‘This ain’t exactly Hell. It sure as Hell ain’t Heaven... I guess I’ll do my waitin’ in this purgatory line.’
– ‘The Purgatory Line’, Drive-By Truckers
Christ, he looked tough. They all did, but he looked especially tough. Tough and dangerous. As though he’d been designed for violence. A genuine Mustang Man.
He was sitting on the hard and cold floor. It looked like he’d been there all night. He was about thirty-five, I suppose. His faded jeans were torn and he wore almost knee-length boots that were scuffed and haggard. Those boots had seen a few things, done a few things. I don’t even know what sort of shirt he had on. It was probably a ripped lumberjack, but my eyes were drawn to his tattoos. He was covered in them. And not designer type ones, but ones that looked like they’d been done by crude hand-fashioned implements in the blazing sun of some hot prison yard. Of course, his face was stubbled – it wasn’t designer either – and he had a strong, unkempt moustache and goatee beard. There were tattoos on his face; specifically under his eyes. They were very rudimentary in design. On one upper cheek there were some intersecting lines in a ‘noughts and crosses’ pattern. The opposite side held a tear drop coming down from under his eye. Not a real tear drop, but a tattooed one. I remembered being told by someone who seemed to know, that a tattooed tear drop meant that you’d been in jail or had killed someone or both. I’m not sure which. Either way, I’ve always been firm in my view that any man who gets his face tattooed is pretty tough. Tougher than me, anyway.
‘Christ, he looks tough,’ I whispered to Lucy, looking away from the subject and trying to act casual.
‘Which one?’ she mumbled back, immediately falling in with my pantomime.
‘The really tough one. Any tougher and he’d rust.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I’ve noticed him. How do you find the tattoos?’
‘Tough. I think that tear one means…’
‘That he’s killed someone,’ she said, cutting me off.
‘Yeah, that’s what I thought. Don’t make eye contact, whatever you do.’
‘I won’t,’ she replied. ‘He’s one of those guys who could just go berserk at any minute’.
‘Yeah. I’m pretty sure he’s done some time. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t white collar.’
I looked at the list of stations on the sign above the man’s head as a distraction, then quickly down to his face again. He had his right index finger well up his nostril and was staring directly at me, a blank emotionless expression on his face; an expression so cold that it effortlessly conveyed ‘I’ll happily gut you like a pig without raising my heart beat one iota’.
I averted my eyes as quickly as I could, without appearing obvious, an effect I’m sure I didn’t come close to achieving.
Another gaze around the station to show blasé, before turning back to Lucy.
‘He’s staring right at me,’ I said.
‘He’s been staring at me too.’
‘Christ, I hope he’s not sitting anywhere near us.’
‘I’m going to sleep for a week when I get home,’ a young and fit-looking black man said loudly to nobody in particular. ‘A fucking week.’
‘The first thing I’msa gunna do is shower,’ replied a white man who was standing nearby. He spoke with a southern drawl and was wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.
‘Shower. What a beautiful word. Beautiful word, shower.’ Sitting on a metal wire chair against the window a few metres away was an obese white woman with bedraggled straw-like hair. She was alone. Most of the people seemed alone, but an unsavoury camaraderie appeared to be developing.
Standing next to us was a short, bald white man in his mid-twenties. He had a black T-shirt on that advertised a heavy-metal band that I didn’t know. He looked fairly tough in his own right.
‘I’ve got a three year old daughter,’ he opened with, completely non-sequitur. Perhaps we’d missed the back story. He was standing with a trailer-park skank, presumably not the mother. Her age was difficult to determine. Very hard to tell with the skanks.
He went to speak again.
‘I wonder where this synaptic misfire will land,’ I said to Lucy under my breath.
‘Actually,’ he went on. ‘I had better stop talking now. Right now. Whatever I say will offend somebody for sure.’
‘Man, an uppercut is no good as a punch,’ he continued, in what I gathered he considered a less offensive subject. ‘Just no good.’
‘Totally,’ agreed the young black man, seizing on some common ground.
‘Yeah,’ said Bald Man, as he demonstrated his right uppercut in a fast and repeated cadence. ‘You’re just in way too close. I prefer the straight.’ He threw three straight rights, then began pacing like a frustrated animal in a zoo cage.
It was 8.25am and there were about thirty people ahead of us in the queue. My meagre wealth undoubtedly exceeded the collective of theirs. We were waiting for the 9.25am Greyhound bus to Nashville, Tennessee; the ‘Dog’ or ‘Dawg’, as it’s affectionately known by the scourge of the earth that ride it.
‘Will everybody listen up now?’ yelled a burly woman from the entrance to gate 6 in front of us. She was wearing a high-visibility yellow vest. ‘Anybody who has bags to go under the bus, bring them forward now. But we are not boarding at this time.’ Always so many rules on the Dog. ‘I repeat, we are not boarding at this time.’
‘You wait here,’ I said to Lucy. ‘I’ll get these bags up. We don’t want to lose our place in the line.’
I wheeled our suitcases to the doorway.
‘Sorry,’ I said, as I hit into somebody’s elbow. It was Mustang Man.
He turned around with an economy of motion. You could tell that he definitely knew how to handle himself.
‘Did I hit you?’ he said in an accusatory manner.
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘You’re right. You’re right.’
I moved forward, trying to seem self-assured.
‘Where are you going, sir?’ the burly lady asked me.
‘Nashville.’ You use few words with the Greyhound staff. They’re angry and they don’t enjoy chit chat.
‘Leave your bags here and go back in line.’
I did. Lucy had held firm on our place in the queue and we hadn’t lost any ground. In fact, we’d gained some. Not that I was happy about that. Now standing behind us were the bald man and his skank, the fit black man, the cowboy hat man, Mustang Man and a drug-addled worm who had joined their party. They were in front of us before the bag drop.
‘We’ve been hosed,’ said Drug Boy, the vile little newcomer. ‘Fucking hosed.’
‘Shhhooooss.’ The fit guy mimicked the noise of a hose. It was directed towards us.
‘They’re onto us,’ I said to Lucy. ‘And,’ appraising us both, ‘we really need to reassess our outfits for the Mid-West leg.’
I was in bright pink, flowery Abercrombie & Fitch board shorts, green Havaiana flip-flops, a Tiger Beer T-shirt and Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Lucy was wearing leopard-print ballet pumps with a red trim, as well as a tight-fitted vest. Her brown hair was flowing past her shoulders and her olive skin glowed, her dark eyes mesmerized. Aubin & Wills terracotta preppie shorts showed off her smooth, toned and tanned legs. God, she looked good. She always looked good. The most beautiful girl in the room, in every room, she could brighten an entire place with her smile, that heartbreaking smile. She was like a supernova in this hovel of bottom feeders.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘We look like we’ve just stepped out of a Harvard Law School tutorial. You should at least rethink the watch.’ It was a Daytona Rolex, albeit a knock-off, but a very good one.
We stood out like dogs’ balls.
‘Yeah, the watch has to go,’ I said. ‘And I’m thinking cargo shorts from now on. Or faded jeans and boots.’
I also had $1,200 in cash in a clear freezer packet in my pocket. The bastards would have inhaled me if they’d known that.
The high-visibility vested Dog employee stood in the doorway again, making herself as large as possible. She was large.
‘It is time to board the bus,’ she yelled. ‘Board the bus. Ensure you do so in an orderly fashion, following the yellow line. You must follow the yellow line.’
‘A few of this mob should be quite used to that,’ I mumbled to Lucy.
‘Follow the yellow line,’ the employee added for clarity.
‘This is the last time,’ Lucy said.
I nodded and we walked up the steps and onto the Dog.