Lauren Eyler grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. Her essays and fiction have been published in Bayou Magazine, The Rumpus, The Green Hills Literary
Lantern, and other journals.
I woke to the sensation of the bus angling onto the exit ramp. My eyes barely open, the words, Welcome to Salinas, flashed by.
It took me a second to remember I was in California, on a bus going from Santa Barbara to San Francisco, to realize I was in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s valley. I’d become familiar with the setting during high school, on nights where my anti-depressants bred insomnia. The Trasks and Lennie and George came to feel like ancestors, their histories more lived than those of all the soft-handed doctors and lawyers I was related to. As the bus pulled into the station, I watched golden hills grow into dark mountains. The sun’s brilliance brightened the sky. The shine of it all welcomed me as Steinbeck’s prose had in those dark, early mornings.
Once off the bus, however, I found myself standing in a lived-in city. Empty soda cans and sodden newspapers inhabited the parking lot. Old, faded cars formed its edge. The station itself was a single story. Its bricks, once white, were soggy gray, caked in years of car exhaust.
Inside, I had hoped to find a souvenir shop, a place where I could buy a postcard to send to the girl I was trying to win over back in D.C. I thought, at the time, that traveling across the country demonstrated an adult sense of responsibility, which she’d told me I lacked. The postcard would be proof I was grown up, could do things on my own. But, once I entered, the only things I saw were a machine filled with generic packs of candy and a restroom with a chain across its entrance.
When I returned to the bus, the driver wasn’t in his seat. I scanned the rows, looking for his red polo, but there were only the other passengers, mostly dark-haired women in solid colored T-shirts speaking Spanish. I walked back to my spot, semi-consciously mouthing the few words of the language I knew. I sat down and allowed my head to rest against the window, which was warm from the sun. Eyes closed, I thought about the last scene in East of Eden, the old man on his deathbed forgiving his son.
The bus rocked and I looked up to see the driver board. As he took his seat, the women in the front of the bus began to murmur presos, presos. When I craned forward to see what was causing the excitement, I saw a line of men snaking its way onto our bus. The driver waved them toward the back.
A white man wearing an undershirt and a pair of jeans was the first on. He had a slight smile and, beneath his right arm, he carried a brown paper bag. I realized too late I was making eye contact and I turned to the window. The mountains were a wave frozen at point break.
“Can I sit here?” said the man.
I didn’t look away from the mountains, just nodded.
Even before he sat down, I could smell the cigarette smoke. It clung to him, cloying, not unlike the scent of an open can of pineapple. He set his bag between us. “Everything I own’s in here.” He patted it. It crumpled. “Just got out an hour ago. Headed back to the wife.”
Unsure of what to say, I retrieved a spiral notebook and a pencil from the backpack at my feet. The notebook fell open to the various beginnings of a letter to the girl.
“What are you writing?”
“A story,” I said.
“I’m not sure.”
“Huh.” He was silent for a minute. “Do you need some help?”
“No. It’ll probably be about a dog. Everyone loves a good dog story.”
“Sure, but everyone’s heard it, whether the dog lives or dies. It’s old news.”
I closed the notebook. “You’re right.”
He reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a cigarette. He stuck it, unlit, between his lips. “Here’s one. A man meets a girl online. The girl’s too young. Thirteen. But she talks like a woman. She talks like she wants it and the man gives it to her and then he’s arrested.”
I turned to look at him. Small flecks of brown dotted his green irises.
“Not me. It’s not me.” He plucked the cigarette from his lips and placed it behind his ear. “I hit my wife. This is a friend.” He peeled back the top of the bag and withdrew a half-drunk pint of whiskey. He opened it and took a swig. “Yeah, it’s mostly his fault. But it’s partly the girl’s too. For talking like that. No story I’ve read bothers to point that out.”
He offered me the bottle and I took it, his brown, calloused skin grazing my own. With the whiskey hot in my cheeks, I gave it back, realizing, as he reached for it, he was not wearing a wedding band.
“She’s taking you back?” I said.
“What?” He’d shut his eyes. The bottle rested in his hand, close to his heart. “Oh yeah, my wife. She forgives me.” He sniffed, rubbed his nose with his index finger.
The bus pulled forward. His body pressed briefly against mine. He didn’t open his eyes, just sat stiff-backed, though the ease on his face suggested he was lounging. I wanted another pull of whiskey. I had the sense it would be what brought me the right words.
I asked him for it once we were on the interstate, once the mountains and Steinbeck’s valley were behind us. And his wife and the girl were the only things ahead.