Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
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help the girl with no money
help the girl with nothing
Without waiting for donations, and with automated movements, she folded up the sign and put it back down on the dirty floor of the train, turned on the radio and began dancing again, her eyes still staring straight ahead, still refusing to acknowledge where she was. At the next stop Ray put some change in the shoe box, felt for his wallet and transferred for the downtown train. Like a dog wandering the neighborhood after finally jumping the fence, he was free to go anywhere, free even, to take the wrong train.
Three hours later he was back at the Port Authority promising himself he would never again ride the dog into a big city. He would instead strike out for wide horizons, big sky country where he could disappear, quiet and small.
In the washroom, Ray leaned over an ancient porcelain sink to splash his face. With streams of water dripping onto the floor, he blotted himself with a ragged shred of brown paper towel. Standing back, he stared at his mirror image. He had been on the road for only eight hours but already the change was obvious. His short brown hair, usually neat, was disheveled. His droopy green eyes looked weary. The hollow in his chin was now shaded with new whiskers. He decided he would buy a razor, shave in bus terminal washrooms. Sleep would come, he learned, on the bus. He could save money on motels by taking the night bus. But Ray soon realized that sleeping on the Greyhound was not a simple matter of economics. There are babies and toddlers whose constant yelping would invade his dreams and startle him into consciousness. Sudden jerks and stops, hissing brakes, wheezing old men and the smell of urine and whiskey would all wrestle him back from dreamland. Ray would soon learn that three days on a bus will dull your senses, blend the landscape into a whirring blur of fast food chains, empty lots, and boarded storefronts. Necklaces of street lamps and car lights stream past: unrelenting novas interrupting fitful sleep. The wind, now only a white noise brushing past steel, devoid of its fresh smells and brisk caress.
At 8:14 p.m., as the last glow of daylight surrendered to dusk and the lights of Manhattan began their nightly vigil, the Greyhound whirled down the spiral ramps of the Port Authority bus terminal. During the next 24 hours, while its passengers dozed and dreamed, it would slice through the rolling granite of the Appalachians, skirt the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia, then twist—first east, then west—around the Black mountains and finally into the hidden hollows and hogbacks of North Carolina. Ray leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. The girl appeared before him, her head held straight and staring blankly. She softly whispered a single word. Ray awoke as she disappeared into a cloudy gauze. He shivered as he silently repeated the word she had spoken: homeless
Deep in the night, as Ray slept that half-sleep so common on buses and trains, the coach jerked to a stop along a deserted stretch of highway. Just beyond the reach of the headlights, he could see a sprawling industrial complex glowing like daylight at its perimeter. At first he thought it might be a GE weapons plant, or maybe a Schering-Plough animal experimentation facility where inside, cloaked in secrecy, mad scientists tortured dogs and cats and monkeys so that America's middle-aged women would not have to perspire, wrinkle, or sag and old men could schedule hard-ons to coincide with birthdays, anniversaries and football games. But as his eyes gradually focused, Ray discerned the spiraling loops of razor wire and looming towers; silver cyclone fences, gates within gates. The interior lights of the bus flickered on and a man, in his forties, of medium height and weight, wearing a Yankees baseball cap atop a thick crop of blonde hair boarded the bus. He walked to the back where Ray was sitting. He stashed his army duffel in the overhead and took a seat on the aisle across from Ray. The bus spit a shower of gravel into the night as it lurched onto the roadway and continued its intrusion south.
The smell of cigarettes on the man's clothes reminded Ray that he hadn't had a smoke since leaving home. The bus driver, a fat and happy man in his late 50s, who proudly wore the snappy uniform of the Greyhound empire, was one of them: a non-smoker. Every five or six hours the bus would exchange its weary driver for a fresh and perhaps even eager pilot. With each change of driver, the passengers secretly hoped for a kindred spirit. If the driver was a smoker, then the bus inevitably stopped every hour—if a non-smoker, the stops, at least to the smokers, occurred at eternally-long intervals. The announcement of a “smoke break” would bring a round of cheers from the nicotine addicts and a silent acquiescence from the stiff-legged non-smokers who dreaded the residual stink that would fill the bus afterward.
Breakfast and a Cigarette, Part I continues...