Chapter One: Hospitality State
The true wonder of hindsight lies not in its ability to clarify situations and events, but in its propensity to coat them with a glaze of dignity and glamour, even glory. Today, when people ask me why I moved to Mississippi in the summer of 1988, I tell them I did it for adventure, and to get a priceless education in the science of journalism, and because I wanted to see and experience and understand a place I had studied and written about extensively in college.
At the time, though, I was pretty sure I was going to Mississippi because I couldn't type.
I was supposed to be a lawyer. In high school, I had excelled in the extracurricular activity known as Mock Trial, wherein young aspiring jurists pretend to be attorneys, jousting over fabricated criminal and civil suits in classrooms decked out to resemble courtrooms. My team and I were so good at it that we went all the way to the state championships in Albany my senior year.
In the fall of 1984 I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and, at the end of my freshman year, declared a major in American history, a major of choice for prospective lawyers. But during my sophomore year, something unthinkable and unconscionable happened: I began to develop a real passion for my major. The study of American history, I began to understand, concerned nothing less than the human condition, and I couldn't get my fill of it. I took enough history classes for two majors, many of them on subjects that could not possibly serve me in law school. And I always opted for term papers rather than exams -- because, as I had discovered, I was also beginning to develop a real passion for writing.
In the winter of my junior year, I participated in a seminar on the subject of "Race in America" and watched, as part of the class, the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize. Much of the first installment of that series dealt with the story of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old boy who left his home in Chicago in the summer of 1955 to visit relatives in the tiny Delta town of Money, Mississippi. One afternoon, while playing with some cousins and their friends outside a small general store, Till removed from his wallet a photograph of a white girl and passed it around, explaining that the girl in the picture was actually his girlfriend. The other children were incredulous; they were, after all, black Mississippians, and in the Mississippi of 1955 black men didn't dare look at white women, much less date them. But Till was adamant, and the other children, looking to call his bluff, challenged him to walk into the store and ask the white woman behind the counter -- twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant -- for a date. Perhaps no one, the film's narrator explained, will ever know for certain what happened next, but according to some of the other children present, Emmett Till strode into the store, bought some candy, and then, on his way out, turned to Carolyn Bryant and said "Bye, Baby."
Two nights later, young Till was awakened in his bed by two armed white men who were after "the boy who done all the talkin'." The two men -- Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam -- drove Till to a secluded bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and beat him savagely; then they drove him back to another spot, near Money, where they shot him in the head, tied a heavy cotton gin fan to his lifeless body (using barbed wire instead of rope), and dumped it into the Tallahatchie River.
Till's great-uncle, a sixty-four-year-old sharecropper named Mose Wright, reported the kidnapping to the Leflore County sheriff as soon as Bryant and Milam had driven off with his nephew. Local whites immediately claimed it was a hoax perpetrated by the NAACP to win sympathy for the burgeoning civil rights movement, which was just beginning to take hold in Mississippi following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas the year before. But when Till's bloated, mutilated body surfaced in the Tallahatchie a few days later, the sheriff had no choice but to arrest Bryant and Milam and charge them with murder.
Almost immediately, the case made international headlines. Till's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral back in Chicago so that the world, she explained, could "see what they did to my son." Jet magazine printed photos of Till's mutilated body. And when the trial began, the following month, hundreds of reporters from all over the world jammed into the small courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi.
The trial itself was a mere formality. At one point, defense lawyer John Whitten told the jury of twelve white men that he was certain "every last Anglo-Saxon one of you will have the courage to free these men." And despite the great courage of Mose Wright, who dared to rise on the witness stand and point his finger at the two men who had kidnapped his nephew that night, Whitten was right: The jury acquitted Bryant and Milam after only forty-five minutes. Later, a juror confessed that the deliberation would not have lasted nearly so long had the jurors not also paused for a Coke in the interim. When it was all over, Bryant and Milam told their story to journalist William Bradford Huie, himself a Southerner. Yes, they had murdered Till, but he left them no choice because he had stuck to his story about having a white girlfriend and had refused to acknowledge that there might be anything wrong with that. "That's what this war is all about down here," Milam explained.
The documentary quickly moved on to a much longer segment about the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, but I couldn't bring myself to leave Money, Mississippi. What kind of place was this? Was it possible that something like this could have happened in the same country in which I had been born, and only twelve years earlier? I had always known that things were different in the South, but my mind could not wrap itself around the notion that there might be room in my America for a place where two men could, with impunity, murder a fourteen-year-old boy for saying "Bye, Baby," or anything else. And yet, I also understood that I knew far less about Mississippi than I did any other state in the Union, and that for all I did know, even the laws of gravity might have been suspended there. In college I had met people from scores of foreign countries -- some of which I'd never even heard of -- but not a single soul from Mississippi. To me it remained a pure mystery, an abyss at the bottom of America. What was true for the South was true for Mississippi, I understood, but I perceived that there was also much about Mississippi that was untrue for the rest of the South -- or even, for that matter, the rest of the world -- things I couldn't even begin to fathom and could never learn at home in New York or in a classroom in Philadelphia.
A few segments later, Eyes on the Prize posed the rhetorical question "Mississippi -- Is This America?" By that time, I had a burning desire to seek out my own answer to that question, to see that state and meet its people and try to discern who they all were and why and how they got that way -- to explore this abyss, and understand it. So I dropped my old senior thesis topic (something about the Civil War, as I recall) and chose a new one -- a study of James Meredith's integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, an event that was preceded by years of lawsuits and venomous editorials and that precipitated a riot in which two people were killed and hundreds injured. I read through hundreds of Mississippi newspapers from the era, virtually memorized Meredith's autobiography, and managed somehow to get an interview with a former Mississippi state legislator named Karl Wiesenburg who had stood, virtually alone, in opposition to the governor's many attempts to prevent desegregation, and had been rewarded with ostracism and death threats. (Interestingly, Wiesenburg was himself a native New Yorker, a son of German Catholic immigrants, who enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1929 at the age of eighteen and was sent to their station at Pascagoula, Mississippi, where he promptly fell in love with a local girl.) "Mississippi," Wiesenburg told me, "was a state in agony. It was like a woman afraid she's about to be raped, and the federal government and James Meredith were the rapists." I submitted the thesis and won an award for it, but still I felt that I didn't understand Mississippi. I was starting to believe that I never would.
One day, early in my senior year, I was walking out of Stouffer Cafeteria when I experienced -- quite possibly for the first time in my life -- a genuine epiphany: I did not want to be a lawyer; I was not drawn to the law. Although becoming a lawyer meant that I would be assured of a good and steady income, that didn't seemed enough to me. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that practicing law in any form was not it, and I also knew that I, unlike most of my friends (who were much more mature and grounded than I was -- at least according to my parents), would be miserable doing something that did not give me any personal sense of fulfillment. And so I took the law school applications that had been arriving in the mail and threw them in the garbage. Then I graduated from Penn and spent the summer of 1988 not relaxing and preparing for law school, as I had once anticipated, but trying to land a job.
Actually, I spent a good bit of that summer just trying to figure out what kind of job I wanted to land in the first place. I had come away from college with an impressive degree and some prestigious honors, but without, as I saw it, any discernible job skills, save the ability to compose solid sentences and proper paragraphs. I figured, though, that as job skills went, writing was among the more valuable of the lot, and that my presence would prove enticing to prospective bosses in any number of fields: advertising, marketing, public relations, television, radio, publishing. I didn't even allow myself to consider a career in journalism, which would have been my first choice, because I knew that no one started out as a reporter in New York; you either made your journalistic bones in some other city, or cajoled your way into a post at the New York Times as a deputy assistant wastebasket-emptier and prayed that you might find a way to slowly climb up the ladder to a position that involved some kind of writing. No, I thought, there are much better jobs in New York for a bright young man fresh out of the Ivy League and armed with a fistful of glowing references from prestigious professors.
I was mistaken. I perused the help wanted ads and responded to any I found even remotely alluring, sending out dozens of well-written, cheerful, confident cover letters, most of which elicited no response at all. A few drew form letters informing me that my letter and resumé would be kept on file; and a very few drew form letters inviting me to come down for an interview. Those very few were all for administrative assistant positions, and none of them paid enough to cover the rent on even the smallest of New York apartments; nevertheless, I was grateful for them and determined to succeed, convinced that it was just a matter of time before an opportunity to do good and creative and rewarding work presented itself to me.
Most of my interviews were at "employment agencies," dark little offices with unpainted walls and cracked, grimy linoleum floor tiles, where the person inspecting me was most often middle-aged and shabbily dressed and invariably chewing gum while spitting out questions in a tone of voice remarkably devoid of interest; the rest were at in-house personnel departments, slightly nicer offices occupied by slightly better-dressed, better-looking, and younger professionals who nevertheless showed no more interest in what I had to say. Wherever they occurred, though, they inevitably led to one paramount question, the answer to which determined whether you would go home that evening employed or disappointed: "How fast can you type?"
Not very, I always said. We'll call you, they always said. They never did.
Eventually, the whole thing started to make me angry. Here I am, I thought, interviewing for awful jobs that pay poverty wages and for which I am overqualified, and I'm not even getting them. Hell, I'm not even getting any second interviews. And all because I can't type. Why did I work so hard in high school in order to get into an Ivy League college? Why did I work so hard in college in order to make the Dean's List and win awards? For what did my parents shell out an obscene amount of money over the past four years? Was it all so that I could make a living using my fingers instead of my brain, and continue living at home?
And that's when I realized that if I was going to get a job in which I could learn and grow -- a job I really wanted, for heaven's sake -- I was going to have to leave New York.
That afternoon I went to the library and pored over recent issues of Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine for journalists. Flipping through the Help Wanted ads in the back, almost all of which demanded that the applicant possess years of experience and an archive full of clips -- neither of which I had -- I came across one, at the top right corner of the page, that both excited and frightened me:
9,000-circulation six-day PM daily in heart of the Mississippi Delta seeks a sports editor. J-degree, experience preferred but not essential. Call Emmerich, McNeill or Kalich, at Greenwood, Miss., Commonwealth.
I made a copy of the ad and took it home. For several days I did nothing, unsure of whether I really had the nerve to answer it. Finally, one evening, I picked up the phone and dialed the number. As the line started to ring, I could feel my heart palpitating in my throat; I wondered if I'd be able to speak at all.
There was a click on the line, and then: "Commonwealth!" It was a male voice, crisp and high-pitched; the Southern accent was not terribly thick, but it was sharp as a razor blade. My face grew hot.
"Hello!" barked the voice. It was, I imagined, the voice of Mississippi.
I hung up.
The following night, having spent the previous twenty-four hours fortifying my resolve, I dialed the number again. The same voice answered: "Commonwealth!"
"Uh, yes," I said, pausing to clear my throat. "May I speak to Emmerich, McNeill or Kalich?"
"This is John Emmerich."
I cleared my throat again. "I was calling about the job? In Editor & Publisher?"
The voice at the other end of the line suddenly grew warm and paternal. "And what's your name?" it asked.
I introduced myself and was immediately presented with a barrage of questions about my education and experience. I confessed that I didn't have much of the latter -- a stint as editor of my high school newspaper, during which time I produced two actual issues, and a few columns for my college daily -- and was surprised to hear that, as advertised, the position did not require any experience. "What do you know about sports?" he asked.
"I know enough," I replied, a distinct confidence beginning to dawn over me.
"Ever covered high school football?"
"Sure," I lied. The truth was that I hadn't even gone to any of my own high school's football games, and had only attended football games at Penn while inebriated to some degree or other. But I'd caught the Giants on television every Sunday, and I naively imagined that writing about high school football was probably about as easy as watching the NFL on CBS.
"Good," he said, "because our high school football season's about to begin, and that's going to take up most of your time." He explained that his former sports editor, a Greenwood native named Jack Henderson who knew everybody in town and had himself played varsity football when he'd been in high school, had just up and quit to go sell insurance. "So I'm in a bind, you see," he continued. "High school football's about the biggest thing around here, and I'm gon' need somebody who can just jump right in and cover it from day one. Y'understand?"
I told him I did; it seemed straightforward enough to me.
"Good," he spat, and immediately proceeded to explain that during football season, I would be working Tuesday through Saturday. The newspaper came out every day but Saturday, and the daily deadline was 10:30 A.M., except for Sunday's paper, when it was around midnight Saturday. High school games were played on Friday nights; I would cover one myself -- usually Greenwood High School -- and have stringers cover the rest. After the game I would go back to the newsroom and write it up while fielding calls from the stringers and writing up their games, too. Saturday afternoons I would cover the local college -- Mississippi Valley State University, a black school -- when they were in town, then return to the newsroom to wait for other college scores. And all week, in addition to writing my own articles and editing others off the wire, I would be laying out the sports pages. "You've done layout before, I presume?" he asked. Again I said yes, even though I knew full well I never had, and was pretty sure I'd never even watched someone else do it; but it had already started to dawn on me that John Emmerich, my prospective employer, also knew I was lying, and didn't care.
He soon confirmed this. "Look," he said, "this is the way I see it: You don't have any experience, but you went to a good school. You need experience, and I need a reporter who's got a good brain in his head. It's a trade-off: I'm willing to train you if you're willing to work cheap. You come and work for a year or two here and you'll get enough experience to move on to a bigger paper somewhere. And in the meantime, I'll have a good reporter who fits into my budget. What do you think?"
It was my first job offer since college; I had no other prospects. And John Emmerich didn't seem to care whether or not I could type. "Sounds good," I said.
"How soon can you be here?"
"A couple of weeks," I said, suddenly aware of a great tumult in my stomach. "After Labor Day."
"All right, but don't make it any later. Our season is about to start."
And that was it. I had a job. I was on my way to Greenwood, Mississippi.
It didn't occur to me until after I hung up the phone that I had no idea what Greenwood, Mississippi was like, or what it looked like, or even where it was. Or, for that matter, what exactly John Emmerich had meant by "work cheap."
A few days later I found out: two hundred and forty dollars a week. Even so, that was the least of my worries.
My parents were less than enthused when I told them of my plans and threatened, only half-facetiously, to have me committed if I even tried to go to Mississippi. Friends responded more enthusiastically, telling me at length how "cool" they thought the idea was. Nevertheless, every one of them ended the discussion with the question: "You're not actually going to do this, are you?" I myself wasn't sure; the main reason I'd told John Emmerich I needed two weeks before I came down was so that I could think things over at length, and see if, in the interim, I could come up with something better, or at least not in Mississippi.
But nothing better presented itself in that time, and a week after accepting the job, I finally started to accept the fact that I was actually going to take it. I bought myself a one-way plane ticket. I was still deeply conflicted -- not to mention terrified -- but I had no other options, and I found myself increasingly unable to present to myself a convincing case for reneging on my acceptance of the job in Greenwood. I began to feel as if I were in a car on a rickety old wooden roller coaster, ascending that first, sickeningly steep hill and not knowing what lay at the top; each click of the wheels on the track was another hour passing by, drawing me ever closer to God-only-knew-what. And yet, as my fear increased, so did my sense of resignation; and with each additional click, I knew better and better that there was no getting off this car. There was nothing to do but ride it out.
On the morning of September 8, 1988, I awoke early -- actually, I had barely been asleep -- stared out my bedroom window for a few minutes, and then shuffled downstairs for breakfast, a condemned man having his last meal. My parents didn't say much; by that time we were playing a game of chicken, waiting to see who would crack first. But they didn't, and I couldn't, my fear having risen to the level where it shut down all capacity for thought, leaving me without the ability to reconsider or reflect or do anything but proceed almost mutely to my doom. We loaded up the car and my mother drove me to LaGuardia Airport, and as we crossed over the Whitestone Bridge, I stuck my face through the open window and stared down at the East River as if it were the River Styx. When I hugged my mother good-bye at the airport curb, she reminded me that they would ship the rest of my things down to me in a few weeks -- if I were still there.
The only way to get from New York to Greenwood, Mississippi by public transportation is to fly into Memphis and catch a Greyhound bus for the final two hours of the trip. I did fine during the first leg, my fear-fraught mind, perhaps, relaxed somewhat by the thin stratospheric air. Even in Memphis International Airport I was all right, going so far as to chat up the porter who carried my bags out to the curb and helped me into a cab. As he directed my driver to take me to the bus station downtown, I handed him a generous tip and was comforted by my own largesse. This was going to be easy, I thought.
Then I got on the bus.
rAlready, my resolve had been softened somewhat by the sight of the Memphis Greyhound station, which was, like most bus stations, bleak and depressing. Years later, when I lived in Memphis, I went by this same station to see if it were, indeed, as I remembered it. It still had the same old ugly concrete walls and dingy floors, the same old tiny black-and-white coin-operated television sets attached to the same old cracked plastic seats occupied by the same old haggard and ragged people who appeared to have been left behind by life; but somehow, now, it looked different to me, less foreboding. Something had changed, I knew, but I couldn't quite spot it, and it took me a while before I realized that what had changed was me. Now I could afford to view the place as a mere curiosity, to regard it with a pure objectivity; I was neither departing nor arriving but only passing by, and I could see that it was hardly worse or better than any other bus station. But back on September 8, 1988, it was the gateway to Mississippi, the stepping-off point into the unknown. Back then, it was, for me, a place filled with an ominous gloom, and I thought it the worst I had ever seen.
Shortly after nine-thirty that night, the bus I was awaiting pulled into the station and an announcer called for boarders. I sprang to my feet, grabbed my bags and headed for the gate, relieved at the prospect of getting away from that awful waiting room. But as I settled into my seat and the doors closed and the bus began to back out of its space, it occurred to me that perhaps I had been a bit hasty in my eagerness to leave the station. Whatever it might have been, I thought, it was not Mississippi.
The bus wound its way through a few shabby south Memphis neighborhoods -- I would visit them, too, years later, but like the bus terminal, they never looked quite as bad to me as they did that first time I saw them -- and then, suddenly, the city seemed to end all at once, the house lights and streetlights disappearing abruptly into the road just behind me. I pressed my face against the window and glanced backward, trying to catch one last glimpse of them, some indication that there was still some kind of light out there, somewhere; but they were gone. All that remained were the two yellow cones that emanated from the headlights on the front of the bus, slicing through the darkness like needles through a pincushion for a few minutes before slamming into a huge billboard:
WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI
THE HOSPITALITY STATE
The sign did not have the desired effect on me.
I suddenly became aware of just how dark it was outside the bus. I had never seen it so dark before. I was certain that it had never actually been so dark before. It was black -- beyond black, really. This darkness was more than merely an absence of light; it was its own entity, and it was everywhere, all around me, seamless. It seemed to barge in through the windows of the bus and wrap itself around me like a moldy old comforter, blocking out everything else, even the thoughts in my head. I stopped looking out the window in search of some sign of human presence, already resigned to the understanding that I wouldn't spot one, couldn't. This place had to be entirely uninhabitable; who could survive amid such smothering darkness?
This bus, I thought, is the only thing standing in between me and the worst, most raw hostility that nature was capable of hurling against the kind of fools who might venture into a place where human beings obviously had no business being. This bus was a knife, plunging deep into some kind of beastly belly, from which there might indeed be no safe return.
O.K., so I was being a bit melodramatic. But what did I know of Mississippi? I knew about twisters and trailer parks, rednecks and the rebel yell, speaking in tongues and burning crosses. I knew about Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, about James Meredith and Medgar Evers. I knew about the Reverend George Lee, shot to death in Belzoni, Mississippi for registering to vote. I knew about Lamar Smith, another black would-be voter, shot to death on the steps of a county courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi in front of twenty eyewitnesses, all of whom claimed afterward that they had seen nothing at all. And I knew about Emmett Till. I knew, too, that I was a New York Jew, a product of the Ivy League, a man -- a kid, really -- who had never worked with his hands or fired a pistol, or, for that matter, done much of anything except read and write. I knew a bit too much, and far too little.
The bus driver clicked on his microphone: "Clarksdale," he whispered, presumably to avoid awakening the majority of his passengers who were asleep. "Clarksdale." Suddenly, as if on cue, a town appeared up ahead, or what I presumed to be a town; in any event, there were a few lights, and for those I was grateful. Clarksdale. Muddy Waters was from Clarksdale, I thought -- that's all I know about the place, that Muddy Waters was from Clarksdale, and that when he got the chance to get out he grabbed it and headed up to Chicago and probably never looked back. The lights of Clarksdale were dimmer than I had hoped. They tried, halfheartedly, to beat back the darkness, and were scarcely successful. From what I could see, Clarksdale appeared to be nothing more than a series of deserted streets, dilapidated buildings and rusting old cars. There were no people to be seen, not a one; perhaps, I thought, they'd all moved up to Chicago with Muddy Waters.
At the Clarksdale Greyhound station, an old Depression-era building that looked to me to be abandoned, no one got off the bus or on it except for the driver, who stepped out for a second to stretch his legs; and soon we were back out on the highway ("Highway"? It was a narrow, two-lane road!), back into the black, the nothingness. Knowing it was hopeless, I glanced out the window, hoping to see something that might indicate that we on this bus were not the first people ever to venture over this terrain. But I couldn't see a thing, and then a man in his midthirties, who had been sitting since Memphis in the seat next to mine, decided to start talking to me. I hadn't paid much attention to him before -- he looked a bit scruffy and tired, and had spent the entire trip until then either snoring lightly or popping peanut M&Ms into his mouth. Now, though, he began to speak; perhaps he sensed how anxious I was, or perhaps he was just bored, but for some reason he chose to start up a conversation with me just then.
"Pretty wild, huh?" he said, smiling and pointing out the window. "I ain't never seen anything like this before."
It wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear, but I needed some form of human contact by that point, and this was better than nothing. We chatted for a couple of minutes about the bus and the bus trip, and then he began to explain what he was doing there. "I'm seein' the country," he said. "I've been plannin' this for years and years, savin' up from all my jobs. I was working at a lumber mill at home, right, in Illinois, and then I went out to California to work on this construction crew that my brother-in-law was running, right? So I did that for a while, right, and then I went down to Texas, to West Texas, right, and I went to work for a buddy of mine who had this business painting houses..." He rattled off a half-dozen more jobs in as many states, and my mind drifted out the window again, returning just in time to hear him declare: "And now I'm takin' off and travelin' around and seein' the country, right, just like I always wanted to do." It sounded to me like he had already seen the country, more or less, but I kept my mouth shut. "So now I'm on my way down to New Orleans," he continued. "I always wanted to see New Orleans." He didn't think to ask me what I was doing on this same bus, or where I was headed, and I was glad not to have to discuss it with him or anyone else.
As he prattled on about his itinerary, though, the novelty of the conversation wore off and I began to grow annoyed and impatient with this man and his journey, although I could not at first discern why. I turned again toward the window. He didn't seem to notice.
Once again the driver's voice crackled over the P.A. "Tutwiler," he whispered. "Tutwiler." This time, though, there were no lights in the distance, and I was mystified at the thought that there might be even less to Tutwiler, Mississippi, than there had been to Clarksdale. The bus slowed down and pulled up alongside a lonely little white shack along the side of the highway. The old wooden benches outside were empty, and had been, I imagined, ever since they'd been built; they and a solitary light and a faded wooden sign -- "Tutwiler" spelled out in plain black letters against a white background -- were the only indication that people had ever had some kind of use for this shack. Once again, no one got on or off the bus -- this time even the driver stayed put -- and after a minute or so we were back on the highway, heading into the void once again. I turned to watch the shack of a bus stop grow smaller and smaller in the distance, and it occurred to me that I had so quickly grown resentful of the man in the next seat because I knew that in a few stops he would be doing the same thing, only this time the sign over the bus stop would read "Greenwood," and there, growing smaller alongside it, would be me.
"Way-ebb," the bus driver whispered a few minutes later. "Way-ebb." Again the bus slowed down and pulled off the highway and up alongside another little white shack, this one even smaller than the last but with the same forlorn and forsaken benches. "Webb, Mississippi" read the sign, and of course no one got on or off the bus and I imagined no one ever had in Webb, Mississippi, and I started to wonder if the driver wasn't just toying with me by stopping in these tiny, deserted towns where no one could possibly ever want to board an interstate bus, much less disembark from one. Perhaps this is some sort of a game, I thought, the bus driver deliberately drawing the whole thing out, building the suspense, feeding my anxiety. But we didn't stop for long, and then we were back on the road again, and I knew the next stop was Greenwood. I looked at my watch: Eighteen minutes to midnight.
The estimated time of arrival for Greenwood was 12:04 A.M.
And it was then -- sitting there and staring out the window at that black void with a little more than twenty minutes left to go -- that I began to understand that what I was seeing outside the bus terrified me so much because it was just the same as what was inside me: absolutely nothing. I was an empty book; I had not done anything yet, had not really even lived yet. I had never been tested. But what bothered me most was the understanding that all of it was about to change forever. I didn't know what would happen when I got off that bus, or in the hours and days and weeks and months that would follow, but I knew that something would happen. It might not be traumatic or dramatic -- hell, I might even like it -- but it would change me forever. I was about to walk through a door, and I knew I would never be able to come back through it again. I would never be able to go home again, to sleep in the bed I had slept in the previous night, to eat at the table I had eaten at that very morning. There was no getting around it, either. Even if I stayed on this bus, paid the driver a few extra dollars and rode down to New Orleans, hopped a taxi to the airport and then a plane back to LaGuardia -- even if I did all that, the person who arrived back home in New York would still be a different person than the one who had left the day before. He would be a person who had just faced his first big challenge and turned and fled. He would be a coward. A failure.
And just at that moment, as I realized that I had already walked through the door, that I had done it of my own free will and that I had better just accept it, and embrace it, and do the best I could -- just then, as if to reassure me that I was finally starting to make some sense -- I spotted a faint glow on the horizon, and the bus started to slow down.
This, I thought, could only be Greenwood. We passed a gas station, and then another, this one with a convenience store and bright, fluorescent tubes suspended over the pumps. Then a bar. A supermarket. A music shop with a neon sign in the shape of a clef note. The bus stopped: a traffic light. The first one since Memphis. O.K., I thought. That's a good sign.
The bus made a sharp left turn and suddenly it was in a parking lot. There was a building, too, larger than any I'd seen for hours, with a big dog painted on the wall and a few lights that flickered on and off in rhythm with each other. "Greenwood," the driver whispered, and I thought I saw his eyes in the mirror, looking at me. There was no one waiting at this station, either, and I was the only person getting up.
"Excuse me," I said, and the man in the next seat actually got up and stepped aside.
"Have fun," he said, without malice or sarcasm.
"Thanks," I said, and slid past him. I reached into the overhead shelf and grabbed the handles of my bag. I tugged at the straps, but it wouldn't give; it was jammed down in the crevice between the shelf and the ceiling. This is a sign, I thought. It's not time for me to get off this bus. Not yet. There's still time. I'll go back home, modify my career goals, lower my expectations. I'll learn how to type.
"Here," the man said. "Let me help you."
What was he doing? Why did he tamper with fate this way? "That's O.K.," I said, and tugged again, this time without any real resolve.
"No problem," he said. He slapped the top of his arm. "Sawmill biceps." He looped the straps around his fist and pulled the bag free with what seemed like no effort at all.
"Thanks," I said, as he held the bag out to me. I grabbed the straps myself; it was heavy, much heavier than it had felt just a few hours before.
"All right," he said, letting go. "You take care now."
I walked up the narrow aisle, looking out the window at the station. Where was my ride? I realized that I wasn't even sure who was supposed to be meeting me. I glanced at my watch: Eleven fifty-nine. Five minutes early! I walked slower.
All around me, people were sitting in big, cushy seats, feet up, backs tilted in full recline. A few turned and looked at me briefly, then went back to their books or crossword puzzles. The driver opened the door and stepped out. He stood there, perched on the little stairs, and smiled at me. Come on, I imagined him saying. This is it. This is you.
I made it to the door and was struck by a moist gust of wind. The driver stepped aside, onto the ground, revealing three tiny steps that led from the bus to the parking lot, each six inches high at the most. With each step, the air conditioning of the bus grew weaker and weaker. The wind came at me again. It smelled of earth and water. I relaxed my scowl and let it hit me square in the face.
Copyright © 2002 by Richard Rubin