Greyhound Bus

Dad left Mom a couple years ago. It didn’t make much sense, he just put his ring on the table and left. No warning. No shouting. Just leaving. That’s Dad’s way. Since then mom isn’t always here, even when she is. She yells a lot now. Cries a lot too. My brother and I stayed everywhere but home. A few months here, and a few months there: Grandma’s, Ellen’s, and now we were on our way to Dad’s. To Blue River. For two years. Two years in the same place. Sounds nice.

We got used to riding the Greyhound bus. We had to. It’s how we get to where we need to go. Riding long, painful distances that took any route but the direct one. Greyhound goes everywhere and if you were going somewhere that took four hours in a car, on Greyhound it took at least eight. There was no stopping to go to the bathroom. There was one in the back. Right next to the criminals using drugs. The smell of burning cannabis always seemed to escape unwanted attention, and was quickly replaced with the smells of piss and feces inside the bathroom. Cockroaches made a brazen reminder of the filth that lingered in such a place and I knew that the back of a Greyhound bus was no place for boys. I held onto my shit like it was money on the bus.

In the front of the bus, where we rode, there was the driver. A man with a seemingly unending life story that usually began with the military. Tales of battle in far away places where boys could only hope to dream. The hero always won, the driver always lived, and he was left to live another day. To drive the bus. We needed those tales. Stories of heroes gave us hope, and hope, for me, was a rare commodity in those days.

When she had it, Mom gave us money for the trip. The bus always stopped somewhere and there was always a store of some description nearby. As the bus came to a grinding halt, brakes crying out in the only complaint they know, I saw the store. A small town had somehow given way to a metropolis of a shopping center that was probably funded solely by the patrons of Greyhound.  The amber slats of wood flooring gave a sense of honesty to this place and, as I approached the counter to ask the most important question of my life, I noticed a small sign that stated plainly “RESTROOMS OUTSIDE IN BACK.” This was clearly not their first rodeo, and I headed back out the door to find the toilet and let go of the loose change I had been saving.

The line for the bathroom was four deep and I stood on the mushy gray gravel and waited my turn. As each person moved through their turn, time ticked away. The Greyhound stop here lasted a precious 15 minutes, and I was anxious for my turn inside the store proper. Two. One. Then finally, me. A 60 watt light bulb barely kept this water closet lit, and as I entered for my turn, the smell of the last people’s shit was overwhelming. The thick, humid,  greasy odor penetrated my throat and I began to choke as I closed the door behind me. I was used to this. Many bus trips before had seasoned me to this explicit form of rot and I began to spit into the rust-stained, brown, once white enameled sink to clear my now violated throat. Thinking of anything else, the gagging ceased, and I was able to impart my own seasoning to the bouquet that surrounded me. When I was finished, I washed my hands in the sink and wondered if they were actually cleaner before or after coming in contact with the sink. Hoping for my hands to be cleaner after, I dried my hands on my jeans and opened the door, feeling a waft of light, clean, crisp air wash over me as I left the toilet to its next intended victim. At least it was better than the Greyhound’s.

Walking back into the store was a relief. The people who ran it were courteous and good natured, not the kind of people you would expect to have a RESTROOMS OUTSIDE IN BACK at all. They smiled and greeted me kindly as I entered with the small brass bell ringing high above the door, and I was polite as I was taught to be: “No, I don’t need any help, thank you.” I could find it on my own.

I knew what I was looking for. It was early in the morning when Mom had put us on the bus, and there had been no time for breakfast. This happened all the time at Mom’s, Greyhound or not. No time for breakfast. No time for dinner happened too, but not as often. But today was different, I had some money. I had been weighing my options carefully as the bus drove, and I had decided what I wanted about two hours into the ride. I began my search of the store, methodically walking down each aisle looking at red and white cans of soup, white and blue boxes of saltine crackers, bags of potato chips, tempting chocolate candy bars in brown wrappers, and everything in between. I walked each wooden floored aisle, creaking and clopping as I walked, on my mission to find it.

The packaging was unmistakable, red and blue lettering with white trim on clear plastic. Inside, a twirling display of pastry with creamy sugared frosting spiraling inevitably toward the red fruit center. A danish with fruit filling. A rare treat for those under constant watch of adults, especially for breakfast, but there were no adults present today. At least not the important ones. No one to warn me of too much sugar, not enough fruit, vegetables or fiber. The bus driver was fully engaged with those he knew in the store, and the store clerk had little care for boys and their dietary requirements according to the food pyramid. I reached out, touched the wrapper that held it, delicately placed it in between my fingers and pulled it from its place upon the shelf, careful not to press too hard and squish the delicate flaky pastry. Holding it in my hands, the clear plastic packaging was holding captive the finest pastry available and my mouth watered at just the feel of it through the plastic.

I moved past the pastry section to the refrigerators, beginning phase two of my search, scanning through what seemed to be endless supplies of beer with a different animal on each brand. There were bears, elk, deer and even a blue bull on the endless brown bottles, but I didn’t want beer. I was looking for something better. A drink fit for danishes. Past the beer was Coke, Pepsi, Orange Crush, and Seven-Up in their own tempting clear, green, and orange bottles, but even these were not good enough. Past the juice and near the end of the refrigerator there were cartons of milk in red and white, promising a kind of silky smooth satisfaction that is guaranteed with pastries. Especially danishes. Pulling the carton free of the refrigerator, I hurried to the counter with my prize.

As I payed, the old man behind the counter smiled at me, giving half a chuckle as I walked outside as though he knew what was to happen.

Outside the store I unwrapped the danish and inhaled it, eating around the outside of the pastry until I got to the fruit, and then opened the milk. My mouth was sticky with pastry and sugar, and as I drank the milk down it washed away what was wrong and made it right again, making what would have been empty into a meal, filling my stomach, and satiating my need. I saved the fruit for last, savoring each bite of berry filling and washing my mouth with cold milk with every mouth-full, allowing the berries and milk to mingle into something new in my mouth. Each time a new flavor born with the mixture. Every new flavor better than the one before it, covering over the old taste with something more perfect than what had ever been before. I cherished every morsel savoring it long after it was finished, breathing in the crisp mountain air.

© Michael Barry 2013