As the time draws near for Lost Highway to be released, I thought I would give readers a chance to sample the book in advance. Here is a bit about the book’s inspiration, a teaser, and the first ten pages. Enjoy.
Toward the end of my father’s life, as his health deteriorated, a question crossed my mind, “Why is it we seldom take the time to share our deepest thoughts with those we love?” I hungered to know more about my father, and so I asked him to write down stories from his past. Even struggling with neuropathy, he wrote down a number of stories on a yellow legal pad, going as far back as his younger childhood days. After I read those stories, I then wondered what might have transpired, had my father, in the waning days of his life, spent twenty-four uninterrupted hours with his teenage grandson. Amid my wondering, I wrote Lost Highway.
A grandfather, nearing the end of life, recalls the troubled days of his youth.
His grandson, struggling with his own troubles, becomes a man.
James Thomas Autry, with the sands of time running out, sees in his wayward grandson, himself sixty years past. In trouble at school, in trouble at home, and with an overall crappy attitude, James wants his grandson to know that his life doesn’t have to remain on the same path. That redemption is possible. And so, he arranges a hunting trip for the two of them, down in the Ozarks, to spend time alone. And in their time together, James opens his heart and tells Jay his story.
Jay loves his grandfather, but doesn’t really know him. When he receives an invitation to join him on a hunting trip, he doesn’t quite know what to think. During their twenty-four hours together, he not only learns his grandfather’s secret past and what skeletons lie in the Autry closet, but more importantly, he learns about himself.
Lost Highway, is historical fiction and a dual coming-of-age story, written as a non-linear narrative, that will appeal to adult and YA readers. Fans of David James Duncan, The Brothers K, or Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone would enjoy this tale.
Ron Bay Jr
TURN BACK THE YEARS
James Thomas Autry sat on the curb of a deserted street—outside the local post office—and dug through his duffle bag for a pen and paper. The road appeared desolate, except for a lone tumbleweed, plucked from the desert and blown by a warm breeze, that drifted down the middle of Route 66. His body ached from walking, sometimes going for miles between rides, and his head bowed to weariness. The only clothes he owned, tattered and worn, hung loosely from his lean frame.
He felt the need to write to his mother, but struggled with the right words. It had been nearly a year since he left home, and other than a few cryptic letters, he hadn’t communicated with his family. What he had written must have broken his mother’s heart. Was he taunting her by revealing his troubles and strife, or seeking sympathy? And did he not know that his careless words would cause his mother deep anguish and heartache? He couldn’t recall if, in any of the letters, he expressed his love for her. And oh, how much he loved and missed his mother.
With his head hung between his knees, James drew deeply on his last cigarette, and closed his eyes. Memories of his mother flooded his mind. He fondly recalled, not that long ago, coming home late—after a night of drinking and shooting pool—and finding her sitting in her reading chair, with the lamp on low and her Bible in her lap. No matter how late he came straggling in, Mom would still be up, waiting until he returned safely home, not considering sleep until his bedroom light had dimmed for the night. Every morning, whether a school or work day, she rose long before him, a fresh percolator of coffee, eggs, bacon, and biscuits awaiting him when he awoke.
He remembered her brushing away the tears and binding up his little scrapes and bruises as a small boy. She always made the time to be there, sharing her love equally with all four children. And with no help from a husband who spent most of his time on the road. He wondered why it had taken him so long to appreciate her. And he wondered when he would get the chance to tell her.
James lifted his head and observed the long stretch of highway that ran east and out into the empty desert. The road mesmerized him, with waves of heat rising from the hot asphalt. Off on the distant horizon, a wall of dark clouds blanketed the sky, the remains of an unusual thunderstorm that had recently passed.
The events of the past seven months ran through his mind, replaying his aimless ramblings down this highway, and many others like it. A frown furrowed his brow. Those days and events had long since been lost, and he vowed to leave them there. To his right, the same empty road ran off to the west, for as far as he could see. The desert in winter, drab and lifeless, contrasted with a clear blue, cloudless western sky. He picked up his pen and began writing:
Dear Mom, December 24, 1952
I’m writing to you from a little town in California called Needles, just across the border from Arizona, right on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I’m still about 250 miles away from Uncle Jack’s place. I’m down to my last thirty-six cents, so I’ll call you when I arrive there. I’m sorry for leaving you and the family the way I did, and I miss you dearly. I’m growing weary of the road and feel it’s time I came back home. After mailing this letter, I plan on thumbing my way to Los Angeles and finding your brother. I’m going to have to stay for a while and earn enough money to get back home. I miss you, Mom. You’ve always done everything you could for me, and I guess I’ve taken you for granted. This past year has been full of troubles, but it has made me appreciate you and home more than I could have ever imagined. I hope you can forgive me. Will you have snow for Christmas? Did you put up a tree? Is William coming home for the holidays? I guess I will find all these things out when I call you. Tell the family that I miss them too. I love you with all my heart. Talk to you soon.
Your loving son,
After placing the envelope in the “out of state” mail slot, James headed up the street, searching for a place to find a warm meal and hoping to find work.
Twin Rivers, MO
No doubt about it, and although true, few ever said it to my face. But everyone I encountered surely had the thought run through their minds. Even Dad. Although he had learned to master his tongue, his eyes gave it away.
Plenty of other words had been used to describe me: surly, lazy, troublemaker, disrespectful, argumentative, hateful, ungrateful, and a host of others. At one time or another, each of them described me well.
I don’t know how my parents put up with me, especially my father. I frequently amused myself by seeing how pissed off I could make him. And it didn’t take much. At age fifteen, I presented my father with quite the dilemma; how does a Christian man maintain his composure around a child who does not honor his father and mother? Dad, surprisingly, held up quite well. I would have beaten the hell out of me.
Teachers washed their hands of me. Not because I didn’t make good grades—I was in fact one of the smarter kids in school—but my attitude absolutely sucked. I thought all the teachers lame, and I didn’t hide my disdain. Detention and I became well acquainted.
Very few people liked me, and I returned the favor. What friends I did have, put up with me because I shared their behaviors, most of them frowned upon, some of them illegal. I didn’t care about my family, well, my brother and sister were okay, but I especially didn’t care for myself. And whatever my father believed, or liked, I hated. To spite him. But I think I hated me more.
James Thomas Autry III appears on my birth certificate, but everyone calls me Jay. It makes it easier when Dad, Grandpa, and I share the same room. Everyone refers to Dad as Jimmy, for much the same reason. Grandpa, of course, goes by James. The story I’m about to share, tells of me and Dad and Grandpa.
Grandpa, seventy-eight at the time, once led the Autry clan with a vibrant energy, but his failing health had nearly debilitated him. Surprisingly, he and I got along great together. I hated him growing old.
On most days, he sat in front of his big screen television—the sound cranked up so loud you could hear it out on the street—so close he could reach out and touch it. He liked to watch old movies, classic westerns, with John Wayne being his favorite. How many times can a guy view She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, before he’s bored stiff? He seemed to never tire of his movies though.
With all his pains and ailments—he had heart trouble and diabetes, and had already lost a couple of toes and part of a foot from the disease—he hid his frustrations well, at least around the grandkids. And maybe if he had taken care of himself early on, he might have felt better. He took a lot of naps in those days and was known to disappear to his bedroom in the middle of a conversation. And it didn’t matter who he offended, the nap took priority.
I didn’t really know Grandpa much, other than what most kids know about their grandparents. Occasionally, we heard stories, but for the most part, our busy lives didn’t allow for long conversations. I didn’t know my dad very well either, mostly because I despised him, and everything he represented. Did I mention my attitude sucked? It seems I did everything possible to make his life miserable and our confrontations were numerous, with my subsequent groundings the same.
In retrospect, me being miserable led me to project it onto others. I ran with a rough crowd, I got into trouble in school, I fell into drugs and alcohol; the only time I found happiness was alone in my bedroom listening to music. And that’s where the story begins.
I’m lying on my bed one Saturday night, listening to my tunes, when a knock comes on my bedroom door. But first, the reason I sat in my room listening to music on a Saturday night, was due to my being grounded. A week earlier, while spending the night at a friend’s house, partying hard, someone squealed. The cops busted the party, and I got hauled down to the police station.
The officer slid around to my side of his desk, half-way sitting, with his arms folded across his chest. The clock over his shoulder read two thirty in the morning. He said, “I need to call your dad, Jay. What’s his number? And what does he go by? And I need your address.”
The handgun tucked snugly into his holster dangled within eighteen inches of my nose. I shifted uncomfortably, and folded my arms across my chest. “What happens if I don’t give you his number?” I asked.
The officer stood upright and bent forward, his tobacco laced breath warm on my face. “You can play smart ass all you want, but I don’t think you want to spend the night in one of those cells back there.”
Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed a dimly lit hallway leading back to who knew where. I must admit, the prospect of spending a quiet night alone didn’t appeal to me. “Do you have to wake him up?” I asked.
“Well, seeing as how you’re only fifteen and don’t have transportation, and being this is not your first rodeo, and since I’m not hauling your sorry ass home, yeah, I think waking him up might be the only option you have. Might piss him off, but you did the crime, you’re about to do the time.” He gave me a derisive smile and returned to his seat on the other side of the desk. Retrieving a notepad from his drawer, he shoved it across the desktop and it landed in my lap.
I glared at him. “I can’t write without a pen.”
He tossed a pen in my direction, and while I wrote down the phone number and address, I said, “Jimmy. He goes by Jimmy.”
The cop returned to his office, leaving me to sit in silence. I recalled him saying something about me taking the time to think about what I’d done. The ticking of the clock on the wall made the time crawl slowly by. I pictured the look on Dad’s face when he walked through the door. I didn’t have to guess, I’d seen it before.
At three o’clock, Dad entered the police station. I sat inside a room surrounded by glass windows, and although I could clearly see him, I avoided eye contact. With his hair still matted and sleep wrinkles on his face, he resembled someone who’d been awakened from sleep at three in the morning. And he was pissed. Not even glancing in my direction, he made a beeline for officer “friendly,” sitting in the back office with his feet propped on his desk.
I watched with interest as the two of them chatted, and the conversation lasted much longer than I anticipated. At one point, the officer pointed his finger at Dad and tempers flared. Soon, they emerged from the office and entered my temporary domicile. Both wore the most serious of expressions, and I remained as I was, resigned to my soon to be fate, awaiting a lecture and future punishment.
“So, what did Barney Fife have to say?” I mustered a half-hearted smile, not lost on Dad.
His jaw muscles clenched tightly, as he battled to maintain his cool. He grabbed my elbow and led me outside. “Get in the car.”
On the drive home, Dad took an unfamiliar route, presumably to allow time for conversation. His plan failed. The car remained silent the entire trip. Once we arrived at our house, rather than park in the driveway where he usually did, he stopped in front of the house and shut off the engine. Still silence.
As we sat there, I gazed at our house. His house. A typical two-story, colonial, in suburban, middle class America. Dad worked a lot of hours for that house. I didn’t see him much. Up at dawn and home after dark, the bank apparently unable to function without him. Mom worked too, as a part time accountant, but made sure she was home once the three of us kids got out of school. She attended all the school functions, teacher’s conferences, PTA meetings, and even served as a volunteer booster club member. Dad attended most of the football, basketball, and baseball games, but missed occasionally due to work. On days off, he often worked with my little brother and me on our games, playing catch, shooting hoops, and throwing the football. He even tried to help with homework, but after I began studying algebra, his tutoring ended.
Unfortunately for him, and maybe part of the reason for my resentment, he also served as the disciplinarian in the family. The times Mom couldn’t handle us, too many in my case, Dad got the job, often after a long day at work. I’d seen how much it took out of him, after strolling through the kitchen door, weary from a twelve-hour day, only to hear, “You need to go talk to your son. He’s in his room.”
Dad broke the silence. “Why do you keep doing this, Jay?”
“Doing what?” I asked, with eyes wide open in feigned ignorance.
He sighed deeply. “Don’t play dumb with me. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re down at the police station. And not for the first time. I don’t get it.”
“What’s to get? I was hanging out with friends and the cops showed up.” I made a point to avoid his eyes and stare out the side window.
He said, “Underage kids. Alcohol and drugs. I can see the cops being interested.”
I said, “The drugs and alcohol weren’t mine.”
“That’s not what the police told me,” he said, becoming frustrated.
“They’re full of shit.” By now our voices had risen a notch, not that anyone could hear us with the windows up.
“Jay! Your mother and I don’t talk that way.”
I rolled my eyes and smirked. “Of course not.”
The tension had thickened, so we let it simmer down before round two. The same old conversation. Him asking me why and me never answering. Maybe because I didn’t have one.
Dad, in his most stern voice, said, “I don’t want you over at Kevin’s house again. His parents allow that stuff to go on right under their noses, and your mother and I don’t approve.”
Never one to pass up an argument, I said, “But he’s my friend and they’re nice.”
“Nice? They’re not responsible adults. And let me ask you this, when I picked you up at the station, where were your friends? I didn’t see one of them. Seems your friends left you holding the bag. Literally.”
He had me there. But not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I remained quiet, glaring out the window, watching the neighbor’s trash get knocked over by a raccoon. Funny.
After much silence, I sensed he’d made his point. Or he was tired. He said, “We have church in five hours. Let’s go inside and get some sleep.”
“I don’t want to go to church. It sucks.”
If smoke can be generated by anger and plumes spew out of your ears, I saw them coming out of his. “I don’t care if you want to go or not. You’re going. If you want to live in this house, you’ll do what you’re told. And if you don’t like the rules, you’re free to move out.”
I mumbled, “Maybe I will.”
He glared at me, thinking hard about his next comment. “Look, it’s my job to be the parent and I’m going to do it the best that I can. And you’re going to be the teenager and do what teenagers do. But I’m not backing down and not giving in. You may not like my decisions, but that’s tough. Someday, when you have kids, you’ll understand. Oh, and you’re grounded for a month.”
Before I could say sarcastically, “That’s a surprise,” he climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him. I wondered how many times I had heard, “Someday, when you have your own kids, you’ll understand.” Yeah, right. I followed him into the house and went straight up to my room.
Another Saturday night at home. Grounded again. A result of the previous week’s drug bust and brief incarceration. But what Dad failed to realize, it’s not punishment if I have my music. And being alone in my room didn’t bother me a bit.
I haven’t a clue how long he pounded on my door, but with my earbuds in and the music cranked, I’m surprised his banging got through. I yanked out the earbuds and unplugged them from the receiver. I yelled, “What do you want?”
Dad sounded pissed on the other side of the door. Nothing new there. “Open the door, Jay,” he demanded, and hammered on it again.
Purposely taking my time responding, I dragged my butt out of bed and shuffled aimlessly across the room. Eventually, I opened the door and gave Dad my best “who gives a shit” attitude. I said, “What’s up?” and turned my back and plopped down on my bed.
The music blared from my stereo speakers—perfect for me, but not for him—making it difficult to have a conversation. Dad stood right next to my bed and shouted, “Turn it down, Jay, or I’m taking it away.”
“Alright. It’s off,” I yelled back, and slammed the remote down on my dresser.