Since I started this memoir about Lucius, I’ve moved with my family to Redmond, Oregon, and the protracted summer has just yielded to fall. Lucius, Gullivar, and I passed through this country an hour after my last installment, on the highway a mile east of where I sit, and the weather that January day wasn’t much different from what we’re having now: stiff breeze and intermittent sun. The peaks of the Cascades to the west just got snow: the fat horn of Jefferson up north, a swath of lower peaks between it and the clustered Three Sisters, which are broad but curvy, ending in rough points; and then the white dome of Mt. Bachelor after them, just south. “Snow-covered” is not the right adjective. They aren’t covered, but rather revealed by the snow, intricate and huge and vital. The snow animates and freezes them at the same time. They command your respectful, near wary attention.
I pointed over the steering wheel. “Look.”
Gullivar leaned forward between the seats and gave them due regard.
Lucius looked up from his notes. He adjusted his glasses. “Eh.”
* * *
We sped through Madras and Redmond and Bend, and stopped at a grocery store in La Pine. I waited in the Explorer while Gullivar and Lucius went shopping. Gullivar came back with chips and sandwiches and oranges.
Lucius bought a Snickers bar, a diet Pepsi, and a copy of The Weekly World News.
Gullivar volunteered to take over driving. Belatedly, he said that maybe he should go back in and get us another map.
“We’ve got maps, right?” said Lucius. “Let’s just go.”
It was almost eleven a.m. A few minutes later, we took the exit to highway 31, southeast. I’d never been this way. We made a gentle climb out of the desert into forests of lodge-pole pine. The sun shone bright in the hills, but as we descended into desert and rangeland, clouds gathered. The wind came up, and the landscape to the east became flat and desolate to the horizon, with shimmering crusts of ice in the near distance, either patches of frost or frozen pools. On the west loomed the dun humps of the foothills, which our road soon approached. Herds of tumbleweeds came bouncing downslope and over the road in front of and behind us. We skirted a huge, shallow lake that stretched east and south, miles long — Summer Lake, as I later determined. The winds sweeping over us from the sheltering western hills blasted the water and raised spectacular dust storms on the lake’s far eastern side. The brown walls rolled upwards of a thousand feet. I checked my map, and it said that under them was a band of dunes three to four miles deep, east to west. And also obscured by the dust, as indicated by the map, was a low range aptly named The Diablo Mountains.
Lucius craned forward to peer at the tumbleweeds bearing down on us and at the wild landscape to the east. “Now this is pretty neat.”
We left the gloom behind with the lake, and the winds abated as we veered south away from another huge lake and entered a wide canyon slot between hills. Fifty more miles through sagebrush country amid low mountain ranges brought us to a small town by the oceanic Goose Lake, right at the California border. We gassed up there, and Gullivar and I again switched places. Another twenty-five miles brought us to Alturas, where a newer highway led due south. My map didn’t show this road at all, so we kept going straight, on to Susanville, and taking an unnecessary detour as I later found out.
The country in northeastern California is subdued, with low soft mountain ranges furred with dryland trees like juniper, pine, and scrub oak. The towns are few and distant, small and rustic. We were taking the back-alley route across the southwest, following a Cold War-era map through regions that had moved on little since the map was current. This had just begun to dawn on me. I felt a little embarrassed about it, but it also seemed appropriate to our quest to seek out hoboes and their subculture.
Lucius read through his paper, snorting now and then. At one point, he said, “I had hopes for ‘Man Has Affair with Lady Sasquatch,’ but it’s pretty weak compared to ‘Bat Baby Found in Cave.’ You remember that one?”
“Yeah,” I said. Everyone knew that one.
He nodded. “That one was good.”
“Can I see it?” asked Gullivar.
Lucius pitched the tabloid over the seat, fished a bag of chips out from under his legs, and snacked loudly: “num, num, num.” When this got distracting and I finally looked at him, he grinned broadly at me, crumbs hanging in his beard.
I was feeling tired.
Clouds gathered overhead and the wind came up, but in Susanville, we found sun again. There must have been an auto show around, because we passed vintage fin-tailed cars in the main corridor of 1950s-era businesses: drive-ins, boxy two-story motels. Our Blazer was the anachronism here. It was nearing dinner time, but we kept going, out into the plain. A couple of hours later, we climbed up over the Nevada border and dropped into Reno just as the sun was going down. Patches of crusted snow lay at the edge of parking lots and filled the space between pines on the surrounding hills. It would have been lovely except for the garish Casino just inside the town limits. We gassed up at the station just beyond, and I handed the keys over to Gullivar after Lucius got more junk food.
We made no plans. Lucius simply wanted us away from Reno; he wanted to make Arizona the next day, and we hadn’t gone far enough.
“Hey,” he said, looking back at me between the seats, “did I ever tell you about the time Sister Mary Margaret got pissed at me for not singing hymns in class?”
Gullivar said, “I remember. It’s the Jesus song you made up, right?”
“Yeah,” Lucius said. He affected the voice of an elderly nun. “ ‘Now, Lucius, can you sing the song with the rest of the class?’
“ ‘I won’t sing that one, Sister, but I’ve got this for ya.’ ” Then in a boogie-woogie Elvis warble, he belted out:
“ ‘Got nails in my palms,
Sword in my side,
Can’t rock no more been croo-cified!
Rock me, Jesus!’ ”
I laughed. “What’d she say to that?”
“I don’t remember, but Ellen Supinski* burst into tears and shouted, ‘Lucius Shepard, you’re eeevil!’ and ran out of class.” He chuckled. “I said to myself, ‘Hmm, so what have we here?’ ”
He switched the topic to other song lyrics he came up with. As I don’t know their copyright status, I won’t set them down. In later years, Lucius warned me about using song lyrics. The licensing fees even for arguably fair-use citation are ridiculous. He always quoted only songs he’d made up himself.
The talk veered off into a private discussion between Lucius and Gullivar of bands I wasn’t familiar with, and exhausted, I dozed off. I had the impression of the night wearing on and of Gullivar and Lucius getting tense. At one point, not quite awake, I heard Gullivar expressing confusion about an exit. “Well maybe we should check the map,” said Lucius.
“I think the map’s useless,” said Gullivar.
I roused myself as Gullivar brought the Blazer to a stop. We were outside of a town — Hawthorne, Gullivar said. The yellow eye of a yield sign hung over a frontage road before us. The highway overpass loomed off to the left. Now and then, cars flashed along it. Gullivar switched on the cabin light and studied the map. “Okay, here it is. We’re coming up on the atomic test range.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“We can be at Tonopah in an hour and a half. After that, there’s nothing really till Las Vegas.”
“Let’s stop in Tonopah then,” said Lucius.
Gullivar put away the map, killed the light, and drove us back on the highway.
We stopped at the Sundowner Motel coming into Tonopah, a block of one-story row units. Against the stars was silhouetted a near-distant backdrop of mining elevators and low hills that could have been slag. We all got out and stretched in the cool night air. Lucius took in the view. “Good enough,” he said, and tromped into the office.
We got one of the middle units. We didn’t have much competition for lodging; only a couple of pickups and a green Pinto occupied the lot. After a cursory inspection of the room — clean but spare, with two queen beds, a bathroom at the rear — Lucius went and started unloading the trunk ahead of us. I stood by as he pulled out my bag and set it on the ground, then lifted his own. Something glistened along its bottom and he held it up and peered under it. “What the fuck?”
A lake of slime had pooled in the back of the car.
“What’s that?” Gullivar said. “Oh.”
Lucius’s half-gallon bottle of shampoo had leaked out and was resting on its side. He hadn’t secured the lid.
He picked up the bottle with two fingers and shampoo eeled off it onto the lot. I stared at the trunk. Had the shampoo stained the fabric? How much was this going to cost?
Lucius gave the bottle a little shake. “Ah, good, there’s some left.”
* * *
Gullivar and I cleaned up the mess as best we could with towels from the motel bathroom. Obviously we couldn’t get all the shampoo out without a carpet cleaner, but it was easy enough to flip the carpet over and clean both sides. We rang out the towels in the bathtub and made several trips. Washing the towels out created mounds of suds that filled the tub.
Lucius helped out, but he wasn’t apologetic.
I was still scrubbing at the carpet, when Lucius said, “That’s good enough. C’mon, we can put down some newspaper over it. It’s fine.”
I closed the hatchback, carried the towels into the bathroom to stow them under the sink, and then washed my hands. When I came back, Lucius and Gullivar had their heads together just outside the open door, letting cold air into the room. They glanced at me sidelong with strange, reproachful looks.
Was this mess somehow my fault?
“Come here,” Lucius said.
I advanced a few wary steps. What was going on?
Lucius slipped inside, and Gullivar followed just behind. Gullivar pulled the door shut, set the chain latch, and turned around. He moved to the side, as if flanking me. They both spread their arms and hunkered in a wrestler’s crouch, then slowly advanced.
“Gully, let’s show Bob here how we Shepards get to know people.”
For a second, I felt genuine panic. It must have shown on my face. Then they straightened up and burst out laughing.
*I actually don’t remember the name — I hope this isn’t the real one.