Jake Preston slipped down the shoulder of Route 99. The sun was setting behind the low western hills; night air crawled in around his neck and wrists. He was south of Fresno, running into the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, and with each quick step the narrow strap of his faded duffel bit into his left shoulder. With each jerk he cursed the two dollar duffel bag and whoever had stolen his pack in Los Gatos.
“Sucker.” He kicked a strip of shredded rubber into the brush.
Jake was twenty-two, thin through the chest and belly with thick, muscular legs. Dirty blonde hair fell in greasy ringlets to his shoulders; a scraggy beard darkened his face. He wore Levis, a torn jean jacket, and rundown cowboy boots with a misshapen cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes.
He’d left San Jose that morning, hitchhiking across the Pacheco Pass, leaving the dull monoxide haze of the coast and moving into the clear mountains, over the top, past the breakdown lanes to the other side.
He’d been visiting his friend Carl Leroy in San Jose, after hitchhiking out in February from Minnesota. They’d spent six weeks drinking, smoking, and spending the little money they could scrounge. His visit had ended the day before. Carl’s mother deposited Jake on the outskirts of town, handed him twenty dollars, and told him to move on.
“Carl’s enough of a load on me. It’s been nice to see you, but it’s time for you to go.”
It had been nice to stay in a real house for a while. He’d spent the past four years wandering, lost. His mother’s death seven years earlier, in 1965, and the awful fallout afterwards—arguments with his father, psychiatrists, medication, hospitalization—had warped him like a bent wheel. The disappointed looks from relatives, teachers, and friends spoke silently of what had been, what he could be—if only. After showing some progress he’d been allowed to go to Florida with three friends for Spring Break during his senior year and had never gone home. He woke up the second morning in Fort Lauderdale, stowed his gear, and left.
A kid in an old VW gave him a ride from Madera to Selma and told him Sun Maid was hiring in Kingsburg, five miles down the road. With just seventeen dollars in his pocket, Jake looked for a sheltered spot to unroll his sleeping bag.
He spotted an abandoned semi trailer just off the roadway. Tall weeds had grown up around the trailer’s bed. He made his way over, tossed his duffel aside, and rubbed his aching shoulder. Then on all fours, he swept the grass aside and crawled underneath. No debris was beneath the bed, and the weeds feathered down, leaving a four-by- ten flat space. As he emerged, preparing to grab his bag, a car pulled off the road and onto the shoulder next to the trailer. The driver rotated a side view spotlight until it hit Jake squarely in the eyes. It took him a long second to remember he’d smoked the last of the reefer with the kid in the VW.
Two officers emerged from a gold Impala with Kingsburg Police emblazoned on the doors. They moved slowly toward the trailer, arcing slightly away from each other. Jake turned his head to dim the searchlight’s glare, watching them. The driver was tall, thin, in his mid-twenties; the other older man, mid-fifties perhaps, short, and heavy. This wasn’t the first time he was stopped by police, but his chest still tightened.
The younger officer stepped closer, pulling a flashlight from his belt. “Hey there, bud. Step away from the bag and come over here— slow.”
Christ, I hate these small town cops, Jake thought while trying to smile. He walked slowly toward them, squinting in the flashlight’s beam.
“Got some ID, son?” asked the older officer.
“Yeah.” Jake reached for his wallet.
“Take it out, no hurry.”
The older man took the license. “West Virginia, huh?”
“Ronnie, call this in.” He handed the license to the other officer. The younger man headed back toward the cruiser, and his partner resumed his questioning. “What brings you to the valley, son?”
“Well sir, I’m coming from San Jose, heading to Phoenix—my aunt’s sick. I’m going to visit her—then back to, ah, West Virginia.”
“Planning on camping here, son?”
“I guess not.”
“We get a lot of transients here. They make people nervous. My job is a lot easier when people aren’t nervous, understand?”
Jake nodded mutely as he stared down at his boots. Time passed— slowly. He chewed softly on his bottom lip and felt adrenalin pulsing erratically as he glimpsed the shoulder-high scrub behind the trailer. The older officer picked his teeth, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet.