Photo credit: Dave Janetta
At the Gallup, New Mexico, bus station, just for the heck of it, I asked the clerk behind the counter where the bus did not go. He was amused and I think somewhat intrigued when he realized I was seriously going into a ticket office and asking about places they did not go. He had a slow way of speaking and studied me as if he cared, as if my mother were a Polish émigré and I should not let her down, as if I might not get away with anonymity, as if the soul might be something you can’t just return like a nickel pop bottle. He said there were more places the bus didn’t go than where it did, but it was all up to me. He said I looked tired.
Since I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go yet, and I never ended up where I intended anyway, I bought a ticket to Springfield, Ohio, a place I’d passed through a few times that I liked the look of. I remembered the sign outside a Springfield residential motel advertising rates for $75 a week, and I thought I’d get a room there and a job cooking or cleaning toilets and finally write Whirlaway: The Great American Loony Bin, Horseplaying, and Record-Collecting Novel
The destination on the rollsign above the windshield of my eastbound Greyhound read ALBUQUERQUE, a city I had just passed through a month before, though that didn’t bother me since long ago I had grown accustomed to traveling in circles and seeing the same places over and over, like the El Bambi Café in Beaver, Utah, at whose counter I have literally sat a hundred times on the eastbound and westbound circuit from Vegas and LA, and Grand Junction, CO, where buses get major service and cleaning after the long Rocky Mountain haul, and the glass depot door goes Crack! Crack! Crack!
all day and night, year after year, and never gets fixed.
She grinned, wrapped her arms around my neck, and dubbed me THE TRAVELER.
Before I could get to Springfield, my back went out. I could barely walk and therefore would not be able to cook or scrub toilets, so I called my cousin Fuzzy, who lived in Virginia. I had not seen her in a few years. She was happy to hear from me and wanted to know if I was still traveling around, still “trying” to write?
I admitted that I was and wondered if I might drop by for a few days since my back had gone out.
I was the only passenger to get off in Fredericksburg, Virginia, last bus, station closed. My cousin Fuzzy picked me up late. I had trouble standing and hobbled toward her. She grinned, wrapped her arms around my neck, and dubbed me THE TRAVELER. The inevitable fantasy took root. An unlikely urban superhero named THE TRAVELER, helping the weak, saving the vulnerable, freeing the enslaved, righting injustices, composing brilliant novels under a clever pseudonym, never asking for thanks, no one ever really knowing that it had been THE TRAVELER.
In the backseat sat Chowder, half mastiff, half American Alsatian, who growled at me. He won’t bite, assured Fuzzy with a laugh, and then in a baby voice: Chowder’s just a big puddy tat.
Fuzzy and I were only two months apart. We’d been cribmates when our sister-mothers had lived in Arvada, Colorado. Fuzzy, a green-eyed sunflower blonde, had always been vivacious, eccentric, the belle of the ball. A gifted singer, she’d done lots of studio work, professional back-up vocal tracks, radio jingles. She’d been a grandmother since age 32, had almost died three times in childbirth (each time ignoring the physician’s warning about having another child), and now worked for a technical support company in Fredericksburg.
Whenever we reunited she recollected fondly the days of our youth when she was a beauty and I was a dork.
Fuzzy lived a dozen miles inland from Fredericksburg in the Civil War-haunted exurbia of Spotsylvania, on a wooded acre lot along a pond, a snug, rough-hewn house she’d bought at a good time after a divorce when she was still fairly young. Back in the 1980s, her present husband Grady had a major recording contract with A&M records. He still played and occasionally toured, but he now painted houses to pay the bills. He was having chronic back and knee problems, she said, and it was increasingly difficult for him to climb ladders.
He should be a contractor, I said.
He doesn’t think like that, she said.
We drove through the dark. There wasn't much traffic. The twisted hobgoblin mists of Civil War soldiers (we all die for each other, we’re not quite sure why) floated through the trees.
It was just short of midnight when she parked in front of her house along the pond. Grady was up. He was the sort of person I rarely met, strong, uncomplaining, honest, loyal. He rose to greet me. He was having as much trouble moving around as I was. We shook hands. He wore a brace, elbow to wrist, on his left arm.
What happened there? I asked.
Normal wear and tear. What about you?
Sat too long I think.
Where you coming from?
Gallup. I was in Vegas before that.
Where you headed?
Not sure yet, I admitted, and told them about my novel in progress, Whirlaway
Fuzzy was amused that I kept insisting on being a writer and finishing this novel Whirlaway
, when it was plain to any sensible person that if I hadn’t made some kind of mark by now it wasn’t going to happen.
We sat up late, caught up, listened to music, and drank good whiskey, three middle-aged adults who’d once believed with all their hearts they would one day be stars. Grady was working on a new album he planned to produce and release on his own. When he’d signed with A&M in the 1980s, his A&R guy wanted him to style himself after the benchmark pop stars of the day, Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen. He’d channeled Springsteen and when his album didn’t sell he was dropped from the label. Now free of commercial pressure and bad advice, he was working on what he liked. He played me two amazing, heartfelt songs. Velvety-voiced Fuzz backed him up. I thought it a shame that no one could hear them but me.
At Grady’s urging, I read aloud two pages from Whirlaway
, which put Cousin Fuzz to sleep. I had made friends with Chowder by giving him a pretzel, though he had fallen asleep too.
Grady had spent two years bumming around the country, hopping freight and taking odd jobs, but couldn’t imagine anyone volunteering for 20, as I had. He wanted to know how I kept going.
I really don’t know, I said.
I’d love to be in your shoes, he said.
I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat, I said, if it wasn’t illegal to marry your first cousin in Virginia.
He laughed and poured me another drink. Fuzzy says you were a sickly child, bookworm, always getting beat up. Look at you now.
I’m not a dork anymore at least, I said, looking at the scars on my hands. But I’m almost 40 with nothing to show for it and I’m as angry and unhappy as any other rat in the American Rat Race.
That’s why you can’t give up, he said emphatically. What would you do then?
I studied my whiskey. Be a rat, I guess.
Exactly. Your song is all you’ve got, man, all anyone’s got. Don’t let them take it away from you.
÷ ÷ ÷
currently lives in Chadron, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, Kenyon Review
, and The Coal City Review
. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O. Henry nominations, Mr. Ballantine’s work has been included in the anthologies The Best American Short Stories 1998
and The Best American Essays 2006
is his most recent book.