Category: story

Bus Ride

Photo by RW Rynerson, Fall 1965. Wikimedia Commons.

Eighteen and a tough realization to swallow: Dad’s home was worse than Mom’s. Dad’s wife was more abusive than Mom’s husband. So he decided to jump from the fire and back into the frying pan.

At seventeen he left Mom’s house and flew clear across the country to live with Dad and his new bride. But his new stepmom didn’t like him. Didn’t want him. Besides, she was a crazy, mean drunk. So when he faced a choice between east and west, he opted for a college on the west coast.

She dropped him off at the bus station. So long, you wicked witch of the east, he muttered to himself as she sped away. Depressed, disappointed, and disillusioned, he boarded the Greyhound.

Grand Central Station. A crowded mess for a small town young man who needed to make his connection. He finally found the correct terminal in the hurly-burly ruck of this massive building in the heart of Manhattan. His bewildered eyes were like searchlights, exploring the proper way to go, while at the same time attracting attention.

“Need help?” he heard a gentle Texan drawl. There beside him hovered a tall lank man in a cowboy hat, about ten years older than him. “Howdy, I’m John. John Lash. You goin’ to Albuquerque, too?”

He took in the tall Texan, warily scanning him up and down. “No,” he replied coolly, and turned his attention to studying the transfer ticket in his hands.

“Ah, California. I can see that on your ticket. Well this is the right terminal. Gets confusing here, don’t it?”

The younger man glanced back up. “Yeah, it does.” He felt suspicious and cupped the ticket so this stranger’s prying eyes couldn’t read it anymore.

Lash laughed a little. “Hey, I’m just trying to help. Well if you need anymore help I’ll be standing over there,” he pointed.

What kind of prick am I? The thought sneaked into his head. That guy seems nice enough. He felt a little guilty. A few minutes later he made his way over and introduced himself. “I’m Sal, by the way.” They shook hands.

The Texan was a very present man. He listened attentively. He seemed relaxed and self-assured. He conveyed confidence and security. And he seemed ever ready to assist with any need. These were things this young man craved from the people he associated with, yet received so rarely.

Sal gradually relaxed his guard and fell into the confidence of the self-assured man with the cowboy hat.

The bus ride carried them through the Garden State, and across the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. What an exciting time for this young man, who’s only prior crossing of the continent occurred at 30,000 feet. Now he was getting a ground’s-eye view of America the beautiful.

John Lash befriended him, and they spent many hours in the seat cushions, next to each other, sharing stories, swapping lies, and commenting on the passing scenery.

Lash claimed to be a Texas Aggie alumnus, and regaled him with tales of his A&M years, and the exploits of the Aggie’s famed football team, and all kinds of other stories about Texas. Sal learned that Texas was the last Confederate state to surrender during the Civil War. And he learned that Texas had the best this, and the most that. And he learned these aggrandizing facts with interest, because John Lash had a charisma to him that made every word he uttered seem necessary to know, cool, and immutably correct.

Sal grew fascinated with Lash and the state he hailed from. And he began to wonder if Texas might be a good place to settle down and start a career. This was an important consideration for a fledgling like him, with his whole life ahead of him. Just past a cup of coffee at Hubbard, Ohio he began to to voice this interest to John. The cowboy squinted two approving eyes at him, then lowered his voice and quickly promised, “We’ll talk about it later.”

He then stood up from his seat, swaggered up a few rows, and plunked down next to a pretty young lady who had just boarded at Hubbard. He sparked a conversation with her, and it seemed his charming, genteel ways won her over within minutes.

Sal felt instant jealousy. He was attracted to Lash. Not in a sexual way, for Sal liked pretty young ladies also. But in a comradely way. But now it appeared he had to share his new friend’s attentions with this muliebrity that had transfigured the bus.

Finally the nubile one disembarked a long eight hours later, at her destination in Indianapolis. Lash returned. Now, as promised, the cowboy discussed Texas as a place to live.

Great state, wonderful state, he advertised.

But, he pointed out, New Mexico was even better.

For the first time, he brought up copper mines. He was employed at a copper mine in New Mexico, he revealed. The work was hard, but not too hard, and it paid very well, according to him. Between Terre Haute and St. Louis, he spun yarns and otherwise expounded at length on his experiences in this occupation that he described as the best thing that had ever happened to him, making it seem magical to the ears of the young man beside him.

The bus stopped for a while in Joplin, and they got out to stretch their legs and walk the town a bit. A Mexican man in his 30’s, named Santino, had joined them for occasional conversation, on the bus, and he accompanied the two on the town walk. Their trialogue mainly consisted of comments about various sites they descried. But somehow these comments always found their way back to the copper mines of New Mexico.

Lash startled the young man when he suddenly suggested, “Why don’t you try to get hired where I work?”

“Who, me?!” Sal felt both flattered and flummoxed at the suggestion. “They’d never hire me. I’m too young, and I’ve never done that kind of work before.”

John spit a stream of tobacco onto the street. He was always chewing that stuff. On the bus he carried around an empty soda pop can that he spit frequently into. “Shit!” he declared, “They’re always hiring people. Long as you’re willing to work you’ll do good there. Pays well, too.”

Sal had never lived on his own before. The thought frightened and fascinated him. Here . . . here . . . was an opportunity to make it on his own. He didn’t need college. He didn’t have to go back to living in an abusive home. Why, he could get a good job in New Mexico and never have to live under the roof of an abuser again.

He promised John he’d think about it.

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.

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 something 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 a while.” 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 stripling man 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 college in San Diego. 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 eat, 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.