The station had seen it’s better day, that was for sure. Beneath the grime the cavernous station showed a little bit of the opulence that had greeted bus travelers back in the 1940s. Today, in 1989, those little bits of unbroken molding projected the depressing fact that it was mostly the poor who traveled by bus. The air had a tang of motor oil and stale cigarette smoke with just a hint of urine.
Rick noticed a man hanging out in the shadows. Something about him didn’t look quite right. It wasn’t the shabby clothes. It was more the way the man held himself.
Rick watched wearily as the man approached him.
“Hey man, I have some killer weed,” The guy said as he approached. “Can’t get this shit nowhere else, man. Follow me and we’ll smoke a sample joint.”
“Um, no thanks,” Rick answered.
“Ah, come on man, it’s great shit,” the guy said. “Like Maui Wow Weed, man.”
“No, thank you,” Rick said. He glanced over to the far corner where a cop was sleeping. How quickly would the cop respond if he shouted?
The drug dealer followed his glaze and laughed. “Don’t worry about Jim, man,” he said. “We have an understanding.”
Rick put a hand into his book bag and said, “I have a 44 magnum in here. It’s the most powerful handgun in the world. It’ll blow your head clean off. Do you feel lucky?”
“Alright, asshole, I was just trying to be friendly,” The guy said. “Worst Clint I ever heard.” He walked away.
Rick looked down at his watch. 4:30. He’d been there for almost 2 hours. Wasn’t anyone going to pick him up? Perhaps they’d forgotten again.
He had enough for a cab, but barely. If he took a cab and somebody did show up they’d be major league pissed at him.
He continued to wait. More people started to fill in the station. As the morning started the dress code seemed to go up. There were even a few business travelers in suits and ties.
At a quarter to 7 he gave up and caught a taxi. It was a thirty minute drive and took most of his money.
“Hey, I’m home from school,” he announced as he walked through the front door.
“No you’re not,” he heard his dad say from the dining room. “You’re not getting in until 2 this afternoon.”
“It was 2 this morning, Dad, not this afternoon. I waited as long as I could,” Rick said as he walked through the kitchen to the dining room. His parents were in the middle of breakfast.
“Figures,” his dad said. “Inconsiderate as always, expecting people to wait on you hand and foot at all hours of the morning. Ah, look, you made me late for work again.”
His dad pushed the half eaten eggs away and left.
“Well dear,” his mother said, “put your stuff in your old bedroom and come down for breakfast. I think we have some cereal from when you were here on summer break.”
“The semester went well, thanks. Finals were a bear, but I survived.” His mother just looked at him blankly. Rick sighed. “OK, thanks Mom,” he said. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
As he walked through the living room he stopped and looked at the artificial tree. He remembered the tree from his early childhood, how big and full it seemed. He remembered the Christmas he first noticed the whiskey on his dad’s breath. He remembered the first time he noticed his mother’s vacant eyes and hollow smile, her looking as if a giant spider had sucked out all of the life and happiness. He remembered when they stopped trying to hide the drink and the arguments.
The tree looked much more lifeless than he ever remembered.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered to himself. “Merry Christmas and good will to men.”
Note – I know some kids who take the bus home from college. It seems bus travel has improved since I last used that mode of transportation. Once in the late 1980s I traveled across the country by bus. I was in the Cleveland bus station for less than 30 minutes yet had 2 different people approach me trying to sell drugs. Luckily a family member did pick me up before I was approached by a 3rd or 4th and my reception at home was much, much better than in this story.