comes down the stairs, or down the hall, she’s beautiful, of course. Maybe her mother was once beautiful too, in a robust Slavic way. We aren’t sure if her mother has told her we are coming, and we have to introduce ourselves and relate the full tale of our quest. After we tell her about her mother’s desperate plea, the icy turnpike, the cold van, the trouble getting rides in the South and the hassles and insults we endured, then we give her the blender. It would shine like a golden chalice, and she would be so smitten by our quest, by our great service to her that she would take Mark to her bed and get one of her willing sisters to bed me. Mark figured that since he carried the blender that he would get to have sex with Mrs. S’s daughter. I was fine with that; I figured I’d rather have sex with a girl not named Slimo and avoid the potentially awkward moment when I giggled at her weird name. I would have been happy with a Smith, a Shaw, almost any other name. We were the Blender Men. We had traveled long and hard, protected her blender from brigands and cops, rednecks and religious zealots. It was a comforting distraction in our tough times on the road.
Since this was a fantasy it was easy for me to omit the fact that I had only had sex with one girl in my twenty-year life and imagine myself as much cooler and confident than I was. That’s what fantasy is good for.
After a long walk from the southern end of the Savannah River Bridge through a pretty poor and tough looking side of town, we got a few rides and found ourselves in Saint Augustine. We were tempted to linger there; it was warm and lovely and old, but the blender, our promise to Mrs. Slimo, and our ever-growing fantasy drove us on to Gainesville. We hitched west through the potato fields of Spuds and Hastings, and outside of Hawthorne, home of Bo Diddley (“Who Do You Love”) got a ride with a plumber in his plumber’s truck. The man was high as a kite and he immediately got us high too. And then higher. He told us that he was getting so high so much that he had about run the business, which he had inherited from his father, into the ground. But he was happy. And high. And we were high and happy and happier to have a ride all the way to Gainesville. Our plumber liked us and said we could stay a day or two at his apartment because he was shacking up with his old lady. Life kept getting better. We were high and we could take much needed showers before we delivered the blender, completed our quest, and had sex with Mrs. S’s daughter and some other sorority sister. We never considered a three way. We were Valley boys, products of the steel mills on the Ohio River. We couldn’t even pronounce ménage a trois.
Full of hope, recently bathed, and high on the plumber’s pot, we went to find our Lady. We walked across the UF campus and it was warm and green as paradise. We were high. High and horny. Mark remembered a tale that Rich, another of our Valley boys, had told us about someone he knew who had panicked when he thought the cops were on to him and stuffed a pound of pot in the couch of a UF frat house. After we got our reward at the sorority house, wouldn’t it be great to find that pound of pot? It was like believing there was a rainbow at the end our Blender fantasy.
We found the House and walked inside as if we were allowed. Like we were frat boys visiting our little sisters. We walked up to the reception desk and asked for Ms. Slimo. “Is she in,” we inquired? “Please tell her that we have brought her a present from her mother.”
The woman at the desk gave us a sad and incredulous look. “Annette’s not here.”
Annette, finally we knew her name. “When will she return,” we asked. We were so happy to not have to say Slimo anymore.
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “Not for a couple of days.”
Our faces fell. We knew we couldn’t wait for her.
“I can take the present and make sure Annette gets it,” the desk guard said.
Mark, for the first time, was not grinning and his eyes were flat. He looked at me. I had nothing to offer. He had met his Waterloo. He slowly reached into his backpack and pulled out the blender.
“A blender” the gate keeper asked. “You brought a blender all the way from Pennsylvania?”
“We hitchhiked,” I said. It sounded really stupid, like I still believed in Santa Claus and I was easily suckered into doing stupid things.
“Hitchhiked?” She reluctantly took the blender that Mark more reluctantly gave her.
“Will you tell Annette that we did this,” he asked.
She said she would, but it was pretty clear she had no idea what we had done and that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be able to convey any of our quest to Mrs. Slimo’s daughter.
This is how some quests end. The hero doesn’t get his reward. Sometimes he gets cheated, arrested, thrown into a dungeon or beheaded. His lineage, his rightful claim to the throne is denied. There’s no princess given in marriage. The people of his country don’t even believe that he battled monsters, dragons, rednecks, highways. What’s that you say? You walked for forty days through the wilderness? You stayed underwater for an hour and fought a terrible monster? You hitchhiked through the South with a blender in your backpack?
Mark turned toward the door and I fell in behind him. We felt the guard and the sorority sisters staring at our backs. We walked out into the sun. “Well fuck,” Mark said.
I didn’t say fuck yet. I was slow to come to hard core cursing. “Yea,” I said.
“Guess we aren’t going to get laid.”
Then Mark’s grin came back and his eyes started to shine again. His clean hair flowed back off his forehead and he looked a bit like a red headed Christ. “We oughta go look for the pot. I wonder how many frat houses there are here.”
It would seem that the Blender story ends here. Fruitless. But remember, it was a beautiful night on the bridge over the river when this began. The moon was shining and the stars were bright. If you believe in wishing on a star, there were a ton of stars to wish on. Maybe the odds of getting what you wish for are better if there are a ton of stars.
We didn’t find any pot in any frat house, but we did enjoy walking into a few of them, sauntering over to the couches and clandestinely feeling around beneath the cushions. Truth be told, it was a pretty absurd quest. A tall tale, no doubt, that Rich liked to tell. He and his girlfriend lived in this little house in a cemetery in the hills above Rochester. It was probably the place the gravedigger used to live in back in the day. It had no heat and their bed on the floor had about ten blankets and quilts piled on it. When we got high out there, it was always too cold to really get stoned. Who knows what Rich really knew or heard? Maybe his brain was frozen.
Still, it was fun to search for pot in the frat houses. We got high again on the last of the plumber’s pot and that afternoon after we failed to find our magic stash, we left and hitched south. Soon we had almost forgotten about Mrs. S’s daughter and how she had betrayed us. The blender was just a vague memory. What color was it? What brand? She couldn’t really need it. We figured her rich boyfriend probably had two blenders. Poor Mrs. Slimo, she must have really believed her ungrateful daughter spent her evenings at the sorority house studying and drinking tea with her sisters and wishing she could make fresh fruit smoothies.
The blender part of the story really is over, and it was as anticlimactic for us as it might seem to a reader who is not familiar with foreshadowing. If this were fiction, I would be on the verge of violating the rule about if there’s a gun on the table on page one, someone needs to get shot before the story ends. But this is nonfiction and as we are often told, stranger than fiction. There was a blender. It was delivered to a woman at a sorority house who was not there to get it, and we, the blender men, the deliverers, never got laid, kissed, bathed and anointed, or even thanked. The blender was the calling of the quest, and the quest was undertaken and completed in good faith. If there had been no blender, there would have been no quest, and we wouldn’t have known that Mrs. Slimo had a daughter at the University of Florida. Even though we did not meet her then, she did exist. She became the woman I delivered a blender to in 1972. So, when I was crossing the bridge that starry night, thinking of love songs and blenders, I had more reason to do so than you might assume at this point in the narrative.
Mark and I hitched to the Keys and slept on coral hard as it was sharp. The sea breeze did not blow the mosquitoes away. The mangroves were ugly and spooky in the night wind and they cast wicked shadows over our sleeping bags. We had a tent, but we had lost the stakes and the poles, so we just used it as a tarp and slept on it when it was not raining and under it if it was.
Then we hitched to Houston, crashed with Mark’s Socialist brother and worked manpower jobs for a month to get more money. I worked for NASA for one day unscrewing red plastic widgets and putting the parts in boxes, but they told Manpower not to send me back because my hair was too long. It was like Alice’s Restaurant; I was declared unfit to unscrew widgets and kill babies. Mark’s brother’s apartment was full of Socialist Worker’s Party comrades and I learned a lot about Marx, Marxism, and labor struggles. I learned not to call women “chicks.” We worked as waiters at the Socialist Workers Party campaign dinner for its presidential candidates, Andrew Jenness and Linda Pulley. Jenness lost by over 47 million votes. McGovern didn’t do well either.
We slept on top of a mountain in New Mexico, and we were terrified by Indian ghosts. A few days later we were in SF and then spent a week in Big Sur. The next week, somewhere in LA, Mark and I split up. He wasn’t much fun to hitch with and once I got the hang of it, got some confidence in my ability to go solo, we went our separate ways. Mark had a lot of rules.
We were only allowed to spend 60 cents each per day. We could eat anything people gave us, but we could only afford peanut butter, bread, and bananas for 60 cents. I grew tired of such rigidity and Mark’s shining eyes began to look more fanatical than inspiring.
I hitched back to Pittsburgh alone. I had five dollars in my pocket and a big bag of trail mix. I had great, long rides, despite getting shit on by a husky in a van full of crab traps, and my last ride carried me from St Louis to Pittsburgh. I gave away the last half of my trail mix to some hungry folks and wandered back to my father’s house. I saw Mark a couple of times in the months to come and then he went to Spain and hitched around Europe. I went back to Florida when it started getting cold again and hitched and traveled for most of the next five years. Mark went to Alaska and I lost touch with him.
That all leads to this. In 1977, I decided to go to college and find something else to do besides cheapo-cheapo travel. I went to UF in Gainesville, not for the academics, what was that? I went because I had been there before.
A couple of years later I was at a party standing in a long line to get to the keg and talking to a woman who had come down from Georgia for the weekend. She and her Georgia roommate were UF alums and now high school teachers. I told her that I came from up around Pittsburgh and she said that her roommate did too. Where, I asked? Some little town, she said. I asked her to introduce me.
You see where this is going? We got our beer and found the roommate in another room of the house. She had long blond hair and pouty lips. She was good looking, but rather well dressed–not really a woman I would have sought out and talked to, but there was the Pittsburgh connection to explore.
“You from up around Pittsburgh?” I asked.
“Some little town, you wouldn’t know it.”
“Maybe I do,” I said, “which town?” She was a little annoyed, like maybe I was putting some move on her, but she said “Beaver.” At this point in our culture telling a guy at a party that you were from Beaver was problematic too (I had just learned that word.)
“I know Beaver. I grew up in Baden and hung out in Beaver; we used to get high in the park by the bend in the river.”
She started to look interested. “I used to live around there. My parents live there, I mean.”
“I had a friend who rented a room in a house by the railroad over pass.”
Now she was leaning in towards me. “My parents live by that overpass.”
This was like the way Oedipus discovered who he was and then, terribly, what he had done—one question, one answer at a time. But I was not worried. I had not slept with my mother. A mother, yes, but not my own. My father was alive, but Oedipus thought his was too. I was certain I had never killed a man, or anyone else. I went on.
Listen,” I said, “this is going to sound weird. Did you live here in 1972?”
“In a sorority?”
“Did someone bring you a blender from your mother?” She just stared at me. She was so slow to answer that I thought she thought I was crazy. We had just met. It’s after midnight. I’m talking a blender in a story that happened about many years ago.
“Who are you?”
“I brought you the blender.” I left Mark out of the story. This was my fantasy maybe coming true, albeit after a lot of years had cooled it off. And it was some really strange thing unfolding between two people who could barely believe that it was happening.
“You? I don’t remember you.”
“You weren’t there. “My friend and I brought the blender from Beaver, from your mother; we hitchhiked to Gainesville with a damn blender just to give it to you and then you weren’t at the House. We had to leave it at the desk. I was so disappointed. I had built up a fantasy of how much you were going to like me when I gave you the blender.”
“You didn’t leave a name. A phone number.”
“We were hitchhiking to California. Who had a phone? And, it all seemed so stupid when it went down. You weren’t there. The woman at the desk just stared at us like we were crazy. Even the blender seemed stupid and carrying it a thousand miles to a stranger a pretty stupid thing to do too.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“No, really, even if you had been there you would have thought we were crazy too. We looked like bums. Hippies. We were high and though we had cleaned up a little after four days of hitchhiking, I’m sure a sorority girl wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with us. It might have been worse if you were there. It would have been a personal rejection instead of bad timing and bad luck.”
“You’re probably right. I had a rich boyfriend. I was a model. I didn’t hang out with hitchhikers and hippies.”
“Even ones that brought you a blender?”
“Well, you’re here now and I still have the blender.”
“You want to hear about how I wanted to be rewarded for my noble service?”
I am sure that I made up a lot of the dialogue above, but the conversation happened pretty much the way I’ve told it, and it happened in Gainesville where the blender was delivered to Annette, Mrs. S’s daughter.
Years, many years later, I ran into Mark again. We had been out of touch for almost twenty years, though I did know where he’d been and what he was doing because I remained close to his little brother. Mark and I were never good friends; we just traveled together. This night we were sitting in a Motel 6 telling stories, trying to figure out where everyone was and what they were doing. Pudi, Jay, Rich, Chuck, we talked about all of them. Then I remembered the blender.
“You remember taking that blender to Gainesville?”
“Sure. Wow, that was strange. And she wasn’t even there.”
“I met her years later at a party.”
“No Shit? In Gainesville?”
“Yea, she’d graduated and left, but she came back for a weekend and we were at the same party. I don’t even know whose house it was. We started talking and one thing led to another and then the blender story and it was her.”
“Life is so fucking strange.”
I didn’t tell him that, in some sense, our fantasy had come true. Locker room talk, no reason for it. And besides, he had carried the blender not me.
There’s the bridge, the moonlit river, the starry sky.