The Last Hayride
December 31, 1952
"I'm pretty near freezing to death." A raspy whisper from behind razors up my backbone. This fare, Hank Williams the hillbilly yodeler, is driving me outright nuts.
"I'm fit to be run out of here," is how I respond. The heater inside this '52 Caddy transporting us to Canton, Ohio over Highway 31 is blasting at full boogie. I mean to tell you the chill-chattering blizzard out yonder is tearing us new eye sockets.
Wind gusts buffet this baby blue convertible that screams buckets of money. Visibility, even with custom fog lamps lit, is six feet ahead, if that. Still, I have a deep abiding faith in this machine to get us to Canton on time. Hank has already missed a show in Charleston, can't afford to cancel another. Fans leave auditoriums royally pissed. His stage suits wait in the cavernous trunk.
"Aw, I suspected it all along," he says next.
Now I'm confused. "Suspected what all along?"
"That my career is like lard. It's shortening." His derisive snorts break into hacking coughs making me wince.
Ignoring the pun, after several minutes of piloting, I ask: "Holding up?"
A lowborn moan, then silence. Luminous hands on the self-winding dash clock, I note, have locked into place. Time stands still. All about this snowy trek north is weird, I can't escape from thinking.
"Hey, bud . . . is that next spike loaded?"
"Grab it off the dash. If I let loose of this wheel, we're goners." Two syringes of morphine mixed with Vitamin B-12 from a quack terrorizing Knoxville roll around like unlucky dice.
Grunting, Hank lunges to snatch one up, flicks on the dome light. His reflection in the vanity mirror rolls up a sleeve to a blue serge suits and jabs a forearm. A shiver attacks me. His lizard tongue laps at two bloody pinpoints. Seconds tick by. Hank's briar-jawed scowl softens. "It eases my back ailment. Spina bifida is the highfalutin name for it. Surgeons can't fix it, so don't ask. They've already done enough butchery."
I recheck the defroster, extinguish the dome light. "Is that dope legal?"
"Never you mind. Press on, bud," says Hank. "Whew. I feel like I'm on a hayride. Now that ain't a crime, too, is it?"
"A hayride?" This is anything but a hayride. Nervous, I worry that we'll end up in a fatal car crash. "I shouldn't talk right now," is what I say to put him off. This Caddy, muscled by a V8, 4-barrel carb, 190 horsepower hog-block engine, is like driving a tank. Oh, but what a beautiful tank it is. The carmaker's jingle rattles through my head: "It's a Who's Who of the highway."
"I've a great idea, bud. Let's rob us a town bank. Or stick up a liquor store. Just for the hell of it." As his words fade, Hank's pointy chin sags to his bola tie and by our next climb, he's fallen asleep. I'm God certain grateful for the hush.
Inching along, ice scraping the soles of my feet through the floor pan, I recall how this travesty kicked off. The snowstorm of the century had socked in Knoxville's airport when Ed Orr the superintendent telephoned me.
"I've got a stranded celebrity," he informed me.
"Who?" I wondered.
"Recording star Hank Williams. He's needs a hired driver. Interested?"
"What do you have for wheels?"
"One of them new, fancy streamlined Caddys," Ed said. "Power steering, through-the-bumper dual exhausts, red coachwork. The whole shmear. Can you handle it?"
By then, I was panting with excitement. "You betcha, Ed. When?"
"As soon as you can drag your hillbilly ass over here," he'd said.
As if on cue, Hank ceases snoring and stirs to arise, comforted by the fact that whitewall tires underneath him are still in motion. Oh yeah, Hank, I say to myself, that Hydra-Matic transmission gears us down with plenty power to spare. Got to love it. Whiskey breath washes over me as he leans over the front seat.
"Who in blue blazes is that? Straight to the fore?" Hank's gaunt finger shakes, pointing out the porthole cleared on the iced windshield. Headlights flounce off shaggy flakes, and only that. Craning my neck down, I peer between wipers scratching smeared grit and over the V-shaped hood. I keep on staring until both eyes salt up in tears.
We only continue chewing our way through a wall of freezing white. My sour mood stems from chauffeuring in foul weather, so even the funniest of jokes wear thin mighty damn quick.
"Don't see nothing," I mutter.
Hank howls in disbelief. "Quit joshing me, bud. I ain't hallucinating."
"Give me a hint," I dare to say.
His chalky lips twist into the wickedest leer. "Move it on over, bud. The big dog wants company. The lady can clamber in beside me." He heaves a door handle; overhead light spills its gauzy illumination. Protesting is futile; his overheated mind is intractable. Pumping brakes, I ease alongside this skirted phantom hitchhiker.
"Great God, what a stunner, huh, bud?"
"She's beauty pageant material. M-m-m-m. Sweet." I don't let on to Hank how I don't believe nary a word he's said or viewed a thing he's seen. This enthrallment beats his wanting to hold up a damn bank or for me to score more dope. Any stint in the gray bar hotel isn't in the cards for me if I can help it.
Chained tires gnawing snow hit a slick patch and shimmy as if to knock us topsy-turvy. Again, the white knuckles of a demolition derby champ fight erratic steering to right us for a steady creep forward.
"Attaboy," Hank approves as soon as we bump to a ragged halt. Doffing a white cowboy hat, he cocks the rearview mirror at a crazy angle, slicks back pomaded hair. The white cowboy hat he puts on grazes the headliner. A pint flask materializes. He wets his whistle, offers me a nip.
"Thanks, no. I'm on the clock," I remind him. "Mr. Orr would boil me alive in tar if he knew I was drinking."
"Suit yourself," he says. "Next few miles, pin your eyes on whatever is beyond that bulldog hood ornament. And get busy loading me up another spike, too."
I nod. "More dope for the dope. Got you."
Snickering, Hank swings the door outward emitting a frigid gust. "Howdy ma'am. Slip on in out of that mess." He barks like from the Grand Ole Opry stage down at a chesty country blonde, her top buttons undone, lobbying for an autograph. She'd land that and more too later backstage. Fame is great if you can hack it.
Exaggerating a shudder, Hank slaps the door shut. His double tap on my shoulder is the "drive on" command.
"Bud and me here are fixing to rob a bank," Hank tells his new guest who is not there, but damn if I'm not sneaking in a few gawks by the rearview mirror.
"Where you headed?" He guffaws in a bright way. "You, too? Dang if that ain't the cat's nuts. That's our destination. Say, you wanna shed that ermine stole, let its fur dry out?"
More eerie silence ensues. Rustle of slick fabric is Hank shifting to assist her. Then he doffs a navy blue overcoat, his white cowboy hat. Right as rain, he's getting down to business.
"Miss Miranda has a yen for music," he hollers up front. "Does that pushbutton radio work? Grab us some honky-tonk, or better yet, Little Jimmie Dickens. No Glenn Miller. No jazz either. Can't stand such hogwash."
By the unasked grace of God, we crest a hogback ridge but then begin fishtailing downslope like a hockey puck. Again, I do my magic to fix our course. The gas needle nuzzles "E" as in "EMPTY". My shit-your-pants fear is to lodge in a snow bank and die. I flip on the radio, volume loud. Trouble is, I still have the lion's share of my fee coming on the Canton end. Until such time and place, it's go along to get along with my passenger, the would-be bank robber.
A hillbilly disc jockey announces: "Folks, lend me your ears for 'Jambalaya' by Hank & The Drifting Cowboys." That spun platter grooves into one swell cutting-the-rug Cajun song.
"Hey, hear that? That's me and the fellows creating a ruckus," he says. My eyes straying to the mirror narrow a bit. Hank has slithered a pipe cleaner arm around a Gibson acoustic guitar perched upright beside him like a dancehall doxy. He wrestles her onto his lap, ready to make love to Miss Miranda.
A squirt of sulfur fires up two non-filters off that same barbecue match.
Lunging, Hank chinks a cigarette between my teeth. Coughing, I nudge down the volume, drag out the ashtray.
"Natch, Miss Miranda doesn't smoke," he feels compelled to explain. "Say, what's your rush? Go slower, bud. Ole Hank is leading off third base, sliding into home plate. Soon as I dip my wick, we'll go knock over that town bank. Catch?"
Coughing, I clear my throat. "Catch. Now you best snag some sleep for your Canton gig, Mr. Williams," I say, snuffing out dropped embers. Smoke tendrils trickle from my nostrils. I imagine myself as dragon boy. No, better call me by-God nuts.
Ignoring my advice, he returns to kissing and pawing Miss Miranda. What a sexy lady in her catgut strings, frets, bridge, pegs, and a blue spruce body stacked with the right curves in the right places. I downshift to the lowest gear. While Hank is making love in the backseat, I am dragon boy and by-God nuts. White burns in the glare-proof side mirrors.
"Guess what, bud?" He bounces back up to clutch my shoulder. I relaxed a while ago when we leveled out to this shallow valley. "I'll tell you what. Miss Miranda and I are tying the knot. Fancy that. That spike ready yet?" He grabs the hypo, injects himself in the hip with a heavy sigh.
Catching my breath, I'm tempted to say that he's had enough. It no longer seems important. Fatigue drills my brain stem, dulls my wits. The rear tires clunk over something. "Mr. Williams, I'm dog tired. Toothpicks have to prop my droopy lids. Can't we take a breather?"
Hank forces a swallow of Tennessee illicit moonshine down my throat. "Buck up. Miss Miranda let it slip that you are a Pentecostal preacher's boy. You can officiate our ceremony. Right after, we'll rob that town bank."
My eyeballs twirl. "I'd prefer not to, Mr. Williams." As my voice recedes into West Virginia's terminal murk, a skeletally skinny hand reappears.
"Just drive on. She's hit the rack. Another headache. Aw, it's no skin off me." He secures the alligator-hide guitar case, locks its silver clasps. A slit for a smile tweaks his mouth.
"Grab first gear for traction," he orders. "Saw that wheel." He unscrews a mayonnaise jar, rattles out a few tablets to hosing down the hatch. After bunching up his jacket into a pillow, he curls up on red upholstery. Hank yawns himself into a deep sleep. A cigarette butt spatters to carpet.
"Mr. Williams?" I sing out. "Mr. Williams, should I stop?"
No reply is forthcoming. Headlights flicker. When I doze off, we careen headlong into a drift. Tires spin in place. Smell of hot rubber. Rocking Cadillac back and forth, I grind gears, burn clutch. Snow swarms. We're stuck. That grim realization strangles my mind. Focus, I growl to myself.
Where are we? I toggle on the dome light. Casing a glove compartment, my gloved fingers clutch an Esso road map.
Plotting coordinates, I contend our present location is in Oak Hill, Fayette County, West Virginia. It looks walkable except I lack funds to hire a tow truck. Embarrassed, I pry Hank onto his side. A nickel-plated snub-nose revolver flops out of his vest pocket. It isn't loaded. I pull out his pockets. Hank like me I discover is also bankrupt.
The Cadillac coughs, sputters twice, and expires. Out of gas. Cold seeps to my marrow. After radio static, Hank sings "Death Is Only A Dream." Twisting the knob, skipping further right on the dial, I another signal playing the same song. Every station I sample plays it.
What else can happen?
After polishing off the vodka, I stretch out flat on the seat for a nap. A summons I hear is feminine yet firm. "George. George Riley. Can you hear me?"
No! I won't come back, my brain shrieks.
"George, time to rise." I hear a rumble -- the Cadillac's engine is idling again. The gas needle rides on "F." Forced hot air spews out vents. Beams stab bright and bold. Clawing the steering wheel, I drag myself up from the seat.
"Are you the Angel of Death?" I ask her.
Her plaited towhead hair is a brass halo. "Call me Miranda. What's wrong?"
"We're snowbound," I reply.
"You were snowbound," she corrects me. "You can mush on into Oak Hill. It is after moonset out yonder. Daybreak's near. Snow has tapered off."
"You come up here on a tractor?" I twist around to gape beyond our taillights expecting to see red flashers. Nothing. "I'm broke. Maybe by next Friday I can send what I owe you."
"No charge for my services."
"Where's your rig?" I lean to check behind us again.
Miranda's stiletto heel engages the clutch pedal, yanks the column gearshift into first, and mashes the gas. "Drive and I'll explain."
"But how the Devil did you get up here . . ."
"Shhh. Just shush." Her finger seals my lips. "Oak Hill lies over the next mountaintop. You just follow that track."
"Top of the mountain," I repeat.
"At the crossroads, you'll hang a right. That's Oak Hill's main drag."
With a violent jolt, I remember my responsibility. "Um, what about Mr. Williams?"
"What about Mr. Williams?" she repeats. My vision flicks from a fresh-plowed roadway (who did that?) and alights on Miranda clad in a feathery shawl.
"Hank is due for a shindig up north," I say. "My mission is to get him there."
An eyebrow arched, she puts fire to one of Hank's cigarettes. She inhales, relaxes, and exhales. She squints through smoke. "Hank's dead. Your mission is to get him into Oak Hill. At Burdette's Pure Oil Station, buzz the Sheriff. He goes by Hubbie Ledbetter."
"Contact Sheriff Ledbetter." I parrot back. We're clipping along 40 mph, tire chains clinking. My raw cheeks burn. "How should I explain about us?"
With a sidelong glance, I see Miranda has dissolved into thin air. Groping to switch on the dome light, I pluck a white feather from her seat, insert it behind the sun visor. After a while I see a red Texaco star. Clicking on the signal, I roll in tripping a cable bell. This tall kid ambles out zipping up his jacket. An oval patch centered on his duckbilled cap introduces him as "Al".
"Yes sir?" Al twangs. "Fill 'er up? Lift the hood? Battery, oil, brake fluid, tire pressure all up to par?"
Jerking a thumb over my shoulder, I relate it in the fewest words possible. "Fetch Sheriff Ledbetter. My fare croaked while we poked over the summit."
Bending his knees, Al cracks the rear door a few inches, then recoils. "Jeez, ain't that Hank Williams?"
"It's not hay. Look, is the Sheriff around?"
"Hubbie is camped by my potbellied stove. I'll go roust him."
As if I'm going somewhere. After a while, hitching his balls, Hubbie Ledbetter waddles past a trio of bubble-headed pumps.
"I hear tell you're transporting a cadaver," he says.
"Mr. Williams perished in his sleep. A lady hitchhiker gave me directions here."
"A lady thumbing a ride in a whiteout on New Year's Eve. Yeah. Did she happen to throw out a name?"
"Miranda. She was attired in this feathery wrap." I tug down the sun visor to present the white feather. "This must've brushed off it," I explain feeling a trifle silly.
The Sheriff squints, half-nods. "Okay, we're square here. You hurry on inside with Al, thaw out. I'll manage it from here."
Al tugs at my sleeve. "C'mon, mister, Your money for doing the drive is waiting inside."
"This Miranda I picked up," I ask the sheriff, "is she a local?"
He confronts my worrisome frown with a chuckle. "Son, put Miranda out of your memory."
I've been trying to put her out of my memory ever since that day, but can't seem to manage it.
© 2003 Ed Lynskey
Ed Lynskey's work has appeared in STRANGE HORIZONS, CHIAROSCURO, PEDESTAL MAGAZINE, TWILIGHT TIMES, and HANDHELDCRIME.