His foot was numb. The ancient bus moaned out of the dingy Greyhound bus station. Toxic smell of exhaust assaulted his lungs. He crossed his legs to relieve the pressure. Once free of the station, the air began to clear, leaving a dry spot in the back of his throat. The sense of movement overtook his being, turning his mood lighter. That way, he was going that way.
The miles trundled past, his mind skipping here and there, never focusing very long on any one subject. He would like to slow his thinking process down, stay on a single idea for more than a minute or two. He wondered, did they make a drug for that? How many are like me? Next topic.
Three buses, a thousand miles, still he didn’t know where he was going. That way. He was just going. That way. I’m hungry, he thought. Next stop, I’ll buy something out of the inevitable row of vending machines at the station. Snacks mostly. I wonder if there’s a machine that serves roast beef? Probably not, just potato chips and pretzels. Bathroom urge. He turned and looked towards the back of the bus where the restroom was located. He tried not to make eye contact with any of the passengers looking at the man turning around at them. I’ll wait, he thought.
Eyes closed, head back, he rummaged through the scenes churning through his mind. As good as any book, he thought, as long as you didn’t want a plot or ending, or a hero. But it was entertainment. He amused himself. That’s a phrase she said often, you amuse yourself, don’t you, Stephan? He never knew how to answer that. Doesn’t everybody? How many more are like me? Anyone?
The bus droned on, humming down the highway, chasing the sun westward. He didn’t want it to stop. Ever. Small bumps, shakes, metal screeches and muffled traffic noises were comforting. Like fate, he was moving towards something, someone, somewhere unknown. He dreaded the stops, afraid the end was near. At least this next stop, he had a purpose. Eat. Vending machines. No roast beef, cheesy crackers. Not the same, but it will have to do. What else? Oh yeah, that. Save it, don’t want to think about that right now. Too complicated, too many side alleys to get lost, too many choices I should’ve made. Later, I’ll come back to that one.
Whoosh, the air brakes signaled a change in momentum. Stephan dug his hands into his pockets, first left, then shifting to his opposite hip, the right, searching for change. Found some. Quarters, nickels, dimes. Enough for maybe two bags of cheesy crackers. And a Dr Pepper. His anticipation heightened, the sweet soda pop and salty snack would pair deliciously. Who needs roast beef. Me, but I can’t have any, so this will suffice. Mashed potatoes, with brown gravy. That has to be the perfect compliment to roast beef, and a bright green, crisp vegetable; like string beans or asparagus or broccoli. Stir-fried to bring out the color but not overcooked and limp. Doubt I’ll find that in the machine, he thought. Black olives and fresh baked bread. Nope.
The bus has rolled to a stop. Everyone stands up. And waits. The doors open, one in front and one on the side, the people exit. Stephan is last off the bus. He sees the driver, on his way out, slap hands with another man dressed like a driver. The new man changes the destination sign from Chicago to Kansas City. Makes no difference to Stephan. He thinks, am I supposed to do something in KC? Do I know anyone there? He hears the clanking of the vending machines, people are pulling knobs and mechanical grunts bring the food choices to the slot in front, bottom of the machine. Clang, whirr, ping, zing, pang! Another meal served. Stephan stepped up, it was his turn. Scanned the selection, confirmed there was no roast beef and picked the cheesy crackers. He didn’t bother to look for the mashed potatoes or asparagus.
The loudspeaker called for everyone to board the bus for Kansas City and points west. Stephan stuffed an extra bag of crackers into his shirt pocket, popped the top on his soda and headed toward the bus. There were many buses in the terminal, and people scurrying this way and that. People with a purpose. Stephan envied them for a moment. He felt like a passenger, maybe the only one, he wasn’t sure, that was not in control of himself. Up the steps, down the aisle, back to his old, familiar seat. The bus was vibrating, a rough idle, as if it were impatient with the wait, c’mon people, let’s go! The acrid exhaust wafted through the open doors. Stephan chased all the visions from his head, he liked to wait until they were speeding down the interstate, a steady throb running throughout the bus, to choose a memory to explore for further meaning, maybe a hint. He opened the second bag of cheesy crackers. Perfect, he thought, I have exactly a half bottle of Dr Pepper left.
Days, nights one and the same save the luminance. Thoughts to be savored, thoughts to be avoided, some forever. Certain thoughts need to wait for the right mood. Windows like a long movie played in fast forward. Sights trigger memories, brain synapsis firing, dredging up different images. Stale smells drift past, uncomfortable seats, no leg room, heebie jeebies, how do you stretch your sole? One thing leads to another. All in a vacuum. No dialog, no conversation, not on the outside. Plenty going on inside. Need to get off this bus. Why? Not sure. Where am I going? That way.
“You amuse yourself, don’t you, Stephan,” she asked again.
“I suppose, Suzanne, doesn’t everyone?” He wanted to hear that yes, indeed, she did too.
“Not quite the way you do.” She turned from him. “Nobody does things quite the way you do.” He studied her face for clues to the truth of the question. She was pleasant to look at. Slim, light hair, freckles across her nose. Only her downturned mouth broke the plainness of her features, gave her a complex expression. He never knew when she was serious or fooling around, asking a legit question or rhetorical. Most perplexing of all was why she stayed with him, what did he have to offer? He felt a pang in his heart every time she went away to visit friends or family.
“You mean I do them better?”
Not necessarily, Stephan, you just do them differently.”
“That’s why you like me?”
She walked out of the room. He stared at the wall. Sounds came from the bedroom down the hallway, she must be changing clothes. Drawers opened and closed, rolling closet doors bumped to a stop. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the strangest of them all? A frame on the wall encased a reflective surface broken into a dozen pieces, some larger than others, together in a jangle. Hanging art. Stephan looked at his broken appearance, his head canted to side just slightly, as if trying to find a deeper meaning within. Long, dark hair framed his small face. A sparse goatee like the point of an exclamation point finished his pinched look. Prominent cheek bones gave the impression of aboriginal origins. He looked away, nothing had changed, only segmented.
Outside, behind the rented house they shared, was a small rectangular deck with a railing and three steps down to a mostly dirt and clay yard. Stephan sat in a wooden chair taking in the crisp Fall air. Yonder was a tree, colors lit along the long branches, leaves in max orange-red-gold mode, soon to turn brown, die and fall to the ground. The door opened behind him.
“Remember me telling you I was away this weekend?” Suzanne was pinning the side of hair up with both hands, her head turned in his direction, but not exactly looking at him. Her foot held the door open.
“No, I don’t… where are you going?” She probably told him, he never remembered these kinds of things. He had so many failings, what was his worth to this girl? The never-ending question.
“A few girls from the old neighborhood are going out for the weekend, girls only thing, y’know.” She finished pinning up the side of her hair, and dropped her hands to her side. She looked directly at him. “Don’t you remember me telling you?”
He chuckled to himself, “You might have.” Which he knew was the truth. “Probably did,” he concluded. He smiled and looked down, he didn’t want her to misunderstand.
“You amuse yourself, don’t you, Stephan,” she asked again.
The Kansas City bus stop wasn’t in Kansas, it was in Missouri, but that mattered little to him. What did matter was that his ticket was finished. He stood in front of the schedule board, he needed a new destination. Let’s see, which buses were leaving soon. He had a few choices. He decided to go south, the northern chill was penetrating his light jacket. Oklahoma City here I come. Ticket, please. Thank you. Terminal three, leaving in thirty minutes. He wandered over to join the small group there.
Too many days, he should call Suzanne. She left, he did too, not an hour afterwards. Maybe later. In OKC he would take some time, wash his spare change of clothes, reflect on his circumstance. He can’t go back. he was adrift and he had to know why. Am I so unusual? I need a purpose. Twenty three years old and like a dark cloud scudding through an ominous sky, he only knew he was moving, but not why or where. Like that dark cloud, he was being propelled by a force out of his control. He didn’t like not knowing. Not when everyone else seemed to be engaged and seemingly had a map. He felt like an outsider, lost in every direction.
The Fall days were invigorating, she adored this time of year. Her life was full of joy and promise, Suzanne couldn’t image herself happier. Except. That boy. Where the hell was Stephan? She wasn’t worried, he certainly danced to a different beat. Still, she had concerns, if only a little ones. More curiosity, she supposed, than anything else. Well, she wasn’t going to stop her full life for anyone, especially someone so hard to reach as Stephan. There was something about him, though, that attracted her. She used to think it was the motherly instincts in her, like caring for a stray animal off the street or nursing an aged aunt or family member through an extended illness. But, she abandoned that line of thinking. Surely, that wasn’t it at all.
He wasn’t aggressive, nor was he a slob around the house or in any way a burden. Maybe that was it, he was easy, no maintenance. No, she thought, I have better ways to spend my time than care for a man-child. No, there’s something else.
She grabbed her coat off the rack by the front door, and already had one arm slung down the left sleeve when the phone rang. It was Stephan. She let him talk. As usual, he made little sense to her. She wasn’t upset with him, just wanted to know what comes next. The world according to Stephan. She didn’t pretend to really know him, never really made that effort. She took her coat off, retrieved her arm and sat down.
“Oklahoma City, there’s a rodeo in town.”
“Isn’t there always a rodeo in town there?” She said.
“I don’t know, I’ve only just arrived. I can find out for you, though.”
“That’s not necessary, Stephan, what are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” No response. He was thinking what to say next when he realized she was still patiently waiting for him to go on. The silence was a pressure building, like swimming to the bottom of the deep end in the pool. “And I’m figuring a few things out!” he said quickly before his eardrums burst.
“That’s good. Everyone has to do that from time to time, Stephan.” He smiled when she said he was like other people.
“Are you alright?”
“I think so.”
“So, when are you coming home?” “Soon,” he lied, “maybe this week.”
He took a room just south of town in Norman. It was small, but clean and cheap. His disability check wouldn’t hit his bank account for another ten days, so he watched his expenses closely. He lay on the narrow cot and stared at the blank television.
He mulled over the recent conversation with Suzanne repeatedly in his head. He kept coming back to the fact that she said everyone needed time away. Like he was part of everyone. Whenever he thought of his last deeds before leaving, whenever those complicated, dark thoughts returned, he liked to think that he was part of a bigger group. The idea brought a smile to his face. He was like everyone else. Anybody would’ve done the same thing had they been presented with the same opportunity.
The faces, he was sure, were painted with expressions of relief. He was certain of it. Maybe one or two looked quizzical at the very end, but the majority thanked him with their eyes. Was he wrong? He wrestled continually with this notion.
He had decided to do something charitable, to give of himself. He spent too much time thinking of his own situation and all the accompanying whys, and the many unanswered questions of his life. Suzanne was gone, clubbing with her girlfriends, and it just seemed like the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Ever since his return from southern Afghanistan he spent inordinate amounts of time and energy, it seemed to him, looking inwards. Today would be different.
Stephan walked, from the rental house he shared with Suzanne, the few short blocks to the assisted living facility he had passed hundreds of times. He walked inside, intending to volunteer. There was no one at the front desk. He twirled in place a couple times then started down one of the long hallways. Another hallway intersected this one, a nurses station stood at the center of four patient room arranged in a circle. Stephan walked past a distracted nurse talking on the phone while sifting through a pile written reports on her other side.
In the first room were three older men, all attached to monitors and various medical apparatus. Soft beeping sounds and rattled breathing emanated from each. Stephan stopped, they were watching him. He returned their gaze and tried to look deep into their eyes. He saw pain. When his own expression registered this discovery, the man closest to him nodded his head. Stephan went nearer. They all watched him intently. The man nodded his head more emphatically, although in reality it may have only been an inch or two. Stephan tried to read the man’s face. He felt a connection. Silently he believed this man didn’t want to live like this. He refocused on his eyes. They said yes, you are correct, son. Help me. I want to go in peace and dignity.
Stephan moved to his bedside and one by one, turned off the machines they were connected to different parts of his body. The man continued to nod. The light in his eyes soon faded and his spirit left. Stephan was calm, he turned to see the other two nodding at him. He turned off their machines as well.
Around the circle, the next room adjacent was occupied by three women. They seemed to know why he was there. They nodded. Stephan moved about the room turning off machines. He in turn visited the remaining two rooms and getting the nod from all but two, turned off all of their machines and watched relief pour over their faces. He didn’t look at the two who hadn’t nodded. Stephan felt good. He was helping.
At the hub, the nurses station was a rush of white-clothed people in panic mode. Stephan didn’t pause, he walked calmly past the commotion toward the main hall. He walked through the entrance doors and out into the street. It was a dry, cool day, with little breeze and thin clouds were blanketing the Fall sun, stealing the warmth. Stephan inhaled deeply, he felt alive and useful. He walked to the bus station.