Road to Success
A chance encounter at a gas station challenges a teenage boy to consider what means more: security or happiness?
March 9, 2022
Zach watched the clock tick with a hand on his face and an elbow on his desk as he waited for the bell to ring. It was a conundrum, he was absolutely bored in his classes, but he hoped they would stretch as long as they could. After the bell rang, he’d have to go home again.
Each day was the same: wake up, do chores, go to school, then work the farm until you’re too tired to stand. Not that he was thanked for his work. Not the work would ever be enough.
The bell rang and everyone gathered their things to leave for the day. Zach sighed and trudged out after everyone else left. As usual, the sky was gray and the weather was cold. Oologah, Oklahoma, Zach thought. Misery capital of the world.
As Zach was driving home in his old beat-up truck, he noticed the gas gauge was nearing half a tank. He had to fill up. His dad was very strict about that: “Never get below half a tank,” his father would tell him as he sat shotgun drinking his Pabst. “And then you’ll never run out of gas.”
Zach pulled into the gas station and started filling up. Across at the next pump was a man he’d never seen before in the bed of a truck even older and more run-down than his. The man was sitting on the edge where a gate must have been at one time, strumming a guitar with a soiled hat by his side. This man looked like he could be homeless. In a small town like where Zach lives, everyone knows everyone and there were no homeless. That was a city problem.
Curious, Zach approached the man. “Hey, old timer. That sounds pretty good.”
The man smiled. “Thankee,” he said.
“Where are you from?” Zach asked.
“Here and there,” The man said. “Here and there.”
“Well, what are you doing here?”
“Need gas,” he said. “So I’m earning it. Playing for folks that stop by, getting change.”
Zach took the hint and dropped a five-dollar bill in the man’s hat. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“OKC,” he said. “Got a gig in a club tomorrow. Some high-class thing. Pay my way for the next month.”
“You’re playing a high-class function.” Zach stared in disbelief.
The man chuckled. “Don’t worry, young blood. I clean up real nice, and I play a cat from hell.”
The man played a riff on the acoustic guitar. Each note came off perfectly in a jarring yet beautiful melody that lingered hauntingly in the air. Zach was mesmerized.
After the man finished, Zach said.” That was amazing! You sure are talented Mr. … uh…”
“Will,” the man replies.
“Well, I’m Zach.” Zach reached out his hand to shake, but the man shook his head.
“Never shake a man’s hand in the music business. One day, some big shot will want to play who’s the bigger man and, bam! You can’t play for a month.”
“Sorry,” Zach said. “I’ve never met a real musician before.” Zach had never heard of anyone traveling and playing music for a living. In his town, the only way you were considered successful was if you became a farmer or a teacher.
“I’m as real as they come,” Will said. “My whole life is this guitar, playing my music, going from place to place.”
“Is that what you do instead of getting a job?” Zach asked.
“This is my job, kid.”
“But, like, it’s not a real job. At least that’s what my dad says.”
Will snorted. “Oh? And what exactly makes a job real anyway?”
Zach thought for a second. “Well, you know, you can get stuff. A house. A nicer car. Pay bills.”
“And that’s what you want?” Will asked. “Stuff?”
Zach sighed. “Yeah, if it means that I can make it on my own and be free of my dad.”
Will shook his head. “People think you need to have nice things and a fancy job to be happy in life. Well, guess what? They’re wrong. I live my life doing what I want and seeing things that not everyone else gets to see, and I do it by doing what I love. That’s freedom.”
Zach was taken back by what Will said. Was it that easy? Could he just leave? Zach never thought anyone could make it in life without working their ass off every day for fourteen hours.
“You interested in music, young blood?” Will asked.
“Yeah,” Zach said. “I’m on the farm by myself most of the time, so I sing to myself as I work.”
“Sometimes,” Zach said. “When my dad’s not around, I mess around on my grandpa’s old guitar. I even took a guitar class until my dad found out.”
“Well, shoot.” Will stood up and gave Zach the guitar. “Show me what you got.”
Zach hesitated, but he picked up the guitar and played a simple rhythm he made up.
Will smiled. “That’s nice, young blood. But you’d do better if you choke up near the frets a little more. Lemme show you.”
Will and Zach spent the next few hours on the back of Will’s truck, with Zach playing and singing with Will coaching and correcting him. As they played, more people coming and going from the gas station stopped to listen, filling the hat up. Once the sun started to set, Zach paused.
“How’d you start out doing this?” Zach asked.
“You just have to pick up the guitar and play,” Will said.
“No, I mean like getting gigs. Getting money. Making this your thing.”
“Here.” Will hands Zach a business card with a producer’s information on it. “I may not be famous but this man made me who I am today. You ever want some freedom, give that man a call. Now I best be off now that I’ve made my gas money.”
Zach took the card from Will, then nodded his head and reluctantly went on his way.
Zach drove down the long dirt driveway with about two hundred acres around it. He was an only child and his mother died when she gave birth to him, so it was just Zach and his father living on the land. He walked into his house and found his father sitting on the old ragged couch in the middle of their living room.
“Hey Dad, how was your day?” Zach said right before he noticed the empty bottles lying beside him.
“Where were you?” his father muttered. “You didn’t do your work today.”
“Yeah, I got caught up in something,” Zach said. Hesitantly, Zach then told him why: “I talked to a musician today.”
His father slowly lifted his head toward the T.V.
“Oh, did you?”
“Yeah, I did. He travels and plays his music around the world.”
Zach’s dad chuckled and shook his head.
“Sounds like a freeloader to me. Now, go get your work done.”
“But it’s dark.”
His father slammed his fist against the table. “You shoulda thought about that before wasting the afternoon talking to some bum with a guitar. Now get out of here.”
Zach turned around and headed to the barn to feed the animals. As he was feeding his horse, he took the business card out of his pocket that Will gave him.
Freedom, he thought.
The next day when Zach went to school, he thought he’d talk to the music teacher, the one who was teaching him guitar before his father marched into the principal’s office and demanded his son be taken out of “frou-frou artsy classes.” Zach peeked his head in the door to find her sitting at her desk.
“Hi, Mrs. Pathways.”
She looked up and greeted him with a big smile. “Hi Zach, come on in. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about taking on a music career lately. I was just wondering if you’d be able to help me to become better.”
Mrs. Pathways’ smile slowly died down as she thought about the boy’s father and the unkind things he said to her. The things that still made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
“Zach, you are a great musician, but I think with you being this late in your high school career, you’ll be more successful taking after your father. Don’t you think so?”
Zach’s excitement died down. All he could think about was what Will said to him–that people don’t think anyone could be successful doing something they love. Zach didn’t want to argue, but he wasn’t going to take Mrs. Pathways’ advice.
“Sure,” Zach said back to her. Then he walked away into the crowded hall and headed to his next class.
Zach didn’t need anyone’s help–he’d always done everything on his own. Why not this too?
When he got home, he grabbed his grandpa’s guitar and went to the barn to practice. Slowly, he tried to come up with lyrics for a song that he thought was good. He was having trouble until his dad walked in and saw him slacking on his after-school work.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Fearful, Zach looked at him and said, “Practicing.”
“Practicing what?” his father asked.
Zach knew he had to stick up for what he wanted eventually and now was the time. “I wanna sing and play music. I don’t wanna be stuck on this farm for the rest of my life. I wanna see more than this stupid town.”
Zach’s dad paused and shook his head. “What makes you think you can accomplish anything more than being a farm boy?”
Zach looked up at his father, got up, and said, “Watch me.”
He left with nothing but the clothes on his back, the guitar in his hand, and the card Will gave him in his pocket. He had no idea what life was going to bring him, but he was ready. To see the things not everybody else got to see. To live his life doing what he wanted.
To be happy.