four a.m. on a south-bound bus, someone outside starts banging on the door just
as we try to pull out of West Memphis. Big Rosie Moses, the new relief driver,
leans away from the wheel and looks over at the side-view, looking to see who's
banging. She mutters sharp and low, then grabs the big chrome handle, pulls
it toward her.
The door swings out slow and the low rattle of
idling buses and sicky-sweet smell of diesel crawl up into the coach just ahead
of two white men in dark wind breakers. They wear guns and big white letters
on their backs that say ORGANIZED CRIME UNIT-M.P.D. Rosie starts talking real
business-like about keeping to her schedule but the white letters don't listen.
They tell her to get her ass off the bus as they x-ray us, looking through the
seats and our clothes and our brains. Looking clean through the walls of the
funky little toilet at the back of the bus. Looking through the black kid in
there doing his business.
© Ronnie Burk
a nervous-looking black man bumps and bangs luggage out from under us. Four
or five more men with guns and white letters and ready-looking dogs stand in
close. Rosie's right up in this fat white guy's face, poking him in the chest,
pointing back at the bus. He doesn't listen any better than the other two; just
Up front, white letter closes the door. The other,
blonde crew-cut, overweight-stuffed in tight jeans and dull boots, stands in
the isle. His radar's turned up high; eyes like heat-seeking missiles looking
for smoke .
"Fore y'all leave, we jus' gonna 'ast a few questions
'bout where ya' been, where ya' goin', and maybe have a quick look at what ya'
got. Stay in ya' seats and don't talk lest I 'ast ya'. We'll be off direc'ly."
Outside, Rosie hot-boxes a smoke, paces back and
forth in front of the silver bus. When the dogs get close, she moves away and
stands real stiff, back against the diesel-dirty wall of the terminal. Big round
eyes looking straight ahead.
A Greyhound Bus holds forty-seven people including
the driver. At four o'clock this morning in West Memphis, Arkansas, forty-two
of them are black; mostly middle-aged and elderly women carrying plastic bags
and pillows. They cluck and mumble at each other like hens settling in to roost,
looking down at their hands and nothing else in particular.
The ones who aren't black are a skinny, sick-looking
kid with bad, red skin and part of one no-name tennis shoe ripped away. He makes
scared noises in his sleep and wakes up sweaty-wet. Everything he owns is in
a brown Piggly-Wiggly sack he uses like a pillow. Carries it with him everywhere.
Even carries it to the funky little bathroom at the back of the bus.
Four seats in front of him is a horse-faced woman
in a mustard-color Dolly World! shirt. Has big teeth and stringy hair the color
of wet asphalt. Talks loud and snorts when she laughs. In her lap is a whiney,
screechy little thing that never gives up. Face is thin and dirty and makes
a noise like cats fighting in a pile of scrap metal. The horse-faced woman calls
it Sugar Pea and she paws at it with thick fingers.
Next to Horse-face, her husband is stiff and quiet.
He doesn't say much even when she talks at him. He pretends he's asleep but
I know he isn't. No one could sleep next to that racket. Whenever Horse-face
or the Sugar Pea bump on him, his short ropey arms fly up in spastic jerks to
cover his eyes. Oily, wiggly looking hair sits on his head in gobs and looks
almost alive; like it could crawl off and jump on the Pea's face. Whenever he
looks at Horse-face and the Sugar Pea, his eyes go bored and murder crazy.
When they got on the bus in Nashville, Horse-face
told anyone who'd listen about how their van "just busted down flat in the Smokies.
We'uns broke down for three days now. Got just enough to get 'ta Texarkana were
my husband's got people." Said it almost proud, like she was a pioneer; like
the last surviving member of some ill-fated wagon train headed west through
Indian country. Said it like we could all relate somehow. Then she'd paw the
Sugar Pea with those dirty hands and make it screech some more.
The blonde crew-cut and his gun get next to my
seat and I recognize his face. The same face that stared at me back in the sticky
little cafeteria inside the terminal. Stared at me over a white cup full of
steam while I ate runny eggs and burned bacon and tried to figure why I got
on this bus in the first place.
"Where ya' comin' from?"
Before I even answer, a smile starts across his
face. Like a barn cat who just looked through a gap in the fence and spied a
mouse away from his hidey-hole.
The smile completes and he leans against the seat
with his hand on the gun.
"What ya do? Up there in Dee-troit."
The smile goes away.
"Where ya goin', Mister Dee-troit?
"Visit my daddy."
In less time than it takes to form the word, I
fall down a well full of Southern expressions I haven't used in thirty years.
I haven't called my father daddy in longer than I can remember.
"A week, I don't know. He's sick."
"Sorry ta' hear."
He turns away and before I can breathe, spins
back on me.
"Awright, Dee-troit, let's just see ever'thing
in that nice bag there. Take it all out slow and nice. Let's jus' see what ya'
Bus luggage means plastic bags and paper sacks,
so the leather tote on the seat next to me looks wrong. Like a tux on a rack
at the Salvation Army. And like the bag, I'm wrong too. Middle-age white man
in black sweats and cashmere sweater. Bored with his life. Lugging his angst
down I-40 at four a.m., back to where it started out bright and shiny all those
But Crew-cut's trained to spot wrongness and he's
registered mine. He wants to know why I'm here at four a.m. Out of place and
time. But it's a question he won't ask, because he thinks he knows. And I just
wish it was that simple.
I'm on this bus because when some of us have to
take a trip we're scared to make, we go by the slowest means available, and
besides walking or maybe crawling on all fours, this is it.
I'm on this bus so I can see where I'm going.
You can't see where you're going in a plane. Riding a plane's like being shot
out of a cannon aimed far away, where you arrive in a short piece of time like
a cannonball slamming through the plaster wall of a different reality. And in
between, the journey's nothing but a high, cold arc through a place where no
one lives, thirty-thousand feet above this bus and Rosie and you and your West
And I'm on this bus because its a way to let the
line of my life go slack; let it reel off the spool slow and quiet while I fall
backwards through thirty years of memory to a place that probably no longer
exists and may never have existed except as a recurring dream.
But Crew-cut wouldn't want to hear any of that
now. Not at four a.m. with his gun. Right now he's just interested in ORGANIZED
CRIME and the leather bag on the seat. So I open it wide. And he looks in.
The absence of drugs and automatic weapons disappoint
It disappoints me too as I fantasize running through
the Dallas terminal, middle-age crazy with an ether-soaked rag jammed under
my nose, chasing old women and homeless bums into Dealey Plaza screaming ALL
THE WAY WITH L.B.J! As the Texas Boys Choir belts out the Hallelujah Chorus
from the roof of the School Book Depository, I empty clip after clip and windows
implode in a hale of automatic fire as the ghosts of Jack Ruby and J. F. K.
beckon me to a red Caddy limousine full of Mexican whores and cold Lone Star
and we drive all night, south to Arkansas Pass where we steal a fifty-foot Bertram
and, using the whores for bait, troll the Gulf for world-record hammerheads
that we trade for a Hooters franchise in Havana where Fidel and I spend long
evenings in a heart-shaped Jacuzzi with big-breasted waitresses who beg to have
our children while we, smoking the finest cigars ever made, discuss the possible
existence of God, and the Bermuda Triangle.
But the fantasy dies quick like they all do these
days, and I look up at Crew-cut, smiling just a little. He doesn't speak for
a bit, just stares at me like I was a bug. Then he leans across the seat, knocks
on the window and waves the dogs away.
"Save us some trouble. Next time, find anotha'
way to see ya' daddy. It's a free country 'unnastan, but people like you, ya'
be better off takin' some otha' way. Hear?"
He stares a little longer, then dips his head
and moves away. Horse-face gets in full song about being busted flat in the
Smokies but he doesn't listen. Just looks over his shoulder at me once, then
Hours later we're stuck behind a slow-moving log
train on a two-lane road somewhere in western Arkansas. Passing chalky, asbestos-sided
houses growing junk in the yards and rusty double-wides that sit alone in fields
of rutted mud.
On the tumble-down porch of a rickety gray shot-gun
shack, a pair of gutted washing machines share the view with an old woman on
a crooked couch and a barefoot white girl with a three-legged, liver-colored
dog. Rusted wire fences overgrown with grapevine and kudzu border swamp, bottom
land and muddy fields. Smoky little bar-b-que joints lean against abandoned
gas stations reincarnated as junk yards and scrap dealers. All of them dying
an easy, quiet, Southern death.
Just outside of Palestine, Rosie pulls off the
road and parks out front of a deserted drive-in. The faded blue sign says SKYWAY
THEATER-WHERE THE STARS COME OUT. Time for a smoke.
Four or five of us pile off and stand around like
mentals on a day trip; no traffic at all, just quiet and green and hazy smelling.
Nothing but the sound of bugs.
Past the busted windows of an old ticket booth,
I follow gravel ruts to the business side of the big curving white screen. The
weedy lot with its long, humped rows of poles and dangling speakers looks like
a barren, well-ordered graveyard. In the breeze, speakers swing on curly cords
and I see row after curving row of rusty, headless soldiers facing the screen,
marching in place, waiting for the stars to come out.
I turn, face with them and watch flickering images
of spinning bicycle wheels pulling the shadow of a small boy down a deserted
Texas two-lane, towards the quicksilver he can never reach. And the wheels roll
on and turn to iron as the rumble of a slow-moving train carries the boy through
the South as he stands on a platform between dull silver cars and waves at old
colored men with cane poles down by dark glass pools near the tracks.
Rolling faster, the wheels turn chrome and flash
diamond bullets of blue-white light as they carry the boy and a girl now, through
warm evenings of buttons and bows and zippers and tears and kisses softer than
rain and triumph and failure and still they roll. Out of the South now, fast,
towards the industrial North.
Towards blind broken promises and compromise,
and the mean understanding of life under the bullwhip crack of a Ring Master
God who never sleeps and marks his presence with a sound like locomotives fornicating
in a junkyard. Marks it with dumb silence of the-biggest-billboard-in-the-world
hung over the city, idiot-flashing the ever growing tally of rolling iron produced
every single minute of every single day world without end AMEN.
Marks it with the sound of guns strafing a new years night in celebration of
another hour or another day when a stray bullet didn't kiss you so hard you
didn't have time to say good-bye to your wife, your friend, your child. Yourself.
And still, the wheels roll. Turning South now,
slower, carrying Rosie and Horse-face and the Sugar Pea, and a man who's let
the line of his life go slack.
The horn sounds and I replace one of the speakers
on its pole. The soldier seems to salute me now, and I salute him back.
At the little terminal in Texarkana, Horse-face
gets off with the Sugar Pea and her husband. Before she does, she turns and
gives a loud good-bye to everyone, although none of us have spoken to her.
"Bye y'all. Hope you'uns have a good trip. Get
where you're goin' to okay. Bye. Say bye, Sugar Pea."
Pea squirms and sucks at a ketchup stain on the
Dolly World! shirt as the husband pushes them off the bus. Rosie pulls their
stuff off and sets a pile on the sidewalk; a few cardboard boxes tied up with
string and a torn pink Hefty bag full of clothes. I run in to grab a Coke and
a fast smoke.
On my way back, Horse-face looks out at the empty
parking lot, crying softly; head down, wet asphalt hair hiding her face, stuck
in her lips and teeth. Sugar Pea's quiet. Husband doesn't touch them. Just looks
wore-out-beat-down-quittin'-now-old staring at the cracked sidewalk, talking
at his scuffed shoes.
"I called 'em. Back in Lebanon. But that don't
mean they cared to come. Theyn't promise to take us in. You know'd that 'fore
we come. Theyn't ever promise nothin'."
He walks away and sits on the dirty curb, studying
trash between his shoes, picking at his hands. His shadow long and skinny in
the late, slantey-hot Arkansas sun.
Rosie punches my ticket and looks out the window
at the crying woman and the little kid like something seen a hundred times before.
She clucks softly, lumbers back to the drivers seat and starts the bus. Gives
three quick blips on the horn.
At the sound, Horse-face looks up and arms tears
and hair away. She walks towards the bus with the Sugar Pea and stands on the
curb close to the dirty window where I sit. She helps the Sugar Pea wave good-bye.
Big dirty fingers round a small dirty wrist; wave
and wave and wave, over and over. Like you would sending off old friends. I
wave back and offer a clumsy prayer as we pull out and continue southwest, rolling
deeper into that recurring dream that might have been home or something like
Wondering about the chances you take when you
leave. Wondering if they're ever worth the price.