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The road wasn’t shown in Frank’s atlas.

It was hardly a road, really, more just a worn-down strip across the desert surrounded by nine-foot-high saguaro cacti and those clumps of unlikely vegetation Frank believed were mesquite.

Seemed like that was where tumbleweeds came from. He didn’t know for sure. All he knew for sure was he was rolling across the boiling hardpan headed toward a hill in the distance that probably seemed a lot closer than it actually was.

“So this fantastic Rancho Deluxe of yours is out here in the middle of nowhere, Larry? I’m beginning to wonder. Sure this isn’t a scam and we’re really going hunting for the Lost Dutchman Mine? I can’t see a fuckin’ thing but sand.”

“You got me, Frank, I confess. There’s gold in them thar hills, podner.” He pointed at the looming mountains to the east. “Just hold your horses big fellow, you can see Rancho Deluxe from the top of that rise up ahead. It will blow your mind, I promise you.”

“Seems like they went out of the way to get a little privacy.”

“Well, the old man used to entertain quite a few major players out here in the early days of the joint. They were the type that needed distance from prying eyes, from what I hear.”

“What about now? What do you guys do out here?”

“These days it’s primarily a winter getaway for the Denver residents, myself included. Now and then the consortium gathers together for some business planning sessions and a little R and R. There’s lots of partying, and these guys are also a little camera-shy. We’re talking second and third generation heirs from around the world. Rancho becomes sort of like a small-scale Bohemian Grove. Ever heard of that place?”

“I have. Saw a documentary on TV. You guys do rituals like Bohemian Grove?”

“If you consider drinking, drugging and whoring rituals, then yes.” 

“What’s this younger generation coming to?”

“Going to hell in a handbasket, Frank.”

“No shit.”

(End of Chapter 10)

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The dark was leaving the sky as Frank rolled by Flagstaff and hooked up with I-17, heading south.

The sunrise brought on a second wind.

Richards was snoring and drooling, head leaning against the passenger door.

Sign said Phoenix was 135 miles away.

Frank rolled down the window; the air was invigorating and sweet.

Northern Arizona is a cool place, Frank was thinking as Richards coughed and cleared his throat, opening his eyes.

“Sleeping beauty stirs,” Frank said.

“Indeed,” Richards said, coughing with a liquid edge to it. “Where are we?”

“Just south of Flagstaff.”

Richards looked at the big Rolex on his wrist. “Shit, we’ll be there by eight o’clock. You are a driving machine, Frank. I’ll buy you breakfast when we get there. There’s this place in Tempe used to have an ASU special breakfast back when I was in school. They were fuckin’ great. Cheap, too. Don’t know if the place is still there, but it might be worth a look.”

Richards’ breath was like someone puked on a skunk.

“Feel like driving, Larry?” Frank said. “This ‘driving machine’ is running on empty.”

“Sounds good, Frank. I’ll bring us in. Think I remember how to get around.”

Traffic was sparse so Frank just pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. Wide shoulders on these Arizona highways.

With Larry driving, Frank thought he should try and catch some sleep. But now with the sun up and the destination near, he was excited and filled with anticipation. He rolled down the window and felt the refreshing air as Richards swung the Ford back onto the highway.

Frank had half expected to see a barren desert with big cacti and bleached-out cattle skulls—it was Arizona after all—but instead, the scenery was brilliant. Reddish-brown cliffs and rock outcroppings surrounded by the green of pine trees had him euphoric. Anticipation of new and previously unseen locations was reviving him.

And before long they were dropping down out of the Vulture Mountains (Frank had the road atlas open on his lap) onto the desert floor. It was bright and hot. Baking, burning, blistering hot. Oven like.

Richards drove on and soon they were cruising on the outskirts of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Richards was bitching about the lack of air conditioning—refrigeration he called it—in the wagon.

Frank honestly wished he did have AC, but that was a feature you only rarely needed in northern Minnesota.

And the traffic?

“I knew this place was growing fast, but this traffic boggles the mind,” Richards said. “Not sure I want to go into Tempe and look for that old restaurant. I can’t even remember the name of the place.”

“Doesn’t seem to be a shortage of eateries,” Frank said, gazing out at the jungle of fast-food emporiums, chain restaurants and taco shops.

“Yeah, but that place was good—home cooking.”

“The cooking at my home was never that great,” Frank said.

Richards gave him a weird smile. “Maybe I’ll skip Tempe,” he said. “There are a couple of possible mall sights I want to check out before we head out to the ranch. ”

“This ranch in the desert sounds inviting, Larry, but I can tell you right now that my stay is going to be short. I was never one for heat and traffic.”

“It’s summer in the desert, Frank. Did you think it’d be comfortable?”

“Never really thought about it. Had too much else on my mind, I guess. But, you know, I really need to eat. You’re starting to look like a pork sausage.”

The air hitting Frank’s right arm was like oven-fired sewing needles as Richards got off I-17, known in Phoenix as Black Canyon Highway, and went east on 101, or Pima Highway, to 51, also known as Squaw Peak Parkway, where he headed south.

Sure have colorful names for their roads down here, Frank was thinking as Richards exited 51 at Bell Road.

They spent some time driving around the area, Richards lingering and circling around a couple of strip malls with small businesses like sandwich shops and dry cleaners and Chinese or Mexican food outlets. Richards drove through the parking lots and cruised around the neighborhoods, all the while observing and mumbling to himself.

After thirty minutes of this, Frank’s stomach was calling him out for neglect.

Then Larry said, “That’s enough of this shit. Time to head for Rancho Deluxe.” 

“Wasn’t there a movie with that name?” Frank asked.

“It’s a favorite of mine,” Larry said. “Harry Dean Stanton and one of Lloyd Bridges’ sons incarcerated in a penal ranch in Montana called Deer Lodge. A prison they call a lodge. Only in Montana, I guess. But, in a weird way, it kind of reminds me of my time in the St. Louis County jail back home.”

“So Rancho Deluxe is an ironic title then?”

“For the movie it is. But there’s no irony to our Rancho Deluxe. It is deluxe to the max, my friend.”

“Remember that show Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges? I loved that show. Made me want to be a scuba diver, until I discovered I was a shitty swimmer.”

“I loved it too.” Richards said. “All those air bubbles floating up the water column all the time.”

Then Frank felt rogue anxiety coming on against his will. Shit, he never even knew what anxiety was until Nikki started talking about it—however long ago that was.

And he couldn’t recall ever having anxiety until he did all that acid and got involved with those two murderous scags back in Zenith.

But maybe the LSD just made him aware of what was already there…

But, shit, that was another story. A story he didn’t want to hear anymore. A story he wanted to be done with. But it seemed to have a long shelf life.

“There going to be a lot of rich assholes at the ranch?” Frank asked.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be there but the servants, until Friday. Should have the place to ourselves until then.”

Richards turned onto Shea Boulevard, went back to 101 and headed north. This is Scottsdale now,” he said, looking over at Frank, “Phoenix’s answer to Beverly Hills.”

After what seemed to Frank like a longer-that-it-should-have-been drive, the urban sprawl began to thin somewhat. The country was mostly flat, with a few hills, a bunch of cacti and the looming McDowell Mountains to the east.

Frank’s stomach was grumbling and growling, his T-shirt was soaked with sweat, and the sun, even with his shades on, was giving him a headache. “Not much out here,” he said.

“City planners are always looking to the future,” Richards said. “Guarantee you there’ll be a mall out here before very goddamn long. And I will have a stake in it.”

“So Rancho Deluxe is in Scottsdale?”

“Technically, perhaps, but it’s actually closer to Carefree. Not much around but cacti, roadrunners, Gila monsters and armadillos… the occasional coyote or mule deer…”   

“What’s the place like?”

“Beyond your wildest dreams, Franko, beyond your wildest fuckin’ dreams.”

(End of Chapter 9)

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They were about thirty minutes down the freeway before Richards stopped looking over his shoulder or in the side mirror and visibly relaxed. Frank, on the other hand, was going up. His once droopy eyelids were opening wider and he had a fierce craving for a cigarette. Fortunately Richards didn’t smoke so there was no one to bum from, Frank’s recently purchased pack abandoned on the desk in last night’s motel room.

Driving with the windows down and the warm air blowing their hair, they took I-25 south and in three hours crossed into New Mexico.

Richards had worked on the Budweiser the whole way. Frank was a bit apprehensive about turning over the wheel to him, so figured the best thing to do was get his head in a similar place.

Wisdom not always one of his strong suits.

“How about you crack me one of those beers, Larry, got a lot of trail dust in my throat.”

“Drinking and driving is a recipe for disaster, Frank. Drover on a cattle drive only had one horse to control, you got three hundred under the hood of this thing.”

“Hanging with you is a recipe for disaster, Larry. Now give me a fuckin’ beer.”

Richards reached down to the floor at his feet and came back up with a can of Bud. “Your wish is my command, kind sir,” he said, popping the ring tab off the top and handing the can to Frank.

Frank took a pull and a shiver ran through him. “Shit is getting warm. Larry.”

“That’ll happen, Frank. You’ll just have to tough it out.”

“Thanks for the advice. Now tell me more about these associates of yours. The investors.”

“A bunch of young rich guys. Trust fund babies, principal heirs, number one sons of business tycoons… shit like that. Tons of cash and not a lot of business sense. Mall building suits them perfectly. And with someone like me along to guide their investments, it’s a safe trip along the yellow brick road.”

“You handling this like you did the old ski shop caper, man? Steal what you can and see what happens later?”

The thing about the combination of speed and alcohol is that it breaks down your inhibitions and frees you to say things that might be considered inappropriate by the receiver. Or at least a little blunt.

Richards frowned. “Somewhat different, Frank. But the same idea in general.”

“That’s what I figured. Y’know, Larry, for a member of the bar, you have a fast and loose relationship with the law and ethical behavior.”

“Listen man, these rich guys are, for the most part, a bunch of assholes. A lot of them are cheap, too. We go out on the town and they don’t bring any cash. Expect me to pay for drinks, tips, cab fares—all that shit. It’s like they think that not carrying cash makes them a regular guy or something. And when they do actually pay for something, it’s like they just ended world hunger or saved Bangladesh. You win a bet from one of them and it’s ‘Double or nothing, double or nothing,’ ad infinitum, until they finally win. And listen, they all make money on my deals. If I make a little more than they are aware of, so fuckin’ be it. It’s the only way to be these days, Frank. Only way to be.”

Frank was thinking this was a different Larry Richards than he remembered. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe now Frank was just paying attention. They were just kids back in Zenith, after all, and people tend to adapt to their environment.

Outside the car windows, the sky was turning dark. Inside the smooth and silent running Ford wagon, it was yada yada yada, blah blah blah, yak yak yak all the way to Santa Fe.

They talked about old girlfriends and buddies from high school and reminisced about past adventures. Like the time Frank punched a hole in the drywall at Gene Halvorson’s purple passion cabin party because Frank’s girlfriend wouldn’t come across.

Which started them on a long and detailed critique of all the desirable girls from their high school. Followed by a brief lament over those with whom they never had a chance.

Around midnight they hit Albuquerque and caught I-40 going west, Frank imagining the wagon to be the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s scrap yard spaceship in that Star Wars movie everyone was talking about lately.

Another couple of hours and they were crossing into Arizona, Frank behind the wheel for eight hours now and feeling as out of it as when he was a kid and his father went missing. His hands and feet were cold and his stomach didn’t feel quite right. Like maybe it was eating itself. And besides that, he was seeing things on the road. Things he didn’t think were real but didn’t know for sure. Like cars coming toward him in the wrong lane or semi trucks jackknifed across the road in front of him.

After a large number of these sightings he determined they were hallucinations. But that didn’t make them go away. And could he really be certain the next one to appear wasn’t real?

Every time?

Speed was just a nasty, brain-burning drug, and he couldn’t wait for the shit to wear off.

A ball of apprehension was growing in his gut.  Panic rising, he looked over at Richards, thinking it was time for Larry to give him some relief and take over behind the wheel.

One look at Richard’s eyes told him they were both seeing the same things.

Richards told him later that he was actually seeing black panthers—the animal, not the revolutionary group—crouching in the roadside ditches and up in the trees.

With the spirit of Dean Moriarty pushing him on—Frank was picturing Moriarty standing behind him with his hand on Frank’s shoulder in a pose reminiscent of a print of Jesus guiding a sailor through a stormy sea that Frank’s mother had placed above his bed in ninth grade—he smiled to himself and squeezed the steering wheel a little harder.

It was up to him to steer the spaceship to port.

And then the Hater popped into his head and began dragging him back through all the gory details of his recent past, Frank thinking that if he kept enveloping himself in every detail so goddamn minutely, big springs were going to explode out of his head like in the cartoons.

What he really needed was someone else to take over the reins. He was ready to follow for a while, find the freedom of being led. All the things that had happened back in Minnesota—all the shit he had to control and be in charge of—were taking a toll. He was burned out. In need of something he couldn’t grasp and couldn’t find.

But a cigarette would do nicely.

And then the light bulb in his head lit up. Shit, he was having a highway experience—a freeway flyin’ road trip, just like the folks in On the Road.

Larry Richards was leading him on a Kerouac-type adventure.

The Hater grew silent.

(End of Chapter 8)

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The Purple Mountains Motor Lodge wasn’t a seedy fleabag like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty might have stayed in, but Frank was thinking it was the modern-day equivalent, as he turned into the parking lot of the one-story, brown, cheaply built sixties era residential motel.    

Going inside the room with Larry, the man having looked over his shoulder the entire drive here, Frank was experiencing some uprisings in his gut.

His gut was his most reliable predictor of the future, and right now things weren’t sitting so well down there.

He watched Larry in the bedroom shoving clothes and miscellaneous items into a large olive-drab military surplus duffel bag and an old, but still in good shape brown leather suitcase that was probably a hand-me-down from his parents.

Frank looked around the room. Place had a kitchenette with a small stove and refrigerator and dirty coffee cups in the tiny sink. Fast food bags were scattered on the counter and in the trash and there were empty Budweiser cans on the small coffee table in the living room, along with two black plastic ashtrays containing butts with lipstick stains on the filters. The green couch didn’t look particularly comfortable.

Frank had to take a leak and when he came out of the bathroom Larry was standing there in white pants and a blue polo shirt, a half-drunk grin on his face. “Ready to hit the road, Frankie, my man? Time is a wasting.”

“I’m not so sure, Larry,” Frank said. “That booze is hitting me like a load of bricks. Not sure if I’m up to another round of freeway flyin’ at the moment.”

“Oh, yeah? That’s not the Frank Ford that I remember.” He reached in the pocket of his white trousers and brought out a brown plastic pill vial. “Here,” he said, extending the vial toward Frank. “Take one of these and you’ll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a heartbeat.”

“That’s all right, man, I’ve got a couple of black dex left in the wagon.”

“Black beauties are crude compared to these dudes. This shit is state-of-the-art. Got them from a doctor’s wife I know.”

“Fuckin’ her too?”

“I was, yes. But, sadly, that’s over now.”

Frank suppressed a groan and shook out one of the orange, glossy-coated pills.

“This shit is a lot smoother than black beauties, I guarantee. Let me get you something to wash it down.” Richards went to the refrigerator and pulled out two plastic ring six-packs of Budweiser tallboys, plucked two cans from the rings and gave one to Frank.

(End of Chapter 7)

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Richards gave Frank directions and in ten minutes they were pulling into a parking lot next to an upscale bar on a street running perpendicular to Colfax. They hadn’t exchanged so much as a word on the drive except for the directions.

The place was full of what Frank would scornfully call yuppies. Young upwardly mobile professionals or young urban professionals, he couldn’t remember which. Douchebags would do in a pinch. But his old friend Larry was obviously in his element, the man exchanging greetings and salutations with several of the clientele before directing Frank to a table in the back, away from the masses.

Happy hour special was two-for-one.

Frank ordered a double Bushmill’s on the rocks, his summer drink, Bushmill’s neat his winter libation. Richards requested a double Johnny Walker Black, neat.

As the cute waitress in a skin-tight black skirt and halter top combo walked away with their orders, Frank said, “So now you can tell me what that was all about, Larry. Kind of reminded of the time back in high school when John Boudreau punched you out while his big brother held your arms. As I recall, you were sneaking around with Johnny’s girlfriend, Debby Bollinger. Up to your old tricks, man?”

“Well, uh, yeah, Frank. But that’s not what this is about. This is business related.”

“What kind of business is that?”

“Real estate. I represent a small consortium of investors who want to put their money into building shopping malls. Malls are the coming thing, my friend. I heard they even have one in Zenith now.”

“True. Damn thing fucked up downtown.”

“Out West here, they’re putting them everywhere. So anyway, a while ago I got a tip that the city council was going to approve a zoning change over in Sheridan to build a mall. And that a local gangster name of Arturo Reynolds—whom they call Burt because legend has it that a while back he spent an entire weekend in Aspen impersonating Burt Reynolds and got away with it—was going to be buying up the desired properties. I suppose he still vaguely resembles Burt Reynolds, but these days the guy looks more like a fast fading porn star. When I found out Reynolds was planning to buy up the desired land and sell it back to investors at a nice profit, I informed my group and they snapped up all the property before Reynolds even had his checkbook out.

“He must’ve heard it was me that clued them in. I guess he’s a little pissed about it.”

Richards seemed to have a great deal of adrenaline working on him. Fighting and brandishing firearms will do that to you.

“You know this guy Reynolds personally?”

“Well, yeah. I handled his divorce from his first wife. Saved him a shitload of money. So he thought I was his friend, I guess. I’ve also had dealings with some of his underlings on other matters.”

“Other matters?”

“Coke deals.”

“You’re into cocaine?”

“Isn’t everybody?”

“I s’pose. It’s a shame and a sin, though.”

Richards’ eyebrows went up as he gave Frank a questioning, disbelieving stare.

Frank said, “So one of his associates tipped you about the mall deal?”

“Nope. It was his current wife. Who, I must add, is also a great piece of ass.”

“Jesus Christ, Larry, you’re fucking a gangster’s wife? Reynolds, know about it?”

“No, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time.”

“What’ll he do to her if he finds out?”

“It’s what he’ll do to me that I’m most concerned about, Frank. She’ll probably just get a beating. She used to be a stripper, so it’s likely she’s accustomed to it.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you know what they say about strippers. They all come from abusive homes… fathers who fucked them, slapped them around and beat them up and other unsavory practices. I just meant that she’s probably not a stranger to domestic violence. And Reynolds does provide her with a quite lavish lifestyle.”

Now it was Frank’s turn to throw a look.

“Okay, man,” Frank said, “but I don’t think anyone ever gets used to a beating. And it’s clear these are not nice people you’re involved with. What’s your next move?”

“I thought I might leave town.”

“What about your wife?”

“She filed for divorce last month. Got the second best divorce lawyer in Denver to represent her. Which means, more than likely, that my house is gone. And the car—well, you saw that—I’ll collect the insurance but that will take a while, and I don’t think I have the luxury of waiting around at the moment.”

“What about your office? Your practice?”

“I just lease the building, so that’s no problem. And divorce is busting out all over, Frank. I can pretty much go anywhere and start up my practice anew. I’m also quite proficient with real estate law. These deals I’m working on now could cement my future success for a long time to come. My secretary can handle all the details should I decide to permanently relocate.”

“You fuckin’ her, too.”

“That’s why the wife is leaving me.”

“Uh-huh.” Frank looked down at his drink and bit back some words. “You have a particular destination in mind?”

(To be continued)

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Undaunted, in fact, highly motivated now, Frank charged in and faked a swing at the big man’s head. When the dude’s hands went up to block, Frank double clutched and slammed the knob end of the tire iron into the man’s sternum, Frank thinking, Now there was a forehand even Larry Richards would admire.

The blow stunned the big ape. And as he swayed on his knees, both hands on his chest, Richards wiggled out from under. Then Frank launched a drive to the side of the big guy’s head and the knob connected with a dull thud.

Guy toppled over. 

Richards was on his feet now. “Hey, Frank,” he said and then ran toward the office building.

Frank turned quickly toward the BMW.

 Thug 2 was down off the roof and coming on.

Frank was having massive déjà vu and also wondering where the hell Richards went off to. Without an answer, he braced for the attack. Baseball bat was a lot bigger than a tire iron.

Frank hopped in a circle, searching the bat-wielder for an opening.

He saw none and the big guy kept closing in.

Frank backed up, waiting for an opportunity. To slash, to hit, to kick—whatever, it didn’t matter. Something. Anything.

Then he heard the pop of a gunshot.

The white John Henry stopped his swing.

Frank and the thug both jerked their heads toward the sound.

Larry Richards had shot into the sky and was now running toward them with a long-barreled pistol in his hand,

Looks like a Colt 45, Frank thought, the gun that won the West.

Richards pulled the hammer back on the hand cannon and pointed it at the bat wielder’s large torso.

The big man lowered his hands and the bat slowly, as he studied Richards and stared at the pistol.

“I’m not likely to miss from this range, asshole,” Richards snapped. “And although it’s only a .22, I think it’ll do the job. Just drop the bat and drag that other asshole outta here before I get a ticket for leaving garbage on my lawn.”

The big guy’s hands massaged the bat handle. He was thinking things over. Had an odd twisting of his lips that Frank thought might be a smirk.

Either that or he had gas.

“You’re not going to shoot me out here in broad daylight, man. I’ll take that little popgun away from you and shove it up your ass.”

“Ever heard of self-defense, you fuckin’ cretin?” Richards said, a familiar wiseass look of superiority wrinkling his face. “Let’s see—property damage,” eyeing the BMW, “physical assault, trespassing, terroristic threats, intimidation—I think I’ve got a case, don’t you, Frank?”

“Looks like a lock, Larry,” Frank said, tapping the tire iron into the palm of his left hand and staring at the big guy.

“All right,” the man said, sweat stains widening on his beige polo shirt. “But Burt ain’t gonna be happy with you, Richards. If you think this is gonna end it, you should know better. We’ll be back, and next time you won’t be so goddamn lucky.”

With that, he turned and started walking away, shaking his head at the other guy, who was struggling to his feet now. They limped away together. Frank watched them get into a big navy blue Lincoln at the end of the block.

As the Lincoln sped away, Frank looked at Richards. “Jesus, Larry, what the hell was that about?”

“I’m afraid I’ve run afoul of a local gangster, Frank,” Richards said, looking around nervously. “And you came just in time. Thanks for helping.”

“Glad to be of service, Larry. That got my blood flowing.”

“You always did like to fight, Frank.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. Had a few in high school I s’pose, but—“

“Let’s hold off on the reminiscing. We need to get out of here before the boys come back with bigger guns than my little Wild West replica here. I’ll lock up the office and we’ll hit a bar, I could use a drink or ten.”

“I could use a little something to take the edge off, myself,” Frank said. Then he squinted at the dented BMW, all the glass shattered, the mirrors hanging loose. “I guess we’ll need to take my car.”

“I think your assessment is accurate, Frank,” Richards said, eyeballing the brown and white Ford station wagon idling in the middle of the street. “That thing made it all the way to Denver, huh?”

“You see it, don’t you?”

“Reminds me of my parents’ old sled. The one we used on our infamous night of mooning. Remember?”

“I’ll never forget it, Larry. It was the last time my old man ever tried to muscle me.”

Richards’ head bobbed around nervously, his eyes wide and swollen, blood trickling from his mouth and nose. Then he seemed to remember he was holding a gun. He slid the revolver into his gray sport coat and jogged back to the office building.

(End of Chapter 5)

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Pondering this, Frank stepped up to Jimmy’s shiny, clean, flawless bar. There were a few customers in the place. Frank could sense the waiting, the anticipation of the bartender and the waitress, as it was that slow time just before the after-work rush. A time to savor the relaxed pace and the quiet, before you were too busy running to think about anything else.

Frank ordered a Heineken from the tall rangy bartender who looked like a cowboy. To hell with Coors piss water.

Back in Minnesota, it wasn’t that long ago that Coors was like an exotic import. Anyone who went to Colorado for skiing or trout fishing or anything else, would bring cases of the stuff back to Zenith in those skinny eight-ounce cans you were supposed to hold daintily at the rim of the can with your thumb and forefinger so as not to overheat the unpasteurized brew.

And then somewhere along the line drinkers figured out it was only ordinary beer that was just a little lighter tasting than most.

These days the trend was leaning toward thicker, more flavorful, imported brews. At least in Frank’s last days at the Metropole. And the Metro was a dive, so the upscale joints were likely all the way into the import thing by now.

The bartender set the sweating green bottle on the clean, unblemished bar top and Frank put down a ten. Barkeep went to wait on some new arrivals—young guys unbuttoning collars and loosening ties—and Frank grabbed the folded newspaper on top of the bar.

Front-page story was about the twenty-five hour power blackout in New York City, a hellish scenario if there ever was one. Frank read the article and felt glad he wasn’t in New York.

Forty-five minutes and three beers later, Frank got into his car and pulled out the slip of paper with Larry Richard’s directions, slowly realizing that he’d have to retrace his path back to Colfax Avenue in order to interpret the instructions.

This proved more difficult than he’d anticipated, but he eventually got on track, and was turning slowly onto the street of Larry Richards’ office when he spotted something unusual. Halfway down the block, a large man was standing on the roof of a black BMW hammering down with an aluminum baseball bat like he was pounding in railroad spikes.

Guy must have a John Henry complex, Frank thought to himself, because the man was definitely driving some steel.

And glass, too, as Frank watched the windshield on the BMW shatter and collapse into the front seat.

Then he noticed two guys scuffling out front of a modest, relatively new-looking building to the left of the BMW. One of the guys looked to be Larry, although twenty pounds heavier and with longer hair than Frank recalled.

It was indeed Richards, and he was tussling with a large thuggish guy who appeared to be landing the bulk of the punches.

Even in his slightly numb, mildly inebriated state, Frank could tell that something here was definitely amiss. Searching anxiously for someplace to put the station wagon, Frank watched the bigger guy tackle Richards and kneel on top of him, continuing to rain down punches as Richards tried to cover up.

Frank jammed on the brakes alongside the BMW and grabbed the tire iron he kept under the driver’s seat for just such occasions, wishing for the tire chain he used to keep in his old Pontiac.

Bursting out of the Ford wagon onto the street, feeling more alive than he had in some time, Frank could see Richards was in trouble. Gripping the hunk of iron, he sprinted over to the struggling pair and was ready to engage when the big man with the five o’clock shadow stopped his punch throwing long enough to growl in a foghorn voice: “You don’t know what you’re getting into, mister. Get the fuck out of here before I have to fuck you up too.”

(To be continued)

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Coming into the bowl of Denver, low mountains on the horizon like a purple fence around a corral, Frank felt a bit overwhelmed.

The place was bigger and more crowded than he’d anticipated, traffic zipping and darting and roaring by him on the freeway, and his nerves were jumpy and unsettled.

He used to have nerves of steel, could piss in a Coke bottle and not miss a drop, but now he felt shaky and his flesh was like a pincushion with the pins still in it.

Haven’t been the same since that LSD excursion back in April, he thought, anxiously scanning the periphery at sixty miles an hour. And his little brother jumping off the Arrowhead Bridge and the resultant pile of shit that led to, sure as hell didn’t help much either.

And the concussion?

There was also that.

He continued along on Business 70, also known as Colfax Avenue, a street name he remembered from the book, and that felt right. Staying on Colfax, he drove by the State Capitol and the U.S. Mint and then spied one of those chain restaurants that were springing up all over the country like toadstools after a rainstorm.

He turned off the highway at the next exit and wound around to the restaurant parking lot. He went inside and found the payphone, pulled the phonebook page from his pocket and dialed up Larry Richards’ office number.

A female voice answered, Frank thinking she sounded quite young. Richards always liked the sweet young things. “Larry Richards’ law office, this is Susan, how may I help you?”

“Is Larry available?”

“Mr. Richards is busy on another line, whom should I say is calling, please?” Her voice went up an octave on the please.

“Tell him it’s an old friend from high school in Zenith, Minnesota.”

Frank heard the phone clicking and then some recorded music for a brief moment before a male voice came on the line. “Hello, Larry Richards speaking. Who’s calling, please?”

“Is this the same Larry Richards that once tried to put a Chevy engine into a 1954 Ford?”

“Yes it is,” Richards said, a chuckle coming into his voice.

“Well this is the guy whose garage you used to lift the engine out of that Impala you stole.”

Frank recalled that after failing to adapt the Chevy motor to the Ford, Richards was eventually arrested for trying to sell the stolen engine to an undercover cop.

“Frank Ford, you old cocksucker. What the hell are you doing in Denver?”

“On my way to California, Larry. Gonna look for work out there.”

“Minnesota climate finally get to you, Frank?”

“That and a few other things. But yeah, I finally decided to relocate. And being that I was in the area, I thought maybe I’d pay you a visit and have you show me a good time. For old time’s sake, you know.”

“Just great Frank, sounds super. It’s really great to hear your voice again, my friend. Let’s get together this afternoon. Once I’ve finished with this consultation, we can hit one of the many great happy hours in the area and catch up. Shit, it’s been years, I can’t believe you’re actually here.”

“It’s true, Larry, I’m actually here. Should I call you back later?”

“Why don’t you just come by my office around four-thirty? Where you at?”

“I’m on Colfax Ave, just past the Mint.”

“That’s not too far from here. If you go back the way you came for a few blocks there’s a nice park at the Civic Center I think you’ll like. Plenty of things to see. Keep you occupied until four-thirty or so, no problem. This is gonna be great, man. But, um, please be careful not to mention any of the uh—shall we say—low points of my history, around my secretary. Nobody here knows about my checkered past.”

“My lips are sealed, Larry, see you at four-thirty.”

Richards gave directions and Frank wrote them down on a scrap of paper he’d had the foresight to bring to the phone with him, Frank going all in on the travel-discipline thing.

Frank took a seat in a booth by the window. Ordered a California burger basket with fries and a Coke and wolfed the whole thing down, even though it was mediocre at best.

Seemed he had a lot of holes to fill.

After lunch Frank got in the station wagon and went to the park Richards recommended. The air was warm—on its way to eighty degrees, the sun shining and a slight breeze—and Frank felt the solace of summer slowly washing over him.

His jeans and long-sleeved chamois shirt being a little too much clothing for the weather, he took off the heavy green shirt and sat in his t-shirt on a park bench, feeling like a vagrant. He read his book and let the warmth work its magic on the tension in his neck and shoulders. But the relaxation didn’t last long. That rogue nervous energy kicked in and made it hard to stay put, so he got up and sauntered around the bustling park.

Found it quite scenic.

Plenty of pretty girls.

But the time passed more slowly than he was comfortable with and around three-thirty he decided to rumble on down towards Larry Richard’s office with the intent of stopping at a bar along the way, if any place caught his eye.

He motored his way around the city. Seeing the sign for Larimer Street, another familiar name from the book, he made the turn and was soon swinging into what seemed to be a rare parking space near an establishment called Jimmy’s Saloon and Eatery.

Jimmy’s was a few steps above the old Metropole on the cleanliness scale. Definitely lacked the embedded stink of Frank’s former place of work. Shit, there were still times when Frank swore he could smell the old bar on him, like the stench had burrowed under his skin and stayed there.

Ten years he’d spent in that hole. And a clean bar with new furnishings and walls that didn’t have years of caked-on grime was a pleasant experience.

Instead of dirt on the walls, there were framed black and white photos of the early days of Denver—rodeos and miners and railroad scenes—but Jimmy’s definitely lacked the character of the bars of Larimer Street Kerouac wrote about.

But that was all right withFrank.

He was remembering the teenage Larry Richards, the guy a real piece of work. Probably the only miscreant in the history of Zenith, Minnesota, who served a jail term under the Huber Law (work release for employed prisoners) and got out every afternoon to practice tennis.

And weekends to play in tournaments.

Richards, then a recent high school graduate, had accepted a tennis scholarship to Arizona State University, and the judge allowed this unusual Huber Law arrangement so as not to ruin the young man’s opportunity because of one youthful mistake.

At least the only one the cops knew about.    

Ah, the leniency that was the past, Frank thought. And it sure helped that Larry’s parents were well-off professionals from the prosperous East End of Zenith.

Frank knew he’d never have received that kind of break.

But Richards never put on any airs; he just accepted his good fortune and went off to ASU in the fall like a good little car thief.

And that thought brought to mind another parallel from the book.

Dean Moriarty had spent a part of his juvenile years incarcerated for stealing cars, and was quite infamous in the Denver area for this trait. So maybe there were more similarities between Larry Richards and Moriarty than Frank had originally thought.

(To be continued)

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The sun was up and shining now, beams angling through the motel window, but Frank was in no hurry. He felt pretty good after nearly ten solid hours of sleep.

Last night he’d seen a thick Denver phonebook in the desk drawer. He pulled it out, plopped it down on the desk and paged through to the R section. And there it was: Richards, Lawrence, atty at law.

Two listings, one for home and one for office.

Checking the clock on the bed table—just after eight, Mountain Time—Frank decided on the office number and was about to dial it up when he realized it was probably a long distance call, something you couldn’t do from a motel phone without a lot of hassle. 

Unless you called collect, which wouldn’t exactly give the impression Frank wanted.

Ah, hell, he thought, tearing the page out of the phone book, might as well just motor on down to the big city and ring Richards up from somewhere close.

He fueled up at the pumps in front of the store—ten-gallon limit—and got back on the road.

The sun and the clean air got him high. He was anticipating a fun stop in Denver. Hoping, anyway. Rolling along, tires humming, he slipped into a pleasant reverie of cattle drives and wagon trains crisscrossing these broad eastern Colorado flatlands. 

After about an hour, though, thoughts of Nikki started creeping in. His former girlfriend, the beautiful blond he’d once thought was the perfect girl. The one he’d had but couldn’t keep, like it said in that Velvet Underground song. Well, now her pale blue eyes were lingering on.

In his head like a strobe light.

And pushing the worm of an idea at him.

Did he deliberately drive Nikki away because of his low self-image?

Low self-image was a term Nikki, a sociology graduate working on her master’s degree, often used.

But here in the West the sun was too bright and the air too clear and clean to wallow in regret over past mistakes. And who’s to say it was even a mistake? Maybe Frank had her best interests at heart, considering what he was involved in at the time.

Sometimes fate has more wisdom than you do, Frank thought to himself.

Maybe someday he’d get some therapy. He’d heard they did a lot of that shit in California.

But for now it was on to Denver and Larry Richards.

In Kerouac’s book, Sal Paradise goes to Denver to meet up with Dean Moriarty, the son of a Denver wino and bowery denizen, who has a penchant for wild partying and driving recklessly and is seen by nearly everyone as crazy.

In a fun sort of way.

At least if you’re young and crazy yourself.

Moriarty was fond of Benzedrine. A speed freak, they’d call him today. In contrast, Richards was a high level athlete who kept himself in shape on a year-round basis. And whereas Moriarty flitted from woman to woman, wife to wife, and held low-level jobs like parking lot attendant and railroad laborer, Richards was married and a big nuts lawyer. But Larry had also committed his share of hijinks. Even had a few scrapes with the law back in the care-less days of his youth.

But Larry Richards was no Dean Moriarty.

No, he sure wasn’t. But Richards did like to party, Frank recalled, and the man—at one time, anyway—definitely enjoyed pursuing the ladies. So Frank’s old friend would likely be able to show him some fun and help him slip out from under the grinding millstone of past transgressions.

Or not.

But they’d definitely give it the old college try.

(End of Chapter 4)

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By the time Frank crossed the Colorado line it was getting dark. The roadside shadows were filled with all sorts of strange things and his thoughts were bouncing and hopping like flies on a dead dog. But the self-loathing hadn’t entered the mix yet and Frank sensed the Hater was just waiting until the time was right. The demon would hang back until Frank was tired and strung out then bring on the anguish and the suffering.

The way it usually went.

A few miles into Colorado, he came upon a roadside oasis containing two motels, two gas stations closed for the night and a convenience store. An old-fashioned single-level motel sat on one side of the frontage road cul-de-sac and a fairly new, two-story Best Western with a swimming pool was on the other side. Deciding to go upscale, such as it was, Frank swung into the Best Western and got himself a room, paying cash in advance.  

After checking in, he walked across the parking lot to the bright fluorescent glow of the small convenience store and bought a sixer of Coors.

When in Rome…

He took the chicken breast and the potatoes—spuds now limp and soggy and looking somewhat inedible—from his cooler in the back of the wagon and went to his room, the big fat joint from Waverly’s gift box nestled in the pocket of his blue denim shirt.

Frank turned on the television. There was a baseball game on and he left it there, popped a beer and set up his dinner on the small table by the window that looked out over the parking lot and the darkness of the western plains. He was kind of excited about seeing Larry Richards again—the guy had always possessed a knack for fun—but decided to wait until the morning to do the searching.

When his belly was full (spuds weren’t half bad) and his body engulfed in a pleasant heaviness, Frank popped another beer, stuffed a bath towel across the space under the room door and fired up the joint. He smoked about half of it, blowing the smoke out the window by the table and then grabbed On the Road and stretched out on the bed, propping up two pillows behind his head.

He dissolved into the book.

And couldn’t help but notice the similarities, the parallels, between himself and the narrator of the book.

They were both on the way to California, although Frank would be looking for work there as opposed to searching out fellow conspirators for safaris into the heart of the American night. And Frank was thirty-six, no longer an arrested/perennial adolescent like Sal Paradise. But they’d both fueled their journey with amphetamine, and Frank’s stop in Denver would be another similarity.

As his eyelids got heavy and the words on the page began to blur, Frank put the book down on the night table and shut off the light.

He was drifting, halfway between waking and sleeping, when another parallel came to him.

Frank, like the characters in the book, had a burning longing inside him for a freedom he couldn’t quite define.

And that longing was pushing him down the road.

(End of Chapter 3)

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