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So I was just out of spending five days in the Walker County Jail. Walker County, Georgia, mind you—anyone who knows will tell you there’s a big difference between Georgia and Tennessee jails. My sister bailed me out, loaned me some cash and dumped me off at home. They let me out around three o’clock in the morning and I got home around five. I smelled like stale sweat, dirty hair and a fake wool blanket. I had a jailhouse Kool-Aid stain on my shirt.
My old lady was pissed off and gone. I had no job, the 25 bucks my sister had given me and half a pack of smokes to my name. I needed to come up with some more cash fast, or I’d be right back in the pokey. Georgia won’t leave you alone if you owe them money. I owed them 200 bucks, and in Georgia you pay your fines or your ass goes back to jail until somebody else pays them for you. They seem to enjoy having Tennessee boys down there.
I didn’t have time for a shower. I grabbed a book of matches from a gas station down the road, got the guy working there to call me a cab and waited on the corner there for the driver to come pick me up.
I was heading out to Brainerd, to this day-worker employment place I’d found when I was in a similar spot a while back. I’ve spent my time in those day-worker temporary employment offices waiting on some construction foreman to come by looking for some hands to go clean up a construction site. The work might show up or it might not—you never know. I had my doubts with the drizzling rain falling outside but thought I’d try it anyway.
The cab showed up and drove me across town to Brainerd Road. Somehow my name was still in the computer there at the employment office and the woman behind the desk told me to have a seat and be patient if I wanted to work.
I sat there, stretched out my legs, folded my arms and waited. I knew better than to strike up a conversation with the lady behind the desk. She hummed along to a Jesus radio station playing softly beside her and she had no use for me.
There’s a coffee machine with Styrofoam cups beside it, but I knew better than that, too. If the church lady catches you drinking more than two or three cups of coffee, she’ll laugh at you and tell you she’s going to have to start charging you for it. “Were you up all night last night?” she asks sometimes. Then she straightens out a blanket she has lying over her lap and looks at a picture of her husband scotch-taped to the wall. A little smile might foam out of her mouth when she looks at you and goes back to humming along with the Jesus songs.
All you do is sit around those places reading yesterday’s newspapers and hoping a pick-up truck shows up outside with somebody needing some help. Today’s paper entices you from a table nearby, smelling like ink, unwrinkled and unread. Brand new. But you can’t read it because the church lady hasn’t looked at it yet and she doesn’t want it molested by day-worker’s hands.
I went outside to smoke a cigarette. You can’t stand under the awning over the door to keep out of the rain, though, because the church lady hates cigarettes. At least it was only a drizzling rain. I leaned up against the building and didn’t get too wet.
They’re dotted here and there down Brainerd Road, those little employment places. You show up one day and write your credentials down on a piece of paper. Tell them you know how to drive a nail, or you’ve picked up roofing debris before. Show them the work boots on your feet and lie about your habits. Then you wait. Sometimes the work shows up for you and sometimes it doesn’t.
If the work shows up, that’s good. You get to go clean up construction sites for eight bucks an hour. But if it’s not there by noon. you might as well go on home. I sat alone in the room with the church lady humming her songs until a little after noon. It was still drizzling rain outside and like I suspected, no work showed up. I’d had enough, was pissed off about wasting what little money I had on the cab and told the church lady I was going home. I walked out to the bus stop. A dollar-fifty will usually get you within walking distance to home on CARTA.
I got out to the bus stop and looked up and down the road. No buses were coming. They come around in 15- or 20-minute intervals, a little slower if the weather’s bad. The rain let up some and I resigned myself to the wait. I’d been waiting in jail for days, in the jail-like dead-end employment office for hours—waiting for the bus only seemed natural.
A skinny teenage girl came down the sidewalk behind me with a bundled-up sleeping baby in a stroller. She parked the baby beside me and I looked down at it. The little kid was dry and looked warm. I looked up at the girl behind the stroller. She was a very pretty, small black girl—couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. She parked the stroller and started bartering with some other kids there who had a bag of candy. “Can I have one?” she asked them. She put her hand in her pocket. “I’ll give you a piece of my bubble gum?” The pretty young girl caught me watching their bargaining and laughed at me. “You want a piece of bubble gum, too?”
I smiled no, put my hands in my pocket and turned away.
“I got a bad cold comin’ on—need to get on out this weather.” This skinny old white woman in a ball cap and blue jean jacket and a voice like sandpaper was talking to whoever was listening. I knew quick that I didn’t want to hear her complain and took a few steps toward this other old white woman sitting on a bench there.
She was grossly overweight and had two or three plastic Dollar General Store bags at her feet. A yellow toboggan covered her head and short grey hair stuck out from under it. She wore a khaki trench coat and khaki pants. Blue Reebok sneakers were on her feet. She kept her head bowed and picked at her eyes with her fingernails. She must have known I was looking at her and glanced up at me real quick—her eyes were dark, like a hole in a wall that looks into night—then she looked back down just as fast, picking at her eyes again. When she looked at me. I saw a flesh-colored band-aid across her cheek.
From the parking lot behind us an old white man walked up with a red buggy full of Dollar Store groceries. From the neck down, he looked like he just punched out from a day of working behind a desk at a bank, but his worn-out face looked like his liver most likely did. He had a brown paper-bagged 40-ounce he didn’t try to hide from any of us, but he did glance around for cop cars when he pulled it out.
An American Taxi pulled up to the bus stop and asked if anyone needed a ride. Cab drivers know when people will pay their rate rather than the buses’ cheaper rate, and one of those times was when it was raining. The man with the red buggy shoved his bottle of beer in one of his shopping bags and said, “Yeah, I need a ride.” He pushed the red shopping buggy toward the minivan cab.
But a young black woman with three small kids around her was there, too. She wanted the ride. They debated with the taxi driver for a minute, then the man said, “Well, hell, we can ride together, can’t we?” The young black woman laughed and said she didn’t care. The cab driver didn’t like the idea—he was thinking about missing out on two different cab fares. He asked them where they were going. Since they were both going towards the same part of town, he grudgingly agreed. The young woman helped the man with his bags and they all crawled in. The body of the car squashed down over the wheels a little and they were laughing over the close quarters when the driver slammed the sliding door shut, hopped in the driver’s seat, then headed back out down Brainerd’s wet streets.
I looked down the road for the bus. After the cab fare I’d paid that morning and after I paid the bus fare, I’d have about 10 bucks left. I was trying to decide whether to go across the street and get a hamburger or save the money for booze and smokes. But just then the bus pulled up to a red light down the road and made the decision for me. It’d be wheat and barley for supper.
The old woman who picked at her eyes was riding the same bus as me. She stood up with her bags and I let her shuffle on then stepped up behind her. Dropped my dollar-fifty in the pay slot and sat down in a corner back seat.
There weren’t many other people riding, three or four other people scattered here and there. The old woman sat a few seats ahead of me. I leaned my head against the glass window and tried to watch Brainerd slide by but this black guy around 30 was sitting in the front seat behind the bus driver talking to her really loud. She apparently knew his mother and asked about her.
“She doing good,” he said. “Real good. She don’t drink no more. Just a little bit of Grey Goose now and then. That’s all.”
That was funny and I sat up to listen to him. He wore dirty old blue jean shorts and his hair was nappy. He had a real bright and shiny pair of Nikes on his feet, though, with black socks pulled up over his calves. He shifted all over his seat and couldn’t keep still. He acted out the things he said from his seat, shifting and bouncing around everywhere. He rattled on and on and kept the bus driver laughing.
“Now you know what a real black mama is. ‘Come here, boy!’ That’s what my mama used to say. You know that’s a real black mama. You know what she’d say? ‘Matter of fact, get out my face.’ That’s what she said. ‘Get outside. Don’t come back ‘til 8 o’clock.’”
He started telling the bus driver about his kids, his baby’s mama and some other girlfriend he kept who offered him parenting advice the other day.
The woman who picked at her eyes pulled a black-and-white striped shirt out of her bags. She put the tag in the collar close to her face and read it. She wiped her face with it, then looked back at me, to see if I’d seen her do it, then turned back around real fast. She bowed her head and picked at her eyes again. I leaned my head against the window watching the rain drizzle on Brainerd.
Brainerd looks like that tattoo that was once beautiful on a young girl’s arm—but is now faded and embarrassing. And just like that girl that was young one time—you can see it on both Brainerd’s and the old girl’s faces: they’re tired and they will never be what they once were. At best, they’ll spawn something that might be nice to see. They both look like an after-hours barroom floor.
All the talk of rejuvenating Brainerd—it’s never going to work. There’s got to be a place for check-advance houses, pawn shops, tittie bars and meat-market clubs called Envy. The Biker’s Emporium and Church’s Chicken. Those places restore the soul, sometimes. They’re as American as Ronald McDonald. Brainerd’s as good a place as anywhere for them, and being on the bus line anybody that needs a pawn shop or check advance can get there for less than two bucks.
I dozed off for a while, listening to the motor hum and the chatter of the guy up front. When I woke up it was almost dark. I think I’d missed my stop and rode in a circle. I looked out the window trying to figure out where I was. It took a while before I realized I was somewhere around Dodds Avenue. The bus was packed then. There wasn’t an empty seat and everybody who was there before was gone.
I wondered what they all thought of me, jailhouse dirty and broke and too tired to stay awake. I looked around wondering who was watching me the way I’d been watching them. Nobody was. Nobody seemed to notice me at all.
The bus finally made it downtown and I had to get a transfer for the next bus to get me closer to home. I finally made it out to St. Elmo. I could scratch up some change for the next bus ride—I’ll be riding on that bus ‘til I Cadillac—but it didn’t matter that night. I took a much-needed bath, grabbed a Bible and crawled into bed. I flipped open the Good Book and started reading the red letters. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost it all, probably wouldn’t be my last. Tomorrow was another day.
I thought about calling somebody but didn’t want to hear what anyone had to say. Everybody says you have to be better than that. You have to be above this or that. That’s no way to live, they say, and offer somebody they consider better than themselves as the alternative example. You need to get in a church somewhere. Be around good people. You’re talented and you’re wasting yourself.
I had crazy thoughts in my head and my ears were ringing so I turned on the radio. Tuned it to the Collegedale classical station and listened to some Debussey piano music that was playing. I laid back reading the red letters and trying to listen to the piano music on the radio, but I was jonesin’ for another beer and for some reason kept hearing that old ghost of a blues man Robert Johnson singing in my head:
You may bury my body down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.