Bill McLaughlin was born in the later half of the last century. He has worked as a freelance journalist and independent radio producer. After...read more spending more than a decade as an itinerant writer and gardener, living and traveling in a 1973 VW camper bus, he now homesteads in upstate New York where he hauls water, chops wood, and ponders the Rights of Nature, late frosts, and black flies.
“It was, in a new form, the old, old trouble that eats the heart out of every civilization: snobbery, the desire for possessions, creditable appendages; and it is to escape this rather than the lusts of the flesh that saints retreat into the Himalayas.”
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.
Interrupting the rumpled green hills of suburban New Jersey, chiseled lawns, covered with dew, glimmered in the morning sun between checkered squares of ticky-tacky houses. Inside, the smells of another commuter morning—toast and eggs, coffee and cigarettes—lingered in the hallways, wafted lightly from kitchen to den. Chemical factory strawberries, herbs, and musk communicated from bathroom to bedroom. The occupants, who worked so hard for their pretty boxes, spent the greater part of their lives at jobs that made it possible for them to live in places like Peachtree Village, on streets with names recalling sylvan glades and secret places, names informed by the landscape before the bulldozers came and scraped it away.
At the corner of Magnolia and Wisteria Drive, when most of the villagers had gone to work, the low autumn sun burst between a split-level ranch and a two-story colonial. It splattered the cluttered kitchen windowsill at number fourteen Magnolia with an amber light whose optimism and clarity were lost on its sole sad inhabitant.
Slumped over his coffee, Ray opened the envelope without thinking, already knowing what it contained. As he removed the thick fold of papers a blur of Whereas's and Therefore's streaked across his eyes. Ray tossed the papers down with a dizzy finality that mirrored their contents. The small pile of legal papers in the middle of his kitchen table was growing, spreading, colonizing the last clear patches of swirling blue and gray Formica. His eggs burned while he stared at the paper remains of his life: unemployment forms, foreclosure notice and now, the divorce papers.
“It ain't shit really,” he said out loud, as his last cigarette burned in the ashtray leaving a frail gray skeleton.
Ray reached across the table and grabbed his checkbook. One thousand, one hundred and sixteen dollars and seventy-eight cents. Ray jabbed the calculator. This month's mortgage payment. Minus. The car payment. Minus. Car insurance. Minus. Lawyer consultation. Minus. Minus. Minus. Finally, negative one hundred fifteen dollars and eleven cents blinked from the display, mocking his attempt at fiscal responsibility. On the chair next to him was the bill for his cell phone. As Ray lifted the envelope a sheet of newspaper came with it, attached by a rash of strawberry jam. The indecipherable, always inaccurate reckoning demanded, for the third time, two hundred and seventy-nine dollars and thirteen cents.
“What! This can't be! I'm supposed to have a gazillion free minutes. Those bastards!”
The insatiable corporate machine threatened: Respond Immediately! Your Service Will Be Discontinued! This is Your Final Notice! As Ray peeled away the reply envelope from the newspaper he read the ad copy below the sleek gray dog:
Travel Anywhere in the U.S. —Ninety-Nine Days for Ninety-Nine Dollars!
His mouth moved as if chewing on a hair as he read the words again. He studied the numbers. He looked at the picture of the modern bus speeding down the interstate. He could see vague people behind the windows in their seats, reading, talking, moving forward without effort. He looked again at the amount due box on the phone bill, read once more the corporate whining for profits.
Globules of jam blotted out part of the address on the reply envelope; he could plainly read the rest: Sprint. Albert Schweitzer Corporate Park. Asheville, North Carolina. It was enough.
Ray knew that in one month, maybe two, the car would be gone, the house lost. He walked through the downstairs rooms hoping to find something he could not live without. He looked at the bottles in the liquor cabinet; nearly a full liter of Boodles gin; a bottle of 1987 Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. He had been saving them for an occasion.
“Should have drank them when I had the chance,” he thought.
He searched the upstairs bedroom. He rifled through the bedside table drawer. In the closet, he looked over his jazz lps. Real vinyl. Vintage covers. Mingus, Monk, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Billie Holiday, Miles and Coltrane. He couldn't take one and not take them all. These were the only friends he had left. When he and Liz had stopped talking he listened to them in the middle of the night, listened in solitude with headphones pressed close, listened to their elation and their suffering, to those spontaneous acts of creation, raw and unfettered. He began to think of his leaving as his own act of creation. In the closet he dug out an old photo album filled with black and white pictures and newspaper articles. From the last page of the album he removed a small clipping. He folded it carefully and put it in his wallet. Back downstairs he changed into a clean shirt, old sneakers and jeans. He smiled with great satisfaction as he expertly lobbed the cell phone cleanly into the toilet with a “plop.” He put his toothbrush into his back pocket and sat on the sofa holding his wallet.
He took out the deck of credit cards. First Macy's. He flung it sideways across the room. It spun and spiraled like a kid's baseball card on a lazy summer day. It hit the picture window and slid to the floor—Visa; Mastercard; American Express. They flew, one by one, from his hands like birds, crashing into the walls of his cage. He placed his driver's license into his front pocket with a few singles. He put his ATM card back into the wallet which also contained sixty-five dollars, three stamps, the recently added clipping, and a photo of him and Liz. He placed the photo and the stamps on the coffee table, went into the kitchen, crushed the empty cigarette pack and grabbed his keys. He stood outside the back door and slipped the key into the lock. He paused before turning the dead bolt into its hollow. He could smell the burnt eggs from behind the door as they cooled and congealed in the frying pan. From a few backyards away, the familiar scent of freshly cut grass and gasoline mingled with the sting of lawn chemicals. His hand dropped from the keys. He left them hanging from the lock in a brassy tangle. Ray Waldron, in the 33rd year of his life, had nothing to lock and nothing to lose.
It was a long walk to the bus station. Though he had lived in the area for more than a dozen years, he had never once walked farther than the few blocks to the Quik Chek. Ray was not only walking, he was strolling. He was moving without the usual burdens of stress and urgency. For the first time in years he had no deadline to beat. No copy to edit. No headlines to write. No complainers to appease. No ass to kiss. True, he thought, at the end of the week he would also have no check to cash. But he had nearly two thousand dollars in the bank, a cheap way to travel, and with a little frugality and ingenuity he was sure he could make the money last. He could work as he traveled—pump gas, clean toilets. It didn't matter.
“Christ, anything's better than that newspaper... that house. I'd rather have my head in a toilet than my ass behind that desk. Working for what? I'm done with that shit.”
Ray continued his walk. He passed the strip mall, gas stations and McJunkfood joints. Downtown, the skimpy trees lining Main Street had burst into their autumn suits. They stood like sentinel torches guarding the few remaining businesses that had survived the Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Targets and Home Depots out on the highway. Finally, at the tired end of town, Ray crossed the oil-soaked parking lot and entered the store front of the Mercury Bus Company. Orange plastic chairs interlocked with square chrome bars lined the walls. Giant amoeba coffee stains devoured the old linoleum while soda and snack machines played a chorus of hum and buzz that permeated every atom in the cramped office.
The agent, sitting low behind a slab of foggy plastic, passed Ray his ticket for Asheville.
“Bus departs in forty-five minutes out in front. Change in New York for the Greyhound. Gate 153 at eight p.m.”
With only a few passengers on board, Ray had his choice of seats. He sat by the window with no one next to him. Two Latina teenagers sat across the aisle. Ray watched his town slip past. He watched the streets converge into avenues, avenues emptied into highways, highways combined and flowed to the city. The bus followed the slowest route, stopping at each suburban town, then back onto the highway, then back off to pick up more passengers. Somewhere between the Stewarts root beer stand and the fifth McDonalds, Ray realized he was detaching himself from everything he knew, everything familiar. He was spinning in a free orbit, like a breakaway planet, like a rogue comet: a shooting star in a fixed universe. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by a sharp sense of panic. The cold dread of a bad and irreversible decision ran through his blood. He bolted upright in his seat hitting his head on the overhead luggage rack. Startled, the two girls looked up from their magazine and stared at him with astonished faces. His left heel slipped on something slimy under his seat and he fell back down as suddenly as he had risen. The two girls burst into giggles. Ray gave them a foolish grin then returned his gaze outside the window, pretending that nothing had happened.
At the Port Authority terminal on 42nd street, Ray took one escalator after another, slowly descending into the belly of the beast. He had five hours to kill so he headed downtown with a plan: dinner in Chinatown, coffee in the Village. He made his way to the west side subway, the IRT, the Interborough Rapid Transit, the name itself a wild exaggeration sandwiched between two part-time facts. He was waiting for the express train when he heard the music. He followed it to a lonely corner of the platform by the far stairway.
She was an apparition, New York subterranean style. She was tiny, he couldn't tell how old she was, maybe seventeen, but probably younger. Her sickly color and dirty skin distorted her age. The number of years really didn't matter. Ray saw only the ripped and stained pink party dress with the little fringes of tattered lace around the bottom and the ends of the sleeves and collar. He saw only her tired, stained saddle shoes; saw only the once white stockings with gaping holes revealing yet more dirty skin; saw only the smudges around her eyes and her painful smile. A smile whose remains she clung to like the party dress, a paper cut reminder of who she used to be or once dreamed of being.
But she was dancing. She was tap dancing to the music from the little radio which he now saw was a few feet in front of her. It was propped up in a shoe box, among some small pieces of cloth and a dollar or two in change. The sound was muffled and noisy but somehow managed to compete and even be heard above the noise of the train station. No one was paying attention. She danced with her head held straight, her smile never changing.
Almost as soon as he had found her, the uptown train pulled in with the usual roar that slowly deafens you over time. Ray turned to look at the train for a second and when he turned back again she was gone. As he looked around he saw her getting on the uptown train. Without thinking, he followed her.
The doors closed and they headed north. She put her shoe box on the floor by the center pole, turned on the radio and started to dance again. This time he was standing directly in front of her. Her eyes stared straight ahead as if watching a movie somewhere behind him, her matted blonde hair barely moved as she danced. He could hear the taps on her shoes now which were nearly drowning out the music. She never stopped smiling. It was her rigid, vacant smile that made him think of her as someone's pretty little bassinet stuffer, someone's little dirty diaper maker, first steps, first word, first grade, first date. Someone's first warm, wet kiss.
Diagonally across from Ray, leaning against the other doors, was another onlooker. He smiled and Ray tried to return the same smile, both of them perhaps a bit embarrassed for her or maybe for their indifference beyond curiosity. Ray wondered if this man was also on the wrong train.
When the music stopped she stood still for a moment and then bent down toward her shoe box. At first he thought she was going to pass around the box but instead she picked up a piece of cardboard which Ray hadn't noticed before. It was folded in thirds and as she unfolded it she turned, in half circles, arms extended, holding out the sign. The scrawled blue crayon letters read:
help the girl with no home
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.
The new passenger was restless. He shifted in his seat, muttered to himself, and finally succeeded at catching Ray's glance.
“Good to be back on the road. I hope I never see that fuckin' place again!”
“Been there long?,” Ray asked gingerly, glad he didn't use the word 'in.'
“Eight months, seventeen days. I shouldn't have been in there at all. Hey, I'm lucky I didn't get the goddamn chair with that fuckin' scumbag lawyer they gave me. He slept through half the fuckin' trial!”
The man fell quiet for a few moments then looked at Ray with eyes that seemed to plead for understanding. The hard shell that encased him, his tough language, his bravado began to slowly dissolve. He spoke now in a softer voice, a tone nearly intimate. He stretched out his hand.
The stranger shook hands with a grip designed for survival.
“I've gotta get back there someday.”
“Really? I thought you didn't want to ever come back.”
“Yeah, right. Well, I...”
Clayton leaned across the aisle and looked at Ray as firmly as he had just shaken his hand.
“I didn't even know I had a son. It was the 70s man, everybody was screwing everybody else. How the hell did I know. One day this kid shows me a picture of his mom. I didn't really want to see it—what do I care what some kid's mother looks like. But hey, we were hanging out together a lot. You know how it is. So he shows me this picture. And there she was. I forgot her name but I recognized her right away. I was only with her for a few weeks—I blew outta town before she knew. This was back in Pittsburgh. Hey, you know what I'm saying? You just don't look back, right? Keep moving. How the hell was I gonna know? Well, the kid's all right I guess. Yeah, a little trouble, he ain't bad though. He's tough for sure—don't fuck with this kid. That's good. He ain't big—he's like me—stocky and solid. Just got in with the wrong crowd is all. You know how that shit goes. Just like his old man. Shit, what's that saying about the acorn not falling far from the tree?
Clayton became quiet, lost in some memory. Then he looked again at Ray, tilted his cap over his eyes to block out the stream of headlights and settled low in his seat.
“I told the kid to tell his mother hello for me. Man, she was one sweet... Hey, that was a long time ago. Yeah, I gotta get back there sometime. Yeah man, definitely.”
A warm blue rain settled over Ray, spread from the back of his neck down his arms and legs and settled in a deep pool all around him. He scrunched down in his seat and closed his eyes and tried to imagine the two men, father and son—stud and seed—talking at a table in the TV room, dressed in orange jumpsuits, talking while everyone shouted answers at Alex Trebec; their lives contained and compressed behind the endless loops of barbed wire and walls too high to dream over. He pictured them together as the cold white lights that never go off illuminated everything but the truth. Clayton wasn't ever going back.
The first light of day crept out from behind a ridge of low scudding clouds in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains. Ray slowly awoke from a few hours of unsatisfying sleep. Sometime during the night, Clayton had slipped off the bus near a lonely crossroads. Ray had pretended to be asleep as the man rose with a grunt from his seat. Ray peered out the window and watched as he walked deliberately, the dead weight of his duffel slung over his shoulder like a body.
Dawn spread quickly over the crests of the mountains, shimmered along the ridge tops and gradually flowed like molasses into the foothills, turning the pastures an iridescent green. A few cows here and there grazed in the morning sun. Horses with their manes blazing in the horizontal light shook the dew from their withers and playfully nuzzled each other. Ray felt a great joy at this new day, a joy he had not felt in years. Suddenly, life held out its promise once again. Removed from the numbing routine, now he was living—instead of making a living. His spirit soared as the bus raced southward. The stale meals at the junk food restaurants, the fitful sleep, the constant coughing and sneezing, the irritating, never-ending stops all fell to a minor note and were quickly forgotten as he realized he was free. He imagined himself back in New Jersey, schlepping to work, arguing with Liz, struggling to pay bills for things he never really wanted or needed. Then, as if suddenly remembering a lost wallet, his thoughts turned once again to his errand.
“One last thing,” he thought. “Just one last thing.”
Shortly before noon they pulled into the depot. The engine stopped and the bus became sadly quiet. The doors opened and the sounds of the world outside began filling the coach, gently brushing past the dazed passengers, temporarily reviving them. The driver stood, yanking at his pants with a self-satisfied gesture. Facing his charges, he steadied himself in the aisle, sucking in a deep draught of North Carolina air.