His journey’s next leg.
New York to St. Louis
Port Authority awaited me in its mix of brick conformity and multilayered human morass. I found the Greyhound ticket booth and purchased a one way ticket. Travel I would and to an origin I thought my beginning. The next bus left a 9 am and I just made it. Walking down the aisle of the blue womb brought comfort. I would travel but as so many of the stories in the book I was to read, the country would pass by just outside the window.
I would have time to think, meditate and possibly dream for dreaming was the only reality in all this. My dreams speak and I listen. Now, maybe this traveling vigil will clarify the message and I can find solace in answers.
“Lot of people out there?”
Pulled from my inner thoughts, I turned to see an older gentleman sitting next to me.
“Lot of people, don’t ya’ think?
He was talking about all the people on the streets as we pulled away from the bus station. And yes, there were a lot of people. I had hoped for a solitary journey.
“William. William Johnson. Most people call me Will, though.”
He extended his cordy, black hand for me to shake. I accepted it and was crushed by an amazingly strong grip.
“And you are?”
“Moses. Moses Haygood.”
“That’s a name, now, isn’t it. Name of a prophet or prize bull. No offense.”
So we travelled from New York to St. Louis where Will was to visit his daughter. At first, I was annoyed, having to talk with this stranger. This was to be my time. But then I realized how long I had been shut up in my house alone except for Melanie. Maybe the journey was more than self-awareness but humanity on an experiential level. I was not only to be among people but with them.
“Where you from, Will?”
“Oh, South Carolina originally. Been to a lot of places the world has to offer, though. Army.”
“Ranger. Korea and a bit of Vietnam. Did my twenty and then got out.”
It didn’t take much. Just a word here or there and Will regaled me with his life’s story. His father had been one of the foremost garden and landscape men in South Carolina. So Will was a veritable treasure trove of knowledge on all things green and growing.
“Don’t just throw grass cuttings on your compost pile. Most of the nutrients seep away. Put ‘em in plastic trash bags, seal them up for a couple of weeks until they turn grey. Then, come fall, throw ‘em about on the lawn as cover and fertilizer.”
“Tomatoes. Don’t stake them up with that plastic crap from the garden store. Plant won’t have any place to grow. No, you take strips of old t-shirts and use that to tie the plant up. That way, the stretchiness gives the stalk breathing room. I’ve seen stalks reach an inch in diameter. Plastic ties cuts off the sap.”
We traveled like that the whole day, Will talking, me listening, both of us just watching the scenery outside the window. The first stop outside of New York was Norristown, PA.
“That’s a big chunk of glass building,” Will commented on the bus terminal.
It was a newer building. Better than most I would see along the road. We didn’t get out, just took on passengers. In Harrisburg, we transferred. I offered to help Will with his bag. He refused.
“If I can’t carry it then I packed too damned much.”
He put on the air of simple but was anything but. I soon learned this as more of his life story came out. Army stories! Not tales of blood, guts and glory, though I am sure he had his share of those. The man served in Korea and Vietnam as a Ranger. They were not desk jockeys. No, his stories were of overcoming adversity, solving problems with his mind. Almost a Dr. Who resolving conflict by peaceful means if possible.
One of the last stories he told as we cruised through Illinois was from his youth in Korea. Hit platoon had pinned a bunch of North Korean soldiers up in these mountain caves. They were supposed to secure the area but the enemy had the high ground and wasn’t coming down.
Will got this idea. He goes to the Colonel or Captain in charge and asks for two of the best riflemen in the unit. He also asks that they take a couple of big barrels and fill them with water to boil over a fire. When asked why?
“See, I figured those guys up in that cave hadn’t eaten in days, maybe even weeks. They were scared, crazed and starved. So I said let’s feed them. They’d have to come down for that.”
The commanding officer thought the idea worth a try. Sure enough, the butchered meat of two deer in the boiling water wafted up to the caves. According to Will, it took about two hours before every hidden enemy soldier down and surrendered.
We both chuckled about the simplicity of the scheme. It was dark by then and the next stop wasn’t until morning. We both dozed, the rumble of the road rocking us to sleep.
Stopped, seven am and hungry. The bus snacks helped but were not enough. I stretched and looked around. Everyone else had left the bus. The driver was shaking me.
“Hey. Hey. This your friend here?”
“Yes. I mean, we met on the bus. Why?”
“I think he may have passed away.”
I turned and looked at Will. He lay in his seat, a peaceful expression on his face. But his chest was still. I felt for a pulse that was not there.
“I’ve got to get the supervisor and call the police.”
“Okay,” I replied not moving.
What was I supposed to do? Just get up and leave him? I waited as the bus driver left to get “help” or supervision or both. I looked out the window and saw a nicely dressed African American woman waiting outside the bus. When the driver left she started to enter. I instinctively got out of my seat, careful not to disturb Will.
She entered just as I was heading down the aisle.
“Daddy,” she said.
“Hi, I’m Moses. I met your father on the bus ride down.” I tried to block her way before she got to close.
“Did he fall asleep?”
“Yes. But…,” and I think I paused there. Words escaped me. This was a stranger whom I needed to inform her father had died. How does one do that? Probably not the way I did.
“He, he, well, I don’t think he’s waking up.”
That statement hung there between us. Then, with the most direct tilt of head I have ever seen on woman or man, she said, “Died? That’s what you’re telling me?”
“Yes,” I said all sheepish.
She pushed passed me and went to her father.
“He was 87. Did he enjoy the trip?”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know how one processed death but this wasn’t my expectation.
“Yes. He did. We talked the whole way.”
“You mean he talked. Like a blue streak, my daddy could talk if you let him.”
“Are you okay?”
“No. But, not surprised. I offered to come up and drive him down myself. He wouldn’t have any of that. Wanted some travel time alone. As a man he said. Maybe he knew.”
I left her alone with Will. I didn’t want to intrude on her final moments with him. The police were coming up to the bus as I left. They told me not to leave the area. They had questions. I hung out with the Bus Driver standing near the Terminal’s entrance. EMS came shortly after that. I watched the comings and goings of all the service people, the police, EMS, coroner’s office; it was like a practiced ballet. Everyone knew their business.
I ask the driver, Bobby, if he’d ever had this happen before.
“Once. Started pulling out of Tulsa, Oklahoma when a lady jumped out of her seat screaming. Said the guy next to her was dead. I stopped and sure enough, the guy was. Cold like a slab of meat. Must have been gone for hours nobody noticing.”
I said something I can’t remember now and we both continued watching. The daughter came out of the bus with a police officer. They walked over to his car where he let her sit down in the front seat. An EMS brought her some water. The officer then walked over to Bobby and me.
“Looks like he died in his sleep,” the officer said. To Bobby, “Anything to add?”
“No. Just what I told you. Pulled in. This guy and the old man were still sleeping when everyone got off.”
“What did you see?” the officer asked me.
“Nothing. We both got on in New York. We talked most of the way and then went to sleep sometime after 11 last night. Bobby, the driver, woke me this morning telling me Will had died.”
“Okay. Is this your destination?”
“No. I’m connecting with another bus.”
“When is that?”
Bobby pipes up, “You just missed it. That was the 8:35 you needed.”
Sure enough, a big Greyhound bus was pulling away.
“I guess I’m here until the next bus south,” I said.
“Sorry. Give me a few minutes to wrap up with the daughter.”
“Sure,” I said.
I looked around. The parking lot was dusty white surrounded by low empty warehouses and fenced off fields. Not much in terms of scenery. But I guess who puts a bus station in the pristine part of town.
“Next bus?” I asked Bobby.
“Probably not till late afternoon or evening. They’ll take care of you at the ticket counter.”
“Coffee shop around the corner. Starbucks I’d guess you’d need to be on Market Street.”
“Don’t know about Starbucks but if you head a block that way, take a right on 16th. Walk for a couple of blocks pass the Scottrade Center and you’ll get to Market. Don’t know which way after that. I’m more a Duncan Donuts guy.”
We waited until the officer came back. His questions were basic. Did Will seem to be in any distress? Was he taking medication? Seem upset? I answered no. Will and I had enjoyed ourselves talking and watching the world pass by outside the window. Told the officer that Will wouldn’t let me carry his suitcase when we transferred in Harrisburg. He thanked me for my time and apologized again for missing my connection.
Bobby took me to the ticket booth and explained what had happened. My ticket was valid but they gave me a 50% refund for the inconvenience. I thanked them and walked out. Using Bobby’s directions I found Market Street. Took a left and found a Starbucks. Not more than a mile away if that.
That’s where I spent the day. Thinking over what had happened and writing. I headed back in time to catch the 6:35 PM south. I sat alone at the back of the bus. Sleep wasn’t easy. The rocking of the bus no longer a lullaby but a reminder of Will who was now gone. I didn’t grieve. I felt guilt for how unaffected I was. I was sorry about Will, but that was it. He had touched my life and I hoped I his but we had been moths in the night. I escaped the hot bulb once more. He, who had flown longer and truer, had not.
In memory of the real Will, a man of casual acquaintance yet one I trusted my life to daily.