As opposed to the airlines, the bus people didn’t mind my loading seven large pieces of luggage into the Greyhound’s belly free of charge. No one even questioned why I checked in an Antler hardside, two Samsonite Spinner uprights, a Victorinox Swiss Army cargo duffel, one twenty-seven-inch Titan, and two vintage leather suitcases—all with fancy ID tags that didn’t bear my name. The tags had other people’s names on them, is what I’m saying, for the luggage had traveled haphazardly around these United States, become temporarily lost or delayed, and finally arrived at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. I’m a bag runner. That means I get contracted out to return people’s temporarily lost or delayed belongings, most of which showed up at dawn, when I started my job. Unlike every other faction of employment in America—teaching, high finance, construction, and the airline industry, for example—my job had seemed secure up until I made this one particular pickup. I collected the addresses, loaded the van, and, instead of stopping seventy miles north, in Asheville, where all these angry travelers resided without their clothes, toiletries, and vacation gifts, kept on driving, fifty miles past, to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. I went inside, actually won a few hundred dollars within an hour, then returned to my van parked a half mile away, turned the ignition, threw a rod, and blew the engine.
Maybe I had a gambling problem. It was not the first time I’d been to the casino, but with the exception of those six or eight times when I’d kept going to the ATM for more money to put into tight video-poker machines, I knew when to quit. Anyway, as I say, up until this point, a Tuesday, all had been secure. Being a bag runner wasn’t something I’d have chiseled into my tombstone, but I considered it meaningful employment until I had enough money to quit and write one of those dummies’ guides to winning at Shamrock Sevens, or Deuces Wild, or Jacks or Better. I foresaw an entire series ahead of me, excepting keno. With that money, who knows? Maybe I’d take up flying, become a pilot. I could look people in the eye—people closest to me—and go, “Ha-ha-ha, I told you.”
But at this point I was receiving phone calls from my boss, picking up luggage from an office adjacent to the baggage claim area, and driving around with suitcases that had been to Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Charlotte, Memphis, Salt Lake City, et al. I wore a name tag, though on occasion frustrated ex-passengers chose to call me Fuck Face, Shit Head, Pissant, Numb Nuts, and Dickhead. “Hey, Lick Knob, thanks so much for charging me thirty dollars so my bags wouldn’t show up where I did,” someone might say to me, man or woman alike. “How is it that I can fly from La Guardia to Greenville nonstop, and my suitcase ends up in Grand Rapids, Michigan?”
I’ve never kept proper, scholarly notes and graphed it all out, but I would bet the luggage that accidentally ended up in Michigan had something to do with a harried and inept ticket agent seeing “Gr” and making assumptions.
I said “Grrrr” to a lot of people myself. What I didn’t say to those who took it out on me was “Look, Screw Gravy, you’re blaming the wrong person.” I got it. If anyone understands frustration and futility, it’s me. I might bring that up in the first paragraph of my gambling books. I could bring it up in regards to video poker, and in my job right before, when I led a more glamorous lifestyle.
You see, up until I became a bag runner, I’d worked as the special-teams coach at a college whose president finally realized that an institution of higher learning intent on gaining a reputation as an institution of higher learning didn’t need a perennial 1–10 football team that cost the school money and only brought about jokes from the region. And so I’d been let go, along with the other eight or fifteen assistant coaches, plus Coach Steve Gillespie, who’d hired me as a special-teams coach eight years prior. After all the layoffs, Coach Gillespie started Hut-Hut-Hut Delivery, the outfit I was driving for now.
During my own playing days in high school, I’d led the nation in kickoff-return yardage. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius—as one mathematical genius from the math department pointed out to me one time there at my previous job—to understand that if opposing teams score, on average, sixty-one points per game, then they’ll have to kick off often, and the returner will have more opportunities to catch the ball at the goal line and take it back to, say, the twenty-yard line. After all, there are bound to be a lot of touchdowns against a team with a bunch of 170-pound defensive tackles, and cornerbacks with 6.3 speed. One time we played a team that wanted its placekicker to set some kind of record, so they kept driving down to the ten-yard line, stalling on purpose, and kicking field goals. We lost only 45–0, but on fifteen field goals. That game I gained almost 320 return yards, another record at the time.
All the attention I had in high school got me a scholarship to the worst Division III football program in the Southeast ever. In college I once again led the nation in yardage, and that got me the job as a special-teams coach at the ultimate horrendous team. I don’t like to admit that I’ve succeeded in life only due to being associated with losers, but it’s hard to argue with.
I’m no psychologist, but I have a feeling that my association with losing programs somehow cursed me into choosing the wrong thing whenever there was a choice to be made: drink or don’t drink; gamble or don’t gamble; stick with a bad marriage or walk away before the injuries become monumental and beyond repair, surgically or otherwise. I do not like to think back on all of the mistakes I’ve made, which could land me the starring role in a reality-TV show called Bad Decisions. There were the neighbors in the homeowners association when I thought it would be okay to set up a target-practice area for firearms in the front yard, my argument being that would-be burglars might stay away if they thought we all owned pistols. There was the swift action of the IRS when I got caught making up tax deductions—and I still think that air, for example, should be free and tax-deductible when you have to pay upwards of a dollar for it now at the tire-pressure hoses of gas stations. And there was the time I took my wife’s sister up on her continual offer to play strip poker whenever she visited.
Believe me when I say that my bad marriage wasn’t all one-sided. It wasn’t entirely the wife’s fault.
Anyway, I picked up the bags, I made another life mistake at the casino, and the van blew up. It was not yet noon. I asked the man who’d driven the trolley back to the parking lot, Frank Groenwald Jr.—what kind of Native American name is that?—if he knew a mechanic. The place in downtown Cherokee recommended by Frank Groenwald Jr. offered not only to tow my van in, but to drop me off at a convenience store that moonlighted as a bus depot. (I don’t think it’s an unnatural thing in the South. I’ve heard about Greyhound buses, and Trailways back in the day, arranging to pick up passengers on, say, Highway 25, as long as they had exact ticket money and weren’t visibly drunk.)
Believe me when I say that my mind looked two or three steps ahead—like when I returned kickoffs, or when I believed that a deal of ten, jack, queen, and king of spades, followed by an ace of diamonds, required me to discard the ace so I’d get a royal flush. I understood that I needed to view all the possible consequences here.
I didn’t call anyone at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. I didn’t call Coach Gillespie. And I certainly didn’t call my wife, Jackie, who’d insisted before I took the job that nothing but bad things would happen if I worked again for him. Jackie and I had met in college, where she was a cheerleader, of all things. She held the unofficial record for most times hitting the ground from a misshapen pyramid. Her excuse? Not her fault, ever. It was always the fault of somebody beneath her. I don’t necessarily want to suggest curious things about Jackie’s character. But I must mention the possible head injuries, because to omit them seems equivalent to saying “Air travelers like their clothes to visit distant terminals,” or “There’s no need to visit Gamblers Anonymous.”
“I need to let you know how the world will end,” my seatmate on the Greyhound bus said as soon as I sat down. We were positioned directly behind the driver, whose name was Eddie. There was an ID card up above his head on the visor, just like in a New York City taxi. Eddie kept his head nearly shaved. I looked at the woman beside me. “I know how my life’s going to end,” I told her. “When I get back home I’m going to lose my job, and then have my wife shoot me.” Why would I say this to a stranger? I didn’t know if my marriage to Jackie was salvageable, to be honest, but I couldn’t honestly say that I didn’t love her. And I couldn’t say that I loved anyone else. Call me lazy and optimistic. I thought, I am not a bad person, I am not a bad person, I am not a bad person—like a mantra that one of my offensive tackles used to say on the sidelines back when I played college—though it would probably take a year of saying this, plus a thousand origami cranes, before I would convince myself.
My seatmate had real tattoos on her face—little tiny stars and half moons constellating her cheekbones and temples. She looked a good five or ten years younger than me, somewhere between college and—in these parts—grandmother. For a second I thought she had lightning bolts tattooed below her bottom eyelids, before I understood that she’d been crying and her mascara had run.
“That may be,” she said as the bus bludgeoned its way through the mountains.
Could she read my mind? Did “that may be” refer to Jackie shooting me, or to a thousand origami cranes?
“Oh, it is,” I said. I took out the business card I’d gotten at—I’m not making this up—Indian Repairs. The mechanic there had said he’d hold off on the van until I called. I would call, of course, only after asking Coach Gillespie if he wanted to spend $1,099 on a new used engine, not counting labor, for a 1986 Ford Econoline van. I knew the answer already.
I thought up possible/logical scenarios. I needed to get home via Greyound, tell some lies, then pack up my ex–airline passengers’ luggage in my own pickup truck and take a real trip to the Asheville area.
“Well,” my seatmate said, “I hope that’s not true about your job and your wife. I know it sounds mean, but I hope you live long enough to die like the rest of us on the planet. Or at least like those of us in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. And Australia. Everywhere except the poles, which won’t be around anymore anyway.”
I said, “What’s the president of the local Optimists Club doing here on a bus?”
“My name’s Mona,” she said. She went to shake my hand, but reached too long and gripped my inner forearm, the way people must shake hands at those Renaissance fairs, or on some episodes of Star Trek.
I said, “Hey, Mona,” and refrained from wiping down my forearm. My skin kind of vibrated on the spot where she’d squeezed. “Ken Graddick,” I said. I’d almost said “Steve Gillespie” instead, like I did on those few occasions when people called me “Spit Palm” or “Douche Nozzle” and then asked if Ken Graddick was my real name, because of the obligatory name tag, whereupon I’d say, “Caught me! No, I’m Steve Gillespie,” et cetera, just like any lowlife telemarketer.
Something about Mona had drawn my real name from me. I never felt that thing they say about love at first sight for Jackie. The first time I saw her was when I heard a collective moan from the bleachers and noticed Jackie splayed out on the sidelines, holding her neck with one hand and her forehead with the other. I didn’t come running over blurting out my unconditional love for her. So what? But at that moment the mid-torso tremble I experienced for Mona caused a guilt known only to a man who’s gambled away his retirement.
The bus passed by a couple gravel turn-ins where people had stopped to look at vistas, and a place where people could trout fish all day without a license for five dollars. There was a local potter who’d set up his wares on a warped wooden table on the side of the road, and another man who’d carved black bears out of oak with a chain saw. Eddie tailgated a short bus filled with gambling octogenarians—I was sure I had seen them at Harrah’s, all playing keno—until the driver finally pulled over at Bear Meat’s Den convenience store and we could pass. Giant tribes of motorcyclists came from the other direction, Hells Angels and Gold Wingers, roaring. I don’t know what it must’ve been like in the back of the bus, but even sitting right behind the driver, I began to feel carsick ten minutes into the ride.
“Here’s what’s happening,” Mona said, returning to her apocalypse scenario. “They’ve tried to kill mosquitoes with insecticides, but it’s only killed off bats and toads and frogs. They’ve accidentally killed off every animal that feeds off mosquitoes. Mosquitoes have adapted. There will only be more of them, right?”
I had by now noticed a boil on the back of Eddie’s neck, and I tried to concentrate on it in order not to feel movement. Who has boils anymore? The moving bus did not feel dissimilar to a questionably safe ride at a third-rate carnival. Unlike the pathetic airline industry, Greyhound didn’t provide paper vomit bags lodged in seat-back pockets.
I said, “I get it. Mosquitoes will bite people, and we’ll all succumb to malaria.” I did not say, “I have wanted to know a woman who understands cause and effect in this way ever since I’ve been attracted to women.”
I need to mention that Greyhound bus seats offer more room than the thirteen-inch seats on a Northwest Airlines’ McDonnell Douglass DC-9-30. The Greyhound bus seat—though stained and frayed—allows a person to turn her body halfway toward a seatmate, which can be disconcerting, especially when one is holding on to his stomach and the other is wearing a short skirt not normally seen on domestic long-distance mass transportation.
I couldn’t help but to look down. Mona had what I hoped were only fake teardrop tattoos on her inner thighs. What did they mean? I’d seen men with teardrops tattooed on their cheeks, which had to do with either how many friends they’d seen murdered, or how many people they had murdered themselves—I could never remember. Some of these men had played on college football teams with slack admissions policies, and they had tackled and kicked me on, say, the seven-yard line, or done so to players I’d coached.
I looked down way too many times, trying to be sly about it. What woman spent time tattooing her body instead of, say, talking nonstop about drapes and wallpaper like Jackie tended to do when she decided it appropriate to talk to me about anything?
“No, not malaria,” Mona said. “Well, yeah, maybe. But also mosquitoes will attack our dogs, and our dogs will die from heartworms. And then we’ll die from the depression we’ll contract from having no more dogs around.”
I listened to Mona, but I was distracted. First off, she needed to close her legs and turn 45 degrees. Then there was my boss. And my wife. And the people sitting at home drumming their fingers while awaiting their dirty clothes and toiletry bags and stolen unused hotel soap bars. Did I really care? I wondered. Strangely, I found that I did. I cared about my job, my marriage, I even cared, a little bit, for the people who were fretting over their lost baggage. And yet I felt the pressure of something bitter, something endlessly pessimistic and loser-ridden, a weird knowledge that no matter what I chose to do—unlike that poem they made everyone read in English 102—it wouldn’t be right. Maybe it seems convenient for someone in my position to say so, but ever since taking a philosophy course in college—one I don’t remember that much because it occurred during football season—I haven’t been able to cotton to all that “free will” crap. If I were forced to explain it all to a judge of some sort, I could imagine starting my defense with the first time I’d fumbled a kickoff, and ending with “Grand Rapids.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I would say. “Shoot me. I’m an old stray dog that needs to be put out of its misery.”
I looked at Mona. She smiled. I shook my head slowly side to side. Here she was—because I’d lost the coaching job, because I’d taken the bag-runner job, because I couldn’t wait for a more exciting life and visited a casino, because Jackie belittled me hourly, because I’d thrown a rod. Mona.
There are so many things on the wrong side of the balance for me that perhaps I would do well to point out I’ve taken exactly zero things from ex-travelers’ lost luggage. I could—seeing as it’s against the law for airline passengers to lock a suitcase, a law on a par with smoking cigarettes in most public situations—unzip my load and pull out whatever I wanted to. I could blame it on baggage handlers up in Grand Rapids, for one. But if I learned anything as a kickoff returner and coach of kickoff returners, it’s how most mistakes get caught on tape. I don’t know how many times I fumbled, blamed one of my own blockers, then had a coach point out in the film room how I appeared to merely drop the football and run the opposite direction from a teardrop-tattooed linebacker twice my size with 4.4 speed who could knock the wind out of me for so long that our team would have to spend two time-outs even after the required injured-player stoppage.
Oh, sure, I’ve rifled through people’s suitcases, just to see what kinds of lingerie women wear these days, the sort that Jackie’s probably modeling for another man. So what? I shove dirty clothes back in those plastic dirty-clothes bags provided by Ramada Inns and such places, or I fold up clothes that haven’t been used. I stick that little cardboard Transportation Security Administration Notice of Baggage Inspection card right back on top, the card that shows someone’s out there to “protect you and your fellow passengers.”
The bus hit I-26, drove past where my luggage should’ve been delivered, and at last ran out of hairpin turns. My stomach and outlook returned. As long as no one stood beside the interstate with his thumb stuck out and a grip by his feet I’d be home in an hour or thereabouts.
I said, “Have you been crying because your dog died of heartworm, Mona?”
She laughed so loudly that the driver jerked his head. “You can tell? No. No, I haven’t been crying because of my dog. My dog’s still alive, though she doesn’t live with me anymore.”
She had finally turned in her seat during the last curve out of the mountains, and now I wanted her to slant back my way. “Are you all right?” I said. If her worries weren’t all that traumatic, I could tell her about my situation, and it would make her understand that her problems didn’t matter, relatively speaking.
That’s why I’m on this planet, I thought. I’m here so its other citizens will feel better about themselves. I thought, I am Grand Rapids.
Mona turned halfway again and pulled her knees to her chest. I concentrated on staring into her eyes, which wasn’t easy, what with those satellite tattoos and the black lines smudging downward. I had an irrational fear that Eddie’s boil might burst and somehow give me a fatal disease.
“I’m through crying,” Mona said. She leaned in close to my face and whispered, “Can you smoke on a bus nowadays? You can’t anymore, can you? I’m going back in the restroom to smoke a cigarette.”
“I don’t have any answers,” I said.
Mona pulled herself up using Eddie’s headrest, straightened her right leg, and looped it over my knees. I realized that she might’ve been at least six feet tall. She asked for her bag and I handed it to her. Maybe too loudly she said, “I need to use the restroom. Just going to use the restroom. Nothing else.”
I don’t want to say that her rear end was in my face, but it was, and I imagined our being somewhere other than a Greyhound bus. I thought of Bermuda, though I’d never been there. I thought of Mexico, and Myrtle Beach. I’d seen Kenyan runners with worse legs than Mona’s.
Mona looked down at me and winked. For some reason I thought it necessary to say, “I hope everything comes out all right.”
Whether there was a special sensor, or whether Eddie the bus driver had access to an immoral camera, I don’t know, but he took the next exit for a town called Fletcher—home to Smiley’s Flea Market—pulled into the parking lot of a place called Freckles’ Diner, which served as a Greyhound station, and set the brake. Mona had returned to her seat, smelling of what ended up being those American Spirit cigarettes, with a Native American smoking a peace pipe on the pack.
Eddie said, “I’m kicking you off. It’s the end of the ride for you, miss.” The air brakes made their special noise, as if he’d practiced timing it that way. “If you want to argue with me about the rules, I can call the police.”
Mona looked at me. “Did you tell him?” she said. “You told him!”
I shook my head in a way I used to do trying to juke oncoming tacklers. It hadn’t worked back then, either. I said, “No. No, I didn’t.”
Eddie descended the bus steps. There waiting to board was a limping man with only one eye, a layer of skin having been grafted over his other socket. After him another guy came on raising a bottle of bourbon, holding an armload of books about Mississippi, saying he knew more about the South than anyone.
From outside Eddie yelled up: “Come show me your bag. There’s a pay phone here.”
Mona looked back to me. “I thought you were cool, Ken. I thought you had the initials KG for a reason. Kilogram.” She took two or three steps down the aisle the wrong way, slapped her butt, and said to the other riders, “Mosquitoes! Y’all have a great ride, but please know that mosquitoes will kill us all!” Which most people—say, inside a 727—might take for crazy talk, but which in a bus didn’t seem to faze anyone.
It’s hard to account for what happened next. I got up and followed Mona out of the bus. Was I intent on completing a day of fuckups? Had I developed some kind of lust pang? It was beyond my knowing for certain. These are questions that can be answered only by smarter people—people like judges on mid-afternoon TV shows, or sensible preachers with additional degrees in counseling. For some reason it had become imperative that I figure out how to help Mona from being stranded. It had nothing to do with those teardrops on her thighs. Hand to God, it had nothing to do with the tears. But before I had time to think of the consequences, I was outside the bus, asking Eddie to retrieve my luggage also.
“Goddamn you have a lot of luggage,” the man inside Freckles’ said. He was an African-American dude with blotched reddish skin and a perfect auburn Afro.
“He’s a tattletale!” Mona yelled out. Eddie had needed to pull only an old-school Kelty A-4 backpack with an aluminum extension from the Greyhound’s undercarriage for her.
“Y’all want some rice and beans?” Freckles said. “I got rice and beans for special today.”
I shook my head. “We’re just trying to get our bearings,” I said.
“Rice and beans sounds good,” Mona said, and turned to me. “You owe me some rice and beans, after what you did.” She lit up another cigarette.
I didn’t say, “I didn’t tell on you.” I didn’t say, “You idiot—you know you weren’t supposed to be smoking on the bus,” et cetera. I said to Freckles, “Okay.”
This entire situation must’ve happened previously. I didn’t even tell Freckles—his real name was Stanley Perlotte—the entire story before he said, “If y’all need to get from point A to point B, I can rent you one my cars. I got two on the side. You get one back to me somehow, or I call the law and get it returned. And there’s a security deposit.”
Stanley “Freckles” Perlotte possessed the kind of face that made me understand that I would never get away with any lies. I would never be able to convince Coach Gillespie that the van had died elsewhere, or my wife that I’d not somehow fallen in love in inexplicable ways. I did not want to call up Hut-Hut-Hut Delivery, nor did I want to interrupt my wife hunched below her boss’s desk, or in a motel room, in order to admit how I’d felt lucky and gone to the casino once again, after having made promises to the contrary.
“Where are you headed?” I said to Mona. Even though I didn’t believe it, I told her I thought I could get what I needed to get done with enough time left over to drop her off. I figured Greenville, or Spartanburg. It didn’t occur to me that Mona might be making connections elsewhere.
“Deal,” she said. “Victoria, Texas.”
The keys Freckles had offered belonged to an old Toyota station wagon rental that barely had room for the luggage, even using the backseat. There was a radio and cassette player, bucket seats, and a console that blocked my view of Mona’s legs. I felt comfortable driving the thing. Back when I’d coached special teams, the college hadn’t been able to afford one of those Gator vehicles, so we kept a 1988 Corolla wagon on the sidelines in order to take injured players off the field and out of the stadium, to an awaiting EMS vehicle.
“How far are we going this way?” Mona asked. “Tell me again what we’re doing?”
I’d told her all about my job. I’d lied and said that I’d had a bag to run up to Cherokee, that my engine had blown, and so on.
“Thirty miles at most.” I looked at my list of addresses, plus the MapQuest directions that would get me at least to an ex-traveler’s vicinity. “Forty miles at most. Not far.” I didn’t look over.
“Do my tattoos scare you? I’m going to call you Kilogram, by the way.”
I kind of liked that. It made me wish that someone had tabbed me Kilogram back in college. “How old are you, Mona?”
We passed over the French Broad River. “I’ve rafted down this river,” she said. “There are rapids. There are great rapids, I guess to the north of here.”
Grand Rapids, I thought. All my troubles stem from Grand Rapids. Without these waters I would be a happy man in a monogamist situation.
Mona opened the glove compartment—a folding map of the United States its only occupant—and closed it. “I didn’t give Nelson any kind of STD. No matter what he says.”
Of course I tried hard not to veer off the highway. Who the fuck was Nelson? Had we spoken of him before? “Goddamn,” I said.
“He was together with me all through college,” Mona said, “and we both got jobs as river guides, all over the place. We did Idaho, and Utah, and here. Then he went and accused me of cheating on him eight times—which I didn’t do—and he got the clap from someone else, though he’ll never admit it. River guides are notorious for screwing around, you know. He was a river guide, too! Why can’t it be him?”
She had exactly eight teardrop tattoos on her thighs, that’s all I’m saying. It might not have meant anything.
“My wife was the worst cheerleader ever,” I said. “First off, her team never scored. Second, she might’ve had some head injuries. Now she’s screwing a guy who specializes in workmen’s compensation.”
Mona pushed on the radio: a gospel station, right away. She turned the knob until it came to some kind of bluegrass, then hit AM. One of those local right-wing guys came on, spouting off about how Jesus wouldn’t want health care.
“We need something in our lives, Kilogram. You and I need something. There’s a bad drought in Victoria, Texas, which means mosquitoes can’t lay eggs in water, which means dogs won’t get heartworm and people won’t die of depression. The rivers have all gone dry, from what I understand, which means I won’t have to deal with river guides like Nelson. It means that I’ll have to learn a new trade, but maybe that’s what should happen.”
I nodded. I gripped my lips together as best I could. What could a person say? “You’re still young,” I told Mona.
She pulled her knees back up to her chin. “I’m almost forty,” she said.
Maybe I stared a little. “Are you kidding me? No way.”
“I’m closer to forty than to zero,” she said.
“I’m old enough to be your weird younger uncle,” I said. “You’re old enough to be my wayward niece.”
“I’m old enough,” Mona said. “I wish this car were a stick shift.”
The first man—on Azalea Street—accepted his luggage gratefully. But the second man, who owned the vintage tan leather suitcases, said he would never fly again. I couldn’t help myself but to say, “You’re, like, a hundred years old. What’re the chances?” He called out, “Stump Dick!” as I backed out of his driveway. I’d never heard that one before, and made a mental note to write it down.
“You shouldn’t have to deal with that,” Mona said. She pulled her skirt up all the way so that she looked like an unbloomed dandelion. I’m talking she sat in the passenger’s seat of Freckles Perlotte’s car with her panties on horrific fabric.
Believe it or not, I said, “Pull your skirt down,” which had more to do with the deposit I’d put down than anything else. “If you have to smoke another cigarette,” I said, “blow it out the open window. And pull your skirt back down.”
“You should call your wife. I’ll vouch for you being a gentleman. Why aren’t you wearing a ring, by the way? Because of me?”
“No,” I said, and looked at the directions. I never wore a ring anymore because four years into the marriage Jackie had made a big thing out of saying she’d become allergic to cheap gold and had to quit wearing hers. I’d read somewhere that people often outgrew their allergies and, foolishly, had talked myself into believing that she’d one day wear her band with pride. At some point Jackie also became allergic to both the pill and condoms, among other things, and because she didn’t want to have children we pretty much quit having sex.
We drove up to the third and last house, the owner of which had had four large suitcases traveling around the baggage claim belt in Grand Rapids a couple hours before someone there pulled them off. I honked the horn twice, as I’m wont to do, and got out of the car. I pulled this person’s suitcases out and set them down on his cement driveway, then went up to ring his doorbell. No one answered. This was a brick house on a normal street. They’d been to Las Vegas, which make me like them better.
I rang again, then again. I don’t want to say that I’m obsessive-compulsive, but I took the time to look at my wristwatch when I should’ve considered leaving the premises. It was four in the afternoon, a time when no sane people take naps. I pushed the doorbell twice, fourteen times. I don’t want to say that I have some kind of über-hearing, but at that moment, as I was replaying the day—video poker at the casino, the conversation with the mechanic at Indian Repairs, the strange coincidence of having sat beside Mona on the bus, et cetera—I sensed a sliding back door opening, and puredee menace approaching me.
Through the open car window Mona called out, “Just leave it. I have to get to Victoria, Texas, where no mosquitoes or ex-boyfriends live”—as if she’d rehearsed it. She got out of the car, right as two rottweilers came from around the other side of the house. These hundred-odd-pound black and tan bullets charged us.
“Jump up on the hood,” I yelled at Mona. I shouted to the rear of the house, “Hey, get your dogs! I’m delivering your luggage!”
I ran toward Mona, pulling two suitcases behind me. She made it to the hood, then crawled up on the Toyota’s roof, denting it in a way that would keep me from getting a deposit back.
“Hitler! Grand Wizard!” the owner yelled, coming out the door where I’d stood ringing the bell for so long. “Get on back in the house, boys.” He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and looked at me accusingly, his mouth open and drawn to one side. The dogs retreated, trotting past where I stood behind their owner’s lost luggage.
Hitler and Grand Wizard? Who gives dogs such names?
When I’d first met Jackie, in college, we were at a party thrown by one of those fraternities. The center of our pathetic football team was president of this particular Greek organization, and he insisted that a Confederate flag hang on the walls of each room in the frat house. Jackie said to the guy—Peter, of all names—“It’s not 1860. Where are you from?”
“Michigan,” Peter said. And then he accused her of loving people of a different race. He used that word. Jackie began shaking, and her eyes teared up. In some ways I suppose this is why I fell in love with, and endured, Jackie.
Until that night I had not known I could break a man’s nose with one punch. But all that gallantry and love seemed a lifetime ago.
Still, I had no choice now but to drag this racist’s luggage and put it back in the Toyota as he said to Mona, “Feel free to show me a little more of that,” when she backed down onto the hood, and then the driveway.
“Scumbag,” she said.
“Hey, that’s my goddamn luggage,” he said to me.
I put the car in gear and made him jump out of the way, then drove through his yard until I met the street. What’s with America? I thought. I asked Mona to get out the map and unfold it. I doubted that our rental car would make it all the way to Texas. And yet, even though every time I’d returned a kickoff I had doubted that I’d make it to the far end zone, it was always a possibility, if all the stars were aligned correctly—as they were on Mona’s face. Each time a traveler set his bag down to get weighed and tagged, was there not a possibility that he’d see it again at his final destination?
The more I thought about it, as we passed back down to Fletcher, North Carolina, then near my home in South Carolina, and then on into Georgia along I-85, the less I wanted to be bitten by mosquitoes, or lose possible future dogs to heartworms. Was I lost or merely delayed? It didn’t matter. Everything made sense.
Mona and I drove onward. The car ran fine. I forgot about everything that a responsible person should think: Can I get someone to drive this car back to Mr. Perlotte somehow? Am I ruining my life, or the lives of others close to me? No answers cropped up in my head.
I imagined myself pulling over at a Petro truck stop and saying to anyone staring at me, “I can’t explain it, but it’s not the tattoos on her legs.”
But what would a passing interstate driver think if he looked my way and saw a haphazard, relentless fellow traveler with a back end overfilled with luggage? Would he think I was a nice guy taking his daughter on a trip to the Gulf? Would he think I was a kidnapper? Or, with a pang of jealousy, would he sense the truth—that I had given it all up to take a chance at being happy for once?