The bus is crowded, and the driver is a mean bitter man of biting humor and short temper: at the first stop, I notice he buys a book on handguns.
I have to share a seat with a blond woman: chewed-looking hair, a scarred nose, a slightly soiled, fringed leather jacket. She ignores me for a long while, perhaps irritated by this forced promiscuity, but at one of the many stops during the chilly night, we find ourselves standing together — I’m stretching my legs; she’s chain-smoking, stocking up on nicotine — and suddenly she’s chatty.
“I’m a nervous wreck because I’m angry.” Her name is Sherry, she’s forty-seven years old. Hers is a deep whiskey voice, warm, charming.
She’s on her way back to Arizona, where she once lived, to get her son out of jail. “He was arrested along with my ex-boyfriend — he’s less than a year older than my son. They were both caught manufacturing and selling speed. The police went into the house and took away all the furniture, everything single thing because they claimed it was all bought with the proceeds of drug money, but that’s not true. It all belonged to me, and I want it back. The only things they didn’t get, is my collection of knives and my jewelry. I left those at a friend’s house, and I sent her money to ship it all back to me, but she never did. So now I have to check that out, too.”
“I’ll be giving that son of mine a piece of my mind,” she says once we’re back on the bus. She wants to sound stern, but her eyes express pure maternal adoration. “Believe me, when I get through with him, he’ll never do that again. Right now they’re keeping him in the county jail, not in prison, but there are fourteen people in a cell for six, and he was beaten up so badly by some Mexicans, his hand was broken in two places. But you know what? He probably asked for it: he has a big mouth.”
Yes, of course she knew they were selling drugs, that’s why she left. “My ex-boyfriend? He’ll get at least ten years.”
She doesn’t seem to consider that her son might not fare any better, even after adding (as though it’s an afterthought) that the two of them were also making bombs: the ex worked in a mine and had access to “materials.”
Neither shocked nor condemning, perhaps she is even proud of them. “I’ve led a pretty wild life, but what I’m gonna do now, is put that son of mine on a bus, and ship him to my ex-husband. He’s already raising my youngest son.”
There are, obviously, important details missing in this narrative.
Sherry has traveled all over Montana, and enjoys sharing the bits of information she’s picked up along the way: not surprisingly, most of it is pretty grim. She tells me about the Unabomber, Theodore John Kaczynski, responsible for sixteen mail bombs that killed three people and injured 23 before being denounced by his brother. A brilliant mathematician, a radical environmentalist opposed to modern technology, Kaczynski tried to get his academic essays published. But when they were rejected by two universities, he manufactured and delivered his first mail bomb. His victims were professors, the owner of a computer store, an advertising executive, airline company employees, and any other person he considered responsible for the wrongs of the industrial complex.
As we pass Butte, Sherry mentions the Berkeley Pit, a former open-pit copper mine now filled with more than 40 billion gallons of acidic water, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals that include copper, iron, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid. She laughs: “The Pit is now one of the only places in the world where you can go and pay to see toxic waste.” One mile long by half a mile wide, over 1,780 feet deep, in aerial photos, it is a huge black splotch.
“My present boyfriend told me all about it. He works twelve hours a day as a mine mechanic, so he knows.”
“Twelve hours?” Something like that is impossible in Europe these days.
“Sure, twelve hours a day is a lot, but many people work more. Folks out here are resigned to working all their lives.”
She had been married, “to a man who beat me up every time he was drunk. I was with him for twenty-eight years — ever since I was fifteen-years-old. Sure, I kept on dreaming about leaving, but dreaming about it is easier than actually doing it. Everyone around us knew what was going on, but no one helped, and anyway I always lied about everything. What else could I do? I was shit scared. Besides, beatings were all I’d ever known. But that isn’t the real reason I finally left: It was because I worked as a waitress for over twenty years, but my husband never worked at all. When I finally did leave him, he held a gun on me in the middle of town while the police tried to talk him out of killing me. I had to get a restraining order on him. Now he’s fine, though. He’s living in Seattle and doing a great job of raising our sixteen-year-old. I sent the kid up there when I went off with the ex-boyfriend, the guy who just got busted.
“But you know what? I’ve heard worse stories than mine. A couple of months ago, I was on a bus where there was a woman of around 18 with three kids. She’d just gotten out of the hospital and was too weak to carry the two babies, so I did it for her. Her husband had stabbed her sixteen times and she survived. Now she was on the run and terrified. The police hadn’t found her husband — he was still on the loose. And on TV, there was a woman who was shot by her husband. When I hear stories like that, I think about how easy my own life has been.”
In her own way, she is a good storyteller, and she certainly has charm. “These days, I buy antique china in garage sales and sell it on eBay. I do well, make good money, and my new boyfriend is really good to me. Things are great. Now it’s my turn to be taken care of. I’m not madly in love with him. It’s hard to learn to trust again, but he’s the one who forked out the money for this trip to Arizona.”
People are starting to look strange in this part of the world. There are cowboy hats galore, and crazy eyes, staring fatties with Mr. Clean looks and sneers, doubtful muttering characters with greasy long hair and knit caps. Sherry is getting twitchy, too. “I could do with a Tequila. What I like, is hanging around bars.” I notice her hands are trembling.
Of course, drinking is strictly forbidden on Greyhound buses: if a driver catches a whiff of alcohol, you are not allowed to continue on. But Sherry knows how to get around people, and our next driver is an easy man with a twinkle in his eye. During a one-hour layover, Sherry actually manages to convince him to drive us over to a nearby bar and restaurant where he’s planning to have dinner.
“Okay. I’ll take you with me. But you’ll have one drink, that’s it.” Sherry nods gratefully. And once we are seated in the noisy crowded dining space where smells are tempting, Sherry gulps down her drink as though it were water.
“I’ll be retiring in six years,” the driver tells us. “I know exactly what I’m going to do, too. My family came over from Prussia back in 1910. They took a train to Dakota and built themselves a house of stone, straw, and mud, right out there on the prairie. It’s a historic building, and it’s still standing today. Now it belongs to me because I just inherited it. And, out there on that prairie, that’s where you’ll find me.”
“I know what I want, too,” says Sherry. Her smile is dreamy, optimistic. “Once I get my son straightened out, I’ll start living. Maybe my new boyfriend and me will buy a trailer, start traveling around. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. My boyfriend does too. My ex-husband hated that idea.”
“Do you think you’ll miss driving a bus and being on the road?” I ask the driver.
“Might. You meet some odd people. Some good ones, too. And you sure see some pretty strange things.”
“Well, once there was a couple having sex right there, on the back seat of the bus.”
“Really? What did you do?”
“What did I do? Hell! I watched them in the mirror. I had a great time, and I didn’t even have to pay a quarter.”
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