I bought the bus pass in Manhattan at the Port Authority just as soon as Security unlocked the gates at 6am. One rolling duffle filled with my clothes, one backpack with my necessaries, some money tucked away. Sixty days to figure out my direction.
The bus stopped every two hours in a city that much further west. I developed a routine, getting off the bus to stretch my legs, back on before the new passengers could snake my seat out from under me. After a while I decided that the passengers weren’t as interesting as the odors. Every time someone new got on the bus, the air would stir and odors change place: out with toilet stench, in with body odor.
He got on the Greyhound in Kalamazoo.
He smelled good, of hayseed, not sweat. Without a word, he chose the place next to me despite an abundance of empty benches. I pressed my body against the seat arm, sitting half in the aisle. He slid past me and sat next to the window. Though the seats reclined he did not put the seat back; he did not use the foot rest.
“Where are you headed?” I said.
He mumbled an incomprehensible reply.
My eyes drifted to his feet. Broken-out tennies, black socks, pipe-leg jeans rolled up a bit at the ankle. I inventoried his wardrobe: belt, leather buckle, red plaid shirt that would be a bit warm for the weather but perfect for the chilly bus. His face was crosshatched with white scars, worse on the left side than the right, traveling from above his hairline to below his shirt collar. He watched me examine him.
I frowned. “Do I know you?” I said. “You look very familiar.”
“You ever read GQ?”
“Sure, all the time. Oh! You look just like. . . ”
He cut me off. “I used to be him, but now I’m me. Where are you headed?”
I smiled narrowly. “Didn’t you see the destination banner in front? This bus is going to America.”
The bus pulled out of the station and we were both quiet for a while. I stared past him at the Michigan forest. Dark green trees, dark black asphalt, dark blue sky. Dark because of the tinted window.
He broke the silence.
“Have you done anything with your life yet?”
“I’ve done plenty. You don’t know me,” I said.
“I know enough. You smile, you’re soft. You’ve never tugged on Superman’s cape.”
“And you? Just because a weasel attacked your face while you slept in some nasty alley doesn’t mean you’ve done anything worth while.”
“Weasel? I suppose.” He snorted a harsh caw, exposing good teeth. “You’re right about the alley but I was wide awake.” He turned away from me.
We both watched more Michigan countryside fly past the bus windows.
A man pressed by me on the way to the toilet. He apologized when he jiggled my arm. His over-applied aftershave clashed badly with the toilet disinfectant.
My seatmate tapped my arm.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to me?”
“Of course I do,” I said. “I didn’t bring a book.”
“Sure you did,” he said. “Probably Catcher In The Rye, which you put down every time you read a page.”
“What you don’t know about me would fill a library,” I said. “And it’s Ulysses.”
“Here’s what I do know,” he said. “You’re nice. You’d never challenge a bad guy even if he hurt you. You’d run away from him. You, I bet you laughed when the kids in high school made fun of you.”
I frowned. “No, not really,” I said. “Just because I have an Irish face doesn’t mean I’m a push over. I think you’re talking about yourself.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe.”
“Not everyone has a quest in their life,” I said. “Some people just live. Day to day and all that.”
“But not me,” he said. “And not you, either.”
“What happened?” I asked finally.
“About what you thought,” he said. “A weasel caught me out back of a pool hall and did some plastic surgery to my face. Took my money.” He paused. A world of memory rippled across his face. “I’m gonna get my money back,” he said.
The bus groaned to a stop. The driver announced that we’d arrived in Chicago.
He got up, stretched to retrieve his bag from the overhead stow.
I dredged up a goodbye. “I hope you find your money.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Just remember, you won’t find America until you find yourself.”
“I’m not lost,” I quipped. My eyes dampened, though, and I blinked.
He smiled, and maybe shook his head, and shuffled off the Greyhound.
Bus travel is all about waiting. In Denver I had four hours to kill before the next connection west. A scruffy homeless guy loaded the newest daily paper into the box. I gave him a dollar. I read the front page, scanned the international news and the national blips, the editorial articles, and half the society pages before I realized I was looking for him. He wasn’t there, of course.
I laughed and dropped the paper. Even though the night hadn’t lifted and the bad part of downtown beyond the station doors was still dark and a little scary, I went outside.
Jude-Marie Green writes in California, USA.