Hitchiking In A Hearse

It was lonely on the road. I missed Columbia.

When I get home, I promised, I’ll treat myself to a platter of fried oysters at Murry’s, or a gyro at G&D, maybe some chili cheese fries at Mugs Up.

I’ll hit a hometown brewery, a Ninth Street concert. I’ll go harass old professors at the Heidelberg.

Oh, I’d get back into healthy routines, too. Cheryl and I would head to Trops to lift some fruity painkillers, then spin on barstools at Booches and enter the dance-a-thon at Rose Music Hall.

But I had to get home first.

A music tour had kept me away for weeks, mostly deep in the Ozarks, where raw beauty often gets bullied by raw reality, with characters right out of “America’s Most Wanted. Tar-stained bridgework and wife-beater T-shirts. Drunken, jealous, meth-fueled raging lunatics … I’m just sayin’.

Home was on my mind: my own bed, home-cooked meals, hugging my grandkids.

I missed the North Village catacombs and Shelter Gardens and game day at Mizzou.

But Columbia was still miles away. A high-noon layover at Johnny’s had slowed my progress.

Johnny’s Bar has been serving whiskey in downtown St. James since the Irish laborers built the railroad through there. Even from the outside, Johnny’s looks foreboding, with its big neon Budweiser sign over a doorway into cold, smoky darkness. It’s the kind of place that makes you hear your mother’s voice: “I better never catch you going in there.”

“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll never go in there.”

But in life, a young boy’s perspective evolves. Moms just don’t understand that places like Johnny’s have the elixir that can subdue frightful images of devils and demons and death.

Or bring them out.

Soon I was immersed in the culture of the locals in the low light of this tavern, a delightful throwback to the days when the barroom was filled with rail passengers and conductors and brakemen and engineers while on layover.

Hours later, having dipped liberally into John Barleycorn’s reserves, I paid my bill and threw down a liberal tip, and walked out the door, ready to resume my trip home.

Only one problem: In my condition, driving home was out of the question. With little thought about being kidnapped, murdered or held for ransom, I was all thumbs.

The last time I hitchhiked to Columbia, Jones Hall was the pride of Brice Ratchford’s Mizzou. But I quickly regained my collegiate form, throwing thumbs and smiles guaranteed to snag a trusting driver.

Times have changed.

Oh, there may be as many hitchhikers as ever. But when’s the last time you heard of anybody stopping to give a stranger a ride?

Oblivious, I walked to the edge of town, preparing to hitchhike home, when I saw a single car, a sleek silver hearse approaching. It was going my way, but in reverence to its passenger, I showed no thumb, instead placing my hand over my heart and bowing my head. As the hearse passed, it slowed to a stop. Its backup lights told me that the hearse was coming back for me. Even significant whiskey impairment couldn’t dull my panic. As the hearse drew nigh to my startled face, the passenger window rolled down and the voice from the driver’s seat called out.

“John Robinson!”

I swallowed hard and leaned into the hearse’s open window, expecting to meet the Grim Reaper. Instead, I saw the familiar face of an old friend from high school.

“What are you doing way down here?” he asked.

“Son of a bitch!” I think I shouted, as a feeling of relief washed through my veins.

For reasons of good taste and legal advice, I’ll protect the anonymity of the driver and his pallid passenger. I have no idea who his passenger was, since the casket was closed. Suffice it to say the three of us had a pleasant ride to my destination, and two of us had a great conversation.

“So long, buddy, and thanks for the ride.” I hopped out and he drove away in the general direction of his passenger’s final stop.

And I’m left with the same nagging questions. Does my dear departed mother know I stopped at Johnny’s Bar? Did that decedent in the hearse ever pick up hitchhikers?

She did on her last ride.

That strange trip serves as a reminder that the next time a hearse stops to give me a ride, it’ll probably be my last.
Other road trip tales await at www.johndrakerobinson.com.