She could have gotten away with a just sending a card. Instead, Jennifer’s on a bus to Phoenix – and she’ll do anything to get there.
The bus stank; it stank like old muddy tennis shoes, old muddy tennis shoes with goose feces ingrained into the crevices of the soles that have been sitting in the bottom of a closet for a year, ruminating in their own filth. Even worse, the stench seemed omnipresent. It wafted out of everything: the cracking, fakeleather seats, the mysteriously stained linoleum floor, and the gaping mouths of fellow passengers. The bus was hot, too, which made the odor thicker and more oppressive. It stuck to Jennifer’s floral sundress like a layer of oozing molasses. She wrinkled her freckled nose and grimaced, staring out the window at the cacti whizzing by. The man next to her was sweating profusely, mostly from the rolls of fat barely contained beneath his untucked white buttondown. Jennifer resented him. His glistening double chin, his fraying navy slacks, his weak, greasy combover; he had sat next to her on the plane, too.
What had she done to deserve this? Was this fetid bus some sort of karma purgatory? She wasn’t a bad person. Not in the slightest. She tipped her waiters well, she did her taxes, she had even volunteered at a soup kitchen, once, in eighth grade. Why had she thought it was a good idea to book on Frontier Airlines to begin with? Something was bound to go wrong at two hundred dollars a ticket from New York to Phoenix. At that price, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they couldn’t put a functioning plane together. Maybe they had some sort of deal with Greyhound. Perhaps she had fallen for a corporate scheme, and this was her punishment. Some punishment, too. But, hey, she shouldn’t complain; she wasn’t the one getting a quadruple bypass. All she had to do was get there, and watch.
Jennifer forced a little chuckle out. She’d get to Phoenix eventually. What did it matter if it was on a bus or a plane? This was her daughterly duty, her obligation. She had to be there. If she didn’t show, who else would? Her mother certainly wouldn’t be coming in from Cincinnati, not after fifteen years. She could get away with a three dollar hallmark, a 25 cent postage, and a scribble heart.
It would be just her aunt Helen at the hospital, obliviously reading her father excerpts from neonpink beauty magazines, her fake, red nails clicking against each other as she turned the gaudy pages. Jennifer smirked as she thought of her father glaring helplessly from his hospital bed as Helen’s piercing voice relentlessly droned on about Jennifer Aniston’s recent nipslip and the potential dangers of butt injections. Her father may have driven everyone else away, but Helen would always be there, too hopelessly dimwitted to be worn down by his pessimism and obstinance. As much as this image bemused Jennifer, she had left her studio apartment in Brooklyn and budding hostess career to go see her father get sliced open.
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna change out there. Don’t know what you’re lookin’ for, lady. But it ain’t out there.” The sweaty loaf next to her had awoken and was evidently capable of speech, if broken.
“Excuse me?” Jennifer yanked out her earbud.
Apparently her glare was fiercer than expected, because the man recoiled slightly. “I was just jokin’, lady. You just looked… well, lost, I guess. And I was sayin’ that, you’re not gonna see anything out there that you haven’t seen for the last threehundred miles.” He chuckled, nervously. Jennifer noticed the yellowgrey stains encircling his armpits.
“I’m not looking for anything in particular, I’m just looking to look,” Jennifer said, flicking her eyes around the bus. “Where do you want me to look? Because I’ve taken in just about everything this bus has to offer.”
A genuine laugh fell out of the man’s vast, mustachedraped mouth. “You know, I seen you come on to this bus, with your hair all pulled up like that and your nice purse in tow, and I thought to myself: ‘This lady definitely does NOT frequent Greyhound often.’ ”
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was his halting, southern accent, or maybe it was just her sheer exhaustion, but regardless of the reason, Jen smiled at the man, bright and true. “No, no, not exactly. I think this might be my first time on a bus since middle school.”
Oh God, what had she done? Why had she said that? She knew nothing about this greasy whale. Why had she shared any sort of personal information with him? She quickly curtailed her smile and shifted her body towards the window.
Oblivious to these cues and encouraged by her response, the man laboriously lifted his body into a more upright position and turned to face her. “Hell! I know these buses like the back of my hand. I used to be a commercial driver, you know. Buses, trucks, moving vans, even taxis, I drove ‘em all! And well too, I’m now a route manager at Knight Transportation.”
“Oh, wow,” Jen said, flatly.
“That’s why I was headin’ down to Phoenix, actually. Have a conference down there. Big merger with Vitran, gotta discuss the details. Only the head honchos.” His face crinkled into a proud grin.
“Too bad you missed it, then,” Jen replied curtly, hoping this would cut off the man’s cheerful blabbering.
“Oh, don’t you worry about little old Ron, honey. If we stay on pace, I should be able to make it for my meetings tomorrow morning, with a decent night’s sleep to boot!”
“Honey”? “Little old Ron”? Every fiber of Jen’s being wanted to gag at their utterance, but she tactfully contained her disgust, at least visibly, long enough to ask a pressing question: “Wait, when do you think the bus is getting into Phoenix?”
“Well, let’s see… the plane got into Denver at 11 a.m., right?” Ron paused a second, obviously enjoying belaboring the point slightly. “We sat on the runway for at least two hours while they tried to get that damn door fixed up. Which means we probably chose to board the bus at around 1 p.m. And then, of course, ya’ gotta take traffic into account.”
At this point, Jen was preparing to shove her whole forearm down Ron’s throat and pull the answer out of him, if he didn’t spit it out soon. “I’d say, ‘round this time of year, we’re gonna be gettin’ into the Phoenix area about one or two tonight.”
“One or two o’clock in the morning!” Jennifer exclaimed.
“Well, it ain’t gonna be one or two in the evening, missy.” Ron laughed heartily at his own joke, his shirt pulling up with each snortle, revealing a thick patch of hair surrounding his belly button. He quickly stemmed his laughter, however, when he noticed Jen’s lipstick laden lips press together in anxiety, and her eyes dart quickly to her phone screen. “Oh, my apologies, honey. Didn’t mean to be the bearer of bad news. You missin’ something important?”
“What? No. I was just… I was just curious how much longer I’m going to be stuck on this junker,” Jen snapped, keeping her eyes fastened to her phone screen.
She ignored Ron’s confused stare, and unlocked her iPhone. A new message: Paul went under an hour ago, sunshine. Where are you? I’m beginning to worry! XOXO Helen.She was sitting next to an garrulous tub of lard, on a hot, stinky bus, in the middle of the desert, that’s where she was. Not standing in outpatient, asking the nurses repetitive questions; not making mindnumbing chitchat with Helen; not watching her father’s apathetic, wrinkled face disappear behind the surgery room doors. She couldn’t just be there for the surgery, and be done with it. No, that’d be too easy. She slowly typed out a response. Sorry, my connecting flight was grounded, mechanical failure. Next flight wasn’t until tomorrow morning, so I had to take a bus. Be there as soon as I can.She threw the phone into her lap. She could feel Ron’s beady brown eyes scrutinizing the back of her head, so she kept her eyes locked on the suncracked landscape scrolling past her window.
The brown, charred earth reminded her of her dad, of his tough, leathery skin. She thought of him lying there, grimacing, as always. She thought about I.V.’s being slowly pushed into his forearm, about the constant beeps and buzzes of a hospital room ringing in his drooping ears, about how the florescent lights of the surgery room would make his sunken eyes look like lifeless craters. He could die, you know,a voice whispered suddenly from the back of her consciousness. He could die, and you’re worried about the trip being worth your time. You’re sick. She shook her head slightly, trying to switch mental channels. He wouldn’t die from some stupid bypass. He was tough, determined, bullheaded. If he had survived the heart attack, surely he could survive a little surgery.
And, maybe, when he did, he would reach out to her. Maybe, this would scare him into caring, for once.
“Now, I seen a lot of crazy things in all my years on this green earth. But I ain’t ever seen someone get so worked up about having to spend a few hours on a bus. So, the way I see it, either you’re the biggest crybaby this side of the Mississippi, or you ain’t tellin’ me something,
missy.” Ron’s proud smile had disappeared. He now looked at her with a stern intensity, a solitary bead of sweat rolling down the side of his rotund face.
“I don’t have to tell you anything. And frankly, I’m done talking to you.” She put her earphones back in and pivoted her petite shoulders away from him.
But before she could put on any music, she heard his slightly obstructed voice say: “Well, I never met a gal as snooty as you. Back where I come from, we treat each other with a little bit of respect. I’m sorry I’ve offended your highness so greatly with my humble attempts at conversating.”
That was it. Jen tore out her earbuds. Ron deserved every bit of embarrassment and smallness he was about to feel. “I haven’t seen my father in four years and he’s about to have open heart surgery, and I’m going to miss it. There, is that what you wanted?” Jen settled back in her chair, feeling the goosebumps on her arms, still erect from her outburst.
Instead of a swift apology followed by feverish backpedaling, Ron simply smiled sympathetically, a comforting warmness touching his dark eyes. Without saying a word, he reached down to the hem of his dress shirt and pulled it up to his face. Besides the naked glory of his hairy, voluptuous stomach, Jennifer’s frazzled gaze was also met by a long, purple scar running the length of Ron’s breastbone. The violet tissue was slightly more bulbous and reflected light in a different way than his regular pasty skin. “Got mine done six months ago. Triple bypass.” He pulled his shirt done again, stretching it over his tummy. “Scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. I went in for a checkup one day, I could feel that my heart was beatin’ kinda funny, and two days later I’m under the knife. An emergency. They said I coulda’ died had I waited a month or two more.”
Jennifer twirled her finger around her headphone wire. “He had a heart attack three days ago.” She paused. “They scheduled him for a quadruple bypass as soon as they could take him. It’s crazy.” Ron patted her shoulder reassuringly with his meaty hand. She shrugged. “It sounds so stupid now, but I just sort of thought that he’d always be healthy. I mean, I didn’t, like, literally think about it that way. It was a subconscious thing. He’s my Dad.”
The sun was setting over the desert. Its final rays stained the few cumulonibus clouds hanging listlessly in the sky various shades of maroon, tangerine, and coral. For a moment, they both looked out the window in silence at the backlit plateaus and the shadows stretching across the sand. “Four years is a long time,” Ron said, in a hushed, raspy tone.
“Yeah,” Jen said. Her eyes moving to the flipflop dangling from her raised foot.
“If you don’t mind me askin’, what happened?” Ron questioned, after a long pause.
“I was never good enough,” Jen said, flatly. But Ron’s eyes pulled her onward, almost
against her will. “I tried and tried, as a little girl, to win him over, just to make him smile. He was a chicken farmer in Peoria when I was growing up. He always had this annoying, downinthedirt bravado thing. I know he wanted a son. But I was all he got.” Jennifer wanted to stop, but it just kept coming and Ron just kept nodded, taking in every word. “But, regardless, I just, like, let it consume me for so long. All I did was obsess over how to impress him. 4.0’s, dance competitions, spirit awards, equestrian medals, prom queen, I did it all. I wanted to be his princess, to make him proud. But it was never enough, he wanted something I just couldn’t get to. It was like he wanted me to besomething different, something other. His expectations just ran me into the ground. I had built my life around him.” Jen gritted her teeth. “Finally, four years ago, I brought my boyfriend, who’s now my fiance, to see him. And, what do you know? He couldn’t have been a bigger asshole to him. Just rude, disapproving, and condescending. So, I said to myself: ‘Fuck it. He never cares, so neither will I.’ ”
Ron grunted, scrunching his face in empathy. “That’s real sad. I’m sorry to hear that.” It was obvious he didn’t really know what to do or say, and neither did she. She felt gross. She didn’t usually talk like that, about feelings and the past. She felt petty and weak.
“I got a son, Rodney,” Ron said, breaking the silence. “He’s six now. Or, as he likes to say, six and threequarters.” Jen squeezed out a pleasant smile as Ron dug into his left pocket and pulled out a dated Blackberry. It looked like a toy in his huge hands. “Wanna see a photo of him? He just got his orange belt in karate.”
The photo was of a scrawny, tan boy with cowlicked brown hair, holding a broken wooden board. A cockeyed smile was smeared across his face. He was missing one of his front teeth and his little pink tongue was poking out of the gap slightly. Ron stood behind the child, hands clasped firmly on his shoulders, wearing the same proud smile she had seen earlier.
“I travel so much now, with the merger and everything,” Ron continued. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to go to stuff like that anymore. It kills me.” Jen accidentally slid the photo over to the right, and a picture of a truly atrocious, homemade card flashed onto the screen. “Oh, that’s the um…” Ron blushed. “That’s the getwell card Rodney made me after the operation. Or, at least tried to make. Downright awful ain’t it?” Ron chuckled heartily, but as Jen examined his face, she could see tears filling the corners of his eyes.
“It meant a lot, though. To have him do that. Made it a helluva lot easier.” Jen nodded and handed the phone back to him, unable to say anything.
The bus pulled into a gas station to fill up. Ron waddled off into the convenience mart to relieve himself and buy some munchies. Jen stood stretching her legs by one of the gas pumps, watching the rest of the passengers mingle and talk. The words “QET MELL, DAADY” were scrawled across her brain as her phone began to buzz in the side pocket of her purse. Incoming call from: Helen Balinger. Her stomach dropped and she could feel her palms begin to ooze sweat. She lifted the phone to her ear.
“Hello?” Jen said, the sound getting caught awkwardly in her throat.
“Jenny! You poor thing! I been worried sick, downright sick, over here. A bus from Denver to Phoenix? I’d rather be dead. Dead I say!” She cackled. “A bit of a screwy to say that around here, though, I suppose.”
Jen rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help smiling a little. “I’m fine, Helen. How’s Dad?”
“You should really see this place, Jen. It’s depressing. They’ve only got fluorescent lights throughout the whole place. You know how those lights just make everything look so creepy. It’s dirty too! I walked into the bathroom, and I swear I almost vomited it smelled so bad. I’ve been holding it for hours! The coffee’s cold, too.” She hushed her voice to a whisper. “Also, there was this man in the waiting room who kept looking at me. He had this weird lazy eye…”
“Helen,” Jen almost yelled. “Is Dad out yet? Is he okay?”
“Oh, yes! He’s fine. The surgery went quicker than expected, only twoandahalf hours instead of three! He’s sitting right next to me, actually. Looking chipper as always.” Jen pictured her reaching out and pinching his pale cheeks. “Here, talk to him yourself.”
“No, that’s fine, Helen. I just wanted….” Jennifer manically protested. But her objection was cut off by an unpleasant array of distorted shuffling noises as Helen, presumably, nestled the phone on the pillow next to her father’s head.
There was an uncomfortable pause before her father finally squeaked out a meek “Hi, Jenny.”
The weak tenderness of his voice was offputting, almost frightening. Jennifer remembered cringing a little, the hair raising on the back of her neck, as his booming tenor called her downstairs to dinner when she was young. At her equestrian competitions, his screaming had always resonated clearly above the din of the other parents’ applause But now, he sounded pained and feeble. She could hear him panting for breath.
“Hey, Dad. How are you feeling?” she asked, keeping her tone measured and calm. “Auntie Helen says you’re looking good.”
Another pause. His breathing came in spastic cycles. “They say… I’ll be… fine. I don’t feel it, though.” He tried to laugh lightly, but started to wheeze. She could hear a man’s voice in the background, and then Helen’s shrill laugh. “Listen,” her father began slowly, “I know we haven’t…” He ran out of energy, unable to summon enough strength to even finish a sentence.
“Just rest for now, Dad. It’s probably not good for you to be talking very much,” Jen managed to say, despite the tears beginning to roll down her reddening cheeks.
“I’m just… I’m just…” His voice trailed off once again. Something began to beep loudly. She sensed that her time to talk was up.
“I’m coming, Dad. I’ll be there soon. I promise. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. I know it, Dad. You’ll be okay. Just hang on, for me.” Jennifer’s voice wavered and broke.
“See you… soon,” her father breathed into the phone.
By: Pearson Probst ’18