Today, may I bring you another chapter sample. Our story turns again to our main character, Axel Browne, and his faithful companion, Dixie. I hope you enjoy this reading and if you do please leave a comment below.
Chapter 8 — Bus Station Stop
Upon leaving the liquor store, Axel remembered there was a shorter route back to Miss Plackie’s house. It was one, however, he usually did not take because it meant going into downtown Waterford where you had to deal with the noisy chaos of traffic and swirling clouds of car engine exhaust and dust. But once you made it as far as Remington Avenue the walk got better. Sometimes Axel took this route simply for the pleasure of walking Remington Avenue which led past Waterford Park and out to Laurel Lane. Remington was a pleasant, quiet, old avenue lined with mature maples and sycamores. Today he would take the downtown route because it was faster.
But once you crossed the railroad tracks, the name of the avenue changed from Remington to Partcher Road and its character transformed completely. The old trees and stately houses that lined Remington were replaced by broken hedges and paint-peeled clapboards on Partcher. And on Partcher Road, before it met Laurel Lane, was where the bus station sat.
Since he was headed that direction already and who knew when he’d be back again, Axel thought it might be worth the trouble to make a quick stop at the bus terminal and indulge a secret curiosity he’d harbored for years. He had always wondered how much bus fare would be, one-way, for him and Dixie to travel to Montana. The inquiry would only take a minute, he figured, if the station was open. So he decided he would do that if it worked out.
Axel had heard that the lakes and rivers of Montana were crystal clear and teeming with great fish. Since his youth, when he devoured everything of Hemingway he could find, he had fantasized about living in such a place and finding his own secluded river to fish. And it was not lost on him that his window of opportunity to make that sort of move had already narrowed considerably. If he and Dixie were ever going to see Montana, it would have to be soon. At age seventy, Axel realized, he was running out of time.
Axel and Dixie turned onto Remington and entered its high, cool canopy of trees. It was comfortable there and Axel felt as if he had entered a distant age in time, one in which he really belonged. He imagined horse-drawn carriages traversing up and down a cobblestone street, the horses’ hooves popping the stone pavement, even though Remington was asphalt like all the other streets in Waterford. But he imagined it being cobblestone, anyway. He wished he had lived during his grandfather’s generation when life was close to the earth and men made their livings with their backs, their wits, and their hands, not by sitting on their asses, staring at computer screens, following mind-numbing plots on nested menus. To Axel the so called “Information Age” was infuriatingly dull. How people could conform to its dehumanizing and de-animalizing conventions and values he had no idea.
He himself had opted out of mainstream society not long after returning from the war and had no regrets. But opting out, for a Vietnam vet coming home in 1968, was not a huge leap. Axel no longer felt like he belonged to his own country where everything, by comparison to the life-and-death struggle he’d faced in Vietnam, seemed trivial and exaggerated. Everyone made such a fuss over stupid shit, he thought.
Americans had no idea how easy and artificial their lives were compared to how the peasants lived whom Axel had encountered in Vietnam. He had realized that the peasants’ way of life was the real reality. And real reality was not the American reality where life was largely detached from Nature, from labor, and place, where products of all kinds magically birthed from boxes onto shelves in supermarkets and big box stores. Americans didn’t know, or care, how the products they used were made or how they got to store shelves. They just bought them. Axel also realized that outside of the United States most people in the world lived on the margin, very close to starvation and without any social safety net to protect them from the abyss. What Axel had witnessed in Vietnam was the real reality on planet Earth.
But Axel Browne’s disillusion was not unique. Every grunt he knew, wounded or not, had returned with the same problem: war and Vietnam had profoundly changed him, making his return and readaptation to artificial life in America extremely difficult, if not impossible. And Axel contended that anyone who had experienced Vietnam, as he did, and claimed otherwise was lying.
Axel and Dixie walked Remington Avenue until crossing the railroad tracks. From there it was Partcher Road. They crossed the tracks at the Waterford loop which, a mile or so northwest of town, diverged from the main line and skirted the southern edge of Waterford village. The loop served the warehouses to the southeast before winding back to the main line headed to Turners Mill. Farther on, Partcher Road intersected with Laurel Lane and there Axel and Dixie would turn west and follow Laurel Lane until it crossed the Turners Mill line where they would take the tracks again towards home.
Partcher Road was the depressing part of Waterford, yet, for some reason, Axel felt more comfortable there. Perhaps it was because he had spent so much of his life in such unattractive places where the soil was always poor and the weeds grew tall and dry and where the Angel of Mercy refused to visit. He had walked a million Partcher Roads during his lifetime, all across America. But America did not recognize these places as her own; they were her stepchildren and she ignored them. Still, they existed. And the railroad tracks were the invisible walls, walling out those million Partcher Roads from their respectable half-sisters: the better parts of towns.
Someone once asked Axel if he thought there were two Americas, one for the affluent and another for the poor. “Why hell,” answered Axel, “all you have to do is cross a railroad track anywhere in this country with your eyes open to answer that silly question.” And always, it was on the bad side of the tracks where you found the bus station, an ironic symbol of escape from desolation which the destitute had little means to use.
Dixie walked beside Axel, panting. Her ears drooped. Her tongue hung far out of her mouth but the tip of it curled delicately, like a pink rose petal, as though trying to prevent the saliva from dripping off and increasing her thirst more. She whined, complaining quietly to herself.
“I’m thirsty too,” said Axel. “We’ll get a good drink at the bus depot.”
It was almost eleven o’clock as they approached the station. The temperature outside, Axel guessed, was near ninety degrees Fahrenheit and Partcher Road already smelled of tar. A slight breeze disturbed the dry weeds on the opposite side of the road so that they constantly shushed Axel and Dixie and caused them to walk quietly without conversing. Then an old pickup truck with a loud tailpipe passed and blew its horn either as greeting or warning but rattled on down Partcher and away. The weeds shushed more until the truck was gone and peace restored.
The bus station was all brick, concrete, and asphalt; there was no grass or landscaping anywhere. But Axel reasoned that there must be a spigot somewhere on the outside of the building and sure enough there was, on the side close to the chainlink fence which protected the bus depot from a seedy gas station and convenience store that advertised brands of cigarettes with posters stuck to its windows behind grates of wrought iron bars. The gas station/convenience store appeared closed; there were no cars in its cracked parking lot. The problem with the spigot was the metal valve handle on top had been unscrewed and removed. But it was not a problem for Axel who kept his own handle in his pocket. He simply fit his handle on, cranked the valve open and let the water run.
“Wait a minute, Dix,” said Axel, letting the rust clear and the water run cool before allowing her to drink. He adjusted the flow then cupped his hands under the stream and let the water fill them like a bowl.
“Okay, girl, it’s good now.”
Dixie began lapping the water and drank for what seemed like five minutes.
“Boy, you really were thirsty, weren’t you,” said Axel.
Dixie looked up and grinned at him, took a couple more laps of water, just to make sure she had gotten enough, then gave way to Axel so he could get himself a drink. He bent low and drank from one hand and, when he had finished, splashed his face with cool water before turning off the spigot and returning the valve handle to his pocket.
“That’s better,” he said. “Now let’s see if the man’s here.”
The bus station was open so Axel and Dixie entered though the glass door. Inside it was cool and some of the lighting had been shut off so the sitting area was dismal, though the ticket purchase area was fully lit. But Axel found no one behind the ticket window.
Axel walked to the window anyway and began reading the arrival and departure schedules which hung high on the wall on either side of a large, round clock. In the ticket window, a round, metal-louvered speaker was suspended at about chin-level in the thick, transparent plastic. The plastic glass looked to be about an inch thick. Below the metal speaker, a low arch was cut into the window right at the level of the counter, like an elongated mouse hole, so that payments and tickets could be exchanged through the barrier. The counter was made of steel, painted with dark blue enamel, but the paint had worn through with use so that a patch of polished steel was visible where travelers had slid documents back and forth through the mouse hole.
To the right, at the end of the room, ran a second, perpendicular counter—this one without glass—which butted up against the ticket counter at the corner. Behind that counter, ran a pair large metal shelves against the wall, one above the other. Both were covered with soiled, unraveling indoor-outdoor carpeting, where luggage was staged for loading before departure or received from arriving buses for customer claim. In this counter, near the outside windows, there was a three-feet wide gap and a floor scale where luggage was slid in and weighed when checked for departure. But no one attended that counter either.
Axel began whistling hoping someone behind the partition wall would hear and come around to help him. Then suddenly a door slammed and a female voice was heard talking loudly from behind the wall.
“Somebody’s going to have to move that shit before three o’clock and it ain’t going to be me. I about broke my back the last time,” said the brash voice.
A short, meaty woman wearing blue coveralls and a back-brace appeared behind the luggage counter and startled when she saw Axel standing in front of her.
“Oh! You about scared me to death,” she said. “Somebody’ll be with you in a minute.”
She disappeared back through the opening from which she had just entered.
“Derick! You got a customer. Out front! Where else would they be? Yeah! A customer. I don’t know!”
A door slammed again.
Two minutes passed before a spindly man with a sharp nose in his early twenties appeared through the doorway—which had no door—in the wall. He had uncombed, dark hair (which appeared black against his paint-white skin) insipid eyes, half-opened, set behind black, horn-rimmed glasses, brushy eyebrows, and a haughty expression which came across as affected. He half-smiled which produced an expression on his face of having breathed fetid air.
“So how can I help you?” he asked Axel tiredly.
“You must be Derick,” said Axel.
“Yeah. And you must be—?”
“Great, we’re making progress here,” sang Derick as if performing for an audience. “So Axel, what national treasure—Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore—are you planning to visit today?” He tittered at his own insolence. Then continued speaking in an exaggerated, television ad style of voice: “We can get you there in comfort and, in most cases, in four days or less. Axel, imagine this: you could be throwing stones into the Grand Canyon on say—let’s see, today’s Tuesday—you could be tossing stones into the Grand Canyon by Saturday morning. Isn’t that cool?”
He then turned his voice into a seductive half-whisper.
“So Axel, what exciting destination have you chosen for your special, bucket list excursion across America?”
Derick grinned like a chimpanzee at Axel and wagged his head a little on the other side of the thick glass.
Axel grinned back but with dead, fish eyes.
“You know, you’re a very funny fellow. I’ll bet we could have a lot of fun together if ever we met, you know, (Axel tossed his head sideways a bit) out there somewhere. Think about it.”
It sounded like an invitation the way Axel had said it, and no doubt it was.
The chimp’s grin melted and a surly expression took its place. But then he blinked slowly, pursed his mouth, and swallowed with difficulty as it finally sank in the meaning of Axel’s insinuation about “fun”.
Still grinning, Axel lowered his chin, raised his eyebrows, and looked down at the fellow as if looking over a pair of reading glasses.
“Yeah, you think about it,” said Axel again, “but in the meantime I’d like some information about bus fare to Montana, if you’re the right person who handles that sort of thing.”
Suddenly the chimp’s persona became all business, though not really the chipper brand one usually gets from people working customer service counters.
“Certainly. I can help you with that,” said Derick in an offended tone of voice. “What destination were you thinking?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” said Axel. “I’m sure your time is as valuable to you as mine is to me. So I will make this quick and try not to waste too much of either yours or mine since we both, obviously, have better things to do.”
Axel had two uncanny skills: First, he could guess which direction a fly was about to turn so could swat it out of mid-air. And second, he possessed the extraordinary gift of seizing “teachable moments” whenever they, like specters, materialized before him.
“Ahem.” Someone cleared their throat.
Axel and Derick both turned to find a middle aged man approaching who had just entered the doorway from the back and had cleared his throat as he entered the ticket area. He wore navy blue trousers, a light blue shirt, and a black, paint-stick shaped tie. Obviously he was an employee of the bus company who operated the station. His shirt pocket contained two ballpoint pens, and a bus company logo patch boldly decorated his right breast. Above the logo patch he wore a name pin that read “BRADLEY”. His head reminded Axel of a butternut squash, but in an attractive way, which had a skirt of short-cropped hair around the sides and back of his head but the top of which was as smooth as satin. He carried himself with an air of authority but also that of helpfulness and efficiency. He was someone, surmised Axel, who had worked many years for the bus company and took pride in his position. He had intelligent eyes.
“Thank you, Derick. I’m back so I can take over from here. And when you go back, please turn on the rest of the station lights so it looks like we’re open for business? Thank you,” said the official-acting fellow, dismissing his rude colleague.
Derick turned and left in a bent posture without saying a word.
“Hello sir, my name is Brad. How may I help you today?” he said, addressing Axel.
Axel noticed the words “STATION MANAGER” in small print below his name on the name badge.
“Hello, Brad. My name is Axel Browne and I’d like to price a couple of one-way tickets to Montana.”
Dixie had found herself a nice place to rest on the cool tile floor of the waiting area and lay with her chin on her front paws. Just then the florescent lights in the large room flickered and came on.
“There, that’s better,” said Brad, smiling with satisfaction. He then turned his attention to his computer screen and began popping keys on the keyboard situated in front of him. “Sorry, this will only take a minute. I’m pulling up the right page. So Montana, eh?”
“What city, Mr. Browne? Where in Montana would you like to go?”
“Well that’s the thing,” said Axel, “I’ve never been to Montana before, so I don’t know for sure. I was hoping you might be able to help me with that.”
“Well, I can certainly try,” said Brad. “Do you know what part of the state you’d like to visit? There are several attractive locations in northwestern Montana around Glacier National Park for example. Or perhaps, you’d prefer the south central part of the state, near Yellowstone and the Wyoming border. Those are both very popular travel destinations.”
“Have you ever been to Montana yourself?” asked Axel.
“Yes, I’ve been there but only once and that was on a train. My late wife and I took a train trip, cross-country, some twenty years ago when we learned that she had a brain tumor. It was something we’d always wanted to do together. So we did. Anyway, on that trip, we passed through Montana on our way to the Pacific Coast. But the train travels both night and day so most of Montana we passed through during the night. I didn’t see as much of the state as I would have liked, but what I did see was quite striking. I would describe it as a dramatic landscape: trees and mountains, then rolling plains, river valleys, small towns, ranch land, then trees and mountains again. What I saw was like that. But let me ask you this: Why do you want to visit Montana? What draws you there, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Fishing,” said Axel without hesitation. “I’ve heard that Montana is full of beautiful lakes and rivers and that every one of them is chuck-full of rainbow and brown trout as long as your arm. I’d like to live somewhere where Dixie and I could fish every day and enjoy the great outdoors.”
“Well, there’s plenty of ‘great outdoors’ in Montana to enjoy, I’m sure. Now it sounds to me like you’re wanting to relocate to Montana, not just visit there. Am I correct?”
“Yes sir. That’s the plan.”
“Hmm. It gets pretty cold up there, I’m told, so I’m not sure one would want to fish every day but— I’m spitballing here—I think the lakes are in the northern part of the state, up around Glacier Park and the Canadian border. But let me—” Brad fell into thought for a minute. “Let me look at a map,” he said finally.
He stooped and pulled out a dogeared road atlas from beneath the counter and began licking his fingers and hurriedly flipping pages and whispering names of states as he went: “Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana—Oregon, nope, too far. Nevada, Nebraska, okay here we are—Montana.” He said Montana so Axel could hear him. Pressing his index finger to the map and tracing lines back and forth, he continued mumbling. “Let me see. Lakes—lakes.”
“Rivers are good too,” said Axel, “especially big ones.”
Brad perused the map a minute longer before finally reaching a conclusion. He then turned the atlas around and pushed it towards Axel, as close to the window as possible, so Axel could see what Brad wanted to show him.
“Well see, there are all kinds of lakes and rivers up here in the northwest corner of the state. This green area here is Glacier National Park; but you can’t live in the park; but there are still lots of lakes and rivers all around here,” he said, circling the area with his finger.
Axel reached his hand through the mouse hole and pointed to a blue patch on the map.
“What is that?” he asked Brad.
“Ah—?” It took Brad a minute to find the blue spot’s label. “Oh, that’s Flathead Lake. Oh! I’ve heard about Flathead Lake. A friend of mine has gone there a couple of times. It’s a huge lake. A reservoir really. Enormous! Great fishing, though. Very, very popular among anglers and professional sportsmen.”
“A lot of tourists go there?”
“Absolutely. It’s very popular with boaters too.”
“Hm,” grunted Axel who pursed his lips. “Not really my cup of tea. I’d like something less popular, more out-of-the-way. What’s that? Is that a river?” he asked. Again Axel pointed to the map, this time at a python-shaped feature farther north and west of Flathead Lake. His finger rested near Libby, Montana.
“Ah, let me see.” Brad turned the atlas around and bent over it to read the fine print. “No, it’s a lake, actually.” He read the name slowly. “Lake Koocanusa. It’s a very long lake. Stretches all the way into Canada, it appears.”
“Is it out-of-the-way?” asked Axel.
“I’ve never heard of it,” said Brad. “Oh, I see it’s a reservoir too. Right here is Libby Dam.” He pointed to print too tiny for Axel to read. “It’s all forest around the lake. See? And some pretty tall peaks to the west: Lost Horse Mountain, Boulder Mountain, Blue Mountain over here. My guess is that it’s pretty out-of-the-way.”
“Okay,” said Axel, “I’ve made up my mind. I want to go to Lake Koocanusa.”
“Well, the bus doesn’t go to lakes, per se. But I can usually get you to the closest town. Do you want a larger city closest to the lake or whatever town is closest regardless of size?”
“The closest town would work for us.”
Brad studied the atlas then went to work on his computer, playing the keys like a concert pianist. It seemed to Axel that Brad, as he worked, became more and more frustrated which caused him to play his keyboard faster and faster in search of, what Axel assumed was, a bus station near Lake Koocanusa.
The next few minutes were tense. Brad asked Axel questions about things like whether or not he planned to rent a car once he reached his destination. Axel told him, no, he would not be renting a car. Brad would mumble: “Let’s try—” and then would madly type away once more, punch the ENTER key, then study the result, but always seemed dissatisfied with the result the computer gave him. Brad further asked questions about the date Axel planned to leave for Lake Koocanusa. Axel said he would like to leave tomorrow but that that would be impossible since he didn’t have the money and he would have to save up for it. But he still needed to know how much money it would cost for tickets so to prepare for the trip when eventually he was ready to make it. Brad said he understood.
Then Brad asked Axel about the number of passengers and whether any of them were seniors, sixty-five years or older, who were eligible for a discounted fare. This question caused some added frustration for Brad until he realized that the second passenger, Dixie, Axel’s traveling companion whom he kept referring to, was actually a border collie and not a person. Brad informed Axel that the bus line did not make accommodations for pets, only for service animals such as seeing-eye dogs, required by vision impaired persons. This news was a great blow to Axel’s hopes.
But that news was not all. Along with the fact that Dixie could not ride on the bus as a passenger, Axel learned that the closest bus station to Lake Koocanusa was Kalispell, Montana, almost ninety miles away from the lake which meant he would have to either walk or hitchhike the last ninety miles of the journey and the fare would still cost him one-hundred ninety-nine dollars for one passenger, one-way.
“Okay,” said Brad, “I can get you to Libby but you’ll have to layover thirty hours in Kalispell to catch the next bus up there and that bus is with a different carrier. At Libby there’s no station, just a drop-point so that may mean only carryon luggage is permitted. And it will add some to the price of the ticket. So from Waterford to Libby the fare is two-hundred, twenty-nine dollars instead of one-ninety-nine. So you’re looking at Kalispell for one-ninety-nine or Libby with a layover for two-twenty-nine. Which sounds better to you, sir?”
“I’d probably do Kalispell,” said Axel.
“Good enough. So let me plug in Kalispell; then I can print you an itinerary,” said Brad.
“That’s fine,” said Axel. “Thank you.”
“Would you like to purchase that ticket today?”
“Oh no, thank you; not today. But if I can get an itinerary to look at, that would be great.”
“I’ll print it out now,” said Brad. “I’ll have to plug in an arbitrary departure date just so we can print the itinerary but you can ignore that. But prices and availability of tickets might be different when you do actually book your trip in the future, okay? But this should give you at least some idea price-wise and the routes don’t change too often,” said Brad. Axel said he understood.
Axel could not remember the last time he had had two-hundred dollars in his possession. All of this was very discouraging. He could not imagine how a two-thousand mile trip to Montana was even remotely possible, especially since it now looked like he and Dixie would have to make the journey the old way—on foot.
Axel thanked Brad for his time and trouble and Brad printed Axel an itinerary to study. Then Axel and Dixie bade Brad farewell and left the station and headed down Partcher Road again, but discouraged.
“One thing’s for damned sure,” said Axel to Dixie, “If Jesus himself came down out of the clouds and invited me to go to fisherman’s paradise but said I couldn’t take you with me, why Dix, I’d flat out refuse the Good Lord’s offer. I swear I won’t go anywhere without you. We’ll just have to hobo our way to Montana, that’s all. We might make it if we take our time but, to tell you the truth, I’m going to have to sleep on it, girl. Yep, I’ll have to sleep on it, for sure. I just don’t know if we can do it, or how.”
Dixie whined as if disappointed by the news.
“I know. It’d be nice to hit the road in the morning, wouldn’t it?”
Soon the pair turned right onto Laurel Lane and headed west in the direction of Turners Mill line.