Alyss Perrin stood at the bus stop, waiting for the express, and clutched her daypack to her stomach as if it held a little sleeping child. She was tired in the morning. That didn't seem fair, but there you are. She was tired and on her way to work. She was an archivist in the public library, and work meant digging through new piles of old paper. The Myers boxes. Four-generation Rockford farmers, their memorabilia a century of Illinois, almost back to the Civil War. Cataloging. She leaned against the bus stop shelter. She thought about how lonely she was. She thought about the man again. Her mouth twisted a little, a kind of smirk. "The man of my dreams," she thought.
But he was. She had dreamed again of him. She couldn't see him very well. It was like twilight, or as if there were dirty glass between them. Glass, and he had his hand on it, as if testing its solidity. And his mouth moved, but the glass was too thick for her to hear. And then they were elsewhere. Nowhere, and she could hear his voice, quiet, calm, soothing, like warm water in a tub. His hands were strong, blocky, coarse hands. He was asking for help. He was telling her what he wanted, and she could do it. She could do it just fine. Whatever it was.
The sneer faded from the smile, and then the smile itself, as she thought about the dream. Dreams. They take what we know and run it all together to make what we want. The time she dreamed of David Haggett, except he looked like Ricardo Montalban, who was, no denying it, a major hunk, gay or not. He looked like Ricardo Montalban. Sounded like him, walked like him, was him, in every respect, except that he was really David Haggett anyway and he was doing things with his. A car went by.
He could not tell you how he knew it would be Twenty-ninth and Charles where she would be standing, waiting for the bus. He'd wakened sure of it, at 4 a.m. Preternaturally certain, he thought to himself, tasting the adverb as it crept, serpentine of vowels, pricked with ascenders and terminal descender, through his mind. He'd only been to Rockford once, and he wouldn't have remembered that there was such an intersection except that Merrilynn's grandfather's store, Sutpen's General Store, stood there. Had stood there, twenty years ago. He had wanted to see it. She, Merrilynn, his first wife, couldn't care less, but she had driven them over. "Anything to get out of that house," she muttered.
Was there a bus stop at Twenty-ninth and Charles? He hadn't a clue. But he was sure.
Maggie had predicted her, five years ago. She had said, while they talked about her departure, while she waited for her friend to come with his truck and help her pack out her stuff, that she had dreamed of him and he was walking with a dark woman, a Chicano or even Arab, maybe. She was thirty-eight, and they were laughing and in love. She wanted him to be happy. She was sure he would find this woman.
"In five years or so," he said.
Maggie was thirty-three then. She had looked at the floor. "She was dark," she had said. Then she met his eyes. "I believe it."
Maggie was biscuity. Her hair was light brown, fragrant with red and cinnamon highlights. Her skin was the color of baked buttermilk biscuits, gold but muted, matte, dusty. A woman who didn't like her, a friend of his, once called her complexion "Hummel."
When Frank Jefferies died, the old man who'd fathered him through graduate school, a few weeks before Maggie announced that she had decided to go, she had said, "He'll be your angel now."
She believed it, just as she believed about the one "meant for you." "There's someone meant for each of us, and you'll find her," she said.
"What difference does it make?" he said.
"I want you to be happy. I care about you," she said, stressing 'care' the way one might stress 'hate.'
I care about the neighbor's cat, he thought. But he was silent. He left before Bruce could arrive. He had driven pointlessly to a mall, giving them two hours. When he returned, she was gone, and her things. Everything he cared about.
At 8:39 Alyss had flown into high gear. She only had about twenty-five minutes to finish dressing and hurry the five blocks to the bus stop on Charles. She hated the bus, but this. This was self-destructive, she mumbled, pulling on a sock. "Maybe I want to get fired," she added. The bus would get her to library ten minutes early. If she missed it, it was take a cab (big bucks) or be fifteen minutes late. Again. Damn the car. It would be ready today. They'd said that yesterday, but not as confidently. Problems with the primer, and they'd had to strip it and start over. The insurance was covering the whole paint job, fortunately. It cost a mint. But she'd always hated blue. Green. Emerald green. Now that was the color for a car.
She jogged through the house, finding her shoes, dropping to the hassock to shove her feet in and lace them, picking up her keys on the way to the kitchen and thinking, "Where'd I put my bag? It was late." She found it where she'd dropped it last night, on the floor by the door. "Like a man," she thought. "Mommy would be shocked." She smiled. 8:47. Coffee. Roader. She hurried back to the kitchen, then back. She burst out the door and almost ran the first few feet. Then she realized. She had nearly twenty minutes. The bus would not be early. And if it were, that would be an excuse. "Stop that," she said out loud. She hustled down the path and away on Hawthorne.
At 7:00 he was standing at the front window, his hand on the cold glass, watching General Sheridan in the paddock and confronting the puzzle. He had wakened at 4:15, which was not unusual for him, but the dream, so vivid, was, and after checking his email he went to Excite and verified that there was such an intersection in Rockford. No way to check for a bus stop. And it was too early. She wouldn't be there till 9:05. Or rather, 8:05, he corrected, remembering that Illinois was on Central Time. When he realized that the dream had been unclear his 9:05 or hers? he had laughed. He had been taking it seriously, he thought. By 6:30 he was not laughing about taking it seriously. For half an hour, he had been wondering what to do.
He'd spent hours convincing himself that it was insane, to think he knew about something that was happening going to happen nearly two thousand miles away, in Rockford, Illinois, much less that a woman he didn't even know was hoping that he, precisely himself, would step into her life at that bus stop. "Meant for me," he kept thinking like a song lyric, and suddenly he remembered why. She had said it, in the dream, she had said, "...meant for me." He eyes were the color of chocolate and her lips wide and smiling. Good teeth, like Buffy Sainte-Marie. Hell, maybe she was Buffy Sainte-Marie. She was nearly as tall as he was, and wore her hair in a long, simple ponytail. She wasn't pretty. She took his breath away. Meant for me. He was. She. He was not frantic yet. He would be soon.
He couldn't possibly get to Rockford, of course. Even if he'd had the dream yesterday it would have been tight. Possible, but tight. Drive to Bozeman, get a plane to Denver or Minneapolis, then Chicago. Fly to Rockford? It was a hundred miles, if he remembered right. Drive. Two hours. And an hour to get the car etc. With good connections, twelve hours altogether. And (his mind did a quick estimate) a thousand dollars, to follow a wild goose chase. Nice goose, though. They had talked; she was bright, wise, friendly.
At first it was a game. But the more he thought about it, the more he felt panicked and helpless. What could he do? Call the police? The Rockford police? Ask them to send an officer to 29th and Charles and inquire if a woman at the bus stop had lost something? Was waiting for someone? He closed his eyes. It was 7:49. He gulped some coffee. He scrubbed the dry skin on his knuckles nervously; it was angry and cracked. He could see her on the sidewalk, headed into the sun, a silhouette in his mind's eye, walking fast but with that tight, almost toe-in control that models have. She had a long fall of black hair. Guitar-shaped, and swaying. She glanced back at a passing car. A glimpse of profile. Who was she?
Stupid question. If he knew who she was, he could find her.
Her daypack clutched to her belly, she glanced south, where the bus would appear soon. Bored. Tired and bored. Maybe she should take the job in San Diego. It was not that different from what she was doing now. Archiving for a newspaper? And she'd fit in better. Sun, she thought, glancing at the overcast. Rockford sucked. It had taken her too long to figure that out. He wouldn't be caught dead in this flatlander town, she thought. Couldn't find it on a map. Then she knew that was not so. He had seen the huge funnel of the nuclear reactor; it caught her eye in the distance.
He was a cowboy. Boots and jeans, she remembered. Or an Indian? Whatever. She wasn't sure. She snorted. Wasn't sure! About a dream guy? The man of my dreams! He was older than she but not much. He was taller, but not much, and that could be the boots. She was used to men being her size. She once told a boy it was the first time she'd kissed someone shorter than her. He wasn't.
He wasn't a cowboy; he dressed like one. He did something creative. Painter? He smelled like–what? Turpentine? Ammonia? Yeast. She wrinkled her nose, glancing north. Her body gave a psychosomatic itch. Gross. Grass. He smelled like grass–not dope, real grass, cut lawn grass, old grass. Hay. It reminded her, the imagined smell, of her daddy, sweaty from mowing the lawn with a hand mower. She had been reading a Scott novel in the living room one afternoon, her feet curled under her, listening with half her mind to the shearing rattle of the rotating blades outside the window. The sound stopped and he was in the door.
"Come rake," he said. His Red Wings were matted and stained with green pulp. No, that must have been later, the power mower. He had a streak of sweat like Ahab's scar down his cheek. It was grey with dried salt along its shores. His tone was not commanding, but it left no room for "Sorry, but I'm busy right now, Father." She went. She raked. A horn honked, and she was waiting for the damned bus.
A cab! That was the answer. A cab driver could go to the bus stop, see if she's there. He could Luke thought it through. He could ask her to call this number. If she thought that was weird, she could call the cab stand and leave her number. No, that was weirder. He could be on the phone when the cabbie arrived, and have him hand her the phone. That would work.
Cabs. He went back to Excite, dug through the Yellow Pages. It would cost a fortune. They'd have to take a credit card. He'd have to convince them. If only the person who answered was a woman. She might understand. He picked up his headset and called the first one that came up in the search.
"You're kidding," the woman said.
"If you like, you can consider it a harmless joke. But I'll pay for it."
"Run you about thirty bucks, depending on how long he has to stay there," she warned him. He gave her a credit card number, imagined her running the card while she talked.
"So you want him to go to the bus stop at 29th and Charles, and if there's a woman there at 9:05"
"She's already there!"
She sighed. "If you know that, what do you need us for?" She waited a moment. "Card cleared. So if he sees a woman, he's to put her on his cell so you can talk to her. What are you going to say?"
"For all I know, you're going to insult her or something. We have liabilities."
"Oh come on. This is a lot of work to go through to make an obscene phone call. And you have my name, my phone"
"All right. I was just thinking out loud. Hold please," she added in an artificial, officious tone. After what seemed like a long silence, she was back. "Ok. Calvin Long is in the area, and he's got a cell. I dispatched him. You call him and try to explain what you want."
Alyss imagined herself talking to "the man of her dreams." She keep looking south, as if the bus might sneak up on her. She imagined them talking about dogs. She loved dogs. Well, big floppy dogs, like Pyrenees and Newfies. Chessies. Golden Retriever was the limit for size. He likes big dogs too, not the macho BS dogs Rotts and like that but big pillowy dogs.
"I think we like big dogs the way we like horses," he would say. "The kind we like says more about us than it does about the dog."
"I agree," she would say. Or maybe just nod. No need to state the obvious. She didn't care for cats. Didn't care for them at all. Cats are aloof. Like me, she thought, and her mouth wried up a bit. I want to be a big floppy friendly dog, but I can't. Fraidy cat.
It was 9:04 and no sign, ten blocks down the street, of the bus. She looked west. A car coming. She looked east. No bus. It was late.
"Mister, I've done some weird stuff in five year's of cabbing, including including delivering a baby. But this takes the cake. You know what? If there's a woman there and she doesn't think I'm crazy, I'm going to church this Sunday."
"Where are you?"
"Just a few blocks. Hold your horses."
"Can you see the bus stop yet?"
"Just hold your horses. I'm at a stop light."
She liked horses, even though she couldn't ride. He could teach her. That would be nice. She wondered if riding horseback was like they say it is. Then she got embarrassed. She glanced at the woman sitting on the passenger bench reading a book. She stared down the street. Still no bus! Maybe she should ask if the bus had been early. But of course, if it was early, the woman wouldn't be here. The next one was at 10. Dumb. She looked again.
Luke was pacing the floor. He nearly tripped over Brandy.
"Get outside!" he said to the dog, holding the door. "Go chase General Phil into the barn. Git!"
Brandy struggled to his feet, stretched, shook to fluff his blonde fur, gave Luke an accusing glare, trotted outside and dropped immediately onto the porch. Too cold for herding.
"I see her," the cabbie said. "Shit, there is somebody there."
"What about the bus?" Luke said.
"No sign of it, but it can't have come. It would've passed me."
"Hang on," the cabbie said. "We're there." He could hear the cabbie talking, muffled, probably with the phone against his chest.
Cal Long was not a superstitious man, but this beat all. She was a looker, too.
He should have rehearsed. Now it was too late. He called to her. She looked at him with some surprise. Me? He called her again.
"If you don't mind."
"What is it?"
"I got a man on the phone needs to speak to you."
"The phone," he repeated, waving it out the window. "He needs to talk to you. It's important," he added, doing his best.
She didn't move. "About what?"
Cal killed the motor. He was parked on the wrong side of the street, the bus came around the corner about five blocks away and approached, with that slow ponderousness busses have. He jumped out of the car.
"I don't know about what," he said, stepping toward her. She stepped away and glanced toward the approaching bus. He stopped. She was spooked. That wouldn't work.
"What?" he said. He was speaking to the phone. "She's about 5'5", reddish hair, nice tan What?"
The bus was two blocks away. He put the phone on his shoulder.
"Ma'm," he said, "if you could just talk to him, for a minute? He wants you to take his phone number. He's calling from Montana. He says"
He put the phone to his ear. "She won't do it," he said. He listened.
"Not? No, she doesn't have black hair. Five-five, like I said. No way. I'm five-eleven. If she was that tall I'd"
"She was here," the woman said, looking relieved, glancing back and forth to Cal and the approaching bus.
"What?" Cal said. The bus pulled up and the door opened with that flatulent sound bus doors make.
The woman grabbed the handrail and cried, "A tall woman with black hair? She was here. She got in a car a minute ago." She stepped into the bus. The doors shut behind her. The bus pulled around his cab, the driver glaring at him, and moved on.
"Follow the bus!" Luke shouted.
"You have to get a description of the car! Something! Follow it and stop her when she gets off."
"I can't do that. It's probably illegal. Harassment or something."
"Did you see a car? When you saw the bus stop. Did you see a car stopped there?"
"Yeah. Oh! Yeah. When I was at the light I saw it pull away. But it turned at the corner here. No telling where it went. Sorry."
"Well can't you at least look around the corner? Maybe"
"I can see around the corner, friend. It's long gone. You didn't tell me about no cars."
"Then please, please follow the bus until that lady gets off. It's important. Do this for me, Mr. Long."
"You are shit crazy fella, but Ok."
He turned the cab around. The bus was just leaving at the light on 23th and he caught up with it when it stopped at the Prospect shelter. He idled behind it. He hoped the driver wasn't getting nervous about him. He thought about calling in, telling Yula that he was still working for the crazy guy. No point.
"You know, we could just come back tomorrow. If she was on her way to work, then she'll be there tomorrow."
"I know. If we don't find her, I'll think about it. But I'm worried. What if she doesn't always take the bus? And what if we have the wrong time? What if she's going to get on the bus at 9:05 my time?"
"You're a hour behind us?"
"I don't think so. It's got to be her. It's like I was in her head. She had to catch the 9:05. She hates the bus. She has black hair, black eyes, olive skin."
"Maybe she's Turkish. I don't know."
"Not a lot of Mexicans in Rockford. Or Indians either. No Turks, I guarantee. This is Pennsylvania Dutch country."
"Then she should be easy to find, right?"
"It's a big city, son."
"But she lives five or ten blocks from the bus stop. I could come to Rockford, walk around, look for her."
Cal said nothing. His meter was at thirty-seven dollars. A nut and made of money.
"Are you watching for her?"
"Yup. Green jacket, big purse, red hair, jeans."
She got off at Victoria Village. Luke got the cabbie to park and go ask her for details about the car. He caught up with her in front of a little restaurant.
"Ma'am, this may be the weirdest scavenger hunt in history, but I'd sure appreciate it if you'd help me out here."
The woman looked in the deli window. There were a couple of customers inside. She could smell bagels, but she stopped.
"All right," she said. "What is it?"
"Ask her to describe the woman."
"Could you describe the woman? At the bus stop?"
"Has she done something?"
"She wants to know"
"I heard her. No. She's a friend I've been trying to find."
"She's this friend." He gestured with the phone.
The woman, looking exasperated, put out a hand for the phone.
"What is this?" she said to Luke.
"Ma'am, I know this sounds"
She pushed the phone into Cal's hands and walked quickly away.
"Maggie?" Luke said to no one. "Maggie?"
"She's gone," Cal said. "She practically ran away. What did you"
"Go after her!"
"No, man. No. Enough. I'm out of this. I don't know what you said to her, but game over, friend." He hung up. Luke stared at the silent phone.
"I really appreciate your picking me up," Alyss said. "I hate riding the bus."
"No problem," Herb Gluden said, drawling the first syllable of 'problem' a bit. "Library's just a few blocks from Burpee's. We public servants got to stick together."
Alyssa rolled her eyes at the side window. Maybe the bus wouldn't have been so bad.
At 10:03, Consuelo Sanchez arrived at the bus stop, breathless, dragging her suitcase, a backpack slung over one shoulder. The 10:05 would get her to the Greyhound with a half hour to spare, her sister said. Luisa put down the other bag and hugged her.
"You be careful now," Luisa said.
"Luisa! I'm thirty-eight years old! I'll be fine!" Luisa was ten years older; her little sister would always be a baby.
The bus pulled up. They hugged again, and Consuelo hauled her luggage aboard. The driver glanced down disapprovingly as Luisa grabbed her sister for a last hug, burying her face in the young woman's hair.
"Call me when you arrive," she said. Consuelo nodded, her chin bouncing off Luisa's shoulder. She pulled free and climbed into the bus. From the window, she waved to Luisa, who dabbed her eyes with a hankie.
As the bus passed Victoria Village, she noticed a cab coming east on Charles. The cabbie glanced at the bus as they passed. She thought about her dream. "You were meant for me," she had said, almost singing it in the dream, as if. Then she had kissed the dry skin on his knuckles. They were bloody from scratching at the chapped patches. She smiled ruefully. Yeah, she thought, as the bus made its way to the Greyhound station. Meant for me. Whatever.