The bus had made good time from Chicago to St. Louis, or at least it seemed that way to Carl, who had fallen asleep as it drove through Springfield. When he woke up they were approaching the bridge over the Mississippi River; he glanced at his watch and saw it was 9:30 at night. He looked around the bus at the other passengers, some of whom—like him—were just waking up as the bus slowed down and the lights became brighter after ninety minutes of rolling through dark plains on a smooth highway.
A black woman across the aisle rubbed her eyes while her young son continued to doze by her side. A middle-aged white man with a top coat over a blue blazer and tie looked out the window, his briefcase ready on the seat next to him; probably a salesman, Carl thought, without having any particular experience that would qualify him to reach this conclusion. He was only nineteen, and the only salesmen he’d ever seen either had either come to the front door of the house where his parents still lived, or he’d seen them calling on merchants downtown in the county seat where he grew up.
The lights beaming down on the streets shed a orangish-purple cast on the near-deserted city, making him think of the yellow lights on the back porch of his boyhood home, and how they were supposed to keep bugs away during the summer but didn’t entirely succeed. He thought of the possibility that the odd light that colored the streets was designed to get people to go home and go to bed, so there’d be less crime, but it took him only a second to smile at that improbable notion.
The bus slowed as it crawled through the streets from one stoplight to the next, giving him a chance to take in the night people of the city. Everyone either had a place to go to, and moved rapidly towards it, or stood around outside the few places that were still open—bars and convenience stores. Within a few minutes the bus turned into a side street, where it pulled into a diagonal parking spot outside a station and came to a stop with a hissing noise from its brakes.
The mother woke her son up and they got off; the salesman stood and waited for them to go by before walking down the aisle to the door. He said “Thank you” to the driver as he got off, which reinforced in Carl’s mind his theory about the man’s occupation; no one would thank a bus driver for taking him from one place to another who wasn’t trained to think that being obsequiously polite could help him get ahead in the world.
The driver pulled some suitcases out of the baggage compartment on the side of the bus for the few passengers who had checked them in Chicago, not knowing that the bus would only be half full, or perhaps not wanting to drag their luggage up into the bus. Then he started to take tickets from a line of new passengers that had formed outside, headed to stops on the next leg of the trip along the older, slower highway through the middle of the state, and not the interstate.
He watched the people get on, trying to get a glimpse at them without looking them in the eye. He had been told by his mother growing up not to stare at people, but had fallen back into the habit at college; things were new and strange in Chicago, and he found himself gaping at individuals who would have been out of place in his little hometown. A black man in the bus station in Chicago had broken such a reverie by saying “Whadda you looking at?” before laughing to show that he wasn’t angry to be gawked at. “I’ll bet you’re a jitterbug,” the man had said as he had taken in Carl’s bright purple shirt and cowboy boots.
“I guess,” Carl had said sheepishly, then looked back down at the book—”The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”—he had brought along for diversion on the long trip, around eight hours.
A blonde woman climbed up the steps into the bus; she was attractive, and looked vaguely familiar, so he allowed his eyes to linger in a sidewise manner towards the aisle to get a better look at her. As the woman approached, their eyes met and she spoke.
“Carl?” she asked.
He said only “Yes” as he couldn’t place her at first.
“Hi Jan. I didn’t recognize you, out of context.”
“You don’t expect to see someone from your high school in a bus station two hundred miles away from home, do you?”
The bus was filling up and so the woman stepped out of the way to let others pass. “Is anybody sitting here?” she said, pointing to the seat on the aisle.
“No, go ahead.”
“Thanks.” She had a little pink overnight case, which she started to lift to the rack overhead.
“Let me do that,” Carl said, and he took the bag from her hands, lifted it up awkwardly over his shoulder and found a place for it between his own and another person’s things.
“Fancy meeting you here,” she said as she sat down. “You going home for Thanksgiving, I assume?”
“And where are you now?”
“In Chicago—in college.”
“Better you than me,” she said as she put her ticket in her purse and otherwise got organized and settled in.
“Do . . . do you live in St. Louis now?” he asked.
“I live in Kansas City. I was in St. Louis for a modeling job.”
“So you’re not a stewardess anymore?”
“I am, just trying to break into modeling full-time, make a little extra money. Being a stewardess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“You’re basically paid waitress wages in a flying restaurant. Back and forth all over the country all the time. It gets old after awhile.”
Carl was surprised to hear Jan’s cynicism. When she had started out as a stewardess four or five years before it was a matter of local pride; another young woman would follow her a few years later, but she was the first. It was taken as proof that the girls in their town were just as pretty as city girls, just as polished. They were flying to big cities in the U.S. and abroad.
“How about you?” she asked. “What year are you now?”
“This is my third.”
“So a junior. You gonna graduate on time, or are you on the six-year plan?”
“I’ll be out of there in four years. I can’t stand it.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Not a lot going on. Everybody studies all the time.”
“I remember you liked to party a bit in high school.” She gave him a sly smile. “You and Richard and Freddie used to hang around our place a lot.” Several years older, she and two roommates had been the first to rent an apartment and move out of their parents’ homes after graduation. It became a meeting place on weekends, and there was always beer brought by the older boys who came to call from the Air Force base.
“It was a good deal,” he said, smiling back. “Chip in a couple dollars and you didn’t have to hang around the liquor stores downtown to find somebody to buy booze for you. Plus TV and music.”
“It was a great little place. Nobody bothered us as long as we kept the noise down.”
“You guys ran a pretty tight ship. I remember you threw Freddie out one night when he got drunk.”
“He gets kinda foolish when he’s had too much to drink. He wanted to bring a girl over and use my bedroom. Fat chance of that.”
Carl grinned and shook his head at the thought of the ludicrous request.
“It’s like they say, a stiff dick has no conscience,” Jan said. He was a bit surprised that she would use such language in a public place, but he looked around and saw no one had heard her. She opened her purse, took out a compact, and applied some lipstick.
“How about you? Do you have a girl up there in Chicago?”
He hesitated; it was a source of some chagrin that he didn’t. There had been a girl his first year that he had pursued and won, then realized it was only because she was the most attractive woman in his crowd, not because he liked her. The relationship had ended abruptly, a poor reflection on his maturity in the eyes of his small circle of friends.
“Nobody you like?”
“I’ve, uh, gone out with this woman I work with in the snack bar but she doesn’t want a relationship.”
“She’s got a boyfriend back home, in Connecticut.”
“So? If you can’t be with the one you love—love the one you’re with, right?”
He shrugged. “I suppose that’s what we’re doing.”
“But you want to get serious?”
“I guess. When he comes to visit he moves in with her for a week, and I’m out. Once he’s gone I have to like, woo her all over again.”
“’Woo her.’ Sounds so old-fashioned—and formal,” Jan said with a laugh. “Is she a real serious person or something?”
“Yeah. She’s into like Indian mysticism, Eastern philosophy.”
“Oh my God,” Jan said. “You sure can pick ‘em. Well, I guess I can read my beauty magazine if you don’t like to talk to stewardesses anymore.”
“No, I feel the same way,” he said, trying to re-assure her. “She tried to get me to stop eating hamburgers.”
“And that’s where you drew the line?” she laughed.
“Yeah, well, that and other things.”
“She burned incense in her bedroom.”
“That stuff’s too hippie for me, too.” She turned and looked at him. “I think you need to move back and find a normal woman.”
“You may be right. I suppose it depends on where I end up after college.”
“What are you studying to be?”
“Nothing in particular. Most people I know plan to keep going and end up as professors.”
“There’s no money in that. My sister divorced my brother-in-law ‘cause they’d been married six years and were still living in a little place like I used to have for God’s sake.”
They passed through the state capital, then rode in silence for a while. The road was dark, the lights were few and, it seemed, miles apart. “Are you going all the way to Kansas City?” he asked after a while.
“No, and I have to be careful I don’t fall asleep. My mom is picking me up at a flag stop.”
“If you want to get on the bus, you have to flag the driver down, it’s not a regular stop. If you want to get off the bus, you have to tell the driver.”
“She doesn’t live in Sedville?”
“No, she moved out here after I graduated from high school. She inherited my grand daddy’s farm. I better remind him now,” she said as she got up and walked down the aisle to tell the bus driver where she needed to get off.
“He had it on his clipboard,” she said as she sat down again. “It’s just a couple of miles away, I lost track of where we were going through all that farmland in the dark.”
She collected her things from the pouch in the seat in front of her and stuffed them into two bags she had brought with her, a small purse and a larger handbag. “Well, it was good seeing you again.”
“Same here. Best of luck with the modeling—maybe I’ll see you in a catalog someday.”
“Maybe even in my underwear,” she said with a mock leer. “And best of luck to you with that undecided girl friend of yours.”
“I think it will be over after this year.”
“Her boyfriend is moving to Chicago. She’s going to live with him.”
“So . . . no chance to ‘woo’ her back, huh?”
“I guess not.”
“Probably for the best—if you ever want to eat a hamburger again,” she said with a laugh.
The bus slowed down at a wide spot in the road, where there was a plain street light and a car waiting. “That’s my mom down there,” she said. She stood up and he tried to help her with the suitcase, but she said “I think I got it” and was able to slide it off the rack with minimal effort, but with a clatter as it hit the bus floor harder than she expected.
“You take care, okay,” she said, as she leaned in closer and—to his surprise–kissed him.
“You too,” he said, over an unexpected lump in his throat.
“Bye,” she said with a little wave as she made her way down the aisle with some difficulty.
The driver helped her with her bags as she got off, then climbed back in. “Next stop Sedville,” he said, then sat down and put the bus in gear. They drove off and, as they moved again into the darkness of the countryside, he inhaled and smelled her perfume.