The Circle Game
by Art Hanlon
I need to escape the feeling that I’m under house arrest. We’re sheltering in place because of the COVID-19 virus, confined to quarters, staying home. I know it’s necessary, but I think maybe today is a good day for a hike through the empty neighborhood. The wide avenues are deserted, so I would have ample room to maintain the six feet of distance if I do run into somebody, and I have a kerchief I can use as a mask. I finish my coffee, grab my day-hiking backpack, and I’m halfway down the driveway when I see the patrol car parked right on the corner, while another patrol car slowly makes its way down the street. One police officer standing in the street leans toward the parked patrol car to talk to his partner behind the wheel. A newscaster last night used the term “lockdown” to describe the situation, which irritated me because “lockdown” is something imposed on prison inmates. We have good cops on our island. There isn’t a one of them I wouldn’t trust with my life. None of this COVID-19 crisis is their doing. They are just, as we all know, following orders. And yet to see them now enforcing, not laws, but behavior, is a little disconcerting. In terms of the so-called culture wars, it is more than a little disconcerting to see how easily this “lockdown” has slipped into place. One of my coffee club cronies who isn’t, as far as I can tell, any more paranoid than the next person, said to me this morning on the phone, using an ominous tone of voice, that he knows a dry run when he sees it.
A dry run. In America? A dry run for what? What makes him think that way? This morning, the police officers are no doubt routinely making the rounds, as they always do, and it’s our neighborhood’s turn in the rotation. The police officers are not there to stop me from going on a walk, and yet I pause in the driveway and change my mind about going out. I feel thwarted without knowing why. As I turn to go back to the house, my backpack, which I have in my hand, catches on a low branch of our apple tree, strewing the contents, notebooks, pens, a small camera, and even some underwear (I’m prepared for anything) across the driveway. One of the cops looks up and moves toward the driveway. He smiles a genuinely friendly smile. “Do you need help?” he asks. I can tell he means it. “No, I got it!” I call out, and we wave at each other in a friendly way as he strolls back to the patrol car to resume his conversation. If we’re living in a police state right now, it’s the friendliest police state ever devised, and I’m thinking my coffee club crony has it all wrong. Then the sight of my old personal stuff strewn about stops me dead in my tracks as it triggers a—what is it called? A flashback! Yeah. One of those vivid memory movies you get from time to time.
Once, years and years ago, when the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement was still burning a hole of rage and guilt in the American psyche, a couple of tough, small-town cops had literally dumped my belongings in a truck stop parking lot somewhere near Winslow, Arizona. The truck stop was on Route 66 which, in those days, was a surviving stretch of the Mother Road not yet buried by the new Interstate with its junk food shops and strip malls clustered at every exit ramp. The cops made it clear they didn’t like anything about me—the long hair, the clothes, the guitar, the freedom, if that’s what they thought it was. Or my truck, a green ’54 Job-Rated Dodge, upon which they cast horrified looks, as it was barely held together by wire, spewing oil all over the road, the shift lever (three on the tree!) linkage held together by replacing worn cotter pins with my girlfriend’s bobby pins. Or maybe, just maybe—yeah, this must be it—they didn’t like the episode that had just transpired at the truck stop restaurant in whose parking lot we all stood. I can’t even remember the year, but it was during the dregs of a late sixties, waning winter, and I was driving alone across the country to visit a friend, this time east to west: Manhattan, New York to Shafter, California.
I’d made good time in spite of a huge, rear seal oil leak, driving around the clock and stopping only every other night for a motel room. The heater in the truck put off weak heat, and I had to wrap my sleeping bag around my legs to keep warm. Still, the chill had seeped into my joints, my feet numb on the gas pedal, brake, and clutch; my fingers so stiff, I could barely feel the steering wheel. But I was satisfied with myself for keeping the old truck running without spending any money unless absolutely necessary. It was the dawn on the fourth day of my trip, and after driving all night, I was already in the high country of Arizona. Snow lined the highways in drifts, and that morning the weather was cold and clear under a brilliant turquoise sky just then edging the horizon. The morning star still gleamed in the western sky over the highway, directly over the centerline, a pinprick of silver light leading me on. In another ten hours, I would be sleeping in a room over my friend’s garage. There was plenty of light for me to see the huge effigy of a cowboy at the edge of the highway, a smaller version of Vegas Vic, the sign at the Pioneer Club in Las Vegas. The motorized arm and thumb of the smaller sign rocked back and forth, literally pointing at the truck stop, so I stopped for breakfast, thinking that would be my only meal until somewhere near Tehachapi that night. Runny scrambled eggs, bacon not crisp, hash browns, and sourdough toast—America the beautiful.
Inside the restaurant, relieved to be somewhere warm, I strolled past a table of what I took to be local men, workers, probably hard rock miners, in blue jeans, flannel shirts, and baseball hats, except for one who wore a red watch cap. I nodded a greeting. One or two of them looked up briefly and then away as I walked by. I liked that the restaurant was crowded with truck drivers, a lot of them talking on telephones set up in the booths, cigarette smoke clouding the air throughout, the smell of frying onions, bacon, and potatoes. The brotherhood of the road: Carhartt jeans, down vests, Peterbilt and Kenworth emblems on baseball caps, chains hanging in arcs from belt loops to wallets stuffed in back pockets. I wasn’t one of them, but I liked their company. One bear-like driver leaned onto a window, his hands cupped around his eyes, trying to read a bumper sticker on a friend’s truck in the parking lot. He shouted to his friends at his table, “It says old truck drivers never die, they just get a new Peterbilt!” Burst of laughter from the center of the dining room. I sat at the empty counter, ordered coffee and breakfast, and read my book while I ate. I was content to be in a warm restaurant with a good breakfast, finding a kind of familiar comfort in the mix of voices, the bing-bonging of pinball machines in the next room clashing in pitch with the music coming from the jukebox. The hum of quotidian commerce.
I became slowly aware that the place had quieted down significantly, and when I looked up, I was surprised to find I had become the center of attention. Then I realized the jukebox was playing “The Ballad of Two Brothers,” an unabashedly manipulative song written and performed by Autry Inman, a semi-obscure, country and western artist barely hanging on in the vestibule of true fame. The song, however, is not really a song, but an epistolary tract, in which the narrator reads a series of letters written by two brothers addressed to their father; one of them, the older brother, writing from Vietnam, the other from college after participating in an antiwar demonstration. The son in Vietnam, backed up by a military drum roll, tells his father that he’s happy and inspired to be helping out the villagers to resist communism and live in freedom. The antiwar son in state college, raucously backed up by a country and western band vamping purposely crappy rock and roll, says he is fiendishly happy to be demonstrating against the war and demands more money from his father. Naturally, after the older son, a Medal of Honor winner, comes home in a flag-draped coffin, the wayward, war-protesting son sees the error of his ways and expresses regret as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swells in the background.
I clearly got it: my appearance signaled that I was standing in for the kid writing his letter from college, and I was meant to be shamed. I could have gotten to my feet and turned the tables by announcing, truthfully, that I had just come out of the Marine Corps, and the thing for them to do was to say, “Thank you for your service,” in the most musical and least hypocritical way possible and hold the door open for me when I left the restaurant. Maybe even pay for my breakfast to atone for the misunderstanding. But for some reason, I was not inclined to make myself accountable.
Instead, when the song was over, I ambled to the jukebox and flipped through the song list. There wasn’t an appropriate selection for what I had in mind—no Bob Dylan, no Phil Ochs, no Woody Guthrie. However, I found Steppenwolf’s "Born to Be Wild" and the Beatles’ "Revolution" to be sufficient counterpoint to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Beatles song is not at all a call to kick ass, in fact, just the opposite, but I didn't care. These people weren’t going to listen to the lyrics anyway, and I wanted the word revolution to be loud in the room just to piss them off. I played the songs and went back to my breakfast. I’m still not sure why I did it, but in retrospect, I think the reason was a half-conscious anger that they were putting the lie to every principle I had put myself in harm’s way to protect. Well, if they thought I was a hippie, then so be it; I’d be a hippie.
The cook held the phone up to his ear while he stood in the kitchen doorway, propping the swinging door open with his foot, glaring like a kickboxer in my direction while at the same time nervously avoiding real eye contact. I briefly wondered if breakfast was going to be on the house. Five minutes later, two cops walked in and sat down next to me at the counter—elbow to elbow on both sides. There were plenty of seats available further down the counter, and quite a few tables were empty, so it was clear to me that it was a personal visit. One cop was a beefy guy, really big, eyes close together, but shielded by military Ray-Bans, hair buzzed to blond stubble, the smell of his aftershave revolting. His short partner had a mean-looking mouth, his face a jumble of isosceles triangles in 3-D, who stared at me as if his nose caught something rotten in the air. For a few minutes, the three of us passed the time of day innocently enough, talking about the weather, road conditions, etc. The big cop smiled ironically while his partner seethed with some obscure anger. A tense moment, to be sure, but it passed. Then, after wishing them a good day as I left the restaurant and about to get into my truck, the cops, who had followed me out, shoved me against the fender to be searched—their attitudes completely changed. Looming over us was that huge neon image of an apparently hitchhiking cowboy. I could hear the whirring of the giant cowboy’s motorized forearm and hitchhiker’s thumb as it swung in an arc to point past the gas pumps right at us in the parking lot as if to say, “Get a load of this!” Breakfast Served All Day, said the sign.
The short cop did the searching, shoving his hands into my armpits, pushing on my biceps to test the heft, then another hand going well up into my crotch. I went: “You like to do that, don’t you?” This got me a few angry kicks against my heels to spread my legs further apart, but my feet were locked to the ground, which infuriated the cop. He tried it again, aiming for my ankles, even though my telltale Marine Corps combat boots were in plain sight, but he still didn’t put it together. I felt like telling them I knew a Third Recon staff sergeant who could take them to school in the searching department; Sergeant Wilt would crush these guys in two seconds—armed or not. But I didn’t say anything because, well, why give them information? They’ll just use it against me. And anyway, I had promised myself I wouldn’t think like that anymore. The short cop found my backpack and emptied it on the ground, shaking it good to make sure the pack was empty. He used his foot to separate my stuff on the ground, his leather gear creaking as he kicked around my shaving gear, underwear, and so forth. Eventually the big cop goes, “Stand aside while we do the truck.” They turned my sleeping bag inside out and threw it over the hood so that one end dangled in a pile of dog-piss dirty snow. I knew what they were looking for. And for some inexplicable reason, the short cop did not look behind the seat where I had my guitar in its case and a lid of Panama Red stashed inside its sound hole. I had double wrapped the lid in baggies and sucked the air out before sealing them to control the smell. I could see the short cop’s nostrils working like crazy. He knew it was somewhere, but he gave up searching before checking behind the seat.
Somewhere in all this I got a clue. I wasn’t going to be left alone. The two cops were searching my belongings as if they were shaking down a jail cell. They did their jobs as if they were prison guards, not as peace officers in a small southwest town. As if the fact of incarceration was a given and that the only remaining technicality was to transfer jurisdiction from the street to the enclosed physical location reserved for obvious hard cases like myself. The faces in the restaurant windows were full of wonder. Some of them were laughing. After the cops ran my driver’s license, they still didn’t have anything to hang on me—no warrants, not even a subpoena—and you could tell that really bothered them. The big cop, impassive behind his reflective Ray-Ban shades, didn’t do much but stand there with his hands on his hips. The short cop did all the work, snarling like a mean, yellow terrier while searching, pulling stuff out of the glove compartment, making quick hand movements near my face to see if I’d reflexively flinch the way a dog dodges a kick. He found my book and turned the covers apart, shaking them as if I had contraband between the pages. “What is this shit?” he said, breaking the spine of the book. “After Many a Summer Dies the what? The Swan? What kind of fag crap is that?” He tossed the book into the snow. I thought it would be Officer Ray-Bans who would come down hard, but it turned out to be the short one. He could hardly hold himself back from throwing a real punch. I tried hard not to be taller than he was, but it was no good. I could have ended this by the simple fact of revealing to them that I’d just gotten out of the Marines—that would change everything, proving that those miners in the restaurant had drawn the wrong conclusions (although in a sense they hadn’t). I even had my inactive reserve ID card in my wallet, but I refused to pull it out. It might not have made any difference, and it might even have made things worse.
Finally, I could see the enthusiasm dry up in the face of Officer Ray-Bans. He had started to figure it out. The combat boots, the indefinable something in the posture that says ex-military. “Let’s go,” he said. The other cop twisted his mouth in pained resistance to let this one slide. He said, “What…Already?” And that was when I saw the sap in his hand. Ray-Bans was getting impatient. “I said let’s go, Jerry. Leave it.”
The big cop seemed subdued, maybe even depressed, like he knew this had been carried too far. I don’t know what troubled Jerry, his partner, so much that it so affected the way he did his job, but Ray-Bans walked away as if he couldn’t bear to watch while his partner worked me over. But Jerry never used the sap. Just punched me in the ribs once with his fist and stared me in the face while he stood there affectively slapping his hand with the sap. His back was angled to block the sight of anyone watching from the restaurant. I think he was waiting for me to say, “Thank you, officer, for not beating the crap out of me.” But I was just waiting for it all to be over. The truth was he hadn’t hit me that hard. Officer Ray-Bans came back cursing and verbally dragged his angry, little partner back to the patrol car, and that was that. The miners who had provoked all this were nowhere in sight, which was strange because they were the type to hang around cops and take credit for identifying an enemy of the republic. Actually, those miners, if they were miners, had something else planned.
Ten miles west of that truck stop, I could tell by the sound of the engine that I needed to add oil to the crankcase. My truck was working hard to climb an uphill grade, the ricky-ticky clacking of the lifters getting louder as the lubricating oil dried up, and I thought it best to stop and get oil in that straight-six right away. I pulled over just short of the crest of the hill. As I worked, I was half-aware that a flatbed truck coming from the east was speeding down the west-facing grade. I was busy with the oil can, moving slow because of the ache in my ribs where the cop had punched me, but it registered somewhere in my mind that the approaching truck was going very, very fast—so fast that when it hit the trough between the two hills, the flatbed’s chassis slammed into the frame with a sickening crunch. The flatbed passed at the moment I leaned into the bed to pick up an oil can, and something hard hit the cab a hair’s breadth away from my head and exploded into a million shiny pieces of sharp-edged crystalline fragments spraying and scattering all over the bed of the truck, the folds of my jacket, the ground. It was ice, and when thrown from a vehicle going a hundred miles per hour, an ice ball shatters into shrapnel. From the back of that speeding flatbed, the rednecks had thrown the ice ball hard enough at my head to leave a dent in the Dodge over the rear window. I stood there, watching that Flatbed Ford disappear over the crest of the hill, two men standing in the back and holding on to the rails, one with a bright red watch cap. By god, I had almost been murdered with a ball of ice. And those devilishly clever good ol' boys tried it with a weapon that would have just melted away. Apparently, the way those cops treated me in the parking lot made them think they had an implicit license to kill.
Today, like everyone else, I’m waiting for this latest emergency to be over, freedom of assembly to be restored, and official surveillance to be curtailed, wondering all the time what the new “normal” will be like. The last time America experienced a disaster on this scale was 9/11. In the aftermath, the country was united for a time; we had all the good will in the world behind us, but then we destroyed all that good will by invading Iraq, an invasion justified by the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and planned to use them. Naomi Klein, in her book No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Politics and Winning the World We Need, described “the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock—wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters—to push through radical pro-corporate measures.” Clearly, the ruling elite has an agenda that has nothing to do with the rest of us, that we are, in fact, a population that must first be deceived in order for them to advance their paradigmatic designs. I remember how I changed my mind about going for a walk earlier today. No police officer blocked my way; it was a condition of my own mind that affected my behavior—my own internalized Checkpoint Charlie. Freedom from the interference of government authority is a crucial component of the American mindset. The lockdown, as necessary as it is under the present threat, has the potential to turn that mind set inside out. I wonder what’s in store for us after the quarantine ends? I’m waiting.
There is a short coda to the story. The loop didn’t close completely on the old Route 66 incident until years later, when I came across an estate auction in Seattle where an antique, custom-made guitar leaning in a corner caught my eye. It was a flashy guitar, but solid. I made inquiries and learned that the guitar had belonged to none other than Autry Inman, whose widow had put it up for auction. Inman’s impatient widow to Inman’s former agent: "Get that thing out of the house; I don't care how little it goes for!"[i] Billy Grammer, a Nashville craftsman who specialized in flashy stage guitars, custom-made the heavy, big-booming flattop box—a dreadnought—especially for Inman. The neck is thick with fancy abalone inlay, the soundboard rosewood with a gaudy pickguard that really reflects the lights onstage. That's what it is, all right, a stage guitar, nothing more, and you can see Inman holding this very guitar on some of his album covers, including the one on which he recorded “The Ballad of Two Brothers.” The bidding was stiff, but I managed to cast the winning bid.
Over the years, I have been trying to improve the guitar’s karma. I play songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan (“The Times They Are a-Changing,” very ironically), Phil Ochs, Steve Earle (“Christmas Time in Washington”), the Dead, old-timey anti-establishment songs, songs about Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, IWW songs, union songs, etc. Then one night at the library while researching some topic in the history of country music, I found out that Hank Williams died at night in the back seat of a car driving him to a Charleston, West Virginia concert. One of the musicians waiting in the Municipal Auditorium that day to play backup guitar for Williams, as he had done so many times before, was Autry Inman. We’re talking here of a guitar with one degree of separation, boys and girls. From Hank Williams. If you pay attention, sometimes you can find a bit of karmic reorganization that eases the cold a little bit.
[i] An Actual Quote. I talked to Inman’s agent when I bid on the guitar at the Seattle Folklife Festival in 1993. Art Hanlon was born in Brooklyn, New York. After serving in the Marine Corps, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, taking a bachelor’s degree in American history and English, and a master’s degree in journalism. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a country blues musician, a theater set carpenter, a technical writer, and a book editor before returning to the University of California Riverside Palm Desert for an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He is currently an associate poetry editor for Narrative Magazine. His song, Spokane, won first prize in the 2005 Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Washington. His essays and fiction have appeared in Surfing Illustrated, Art Access, Narrative Magazine, Coachella Review, Please See Me, and Kelp Journal. His essay The Brilliant Present was included in the Special Mention section of the2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology.