Francis Hightower envied the way his reflection in the Greyhound bus window rode easily through the grayish dawn. He curled and uncurled his toes in his new, thin-soled shoes as he tried not to think of the end of his journey to Denver. Of course, he loved his daughter, respected his son-in-law and had come to terms with his blue haired thirteen-year-old grandson, but he really couldn't say that he liked visiting them. He suspected the feeling was mutual.
Francis massaged his fingers wishing he had thought to bring horsehair. With a few strands of horsehair he could weave almost anything. He flexed his age spotted hands in the dim dawn light. Years of hammering, tying and twisting had thickened his wrists, palms and fingers. They contrasted with his narrow shoulders and his long neck, which was permanently red from years of working in the sun. A thin, white scar curved gently across this throat-the result of a drunken horse race across rangeland that had ended abruptly at a barbed wire fence.
Francis opened the plastic bag hanging by his knee, wincing when it crinkled slightly, and spat his piece of tasteless gum into it. He sneaked a glance at the woman next to him and blushed when he noticed that she was glaring at him. She shifted her weight in her seat, her hip pushed hard against his leg. He contemplated moving away from her until he saw a greasy smear that the previous rider's head had left on the window. In drawing away from it in revulsion, he knocked his elbow against the woman's arm. Francis filled up with resentment against the woman who sat beside him. He felt that she was taking up more than one seat, and he wanted to say so. He imagined her shocked face if he turned to her and barked, "Get out of my seat!" The words died in his throat when she muttered under her breath and shifted her hips again.
Being polite might work. Francis' wife had always seemed to be able to do that, while he usually just stewed in sullen anger at a situation. Francis took a gulp of air and turned to her abruptly, but felt the words shrink back into his gut. Although the woman faced the front of the bus, one eye stared straight into his face pinning him to the window with its dark and bitter glare. Francis sagged back into his seat, the humming and clicking sound of the pavement through the tires a jeering song. He rested his forehead wearily against the window and watched the shining stripes of the highway guide the bus to Denver. His new, stiff, plaid flannel shirt kept bunching under his arms. If his wife were alive she would have washed the shirt before letting him wear it. Francis scratched his side absently with calloused fingers and felt a piece of plastic with a paper price tag on it. She would have cut off the tag, too.
Francis perused his faint reflection carefully. His thin nose dropped almost straight down from his eyebrows, slanted to the left as the result of a fistfight when he was eighteen or so and finished above thin, mobile lips. His teeth were still his own, a fact he was proud of. He had soft, white hair which he firmly combed to the left every morning, but which drifted to one side or the other as the wind blew. He was clean-shaven, never wanting to cultivate a beard or mustache. He had married his wife when they were both twenty years old and had lived ten years longer than she had. After having her at his side for so long, he always felt a little alone, now.
Francis craned his neck carefully to look over his seat. All around him sleeping passengers sprawled across the seats or huddled against the light. He needed to urinate, he realized, and he cursed his age as he crossed his legs and tried to wait. At last he stood unsteadily, one arm pressing against his seat back, the other fumbling on the seat before him. The woman next to him had finally closed her eyes. Francis mumbled, "Excuse me" twice before she moved her legs to the side, still with her eyes closed. But she was a big woman and he couldn't get past her. Finally, with a gusty, hard-edged sigh, she stood and let him push by. He shrank from touching her because his grandson had confided to him once that he sometimes smelled like piss. Ever since then Francis had always imagined a cloak of the sharp smelling stuff around him. The bus slowed making a wide turn and forcing him to grip the woman's arm hard to keep from falling into the aisle.
As the bus slowed to a stop, the heavy voice of the driver droned, "This is a quick stop, twenty minutes, twenty minutes." Then the driver said, very clearly and very slowly, "Anyone not on the bus in twenty minutes will be left behind."
The passengers stood as a group and grunted and muttered down the aisle, pushing Francis aside. He struggled against them, but at last had to retire into an empty seat and wait. When the bus stopped lurching from the footsteps of the passengers he moved into the aisle and flinched. The woman who had sat next to him was still in her seat, one glittering eye still fixed on him, balefully. The eye that was locked in a walleyed stare followed him as he forced himself to walk with dignity down the steps of the bus.
The rest stop restaurant was filled with passengers. Some stood in a line at the cafeteria-style counter, others lingered near a row of beeping and grunting video games. Francis visited the men's restroom then joined the line at the food counter where the sultry smell of burned gravy hung in the air. A man with his long hair loosely tied in a ponytail stood behind the counter scooping mats of scrambled eggs onto plates. Francis passed on the eggs, the doughnuts wrapped in plastic and the cartons of flavored milk. Despite his fragile stomach's low murmuring protest, he chose coffee. He used to drink coffee all the time -- plain and strong.
He sat with his back to the other bus riders and sipped the liquid slowly. With one hand he massaged the muscles in his legs, which ached from the imprisonment of the bus. He blew into the cup of coffee and felt the liquid vibrate against his palm. His feet were cold, which he attributed to the new shoes that he had bought for this visit.
Sipping the coffee like it was an old friend, Francis recalled a small hill that he had crossed on his walk to the bus station that afternoon. Locals called it Boot Hill. Although it was a hill and many a boot had crossed it on the way to stockyards or farms, no notable bad man was buried there with his boots on -- to anyone's knowledge. That didn't stop everyone from calling it Boot Hill. Every time Francis trudged over it, he imagined some fierce gunslinger's bones lying somewhere under the sod, held together by ten-gallon hat, gun belt and boots.
Francis warmed his hands around the cup. He would be buried next to his wife and he had no illusions about how he would be presented. As he envisioned his daughter's probable selection -- brown or black dress shoes and a nice, somber suit like any other corpse -- part of him envied the imaginary, flamboyant gunslinger on Boot Hill.
Francis was not afraid of death, only of disappearing. Unless a person made his name memorable, he would be forgotten. Charlie Smith was a good example. Francis was one of the soldiers who had made it home from Korea, and he was as set aside and dusty as a draft horse's harness, while Charlie Smith, with his Sioux blood and pioneer guts had died for his country and had a statue in town square. Although the statue was for all the men who served in the armed forces, Francis saw Charlie Smith's face under the bronze helmet.
Francis drank the rest of the coffee then noticed that there were only two other people sitting at the tables. He bolted out the nearest door then remembered that the bus was parked outside the opposite entrance. He forced himself to amble back past the woman at the cash register and came out into a nearly empty parking lot.
The tail lights of the Greyhound bus gleamed sharply for a moment on the ramp to the highway then drifted out of reach taking his suitcase, clean shirts, clean underwear, slacks, a horsehair bridle present and a neatly packed toiletries kit, farther and farther away, until the lights had all winked out like a candle's tiny flame. A hulking, yellow Ryder truck nuzzled a gleaming tank trailer on one end of the lot, a white-topped old Cadillac sat alone on the opposite side. He watched pairs of bright lights whine westward along the highway until the cold finally roused him. His feet were numb and made his steps towards the restaurant slow and clumsy, although his thoughts raced wildly.
Inside, the woman at the cash register was reading. Standing absently at the food counter, Francis stared at the gooey slices of pie arranged five thick in rows, bowls of brown and yellow pudding and cups filled with ruby-red cubes of Jell-O. He reached for the Jell-O, noting the hill of whipped cream and the cherry that had slipped leaving a pink furrow. He paid for it and chose a plastic spoon with elaborate nonchalance then sat down at the very first seat that he bumped in to. A heavyset man sitting before a cardboard plate displaying a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich nodded at him. Francis nodded back and swallowed a spoonful of thick cream.
"I heard of a guy who got left behind from a Greyhound..." a voice said behind him.
Francis had to turn completely around to see the woman who spoke. She was gaunt and was eating a wilted salad with her elbows on the table.
"...middle of nowhere, in Pennsylvania. The guy went into the woods next to the parking lot to smoke some dope and next thing y'know...ta da! The bus is gone."
"He was the dope," laughed the heavyset man.
The woman at the cash register said in a gravelly voice, "I could tell you stories."
There was an expectant silence while she carefully folded the right-hand corner of a page in her book and sat the book down next to the cash register.
The man with the ponytail leaned out the narrow window from the kitchen.
"Hey, how about the two kids in the phone booth? That's a good one. Kissing and hugging and didn't even notice that the bus left fifteen minutes before."
The woman at the register considered Francis gravely while he ate a cube of Jell-O and curled and uncurled his toes wishing with all his heart that he could just listen and laugh about the stories then climb into a comfortable, warm car and drive another hour or two until he got home to a nice person greeting him at the door.
She finally spoke. "Weren't you on that bus that just left?
Her wide glasses flashed in the glare of the overhead lights.
Francis's legs quivered as if he would jump out of the way. He shook his head.
The man in the kitchen called out, "How about the old woman who locked her self in the bathroom?" He cackled.
"That wasn't funny," the woman at the cash register replied sternly.
"What happened?" croaked Francis.
Everyone looked at him.
"I mean, doesn't anyone check before they leave? Doesn't anyone have the decency to say to the driver, I think there's someone sitting next to me who's not here? You'd think someone would."
Francis doubted that the woman who had sat next to him on the bus had said a word to the driver. In fact, he was sure that she was stretched out on the two seats with her jacket under her head. He hoped his seat smelled like urine.
The gaunt woman shook her head. "What's the world coming to?"
The man at the table nodded his head. "Right, what's the world coming to?"
Francis knew where the world was coming to. If he could get the words out without tangling them up, as they seemed to do every time he had something important to say, he would tell them that people didn't take the time to respect each other -- that was the problem. What you looked like was what counted to people these days, not who you were. Francis knew he looked old and tired and lost and alone and he didn't like it. He pushed his Jell-O away so forcefully that the cup tipped over.
"I'll tell you what the world is coming to," he said and the ferocity in his voice surprised him. He stood up and shook a gnarled fist in the air. "You got people who wouldn't lift a finger to help someone who's in need. They could be bleeding!"
His voice cracked in indignation. He was shaking.
"Okay, Slim," said the woman at the cash register. "You spilt your Jell-O."
She walked over steadily to him and wiped up the mess.
"You want a cuppa coffee or something?" Her voice was gentle.
"I have to go, now," he said with dignity.
"Okay, Slim," the heavyset man cooed. "You take care of yourself."
Francis banged the door behind him.
Standing next to the pay phone perched on the curb of the parking lot, Francis remembered that his daughter had sent him a phone card as if she were his parent, not the other way around. But he couldn't call her and tell her that he had been left behind by the bus, as if he were a lost little kid.
"Hell," he said clearly into the cold air.
He let the steam from the word dissipate before he hoisted up his pants by two belt loops and began to march toward the exit ramp to the highway. A van drove into the parking lot, halted before the restaurant and let off a man who looked about sixty. This man wore a leather coat, a cowboy hat and black boots. He surveyed the parking lot, looked at his watch then lifted a hand to the driver of the van who returned the short gesture. Francis stuck out his thumb, but the van swerved around him with a honk and drove back onto the highway. The man in the cowboy hat nodded at Francis then went inside with a smooth, loping stride.
People sit up and take notice when he walks by, thought Francis then he growled aloud, "It's just the damned boots."
He stomped to get the blood flowing in his feet and a pebble jabbed his instep. Inside himself, a still, small voice advised him to wait for the next bus.
"I'll be damned if I'm going to wait for the next bus," he said aloud and walked along the gravely berm until he reached the highway. He kept walking as he stuck out his thumb. The twin lights of a car zipped around a curve and slowed when they saw him so he waggled his thumb and swiveled around to follow them past. He did the same when the next two cars roared past him. Finally, he dropped his arm and trudged alongside the road following the shifting shape of his shadow cast by the rising sun.
The crunch of tires behind Francis made him jump before he saw the bumper that suddenly loomed beside him. He stared at the huge, squat vehicle creeping closer with its massive tires, plump, shiny body and gleaming rack. No one in his town had an SUV like this one.
"Is everything okay?" A thin woman with short black hair and rings and studs piercing her eyebrows, ears and chin leaned out from the opened passenger window.
Francis cleared his throat and nodded.
"Are you sure?"
He nodded again.
"Come on." She opened the door and waved him in as she slid back behind the wheel.
Francis climbed into the seat and stretched his legs toward the warmth pulsing from the vents under the dash. He tried to look at the young woman without seeming to.
"I almost didn't see you. I just realized I missed the rest stop," the young woman said as she pulled back onto the road.
The SUV gave a throaty roar and pressed up to the bumper of a tiny red car then the SUV veered to the left and passed it. Francis lifted a hand to the red car's driver, who automatically returned the gesture. Francis relaxed into the soft seat.
But the woman was speaking and Francis had no idea what she had said. She was looking at him like he was some deaf old man.
"You can call me Slim," he said and hoped that would satisfy her.
"If that's the way you want to play it," she said and rolled her eyes.
Francis blushed. She probably asked him where he was going. But he didn't know where he should go. Probably to Denver. He wondered if he smelled like urine.
"Are you going to Denver? She looked at him strangely.
"Yeah. What's your name?" he asked. "And, thank you for picking me up."
The woman was younger than he was by about forty years. Her hair was pulled back tightly displaying rows of gleaming rings in her ears, studs on her right eyebrow and a spike through her lower lip.
"How long were you standing there, Slim?" she asked. "I'm Biggs. Dirk hired me."
She looked at him again like he was a deaf old man.
"I wasn't standing there long," he finally replied.
He wiggled his toes, which were blissfully warm. He wouldn't ask who Dirk was, he decided. Probably Dirk was some big name in politics or show business, not that he recognized it. He wasn't up on modern life all that much. The sun warmed the back of his neck and he rubbed his eyes.
"Early for you?"
Francis shook his head. "Usually, I'm up before the birds sing. How about you?"
"I have to get paid well to get up before the birds sing, but it's not so bad once I'm up."
Francis watched Biggs for a while in silence. She was all business, kept her eyes on the road and didn't fool around. Young as she was, she reminded him of his mother, who had been all business, too, what with raising three children on her own.
"I bet you've seen all sorts of things in your life."
Biggs' voice was businesslike, too. She was only making conversation, but Francis didn't care. He liked questions. He believed that one little question could open up whole conversations if people were patient enough.
Biggs looked at him expectantly.
He nodded and said, "All sorts of things," which was the absolute truth. He could tell her all sorts of things if he felt she really wanted to know.
"I'd love to know more about you."
Not even his own daughter or grandson said they'd "love" to hear about him.
"If you're willing, I'm willing." He didn't think any of this younger generation really cared at all. "What do you want to know?"
"Everything!" Her gaze slipped to his gnarled, thick hands. "Tell me about your work."
Francis had a feeling that she didn't want to know about the dull, day-to-day stuff. He never talked much about braiding horsehair bridles, but he resolved to try. Even while sitting in a car on a highway he could feel the greasy coils of white, black and brassy chestnut horsehair under his fingers.
"What I do brings me a little peace inside...because it's painstaking. You have to be so..." he struggled for words then apologized. "I have to think before I talk or I'll get all mixed up."
"I know what you mean."
Francis thought for a moment. "I enjoy being of service."
He looked at his hands. The fingers were thick, broadened by work. The fingernails were broad, too and hard. But the skin right between the tips of his nails and the calluses on the end of his fingers were sensitive enough to pick out the thin strands of horsehair. He had this trick of combing through the horsehair and selecting, with this sensitive skin, just the right amount of hair. The braiding was a matter of habit, but it was that sensitivity that did the trick. He cleared his throat.
"My fingers have been at it for so long. It's just habit. But it's also a matter of being sensitive to changes. Even minute ones. Being still and quiet, careful. I don't let anything or anyone disturb me. It's meditative."
He used that word with authority, although it was his daughter's word. She used it for running on a treadmill, which he would find maddening. Braiding bridles was meditative, if anything was.
Biggs' eyes were wide as she gripped the steering wheel tightly.
"You're not what I expected," she said faintly.
They looked at each other appreciatively.
"I have a good feeling," said Biggs.
Francis smiled. "So do I."
Missing that bus was the best thing that could have happened to me, he thought.
Then she pulled a backpack onto the seat from where it had lain on the floor.
"Mind if I start taping now?"
Francis frowned in confusion. She showed him the small recorder in the front pocket.
"You have so much to say, Slim. I want to make sure I get it all."
"Fine, Biggs, fine."
Francis felt grateful. He gripped his hands together in excitement.
Biggs pressed a button, waited for three seconds then asked, "Do you practice? You know, keep your fingers tuned up?"
Francis wiggled his fingers. He reached across the space between them and touched her right hand. It lifted up from the steering wheel and opened in his as readily as a flower.
"A hand is only a machine unless a mind and soul are behind it. Some people consider what I do a waste of time, but I think it's..."
He let her hand go and ticked off the points on his calloused fingers.
"...discipline, practice, service, tradition."
"You talk like an artist or a craftsman," said Biggs.
Francis looked at her appreciatively. She was young and she had dreadful jewelry that made her look like a cannibal, but she was perceptive.
"What do you think when people say that your Ďart' is a crime?"
"A crime?" he repeated incredulously. Then he thought of the times he trespassed onto neighbors' lands to gather the strands of mane or tail that clung to barbed wire fences. Once he had even clipped hair from the tail of Jeff Wach's palomino.
"I guess you could say, sometimes I've kind of broken laws, but they weren't important laws. And, I get a lot of satisfaction from what I do so I try not to let it bother me."
Biggs blew out a breath.
Her furrowed brow and sidelong glance suddenly made Francis a little nervous.
"What did you do with all the money?" she finally asked.
Francis thought the strange question over dutifully and felt a little flattered that she would think his bridles would bring him income. And why shouldn't they? What he made was good enough to be sold anywhere. But he had to be truthful.
"I don't really do it for the money," he explained. "And if I get anything, I usually end up giving it away. It's more honest, somehow."
"That's so cool," Biggs said then she asked, "What if any of your old pals showed up and asked you to-you know-start up again. Would you?"
After a short silence, during which Francis thought about the question, she said, "You don't have to answer that, Slim."
Francis waved his hand dismissively.
"Oh, no, no, it's alright."
He remembered taking off one day, early on in his marriage. He had gotten drunk with his friends and his wife had searched until she found him. There, in front of his friends, she had given him the, Them or Her ultimatum. He hadn't chosen her and later that same night, he had galloped into that barbed wire fence. So his wife had presented him with the same ultimatum after he had woken up in the hospital.
He tapped the scar across his throat significantly.
"Honest, Biggs, I learned my lesson, and I'm a little old for fooling around."
But to be honest, his limbs still sometimes twitched in time to his memories. He supposed if Lacey Hawk or Johnny Boggs or one of the Berrios brothers were to show up on his doorstep, he would do it all again, as old as he was.
"I'm sure I hurt people in the past, myself included, but...yes," he finished strongly. "I would."
There was a short silence during which Francis watched Biggs wipe one hand then the other on her jeans.
"Did you ever kill anybody?" she asked.
Francis blinked but kept his eyes on the road. He was about to say never, but then he thought back to Korea and the few minutes after Charlie Smith was killed. No one in his platoon remembered that day with any pride.
"Four, maybe more," he said curtly, "but they had it coming to them."
"Wow," said Biggs again. "This is intense."
There was a short silence while Francis stared out at the loose hummocks of brush and grass; hearing and seeing things that were best left forgotten. The tape recorder clicked off.
"I didn't rewind it all the way. I guess I'm nervous."
She actually looked a little scared, Francis thought. He realized he was scowling. He relaxed and smiled and so did Biggs.
"I can't believe I'm talking to you! I've heard so much about you."
"How'd you hear about me?"
Francis was bursting with curiosity. He had been about to open up his wallet and show her a picture of him and Charlie and the rest of the gang. The wallet lay on his lap-forgotten.
"Everybody knows about you, Slim. An old friend of yours said that when you were in your prime..."
"In my prime?" Francis snorted.
He held up his hands and said proudly, "These hands can do everything they could do when I was young. I could show you," he offered. "Just let me get my hands on my tools-I could show you how far I am past my prime."
She looked nervous again.
"No, thanks. I mean, I believe you."
"Who was the friend?"
"He knew you on the east coast. Don't worry, you won't meet him where we're going."
"East coast?" Francis screwed up his face in thought. Maybe in Korea?
She looked at him sidelong again.
"I heard you guys never liked talking about Sing Sing."
* * *