The Counterfeits

The Counterfeits

It was a slow night at the Influx Lounge.  Six card players sat at a round table and a couple of women shot pool. I sat beside two greasy-haired characters at the bar. The one sporting rings that looked like truck tire lugs, sang along from time to time, to the Grateful Dead song that he kept playing on the jukebox, “Ripple.”  He bought me a mug of beer. We toasted Jerry Garcia. Mirrored sunglasses hid his partner’s eyes. A lens was full of scratches. They talked loud and openly about unloading counterfeit twenties that were in the trunk of their car. I recalled my old friend Steve used to do a hell of a job on that tune at the Folk’s Alive Coffeehouse as I slipped out to the parking lot.  I quickly eliminated two pick-up trucks, a van and three motorcycles. That left a rear-ended black Lincoln.  Aha! Day-Glo Grateful Dead decals blazed on the back window. A rear door was bright red. Christ, just a coat hanger separated the money and me. Unwinding was tough on my fingers but I won. Two big speakers book-ended an open topped cardboard box containing neatly arranged cash. I wiggled out some from each stack. Maybe three inches or so, greed could be bad for breathing. Less was more in a survival game.  I was unable to duplicate the hanger twists but came close enough. A braver man would have hotwired the car and taken it all. I was hurting financially, fired from Adams’ Warehouse. I’d had the job for a year; drunkenness was to blame, drove a forklift off a loading dock. Suppose the phony money was faulty. I’d be careful. After stuffing the loot into my wallet and my late dad’s inside pea coat pocket, I walked the streets trying to make a decision. I spotted a deep green Chevy Camaro in a driveway, a few newspapers scattered behind it. The driver side door was unlocked. The key sat on the passenger seat. Was this some kind of setup? “Hope you folks are enjoying your vacation,” I mumbled to the windshield. The engine purred, just 3,944 miles on the odometer. I wondered if I were sane, carrying counterfeit cash behind the wheel of a hot car on an expired driver’s license as if renewed would have made a difference.  

I stopped at the Jade Comet Diner in Tannersville, PA, do-or-die quality check. I had pocket change outside of the Monopoly money. The joint was packed and pleasant.  I had my usual egg salad plate that was spectacular, perfect mayo ratio, bit of onion and celery involved. I followed with the large side of magnificently buttered mashed spuds I often chose for dessert. The fear knot in my stomach didn’t kill their buttered just right taste.  The waitress named Deidra who looked like Janis Joplin, joked and rolled her eyes about my spud treat, “Whipped cream, Hon?” She took my twenty to the cash register. When she returned, I told her keep the thirteen-fifty change. She kissed her fingertips and ran them over my lips. On I-80, I exited at 262, bought gas, premium for the hell of it. I was sweating and starting to wish my night rewound. I kept my fingers crossed. The clerk handed me my change.  I tipped him five. It was nice being Santa Claus. I never had honest currency to spare that way.

I should have gotten some coffee at the gas station convenience area. I was tiring. I saw an exit for Jersey Shores, PA, but a tanker truck blocked me. I chose a Hampton in State College. Before entering, I flipped on the dome light to check the glove compartment. More trouble, a gun and a cop badge, pliers and a screwdriver. Talk about cards one by one being stacked against me. I could see a cornfield and wondered if anyone without money spent the night between the rows. This was my first time in road lodging other than hot-sheet motels. My confidence had grown; registering and handing over the money was easier but I was hungry and my stomach was acting up. I went out to a 7/11, bought two pints of rum raisin ice cream, a toothbrush, paste and a couple of razors. After a long shower, I gave myself brain freeze. I slept better than a thief deserves despite my uneasy gut. There was an impressive spread in the breakfast room but toast, scrambled eggs and juice were all my craw wanted. Since checkout wasn’t until eleven, I drove downtown to buy clothes. It was odd using real money in a meter. Times I’d had cars I often had luck with Canadian coins I’d found keeping an eye to the ground.

Two weddings were in progress, Methodist and Presbyterian.  A woman in very tall heels and legs for climbing was dressed like a guest that ducked out. She gave a lesson on stilt stepping while talking very loudly on a cell phone. “Wish it were us,” she said before hanging up. I visited a used bookstore. Kids played chess outside, a golden puppy slept, chin on a shoe.  Nothing jumped off the shelves although I did thumb through a U.S. Atlas and just for another test I bought it, passed the light and marker drill, masterpieces. A clothes store, Jake Harper’s put me in mind of Lars Carter’s where preppy kids shopped when I was in high school. I bought, khakis, chukka boots, a shirt, socks and underwear.  I felt a jolt when the chubby fellow who wore black earrings checked my bills; crinkling a couple up and taking a second look.  Back in the Hampton, I chucked my old duds except for my pea coat. I admired myself in the new attire before a full-length mirror. God, was I pale, another good night’s sleep would fix me. I carefully made Dr. Scholl’s inserts out of some bills as my TV and movie memories suggested.

Back on Route 80, a sign advised BUCKLE UP— NEXT MILLION MILES.  By the Shawville exit sat an abandoned boat, a mattress and chest of drawers its cargo.  Crossing the highest point east of the Mississippi, 2,250 feet, I met the first and only hitchhikers of the trip at Clarion, the sad couple had a big orange cat. I would have picked them up but for my paranoia. I felt like a heel. I crossed the Allegheny River near St. Petersburg where a huge chair stood advertising some nearby store.  A blocked off lane read: CURING CEMENT.  I drove 55 miles on a stretch of I-80 that I’d covered on a car delivery run to Wyoming in 1967. I took the Route 77 turnoff for Cleveland.  Badly in need of a restroom, I stopped at a tourist center in Portage. I asked if it had been there in ’67.  It was a Howard Johnson then, according to a woman running the gift/convenience store.  I might have, who knows?  After crossing the Cuyahoga River, saw a several white spots in the road signifying how far a car should be from the one in front. I observed them, worrying about cops, also about hearing a siren for going too slow.  Crime wasn’t a coast through the park.

Fatigue set in, needed sleep and food. Downtown Cleveland, I stopped at the first hotel I saw, a Marriott, parked in its garage and walked to the lobby. The cold, crisp air revived me. A line at the desk had me fearing no vacancy. I roamed around the premises. I read on a plaque that it used to be the Colonial Hotel. Fine remodeling job, stained glass skylights in the dining room restored to original splendor.  Arcades completed the renovation, some shops made over into art galleries.  There was a billiard and cigar room and in a sitting area a huge old kaleidoscope and a painting of the hotel in the good old days.  A case housed vintage postcards of the place and laminated pages of old newspapers were available for flipping through. I picked up some literature from the local attraction stand.  The football Hall of Fame pamphlet jumped out at me. It wasn’t far away, Canton, Ohio. I was once a big N.Y. Giants fan and wondered how many of my heroes were enshrined; maybe Y.A. Tittle. A flyer bragged the second oldest restaurant in Canton, The Arcadia, still serving after 75 years. Rocky Marciano ate there. A partial menu was included, fried bologna an entry. My gut quivered at the thought of ever meeting any. It couldn’t have done me worse than the pints of ice cream though. Only lodging left was a suite. I took it without a hitch.  At the small snack shop in the lobby, I bought microwave popcorn and a couple of Three Musketeers bars. My suite was on the seventh floor. An elevator voice gizmo named the floors.  First time I’d ever stayed in a suite, luxurious, huge TV, king bed, mints on the pillow. I microwaved the popcorn and watched, The Big Sleep, Bogie and Bacall. I lasted just half of it. Rest was fitful, couldn’t beat tummy distress, many toilet trips. I should have hit a drugstore for Kaopectate.

I checked out at nine feeling smelter hot, I folded my pea coat in the back seat. Light snow was falling. A sign on a big rig I followed to the Ohio Turnpike read HE IS NOT THE MAN UPSTAIRS, HIS NAME IS JESUS.  Snowfall progressed as I drove on. The windshield wipers looked to be heavy duty and were doing a great job.  I’d been listening to classical stuff, many “hallelujahs” in one piece. I stumbled across the station using the “seek” button, new feature to me, comforting music all right but no weather between works. I switched to a top forty to get a report that was not good and neither was the siren noise. I turned down the volume to try to determine if it was on my side of the Pike. What I needed was a rest stop not a cop stop.  I thought I was safe but the snow had muted the siren. I eased to the shoulder as the law approached. Two creatures wearing ski masks and police hats pounded on the window.  One pointed a gun.  I unlocked the door. The biggest one yanked me out.  “My coat, my coat,” I stuttered.  “It’s in the back seat.”

“Let’s take a look.” He found the chunk of bills. “Here’s your cloak Big Bucks,” he said. He yanked my wallet from my pocket.  The short one led me to the embankment. “Take his car,” ordered the head goon.

“Bet your ass,” said his partner.  I puked on his shoe. He wanted to kill me. The boss said, “Don’t be crazy,” and pushed him out of the way. He did the honors, punched my face then kicked it three or four times when I was down.  I bled into the mounting mattress of mayonnaise snow. I tried to hold off the sobbing but couldn’t. “Boohoo,” taunted Shorty, running to the Camaro as if he’d just won it in a raffle. “Best car I’ve ever owned,” he shouted. My nose had to be broken. My right eye saw blurs. I got a quick half a look at their car. No cop cruiser at all, just an SUV with a blinking light on the dashboard, jerry-rigged siren I reckoned.  I had to laugh, counterfeit cops. I heard both cars pull away. My shout of “Joke’s on you, suckers” came out a whimper. My ankle had twisted in the tumble and the pain matched my face.  Mysteriously, my retching stomach quickly calmed and I felt better than I had the entire trip. I imagined wearing an eyepatch. I put on my coat, turned up the collar and hobbled to the road, stuck out my thumb feeling liberated and figured myself a better man for my whacky adventure. I didn’t have to stick out my thumb much. At least the snow had stopped. The cars were far between. I wished the flatbed carrying forklifts had taken pity. I would have talked the driver’s ear off about the many I’d piloted but not the one that killed my working reputation. Soon after I had some luck and then, not.  I heard that familiar song better listened to elsewhere blaring. My lips were too fat to sing, I did a moan version of my favorite part that would have tickled Steve.

There is a road, no simple highway,

Between the dawn and the dark of night,

And if you go no one may follow,

That path is for your steps alone.

The mobile DJ slammed on brakes and skidded to a stop under a streetlight, insecure trunk lid bouncing.  There was the red door. The Grateful Dead decals leaped at me as if on a flashing billboard advertising a concert. I hoped the punk had beaten my face into a pulpy new identity.  No way or where to run, I thought it best to just play dumb and keep my chukka laces double knotted.

Thomas M. McDade

Thomas M. McDade is a resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. 

He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. 

McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach, VA. At sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE/FF 1091).


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