Cather hadn’t much to pack. He only had enough clothes to last him a couple weeks, a few books and a laptop. He’d already said his goodbyes and closed his Louisiana bank account. He’d made a few friends here, mostly professional — that is, fellow musicians — but he was ready to go. Being back in the Bay Area would be a whole new experience altogether.
He took a cab to the Greyhound bus station and loaded his things with little ceremony. He sat down in a window seat about halfway down the length of the vehicle, and, staring out the window, watched the city he’d come to call home for over four years pass away.
He’d always missed Oakland, vaguely. New Orleans, despite its reputation for Bacchanalian debauchery, was a rough place, and could even be isolating. Racism was strong here. As a white person he’d always felt out of place in the black neighborhoods. You could feel the weight of history here. Of course Oakland wasn’t much better, but there was something different about this corner of the Deep South, where prejudice was often displayed almost as a point of pride.
The bus pulled out of the station at about 2:00 PM and headed west on I-10, a course it would hold all the way to L.A., with several transfer stations in between. The entire journey to the Bay Area would take about 50 hours. It was far cheaper than a plane ticket, but it also had more character. Cather loved character.
No one sat next to him. There were about fifteen passengers to start. About half of them were exchanged for others when they reached Lake Charles. Cather watched them come and go. With one exception, another young man, he was the only white person on the bus. A couple of Latinos materialized in East Texas. Except for a community of Vietnamese in New Orleans East the city didn’t have much in the way of Asians. Oakland was different that way too. It was far more multi-cultural. Cather used to like that about his home town. He’d bought many a cheap take-out lunch in Chinatown over the years.
It was hard to sleep. Like an airplane, the seats were cramped and didn’t recline much. He spent his time reading (A People’s History of the United States), and staring out the window at a landscape that shifted from swamp to grassy fields and hills, and, as they approached Houston, something closer to desert. When they arrived in this city Cather off-boarded, as it was the first transfer point.
He retrieved his luggage from the belly of his first bus, then waited in line for his second. That was when he saw something unbelievable: his childhood fried, Tyler Burrell. He was in front of Cather in line. He was wearing a black baseball cap, desert camouflage pants, and an olive green T-shirt. It took Cather a couple looks to confirm that it was actually he. Could it be an omen of some kind? If so, what kind?
Tyler hadn’t noticed Cather. He stood still, as if at attention. Come to think of it, hadn’t Cather heard at one point or another that his old friend had enlisted with the Marines after high school? That would explain his clothes.
Cather didn’t know what to do. They hadn’t spoken in years. What were the odds? What would they have to talk about? Where to even begin? It had certainly been an eventful few years for Cather. Would Tyler be able to say the same? Where had his military travels taken him? Cather wondered. He found himself curious, and, when the line finally started to move, he developed a plan to purposefully sit next to the young man who, in their boyhood, had sometimes been his nemesis.
Problem was this bus turned out to be more fully packed than had been the last one. Someone sat next to Tyler before Cather had the chance, so he filed down the aisle, and while Cather got a good look at Tyler, the favor was not returned: Tyler still hadn’t noticed him. Hopefully the two of them had the same destination: Oakland. If so there would be many more chances for them to connect on the way.
While the bus travelled through the gathering darkness, down I-10, Cather dug into his packed provisions: two halves of a shrimp po’ boy and a caesar salad. He would have to pace himself. Fifty hours was a long time, and he didn’t have much spending money.
He struck up a conversation with the woman he sat next to, who was named Sheila, and was headed for San Antonio.
“I’m a pianist,” he told her. “I was living in New Orleans, playing with the greats.”
“Oh yeah? I know a little about New Orleans music. Who was it?”
“Ever heard of Dr. Pickle?”
“Pickle like the food?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“That’s okay. He’s got a mostly local following.”
“You studied with him?”
“Uh-huh. He’s on the trumpet. I backed him up and served as orchestra. We had gigs all over town.”
“Yeah. I had a lot of fun. I love New Orleans music.”
“So why did you leave?”
“Honestly? I think I can do better.”
“You ran out of money?”
“Never made any to begin with. New Orleans is a poor town and doesn’t treat its performers very handsomely.”
“And you think California does?”
“Well, it’s worth a try.”
“But you know what’s happening now, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Recession. Hitting Cali hard.”
“Yeah, I have heard something about that.”
“Musicians might not find it friendly at all.”
“You might be right.”
That was as far as Cather’s planning went, so a silence descended between he and Sheila. He didn’t tell her another, perhaps more important element of his reasoning: he was, simply put, homesick. No one can quite understand you like the people in your hometown. That’s why it was so especially strange to see Tyler, who would, perhaps, serve as an opening salvo into his planned Oakland reintegration. Yet the look in Tyler’s eyes as Cather passed him on the bus had been both intense and removed: perhaps that was the thousand yard stare he’d heard developed in combat veterans and convicts alike. But Cather had never been very good at reading people. Maybe it was the way everyone their age looked now.
The bus made a pit stop at a dusty little border town about one hundred miles from El Paso, the next transfer station. Most of the passengers off boarded to stretch their legs. Cather was among them. Tyler wasn’t. He tried to get comfortable, tried to prepare himself for sleep. If he could do three tours in Iraq, he told himself, adjusting to the stiffness of a Greyhound seat shouldn’t be too much for him. But still, he couldn’t sleep. Perhaps he simply had too much to think about. He had yet to fully process all he had seen and done. Most likely he would never be over all of it. They were the kind of experiences that dig themselves into the sub-conscious, and make unexpected appearances at the worst of times. He anticipated this based on the present difficulty, but also the movies he’d seen about Vietnam vets who couldn’t adjust to everyday American life. Tyler had killed people, and people had tried to kill him. There had been no “good” time. Sometimes there had been downtime, playing cards, watching CNN. Sometimes he’d even been able to fool himself into superficial happiness, but never for long. He had so much anger in him now, and no one on the bus, or anywhere else for that matter, could ever hope to sympathize.
But, quite unexpectedly, something did cheer him up: the appearance of a childhood friend.
Cather got back on the bus before most of the other passengers so that he would have a better choice of seats, and, just he’d hoped, Tyler Burrell was sitting alone. Cather sat down next to him. After a moment of suspicion, when their eye’s met, Tyler’s face brightened.
“Holy shit!” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?” Cather replied. “Riding the bus back home.”
“Yep. Back home.”
“Wow! I haven’t seen you in forever. What are the fucking odds?”
“I know, right? I saw you get on back in Houston but I didn’t come up to you. I thought you looked kind of distracted.”
“Oh man, that’s just how I look now. Believe me I’m glad to be going home.”
“Where you coming from?”
“If I said Iraq would you believe me?”
“Wow. Really? I remember hearing that you joined the military.”
“That’s right, I did. I just finished my third tour.”
Cather found himself humbled.
“Yeah, I don’t know what to say,” Cather said. “I never thought our occupying that country was a good idea.”
“Oh yeah? You unpatriotic little shit,” Tyler grinned, perhaps overplaying an attempt to josh his old friend. “What, Iraqis don’t deserve democracy too?”
“Yeah but it was all lies to get us there in the first place. Like the military-industrial complex had something to prove after 9/11. We never gave a fuck about bringing them democracy. I don’t think it works that way.”
“I know, brother. Believe me there’s no one more pissed about it than me.”
Tyler might have been stretching the truth. He’d joined the Marines because he’d never found direction, had hated living with his parents, and didn’t know what to do with his life. The war had been happenstance, and he’d gone along with it with an air of stoicism. He watched Cather closely to try to read his reaction; Cather had always been prone to fits of awkwardness. Even after all these years, perhaps, he hadn’t changed. Tyler, on the other hand, had changed mightily.
“What happened to you after high school?” Cather asked. “What made you want to join the army?”
“I guess it has been a long time since we’ve seen each other.”
“Well I never graduated, if you want the truth.”
“My parents are still pissed about it. I had to get away from them.”
“Why did you drop out?”
“I don’t know. I was getting into trouble and getting terrible grades. I got caught shoplifting a few times, just for the thrill of it. I never had much of an eye for my future. It was so weird being one of the only black kids in my town.”
“What? There were plenty of black people in Berkeley.”
“It sure has been a long time. I didn’t go to Berkeley High, Cather. My parents and I moved to Roseville freshman year. It’s a suburb of Sacramento.”
“Oh yeah, now that you mention it I do remember that.”
“It was awful. I hated where I lived. I missed Berkeley. I guess they call it acting out.”
Tyler was giving away a lot of himself. He was just so glad to see Cather.
“Your life sounds a lot more eventful than mine,” Cather said.
“Well yeah, enough about me. Where have you been the last ten years?”
“I went to Oakland Tech for high school. My parents divorced sophomore year. I didn’t act out but I didn’t get the best grades either. Remember how I played the piano? Well that became my passion. After graduation I went to New Orleans to study the craft. That’s where I’m coming from now. All the way back to Oakland after four long years. It’s been a trip man, let me tell you.”
“See? Piano? Katrina? That sounds eventful enough.”
“Yeah but nothing like yours.”
“From what I’ve heard New Orleans was a war-zone too after Katrina.”
“It was, after a little while, after people started coming back home. But it was like that before the hurricane too. A pretty fucked up place really. Very racist. Makes Oakland look downright hospitable.”
“Ha! That’s saying something.”
Cather smiled. He found himself unexpectedly charmed. It was good that they’d met.
The bus had re-filled with passengers. The front door shut and they pulled out of the station, back onto I-10. Tyler, still feeling strange, found himself looking back out the window at the darkness. It was about ten o’clock at night.
Cather picked his nose and scraped the pay dirt off on the plastic armrest. It was still a long way back to Oakland. He and Tyler would have plenty of time to catch up.
“Guess what?” he said.
“I’ve got something to help us sleep.”
“Oh yeah? What?”
“Some pot. A whole, perfectly rolled joint.”
Tyler shook his head. “I don’t do drugs,” he said.
“Come on, pot isn’t drugs. Don’t be square.”
“I’m not. I get paranoid, or, to be exact, I get even more paranoid. I don’t need it.”
“You think you’ll be able to sleep in these chairs?”
“Cather I’m not smoking pot with you. Trust me, I’d ruin your high. I’d be liable to punch your lights out.”
Cather didn’t think this last was called for, but Tyler was grinning, wide-eyed, big-teethed.
“Were you well-respected in your unit?” Cather asked.
“I guess so. Why?”
“I hope you didn’t punch anybody. What with all the Iraqis trying to kill you I’m sure the last thing you needed was some of your fellow Americans trying to do the same.”
“I’m not afraid of Americans.”
“Not even me?”
“Especially not you.”
“Yeah, you and the others used to pick on me. I guess some things don’t change.”
Tyler sniffed, and felt a little sorrow at how he’d mussed up their conversation. He wondered if he would have to talk to Cather all the way back to Oakland. For a while there he’d almost enjoyed the company.
“It’s okay,” Cather continued. “I know I used to be easy pickings. But I don’t think I am any more.”
“Sorry man, I didn’t mean to get mean.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to smoke with me if you don’t want to.”
“Good. It’s settled.”
“Anyways, next time we stop I’m getting out and lighting up. More for me.”
As the minutes began to pass Tyler felt tense. He found that he cared what Cather thought of him.
About an hour later the bus came to another stop, this time at what looked like a gas station. It was now pitch dark outside. There was usually cheap food to be found at stops like these, but Tyler wasn’t hungry.
Cather took his leave and went outside to smoke his joint. It relaxed him a bit.
He got back on the bus. Tyler was still staring out the window, into the black. He didn’t stir at all when Cather sat down next to him, reclined his seat as far as it would go, and closed his eyes.
It was around midnight when they arrived at El Paso. Tyler woke Cather, who had actually achieved some sleep thanks to his high.
The two off-boarded and collected their luggage, then went to wait for the next bus to open its doors. Soon enough it did, and the line of passengers filed on.
The two sat together again, a bit curious about each other. They had both suffered interesting years since they’d last known each other, but in very different ways. There was probably a gulf between them that only further interaction would reveal. Perhaps the bus trip would go by faster thanks to this.
“Want some chips? Hot dog? Soda?” Cather asked, offering pieces of what he’d bought at the bus stop’s convenience store.
Tyler shook his head. “No thanks.”
“Do you have provisions for the rest of the night? We’re not transferring again ’til we get to L.A.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Oh yeah, mister semper fi. I suppose you’ve seen worse than a long bus ride.”
“That’s right, I have.”
“I’m not disrespecting you, but you’ll have to eat something at some point.”
“I will. In L.A., okay?”
“Fair enough. I’ll eat all this loot by myself then.”
Cather took a mammoth bite of hot dog. It was greasy and more than a little disgusting.
“Ech,” he said. “It’s not very good.”
Tyler laughed lightly. Cather had always had a clever, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Cather finished his food. Tyler stared alternately straight out the dark window and at the back of the chair in front of him, where a young Mexican woman was sitting. Cather found himself observing him. There was something strange in his stiffness.
“So what’s bringing you back to Oakland?” Cather asked.
“Nothing particular. My brother lives there. I suppose I’m interested to see how I’ll take to city life after Iraq.”
“How long were you there for?”
“I’ve done four tours since April of 2005. Tours were seven months. I’ve done twenty-eight months.”
“Wow. I can’t imagine.”
Silence between them.
“But why Oakland?” Cather pressed.
“I’m gonna stay on my brother’s couch.”
“I don’t think that answers my question.”
“Well you’ve sure turned into a pushy little shit over the years.”
“I’m just asking. You don’t have to answer.”
“Okay. I’m not going to answer.”
Cather thought this conversation amusing, but he didn’t want to press too hard, perhaps out of fear of being beaten up. Still, he was unsatisfied.
“Me,” he began, “I’ve spent the last four years studying jazz and big band piano at the feet of the greats. I hope to bring what I’ve learned back to the place I came from. It could use a bit of the cultural vernacular.”
“You’re gonna be a musician?” Tyler replied.
“That’s right. Well, realistically, I already am. Through and through.”
“Won’t be like New Orleans, I bet. Who’s even going to listen?”
“I don’t know. A conundrum I hope to solve.”
“Where are you gonna stay?”
“I’m staying back home until I find a place of my own. My mom’s waiting for me, but I don’t think I’ll be there long. I have a little money saved up.”
“So do I.”
“I don’t think I’ll be with her long. I’m pretty good.”
“I’m gonna live off what they paid me at the Marines. My brother won’t charge much for his couch.”
“I want to bring something back,” Cather said. “Something that I’ve learned that I didn’t know before.”
“I want to make an impact too. I wish my parents had never moved us away.”
“So do I.”
“It was rough being alone with all those white people in Roseville. I’ll never forgive mom and dad for that.”
“There’s lots of black people in Oakland,” said Cather.
“That there is.”
“Do you plan anything in particular with them, coming back home?”
Tyler thought a moment before he answered this question.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.”
This seemed to mark the end of their conversation. Cather didn’t know what further to ask. But, if he was really to dive into it, he almost didn’t believe Tyler. The man seemed, perhaps, to be hiding something; an impression, or a lack of faith in broader society. Perhaps he never expected to fully re-integrate. He was clearly a haunted man. Maybe his experiences overseas were the culprit.
Cather decided to leave it at that and go back to sleep. Tyler, for his part, was wondering anew at what he really did expect from Oakland, how it would take him in or not. It wasn’t a place many fought to return to. It wasn’t comfortable. It was a cold, dangerous place, and his brother was a strong, dangerous man. Tyler expected to spend time alone with the money he had made, but he had nothing that he could think of to look forward to. There was even the potential for violence. There was violence all throughout the world, after all, and he knew how to partake of its hard fruits. Few besides fellow veterans would be able fully to understand.
He and Cather didn’t talk to each other much for the rest of the trip to L.A. When the bus arrived there they gathered their luggage separately, and, since Cather went to the bathroom beforehand, stood in different places in line for the northbound bus. When boarding began Cather sat away from Tyler, who felt a bit hurt by this, but not surprised, overtly. It was the kind of treatment he expected, coming home from war.
The bus left L.A at 7:00 AM, traveling up I-5 through the stockyards and run down Central Valley towns. Once they reached San Jose the scenery became, to Tyler, increasingly familiar, and he felt some pangs of relief at recognizing the place he’d been born in. He’d come to think, over the years, of his pre-teens life in Berkeley as some prelapsarian Eden, a time of innocence and childhood folly, of personal comfort and romance, that which he had missed ever since they’d moved to Roseville. He didn’t expect his experience at returning to be so laconic. Perhaps he would be disabused of his youthful, positive Bay Area associations. He was terrified at what life might have in store for him, and what he, with his inclinations, would do with it in turn.
Taking I-880 north they passed the East Bay suburbs. Tyler watched out the window. Soon they were traversing East Oakland, with its squat, uninviting sprawl. It had been a long time since he’d been to the Town, but he remembered every bit of it.
Downtown was taller than East Oakland, and busier. The Greyhound exited the freeway at 18th Street and soon arrived at the dirty station on San Pablo Avenue, hemmed in on one side by a freeway, and by a parklet populated with drug addicts on the other.
It was about 2:00 in the afternoon. A warm summer day.
Tyler offboarded, stretched, and gathered his belongings. His brother was waiting for him at his house in East Lake. Tyler would walk there. But before he left the station something stopped him, namely Cather, and Tyler was glad for it.
“Hey,” Cather said. “Here’s my card. Call me some time, okay?”
Cather took Tyler’s hand and pressed a business card into his palm. On its face was a cartoon of a blond white kid playing piano, and there was an e-mail and a cell number.
“I will,” Tyler said warmly.
“Be safe out there,” Cather said. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
“It’s far too late for that.”
Cather smiled, striking the statement, said with an element of sadness, as a sentiment he would accept without judgment. Then he walked away.
Tyler watched him go, then crossed the street and left the bus station himself, never to see it from the same vantage again.