Route 40 • February, 1956
The back seat seatback froze against Billy’s cheek until the heat of his own face made a warm spot; then the car jerked on slick road and his face slid into arctic vinyl. Billy needed a shave. He needed a bed. His eyes burned if they stayed open but he couldn’t keep them closed. Snow melted against the side windows and the dark and faded world beyond it. The car was cool and quiet inside, except for the robotic snores of Lonnie Baylor and the intermittent humming of an up-tempo Moon River by the woman at the wheel.
Billy got his eyes closed again and tried to fill that darkness with the face of his four-year-old daughter, Didi. He tried to picture that night two months ago when Venora brought her down to The Last Door on 52nd Street. Didi sat with her mother and then when Billy and the guys took the stage, she ran between the tables and threw herself up on Billy’s lap. Billy hadn’t known what to do at first. He’d started to lift her off and send her away, but he couldn’t do that. She owned that lap, and as Lonnie counted into the first tune, Billy just reached around Didi’s arms and played and Didi was mesmerized.
Billy tried to hold on to that image, but when he felt around in his memory for the music of that night, what came back to him instead was the music of two hours ago. He couldn’t stop hearing it or feeling it at the tips of his frozen fingers.
Just a few more nights now: Philly, then Camden, Trenton, then back home for a month or two—or however long it took to lay down the tracks for the next two albums. Billy thought maybe he’d take Didi with him to the studio. Let her keep the engineer company if that was all right.
A new thumping beneath the car said, One, two, one-two-three-four. Broke the quiet like Lonnie’s finger-popping when he set the quintet into motion. But this was not a good sound. Then from outside somewhere a metallic shriek, then quiet.
Time stretched out.
Billy was spinning. A sharp glow and darkness swirled together like whipped cream and dark cherry syrup in a blender. Lonnie’s head went over the top of the front seat and into Billy’s chest, and he said, Hey!
The woman at the wheel screamed No! Then Lord!
Then everything went upside down. The smell of blood pinched Billy’s nose. A dull pain made him close his eyes. When he opened them again his vision was scrambled. The steering wheel was a halo over Lonnie’s head.
Billy felt his body leaving the car. A moment later he was waist-deep in clean snow. Wind made the trees tremble slightly. Billy stopped feeling tired. The snowfall and the branches above his head and the evening sounds were beautiful. But other things were not. A hubcap was a few feet from his head, and a door, and just beyond that, wrapped around a highway guard rail was half of the car, the green Plymouth they’d been riding in.
He looked around for Lonnie and the woman. He thought he could see part of her in one half of the car and part of her in the other. He spotted one of LB’s shoes, then saw an arm hanging over the passenger side door and a hat upside down catching a snow drift. Billy tried to go back to his thoughts. The Last Door. His daughter. Didi Pancake, he sometimes called her.