In the bus station café, the sign pinned to the wall behind the counter says: There’s Always a Reason to Smile, and an overhead television gives us the latest cheery news: four people shot at a post office, a few missing wives, a kidnapping. I remember the soldier back in Livingstone, the one who insisted that: “Aggression’s not part of the American way of life.” He’s clearly a man who can’t differentiate TV entertainment from reality.
A lumpy woman plays a screeching computer game at the far end of the station. Even though she’s way over there, she makes life hell for all of us. “She should be arrested for disturbance of the peace,” I say loudly. Fellow travelers send me martyred looks of commiseration, but on and on she plays, with zombie concentration.
To escape the noise, I take refuge outside where a fat man is chain-smoking.
“They’re gonna see their mistake letting that happen in California,” he rasps, just as if we’ve been having a long conversation. “I hope the whole state will drop into the sea. I used to repair washing machines, but the taxes and the paperwork made making a living impossible. Now, I won’t even go there to visit an old buddy of mine. Last time I went to Bakersfield, I was so disgusted, I turned around and came back. A bunch of health freaks over there, all jogging. You can’t smoke in restaurants, okay, I can accept that. But you can’t even smoke on the street, or in your car in some places. In others, you have to keep the car windows closed so the smoke doesn’t get out. Soon they’ll forbid smoking in cars because when you open the door, the smoke escapes. They’re all nuts there. I hate everyone in the state.” His angry rose-colored jowls tremble.
Even though it means going out of my way, I’ve decided to travel via Nevada. Why? Because it’s the setting for the contemporary romance I’m working on, All About Charming Alice. I want to see Alice’s yellow house, I want to find the community of Blake’s Folly that I invented: This place was a rusty trailer, scrapyard, abandoned car, clapboard shack, sagging old house community: a dead end if there ever was one. This was nowhere. This was the end of the line, socially speaking. This was a has-been. This was home.
Outside the bus window is a beautiful but desolate countryside. I picture myself out there, strutting over dirt trails, making my way between the low lying beige hills like some quaint explorer, miraculously finding a desert Shangri La. Do I really think it’s possible? Perhaps, like soldier-boy, I’m also having a hard time differentiating fiction from reality, for not so many miles away is the area formerly called the Nevada Proving Grounds. There, on 1,360 square miles of desert and mountain terrain, 1,021 nuclear bombs were detonated between 1951 and 1992. The first one hundred atmospheric tests created mushroom-shaped clouds and bursts of light that could be seen in Las Vegas, 65 miles away, and they became a favored tourist attraction. Delighted guests partook of the lively sight from hotel windows, and sipped atomic themed cocktails. No one even thought about fallout, but it reached as far as southern Utah where there was an increase in birth defects, leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumors, and gastrointestinal tract cancers.
The weather has changed quite abruptly. Rain has become sleet, and the wind has picked up. Back to winter again. I’ve picked out a town on the map, and I plan to leave the bus there, go exploring. I’m certain I’ll find an old hotel, something left over from the nineteen hundreds, a bit rickety, but original and inviting. I imagine a bar where country music whines, old-timers share their secrets, and a square upstairs bedroom will be very different from the usual sterile roadside accommodation.
“Gonna find yerself a cowboy?” the bus driver jokes.
A red-faced flirtatious craps dealer sitting across the aisle from me, stares. “You just gonna get off the bus in the middle of nowhere? Go someplace where you don’t know anyone? Well, why not. Except it’s a weekday, so places will be quiet. It’s on weekends when all the people come crawling out of the woodwork and flock into the casinos to lose their money.”
“We’ve already lost a few passengers to the machines,’ says the driver. “Soon as they saw the first casino along the road, they couldn’t resist.”
Does he enjoy driving a bus?
“Oh sure. You see some funny things and some things that aren’t too funny. Like that driver that had his throat cut by a man sitting in the front seat. That’s why no one’s allowed to sit in the front seats anymore. Too many crazy people around.”
“You’ve been in dangerous situations like that?”
“Me? Nah. I’m the one in charge here. I keep my eye out, watching everyone. I go up and down the aisles from time to time, see what everyone’s getting up to. I went down to the back a little while ago, and one man had his shoes off. You could smell his feet all over the bus, but no one said anything. I told him to put the shoes back on. He said his feet were swelling, but I didn’t care. With me, everyone gets one chance. After that, I throw them out. If they don’t want to go, I call the cops. Another time, this woman with a ticket to Los Angeles gets off the bus at a stop somewhere along the road and says to me, ‘You stay right here until I come back.’ I told her, ‘lady, this is a short stop only. We’re leaving in five minutes,’ but she just stared at me and said: ‘You don’t go anywhere, you hear me?’ When she didn’t come back, I took her bags off the bus and drove on. The next time I came by there, the ticket agent told me she’d shown up an hour later with bags full of shopping. When she saw the bus was gone she began shouting, “Where’s he gone? I told him to wait.’”
We’re already pulling into town, the place I’ve been imagining, and it’s not at all as I pictured it: there’s no scrap and trailer desolation; there are no wooden houses. Just streets of ugly modern bungalows, miles of cheap motels, fast-food emporiums, and neon-lit casinos.
I grab my backpack, stare at all the un-loveliness, and my determination evaporates. I climb back onto the bus.
The driver chuckles. “What about that cowboy you’re looking for?”
“Well, maybe he’s looking for me, but I’m not looking for him.”
As usual, as soon as I make the decision, I regret it deeply. Outside the town, the countryside is beckoning again, but it’s too late.
“Vegas is more fun anyway,’ says the craps dealer. “Besides, it’s getting dark out there. Where you gonna walk at night?”
Maybe Vegas is more fun for some, but these flashing lights, funfair façades, are not my style. What am I doing here? I’ll have to walk miles before I find a cheap motel and quiet. Lurking restlessly on the street outside the bus station are doubtful-looking pseudo-humanoids, but an old toughie at the ticket counter gives me an address of a big hotel just four blocks away: “It’s nicer than any motel, and you get cheap rates during the week.”
And so, like any package tourist, I do end up in an impersonal bedroom on the eleventh floor. And, like a package tourist, I find myself standing in front of the restaurant buffet where vast heaps of rubber slices float in glue, and vegetables are synthetic.
The slot machines whirr, beep, roar, and burp all around me, and I go to the bar, order a beer. A stocky man who is drinking heavily looks me over. Is it worth making an effort? He decides it is. “Me, I’ve seen a lot, I can tell you that. Flown planes, lived in the Yukon, driven all over the country, had businesses of my own. I could tell you things you wouldn’t believe. You married?
“You want another beer?”
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
“No thanks, I’m fine? What’s that supposed to mean? You staying in this hotel or what?”
“Yes, I am.”
“So why not accept another beer? You’re not going nowhere. You know what your problem is? You got attitude. And grey hair. Why doancha go dye it?”
In the morning, I’m back in the cafeteria and at a loss. What do I want to eat here? The overhead television is spreading the good word: a burnt body found in a shopping cart, ten dead in a gang shoot out, three kidnapped children. Betty, the waitress comes over to me (yes, that’s her real name). She’s one of those string bean tall women with a good collection of wrinkles, a lot of lipstick, running eye makeup, a whiskey voice, and an easy-going way of joking with everyone.
“You writing a journal? She jabs her chin in the direction of my notebook.
“Well, a girlfriend and me decided to write a book about restaurant etiquette, you know. It’s so funny what people say to you, like one guy asked for these yokeless cholesterol-free eggs, you know — they only come scrambled. And he said he wanted them over.” She bursts into a phlegmy peal of laughter. “Then another guy says he wants coffee with cream, and sugar, like I’m going to prepare it for him.” Again, she laughs and waits for my reaction — what sort of reaction? Sympathetic chortles or an indignant “tut-tut?” I do my best while trying to work it all out.
In a pawn shop, I look over an old camera, decide to buy it. Go take photos of those hills I’m heading for after I leave this city behind. In comes a desperate-looking woman. She hands over a gold watch.
“Just to tide me over a little.”
“Sure,” says the broker, all understanding.
But those hills are so far away, and there is endless sprawl to negotiate in a rattling bus before I can reach them. I’ll get there. Eventually…
And, finally, here I am, taking a track over a low rise. Scrub shivers in the bitter wind, and the only noise is that of dust scraping the stony surface. Plastic sacks, tin cans, a smashed barbecue, a television set, torn clothes, wrecked plastic toys, twisted metal decorate the scene, and all are studded with bullet holes. Over there, on the left, are a few bleached bones.
Is this really the place for an afternoon stroll? I think of serial killers and casual murderers: I have no intention of being tonight’s news flash. And I admit, finally, that a fictional town is exactly that.
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