All Other Points West: 1553 to Dallas

In Atlanta, the ramp leads us down to the street as
buckets of water dump from the sky.
As one we pull up our hoods and
step beyond a waiting bus to the next, meant for us,
1553 to Dallas.

I trail a small boy, as black as I am white, tugging an enormous red suitcase
whose tag reads San Francisco.
A glance ahead suggests the likely mom,
pulling another bag and another brother.
Then another traveler, a thief of space, mistakes me for weak,
tries to gain a place in our long wet line.
I know this game and
checkmate her with a
single
polite
decisive
step.

Upon the bus, I scan the seats.
There sits the boy, three rows back,
across the aisle from bro and mom.
A safe seat mate.
“Hey, little man. Anybody sitting in that seat besides your backpack?”
Quick glance at mom, who nods.
He tucks the bag to his feet.
I take the window.
Soldiers with duffles,
small women with big purses, and
young lean men of every color slip past us down the aisle.

My seatmate compliments my blue pen,
likes it because it writes so fine.
He’s ten years old,
in the 5th grade.
The name is mumbled once, twice and
then I give up on getting it for now.
He eyes his brother
who has custody of mom’s phone and its games.
“Next time he crashes, it’s mine, Mom. Mom. Mom.”
It’s a word of many syllables.
Soon though not peacefully the phone changes hands.

We trade information.
“I’m going to San Francisco,” he says.
“That’s a long way,” I reply.
“That’s what everybody says.”

Four rows back a couple speaks loudly of sex
before subsiding as the driver works the aisle for tickets.
“We got tickets to San Francisco,” says my seatmate.
The driver smiles. “That’s where you’re going?”
My turn: “Don’t tell him that’s a long way.
That’s what everybody says.”

“Nice watch,” my boy tells the driver.
To me “I bet that cost a lot of money.”
“Well, he does work hard.”
He notes my Timex turned under on my wrist.
“Yeah. Hey, you wear yours likes that, upside down?”
“My granddaddy wore his like that and it became my habit.”
“Oh, okay. You want a mint?”
He’s generous and also offers gum. Grateful, I decline.

We wait
for another bus and its people.
Outside a man argues over luggage gone awry.
Or possibly going awry at this very moment.
He’s not getting far.
The driver paces the wet pavement, then turns
as the sister bus releases another line to join our crew.
These people look tired.
And quickly they are wet.
We silently assess their stuff.
Pillows, dripping coats, bags of boxes of cereal clutched close.

Then the rumble,
both sky and engine.
Darkness suspended briefly as we pull away.
The driver introduces himself as Roger, “our motorcoach operator,”
ticking off rules and destinations.
“This bus will go to downtown Dallas, Texas but
I will only go as far as Jackson, Mississippi,” he explains.

“We go through Mississippi?” asks my little man.
“You do. I’m stopping in Alabama.”
“We go through Alabama?”
“Yep, that’ll be our next stop.”

We turn back to the voice: “If any of you have been listening to the weather,
we probably are going to experience
some very bad inclement weather.”
I’ve been watching the screens as we waited inside.
The worst is past.

Still a thick grey of stormy night descends.
The slick streets give themselves to us
as we roll past sleeping shells of brick,
crumbles of commerce,
shadows of stone human beings.
A row ahead the angry man still fusses
and cusses on his phone about his luggage.
It will be a long story.

Back in our seat, my friend plays his game,
basketball,
on mom’s phone.
I pack my failing electronics away and
speak of reading.
“You read? You mean books?”
“Yeah, I like to read. You?”
“Yeah, I like to read. I learned in 3rd grade. No, 2nd grade. No, 3rd grade.”
His words are deep urban west coast.
My own speech a stew of south and mid-atlantic edu-speak.
We both must work at hearing them,
but tacitly decide it’s worth the effort.

My eyes close as we take the highway.
I hear him surrender the phone,
almost gracefully since it didn’t go to the brother.
Atlanta, Austell, Lithia Springs, Douglasville, Villa Rica blur by.
Familiar exits creep into my dozing brain.
A baby cries for days.
Okay, not really.

The quiet voice: “You mind if I turn on the light?”
“No man, it’s fine. I’m just resting.”
“Okay. Which button is it?”
The slender outstretched arm does not reach.
Not yet.
I help him out and then turn to look.
He’s got a book.
I blink at the paperback with snow and a sleigh on its cover.
A Candlelight Romance with very small print and a heroine named Calista.
“That’s your book, huh?”
“It’s my mom’s. She’s got a bunch of them. But I’m going to read it too.”
“That’s good.”

He begins to read softly, aloud,
each word a swirl of unfamiliar sounds pulled from the page.
“I read this book the whole thing once,” he says,
unfazed as my eyebrows raise.
“I sound out the words. Put them in chunks.”
Mom leans across, tells him to read to himself, quiet-like.

The book lasts until it’s time to drain
a huge bottle of Orange Crush of its final swig.
He offers me Doritos.
We talk in expert tones of Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese.
And then I explain Central Time,
the difference between Mexico and New Mexico
and between city and state.
Topics we will revisit.

“Alabama, it’s nice too,” he says. They have all those tomatoes.”
I’m still deciding what to say to this, when moments later:
“Wow! That’s Alabama?!?”
He points into the dark at acres of bright lights,
a huge, shiny RV dealer.
“‘Yes, this is Alabama.”

First stop is Anniston,
where the bus station is a gas station.
People disperse in search of food, cigarettes, and bathrooms.
I’m stuck to my notebook, with my blue pen.
I like this boy and want to keep the words he gives me,
this journey’s unexpected small treasure.

We resume.
The man in front continues to berate his phone about his luggage,
more loudly now that his seatmate’s wisely moved on.
I’ve been hearing his story for more than 100 miles and
still can’t make sense of it.
“Do you cuss?” my boy asks me.
“Not around kids.”
“What do you say?”
“I’m not going to say them in front of you. Not in front of kids, right?”
“I’m allowed to say the s-word. Because it comes from donkeys.”
“Uh huh.”

Leftovers of a Mexican lunch provide me dinner.
We share chips and talk of favorite foods.
He likes Chinese.
I have citrus to spare for him and bro,
clementines bought by morning for my daughter.
I accept some sour Skittles in return.
Orange, red, and then he adds a yellow.
“These are the best,” he says,
as he takes the yellow one and places it in my palm.

“Are you racist?”
“Ummm . . “
Aren’t we all?
but some of us choose to try to recover from it.
But I can’t say that, so I’m still thinking.
“I mean, do you like black people?”
“What do you think? Do I like black people? I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“I like all kinds of people. If they are nice.”
“I’m with you on that one. It gets boring if everybody’s just like me.”

We watch the dark go by,
pass a bus-sized truck whose driver sips coffee,
then the sign for Chula Vista.
He says
“I asked my dad how he was doing. He said he was good.
I said ‘Good’ back to him. And then I told him ‘But man, you’ve got to put more details in it.’”

They’ve come from Charlotte,
a month-long visit so mom,
I hear her explain,
could “take care of some business.”
She offers me her phone charger
to juice my tablet,
but I tell her I don’t have far to go and
have enough juice for that.

And enough to show her boy a map.
He nods.
“I like maps. And globes. You know globes? My teacher has one.”
We touch the screen and trace his likely path across the states.
I tear a scrap of paper and write them down for him to keep.

North Carolina
South Carolina
Georgia
Alabama
Mississippi
Louisiana
Texas
New Mexico
Arizona
California.
At least I think.
I tell him I don’t know how they’ll go from Texas,
but maybe like that.

We review the Mexico-New Mexico difference again.
Then the talk turns to dinosaurs and what they eat
and then to iron and what we eat.
“That’s my TV, the window,” he says. “Are there any black people in Texas?”
“Why, yes there are. I do know that.”
“I mean like a lot of black people?”
“I guess that depends on how you look at it.”

“Look at those lights,”
I tell him as we glide into town.
“I’ve got to call my friend so I can get home.”

You’re a nice lady.”
“Thank you. I think you are nice too. I enjoyed talking with you.”
“Not everyone is nice.”
“No, not everyone is nice. You do have to be careful about that.”

We shake hands.
I finally get his name.
Elisha.
I tell him my own again.
Repeat it.

I give mom my card, tell her to have him e-mail me someday
when he learns how.
She says to him: “you made a friend.”

I hand her the last four clementines.
She has me give them to Elisha.
I remind him: “Now, they’re for you AND your brother.”
“I know.”
“Good.”

And then I go
away,
home.
And they go
away.

I sit this morning in the sunlight,
with my coffee and my dogs and my blue pen.
Elisha should be in Texas by now,
Dallas soon.
Then another bus will take him west,
so he can find his own way
home.