It started when I was twelve. Others who think themselves better qualified will tell you it was much earlier. But I know it was twelve. Who knows better than me? It’s my life. I’m the one who’s been living it. It started when I was twelve.
I know it was when I was twelve because that’s when I began working at the store, Hubert’s Sew and Vac. In some places you can work at a family business when you’re twelve. That’s what the law says. Or at least that’s what Hubert said the law says, and it was not my place to question it.
“Hub . . . Hub. Where’s our son?”
“I thought he was in back with you.”
“He’s in the bathroom again.”
The bathroom. My refuge. It took me away, if only for a few minutes, from dealing with people and their troubles, as if having a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t vacuum anymore is trouble, or a sewing machine that doesn’t sew anymore is trouble. I had a Walkman cassette player. I bought it at a garage sale, along with a bunch of old tapes. I could block out the noise. Block out Hubert. Block out Darla. Block out the world. I could do all that--and listen to Roy. Because Roy knew about loneliness and love and what it’s like to be empty.
Vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, an occasional floor scrubber to break the monotony. Not just on Saturdays, but every weekday after school let out, until Darla grabbed her car keys from next to the cash register and headed to the back door. That was my signal we were heading home for supper.
Darla was always tired at the end of the day and didn’t have much to say. She had white hair. She had white hair even before I was twelve. Maybe she had white hair forever. I just don't remember her any other way. She never asked about school. Or how was I, or anything like that. She must have already known the answers, so why bother? That was okay with me, too.
At school I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t exist. I was a name on the roll call sheet and a voice from the back of the room. That’s all I was.
Good grief. It’s one flippin’ syllable, lady.
She wouldn’t call on me the rest of the period, and I sure wasn’t going to volunteer. It was the same, no matter what class it was.
Being invisible did have its advantages--nobody much bothered to bully me. After proving my worth at the back of Hubert’s Sew and Vac for what seemed an eternity of exile, I was finally allowed to work at the front counter. That’s where I first saw Lisa Sanders.
She was in the company of her mother and a vintage Lewyt, one of those vacuums that looked like a 1950s space craft. Hubert could barely keep his eyes off the Lewyt. “You hardly ever see one of these anymore. They’re indestructible. But I guess you already know that. I’m not sure I can even get parts for it. But we’ll give it a shot.”
I could barely keep my eyes off Lisa Sanders. I knew I’d seen her once or twice at school, but never this close up. Astonishing bluish, greenish, brownish eyes, set off with just the right amount and color of eye shadow. So pretty. Such a pretty woman. Darla never wore eye shadow.
I didn’t dare enter into conversation with Lisa at the store. Not with Hubert or Darla around. And I didn’t want to appear too forward, either. It was just awkward for me. And for Lisa, I’m sure.
It took me a week to find Lisa’s locker and memorize her class schedule. After English class, I saw her standing there with some boy.
“Hi, Lisa. How’s that Lewyt working?”
“Good . . . I guess.”
The boy made a move towards me, but Lisa held him back. If my pretty woman didn’t care, she wouldn’t of done that. I’m sure of it.
I tried to talk to Lisa a few more times, but there was always something or someone in the way. Then graduation. And life moves on. You can’t always wait for others.
I knew it was time to get out on my own. Hubert and Darla had this big discussion about it. They didn’t know I was listening. Not that I planned it that way, but you could hear everything going on downstairs through the cold air register next to my bed.
“I’m going to have to hire someone if he leaves. That’ll cost us big time.”
“Maybe he’ll . . . get better if he goes off on his own for a while.”
“Get better? At what? He know the inside of a vacuum cleaner as well as I do.”
“I mean better adjusted.”
“He seems fine to me.”
The conversation ended there.
One day in July, I just left. No note, no big, dramatic statements; there were no big, dramatic statements to be made.
The Metra bus was empty most of the way downtown. Unusual. Just the woman across the aisle, the driver and me. It was noisy. Something was loose inside the bus and vibrated every time we hit a bump. There’d be the noise and the woman across the aisle would sway from one side to the other. I wanted to say something to her. I didn’t know what to say, so I put on my earbuds and listened to Roy the rest of the way to Union Station. The woman got off a couple of blocks earlier. I said good-bye to her. I needed to say good-bye to somebody. She must not of heard me.
Union Station was huge. Huge. A gigantic waiting room with high ceilings and long wooden benches. And echoes. Lots of echoes.
“I want a ticket to Texas.”
“Where in Texas?”
“I’m not sure. Where does the train go in Texas?”
“See that rack of schedules over there? Get one that has Texas on it, and when you make your decision come back.”
There were schedules for places like Champaign and Carbondale. I didn’t want to go to Champaign or Carbondale. I wanted to get away. I wanted to go to Texas. I saw schedules for New York and one for Washington D.C. and one for San Francisco. All tempting, but I wanted to go to Texas. Someone from security came over to where I was sitting then and started asking me questions.
“I just want to get away from around here for a while."
“Can’t stop you for that. Just don’t cause no trouble on the train. You’ll end up getting kicked off somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They can do that, you know.”
There was only one train to Texas. The Texas Eagle. I don’t know why the lady in the window at Union Station just didn’t tell me that up front.
The train sat there and sat there. I put on my ear buds. Finally, I drifted off. I was in dreams. The cassette must of replayed a couple of times. When I awoke, there were people seated all around me and we were moving. There was a black lady with a small child across from me. The train was noisy. Noisier than I’d imagined. And it swayed. Worse than the bus at times. I went up to the dining car, but it was already closed. Before I fell back to sleep again, somebody said we were in Missouri. Missouri took a long time.
Then I woke up. The train was stopped and all kinds of people were leaving the train, or getting on, and there was confusion in the aisle as those coming on board bumped into those who were leaving and otherwise. It was pitch dark outside. This must be Dallas. I jumped up, grabbed my backpack and joined those leaving the train before it pulled out for who knows where.
The red lights of the train disappeared under the bridge at the south end of the Little Rock depot and the man at the window wasn’t going to stop it.
There was no more Amtrak going to Texas for another day. There was an Amtrak going to Chicago in a few hours, but that was the wrong way. It was going to Chicago but it was called the Texas Eagle, too. Why? That makes no more sense today than it did then.
People from the train headed to waiting cars that soon vanished. The only other person left on the platform was a man with a camera.
"Why do you have a camera?"
"For taking pictures of the train."
"Freight trains run all night."
We shared names. His name was Ken. Ken offered me a ride out to the Interstate. We went through the drive-thru at a McDonald’s, and he bought me something to eat. He insisted on paying for it.
“That’s the main road to Texas. I-30. Good luck.”
The semi driver put on his four-way flashers and pulled over. “Hurry up. I’m not supposed to be stopped here. They’ve got me on GPS.” There was lightning somewhere to the south. Hubert always called it sheet lightning. You couldn’t see it in the city because of the houses and the trees, but if we went out to the farm you could see it for miles off. Not really bolts of lightning, just the sky lit up all over from one end to the other. I thought maybe it would be raining in Texas. Some people like sunny days. They’re okay, but I think I like rainy days better. I told the driver a little about where I was going. I tried to tell him about Roy, too. I don’t think he bought it entirely. After a while I put on the ear buds and fell asleep again. And dreamed. We drove all night.
“Where are we now?”
“McKinney? That’s in Texas?"
“Yup. I have to take another road to get around city traffic. If you want into Dallas, you’ll have to get out here."
He dropped me off in front of a strip mall with a Denny’s, a Target and a Home Depot. It looked like Chicago, not Texas.
At the shelter I asked somebody about Wink, Texas and how to get there. Nobody knew there was such a place as Wink, Texas.
“It’s where Roy was from. I want to go there. See what it’s like.”
Somebody in charge at the shelter said, “The Central Library is on Young Street. A couple blocks from here. They’ll have maps there.”
I talked with the gentleman at the reference desk and he showed me Wink on a map. “It’s a long ways. Over four-hundred miles. This is Texas.”
“How do I get there?
He wasn’t much help. “No trains or buses go there. At least that I can find. You’re on your own . . . “ He was right about that, except I always had Roy. That counted for a lot.
Back at the shelter that night, somebody stole my backpack. It was time to move on.
The last twenty-five miles into Wink, Texas were probably the hardest. It was even hotter, drier than the clerk at the Love’s in Odessa said it would be. I must of walked half of it. At least half of it. It was worth it in the end.
There’s a museum for Roy, right there on the main street. I couldn’t get in at first, but someone from the city hall a few doors down the way had a key and showed me around. Nice people. I could of spent the rest of the day there. At least.
The man who showed me around must of thought I thought Roy was still alive. He tried to set me straight. Just some confusion on my part explaining why I was there in the first place. People don’t understand when I try to tell them. I don’t try much anymore.
I was only gone maybe a month in all. I took some time to explore. To see what I’d been missing all those years on the other side of the counter at Hubert’s Sew and Vac. Saw a lot of people and a lot of places and a lot of Texas.
Back in Dallas, I caught the Texas Eagle. Somewhere along the way, I asked the conductor why they called it the Texas Eagle if it was headed for Chicago. He didn’t have any answers, but later on I think I caught him talking about it to the other crew members when he saw me enter the dining car. I got off the Metra bus a few blocks short of my regular stop and walked the rest of the way home. I’m not sure why. I just did. It was about four o’clock when I walked up on the front porch. I didn’t have to ring the doorbell; Darla came and opened. She stood there, her hair as white as ever.
“Hubert’s dead. He died right after you left. Where have you been? We couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“I had to pay a visit to a friend.”
“A friend? Your own father dies and we can’t find you and you miss the funeral? Who is this friend, anyway? You never told me about any friend.”
I never did explain. Like the others, she wouldn’t of understood anyway. Only the lonely.