"Notes from a Bus Ride"
His mouth opened wider on the right hand side. Forty years of talking to passengers over his shoulder had left it that way, I guess.
His features were definite, no gentle transitions between the nose, or cheeks, or eyes. One part stopped and another began. Like a student sketch of Michelangelo's "David," he was a collection of lines and planes.
I'd guess he was maybe seventy years old. Hadn't shaved in a day or two, and he talked from somewhere down in his belly, not so much loud, but with a timbre chosen to carry over the engine noise.
His wrinkles ran dug deep where they existed, none of these fine lines -- he had honest to goodness furrows. I found myself wanting to run a thin washrag under hot water, and then wash his face for him. I never felt an impulse like that for a stranger before I became a mother.
When I was twenty-two I might have talked him into sitting under a single low-watt lightbulb while I drew the shadows that rolled off his edges. He would have looked fine on some of that pastel grey paper, using charcoal for shadows and white pencil for highlights. I wish now I'd asked to take a picture of him.
He wore a khaki Carhartt hat with earflaps that folded under. A line of old grease ran around the edges. Dirty salt and pepper hair, maybe two or three inches long, hung out this way and that in feathers around the sides.
The morning was cool for April, and he had on one of those padded flannel shirt jackets in a bold black-and-white buffalo print. Underneath that there was another flannel shirt, also black-and-white buffalo, but thinner.
I'd spent the first five minutes of the ride listening to a novel on my phone when I realized that I was missing a story in real time, so I pulled my headphones off and started to pay attention.
"...American coal," was the first thing I heard him say, but whatever he meant by that, I don't know, because then he picked up with, "'Never seen traffic like this except on the outskirts of Chicago."
While we merged into the interstate he took both his hands off the wheel to draw those Chicago roads out into the air with his fingers. I held my breath and braced my knees on the back of the seat.
"That woman who lives up over there in that house, she wouldn't let the city widen the street four feet. Four feet, that's all. There's a myst-ry there."
He looked back over his shoulder to make sure we heard it and felt the weight. "Sure is," I said, hoping he'd look back at the highway.
"That's right," he said and laughed and shook his head.
I told myself he'd been doing this long enough to not need to look at the roads. If his driving was really as bad as it felt, he'd have been killed already.
His seatbelt was off, and his body seemed too big for that bus. He was like men I remember from childhood, the ones who didn't take to being tamed. He was Lewis and Clark, tracing over every hill and every street. Or he was the bear who went over the mountain to see what he could see. Or he was Alexis de Tocqueville.
"You know a certain political party decided to kill President Kennedy so's they could start the Vietnam War."
"Really?" I said, even though it hadn't been a question.
"Absolutely," he said. "It's a fact, for sure. Your history books don't tell you that, of course. "
His laugh was like one of those big metal wind chimes. "Dong dong. Duh Dong."
"My dad was in sheet metal. See over there right there, that was a sheet metal shop back in the 60's. He spent five years at the Freedom Hall putting that roof together. He was fifty two-years old... and that's the old colored school... this was just two or three streets right here, some of the best streets.
"Dad retired at fifty-six years old after getting hurt. Fell and hurt his back. You see that right there? There's still a railroad street... a railroad street for the railroad buffs... You know the railroad buffs."
"Then the PO-lice. Yessir it is.... boy they used to have some of the meanest beer joints 'round here, all kinds of shooting going on. Awl it was rough."
You could hear a warning about loose women in the silence he left, women who are dead now, or maybe running around retirement communities spreading venereal disease. That's hard for me to imagine, but I hear it's an epidemic some places.
We wound through back streets, past that little house with every concrete yard decoration ever made caged inside a chain wire fence. St. Francis of Assisi and the Buddha stare out like bears at the Cincinnati Zoo.
We passed that house where somebody painted the concrete steps lilac purple. I don't come through that part of town much- just when I'm driving through to get somewhere else.
"This used to be a big eleMENtree school right there, yeah that was a big elementree school."
We went round a curve, and I saw his butt slide to the right. The colored wires that hung a bundle under the dashboard swung round. 125677 miles on the odometer. Keys dangling, jumping up and down with the potholes. An honest to goodness old fashioned CB.
He pulled his sunglasses off and bit one earpiece between his right teeth. "Let's see," he said, then he pulled us up beside a concrete block building on a little two-lane road. He didn't use the blinker.
When he yanked on the yellow brake, it let out a long hiss. Then he stood up and patted his butt bones and lumbered off the bus to take off his outer shirt. A couple of kids got off, too, and then he climbed back in to restart the engine.
Another two-lane road, thinner than than the last. On the left we passed a psychic reader sign: "SPECIAL. READINGS $5."
Prelude Hair Design.
McCain Attorneys At Law.
Massage Therapy and Associates.
Little sedan in front of us had a faded Pittsburg Steelers bumper sticker. Nobody around here goes for the Steelers. He ran over a Mountain Dew bottle, which sent it spinning into the gutter. The road opened up to four lanes, and we passed him. He was wearing an orange NASCAR jacket, and he had a cigarette in his mouth. He had that wheel gripped as if he were in a drag race.
I leaned my head against the window, and let it jiggle my skull into shivers. I used to do that as a kid all the time, and I'm not sure why. It feels hypnotic, I guess. The plastic window pulls were stuck an inch down, and the top of my hair got pulled out, caught in the wind we made at 55 MPH.
The driver took his hat off, leaving the hair on the back of his head sticks in a wild swirl. Then he stuck his tongue outside his mouth all the way, feeling his lower lip with the back of it. His neck has two skin tags and some age spots.
Pink leaves from the flowering trees got caught in the wind and blew across the road like a murmuration of starlings. Driver pointed through them to the forestry service where they give away free maps, and good ones.
Then he showed me something called the ARB and Buffalo Mountain. Said he was looking forward to walking that someday.
"You're full-blooded Norwegian," he says to the guy sitting behind him. "That's something to be proud of, right there. I used to drive up to Rockford, Illinois on 780 on the old two lane..."
We're on the mountain roads now, flying all over the place. I'm so carsick, and everything smells like machinery, like old men, and old leather work gloves, and like an old garage.
"Rockford's where they invented the cross joint. This guy started making nuts and bolts in his basement. "Screw city, they call it." He chuckles. "Screw city. Gotta be known for something, I guess."
The bus stops, and he wheels the door open. This is my exit. My knees shake while I'm trying to get down the steps.
Taking a big breath, I suck in half his oily air before finishing the intake outside. I'm a land lubber, disoriented by time travel.
"Thanks for the lift," I say, and either he doesn't hear me to answer, or he's already gone somewhere else, turned round to look out the window over his left shoulder.