As the Arizona sunshine bore down on the cracked highway blacktop, car and truck tires sizzled in whiney protest of the weight they bore at speed.
Interstate 10 passed very close to Joshua Tree National Park, having passed Riverside California many miles ago to the west. But, Joshua Tree Park had its own surreal draw that claimed the imagination of many travelers. Trees, if sentient, would have no patience for the human lives so short in comparison.
Early Mormon settlers noted the upreaching branches reminded them of Joshua reaching for God, hence, Joshua Tree.
Sometimes, Interstate 10 would appear as an escape route for those attempting to live and leave Los Angeles. Most lives were in partial ruin as the cars headed East to escape.
Such a survivor, or escapee, was Reverend Bill.
A passing motorist might think it common to see a hitchhiker with his thumb stuck out, but, Reverend Bill was unique when compared to any free traveler.
He carried the weight of the day’s heat on his shoulders as his arms scissored, pulling his thin emaciated body behind.
In passing, drivers might see his shoulder-length, dirty blond hair, and his six-foot-two-inch frame. Perhaps, they might notice he had a worn bedroll tied with rope on his back.
Bill’s gray eyes now scanned the horizon for storm clouds. Eyes which had a piercing quality that commanded anyone’s attention. But, he did have a gentle shy smile that attracted others to him.
Once, he had been a child prodigy. He was now neither a child nor a prodigy having lost his faith sometime in the past.
From his elevated childhood stage, he preached the eternal love of God and Jesus as a mature man would. He knew virtually the entire King James Bible and could quote one verse after another, jumping from Book to Book like an ice skater.
He would scream out to a packed congregation, “Do you know Jesus? Do you not want his love?”
Hundreds of thousands of people came to hear this child of God speak over the years. His Revival Tent would fill to capacity in almost any city, from Los Angeles to Seattle Washington, to even the God-forsaken humanities found near Washington D.C.
By the time his 40 voice music chorus would sing to God, people were eagerly awaiting the passing of the plate so they could put their money into the offering.
He loved the masses–he loved their power. He felt this energy was fed into his soul, and he, in turn, tried to re-direct it to the heavens, to get God’s attention. He believed he could personally help humanity in their seeking of God.
The youngster, Reverend Bill would lash out, “You must be saved! You must accept Jesus!”
His congregations believed he could heal. Most times, he believed he could. His ailing loving father hoped he could, at one time.
Bill’s father, Franklin, knew he was the only family William had left. His wife, Dora had passed attempting to give birth to their second child when Bill was only four. The child died as well.
Bill’s “visions” began during that time frame, just after his mother died. His visions told him what he must do, what he must learn. His father, drowning in grief, could only go along.
The blind came so Bill could help them see. The deaf came, to hear song again. The lame came as best they could. Most pitiful of all were the ones without hope, who were desperate to find any help in this world.
A world drowning in tears he could help.
As time progressed, and this child became a teenager, his voice began to change. A voice that had once sounded authoritative and strident, full of confidence. His voice had been a high horn, singing God’s word and works.
But it became an irritating sound, likened to fingernails scratching up and down the spine of the listener. His childlike looks became elongated, almost comical in appearance. As his bones stretched, he lost his smooth stride, and became curious in his movements, almost halting between steps.
His hormones raged, and Bill began to have nightly visits from the “lust demon.” Sometimes, he awoke with a stiff member. At one point, he noticed a wet discharge from it, after waking.
Some of his dreams involved young ladies from his Tent Revivals. Some involved their mothers, while some involved both.
“What caused this?” he asked. “Have I not prayed hard enough?” He prayed for forgiveness from this rebellion of his flesh.
Had he not taught against this as a sin? “Let not thy seed, fall to the ground.”
His tours brought in less and less tithing. Less money caused more pressure. Increased pressure caused less confidence, which caused less ‘healing’, which caused less tithing.
Bill became less confident. His ‘healing’ powers seemingly disappeared, as well. His father died the year after his ministry ended.
William ‘Rev Bill’ Fogarty, was a ‘has-been’ at fifteen.
In his heart, he knew God had not left him, but he had left God.
He had generated more money in nine years than many people earn in their entire lives. But, his golden run was over.
Because of his traveling existence, Rev Bill’s public education had been minimal. As a result, he was not prepared to finish high school or go on to college.
But, his education on the road was invaluable. He knew to go to the main road, stick his thumb out, and wait for a friendly farmer, or older couple to stop, and pick him up. Sometimes, they gave him a little food and water.
In this way, he moved from city to city, meeting new souls. He learned more from everyone he met.
Out of old habit, he tried to convert these poor people with the Word of God. Slowly, it began to dawn on him, many did not appreciate his efforts, as he sometimes got an “AMEN” and other times a very short quiet ride down the road.
After several hitches on Interstate 10, he was now surrounded by Arizona desert and scrub brush. Bill had achieved this destination the day before. He was just outside the touristy Frontier town of Quartzsite Arizona. Last night, he had slept behind a truck stop, next to a refrigeration unit. Its exhaust heat kept him moderately warm through the cold desert night.
This morning, Bill awoke to a bright, cloudless, sunrise, with birds chirping. He got up, stretched, yawned, looked around, and relieved himself against a cactus that loomed over his head.
Then, he walked to the main road and warmed up his thumb. The day wore on, and no one stopped though many passed.
Just to break the monotony, Bill kept walking East on I-10. He would stop whenever a car was coming so that he could stick his thumb out in that special way that meant, ‘Give Me a Ride.’
Near noon, a rust bucket of a truck pulled over. In violent protests, its brakes squealed to the world. A tire grabbed, and left a black mark thirty feet long, while the other tires continued to spin.
While the truck sat, waiting on him, he saw the black smoke coming from underneath its body. The truck wheezed, sputtered and trembled as a dying man wracked with his last cough. The body of the truck must have been red at one time, though now the appearance was closer to a molted brown. Rev Bill could see one tire with no tread; the others appeared to have a little more.
When he was closer to the truck, he glanced in the bed. He saw a tire jack, claw hammers, paint brushes, two spare tires, a paper sack, and a well-worn, grave digger shovel.
“A working man?” he asked himself, “What is that smell? “
The closer he got to the cab of the rust bucket– the stronger the smell. This was not a pleasant smell; not like flowers or fresh cut grass.
No, this was Man Smell at his worst.
“Howdy partner,” the driver said, cheerfully. “I guess you need a ride. Come on and hop in, sit with me. I haven’t talked to a bloody soul in a week. I spent a lot of time out there.” With his chin, he pointed to the desert hills. He watched Bill look in the chinned direction, and said, “Nah, no use looking, there is nothing there. So what you waiting for, a fancy invite? Jump in, or stand back. I ain’t got much to do, but I ain’t got no time to waste,” the driver stated.
Bill surreptitiously audited his driver. ‘“Yeah, a Pole-Cat! That’s what he smells like,” Bill thought to himself. “God, what a poor soul. Beard a foot long. UH, he must chew tobacco, if that’s the brown stain running down his beard.”
The driver’s weight center was just above his belt line, spilling over that belt. Reading glasses, with one limb missing and the other heavily taped with masking tape, barely hung from his large bulbous nose. ‘Pole Cat’ wore an undershirt with indescribable stains on it. Bill believed that the shirt could tell what ‘Pole-Cat’ had eaten for the last month. The smell only confirmed his suspicion.
As Bill got into the truck he asked, “Mind if I roll down my window to the bottom, and flip this vent towards me?”
The driver waved a hand, “Sure. The desert smells great. You will want that air coming at you!” Bill thought his very survival closed in this truck would be fresh air.
The driver pushed in the clutch to grab first gear. But, the grinding noise that came with this action made Bill question if the clutch actually worked. Pole-Cat hit the gas four or five times to coax the engine into a higher speed that might get the truck moving. Slowly, the clutch was let out, then pressed back in when the engine speed died suddenly. Again, the gas pedal was feathered, until the engine speed climbed once more. Again the grinding noises, more sputtering noises, again the gas was feathered, while the clutch was double-pumped. It coughed and bucked, but it continued to move. Second gear had a repeat of the noises while ground speed gradually climbed. Finally, third gear. Bill found himself willing the truck to make it, to go faster.
‘Pole-Cat’ paid some attention to the road, as he continually had to correct the truck’s path by swinging the steering wheel of the truck back and forth.
The driver said, “Been out in the Mohave a while. It gets too damn hot this time of year in the afternoon. I love it though,” he said, and then smiled. “’Specially when the cactus blooms. You know, every once in a while, a little rain will come in. Whatever I’m doing I stop and go watch the desert come alive. Things get real pretty and active, just after the rain. Prettiest little flowers come out, and all of the sand critters act like they’re full of pep.”
‘Pole Cat’ suddenly caught himself, rubbed his right hand on his T-shirt, and then poked it at Bill. “Oh, excuse me. I don’t see people enough to remember how I am suppost to act.”
Bill shook his extended hand, while the truck wandered into the other lane.
“Most folks call me Nuts, but my real name is Tom.” He looked slyly at Bill and gave him a wink.
Chapter two – Polecate Tom