He was grey, with a five o’clock shadow as rough as the cinderblock walls he was leaning against, shadows pooling in the deep hollow of his cheeks. Grey, in the sort of washed-out dingy way that everyone gets after too long under fluorescent lights, at night when there is only too-bright and too-dark. An ordinary man, with too much of a bottom lip and too sharp of a nose and too heavy of eyelids to appeal; the light playing off of something that had probably been a smile eight hundred miles ago.
He tapped his fingers against his eyebrow as the bus rolled into the station, just before the station was cut in half by a blue and silver bludgeon, one drooping eye flickering in a wink. I dropped my gaze back down to the paperback I’d been trying to find half as interesting as the New York Times bestseller list told me it was, feeling my cheeks flush. Staring. Guilty as charged.
When the bus pulled out, he was gone.
I saw him again in Chattanooga, in between bus rides. He was wearing a battered black leather jacket with a patch on one shoulder that I couldn’t quite make out, and he gave me the same half-salute before stepping into the men’s room.
And Huntsville. And Durant. And Natchez. And Alexandria. He was there at every stop, saluting or winking or just leaning on the wall. Every new paperback, he was just over the cover. Just a man. Grey. Ordinary. Never quite exactly the same.
When I got off the bus at Killeen, I didn’t see him at first. I stood there for a long few minutes until somebody banged a suitcase into my shins and I had to move or fall over, which was when I tripped over the curb and fell over anyway.
There was a blur of corduroy jacket that smelled like someone’s forgotten smoking room, and a now-familiar face all stubble and shadows, and his hands were dusting me off as he stepped back. I could feel the imprint of his long thin fingers on my arm as I watched him raise them to touch the untamed brush of his eyebrow.
“Careful.” His voice was diesel exhaust and the squeal of air brakes. The eight-hundred-mile smile flickered as he turned around, moving slowly, purposefully, away. I stood, frozen.
“Wait!” He stopped, glanced over his shoulder. His eyes were weathered-asphalt grey. “Who—” He just shook his head.
“Ride longer.” And he was gone, blending into the passengers loading a coach for Austin. Or maybe not. I thought I saw him in the turnstiles.
I bought a ticket for Gallup, got a new paperback. Got on my bus. At Gallup I bought a ticket for Durango and at Durango I headed for Moab. I stopped caring where I was going; just got on the bus, opened my book, got off the bus, got a new ticket, got on the bus.
In North Dakota I stopped buying new paperbacks. In Nebraska I stopped sleeping. And somewhere on the outbound bus from Champaign I looked at the dark window at the reflection of the empty seat next to me and he was sitting there.
I looked at my reflection beside his in the window as the city unrolled behind and through us: gaunt, grey, hollow; my eyelids too heavy and my lips too full. One finger tapped his lips, and his smile had a thousand miles or more behind it. The five o’clock shadow on his cheeks shifted as he spoke.
“You can ride forever, can’t you?”