“Called ‘the mighty Sasquatch of American Fiction’ by Michael Chabon, renowned literary outlaw Chuck Kinder steps once again onto the landscape of American letters with the paperback reissue of his 1979 novel, The Silver Ghost…”
As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports, “after 37 years of literary limbo, The Silver Ghost is being reissued by Braddock Avenue Books, the Pittsburgh-based publisher run by writers Robert Peluso and Jeffrey Condran. Both men, who studied with Kinder at Pitt, feel they are resurrecting a literary masterpiece.”
From the publisher: “Jimbo Stark, teenage soldier of fortune, loves, fights, drinks, mopes, and steals his way through this brilliant novel of the late 1950s. His America glows with an almost romantic light—it is an electric, song-filled garden for teenage love, where everything is possible, even heroism. Imagining himself sometimes as James Dean’s reincarnation, sometimes as a beatnik gangster poet straight out of Jack Kerouac, Jimbo lives a legend of his own construction.”
1: outlaw of love
Jimbo Stark lay on his bed in the dark, smoking. It was Judy’s turn to make their weekly Monday night long-distance call. An ashtray rested on Jimbo’s chest and he frequently tapped his cigarette, keeping its tip glowing. Now and then he waved the cigarette in the air, drawing with its ember random, brief afterimage shapes in the darkness, shapes like those ghosts of flame he could remember as a squirt weaving into the evening air with sparklers. I wish I was a squirt again, Jimbo thought. A squirt running through freshly mown grass on summer evenings, playing kick-the-can, hide-and-seek, and not a goddamn care in the world. A squirt who still had hope. Sometimes Jimbo felt he did not have any hope in anything any longer and he was lonelier than ever before. He had been banished to live at his grandmother’s home in this southern West Virginia boondock coal-mining town and he was lonely in this his senior year as the small local highschool’s only poet. It was Judy’s turn to call, goddamn it!
Jimbo clicked on his bedside lamp. He sat on the edge of his bed and fired up another cigarette. He ran his fingers back through his thick, dark hair and for a few moments just sat there holding his head in his hands. Finally he got up and walked slowly over to the window and for a time looked out at the bare branches of the frontyard maples moving in the gusty rain. The lights from the coal tipples on the hill across the narrow valley looked hazy through the wet glass, a halo sparkling about each one. A freight train rumbled along the tracks through the valley, hooting its whistle as it approached the small coal town’s first road crossing. Jimbo pressed his hands flat against the slick, cold glass to feel the train’s vibrations. He shut his eyes and pressed his forehead against the glass also. Jimbo Stark was in despair.
Indeed, Jimbo Stark felt more despair than even usual. He had felt more despair than even usual from the moment he heard Judy had been elected by her St. Joe classmates, for the second straight year, as the Valentine Ball’s Queen of Hearts. Being Queen of Hearts meant Judy was to wear a lovely crown of tiny silver valentines and would with her lucky escort lead off the Ball’s first slowdance. Last year Jimbo had been the lucky escort who led off the Ball’s first slowdance with Judy. The band last year, a local group called the Throbs, had played a medley of oldie-but-goodie lovesongs, Earth Angel, You Are My Special Angel, Teen Angel, and Jimbo and Judy had slowdanced all alone around a slowly melting ice cupid in the center of the lavishly decorated gym. Mirrored bluegreen lights had flowed like small Caribbean moons over the huge silver hearts hung on the gym’s cinder-block walls, had flowed watery over Jimbo and Judy, making them for those magic moments of their slowdance as mysterious as a moviecouple. Judy had never looked more lovely, her blond hair luminous. Jimbo had pressed his face into her glowing hair, his breath thick with more blondness than he had ever known. At the song’s end Judy had for a long moment just stood there in the center of the gym looking up into Jimbo’s eyes. Her own eyes were tropical in the bluegreen light. In her tropical eyes were islands with torchlit long canoes passing between them. The ice cupid melted under the small Caribbean moons of light slowly bluegreen. A long moment, a freezeframe, somewhere forever. Then, with a sudden gay laugh, Judy rose on tiptoe to kiss Jimbo’s mouth. Being wonderful witnesses, all the other couples, who had stood about patiently watching Jimbo and Judy’s slowdance, applauded. That was last year. This year, two hundred winter miles away, Jimbo felt despair.
This is so chickenshit, Jimbo thought and stepped back from the window. What was he doing to himself? Poor little chickenshit feeling so sorry for himself. Moaning like the stars were falling. Perspective. He needed perspective. And bravado. Perspective and bravado. Like, man, would James Dean, old Captain Rebel Without a Cause, moon around like a punk over some silly highschool honey? Would old Captain On the Road Jack Kerouac mope around like a dope? Hell no, man! Jimbo said aloud, snapping his fingers and trying to laugh. Not old Captain Jimbo Stark either, by God! Teenage soldier of fortune! Captain Badass Beatnik Poet! Not this cat, man! Jimbo hooted again aloud. Snapping his fingers and bobbing his head like a boxer, Jimbo bopped over to his chest of drawers and got out the pint of vodka he had stashed under his socks. He took a big hit and smacked his lips as tears flooded his eyes. Well, one good thing about living in the boonies with his dear old granny anyway, Jimbo thought, was that she didn’t search his room like his dear old mom had done at home before his old man, old Captain World War Two, had tossed him out in the cold on his ass. Like the time his dear old mom had found his love poems. Un-Christian poems, she had declared and burned them. Love poems, of Judy’s blondness, of blankets and Judy’s warm breasts and drive-in movies on softly raining summer nights, burned. Christ! Crap! Well, that’s what cancer will do to you, Jimbo thought. Make you get all goofy about religion. Going to every two-bit tent revival that hits town. Visiting shut-ins like a hobby. Jesus, Jimbo thought and smacked his forehead with his palm. My poor old lady. My poor mother.
Suddenly sad again, Jimbo sat down at his desk. For a time he held his head in his hands; then, finally, he got out the poem he had begun days before but had not been able to finish. A poem about a certain gazebo and loss. Who would have thought how lovely / those old stones / how gently / how lovingly shaped those slender rails. Crap, Jimbo thought. He took another long hit of vodka, then put the bottle back under the socks in the drawer. He flopped on the bed and fired up another cigarette. Finally, after several more cigarettes, Jimbo rolled onto his stomach and felt around under the bed for the sock. Well, here goes your basic terminal case of the hairy palms and pimples, Jimbo thought, rolling onto his back and unzipping his jeans. The sock was one of a stupid pair his grandmother had given him for Christmas, punk-kid socks, green with yellow rocket ships shooting up their sides. The sock was stiff as a corpse and Jimbo crunched it gently in his hands until it softened. Jimbo shut his eyes. Jimbo opened his eyes. The hell with Judy, he thought and with a sigh tossed the sock back under the bed.
It seemed so long ago now, that distant, mythic Friday night when Jimbo had first met Judy at a party and his life had done a flip-flop. It had been a St. Joe party and Jimbo had led his crew of Central High rowdy badass buddies there to crash it and maybe kick some chickenshit Catholic punkboy butt. But as soon as they had stomped in the door Jimbo spotted Judy. She was bopping with one of the Catholic punkboys. As soon as the record was over Jimbo had arched his eyebrows and wrinkled his forehead and let his lower face collapse into smiles, which was his perfectly Cool James Dean moviemask, mastered after earnest effort, and he had slouched Coolly over to Judy and asked her to dance. To everyone’s surprise she accepted. Jimbo could sense she was nervous. Letting his lower face collapse into smiles and using his very best bashful voice, he told her he was not exactly some hot-trotting Fred Astaire on the old dance floor and he sure hoped he wouldn’t crunch one of her delicate glass slippers. Then he twirled her gracefully under his arm and went quickly into one of his Cool, fancy shuffles. Judy giggled and Jimbo wrinkled his forehead. He told her he liked her haunting perfume. He pulled her close for a few steps and told her it was the same scent she wore that distant incarnation ago when the stagecoach she was on stopped to pick him up in the middle of nowhere. What in the world are you talking about? Judy asked, a cute little perplexed frown on her face. The incarnation when you were a saloon girl and had just been run out of a dusty two-horse town by the local Christians, Jimbo explained each time he twirled her near. And I was on foot in the badlands because I had had to shoot my lame horse. And your stagecoach stopped for me. And like you I too had a past. For years I had been running with a wild bunch all through the Old West. My hobby was shooting up saloons. My fast gun had become famous far and wide. I was known only as Ringo. I’d often come across my picture on posters tacked to cottonwoods down by the stream. I wasn’t all bad, though. I’d never drilled a cowpoke who hadn’t thrown down on me first. I’d never ridden a horse into the ground. I was always polite to saloon girls. It was love at first sight between us. You had big orange feathers in your fancy saloon girl hat and your wrists looked just as delicate as glass and you were wearing this same haunting perfume. You are a nut! Judy said and laughed and Jimbo twirled her again and again, her blond ponytail bouncing, bouncing. Then, while his rowdy badass buddies glowered drunkenly from a corner, Judy and Jimbo danced the night away. The room was awash with babble about them. Judy told Jimbo she had heard a lot about him. He explained to her that he was misunderstood. She told him he had a pretty wild reputation. He confessed to her that he secretly wrote poetry. She told him that he didn’t seem as wild as everyone said. Jimbo asked Judy to run off with him to Asia where in a hidden valley he had a shimmering magic palace of silver. Judy giggled. When one of Jimbo’s rowdy badass buddies tried to pick a fight with one of the Catholic punkboys Jimbo broke it up and saved the party from shambles. Two weeks later Jimbo and Judy were going steady.
It is the late 1950s and America is a lush, electric, song-filled garden for teenage truelove, and Jimbo and Judy fully expect that their own truelove will grow and grow until the end of time, until the twelfth of never. And all of their best friends, all the other couples in their crowd—Pace and Penny, who by that time have gone all the way eleven times, Bob and Sally, who have gone only to second base, Boots and Peggy Sue, who fingerfuck relentlessly—they all believe that Jimbo and Judy’s truelove will grow and grow until the end of time, until the twelfth of never. After all, they make such a cute couple, Jimbo tall, thin, dark, and Judy petite, blond. And they dance together so perfectly. Teenagers in truelove, they are romantic perfectly.
They make plans for the future. They design and redesign the shimmering dreamhome of their future. They spend hours deciding upon the names of their twelve children, their six boys and six girls. They speculate about their twelve children’s glorious futures. We’ll need at least one major leaguer in this old family, Jimbo says. And how’s about a scientist or two? And a covergirl who will go on to break into the movies and become a big star, Judy suggests. And a doctor and a lawyer, they readily agree. And maybe a college professor. And maybe one of the girls will marry a senator, or, better yet, maybe one of the boys will actually be a senator who just might go on all the way to the White House. It could happen. Anything could happen in America.
Because they go to different highschools, Judy to Catholic St. Joe’s, Jimbo to Central High, Jimbo each lunch hour and every day after school without fail hops slow freights in the trainyard for rides across town to St. Joe and Judy’s waiting arms. When she sees Jimbo walking up the hill from the tracks Judy runs to hug him. With a cute gesture of slight reproach she takes the cigarette from behind Jimbo’s ear, then kisses him tenderly and for a long time they look lovingly into the depths of one another’s eyes.
Some afternoons after school Jimbo and Judy walk around downtown hand in hand window-shopping. Through the shining membrane of glass they look at china, at silver, at their own reflections. They select patterns. They study the tray of rings. There, that’s it, Judy says one afternoon. That’s our ring. They have been standing in front of Goldstein’s Jewelry display window for what seems to Jimbo hours. Judy’s blue eyes have been grazing the glittering points of light within. Jimbo has been rather absently observing the watery reflection in the glass of the traffic flowing behind them and thinking vaguely of fish. The ring is a diamond with a heart of small perfect pearls shaped about it. That’s the only ring in the whole wide world for us, Judy says, her voice husky. The only ring in the whole wide world costs four hundred bucks. Four hundred buckaroos, Jimbo thinks to himself, studying his reflection in the glass. Four hundred fish. He arches his eyebrows. He wrinkles his forehead.
On Saturday afternoons Jimbo and Judy often go to bop and slowdance on Bebop Billy’s Channel 8 Happy Hop, where more than any of the other couples in their crowd they are stars. Indeed, the small red light on the gliding camera glows like grace upon them much more often than upon any other couple. When the camera settles like this upon them they look deeply into one another’s eyes and shyly smile and Jimbo knows that once again their love is its own program on teevee, its signals pulsing out like light into space, becoming real in some new set forever.
It is the late 1950s and truelove can still do this, can be like a teevee serial, renewed forever. America is not yet a rerun. America is a lush, electric, song-filled garden for teenagers in truelove. Long-playing records are a dozen years old by then and stereo albums have just become available. A Columbia University professor has declared that a biological urge as relentless as electricity inspires the following of Elvis Presley, a teen idol with blue suede shoes. Stars are discovered and identified on random South Philly streets. Such as Fabian, who, although only recently discovered by teevee, has been voted by the American Bandstand audience as the Most Promising Teen Male Singing Star. Pat Boone, a teen idol with feet of white buck, has announced that he will kiss the girl star in his next movie. The sales of padded bras have soared. It will be a wholesome love scene, Pat Boone makes clear. And it may be a good thing for teenagers to see a wholesome kiss, he adds, to offset the less wholesome kissing that goes on in some movies. Because of American Bandstand all of the new dances are discovered in South Philly, as though they have been waiting there forever for teevee to make them real. In addition to his daily American Bandstand Dick Clark initiates a Saturday night rock-and-roll show where each week he identifies new stars and proclaims the Top Ten of the land. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper fall flaming into a midwestern cornfield, but they do not vanish. Frank Sinatra, an aging star with blue eyes, declares that rock and roll is lewd—in plain fact dirty. Dick Clark makes certain that American Bandstand is not lewd, not in plain fact dirty. Smoking is not allowed. Girls in tight sweaters are banished. Bob and Justine are the starring blond couple on American Bandstand. Their blond love shines from the teevee like neon. They lead off a lot of fast dances. Kenny and Arlene, both Italian, are the starring dark couple. Often they are the Spot Light Slow Dancers of the day. Arlene wears a dark jumper and a prim white blouse, the uniform of a local Catholic girls’ school, which somehow makes her black eyes seem only that much more mysterious. There are rumors about how far Kenny and Arlene go. They get fan mail.
On Bebop Billy’s Channel 8 Happy Hop Jimbo and Judy also get fan mail. Often Bebop Billy gives them their fan mail right on camera. Sometimes he even reads it to them out loud. How did you two lovebirds meet? Bebop Billy reads from a viewer’s letter. She was on a stagecoach which stopped for me in the middle of nowhere, Jimbo says, arching his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead. I was a gunfighter and she was a saloon girl with a past. It was love at first sight. Judy giggles and covers her face with her hands. The other couples in the teevee studio laugh and applaud with approval. Bebop Billy laughs and slaps Jimbo on the shoulder. Jimbo’s lower face collapses into smiles.
How long have you two sweethearts been going steady? Bebop Billy reads from the same letter. Since the summer of ’86, Jimbo says. We started going steady just two weeks after we fell in love at first sight on that stagecoach. Bebop Billy laughs, then reads from another letter: Judy, has anyone ever told you that you look just like Sandra Dee? Oh no, never, Judy says, again covering her face with her hands. Jimbo smiles, thinking of Judy’s secret scrapbook, starring Sandra Dee, with its glossy collection of Sandra Dee movie magazine covers. And what about you, Bebop Billy asks Jimbo, our viewer here writes that you are a deadringer for Tony Perkins: has anyone ever told you that? Well, now, Jimbo says, wrinkling his forehead, at one time or another I’ve had honeys tell me I was a deadringer for about every handsome hunk of star who ever hit Hollywood, by golly. But usually they tell me I look like the late, great James Dean. Jimbo flexes his muscles for the camera. Judy giggles. All the other couples, being swell witnesses, laugh. Bebop Billy laughs. Indeed, Bebop Billy beams, beams. Always beaming, Jimbo thinks, and in spite of it old Bebop Billy looks, up close, whipped out as hell. Almost sad somehow. His sportcoat although pink and in style is slightly rumpled. His handsome host face is red and puffy and he is sweating profusely. Being in television must take a lot of juice out of you, Jimbo thinks.
Well, here’s one last fan letter, Bebop Billy says, and this video viewer wants to know if you two teenagers in love plan to be married someday. Yes, and we plan to have twelve beautiful children too, Judy says, sucking her breath in as she talks the way she does sometimes, more heartbreakingly cute than Sandra Dee would ever in any movie of her life dare to be. Jimbo’s unruly dork begins to stiffen. Down, boy, he thinks.
Well, Bebop Billy says, I understand that today is a very, very special day for you, little lady. Right? The big, big day. Your birthday, right? And what’s more it’s not just any old birthday. Gang, our little Judy here is today Sweet Sixteen! Right, honey? Sweet Sixteen! Judy giggles. Jimbo’s lower face collapses into smiles. And, Bebop Billy says, beaming, beaming, a little birdie told me, you’ve got a sweet surprise coming. Right, Jimbo? A little birdie told me that Jimbo here has something very, very special for you. And what’s more he wants to give it to you right here on camera so that you two lovebirds can share this happy moment with everyone out there in teeveeland. Right, Jimbo?
Right, Jimbo says, fingering the only ring in the whole wide world in his sportcoat’s side pocket. Right. Jimbo arches his eyebrows. Jimbo’s lower face forever in some new teevee set collapses relentlessly into smiles.
Jimbo threw off his bedcovers and lay there naked in the cold. How could she do it? he thought bitterly. How could she pull such a stunt like that? After all they had meant to each other. After all he had done for her. After all he had given up, had lost for her. He had started on his life of crime for her. A life of pulling jobs. He had even stolen the Second World War to buy her that ring she loved, which was not his biggest job, but it was the job he felt the most guilty about. He had stolen the Second World War from his old man and sold it off to the neighborhood squirts toy soldier by toy soldier and this had cost him dearly. And then she asks Hutch Bodine.
Hutch Bodine! Judy had asked Hutch goddamn Bodine to be her lucky escort and to lead off the Ball’s first slowdance. Jesus Christ! Jimbo thought. Of all the guys in town. And they had gone parking, she admitted. But mostly they had just talked, she said. Sure thing. Well, yes, they had kissed a few times. Just a few times. Hutch goddamn Bodine’s slimy goddamn tongue! Christ! Christ!
Jimbo sat on the edge of his bed and held his head in his hands. Well, yes, we did kiss a few times. Did you French kiss? Oh, I don’t know. What do you mean you don’t know? Either you did or you didn’t! Well, I don’t remember. Maybe we did. Maybe Hutch goddamn Bodine’s goddamn tongue. Jimbo started to shiver. Hutch Bodine’s tongue loomed huge and dripping. Jimbo kicked away the throw rug beside his bed and with a racking shudder lay down on the freezing linoleum floor. He shook. His teeth chattered. Judy’s fingers moved through Hutch Bodine’s hair. As Hutch Bodine slowly unbuttoned her blouse Judy pulled his face to hers, their open mouths clinging, their tongues touching, tasting. When Hutch Bodine put his hand on her knee Judy for a moment stiffened; then, with a slight shiver, she sighed and parted her legs. Jimbo did sit-ups until his stomach muscles cramped. Jimbo did sit-ups until he lost his goddamn hard-on. He lay there on the ice-cold floor sweating, shivering, choking back vomit, his stomach muscles contracting convulsively. He was disgusted with himself. How was it possible? How could he think about Judy making out with Hutch Bodine and get a goddamn hard-on? Jimbo rolled his head back and forth on the floor. He tried to cloud the horrible thought from his mind. He lay there on the ice-cold floor and tried with all of his heart to conjure summer. Summer memories. Summer gazebo memories…
Judy’s wonderful home. A mansion over on the bluffs above the river, white pillars along its front, broad tree-filled yards all around, French doors opening onto old brick, flower-bordered patios, an ancient gingerbread gazebo perched out back on the bank above the river like some strange assemblage of bones. They would spend whole evenings out in that old gazebo’s swing necking, or planning for the future as if it were real, or sometimes just playing make-believe, like pretending those tiny lights blinking from boring Ohio across the river were really secret signals just for them from some mysterious dreamshore of Hollywood. Or sometimes a tug would be pushing coal barges down below on the dark water, silent and ghostly in the distance. And in his special spooky Boris Karloff voice Jimbo would tell Judy that the tug’s lights were really the glowing eyes of some awakened ancient river beast who was rising slowly up from the cold murky depths to stalk dripping and dank through their love movie hoping to carry off the beauty Judy to the tip-top of the Empire State Building and die there for love. And Judy would shiver and giggle and cuddle like crazy. Summer memories. The sweetness of it all, swinging and necking and planning and feeling as romantic as a hit lovesong.
At last it was dawn. Jimbo got up stiffly from the floor. In the near darkness, still shivering, half sick, Jimbo dressed quietly in the clothes he had carefully laid out the night before: his favorite pegged jeans, the blue shirt Judy had given him for Christmas, his red windbreaker. Jimbo’s hands shook as he fired up a cigarette. Jesus Christ, he thought. I’ve got to get cool. Taking deep drags on the cigarette, Jimbo walked quietly on the balls of his feet over to the window and pulled back the shade. Oh holy shit, Jimbo hissed as he gazed through the ice curtain on the glass at what looked like six feet of new snow. Telephone lines sagged with snow and the dark branches of the frontyard maples were piled high. Below in the valley the trainyard looked like a white meadow and the lines of parked coalcars looked as if they were packed with snowballs. The tipples across the narrow valley looked very black against the white hillside. Like spiders, Jimbo thought. Hunched there like hungry black spiders. Or gazebos. Strange black-boned gazebos. Now that’s one for the poem, he thought. Fuck the poem. Six goddamn feet of new snow. In the washed-out white air the smoke from the huge slag heaps below the tipples could not even be distinguished. There’s more to come all right, Jimbo thought, looking at the closed-in, snowy sky. The night before, when he had walked down the tracks into town to buy, with his last five bucks, the biggest box of valentine candy he could find, the sky had been clear. Not a cloud. Only coal smoke. And coal smoke did not snow. So now what? Jimbo sat wearily down at his desk. So now what? Jimbo fired up another cigarette before realizing his first was still smoking in the ashtray. He arched his eyebrows. He wrinkled his forehead. Well, just screw it, Jimbo thought. Snow is snow is snow. Nothing can hinder old Captain On the Road! Rain, sleet, snow. Nothing! Captain On the Road will not fail the mail! Jimbo jumped up and bounced around the room on the balls of his feet, shad- owboxing. He put Patterson away, with a quick left-right, then bounced over to his chest of drawers and took out two extra pairs of thick socks and a heavy V-neck sweater. From the back of his closet he got out his old motorcycle boots. Jimbo zipped up his red windbreaker. He dropped to his hands and knees, did twenty quick push-ups, then reached under the bed for the paper sack. He walked over to the window, then took the large heart-shaped box of valentine candy out of the sack and tilted it about in the dim morning light. The box glowed blood red and the light glinted the little silver decoration cupids into dance. When he heard his grandmother coughing from her room down the hall Jimbo quickly stuffed the red heart of candy into the paper sack and carrying his motorcycle boots, he tiptoed from his bedroom.
The blizzard that had swept into the area was the worst in years and there had been little long-distance traffic, only short lifts, and it had taken Jimbo thirteen different rides, much stamping from foot to foot in the knee-deep snow by the road, and nearly sixteen hours to hitchhike the two hundred miles. Jimbo’s last ride had picked him up at a desolate country crossroads where only twenty miles out of town he had been stuck freezing for nearly three hours. Stuck freezing and thinking of winter survival. Thinking about some old prospector shuffling on snowshoes across the frozen wastes of some Alaskan miles-thick glacier: shuffling and dreaming his ancient goldfield dreams of glory holes. His half-wild wolf-dog lopes along beside him. Bone tired and half frozen, the old prospector stops to build a fire and rest. His last match sputters out. It is all only a winter dream anyway, the old prospector sighs to himself and shuts his eyes. The half-wild dog sniffs about the old prospector’s still form for a time, then lopes off into the wilderness. The old prospector sleeps deeply, perishing. Perishing. Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road perishing. Buried by this relentless winter like a lost polar explorer. They found him that spring in a melting snowbank by the road. They found him with his eyes frozen wide open, facing north, only yards from the true Pole. Services pending his thaw. Please, no flowers, no fuss. Never, man! Never! Not Old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road, man!
When he saw the approaching headlights Jimbo stalked to the center of the road. This is it, man! Jimbo yelled. Old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road is through with this punk Captain Snowman shit! This cat either stops for me or runs my ass down! Imagining himself as the driver might see him, a strange apparition looming suddenly in the headlights from swirling snow, Jimbo stood in the center of the road waving at the rapidly approaching car. This cat is really moving in this snow shit, Jimbo thought, then suddenly realized the car was sliding sideways toward him. Jimbo jumped from its path and half slid, half stumbled backward into a snowdrift. The car slid past him almost out of sight before straightening and coming to a stop. Jimbo jumped out and began frantically raking snow from around his windbreaker’s collar. You dumb cocksucker! Jimbo yelled, shaking his fist at the car and jumping up and down as snow slid under his coat collar and over his bare skin. You dumb asshole cocksucker! Jimbo yelled. The car idled in the center of the road, its exhaust belching clouds of fumes. Wonder why the dumb cocksucker is just sitting there? Jimbo wondered and then it occurred to him that the driver just might be a little pissed himself. Or maybe he had heard Jimbo call him a dumb cocksucker and was unhappy about that. The car was an old four-door black Plymouth with pieces of cardboard stuck in place of its back doors’ windows. Well, make your move, cocksucker, Jimbo thought, arching his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead. The driver honked. Oh holy hot shit! Jimbo yelled and ran toward the Plymouth. Old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road has it made in the shade, daddy! Jimbo yelled just as he slipped and fell again. This time the box of valentine candy, its paper sack long melted away, flew from Jimbo’s hands. By the red glow of the taillights Jimbo saw it hit the rosy snow and bounce under the Plymouth. Oh Christ, no, Jimbo hissed, getting stiffly up off his knees. Not this! Not this too! For most of the past dozen hours of his life Jimbo had stood by the road clutching that huge heart-shaped box of candy feeling like the world’s biggest goddamn sap. Captain Crazy Person was more like it. Which was probably the reason so many cars had churned on past his frozen ass without pity. A kid in a thin red windbreaker hitchhiking in a blizzard. A kid hitchhiking in a blizzard, clutching a goddamn box of valentine candy. A crazy person. He had to be an escaped crazy person.
When he stumbled up to the waiting Plymouth Jimbo was grinning so hard it hurt. It’s under the car, Jimbo called to the driver, pointing under the car and shrugging his shoulders over and over. The driver, his gaunt whiskery face yellow in the dashboard light, scrutinized Jimbo with narrowed eyes. What’s that? he called, making no move to roll down the window. It’s under the car, Jimbo called, flapping his arms like helpless, foolish wings. It rolled under the car when I fell down. What did, boy? the driver called, his eyes now slits of suspicion. My box. The box I was carrying, Jimbo called. The driver blinked his wet eyes several times at Jimbo as though trying to focus them, then looked up the snowy road illuminated in the headlights. He took a drink of some cloudy-looking liquid from a mason jar he had been holding between his thighs. Well, boy, he said at last, after reaching over and rolling down the window, you want me to pull her up? No. No thanks, Jimbo said. It might be under a wheel or something. It might be squashed. I’ll have to crawl under and get it I guess, Jimbo said, and arching his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead, he dropped to his knees in the snow beside the car.
The old Plymouth was unheated and cold wind whipped in about the cardboard stuck in the back windows, hitting Jimbo’s neck. He had not been dry for hours and he could not stop shivering. He studied his raw, bloody knuckles in the dashboard light. He had had to smash the dirty, frozen snow under the car with his fists before he could crawl beneath it to grope around for the candy box. It rested on Jimbo’s lap and now and then he tentatively touched one of the oil smears on the once glossy red surface. He had tried to wipe the smears away with his coat sleeve but had only smudged and spread them. Some beat-to-hell box of valentine candy, Jimbo thought with a tight, bitter smile. Captain Crazy Person and his sappy love movie. Jimbo blew on his knuckles, then tried lightly sucking them. Nothing helped.
The old driver had not had much to say since the first exchange of general information when he told Jimbo he was a disabled miner with a black lung cough who had been widowed twice. Mostly the old driver just sipped from the mason jar and whipped the Plymouth along, the snow sweeping into the headlights from the darkness, filling the windshield thickly around the small semicircles of the slow wipers’ tracks. The Plymouth slid often enough to keep Jimbo from relaxing. After a time the quietness rubbed Jimbo’s already raw nerves and he began trying to make small talk but without much success until he told the old driver how surprised he was at the lift. Especially after the way he’d been standing in the middle of the road waving like a crazy person.
I always stop, the old driver said. I always stop just in case, he added and sipped from his mason jar and then was silent.
In case of what? Jimbo finally asked. You might of been a spirit.
What? Jimbo asked. A what?
A spirit. A spook. You know, a ghost, the old driver said and took a sip from his mason jar. Then, after a few quiet moments he cleared his throat and commenced to tell Jimbo about the strange night years ago he would never forget for as long as he lived.
He and some buddies had been honky-tonking but he wasn’t all drunked up. That’s why he was driving while his buddies snoozed. He was barreling over some shortcut backcountry roads he knew. All of a sudden a man was right out there in the middle of the road caught up in the headlights. Clear as day. The man’s shirt was almost torn off and his head was bleeding and his eyes were wide and right down crazy looking. Then suddenly the man just disappeared on across the road. He had braked the car as quickly as he could and woke up his half-drunk buddies and they had got out and looked up and down that road on both sides for a solid hour. But there was nothing to be found. No bloodied-up man. No wreck. Nothing. His buddies told him he was crazy or drunk one or maybe both. They stopped at a truck stop diner a few miles on up the road for coffee. His buddies were kidding him he better drink a couple gallons of coffee black. But he had gotten the last laugh, so to speak, for when they got to telling the story on him to the other folks in the diner the counterman suddenly went all pale. Then the counterman had told them a terrible wreck had happened on that very same straight stretch of road just a month earlier. A fellow who must of been speeding like a demon and drunk as a skunk to boot had somehow run his big Buick up the embankment on the right and flipped it. But they couldn’t find the fellow. He was nowhere around. And they didn’t find him until a trooper happened to look on the other side of the road way down over the hill. That’s where they found his body, way too far from the wreck for it to have been thrown there. Well, everyone sitting in the diner that night got pale at the same time. There wasn’t a soul in the diner who didn’t realize just as sure as sunshine a ghost had been spotted that night.
That’s some ghost story all right, Jimbo said.
Well, the old driver said, I took that fellow’s ghost as a sign from God. I had never before taken religion too serious, you know. And I still ain’t what a body would call a churchgoing man and I’m the first to admit I touch a drop now and again. But ever since that night I got me a firm belief in a hereafter. I got me a belief in things the naked eye can’t see. That fellow’s ghost was a sign from God all right. And I always stop just in case whatever’s out there waving from the dark is another one. Another spirit I mean. Some folks is scared of such things but not me. I always stop.
Well, it’s lucky for me you do, Jimbo said.
I guess so, the old driver said and then after a long pause said: Listen, I don’t mean to seem the nosy sort, son, but could you tell me why you’re totin’ that red box around?
It’s a box of valentine candy.
I’ll tell you that box sure looked peculiar when I picked you up in my headlights back there. All red and bloody looking. Like you was carrying some kind of bloody human organ or something. Or like one of them old kings going around carrying his cutoff head under his arm. I thought you was a spirit for sure. That’s why I started sliding like I did. Got so excited I lost control. A box of valentine candy, you say.
Yeah, Jimbo said. It’s for my mother. For your mother, you say.
Yeah. She’s in the hospital. She’s got cancer.
That’s real bad luck, son, the old driver said and took a sip from his mason jar, then solemnly passed it to Jimbo.
Jimbo’s eyes watered when he sipped the bitter, licorice-tasting liquid. He passed it back to the old driver. They drove along in silence then, passing the mason jar back and forth, until they reached a closed gas station at the edge of town where Jimbo told the driver he would like to get out.
Well, boy, you take care of yourself, the old driver said as Jimbo opened the cardoor. And here, you go on and take this along, the old driver added, handing Jimbo the mason jar. It’ll keep the chill out of your bones, boy.
Sure, Jimbo said. Thanks.
I hope the best for your ma, boy, the old driver said. Thanks, Jimbo said. Thanks a lot. You know something, mister? Speaking of your basic signs from God. My mother gets signs from God all the time.
Really? the old driver said. Well I’ll be damn.
Right, Jimbo said. She’s a real religious person. She used to spend half her time visiting shut-ins. Before she became a shut-in herself. She’s the most religious person I know. Gets signs from God right and left.
Well I’ll be damn, the old driver said. Must be a real comfort for her at a time like this.
Right, Jimbo said, taking a sip from the mason jar.
Listen, son, the old driver said and put his hand on Jimbo’s knee. I got me a couple of bucks here in my pocket.
No, Jimbo said, arching his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead. No thanks, mister.
You sure, boy?
I’m sure, Jimbo said. He climbed out of the car.
Oh hell, boy, the old driver said, leaning across the seat. I don’t mean to embarrass you or nothing. If you can use a couple of bucks go on and take them. No strings.
No, Jimbo said. No thanks. I’m all right. I only have a few blocks to go to get where I’m going.
Well, don’t piss against the wind, boy.
Jimbo stood in the now lightly falling snow and watched the old Plymouth until its taillights disappeared into the distance. Old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road has an adventure, Jimbo said aloud and laughed. Well, almost an adventure anyway. He took a long pull from the mason jar. Jesus Christ, Jimbo thought, old Captain done got himself about half shitfaced. They found old Captain that spring bobbing still shitfaced on the surface of the thawed glacier. Services pending depickling. Please, no flowers, no fuss. Jimbo laughed and took another long hit. Suddenly at the edge of his vision a polar bear moved. Or maybe it was a ghost. Who could tell for sure? Jimbo polished off the moonshine in a final big pull, then tossed the mason jar out into the dark hoping to hit a polar bear or ghost. To hit whatever was out there. To show whatever was out there beyond the edge of his vision that old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road was still armed and dangerous.
Jimbo stood in the dark street looking up at Judy’s house through the trees of the expansive frontyard. From the tall windows all along the house’s front lights flared out brightly over the snow. Jimbo stood there in the dark street, wet, cold, totally exhausted, and he had never been happier. Well, my ass has done arrived, Jimbo thought, arching his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead. Old Captain Polar Explorer has done found the Ice Palace of the true North. Jimbo laughed quietly. The snow had stopped falling just as he had reached Judy’s neighborhood. Talk about your basic signs from God! Old winter had just thrown in the towel, whipped. He had licked winter single-handed, by God! A thousand miles of snowflakes big as goddamn bats. Jimbo laughed out loud, his breath exploding like smoke in the cold air. Now if only I had me a goddamn dry cigarette, Jimbo thought. He could stand here at the edge of the yard in the dark smoking like a patient outlaw of love if he had a goddamn dry cigarette. And Judy, who was surely hovering behind one of those lit-up front windows sick with worry, would see the cigarette’s glowing outlaw ember. Bursting coatless out of the front door, she would call for him. Shivering in bermuda shorts and a thin sleeveless summer blouse, she would rush across the front porch calling, calling for him. Shivering in short shorts and flimsy halter, she would plunge into the thigh-high snow. Falling often, sobbing, she would wade through the drifts toward him, her lovely bare arms outstretched. Finally, crawling the last yards on bloody hands and knees, her blond hair stiff with frost, snow white and naked, she would arrive at his feet. She would clutch his legs. She would beg his forgiveness. He would flip the cigarette out into the dark yard. He would pull her up from her bloody knees and hold her shivering snow-white naked body in his arms. He would forgive her anything.
Jimbo hunched in the shadows of the high hedges as he followed the winding driveway up to the house. Jesus! Jimbo thought as he rounded the house and spotted the Silver Ghost. It was parked in the widened flat area of the driveway in front of the garages. Jimbo was amazed it was not tucked away snug in a garage on a shitty night like this. No one should leave the Silver Ghost out on a shitty night like this. He hurried through the shadows to it. There was no snow on its top or hood and its engine was still warm. Someone had just been out in it. Right! Someone had been out in it and had just returned. And since they had not put it in a garage they meant to go back out. Judy! Jimbo thought with a pang. Judy out driving around searching for him. No. Probably Frankie was driving. Judy would be too upset to drive. Jimbo had a sudden picture of Frankie whipping the Silver Ghost around the dark, dangerous streets searching for him, sliding into snowdrifts, spinning his tires, while hit lovesongs blared on the radio and Judy, riding shotgun, wept and wept.
Jimbo bent over the Silver Ghost’s hood and pressed his forehead against the warm metal. Warm, warm metal. Summer metal. Summer at last. Summernight dances at the Dreamland Pool. Judy still in her swimsuit. The firm, girlish muscles of her tanned legs flexing as she dances in the poolside torchlight. Jesus, Jimbo thought, jerking upright. For a moment he was confused. He blinked his eyes. It was snowing again. The back of his neck was wet and cold and snow was caked thickly in his hair. He had a sudden image of himself being shaken up in one of those old paperweight snow scene globes his grandmother collected. He shook his head. Damn, Jimbo thought, rubbing the cold back of his neck. Did the old Captain snooze or what? The old Captain just stretched right out on the old Silver Ghost and snoozed up. Jimbo raked his fingers through his wet, stiff hair and quietly laughed. He picked up the valentine box from the Silver Ghost’s hood and gently brushed off the snow. Captain Cupid, Jimbo thought, turning the pitiful box about in his hands. Old Captain Crazy Cupid freezes his ass off hitchhiking hundreds of miles through a goddamn blizzard to hand his snow-white Queen of Hearts honey this. Jesus. Jesus.
They found old Captain Crazy Cupid that spring bobbing still sound asleep on the surface of the thawed Silver Ghost. Services pending.
Jimbo waded through the deep snow along the darkened back of the house. When he reached the French doors that opened onto the snow-buried flagstone patio he stopped. Through a crack in the pulled drapes of the gameroom he could see the dim light of a teevee. It irritated him that anyone could be watching teevee tonight while he was out probably frozen to death by the road somewhere. Judy? he suddenly thought. Could it be Judy watching teevee at a time like this? Oh fuck, get serious, man! No way. No fucking way. Probably they were catching the weather report and someone forgot to turn it off. At a time like this who could remember to turn a goddamn teevee off? Well, so now what, Captain Cupid? Jimbo said quietly and then suddenly began to shiver again. Oh Jesus, it’s cold. Jesus! Well, so now what? So here he was, the big hero on the scene with the beat-to-hell box of valentine candy, and so now what? He had not really made a plan beyond this. He had not pictured what he would do now. He had figured some Cool move to top the whole adventure off would just pop into his head as it usually did. So pop, Cool move, Jimbo thought. Pop, you sucker!
Well, he could toss the valentine out into the snow where it would not be found until spring. And he could just head back out on that dark, desolate, dangerous road where he would surely perish. Oh, lookie, Judy would say when she found the valentine. Lookie what I just found here in the melting snow. A heart. Someone’s left-behind heart. And probably they would find his frozen stiff body the very day Judy found the left-behind heart in the melting snow. And when they told her about finding him she would know whose left-behind heart it was sure enough. And it would be too late! Oh fuck, boohoo, man, Jimbo said, laughing quietly. Not old Captain. Jimbo tried vainly to snap his stiff fingers.
No. No, man. Old Captain would just lean this here heart up against this here old door, then bang hell out of it and bolt like a low-down outlaw of love back into the dark, mysterious night from whence he came. Only not to perish but to survive. He would bolt on out back to the old gazebo above the river. He would hide out there. He would spread polar bear skins over those old gazebo bones and winter there invisible. Hibernate there in that warm gazebo belly and by firelight finish his poem. No, Jimbo smiled. No. That poem was as finished as it would ever be. No, he would just go hotwire the Silver Ghost and head for Hollywood. He would outlaw-roar over every shortcut backcountry road to California he could find. He would get discovered. Become a star overnight. Then let Judy eat her heart out for a change. Sure, Jimbo thought. Sure thing.
Jimbo was shivering now almost uncontrollably. With a shaking hand he took out his hip wallet and from its change pocket removed with difficulty the only ring in the whole wide world. Jimbo leaned the valentine against the middle French doors and placed the only ring in the whole wide world carefully in its cleft. No, Jimbo thought. That won’t do. If the box gets knocked over Judy won’t find the ring until spring. After a violent fit of giggling, Jimbo opened the box and stuck the ring band-first into a piece of candy near the center. Candy blood, Jimbo said, scrutinizing the ooze on his fingertips. He licked it. Hmmmmmmm, good! Cherry candy blood! Jimbo fell to his knees in the snow, choking back laughter. Cherries are so yummy! So yummy for the tummy! And they are so fun to eat! Jimbo stuffed his fist in his mouth and rocked back and forth.
Oh Jesus, I have gone crazy at last, Jimbo sighed and wiped the tears from his eyes. He stood up stiffly and leaned the valentine back against the door. He arched his snow-filled eyebrows and wrinkled his numb forehead and for a few moments just stood there in the deep silence of the falling snow.
Shave and a haircut, two bits…
Jimbo banged with all of his strength against the door and swirled to run. This time when he slipped Jimbo bounced on his stomach and slid across the snowpacked patio headfirst into a drift at the edge of the yard. It’s all just a cartoon, Jimbo thought, lying there with his face buried in snow. Just a fucking cartoon. The bright patio lawn lights flashed on. Jimbo pictured the box of valentine candy sailing like a strange red bird out into the dark yard when he heard the solid whack as the French doors were thrown open. Maybe I am buried deeper in this snow than I think, Jimbo hoped. Maybe they won’t spot me. Then, just as he began to shiver violently again, and to whimper, whimper although he bit his lip until he tasted blood, Jimbo hoped that if they did have to spot him at least it would be sometime before spring.
This excerpt published here with permission of Braddock Avenue Books.
For more information about The Silver Ghost by Chuck Kinder, visit braddockavenuebooks.com