published in Volume 5, Issue 3 on September 1st, 1998Rain ran down the window of the bus as Gene stared out at the lights of approaching cars. The white beams fanned out and highlighted the night-time rain. The wet glass became a poor mirror, reflecting his features back at him darkly. He saw the gold earring, and the lean features of his tanned face were distinct, but his curly black hair vanished in the shadowy water that rolled down on the other side of the glass. Much of him seemed swallowed in shadows.
He felt several days worth of stubble as he touched his chin. His mouth was sticky and there was a cruddy sensation on his teeth. His eyes felt raw and dry. He wanted to take a hot shower, a shower with lots of steam in a dark room. He cocked his head at an angle, craning to look up at the night sky. Somewhere above him were stars, but he couldn't see them. At first he thought it was his poor vantage point, then he observed the rain once more, and realized how foolish it was to look for starlight in a storm.
As he shifted his weight he felt the numb tingling in his buttocks and a dull ache around his tailbone. He truly hated riding on the bus. He hated the smell of disinfectant back in the toilet, and the way heat from the engine rose up between his legs when he could no longer ignore the need to sit in there. He hated to be rocked back and forth and hear things sloshing below.
And he tired of the people who rode with him. For most of the day he sat with a fat man whose scent suggested he was too wide to reach back and sufficiently wipe himself. Gene had ridden with his face buried against the slim, fresh air duct for 300 miles. The stinky man had gotten off and was replaced by an older, thinner fellow who tapped away at a laptop computer. He wasn't so bad.
He watched unattended children that were bouncing around the aisles. They screamed and cried in such an unrestrained fashion that Gene envisioned their parents abandoning them on the bus and sighing with relief as the highway forever took them away. One boy, maybe seven or eight years old, fired a noisy plastic pistol at Gene. In wash-faded letters on his t-shirt were the words: Shit Happens.
Mainly Gene hated the bus because he couldn't sleep. It was hard enough lately even when he was comfortable, but here it was impossible. He wanted a long sleep. He wanted oblivion.
Gene looked at the magazine rolled in his lap. It contained tales of men kayaking down white water, camping in tropical rain forests, climbing sheer stone walls. It said nothing about men who just quit and moved on.
"Well, that's that," said the fellow beside him. He was heavier than Gene, and probably twenty years older as well.
Gene looked over at him as he began to collapse the computer. The man smiled and Gene noticed how his glasses sat at an angle on his head.
"Hello," the man said, and extended his open hand. Gene took it and felt a squeeze. "Good grip," the man said, his eyes seemed to linger over the callouses on Gene's hands, "Construction?" he asked.
"Some. Mainly I turn wrenches." His voice rasped and caught on the words.
"How about a soda? Long rides dry you out." Without waiting for a reply the man began to dig in a bag at his feet. "Sorry, all I've got is diet." He pulled up a can and offered it.
Gene accepted uncertainly, "Uh, sure. Thanks. What do I owe you?"
The man made a waving gesture, "Ahh, don't worry."
Gene opened the can and watched a thin mist spurt out.
"Name's Walt. Walt Cobol, like the computer language. You?"
"Gene Severin." Gene took a long drink from the can. It tasted wet and fresh. "I don't think I've ever seen one of those on the bus before," Gene said, pointing at the computer.
"Yeah, and they don't last on long rides, either. But when was the last time you read about a bus falling out of the sky killing everybody on board?"
"Don't like to fly?" Gene asked.
"Nosir," Walt said, making the sentence one word. "And I do love the open road."
Behind them, what Gene imagined as the largest radio on earth blared to life and the bus was filled with popping noises, thumping bass, and a sing-song reading of poetic lines.
Gene made a face, "I hate rap music," he said to Walt.
"Never listen to it. But I try not to reject something till I've spent some time with it. Sometimes if you're open, you can learn from the strangest places."
Thank you for cramming your taste down my throat, would have been Penny's reaction to the music. And Gene pushed her voice outside his head.
"Well, I know your name and that you don't like rap music. Where're you from?" Walt asked.
"San Ramone, lower coast of California."
"Where're you headed?"
Gene made a smacking sound as he let the soda run past his lips. "To a town called Coop--in Nebraska."
Walt nodded, "Family?"
Gene shook his head, "Job. Friend of mine runs a shop, repairs machinery."
"What do you do?" Walt asked.
"I do it all. I can run 'bout any rig an' I can keep 'em running, too."
Walt nodded his head in an exaggerated bobbing motion, "Work should be plentiful for a man with your qualifications. Why work so far from home?"
Penny bubbled to mind for just a second, but Gene pushed her back inside. He shrugged, then spoke, "I just like to travel. I felt like it was time for a change." Time to get out, he heard inside himself. Run away. Gene made a sniffing noise, "Where're you headed?" he asked.
Walt pushed his glasses up on his nose, "Des Moines. Going to see my grandson. Just turned six. Wanna see 'im?"
Gene smiled and nodded, "Sure."
The older man produced a wallet with a large plastic fanfold of photos. He pointed at various snapshots, identifying lots of people that Gene had never seen before. Walt indicated one plain woman as his daughter. She still lived with him and he wanted to get her married and out of the house.
Gene noticed one set of pictures that were side-by-side. Each contained a woman. One looked like a professional effort with an attractive woman posing with unnatural illumination behind her head. Next to that was a picture of a woman in a hospital bed with a much younger Walt beside her. Gene felt compelled to ask about that one.
"Is that you?" Gene asked.
Walt's head bobbed in acknowledgement, "Yeah, that's me and Marilyn. Marilyn was my first wife. Mike's mother. It's Mike's family I'm going to see."
"What happened?" Gene said. Then wincing, he added, "Hey, I'm sorry, it's none of my business."
Walt shook his head, and waved his hand in dismissal, "No, don't worry. I don't mind." He inhaled and his nostrils whistled a little. "Cancer. She never had a chance. Hell, cure is what did this to her," he pointed at the picture containing the hospital bed, then back to the other. "Hard to believe they're the same person, isn't it?"
Gene compared the two images. "That's a shame." He paused for a moment then added, "She was pretty."
"Yeah, she had a good heart too. She taught me a hell of a lot," Walt stated. "Lovin' somebody who's sick--that's a hard walk."
Gene shifted, suddenly needing to get more comfortable.
The bus shuddered and slowed down, they rocked in their seats as the bus turned. The driver announced a dinner stop.
"You feel like some supper with an ex-insurance salesman?" Walt asked.
Gene smiled, "Long as it's ex," he replied.
Gene and Walt walked quickly through the misting rain. The smell of diesel exhaust fumes curdled the air, and the loud motor prevented them from hearing the crunch of the wet gravel under their feet. Gene saw his own breath and noticed that Walt was colored red by the glow of a large neon beer sign. People got off the bus and shuffled in the mist.
They walked toward an aluminum building skirted by a wooden porch. The building was divided into two sections. Loud music poured out of one side. Suspended over the door was the name D.T's in flickering bulbs that were supposed to give the illusion of motion.
"D.T.'s?" said Gene. "Great name for a bar."
Walt laughed, "Hell, it's probably the owner's initials."
The bus passengers entered the other half of the structure, which had the name Little Bandit Cafe painted on the only picture window. Drawn beside the letters was a dwarf cowboy figure with enormous pistols.
Inside, Gene noticed the big-screen T.V. in the corner. Client Eastwood's face was huge and the color of his skin was too red and full of lines. They sat down at the counter and perused the menu hanging in plastic letters on a white and blue Pepsi sign. Virtually everything was barbecued.
"Looks like we're gonna have barbecue," Gene said.
Walt gave his exaggerated bob in agreement. "Bus driver usually has a deal cut with the owner's of these places so he can get something on the side."
They ordered two combination plates. Walt asked for the Hotter 'n Hell sauce, while Gene settled on the mild.
"I never liked hot sauce until Marilyn got me to eat Indian food. Lord, those people have some hot grub! You ever have any?" Walt asked.
Gene shook his head. "No. Hottest thing I ever had was when I was in the Navy. Ate at a place in Thailand. Had some little pepper that 'bout put me in the hospital. Funny thing was, it wasn't on my plate, it was in a buddy's food and he had me try it."
Walt laughed. "Price for adventure. Maybe find something wonderful, maybe get burned. I lived a hell of lot with her--Marilyn I mean. Y'know I never would have tried Indian food if Marilyn hadn't loved it. I took her to some place fancy on a date, because I wanted to impress her."
"Did it work?"
"She married me."
"Must have been good food."
Walt laughed--an asthmatic kind of sound--and said, "Hell, that's funny! 'Musta been good food.' That's good!"
A skinny boy behind the counter brought the drinks they had ordered. Walt took a drink from his coffee and asked, "Are you married?"
Gene replied, "No."
"Engaged? Seein' someone?"
"You aren't going to fix me up with your daughter are you?"
Walt laughed again, "No, I was just remembering when I had to go on the road to earn a living," he spoke into his coffee cup. "Hell, Marilyn was the reason I hit it big in insurance. I knew she wouldn't stay with a bum. Anyway, I wondered if you were in anything serious. Lotta women wouldn't let their man go away for long periods. Marilyn was an exception. She knew I had to travel when I was starting out. Yep, I found the exception." He drank some more coffee gave out a swallowing sound then continued, "but our time was short. Damn glad I knew her though. Damn glad. I owe that woman so much. Without her..." he didn't finish, and the expression seemed to drain from his face. "Sorry, sometimes you gotta smack me when I get goin'."
Gene made a crooked smile and took another drink, "No, I'm on my own." Then he added, and his voice was sadder than he wanted to sound, "I was with a woman for a long time, but it didn't work."
Walt released his all-purpose bobbing nod once more. "That's a pity, everybody needs someone. But things happen the way they're supposed to."
It surprised Gene as he heard his own voice start to explain, "I can't imagine this is how it's supposed to be. She got sick. Some kind of disease in the muscles. It put her in a wheelchair. Tears her up with pain that bends her in knots. She'll sleep whole days away sometimes. She spends a lot of her time doing pain killers or trying new drugs." As he spoke, he felt like a third party, watching words spill out of his mouth.
Walt shook his head, "It's not fair, I agree, but, you ever wonder why we think it should be?" He stared at the white coffee mug. "How long were you with her?"
"Five years. The last three she got the disease and it just went down the toilet."
The skinny boy brought two plates heaped with steaming red sauce and set them down. Walt took a bite from his and made a face like a dog rejecting something. "It's just got a lot of tabasco sauce in it. How's yours?"
Gene absently sampled the backrib and shrugged.
"How'd you meet her?" Walt asked.
"Her name was Penny. She used to bring her car into a shop where I worked. She'd always ask for me. We ended up talking a lot. I asked her out and when she said 'yes'... From the first time we talked I wanted to know her better. She changed my life." Walt smiled, "Oh yeah, they do that, don't they? Marilyn turned me around, all right. Got inside me. That's what makes losin' them so hard. You give a piece of yourself and you lose that piece when they go."
Gene continued, it felt so good to tell someone, "She was the most alive person I'd ever met. She was always on the go, never slowing down. And god she was tough. She grew up real hard; I mean she saw some stuff that just to hear would turn your hair white. Her whole life seemed like one bad break after another."
Walt sawed at his food as he spoke, "You were married?"
Gene shook his head and pushed some potato salad around his plate, "No, I asked her, but she didn't want any paperwork. Guess it was a good thing when I look at it now."
Walt made a humming sound that indicated understanding.
Gene turned the ice in his glass with the straw, "One night, we'd been together a few months, we sat out on the fire escape staring up at the stars, and I told her how I wanted to be someplace she could feel safe, no matter what. I meant it, I really did."
"Yeah, when you're holdin' someone who makes you feel that way... Well, sometimes you buy things you can't pay for." He didn't elaborate, he just smiled, pulling wads of napkins from the counter dispenser and wiping the red sauce that had gathered on his cheeks and fingertips. "So, how long ago did you break-up with her?"
Gene's voice was small, "Two weeks ago. She called me into the living room and kicked me out, said she felt like I couldn't cut it, and she turned me loose. She said she regretted ever being involved with me. And I didn't fight. I just said, 'okay,'"
Walt said, "Because you wanted out."
"Yeah," the word fell out of his mouth and landed with a thud between them. He took a drink from the glass of soda. "This is turning into the longest month of my life."
Walt's eyes narrowed and he took a deep breath that resembled a sigh. He didn't nod, and his voice was hushed. "I know. You can't sleep; nothing seems like it'll ever be good again." Walt's head bobbed slowly now, "You woulda' stayed because you promised, but when she gave you an out you took it."
Gene squirmed in his seat. "I mean...I told her I loved her, that I wanted to be her shelter, how I wanted to be her hero. We had a deal." His voice dropped off and he looked around the room, "I'm not the man I wanted to be. I'm no hero."
Walt took off his glasses and folded them together and apart several times, before he spoke, "When Marilyn died I felt the same way." He stopped as the counterboy refilled his cup from a steaming glass pot. When the boy left, he said, "Y'see, I was glad she died," he said the words like he had to push them out of his mouth. He didn't look at Gene as he continued, "I don't mean just that her suffering was over, I mean I wanted out and her passing turned me loose." He straightened on the stool and spoke some more, in the voice of someone striving to be perfectly clear. "After all she had done for me, I still felt trapped by her sickness. That cancer took away someone I loved before they ever died." He shook his head as if to shake the memories away. "When you take away a person's right to hold down food, when goin' to the bathroom by yourself becomes a treat, it's no wonder they become somebody else. Like you said, her whole world changed, so she changed with it."
Walt shifted somemore on the stool, "I felt real bad, and I was angry that I couldn't help her, but I was more angry that I was glad..." He closed his eyes and held them shut for an instant, then he said, "I don't understand it to this day. But I think maybe we all get to find out how dirty we can be."
Gene looked at him and said, "I keep thinking that maybe she told me to get out because she loved me, and maybe she thought she was doing me a favor."
Walt took a drink and made a face that said coffee and barbecue didn't mix, then he said, "Maybe. It's hard to hear, but maybe your time together was just up. Everything ends."
The counterboy returned again, "Can I get you fellas anything el..." he halted and stared past them. "Oh shoot, this is it! My favorite part." He extended his hands palms out in a gesture commanding quiet and gazed at the big screen in the corner. Gene and Walt revolved on their stools to watch, and Clint Eastwood squinted back at them. A breeze blew across his too-red features as he spoke. "Man's gotta know his limitations," he told them in his lethal whisper.
Gene turned around and picked up the little green slip with the dinner charge on it. "Geez! Look at this!" he said.
Walt took in the figures scrawled on the ticket, "No wonder they call this place the Little Bandit," he replied.
At 1:38 a.m. Gene took his bag from underneath the seat and got out. He stepped lightly over Walt who slept quite well on the bus. The night was dipped in shades of blue that reflected on the wet streets of Coop. Gene could see the plume of his foggy breath in the tungsten streetlight. For a moment he watched it curl away to nothing. He heard the bus's air brakes hiss in the distance as he walked toward the hotel.
Even the brake sounds made him think of Penny. He remembered arguing with her about slowing down her then-busy life long enough for him to put brakes on her car. She had replied, "Bad brakes aren't going to stop me." He smiled as he thought of it. Her words were a part of him. He should not shut them out. If he shut out the pain, he lost the good things as well. He took a chance five years ago, and this pain was part of the risk, part of the real bargain he had struck with Penny.
He checked into a small, steam-heated room with furniture from some black and white movie. He opened the window and listened to the utter lack of sound outside. He took a shower with lots of steam, and when he was finished he put on his robe and propped his feet on the window sill and stared outside. For a time he thought about how long the month seemed, and he wondered when it would end. Finally, his eyes began to close, and the last thing he saw between his bare feet was a thunderhead slowly receding, creeping away with violent flashes of lightning. The clouds pulled back, hinting of a canopy of stars vast and wide.
For a while, the storm was gone.