Ought to be over it by this time; after all, I’ve been driving buses for more than twenty years. But some things never change. Setting out, my feelings are always the same, always double. First off, I never know who I’m going to meet or what might come up. Second-my second thought: I’ve seen it all, pretty much everything, by now. Things you wouldn’t believe … I’ve seen quickie marriages consummated in the back of the bus. Well … not marriages, quite, and not seen, exactly-but glimpsed enough to know what was going on. Don’t ask me what happened a few hundred miles down the freeway. Could guess, but it’s a rare sight for the same passengers to come round again on my particular shift.
But then, while I was thinking this, the rare thing happened. I recognized this girl, inching forward, in the lineup of new boarders. Already she had her ticket out of the envelope, though it would be a couple of minutes yet until I got round to her. It sure looked like the same girl, barely into her teens, snub nosed and freckled with straw-colored hair and, now as before, much too pale for anyone healthy enough to be standing or walking on her own two feet … Where was it then? Missouri, someplace. One of those little lost “misery towns” as a smart aleck on board liked to call them. The town was only a flag stop; no real depot, just a doughnut shop doubling as a ticket office, with no direct service anywhere. I could see it clear as yesterday. Hinton? Hanton? Hun-Something. H-something Junction … Pain in the neck for me: the town of whatever (the name on the tip of my tongue). Some problem with their local connecting bus to the regular depot in Stanton and I’d been called to fill the gap.
Then it came to me. The name was Hunters Junction. A day unseasonably warm. Like Indian summer, in late October … I remember thinking that a girl her age ought to be in school. Instead, she was about to set off on a long-distance bus. Alone-I knew right away that she’d be traveling alone, even though she was well fenced in with company at that moment. Church ladies, judging from their hair buns and dark, drab, homemade dresses, cut from the same swatch of cloth, the same pattern-all severe, but for the curious flare of their puff sleeves. They weren’t old, those ladies, but so prim and grim it was hard to imagine they’d ever been young. I figured they belonged to one of those hellfire and brimstone holiness churches you’re apt to find in backwater towns. We’d passed a billboard coming into town: PLEASE DON’T GO TO HELL. LOVE JESUS, and it should have been fair warning-the splashes of red and yellow in the background, with this blot, twisted black, in the middle of it, a shape once human maybe but charred beyond recognition. Whew, boy! I’d never forget that-and how those good ladies had circled the girl and were laying hands on her as I nosed in to park. It was a regular love fest they had going there, and anyone could see how bowed down the girl was, shrinking from all those blessings. My heart went out to her: there’s no defense against an attack like that.
Funny … Seeing the girl again this time round, how much came back to me, how much I must’ve stored away. Little things. How red her eyes, for one. Had been crying for quite some time, I expect, then turned to stare off to the side at a boy perched on the curb, biting into a sandwich. Nothing out of the ordinary there, yet I knew exactly what seized her attention. A squirrel had crept close to the boy; he was standing on his hind legs, tail raised up, shape of a question mark, and he was wringing his tiny hands, asking. The boy was chewing and spitting, spraying crumbs in the critter’s face, trying to blow him away. The girl stared, wide eyed, astonished, at the two of them; my eyes met hers by a sort of triangulation, you might say.
I’d motioned the girl forward then and unfolded her ticket. Her destination was someplace in Oklahoma I’d never heard of. She’d have to transfer to a local bus or, could be, a couple of buses. I told her this, but it seemed to come as no surprise. So I picked up her suitcase, startled at how light it was (a girl her age), tossing it into the freight compartment, and, touching her elbow to guide her, ushered her on board.
Once inside, she seemed unaware of the tears still streaking her cheeks and made no effort to wipe them away. I guessed her age as fourteen-fifteen tops. She might have been pretty but for her color. Pale as a jailbird. Like she hadn’t seen the light of day in years. That wouldn’t be natural for someone so young. Could’ve been sick for a long time, of course … I had a hunch that wasn’t it.
I even recalled the dress she wore: a long but skimpy cotton thing, dark blue, speckled with white spots fine as salt. She kept plucking the cloth away from her skin. Maybe it was the heat, or some nervous habit she’d always had, but, again, I didn’t think so. Like I said, I pretty well guessed what the story was. And that it would have no good ending.
We’d made the briefest of stops for this girl. No one offered to come on board to help her settle in, but that made it all the easier for me-we’d been behind, even before the unexpected detour, and I was glad to be able to take off without further delay. The boy was still squatting curbside as we pulled out, still chewing. Only the crust of his sandwich remained. The squirrel, back down on all fours, had moved a short distance off; he continued to track the boy’s movements: something, some small morsel, might yet be tossed his way.
The seat she found was three or four rows back; she settled in, pressing her palm to the window, her face mostly masked off by her hand. Her escorts had located her window by that time, and one of the ladies was tapping on the pane, but the girl sat frozen, motionless, fingers rayed out, pressed flat against the glass, blotting out as much of the scene, and herself, as she could. The ladies must have taken her raised hand for a wave; they all waved back.
I had the air-conditioning going full blast, as I recall, trying to keep myself awake and the passengers off my back. I angled my inside mirror so as to keep my eye on the girl. That moon-pale skin … I was a little spooked by how ghostly-afraid she might faint on me. Then, when I noticed her shivering and hunching down, I took the hint and scaled back a notch on the cooling. I could see that her cheeks were still glistening. They dried slowly as the miles wore on. From here on out, no one would know who she was: she was quite safe with us, but she’d wrapped herself in her own arms, in thick silence, and she flinched, actually flinched, when the woman across the aisle (“Alice from Dallas,” I’d tagged her), a young gal not that much older than she was, spoke a few harmless words of greeting. The girl said something back-three or four words by way of reply then returned to her silence, keeping it well wrapped round.
That was then … October … five months back. So far, I cautioned myself, I’d only spotted this remarkable look-alike in the line of new passengers waiting to board; I couldn’t be absolutely sure it was the same girl until I checked her ticket-to see if it said Hunters Junction.
And, at the moment, I had other things on my mind. Everything had been running along pretty smoothly. I’d started the first of the passengers boarding when suddenly I heard all this muttering and sputtering at my back. There were passengers stalled on the steps and passengers jammed in the aisle, not a one budging. Where was the bottleneck? I couldn’t see it.
No help for it but to order the passengers back down off the steps and elbow my way inside.
“Â¿QuÃ© quiere ella?” a female voice was shrilling.
The cause of it all wasn’t far to seek: this elderly lady who wanted to sit in the front row. As, I must add, she was fully entitled to do. The front two seats, right behind the driver’s, are priority seating for seniors and handicapped. Only problem was that a gal from Mexico with a kid had settled in there first. The old dame was standing on her rights, refusing to budge; she’d started reading aloud from the sign under the window ledge, which stated in no uncertain terms exactly who had first dibs on these seats. The Mexican was waving tickets in her face, shouting something about having bought good tickets with “mucha lana”-plenty of money-and being able to prove it.
“PaguÃ© al contado. Â¡Mira! Â¡AquÃ estÃ¡ la prueba!”
So I stepped in, doing my best to explain the obvious: “I don’t think she understands English.” “Then maybe she should pick another country!” The old lady’s voice was rising. She was quite a sight, dressed for a tea party or church or something. Nylons, heels, gloves-the works. Normally-and it turned out to be the case for her-anybody dressing up is bound for a short journey. So you had to wonder: was it worth all the fuss?
“Now, ladies,” I said.
“Â¡Tengo la prueba!”-the other was still waving her proof of a ticket. “Â¡Mira!” look!-thrusting it furiously; and then, wouldn’t you know, the kid was climbing on her neck, clinging, starting to squall. I had maybe three dozen words of Spanish; none of them terrifically apropos. “Por favor,” I started, but all I could manage after that was “bas-bastante,” enough what? and “muy amable,” very kind. I made small tamping-down motions with my right hand, doing my best to let her know that her ticket had been noted, it was OK, she had proven, she could put her proof away now.
“You know …” I turned to the standing woman, making an effort not to get ruffled, touching her elbow gently so she’d lift her head, stretch her gaze a little. “There’s a seat ready and waiting for you right over there, and I’m sure the nice lady sitting there”-I pointed, taking my chances-“would be glad of your company.” Unexpectedly, I’d lucked out. The nice lady proved to be so, signaling “over here-right over here!”
It was fourth row back-only a few steps more-yet the woman who’d started the ruckus was far from pacified: “Shows what this country is coming to!” she announced to the rest of the bus. Her voice was shaking. All we needed was a back-and-forth on this subject, but thankfully nobody took her up on it.
And she did settle down at last, though not before extracting a piece of tissue from her purse and dusting off the seat. Her seatmate offered a few soothing sounds for which, once again, I was grateful. We weren’t completely over it, though. The Spanish-speaking gal in priority seating was now in tears. My next job should have been trying to calm her down, but I’d had it with both ladies, and I didn’t even try. Talk about the U.S. of A. as the great melting pot! That’s the official story, what we’d like to think, but you’ve got to wonder. Call this melting?
Anyway, by then the blockage was cleared, the line was free to move. We were back in business. I returned my attention to those waiting, and soon I was face-to-face with the girl I mentioned. That dress should have told me, if nothing else. And then her ticket gave Hunters Junction as her destination-so I knew I was right: she had to be the same one. I felt obliged to remind her that it had been a special detour, my stopping at Hunters Junction before; this time, she’d have to transfer in Stanton for the last leg of her trip. She answered in a wispy voice, “Oh, sure, I know.”
So she was going back … It had been a dead-end move. A little over five months between then and now, not all that long, really. And yet she’d aged-years for months, it looked to me-something had aged her. But I didn’t have time to wonder much before turning to the next customer.