SAFE, RELIABLE, COURTEOUS by Mimi Lipson
KITTY FALLS into a deep, instant sleep outside San Diego as the bus labors up the El Cajon pass. The whine of the engine invades her dreams. She’s trapped in the cargo hold of an airplane. She’s engulfed in a swarm of insects. She’s crawling on hands and knees through an air-conditioned tunnel.
When she fights her way back to consciousness, she finds herself wedged into a fetal position with her head jammed into the carpet-covered wall. It’s still dark out, and the bus is idling somewhere. She sits up and looks out the window. They’re in a concrete bay outside a depot. A line of people waits under the fluorescent lights: a young woman holding a sleepy child in pajamas; two box-shaped Mexican men wearing brightly colored knit shirts, their pants sharply creased; and towering over all of them, a skinny white kid with a nylon gym bag. He looks about Kitty’s age, or maybe a few years younger—eighteen or nineteen. He has frizzy, shoulder-length hair. He wears paratrooper pants tucked into engineer boots, and a leather jacket that is much too small for him, exposing several inches above his wrists. The door sighs open and the line shuffles forward. Kitty lies back down and pretends to be asleep, and by the time they reach the interstate she’s drifted off.
When she wakes again, the bus is flooded with light. They are traveling across a high plain. Her neck hurts, and she’s very thirsty, having forgotten to bring anything to drink. She takes a fat paperback out of her backpack: The Executioner’s Song. On the cover is a flat western landscape at sunset. A silhouette of power lines vanishes into darkness. Kitty plans to lose herself in the book while they cross the vast interior of the continent, but now she’s distracted by the glare outside her window. She traces an overpass to a distant town and tries to imagine living in one of the white ranch houses, a mile or so beyond the highway. After a while her eyes go out of focus. She falls asleep again.
AN ANGRY VOICE from somewhere in the back of the bus jolts Kitty awake:
“Fuck off, you fucking zombie!”
Another voice, raised to keep up with the first:
“Now that’s a shame. Truly a shame, because the Lord wants you to join him—”
“Leave me alone!”
A boy stands up on the seat in front of her to look. The boy’s mother pulls him down, but she’s staring too.
“He wants you with him in the kingdom of Heaven. All will be forgiven—”
“I didn’t do anything, genius, so why do I need to be forgiven?”
Heads are craned all the way down the aisle, but Kitty doesn’t need to turn around. She knows, from a sullen note in the first voice, that it’s the skinny white guy she’d seen getting on the bus last night. The voices get louder until, finally, the driver pulls onto the shoulder and comes up the aisle, leaning his bulk on every other seat. He looks more bored than irritated.
“If you gentlemen can’t keep it down, you’re both getting put off this bus in Flagstaff. You hear me?”
“I didn’t do anything,” the sullen voice protests. “This clown won’t shut up.”
“Okay, you, come with me.”
The driver puts the skinny kid in the seat next to Kitty and lumbers back up the aisle.
“I fucking hate Christians,” her new seatmate says as the bus merges into the traveling lane. He takes a sketchpad and a pencil out of his gym bag and begins drawing. When the little boy pops up over the seat again, staring at him with frank interest, he says, “Take a picture. It’ll last longer.” Again the boy’s mother yanks him down again. Kitty can see him peering out between the seats. “Kids like me because I’m weird-looking,” her seatmate says. He goes back to his drawing—some kind of futuristic car. He works quickly and expertly, shading with the side of his pencil lead.
The boy stands on his seat again. “Can you draw me something?” he asks. This time his mother leaves him alone.
“Yeah, okay. Do you like dune buggies?”
“I don’t know,” he says shyly.
Kitty’s seatmate draws a dune buggy. And then, on command, a dog and a truck. “Now I’m gonna make something scary,” he says. He draws a skeleton. After considering it for a minute, pencil to lips, he adds a pirate’s hat and a sword, dripping with blood. He tears the sheet off and hands it to the little boy.
“You know what’s scary?” the boy, says. “A bat!”
“Skeletons are scarier than bats,” he says with authority.
“No, bats are scarier.”
He snorts. “You’re nuts.” He puts his drawing pad away.
“Bats bats bats!” sings the boy, and his mother yanks him down again.
In Flagstaff everyone gets off the bus to stretch their legs. Kitty buys some cheese crackers and a soda from the vending machines in the station. Back outside, she finds her seatmate smoking a cigarette. He offers her one, but she shakes her head.
“How far are you going?” she asks.
He’s going to his father’s house in South Jersey, a town called Cherry Hill.
“I’ve heard of that. What’s it like?”
“Cheery Hell,” he says by way of comment.
Actually, she thinks, he’s not weird looking at all. He has classically handsome features: a long, straight nose and hazel eyes, a Dudley Do-Right dimple in his strong chin. There’s motility to his face, though—changing with each new thought. That must be why kids stare at him.
“I’m Kitty,” she says.
“Isaac.” He crushes his cigarette under his boot.
Ten minutes later they’re in their seats waiting for the stragglers to board. A young man in a dark suit gives Isaac a baleful look as he passes. He has short hair, and his face is pink with razor rash and acne.
“Have you heard the good news about Satan?” Isaac asks him in a chipper voice.
KITTY SEES A SIGN for the Petrified Forest an hour outside of Flagstaff, but there’s no evidence of it in the landscape. She thought Arizona would look like a Krazy Kat cartoon: buttes and mesas etched with deep orange and blue shadows, undistorted in the dry air, so that they would seem unnaturally close, as if they were passing in slow motion just outside her window and she could reach over and brush them with her hand.
Though the actual scenery is boring—flat and grey, with rubbly hills in the far distance—she doesn’t look away until the sun has crossed the sky. Isaac has been, by turns, napping and drawing. He’s working on another futuristic car now. When he notices Kitty looking, he positions his sketchbook to give her a better view.
“That’s really good,” she says. “It looks like a real industrial drawing.”
“I can draw anything.” It’s not a boast, just a statement of fact. “I was supposed to go to the Art Center in Pasadena. It’s the ultimate school for auto design.”
“I don’t know. Why bother?”
“I guess so you can design cars?”
“That’s true,” he says, as though it hadn’t occurred to him.
She pulls out her book.
“I read that,” Isaac says. “Gary Gilmore. He kicks ass.”
Kitty has no patience for serial-killer worship. It reminds her of high school boys in Charles Manson shirts.
“A kid offered me ten thousand dollars to kill his brother,” he says. “But I was too much of a pussy.”
She lets it pass. Opens her book and begins, at last, to read.
THEY HAVE A HALF HOUR in Gallup to get something to eat. Kitty walks outside the station, hoping to find a store of some kind. She looks up and down the wide street and sees nothing but motels and gas stations, so she gets a cheeseburger at the Burger King in the station and eats it leaning against the wall outside. When she gets on the bus, Isaac’s seat is empty. She climbs over his gym bag and buries her nose in The Executioner’s Song until the motion of the bus breaks her concentration. She scrambles back over his bag and up the aisle yelling, “Wait! Wait!” and the bus comes to a stop again.
The driver is irritated this time. “You got three minutes to get him, Miss, or I’m leaving the both of you here.”
She finds Isaac inside the station, staring at a rack of car magazines.
KITTY’S EYES follow the power lines, bobbing rhythmically against the dimming sky. The ground beneath recedes into shadows. After a while it’s too dark to see anything outside. She doesn’t feel like reading, so she turns to Isaac and asks, “Did someone really try to get you to kill his brother?”
“Because his brother was an evil thug, that’s why. It’s a long story. You want to hear it?”
“Sure.” She leans back in her seat.
“So, this kid, right, he was a friend of this guy I was hanging around with. His parents died in a car accident and left everything, the house and everything, to him and his brother. But his brother wouldn’t give him any money. Wouldn’t even let him stay in the house. Made him sleep on a lawn chair in the fucking garage and beat on him whenever he tried to get inside. So this kid decided the only way to get the money was if someone killed his brother. He was looking for a stranger, someone who couldn’t be linked to the crime, and, but, also, he, the kid, would be at work and have an alibi. That was his concept. He saw it in a movie—he had a portable TV in the garage. One of those little things with a six inch screen and a handle. It was fucking pathetic. But like I said, I was too much of a pussy.”
Kitty thinks of the phrase scary drifter, but it doesn’t seem to fit Isaac—maybe because he’s so chatty. “Where was this?” she asks.
“El Cajon. Have you ever been to El Cajon? It’s totally beat.”
“Is that where you got on?” she asks, but she knows that can’t be right. It was a big bus depot.
“No, that was Phoenix.”
Kitty wants to keep him talking. “What were you doing in El Cajon?” she asks, and Isaac tells his story.
He graduated from high school last spring, in Cherry Hill, but instead of going to the car design school in Pasadena he drove to Phoenix, which is where his mother lives, in a VW bus that he’d fixed up at the garage where he worked after school. His mother said she could get him a job, but when he got there it turned out the job she had in mind was packing crates in a tile factory for three dollars an hour less than what he was making at the garage. On top of that, he got kicked out of his mother’s house after only two weeks.
“Why did she throw you out?”
“Who knows? Her mongoloid boyfriend probably wanted me out so he could fuck her on the couch.”
So he took a room in a wino hotel. Then he saw an ad in the back of the paper: the National Parks Service was hiring seasonal workers. He went out to Sequoia and got a job washing dishes at a big lodge. He had a room in the dormitory, but his roommate got them both thrown out for selling acid. After that, they drove the VW to San Francisco and parked it in the Haight and slept in Isaac’s bus. They met some “really nice fags” who fed them and let them take showers and didn’t even hit on them or anything. But then Isaac’s friend got picked up for shoplifting a hairdryer from Woolworth.
“Yeah.” Isaac snorts. “He was really into his hair.”
The cops told them they’d be arrested for vagrancy if they saw Isaac’s VW in the Haight again. Isaac’s friend was from El Cajon, and he said they could probably get jobs there. But El Cajon was totally beat. There was nothing to do there but kill that other guy’s brother, and Isaac was too much of a pussy. So he drove back to Phoenix because he couldn’t think of what else to do. He got a job washing dishes at a Denny’s and moved back into the wino hotel. But then his VW bus shit the bed, and he got disgusted with the whole situation and called his old boss at the garage in New Jersey, who wired him money for a bus ticket.
“I don’t think my dad’s gonna let me move back in, though. He’s still pissed off about the Art Center. I’ll figure something out when I get there.”
THEY HAVE an hour and a half layover in Albuquerque. Outside the depot, Kitty feels the October cold for the first time and wishes she had a warm coat. It’s only 9 p.m., but nothing seems to be open. She walks through an empty plaza. Frail saplings in concrete tree-wells suggest a recent campaign of civic revitalization—apparently unsuccessful. The only street life is gathered on the sidewalk outside a 7-11. Kitty stocks up: a loaf of squishy rye bread, a squeeze jar of yellow mustard, a pack of bologna, two bottles of club soda. When she boards the bus again she’s relieved to see Isaac already in his seat. He offers her a chocolate donut from a box at his feet.
“Look what else I got,” he says, opening a black plastic case. Tucked into the foam lining is a laser pointer and a set of interchangeable tips. He takes the pointer out, clicks it on and off, waggles it back and forth. He changes the tip. Now, instead of a dot of light, a little red smiley face zips across the seats in front of them.
“I hope you didn’t waste too much money on that,” Kitty says.
“I love this kind of executive crap.”
They eat bologna sandwiches. They talk and Isaac draws, until Kitty notices that the bus has gone dark around them. Everyone else is quiet. When they reach up to turn out their lights, she feels a pro forma flutter, a possibility of sexual contact, but nothing happens. Isaac reclines his seat all the way back. Kitty balls up her extra sweater into a pillow and leans against the window. She rests her eyes on the shapes of the hills, a shade blacker than the sky.
She sleeps. She sleeps through Tucumcari. The lights of the Amarillo depot wake her, but Isaac sleeps on, turned toward her in his seat with his mouth hanging open.
They transfer to a different bus in Oklahoma City. They’re traveling together now. They’ve figured out that their routes won’t diverge until Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she’ll head north and he’ll keep going east. It occurs to Kitty that the passengers on this bus can’t tell that they didn’t know each other 36 hours earlier. Isaac makes friends with a little boy, a few years older than the “bats bats bats” kid. He lets the boy play with the laser pointer. They collaborate on a comic strip, passing the drawing pad back and forth across the aisle. Their comic is about a giant crab monster.
“You have to make one claw bigger,” Isaac says. “Crabs have one big claw and one smaller one, because they’re left-handed or right-handed, like people. Did you ever see a crab swim? I did. They swim upside-down in the water with their claws pointed down. They paddle around with those little back feet.”
Kitty listens while he tries to explain black holes to the boy, and the Trail of Tears, and carburetors vs. fuel injectors. When the boy and his mother get off in Joplin, Missouri, Isaac puts his pad away and looks out the window with Kitty. He points out an abandoned gas station covered with spidery vines on the two-lane road alongside the interstate.
“That’s Route 66,” says the man who has taken the seat across the aisle. He has a steel-grey flattop and wears work pants and a hunting jacket. “We’ll follow it all the way to St. Louis. Then it dog-legs north, on up to Chicago.”
“Get out,” said Isaac, “That’s Route 66?”
“Sure it is. Like the song. If you’re planning da-da-da motor west, take the highway that’s the highway that’s the best…”
Kitty watches the roadside with new interest while Isaac falls into conversation with their neighbor. He tells Isaac about a long-ago road trip he took with his first wife, in a red Toronado with a white landau top. As the man talks about the places he and his wife stopped, Kitty realizes that they’ve been shadowing Route 66 since Flagstaff.
THE BUS STATION in St. Louis, where they have an hour-long layover, is a shock after the cinderblock bunkers and temporary sheds they’ve seen in the last couple of days. It has a high, vaulted ceiling supported by ornate columns. Isaac guesses it’s a decommissioned bank. They walk around with their heads craned, looking at the art deco clocks and milk glass chandeliers. On the ground level, though, all is bus station squalor. A sawhorse blocks the entrance to the men’s room. A bum inventories an overflowing trashcan next to the shuttered newsstand. The candy machine has been emptied of everything but gum. Kitty is content to refill her club soda bottle at the drinking fountain and snack on some peanut butter and bread they got earlier that day in Springfield, Missouri, but Isaac needs cigarettes. She gets back on the bus and reads her book while he goes out looking for a convenience store. She knows about Gary Gilmore, so she knows where the story goes. The book runs on inevitability rather than suspense—from frustration, greed, loneliness to murder, trial, firing squad. She finds it almost unbearable, but she’s gotten sucked in anyhow. She wants to reach back there and knock Gilmore off the path he’s on.
Where, she wonders, is Isaac? Finally, he gets on the bus and sits down. He stares at the seat in front of him. Kitty asks if he found a store, and he grunts in response. It’s obvious that something has happened, but she doesn’t know him well enough to coax it out of him. They’re silent as the bus crosses the Mississippi, past East St. Louis, into the moonless Illinois night. Kitty sees a road marker for Historical Route 66. She thinks of pointing it out, but Isaac is still staring at the seatback, so she says nothing.
After a while they turn east on Interstate 70, leaving Route 66 behind. The bus stops in Effingham for a 20 minute break. Kitty, grasping for conversation, asks Isaac if he’s going outside to smoke.
“No, I am not going outside to smoke, because I don’t have any smokes,” he says.
“You didn’t get cigarettes in St. Louis?”
Finally it comes out. Before he even got two blocks from the station in St. Louis, Isaac was mugged for his wallet and all the money he had left after he bought his bus ticket.
“Oh my God, Isaac. Did he have a gun?”
“He had something under his sweatshirt. Maybe it was just his hand, I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“What am I supposed to say? I’m a big pussy?”
“What are you gonna do? Can you call someone?” Kitty asks, and then realizes Isaac hasn’t made any plans beyond getting off the bus in Cherry Hill or wherever he’s getting off the bus. She isn’t sure anyone in his family even knows he’s on his way home. “Can you call your father?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Well, don’t worry. I have enough money for both of us,” she says, and she understands now that they are not parting ways in Harrisburg. Isaac will come with her, or she will go with him, and she’ll make him see that nothing is inevitable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MIMI LIPSON lives in Kingston, New York. She completed an MFA in creative writing at Boston University in September. Her work has appeared in YETI, Chronogram, and various places online. She has a story in the Significant Objects anthology (Fantagraphics, 2012), and her chapbook, Food & Beverage, is available from All-Seeing Eye Press. She is writing a novel about sociolinguistics.
Header Photograph (CC) Bark @ Flickr
Story © 2012 Mimi Lipson. All rights reserved.
Another WINNER. Mimi Lipson’s SAFE, RELIABLE, COURTEOUS is superlative story telling.
Read it twice, loved it so much. I want the next chapter of Isaac and Kitty soon!