I had been feeling restless for months, a kind of palsy of the mind, and only the thought of leaving town on a night bus calmed me.
Indian summer had come and gone. The sky had taken on the bruised color of early winter. I had tried everything: yoga, tai chi, biofeedback, subliminal messages. I drove around in Alva's car, cutting a big swath around the bus station which centered the town like some gaseous sun. I prayed, chanted my mantra, gave myself self-help talks, sometimes in public places in a loud voice, just to make sure that I was listening. It didn't matter whether I told myself that I was a bad person and ought to be ashamed or that I was a good person and could resist this temptation or simply an OK person who needed acceptance -- none of it mattered. More than anything I wanted to get the hell out of that town and out of a life that shrink-wrapped me like a pork chop on a pink plastic tray.
I'd be leaving a job. A no-benefits job with a boss who liked to get me in the darkened storage room and stick his tongue in my mouth. Mostly I just pushed him away, told him he had bad breath or his wife was on the phone.
"You know you like it." He said this while pressing his bony self against me. My back flattened up against a file cabinet and the handle gouged into my back.
"Woody, this is not right," I told him as I tried to drill my fist into his chest.
"Just one little kiss." Woody's idea of one little kiss was letting his tongue go so far down my throat that my tonsils could wear it as a muffler. If he had the time, he would count my teeth with his tongue. I could feel the pens in his shirt pocket pressing into my left breast, his hands around my waist but on the move. I couldn't take it anymore. I kneed him in the crotch. That was Friday, right before quitting time. Maybe I didn't have a job anymore.
The only part of the job that I liked was wearing a hard hat when I went into the warehouse to check on the orders. There I talked to the ladies in packing, hired mostly for the size of their biceps and their willingness to work for less money than men. They told me dirty jokes. I laughed a lot.
I've got a husband too.
My husband, Alva Edward Herson, is a fine enough man if breathing steady is a big factor. Actually, he is better than that. His main problem is that he is so boring. I could predict exactly what he would do and how he would do it. His habits were so set that hunting him wouldn't be any challenge. Every day, he had two Fig Newtons in his lunch and hot cocoa at 9:30 PM right before the news, then off to bed at ten. It took him exactly twelve minutes to get up and come to breakfast, and the toothbrush and shaving cream were always left in the same spot. He's got about ten expressions that cover most any occasion he's likely to encounter -- things like "no fooling" and "I can believe that" and "you don't say." So the man is predictable and no conversationalist, can you leave a man for that? No, I couldn't. None of my selves could, not even the bad you-ought-to-be-ashamed-of-yourself self could.
But he watched me all the time.
Sometimes I felt like a television set, the way he looked at me as if taking his eyes off me for one second would make things go all goofy in the world. As if I were cueing him which way to turn, as if the big silver jet had no one on board and I were down there with my red light waving him into port. It was like that all the time, and if he wasn't watching me, he watched television. Didn't matter so much what was on, as long as his eyes were occupied. Maybe the problem was anxious eyes. Was that a strong enough case for leaving a man?
I left Alva a note. I propped it up against the sugar bowl on the kitchen table.
You're a good husband Alva, but good isn't enough. Your goodness is only the kind that means you have no badness. You're at the wall but you've never been over I've renewed your subscription to the TV Guide for two more years so I could get the lower rate. If you move, make sure you notify them of your change of address.
I'll mail you power of attorney so you can get the divorce papers started. I didn't take anything that didn't belong to me. My half of the savings and my clothes. Tell your children the next time you get them, that I think they're great kids.
You deserve better than me.
I stood in front of the Destination Map of the World According to Greyhound, with my bags wedged between my feet. I ruled out all the places where it snowed, all the places I couldn't afford the fare, everything with a green-headed pin stuck on it, states that had a North and a South in their names, but mostly I just didn't want to be cold again. All my life I had felt cold, probably from a childhood spent in cheap, underheated motel rooms with blankets thinner than the gruel in an orphanage. I drew an imaginary snow line across the map and settled on Phoenix, Arizona.
Waiting in line to buy my ticket as I pushed my suitcases with my feet, things began to sink in. This wasn't one of my dreams that left me feeling confused about what was real and what wasn't. I was in the bus station. I had left Alva. I wasn't going to be waking up and making breakfast and moving like a robot through the day.
The line moved slowly. Didn't anybody know where they were going? What was so hard about saying "give me a one-way ticket to Phoenix, Arizona" or "give me a two-way ticket to Boise, Idaho"? It's not like you had to pick out your seat right now, front or middle or back, window or aisle. They don't feed you on buses or ask you if you want headphones or a pillow or a magazine. I hoped they didn't allow smoking on buses anymore.
"A one-way ticket to Phoenix, Arizona, please."
The ticket agent barely glanced at me as he punched in my destination and my ticket spat out. "That will be forty-nine dollars." I wanted him to look up, to see me. I wanted to see my reflection in his glasses. He pushed my change back through the grate. "Enjoy your trip." He spoke to my back as I turned away.
I had two hours before my bus left, so I bought a soda and sat down to think about my future. I suppose some women might have cried by now but I wasn't like that. I never let myself cry right when something happened. Crying clouds the mind just when you need to be at your clearest. My tears sneak up on me during movies and the sad parts of books. Then I blame it all on what I'm seeing on the screen or reading, without having to admit that I have within me my own private well of sadness.
I had about a thousand dollars on me and a silver dollar that I found while sweeping out the cellar at Alva's house one early spring day. That day under a telephone spool I'd also found a nest of newborn mice, tiny and translucent with the slightest tinge of pink. I put the nest back where I found it after I had swept out the place. Rodent control wasn't in my job description. I liked Alva best when I was doing something, earning my keep, but I drew the line at massacring mice.
I finished my soda and started walking around the perimeter of my seat with the bags stationed in front. I stayed close enough to my bags so that if anyone tried to steal one, I could grab the culprit. It was like being on a tether, walking around with my eyes shifting back to my bags, then to the flower cart parked to the left of me, the vendor figuring his take for the day, rolling back the bills and counting with his mouth open.
The shoeshine man was as black as the polish he spread on the shoes of the man in the chair, who did his best to look around and pretend that another man wasn't at his feet polishing his shoes. The shoeshine man polished and slapped his rag at the shoe, moving his body as if to some song playing in his head. When he was done, he looked up at the man whose shoes he had polished, his white teeth in sharp contrast to his smooth dark skin covered with a fine sheen of light sweat. "You's done, sir. They look mighty fine." The man stepped down from the shoeshine throne and handed three bucks to the black man without so much as a thank-you or even a glance. The shoeshine man took the money and nodded. It didn't seem to matter much to him that his customer had acted as if he were invisible, though I'm sure it did. I think being invisible is one of the most painful things in this world.
I sat down. The molded plastic seat felt cold. I kept checking my watch against the giant clock on the wall. My life seemed to have slid into slow motion. I closed my eyes. Through my feet I could feel the diesel sound of the buses as they rolled into the tunnel underneath me. I snapped my eyes open to a thump. To my left the evening papers had landed, baled with string. The newsstand man rolled his cigar to the corner of his mouth and pouched his face in disgust at the retreating back of the paperboy. He dragged the papers, like a dead body, behind the counter.
I took a deep breath. Cigarettes, the sweetish odor of a pipe, diesel fumes seeping up through the ventilation system, that ashy street smell that you can taste in your mouth, carried on the clothes of the incoming passengers. I like to catalogue smells. It puts me in the moment, takes me out of my head and puts me in the same place as my body. I think of my body sometimes as being separate from me. My body as a method of locomotion, my body as a large container for my head, my body as a companion to my mind, my body as a kind of trusty to the warden of my mind. I'm really into this mind/body thing.
"Bus 279 departing for Phoenix, Arizona, leaving from gate number eighteen at four P.M., is now boarding." The announcement cut right into my thinking and with great relief I picked up my suitcase and followed the sign to gates one through twenty-five. I passed gates for Dubuque, St. Louis, Las Vegas, and Kansas City, where buses stood like silent silver hounds. The rest of the parking spaces were empty with only stains on the pavement to mark the spot. I didn't worry about Alva coming after me. He never came home before six o'clock.
The porter loaded luggage into the underbelly of the bus after checking the ticket of each passenger. I handed both of my suitcases over and he glanced at my ticket and nodded. I walked to the front of the bus, used the handrail to pull myself up the steps, and stood for just a second surveying the seats available.
I counted down eighteen rows and decided that I belonged on the left-hand side of the bus. I put my backpack on the window seat hoping that people would think that I was saving it for someone else. Window seats are good for sightseeing and for reading and following the stripe along the night road until you fall asleep.
I settled into the vinyl seat and watched the passengers enter the bus and scope things out. A woman on the far side of fifty marched down the aisle holding her purse in front of her like a shield. She went straight to the back and took the last seat on the left-hand side.
Not everybody takes a bus, you know. Only certain people will take buses. Mostly people without a car or the cash to fly, or those afraid of falling off a train or having a plane fall out of the sky. I watched them get on one by one. Each had a story and I liked giving them little opening lines. A straggly haired blonde girl with coal black roots and a top that wouldn't cover a bra if she were wearing one and snug blue jeans strode down the aisle like she had done this a hundred times before. She wasn't at all excited. She had her seat picked out before she was born -- that seat being the one right in front of me. She bumped into it and slid down until I could see only a few strands of hair.
A couple got on -- you know the kind, mated for life, already done fifty years together, each knows everything about the other, and when one dies, the other will die within six months. He held her arm gently and guided her down the aisle. She smiled like they're taking the grand tour and he whispered in her ear every step of the way. I wanted to believe in them, but that came hard to me. Maybe they were what they seemed. But maybe he's plotted her death while she lies asleep and she's thought of giving him a gentle shove at the head of the stairs. Believing in the Easter Bunny comes easier to me than having faith in the feelings of others. They sat across from me.
Finally the bus was loaded. I found myself gussetted in by people while whole pockets of the bus remained empty. What was I? A magnet? The driver stood up front. "We'll be departing in five minutes. I'll be giving the final call. This bus is headed for Phoenix, Arizona, with stops at..." He rattled off the names of cities without taking a breath. Then he got off and went over to the phone reserved for employees and spoke in short sentences to someone at the other end. An announcement came over the loudspeaker. This last call brought a gaggle of latecorners, mostly male, and the last two on were guys in their twenties wearing long ponytails, each sporting a diamond stud in his left ear.
At first everyone ignored everyone else, kind of like some travelers' courtesy, but those in it for the long haul to Phoenix would probably want to talk.
About twenty minutes into the trip, the old guy leaned over and asked me the time. I told him. Then fifteen minutes later, he turned sideways in his seat and asked me if I'd like a stick of gum and don't the air in these buses get mighty old? I agreed, took the gum, and he had all the encouragement he was going to need. "The missus and I are going to visit one of our kids. We got six, you know. All turned out OK except for Zeke and he's had a hard time of it."
I nodded. I knew that was all I had to do.
"We never quite figured out what was wrong with Zeke." He reached over with his mottled grayish-looking hand covered in a mat of furry white hair and grabbed his wife's pudgy fingers. "We thought maybe something went wrong at the hospital. Something they didn't tell us about. Like maybe they was giving him a bath and he slipped and fell on the floor. They got concrete floors there, you know. Zeke was born in a hospital. Only one of ours who was, we'd moved in off the farm, and the only one who's had such troubles."
His fingers picked at the creases in his pants. He looked as if he had forgotten where he was, what he was going to say next. I prompted him. "What troubles has he had?"
The old guy was off. The story of Zeke was about to be told again and I think in some sense this story of Zeke was a kind of morality tale for the old man. He knew there was a message in there somewhere but he hadn't yet figured out what the message was, though plenty of people had offered up explanations.
"Zeke was always a sweet baby but sometimes he'd just fly into these screaming fits when he'd curl up his little fists and twist his little body side to side and just scream until his face turned so red we thought he'd just blow up. We tried everything from holding him real tight to throwing ice water on him; we even prayed but nothing helped. He didn't get much better as he got older but he changed. He'd still scream but then he started banging his head against the wall and wetting himself even when he was much too old for that.
"Then when he turned twelve, he stopped all that and got real quiet. He'd sit for hours doing nothing and we was grateful for that but still he wasn't a regular boy."
The old guy paused. "My name is Cyrus and my missus is Sadie." He put his hand across the aisle and I shook it, surprised at how much strength it still had.
"Pleased to meet you. Now after Zeke got to be a teenager he started acting even funnier but he was still quiet. He'd sit there for hours. Sometimes he'd just start laughing out loud and pointing to the walls like there was something to see but we just saw walls. He was the youngest and of course the rest of the kids just closed in around him and kept an eye out. I don't think Zeke was ever alone much after that. He'd pretty much do what the other kids told him to."
"What's Zeke up to nowadays?"
"He's a janitor at the state institution for the insane. Lives with his sister Jennie. Her husband passed, leaving her with three kids. Zeke ain't much help with the kids but he gives her most of his check every week and helps out around the house. Jennie's going to night school and Zeke stays with the young'n's."
I figured this story to be winding down. Soon I could pull a book out of my backpack and do a little reading. "Sounds like Zeke is doing OK," I said.
Cyrus heaved a big sigh. "Townfolks almost run him out of town last summer."
"A little girl turned up missing. They found her body in the woods all mashed up but her mama still knew it was her."
I felt the chill of the processed air in the bus. I didn't say anything. Sadie, who had been staring out the window the whole time the old man told his story, swung her head in my direction. A twitch made her right cheek dance.
"Folks around there think Zeke's crazy. They say he ought not to be working at the institution, he ought to be in the institution."
"He does this pointing and laughing stuff in front of other people?" I figured even crazy people must know enough to hide their craziness some of the time.
"Well, not on purpose." The old man's voice rose up in defense of his crazy son. The way he'd been telling this story until now, you would think he'd read it in the newspaper. "We stuck by him."
I asked, being the forthright sort and possessing a degree of curiosity, "You think he did it?"
The old man waited so long before answering I thought he hadn't heard me and I'd have to ask again. "I don't know," he finally answered and sank back into his seat, leaving a space between us bigger than the Grand Canyon.
What would it be like to live with a person you loved and not know whether that person had killed someone? Not just killed someone, like in vehicular homicide or war, but bludgeoned a child to death? I mean, just saying he didn't know meant he thought it was possible that Zeke was guilty. Did he look at Zeke funny after the girl was found? Did he look at him like maybe he didn't know him? What if someone else died? Would that be the old guy's fault? I couldn't live with Alva and he was just boring. I guess if I even remotely suspected Alva of murder, anyone's murder, I'd have left sooner.
I couldn't let things rest. I moved closer to Cyrus, my knees almost touching his in the aisle. "What did the people in town do?"
The old man spoke slowly, as if I were reeling him in from a long distance. "Well, the police came around but Zeke couldn't say for sure where he had been all the time since the girl had disappeared, except for being at work. They had two of them doctors over at the hospital talk to him. One said he wouldn't hurt a fly; the other wasn't so sure. There was no real proof so no charges were ever brought. Some windows got broke at Jennie's and her tires slashed and some ugly phone calls. Then things died down. But every mother in town tells her kids to stay away from Zeke and even Jennie don't rest easy when he's with the kids alone. Not that she believes for a minute that Zeke could do anything like that."
"How's Zeke taking all this?" I asked.
"Not good at all. It hurts him that children won't come near him except for a few boys who tease him and offer him their little sisters."
"Kids really do that?"
Cyrus explained, "They don't mean it, not really. They're just boys trying to prove they're not just boys."
The conversation seemed to suck the power of speech right out of the old man. He turned away from me and never spoke to me for the rest of the trip. His wife returned to her vigil at the window and when I tried to catch her eye later in the trip, she looked at me as if I were some foreign tourist she just couldn't understand.
After Cyrus's story I shifted to my window seat and pulled my paperback out of the backpack. The catalogue of Alva's faults and bad habits that I had compiled over our years together seemed mean-spirited and trivial compared to Cyrus's trial with Zeke. I felt guilt rising up like bile in my throat. I couldn't stick with a man who left his underwear scattered about the floor like a bread trail, while old Cyrus hung in there with a suspected child killer. I could feel myself losing color, turning gray with guilt, my energy bubbling out of me like a slow air leak. I snapped the spine on my book. The crack brought me back to the real world. It wasn't the same thing, I told myself. I straightened my back and started to read.
Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Lipman