Volume 32, Number 3

Greyhound Bound

Richard Harkness

Dear Jenny,

I couldn't reach you before leaving town. Things happened so fast. Now I think it’s best if I just write. We've both had enough pain lately. Granny died on Tuesday. I’m sorry you weren’t there for the service. I know she was your favorite in my family, and she really adored you and looked forward to seeing you whenever we visited her at the nursing home.

I drove a rental car to the funeral in Minden. Afterwards I was too tired to drive so I dropped the car off and am taking the bus back to Biloxi. I'm writing this on the bus, so I’ll just describe things and let the words come as they will. Maybe what I want to say will make its way out. I wasn’t going to write till later, but thoughts are bombarding me, and it seems all I can do is notice and take in everything—the images, colors, sounds, smells—as if my senses are newly awakened and I can’t turn them off. Guess it’s a rebound effect after being so numb. Maybe this will be one of the experiences that makes it into that novel I talk about trying my hand at one day. From shipyard worker to novelist—as if, huh? I’d forgotten how cramped and uncompromising buses are. The vinyl-covered seats squeak when you slide on them. An emergency escape hatch is located behind the driver’s seat. A clear plastic panel, scarred with wear, separates the driver from the seat directly in back of him. I’ll probably read the five placards posted above the driver’s bay a dozen times during the trip:






The cab was late picking me up this morning, and I barely made it to the bus station by the 2:30 a.m. departure time. I’m on the Atlanta-bound bus and will switch buses in Jackson after an hour layover. Most of the passengers look like down-and-outers. When I started to board, the lanky bus driver, standing to one side, said in a not-so-friendly tone, "Hold it right there, neighbor." He punched my ticket and let me get on. He told a young black guy boarding behind me that if he heard one word from him, he’d be off the bus. Must have thought the guy was drunk or on drugs. Seemed to me he had some kind of spastic muscular condition, the way he walked. He sat in the rear of the bus and never made a sound.

Granny wore a gold, jeweled stickpin and her favorite flowered dress for the casket viewing. That gallant lady who was once so vigorous and active had become gaunt and worn. She’d lived 94 years, the last 15 in the dreary halls and rooms of the nursing home. Her mind had held up remarkably well until the last three or four of those years. After the burial, the family gathered at Sis’s house in Minden. Promises were exchanged all around to get together again, but you know it’s an empty ritual. A family has to establish a habit of being close-knit. You can’t just start being that way after so long a time of drifting apart. It has to be nurtured from the beginning.

I returned to the cemetery to spend a few minutes alone there. It had been so long since I’d been to this place before today. My mother lay there also. I walked past the gravestones of other parents and grandparents lined side by side—Freeman, Andrews, Long, Ratcliffe—strong stock all. My maternal grandfather was buried beside Granny. I never knew him; he drowned in 1949. They came from Arkansas. How I wish I had listened more closely when Granny talked of earlier times—what struggles they encountered and conquered, which struggles conquered them. Now the final link in that heritage is gone. Mom lay next to Granny on the other side. She died the month before President Kennedy was assassinated. She and my dad divorced when I was twelve, and he’d moved out-of-state somewhere. (Considering my sisters’ and brothers’ situations, seems like divorce runs in my family?). I cleaned around my mom’s weathered flat gravestone. Pulled back the wild grass, scraped embedded earth from the etched characters SEPTEMBER 9 1912—OCTOBER 25 1963. By fixing up her burial site I could at least feel I had been there because I made it different than I had found it. The nearby Azaleas had already opened splashes of pink blossoms, as if they were hurrying spring along. The wind whispered through the grass, and I wished that somehow she could know I was there. Mom, we didn’t have enough time together. Why can’t I remember the pitch of your voice?

It was still dark when the bus pulled into Jackson—nippy outside and raining lightly. In the depot cafeteria I forced down scrambled eggs, grits, sausages, and biscuits from a cellophane package heated in a microwave oven. Imagine the taste of cardboard dipped in monosodium glutamate. The coffee was brackish, colored water. Restive kids evoked unearthly electronic sounds from a bank of video games lining the wall. A smattering of formaldehyde faces occupied other tables, the faces laid bare by the stark glare of overhead fluorescents. The tables, adorned with bright red vinyl tablecloths and vases of red and white plastic roses, stood out as window dressing stripped away by this cheerless place. It struck me as a purgatory place, a way station. You had to pass through here to get to where you need to be.

I boarded a bus called EXPRESS for the remainder of the trip. The rain has stopped. The diesel belches, and the bus inches forward onto the highway, leaving behind a cumulus of exhaust fumes. As we head south on 49, the city lights trail away like streamers. I find myself wondering about the young black guy on the other bus, where he might be heading, whether there might be a story there. Everyone has a story worth telling, I think, if you can bore deep enough to discern the signal from the noise, bottle the flitting mayfly moments of truth. I imagine a life defined by first impressions. Sometimes you just draw the short straw. The new bus driver is friendly and chats with a passenger sitting nearby. The lady in the seat directly across the aisle pops open a can of soda. She reaches into a small canvas bag and pulls out a tank top, which she puts on over her head, covering most of her body. Next comes a plain red bonnet with a broad brim and stitching. Then a plaid warmer that goes over her legs to just above the knees. She curls into a bundled cocoon and the only thing sticking out is a hand clutching a can of Pepsi Free. Seems like a magician's legerdemain that a tiny bag could produce such a volume of clothing. Experienced bus travelers must know all the tricks of the trade.

After my parents separated, Mom and I shuttled between the homes of my siblings—I was the youngest. The memories seem fresh as yesterday—the confusion of new schools, the stinging sadness of losing best friends, the bitter void of not having a dad to come watch me play ball. We wound up back at Granny's, where we had lived for much of my early childhood, so I could start and finish high school in one place. Mom held down menial jobs and I loved her deeply. The day my brother appeared at the dorm door—my freshman year in college—I knew we had lost her to cancer. In the car going home, his voice finally broke the highway hum. “She lost the battle, Billy.” Some battle, I remember thinking cynically. Mom looked cold and pasty in the casket. A reminder of the finitude of all things. I struggled, but could not banish the budding tears. The Baptist minister consoled me, and I asked him to pray for me. I’d intended that the prayer be in my behalf for Mom, but the pastor, misunderstanding, began intoning a prayer for me instead. I could not bring myself to interrupt the earnest but misdirected petition, having been struck by the notion that, apparently, men of God were ordinary people with no special insight or dispensation from any Almighty. Sometimes I wonder if my dad is still alive and where he might be. My overriding memory of him is the day I stood trembling in the hallway, looking up at his angry face. I was maybe five. The tape of my life always pauses here on rewinding. I’ll take my belt off and wear your butt out if you ever do anything filthy like that again. I had been caught playing Doctor with other neighborhood kids. My cheeks were afire with choking feelings of guilt and humiliation that burned into me like a deep tattoo. He had virtually ignored me except when I got in trouble, and I can’t recall ever hearing him utter that he loved me.

The bundled lady stirs, breaking my reverie. The bus’s lurch and shake has ceased. Night is giving way to a foggy dawn. We sit stationary, engine idling, before an isolated railroad crossing. The tracks converge away on either side until they meet a shroud of haze. The driver looks both ways. The door opens with a hydraulic hiss, then closes. Some sort of safety regulation, I suppose. Words from a long-past poem return uninvited and with new import: We come from where we get the wound. The iambic rhythm echoes in my skull. Well, this is an unscheduled stop at a scary place. The gears grind, and we bump across the track onto smoother road. It’s just now sinking in how much alike we must be, my dad and me. That he too must have feared the risk of exposing an emotional underbelly. Maybe he also had been bereft of a model to pattern the give and take expression of feelings as a man. Maybe it was in the genes. So, like me, he had either postured strength or run in neutral, afraid of missteps, of showing a vulnerability that could lead to hurt. It occurs to me that I’ve been bundled up in my own cocoon. My way has been to bury old sores like clams in the sand. Maybe I’m finally getting an inkling of what you meant about the importance of resolving things. Reckon this is where I need to drop anchor and throw out the breadcrumbs. The early morning fog is lifting, and I’m pausing for a spell to take in the passing scenery—a sideshow of billboards and stretches of open space hyphenated by fences and farms. The bus has made all the little stops—Mendenhall, Magee, Mount Olive, Collins—then Hattiesburg, Gulfport, and now Biloxi. We’re cruising along Highway 90 and the sand beach is a picture post card, brimming gold in the rising sun, the waves like leaden ribbons unfurling in the surf.

Before leaving Minden I drove by Granny’s old wood-frame house, where I spent those joyful/painful days of my youth. The days that yield more treasure the farther away we drift from them. Some other family lives there now. A little boy in dirt-smeared short pants, eating a sandwich, sat on the porch. I became that boy who dropped his peanut butter sandwich in the dirt and tried to wash it off in the front yard faucet (was I a dumb kid or what?). The vein, once struck, gave up its motherlode of memories in things I took for granted: Granny's savory homemade cookies (I’ve not found that taste again to this day); the tiny furry monkeys she made from wire and material; the parakeets she loved; her rocking chair going a mile a minute when the villains on TV made her fume; the excuses I found to put off mowing the yard.

It seems we take for granted the people we love the most. That's not so bad, I think—it helps us feel secure. But it's important to show the other person how significant they are to us, express it from time to time in the way they need to hear. I’m used to letting inertia rule, and opening up doesn’t come easy, but I want to get better at it. Our separation has turned into a revelation for me. God, Jenny, yesterday comes so suddenly. Next time it comes, I don’t want to be facing it alone. I need you. I want "us" to try again. Could we?

Love (unconditional),