The young man carries his possessions in a brown paper bag and a shoebox. I notice him when I board the coach at Greenville. His name is Marvin, and he wears a pale blue shirt and baggy yellow pants, no jacket despite the nippy January afternoon. He tells a friendly, brown-faced woman in the seat across the aisle from him that he has been traveling for over thirty hours, since Detroit, and that he is 23 years old and has been in prison since he was sixteen.
I wonder what he was in for. Drugs probably. Packed away during the ’90s when tough laws cleaned the streets of rubbish so the increasingly wealthy folk felt free to go out and spend their fortunes. Now the prisons, like most everyone else, are going broke and slipping loose the nonviolents, as an economy measure.
An hour south, at a brief stop outside Greenwood, the clan of smokers gather around a redwood table and light up. The friendly brown-faced woman from the bus sits on the bench near where I stand. She tells me she’s been on since Detroit, too, and we chat about means of transport and smoker facilities, the little smoky gas chamber I encountered a while back on the Amtrak from New York to Chicago.
I refrain from telling details, about the grey-blonde red-eyed man who emceed the room, asking everybody’s business in exchange for his. He had been on the train since Tampa, bound for Chicago to confront Fred Meyer over a contract dispute. “I ain’t satisfy with what he pay me.” His wife, twice his size, called him “Fat Boy,” and one of the others said, “You look just like that guy on the Dr Pepper ad!” A large black woman puffed a Chesterfield and told a little white-haired boy, “You sure do look like a girl. I’m gone take you home and spole ya!” He and his brother wore sneakers that lit up when they hopped, which they did a lot of, and their harried young mother, tapping her Camel Light into the tinfoil ashtray, said, “You can buy ’em if you like ’em. Thirty-five cent for the blond, quarter for the dark one.”
“How you feel?” Fat Boy asked me as I settled by the sheet-plastic door, and before I could answer, he stuck out his paw. “You can feel me, see how I feel, you want.”
The waitress from the dining car came in and plopped down, lit a cigarette.
“How you feel, Mary?” Fat Boy asked her.
“My feet hurt.”
A bald young man on the opposite bench laughed, maybe just getting the how-you-feel joke. His head was shaved so close the stubble shone like a veneer of black polish on his grey skull. His name was Pete and he was from Denver.
I took out my pack of Nobel Petit Sumatras, and Fat Boy looked at me. “What Choo do?” he asked me.
“What do I do?” I said.
“He’s a lawyer,” said Pete, watching me with small black eyes.
It seemed perhaps not a good thing to be considered a lawyer here so I said, “I’m a writer.”
“Well Stephen King’s a writer!” exclaimed Fat Boy.
I considered telling him I was on my way to read a story at a public college in Chicago where there had been a recent uproar over a Picasso sculpture on display there. It was a cubistic sculpture of a woman, and someone suddenly noticed that one of the woman’s breasts was larger than her cranium. I had also been requested to delete a sentence from the story I was to read. The sentence in question, “God is a cunt,” seemed thematically appropriate to the story, and I had not yet decided whether to delete it from the reading. I wondered what Fat Boy would say to that.
“You ain’t from here,” Pete said, and I told him I lived in Denmark. “I know a writer from Denmark,” he said. “Guy wrote about America, visited all the black towns and all. Took pictures. Good ones. Jacob Holt.”
Tampa Fat Boy’s eyes turned on Pete. “What Choo Do?” he asked him.
“Just outta jail,” said Pete.
“What for?” Fat Boy demanded, red eyes level.
“But you clean now. Ain’t you glad you clean now?”
“Glad I ain’t in jail, not glad I’m clean.”
“People take that shit,” said Fat Boy, “they put a gun in anyone’s head to get a fix.”
“I’d put a gun in your head,” Pete said.
“And I kick wax out your ears so fast,” Fat Boy shot back.
They locked eyes while I busied myself lighting a little cigar and chatted with a young woman beside me from Vermont, about her trouble getting work even with a master’s degree. Then Fat Boy was talking about gay motels in Florida and clothing-optional clubs. Something must have crackled between them for soon they were on their feet, shuffling out in tandem. I saw the two of them in the aisle squeezing into the restroom together and decided it was time to retire.
Now, at the smoke stop outside Greenwood, I wonder what the friendly brown-faced woman might think about that, but suffice it to say the smoking quarters on Amtrak are miniscule.
“Oh that different now,” she says. “Now they got a whole section. It closed in but you kin sit in comfort. Even got mu-sic!” she says playing the word low, with a throaty chuckle and a shy, self-ironic smile, smoke drifting from her short broad nostrils.
The young man named Marvin comes sidewise between us, folded stiffly forward like a half-opened jack-knife, palms joined. “I truly do not wish to be a trouble, ma’am,” he says softly to the brown woman, “but I am very unsure where I got to change the bus and what I got to do. I fine myself confuse.”
“You goin’ to Beaufort, right?” she asks. “We take care of you.”
“Yes, ma’am. I got two children there. Two girls. I just love ’em to death.”
If he’s been in jail since he was 16, he must have started a family about as soon as he was able. Nuptial visitation rights maybe. “I’m going to Beaufort, too,” I tell him. “We change in Savannah in about two hours and have about an hour’s wait. I’ll show you where we have to get the bus.” But the young man looks pointedly away from me. It occurs to me I have no real idea what he was in for or what horrors he might have experienced of seven years in stir, to what extent the contemporary mythology of American prisons is grounded in fact, or for that matter, such being the prejudices engendered by suspicion, what kind of metal he might be carrying in pocket, shoe, or other cavity. “I’ll let you know when we have to change,” I say again, attempting to clarify whether he simply hadn’t realized I was addressing him, but he continues pointedly to ignore me in my necktie and Stetson hat. I think of prison films I’ve seen, of Lee Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast and the knife he stuck into a Greenwich Village waiter when he got out, about Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, the racial division depicted, and I shut my mouth.
The brown woman pats the boy’s hand and repeats, “We take care of you. We see you come no harm.” It occurs to me she is a natural leader, a person who inspires confidence, who exudes the qualities of true leadership and consideration for justice and the rights of all. It seems to me it would be wonderful to be her, strong and clear of nature. I wish that I could talk more with her, learn more about her life. She seems to me the salt of the earth, but I will only be allowed this small glimpse during a smoke stop.
“This is the correct bus for Beaufort?” asks Marvin once again, and I remember how confused I was at 23, how I bounced all over the country during the ’60s and more than once came this close to doing time for possession of marijuana in Ohio, Texas, Arizona—a lot of time it would have been. I literally cannot imagine the terror that would be entailed in seven years locked up from the tender age of 16, or from 23 for that matter. Marvin’s question hangs in the air and is picked up by a very large white man in his early thirties. “All I know is it’s headed for Jacksonville,” he says with a grin meant to savor his own lack of concern for anything but that fact. “The rest of ya are on your own!” A good six-seven, he must be carrying three-hundred-plus pounds in his biceps and legs and chest and neck. The only things small about him, incongruously, are his hips and butt. His naked skull sits in a socket of rippling fat and muscle, and both biceps are adorned with huge laughing devil heads from whose tattooed mouths extend long, serpentine red tongues—faded, two-color, institutional jobs. On the back of his sawed-off tee shirt is printed in large block letters, I’M THE BIG DOG.
I’d listened earlier to his conversation with the bus driver whom he’d asked for advice about how to get work. “I’m moneyless, jobless, pretty soon homeless too.”
“Work for the government, why don’t you!”
“Can’t. Got three convictions on record. Misdemeanors,” he added to my and no doubt everyone else’s relief. Disturbing enough to consider the weight of a misdemeanor this hulk of a man might root from the earth, let alone a felony.
Soon we are queuing to reboard the dusky bus, and the woman says quietly to me, “Will you help that boy find his way to the connecting bus in Savannah? He got two babies waitin’ for him in Beaufort.” She reaches forward to young Marvin. “You stay with this gentlemen, hear? He goin’ to Beaufort, too. You stay with him.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says and climbs aboard without a glance back at me.
Through the early January twilight of Highway 25 we roll, through Edgefield, Trenton. The code of the Greyhound strictly forbids smoking, alcoholic beverages, and aggressive behavior, the driver announces over the sound system. “Or disturbing the driver,” he adds. To mellow the gathering dusk, I sip from a plastic Vittel Grand Source water bottle full of Stolichnaya, remembering the Mason jar of white lightning I drank the week before with a friend from Kentucky. I was determined not to disgrace my Yankee self, managed to stay upright in my chair through the whole quart. Next morning, while I lay wrapped in painful respect for southern home-burnt, he phoned and said, “Tom, you did real good last night, and I’m thinking, Whyn’t I come on over and we do another Mason jar?” My horrified silence extended sufficiently to rip a roar of laughter from his throat: Thank god, it was a joke.
Spanish moss hangs in narrow wispy drapes from the gnarled, reaching limbs of the Live Oak trees and magnolias and whatever else on which it can find purchase. To provide a hostel for mites and the eggs of palmetto bugs, the genteel southern nomenclature for what we in New York used to call cockroaches. But New York roaches are hardly a match for the Sherman tank of the southern palmetto bug. In my adopted city, Copenhagen, I’ve never even seen a cockroach, though in wet weather, crickets sing from beneath the floorboards in the living room of our ground-floor apartment.
The moss is lovely in the sinking light of the sun off the highway to my right, in the spell of the vodka.
We roll past an El Cheapo gas station, Best Western, Quality Inn, Econo Lodge, Relax Inn, Sleep Inn, Pizza Hut, MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Amoco, not much one-of-a-kind left. We turn down the main street of some side town, pass a shop window exhibiting a Support Our Troops display, a toy shop selling cop uniforms for kids. A sign offering Venus Pie makes me smile; then comes a poster of a bearded Swami suggesting that one learn to meditate. On past a lot and yet another store called Venus, this one with a decaying side wall. Hub City Finance. Mack’s Finance. Main Finance Loans. Palmetto Finance. Palmetto Loans. Vein Clinic. Hi-Style Fashions. First Baptist. Flammable Keep Flames Away. And a sign that says, “Injured? Law Offices of Lee & Smith.” It occurs to me that Lee & Smith might extract compensation for the hurt of a Smith & Wesson.
Then there’s a road sign offering “Psychic Readings,” another that says “Speedy Jail Release—Call Tony Sampson,” the neon palmetto of a sign advertising The Palmetto Loan & Finance Company and “Paychecks Cashed Here.” Strange to think in 2002 there are still people without bank accounts, who have to pay a fee to cash their paychecks.
Past the Olivier Gospel Mission is a Comfort Suites motel that looks like a red-brick prison. In the setting sun, flags are being lowered—the attractive navy blue flag of South Carolina with white palmetto and crescent moon, the stars and stripes, and the cross-barred flag of the CSA which flies with the others, sometimes alone—a flag the NAACP is working to have banned from the state capitol building.
I recall as a boy on mid-’50s Long Island how we used to play Civil War, switching grey and blue caps, and how that war, nine decades behind, managed to seem somehow quaint to our unreflecting minds; not challenged to reflect on other than war’s glory, we imitated bright tin troops who fought to preserve the Union and to free the slaves.
There is still enough light to glimpse a cemetery to the left of the highway, a vast field of tiny stones. As we pass the Central Assembly of God, then a club promising “All Nude Girls” and another that promises service by “The Same Great Fully-Clothed Staff As Always,” someone moving down the aisle bumps my folded knee—a tall slender young black man. “Excuse me, sir!” he says with an apologetic smile, and proceeds toward the driver.
“Pardon me, sir,” he asks softly, bowing toward the back of the driver’s lined ruddy neck. “Are we headed for North Augusta?” The driver does not reply, and the man asks again, less softly. Still no answer. The young man stands up straight, looks around him with eyes that break my heart, turns to Big Dog and repeats his question. Big Dog sits up stiffly and says with formality, “I believe that is one of our destinations.” Then adds, “That is, North Augusta, South Carolina.”
I think of Alice whom I’ve left behind at Converse College in Spartanburg, a gun-free, drug-free school zone, where she is working in the art department with a number of other women artists, in the department headed by Mac Boggs. Mac had introduced us to the work of some local Outsider Artists—what Jean Dubuffet called Art Brut. Among the pictures in Mac’s collection was an oil painted by a man who lived in the Kentucky backwoods, depicting a bearded central figure with arms opened in embrace or revelation to indicate, among other things, an airplane crashing into a skyscraper and figures leaping from buildings. The painting had been done prior to 2001. The bearded figure might have been Jesus. Or it might as easily have been Osama Bin Laden. A mystery.
It is dark when we pull into the station at Augusta. Even if state lines are arbitrary and invisible, I feel a little thrill being in a new state, the state of Georgia. I think of delicious juicy August peaches and the gators and panthers of the Okeefenokee Swamp and hear Ray Charles in my mind singing, Same sweet song, Georgia on my mind...
The mother of a very young baby I’d heard crying from behind me on the bus, a cry I’d at first taken for the yowl of a cat, joins the clan of puffers outside the coach. Her face is red and wrinkled.
“Sure good with a smoke, ain’t it?” she says with a smile that is minus a left incisor. I wonder if it was knocked out by her husband, a surly, bearded man I’d heard arguing with the ticket vendor in Greenville. Tall and lean with a scowling mouth, he slept toward the back with his cap over his eyes and legs across the aisle so you had to hop over them to use the loo. But now he is on the bus watching the baby whose mother tells me she’s been riding 40 hours for Jacksonville where her parents have offered shelter for 120 days so their little family can get up on their feet. “I’ll get up on my feet,” she says, and I remember the fear in her eyes as her husband punched the counter and berated the Greenville ticket vendor who told him the machine had rejected his credit card.
In the little terminal, a short heavy black man with black moustache and Van Dyke beard, carrying a case of plastic coke bottles on his bald head, walks past hollering, “Matthew! Matthew! You spose to be here seven p.m. don’t you know?” I glance at the bus schedule notice-board and smile to see a bus is scheduled at 5:30 a.m. for Denmark—that’s Denmark, South Carolina. The sweet brown woman who is the salt of the earth has left us in North Augusta, and young Marvin now stands close to me.
“We all still on this bus, right?” he asks.
“Right. To Savannah. I’ll show you where to change.” I offer a cigar. He stares at the little open box. “No, thank you, sir. They too...they too...”
“Yessir.” He takes out a crumpled, near-empty pack of Newport menthols and asks for a light which he accepts without thanks.
“Understand you have two children?” I say.
“Girls, sir. Five and three.” He smiles. “I just love ’em to death.”
I try to do the math but fail. Perhaps they do have nuptial visitation rights wherever it is in Michigan he was in prison. “Sweet age,” I say. “Five and three.”
“Yes, sir, they sure are.”
Greyhound routing is such that to get to Beaufort, South Carolina, from Greenville, South Carolina, on this particular day, we have to ride south to Savannah, Georgia, wait an hour, then catch another Dog running north along the coast another hour back up to Beaufort, South Carolina.
The elegant art deco facade of the Greyhound terminal at 109 Martin Luther King Boulevard in Savannah speaks of the ’40s when bus travel was still mainstream. I think of Steinbeck’s Wayward Bus and Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop. Inside, the terminal is shabby. Where once would have been a good American diner is now a Wendy’s, and we learn that our connection is delayed by 45 minutes. At the chilly doorway, a shirtless, leanly muscular white man with two missing front teeth and neo-Celtic tattoos up and down his arms and chest tells us with a grin that his bus to Jackson has been delayed for twelve hours. He tugs up his jogging pants and nods jauntily at me and Marvin as if to say, “Now that’s a delay.” A black driver in grey uniform looks at the man’s ticket. “This here’s for Jackson, North Carolina. You ticketed to Jackson, Ohio.”
“Shee-it,” says the man with his imperturbable grin and hitches up his joggers. I wonder if he is just proud of his torso or doesn’t own a shirt. Maybe he gave someone the shirt off his back. Preposterous as it may seem from his appearance, he has an aura, strikes me as someone who a century and a half before in Russia would have qualified for canonization by Dostoevsky.
In the Wendy’s I buy a container of coffee and a cheeseburger in greasy paper and watch a couple and two children sit down to their bags of junk food, bow their heads in grace. Marvin asks if I will watch his shoebox and paper bag while he goes to buy a can of orange soda from a vending machine. A warning printed on the side of my paper cup of coffee advises me that it is hot.
I am excited about the stop in Savannah where I’ve never been before, one of the most beautiful cities in North America—where an 11-year-old Conrad Aiken, author of one of my favorite stories, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” listened from the next room while his father, the doctor, shot his mother, then himself; birthplace of Johnny Mercer, grandson of a Confederate general, who wrote one of my favorite songs, “The Summer Wind”; where Flannery O’Connor grew up in a house on Lafayette Square; where Charles Wesley wrote “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts of America in 1913; where all the alluring exaggerations of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil unfold; where Martin Luther King first delivered his “I Have a Dream” sermon at the Second African Baptist Church on Green Square. But our stop there is too brief for sightseeing, and it is too dark now to see anything on the road, so I lean back and half doze, half eavesdrop on a conversation somewhere behind me. One man is telling another he just did four months for a DWI. “Third time. Wouldn’t let me pay no fine. I tell you, I ain’t goin’ back to that bullshit.”
“Ain’t goin’ back to that bullshit. Wouldn’t happen to a white boy.”
From Savannah we head north on 95 through Hardeeville and Ridgeland. Invisible to our right, south-east, is Parris Island, the infamous United States Marine Corps boot camp whose graduates form a fraternity which perhaps most American men on some level regret not being a member of: Semper Fi. I think of Andre Dubus II, who resigned his commission as USMC Captain to join the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the ’60s. And Lieutenant Dave Mix who lost a foot in Vietnam and wrote a fine novel about the teenagers sent to fight that war, titled Intricate Scars, that nobody would publish. And Mike Lee, two purple hearts from the Nam, who had an American flag thrown in his face by an irate pacifist when he got off the plane in San Francisco and whose recently published collections Paradise Dance and In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot are tucked in my carry-on. On a drunk and disorderly charge, Mike had been given a choice by an Oklahoma judge of jail or two years in the Marines. He was seventeen.
In the dark the bus crosses many bridges joining many islands—Hunting Island, a jungle in which the Vietnam War scenes of Forrest Gump were filmed, the revisionist movie that blithely skirted discussion of whether we should have been there, and St. Helena Island, where at Penn Center Martin Luther King wrote “I have a dream” and where I once purchased a Bible written in Gullah, Sea Island Creole, an 18th century language compounded of plantation English and several African tongues, the Gospel According to Luke: De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write; Lady’s Island and Hilton Head Island with its gated communities where the people who will host my reading next day reside.
At Beaufort’s tiny Greyhound terminal, two women and two girls are waiting to greet Marvin who has donned a white stocking cap for the occasion. His step is light as he swaggers into their embrace, a fine-looking family. Their battered Ford is parked out back in the little lot. I stand at the door looking for my hosts, and Marvin turns back to me. He places the palms of his hands together and bows his head. “Thank you for your kindness, sir,” he says. “Thank you.”
I wish him luck and watch them pile into the car and back out. Their power steering needs fluid, I think, and watch as the car squeals and turns out of the lot, putters off into the darkness. A few moments later, a black Mercedes SUV pulls in, and my friends, Rick and Rikki, hop out with friendly exclamations of welcome.
With a gentle, incredulous smile, Rick says, “You took the bus?! I haven’t been on a bus since I was twenty!”
“I never have,” Rikki says, laughing.
“Why the hell didn’t you rent a car?” Rick asks. “You could have been here in half the time. Less!”
I smile and climb into the redolent black leather seat of the Mercedes and listen to the silken purr of the motor as we back out through the dust of the lot, headed for the gated community of Hilton Head. A few blocks up we stop for a light alongside Marvin’s family Ford. I see his white stocking cap at the window of the back seat. He does not recognize me.
—First published in New Letters Magazine (Volume 70, Issue 1; fall, 2003-2004; reprinted in Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America (New American Press, 2008); and appears here by author’s permission.