She picked up her ticket at the old-fashioned grill window of the ticket office, then stepped outside into the hot, early morning air to smoke. Columbia, Missouri was her destination, the place where her boyfriend went to a small college and studied art. She was a student of boredom and impatience, stuck in a rotten job with no money for school this year.
But once a week her heart leapt when she received a hand-colored letter in the mail from him, the envelope doodled so extensively the address was hard to find. He illustrated song lyrics with loopy pastel figures. "Mellow is the man who knows what he's been missing" said one, curled across the page in yellow and blue. He was homesick. He loved her and missed her kisses.
She boarded the bus, settled near the back at a window and watched the muddy Mississippi River roll beneath the Arkansas bridge. West Memphis, Wynne, Russell, the bus rumbled over low-lying highways through rice farms and soybean fields. Every few miles a row of wind-blown shacks popped up, leaning sideways. People still lived there, evidenced only by a wisp of cotton curtain, blowing through an open window, or a slope-shouldered man, covered in dust, walking slowly along the shoulder of the road.
In Conway, some noisy boys took the backmost seats. They invited her to drop a hit of acid, but she declined. The road grew flatter and more boring, but the boys grew more excited at every curve in the road. "Wow," they murmured. "Far out!"
At the Jonesboro station, she got out to stretch her legs and buy a Coke. When she returned to her seat, she found a girl who looked about 14 curled up in the seat next to hers. While the boys hooted behind them, the two girls talked quietly through the rest of Arkansas. The younger girl was pregnant, she was pretty sure, headed to St. Louis and an older sister who would help her figure out what to do. She cried a little every few minutes, looking out the window with strained eyes. A tree. A house. A quick glimpse of a river in the distance. The boys' radio blared Motown, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, "Nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide."
The bus stopped at a Stuckey's in Kennett, the first town across the Missouri border. The younger girl slept now and the boys in the back chain-smoked, dropping their cigarette butts into the aluminum toilet.
Finally, St. Louis, a break in the monotony of the road. Downtown, the bus station bustled with activity. The younger girl got off and the boys went bounding into the crowd. "Whoa, man," they shouted. "Far out!"
A gray-haired man in a starched white shirt sat next to her now. He was headed home to Kansas City. He very politely asked her how old she was and the purpose of her trip. He pulled out his wallet and showed her a picture of his wife and kids.
"She's gonna kill me," he said matter-of-factly, a faint smile fading from his face.
"Because I lost all my money gambling." He stared at his fingernails and softly shook his head. She thought to offer him money, then thought better of it. Twenty-five dollars probably wouldn't cover it.
Finally, after Jefferson City, Columbia and her boyfriend in an unfamiliar car, borrowed from a roommate. She was dizzied by the motion of the bus, drenched in the condensation of human breath. He looked a little different, skinnier. He looked wonderful.
The sun was close to setting but they headed away from town, down a country road.
"I have a surprise," he said. He drove to an abandoned rock quarry, filled to the top with aquamarine water. They climbed down the rock face to a flat slab. Shyly they turned their backs and stripped off their clothes. He jumped into the icy water first and she followed, tentatively.
"They say no one has ever reached the bottom," he said. They floated on their backs, hands joined, and watched the sky turn orange, then purple, then black. She had never seen so many stars or such a sky as this. "Oh, the night ..." he sang softly, and she sang along, "has a thousand eyes."