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Greyhound to Detroit Via Amarillo
In which I avoid getting hitched in Texas
This was Motown, this was New France
Where the Chippewa did the Fire Dance
That was long ago, this is here and now
But the memory still remains somehow
--- Sam Roberts
I packed for Detroit two ways. One, like I might be back in two weeks— and the other, like I might settle in for good.
Tracey promised, if I didn’t come back, that she would ship my neatly-packed boxes I stacked in her garage. I noticed she scrawled, “This is a bad idea” and “Come back baby come back” on my record crates.
I was taking only my ruck-sack on the Greyhound. It would be like hiking with my dad, the bare minimum. I decided to bring three paperbacks, that he and I diligently picked out from my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles, Papa Bach’s.
Papa Bach’s was the heart of beatnik Venice, an ocean poet’s diaspora, even if it was on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. The never-scrubbed floors were laid out like a hoarder’s attic, its rat-packed shelves ready to collapse under their own weight. Stream-of-consciousness ruled the store’s organization, where sections like “Poetry” led to “Madmen” which led to Charlie Manson’s song lyrics.
Bill made a beeline for some of his friend’s chapbooks on the poetry shelves. “This is a novel,” he said, “but they keep it here anyway,” offering me a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office.
My eyes brightened. “I didn’t know he wrote a novel!” I said, and snatched it out of his hands. “About working in a post office!”
My dad laughed at me…”Yeah, the big time.”
“I love stories about what it’s like to work somewhere!”
“I know, honey; this is one of the best.”
I asked him if there were any good commie writers I hadn’t read yet in my I.S. Study Group.
“Yeah, lots.” He disappeared in the stacks and returned with John Reed’s “10 Days that Changed the World.”
“How about a thriller?” Bill asked. He had found a copy of “Day of the Jackal” for ten cents.
I was set.
I made seven peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches for the bus ride. I had granola with chocolate chip cookies. I wore my green “Starry Plough” t-shirt, weathered hiking boots, and my mother’s old denim sailor’s coat.
The L.A. Greyhound station was in Skid Row, downtown. It smelled like urine and disinfectant. Our bus lef before 6 AM and I was so sleepy I fell into the front row behind the driver and didn’t wake up until Barstow, the last of California’s desert towns before you cross the state line. I was starving and it was my first chance to look around and see who my traveling posse was for the next three days.
I was the only passenger under sixty. Every row was seniors, snoring and fussing. Well, no matter, that’s why I brought my books. I had a lot of diary writing I wanted to do, too— but I had to go to the bathroom first.
“Take care now, little lady,” the driver said, when I got up to head to the toilet. “The smoking section’s at the back of the bus.”
It seemed no matter how tough I tried to dress, everyone treated me an Innocent Little Lamb— I had that kind of face. Maybe it was the glasses. I smiled at him, “I can handle the Marlboros!” The real challenge would be inhaling the toilet stall deodorant.
The back row of every Greyhound bus at that time had a bathroom on the left and three bench seats on the right. In those days, every passenger could open their own windows; hence, the smoking section technically had a vent.
To my great pleasure, I saw that the two smokers in the aisle were young, long-haired, and probably smoking something besides Camels. Hallelujah; I was going to move my seat.
It was a boy and a girl, but they weren’t related. Lizzie, the hippie girl, was as tiny as an elf, traveling with her skateboard, getting off in Albuquerque to face a felony charge of defacing a McDonald’s— she’d been on the lam for six months in Los Angeles. Her parents had told her she had to come in before it got a lot worse.
“How bad could it get?” I asked.
“Oh god, don’t ask— but my mom’s a tiger,” she said. We talked so fast I didn’t see half the desert slip by.
The young man propped against the open window was beautiful— like a storybook Jesus with a faint scar on his cheek. Jesus Meets Chuck Conners in The Rifleman. But he hardly said a word. He asked to borrow my “Day of the Jackal,” and looked grateful when I broke out the PBJ sandwiches. I told him I could “cut the crusts” off for him like my Grandma did, and he got misty in his eyes.
Lizzie and I hugged goodbye in Albuquerque like bosom buddies. No new girls got on board. “Jesus” asked me if I wanted to smoke a joint before the driver called us back inside. We walked to the alley behind the station and lit one up. It was quiet next to the trash-bins compared to the constant hum of the bus.
“You sure are pretty,” he said.
“Me? You’re the one who’s pretty,” I said. The sun was going down and when he turned to face the last light from the horizon, his eyes were hazel.
We got back on the bus, only the two of us in the back, and I asked him if he wanted something else to eat. He reached up to take a cookie out of my hand, but put it back in my lap, his head hanging down.
“What’s the matter?” I said, “What’s going on?” I tilted his head up with the tips of my fingers, and his lips parted like a child’s. Oh my god. I had to put something there so I kissed him. A little voice in my head said, “This is not mercy; this will not help,” but the bigger voice said, “Feed him now,” and that’s what won.
He sucked on me for the next ten miles. It felt good and then it felt sweaty— bad sweat, as if it was never going to end. I pushed him off. “I like kissing you but you gotta tell me what’s wrong.”
He rolled his eyes— his first sign of humor. “Will you read to me from the Jackal?”
“Yeah, of course,” I said. I know what it’s like to work yourself up to saying something difficult. I picked up the book from where he stopped on page four. Could he not read? I didn’t want to ask. I jumped in from where I’d left my bookmark:
Col. Rodin: We are not terrorists, you understand. We are patriots. Our duty is to the soldiers who've died fighting in Algeria, and to the three million French citizens who have always lived there.
The Jackal: And so you want to get rid of him.
Jesus-Kid put covered his hands over mine on the book’s open page. “I’m AWOL,” he said.
“Oh, shit…” I said. “How long, where from?”
Jesus looked around the rest of the seats like he was only now noticing we were surrounded by the Ozzie and Harriet brigade. He shook his head gravely at me, in a way I recognized from the I.S.
“Are you going to keep me on a “need to know” basis?” I asked, trying to get another smile out of him. “I don’t even have a name to call you.”
“My name’s Beau!” he said. The one thing he would never deny.
“Well, I thought you were Jesus ‘cause you look so sad and beautiful.”
He took my hands in his again and raised them to his lips, kissing them. He started to slump to the floor, to his knees, but didn’t let go of me— my god, was he having a heart attack?
“I want to ask you,” he said, halting, “I want to ask you: to marry me.”
“What?” I jumped up, snatched my hands out of his and banged my head against the luggage racks. “You don’t need to marry me, you need a lawyer! I can help you but you don’t even know me!”
He scrambled back up onto his seat and opened his palms to me, as if to show me a stigmata. “When we get to Amarillo,” he said, “I will buy you a ring and we can get married. I will get you any ring you want.”
How? Robbing a bank? I hadn’t been planning to explain my trip to anyone on this bus. And maybe laying it out for a crazy AWOL private was the worst way to start. But I thought if I could get him to see how different I was from what he imagined, I could help him out of this mess. God knows what had happened to him at Fort Fuckhead or wherever he’d run from. He needed reality and a warm therapist.
“Beau, you and I haven’t talked long, but you should know I’m not getting married to anyone,” I said, nodding my head. “I'm going to Detroit because I’m a socialist organizer and we’re having a summer camp to plan our little revolution better— I’ve been planning on going to this since tenth grade.”
“You can go later, after we get married,” he said, lost in thought. He reached out and cupping my breast in his hand. —Just cupping it, not squeezing or anything. It was like a Valium— the furrows in his brow disappeared as if he’d just been born.
I didn’t say anything but I looked at my watch. An hour more to Amarillo. Maybe we could just sit there with him holding my breast and he’d fall asleep and I could wriggle away.
“I’ll read some more, okay?” I said. He rested his head on my shoulder and kept that one hand of his in the same spot. Some Blue-Haired Beehive lady came back to go the bathroom and shot us a look like she was going to puke.
Be my guest. I’d give anything for a distraction.
“Ama-rillah!” the driver called, gliding us over a bump.
I shook Beau-Jesus awake. “Sweetie,” I said to him, “I gotta go to the ladies’ room real bad and then we’ll go shopping for my ring, okay; meet me right in front of the ticket counter in five minutes?”
I jumped up ahead of him, before he could even stand up, barreling down the aisle in front of every aged and disabled passenger, barely catching Beau’s cry, “I love you, baby wife of mine!”
The driver waited for each rider at the bottom of the bus steps. I grabbed his beefy arm and pulled him to the front grill where the passengers couldn’t see us— “You’ve got to help me— there’s a crazy man in the last smokers’ row who won’t leave me alone and I'm going to hide behind the driver’s side back here and when he gets off you make sure he walks toward the ticket counter— and I am getting right back on this bus and hiding under someone’s suitcase; okay?”
He pried my hand off his arm but he didn’t look confused. “I told you to watch out for the smokers,” he said.
He walked back to the front to help a few more old ladies come down with their canes.
I crouched down behind the driver side’s giant front tire. I could see everyone’s shoes walking away from the bus. Beau-Jesus was the very last pair of boots. I could see him pause as the driver pointed him toward the station ladies’ room and the ticket counter. He loped away. What a beautiful creature he was.
The driver knocked three times on the steel of the outside door and I scampered back on board, mouthing “thank you.” I collected all my shit from the back seat and hid in the “Tropical Jasmine” bathroom for twenty minutes. When I came out, we were well on our way to Oklahoma City. I looked like a squished sandwich, and I fell asleep for three hundred miles in Aisle 2B.
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