One Way"Leave the Driving to Us!" Greyhound makes it sound like they're doing you a great big favor, but really, these days anyway, the only people who leave the driving to the sleek, fast, skinny-ass Greyhound doggy are those who have no other choice: the poor, disabled, elderly, or otherwise disenfranchised. And then, perhaps, the gluttons for punishment. Me, I had to travel from San Francisco to Eureka to visit my sister <
I am not a glutton for punishment. In fact, I had given myself quite a stern `look on the bright side' chat and convinced myself that the 8-hour trip would actually be FUN! I'd see the countryside! Get lots of reading done! Perhaps I'd mull over my life's direction, teach myself macaroni art or macrame.
What I hadn't taken into account was the existence of other people. It wasn't just me lounging around in a Driving Miss Daisy scenario, my own personal bus-chauffeur in a jaunty hat pointing out the sights and then keeping his thoughts to himself while I nap. No picnic stop at a scenic vista with red wine, cheese, and crudites. Oh no. It's the great unwashed out there riding the bus. And me (washed). Of course I knew I was part of the huddled masses yearning to be free. I just didn't realize how much I desired freedom from the rest of the masses.
Having pulled my made-for-walking boots up by their bootstraps and walked on out of White Trash Hell at the age of 17, I'd gotten accustomed to my special little world of chardonnay and art museums, bed & breakfasts, Sunday papers. Spoiled, educated, but never really escaping that greasy phantom of fried bologna sandwiches, baby-blue eye shadow, and lecherous uncles. Because guess what folks? I can still do it. I can walk that walk, talk that talk, chew that pork rind, and-spookiest of all-laugh that high-pitched, snorkel-ly, hyena laugh that we `disenfranchised' sometimes use in social interactions to convey acceptance to each other.
It's kind of like finding that you have a second language, but it turns out it's only pig latin.
But it's also remembering a first language, and your tongue finds the groove without misstep. Only, it's on a Greyhound Bus, Saturday afternoon in January, and you're one of a million chicks having a revelation in any number of large U.S. cities. You could be a member of any number of ethnicities, be going to visit any sister, but probably a step-sister or half-sister (that's how we do). The feeling, as they say, sucks. But then so does White Trash Hell, which is why you fought so hard to leave it. Any-hoo (since I'm in the mother tongue, I thought I'd just stick with it), so I find myself in the neutral middle of the bus with my stack of books, thermos of coffee, a stash of radishes and a small container of salt, a book of NY Times crossword puzzles, and a readiness to daydream.
The bus driver looked like a cross between Brian Dennehy and Jesse Ventura. When he came on over the speakers to welcome us aboard and run through the list of no- no's (drinking alcohol, smoking anything, listening to your walkman too loudly, or peeing in the bus toity when you really could have waited until the next designated stop) we all paid attention. Also, it was morning and the day still had a feel of seriousness about it. We were travelling, for God's sake, with agendas, itineraries, important appointments to keep. We all looked at the back of his head while he spoke and nodded in unison a silent `Yes sir.'
There were a couple of older people at the very front of the bus who climbed aboard and went promptly go to sleep. Scattered throughout the middle of the bus were a very lovey-dovey Latino couple, a white mother with two pre-teen daughters, me, another single white woman travelling alone (keep those eyes averted!), and a guy who looked like James Spader if Spader had put on a lot of weight, aged ten years, and was always seriously hung-over.
At the back of the bus were the bad kids on the field trip: a lone guy with a hood up over his head and face for the entire trip like a Unabomber wannabe, a couple of 20- ish guys who were cracking each other up with titty jokes, and a cool-as-a-cucumber young Black man who knew well before I did the sort of thing that could come, and had adopted the countenance of someone who just earned his black belt. The "I don't want any trouble but if you mess with me I will take you down" look. Turned out he just went as far as Oakland. After that, only us white chickens.
Suddenly, I felt conspicuous pulling out my crossword puzzles and sharpened pencils (with slip-on erasers). I did finally pull out a book, but it was Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, so I tried to keep the cover hidden. You never know when you might encounter a devout follower who hasn't yet heard that the fatwa on Rushdie has been lifted.
When you're driving north out of San Francisco, it's amazing how quickly you lose the feel of a big city. There are vineyards and wineries, tony little restaurants and espresso shops, but you might have to travel a couple of miles to find a Lactose- free/vegan meal served on cruelty-free ceramic-ware, and that, my friends, is when you know you are no longer in San Fran.
As Greyhound does, we stopped at every podunk and non-podunk sidewalk intersection where there might be someone who wanted to go somewhere. The various occupants of the bus swapped and switched but the overall make-up stayed the same: a couple of `bad guys' in the back, old folks in the front, and loose, single people in the mid-range trying to look very, very occupied. The lovey-dovey couple snuggled and then slept mall-hair to cowboy hat until Santa Rosa where they were greeted by family with picnic baskets and outstretched arms.
After Santa Rosa, we saw fabulous redwoods, stores hawking redwood products, and signs proclaiming the existence of Sasquatch. The James Spader man behind me went to sleep as soon as the bus pulled out of Oakland and had been snoring ever since, mouth hanging open, one arm trailing into the bus aisle. Every once in a while, the other woman and I would exchange looks and roll our eyes. She got off the bus at every stop and frantically smoked a cigarette, standing the respectful distance from the other smokers, all of them trying to look like they had nothing better to do than stand on a corner in Podunkville, lean against a street sign, and casually puff away. I realized that the woman was very young, maybe just out of High School. After one of the smoke breaks, the bus driver must have made a funny crack because she laughed that little hyena shriek and I heard the robot from lost in space: "Danger, Kristy Nielsen, Danger." I told myself that it was too late to take away the intimacy of the little looks I'd shared with her, but I would not become her friend. I would not let her chat my ear off.
We had a dinner break at Willits, where the bus station IS the McDonalds. What the hell kind of marketing agent from which ring of Hades decided to combine Greyhound with McDonalds? Like we didn't have a high enough white trash concentration already?
Just as I feared, the other woman circled around my table with her tray waiting to be invited to sit down. Call me cruel---I shoved my nose in a newspaper article about the Willits football team until she found a seat. She did not read as she ate and anytime I raised my head I found her looking beseechingly at me. I gave her a quick tight-lipped smile before studying the classified section as if I needed a job in Willits right quick. While we mingled waiting for the bus driver to let us back onboard, I felt guilty and threw her a bone. "How far are you going?"
"To Eureka," she said, stepping closer but politely blowing her cigarette smoke downwind.
She got excited and almost dropped her purse. "Oh, cuz I was wondering. I looked at you and I'm all: I bet she's going to Arcata. I'm all: she looks like someone who would go to Arcata."
Arcata is about 8 miles north of Eureka so it's not a huge difference. But Arcata is the home of Humboldt University, hippies, and pot-smokers so I took it as a compliment. She could see that I was different from her, that I was intelligent. I'm not proud of my reaction, but there it is.
"I grew up in Eureka," she said, settling into her story. "I just moved a coupla weeks ago to San Jose. I got this job as a waitress? And it's, like, something, you know?"
I looked over her shoulder at the bus driver. He was jerking his pants up and jingling the keys to the bus-mobile.
"I'm going back again tomorrow," she said. "Got another shift." She said that like she was working for the Pentagon and a lot was riding on her being there to clear dishes. I told her that was a long way to go for only one night. "Oh, it's worth it," she told me, and winked twice, once with each eye. And that's when it happened. I laughed the laugh. Immediately I clapped my hand over my mouth, but it was too late. She pressed the back of her hand against her lips and tried not to laugh also as if that was the whole joke. The other passengers stared at us. The driver opened the doors with a suction-like sound and I had to think quick. "Well," I said. "Nice talking with you." My eyes told her good-bye.
After our dinner break, it promptly got dark outside. And like good kids, everyone at the front and middle of the bus went to sleep. The people at the back of the bus, like bad kids, got louder and more out of control.
My friend had moved to the back and seemed way over her head trying to keep up with the bad boys. The comments they made got more and more raunchy and her laugh got more and more hysterical. I worried about her. I felt strangely responsible for the fact that she'd defected to the back of the bus, as if it were her way of giving me the finger. She didn't need my lame-ass conversation attempts to have a good time, fuck you very much.
But the darkness and the feel of the bus curving through the mountains got the better of me and when the back-of-the-bus conversation hit a lull, I feel asleep. Suddenly (it seemed), the bus driver was addressing us, and not in the `we are approaching town x' kind of way.
"Excuse me," he said, and I jerked awake. I wondered if we were going to crash and have to make that tricky cannibal decision in order to survive.
"I wish whoever is using drugs back there would knock it off," he said. "I can smell it too, whatever it is you're sniffing."
The passengers in the first two thirds of the bus were coming out of dreams and in shock. Suddenly there were some furtive movements at the back and then everything was completely silent.
The word 'wish' bothered me. I thought he'd probably have to do more than that. The warning came out kind of like a substitute teacher requesting that there be no more spitballs.
But, silence was regained and darkness reigned and I went back to sleep. Twenty minutes later, we stopped at Rio Del for a half-hour smoke and pee break. There didn't seem to be anything in Rio Del except for the convenience store in front of which the bus parked. A couple of Rio Del-ians were hanging out talking to the shop owner and went silent when we weary travellers passed through to line up for the toilet or peruse the snack products. Everything was hunky dory and I was thinking how it was only another 45 minutes to Eureka and trying to forget that I'd have to make the return trip in 4 days. I had purchased a bag of stale but very salty popcorn and was standing on the street because standing feels so damn good when you've been sitting for 7 hours. Something about the way the bus driver emerged from the store told me. He had a tension in his shoulders and kept putting his hands on his hips as if he wished there were a holster there, and a pair of shooters. He looked up and down the street and then suddenly we heard sirens. A police car, an ambulance, a fire truck---making all manner of noise as if there were any traffic to move out of the way. When they stopped, they left the lights flashing which created a fantasy park feeling. I wondered, if this were one of those real-life cop dramas, which of us would have our faces obscured by the fuzzy overlay or black square.
I climbed back on the bus because that seemed like the thing to do. The people in the front seats were clutching their bags and whispering to each other. I found my seat and made sure all my belongings were present.
The EMS guys came on first. I thought maybe there was a heart attack in rows one through 6. Nope, they kept coming. Passed me. Everyone at the back of the bus had gotten off to smoke. I wondered if the little cage one of them carried contained a drug- sniffing cat or rodent. Too small for a dog.
And then I saw her. My friend was lying on the floor of the bus. I could see her legs sticking into the aisle, stiff, with the feet canted unnaturally. The EMS guys tried to lift her onto a seat but she kept flopping around and I could tell it was pretty hard to work in that small area. I heard them asking her if she'd taken anything and she sort of gurgled in response.
"Go ahead if it will make you feel better," one of them said, and she threw up. I got off the bus. Outside, one cop was talking to the bus driver who was loudly pointing out the men he suspected. The rest of us were standing around gawking. One by one the men said they hadn't given her anything. The last guy was talking on the pay phone saying, "I don't know what kind of bullshit this is. Shit, I don't know." He was a tall man who had to stoop to keep the phone at his ear. His bald head and neck were covered with tatoos of snakes and flowers and prominently across the forehead: "Lydia."
The other cop, very gentle-voiced, was moving from passenger to passenger asking if we knew the woman who was passed-out on the back of the bus. Someone gave me the evil eye and I stepped forward. "I don't know her name," I said. "But she was going to Eureka from San Jose and back home again tomorrow. A boyfriend, I think." "This her purse?" And I had to admit that I recognized it.
He clamped the bag under his arm and I wanted to laugh at the girly-man with the purse, but thought better.
At this point, they carried the woman out of the bus. She was sobbing and dribbling puke and saying she just wanted to get to Eureka. They put her in the ambulance where she commenced to screaming.
"Guess she's going to be all right," the cop said, sidestepping a small puddle of vomit. The bus driver borrowed a mop from the convenience store. We could smell that unmistakable odor even standing out on the street.
One of the pre-teen girls leaned over to her mother. "If he doesn't get that smell out of there, I'm going to toss my cookies."
"Me too," her sister said. She filled her cheeks with air and put her first two fingers against her tightened lips as if to hold everything in.
Tatoo-head was still on the phone and the cop was starting to get impatient. "That's your man," the bus driver said, wringing the mop. "That's the troublemaker. That's the one that drugged the girl. I'd put my money on it. Probably that date rape drug. Probably the kind-"
"Hey fuck you, Mr. Bus Driver," the guy said, holding his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone as if to protect the person on the other end of the line. The bus driver looked like he might use the mop as a weapon, and, given the way it smelled, it could have been lethal.
"You're off the bus, smartass. It's totally within my powers to leave you here, or anywhere, for abusing the privilege."
"Like I give a flying fuck," the guy retorted and then returned to his phone call, almost nonchalantly.
The cop took a few more notes from the driver and then said we could all go. "All right, people. Back on the bus. Come on, now. Show's over."
But the show, in fact, was not over. The girl still screamed from inside the ambulance that she needed to get to Eureka and we could see that she was being tied down. The cop had ended Tatoo-head's phone call and was giving him the "let's stay calm" talk. "Fuck calm!" Tatoo-head said. He was starting to resemble the pre-Hulk David Banner.
"On the bus, people!" the driver barked. And we got on. The two girls held their noses, then took test smells before breathing normally. I saw that the ambulance took off South, away from Eureka. I saw that they now had both cops on the one guy and that the shop owner had closed the store. The bus driver didn't say anything except that we'd be late getting into Eureka and he'd try to make up the time. He drove like a bat outta hell the last 50 miles of twisty, mountainous highway, and, believe me, absolutely no one slept.
ReturnI spent an enjoyable four days with my sister and her lumpy-bellied cat, Ginger, who was, of course, named by a previous owner. Eureka is a social wilderness, but we managed to make our own fun. Among other things, we developed new nicknames for the cat to alleviate the Fluffy/Mittens/Blackie connotations of 'Ginger.' We called her Ginger Rogers, Gin and Tonic, or Rij-Nij (Ginger backwards). We pictured her as Ginger from Gilligan's island---the one with wardrobe and sauciness. So much sexier than "all the rest" on Gilligan's isle. I had pretty much shaken off the bad vibes from my bus ride adventure and had convinced myself that the return trip would be completely different. Crisis-free, even. It was a weekday, after all, in full daylight. Somehow, through no fault of my sister (or the slightly misshapen Ginger), I had developed a nasty head cold during my visit. By Thursday morning when it was once again time to `get on the bus,' I was equipped with an extra-large box of tissue, leftover spicy Chinese mushroom soup with a spoon to mail back to Eureka, and a fresh package of cold remedy medicine. (We'd done an interesting experiment the night before. Scientific question: how important is the expiration date on medication? Scientific answer: one buttload. We made sure to stop at a drugstore before my upcoming godawful, interminable bus trip.)
While I checked in my bag at the tiny station, my sister watched the gruff bus driver to make sure he didn't take off without me. The Greyhound employee dispensing tickets and luggage tags was utterly distracted by three teenage girls who were flouncing in and out of the station with various pronouncements: I am leaving forever! No that's a lie-how could you leave US? But my dad is such a Hitler! We love you! Mark loves you! Think about Mark! Very dramatic.
It has to be said that they were dressed quite scantily and I had the impression they were still working on the assumption that it was Wednesday night. After one of their theatrical exits, the station attendant paused and raised his eyebrows at the men in line before me.
"Why didn't they look like that when I was sixteen?" asked the greasy-haired, paunchy-bellied thirty-something man in amber-tinted aviator glasses. "I don't remember `em ever looking like that."
He typed something on his computer and looked up again, blushing. "There oughta be a law," he said.
Of course there is a law, but I didn't feel the urge to point that out. In fact, as the only female in the room, I was feeling pretty fucking invisible. It's a strange moment when men talk about other women in front of you. Which is not to say that I wanted them to talk about me (or to me), just that their easy discourse insinuated that I didn't exist for one reason or another. I was irrelevant. They'd deemed me sexually unattractive: Ugly, old, lesbian, crazy, crippled, married. Maybe too big, too small, too light, too dark. Now, you might ask, and you would be right on target, why I cared what six hick dweebs thought of me. I was asking myself the same thing. And you are right, thank you very much. It was not up to them to decide my rating on the babe-o-meter. I decided that my invisibility was due to the head cold, which was beginning to feel very flu-like, and I boarded the bus. I was happy to discover that the three pre-teen drama queens would not be travelling with me.
My intention had been to sleep for the entire 8 hour bus trip and stretch awake just as we crossed the Bay Bridge, in time to watch the sun set over Coit Tower, refresh my dewy complexion and lipstick, and greet my Welcome Wagon with a big generous kiss.
Can you blame me for dreaming? I know I should have learned that the best laid plans, the road to hell, blah, blah, blah. But when I settled into my gray seat with red and blue racing stripes, I discovered an optimistic streak in myself that I didn't know I had. Maybe it was the time I spent with Ginger who, despite her beginnings as a street cat with indifferent owners, a couple litters of kittens she was made to relinquish, and several physical mishaps, had somehow ended up in my sister's care. She was well-fed and healthy, her image burnished by the new nicknames. She felt safe enough to romp and play unabashedly with a twisted pipe cleaner. She wasn't watching her back.
But I should have remembered, and Ginger should take this to heart, that her little sister Slippers was still living across town, scrapping for food and fighting off every Tom, Tom, and Tom. Message: You can always be returned. All the prizes might be stripped away, the treasured hair shorn, the legs or ankles broken in a (quote) accident.
Happily, nothing that drastic happened on the bus. But neither did I peacefully snooze my way along the California coastline. I was returned to my roots once again, and I'm not talking dishwater blond but full-blown white trash.
Turns out Eureka has a prison. Perhaps they release convicts exclusively on Thursdays. For whatever reason, there were a fair number of ex-cons on the bus and I had managed to seat myself right in the middle of a nest of them.
How could I know? I did a quick visual survey and saw that the make-up of characters on the bus was roughly the same as on my previous trip, except maybe there were more loose men in the middle section. But then it was a weekday morning. I thought maybe they were commuting, or at least going to job interviews. I half-expected to see the young woman overdose victim from my first trip cheerfully returning to San Jose after her hospital stay. Because I'm all: what was in that stuff I sniffed? My head, like, flipped out? And I'm all: Whoah!
I took my cold medicine, put my coat down as a pillow, and folded myself over onto the seat (head toward the aisle, of course and one foot looped through the handle of my duffel bag) to go to sleep.
The bus driver came on the speakers and gave us the rules. He thanked us for choosing Greyhound for our travel needs. The sun warmed my butt, the bus took the curves, the cold medicine took effect, and I fell asleep right away.
After not too long, though, I realized that a conversation going on behind me was entering my dreams.
"Man, I ain't never going inside again."
"You know that's right."
"How much time you do?"
"Five years, man, counting juvy."
"Shit, I did three years in lock down alone. Fuck juvy."
It is about this time that my drug-induced dreams begin to feel like a really bad `chicks behind bars' flick. I forced myself awake, but continued lying with my head on the arm rest because it was the perfect position for eavesdropping. The man in the seat behind me was leaning toward the aisle talking to the guy parallel to him. The conversation started pretty low, but built steadily, perhaps because no one complained or moved away. Or maybe just because they were rolling farther and farther from jail and getting high on the movement.
It was not uncomplicated. I was fascinated, of course, with what recently released cons talk about, how they relate to each other. And I felt sorry for them. For years, "Forward" was a place completely unassociated with their lives. "Future" was some show on TV. But I also felt a hesitancy, a slight cramping of fear. I had learned that the bus is not necessarily a safe place. And I was pretty sure of one thing men want when they get out of jail. Despite my recent sexual invisibility, I hypothesized that my womanhood would not escape these gentlemen.
As inconspicuously as I could, I eased my butt out of the air and down to the seat. Just that movement caused their conversation to stop. They spooked like deer! I got into a comfortable, non-butt-oriented, eavesdropping position and sat very, very still. Presently, the conversation picked up.
The guy behind me was socially dominant. He had a nonchalance that assumed the talk would be directed toward him, and it was. In my mind I called him Buddy because, well, I don't know why---it just suited him. Across the aisle was the younger one, Latino, who hadn't done as much time. I called him George. Diagonally in front of me was a subservient suck-up who kept laughing and smiling and seemed awfully pleased to be an ex-con if it meant he could hang with guys as cool as Buddy and George. I called him Frank. Behind Buddy and George was a mostly silent older dude with a scarred face. When he did contribute to the conversation, it was with the harshest comments, the most cynical and ugly. I named him Tex.
At first they set about establishing the basics: who knew whom, length of incarceration. To my chagrin they did not fess up to their crimes. Tex did admit that he'd been in several times, this last one being the shortest, almost, he said, like a vacation. That provoked a few laughs.
Then they turned to what they would do when they got to wherever it was they were going. Buddy cracked his knuckles loudly. "I'm gonna give her the best thirty seconds of her life," he said.
"Hey, you sure it still shoots?" George asked.
"You better believe it. Hell yeah it works. I shot it yesterday. Kaboom!"
This led to an awkward silence and I realized that despite the macho bullshit norm of guys talking about `getting some,' these men had been exclusively in the company of other men until just this morning so that talking about `shooting it' yesterday was bringing up homophobia and the need to establish their virile, hetero selves. George opened the door. "Man, I don't care. It will just be so nice to have a woman."
"Give my hand a rest," Tex said quietly.
"Eighteen to eighty, blind, crip, or crazy. I do `em all," Buddy boasted. For some reason I found this less creepy than the perv at the Eureka Greyhound station leering at high school students.
At a rural crossroads in wine country, a young woman who knew George boarded the bus. They caught up on people they knew in common, with George speaking a little too loudly, proud, I guess, of his affiliation with a female. I couldn't figure out if they'd gone to school together or what. It sounded like they'd been in juvy together, if juvy is ever co-ed. Maybe they'd participated in some sort of social service program. If so, it hadn't been very successful because most of the people they chatted about were in detention somewhere or another.
Gradually, Buddy, Tex, and Frank joined the conversation, now trying to impress Tina (that's what George called her) with various tales of jail life. And my but things got interesting!
They were no longer spook-able deer, but snorting, head-butting, rams after the ewe in heat. In fact, I blew my nose loudly and shifted around in my seat without causing the slightest disruption in their boasting. I adopted an eavesdropping position that also allowed a little spying.
First there were the various and vivid descriptions of prison food, mostly comparing it to animals, excrement, or pulverized insects. Tina was suitably grossed out, but too tough to be fazed.
My boy Buddy steered the discussion to where they all wanted it. Funny, I'd thought it would have been Tex. "And then there's the women in jail," Buddy said, in a faggy lisp. Frank erupted in hysterical laughter, then shut up when the others looked at him silently.
I'm quite sure that at the local singles bar, based solely on looks, Frank would be most popular with the ladies. He was the tallest, broad-shoulder-est, with thick, blond, Robert Redford-esque hair and a nice face. But right here and now, could his social standing get any lower?
"You gettin conjugal visits?" Tina asked Buddy.
"I wish," Buddy said. Then, sort of sideways and confidential-like he added:
I think George felt responsible for Tina even existing, like he'd conjured her up out of their collective lust. If she hadn't known him, she'd be sitting somewhere by herself, not flirting with Buddy. George put his hand across the back of the seat, behind Tina. "I'm sure it's not like you didn't have no candidates," George said. Frank couldn't help himself. He let go with another high-pitched whinny.
"They're everywhere," Buddy said, coolly. "Shit, one time," he leaned forward slightly and the rest of them pulled in closer like they were on elastic. "One time, I went for a shower and when I came back, this quote guy had made up my bed, folded all my clothes neat. Straightened the shit out of all my shit. Asked me if I was looking for a wife."
This time, Frank restrained himself, but Tex let out a small bark. "How was she?"
"No way," Buddy said. "No fucking way in hell I'm going in there." Frank looked wide-eyed over the seat back, his mouth hidden, fingers tense on the armrest. George looked out the window, shaking his head like he didn't believe it at all. For what it's worth, I believed Buddy when he said he didn't `go in there.' But I wondered about the myriad of other things people can do to get each other off.
"What chu know about it?" Buddy asked George.
Now Tina laughed. "Yeah," she said. "Do tell."
I could see George wrestling with how to handle this. Overeager denial might be suspicious (see Frank, above), but showing knowledge could indicate an unattractive cynicism (see Tex, above). I think he made the right choice: he aligned with Buddy.
"You ever see `em in the shower?" he asked, speaking directly to Buddy. "Man, sometimes you swear it really is a chick, like some kind of fucked-up mirage. There's no leg hair, nothing swinging in the breeze. Some of `em even got little titties!"
"Shit, some of `em got big ones," Tex said.
"Yeah, I seen that," Buddy said, wearily. "You know how they do that, don't you?"
Frank was laughing so hard I thought he was going to wet his pants. He stomped one of his feet down every few seconds. "Tell her," he said to Buddy. "Tell her, man!" Now moi, I was slunk down in my seat at this point, listening as attentively as ever but just a teensy bit worried about where this would go. Afraid I'd be spotted---the interloper in their midst who kept surreptitiously wiping her nose and occasionally even wrote shit down on paper.
Miraculously, the bus driver came on the speaker just then and announced that we would be making our lunch stop at Willits in five minutes. Tina jumped up to go to the bathroom at the back of the bus and my goody-two-shoes self silently chastised her. She was supposed to hold it and use the one at the McDonald's! Meanwhile, the fellas around me were having an interesting strategic meeting about whether or not the lunch break would be long enough to fuck Tina. They didn't seem to have decided who the lucky guy was and I wondered if they thought she'd fuck all of them in thirty minutes.
And skip lunch.
Which might be exactly what happened because I didn't see any of them during the lunch break and when they re-boarded the bus, they were carrying uneaten food. Tina moved from sitting next to George to behind Buddy. They all seemed relaxed and quietly ate until the next smoke break. Now, I'd eaten my obligatory McDonald's food and had expected to be rewarded with the answer as to how these men in prison managed to look like women, even while showering. I suspected now that I'd missed the conversation and would never know. I can't tell you how disappointed I was.
At the smoke--`n--pee break, there was a line for each of two unisex bathrooms loosely attached to back of a gas station. As if by design, the lines split into two groups: jail-associated and non-jail-associated. I hesitated, then joined the jail line, which was shorter. Tina had once again used the bus toity right before we stopped, so I was the only woman in the line.
"That's a nasty cold you've got," Buddy said, and I nodded, feeling Rudolph-like.
"I'll try not to breathe on you," I said.
The people in the other line looked away and I felt wicked, very visible, and glad about it.
When the bathroom became available, Buddy motioned me to go ahead of him and Tex, who was still smoking. As I entered, the person in the next room flushed and filthy water frothed out of the drain in the floor of mine. I took the wad of tissue out of my pocket and wiped off the seat. I thought Tina must have traveled this route before and had perhaps anticipated the condition of the facilities. I still felt wicked and visible, but also aware of my conspicuous lack of crucial worldly knowledge.
I'm sure Ginger and Slippers would understand. While I peed, I thought that if there were an earthquake, a nuclear war, or some other disaster (natural or -un), I would be dependent on Buddy, George, Frank, Tex, and Tina to survive. I know how to make a fire and I'm sure I'm as good at dowsing for water as the next guy, but when it's post- apocalyptic time, you need a posse, whether you like them or not. You can't say: "Why yes, I'd like to share some of that fire-roasted antelope rump, but only if you watch your language. Oh, and someone seems to have forgotten my wine goblet. What's up with that?"
Back on the bus, mollified by food, cigarettes, and sex (?), Frank returned to the discussion of `chicks with dicks.' "Are you going to tell her or not?" he asked Buddy.
I could tell I wasn't going to get any sleep on this leg of the trip either, but it was worth it if I got to hear the big secret.
Buddy smiled sleepily. "You really want to know?"
Yes! I screamed silently. "Yeah," Tina said. "Why not?"
"Well, they give us these little Ban deodorant bottles in our kits." As soon as Buddy began speaking, Frank commenced to giggling and this time I was glad because the noise blocked the story from reaching the gray-haired woman in front of me who looked to be knitting food for starving children or something else equally pure.
"If you pop out the roll-on ball, there's an opening there." Buddy was describing this in a calm, almost scientific voice, but even Tex, George, and Tina were prone to shrill little giggles. "What they do," Buddy said, "is stick their dicks into the hole, and then push the other end of the bottle into their rectum so that the dick is tucked back and hidden."
He actually used the word `rectum' and for some reason that was what shocked me most at first. Then I began to get the full picture.
So did Tina. "Oh. My. God," she said.
"Ow," George whined, clasping his hands between his legs.
Buddy shook his head grimly. "Think about it," he whispered. "Can you imagine walking like that? Sitting down? Not to mention if you started gettin' a woody."
There followed a long conversation about how it would feel to do a lot of things, complete with an imitation by George of a black rapper adorned with a deodorant bottle. It's not that they suddenly seemed less dangerous or that I wanted to invite them home for a barbeque. Just that the softness of Buddy's voice made me see them differently. It allowed me to imagine the shock of being sent to jail, to look out from that particular inside for a moment instead of coolly observing their world like it was a ride designed by the Disneyland engineers.
And the word `rectum' is so innocent. You use that word when you talk about changing a baby's diaper. I would expect `ass' or `asshole.' Even `anus' sounds harsher, or `butt.' There I was: totally disarmed by the word `rectum.' Just when you think you know yourself, something like this happens.
At the next podunkville stop, I was looking out my side window when I saw Tina walking toward a small grocery carrying her duffel bag. No one had said good-bye to her that I heard. I looked behind me. All the guys were looking casually forward, silent. Tex picked up a plastic bag with chips and pop in it. "Hey, she left this," he said. Frank grabbed it and began down the aisle, but the bus took off before he could get to Tina. He shrugged and began to paw through the goodies.
"Wait a minute," Buddy said. "Maybe that belongs to this lady here." He meant me. This lady here. Everyone knew that it wasn't my food. It seemed like a peace offering or a gesture of inclusion. I could accept it and become a cohort of sorts. But I declined, holding up my mineral water and cough lozenges as an apology. Buddy nodded and I felt I knew what Jodi Foster's character meant in Silence of the Lambs when she says that Hannibal Lecter won't come after her because he'd somehow think it would be rude.
The rest of the trip was pretty anti-climactic. I could tell you about the huge, unwashed man wearing overalls with the size sticker still affixed to the butt. He was traveling all the way to Ohio to visit his children. Or the knitting lady who was afraid the bus would be late because if she didn't call her daughter within ten minutes of the arrival time, the daughter would call the police to the bus station and send EMS to the woman's apartment. There was a cute kid who said a cute thing. But really, nothing could compare.
Buddy got off the bus in Santa Rosa. I watched him stretch his arms overhead, make fists, and shake them at the sky with his eyes closed and mouth set in a determined line. When he looked back, I waved good-bye and he held up his hand. I swear, he had the sweetest smile.