Say you find yourself in Wilmington, North Carolina, where pinecones grow as big as footballs, all seafood is breaded and fried, and a photographer friend tells you she’d rather date a white guy with furry teeth and orthopedic shoes than the jazz pianist who asked her out. Say you’re in graduate school, working on a comic novel and piling up debt with no reasonable assurance of a job on the back end. A hurricane just made landfall ten miles from your duplex, hog lagoons are overflowing, beaches are eroding due to global warming, your tin roof leaks, and wasps are building a nest on the front door. And then you hear about Walter, a 70-year-old man you volunteered to tutor. He sharpens pencils as if he’s afraid to hurt them, puts his plum-colored hand on your shoulder whenever he makes a reading breakthrough, and holds it there until he feels appreciation and blessings have passed through skin. The floodwater infection he contracted from the previous hurricane couldn’t be cured, so the doctors amputated his foot.
The rush from playing penny poker and bar-b-queing during the eye of the hurricane is over, everyone’s sweat smells of fear, and the power’s still out. The phone works, but you’re no good on the phone. Your ear gets hot after ten minutes and you start turning the day’s minor irritations into gossip and persecution. You want to give Walter’s story its due. The phone lines would thin it into wire, stretch it out over crow-clenched miles, and its weight would be lost. So you decide to splurge on a Greyhound bus ticket to visit your girlfriend in New Brunswick, New Jersey and seek the comfort of fluffy towels, piles of leaves, fresh sushi, and joint showers that last until the hot water runs out.
Here’s what you do:
1. Do not wait in line for breath mints. Just get on the bus. Otherwise you’ll wind up next to a guy who closes his eyes when he speaks. “Almost got my groin shot off in Vietnam. I’m not kidding. Had like nine hours of surgery on my groin.” He draws out the word “groin” as if the term might be unclear. Wonder if there’s a worse-sounding word in the English language. “A guy on the phone said I’ve got enough credit to get a car for only $120 a month. My ex took my car and all our money out of the bank before she left, including most of my pension, but I sued her and the judge said she had to give me the RV and her horse. Man, she loved that horse.” Think, why is he taking the bus if he’s got an RV? Even the horse might be a better option. You pride yourself on being able to sleep anywhere, but you’ve never realized how closely sleeping is tied to smell before. Maybe you’ve always been able to sleep because you haven’t had the smell of peanut-butter vomit, irritable bowels, and orange antibacterial soap at the front of your nose. Further off, filtered through the bus’s air conditioning, is a hint of bacon from the incinerators along the highway, burning up drowned pigs. “Having trouble sleeping? I used to have trouble sleeping. What I do is drink water backwards, you know, like you’ve got the hiccups. Trust me, it works. Your mind is focusing on hiccups, which aren’t there. But even if they were, it would probably work. It’s that good.” Try not to think of the Vietnam vet’s groin when he gets up, uses your headrest as a springboard, and lets the restroom door bang shut.
2. Bring your own food. When the bus stops in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, buy a newspaper because of the photo on the cover. A pig is marooned atop a red barn, surrounded by dark floodwater. Wonder if its hooves will protect it against the infection Walter got. If pigs really are smart, what would this pig on top of a barn roof be thinking about? The cool comfort of mud? You order a cheeseburger without the customary slices of bacon. The bulging woman behind the counter asks if you want ketchup or mustard; her apron looks as small as a man’s tie. “Just a little ketchup on the side. No mustard.” As you slide to the register, she puts the burger and fries in the microwave. The burger must have been pre-condimented because ketchup and mustard seep out. She puts a tarp of ketchup on the softened fries before you can protest. When the burger is finally cool enough to touch, you pull the bun off and discover that the cheese has completely disintegrated. It falls apart like fluorescent yellow ashes.
3. Obey the bus driver, even if he repeats everything three times, including what the temperature will be in New York at 5a.m. When a skizzy guy with a soul patch, handlebar mustache, and pointy sideburns (only a square inch from a full beard) gets out of his seat to grab an Adidas bag from the overhead ledge, the bus driver says, “Do not leave your seats. That’s exactly how people get hit in the head. It happens a lot. It happens a lot. It happens a lot.” He follows up two minutes of English instructions with five seconds of Spanish translation. These are the rules: “No music, no drinking, no smoking, and especially no smoking in the lavatory. No music, no drinking, no smoking, and especially no smoking in the lavatory. No music, no drinking, no smoking, and especially no smoking in the lavatory.” It’s almost like he’s singing the lines of a chorus, this Buddha-shaped bus driver with the backwards cap, not relaying a warning. But then he leaves a woman and her baby behind in Monroe, population 26,000, for being late. Wonder about schedules and rules. Do they make us smarter? Smarter than pigs? Did the woman holding the baby in a kerchief papoose, eyes half-closed in the dusty air, leave all her luggage, all her earthly possessions maybe, on the bus?
4. Seize any open seat closer to the front. If you don’t, a WWII vet with a squiggly neck scar the color of dried red candle wax will take the Vietnam vet’s place, passing a row of open seats on the way. “Mind if I chew?” he asks, holding up a tin of mint-flavored tobacco and a plastic bottle filled with a viscousy caramel-colored substance. “I fitted pipes with asbestos fireproofing, so I can’t smoke anymore.” Squinch to the edge of your seat and contemplate how to politely squeeze by the old man, so you can sit where the smell of the bathroom might be one toxic part per million less. Just as you rise, a woman with nails long enough to play jai alai and a six-pack of cherry cola plops down in the last open seat. Wonder how many U.S. war veterans are riding Greyhound buses this very minute, telling the stories of their lives. Are Greyhounds like traveling VFW’s without the draft beer and bingo? Wonder why the bus driver turned up the AC now that it’s dark. Feel flecks of liquid hit your bare arms. Wonder if it’s spittle. Track the spray by moving your arms from side to side and up and down. Figure out that it’s coming from the vent above your head. It’s not water, at least not initially. It’s snow. You’re inside a bus and it’s snowing. “My dog’s afraid of spaghetti,” the WWII vet says.
5. Miles later, think of fail-safe, bus-traveling techniques:
* Get to the bus early. Take an aisle seat near the front of the bus and put luggage on the window seat. Lay cloves of garlic between your teeth and lower lip like chewing tobacco. Stare at the tip of your nose with both eyes. Scratch a lot.
* When there are only three or four seats left, look for a woman on the smallish side, not old, with teeth, and not carrying fast food. Make sure she’s not trailed by a tattooed boyfriend or small child. As she approaches, say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the bus was filling up,” and move your bag so she can sit down.
* If you get stuck next to a continuous talker, turtle. Put your head in your lap and don’t come up for five minutes. If, upon surfacing, the talker recommences, turtle again.
* If turtling doesn’t work, bring every conversation around to blimps. Ask the talker, “I’m sorry, but how does your sister’s gout relate to blimps?” “I don’t mean to interrupt, but would you get to the part with the blimps?”
Wonder why you feel so compelled, a bodily imperative almost, to avoid stories on the bus. Wonder if it’s connected somehow to your inability to hold an extended conversation on the phone. Do you not like being held in place? Physically bound, like the pig on the roof? Wonder if it has to do with Walter.
6. Enjoy the scenery through the tinted glass, but when the bus stops, don’t pause to stretch and breathe the air. The Greyhound from Wilmington to New York takes you past Dale Earnhardt Lane and Cookin’ Ham Road. When you get north enough, sugar maples are turning color. Notice that most of the color is on the western side of these trees, the side with the most sun exposure—but do your noticing on the bus, not when you’re parked and hungry. At the Baltimore Travel Plaza at 1:45a.m., you have exactly half an hour, you have exactly half an hour, you have exactly half an hour. At 2:10a.m., you’re third in line at the KFC (the only food option, since Sbarro just shut down), and the woman ordering at the counter (she butted in line) begins with six hot chocolates. The KFC employee strolls over to the hot chocolate machine, pushes the button, then inspects the contents of the watery drizzle pouring into the styrofoam cup. She lifts the lid off the machine and shakes her head, realizing she’s going to have to make them by hand. You head back to the bus without so much as a bag of chips, where, when you’re an inch away from sleep, the WWII insomniac vet says, “My dog transmits radio signals. I can’t get the BBC on my short wave, but he can. It’s pretty weird, you know, to hear a British accent coming out of a dog’s mouth.”
7. Be good to your future self. Seek a new career, one that will allow you to ride in private planes and limos. Or else you will wonder, did the pig ever get off the barn roof? Was it smart enough to figure that out? What would the pig think about the proximity of oceans to manure lagoons, the neurological disorders of people who live downwind of the methane, and the photographer taking pictures from the safety of a boat? Will the Vietnam vet be swindled out of everything he owns and deserves? Does the WWII vet talk to his dog because there’s no one else? Will Walter—whose parents died when he was eleven, who left school to take care of his three younger siblings, who worked for fifty-plus years on tobacco farms—ever walk again? Will he lose the desire to read? Will he get one of the cutting-edge, Colorado-made amputee robotic contraptions, or will he just get crutches? Is it a matter of belonging to a big church or somehow making the news? Did making the news save the pig’s life? Do stories make us smarter? Why do you write fiction? Why do you feel the need to embellish? Do you prefer characters to people? What would the pig on the roof think of you, passing by in the tinted windows of a bus, blue grey smoke trailing in the air?