If it’s in the middle of nowhere and at a gas station, which it is in White River Junction, Vermont, you get your backpack from beneath the bus and go inside to check things out.
You find the indoor seating, two wooden benches beneath a television. The television is tuned to the History Channel, and the volume is turned up so loud you infer that the proprietor is on a mission: “People who walk in my store for a drink and a pack of crackers are gonna walk out knowing some history!”
You stand there a moment, considering whether listening to a dramatic baritone voice recount the Invasion of Normandy is how you want to spend the next measure of your own history, but additionally, beneath that consideration, there is another one, one your mind does not know about yet: your heart is looking for something.
You watch the guy who got on in New Hampshire buy two beers and hurry back outside, maybe before he learns too much.
A man sitting on one of the benches says hello. His name is Gene, and he’s waiting on the bus to Montreal. He’s seventy-two and heading there to collect his pension. He could have begun drawing at sixty-five, but since he’s waited seven extra years, he’ll now be collecting $473 a month. He says it gets extra cold in Montreal, because of the river. He’s heard of your town, Asheville. A friend of his is moving there, and there’s a great music scene, right? He asks how much snow you get, and you don’t know, but you make something up: “Last winter we got twenty inches.” Gene tells you he lives part of the year in Europe, part in the States, and part in Canada, and hearing this, the bare outline of his life as a nomad, your mind now recognizes that your heart has been feeling about for something and, in the same moment, knows what that something is.
You’ve been away just a week, but you’re missing the company of the familiar, and there’s a homesick lonesome anxious searching feeling welling up in you. You felt it this morning on the subway in Boston, standing and swaying and avoiding the eyes of strangers, because they’re avoiding yours, heading to a bus station that exists on a map but you don’t know for sure that it exists, not really, until you walk about in the actual place and see the Greyhound logo and smell the diesel, and even then you do not completely relax until the bus arrives and you climb aboard and it rumbles away. Only then do you trust that you’re leaving.
And now that breath-clenched homeless feeling is with you again, and it’s worried that your next bus, the one that’s supposed to take you to your daughter’s, will not come.
You tell Gene it feels kinda warm in here and you think you’ll head out for some air. He says you’re right, it is, and goes with you.
It’s November and chilly. They got snow here a few days ago. You drop your backpack against a wall and take multiple walks fifty feet away and back to stay warm. You don’t want to offend anyone, so you try being nonchalant about glancing over your shoulder and watching your stuff during the walks away.
You look up at the mid-afternoon sky, blue to the south and dark, caramelized gray blowing in from the north. You feel the wind picking up, and you imagine it’ll be cold when you get to your daughter’s.
The bus to Montreal arrives and begins boarding, and you say goodbye to Gene and wish him luck. You grab your bag and head back indoors to get warm. You fill your water bottle at a sink so dirty, even though you know the condition of the sink has no bearing on the purity of the water, you think twice about drinking from it.
In the bathroom there are puddles across the floor. You find the driest spot you can to set your backpack down – which is more the least wet than it is the driest — and before you exit you wad up paper towels and brush the bottom of your bag dry. Dry-ish.
You ask the store attendant if he would turn the volume down on the television, which he does. You were holding a book in your hand when you asked, and you wonder if he would have been so agreeable had there not been this indication that someone in his store will still be engaged in an act of learning.
You read for a while and then your son calls. He asks about your time in Boston, and you ask how he is. Yesterday he bought a plane ticket to go to language school in Ecuador after Christmas, today he worked 5 am to 2 pm serving coffee and sandwiches, and tonight he plans to research where he might go to college next fall because he doesn’t want to work the rest of his life for $10 an hour. You ask how it’s been going looking at schools, a subject you don’t usually ask about very well, but you do it anyway because, like many other parents, you are obtuse, and you think that by mentioning it you are increasing the chance that he will apply himself to the task you consider important. You listen for his politely delivered tone of irritation that lets you know you’ve said enough, and you hear it, so you stop.
You go outside again, and this time you take in the other people waiting. Two men at the end of the building share a cigarette. A woman in a Duke hoodie slumps on a bench with two large plastic bags. The man next to her stares out at the road. You wonder what they’re thinking, what their stories are, how many are getting on the bus to Rutland with you, and, honestly, how they smell and where they’ll sit.
The two-beers guy comes to stand with you, and you learn he’s waiting on the bus to Rutland, too, and from there he’ll catch a shuttle to Manchester, where he’s an executive chef. He missed a shuttle this morning and had to walk eight miles to the station in New Hampshire. He’s carrying a black backpack and wearing a greasy green baseball cap, turned backwards, and with his beard he looks like a young Mark Ruffalo. He’s drinking coffee now, and smoking, and he tells you Vermont’s a good place to live but a tough place to make a living. He lived ten years in Colorado and made more money there but his family is on the east coast and that’s what drew him back.
You check your watch. The bus is due any minute, and you feel a tightness gathered in your stomach. Your mind knows better, but your stomach believes the bus is already several hours late and probably not coming at all and you’ll be left here, on your own, in a place that is not your place, among people who are not your people. Is this what a trapeze artist feels until his fingers touch the next bar?
You try settling yourself by breathing deeply and noticing the feel of your feet upon the earth. “This is the same air as it is at home,” you say to yourself. “This is the same earth as it is at home. The guy to your left in the greasy hat, he’s your brother. He feels a draw to family same as you do. The woman on the bench in the Duke hoodie, she’s your sister. She’s been watching her bags just like you have.”
You think of Gene on the bus to Montreal, the way he wanted to build a bridge to you. You think of your daughter who’ll be meeting you in Rutland.
Then a bus rolls up, and the guy to your left says, “That’s ours.”
Russell Siler Jones lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is a husband, father, runner, and psychotherapist. He also directs the Residency in Psychotherapy and Spirituality for Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He writes an occasional blog, Clear Eyes, Full Heart.