The bus station was long past its prime. Nothing about it caught the eye. Even the once-polished metal looked abandoned and ready for demolition. When Mayor Gates built it in 1965, Wheaton’s residents were in a fugue of excitement, anticipating that the new interstate would revive the economy. As happens in so many other towns, they didn’t realize that the speedy conduit would rocket people away from their respective hometowns and rupture their connection to home. When 1970 came, no one noted that the town had passed its zenith.
Zeke stood along Main Street, his eye carefully absorbing the details of the surrounding businesses. Most were long-shuttered, and none of the marquee signs were freshly-painted or modern. He only returned this time to sign away his parcel of land along Sherman Street. The house had been demolished years ago. His distant cousin Jermaine wanted it to build another house across two lots. Zeke was happy to reward him for staying and keeping roots here. Few could do so.
Zeke departed Wheaton for the Army the week after high school. Vietnam was a concern, but college was not an option for him. He witnessed a few people come back as completely different people. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Zeke loved the Army. He stayed in for eight years until he met Sally Jenkins. They married and moved back to her hometown in Mississippi. To Zeke’s surprise, her hometown was exactly like Wheaton, a declining farm town with few jobs. She died in 1992 of an inoperable brain tumor. Zeke never remarried, though a couple of women asked him. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he stayed in Sally’s hometown. Zeke appreciated it in a way that he couldn’t love Wheaton.
Zeke’s mind drifted back to 1965.
The day the bus station opened, Zeke was ten years old. His Mom told him he was going to witness history and insisted that he accompany her downtown. She also made him dress up, including a tie and hat. All he remembered were people talking excitedly about an old bus as it pulled into town. The town newspaper sent out a junior reporter who animatedly took pictures of the ribbon-cutting and people stuffing hot dogs in their faces. The diner next door, owned by Mayor Gate’s brother, gave out free soda, coffee, and hot dogs. Zeke quickly consumed four hot dogs, much to the embarrassment of his Mom. She stopped him as he went for number five.
Zeke escaped his Mom’s rebuke and sat on an extended bench on the side of the building. The relief driver who came in on the bus sat there, too, smoking a long cigarette. He offered Zeke a drag. After carefully considering that someone might see him, he declined. Zeke acquired a taste for smoking when he was seven. His uncles gave him cigarettes regularly when his Mom wasn’t paying attention. To his Mom’s credit, she pretended that she couldn’t smell the stench of tobacco on him. She was a mix of disciplinary contrast, and it was her voice of conscience he heard in his dark moments of indecision.
“What’s so special about a bus station?” Zeke asked the middle-aged and weary driver.
“They think it will save them. It won’t. It will siphon all of you out of here. I’ve driven all over the United States. That is what happens.” He took another long drag of the absurd cigarette and laughed. “Can’t tell adults anything, though, right?” He asked. Zeke couldn’t tell if he was serious.
Zeke sat on the bench with the bus driver, talking, for at least thirty minutes until the crowd realized that no further excitement would ensue. A few minutes later, the bus pulled away from the new bus station without any additional passengers. Zeke waved enthusiastically as the tired passengers from other places watched him recede from view. He had a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes in his pocket, a departing gift from Petey, the driver.
Zeke thought about the intervening years, fifty-five incredible years. In the interim, the town dwindled by two-thirds. Zeke’s return trips gradually declined. After his Mom passed, he stopped coming for obligatory funerals, too. His hometown had become a reunion base for those who refused to leave. With each visit, a little bit of vitality disappeared from the buildings and the faces of those there.
Another bench now stood against the side of the old diner building. Though it probably had been replaced repeatedly, the bench there looked to be one hundred years old. Zeke could still picture the relief bus driver in his uniform, sitting there and smoking in the early May afternoon sun. He could almost taste the mustard-covered hotdogs he had indulged in, too. Zeke found himself walking toward the bench to sit down. As he did, he stretched his legs out in front of him.
His imagination filled his head with the remembered murmur and the excited chatter of the people assembled here in 1965 to witness the new bus station being christened by the arrival of a tired Greyhound bus.
Zeke decided to sit there for just a minute. He felt exhausted, and his memories weighed on him like nostalgic sandbags.
Two hours later, one of the residents walking her dog found Zeke sitting on the bench, his hat askew, his eyes wide open to the receding sun.
He wouldn’t leave Wheaton after all. He would have been happy to know he hadn’t escaped. No one escapes where they are from, and if you consider the implications of this truth, a big piece of your heart will swell and float away.