I eavesdrop a lot, and usually I don’t write down what I hear – but this instance on the bus was a little different. First, I got to hear almost everything. As much as I like to overhear conversations (and dislike having them), it is seldom these days that you get to hear both sides. People will talk to anyone, anywhere, on their cell phone, but you only get half the discourse. Filling in the blanks with your imagination can pass the time, but it’s not really satisfying. Second, I learned something. Not complete answers, but glimpses. I am always looking to learn something, and books aren’t as real as people. Something may be true in a book – and it always sounds like it is – but if it’s not true on the bus, what good is it?
The woman got on the bus first, and clearly the experience was new to her. She seemed to be looking around for instructions, but finally stowed her bag and took the window seat in an empty pair about half way back – the same row as I was in but on the other side. She nodded to me, but did not speak. She did, however, pull out her cell phone and tell someone named Howie that she was on the bus and would be home in three days. She told him that she couldn’t sit around any longer waiting for the airline to settle their strike and just wanted “this nightmare to be over.” She signed off by telling him she loved him and settled into her seat with her purse and a book in her lap and a small red zipper bag clutched between her feet.
Just as we started to pull out of the Phoenix terminal, a man rapped on the bus door and got on, put two plastic bags of belongings in the overhead bin, and plopped down in the vacant seat next to the woman. Now there was a vacant seat next to me (albeit covered with my books and raincoat) and whole rows that gaped dark and empty in the back, but he seemed to consciously to select the woman across from me.
“Hallo” he said. “Lucky to find someone to talk to here. This is going to be one long ride.”
The woman – whose name I later found out was June and so for clarity I’ll just assume I knew that from the beginning – couldn’t seem to believe that he was talking to her. Jim (that was his name) just sat there grinning at her until she responded.
“Don’t know how much of a conversationalist I’ll be. I’ve been trying to get out of town for three days but Midland is on strike and everyone is overbooked. School vacation week. Gave up and took the bus. Haven’t been on one of these since college.” She gathered her purse and book closer to her bosom.
“Well, I wouldn’t go on one of those damned planes anyway. Been saving for months to go see old Andy and I came into some money the other night and here I am. Lucky man, that’s what I am. Maybe some of my luck will rub off on you.” Even from behind I could see that June cringed.
They were a pair. She still had on a khaki raincoat and was clutching her belongings with both arms and feet. He had on a light blue tee shirt with cigarettes sticking out of the chest pocket and – once his plastic bags were stowed – wasn’t carrying a thing. He was pretty time-worn, but clean, although you can tell men that don’t ever wash dishes. Their hands never get completely bleached out. The woman’s hands had washed a few dishes, I think. I am an expert on washing dishes.
“What were you doing in Phoenix?” Jim asked as he fondled the useless cigarettes as the bus pulled out of its bay.
“Visiting my son and his family. Two grandkids. Came for four days and been here over a week.”
“Seems like you’d be glad to be stuck with your family.” In my experience it is not good to question the maternal instincts of ladies. In any case, his remark led to a long silence which she broke when it looked like he was about to say something else.
“You have any kids?” She was going on the offensive it seemed.
He chuckled though and drew in a long breath. “Oh, yeah. But not so you’d notice. Four that I know of, but wouldn’t even recognize’em. Not really my kids – well, I suppose they probably are mine – but not my choice. Three of the four were unintended; tricked I was. And the fourth was intended, but I was tricked anyhow. I know I was still responsible in the eyes of the law, but I paid when they made me pay. I’m not about to force those kids to pay any attention to me. Couple of them have contacted me, but they don’t stay interested for long.”
She gave him a look like she was relieved to find out that there were worse parents than her out there.
“What about you – is the Phoenix one your only kid?”
“No, I have a daughter in Michigan. And three more grandchildren. And two step-children but no grandchildren there. And a husband back home – where I’m going.”
“I’m going to visit my old pal Andy. We grew up together and he told me if I could ever get East, he’d foot the bills for me for a couple of weeks. Didn’t look like it was ever going to happen, but then I won a Keno game and hung onto the money long enough to buy a ticket. You play Keno?
“Never gamble. Not a lucky person.” She grabbed her purse tighter as if her new friend might see it as another lucky pot of money.
“You sound lucky to me. Enough money to travel, husband, home. I have a home, I guess. My apartment that I share with my brother Fred who snores. My old dog died last year and I still miss his company even though he snored too.”
There was a long silence after that but I don’t think anyone was sleeping. The weather we were having on our bus ride was not good; the sky had been dark since we hit Oklahoma and we had been battered by wave after wave of cold rain. I like that kind of weather for a bus ride; makes you feel fortunate to be warm and dry and the noise of the storm minimizes other distracting noises. It did make it hard to hear my neighbors sometimes, but generally it was not a problem. His voice was soft, but she had trouble hearing him, so he spoke up. And her voice was naturally strident; I imagine that most of the people on the bus heard everything she said. The rain eventually put most of us into a precarious drowse, but by early evening we were woken up by a massive thunderstorm, just before the bus was due to stop for a supper break.
“Winter thunderstorm, that’s unusual.” This was from the man, who sounded more interested than perturbed.
June was perturbed about the storm and about weather in general. “Weather is all messed up with global warming. Too hot, too cold, too stormy. Even in New England we’re having really hot summers. No one even used to have air conditioning, but now you can hear the whole neighborhood humming all summer. Things are not looking good.”
“We’re luckier than the young people though. We’ll be dead before it gets too bad. At least I hope so. And we knew what it was like before. Before traffic jams. Before kids were afraid to roam in the woods. Before cable television and talk radio. I wouldn’t want to be a kid now. We’re lucky.”
“I don’t know if it’s luckier to know what’s been lost or not to know. And I fear for my kids and grandkids. I don’t feel lucky. You’re right about having the known the world before it began to disintegrate, but that only makes me feel sad. Heart-broken really. Not lucky.” Jim snickered at this, which made June bury her face in her raincoat which she had wadded up and stuffed in the space between the side of her seat and the window.
On a two and a half day bus trip you learn things about people you never know any other way. You get to know who snores, who needs the bathroom at ninety minute intervals, and who really needs daily showers for the odor and for their disposition. You know who can’t stay off their smartphone for five minutes and who looks pissed off if theirs even chirps. June was a ten minute checker and there was no evidence that Jim had a phone at all. Jim snuffled in his sleep, had only a refillable water bottle for drinks, and twice a day fished a little book out of his back pocket and read it. It might have been a Bible or something. June needed to pee regularly, but despite Jim’s offers and protestations, refused to change seats with him so that she would be on the aisle. Maybe she was hoping that he would get sick of getting up for her and move, but he didn’t. June also didn’t seem interested in the book in her lap. She opened it occasionally, but eventually it ended up under her seat. She studied her smartphone (which never rang), peered out the window, and sighed a lot.
Jim kept trying to make conversation at intervals. After noting that it was getting colder, he offered up his desire for snow. “I’m hoping to see snow when we get up north. Haven’t seen it in decades – to be honest, I swore I never wanted to see it again, but you swear a lot of things you don’t end up meaning. If not, no one would get married twice, would they?”
“I rather hope it’s not snowing. Howie has to drive an hour to pick me up and if it’s snowing it will take us forever to get home and we’ll be lucky to get up the driveway. If you want to see some snow, have your friend drive you up to the mountains.”
“Oh, Andy doesn’t have a car. Almost none of my friends have a car. No money for one. Or they lost their licenses before they stopped drinking. Actually, most of them stopped drinking about the time they lost their licenses. Part of hitting bottom – male version.”
“Yup. AA and dry for seventeen years.”
“And what is the female version?”
“Of hitting bottom?”
“Usually they lose their husbands and then their kids. Kids especially. Or if the kids are older, they freeze their mother out. Worse than losing your license.”
It took her a minute to answer. “I suppose that is worse. Although I must say that if I had to spend another day with my kids I would have gone crazy. Can’t win, I suppose.”
“Not a matter of winning except one day at a time. That’s what AA taught me.”
“I’ll take a day. One day of winning. Haven’t seen one lately.”
“Well, this has been a good trip,” Jim responded. “We’re on time and the tiny toilet hasn’t gotten stopped up. I call that a win.” June was apparently not going to keep a conversation going involving toilets, and there was silence again. For the rest of the trip, they talked on and off in ten minute segments. She got a little friendlier, but not much. They clearly mystified each other, and regularly shook their heads and rolled their eyes when the other one was not watching.
Finally, we all got off the bus in Boston after sixty-three hours. It was dark, but the bus terminal shone bright and wet. We were stunned by the light at first and huddled together as we collected our luggage from under the bus, but then, one by one, we all headed out into the night and our own little worlds. I looked for Howie and Andy, but they must have been waiting elsewhere. I have thought about June and Jim quite a bit since then. I was confused, but I am often confused. Jim thought he was lucky; he was full of being lucky. June felt unlucky; she was compressed and oppressed with her misfortune. But Jim thought June was lucky, and June was sure that Jim had rotten luck. As I said, it was confusing, but in the end I think I learned something about luck. I’m still not sure if I am lucky or not, but clearly what we all think of our own luck is not necessarily how it looks to those around us. Maybe that’s just part of the human condition. So, as I said, I learned something, but I’m still confused. I guess that’s part of the human condition too. But I’ll keep listening, because I would really like some answers.