I was thankful that the air conditioning on the coach was functioning in grand fashion as I escaped the wet, weighty heat of Tulsa. The bus had a cranky suspension; its seats were covered in faded blue cloth hopscotched with a jumble of rectangles. But the mechanical plant seemed staunch as we tumbled past Okie City and into the Texas panhandle.
The chill air carried a faint, sweet-sour scent as it bullied its way through the vehicle. There were precious few passengers. I stretched out, read Rand and contemplated the virtue of selfishness. I was at that age.
Our driver was a talky, mustachioed fellow, his uniform very kempt, his hat at a jaunty angle. He would chat with whatever riders would sit near the front. These people seemed to change in shifts: first a shaven serviceman, then a woman in a loud, plaid dress who snorted when she laughed. I couldn't hear any of the conversations, only an occasional "heh, heh" from our pilot, who seemed easily amused.
Most noticeable was the large woman who took frequent trips to the tiny convenience at the rear. Her girth prevented her from walking straight up the aisle; she had to sidle. This provided an unusual view, since she had oddly placed bulges that fought with her Spandex below her waist. These sacs gave her an odd symmetry; she seemed to have four buttocks. She wore a worried face and a mohair sweater. I made sure to give her plenty of room, moving my camp to the window as she jounced past me. She smelled like the vents.
We pressed on. The flat, vapid vastness of New Mexico made me wonder how hot it was outside. Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Puerta de Luna. The afternoon baked on. I closed my eyes for a time.
Finally a stop. The driver stood up and announced, "Clines Corners, folks. Here's where I get off, heh, heh. Farty-five minute layover." I felt the need to give him a crisp salute, which he returned with a wink.
We alit at a small strip mall. The early-evening heat was tolerable. A Subway store beckoned, but did not appeal to me. There was a dry cleaner next to a store that—oddly—sold "Lady's Foundations," Sturdy undergarments on translucent torsos peeked at me bravely behind crackled, yellow plastic sheeting in the windows. A cafe proclaiming "Best Corn Dogs in New Mexico" shooed me away with greasy self-importance.
Somewhere, I could hear kids playing. I hooked behind the stores to see a clutter of adobe homes. Small, barefoot, brown children were kicking a soccer ball down a dusty alley. At its end, one house sported a hesitant neon sign on its lintel. "COMIDA." Sold.
I walked into a home kitchen. Behind a makeshift counter stood a Kenmore fridge and Hotpoint stove. The sink looked like the one in my folks' basement, next to the washer. A small, electric griddle stood on a Formica counter. A smiling Mexican, eager to display her goldish canine, beckoned me to sit.
"You eat," she said, holding up three fingers. "Tree dollah." There was no menu.
There were four small tables behind me. I took a stool, and a sweaty glass of ice water appeared. A lonely fan sat in a corner, its blades indifferently batting at the heat.
First came a sort of chicken soup, with torn tortillas adrift. Then more comida. My hostess hummed a vivid, sprightly tune as she worked. She proudly heralded each small dish with its name as she set it before me, punctuated with a glimmery smile.
Flavors jostled in my maw. Spice. Meat. Corn. Mystery.
One of the street kids burst in. The proprietress tried to shoo him away. He smiled at me. "You like the food? Aunt Rosa makes the best in town. None of the bus people ever stop here."
I said, "This may be the best meal I've had in months. Tell your aunt that my mouth is in heaven."
The boy laughed as he told Rosa, "Su boca está en el cielo." She joined in the laughter as she plated my dessert, an impossibly sweet cake.
Reluctant to leave, I laid ten dollars on the counter. Rosa pinched my cheek as I told her to keep the change. The kids were still playing soccer. I kicked an errant ball back to them. With my toe, like a true gringo.
The twilight was a terrific blue. Jubilant. It smiled on me as I boarded the bus.
The new driver was a silent, balding man. Confusing hair tried to cover a furrowed nape. He was pudgy and hatless.
Right before we left, a stout man hopped on. With plenty of seats open, he chose one right across the aisle from me. And started talking.
"Boy, lemme tell ya, almost didn't make it. Know what I mean?"
I stared straight ahead. My new companion wore beef-roll penny loafers, dun, wooly socks, cuffed jeans and Old Spice. I tired of him almost immediately.
The man launched into a series of monologues. Patty Hearst; The Towering Inferno; the newly minted President Ford; turkey bologna.
I nodded a few times and considered feigning slumber. Finally he said, "And how about those Limplesander horses in Germany? Ain't they somethin'! Know what I mean?"
I finally said, "No."
The man's jaw dropped. "What?"
"I don't know what you mean. I have never heard of such horses, so I don't know what you mean. Now, if you were talking about the LIPIZZANER stallions in VIENNA, AUSTRIA, that's different. Know what I mean?"
His face reddened. He looked ashamed. I kept staring at him until he moved his seat. As I drifted off, I could hear Beefy serenading another busmate. "Now, there's a certain way to train a Weimareinger ..."
I slept through Arizona.
We hit Needles, California at two in the morning. The clock in front of Denny's flashed to the temp. 98. I spotted Beefy, suitcase in hand, walking away. He gave me one last, furtive glance. Still reveling in Rosa's cooking, I opted for Fritos and a Mountain Dew from the 7-Eleven.
Quite a few folks boarded here. A wrinkled whore from Natchitoches, Louisiana took the seat next to me. She imparted her information freely. I found her fascinating off the bat. Then my intrigue waxed. She wrote the name of her hometown on a wrinkled Arby's napkin. I wondered how she got Naggadish out of that.
She wore a leather jacket with withering fringes of varying length. Threadbare jeans. Scuffed cowboy boots. Too-blonde, frayed hair. She shared Chiclets with me.
I heard about her work. The Calgary Stampede. A barmaid in Casper, Wyoming. A failed marriage to a used-car dealer from Oxnard, California, which courtship began in a brothel in Juarez. Pleasuring The Big Bopper backstage just a month before the plane crash. "And he war BIG, too," she added.
Her dozy drawl soothed me. I told her of my destination and plans; she wished me luck. She said she was headed for San Berdoo ("Truckers is good bidness."). Then, somehow we managed to spoon sleepily as our silver stallion hurried through the steamy night.
We had a short layover in San Bernardino. She offered me her favors in the bus-stop restroom, free of charge. I politely declined. She kissed me meekly as we parted. I saw a tear in her eye. Or was it mine?
Her name was Dorlene.
I drifted off again as we shifted off I-40, down 15 and to the ten.
The stop jarred me awake. "Last stop," said the driver. His first words. "Los Angeles." He used a hard g in the name.
As I slung my backpack over my shoulder, I could smell cumin on my hands. In the pack were drumsticks, traveler's checks and Canoe. Retrieving my duffel bag, I thought of Dorlene, carne asada, and the twice-assed lady.
I was ready for America.