This is the conclusion to Bus Ride, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. Click this link for Part 1.
Bus Ride (Conclusion)
Past the Oklahoma Ozarks, the sleek Greyhound raced. John, Santino, and Sal got into a penny-ante poker game at the back of the bus. John kept at it with his fulsome praise of the copper mining industry, while Santino seemed bored and kept trying to change the subject. Sal felt a little annoyed with Santino about this, but minded his manners.
Then Santino lost a big pot to John and had to stop playing. Sal felt guilty pleasure at Santino’s misfortune, but did his best to keep his glee to himself.
A long stop at Oklahoma City invited a stroll in the summer morning heat. Santino guided the conversation to food, and how hungry he felt. John bought him a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor, then steered the talk back to the glory of copper.
An hour later, the motorcoach flew further down the highway.
Sal felt intrigued by the long cracks in the earth, breaking through the Llano Estacado of the Texas panhandle. And of course Lash, a Texas native, had plenty of tales to tell about his supposed exploits in Amarillo.
By this time the two were great friends, and Sal drank in every word uttered by this cowboy, like a longhorn steer at a watering hole. But the subject of copper mining no longer came up much, because it already seemed like a given that Sal was sold on the prospect. Besides, Santino had done a fairly good job of discouraging any further talk on the matter. All Lash did was occasionally check to make sure Sal was still interested.
Sheet lightning washed over the long bus as it motored into Tucumcari. “Ya see,” Lash drawled, “Indian legend has it that many years ago there lived two great chiefs, named Tucum and Cari. They fought a great battle here, and from then on lightning strikes became very common on this plain. This town gets more lightning strikes than anywhere else in the world.”
This was all pure bullshit, but it sounded great to Sal. He believed it. He believed anything his Texan friend told him. But he barely heard John, because he was looking forward with so much excitement to his new life that was about to unfold, as a New Mexican copper miner.
Around midnight, air brakes hissed the Greyhound to a long stop at a terminal in the downtown Albuquerque bus station. Everyone had to get out for a spell to allow for cleaning. But also this was Lash’s destination. And Sal’s too now, it would seem. Sal stuck beside his Texan friend, while Santino tagged along to say his goodbyes.
John Lash called his brother, informed him of his arrival, and told him he had a friend with him who also needed to be picked up.
Santino moved into Sal’s view and suddenly, ever so briefly, transformed into a singular figure of abject fear. “Are you sure you want to do this, Sal?” he gasped.
The worry lines, the genuine concern that flashed on his face . . . it triggered a feeling like a kick in the gut. And suddenly Sal felt doubts.
Lash heard the question and spun around to face Sal, with an inquiring look.
“Uh, yeah, I, I, I don’t know. I think so.”
Lash’s eyes were gimlets, boring into his skull. “You mean to tell me you were all fired up all this time about working at the copper mine, and now you’re not sure? Come on!”
“No, I still want to do it. I think. But then I won’t go to college. My mom is expecting me tomorrow in San Diego. What do I tell her?”
“Hay-ell,” John drawled out. “You can call ‘mommy’ tomorrow and jist tell her. That way she won’t worry. Come on. Be a man. Be like a Texan.”
Calling her in the morning sounded kind of reassuring to Sal, but he still felt troubled. It’s funny how a person can feel very enthusiastic about a big decision until the time actually arrives to commit. Hesitation has a way of stealing its way into the soul of those who possess even a small fraction of wisdom. And even at his young age, Sal possessed a bit of wisdom. For wisdom is known to weave itself into the warp and weft of children who endure years of abuse.
It’s a good thing, this hesitation and wisdom. It can really save you sometimes.
They kicked it around some more, and then a half hour later a fourth man appeared in their midst. John Lash’s brother, George. George looked nothing like John. He had a dumpy figure, was slovenly dressed, and seemed about ten years older.
George looked Sal up and down. He glanced over to John with a fleetingly approving look. Then he sort of whined, “Oh, I don’t know . . . I guess he can come if you want.” He shrugged his shoulders and sighed, “He can sleep on the couch for awhile.” He acted as if this would be something of an imposition, but expressed a reluctant willingness to humor his brother.
The two Lashes directed hard gazes Sal’s way. Sal rolled his head up, down, then all around, trying to dodge eye contact and the pressure that goes with it. Then he caught Santino’s eyes, who stood out of view from the brothers, behind them. Santino dramatically shook his head side to side, while mouthing the word, “NO!”
Sal was young, but not so naive he couldn’t recognize the quality of Santino’s character. This Mexican was no nonsense. He hardly possessed a fraction of the excitement and charisma owned by John, but he did carry within him a somber grasp of reality, and resignation to the hard facts of life, that seemed to kind of elude the self-assured cowboy.
Sal didn’t like such resignation, because it was so unexciting. But his own life experience enabled him to connect with it. It was familiar. It was real. And it was something he knew he could count on.
It was enough. This unspoken “NO” from Santino was perhaps the most fortunate piece of advice Sal would ever receive. And Sal took it to heart.
“I think I’ll pass, John,” Sal murmured, feeling a little ashamed.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes!” with a little more emphasis. Sal hung his head but stood his ground, as a diesel engine purred in the background.
The bus was now boarding. It was time for a parting. They all shook hands and the Lash brothers sauntered out of the station.
Who knows what might have happened had this young naif gone with them? Perhaps you can imagine many hypotheticals. But here’s what we do know. Here’s what resulted from Sal’s decision:
Sal attended community college in southern California. After college he faltered in his career aspirations, as many young men do who’ve emerged from an abusive childhood. But he eventually found success, entered into a satisfying marriage, and retired in relative comfort.
As for John Lash, he and his brother were also successful. Over the next six years they succeeded at luring eight young men into their home. There they raped, tortured, and strangled them with ligatures.
They buried their bodies in an abandoned copper mine.
Santino hung near Sal all the way to San Bernardino. When the Greyhound stopped from time-to-time to allow its passengers to get off and find a place to dine, Santino followed him to various eateries and never left Sal’s side.
You see, Santino was penniless and very hungry, and Sal had a few bucks to spend. In Flagstaff, Sal bought him some burritos at Taco Bell. Barstow saw Sal treating Santino to a bag of chips from a vending machine.
Sal didn’t have much money, and felt annoyed with Santino’s mooching ways. Such annoyance is understandable, given Sal’s limited resources. But any annoyance would have quickly evaporated had he realized then, just who this man was that he was feeding.
For as it turned out, Santino was Sal’s guardian angel.
The only part of this tale that is fiction, is that I don’t really know what the hell John Lash and his brother were up to. They could have been genuine, and really wanted to help me get a job in a copper mine. But my older, wiser self feels very doubtful about that.
Maybe they were just planning to rob me of what little I had. Or maybe they were planning to traffic me into the world of male prostitution. Or perhaps drug smuggling. Who knows? I only know that I’m alive to tell this tale today. I did not fall prey. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Oh yeah, the other part that may not be true is Sal being a guardian angel. Maybe he was just a hungry moocher who saw me as a meal ticket he didn’t want to lose. Is there really such a thing as guardian angels? Who knows?
Click to the next story, to read Calamity in a Cornfield.
Categories: Series (Stories): Go West Or Go Weird