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Red Planet

I’m going on a bus. By God! On a bus. Out of Dubuque on the midnight line and Greyhounding through the midwest firefly night. Sleeping in the recliner at sixty miles an hour across moon-brightened plains. Stop off in Memphis. Lunch in New Orleans. Breakfast here, dinner there. By God, around the country on a bus. Around the world on that sucker!

Monty, grinning ear to ear, bag in hand, strides into the mouth of a red brick depot. He removes a crumpled hat, looks left, looks right, and smacks suitcase first into the tail end of an old grey lady in a red suit, pink hat, and lace veil, knocking baggage askew and the old lady onto dimpled knees, gasping and shaking.

“I really am sorry ma’am, I…”

“Beast!” she screams. “Beast!”

“Pardon me ma’am, you see…”

My God. Old lady’s setting in to pound me now with that there little bag on a string. Probably filled with rocks or dimes or something. Best set things to right. Make another effort to beg her pardon.

Monty, hat in hand, opens his mouth, when a third voice pipes in. “Leave the lady be, young man.”

Yes sir, will do sir, count on me sir. Lady can be and I’ll leave. Got to catch a bus. So sorry. Monty, backing off toward the ticket window, leaving the grey lady in a huff, she talking ever so plaintively to three old cohorts, all seemingly off on a tour of the Black Hills. To the rugged Dakotas to get a glimpse of those cold stone faces. Monty pondering slowly that northwest passage.

Ah! I can see our man now. Rock-jawed and ripping down poop-out hill. Big stick in hand and a truckload of freedom on call. Fine subject for a granite hillside. Perhaps there lies the destination, in the great northwest. The home of the grizzly bear and the Indian.

Monty, firmly astride his charger, strolls on up to the window with his country gait, his free hand trapped in his pocket and his grin once again spreading forth. “Beg your pardon, ma’am, but I’m in need of a bus ticket.”

* * * * *

“Yes, sir. Will you be traveling far?”

“You’re dadburn right!” says Monty with a well-stifled whoop.

The clerk glances up from the window and spies Monty’s chin, covered slightly with fuzz, Monty’s face toward the heavens. Monty examines an old round clock with its black Roman numerals and rust frame. He glances back down at the clerk with a grin suddenly sheepish.

“I was just lookin’ at that there clock yonder on the wall.” Monty a bit disjointed and groping in rear pockets for his wallet.

“Son, just where do you want to go?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know. I’ve got plenty of money here. Which direction does this here bus go to?”

“Well now, this here bus goes just about all over the place. There and back again.”

Monty, casting crumpled bills beneath the cage, grins again. “I’m going as far as this here money will allow, ma’am. As far as I can. And I don’t need to come back, neither.”

The ticket lady, glancing up with a yellow eye, reaches forth a ticket, punched and pale, to the destitute Monty, a secretive grin there detectable to his trained eye.

Monty shuffles off past long soiled couches in a nearly empty station. The Black Hills Special meanwhile tools west in a crescendo of power, leaving a relieved Monty waving goodbye through a window, grey with the dust of the ages, at the disappearing heads of the aged. The taillights shrink round the distant corner while inside the station sit five waiting travelers. They clutch small suitcases and their heads nod, bounce, and nod again.

A short moment passes before the white lights of an incoming bus herald its arrival. Monty joins the five through the exit and climbs aboard, stowing suitcase overhead and sinking low into the plush seat.

We’re off now. Like a breath of fresh wind. Leaving old Dubuque behind to wither. A warm night, quiet outside, as this massive bus pulls away from a yellow curb.

Monty reaches into a shirt pocket for the stub, nearly falls forward as the bus lurches to a halt, and the old lady, purse full of dimes, huffs and puffs on board. Off again, Monty and the six now. The grey lady shuffles down the aisle, and sits across from a short gentleman with an overly large head, and dressed in a tweed suit. Smiling sideways, she puffs: “I nearly missed the bus, being in the lavatory and all. I wonder, did they take two after all?”

The dwarf inclines his head, peering at her out of a solitary eye which revolves about a central axis like the eye of a parrot. The bus sails onward, out into the empty plains where lightning bugs bob amid corn stalks like capering stars in the dark. The lady awaits some sort of reply, dabbing at dimpled cheeks with a hanky and nodding slowly, with a smile, toward the gentleman’s eye.

“I say, I don’t remember seeing you about the grounds. Have you just recently moved to the home?”

The dwarf, who has a wrinkled face and two pointed ears, turns toward the window, declining to comment, and pulls a silver cloth hat with a stiff brim down low over his eyes. Monty, sitting five seats back, sees the old lady, used so roughly but a short while before, talking and smiling and nodding to an apparently empty seat; our midget slumped low, head midway up the back and feet midway to a gum-strewn floor.

I’m damned. Here she sits talking to that there empty seat, or so it would seem. But no, now that I’m pressed, there was that short fellow with the tweeds and the hat. That grizzled looking guy with the hat. Yes sir. But what’s she doing here? Intends to floor me with the dimes still. Take me in the back while I’m dozing and leave me senseless beneath the seat.

Monty reaches into his pocket and plucks forth a half dozen small objects: a horse chestnut, a red and black bean, a tiny purple spaceman waving an ominous-looking ray-gun, two polished stones, and a red agate marble—wonderfully mottled with dark swirls and checked with moon-shaped craters.

Nothing in the world so beautiful as a marble. These chips just make it shine. Hold it to the light and a whole frozen world sparkles inside. Always there waiting, no matter what. You never want to lose your shooter. Keep it in there. In your pocket where you can pull it out and look inside like some tiny enchanted crystal ball. If you tilt it and turn it just right you’ll see something there. Something you can’t see out here in this odd bus, flying like the purple spaceman’s ship for who knows where. Those two guys in the seat up front. Twins. Bald spot on the tops of their heads, like some grey-suited monks. Striped coats, high-water pants. May well be Tweedledee and Tweedledum, sitting so still there in those big seats. And off to the left; a desperately strange couple with a greenish tinge to their skin. Don’t even want to think about that. Best duck down a bit, avoid being sighted by the old dime lady. Too late.

“Howdy, ma’am. Can’t tell you how sorry I am for smacking you like that back in the station.”

“Hmph,” she replies, but seems to be yielding.

The dwarf, round silver hat low over the left eye, comes peeking over the back of his seat at Monty who nods civilly and tries not to stare at the pointy ears. On impulse the grey lady stands, smiles at the peeping dwarf, and stumbles toward the rear, seating herself across from Monty.

“Accidents will happen, son.”

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t I know.”


“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Where are we going? Is this bus going toward the Black Hills?”

“It may well be, ma’am.”

“You don’t know?”

“No, ma’am.”

The dwarf, head showing above the back of the recliner, fingers gripping the soft velvety fabric, pursing his lips and wrinkling his cheeks, shakes his head in a slow negative. He disappears.

Now what in the devil did that mean? Must go slowly with these people. Feel them out, so to speak. No more incidents, I’ on vacation here. Permanent vacation. Time to redeem myself with this here lady. Fine person really, I suppose. No use getting off, as usual, on the wrong foot.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I’ll just go forward and ask the driver. I’m sure he’ll know.”

“Well, yes. Perhaps you should. I’d be frightfully upset if I were on the wrong bus.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Monty, off up the aisle to speak to the driver. Bus drivers are unusually well informed. Especially about destinations. Barbers, bus drivers, and cowboys; they’ll always know, one way or the other.

The bus, jerking along the dark highway, across the rolling hills of the midwest like some trackless roller-coaster that may well go on forever. Never circle back around to that dust-settled station; that town of sage barbers and hooting cowboys and nothing at all but the smell of dry wind blowing along stale streets. A steep dipping hill leaves Monty weightless in the aisle, plummeting through deep space. He staggers forward, lunges for the back of a seat to steady himself and sprawls sideways, like a crab washed from its hold by the tides, into Tweedledee whose leg is thrust into the aisle.

“I say! Here now. What in the world are you doing, boy?”

“Excuse me sir. Going up to talk to the driver there. It’s about where this bus is going. I’m not sure, and the lady back there might be on the wrong bus.”

“You might be on the wrong bus you mean,” says the green man, smirking at poor tripped-up Monty. Tweedledee and Tweedledum burst into simultaneous laughter. The dwarf tugs on the bill of his hat and turns to stare out of the window.

Oh, jeez. Got to watch that. Can’t go stumbling around upsetting things like that. Always comes to no good. Must talk to the driver there, staring out through his tinted window with those yellow eyes glowing in the light of the dashboard.

“Excuse me sir, but where does this here bus go?”

“Most everywhere, boy. All over the place mostly, I suppose. Here and there.”

“Yes, sir, but that lady back there is afraid she’s on the wrong bus. Do we go anywhere near the Black Hills?”

“More or less,” says the driver, sipping dark coffee from a stained paper cup. “More or less.”

“Thank you.” Monty, baffled, turns to see the grey lady, seated once more by the dwarf, pointing toward Monty and whispering terrible things. Monty tiptoes carefully past Tweedledee whose eyes have blinked shut. Asleep perhaps. A grey leg darts out into the aisle as Monty stumbles past. Raucous laughter from the man with the green skin.

Best sit down here near this lady and the dwarf. Try to make conversation. What is this thing I’m kicking about beneath the seat? A shoe, by God. An old, beaten, cast-off shoe. Like at the lake when you walk along the shore in the early morning. You find a shoe, just one, caked with sand, tongue protruding and laces gone. Who leaves those shoes there? Why don’t they leave two? What do they do with the other one? Do they go home in one shoe? There’s something I don’t know about. Must be something. No use in trying to reason it out. Take this Greyhound bus to Mars. Grass couldn’t be any less green.

Just get on and sail down the road that stretches like a dark ribbon through the waving wheat hair of the midwest. The road that narrows and narrows off into the distance to be swallowed up by the gentle curve of the horizon. From one world into the next. Like old Dad; stepping aboard that dark shadow bus one day and riding into lunacy. Dropped off at the place there, outside of town. Outside of any town I know. Stepped aboard in daylight and off again in darkness. Maybe. Maybe somewhere else. Maybe somewhere that he wouldn’t want to come back from. How do I know?

“Pardon me?”

“What? Oh, yes. The driver says we might go to the Black Hills at that. It didn’t seem certain though.”

“What do you mean, young man. Are you having me on again? A poor old lady like me?”

Monty slouching low in the seat, trying to assure her otherwise. Perhaps best just to keep a tight lip. Don’t give them anything to hold on to. Nothing to poke and jab at. There’s Tweedledee and the green man, staring back. Must try to smile. Nod politely as they glance at each other and smirk. My but they’re clever, those two. Like the rest of them back home. If they can’t throw rocks they throw other things at you with their eyes.

“Excuse me sir,” says Monty to the dwarf, always apologizing.

“Yes sir. It’s a fine night out, isn’t it?”


Monty snaps open his leather bag and pulls out a book, rather dog-eared and homey looking. Forget this dwarf. Plunge into the pages of this book like I plunge into the night on this bus. Forever crossing into some new land. You just have to get underway, that’s all. Ride with the elves in search of the man in the moon. With the white hunter through savage Africa. Follow the trail of a grey old wizard through magic lands, far from the reaches of the cold dust wind of the plains. Take this star schooner of a bus through twirling space, bound for Mars. Just climb aboard, cut the moorings, and cast off.

The dwarf there, speaking to the grey lady in undertones. Setting her straight perhaps. He knows where we’re headed and always has, by God. Anyone with pointed ears and that glittering silver hat knows something. He rides busses a lot, that one does. I bet he even knows about those lonely shoes I stumble across, now and again.

“Pardon me sir, but where are we going?”


“I say, where are we bound?”

The dwarf winks. He nods toward the darkened window and points a long thin finger toward the jeweled heavens that hang so low overhead.

The bus whizzes along silently, dipping down and flying over hills that lie on the plains like grim whales on the bottom of the sea. Monty, looking out from inside a tiny flying fish, sailing amidst the black leviathan. By God! On a bus. You can go anywhere on this sucker. The bus, over a dip in the road, nosing skyward, ascending, angling straight up toward where the dwarf’s finger had pointed, only a moment before. Straight up through the speckled dark as the moon and the stars seem to grow and brighten with a beckoning shimmer.

“That’d be mighty fine. Mighty fine,” says Monty to no one in particular, settling back into the folds of the plush recliner, book lying open on his lap. Through the dim window the bright dots of the stars hover thick in the night sky. So thick and big that you couldn’t shoot a bullet up there without hitting one of them; let alone a bus. The great circle of the red planet swings into view, misty and crisscrossed with inexplicable lines like the intricate translucent swirlings of the agate marble in Monty’s pocket. The fiery eye of a winking enchantress. “By God!” breathes Monty. “Mighty fine.”

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