She should have turned back. What was the point of this journey? In my mind I realised that she could have been anyone, she might have been telling me the truth from the moment I boarded the Greyhound bus in Cleveland, she could be on her way to Paris to study art by the Seine, to see the world in the same way he had desired, needed to do. The bus was certainly cheaper to get to Philadelphia where she said her sister lived, to pick up her tickets to fly to France and then go on to study the fine art she breathed whilst spending her free time underneath a bridge or two, perhaps sitting within a tossed baseball of the Eiffel Tower or sitting drinking coffee in one of the numerous cafés that lined the Parisian walkways.
She might have been telling me the truth, but as we both boarded the last bus out of Cleveland on that chilly November night, I thought there was something more to her story.
There was a taste of change hanging in the air, I had felt it a few weeks earlier when by chance I had managed to shake the hand of the new President during a rally in New York, would I have voted for him, in a heartbeat I knew that the answer would have been a certainty, a yes. Charisma was not lost on those who saw the rainbow brighter in the morning but could see its allure as dusk began to fade and after so much time in the rain, this new President was surely going to bring the sunshine out again for those I had come to regard as friends.
Change, a movement for the young and devastatingly cool was on hand, an order of post war ignorance to those who made up Generation X was soon to be displaced and the hoped for good times of decency and no war would soon come about. Change, always hopeful, always there in the background, tantalising, slow burning, almost non-existent but when it hit, it was like a flamethrower adding fuel to a leaking oil field, the patriarch of the past and revolutionary exchanging glances and both realising that the world was now ablaze.
That change had not hit downtown Cleveland, all too soon, the flame thrower had not caught the train from Washington and New York yet, still asleep somewhere by the statue of Abraham Lincoln, still feeling the comfort of having found a match to strike but not remembering the fuel to burn the edifice of the last forty years down around the former President’s feet. I doubted that the change would come this far, it would be stamped out by the time it reached the New Jersey shore, somewhere around the edges of Wildwood or Benny’s Landing, Detroit was just waiting to become wasteland, the so called Rust Belt a pyre that never see a flicker of flame and California, dear old beautiful state of dreams was too removed to ever feel the effects of the wrath of the dispossessed and the passionate.
Change though was in her eyes, I caught the tingle of youth striding forward into the unknown when she purchased her ticket at the small and unwelcoming window, the grill acting as an extra guard to the lioness snarl that coveted peace and quiet, to issue a ticket out of Cleveland meant work, meant hassle and she was sure that the young woman purchasing the single way out of town had been seen before, on television perhaps, in the paper, did she know her, had she seen this woman who I felt a kinship of regard, of admiration for.
If there was recognition in her eyes, then she didn’t betray it to the girl clutching her money as if she was about to be robbed, there was a tender vulnerability in the way she stood at the window as the ticket to a destination only known to her and the person inside the booth, a silent pact of information, the spy exchanging money for the secret way out of town.
She sat down opposite me in the hall, the once grand façade of the city acting as a barrier to conversation at that point, nothing in common except that we were both using the same tunnel dug by braver souls to get out of town before the fire spread north.
I smiled, a glimmer of hope in a stranger’s eyes, dressed in an ordinary, yet unbuttoned blue coat, jeans and a blank white T shirt, compared to the others that waited in the dingy afterlife, that took no notice of the passage of time or the announcements of the buses to all points everywhere. She was an angel dipped in sulphur, the angst of teenage rebellion on her face and for a while as she bent her down to read silently, I thought she might be a runaway, one of those great unknowns that once travelled from town to town in search of a meaning, of escaping the tracks on her arm, the bruises on her face, the smile from the anarchist dreaming of boomtowns and change.
Escape – that is what this journey was for her, she looked young but assured me as we sat talking on the bus that she was making her way to Philadelphia to see her sister who would be buying her plane ticket away from all the mess behind her. Escape, we were both doing that, I had travelled thousands of miles and threw off most of what I had been in order to become someone new, someone who had existed in my head but afraid of the repercussions if I had carried on the path provided by my supplication for peace, the plea of not guilty to internal warfare.
The metallic voice spoke with a shifting glee in its demeanour, “Last bus to Philadelphia now boarding, calling at Pittsburgh and Harrisburgh you fortunate people”, the sarcasm could not have been finer if she had included Allentown in her list of places that nobody from Cleveland would wish to visit. I watched her stand uneasily as if this was it, the final chance to walk away back into the night, take the punishment from an abusive parent and add to that bruise she cleverly had tried to hide with her long brown hair. I put my earphones down around my neck, the batteries were beginning to grind and splutter in the same vein as a half lit Catherine wheel and it was making David Bowie sound disturbingly as if he was drunk, distorted by my own addiction to a good single malt, cheaper than pain killers, not as enjoyable as weed. I got in line, the windows of the Greyhound blackened and obscured, there would be no way to tell that we were going the right way, perhaps this was the bus that would deliver us all back to Hell, to the point of our journey, escape being impossible forever, I had tried it by traversing deep into the forests, only to break the window of a cabin when I needed shelter and somewhere dry out of the perpetual damp.
Two people infront of me was the girl and whilst nobody else had seen it, there was a patch of blood on the backside of her jeans, fresh and warm, I looked across to where she had been sat and the small telltale signs of her life were much publicised and yet nobody else remarked upon the situation opening up before us. I am all for anarchy, I will talk revolution but having the police descend upon a silver bus in the middle of the Pennsylvanian highway, guns raised, ordering everyone to stay calm and then hearing the nerve snap of a rookie cop as he pulls the trigger; I had seen this before in Los Angeles, I had seen what happens when the police get nervous.
I looked at her backside and considered carefully my next move, I didn’t have the money to stay an extra night in Cleveland, a friend would have my next set of traveller’s cheques available in the morning when we got to Pittsburgh but all I had on me was a couple of dollars and the worry that the fire had caught up ahead of time. If I walked out of the queue now it might look innocent, if I draw attention to the girl’s plight, it could be just a case of something innocent, something that was none of my business. Did she look dangerous, no more than a night in Buffalo gives you the sense of haunting displeasure!
In my typical way of ignoring the obvious I gave into intrigue, what the Hell, a police chase through down town Cleveland might have been the story that Kerouac would have dreamed of telling.
Half full, the bus lumbered out of the station and into the American night, going East, going South, never again would I see Cleveland, a stopover on the way between coming out of the forests of Canada and back into once Indian territory. I wanted to dream of the clock inside The Gown and Gavel, I wanted to stare in the darkened skies of the surrounding countryside and plain talking but instead I found myself talking to her across the small aisle towards the back of the Greyhound and only disturbed by the occasional intrepid visitor and the needy of the communal toilet. Half full dear Kerouac, you never said it would be like this when I started travelling the roads and the highways, I was expecting either a bus so packed that to breathe out would put someone’s life in danger or being the only one on the journey, then again I should have rode the rails, the sound of my favourite music thrilling my soul as I stole a ride across country. Imagine early Marillion as you hit the Mid West, the saga of characters from the time of Floyd as you flag down a taxi by Central Park, the love that comes from any number of Jazz artists as you wander thirsty and half dead into New Orleans, riding the rails though I would never have met her, a source of inspiration unfilled over the course of the remaining time on Earth.
“What were you listening to?” she asked just as I had sat down in what seemed comfortable joy. I shifted in my seat and felt the last month of walking and bone breaking lifts slip away, the sleeping rough to save money, the one eye open in case of a terror with sharp teeth that glowed in the dark and snarled with the passion of the hungry. I raised a single eyebrow more out of surprise than annoyance.
“I couldn’t help but notice you had earphones on when you were sat down in the hall but you removed them when you stood up.” I like the observant, sort of saves time having to explain things.
I explained it was a David Bowie tape, one of a series I had put together before I left England, that the bottom section of my rucksack was full of tapes I had made and then added to whilst on the road. She nodded sagely, her eyes bright and inquisitive.
I smiled at her, returning the one she had offered when she initially sat down inside the waiting hall. I looked down at her backside and winced, she followed my gaze and noted my concern. Swearing mildly she asked if I would look after her bag for a few minutes whilst she went and did something about the stain. Leaving one of her bags behind, she grabbed the smaller of the two and ducked inside the toilet.
The dark of the road was occasionally punctured by the porch light of a random farmhouse, some inside the bus making sure that the light above them was on so they didn’t part of the scenery; that they didn’t melt into the background. To me they had long since become scenic undertones, the consumed and the branded, those that weren’t were seen by the rest as oddballs, outcasts, the unsocial to whom Capitalism bypassed, I felt love for those and felt pity for the devoured and the marked down in price. The bus took on the road in a battle of wits with the driver whistling softly to its chorus and after a short time the girl once again made her presence known.
“A parting gift from my stepdad when I said I wasn’t coming back, that and the bruise to the face which I know you saw. He won’t bother me again, not after this.”
I leant back in my seat, no longer comfortable, instead it felt for all intense purposes as though I had become party to a fireside confession, that this journey, the several hours to Pittsburgh really was one that would have tragedy sewn within its patchwork delivery.
She smiled, probably still the finest smile I have ever seen in my life and with a whisper she said, “Tell me what you are running from.”
We talked, I gave her some pain killers when she looked in need and she shared a bottle of her stepdad’s Jack Daniels, recompense, she saluted, for all the shit he had given her.
In the years that followed I tried to find her, the girl from Cleveland, so she said, a young woman to whom Paris called she insisted, even when I said I would travel with her if she came to Pittsburgh first, a girl who had a bruise on her body that I could see and to whom by the time we pulled into the bus station in Pittsburgh, had seemingly stopped worrying about the blood that had congealed on her leg. I received one letter from her, marked at the bottom with a K and an X, a Paris postcode attached and the date, six months too late.
I tried to find her, to return the kiss she gave me when we parted ways, like the Sun and the Moon only casually glancing at each other across Time and the sky in between.
I tried to find her but I guess the beating she had taken had made her wary, certainly the smell and residue of gunpowder that was on her fingers as she leant in for that brief glorious moment was something to be wary of; riding the bus because the train would have been too obvious, too lonely, not enough cover, her revolution, her match had struck ahead of time in Cleveland and as a new President prepared to take an oath, I felt that the girl had already fulfilled hers.
In memory of Katie Donaldson
Ian D. Hall 2017