By Alan Sincic
/ First Place, 2023 Plentitudes Prize in Nonfiction /
We all of us like to believe, now and again, when the body blooms with the vigor of the earth, that the whole of who we are is an ex nihilo creation, that we sprout up like mushrooms after rain, fresh from out the mind of the Almighty. But then you stub the toe or crack the knuckle or rub the palm of the hand up over the brass marker atop a grave and wham, there you go again, back into the skin you got from all the kin that come before, the flesh and the blood at the start of it all.
I know. I know. Nothing special here. Everybody got a genesis. But if you think of that self of yours a precious thing (and don’t lie to me now, you do), then it stands to reason even me, made from the same stuff as you, got just as good a cause to call myself, if not precious, then at the very least, a – what would be the word? – remarkable event. A moment worthy of a marker.
So mark. Mark this. You got a he. You got a she. She grows up in a two-story wood frame house perched on a hill overlooking the Cleveland Zoo. A city street of clap-board houses, booming up close enough to string a clothesline from roof to roof but, by some accident of geography, bounded on three sides (just this one street, this cul de sac) by open space. The valley – ravine, really – sweeps around in a horseshoe shape, the railroad on the one flank, the rear of the zoo on the other. Now and again hobos’ll trudge uphill from the train tracks to knock on the back door. For a few pennies or a meal, they chop the wood or haul the ice or patch the broken trellis. On winter nights the family gathers in the kitchen beside the stove – the only warmth – to read aloud from Emerson or the Post or the tales of Arthur Conan Doyle. Come the summer she sits at the upstairs bedroom window. Out over the far dark she gazes. The sliver moon. The molten Cuyahoga where it slugs round the base of a hill. On the city side, off a half-mile maybe, the broken molar of the brick tower and the factory and the tenement. On the near side – across a gap of empty black, heavy with myrtle – the seals bray, the monkeys yowl, the lions roar.
He grows up in a Croat ghetto on the south side of Detroit, shuffles from home to home after the death of his dad in the great flu epidemic of the Twenties. He and his brother sleep on a pallet on the floor of a basement – this the tale he tells me when I ask about the life he lived: the rats that scurry across the covers as they sleep, the toys they cobble outta scraps of tin, the bone soup, the bread the flavor of brick. He hoboes cross-country, joins the CC's to fight floods and forest fires, then the forest service, then the army at the outbreak of war, then the injury, the years in the hospital, till finally...college on the GI Bill.
1952. He’s near to the end of college when his mother dies. He buys a bus ticket from Gainesville to Detroit for the funeral. She’s near to the end of vacation with friends in Miami, the money for the plane she gives way to a friend in need, so she’s gotta hurry now, gotta trek back to her teaching job in Cleveland. The story begins (so say the makers of me) in Miami, where she boards the SunMaid. It seems there are a pair of busses, actually – the SunMaid and the SunKing – that travel north from Florida together – a caravan. One follows the other and they stop, at the same time, at the same depots and filling stations and roadside diners all the way up the spine of the Appalachians and into the Midwest. She almost misses the bus – has to run the last block to the station. It’s crowded. She’s lucky to get a seat. That same evening he boards the SunKing in Gainesville, and the two Greyhounds roll out onto the dark highway together for the long journey to Columbus. There the busses will part company, go their separate ways, spill their riders out where the random wander.
In those days there is no interstate, so the roads have to climb up and down the hills, wind themselves round the mountains, glide down into the small towns where the houses crowd in right up to the curbside and you can look out and see the people on their porch swings in the evening, the kids pitching pennies and chasing fireflies or perched on the porch railing, squabbling about who gets the funnies or who stole the last cookie. You can crack a window, sliver the wind, smell the tobacco leaf crackle in the sun, the char of a blown gasket out the pit of a passing garage, the crush of cedar mulch and rhododendron, the button-brush and cypress and creosote as the bus splinters up over the corduroy bridge at the edge of town.
Such a long trip. Do the same pair of drivers handle the whole route? How can they possibly drive for thirty-six hours? Do they swap out every ten hours, Pony Express style? The Florida driver surrenders to the Georgia driver, Georgia driver to the mountain driver, mountain driver to the…who knows? You surrender to the bus. That’s the way it’s done. You sleep or read or smoke or talk while it carries you on to wherever it promised it would go, like children surrender when they doze off in the car and then wake, in the morning, in their own bed.
So on they travel on their separate busses. Somewhere outside Macon, Georgia, and late – midnight maybe – the busses pull in for gas and the passengers trickle off. A chance to shake out the kinks, shoulder out into the open, grab a smoke or a cup of coffee. On her way in through the diner door – picture one of those heavy glass and chrome and steel things – she pops open her purse to fish for a nickel. In those days you can get a pack of Lifesavers or a Coke or a clutch of fries for a nickel. And then it happens. As she retrieves the nickel, a something flutters out the purse without her seeing.
So go the laws of physics. Paper floats. Doors open and close. All my life I’ve pictured it: the cushion of air and the puff as the door shuts, the weight of the brass and of the air itself as you suction it open, the swirl of the heat of the people on the inside and the cool of the stars in the dark on the outside, then the place where the cool and the warm – just on the threshold, the coming and the going – collide. I lean closer. I close my eyes. I try to picture the thing that can’t be pictured: the invisible hand that plucks a five dollar bill from out a purse half-opened and then, at precisely the right moment, drops it to the curb.
A fiver. For five bucks in 1952 you can buy 165 postage stamps, or sixteen gallons of gas, or five Porterhouse steaks. A dog. A leather jacket. A bleacher-seat ticket to the World Series. Or you can spend it out over a whole day if you want – a shoeshine, a haircut, a monogrammed hankie, a fifty-pound pumpkin, a box of Tide, five pounds of sugar and an all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinner served family style with tomato juice, shrimp cocktail, relish dish, salad bowl, hot biscuit, mashed potatoes, cream gravy, string beans, your choice pie or ice cream + (non-alcoholic) drink.
Or out over a whole lifetime – twenty-seven shares ATT&T @ 78 cents/share plus compound interest over 60 years. Or nothing. You tread it underfoot. A candy wrapper. A collar stay. A broken leaf. You could. He could. But he doesn’t.
He stops. Picks it up. Taps her on the shoulder. She thanks him, they chat, he flirts, and – all aboard – off they go, each to a bus of their own.
Somewhere further up the road, hours later, the busses pull in for breakfast. One of those roadside diners with the ribbon of counter and the Budweiser clock and the silver-brim, button-mushroom stools, like the knobby bumpers a pinball rides on its way down the slopes. North Carolina. The place empty. She’s got a headache. Not a morning person. Twenty-plus hours on this bus, this box made of steel, and stuffed with strangers, and sealed shut. She deliberately seeks out the farthest stool from the door, swivels round to face the wall, props her elbow up on the counter, and cradles her cheek in the palm of her hand.
In he comes and – just as deliberately – passes all the empty stools to plant himself beside her. The ketchup and the mustard in the glass jars, silos of salt and pepper and sugar, the porcelain creamer and the matchbook caddy and the shot glass jammed with toothpicks, all clacked up into a tableau, every six feet an ensemble – the napkin a cloud, the ashtray a manger, the stub of the Lucky Strike a baby Jesus there smoldering in the moonlight.
Who knows how – through what alchemy – vinegar turns to wine, but by the end of breakfast they move beyond a hello. Not friendship – you don’t measure that in minutes – but surely something. He tries to cajole, to beg, to bribe the bus driver into letting him swap busses so that he can ride with her. It is not to be. They must live by the laws the Order of The Greyhound decrees: ten-minute rest stops, meals on the fly, bits and scraps of conversation.
Before they reach Columbus, he manages to extract from her a promise. In Columbus he has to transfer to a bus heading north to Detroit. She has a short layover before her connecting bus to Cleveland. If she would take a later bus, then they could spend an hour or two together in Columbus – take a walk, talk, have some dinner – before heading their separate ways.
So the SunMaid arrives in Columbus. She disembarks and waits at the station for the SunKing to arrive. And waits. And waits. She knows his name, but they’ve yet to exchange phone numbers and addresses. She barely even knows the guy. And here now at the depot – here’s the bus to Cleveland. She’s got the ticket. If she boards it now, in two hours it’ll be over. Instead of camping for hours on a bench for a guy who might not even show, she’ll be home. The hot bath, the clean sheets, the soft bed. And it’s not like she owes him. What they’d agreed to was a meal. But that trick with the length of twine. That was funny. That was sweet. How you loop it round your fingers, just so, pull it taut, thread to thread, to snap it. Snaps in half! How keen to show her – like a boy – but, at the same time, what would be the word? Courtly. As if serving up, not a trick of the twist of a finger, but a treasure.
Is it the trick that tilts her back a step to where he’s waiting, that nudges him on a step, into the light, into her favor? A glint of wind in the surge of a stream to you, gentle reader, comfy reader, who sit snug in the vessel of flesh you got from God knows where, but to me a momentous occasion.
Courtly. That’s the word. And his mother has died. And a promise is a promise. So she gambles. She waits.
When the SunKing finally pulls into Columbus – a full hour late – he climbs off with a sack of potatoes in hand. There’d been an accident. A truck overturned. Potatoes everywhere. While the cops and the tow-trucks sort the mess, he roams out onto the roadway. Gathers up the swag. The hunter home from the hill.
So how do we mark it? The moment? Look. Come look. Not but a half century later. We got me and my brother. My sisters. The seed of the he and the she. And we all of us got kids of our own, and some of these grown, and with babies on the way, and we all of us racing on to rendezvous we never planned, and here’s the way we mark the grave – an embossment in brass of a greyhound.
The logo of the Greyhound’s a dog in a sprint, right? Slim as a drift of air. Even in brass, here beneath the palm of the hand, it’s got the feel of something – what would be the word? – fleet. Fleeting. On the fly.
Take it for what it’s worth, but remarkable is what we say.