Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

High on Cabbage

Driving south on Interstate 5 we climbed the grade that left Seattle behind. I took time to kiss Carl every couple of miles. We held hands and smiled at each other. It would have been easy to pull over at the first rest area to make up for lost time, but time was in abundant supply and Carl wanted to put some distance between us and civilization. He'd been stuck in the middle of an Army for the better part of fifteen months. He wanted to breathe free fresh air, preferably on a high hill somewhere.

For me it was a matter of going along with whatever he wished to do. I kept looking at his face, which made him smile even though he was busily watching the traffic ahead. He knew I was watching him. We were together and it was enough after so long. It's all I really needed for the moment. For a year I'd wondered if we would ever be together again. There were a hundred ways we might lose each other, but we hadn't.

Watching him was a bit like watching a stranger. Did Carl and I ever really know each other? We'd spent a rush of days together, but they were always too quickly coming to an end. We held on and let our emotions carry us from day to day. Then he was gone, and I was left to find a way to make it through a year without him.

Carl was big, strong, and somewhat imposing to me when we first met. On the inside, it was another story. Carl was gentle and sensitive. There was nothing I was familiar with to compare to those qualities I found in Carl. He was one of a kind.

I had no reason to believe this big Army dude was meant for me, but I never got much of a choice in the matter. Strangely enough, it simply happened to both of us at the same time. Disdain and anger turned into curiosity and desire in short order, once we'd noticed each other.

Carl was a lot more than he appeared to be at first glance. His gruff exterior conveniently masked his soft side. It protected him from the rough world around him, but once we got together, lookout. Nothing protected us from each other; neither my anger nor his exterior could divert the inevitable.

It was already obvious that we were picking up right where we left off, only the rush of time was no longer a factor. I could look at him without jumping his bones. I had the power to make him blush and he had the power to steal my heart away. Looking would be quite enough until we stopped, and then all bets were off.

We stopped at a truck stop advertising the all-day breakfast. It was well past noon. He ordered the lumberjack breakfast, which had more food on it than any one person could eat. He ate it. I had coffee and pancakes and an eye full of Carl.

I drank more coffee thinking he said he was going to the bathroom. I kept looking for him, wondering if he'd fallen in. Maybe he'd forgotten how to use American plumbing, but I was hesitant to go looking for him.

When he returned he was wearing a flannel shirt, jeans, and a big smile that told me he was happy to be there and back in civvies. Seeing him smile was nice. With my eyes on him he modeled his new clothes for me.

"You look good," I said. "Turn around again and let me see how those jeans fit you."

He turned around and lifted the shirt above his butt.

"Not bad. They look good," I said.

"Not as good as you look," he said, sitting down and leaning toward me like he might kiss me. He put his hand on mine instead, saying, "I missed you."

"Not half as much as I missed you," I said.

"Did you miss me all those months you didn't write me? I wanted to ask you that," he said with the smile gone and the seriousness back in his voice. "Do you know how worried I was?"

"Especially, I missed you during those months. You left me, Carl. I had to find out where I belonged."

"What happened to you? I thought you were dead. I told you I'd worry."

"Not now, Carl. Let's just be together now. I'll tell you all about it later. We have time. Let's just enjoy being together."

"Yeah, but I don't know I want to hear about it. I don't know why I agreed to let you go off on your own. It's a mean world out there, kiddo."

"Billie Joe. Not kid, kiddo, squirt, or hey you. I'd rather you call me by my name," I said, feeling some tension over what I would tell him about my time on the streets and what I would leave out.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"You didn't upset me. I'd rather hear you say my name."

"That's what I remember most about you," Carl said, moving his hand.

"What's that?" I asked.

"You are contrary as hell. As I recall we spent half our time arguing."

"Carl, we were together little more than a week. We didn't even know each other. Now, we have the time we didn't have then. We can take our time and get to know each other proper."

"I don't know how much time I want to take. I've already considered throwing you into the back of that van and raping your ass," he said, as the waitress came to the table with the bill.

"You the same boy in that uniform, handsome?"

"Afraid so," he said, grabbing the bill and looking at the total.

"You ought to ditch that thing. You dress up nice," she flirted, leaning her leg on his arm.

Carl gave her a weak smile, took the check, tossing a couple of bucks on the table.

"That's what I think, but my boyfriend likes the uniform. I wear it to humor him," Carl said curtly.

I smiled at the discombobulated waitress. We got up and Carl paid the check.

"Place next door has camping gear," Carl said, as we walked back to the van.

We moved around the Surplus Emporium for some time. Carl brushed off two young guys who wanted to help us. He spotted an old man behind the furthest counter. He went right over to him.

"Just flew in from Japan. I been stationed there for the past year. I aim to go camping. I got maybe two hundred bucks to spend on gear. How about you fixing me up with what I'll need. Don't mind if it's used. Used stuff is broken in better than most of this new stuff. Maybe things someone has brought back because it wasn't what they expected."

The old man looked at Carl carefully, checking out the haircut as an indicator to verify the accuracy of his claim.

"Come with me," he said in a soft voice as he went through a doorway at the back of the store.

It took about half-an-hour of good natured haggling before we were outfitted and loading cooking gear, lanterns, sleeping bags, and even some dried food samples he threw in for good measure. The elderly clerk seemed pleased about unloading so much used merchandise and Carl was pleased by what two hundred dollars could buy.

I wasn't educated in the art of bargaining, but these two were experts. Carl picked out a stove that looked new. The clerk pulled it away and replaced it with a similar model that needed cleaning. Carl's hand resting on it once it was placed in front of him meant he accepted the exchange. Two items I recognized were the surplus jackets with heavy-duty liners that could be zipped in or taken out. One had a tear in a sleeve and the other was missing the flannel collar. Woolen socks weren't unusual in Minnesota and the two matching flannel shirts made me smile, but there was no reaction from the clerk. He didn't pull them back or exchange the ones Carl picked for some other shirts he had it in mind to unload.

Carl seemed different, more mature, more self-assured. He included me in the conversation but not the bargaining. He would nod at me once an item was added to the stack. I nodded back, figuring he knew what we were doing. Maybe he wasn't looking for me to react but was looking just to see me. What did I know?

The old clerk stood in the parking lot waving as we turned toward the ramp back to Route 5. We'd only just arrived in Oregon when we turned east on Route 84. Carl adjusted the radio to find something he liked—country western.

I watched Mt. Hood off in the distance with its whitecap of snow. Mt. Rainer was as distinctive in Seattle and it marked the horizon in a magnificent way when you looked east of the city. Mt. Hood seemed further away but every bit as distinct. There was a grandeur I hadn't really noticed before. Where I was from the landmarks weren't as spectacular.

It took time to get far enough east of Portland for the traffic to thin out. Car dealerships and truck stops lined both sides of Route 84, but after ten or fifteen miles they thinned out. I reached for Carl's hand, which he'd kept on the wheel in traffic. He glanced at me and smiled. I felt giddy, a little drunk with passion. I wanted to get my hands on him, but I entertained myself by holding tightly to his hand and watching the scenery.

"Oh, Carl, pull off here," I squealed.

He slowed to merge onto the ramp I indicated. There were cars in front of us and cars behind us as we moved into a large parking lot. The sign had indicated a waterfall and when I stepped out of the truck I could hear running water nearby. Moisture was apparent as a light mist drifted out from where the sound of flowing water emanated.

The waterfall towered above us. We stood near where it plunged into a large pond. The light spray created by the water's colliding made the air cool and comfortable. With such a warm afternoon, this was the perfect interlude.

Carl stood close behind me, holding the hand I'd placed in the curve of my back. I was excited by his presence and for the first time I relaxed, realizing what I'd waited a year for had come to pass. It was worth the wait. Being alone together, once Carl was satisfied with the miles we'd put behind us, would also be worth waiting for.

I think I understood his need to move away from the coast and as far from Japan as he could get. I didn't know how many miles that would be, but I could wait for him a little while longer. His presence stimulated me and being together was pretty neat.

The amazing waterfall was flanked by a path we could follow to get a view down into the pond from above. Only a few people ventured up the path for the more spectacular view. It was made even more incredible since it had taken only two minutes to pull off the Interstate to take a gander at nature at its best.

Once we made the most of our break, we moved back out on the highway. A few minutes later the Columbia River appeared beside us on the side opposite the waterfall. It was an incredible sight, wide and imposing with boats large and little moving along the waterway. Near the shore were guys on jet-skis, smaller boats, and some windsurfers as well.

Wow!

"This gets better all the time," I said, finding it hard to believe it was all within a short distance of the road.

"Nothing like Alabama," Carl advised.

An hour later we were turning south, heading inland away from the great Columbia River. We passed fertile farm fields flat and less distinctive, another striking change in scenery.

We stopped at a grocery store in Pendleton, filling the cooler with ice and lunch meat, cheese, and various packages of chicken and beef. Carl was hungry again.

As we got into higher elevations and started to climb, we slowed to about 45 miles-per-hour.

"Why so slow," I asked, after enjoying our faster drive across country.

"Big hill. The truck is built for power and the wear and tear is way less in a lower gear. We're in no hurry, are we?"

"My stomach is starting to growl," I said, thinking about the food we'd just bought.

"Should be a turnout up toward the top. We'll stop there and fix hamburgers. Hamburgers okay? Maybe some pork and beans?"

"Hamburgers sound great. That bag of Ruffles and a Pepsi would be just fine."

"You're too easy," he said, knowing the truth about me.

We climbed and climbed and the engine groaned as it labored against the hill. The turnout Carl predicted came after fifteen or twenty minutes of climbing. We swung off into something called an overlook and parked to one side.

"Wow!" I said, looking out over the valley I could plainly see for mile after mile spread out far below the overlook.

"That's a sight to behold," Carl said.

Where we were there was shade with clouds quite near to the ground, but down below the sun lit up the farm fields. They were carefully squared off in various shades of green and brown. From our elevation, each field looked like the square on a checkerboard.

It was still warm, but the breeze made it comfortable. Carl went about setting up the stove and getting things ready. I set out paper plates on the picnic table next to the van. I loaded them with potato chips and buns for the burgers Carl prepared.

I was hungry, but half way through my second burger I began watching him, the way he moved, the way he ate his burger as he prepared more, just in case we needed more. He stood with his flannel shirt open; his chest glistened from the warmth of the fire he'd built.

He took a big bite of his burger, flipped the two in the pan, and looked up at me as if the thought came to him that he wasn't alone. He chewed carefully before smiling. His eyes glittered as the daylight was leaving the mountain.

I got up to stand next to him, slipping my arm up under his shirt and around him. I felt the warm soft skin on his waist. He pulled the frying pan away from the flames and set it aside. He turned to face me.

"I love you, Billie Joe. I wasn't sure I still loved you after so long, but I'm sure now."

Without giving me a chance to answer he kissed me and I lost track of where he ended and I began. He wrapped his arms around me and held me tight to his body. Our tongues danced together as a spell overtook me, obliterating the hill and everything around us. I couldn't be sure which lips were mine, nor did I care. We danced by the cook stove or maybe it was me floating on the love I felt for him.

We embraced and kissed and kissed and kissed. This had been worth waiting for and the wait was over. Time stood still.

Standing there making out, it was obvious dinner was done. I was ready for dessert. We climbed into the back of the van after Carl positioned it so the back doors opened out to face the valley floor below. We spread out the sleeping bags as our mattress. Before we had it neat we were making out again and stripping each other free of our clothes.

Our bodies mingled; his soft skin caressed mine. As his erection rubbed against my stomach, I reinvestigated him in my effort to get him going. It was little different from the way he responded to me the first time around in our Seattle hotel room. We were together now and we were going to make the most of it.

Carl said he couldn't get enough of me and once we got started, I couldn't pull back from peaking and falling and rising again in effortless response to him. I was eager to find new ways of exciting him. The idea entranced me. We'd waited a long time for those hours on that hill. Being together made me feel a little closer to heaven.

After our second or third go around—who was counting—we lay looking out into the dark at twinkling lights below. Carl slipped his arm around behind me and my head rested on his shoulder. I cuddled closely hugging myself to him, wanting him, too worn out to have him.

"What did you do over there?" I asked, kissing his chest.

"Wasn't a lot to do, babe. Some of the guys liked it over there. I guess it was okay, but not my cup of tea."

Carl began to talk about his year in Japan. The first few months he took advantage of passes and tagged along with the friends he'd made as they went in search of women and booze. After a few trips into the city, he decided to save his money, stay on base, and take whatever duty was assigned him without question.

"I kept thinking about the last time I saw you. I wasn't expecting it to hurt so much saying goodbye, seeing you for the final time, not knowing if I'd see you again. I can't remember anything ever hurting that much, Billie Joe."

"We're together now. It's all new. We're starting over with more control over what we decide to do. You didn't have much choice when it came to leaving me, Carl. I didn't feel as though I had any choice either. I couldn't go home after being with you."

"Yes, all that's true, but you did go home, and I'm not sure I want to know what happened that made you decide to go home."

"Carl, there are things you need to know. I wouldn't rest easy if I didn't tell you everything. I want to be honest so you know I'm not hiding anything from you."

"Everything is a lot of stuff, Babe. Everything might be more than I want to know. Like you said, we didn't have much of a choice last time."

"Carl, are we going to have a long term relationship?"

"You think I'm here to go a few rounds and move on? I'm taking you home with me, babe," Carl said. "I'll listen but I can't tell you how I'll react, Billie Joe. I want to know everything as long as everything isn't too much. Do you understand?"

"After you left me, I watched your plane until I couldn't see it any longer. I wasn't sure I still wanted to go it alone, after being with you. It was like we were best friends forever. But you were gone and I was alone."

"Well, I like that part," Carl said. "You really felt that bad about me leaving?"

"It was one of the worse moments of my life. It's why I decided to go looking for the truth about my life and the world I needed to know about. I needed to find a place where I belonged. I didn't want to go back to my parents' house and live the lie I'd led for years. I deserved better. You were gone and I had to decide what my life would be about without you. I didn't know if we'd see each other again either."

"I understand that. I just needed to work and stay out of trouble. Let time do the rest."

"I had my brother let me off on the ramp to southbound Route 5 and I was on my way to California."

"What happened?" he asked, hesitantly interested.

"I've thought about it a lot, not in any order. Mostly the worst part of it comes back in dreams and sometimes in day dreams. Sometimes I think I was born with a horseshoe up my ass. Even when there was danger, I got out of it somehow. A tractor trailer stopped for me before I stopped to hitchhike at the end of the ramp. The trucker seemed okay, but he had another boy with him. That was Raymond," I said, remembering the fiery red-head that made the first few days of my journey a test of wills. "Never has anyone tried my patience the way Ray-Boy did. He was persistent and annoying."

"Did you two… you know, did you and Raymond get it on?"

"Carl, I did a lot of dumb stuff but sleeping with Ray-Boy wasn't one of them. The trouble he had with keeping his hands to himself was easily solved when I threatened to break his arm for him. He got the idea and quit pestering me. It was a relationship complicated by our reliance on one another for safety's sake. I wouldn't have been caught dead with Raymond otherwise."

"Well, I'm glad you didn't boink him."

"Raymond was definitely not my type. He was the mouth that complained. We learned to get along in order to survive and when I left him, we parted as friends, but we were never going to get it on."

"Good," he said, sounding relieved. "I suppose that's stupid. I was a million miles away and there wasn't anything I could do about it."

"No, there wasn't. Did you and Leon… get it on?"

"Me and Leon? No."

"Did you say goodbye to him before you left?"

"Oh, yeah, he was sorry to see me go. He didn't have that many friends. Boy was hopelessly in love with his wife."

"Yeah, right!" I said without agreeing.

I was soon talking about the black car with the dark tinted windows and how Raymond was attacked and how I tried to kick the dude's head through the windshield once he turned his attention to me. I could feel Carl's anger as I unveiled the truth about my adventures on the road. I explained to him how being alone didn't work on that long lonesome highway. Each time I found myself alone, I was scared shitless, until I'd team up with someone else so that the man in the car with the dark tinted windows couldn't catch me alone.

As I droned on about my early experiences, Carl held me close as though he was protecting me from their dangers. He questioned me when I left gaps he couldn't get beyond, and he didn't always like what I told him.

"You telling me everything?" he asked along the way.

"No," I said.

"Good," he said, wanting me to leave out what he wasn't ready to hear.

He didn't let go and he didn't desert me. We were there together and he was able to protect me from my memories and the danger now passed.

It was daylight when I realized where we were and our lips were sealed… together as we winged our way over the passion playground yet again.

It was hard to catch my breath as he stole kisses from me. I wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth and with this horse in my mouth he wasn't going to last long. He was making up for the year we'd spent a part.

It was way after dawn and I heard the cars coming and going from the overlook, but we took our time regrouping for today's assault on the highways of the West. Carl yanked on his jeans once he'd grown irrevocably limp.

By the time I got around to the front of the van to accost him again he was in the midst of fixing breakfast. On the grill was the fat sausage he'd picked out at the market, sticking it beside a few eggs on a plate he handed to me, once he was done with it. That fresh morning air made me ravenous and I had to check my stomach to make certain I wasn't bulging out over the top of my jeans.

A truck pulled off into the overlook and the driver stood out in front of his rig stretching, looking back down at the valley below. He walked toward us once he finished appreciating the scenery.

"Best view on Cabbage," he said with confidence.

"Cabbage?" Carl asked.

"The hill is called Cabbage. There is a better view going down the opposite side of the road but no turnout. They don't want folks testing their brakes on the way down."

"Why Cabbage?" Carl asked, handing him a Styrofoam cup filled with black brew.

"Thanks. The story I've always heard was a ways back, probably fifty years ago, a guy hauling an open-trailer load of cabbage lost his brakes going down into the valley where you just came from. For a mile or more he left a trail of cabbage behind him before he slid over the side. It's been known as Cabbage ever since."

"That's pretty amazing," Carl agreed.

The trucker went back to his rig and left us to finish up. There was more coffee and long looks of lust that threatened to waylay our day if I got my way, but Carl's determination to make tracks got us going again as soon as the cooking gear was cleaned and stowed.

What I'd gone in search of the year before, I found in Carl. My innocence and ignorance had me on an impossible mission that I somehow survived. I was older and wiser. My journey the year before added to my ability to appreciate being with Carl, but I was but half the equation. His unconditional acceptance of me was reassuring indeed.

As quick as he finished shifting gears, aiming us toward the top of Cabbage, I scooted toward him in my seat, taking his hand in mine as we exchanged smiles. We moved on toward our future together.

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