I stared out the bus window at the passing yellow grasses.
The song rang through me repeatedly, forcing me to stare at the monotony out the window, or, at my hands, which were cracked and bleeding from late-autumn night walks when I tried to decide what to do.
Some people like the prairie. Some people find its numbing sameness, its tranquility in the waving grasses, comforting. Not me. It choked me. On the prairie, there's nowhere to hide, except single, mocking trees six miles away — much too far to run toward when you're tired or trying to get away. The bus was the tallest thing for miles. Even in the shallow irrigation ditches, a person stood tall compared to the rest of the land. The heavy sky thudded against the earth, its breast beating hard against the wheezing land.
When you're afraid of your shadow, it's important to have a space where you can retreat. Even burrow a hole into the ground.
Mom once told me about a drive her sisters and her grandmother took across the prairie, on their way to California to visit her grandmother's husband. They sang the Sweet Betsy song, inserting their own phrases. Sweet Betsy became Sweet Lucy and the world seemed hilarious. They weren't running away. They were moving toward something new and exciting — a vacation. And the oppressive prairie was just sand in their hands. They sifted right on through its needlelike grasses.
In a small gas station near the Nebraska border, a curly-haired young man leaned against the counter. His eyes were rimmed gray and his glasses slid down his greasy nose. He pushed them back, regularly, with a single, ink-stained finger with torn cuticles dangling and bleeding. His ingrown toenail butted against the inside of his boot, and, to see that he's paying attention, he pressed harder into the steel toe until the pus broke through the skin and soaked his holey sock. He didn't want to care as it stung. He wiped sweat from his chin with his shirt collar, sucking on the salty fabric as it pulled away. He saw the bus approach and lit a cigarette, flinging the matchstick to the tile floor.
I shifted in my seat, from one numb hip to the other, deciding if I'd get off at this stop, or if I'd wait until the next. I pushed my face against the window, leaving an outline in oils, pores, and dead skin. It looked like a ghost, and I knew no one would steal my seat if I got up. Who would want to stare across the prairie through that mask?
As I walked toward the gas station, I thought about cigarettes, and about how sometimes I missed stinging menthols corrupting my lungs. Maybe I'd grab a pack or two, to waste some time as I continued west — like Sweet Betsy and so many before her. I didn't delude myself into thinking I'm a pioneer of anything. I just needed to get away.
I walked into the convenience store, running my hand along the cinder-block wall, flaking mint-green paint toward the floor with my fingernails. The clerk looked up from the counter, where he seemed to be staring at his reflection in the polystyrene sheet covering lotto examples. He raked his hand through his hair, sending dust and dandruff into the afternoon sunlight. The particles rained, invisibly, to the floor.
I meandered through the snack aisles, looking for something substantial to take up the growing space in my belly. He cleared his throat, snuffled. Everything looked too bright, too packaged, and too dirty. I walked toward the ancient, rolling hot dogs and the microwaveable sandwiches, glancing out the window toward the still-empty bus. As I walked toward the back of the store, I looked over a framed map near the restrooms. In a large, red marker, someone had written, "You are here" over the town's name. Beyond that, I held no conception of time or place. I felt the waving grasses close around me. It was like the grasses and the regimented, chain gas station competed for the title of most mundane and most soul-sucking. But I didn't believe in souls.
The guy behind the counter was clearing his throat more often now. His knuckles were covered in paint and ink. I wanted to mention the bright pink institutional liquid soap in the bathroom and remind him he could use it. But I didn't have an ID on me and I wanted cigarettes, so it wasn't time to be rude or condescending. I imagined that his home was covered with piles of dirty clothing, food, and spilled ashtrays. Maybe the brand-new carpet beneath his bed was blue, while the rest was a dull gray, flaked with crayon dust, charcoal bits, and ground-in potato chips. Maybe giant, black flies lived under the sink, where most Midwesterners store their garbage cans. The cleanest place was probably the toilet. The dirtiest, his bed.
He looked at me through smudged, taped glasses, trapping me to my spot in front of the lotto examples. I forgot that I held a plastic bottle of orange juice in my hands, and it bounced to the floor, rolling underneath the stand of day-old doughnuts and fritters. As I retrieved it, I grabbed a Danish. I wondered why he looked at me like that, peering, questioning, and I paid for my cigarettes and my food and walked outside to the bus.
My seat was still there, unoccupied by anything but a worn copy of Weekly World News. I grabbed the paper, scooted toward the window with my shoulder leaning on the glass, and drank my juice. The bus started with a chugging grunt and we were on our way again. My head lolled forward with every lurch, and I drooled juice onto the front of my shirt until I had sense enough to sleep.