From Atlanta to New York City, I went tripping, delivering packages, on buses and trains, stopping—three days—in Cincinnati. There’s the arc.
Greyhound issues you an e-ticket. The Atlanta Greyhound station makes you print the e-ticket out. They don’t have a printer and it’s 11:02, p.m. That station smells just like jail.
I got in line and a weasel-faced little man came up behind me and complained that he and I would have the worst pick of all the seats. He said he’d nearly just made a man outside leak. The man outside had tried to sell the little man in line drugs. The little man in line didn’t need drugs, having been already: to rehab, to jail, to prison, in the military, and to the military prison. On the bus I recognized his voice behind me—you’da asked me six years ago I’da said I’d be in a mansion now—some people are always behind you.
In the seat pair behind me and across the aisle, a man and a woman jumped four words, back words, and four-letter words through their histories, and they also spoke of hopes. He was moving to Portland, had had enough of Augusta, didn’t know anyone in Portland, wondered whether it’d be country, like Augusta. The two used the word “literally” in many ways. The scar on her head came from a literal baseball bat. He said he didn’t play sports. She said neither did she.
In the dark in Bowling Green they filled the bus. Amish, Mennonite, or some old-timey sect. Her cloak, blacker than the dark; her face, all white and crumbling; here, in this intensely modern world, comes a floating skull. The men spoke in some prelapsarian German, and it smoothed the edges off me, smoothed me near to sleep. Modern German sounds too violent now, because of what they did. You’re allowed to remind them (the Germans) of what they did (you know), but sparingly, please. It’ll make them feel bad and it’ll feel bad to do, but remind them from time to time. There’s potential to contain.
But these Amish fellows spoke like rustic old Teutons. I wanted to know: what were they talking about? Farmhouse gossip? Family counsel? Good old-fashioned, pre-industrial, fork-and-bale business? Souls? Severe, immortal, morally defined? He answered me, though, in the voice of a regular old Kentucky hillbilly. After that, he stood up in the aisle and so did I. He to the front of the bus, I to the back.
Old Cincinnati, old river queen, your rebirths, and theirs: glue factories turned into glue factory lofts, boxy brick beauties, often still empty, wasting rustily or ready for leasing. A bum deal for me—should I say “there” or “here”?—either way, I lived inside you for three days, homelessly. To learn that rat skill. To get ready for that money collapse. I found your barren uterine tract, the subway tunnels that planners left half-built. I hopped a fence and found a tunnel’s gate. The gate’s lock was smashed and dog skulls dangled from chains latched to the grating, skulls hung with shoelace tied to chains. Litter all littered literally everywhere. (Though I think, once you get organic, you enter another class of waste). I was on the other end of the gate and I was in the dark and the air smelled damp and fecal. I groped to another door, then—slow, fast, fast, slow—came the sound of drums. And bass. The person on the other side must been listening, must have heard me coming, must have listened to me clamp and tramp about. I heard the tunes and turned to run, because I don’t have it. I don’t have that rat skill, and the person who sat in a dark abandoned subway tunnel, on the tunnel side of the gate, surrounded by organic and inorganic trash, listening to tunes and to me coming to intrude, had that rat skill.
There’s the geographical climax. Let’s get to the geographical …who knows?
To you in New York I delivered the package. You wanted to refuse, asked what took so long. I said I’d needed to see the fabric of this nation, ride its rude threads. What good was the package then? I said there was still the matter of the delivery fee. And how’d half sound? Too soft, I said, and also the matter of damages and hardship. So you know about that? I said I’ve had a legally tinted life. You got antecedents? Spit it out. What amount?
A smile slightly bigger on one side, and heavy, like a butcher’s knife. Fine, I retched up, but figured half was fine.
I forgot to say. What I asked the Amish man was whether he could understand Dutch people, and they him. He had a hard time understanding what I wanted to ask him, but finally he said, yes, their language is the same as what the Dutch speak. They get visitors from thereabouts, exactly the same. I found out later, in the back of another bus, that their language is not Dutch. It’s an old German, different from new German in many ways—e.g. vowels, consonants, words. So all that stuff I wrote about the Teutons, prelapses, et cetera, did not accurately describe the events as I in-time perceived them. There’s some kind of stuff about thoughts that frame perception or perceptions that frame thoughts but it doesn’t matter: either way, the mental experience of riding a bus is nothing like what you read in paragraphs 4, 5, and 6.
On the train back (yes I did go back) there were more. Behatted fellows are just bumping all over the nation. Women too, some in black cloaks, others navy. I didn’t know what that meant. The word “Dutch” in “Pennsylvania Dutch” threw me off. Some twisting etymology’s at the root of this. One adorable family even wore suspenders. Their legs were so stiff and skinny, like pipes of pvc.
Sometimes I felt it when I walked in Cincinnati, along its clean streets, through its charming ramshacklery, in its many pockets of dense urban wood, never quite falling asleep. What I felt was a tuned-up sense of sense. In old books sometimes I’ve seen it writ large like “desolation.” Not that they lasted long, those feelings. For I had an idea of my lighthouse (you). And too many nice midwestern people, so accommodating. They’ll give you the shirts off their back and more. Just ask. Just ask and ask until you push your luck.
I suppose I should mention the return trip, because, once paid, I did trip promptly home. I saw in West Virginia the coal mines—they are real, buffing that smoke. And the farms and the people too, who you see right from the train. You don’t need to get out. Farms had big country houses surrounded by green fields surrounded by fences and on both sides of the fences there were trailers surrounded by cars and trash and flying Johnny Rebel flags. You could imagine people inside, cussing. I don’t want to go on. It can hurt to be mean.
Actually I never passed through West Virginia on the return. So I keep going when I want to be coming. At least that’s what I talk about. And those desolation feelings didn’t last long. None do. Feelings come on you quick and then you leave you quicker, leaving no slime, not rusting away inside, like machines in old trapper-keeper factories, but vanishing, like a juicy blueberry that falls from the hand of a young Amish boy and rolls under a van parked next to a bus in the lot of a Greyhound station in Louisville. Only some feelings endure, e.g. grief; e.g. shame. If I don’t die first, I’ll know more grief.
In jail they called oldish people “dad.” One dad was a machinist on a domestic. Almost everyone on my floor in the jail was there for domestics, fights, and substances. If it was domestic, the bitch lied. If it was fighting, you knocked them out. Substance stories afforded more nuance.
My cellmate was a real criminal. The police found the blunt but not the heater or the bags, though the stash, he said, is—always—close. A terribly nice guy, he advised me, so I never felt confused, like Machinist Dad, who was furious at the guards, because the bitch had lied, and because the guards make only 27k a year, which is why they act so over-the-top, when his girl didn’t even mean to call the police, didn’t even know what she was doing. They were just yelling. She needed to do something to hurt him. Machinist Dad wasn’t mad at her. His proposed guard salaries confused my nice drug-dealing cellmate. He said they can’t have it like that. I forgot his name.
When I got arraigned, I was the only one who had a lawyer. Everyone who was new on my jail floor was up there with me. Dad was up there with me. The judge asked me to state my name. I said Nathaniel Smucker. The judge asked my lawyer to state his name. He said Johnathan Smucker. There was a titter in a pause for the seconds till my lawyer said, I’m also the defendant’s father. Poor dad, he did corporate stuff. The criminal? No world for him. Did a gavel bang when bail was set? Let’s say so. Similar to my understanding of the terms “Amish” and “Mennonite,” I don’t know the difference between “bail” and “bond.” Everyone new on my floor saw me arraigned and they went back and told what they saw. Soon everyone knew on my floor that my father was a lawyer, possibly corporate. I was sure they’d turn on me then.
They filled my cell practically all at once. They all wondered why I hadn’t told them that my father was a lawyer. After the judge set my bond—damn near smoked my boots—my dad just said “OK.” They loved that. It was like the judge had asked my dad for just a little lunch money. They slapped my back. You’re going home Nat. You got a cool daddy. I was proud of my dad, then, and I guess I am now, though now we barely thread in and out of each other’s fabrics.
The girl on the greyhound who sat in the seat behind me and across the aisle had said she was going to Wisconsin to bury her dead. The voice of the weasel-faced man who sat behind me and who had earlier stood in line behind me asked the girl where it was in Wisconsin that she was heading. She said Appleton and he said he knew Appleton plenty, where the pow camps were. And what was her family’s name? Stepdad named Rommer, she said. He said he knew plenty Rommers. She said she was happy her stepdad was dead, and she’d leave it at that (though she didn’t). He said, considering the Rommers he knew, he could believe that, easy.
In my cell they all asked me for legal advice. I did my best. They would listen to the others ask me for advice, hear me give my advice, then dispute my advice’s quality, drawing on various personal experience.
All that talk of dads got the man who was moving to Portland to recollect his own birth. His mother’s water broke as she was walking down the aisle in her cap and gown. He was never sure whether that had helped him or hurt him in school. Hell that ain’t bad, said the little weasel-faced man, I had my son at thirteen. Someone, a voice who hadn’t spoke, said damn in the dark. It was quiet until the little man who sat behind me said that he’d be thirty now.
Machinist dad came to my cell later, alone. Whether I could help him with his domestic. I really feel so bad, Machinist Dad said. I didn’t mean to choke her: just put hands on her windpipe. Cause she was talking so much. And I know how to put my fingers on a throat. I did. To tickle a trachea. Just a scare. I see her again, I get down on my knees.
It smells in there—all the armpits, asses, and clothes, getting wetted and dried in cycles without washing—that’s how I recognized the Greyhound station’s smell. To return to my trip, it didn’t look like an arc, beginning and ending, as it did, in the same damned place. And but about a week apart.
Maybe my trip looked more like an upside-down teardrop, but that bears too much metaphor, traces too smooth a geometry. Approximately, it (my trip) looked like the borders surrounding the state of Kentucky, Kentucky as drawn on the map. I said approximately. Somewhere in the world there might be a shard of shale rock that resembles the route of my arc, which I’m supposed to call “just a trip.”
Yes, a rock might have shucked off a cliff and broke in a shard that’s shaped like my trip. I doubt you’d ever find that rock, or that anyone would, rocks being so rarely among the looked-for. And what, if found, would the finder really do? Discard it? Take it home? Smash it into paste? Many things are possible but what’s most doubtful is that the person who found the rock would ever consider the empty space that surrounds the rock and contains its jagged shape. Yes I do I doubt that, even if they took the rock in their hands and walked their eyes into every crook and break that makes an edge.
Nath Oddson is a writer with a previous publication in Quarterly West.