fter the utter darkness of the night before, the blue dawn was almost a shock to him, as if he hadn’t expected daylight to ever come again. The bus had been late coming out of Tucson, over an hour. Serendipity. Because of the delay Bobby had seen the first bright fingers of morning in the parking lot of the El Paso bus station. He had entered the station in the same blinding pitch he had been riding through all night, but just as they reloaded onto the charter, he glimpsed the beginnings. The steely light began to give definition to his surroundings. He noticed palm trees all around the edges of the lot. He had forgotten that they would grow in Texas—or else he had never known. He hadn’t really been concerned with trees in his past.
As the bus pulled away down Santa Fe Avenue, past the Scottish Rite Temple, Bobby realized that there were lots of things he had never noticed before, like the way the buildings here looked different than they did in Oklahoma or Missouri or California.
Something about the buildings here seemed open and clean. Maybe it was the contrast to the view beyond. The driver had said that Mexico lay only half a mile or so outside their windows. All that separated him in El Paso from strangers in another country was water. In some places that water was hardly more than a trickle, but in others the river was a rushing gulf, hungrily claiming the bodies of some desperate souls who tried to cross it.
Here in El Paso the river seemed like nothing, like a winding cattle road or a split-rail fence or just a line drawn in the dust, marking the end of one man’s place.
Bobby tried to focus on the houses of those other people as they sped past the city. Was that really Mexico? Was he seeing some foreign land? The place looked so barren, dusty and rocky. The houses were so close together that the clusters looked like tenement apartments with houses piled one on top of another. He wondered how those people could breathe so close together, packed in like prisoners. He had never had enough space, not in the hills, not in the desert, not in the faceless cities where no one knew his name. It had taken Bobby his entire life to figure out that his claustrophobia wasn’t caused by other people or their nearness to him. He just carried it around with him, like other people carried fears of flying or memories of their husband’s death. Some things just walked around inside a person whether they wanted to use them or not. Bobby figured that maybe he was so afraid of what might happen if people were close to him that he tortured anyone who made the mistake of asking him the time of day. What if they knew him inside? What if they could see his thoughts and his fears? What if they realized that he was nothing, an orphan, a beggar, an old lost man? Where would he ever be able to go if he lost that power to protect himself?
Bobby tried to stretch his aching back. He was getting too old and brittle to travel like this. Mid-fifties might as well be mid-eighties as tired as he felt. Running from himself was exhausting work. He was ready to retire. That was why he had accepted Francine Mathison’s offer when it came. There was Serendipity again, trying to catch him now that he was slowing down. He had only been out of prison for eight or nine months this time when the investigator she had hired came to his door.
The man had been strange, quiet and almost rude, like he was already late for the appointment of his life. Bobby had sneered when the man explained who had sent him.
“Statute of limitations, man,” he had said as he snapped the screen shut in the strange man’s face. The man looked tired. He hadn’t shaved in a while.
“Mr. Dowty,” he had said quickly before Bobby slammed the inner door, “Mrs. Mathison doesn’t wish to prosecute you for anything. She merely had me find you to extend this invitation.”
The odd, thin man had reached into his cheap, gray suit pocket then and extracted a small, purplish envelope bearing the name Robert J. Dowty. Something about seeing that name made Bobby feel nervous, as if Robert J. Dowty was another person he had met a few times but never really knew. Bobby wanted to take the envelope just to see what was inside. Maybe there was something about his mother. Maybe she was sick or dying. The old Mathison lady had been her best friend, after all. He needed to open that envelope—but something in his mind told him that it might explode if he touched it or vanish into a puff of smoke—or that someone might come rushing toward him yelling, “Thief!” So he had stood without moving, staring through the screen at the man whose ears were much too large for his head.
“For your convenience Mrs. Mathison has provided a round-trip bus ticket to the event and complete instructions,” the hook-nosed man said matter-of-factly, proffering those articles with his other hand.
“What’s she want with me?” Bobby asked bluntly. He squinted at the man as if he could somehow read the answer in the lines of his face.
“I’m sure I don’t know. If you want to find out, I suggest that you ask Mrs. Mathison.”
Then, for several moments, both men had stood motionless, waiting each other out. Bobby finally decided he was tired of looking at the gangly little man and opened the screen to take the items.
The scrawny investigator had merely dusted off his hands as if the whole affair had been dirty business and, with an abrupt turn, headed toward his rental car. “Good afternoon, Mr. Dowty,” he had said over his shoulder. When his car backed out, Bobby imagined that the man had driven just out of sight and then stopped to laugh and sneer at his face still frozen in the doorway of his trailer house.
That had always been the problem with Bobby. He couldn’t just accept things as they came. Everything was a question, an ordeal, a battle to come out on top. He wondered what kind of people they were who could just be happy with their lives. What made those people tick differently than he? Who were those men who lived in brightly colored, cheery little Mexican houses, one on top of another? And why did he have the impression that those poor people across the river were so much freer than he, just as poor on his side?
Bobby thought of a book he had read from the prison library, some old diary written by a girl who had died in World War II because she was Jewish. Bobby hadn’t planned to read that book. He had picked it up by mistake, but once he had started reading, he had wanted to know what happened. He had felt weird reading some girl’s private thoughts from so long ago. Of course he hadn’t read the whole book. Some parts were boring so he had skipped around a lot, and he had been really disgusted when the book just ended—without any answers like regular books. He figured maybe that was because a person was never really finished like a story that’s made up. Just to be sure he had asked Mrs. Mumphrey, the prison librarian, if part of the pages at the end of that book were missing. She had seemed surprised that Bobby would have chosen to read such a book, but after only one double-take, she had explained what had happened, why the book had ended. The little girl had been taken to a prison, only unlike him, she hadn’t committed any crimes. She was just from a religion that Germans didn’t like much. Bobby had been a little sad to find out that the girl had died in her prison, that she had never grown up to leave home or drink beer or have a boyfriend with a swell truck.
Mrs. Mumphrey had suggested other books Bobby might want to read about the girl and her war. He hadn’t checked any of them out, but for some reason he couldn’t help thinking about that girl. He had gone back to the library on a Friday, when Mrs. Mumphrey was off, to flip through the other books, looking for signs of the girl. He hadn’t wanted Mrs. Mumphrey to know he was too interested. He was content to let her think that he wanted no more knowledge added to his brain than what was provided with her “Words for the Week” board on the library wall. Every week there were two new words that everyone could learn if they wanted to have a better vocabulary when they got back to the real world. Most of the words didn’t interest Bobby, but one day Bobby had seen a word that kept his attention for a solid minute: Serendipity. The word looked so impressive up there on the board, long and beautiful. Serendipity. The definition had read, “An assumed talent for making discoveries by accident.” That had been the moment that Bobby discovered his real purpose in life. He had a knack for finding out things when he wasn’t even trying. The girl in the war prison was one of those things. After that Bobby had set about his task of finding books with a new vigor. He even started to feel almost proud of his newfound talent.
One book had pictures of other people like the girl who had died horribly. They had ended with their bodies piled up like the weary Mexican houses. Another book had told about a fence where free people snuck away to talk to their friends through raggedy holes. Sometimes they took them food or blankets or hopeful news about their families.
Seeing the river in El Paso reminded Bobby of that fence, where hope was nearly all that survived on both sides. He wondered if his life would have been different, if he would have hope, if he had been born in one of those tumbled-up houses in Mexico.
Bobby looked around him at the other riders on the bus, wondering, for maybe the first time in his life, what other people wanted from their lives. You could see where they came from: mothers with their children, young guys in college t-shirts, old people with their sun visors and fanny packs. The harder thing was to figure where they were going. Was anyone looking at him and knowing that he was riding through the desert dawn straight into his past?
He glanced to his right, where a middle-aged couple dozed together on one pillow propped between them. They were covered with a gigantic blanket, and the woman’s mouth hung wide open. In front of them sat two teenagers. The girl was rubbing at a kink in her neck as she carelessly threw her empty chip bag on the floor. Her boyfriend stared out the window. He was wearing earphones that were turned up so loud that Bobby could make out the beat of the songs from his own seat.
The woman directly in front of Bobby had a small baby all bundled up and another child that she kept yelling at in Spanish. Bobby didn’t speak any Spanish, but he could understand the tone of her voice clearly enough. They had gotten on the bus at the El Paso stop, and Bobby had noticed that their carry-on luggage had been dripping wet. Bobby thought again of the Rio Grande and turned away to look across at the windows on the other side of the bus.
Most of the people were like him. They had been on since Tucson or longer, and although they never asked each other’s names, they seemed to have formed some sort of alliance. They were the riders. When the bus driver swerved wildly in the night, they discussed amongst themselves the dangers. They prompted a volunteer to ask for an extra coffee stop. When the air conditioner wasn’t cool enough, they complained to each other and swapped stories of their hottest summers, of heat stroke and sunburns and cool mountain streams. When a baby cried, they recalled other tears, other babies, other nights on long, winding roads. But it wasn’t just the conversation—something about the people around him made Bobby feel like part of a community. The feeling fit awkwardly but he thought he could learn to like it. Maybe he could stay on that bus forever, living on the outskirts of life. It would be easier than going home.
He had dreaded this trip since the day he left, knowing that eventually almost everyone returns to where they came from. Sometimes people waited until they were old and dying before they went to make amends or see things one last time. Sometimes they got there by chance because of a random choice they made one day. Bobby couldn’t be certain but he was pretty sure that no matter how long they waited, they were all as scared as he was.
Bobby rummaged in his old, worn duffel until he found the book, the dog-eared Bible that the prison chaplain had given him on the day he was released from prison. The chaplain had talked to him a lot through the years, and though Bobby couldn’t say why, he had listened intently on more than one occasion. On the morning of Bobby’s last day inside, the chaplain had brought the old, used Bible to Bobby and had marked a page for him in the book of Luke. Bobby had read the highlighted passage dozens of times since that day, and as he traced it now with his finger, he felt the truth of blame deep in his bones.
“…And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want…”
The story went on to tell about how the son had realized his sins and had gone home to ask to be a servant, but when he got there his father kissed him and made a big party to celebrate, which really ticked off the older son, who had stayed home and been good all those years. Bobby could understand the part about the riotous living. He had certainly wasted more substance than most people could expect to gain in a lifetime. He even understood the brother. There he was, taking up all the slack for his brother, but as soon as he came home, everyone acted like he was a rock star or something. The part that Bobby couldn’t quite see—the part his conscience didn’t really believe—was the part about the father and his open arms. Even if his father hadn’t been bitter to start with, wouldn’t all those years of his son’s being wasteful have done the trick? Maybe long ago in Bible times, people were more forgiving of their children, or maybe some people loved their sons so much that it didn’t matter what they’d done. They’d always welcome them back.
Even though Bobby knew his story wouldn’t end that way, even though he already felt the cold certainty of being turned away, he couldn’t help but press onward. Serendipity and Francine Mathison had given him an opportunity to go home again. He had nothing to lose and probably nothing to gain, but he felt a wriggling queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t felt that particular sensation in a very long time, but he thought perhaps it might be hope.
He ran his fingers over the twentieth verse one last time before he closed the Bible. He wasn’t really reading the verses anymore. He knew the entire passage by heart, and even after the book was zipped back safely inside his bag, he replayed the words carefully over and over in his mind.
“…And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him…”
Melissa Heath-Lee is a Foster Care and Adoption Recruiter for the State of Oklahoma, where she lives with her husband Peery. She’s been writing for nearly 40 years while also pursuing careers in the arts, education, and vacuum cleaner sales. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry have been published in journals such as The Quotable and Green Eggs and Hamlet, and her plays have been produced in Texas and Oklahoma.