by BJ Neblett
Static… nothing but static…
Not that it mattered.
Even if the reception was better what was being broadcast certainly wasn’t. Elton John, Barry Manilow and the Eagles were poor replacements for Little Richard, Sam Cooke and the Drifters. Yeah… the Drifters, the Five Satins, the Penguins, the Del Vikings, the Skyliners…all the great groups… And nobody had recorded a decent ballad since Otis Redding died.
Life… that’s what he had read somewhere. It was something about art and music imitating life. But that was of little consolation. What the hell had happened to life? No one cared anymore; it wasn’t like in the old days.
A steady light rain peppered the windshield causing the wipers to squeak with a metronome monotony, broken only occasionally by the gentle swaying of the plush set of dice hanging from the rear view mirror. No, it wasn’t at all like the old days. Hanging out in front of the bowling alley or at Tony’s Pizza shop used to mean something. Being there was being someone. And there was always the circuit to cruise, the Friday night drive-in, or the local hop to check out. Hell, you might even get lucky.
Did 1975 even have such things as hops?
“Screw it,” Johnny said to no one. Today was his birthday and he slipped one of his presents, a Buddy Holly tape, into the waiting mouth of the Lear Jet eight track player. In an hour or so he’d be out of these hills and be able to pick up some of the stronger Philly stations. This was Sunday night. Maybe he could even catch the tail end of Harvey Holiday’s oldies program on WDAS-FM. Then he’d switch to WEEZ and the Hall Of Fame show. After that his records, his tapes and his memories would have to see him through the week, as always.
Oh Boy blasted from the rear deck speakers as Johnny settled back into the deep pleated black leather upholstery. He unrolled a pack of Marlboros from his T shirt sleeve, pulled one between his lips, flipped the pack onto the dash and reached for the Zippo in his jeans. “Now that’s rock n roll,” he said with a grin. Lighting the cigarette, he took a deep drag. He was right… At 50 miles per hour you could keep perfect time to the music with the flashing white lines in the road. The Cadillac engine’s three carburetors sang sweetly under the shaved hood of the ’49 Merc coupe. His smile grew. At least some things don’t change.
The eerie white mist which hugged the road along old route 30 thickened, causing Johnny to cut his speed. He’d driven this lonely stretch between Philadelphia and Lancaster often, forsaking the turnpike in favor of the less traveled but warmly familiar two-lane blacktop. Johnny had been raised in the area on a small farm by foster parents who looked upon him as more a hired hand than a son. He hated the work and isolation. On his fifteenth birthday, Johnny packed his few belongings into the old beat up Mercury left him by his mother and headed east for Philadelphia. He regretted having to leave Janie, his young foster sister. Over the long hard years the two had grown close, comforting and depending on one another. But Janie understood his feelings and they promised to stay in touch. After two months in the city, when no one came looking for the runaway teen, Johnny knew he had made the right decision. This evening he was headed home after a weekend visit with Janie and her husband and kids. With the fog getting worse, Johnny set himself in the seat, puffed on the cigarette and strained to see the road.
“Damn!” Johnny jammed on the brake pedal. The car swerved left and then right, skidding sideways to a stop in the middle of the rain slicked pavement. He peered back down the road at the figure he’d almost run over. It was a young woman standing alone on the shoulder. Johnny could see she must have been out in the rain for some time. Before he could turn the coupe around, she hurried towards the car, holding a beige sweater over her head from the rain. The passenger door opened, and a beautiful woman in her early twenties climbed inside.
“I’m sorry… I… I didn’t see you… the fog…”
“It’s ok… I’m just glad you stopped,” she replied, smoothing the white chiffon party dress and pulling the door closed. “Any longer and I think I might have drowned.” Her voice was soft, her manner easy and friendly. “I was at a dance and the guy I was with turned out to be a real jerk. Guess it was stupid of me to walk home, but I had to get away from there.” She opened the glove box of the vintage hot rod and pushed a button. A small concealed makeup mirror flipped up before her, and she removed a pale blue scarf from her hair. “Anyway, I really do love the rain, especially when it’s over and the clouds begin to open and there’s a beautiful moon, and everything smells so fresh…”
“How… how did you know about that?”
Ignoring his question, she began to brush back her long blonde hair. “But then again, I did get rescued by a handsome knight in a shiny black chariot. I live just a little way down the road. I hope you don’t mind.”
Johnny turned the ignition key and the powerful Cadillac motor jumped to life. “No… no problem… just show me where.” The Mercury slipped easily into gear and rumbled down the road as Johnny slipped in a new tape.
“That’s a beautiful locket.” The mysterious stranger leaned over to admire the delicate gold heart shaped locked dangling at the end of Johnny’s key chain. It popped open, revealing a single fuzzy picture of a young boy and girl.
“That’s my dad, and my mom,” Johnny said. “He was thirteen there, and she was about ten or eleven I think.”
She turned in her seat, sizing Johnny up. “You look like him. You’re every bit as handsome.” The radio was switched off, but as she spoke she reached over and pulled on one of the buttons, resetting a station. “Oh, I love this song!” In The Still Of The Night filtered softly from the rear speakers as she adjusted the eight track’s volume.
They rode in relaxed silence, enjoying the old doo wop tune. “Tell me about them… your parents…” she asked, as the music faded and the player switched tracks.
Johnny eased back, lighting another cigarette. As he drove, he studied his passenger out of the corner of his eye. She had brushed her hair into a cute pony tail and repaired the light makeup she wore. He like the way she looked. This was the seventies, but Johnny hated the painted makeup and miniskirts many women wore and men seemed to enjoy. He found her to be warm and easy to talk with, but her eyes, soft and deep blue, glinted sad and distant.
“Mom and dad were childhood sweethearts,” Johnny began, the memories returning in a rush. “My dad joined the army right after graduation. While on leave they ran off to Maryland and were married. This old Mercury was the only thing they owned. It was his pride and joy. Three days later he was sent overseas. He was killed in Korea.”
“That was terrible,” she replied softly. She stared straight ahead, but not at the road. Her eyes were fixed on the images in her mind. Johnny thought he noticed a tear in the corner of her eye.
“Yeah… Mom was barely sixteen when I was born. I barely remember her. She died of pneumonia in ’58. That’s the only picture I have of either of them.”
“It must have been very hard for you.”
Johnny sighed and snuffed out the cigarette in the ashtray. “I guess. It’s funny, my only clear memories of her is how she would sing me to sleep every night… some old favorite rock or blues song. She loved music; always had the radio playing. Guess that’s why I like old rock n roll and rhythm and blues so much. Most people say I’m stuck in the fifties.”
It was true. After coming to Philadelphia, Johnny found work training as a mechanic. In his spare time he fixed up the Mercury, dropping in the new motor and customizing it in fifties low ride style. Johnny loved the music and life style of the fifties, constantly dressing in jeans, T shirt and leather jacket. He’d become pretty much a loner, finding it difficult to talk to the few girls he met. His life revolved around his car, his music and his memories.
“I know what you mean. Things sure aren’t like they were back then. Oh… turn right here… my house is just up this drive.”
Johnny wheeled the car into a long dirt and gravel drive almost hidden by trees. He knew this section of route 30 well and was sure he had never seen any turn offs anywhere this far out. “But…”
“This is fine.” She touched Johnny’s arm, cutting him off. “With all this rain the road will be muddy. You might get stuck. I can walk from here.”
The coupe came to a stop. Johnny looked at his beautiful, baffling passenger. He wanted to say something, anything. He didn’t want her to leave. He wanted to know her, who she was; where she came from; why she intrigued him so. Most of all Johnny wanted to know why he felt so comfortable with her.
He found himself silently staring into her distant eyes.
Turning in her seat, she returned Johnny’s gaze. She seemed to be studying him, memorizing his face; his features. Finally she spoke. “You know, there’s nothing wrong with having memories. I love this music myself; I always have. The fifties were good times. But there are a lot of good things out there today, too. All you have to do is take time to notice. Remembering the past is one thing; living in it is another. If you don’t enjoy today, you won’t have any memories of it tomorrow.” She leaned across the seat and kissed Johnny’s cheek. Tying her scarf around the rear view mirror, smiled and opened the car door. “Take care of yourself, Johnny, and happy birthday.”
In an instant she had disappeared into the fog. Johnny was lost for words. Before realizing, he had backed out onto the road and driven a few miles. The old coupe skidded to a halt. “This is crazy,” he said to the night, spinning the car around. “Who is she? How did she know my name?”
Gravel shot from the rear tires as Johnny pulled the car onto the shoulder. He jumped out, searching, looking up and down the dark highway. Cursing, he ran another quarter mile down the road. He was sure this was where he had turned off. There was nothing but trees, thick brush and the night. Desperately, Johnny looked up and down the road again.
He considered driving back another mile or two but there was no point. Reluctantly, Johnny started the car and pulled out onto the deserted road. He drove the next forty five minutes in silence, lost in his thoughts. Finally, with the distant lights of Paoli and the Main Line in view, Johnny relaxed, switching on the radio.
Static… nothing but static…
But he was close enough in now. He should be able to pick up most all of the Philly stations. Johnny pushed one button after another. Finally he hit the last one. The speakers crackled and the final chorus of the Drifter’s Some Kind Of Wonderful faded. The DJ announced the station’s call letters. It was WEEZ and Billy James’ late night Sunday Hall Of Fame show. Johnny listened to the oldies program faithfully each week but never set one of the car’s radio buttons to the predominately rock station. As the announcer gave the time, Johnny realized the station was set to the button the girl had programmed.
“And I have a very special request and dedication for a guy out there on his birthday, this Sunday evening.” The DJ’s words caught Johnny’s attention. “The lady sends her love and says, ‘Thanks for the ride.’ Johnny, this one’s for you.”
Johnny pulled to the curb, raising the radio’s volume. BJ Thomas’ Rock n Roll Lullaby filled the car. He listened to the words, recalling the evening. What was it she had said? There are a lot of good things out there today… all you have to do is take time to notice.
The light rain finally stopped as the touching ballad ended. The fog began to lift, and the parting clouds revealed a big bright full moon directly overhead. It shone on the blue scarf hanging from the car’s rear view mirror. Johnny reached for the ignition key, flipping open the gold locket. Next to the worn photograph of his parents was a photo of the mysterious passenger. She wore the same white chiffon party dress and stood next to the old Mercury.
“Got your message…” he said aloud, “thanks, mom.”