I left Encinitas, California, on April 1, 1997, with five hundred dollars in traveler’s checks, four hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills folded into the secret pocket of my jacket, and sixty dollars in my left-front pocket. I do this in case I get robbed. Spread your cash. If someone robs you, give him the smallest parcel. If the shithead persists, offer him the traveler’s checks. I have been robbed twice, once at knifepoint, once at gunpoint. No one ever wanted the traveler’s checks.
A bus ticket was fifty-nine dollars: anywhere in the country, three weeks in advance. I bought a ticket for Odessa, Texas. I had never been to Odessa before. Well, I had passed by on the outskirts once, seen a motel along the highway for $11.95 a night. The town had looked like a miserable place, a place where people wouldn’t want to go, which is the criterion I have used to pick my travel destinations for the last ten years. I have been to all the places where people want to go, and those are the worst places to live: they are crowded, the rent and the crime rates are high, the competition for pastries is fierce, and there is often a rude or exclusive attitude among the natives. In places no one wants to go, the rent is cheap, the people are happy to see a stranger (what are you doing here?), and it’s usually pretty easy to get a job. People I meet on the bus are always disappointed, though, when I tell them I am going to Rhode Island or New Jersey or Nebraska or Arkansas. They want you to say Florida or Colorado.
So anyway, I had a ticket for Odessa and a little less than a thousand dollars. I also had six San Francisco sourdough rolls — three stuffed with kosher beef salami, onions, and mustard, and three with cream cheese sprinkled with crushed red pepper. I’d never done that before, the crushed red pepper. It was just a whim, an instinct almost. I’d thought of jalapeño peppers first, but there were no jalapeños around. The crushed red worked out pretty well. I was pleasantly surprised.
I like to have a thousand dollars when I land in a new place, but I have landed with a lot less: eighty-five once in Colorado Springs; forty one winter in New Orleans; two hundred when I made the catastrophic tropical-island trek. Even a grand goes fast. Say you stay at a motel two or three nights, but the ketchup factory isn’t hiring or you can’t find a place to live or there are too many parking meters downtown or the people are grouchy or whatever, so you don’t want to stay. The motel is seventy or eighty; the ticket out is fifty or sixty. Throw in the food you ate, the beer you drank, the paperback you bought, and you’ve spent $150 in three days. Do this three times and when you finally find the right spot you won’t have enough for a room and deposit and spending money to last until you get a job. You will have a nickel in your pocket and you will rattle it around in there and think, Why didn’t I just stay in the last place? This time I wanted to get someplace and have enough that I could coast awhile and not have to take the first crummy job that came along. Then maybe I’d save enough to quit through the winter, watch the snow and scratch my toes and read the Summa Theologica and all the novels of Alexandre Dumas.
I rode the bus for two days and one night. A skinny-legged girl in a silver vinyl jacket sat next to me, staring off into space and breaking out occasionally into bright grins and now and then cupping hand to mouth to suppress an irrepressible giggle. I was sure she was either tripping or insane. Or there may have been some laughing gas leaking down in an isolated current from one of the baggage compartments. Behind me sat a potbellied epicurean truck driver who’d just dropped off his rig in Bakersfield and was headed to Phoenix and who talked to his neighbor in an even, agreeable, gravelly voice about food: “I like chiles rellenos,” he graveled. “I like crab, Dungeness crab from Louisiana, boiled in beer with lemon juice. I like crab better than lobster. Lobster’s too sweet. I like sausages, the kind with the casing on it. You cook it and the casing splits and it’s juicy. I like halibut broiled with vinegar and garlic, but also baked and fried. I like all kinds of Mexican food, especially sausage. Have you had chorizo? Steak is my favorite, though. I like chicken breaded in buttermilk and cracker crumbs and fried. . . .” He went on like this for hundreds of miles. I have cooked in eighteen different kitchens, but he knew more about cooking than I did (although I do know Dungeness crab is not from Louisiana). He made me hungry. I had to eat one of my kosher-salami sandwiches. Finally he got off the topic of food and uttered a utilitarian maxim about life that is the closest thing to the truth behind the mystery that I have ever heard; he said it confidently and with comforting humor to a listener who was apparently having a hard time of it: “Things go up and things go down,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.” He got off in Phoenix and asked the bus driver what had happened to the old depot. The driver was happy that he had asked about the old depot.
Standing in line at the new depot in Phoenix, waiting for my connection, I met another gravel-voiced stranger, a gay biker. He wore a black leather vest, leather biking cap, and gray frosted sunglasses. He was fat and heavily tattooed, with a porous, candle-wax complexion. He had a rough Chicago accent. He’d been a cop in Chicago until some drunk had run him down and broken both his hips. When they sent him to Tucson to convalesce, he’d discovered he was gay. At one time he’d been married. He’d just seen his children in Flagstaff, but it was too cold in Flagstaff and he’d left a day early. The cold made his heart hurt, he explained, and then he lifted his shirt to show me his elephant-belly scars and talked modern heart-surgery lingo: he’d had a double bypass, then a triple. “There will be no next surgery,” he graveled glamorously. “I’ve already told my kids to bury me with my ’61 Harley and a carton of Camel unfiltereds.” He was going to the Gay Olympics in Amsterdam in 1998. He worked on the Olympic Committee. I wasn’t aware they had a Gay Olympics. He told me he’d just won $17,500 on a bet he’d made on the Arizona-Kentucky game, but he didn’t know enough about gambling to make me believe it. I was glad to see him get on another bus. Anybody who just won $17,500 on a college-basketball wager ought to be able at least to afford a plane ticket.
Now that we were in proximity to the vast population centers, the bus was crowded. I sat up front. In the back next to the bathroom sit the all-night yakkers whose mouths swing endlessly open and shut like the bathroom door. They are young and on parole and their uncle has kicked them out of the house and they know the complete Star Wars trilogy by heart and have to get out at every stop for a smoke. I used to sit back there myself, as far away from Papa Driver as possible, where you can snicker and take sleeping pills and nip from a bottle of Four Roses and maybe get the butter from a slutty young road queen. A Mexican sat next to me, stoic and polished as wood, white straw hat, neatly trimmed mustache, bag at his feet. I had my bag at my feet, too. And my sandwiches were good. I made them last two days. The cream cheese holds up better than you would think, especially sprinkled with crushed red pepper. I also had a bag of trail mix and a Power Bar, which tastes pasty and mealy, like algae and sunflower seeds and sterile honey from a nunnery, but it’s good for you, so don’t worry. Have your Power Bar.
I never read on the bus. I don’t even bother bringing a book. I don’t talk either; why make a fool of myself? Hey, where you going? This is what I think about God and the President. Who cares? My favorite thing in the world is to do nothing. Sitting on a bus, especially when you have the seat empty next to you, you can just glide along, look out the window. I don’t care if there is no scenery. I hope there is no scenery. I will sit and look out the window and feel the motion of the bus and maybe if I’m woozy take a dramamine, which makes me drowsy, which together must be droozy, or wowsy. No, droozy is it. And I think my half-assed thoughts. The sky is a big drive-in screen with the clouds of my life floating across it. I figured it all out long ago. But it doesn’t matter if you figure it out or not. We all end up at the same place eventually. The rivers run into the sea and the sea is never filled. So I do nothing. Stare out the window. Go with the rhythm. Be in the now of the Greyhound. Get off in the little windy spots with the convenience stores and the other passengers squinting and sucking on their low-tar butts, maybe getting a pop or a big bag of red-hot pork rinds or nacho-cheese Doritos to bring with them back on the bus. Dragging their children by the arm, bewildered children, half black in overalls with sleep in their eyes. But brave children who think their parents know where they are going. Their mother, I mean. The father is not around usually. If he were, he would drive them in his big pickup truck, because with the child support and the drunk-driving charge he doesn’t have enough for a plane ticket. And chances are he isn’t working anyway.
And all the way across the country the people are saying to themselves, I am never going to take the bus again as long as I live, and trying to sleep with their neck crooked and a book on their lap, their jacket rolled up, their face smooshed into the cold glass, trying to sleep next to the insane woman who thinks people are taking infrared pictures of her baby, a strange baby with long hands, almost newborn, and, even more peculiar, a white baby, not black or half black. But the mother is crazy, gets out at the little windy convenience-store places in the cold dark and smokes, holding her baby and glaring at the people who are taking infrared pictures of it, passing the pictures around, laughing at her. They are laughing because the baby is white, not half black or black, as a baby on a Greyhound should be. And she begins to swear at the people. She is foulmouthed. Then she excuses herself for being rude. Then she shouts for the bus driver to stop these people from taking pitchers of her baby, passing the pitchers around. She demands that this man be taken off the bus. He is the one. Either this man is taken off the bus, or she will leave. It’s him or her. (There is big support for letting her go.) “Stop this bus!” she cries in the middle of cold nowhere, not even the yellow windows of houses, not even traffic signs, only the whisper of tumbleweeds and the sound of the wind blowing over her smooth hard mind.
And by morning we are all exhausted with her. The bus trip is enough. The little baby cries and cries. Finally the mother flounces up in a whirl, almost gets into a fight, and demands to be let off the bus. The driver relents, dropping her off at a McDonald’s in some flyspeck of a town. She stalks away with her tiny white long-fingered newborn and people cackle after her, someone with more problems than them. They cackle about the pitchers and who’s got the pitchers and, boy, are we glad that poor weird insane hag of a woman is out of our hair, and all the time thinking about the little baby and what it will be like for that little helpless baby to have a mother who is insane, who is walking in the cold through a Texas town she has probably never seen before. And then we all start to feel bad. You can feel it running right down the bus like a current, humans poor and out of luck and tired, on our way to who knows where, and what will we do when we get there, but we are one for a while, thinking about that poor baby and the life it will have. And she’s off wandering the streets of some damn strange town in Texas.
I watched the mother before all this started, in the Amarillo depot, where the buses were crammed and the waits were long and the drivers and baggage men and clerks were all absurdly holding it together, like the Romans after the first wave of Goths, as the depot swelled and the biofeedback machine (which also gave astrological readouts) inanely blinked. And of all the rough-edged, desperate, burnt-out, deranged people, she looked to be one of the more solid types, taking good care of her child, not distracted by the characters surveying us with their hats cockeyed or the unsupervised children stampeding up and down the lobby or the hunkering cigarette smokers with their conspiratorial laughter — she seemed solid. I guess she was barely holding on.
But that was Amarillo, which was long after Odessa. I didn’t even have to get off the bus at Odessa. I knew it was wrong. Just had the feeling. I tried to imagine it. I said to myself, I’ll get a bicycle, bicycle to work, the store, the post office, the laundry, the house of my understanding girlfriend with the red hair and the overbite who studies the backs of cake mixes, who apologizes a lot and is curious about the lives of movie stars and serial killers. But just a glimpse of that town in the afternoon, the massive grueling industrial medieval hulk of it, and I knew it was no good. These Texas towns — all Western towns for that matter, but especially Texas towns — sprawl as if land were despised and the more you used up, the better, with their long, strung-out Fifth Streets and monster-long Maple Streets with no maples, only juniper bushes and lawn-mower shops and frozen yogurt and nails and tans and videos and pizza and baseball cards and motels and burgers and on and on. Odessa is a town you don’t even think of when someone says Texas. You don’t think of it, period. Someone said to me once, “Odessa, the armpit of the Lone Star State,” and I said, “Yes, my kind of city,” but looking out the bus window I didn’t even need to get off to see that it was smoldering and pulsing with crime and anonymity and vacant lots and competitive fried-chicken franchises. And I thought, Why do I fool myself? Why do I pay fifty-nine dollars and go to a place I know will not work? And then summer comes and I am like a dead fly under a dusty bed for six months. Why do I do this?
But I had been frugal, had spent no money. OK, I splurged on a large chocolate shake, but that was later, with the Mormon in Goodland. He talked Mormon while I sucked on the shake. He was firm in his beliefs, but he was not trying to proselytize me. There was just something about the way I stood next to the window and drank my shake. Maybe he had heard me talking to the young man riding next to me, who was bringing a water pipe back from Mexico to his uncle in Flint, Michigan, delivering it by hand, watching over it as if it were a religious artifact, carrying the bag on his knees so it didn’t get broken. A water pipe. On a bus all the way from Mexico. For days. I couldn’t help but have fun with this. So maybe the Mormon had overheard this and made a judgment about me. Daniel the Mormon from Australia, who preached apocalypse in the McDonald’s in Goodland, Kansas. He preached the one-world-government-via-the-UN conspiracy. (Where does this idea come from?) He said the Mormon Church was in apostasy. He was certain that three of the people in the recent Heaven’s Gate mass suicide were Mormon prophets, which fit into his exact scheme of apocalypse. (Everyone, it seems, has a vision of apocalypse.) He was going to Missouri, the Zion of Mormonism. Daniel had many thoughts, thoughts on government plots, history unfolding to a point where it would all come clear. A final revelation.
I enjoyed talking with Daniel. At least he cared. I’ve never talked to anyone who really knows much, but there’s usually something there, and I put in my meager bit. I like Mormons. They make as much sense as anyone, and they don’t have the same kind of social decay as the lukewarm and the nondenominational and the unreligious. The Catholics and the Jews and the Mormons are all good at social coherency. There is something to be said for this. I’d talked to Mormons a week before in Encinitas (which, incidentally, is only a few miles from Rancho Santa Fe, where the Heaven’s Gate people snugged their ball caps, tossed back their black elixirs, and happily ushered their souls off to the UFO riding in the icy tail of the Hale-Bopp comet). There were four of them, Elders in white shirts smiling and nodding. They gave me the Book of Mormon. Jesus in the Americas. A new revelation. The concept of constant revelation, which says that as we grow and become more capable of understanding, more will be revealed to us about God’s work. There is not only an evolution of matter but an evolution of spirit. Destination. Purpose. And a large chocolate shake in Goodland, Kansas.
But I’m jumping ahead. I had been frugal. Or had I? To buy a ticket to a place you should have known was wrong is not frugal. The next town up was Plainview. Maybe 150 miles. There were other towns, but the name of this one was right. A dull name. A place where no one would go. People are not flocking to northwest Texas. They go to the country-and-western Mecca of Austin, the job and cultural centers of Dallas and Houston, the warm gulf. They don’t go northwest. So Plainview it was, population twenty-one thousand. I got off in Odessa and bought a ticket. The bus left right away, so I didn’t have to waste money on a motel or a cab or a lonesome fried-chicken dinner. I was glad to be moving again, and somewhat anxious about arriving. A new place always means serious work. No fun. The room, the job, the scrupulous management of money. You have to be deft, delicate, fleet on your feet, budget-minded, like the good housewife of the 1950s. But now, in the interim, it was a little like a brainless Florida vacation. No pressure. See the countryside. I had a margin of error. Only thirty dollars to Plainview. Not irreversible if it turned out to be a mistake. No one on the bus to Plainview. That was a good sign.
The last stop before Plainview was a two-hour late-afternoon layover in Lubbock, which is not exactly a welcoming kind of place. I’d thought I might get a paper, have a look at rentals and jobs, but Lubbock was brooding and dark, troubled by something. Too much technology maybe. Lubbock is the home of Texas Technological College, the Church of the Tool-Worshipers. Technology gives us cancer, and then we want technology to cure us. Technology is a big dog with glittering eyes chasing its tail in a long and complicated dream. Lubbock was a technology-haunted place. Then again, the bus terminal is always in the worst part of town. The kind Greyhound executives have designed it this way so homeless people can have a place to use the bathroom and bum cigarettes and wander along the sidewalk muttering as if they were indigent travelers, which I suppose they are.
It was dark when the bus rolled into Plainview. I was the only one getting off. The station was closed. I had seen a motel on the way in, the Sands, so I got all my bags and walked back to it, about a mile. On the way I tried to get a feel for the town, but it was too dark. I saw an unlocked bicycle on a porch. Good sign. Then I saw a house with an iron gate on the front door. Bad sign. The town was long. It looked more like a town of fifty or sixty thousand than twenty-one. I kept switching hands with the suitcase. I finally found the Sands, a semicrummy-but-really-no-room-to-complain motel, $24.68 a night and cops in the parking lot: tenant altercation. The state as Mom and Dad. I am trying to get away from this sort of thing. I chatted with the young man at the desk: Where can I get a paper? How’s the economy? Etcetera. Then I stowed my junk in my room, a tired old room like an emphysemic aunt, the water-stained ceiling tiles knocked askew, blue-and-white curtains to match the orange-striped wallpaper. I needed to shower and eat, but I wanted to get a feel for the town. If it wasn’t right I’d have to pick up and get out fast. Couldn’t be spending twenty-five dollars a night dillydallying.
I walked down the main stretch, which went about sixteen or seventeen blocks. Too spread out. Not a good place to live without a car. The usual fast-food-and-Radio Shack facade, plastic armature concealing the real town in a psychological experiment to see how long it takes before people start killing each other. The only thing that set it apart from any other place in America was a ranching-supply company called BAR-F, except instead of a hyphen there was a tiny diamond between the R and the F. How much thought had gone into this name I couldn’t guess. Also, I finally saw the famous Hale-Bopp comet, streaking across the firmament, dragging the souls of the tool-worshipers behind it.
Back in my room, I read the Plainview Daily Herald and ate a can of sardines in hot sauce and some potato rolls I’d bought at a convenience store and a candy bar full of peanuts, which kept falling in my lap. Rents were high. There were a few jobs I thought I might look at: one cooking, one janitorial, one unspecified with no experience required. The paper was foolishness. Like canned corn. Like folk music with an accordion solo. Like The Carol Burnett Show. Newspapers are not interested in reality. I read them and feel like I’m reading about a different world where people have big ears and freckles and wet hair combed straight back and are always asking you to pull their finger. It isn’t good storytelling, just sentimental, superficial skits about pet topics like the evils of tobacco and sex scandals and the untimely deaths of famous people. Is the stock market up or down? Is the princess coming to visit? You pay a quarter and then throw the thing out when you are done with it.
I felt bad all night, had nightmares. Maybe they were hot-sardine dreams. Maybe they were from reading the Plainview Daily Herald. I was nervous and didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t like this place, but then I wouldn’t like any strange new place where I was running out of money unless it was heaven and they had free chocolate-covered cherries. I got up at six in the morning (checkout time was eleven) and it was raining. Heavy solid gray rain. Rain is rare in northwest Texas. I put on my rain suit and went for a walk to get a feel for the town in the daylight, but it began to rain harder. I returned to the motel and went back to bed. At eight it was still raining. At nine it was raining. At ten it was raining harder than ever. I watched it from the window, sweeping and knifing across the ground. First it rained one way, then it rained the other. Pretty soon it was raining both ways.
So I said the hell with it. I didn’t want to pitch any more money into the sea. A town has to do something, open its arms a little, give you a break, do something other than rain, especially when the rent is too high and it doesn’t look all that great in the first place. I decided to go to Great Bend, Kansas. I had seen it on the map and liked it because it was the right size and because it was a geographical anomaly in the plains, a town on the elbow of a river. Might be interesting.
I walked back to the bus station in the rain. There were two people in the station. The guy behind the counter looked up.
“What can I get for you?” he said.
“Ticket to Great Bend,” I said.
“Don’t go there anymore,” he said. “I think we used to.”
“Let me think a minute. . . . How about Garden City, then?” I didn’t really want to go to Garden City (it sounded nice — a bad sign), but where else was I going to go? Idaho?
He wrote me out a ticket to Garden City.
“How big is Garden City?” I asked.
“Pretty big,” he said. He pulled an atlas from under the counter. “Yeah, pretty big. Like sixty thousand.”
“Well, I want to go someplace that isn’t too big. You know? I’m fleeing social decay.”
He smiled at me, interested, and lit up a cigarette.
“This is the Bible Belt,” he said.
“Yes, I know, but the rent is too high.”
“They just opened two penitentiaries outside of town,” he said. “Good jobs.”
“And it’s raining,” I added.
“Yeah, it hardly ever rains here.”
I bring the rain with me, I thought. Last two places I lived flooded out.
“Maybe you could hire yourself out to farmers.”
Rice farmers, maybe.
“You probably wouldn’t like Garden City a whole lot.”
“I want some dull little place where the people wave to you and the kids don’t have to lock up their bicycles and you don’t read in the paper every day about how a torso was discovered in a dumpster and no one knows who it belongs to.”
He nodded along. He had read the Plainview Daily Herald, too. He was a friendly guy, and business was mighty slow because people don’t travel to Plainview very often. He looked at the map. “How about Hays?” he said. “Hays is a nice town. I knew a girl once from Hays.”
“How many people?”
He checked the atlas. “Seventeen thousand.” “That’s about right,” I said. “How much?”
Sheezus. I had to think about that. “No, too high. I could go to Pennsylvania for that.”
“I’ll give it to you for seventy-one,” he said.
I didn’t know how he could arrange this. Maybe he was the owner and could work a senior discount for me or something. White-newborn-with-insane-mother rate. I thought for a second, worked my tiny mind. I liked the way the town’s name sounded when he pronounced it: Haze. “Sign me up,” I said.
He scribbled out the ticket. “Bus leaves at 7:40 tonight.”
It was eleven in the morning. I hadn’t eaten yet, didn’t have any food left in my bag. The rain was too heavy to walk anywhere. I sat down in one of the hard, curved blue chairs. The rain would let up eventually. If God was going to end the world in a flood, he probably wouldn’t start with the Bible Belt.
But the rain didn’t let up, and my companion had to close the place down from noon to two. He had to kick me out.
“Can I leave my luggage?”
“Leave it,” he said.
I asked him where the nearest grocery store was, and he pointed and directed, and I put on my rain suit and headed out into it. The streets were awash and the red mud was thick and slick as I trudged along, thinking, I’d better get back soon before this son of a gun floods out. The store was about two miles. The gutters were so swollen I could hardly jump over them. A guy stopped to offer me a ride, swung open his door. I slipped in the mud, sank a little, leaned down to look in, smiled. “No, just killing time, anyway,” I said. And it was true. I had all day and nothing to do but get my shoes wet and slip around in the red northwest-Texas mud.
At the store I bought a bag of bagels, four bananas, two cans of tuna in canola oil, one can of fish steaks with chilies, one six-ounce square of cream cheese, and a box of Little Debbie’s brownies. Enough food for three days. Total: $6.59. I stood out in front of the store and watched the rain and ate two brownies, then a banana, then a bagel, then another banana, then two more brownies. This is important: a can of pork and beans is meaningful, a roof is meaningful, a job, doughnuts, friendly neighbors, time — time is always meaningful. The struggle is missing from most American lives. There is struggle, but it is a struggle for luxuries. I think of a little frontier girl delighted beyond all bounds by a glass of lemonade or a stick of horehound candy. This was me out in front of the grocery store in the rain with my bananas and my Little Debbie’s brownies that day. I could not have been happier; I would not have asked to be anywhere else.
When I finally got back to the depot, my shoes and socks were soaked through and I was splattered and dipped in the red Texas mud, so I changed my shoes and socks and wiped off my rain suit and hung everything over the back of a chair to dry, and then I felt pretty good. The rain kept coming. I watched it come down. The cars hissed and sloshed by. I felt the emptiness of the depot and longed for a smoke. There were no people coming or going because there was only one bus out and that was the 7:40, my bus. The guy at the counter smoked cigarettes, read the paper, listened to the radio — a talk show. Some caller didn’t want to pay his taxes because the money went toward war, and people were calling in to cuss him out. He could’ve been the start of a war himself. There was a cigarette machine in the depot. You don’t see them anymore. I remembered just two years before being astounded that I had to go outside a depot to get cigarettes, and now the sight of a cigarette machine was unusual. We have finally discovered the true evil of society: tobacco. I put in some coins and down dropped a package of Kools. I was in no hurry to get to my destination, to that job that nobody else wanted, to that settled feeling that would just make me want to pick up and go again, like I was now, so why not keep on this way, a new place every two or three days, stations, rain, deep-fried pollock in a paper envelope with French fries and a carton of coleslaw that tastes like it has two drops of furniture wax in it?
But I have to settle. I don’t have the money to be a motel drifter, and I don’t want to be one of those guys on the side of the road with a blanket roll and leathery brown skin and no teeth, completely knocked out of the loop, maybe happy, maybe free, definitely independent, but completely knocked out.
And anyway, no matter how you look at it, good or bad, magic or drab, futile or purposeful, the time passes, everything passes, and the bus comes and it’s dark and still raining and you get on, not too many people, and it scoots up the road, the heater on, the wipers banging, the poor people dozing off or eating their Doritos or listening to one another’s life stories on this long strange trip that will one day end, that will one day no longer exist, even in memory, unless you believe George Berkeley, who said that all Creation exists in the perception and memory of God, which is why the tree does not cease to exist when you turn your back and beautiful children sitting in front of a laundromat can break your heart.
And because it was routed through Lubbock and Amarillo and Denver, the bus was soon packed with souls, packed solid with people out to do important things: deliver a water pipe, journey to a holy land, take a job in Cheyenne, visit Mom who is sick, drop off the big rig, carry the newborn into the new land. And along about evening people started to get acquainted. The sound of language overrode the rush and hum of tires on asphalt. I heard snatches of conversation:
“. . . I’m gonna get some money, invest in mutual funds, real estate. Don’t invest in a car, man. Investment in a car is a bad idea. . . .”
“. . . First time I ever got high I was nineteen and standing in a hole in Southeast Asia. Didn’t know what country I was in. Didn’t even care. . . .”
And now each new bus I got on was so crammed I was lucky to get on at all, lucky not to have to wait four hours for the next one. In Amarillo a big black woman was angry with me for sitting next to her, but in Denver the next day, when I was running back and forth between the bus that was supposed to have my suitcase and the bus that was supposed to leave but was waiting for me to get my suitcase (which I never did get till four days later), I caught a glimpse of her and smiled and waved, and she was sweet. She had slept next to me all night, gotten to like me, even though we hadn’t exchanged but a few words. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I’d said. “I know how nice it is to have two seats, but nobody is going to get two seats on this trip.” So now she smiled at me as she stood looking out the tinted station window for her bus, and she was sweet because in a way we had slept together, even though I hadn’t slept.
And the bus barreled on into Kansas like a floating hospital ward: sneezing, gurgling, coughing, honking, snoring, squalling, howling. I didn’t know if Hays would work out or not, but I knew I would eventually find a place. Odessa had been wrong and Plainview had been wrong and Lubbock had been wrong and the bus didn’t go to Great Bend, but the places wouldn’t keep being wrong. It wasn’t possible. Because things go up and things go down. That’s what I ended up saying to the Mormon in Goodland after he’d rattled off his conspiracy-and-apocalypse number to me. He said his vision of conspiracy and apocalypse was grounded in the Word, but I said even God couldn’t think up a plot that complicated. Sometimes it takes the wisdom of a potbellied epicurean truck driver to bring us back to reality. Things go up and things go down. It isn’t much more complicated than that. The trip will be over soon enough. Don’t be afraid to try the next town. You don’t ever really want it to end, anyway. Halibut is good with vinegar and garlic and butter and a little parsley on it, broiled or baked.
Another version of this essay will also appear in Broke.