Alex says it’s me, but it’s him. It’s got to be him, because this kind of weird griff never happens when I’m alone.
Take our bus ride from Kansas City. It should have been the snooziest cruise in the Universe to get to Alex’s uncle’s farm in Liberty. But no, everybody else on the bus makes it to Iowa except us. Why? Alex.
He blames me because I’m the one who bought Old Man Ching’s Dodge, but the Lancer only died because it got sick of Alex bitching about it. It had been running ragged ever since the New Mexico border, and on this melt-lead morning in K.C. it coughs like an old man who’s just sucked his last cig and goes four paws to the sky.
Alex swears and pumps the gas but it’s adiosed, and he barely gets us off the I-State. We coast down the offramp, make it through the intersection just as the light turns red and roll to a stop in front of a boarded-up supermarket.
Alex turns off the ignition and stares straight ahead. Then he sits back and closes his eyes, and I can see he’s making an effort, but he can’t quite damp it down.
He slams his big fist on the dash and flames up on me, the usual about what a nuclear waste catfish the Lancer is, the ugliest car ever, what a piece of crap, and now we’re stuck, bruddah, really stuck.
When Alex gets bent he slips into his Hawaiian Pidgin. That usually makes me forget his bad mood, but I've heard this speech so many times it takes all my willpower not to launch a major loco-moco myself.
It's bake-brain city, not a puff of breeze, and we just sit there sweating because we both know this could be the end. We’re only heading to New York because Alex hadn’t seen his cousin Tita in years. Even so, it was damn depressing to end it in K.C., after all the work we’ve put in the Lancer and all the big plans we’ve made.
I let Alex click down and after a while we get out, pop the hood and try the easy fixes—wiggle the sparkplug wires, clean the distributor, tap on the carb, chant the humba-humba—but nothing helps. There isn't much to say; we both know the engine needs major surgery, and that we don't have the gitas to pay for it.
We’re breathing the hot-oil smell of the engine, listening to it creak as it cools, when Alex comes up with a plan. One of his father's uncles lives on a farm in Iowa; Alex is obligated to visit at some point during our cross-country gig, so we might as well do it now. Then we can call L.A. and borrow enough money from our parents to fix the Lancer. Alex figures we can probably get close to their farm by bus.
By some miracle the dangling pay phone in front of the dead market works, and I get the bus info and directions to the station. I'm worried about leaving our Cruiser in this hollowed-out block but we’ve got no choice. I leave a note on the windshield that says, "Car dead, be back soon to fix, please don't tow," and hope that helps. Then we grab our day packs and the presents for his cousin Tita, lock the car, and head for the bus station.
It takes a half-hour to walk there and my T-shirt is soaked and sticking to my back in the first two minutes. Alex peels off his tanktop, the holey white one with the green Hawaiian elf sleeping under a rainbow, and lopes along like la-di-da. The heat doesn't bother him, but I'm dying. I can't complain, of course, because it's all my fault we bought the Lancer.
SoCal is plenty hot, I mean it’s all womp-rat desert, but this is the first time I’ve felt a sidewalk putting out invisible steam, and seen the slices of sky between old bars and closed-up shops filled with a bright, light-hot blue like in a dream. They either forgot to plant any trees, or chopped them all down, because there’s nothing to shade the liquor store steps or the alleyways. In this heat, the only smells are piss and Pine-Sol.
The station hasn't been painted since I was born and it's in the part of downtown that hit its last three-pointer forty years ago. We push through the glass doors into the cool air inside and look around.
It’s big and old and almost empty, like a set for some black-and-white movie about small-time gamblers and grifters who drink gin. It smells like Ms. Minny’s classroom back in the third grade after Tony Nguyen rorked up his tuna surprise, and it looks like the circus is leaving town because everybody’s got that tired look of old crumpled newspapers.
We walk up to the grubby window, buy our tickets from a sweaty fat woman and then go over to the greasy pay phones so Alex can tell his relatives we're coming in.
He hangs up, nods once to let me know everything is set, and then we take a seat against the back wall. The only other people waiting in the rows of cracked pink plastic chairs are a shaved-head grunt who looks like he just got out of boot camp and an old man who isn't sweating, even though he's wearing a black suit and one of those hats with fishing flies stuck in the band. I try to shift my feet but the floor is so sticky from spilled sodas I can barely peel my shoes off the old linoleum.
Alex is like a pressure cooker with the heat turned off. He’s got this just-sucked-kumquat face and even though he’s just sitting there with his hundred-pushups-a-day arms folded, his eyes have this metal-sparky look that I try to stay away from. He told me he hated having to ride the bus in Honolulu, but the main reason he’s torqued is the Lancer. He always thought my obsession with getting it away from Old Man Ching was loopy; he wanted a Mustang or a Malibu. But he went along with me and now we’re stuck, bruddah, really stuck.
Just to get away from his mood I go over to the drinking fountain but the dribble coming out is warm and tastes almost as bad as L.A. water. While I’m avoiding Alex, an old lady with her hair tied up in a tight little grey bun sits down next to a cute Af-Am mother with a sleepy baby and starts talking with the mom.
I’m starting to think about everything in the Lancer that I wish I'd stuffed into my nylon pack when our bus finally comes in. After spocking the station I'm surprised the bus is clean and air conditioned and smells better than the inside of a cattle-car 737 at LAX. You know what I mean, that air coming out of those nozzles feels cool but it’s already been breathed ten times that day.
These I-State buses are pretty much King Tut; Alex lets me have the window seat, and I figure we're as high as an 18-wheeler cab. The seats are nice and big, not like those crappy ones on airplanes, so you can actually stretch out. You get a real window, too, not some little plexiglas salad plate that's so scratched you can’t even see outside.
Once we sit down I figure I’m safe, Alex can stew all he wants, but we’re on our way again whether he likes it or not.
I should know better, but then Alex looks so damned innocent that he fools even me. Grandmas see his easy white-teeth grin and they can’t resist saying, “What a nice young man!” Then he slouches a little so he doesn’t seem too cocky and looks down with this aw-shucks expression. It’s enough to make you puke, and it happens all the time. Sometimes you want to punch him but then getting turned into a pretzel just isn’t worth it.
The old lady with the grey-hair bun boards and sure enough, she takes one look at Alex and smiles. He’s got this serious look but he beams back at her with his patented beachboy grin and even though I feel like gagging I’m relieved his mood is more beach and less volcano.
The real freeze is that these same ladies take one look at me and figure I’m some kind of bargain-rack hoodlum. Me, who’s actually the nice one. It’s not that I got my mother’s skin; Alex gets even darker than me once he’s been in the sun a few days. Sure, I got stuck with the wimpy body while he got the athletic-god bod, but not everyone who’s short and skinny looks like a grifter. I guess it’s my face but I don’t know why. My father’s no movie star but everyone thinks he’s a nice guy, so why me, Lord? Alex says I have this wise-ass expression even when I’m asleep, but that’s a hack. I’m probably smiling because I’m having a good dream.
Meanwhile Alex drops chaos wherever he goes and in between explosions grandmas smile at him and give me the glare-dagger. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It could be a lot worse. Alex could be an enemy instead of my friend.
An overweight blind woman in a bright orange muu-muu gets on board after the grandma. She's holding a white cane and towing a scarecrow boy about nine with hair like old hay and a stained T-shirt that’s two sizes too small. The woman pauses and seems to scan the bus with her looking-at- you-but-not-looking-at-you eyes.
She says, "Driver, can you help me to a seat?" The driver's watery-blue bug eyes worry me a little because he looks like he’s living on No-Doz, but he guides her to one of the first rows of seats and the kid jumps in by the window.
We pull out of the station and I start to relax. Maybe this detour will work out okay. We'll be in Iowa by early evening, maybe it won't be hellhole hot anymore, and at least we'll be staying on a real farm.
We get on I-State 35 north and in a half-hour we've left the city behind and it's open country again. I lean my seat back and watch the hot faded blue-jeans sky outside creep past the deep blue seat cover in front of me, and my eyes start sagging closed. I've almost dozed off when the blind lady's raspy voice jerks me awake. "Joseph, you got your butt planted to a seat?"
The thatch-haired kid is wandering up the aisle, staring at people, and he doesn't answer. I turn around and see the brat make a weird face at the old man in the black suit and fishing hat. Then he leans over the young mother in the next row and pokes her baby in the cheek. The baby starts crying its guts out and the brat makes another gargoyle face. Meanwhile the blind lady goes right on jawjacking with some woman across from her. I hear the woman ask the blind lady something and she tells her, "How'd I get a kid? Just like you did—in the dark," and then she cackles this wheezy laugh that's right out of a bad horror movie.
The kid sprints down the aisle from the back of the bus to where we’re sitting. He doesn't say anything to Alex but he asks the old lady behind us if he can have some gum. The lady says, "I'm sorry, dear, I don't have any gum." The kid brays like a hyena on laughing gas and I'm starting to get a little irritated.
People are muttering about the brat and I glance over at Alex. His arms are still folded but there’s this metallic shine in his eyes that makes me knot up inside.
The blind hag finally notices her kid’s still M.I.A. because she interrupts her motormouthing long enough to call out, “Joseph, get your butt down here,” and then goes right on cackling and jawing.
The brat ignores her and asks the young Army grunt in front of us if he can play his radio. The guy says it's not allowed and the kid swears at him and starts jumping up and down, making ickabod grunts and hoots.
The brat is running past us when Alex's hand whips out like a bolt of thick brown lightning and grabs his arm. "Hey, you hear your mawdah?" he says to the brat, holding him. Alex is toggled to Pidgin, a bad sign. He nods toward the front of the bus and tells the kid, "Go sit down."
The kid struggles to free himself and says, "Let go, asshole."
This is just about the most unwise word selection possible and Alex squeezes the brat's upper arm really tight. The kid squawks and the mother finally pays some attention to him. She spins around and shouts, "Joseph? What's wrong?"
The kid cranks up some fake whimpering and cries, "This asshole's hurting me!"
Alex didn't really hurt the brat but he lets go and says, "I was only trying to help you with your brat, lady!"
The blind hag hefts herself out of her seat and starts creeping back toward us, bracing herself on the seat backs. In a voice mean enough to melt lead she screams, "Which son a bitch said that?"
The kid runs to his mom and shoves his crying up to full RPM. She's looking around with her cat's-eye marble eyes, everyone’s quiet, and I feel the bottom fall out of my stomach.
“Somebody should control the boy,” the old lady behind us says angrily. I see the driver's black Ray-Ban shades in the rear view mirror and the bus nearly swerves off the road.
"Driver, call the cops," she yells. "Some son of bitch hurt my Joseph."
“Alright, everybody back to your seats,” the driver shouts, and he romps so hard on the brakes the blind hag is almost tossed on her face.
The driver yanks the bus into a rest stop, and everyone is staring and talking. The driver takes off his shades and says, "Lady, go back to your seat." His voice is as tired as his bulging eyes, but he's not taking any griff on his bus.
"Some son of a bitch hurt my boy," the hag says in a blowtorch wheeze.
"Lady, get back to your seat or I'll put you off the bus," the driver says, and the hag and her brat grudgingly shuffle to their seats.
The driver walks back to us and his eyes are almost out of his skull. "Okay, guys, off my bus."
"The kid was—" I say, but he cuts me off and says, "You want me to call the cops?"
I shake my head and stand up. Alex is sitting like a statue, staring a hole in the seat back in front of him.
"The young man is right," the old lady behind us tells the driver. "That child should have been controlled.” Then in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, she snaps out, “Some people aren't fit to be parents."
The blind hag hears this and jerks to her feet. "You saying a blind woman shouldn't be a parent? Some people!"
The old woman stands up and her gray bun is quivering in a full meltdown. "I didn't say a blind person shouldn't be a parent. I said you aren't a fit parent. Letting your child run wild like that! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
"Lady—" the blind hag is breathing heavily from the effort of standing up, and tugging at the front of her orange muu-muu— "Fuck off." Then she says to the rest of the bus, "Does anybody else think blind people shouldn’t have kids?"
"Being blind's got nothing to do with it," yells the old man in the black suit. "You shouldn't let your kid run all over the place."
Right away, both the young mother and the grunt on leave say something in favor of the old man.
The blind lady listens to this in disbelief and then shouts, "Joseph, stay away from these assholes. They think they're better than blind people."
"Lady, give it a break," the old guy in the back shouts in disgust. The brat is silent and keeps his eyes on the floor.
"Okay, folks, that's enough," the driver yells. "Lady," he says to the blind woman, "sit down or you can get off, too."
She sits down with a grunt and mumbles like a sailor on a Tequila drunk about getting off just to get away from these assholes.
Alex finally stands up and we follow the driver to the front.
"It's not right, putting them off the bus," the old woman behind us says, and her voice is vibrating with old-time-religion outrage. The driver just puts on his Ray-Bans and follows us through the doors and down onto the asphalt edge of the parking lot.
He opens the luggage compartment, we pull out our bags and he locks the steel door again. "Sorry boys," he says. "It's the rules." He tears two coupons off a book and hands them to us. "You can get a refund with these."
He climbs back on the bus and the door whooshes closed. The passengers give us thumbs-up signs through the windows and then the bus rumbles off, leaving us alongside the corn fields, our hair whipping in the tailwind of the cars and big-rigs blasting by.
I want to say something booga-booga to Alex but it's not worth the effort. We stand there in the hot blue afternoon sun, watching the young corn tassels swaying in the I-State breezes, and eventually Alex says, almost to himself, "If only we had a normal car."
I want to say, Alex, we're not normal, so just forget it, but then he already knows that.
Instead I sprint across the lanes of hot I-State pavement and start trying to hitch a ride back to Kansas City.
copyright 2005 all rights reserved. No reproduction in any media without written permission of the author.