At the counter in the bus station, the ticket seller asks if have a passport. “The Americans are making things tough.” He glowers. “Won’t let you in if you don’t have one, and the crossing takes hours. All depends on how many male travelers there are between 18 and 27 years old.”
“They’re the ones who cause all the trouble.”
Outside, snow is falling, crisp, and fresh, converting a dreary industrial landscape into picture postcard loveliness. In the coffee shop, the women behind the counter tease each other with much good nature — until one small mini-drama interrupts the chortles.
A man, an indigenous person in his 40’s, tall, elegant, and wearing an expensive business suit, refuses his hamburger’s polystyrene box. I stare at him admiringly: he is Tonto (Jay Silverheels) to the rescue, rejecting our plastic-polluted society. I want to cheer.
“No one needs these,” he says. “They are destructive to our environment.”
The woman at the cash register, also an indigenous person, raises her eyebrows, sneers, lets us all know she’s used to dealing with difficult cranks. But the cook and the cleaner, watching the interchange, are less denigrating.
“He’s got a point.”
“Of course, he does,” I chirp.
I am ignored by all.
At the border, the customs officials are indeed hostile. We are only a handful of travelers, but we clamber out of the bus, go sit silently in the huge, nondescript customs hall and wait for life to happen. Outside in the bitter cold, our bus driver — a man with a hacking cough — chain smokes. With a cough that bad, we might not make it to Billings.
An hour and a half goes by. No cars pass. The customs officials aren’t doing much of anything — but they’ll have to amuse themselves somehow (no trusting those Canadians). Finally, they pick a victim, a young woman of around twenty. Clearly terrified, she answers an endless barrage of aggressive questions while her bags are emptied and searched. Posters with waving American flags are everywhere, announcing that the war on terrorism will be won. Well…possibly, but that young woman seems an unlikely candidate for terrorist activities. She hasn’t the nerve for it.
When she is finally released, we are all allowed to get back on the bus. This is a flat countryside where snow drifts softly across the road, and isolated farmhouses hide behind a few bare trees. From time to time, mounds testify to habitations long vanished, and to forgotten tales of courage, passion, great love, or heartbreak.
In North Dakota, more passengers board. One, a very large, kinky-haired, dyed blond has trouble climbing the steps, grunting, puffing, heaving, although she’s young enough, perhaps in her late thirties. She sits opposite me, one seat up.
“What time is it,” she asks me.
Outside, the snow is knee deep, whiting out the landscape, turning the night into a snow globe.
“What time is it?” kinky-hair asks again.
“Twenty minutes after seven,” I explain.
Thirty minutes later, she turns, asks the same question.
At eight-thirty, she asks again. And at nine.
“So what time we get to Billings?”
I’m no timetable freak. I don’t even know where Billings is. “No idea.”
“No idea?” Obviously no mental speed demon, she lets out a sigh of frustration. We’re just not getting places fast enough for her, and she’s annoyed with me, too.
“We need snow. It’s good for us,” says a tall, thin man, a long distance truck driver on his way home to Washington. We are taking a long break in a Far West style restaurant and bar decorated with stag’s heads, cheap souvenirs, wood paneling, and where country music whines. I’ve struck up a temporary friendship with him and a sullen, scratchy older woman — the sort of temporary friendship that happens in the dead of night out in the middle of nowhere in particular.
“I was caught in the blizzard on the East Coast last week,” says the driver. “Took me two days to get into New York.” He broods silently for a minute. Looks longingly towards the bar. I can see him wondering if there’s enough time for a drink.
“Two days? Oh my!” I say. Then search around for a peppy topic of conversation after several hundred miles of silence. “Perhaps it’s the weather, but there aren’t many of us on the bus, are there?”
“It’s the wrong time of year for travelling,” says the scratchy woman. “And who’s got money?”
“Yeah. Two days to get into New York,” says the driver, again. He looks at me directly — he’s about to impart some important piece of information, I can see that. “You wanna know how many trucks bring toilet paper into New York every day? Two hundred! Into New York City alone!”
“Oh my,” I say again.
“Two days. You think you got it bad?” says the scratchy woman. Then she bores us with a very long uninteresting tale about how she has to drive in this weather every morning. Every single morning. She drags out the tale for some five minutes. Then repeats the whole thing again.
“What we professionals call white knuckle driving,” says the truck driver, breaking into her monologue. I give him all my attention because I can see that the scratchy woman is more than willing to repeat her story a third time.
“I go everywhere,” the truck driver says. “Wherever the company sends me. Pack up rich folk’s goods, drive them to where they’re moving. A good job if you’re not married because I’m gone all summer. That’s when people re-locate.” He looks morose, suddenly. Wends his way over to the bar, orders a beer. There’s probably a tale of a broken marriage, or infidelity behind those words, but I can’t pump him for details, can I?
It’s still snowing with enthusiasm, but dare devils take to the road, cars and huge trucks speeding into invisibility. Our bus driver is cautious, steady. He has nothing to prove but consistency.
When we stop again some two hours later, it’s in a busy bar with slot machines. We’re in Montana now and a gorgeous, young blond waitress takes our order for coffee. Hearing my accent, she asks where I’m from. She was born in Ireland, raised in Yellowknife. She’s working here for the winter; in the summer, she’s off to Moscow to teach English. She gives me her e-mail address: fellow wanderers who will never meet again making brief contact.
After we take to the road again, I notice that a handsome black woman is standing beside the kinky blond and stroking her back.
“Something wrong?” I ask her.
The woman smiles. “She’s in labor.”
“You’re kidding!” So that’s why she had such trouble getting up those stairs! “Why, in heaven’s name, will a woman who is in labor get onto a bus for a long ride?”
“It’s okay. The driver knows. He’s says he’ll go as fast as he can. He’s already called ahead, and there will be an ambulance waiting for her in Billings. It’s only forty minutes away.”
“How far along is she?” My fascination is mixing with raw annoyance for the woman foisting this upon us all.
“Well, the contractions are coming every six minutes or so.”
To emphasize the point, kinky blond begins a moan, a soft sound that takes on a keening sound as she grabs the other woman’s hand.
“You know how to deliver babies?” I ask.
“I’m a trained nurse.”
“Well, thank goodness for that.” Then I feel bad. This nurse, poor woman, has to deal with the problem — something she surely hadn’t reckoned with. Kinky is keeling again and I wait for a minute or so. Then plunge in with unaccustomed generosity: “If you need help, you can count on me. I haven’t the faintest idea what to do but if you explain…”
The nurse smiles warmly. She’s a nice person. “Good. And thank you.” She leans over Kinky. “Has your water broken yet?”
Kinky shakes her head.
So on we go, traveling through the night over horrendous roads. The driver is stressed. I’m stressed. All the passengers are stressed. No one is saying a word. We’re just listening to the woman moaning away every six minutes, then five, then four.
Because I’m trying to be polite, and discrete, and trying not to imagine babies, blood, and screams, I snap on the overhead light above my seat, open a book, and manage to get deeply involved in a story about Indonesia, headhunters, and parrots.
And, when I finally do look up again, I see that the nurse has vanished. In her place is a young woman with a long braid who is looking concerned, patting Kinky on the shoulder and talking softly to her, but I can’t hear the conversation.
Where is the nurse? I look around. She is seated in the back of the bus, her face blank. How can she have abandoned her patient like that? There’s no point in asking. We are approaching Billings, and city lights are cutting through the snowy blur. And, as promised, the ambulance is at the bus station, its lights flashing, beside a waiting stretcher. Five firemen leap onto the bus.
“Everyone stay seated until we get this woman off,” shouts one.
Then they are leaning over the woman, asking her questions.
“How many months along are you?”
Kinky doesn’t answer. The firemen look at each other. Ask again. Still no answer.
“What’s your name?”
Kinky whispers something no one can hear. They repeat the question, then look at each other again. Ask her when her due date is.
“August,” whispers Kinky.
The firemen stop leaning over her, stand there with looks of pure consternation.
“August? But, this is February. Are you having a miscarriage?”
Kinky doesn’t deign to answer.
“Well, let’s get her off.”
Slowly, the men move Kinky down the aisle and load her onto the stretcher. Now we are free to move, and we pile into the crowded bus station, desperate to get away from drama. Or so we think.
A man, weedy and aggressive, is screaming at the ticket agent at the counter. “You coming outside? You coming outside? Cause you’ll get what’s waiting for you out there!” His fists are raised and his face is apoplectic ruby.
We pull out of Billings, leaving behind the apoplectic screamer and Kinky. At two in the morning, we stop in a gas station-cum-general store. The bus driver is at the counter, laughing, talking to the owners, so I move in to hear what he’s saying.
“So the nurse, she reaches down to feel the woman’s stomach, and all she finds is a bottle of booze. She was drunk. Dead drunk. No more pregnant than you or me. The nurse comes up to the front of the bus and tells me, but it’s too late, because the ambulance is already waiting.
“And then, in the station, her sister’s waiting for her, and when sees her being put onto the stretcher, she comes over and asks what’s happened. And when someone tells her that the woman is having a baby, she starts shouting: ‘What’d you mean she’s having a baby? She just had a baby a couple of months ago!’ And then the brother-in-law starts screaming because he wants her bags, and the ticket agent tells him that he can’t claim the bags without the baggage tags. So the brother-in-law threatens to beat him up.” The driver shakes his head, a good-natured man. “What a family!”
“She’s an Indian,” says scratchy blond, stupidly. “They’re all like that in Nebraska.”
“No, she definitely wasn’t,” I say, annoyed.
“I hope they send her a big bill.”
“No bill,” says the station owner. “They’re all on welfare, those people.”
“What people?” I ask.
“Well, I’m going to write a letter of complaint,” says the blond sourly. “About that ticket agent. He was just messing around. He wasn’t paying attention to nobody, I saw that. Greyhound is going to hear from me! You bet. A letter of complaint. I’m going to tell them all about it. I’m writing to the managers.”
“You see it all,” mutters the bus driver.
J. Arlene Culiner on Amazon:
Jill Culiner on Amazon: