I hadn’t been on a bus for a year, but it only took a few minutes to feel like I’d been riding straight since then. The air was laced with freshener that smelled like the sherbet I threw up every summer when I was a kid. It felt like summer again, heading out to see my father, but it was already well into fall, and cold.
I’d been telling myself I would get there and get through it. I’d been telling myself I was doing the right thing, that no one could escape doing this thing and that was why the thing was right, not wrong. Everyone had to do it. Everyone agreed. Except me. I disagreed. I was disagreeable. My father was supposed to feel angry and he did. He was performing to his pamphlet. My pamphlet didn’t get it right. I was supposed to feel sad but grateful – unburdened – but instead, I felt heavy and confused.
I slept through the first night and woke during sunrise when we stopped in a town where the only people waiting to board were two grubby teenagers. They refused to check their bags, so we all had to breathe fumes while they argued with the driver.
The girl mothered the boy down the aisle, giving angry instructions to the back of his head in Spanish. The same scowl fixed their faces and the patches on their jackets were sewn by the same crude hand. The boy threw himself into the seat in front of me and the girl threw herself on top of him.
I’d been avoiding nausea by staring through the space between the seats, but they filled it with their bickering and glossy hair. They fell asleep as the morning progressed and were tame when they eventually woke up. Once we hit Indiana they were giggling and gnawing on each other. By the time we stopped for lunch, I was pretty sure the boy had gotten a hand job.
I called my dad while scanning a wall of vending machines. He didn’t pick up. I wanted to call my husband but I was still bothered by what he’d said when he dropped me at the station. He’d handed me my bag and said, ‘Susie, we can’t help what happens to us, all we can do is help other people when bad things happen to them. That’s life. There’s no point fighting it.’
When I tried to say something he hugged me and said, ‘Your father was not the man you pretend he was. You can’t change your relationship now.’
The police found my father sitting naked on his porch last week. A social worker called and said he was no longer able to take care of himself and probably hadn’t been for a while. Was I aware of this? she wanted to know. Was there a plan? Were there arrangements?
I called his neighbour’s daughter, Helen, and asked for her help. His stuff needed to be packed and someone needed to keep an eye on him until I could get out there. I offered money when she hesitated. She didn’t take it because she knew the offer meant I was desperate, and that meant she’d be tacky to take it.
We’d been friends when we were little, pairing off whenever I visited. Then there was high school and college and I only visited during the holidays. Whenever I tried to get together she said she wasn’t around, though it was easy to tell that she was around because she’d moved back in with her parents years ago and her car was always in the driveway. We became comfortable with each other again once we knew we weren’t friends.
She called yesterday to tell me I’d better get there soon. Not only had my father unpacked the few boxes Helen had managed to fill, but he was taking people’s pets out of their yards.
I said, ‘So what?’ and then, ‘I know, I know,’ before she could answer. ‘But where’s the dignity? Where’s the justice? We all end up in last place no matter what. He’s young. How is this fair?’
She sighed. ‘Well, you don’t have to kill the messenger.’
‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Do you need a ride from the airport?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m taking the bus. But thanks.’
I could hear Helen turning this information over. She was so happy to have something on me. ‘Are you still afraid to fly, Susie?’
‘Yup,’ I said. ‘I am still afraid.’
An elderly woman got on the bus that night. She tucked her cane under her arm and steadied herself against the seats until she got to the one next to me. She took a while to settle in, buttoning her cardigan, adding a sweater and fussing with a hairnet. We nodded at each other and said hello, then looked away – me out the window, her straight ahead.
I woke with the sun stinging my neck. The woman was sitting up straight and polishing her glasses. Without looking at me she said, ‘A cup of coffee would be nice, don’t you think?’ I said we should be stopping soon. We didn’t stop for another hour and only then because she yelled at the driver.
I ate my breakfast sandwich on a bench, and the woman sat next to me and blew on her coffee. The teenagers sat against a cement planter on the edge of the restaurant parking lot. The girl smoked a cigarette and stared at the ground. The boy stared at her.
The old woman looked at the girl. ‘My granddaughter uses cigarettes like smoke is the only thing she can breathe.’
‘I know some people like that,’ I said.
‘You don’t know anyone who’s like what she’s like. She is one messed up lady.’ She cracked herself up with ‘lady’. ‘Her parents think no one can help her. They think I’m wasting my money and my time going to her, but they don’t know anything.’
I said her granddaughter was lucky to have her.
She said, ‘She will never be lucky.’
When we all got back on the bus, the teenagers took seats in different parts of the bus. The boy threw balled up pieces of paper at her but stopped after he hit other people too many times. The woman pulled out a book of crossword puzzles that was intended for middle-schoolers and worked on it for hours. The puzzle included words like hazel, column and aft. She dozed off sometimes, but she never let go of her pencil.
I couldn’t tell if the trip was flying by or taking forever. There wasn’t much to look at. Occasionally there were long grids of cows.
I counted aeroplanes. They crossed in and out of view, and though I knew their white trails weren’t smoke, I expected all of them to explode.
We stopped at Friendly’s for dinner. The woman stayed on the bus. When I offered to bring her something, or buy her a snack, she rolled her eyes and shooed me away.
I ate a burger at the counter and watched the waitresses clean their nails. The driver stayed outside on his cellphone. He ordered right before we left by walking up to the drive-through window.
When I got back on the bus, I saw the old woman had changed her clothes and was drinking a juicebox. She said, ‘There’s no reason to live like animals,’ and picked up her crosswords again.
The next morning I was only ten hours away from my father. I called him and he picked up without saying hello. I guessed he was standing naked in his kitchen with the long phone cord pooled around his slippers.
‘Hi Dad,’ I said. How are you feeling today?’ He didn’t say anything. ‘I’ll be there tonight. If you can’t stay up, please leave the door open. Would you like to write that down? Wednesday night, leave the door open for Susie?’ When he still didn’t say anything, I said, ‘OK. OK. I can’t wait to see you. Bye.’ I waited for him to hang up but he didn’t. I said, ‘I’m hanging up,’ and I did, but he probably stayed on the phone.
I’d felt the old woman eavesdropping during the call. Now that I was done she was calmly smoothing the creases in her pants.
She said, ‘Going to visit your daddy?’
I said that I was.
She turned to me and smiled. ‘Well, that’s nice.’
There was something in her stare, a glint that made her look like she already knew everything and wanted to hear me say it. ‘I’m moving him into a home,’ I said, without being able to stop myself. The words flew out of my mouth.
She gave a few clucks of dispproval. ‘My kids keep on telling me I have to move. I tell them the only way they’re getting me out of my house is if they burn it down.’
‘He’ll probably burn down his house if I don’t move him.’ We both knew I was the enemy. It was stupid to explain.
She said, ‘If he’s going to hurt himself then you have to do it.’ I could tell she didn’t believe it.
I said, ‘I didn’t have much choice.’
She asked where I was coming from.
‘Maine,’ I said.
Her laugh was rough. ‘California’s a long trip,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but it gets shorter every time.’
She looked me up and down. ‘Why didn’t you fly?’
‘Flying isn’t really for me,’ I said and went for a magazine in my purse.
She went back to smoothing her pants and then moved on to picking the lint on her sweater. After a bit she asked, ‘Is it like how it looks in movies?’ Her face was as eager and sincere as a kid’s.
‘You’ve never been on a plane?’
‘No, but I dream about it. I did last night.’ She wasn’t mad at me any more. She wanted my full attention. ‘I’m floating through the sky, going somewhere special. Everyone’s acting civilized.’
I told her that buses were just as good a way to travel.
‘Oh please,’ she said. ‘I decided that if I can cure my granddaughter I will take myself on a trip. I’m not telling anyone. They don’t know what I have left in me.’ She didn’t wait for my questions. ‘I’m going to Ireland. My people were from there.’
The teenagers had reconciled. They were back in the row in front of me but on the other side of the aisle. The girl was clowning for affection, laughing and making faces. Their fights were play. They were still optimistic. They liked making up so much that they weren’t worried about what would stick.
The woman cleared her throat. ‘What’s it like?
‘What’s what like?’
‘It’s like you’re floating, like you said.’
‘No. I want to know everything. Tell me from the beginning.’ She closed her eyes and put her hand on mine. Her spotted fingers were miniatures of my father’s.
My stomach hardened. ‘Airports are always really busy. There are people everywhere, and they’re all in terrible moods. You have to wait in a ton of lines, but security is the worst. They make you take off your shoes. When you’re finally at your gate you can see your plane, and a lot of other planes, out the big windows, but when you walk down the hallway to the plane itself you can only see into its belly. Once you’re on, it takes a while to get to your seat because the aisle’s really crowded and everyone’s fighting over luggage space. It’s always way too hot and there’s at least one baby crying.’
The woman’s eyes were still closed, but her face was tense. She was concerned and distracted. I understood that I was shitting on her dream.
I looked down and expected to see that I was trapped under an airline seatbelt. I untucked my shirt. ‘Once you’re sitting you get to relax,’ I said. ‘The seats are very comfortable and trays fold out from the back of the seat in front of you. The flight attendants are very friendly and pretty. The captain makes an announcement and he usually makes a few jokes. The plane starts moving very slowly, then it picks up speed and goes faster and faster down the runway until suddenly you’re in the air, just like that. The plane climbs very high very quickly.’
The woman’s eyes darted back and forth beneath their lids. ‘What’s out the window?’
‘The windows have shades,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to look.’
‘Tell me,’ she said.
The woman squeezed my hand.
At first,’ I said, ‘you see everything you know get smaller and smaller. Once you’re above the clouds all you see is white below you and a bright blue sky that’s bigger than you could imagine everywhere else.’
She took her hand away from mine and tilted her chin to the sky.
My neck hurt and I was sweating. I shook myself to the ground by thinking about my father and a dog and his porch, waiting for what was coming.
‘After a while the plane levels out. You’re up there for a long while and you get food and drinks. You can even get a cocktail. You watch movies or read magazines and chat with other passengers. Eventually you have to land, so you slowly begin your descent.’
‘Don’t tell me about landing,’ she said. ‘I want to stay up here.’ ■
Image courtesy of jeffschwartz
For more After the War, read an excerpt from Lindsey Hilsum’s ‘The Rainy Season’, and listen to her talk on the Granta podcast, read Frances Harrison on a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Justin Jin’s ‘The Zone of Absolute Discomfort’ and Paul Auster’s ‘You Remember the Planes’.