MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Sitting on the hood and thrumming the strings of his chevycap, Aldo watched the sun rise over the black semi in the slow lane. The question, Aldo told himself, wasn't when Mar' would come back. The question was, was there any particular weather that would be better for looking for a new song? Winter would be good. Folks sang more then. They'd feel sorry, too, and let you set in their cars to hear you, like they maybe wouldn't now. Rain would be good, too. Rain made you feel blue, and it was feeling blue that brought the best songs.
It wasn't that he made his songs up, not really. That was what people figured, and was why he could when they couldn't. Thinking made the songchopper go off and leave you to work out whatever was troubling you, like anybody would. What you did (this was the best) was scooch up on the hood and lean back with your back up against the windshield so the songchopper, the little sun-color chopper that nobody ever saw, could see you weren't doing nothing and fly up behind and throw down a song to your ear. A new song.
This way, Aldo thought, scooching up on flaking steel still cold with night. He leaned back, eyes half closed.
"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller sun, yeller sun, bring her back,
Make her to lie in my Cadillac."
He spaced out the final notes of the refrain, trying to make them sound as lost and lonely as he had felt since Ma'am pined, but only half succeeding. It was a good song, but not a new song; he had done it almost a year ago, when Mar' had been gone only half a day.
The airman was coming down the lane with his little putt-putting motor and his tire gauge. "How do," Aldo called. The airman and the other choppermen wouldn't hardly ever tell you their names.
"Howdy, Aldo," the airman answered. "How's your tires?" This airman always said that.
"Might have a look at the left front," Aldo replied; today he added, "I'd 'predate it. Goin' to be gone a li'l."
Stooping to check the left rear of the Ryder in front of Aldo's Caddy, the airman glanced up in some surprise. "You takin' off, Aldo?"
He shook his head. "Just walkin' on down a ways, airman. Maybe you and me could walk along together awhile?"
The airman straightened up. "I go slow. Got to, to check the ones that look soft."
Aldo nodded, and his fingers found the strings of his chevycap.
"Airman, airman, stop at every wheel,
Slow down, airman, let me get my meal,
Chowchopper's hummin', chopper wind's a-blowin',
Got to grab my supper, 'fore you get a-goin'.
"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller sun, yeller sun, bring Mar' back,
Make her a bed in my Cadillac."
"You certainly can play that thing," the airman said, and Aldo grinned.
"Fast-lane gals, come kick at the moon,
Rattle your spoons, dance to my tunes!
Fast-lane gals are the best for a fling,
Don't want no ring, don't mind a thing!"
His fingers tap-tappity-tapped the chevycap, as well as strumming the strings, so that it seemed for a moment he had three arms at least.
"I can't wait for you to go," the airman said, smiling, "but maybe you could catch up to me." He stooped to put his gauge on Aldo's right front.
"I'll go now," Aldo told him. "Soon's you do." He had not known that, not certain sure, until he said it; but it was true: he was ready.
"She is a mite soft." The airman put his hose on the valve, and the putt-putting of his little motor slowed and deepened.
"You think that gasman might come any time soon?"
The airman shook his head.
"I wouldn't want to miss if he did, that's all."
The airman straightened up again. "If you freewayers didn't run your engines so you could listen to your radios, you'd always have plenty of gas."
"I don't," Aldo said truthfully.
"Well, a lot do. Sometimes I can hear them switchin' off as I go down the lane."
"Sure. But we got to run—" He had said we. He counted the days since Ma'am had driven out of the jam. Thirty-three. Maybe thirty-four.
"Come along if you're comin'," the airman told him.
It was slow work, and there was no way Aldo could make it go faster, nothing he could do beyond cheering the way with a song. Sometimes he sang without playing; more often he played without singing, listening to the silver notes lose themselves in the hot morning sunlight. These were good strings, these new ones he had untwisted from the hood-release cable of the empty Toyota.
"How far you been this way, Aldo?" the airman wanted to know.
"Down to the Junction." It was a lie. He had been to within sight of the Junction, that was all.
The slatternly woman whose tires the airman was checking said, "I been past the Junction, just about to the Spaghetti Bowl."
Aldo stopped strumming. "I never heard tell. What's that?"
"I won't tell you," the woman said. "What do I need for you to call me a liar? You born in the jam?"
Aldo shook his head.
"Yes, you was!"
"I was three," Aldo explained. "I was ridin' with Ma'am."
Aldo looked up-lane in the direction of his Caddy. There were cars, trucks, and station wagons as far as he could see, but not one he recognized. He and the airman had come farther than he thought—that was easy to do. "Ma'am's my ma," he said. "Everybody 'round where we live, they called herMa'am. She drove out 'bout this time last month. Little more, now."
"I'm sorry to hear," the slatternly woman said.
The airman straightened up, hooking the nozzle of his air hose to the side of the handcart that held the air tank and the putt-putting motor. "You get a body bag for her, Aldo?"
"Yes, sir, Airman," Aldo said truthfully.
"Give her to the deathchopper for sanitary disposal?"
"Yes, sir," Aldo lied; he had put her in the trunk, which was what most people did—laid them in the trunk, or in the back of the black semi in the slow lane. The black semi had been empty once; it was nearly a quarter full of body bags now, and there were two or three who weren't in bags and lent the black semi a scent putrid yet almost sweet, a smell that became an overpowering stench when the big doors in back opened for somebody else.
Rapidly, as if she sensed the need for a change of topic, the slatternly woman said, "My son, he's born right here in our Tornado, an' he's 'bout as tall as you."
"There's lots taller than me," Aldo conceded. He pointed to a crack in the concrete. "You see that? That's grass, that green stuff there."
"Sure, I know."
Aldo nodded. "You would, course. Well, so would I, an' I do. I remember a whole lane that was all over grass, an' soft. I remember runnin' on it with some kind of a animal that was white an' brown."
"A dog?" the slatternly woman hazarded.
"I don't know. Might of been."
The woman nodded to herself. "What you doin' down this way? Takin' off?"
Aldo shook his head.
"They don't like it if you do. That airman, he'll tell."
The airman, who had moved beyond the slatternly woman's Tornado by this time, looked back at them. "That's what you think. I don't give a shit, Aldo. You're a nice boy, an' if you want to risk it, you do it. I won't tell anybody."
"I'm not," Aldo repeated.
"Usually," the woman said, "when somebody like you comes by, they're lookin' for somebody."
Aldo shook his head.
"Lookin' for a gal, most often." When Aldo said nothing, the slatternly woman added, "Don't people I don't know come by often, but when they do an' it's somebody 'bout your age, Aldo, they're lookin' for a gal."
"I'm not," he told her, "but I'll take one if you got one. Where she be?"
The slatternly woman laughed. "Not so long back I'd of said me, Aldo. What is it? What you lookin' for?"
Aldo hesitated. He was by nature candid, yet he hated to expose himself to mockery. "You goin' to laugh?"
"Not if it's not no joke."
"I'm lookin' for a song."
"Uh-huh." The slatternly woman chewed her lip. "You lose one? How you lose a song?"
"Forget, I guess. But I didn't." Also leaned against the side of her gray Tornado and ran his fingers over the strings of his chevycap. "I can remember every song that ever I heard. Ma'am used to say some's good at one thing an' some at another. Only I've seen some that wasn't good for nothin'."
The slatternly woman nodded her agreement.
"Me, I got somethin' I'm good at." The chevycap trilled happy laughter. "I'm good at this. I want a new song, though. I'm tired of the old ones."
"You the one that the chopper's lookin' for?"
Aldo froze. "Don't think so. The chowchopper?"
The slatternly woman laughed again. "Chowchopper don't look for nobody. We look for it."
"Used to look for Ma'am," Aldo declared, "‘cause she'd help. Tell who was sick, an' not to give to them that'd lined up twice. But don't look for me, now Ma'am's drove out."
"This was 'nother," the slatternly woman explained. "I never hardly seen it before. Not to talk to, anyhow. Yeller, it was, got Number Three an' TV on the side, all blue."
Aldo opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He had imagined a small chopper, so tiny that nobody could see it, but yellow as the sun. Songs had to come from somewhere, and it seemed to him that his own came from a place outside himself, brought to him by this songchopper. Then too, Mar'd gone off lookin' for a chopper that was-
"They was lookin' for somebody," the slatternly woman repeated. "Can you play that thing? Let's hear you."
Aldo nodded. "What kind you like?"
The slatternly woman hesitated, and something sly crept into her expression. "You're not lookin' for a gal, you said."
"For a song. A new one. I told you."
"But you know lots?"
"You'll play whatever kind I want?"
Aldo considered. "If you'll tell me 'bout the songchopper after."
Her eyes widened. "How you know they want to know 'bout songs an' stuff? I guess you been talkin' to folks."
"I mean the yeller chopper with the blue on. Song just sort of slipped out. What kind you want?"
"One 'bout a boy lookin' for a gal that he loves, a quiet one so we don't wake folks up. There's lots of those. You got to know one."
He nodded slowly. "Twenty, maybe. Maybe more. You'll tell me 'bout this yeller chopper after?"
She nodded, too.
"All you know?"
She raised her right hand. "As I hope out."
"All right, then," Aldo said, and woke his chevycap.
"When I was a young man, 'bout seventeen,
I loved a li‘l gal that they called Mary Dean.
Her hair was the brightest for six lanes 'round,
Her mouth was the sweetest a man ever found,
When late at night on the roof we'd lie,
Watchin' the dark clouds hurryin' by."
The slatternly woman nodded. "I know this one."
"I didn't say it was no new song," Aldo told her, "only I was the first to sing it."
"I loved her more than a man ought to love,
But she's gone up to the clouds above.
Now late at night when the clouds roll by,
I hear Mary callin‘, up there in the sky.
"We'd lie on the roof an' we'd look at the stars.
She called them the headlights of all God's cars,
Jammed up in Heaven where the dark clouds fly,
An' those was God's choppers, hurryin' by.
Someday, she'd say, the Blood of the Lamb
In them Heavenly tanks goin' to bust this jam.
"I loved her more than a man ought to love,
But she's gone up to the clouds above,
Now late at night when the clouds roll by,
I hear Mary callin‘, up there in the sky."
The slatternly woman said, "I think there's more."
"Sure." Wishing he could wipe his eyes, Aldo plucked the last, plaintive note. "Only I doubt you want to hear it all."
"Besides," the woman continued argumentatively, "it's not 'bout no boy lookin' for his gal. Mary's dead."
Aldo shook his head.
"You're not lookin' for a gal. That's what you say."
"For a song, a new song. You were goin' to tell me 'bout that chopper an' the Spaghetti Bowl, too, only you never did."
Not to be gainsaid, the slatternly woman insisted, "You're lookin' for some gal. What's her name?"
"She's not dead?"
"No," Aldo said. "Least I hope not. She gone's all. Up that other way. That's why I'm walkin' this way, downjam."
"I don't figure I ought mess in this," the woman decided after a moment's thought. "I don't figure I can help none, an' I might hurt."
Relieved, Aldo nodded.
"That yeller chopper's mixed in, too. I could tell from how you looked. It come down lookin' for people, an' maybe it found some. That's all I know for sure anyhow."
She looked at Aldo as if she expected him to be angry, and he said, "All right."
"You must of rid through the Spaghetti Bowl when you was little. You don't remember nothin'?"
"Don't know, 'cause I don't know what 'tis. Maybe if I was to see it, I'd remember."
"Jam up on top of jam, heaped over jam." The woman made gestures, one hand flat above the other.
"You mean up in the sky where the choppers are?" Aldo was incredulous.
His fingers sought for the strings of his chevycap again. "Only a man can't go up there, can he? That jam's up there on top of this one, ain't it? A man couldn't get up to it."
"Sure you could. It leads on 'round."
He was not certain that he understood her, but he felt his resolution strengthen in a way that surprised him. "I'm goin' there." He ceased to lean on her car and took the first two steps of many, calling over his shoulder politely, "Thanks for tellin' me."
"Wait up!" The slatternly woman hurried after him. "I can tell you somethin' more that's worth knowin'."
"You look over yonder in number two lane. See that orangy truck?"
"Behind the big camper?"
"That's the one. Don't pay any mind to that. Keep your eyes goin' on past," the woman pointed, "till you see—get up on our Tornado. Go 'head. You can't see it from here."
Aldo pulled off his shoes, laid his chevycap on the filthy concrete beside them, and vaulted up, helped by an easy toehold on the sill of the rear window.
"Now look on past that one you seen before. Way past, near to the h'rizon. Way on past's another orangy truck, real high. Higher than anythin' 'round there."
"I got it," Aldo called down.
"Well, you get up on that, an' you can see the Spaghetti Bowl for yourself. Look real careful then, an' don't get to thinkin' your eyes is playin' tricks."
* * *
Aldo quizzed the airman when he caught up to him. "You know 'bout the Spaghetti Bowl, airman? That lady was tellin' me 'bout it."
"I used to have that route." The airman fingered his gauge, eyeing a tire that appeared a little soft.
"You did? Where's there's jam up in the air?"
The airman chuckled. "They go over the edge up there. Know what I mean, Aldo? Over the side, an' it falls down on the ones underneath a lot. Lots of fightin' there."
"You don't go there no more, though? Go with your air, I mean."
The airman shook his head, and Aldo hurried on.
The sun was four fingers above the slow lane now, and the jam was awakening, roused by its brightening light. Small and soiled children emerged from doors, windows, and even sunroofs, shooed like so many sparrows by mothers determined to dust and tidy while the good weather lasted. Small dogs who had crept under their owners' cars to take refuge from the heat emerged to yawn, stretch, and attend to various strategically located tires in a way markedly different from the airman's, and to bark at Aldo. Sleepy men turned out with the children frowned, fingering knives ground from the leaf springs, and reached back into their cars for tire irons they thrust into their belts or slapped against their palms.
"I don't want your women," Aldo sang, "I don't want your chow. For I am but a stranger, passin' your car now. Smile at a stranger, let him walk past you. Then there'll be no danger when you go walkin', too."
A few of the men actually did smile.
"I be from the center—Aldo is my name.
Never walked for hatin', never walked for shame.
Walkin' now for learnin', walkin' for a song,
playin' to the people, as I walk along."
It was not a new song, but it was a new verse; Aldo was seized by a premonition that he would find his new song in the Spaghetti Bowl. A splendid new song, and perhaps something else, something still more splendid, too. What was it the slatternly woman had said about the yellow-and-blue chopper? That it was looking for somebody? It sounded like it might be the one Mar' had gone looking for; and although she had gone the other way and he would be double danged if he'd go looking for her, she might turn around and come back if she heard that the chopper was in back of her.
"I don't want your women, I don't want your chow.
For I am but a stranger, passin' your car now.
Smile at a stranger, let him go past you,
Then there'll be no danger when you go walkin', too.
"Once I seen a stranger, let him pass on through.
Once I seen a stranger. Maybe that was you?
Once I seen a stranger, give him my best smile,
Son he says, I'm weary. I've walked many a mile.
I don't want your women, I don't want your chow…"
Aldo stopped playing to shade his eyes against the sun, wondering if he could see the high orange truck from the ground here. A man said, "Chowchopper ain't stopped for us in two days." It was a conventional lie.
"Comin' now," Aldo told him, and pointed. Looking for the distant truck, he had caught sight of the Chowchopper, a minute speck of white and red, gleaming in the level sunshine.
"Got to see where it goes." The man clutched Aldo's arm. "Don't see why they don't always go to the same place." He shaded his eyes too. "Then we'd know, be all ready."
"They used to,Ma'am said, only there was some that killed for the cars close to there."
The man was gone, dashing down the lane. Another, running too, pushed Aldo aside.
Aldo shook his head. When the chowchoppers had always come at the same time to the same place,Ma'am had explained, everyone gathered there in advance. There had been frantic fights, not between a few men but between hundreds; and in the end the strong had eaten twice, and the weak had not eaten at all.
Aldo had been too young to remember. Now, as he strolled along, keeping well to one side to give the runners room, he wondered whether it had really been worse than this. Wouldn't it be better to have chowmen with carts of chow walk down the lanes as the airmen and the gasmen did? They could leave, say, three chows at each car.
The runners were mostly women and children now, boys and young gals sprinting faster than most men, and women carrying babies and clutching the hands of toddlers, too wise to run.
"Down by that bus with the dog on it," a woman told him.
Aldo nodded, smiling. "That where it come last time?"
"Three times ago. Bus's due again." She picked up her child and hurried on.
The chowmen with carts would be mobbed and robbed, Aldo decided. Perhaps that had been tried already; if it had been, a day or two had probably been enough to show it didn't work. This way was the best after all.
He stood on the high fender of a tow truck to look ahead. Most of the runners were converging on two identical dark green delivery trucks in the slow lane. That was where the chopper had come last, most likely. Women and children, with a few gals and elderly men, were assembling at the bus with the dog picture.
As he watched, the chowchopper flew past the green trucks, the men who had waited there running behind and waving. Soon it had passed the dog bus too, so low it seemed like it had to stop any minute. Chopper wind whipped his long hair like a gale as the chopper appeared to settle—not quite landing, because there wasn't room for that—between a red Horizon and a LeBaron convertible with the top gone.
Aldo stood back, watching the chows handed out, each in its own crispy crackerbox. His mouth watered.
"Ain't you goin' to get in line?" a gal nearly as pretty as Mar' inquired.
"I'm not from 'round here," he explained. "I'll go the last."
She winked at him, then ran up the line to a tall young man with bumper-wide shoulders; there was a rumble of protest as the tall young man made room for her, a rumble he silenced with a glance.
Aldo got in line too, standing at the end behind a girl child who did not quite come up to his waist. "We won't get nothin' back here," the girl child informed him. "Hardly ever do."
He grinned at her. "I'm not real hungry. You get one, maybe you could give me your box?"
"No," she said firmly; and then, "Prob'ly I won't neither. I hardly ever. Ma gives me some of hers, sometimes."
A policeman came down the line, his chow tucked under his arm and a water bottle in his hand. He wore slopchopper clothes like everyone else's, but the badge on his shirt and the gun at his waist marked him.
He stopped beside Aldo. "Not from 'round here, are you?"
"Yes, sir. I'll be gone 'fore the next one comes."
When the policeman seemed not quite satisfied, Aldo added, "I went past your car real early. I figured it'd be better not to waken you."
"Next time you wake me up," the policeman said.
"An' don't you give no trouble here."
"You be gone next time I see you."
The girl child tittered, but Aldo said politely, "Yes, sir. I sure will be."
When the policeman himself was gone, the girl child said, "He don't have no more bullets."
"I figured." Aldo called to mind what Ma'am had always said. "He tries, though." For a few seconds he debated the best way to explain that order was better, and that those who tried to keep order deserved respect and cooperation even if they had no bullets, or had never had any.
He crouched and held out his chevycap so the girl child could see it, then ran his hand across the strings. "That's music. Hear?"
"It's pretty," she said.
"See here?" He displayed his callused fingers. "These right here tells each string what to play. If they was to get cut off, the strings'd still be there," he sounded one with his thumb, "an' they could talk, but they couldn't play no music."
"You could with that one." Interested, she touched his thumb.
"It'd be a long time till it learned the work. See now—"
There was a disturbance in the line ahead of them, angry yells and an unmistakable sound.
"I got to go," Aldo said, and stood up; he was running before the final word. Not once but twice he had clumsily, foolishly, dropped his chevycap. The sound it had made when it struck the concrete was engraved in his memory, and through the tumult coming from the front of the line he had heard that sound.
The new player was down. Aldo threw himself on top of him, sheltering him with his own body. A kick struck his ribs, another his right cheekbone, but the shouting men were crowded too closely to swing their feet effectively. A gal's voice called, "Don't get him. He didn't do nothin'."
Aldo clutched his chevycap to his chest as a kick landed on his shoulder.
A man's voice shouted, "That's enough! Hold on!" And abruptly it was over. Strong hands grasped Aldo and lifted him to his feet. "This a friend of yours?"
Aldo managed to nod. "He sure is." He was looking around for the new player's chevycap; it was so strangely shaped that he nearly missed it, almost like Ma'am's plug-in.
"How come you was back at the end, an' not him?"
"I guess he didn't know," Aldo said. "I ought to of told him."
"You." The wide-shouldered young man nudged the new player with his foot. "Get up."
The new player rose, his face streaked with sweat and dirt. Aldo handed him his strangely shaped chevycap.
"You get back there to the end," the wide-shouldered young man said. "You eat after us. All of us."
"Come on." Aldo led the new player away. "You made it out of a muffler, didn't you? I never seen one like that."
The new player nodded, slinging his chevycap behind his back on a thin strap. "A replacement muffler, from one of the muffler shops, and about a foot of tailpipe. Good replacement mufflers are better than the original-equipment kind." He was older than Aldo, who found it hard to guess just how old.
"You cut those fancy holes with a li'l file? There's a man by us had a file. He let me to use it one time."
The new player nodded. "You've got to hollow them out, extract the parts used to muffle the sound of the engine. The S-shaped holes are helpful then, and afterward they let the sound come in and go Out."
"It get busted? I'd like to hear it." They had reached the end of the line.
"I'd be happy to play it for you," the new player said, "I owe you a great deal more than that." He offered his hand. "I'm Tim Benson."
Aldo shook it. "Aldo Berry." He hesitated, then grinned. "We both of us play, an' we both got names with a B."
The stranger smiled, unslung his chevycap, and said, "You get in front, Aldo. You were here before, and you're hungrier than I am, I'm sure."
The girl child looked back at them pessimistically. "You won't neither one get nothin'. Me neither."
"What's your name?" Tim asked. "You know ours, if you were listening. I'm Tim and he's Aldo. Who are you?"
Tim stooped to bring their eyes to a level. "How old are you, B'neice?"
The girl child stamped. "Ber-nice!"
Tim straightened up. "Older than you should be at your age, I imagine. Well, Bernice, you may not get any food, but I can give you a song."
His fingers stroked the strings of his strangely shaped chevycap, educing tears of gold that left Aldo breathless.
"The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
Land of Song! said the warrior bard,
Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword at least thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee.…"
As the final notes died, it seemed to Aldo that somehow all the people had been snatched away, leaving him alone with a new song more beautiful than he had ever believed a song could be. The steady whick-whick-whick of the chopper blades sounded like the beating of a giant's heart.
At last he managed to say, "You got to learn me."
"No, you have to teach me, Aldo. You have to teach me to be as brave as you are. You play and sing yourself, don't you? You implied a moment ago that you did."
Men eating from crackerboxes were crowding around. One handed Aldo a strip of cold bacon, and he stuffed it into his mouth, nodding.
"May I try your instrument? You may try mine, of course, if you like."
Mutely, still chewing, Aldo handed over his chevycap and received Tim's strangely shaped one.
Tim touched Aldo's strings, a sound like the laughter of the moon. "One's a trifle off, I think." A glance was enough for him to understand the way in which Aldo's strings were held and adjusted, and he tightened one. The broad-shouldered young man who had rescued them gave him a pecan Danish, which he gave to Bernice.
Again Aldo's strings sounded, yearning tones telling of unsullied valleys down which rivers rushed shouting to the sea.
"Oh Shenando' I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenando' I long to hear you.
Away, I'm bound away,
Across the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenando' I love your daughter,
Roll away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenando' I'm bound to leave her,
Away, I'm bound away,
Across the wide Missouri!"
There was a short silence after the last muted chord, then wild cheering.
"That's just like me!" Aldo felt overwhelmed by a rush of ideas. "Me walkin' on. I'm goin' to the Spaghetti Bowl, but I'll stay right here with you, Tim, or go back even, if you'll try to learn me."
Tim shook his head and stepped away, smiling and accepting the praise of those he pushed to one side. "If you're going to the Spaghetti Bowl, Aldo, then I'm going to the Spaghetti Bowl, too; and I'll try to teach you, if you'll teach me."
When they had passed the green delivery trucks and were practically alone, Aldo said, "You didn't get nothin'. I saw somebody gifted you with a roll, but you give it to that li'l Bernice girl."
"I wasn't really hungry," Tim explained, "and she was." He was studying Aldo's chevycap.
"If you wasn't hungry, why'd you get in the line an' get beat up like that?"
For a dozen strides, Tim was silent. At last he said, "I didn't know—didn't know they would beat me as they did, when they realized I was a stranger. I want to be one of you for as long as I can, to eat and sleep and work like you, while I play and sing. I saw men forming a line, so I joined it. I have a great deal to learn here, I know, and I hope that you'll teach me."
"I got a crackerbox." Aldo held it up. "Somebody gifted me with it when we were leavin'. It's empty, but the cracker's good. You want to try some?"
"A small piece, perhaps. Thank you, Aldo."
From the lid, Aldo snapped a fragment half the size of his hand, then broke off another for himself, which he munched as he watched Tim nibble at his. "Don't bite down hard, 'less you got good teeth."
"I understand. It's best to let one's saliva soften it first, I suppose."
"Or water, if you got a bottle." Aldo took a deep breath. "There's the offroad way an' then the free way, Tim. We're the freewayers, but you're a offroader, ain't you? I won't tell."
"An outsider? Yes, I am. It's obvious, I suppose."
Aldo chewed and swallowed. "You got clothes like us, though."
"I suppose I do." Tim glanced down at his dirty white shirt and ragged trousers. "Where do you get them, by the way? I've been wondering about that, as well as hundreds of other things."
"The slopchopper brings them. It don't come down an' pass out like the chowchopper does, though. Just goes low an' slow, while the chopper men throw out."
"Warm clothing for winter, I imagine, and cooler clothes—like these—in summer."
Aldo nodded. "Shoes're hardest, shoes an' boots. There's never enough for everybody."
"Yet you're wearing out yours by walking to this Spaghetti Bowl, whatever it is."
"It's where the jam goes up in the air, bendin' 'round over itself. That's what I heard. I never been there. Well, I guess I was, once, only I was real little."
"Before all these cars and trucks stopped."
"That's it, back 'fore the jam. An' my shoes…" Aldo fell silent, and to cover his embarrassment took another bite of crackerbox.
"What about them, Aldo?"
"You know, I guess."
Tim shook his head. "I know very little, believe me. I didn't even know that the jam, as you call it, existed, until I found myself in it."
"They're offroad shoes, used to be. They was about like this when I got them, not much better."
"Someone gave them to you?"
"The slopchopper, like I said. You ever see one like that before?"
Aldo pointed at a hot-pink car with a dragon pictured on its side, with huge rear wheels and small front ones far out in front of its engine.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I have." Tim nibbled again at his crackerbox. "The clothing is not new when you receive it. That's what you're trying to tell me, isn't it, Aldo?"
"It's your clothes," Aldo confided miserably, "offroader clothes. You turn them in, Ma'am said, to churches an' things, an' they pick them up an' put them in the slopchopper, an' then throw them down for us."
When Tim did not speak, Aldo added, "Ma'am was my ma."
"Can I tell you 'bout her? You might make a song 'bout her, an' it'd make her proud if she knew."
"I don't believe I can make songs," Tim said.
Stunned, Aldo could only stare.
"Do you do that? Compose your own songs?"
Aldo nodded. "That's why I'm goin' to the Spaghetti Bowl. I'll get a new one there, but I can't say how I know it. I just do. The songs you sang back there where the chowchopper was? Didn't you make them up?"
"They are old songs, both of them. Very old. I—all my life I have listened to folk songs, mostly on tapes and compact discs. There were years, decades actually, in which it was my sole pleasure. I have tried, once or twice, to make such songs myself, but every attempt has been a ludicrous failure." He handed Aldo's chevycap to him. "Sing me one of your songs, please, Aldo. A song you made yourself."
Aldo passed the strangely shaped chevycap back to Tim, together with what remained of the crackerbox, then cradled his own rounded and familiar chevycap in his arms, delighting in the feel of it.
"In all this jam, there's none like Ma'am,
For playin' nor for singin'.
She'd drove the land, her an' her band,
And set the big rooms ringin'.
Her face you'd see on your TV,
'most any day you played it,
She'd like to gone, with me, her son,
But this here jam's delayed it.
Now here we stay, an' pray each day,
That them that tried to get her,
Will try ag'in, helped by the win',
Or best in stormin' weather.
"It's not a very good song," Aldo apologized when he had finished, "an' that's all the farther I ever got with it, an' now she's drove out."
Tim looked at him quizzically.
"Dead, it means."
"I understand. You loved her very much, didn't you?"
"Sure I did. It's not no disgrace for a man to love his ma, is it?"
"I'm certain it isn't." Tim's fingers touched the strings of his chevycap. "I still think about mine at times. Not as often as I should, I'm afraid."
"You talked 'bout folksingers."
"That's what I am, Ma'am said. But Ma'am was Country-an'-Western. She's real big, or was, an' when the jam hit, a whole lot of offroaders come here tryin' to get her out, only they dropped gas on them."
"‘Now here we stay, an' pray each day, that them that tried to get her, will try again, helped by the wind, or best in storming weather,'" Tim quoted.
"That's it. She always said if it'd been rainin' hard or the wind blowin', they'd have got her out. Then she'd of hired somebody to stay with her car an' move it when the jam broke. Back in them times, they thought it was goin' to. The airmen an' so on, they still talk like that."
"But you don't believe it. After seeing the condition many of these cars are in, neither do I."
"Thing is…" Unconsciously, Aldo let his voice drop. "Now there's a chopper comin' around takin' people out." He cleared his throat. "That's what some say. I ain't sayin' it's true, and I don't believe it myself. This gal that I know, Mar's her name, she went off lookin' for it."
"But not you. You didn't go."
Aldo hesitated, biting his lip. At last he said. "Nope, I didn't. Chopper must of brought you, Tim. Was that the same one?"
"I have no way of knowing."
"I guess not. Mar', she wanted us to. Wanted us to go off lookin' for it together, like. I said she'd get herself killed. I said, you wait here, an' I'll go look, if you're so certain sure of this new chopper that didn't nobody saw."
Tim pointed. "What's that up there, Aldo?"
"I don't see nothin'. I said I'll go, Mar'. You stay here safe. Only she thought I wouldn't look, not hard. Just go up a ways an' come on back. She waited till I was asleep. I doubt—"
Something had seized Aldo by the throat, choking him. "I doubt she got far, but I hope she did."
Tim did not reply, studying a dot that Aldo could see now as well as he.
"Only I'm not lookin' for her. She's got to learn, I guess." He sighed. "I'm going this other way, and maybe—That's a yeller chopper, ain't it?"
"Yellow with blue or black lettering on the side," Tim confirmed. "I can't quite make the lettering out."
"Looking for somebody, a lady I met said." Aldo stood straight again, peering into the sun's glare. "Askin' after them, I reckon. I never did see one so little as that."
"Four persons," Tim told him. "Three passengers, and no cargo to speak of. I've ridden in similar helicopters."
"There's a pull-off over there!" Now it was Aldo's turn to point. "It's fixin' to set down there sure. Come on, Tim!" He ran, and arrived in time to watch the yellow chopper land.
A slender gal in tight-fitting blue clothing of a design Aldo had never seen before stepped from the chopper, followed by a sulkylooking man with a black box on his shoulder. The black box ended with a headlight, and when he and the gal had gotten out from under the chopper blade, he aimed that part at Aldo and the other free-wayers who had gathered at the sound of the chopper.
The gal said something Aldo could not hear, then shouted back toward the chopper, "Phil, you're going to have to turn that thing off." She held something in her hand that brought tears to Aldo's eyes; he pushed through the crowd to look at it.
"Hello!" the gal said, and this time her voice was as loud as the choppermen's, when they talked down from their choppers. "I'm from WWBB. Many of you listen to our radio affiliate on your car radios, I know, and they used to get calls from you on your cell phones."
The crowd stirred.
"I'm from the television station. You older folks must remember television."
As loudly as he could, Aldo said, "I got a TV in the back of our car. Still works, too."
"Wonderful! You haven't forgotten us."
Tim rejoined Aldo, and Aldo confided, "Ma'am had a thing like what she's talkin' into, only there wasn't nowhere to plug it in. I put it in her one hand and her plug-in chevycap in the other when I laid her in the bag. Her gee-tar's what she called that plug-in chevycap."
"So if there's anyone here like that, I hope that he or she will step forward," the gal was saying. "Any of you that exemplify the burgeoning culture of the traffic jam."
No one moved.
"In compliance with our agreement with the Department of Transportation, we will have to bring you back here when your engagement is finished." She gave heavy emphasis to the final words. "Meanwhile—and it may be for quite a while—you'll be treated royally. The Consort-Hilton's a wonderful hotel, and you'll get new clothes and wonderful meals. You'll earn a great deal of money, also, and be able to buy things to take back with you, for yourself and your friends."
A voice from the crowd called, "There's somebody back at the chowchopper that signs real good!"
"That's you," Aldo told Tim happily, but Tim did not appear to hear him.
The gal was approaching them. "What's that you've got? Our other crew discovered a girl last night who had something like that."
It was a moment before Aldo realized she was addressing him. He held up his chevycap for her to see. "Was her name Mar?"
"Marta? No, I don't think so. Mary something." The gal turned to the man holding the black box. "Do you remember her last name, Don?"
The man holding the black box shook his head.
"Do you play that?" the gal asked Aldo. "And sing?"
Shyly Aldo nodded.
"Then you've got to play and sing for us." Smiling, the gal caught his arm. "Don's camera will let the brass back in our building see and hear you."
"Tim's better," Aldo told her.
"Fine, we'll hear Tim by and by. But right now we want to hear you. Sing something about the traffic jam."
Aldo's fingers brushed his strings, trying to find which one Tim had tightened; the whole chevycap sounded better than it had, he decided, though he could not be sure which had changed. "You want me to commence?"
"Any time that you're ready," the gal told him. "Don't be nervous."
He grinned at her. "Playin' an' singin's the only time I ain't never.
"Choppergal, choppergal, dressed so fine,
Got a gal already, an' that gal's mine.
Your chopper's still hummin', chopper wind's a-blowin',
Got to grab a seat in back, 'fore you get a-goin'.
"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller chopper hummin', take me with you,
Got to kiss my Mar' again, 'fore the day's through.
"Yeller chopper hummin', take me out this jam,
Goodbye, Cadillac! So long, Ma'am!
Sure to make you proud, Ma'am, sure to marry Mar'.
Goin' to be what you were, goin' to be a star.
"Yeller sun risin'—"
The gal motioned him to silence as the crowd applauded. "That's enough, I think. That was …?"
"Aldo Berry," Aldo said. The crowd clapped again.
"And you, sir. What's your name?"
Two men were pushing Tim forward. "Tim Benson," he said.
"Will you play for us, Tim? We'd like to hear you."
Tim shook his head; Aldo said, "Go 'head, Tim." Then to the gal, "He's so fine! Wait till you hear."
Tim got his strangely shaped chevycap positioned, one hand on the tailpipe, the other on the strings.
"My gentle harp, once more I waken
The sweetness of thy slumbering strain,
In tears our last farewell was taken,
And now in tears we meet again.…"
It seemed to Aldo a very long time before the listeners, including the gal, began to clap. After a moment he joined them, and was still clapping some minutes afterward, when the others had stopped.
"That was—was just so wonderful, Tim," the gal said, "but won't you play something about this mess? This traffic jam that's kept so many of you here so long? That's what they want to hear at our building."
Tim looked at her, then at Aldo, and at last back to her. "I'd like to go with you. That's been my dream, to sing folk music and be a star, as Aldo said." He spoke so softly that even Aldo, standing beside him, could scarcely hear the words. "But I don't know any. Only one, actually."
"Then sing that."
"It's Aldo's. May I, Aldo?"
"Sure thing. You go 'head, Tim." Aldo tried to smile, and discovered to his own surprise that the smile was real.
It was his tune, the tune he had found three years ago, long before Ma'am pined. Yet it was changed, the way that people were supposed to change up in Heaven, no longer half serious and half funny, but as lonesome and lovely as a bird overhead—a swift and solitary bird that flew over the jam, looked down at the cars, and was gone.
"In all this jam, there's none like Ma'am,
For playing or for singing…"
It was over before it had begun, or so it seemed, and the cheers of the crowd were still echoing from the cars and trucks of the jam and the concrete sides of the bleak buildings beyond the safety wall when the chopper lifted, bearing Tim away.
Waving, Aldo withdrew into the cramped files of stationary vehicles, knowing that no one had so much as noticed that he had left.
"Goin' to that Spaghetti Bowl anyhow," he said under his breath, "and I best be movin', be somewheres else when the chowchopper comes back."
* * *
All through the long, hot afternoon he threaded his way between motionless automobiles, as he had been doing all his life, until at last, with evening closing in, he realized that there were fewer than a dozen separating him from a towering orange semi. Studying it, he could not be certain that it was the one the slatternly woman had pointed out that morning; but he would not go much farther that day, and there seemed to be no harm in looking, in trying to see the Spaghetti Bowl today before the last light faded.
From the front bumper, he was able to scramble up onto the hood without much trouble; but the high cab was surmounted by a varashield nearly as tall as itself, which was bound to prove difficult. Standing at one side of the hood with his left foot where the vanished windshield should have been, clinging to the mirror mount, he found a secure purchase for his right foot on the top of the door and swung himself out.
The melody of the song he called "In All This Jam" played itself in his mind. He hummed it under his breath when he had scrambled onto the rusting top of the cab—not his tune, but the melody as Tim had played it, powerful and haunting.
Aldo got to his feet (very much crowded and obstructed by the varashield), and put one hand on top of it and the other on the top of the huge semitrailer. How had Tim made it to sound like that? Aldo sought to fathom Tim's technique as he swung himself up, catching his heel on the top of the semitrailer and rolling over onto it.
The light was fading fast, but the haze that had obscured the jam that morning had dissipated. Peering downjam, his eyes traced its dwindling ribbon back toward the loftiest buildings, until it was visible largely as a streak of night among the brightly lit office towers.
Below him an engine started, coughed, and died.
Somebody tryin' to charge up, he told himself, so he can listen to that radio.
A cool breeze caressed his sweating cheek, very welcome after the afternoon's heat. Briefly he wondered whether the people down on the roadway could feel it. If they did, there had to be hundreds of hundreds as grateful as he was, which was nice to think about. He tried to picture them, the thread of freewayers strung over a thousand miles.
The office towers, he noticed, were rendered visible only by their lights now, outlined against a sky much darker than that above his head. A jagged spark divided it as he watched; he held his breath, counting to thirteen before the rumble of the thunder reached him.
His chevycap was on the roadway, safely hidden, he hoped, behind the right front wheel. He looked down, but there was no one groping there. He would have to get it and find somebody with a not-too-crowded car who would let him inside before the rain came, let him sleep inside in return for his songs.
"Better than's on them radios," Aldo muttered under his breath, and knew that he spoke the truth—and that the new song, still small and weak, was already scratching at the doors of his mind. Tim was on the little yellow songchopper, that was certain sure, because just by the scratchings Aldo could tell that it was not just a new song but a new kind of a song, not like any he had ever heard or sung. Tired though he was, he felt himself standing taller from the thrill of it.
Still a long way off, but nearer—much nearer—than it had been the first time, lightning split the sullen sky beyond the city. For a fraction of a second Aldo saw, as though in a dream, nightmare lanes of cars and vans and trucks looped and swirled like the yarn of a raveled sweater, trucks and vans and cars hanging in the air, an impossible creation that appeared to mount up and up without limit.
He leaped from the top of the semitrailer then, hitting the concrete with the first big drops, his feet together, rolling as he fell.
Half a minute more and he was up again, with his chevycap in his hand and his hair streaming, his chevycap singing of wind and rain and lightning, and of a fury that had scarcely begun.
"Big storm a-risin', a-risin', a-risin',
Big storm a-risin', the risin' of the free!
Clear to the h'rizon, the h'rizon, the h'rizon,
We're the freewayers, an' we'll be free!"
Rhythmically, compellingly, Aldo's chevycap snarled like an angry cat, a fighting tomcat driven to the last extremity and furious for war.
"Blood on the roadway, blood on the wall,
Blood on our irons, our knives an' all,
Waitin' since the jam began, s'posed to be a day,
S'posed to be a month, a year.
Someone's got to pay!"
As he began the chorus again, he heard a new voice that sounded as loud and as angry as the thunder singing with his.
Before the chorus was over, a third voice, and a fourth, had joined theirs.
Copyright © 2000 by Gene Wolfe