Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  December 2016 | issue 492

The Wreck Up Ahead

by Poe Ballantine

Poe Ballantine married at the age of forty-six, had his first child at forty-seven, published his first novel at forty-nine, and now, at the age of sixty-one, with daily practice, hopes to one day learn how to write. His books include the memoir Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere and a collection of essays, Guidelines for Mountain Lion Safety. He lives with his wife and son in Chadron, Nebraska.

— for Ian Dunn


After two decades of wandering the country by bus and living below the poverty line, I’d been unable to find whatever it was I was looking for. My adventures had not supplied me with the artistic depth and raw material for a sensational first novel. I’d bet every last chip on the literary roulette wheel, and the ball had chuckled and hopped around and landed on someone else’s number. It was 1995, and I was thirty-nine years old. Maybe it was time to retire from writing and be a proper nobody, relax for a change, sleep late, buy some new underwear, feel the wet grass under my bare feet, plant some fruit trees, and play pinochle every Friday with my neighbors Bill and Madge.

In my search for the perfect place to live and write, I often bought one-way tickets to destinations that didn’t pan out. The right city or town was more often revealed than selected from the map. I knew how to spot it from the bus window if I paid attention: A sign advertising weekly rent. A barefoot boy carrying a fishing pole. A neat city park with layers of Arcadian shade. Two old men smoking pipes in front of the hardware store. Cured hams and salamis hanging in a grocery window. A friendly wave. A jingling ice-cream truck. Dogs singing along with the noon siren at the factory. A saucy, well-read lass in spectacles and cutoff jeans who waitressed on the weekends at the local cafe.

Of course this was not a real place. I needed to stop thinking it was. I imagined instead a trailer park not far from Belmont Park racetrack in southern New York, or a tin shanty (or maybe a houseboat) in some forgotten bayou town with a good diner and a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Like all my prospective destinations, though, both were a long way from where I was now, seated on a bus to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Usually I at least had a decent sum of money in my pocket and the right frame of mind, hunkered into my seat, body trim, beard on my face, cap pulled down tight, with a good idea of where I was going, even if I didn’t end up there. Life on the road was not a joke; I was not some Russian tourist come to gape at the Grand Canyon. But lately it was all wrong. I could feel the wreck up ahead. I was irritable and low on funds. I had made the mistake of presuming that this trip would somehow be different from the rest.

Next to me sat a glossy-headed, baby-faced, going-nowhere joker wearing an orange TV-newscaster blazer. Each time he tippled from the pint in his pocket with an air of juvenile mischief, he aroused the attention of the bus driver. The joker shook some pills from a bottle and offered me one. I hadn’t taken pills for recreation in many years, but I swallowed it. I didn’t even ask what kind it was — I was that out of sorts and unhappy with myself.

A few minutes later the joker fell over in a stupor, and I thought for a moment he might be dead. So did the driver, who yanked his bus to the side of the road, stomped back, and began to shake the joker’s shoulder.

Hey, buddy. Wake up. You ain’t dead.

The joker sprang awake and did a marvelous impression of sobriety, vehemently denying the bus driver’s accusations. The driver finally returned to the wheel. The joker slumped back into his repose.

The last time I’d taken a pill without knowing what it was, I was eighteen; unable to feel much effect, I took a second pill and washed it down with plenty of beer. Then I stood up and walked straight into a wall. I woke the next morning on the bathroom floor, lucky to be alive. Youth is for making mistakes, but now I was no longer young.

When the pill kicked in on the bus, I fell into a rough slumber and dreamed of wildfires and spilled orange juice and murder and everyone running around. An exquisite backstory was implied, and by the end I was confessing to the crime; it had been me all along. The police were only mildly interested.

The joker got off in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Albuquerque I walked around for an hour or two in the Navajo-blue dusk, looking for something to eat and waiting for that guy who ran the avant-garde press to come out of a doorway and say, “Hey, we’ve been expecting you.” Then I returned to the station and thought about buying a ticket for Winnemucca, Nevada, which I had passed through on numerous occasions and had liked for its long, eccentric assemblage of letters and windblown, tattered existence, and also the affordable rent and the casinos and the possibility of working in a silver mine and making some kind of big strike and never having to work again. But I was down to a few hundred dollars, not enough to start over in Winnemucca unless I wanted to stay at the YMCA for a month. So I called my parents in Southern California to ask if it might be possible to live with them until I got back on my feet.

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