It was all he could do, to climb on the bus headed roughly a thousand miles South. It wasn’t that he was in bad bodily shape, he was actually built much like a man who had been athletic and retained some semblance of that particular physique even though he was for a few years now mainly dormant. He wore a black shirt and faded blue jeans. A stress pack of smokes bulged a square in his hip pocket. His ticket was in his hand. His other hand held a backpack he’d purchased years ago.
The steps tried and tired his legs but it was really all in his head. He was a nervous wreck and hated to travel, so he never did. The backpack was from a shot at going back to school, a late bloomer attending community college but he dropped out before really quite going in. The physique he acquired predominantly through genes and not any long stint at any one sport, instead, he played at this and that rather well enough but flitted about until he grew too old for that sort of thing.
He had a wallet with his ID and not much else in it because he generally never lasted long at any of his many jobs, so was perpetually broke. He had, as it were, no stick-to-it in him so that life took control of him when he refused to take control of life. But he was a decent fellow who kept to where he needed to be even if he had to trick his mind until it was sick and believed that he had no choice but to be where he was needed.
The steep but not really as steep as they felt stairs took him to in front of a man who grabbed his ticket and handed him back a stub. That took him to a narrower-than-expected aisle which made him step slightly up and then slightly down into a musty upholstered seat. Every step he took jangled his nervous system. All along the way, he told himself that he could not possibly make this trip any more than he could make it to the sun and traverse its blazing surface.
He fumbled his backpack over his head and into a compartment. His mouth tasted of steel but his body felt like rubber. His stomach was in his throat and his head was somewhere higher than it physically was and hovered above him incredulously, dizzily. His hands were cold and shook like leaves. It was late August and the bus was not airconditioned. He needed out now but he sat down. He read somewhere that when in a panic attack, you should talk yourself through what needed doing by using your name as if you were instructing someone else calmly.
“Sit down, Sam,” Sam said to Sam. No one looked at him funny and that made him all the more nervous. What if his heart exploded or a sudden seizure made him swallow his tongue, who here would come to his aid from amongst these ignoring uncaring cold strangers. He had no one. No one at all. Except for her. He had her and she him, and in a thousand miles they’d meet forever. He hated traveling. He’d get there and happily never leave. He’d die in her arms years from this miserably trying now.
In his wallet was also a photo of her and his hands trembled too badly to trust them to take it out for a look, so he closed his eyes and saw it. In a short shallow breath he released “Cheryl,” and with that, the next few breaths were a bit more even. Then the bus was mostly filled and then it looked as though the driver was set and then Sam’s vision tunneled. He recalled as a young man being too scared to walk from his parent’s house to the mailbox. There was pea-gravel mixed in with grassy patches in dirt and his head swam and his knees went weak.
Inside the house, his mother lay crippled and he knew he had to stay even as his siblings did not. Someone had to care for her and someone had to get the mail and usually it was supermarket circulars but other times it was bills. He did not have to stay here. He had to get off the bus. His swimming head and his weak knees. He could not do this. He mourned Cheryl and the life they could have had if he only could ever just. He will run off the bus, be sad a bit, and then okay enough. Nothing new.
A hand touched his forearm. How had he not seen the man take the seat next to him? He was maybe seventy. Wiry thin and long but held together better than in a willowy way. He wore an eggshell-colored suit and a white fedora rested on his lap. His hair was short white cotton his face was drawn coal black. His hand stiffly stayed in place. “First time traveling, son?” Sam’s clouding vision saw the dirt under the man’s fingernails and arthritis in his fingers. Then saw his own hand, the scars of frustrations and anger on his knuckles.
“I’m not much of a reader but I like to travel with something so it looks like I shouldn’t be bothered to chat.” He handed Sam a slightly outdated issue of a glossy magazine. Sam didn’t respond as his head was elsewhere mourning and spinning, trying to will his body not to die but to run. “Flying cars,” said the man, “Says in here that damn soon there’ll be flying cars. Imagine that.” Sam must’ve taken on a greener hue. “Sorry,” the man said looking at him carefully. “An artist drew a picture. Looked like something from the funny papers.” Sam maybe chuckled. “You’ll be just fine.” The hand gripped his forearm and withdrew.
“Where ya headed, son?”
“South.” Sam parched.
“We all are son. To a southern lady?”
The man sighed knowingly and settled in. They spoke a bit, lightly and airily. Sam’s legs felt better, just heavy, and his head felt a welcomed tiredness coming on. He only then realized the bus was rolling and headed to an on-ramp. It wound up and into a highway lane and the man said something that calmed or at least distracted. All was silent for an hour as the sun began to set and all the while Sam tried not to think too hard about the difficult past or the hopeful future finally and maddeningly within grasp. The man shared half his peanut butter sandwich. It tasted nothing at all of traveling.
“Tell me about Ms. Cheryl.”
It was night then and the blackness cloaked the things that were passed by as the bus sped on and when the old man asked the question, he parted the window covering a bit and the nothing of a view further calmed Sam. He seemed to know that the daylight sightings would have overstimulated. The old man had a way of looking at Sam which was comforting. A glanced checking-in and Sam would nervously pass muster and get a clean bill of high-anxiety health.
His throat was still tight as he thought of the rented room he’d left behind and his proverbial meager possessions all in their easy place. He could manage only the tiniest of lives with any surety and he’d long credited that with his former and continuous abuse and his allowing himself to be used for his fear of moving on or, really, moving at all. For the longest while he credited himself as being noble but then he realized he’d only done-so from fear, a sprinkling of self-hatred. It is rightly said that only a man educated in violence can truly be a pacifist.
But fear came first and led to the next. The fear of betting on himself. He’d long been told he was not a good bet. So he began telling himself that and resigned his fate to that of caring for others and their own bets. When he was four, his mother purchased a doll for herself. He worried she wasn’t caring for it well enough so he would show it attention. Then he refused to play with his friends as they ran ragged in the streets after balls hit by sticks because his mother had a dog by then and she never played with it much. Then Mom got sick and needed care. He quit everything but that.
Soon he began to grow sad and sadder. He wanted to experience things but instead read about them. It was the next best thing and the few people he met would seem to find his knowledge almost as interesting as an experience would have been. In the in-betweens, he’d find a woman and they would have a nice enough time until his limitations were known and she would get bored, and move on. He hated going out, going much of anywhere would bring on panic as he shirked his perceived responsibilities.
Then he met Cheryl. She was visiting up North from a thousand miles due South and she was warm and she was understanding. He would cry to her and she would hold him. She began, little by little, to help him. The day before she left for home, they went together to a lake about an hour away and she held his hand in hers as he braved the different-smelling air. She made him promise to come to live with her. That was four months ago and now he sat on a bus next to an old black man as they barreled on into the empty night.
He’d start anew. With her love and acceptance, he’d start anew. He was still young enough. The doll was lost to time, and the dog and his mother each dead. He had named the doll Cheryl all those years ago and you can imagine his kismet surprise when he heard his lover speak her name to him for the first time. They sat at a picnic table in a park they each escaped sorrows from for fleeting moments. The doll had yellow yarn hair but his love’s was auburn and in the sun had copper streaks like new pennies.
Her mouth was wet and her skin so moist that he expected sweet juices to seep out of her when squeezed. All wet and warm and slightly softly round for the squeezing. He’d lose all his anxieties in her wetness; all past failures and aborted dreams. He woke up next to her twice and the early spring dew had nothing on her. He made their breakfast on a hot plate and served it to her on chipped dishes with bent tableware and she looked like a heavenly queen angel.
She said once that someday every day would begin that way and now–that began tomorrow. “She sure sounds nice,” said the old man. “I had a wife once, you know.” Sam didn’t pry. He was feeling good now. Hopeful and excited. He dozed a bit and had lovely dreams. By this time tomorrow, he’d be with her. He wanted to thank the old man but instead silently thanked God above for sending him an angel and almost but didn’t cry. He leafed through the magazine and even cracked a joke about what a flying car might cost. “I’ll stick to the bus,” said his angel.
It had almost been a full day's time and his stop was next. The old man put his hand on his arm again and smiled right into Sam’s eyes. Sam prepared himself. For the first time, he felt able to reach into his pocket and pull out his wallet. His body was nimble and free. Almost strong. He showed the old man Cheryl, “Pretty gal,” said the old man. When the bus rolled into the depot, Sam was already making his way down the aisle with his backpack slung over his shoulder, certain he left behind this angel for another but he figured somehow he’d prepared him to face anything and maybe he’d even pop up again if needed.
The air was hotter than he imagined and the sun brighter. Heatwaves rippled atop the asphalt and his skin felt flushed with healthy blood. He couldn’t recall ever feeling more powerful. He breathed in deeply and exhaled fully. He pointed his stride toward Cheryl, who he saw walking quick and quicker toward him smiling open-mouthed and glistening.
Angels are people you meet. Sometimes you meet an angel, and sometimes another angel guides you home to her when you could not have ever done so alone. He almost cried again but again did not. They allowed themselves an embrace. It was no time for softness nor wetness just yet. After all, later that night as he slept soundly, they would have the grim yet necessary task of killing Cheryl’s husband.
::: very :::
You can hear me read [Part I] HERE
You can read [Part II] HERE