I have not heard the squeal of airbrakes through the floor of a cross-country bus in a very long time, but all through my teens and well into my twenties, I heard them a lot. I didn’t own a car until I was twenty-eight years old, which, as my friend Phil says, has got to be some kind of record. A car was just not something I could afford during high school, college, or grad school. So I logged a lot of miles on a Trailways bus, riding that Silver Eagle Service, as the Trailways people called it, mostly between Demopolis and Montgomery, Alabama, and later between Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, both 100-mile trips. No, I wasn’t headed across the country, but the buses I deboarded went on to travel much greater distances, and many of the people riding them looked like they’d already come a long way when I laid eyes on them.
There came a time, however, when I made journeys from Tuscaloosa to Jacksonville, Florida, to see my brother Steve. Now a bus ride from Alabama to Florida might not seem like that long a journey, and if you’re thinking that, well, you are uninitiated. The distance between those two cities is actually a fur piece (some of you are noting the Faulkner reference here), and when you take into consideration that a bus stops in every single little country town—and where there’s not a bus station a country store or a gas station will certainly do—and sometimes has to wait because some other bus is late, why the time starts to mount up. So the trip I’m describing was around twelve hours. You know how to recognize someone who’s been on a bus for twelve hours? They are shaped like a bus seat.
As torturous as that may sound, I have to say a bus ride can have its moments. There is a real feeling of freedom that comes over you when you find yourself at a bus station at two o’clock in the morning in some town you’ve never heard of and absolutely no one you know knows where you are. You think to yourself, Why, I could buy a ticket to anywhere right now and be gone. And sometimes humorous or even mildly dramatic incidents happen on a bus. I remember once on some highway whose designated number I can’t recall meeting a Greyhound bus, and as we passed one another our driver, a large Black man who was obviously loyal to Trailways, picked up his microphone for the intercom system and burst out loudly and impressively with “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” I don’t know if he had the Big Mama Thornton version in mind or the Elvis version, but he did them both proud.
Another driver once told us about seeing a dead deer on the side of the road and after determining that it was a fresh kill, he stopped and loaded it into the luggage and cargo bend beneath his passengers with the idea of it ending up in his freezer at home, butchered and ready for further preparation. When the luggage crew at the next station opened up the bend and saw a large pair of eyes staring back at them, they were, let us say, quite surprised and maybe let out a squeal of their own that rivaled any set of airbrakes. (Okay. Just because you don’t believe this story any more than I did doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.)
Right about now you may be wondering when I’m going to get to the literary portion of our journey. Hang on. It’s just around the next curve.
Not everyone on a bus is always on their best behavior. On one occasion I watched a driver stop in the middle of the night on a very dark road in the middle of nowhere and put off a rider who was obviously drunk and becoming more so. I remember thinking, What in the world is this poor guy going to do? Maybe it was the wake-up call he needed, and he never drank again. All right, I don’t believe that either.
If you happen to be a reader, like I was and am, the best way to pass time on a bus is, of course, to read. On one of my first journeys down to Jacksonville I happened to take along a collection titled Stories of the Modern South and had the single greatest reading experience of my life when I read the third story in the collection called “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, which, you might like to know, is set on a cross-country bus. As the diesel engine hummed, I read the first words, which are “I sit in the bus station.” A simple beginning, but Betts certainly had my attention. Maybe serendipity is the right word here.
The ugliest pilgrim is a young woman named Violet who is leaving her home in the mountains of Spruce Pine, North Carolina (a place I was to visit many years later), and is headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to see a faith-healing preacher she has watched on television. When a girl, Violet’s face was severely disfigured in an accident, and she was in turn made fun of and ostracized. So now she has fully convinced herself that a healing can and will take place in the hands of this preacher. The story is about a literal, emotional, and spiritual journey, and it is also a love story, which feels slightly sordid at first, when Violent meets two soldiers on the bus, one white and one Black, but something pure and beautiful happens to Violet that has nothing to do with a faith-healing preacher whose abilities one has to call into question. Violet tells her own story, and sometimes her language early on is not pure. It is in fact racially insensitive at times, but that changes just as Violet changes, and just as, I’m sure, Betts intended.
The talk among these characters, the card games they play, the way they fall asleep as the bus rolls, were all so familiar to me as I read and felt the vibrations of the bus driver changing gears. It was as if the three of them were sitting just ahead of me, and I was listening to their conversation, eavesdropping on their lives. I felt as if I could reach forward and touch one of them, not with a healing hand but at least with a caring one. And at the story’s end—well, let’s just say it ain’t easy hiding tears on a bus, but I did the best I could.
Many years after I’d last ridden my last bus, I was at a writers’ conference in Atlanta (for all you writers, it was at AWP), and I heard Doris Betts give the keynote speech. Later, maybe the next day, I happened to see her sitting alone in a booth at a restaurant in the hotel. I slowed as I walked past, came to a full stop just beyond her sight, and tried to muster the courage to approach her and tell her about my experience reading her story. To my great regret, I failed to muster the needed courage, and I walked on. I so wish I had spoken to her. I’m sure she would have appreciated my little story about reading her story.
If you haven’t read Betts’s work, you might start with her collection Beasts in the Southern Wild. And before you begin reading that very first story, might I suggest buying a bus ticket to some place you’ve never been before and then settling in for the ride.