Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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"Damn!" said the Duchess, lighting another cigar.

The castle gates were closed, the Berlin Times and the

Bad Baden Dagblatt newspaper boxes full; there was no sign

of her nephew.

It was nine o'clock in the morning, too early for the

Americans with their black Japanese cameras and their plaid

Bermuda shorts to be poking about the palace, the dungeons,

and the keep. The castle would not be open for another two


"It's exactly like that boy to be still asleep," she

muttered to herself.

"Herve, ring the bell and announce us," she said to the

chauffeur. Herve heaved a long-suffering sigh, got out of

the Mercedes and trudged the ten meters up the cobblestones

to the intercom mounted on the stone gatepost. The Duchess

thought for the hundredth time about giving him the sack.

Then she thought for the thousandth about the secrets he


Better just to have him killed, she thought.

Through the cigar smoke, the windshield, the gate and the

mist her sharp old eyes could see the windows of the

Prince's living quarters on the third floor of the palace

within the castle walls.

There was a flurry of activity at one of the bedroom

curtains and the old lady had the distinct impression of a

sleepy young blonde face mouthing a silent "Oh" at the

sight of the car in the drive, then quickly disappearing

back behind the draperies.

Well, that's encouraging at least, she thought. He's got

some burger's little lamb up there with him. All is not

lost yet.

But the driveway gates did not open. Instead, the small

front door that led to the Prince's living quarters

disgorged a lanky, tousled, bare-footed apparition in jeans

and T-shirt who ambled across the lawn toward the limo.

He was unmistakably American.

He slouched through the small gate cut into the wall, past

the perplexed Herve, who was still waiting by the intercom,

around the front of the car to the rear window where the

old lady sat, and then he stood waiting. She rolled down

the window.

"Yes'm?" he said with a laconic grin.

"I've come to see Prince Rupert," she said. "And by the

way, what are YOU doing here?"

The shit-eating grin remained in place. "Rupert ain't

around. And do you mean here, like on the planet, or here,

at Rupert's?"

Ignoring his impertinence, she took a massive pull off her

flask. "Where is my nephew?" she asked.

The revelation of her relationship to the Prince produced a

dramatic change in the young man's demeanor. He became

animated, practically frisking around like a puppy.

"Wow, I'm sorry, you must be Aint B," the apparition said.

"Rupert's tole me all about you. Well, maybe not

everthang, I guess," he winked. "Anyhow, Rupert went to

Amsterdam yesterday to pick up a guitar at Dirk Witte.

He'll be back today around noon. Y'all wanna come in? I

can probably figure out how to make the gate work. My

name's Robert. Robert Johnson Pickens. I'm a friend of

Rupert's. I'm from Alabama," he added.

Somewhat unnecessarily, the old lady thought.

However, despite young Mr. Pickens's obvious lack of

breeding, as evidenced by his shoeless excursion into the

morning, she felt drawn to him.

Obviously if her favorite - well, only, really - nephew

entrusted his home to this seeming lout, there must be

redeeming factors at play.

"Well, I've come a long way to see my nephew. And if it's

not an imposition..." she said, glancing once more at the

bedroom window curtains.

"Oh, you mean Birgitte?" said Robert. "No, ma'am, she's

already gone to work at the souvenir shop. Left by the

back door as soon as she saw the car."

"Then we will come in, and may I say that you have a

disarming frankness about you, young man," said the Duchess.

"Yes,m. 'Frank' is my middle name."

"I thought your middle name was Johnson."

"That, too," he laughed. "I'll go open the gate."