The Road of Ghosts

Jordan Bowen

to Willis

    The brick wall of the station brightened as the car came to a stop, the spread of beams narrowing as they neared. Dust and moths flitted and fell in the light. Two women got out of the car, darker than the illuminated air. Both heavyset, they struggled from their seats with a helping of sighs and groans and began tugging at their stubborn bags from the backseat of the plastic coupe, muttering soft curses as they pulled. One of them looked up and noticed the pre-dawn quiet and emptiness all around.
    ”You think we missed the bus?
    They pulled at the swollen duffels in the back. One squeezed through the gap between the seat pulled forward and the door and slumped to the gravel like a struggling child. “Girl, what you got in this bag?”
    The silver bus came roaring up the road, stopping at a red light. The intersection was empty, but the bus had to wait for the signal to change.
    ”That’s it, here it come,” said Mattie from behind her thick red glasses. She had taken off work and was catching a bus to San Diego to see her nephew graduate from high school. The nephew may not have known or cared that she would be there, but a graduation is like a wedding or funeral and it would be unthinkable for her not to come.
    The bus roared in the white light of the parking lot, its windows reflecting the windows of the station reflecting the bus. The driver stepped down and inspected Mattie’s ticket, then gave her a claim for her bags. The other woman stood with her arms fatter from being folded, an impatient look on her obtuse face. “It’s early, she’s just tired,” thought Mattie, always embarrassed to be an inconvenience, but her friend melted into a tender profusion of kisses and hugs as they said goodbye.  

    David was watching them through the window. He grew tired and closed his eyes as his head vibrated with the pane. “Now, there are black people and then there are niggers,” he thought to himself. He does not like how loud they are and he does not like that they touch each other and are wild. If there was ever a time when he too had wanted to be wild he had forgotten it. Still he found the woman’s face endearing as she stepped tentatively down the aisle looking with her big, glassy eyes for a place to sit, clutching with one hand the fabric heads of the aisle seats and with the other a plastic bag of soda and snacks for the road. One of the few open seats was next to him. He closed his eyes, tensing his body, hoping he could somehow deflect her with that tension. But she sat next to him, and now all he could do was try to ignore the swishing of her plastic sack, the crinkling of her candy wrappers, her bare arm crossing the boundary of the arm rest and touching his, the crude tinge of perfume losing out to the garlic of her body odor, the periodic sighs and murmurs that punctuated aloud her mute reasonings.
    The bus roared on and the woman next to him settled in, folding her hands across her lap and leaning her head back. David kept his forehead against the cool, shaking pane, watching the dim outlines of the ruined towns and desolate stretches of road. Soon they will regain the main highway and there will be nothing to look at but the other cars and the billboards selling Coke and beer, abstinence and insurance, gambling and real estate.
    There are many hours left. The trip is interminable, but David has patience. He never asks time to go faster, he knows that everything comes to an end and is never heard from again. The ryegrass blown by the rushing vehicles and the sprawl of towns repeat each other and fold over each other and are no more. And in a bus nothing needs him, he can make no error. The past is behind, the present is oblivious, and the city ahead, splendidly built up in his mind with its Biblical range of sins, will resolve at last his deepening doubt of God and absolve him.

    Mattie could never sleep on the bus. Her only tactic was to close her eyes as soon as she sat down and try not to open them again. But the regular bouncing over the rough pavement, the sound of the engine accelerating, the stuffiness of the crowded cabin and the fear of her leg falling asleep would always pull her halfway from her slide into sleep, so that at times it was hard to tell if she was thinking or dreaming. She put her leg in a different position and sighed. Even with her eyes closed, she could feel the discomfort of the man next to her, the tension of his proximity.         
    She hoped the bus wouldn’t break down like it did on the way to Iowa to see her brother, when they all had to sit fanning themselves with magazines for hours waiting for another to come, and in the meantime some of the passengers, deranged from boredom and heat, began to get unruly, cursing and threatening the driver who could do nothing, and a girl too young to have a kid began spanking her dirty child who screamed like hell, a toddler ran up and down the aisle and then started vomiting, and because they were parked at a slight incline the puke flowed down the aisle and pooled in the back causing everyone to gag and shriek, so they all got off the bus and stood baking in the furious heat.
    Mattie opened her eyes and studied the blue and grey specks woven into the seat in front of her, hallucinating the smell of vomit. The pattern made no sense, it crisscrosses but also seems to run parallel. She thought of her nephew, how tall he must be now, and wondered about her sister whose veins have been giving her leg trouble. Good to be out of that nursing home for a few days. That job is making her crazy, feeding and bathing and picking up and turning over, and with every death she is robbed of the awe of death that is everyone’s sacred terror. An oil rig out in a field dips its head and drinks.
    David is lost in the imponderable subject of his son. He tries to remember the last time they were together, but soluble memories lead to no solution. There was the time when Julian was fidgeting across the table at a Taco Bueno looking very thin and pale but his face was still soft and red with adolescence. He had bleached his hair and wore translucent bracelets on his wrists. David looked at him hard to find the golden child that was Julian. This one seemed like a substitute for the son that could not be found. Life had somehow lost the original.
    The judge had decreed he could only have visiting rights on weekends (at first every, then every other), citing the fact that David had shown up to court that day late and drunk. David’s jobless circumlocutions around his ex-wife and son took him further and further from responsibility. Julian was quiet when they were together, and David tried to animate him into his former playful trust by teasing him.
    ”I bet you couldn’t run around the block without getting out of breath. You should run more.”
    They were standing behind the wooden fence that separated the parking lot of his apartment building from the alley where they piled the trash. David took off at a mild trot, calling after Julian to follow him. The boy moaned, jogged a few paces and then slowed to a walk, upset and panting with his head down.
    ’Come on, run!’
    ’Dad, I don’t want to.’
    David ran on ahead down the sidewalk, past the humming air conditioners, metal staircases and numbered doors. He stopped at his apartment and leaned against the wall, only a little winded and hoping his posture would look athletic when his son saw him standing there. Julian strode up eventually, a compressed and brutal expression on his face and smelling like sour pubescence. His tightened chin looked like the pit of a peach. The heat was thick and the noise of crickets frayed the air.

    ”Where you headed?”
    ”San Francisco.”
    ”Me too. Goin’ to my nephew’s graduation in San Diego. You gotta change buses?”
    ”In Los Angeles.”
    ”Oh, I hope this bus don’t break down. Happened to me once.”
    ”Happens a lot.”
    Silence. Mattie started rummaging through her bags.
    ”Mm, mmm, I am hun-gry. You want a candy bar?”
    ”No, thank you though.”
    David watched her devour the chocolate from the corner of his eye, then closed his eyes again so as not to be bothered. But he liked the sound of her voice, it was soft and sympathetic. He looked out the window. An old Chevy sped between the bus and an aging shopping center, and David pretended it was thirty years ago and he was still young. These were the kind of games with time he played in his mind.
    ”You got kids?”
    He tensed his brow. “Yes. A son. That’s who I’m going to see.”
    ”That’s sweet. How old is he?”
    His mouth opened but his tongue stopped behind his teeth. What year was he born… “Twenty,” he guessed.     
    ”Oh, mine are all grown up too. It all happens so fast. But I always said when they were kids that I would enjoy every moment, and even when it was tough and I got mad I still enjoyed it. Children are a blessing. I don’t regret any of it. And now I have a little peace, but it’s sure quiet now. My daughter Kendra is the oldest, she’s going to HJC, and my son Darien just graduated, and he’s going to be a mechanic, work on cars, maybe start his own shop.”
    David didn’t know what to say, so he nodded and smiled slightly, staring at her polished red fingernails, her dark, dry knuckles and the lighter skin on her palms. He realized he was expected to offer his own story, so he said, “I have only one son. I don’t know what he does.”
    He could feel her staring at his face, studying his lines. They did not speak again, and after awhile he was asleep.
    It was only supposed to be two hours until the next bus arrived in Los Angeles to take him to San Francisco, but it ended up being six. The waiting room of the station was stark, bright and sterile. An empty plastic box for pamphlets was on a table and insisted, “Take One,” so David stuck his hand in it. The room was filled with colored people whose luggage consisted of nylon duffle bags, backpacks and plastic sacks.
    David had brought nothing but a change of clothes and his father’s Bible. He turned to Job and read: “”Like a blossom he comes forth and is withered; And he flees like the shadow and does not endure.”
    The second bus was no different. David sat in almost the same seat, in the back on the right, and like the last bus it smelled like a biohazard. It was less crowded but louder with the laughs and cries of small children whose parents had long ago given up on making them stop. Outside it was mostly flat and barren, and the suburbs seemed identical to those he knew so well in Texas except that the architecture of the shopping centers, malls and cinemas made more of an effort.
    At one stop a young man sat next to him. For a long time David looked at the thick veins on the smooth, tan forearm next to him, and then at the small, soft nose and red cheeks when the youth fell asleep. His untamed scent smelled like a friend David had known in school. The thought fled and he turned his eyes back to the sun-beaten terrain.
    By afternoon the next day they were in the outskirts of San Francisco, passing junkyards, chemical plants, and low, wooden houses in treeless rows. They went under a highway overpass and saw the new apartment towers rising in the sun.
    He had hitchhiked through California in 1977, with his wild brother, Joseph, who did a lot of coke. They got in a bar fight and spent a night in jail, they had easy women, but they never made it to San Francisco. One of the drivers who picked them up had raved about the city’s beauty and its beaches, hills and the fog rolling down into the valleys. But all David saw as he stood on the sidewalk with his worn leather suitcase were cars and the low industrial buildings of yesterday, now offices and antique stores, and among the pedestrians he saw a great many tired looking black men, crippled old women and raving meth addicts with ruined faces, all dark against the backdrop of the bright grey sky.
    ’This must be the bad part of town,’ David thought to himself, eyeing a dubious looking hotel with a painted sign in an old, unadorned Victorian. He went in and rang the bell. A bald, obese man wearing a white collared shirt and vest eventually entered the office and sat down behind the plastic screen.
    ”You have a room for the night?”
    ”Seventy-five a night for a single. Cash only.”
    David had only two hundred dollars left. He thanked the man and left, hoping to find a hostel or somewhere cheaper to stay. As he got deeper downtown the buildings become taller, the stores and businesses more upscale. He sat down on a bench near a monument on Market Street, a huge cluster of pigeons crowding around. A homeless person nearby was being arrested and searched by three police officers, his wild, thin hair flailing in the breeze. Two youth were sitting on a bench near him, eating sandwiches and talking quietly. One had a round face with a small, pushed up nose, a shaved head with the slight suggestion of a mohawk, and piercings in his left ear. The other had a large nose, thick eyebrows, a mess of dark blonde hair and looked older. David liked the ancient, knowing expressions on their young faces and their soft, familiar interaction. He looked at them until the younger one squinted in his direction, then turned his head to watch a girl pigeon coyly avoid her puffed up pursuer.
    There were cars and people pedaling skinny, brightly colored bicycles and dirty, groaning busses, antique trolleys clattering down the middle of the street, businessmen without suit or tie, tourists clutching cameras and shopping bags, creative-looking people in their fashionable attire, and the drug-mad, shuffling, rambling, singing, clutching, ticcing, whirring, coughing, cackling, wheezing, begging, unwanted and horrified homeless. He looked out at the once-imposing old stone buildings with their naive elaborations and the towers of glass that admit nothing and reflect the empty sky, and wondered where among this strangely intimate endlessness he would find his son.
     He found a pay phone without a phone, there was only a hole with a twisted tangle of wires sticking out. He scanned the faces of every passerby, though he could not imagine how an older Julian might look. David had not thought this through. He had assumed, without imagining how, that he would simply know what to do when he got here, and that Julian would be found.
    ”Try the Castro.”
    The woman in a fake fur trenchcoat and nose piercing said this with a puzzled smile on her face and shrugged. Nobody had ever asked her where to find gay people in San Francisco before, and the sad faltering of this balding, bearded stranger would have been unsettling were it not ordinary for her to be confronted by insane people when she walked in this area. David thanked her. He had never been in a place like this. It was not as overwhelming as he thought it would be, for in the side streets of downtown it was often quiet and almost suburban. The difficulty was holding himself together, what had seemed so solid in the Southern states he had known his entire life, and now he felt adolescently unsure of himself. As he walked the woman’s face floated in and out of his thinking, and as the woman walked to her bus she kept returning to David’s grey-blue eyes and wondering about him as she waited at the bus stop as the cold marine wind picked up, and then on the bus, so choked with people she had to stand and try to steady herself against its jolts and sudden stops. She kept imagining who that man might be, and to pass the time made up a story about his life until her cell phone rang.
    ’I don’t know any of these people,’ David kept thinking, not always in words, as he walked in search of a streetcar or a bus that would take him in the direction she had pointed down Market. He saw a beautiful green hill in the distance where the thick fog was struggling to climb up the other side and roll down into the valley below. He was getting cold, he had brought only short sleeved shirts because it was summer, and was relieved to get out of the wind once he figured out how to stick his fare in the machine and sat down on the bus, clutching his paper transfer which soon tore apart in his moist hand.
    The sights on the street through the window on his right showed more and more the marks of poverty and decay. He saw clusters of dark-clothed homeless on benches, strip clubs and stores shut up with metal plating covered in graffiti. He thought it could only get worse, especially in the subterranean hell he imagined the Castro to be, and to quell his anxiety he stared at the sun spots on the backs of his hands, then opened and closed them to watch the tendons pull in his wrist.
    They were everywhere. They were fat and old, bald, bearded, young and made up, laughing and conversing, smoking in front of bars, talking together and holding hands. David had never been around an open homosexual, only men whose battered femininity sometimes leaked through their shell. And here they were, and they were everywhere.
    There were billboards with smiling, shirtless muscle men, fliers for male strippers, rainbow flags and peace signs in the windows of the Victorian houses, whose painted antiquity seemed incongruent with the dark of night and the noise of the decadent street. He was not even sure what he was doing here, other than the vague expectation of finding Julian ruled out by the near certainty that he would fail. He breathed hard as he walked, coming close to panic - the mindless actuality of this entire mission became hideously, horribly apparent. He wanted to go home, he wanted to lose himself, to close his eyes and not exist. He did not belong here, he felt insane, and he was mortally shamed for leaving the light of God by going against Him, defying His word to be among the damned. David asked for forgiveness as he walked past bars with open windows and loud, inebriated men spilling out of the doors. He stopped in front of one and a gaunt, haunted face stared at him through the window with beaded eyes. A group of three smoked out front, young but with old, depraved faces and flamboyantly styled. They looked at him, one said something inaudible to the others and they all cackled.
    ”Don’t look so sad…”
    He realized they were talking to him, and he looked at them without looking as he spoke. “I’m here to find my son.”
    “Your son, huh?”
    ”We’re all lost boys here.”
    From his pocket he pulled out the wrinkled picture of Julian, the only one he had, sent to him in the last letter the boy had written to which David had never replied. Only fifteen in the picture, with a face reddened by acne and oily hair flattened to one side.
    They took it while giving mocking glances at each other and David cringed as they held it in the faint light of the fluorescent sign. “Jail bait!” shrieked one, and they all laughed while one of them pushed the other who said it and said, “Shut up!”
    ”Sorry, don’t know him.”
    David could hear them laughing as he walked away. At a store he bought a fifth of whiskey, then wandered down the street, he knew not where, wincing and exhaling with every swallow until it became easier to take. There was a park, not well lit, and he sat down on the grass to rest, the muscles in his legs bubbling from exertion. The encrusted skyline of the city seemed a mirage in the distance. Above him, to his excitement, he saw the silver umbrage and wrinkled stem of a palm tree. He was not so cold now that he was drunk.
    When he awoke late the next morning he could not find his wallet, his suitcase was gone and so were his shoes.
    Five days later and from morning to night his world was a pale brick wall and the thousands of people who pass without stopping. “Please, just a dime. Anything. I’m looking for my son.” He holds up the picture, many glance, a few take sympathy and leave him a dollar or a quarter, and he eats whatever trash he can buy from a deli and uses the rest to buy liquor at night.
    Fear of other street people and being harassed by police sent him in search of a safer place to sleep. He walked from the south to the north side of Market Street in the shadow of tall financial buildings and offices, past a pyramid-shaped tower held up by thick concrete buttresses, to a neighborhood where he found not only relative peace at night but the chance to profit from tourists dining at the sidewalk tables of Italian restaurants. He found a pair of tennis shoes that fit him well enough while rummaging through the trash and a patched up jacket in a pile of discarded rags. He trimmed his beard with a pair of scissors. Everyday he was drinking more, and he focused less on finding Julian than on holding on until he could think of some way out. Then he thought of nothing but the sun and the rain.

    In this way David lost himself in his new life, forever wandering down sidewalks bright with sun or through days dimmed with fog, and was no longer startled by his changed reflection in the shop windows and no longer thought of why he had come there or if he would ever leave. He wore his failure like an old cloak around his shoulders and was indifferent to the earth turning as it did each day.
    And it was on a day such as this, late in the afternoon when liquor had already loosened what was left of his mind, that he boarded a bus without paying his fare, and the driver said nothing because the driver did not want to bother and wanted to finish his route on time.
    David sat near the front where the rows of seats face each other between two women who turned their heads from his sight and smell and looked out vacantly at the street to think of something else. He raved quietly to himself about California and his birthday, and the barbershop and the priest, and the idea that he was on television, and began to laugh so that others looked at him before they looked away.
    But once his mind settled from the chaos stirred up in it by the morning’s drink and the excitement of boarding a bus, his eyes began to notice the other passengers, and some, sensing this, visibly stiffened and one pulled the rope to request a stop. He focused on the elderly Chinese lady, small and frail and stooped from her groceries. She ignored him, encased in her mute endurance. Next to her was a young man in punk clothing, wearing tall, scuffed boots and ragged black jeans covered in patches, a black t-shirt with cracked and peeling print, piercings in his nose and ears and black hair molded into shining spikes. The punk looked at him then looked away when he saw David staring back with his mouth hanging open.
    At the next stop the bus partly emptied, and the two were left alone in the front, swaying with the stops and turns.
     Please hold on, said the mechanical voice of a man.
    ”No, Julian, Julian, my boy, I missed you.”
    He stood up and came toward him. The bus jolted to a stop and the door hissed open. David grabbed the pole and leaned against it.
    Please exit through the rear door.
    The punk looked at him and said nothing.
    He got off at the next stop and David followed him to a wall next to a candy store where the punk sat down on a sidewalk and pulled out a small notebook and a pen. The sun behind David stretched his shadow over him.
    ”No, it’s Jonah. I’m Jonah. What do you want?”
    David stood and thought for a minute about how Julian never liked his name, and when asked what name he would rather have he listed all the boys in his class. The parts of himself that had been disconnected all this time were fused together by this memory, and David again knew who he was and what he wanted.
    ”Here, here.. let’s go somewhere. To the park over there. Look, look, we’ll talk.”
    To David’s surprise and his own, the kid got up and followed. They sat on a bench across from a white cathedral. The sky was grey with low fog and an old Chinese man was dancing in slow motion on the lawn. David decided to not reveal everything, but just to talk to him first until he could reveal himself.
    ”I came here looking for someone.”
    ”A son, I’ll find him.” David tried to make his eyes twinkle with the magic of this hint, but the kid never looked him in the eyes and felt the older man study his face. When he sensed the stare divert from him, he glanced up at his bearded profile, the glazed over eyes and long forehead streaming with unruly, filthy hair, and wondered why this man was here and what had befallen him. The bells of the cathedral took toll of time and dogs howled in sympathy with the sirens of the city.
     “Come on, let’s go,” said Julian.
    They were standing on the steps of the cathedral and David, looking up, could not see where the spires ended in the sky.
    ”I’m fine here. I like this church.”
    ”Yeah, but this isn’t a good place. I know somewhere better.”
    Julian led him up several blocks to an incredible hill. David began to tire as they climbed it and asked to slow down. Through the trees he could glimpse the ocean churning under onyx-colored clouds that gave no indication of day or night. Finally they came to a place between two houses filled with dense foliage, and David had never seen so many rich shades of green.
    ”What is this?”
    ”Nobody comes here.”
    David followed him into a little clearing inside the bushes, panting and holding his chest where his lung hurt. Julian stood close but not looking at him, then asked, “So, what do you want?”    
    ”I don’t know,” breathing hard, “just to talk.”
    Kneeling, Julian looked up at him and bit the thick part of his belt. David grabbed his wrist with one hand and tried to strike him, but his body was somehow not there and would not respond. He ran back down the hill, bracing himself against the walls of houses to catch his step. Cars blew their horns as they swerved to strike him, and the sidewalks moved under him like a conveyer belt in the other direction, and he was sliding, then falling into a hell below. He bent over on the bench where he had been left alone and threw up on his own shadow.

    ”It wasn’t him, it wasn’t him.” David repeated it to make it true, but only God knew if it was true, and God was not answering. Whoever it had been, he would never find him again. He was on the wharf, and the sea lions lying on the old wooden docks were barking. In the moonlight you could see their breath. After awhile he no longer repeated it and thought of nothing. When he awoke he was hungry and it was nearly dusk. He counted eight dollars, bought a forty and drank all of it.
    He started walking to lessen the stiffness of his legs. He had learned to ignore the city, and most days he saw nothing of it, aware only of the few feet in front of him as he followed an internal map of benches, toilets, places to beg and places to sleep. But for some reason his thoughts were bright and clear and his perception sharp and colorful this evening. The buildings’ bluing hues were remarkably deep, and the trees were lambent and golden as they trembled under the streetlights.
    David began walking up a hill to find a view of the city or the waterfront and sit there with the crumpled cigarette he had found under a bench. There were no shops here, only a laundromat at a corner. The street was walled on either side by wooden houses without front yards - it was this narrowing of scope that was so different from what he had known before, how dense and close the buildings, curtailing the domed sky’s infinity. He stepped over streetcar tracks in which moving chains made a rhythmic clack.
    He could go no further and the slope would not stop. He turned right and saw a blinking light out in what must be the ocean, but it was too dark by now to see into the beyond. Worn out and disappointed, but enlivened by an inner clarity, he worked his way downhill until the sidewalk dropped off at a curb in the middle of the block, and David saw a lit alley named ‘Daladin’ that had flowering bushes and doors leading into houses. He walked down it, looking at fragmented shapes in the walls where the plaster had fallen off or cracked and up into the warm windows where he thought he heard the sound of laughter. A slab of concrete in front of a house had three pairs of small handprints and two paw prints and each pair was signed in thick letters by a child. At the end of the alley was a wooden picket fence, and there in the distance stood the cathedral, moon-tinted and illuminated. A flock of silver birds burst out of the belltower and flew into the night.
    At seeing this holy spectacle David was overcome by a feeling of intensity and purity such as he had not felt since he was very young. Neither joy nor anguish, but an unburdening. Life as he had lived it had been a trap. Only now was he free, he too had burst forth into the sky.
    Behind him there were quiet voices. The two youth he had seen by the monument the day he arrived were standing in front of a doorway, holding each other and saying goodbye under the porch light.
    ”It’s not forever,” said one.
    ”I know,” said the other.
    The other while stepping backward stumbled down the front steps, laughing as he waved. They saw David passing slowly out of the alley, but could not see that he was smiling. The one in the street’s eyes asked the other ‘who is that’ by squinting, and the other stretched his face to say ‘no idea’. He ran up to embrace his friend again, and on the long bus ride home tried not to think of their separation. As he looked out the window at the moving streets he thought of the bearded man he had seen in the alley, and all the way home tried to imagine his story.


| About this.