Transit: Washington--Jefferson City, 1964
From her novel-in-progress, Indian Dancer
About the Writer
They roll south and inland through the dark: Fredericksburg, Richmond, Charlottesville, Covington. The Greyhound stops every couple of hours so people can trickle dimes into the coke machines or sit at the counters to eat burgers or hot pot pies. Some disappear and others take their place, youths with duffles, women with whining children and their gear in shopping bags, businessmen in seersucker carrying scuffed brown satchels.
All summer she sat stunned in the Library of Congress waiting for her life to begin again, studying the way the light pooled on the base of the brass lamp, doing research on her cuticles. Now she has no more self than a fruit pit spat out over the Virginias. She is a traveling hodge-podge; she might as well have dressed out of Darla Moxham’s old dress-up chest: a mannish work shirt, her dirty hair concealed under a scarf knotted on her neck like a Slav peasant, school girl flats, and a school-teacherish skirt in “permanent” pleats that have splayed under her and balloon out over her bottom when she stands. The bus hurtles through acres of Appalachian hardwood—poplar, maple, hickory—the road a tunnel in blue trees. At dawn the haze swags like organdy among the branches. They descend toward Lewisburg past billboards touting Lost World Caverns. They stop for slabs of ham with eggs and grits. Half a dozen passengers scatter into the empty alleys behind the station, and as many materialize to fill their still-warm seats. It is nine years since the first Freedom ride, and federal law has ended segregation, but the Negroes sit mostly at the back.
An exception: At Charleston a teenaged boy gets on in a letter sweater (he will not remove it even in the rising heat), his Afro cropped and tended, his neck thicker than his handsome head, strangling a disreputable radio by its handle. He swivels left and right with a readiness for any challenge, then slings himself in the front seat across from the driver. To everything (turn, turn, turn), says the radio, there is a season (turn, turn, turn). In Huntington he helps with her luggage a black girl in a yellow sundress like a bell, her long legs as clapper. By the time they hit Kentucky the girl has moved across the aisle beside him. Her laughter rides above the radio and the hum of tires. Blowin’ in the wind.
At Morehead they change drivers, taking on a rotund gnome who beams how-do at them and mops his bald head with a paper towel. At Owingsville three elder ladies in pillbox hats, carrying each a small hard-sided suitcase, settle themselves with decorous laughter. At Mount Sterling a portly man boards who lifts the flap of his leather vest, removes a pistol from his belt and wraps it carefully in a shirt before stowing it on the shelf above.
Letter-sweater and the black belle are a couple now. They purr and murmur, the boy’s mowed head bent toward her. A taste much sweeter than wine. At Winchester a lumbering white giant picks his way to the back, mumbling and twitching in his plaid flannel. “Simmadun,” he seems to murmur, “desiban at shee.” Simone tries to read, but lack of sleep has settled as a grainy film on her eyes. The muscles of her back are knotted.
Hills shallower, trees more sparse, the landscape spreads itself under a sun so fierce that the air conditioning concedes defeat, and damp is trapped under Simone’s shirt like a layer of long underwear. At Shelbyville they pull into a truckstop behind half a dozen eighteen-wheelers and spill out into a little culumus of diesel fuel and gnats.
The café is a long stucco rectangle with, inside, two separate soda fountains that Simone takes for a sign of recent desegregation. The place is already a clatter with lunch, the walls decked with paper hydrangeas and photographs of baseball teams. The smell of hot fat disinclines her, so she takes a table by the window and, nevertheless determined to go local, orders a coke and a moon pie. While she eats she stares at the laminated map tacked to the window frame, which bears the logo You Have Entered the Deep South. Depth is represented as a cliff along the Mason-Dixon line. She feels the drop-off in her stomach.
There’s a commotion beyond the counter at the far end of the café, a scraping of chairs and a thin yelp, and Simone looks up to see the white giant, his massive jaw squatting in his plaid shirt collar, fling a chair at a plate glass window. It’s a plastic scoop-molded kind of chair that bounces and clatters across the linoleum. Nevertheless passengers back or sprint toward the door while the man roars something garbled, “stuck the nongs,” or “stuggernogs.” Even at this distance Simone, half out of her chair too, can see his spit fly. It’s impossible to tell whether the rage is directed at anyone in particular. The cashier is shouting into the telephone.
The passengers fan out under the fuel-pump awning, embarrassed by their fear.
“Is he crazy?”
“What was he saying?”
“I don’t know. I think a coupla truckers got him down.”
The passengers find their bus, fueled and parked alongside the pumps, and climb aboard shaking their heads at each other, made a community by what they’ve seen. On the bus they grin, sheepish. The paunchy man in the leather vest asks, ‘Was he on drugs, or what?” This is somehow the wrong question. The black boy turns up his radio. …such a lot of world to see.
“Was he one ’the truckers, or a local?”
“No, he was on the bus, before, there at the back!”
“Was he fightin with somebody?”
“They called the sheriff, though.”
“Plain crazy, is what I’d say.”
At this angle they can’t see into the café, and gradually the talk subsides. They wait, as they have waited at every so-called rest stop for eighteen hours now. Simone bends to her book again.
Finally she feels the motor turn over, rev and rumble. It’s the intake of breath of a woman behind her that makes her look up just in time to see the door begin to close and to hear the gasp of the hydraulics. The huge man who had thrown the chair is in the driver’s seat. The lumberjack plaid of his shirt strains over his hunched shoulders. One hand is on the handle that operates the door, and he is trying to wrench it closed, cursing “Shittershee,” while the mechanism strains and wheezes. In the door is wedged the furious little gnome body of the driver. There is a stunned paralysis in the bus. Then the door flies open and the little driver lands like a pit bull. He grabs the huge man by his shirt and wheels him out of his chair. He slams him against the windshield and flings him backward out the door. The man lands in the tarred parking lot, the driver straddling him, flailing at his hands. The passengers are half up, straining toward that side of the bus. The black boy is in the open door, and when the huge man makes a superhuman hump of himself to throw his attacker off, the boy grips the doorframe as if to brace for a leap. But falters. He looks wildly around. Does he dare make himself a hero by attacking a white man, however crazy? Leather-vest stands up in the aisle. He lifts his palm, a gesture of authority and warning. The boy, his upper body still pitched forward in the door, grips the frame and checks himself again.
By now a pair of truckers have come to the driver’s aid, and the plaid shirt is pinned to the asphalt like a struggling bug. The moment passes, as most such moments pass, and Simone knows she was not breathing because she breathes again. The black boy crumples dejected into his seat beside his radio. Leather-vest stands a moment more and then he too sits. A sheriff’s car squeals in from the highway; two cops get out. It takes four altogether to cuff the huge man and fold him, yelling his gibberish of twisted curses, down into the back seat. The car drives off, siren wailing. The heroes smooth their shirts.
This has taken three, four minutes. The bus passengers applaud. The driver checks his watch with a modest swagger. “I reckon we can make up the time between here and Louisville.” The youth slumps over his radio. For the times they are a-changin.
As if to deny this, Leather-vest leans across to the hatted ladies. “You can take the boy out of niggertown…”
And the woman concedes, “People never change.”
Which must be so, Simone thinks; everybody says it. And yet surely people do nothing else but change. Children grow up into adulterers, scholars are corrupted by ambition, louts evolve into experts on Etruscan pottery. We are cobbled together like Polonius’ drama—historical-comical-tragical-pastoral. All that endures is peripheral detail—skin, height, a habit of gesture, a turn of phrase.
When dark falls they are slicing through the southern tip of Indiana, twenty-six hours toward her destination. The bus is mostly quiet now, but you can hear the petulant note of the girl in the yellow dress. The boy, placating at first but increasingly querulous, leaves her at Evansville and goes into the restaurant alone.
At St. Louis the two of them separate. They hoist their suitcases and stagger in opposite directions. The driver yawns and gathers his gear for another change of command. The fat man takes his gun down, returns it to the belt underneath his vest, and mildly disappears into the night.
She sleeps a little. When she wakes they are crossing The Big Muddy from the edge of nowhere to the middle of nowhere. In the prairie flats she thinks for a hallucinatory moment it is snowing until she realizes this is the warm ejaculation of the cottonwood trees. The suffocating night air rings with cricket sound. At dawn they pass a wide porch in a clearing of oaks where men sit like postcard art, boots on the railing, spitting tobacco juice, a yellow dog asleep on the floorboards. She has come overland to limbo of her own free will.
At Jefferson City, Dean Sarah Magginis of Jepson State College for the Liberal Arts wraps her in a welcoming hug. She is here to drive Simone the remaining eighty miles.
“Welcome to Mis’ry,” Dean Magginis says.
JANET BURROWAY is the author of plays, poetry, children’s books, and eight novels including The Buzzards (Pulitzer Prize nomination), Raw Silk (runner-up for the National Book Award), Opening Nights, Cutting Stone, and the 2009 Bridge of Sand. Her Writing Fiction, in its 8th edition, is the most widely used creative writing text in America, and Imaginative Writing has recently appeared in the third edition. Her children’s book The Giant Jam Sandwich has been translated into twenty languages and scored for orchestra. Recent works include the plays Sweepstakes, Medea With Child, and Parts of Speech, which have received readings and productions in New York, London, San Francisco, Hollywood, Chicago, and various regional theatres; and a collection of essays, Embalming Mom. She is currently at work on a musical with Chicago’s Midwest New Musicals. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University. Later this year, Think Piece Press will release her memoir, Losing Tim, and the British edition of Bridge of Sand will hit shelves in fall.