..." Come with me, leave yesterday behind
And take a giant step outside your mind....."
There was dust on the road. It clung to his clothes as he paced slowly on, weighted down by the backpack and the heat of the afternoon sun. It swirled into his eyes and blinded him; it coated his skin and filled his mouth, choking him.
At the crossroads he paused, inclining his head in the manner of some jungle denizen, listening for the distant rumble that would tell of an approaching vehicle. Nothing came. Desolation mixed with exhaustion, eating into his strength like acid into metal. Muscles screaming, he sank to the ground and pulled a flask of water from the pack. Survival training: make each mouthful last. He thought he had left all that behind when they gave him his discharge papers.
That had been in May, four months ago. After that he'd gone home, the tiny apartment on Eighty-fourth Street and the loving welcome of mother and brother. But even New York was a part of his past now, the security of family life abandoned. He had tried to make a fresh start there, put the years of separation behind him, but some clocks cannot be turned back. He loved his mother, yet although he had come to understand her reasons for sending him away, and accept how much his own actions had hurt her, nothing could completely heal the rift between them. His home was in L.A. now, his roots were there - which was how he came to be sitting at a dusty roadside in the middle of Colorado, waiting for a ride.
He was broke. The last of his army pay had gone to cover his kid brother's gambling debts - before the collectors could move in and start using Nick's legs for hockey sticks and his balls for the pucks. All he possessed, not counting the stuff still stored at his aunt's home, were the contents of his bag, the clothes on his back and a dollar seventy-two in small change.
He glanced at his watch, a once shining legacy of his high school graduation which, amazingly, still functioned despite having been dragged through every swamp in Vietnam. Almost five-thirty, and not a car in sight It was beginning to look as though he'd be spending another night in one of Mother Nature's hotels. Not that he wasn't used to sleeping rough - he could write a whole book on 'David Starsky's Guide to Five-Star Foxholes' - but the occasional night in a real bed did make a pleasant change.
The car appeared out of the distance, heading West and leading a cloud of dust the way a child leads a balloon on a string. He felt the kindling of hope and stifled it at once. Too many disappointments filled is recent past.
The face that smiled up at him was slim and slightly tanned, with pale blue eyes that crinkled at the corners. "Where you headed?" the stranger asked.
"L.A.," was Starsky's terse reply. Put not your trust in strangers - a rule of the street that he had learned at a very early age.
"Me too. Want a ride?" Again the smile, as he jerked a thumb towards the rear seat. "Dump you stuff back there."
The pack found a resting place alongside a box of books, a guitar and an oversized plant that reminded him uncomfortably of places he would rather forget. Slipping into the passenger seat, he stretched his legs up under the dash.
"Name's Ken Hutchinson," the driver informed him, holding out his hand. Starsky opened one eye and touched paw-to-paw, as boxers do.
"Starsky," he muttered as the Ford - dust-caked green and much abused - rolled forward, laboriously gathering speed. He began to wonder just how close to L.A. this bucket of bolts was going to get him before it expired. But then, he reasoned, anything was better than walking.
"Come far?" Hutchinson asked. Questions. Always there were questions. He was sick of it. Name, rank, number, unit, mother's maiden name --
"New York," he replied flatly.
"Hitch most of the way?"
"You got it." He closed his eyes - maybe if he went to sleep? - and slithered down into the seat.
"'S a long haul," the driver remarked, and there was genuine sympathy in his voice.
After that, Hutchinson lapsed into silence. Or maybe Starsky, already hovering on the edge of sleep, finally succeeded in tuning him out. Whatever, when next he opened his eyes it was dark and the endless heat had given way to light rain. He blinked to clear his vision, focusing on the shining arcs of the headlamps reflected in the wet roadway. The radio was playing, Morrison's wailing vocals in counterpoint to the rhythm of the wiper blades, carrying him back to a world gone mad. He drifted with it, too tired to fight, his thoughts flowing out like water from a broken dam, leading him back to a night of R'n'R in Saigon and a pretty oriental girl in a bar. She had taken him to her room and they had made long slow love on a bed draped with hand-painted silks, to the sounds of Hendrix and Joplin, and The Doors. Now, whenever he heard those songs, he thought of silk and spice and warm olive skin.
The music changed, slowed and softened to a rich blues that told of love in all its extremes. Drum beat heavy as a labouring heart, a voice that rose and fell like autumn wind through a forest, a guitar that cried out with the sound of a thousand souls in torment. He absorbed it all in his isolated world of watered darkness and, for one frozen moment in time, all else ceased to exist, almost as if the music had the power to purge him of his troubles, make him whole again. Whole and sane. Only when Hutchinson, reaching to switch stations, brushed against his arm, did time resume its measured pace.
Starsky shifted in his seat, stretching languidly, and glanced across at his companion. he was younger than first impression had suggested, his features fine-boned and intent. hair the colour of pale oatmeal fanned out from his temples, falling a good three inches below the embroidered collar of his peasant shirt. Yet he did not strike Starsky as the usual hippie drop-out. The aura of rebellion was too - caustic, too considered.
"Where are we?" he asked softly.
"Utah," Hutchinson replied, not bothering to elucidate further. "There should be a motel around here someplace."
Starsky sat up quickly, mentally counting the cash in his pocket again. "Motel?"
"Sure... Don't think I plan on driving all night, do you?" And the pale eyes flashed a look that was someplace between surprise and amusement. They rounded a bend and a neon sign proclaiming 'Eli's Place' split the darkness to their right. "This looks like it."
The place was small, a front office with a dozen cabins ranged on wither side of the single drive. At the end of the row a solitary ;light glowed in the window. Starsksy found himself glancing warily at the hillside, looking for the house with the shadow of a woman at its window. As Hutch began to climb out of the car, Starsky caught at his arm.
"Ah... Listen - I'm real grateful for the ride, but - See, I wanna get to L.A. soon as I can, so -- Well, I can probably pick up another ride back on the highway..."
"In this weather?" scoffed the low voice.
"'M used to it." he dragged the pack over the seat and opened the door. "Thanks for gettin' me this far. Appreciate it." He stepped out, hoisting his bag to his shoulder and turning his collar against the drizzle. "Maybe we'll bump into each other in -"
"Starsky!" There was gentle laughter in the voice.
Pale eyes searched his face, transmitted the information they found there to a speeding mind. "Will you get back in the car. One night's not gonna make a lot of difference to your schedule, except this way you won't end up with pneumonia." And then, with an insight that Starsky found unnerving, he added "We can work out the finances later."
To Starsky that was one sentence too many and he was at once on the defensive, challenging Hutchinson's pity. Except, when he finally met the piercing gaze, he found no pity there. Understanding, yes, and an openness that he wasn't entirely sure he welcomed, but nothing more.
"I'm broke," he whispered. "Can't pay you back till we get to L.A. Maybe not even then."
The blond head nodded once. "I know. It's okay. Really."
"How come? It's not as if we're friends or anythin'. How'd you know I won't just run out on you in the night? Rip you off?"
Hutchinson shrugged. "I trust you," he said simply.
"I still don't get it," Starsky said an hour later, as they shared the last of a six-pack. "You pick up a stranger in the middle of nowhere, spring for bed and board - What are you, some kind of one-man charity show? A religious nut into peace and brotherhood?"
"Is that such a bad thing?" Hutchinson asked, draining the can and tossing it into the bin. "Or did army life kill off all your compassion?"
There it was again, that uncanny insight. "How did you know I was in the army?"
"Guess you just look the type. You seem healthy enough, you're too sure of yourself to be on the run from the draft, and somehow I can quite picture you on campus. Next question?"
Starsky rolled from the bed and stalked across to pull a battered pack of cigarettes from his bag, offering one to the blond, who declined with a shake of his head.
"Okay smart ass - what secrets you bin' hidin' from the world?"
Hutchinson grinned and lay back on his bed, arms tucked behind his head. If Starsky's probing concerned him, he gave no sign. "Who says I've got any?"
"I do... Like, what's a guy from your background doin' in a backwater like this, lookin' like a refugee from Woodstock?"
One corn-gold brow arched enquiringly from across the room. "Oh? And just what do you think my 'background' is?"
"Money," Starsky said shortly. "Boston, or someplace like it. College grad., testing his wings, with daddy's name to bail you out if you blow it and daddy's money to make sure the living ain't too hard." Embarrassment touched the tanned cheeks and Starsky knew he had touched a nerve. "So, what're you running from, Blondie?"
"You think you're so smart - you tell me." There was a thread of acid in his tone.
Starsky drew a deep lungful of smoke and blew it out on a sigh. He had known this man for just a few hours - most of which he had slept through - and already he was being drawn into the over-involvement trap once more. In another day they would reach the city and go their separate ways, with little chance of ever meeting again. So, why was he playing Hutchinson's game? Wouldn't it be better just to settle down in the bed he had been looking forward to all day an catch a few hours sleep, before they continued on their way?
"A girl," he said, not realising at first that he had answered aloud.
"What makes you think that?" asked Hutchinson, his attention seemingly centred on shredding a paper tissue into confetti.
Good question. "Dunno," he responded vaguely. "Seemed like a good bet, given the choices. An' then there was the song..."
"In the car. That music was really getting to you. Figured you must be hurtin' over someone." He shrugged away the rest of the explanation and stubbed out the cigarette. It was getting late. They would need to be up early if they were to make it to L.A. by next evening. Hutchinson appeared to take the hint, reaching across to cut off the bedside lamp.
In the sudden gloom, Starsky stood at the end of the stranger's bed, some unnameable thought nagging at his mind. Then, in one swift movement, he stripped off his shirt and dropped belly-down on his own mattress.
"Starsky? You awake?"
The man addressed cracked open one eyelid. The room was in darkness still, except for a narrow, pulsing strip of light from the motel sign outside.
"Hmmm" he grunted, too lazy to speak.
"You were right. About the girl, I mean. We thought we could make it work, but..."
Starsky heard movement, sensed Hutchinson sitting up. Scrape of a match, the sudden stabbing brilliance of a flame, abruptly extinguished, gentle sigh of relief. He had been right then, the man was hurting, yet he felt no triumph in his perception.
"Bad scene?" he asked softly.
"I've known better. We were too young and she - wanted more than I could give. Or maybe it was the other way around... I'm not sure anymore." Movement again, bare feet slapping on the bare linoleum, then Starsky felt the mattress dip beneath him as Hutchinson sat down. "Here... You want some of this?"
Starsky rolled lazily onto his back. Captured in the filtered light, his companion's face was even paler than before, his hair a silvered veil around his shoulders. Starsky accepted the proffered cigarette, nostrils catching the faint-but-welcome scent of good quality grass.
"Sounds like the two of you were pretty - close," he observed, passing the joint back again, delighting in the first tingle of dope through his senses.
"It was good for a while... My folks didn't approve of the marriage but then, they didn't do anything to stop us either. My father said we had to find out the hard way."
"You were married? I thought all of that was out of fashion now."
"Not with my family it isn't. And that's Duluth, not Boston. You were close on the rest though."
"That why you and - Whatshername? -"
"Nan ---" Starsky spluttered as his hold on reality began to slip. "Yeah, it fits. Don't tell me - Society Wedding of the Year, five-tier cake and a dozen maids of honour."
Hutchinson snorted. "More like the 'Happy Ever After' wedding chapel in Vegas, followed by burgers and coke." Sniggering at his memories, he slipped inelegantly to the floor. The joint changed hands once again. As Starsky reached to take it, his hand brushed warm bare skin that trembled slightly. On impulse he gave Hutchinson's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"Hey... relax. You'll work it out. Just give it time."
"Wise words from one so young," Hutchinson responded lightly, his only acknowledgement of Starsky's concern a brief touch of hand on hand.
Starsky fell silent but continued to grin his satisfaction into the darkness. The man was infectious. He still had no idea why he felt so drawn to this blue and gold stranger - didn't he have enough troubles of his own to contend with? - but the feeling was there and, despite all his efforts, refused to be ignored. Like itching powder. Rolling onto his side, he leaned over the edge of the bed, his face close to the other man's ear.
"Now, kid, is that any way to talk to your elders?"
Hutchinson's reaction was swift and sure. Hooking one arm up and behind Starsky's head, he yanked him unceremoniously from the bed, dumping him in a heap on the narrow strip of rug. For the space of a dozen heartbeats that stared at each other, taking stock of cause and effect. Starsky tested the abused areas of his anatomy and pronounced himself bruised but otherwise unscathed.
"Cute," he said. "Real cute, Blondie. They teach you that in college?"
"Wrestling team," the blond confirmed.
"Yeah? Well remind me to teach you a few moves I picked up back home."
He pushed himself up and braced his back against the bed. Some indefinable felling rippled through him as his own words registered. A few hours ago he had been certain that, once in L.A., they would not meet again yet here he was, talking about the future. Okay, so maybe there was nothing serious in the offer but at least it had him thinking beyond the next sunrise and that was something he had not felt able to do for a long, long time.
"Where is home?" Hutchinson wanted to know, catching him off guard.
"L.A. via New York. My mom still lives there."
"Yeah? How come you're heading West?"
Starsky's first instinct was to end the conversation right there. His private life was just that - private, something that belonged to him alone, not to be discussed with any casual stranger who happened along. In a world where he carried his life on his back, his privacy was often the most valuable possession he had. On the other hand he was forced to admit that Hutchinson had trusted him with a glimpse into his own past. It was, after all, a two way street.
"Ma sent me to live with my aunt, back in fifty-seven, after papa died. All my friends are out there now, my girl -- There's nothing left for me back East now."
"You miss him a lot, don't you?" Again there was compassion in the quiet tone.
"My dad? Yeah..." As if to taunt him his memory conjured up the image of a tall man, dark haired and bright eyed, smiling down at him and laughing. "Yeah, I miss him. Twelve years on an' it still hurts, Hutch. It still hurts."
Hutchinson bowed his head and scraped his hands through his hair. "'S funny," he whispered, "When I was a kid, I used to wish my father would leave us alone. I'd lie in bed at night and imagine he'd gone to this fancy party and met some rich bitch who begged him to run away to Europe with her. He never did, of course. Maybe that's why I married Nancy, to escape from him. I envy you..."
Starsky looked up sharply, appalled. "Because my dad died?"
"Because you love him enough to miss him, even after twelve years." The words were heavy with years of misery and spoke silently of other, darker secrets. It reminded Starsky of just how much he had lost. Joseph Starsky had been more than just a father, he had been a good friend too.
And with that awareness came an understanding of the improbable link that was forming between himself and this unlikely fugitive. They were soul mates, kindred spirits forged from years of loneliness, moving on a parallel course towards the unknown. He wondered if, somewhere in their future, their paths were destined to merge.
He glanced across: the blond head was dipping lower as the effects of the dope receded and the rhythm of his breathing told him that the man was drifting towards sleep. Rolling to his knees, he shook the wide shoulders.
"Hutchinson! C'mon, Hutch!" Half-closed eyes struggled to focus on his face, slipped away and, finally, gave up the struggle. "Hey, Blondie! This ain't no place to crash out. You gotta drive tomorrow, remember? How you gonna do that with a crick in your neck, huh?"
Legs braced against the divan, Starsky hauled the dozing man to his feet and dropped him in a heap on the bed, tossing the coverlet over him. For a moment or two he sat on the edge of his own bunk, watching and listening. He had told Hutchinson that all his friends were waiting for him in L.A: the truth was, he could count on the fingers of one hand the people who would be pleased to see him. As for the girlfriend he had mentioned - he still had her 'Dear John' letter in his pocket. With a sigh he lay down.
His last thought, before surrendering to sleep, was that at least the last few miles of his journey held the prospect of friendship. Maybe travel wasn't so bad, if you had a little company along the way.