I rest my cheek against the cold Greyhound window and stare into the Mojave night. Cacti and yuccas roll past, crisply outlined in the starlight. The bus rumbles steadily east, and vibrations make their way up from the road through the vinyl seat beneath me. It’s soothing, restful even, but I force my eyes to stay open. My stop comes up in less than an hour, and I can’t afford to fall asleep and miss it. My brother (the good son) will be waiting to deliver me to our parents. Unshowered and unshaven, I imagine the awkward family reunion that lay ahead.
The prodigal son comes (crawling) home.
Eventually bored with the landscape and my face numb against the glass, I scan the bus for anything interesting. Most of the passengers fell asleep hours ago. The rest keep to themselves, looking out into the desert or at the seat in front of them. Anything from making actual eye contact. The bus driver, a portly, middle-aged man, guzzles coffee from a thermos. Behind him a young mother, dirty blond and barely out of her teens, strokes the hair of a toddler laying across her lap.
Directly across the aisle from me a disheveled guy, about my age, sits straight up, agitated. His jeans are torn, and a faded black tee-shirt hangs loosely from his shoulders. A mess of brown hair is hidden beneath a ball cap. He clutches a small, camouflage-style backpack. Looking for something out the window, His eyes dart back and forth across the landscape. Catching my reflection, he turns and looks back at me.
“Dude, how far to Kingston,” he asks, not bothering to keep his voice down.
“Not sure. Ninety minutes, maybe a couple of hours.”
“Shit.” He turns back towards the window.
I resume my people watching. Bus Driver has one hand on the wheel, other on the thermos. Teen Mom has fallen asleep. A middle-aged man is stretched out across the back row, his coat a makeshift blanket. My eyes lose focus and the homecoming plays out in my imagination; Mom will cry. Dad, stoic as always, will shake my hand. They won’t pry about my other life, at least not yet. They’ll set my old room up the way it was before I left. Mom will insist on making homecooked meals every night (she’ll have remembered all of my favorite food from my youth).
Movement across the aisle grabs my attention. Kingston Dude is reaching into his backpack, withdrawing a pint-sized bottle. Catching my eye, he scoots to the aisle edge of his seat and holds the bottle out towards me. I reluctantly decline – the last thing I need is to arrive home smelling like alcohol. He smiles and takes a swig. “Got to stay warm somehow.”
He continues looking at me for an uncomfortable minute. Taking note of my own ragged countenance, he decides he’s found a kindred spirit and works to keep a conversation going.
“Where you heading?”
A return to the upper middle class. A place, like Dad would say, where respectable people don’t ride busses, drink booze from the bottle, or spend time in the county jail.
A string of motorcycles roar by from the opposite direction, chasing shadows down the aisle. Up front, the toddler fusses. “I wanted to make Kingston before the bars close, but I’ll have to make due till tomorrow,” my new friend says, chugging more from the bottle. “An Army buddy called me up – he’s going to put an ad in the paper to make money moving people out of houses and stuff. Wants me to throw in with him; it’s easier to get jobs as a team. Nothing’s happening in Barstow. Not in Bakersfield or Fresno, either. So here I am.”
What do you do for money till then, I ask.
He smiles, happy to have found a willing audience. “I can crash at his place till we get settled. When we’re not moving, I can do odd jobs, wash windshields, beg if I have to. There’s always someone willing to throw a dime into a cup. When there’s a will, there’s a way, if you’re not picky. You know what I’m talking about.”
I stifle a laugh. He does know me. “I just spent three months in jail for not being too picky,” I said, keeping my vice low. “Got stupid and tried to sell a friends’ meds to a cop.” He laughs out loud. On a roll, I tell my story; left home three years ago, passing the time drinking, sleeping outdoors, and working odd jobs, legal and otherwise. This last stunt was the end. It broke me. So tail between my legs I’m on my way home, wearing my only set of clothes and nothing in my pockets but some spare change and a half-pack of cigarettes. I’ll have to beg a light later.
“Harsh.” Kingston Dude leans back and stares at the ceiling, lost in thought. I watch him for four, five minutes, and convinced he’s fallen asleep I look back outside. A full moon shines brightly across the desert landscape, the horizon faintly visible.
Later this week, the folks will ask my brother to take me downtown for a haircut and some new clothes; Dad will hand over his credit card to pay for it. Not long after, hints will drop about looking for a job, or applying to college. Or both. Time to move on with my life.
“Dude.” Lost in my own head, I hadn’t noticed that my buddy had moved over and was now sharing my seat. He has no hangups about personal space. “Dude, you sure about going back to Needles?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you really giving up this easy?” He looked me in the eyes. “Going back to everything you ran away from. Are you going to be happy doing nine to five, having a curfew, serving fries or being an accountant or whatever the hell you’re going to be doing?”
“It got too hard, man. I give up.”
“Fuck that. You just got started. You want to talk about jail? Let’s talk about 30-year mortgages. Or student loans. How about a damn cubicle? That’s jail, dude. Guys like us, we aren’t built like that. We can’t be fenced in – we’ll shrivel up and die. Shit, dude, we’re feral.”
“You maybe. Not me. Not anymore.” I flop forward and rest my forehead on the seat in front of me, closing my eyes in an effort as a signal to end the conversation. The bus hums steadily, vibrations are relaxing. In an instant, I am asleep.
I find myself back in Needles looking at my future. I’m wearing a starched white shirt, which itches, and a tie is tightening around my neck. I’m a lawyer or finance manager or some other respectable profession. I have a wife, two point three children, SUV, and a membership at the country club. There’s a professionally landscaped two-story home in a new development. There are no windows, only bars. A heavy iron chain snakes from the front door, ending at a clasp around my ankle.
My head jerks up. The bus is still cruising forward. Up front, the mother is cooing at the toddler, who woke up and is now crying. My seatmate is still beside me, looking concerned. “You okay? You about jumped out of your seat.”
“I’m fine.” He’s still clutching the bottle, now barely half-full. I ask for a drink. He obliges. A large gulp goes down hot, the warmth spreading through my chest to my extremities. “What else do you know about Kingston,” I ask. His eyes light up. We share thoughts and half-formed plans, and I barely notice as the bus stops in Needles, then pulls back onto the road. Sometime soon I’ll have to borrow a phone and call my brother. He’ll understand.