OUT by Michael Lehman

I walked out of the desert to get on a bus, and the driver threw me off in Phoenix. He said I was too dirty and shoved me out the door with a big bucktoothed grin. I changed my ticket at the counter. Immigration cops wearing body armor with black-and-white American flags on their shoulders were standing at the exits barking for papers.

Past them, the valley floor was baking, the air full of dust. I walked by a campus of telephone company buildings, surrounded by glistening lawn and a cyclone fence topped with razor wire full of snagged plastic bags that hissed and rattled in the wind. Then the road passed through open desert, low brush, a hawk floating near the sun, a rabbit escaping. There was a whole subdivision of crumbling streets that had been named and paved but never built on, and in the distance, in the shade of a raised portion of the interstate, a neighborhood of tents and tarps.  

After a couple more miles, I passed into streets of small, decent houses, old trucks and little kids on bikes. I bought a clean T-shirt in cool, dim, low-ceilinged store where the man gave me my change.

Back at the station I sat down in a row of plastic chairs. Across from me, a young woman in a hospital smock and flip-flops was pretending to read a newspaper. Every once in a while she would run her palms over her legs, rattle the paper and laugh. When I looked at her, she looked right back, peeking out behind the paper, and held up a finger to her lips.

We got on the bus towards evening. Distant mountains shone in the orange sunlight and my head rang with the diesel engine. The girl leaned back in her seat, and deep laughter rolled out of her like it had been a long time coming. I wanted to ask, 'What's so funny?' but I almost thought she would say, "I gave the driver a dried-up leaf, and he thought it was a ticket."

A spun drunk lady wearing pink spandex got on in Quartzite and riled up the back of the bus with a long, racist rant that devolved into a chorus of Who Let the Dogs Out? with lots of barking and yipping. When the laughing girl got up to use the bathroom, the spandex lady stole her seat.

"This is mine now, ya voodooo witch!" she cried. The laughing girl moved up the row and sat down quietly next to an old woman in a black shawl.   

The sky got dark, and the stars came out like a breath slowly exhaled. The spandex lady kept singing, but her voice changed until it became as fragile as a coyote call. She sang Country Roads, Take Me Home and the bus filled with silence. She sang Long Black Veil, Danny Boy and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.  

The bus stopped at a hamburger place, and I bought three baked potatoes. The laughing girl sat in her old seat and watched me eat until I gave her one.

"Got a fork?" she asked. I looked in the hamburger bag and found two forks, handed her one, and began to eat with the other instead of my hands. Back on the road, she started laughing again.

"You shouldn't have fed her, dude," the spandex lady said.

"I'd rather hear her than you," I said.

People were drifting off to sleep. The laughing girl slept, but her laughter still rose out of her every so often. Somewhere around Bakersfield or Barstow she got off, still laughing, sprinted across the street through the lights of traffic, and disappeared.

The sun was just rising as we pulled into the L. A. station. I saw the spandex lady sitting alone over a cafeteria tray.

"Hey dude," she called to me, "do you want this? I can't eat."

I sat down next to her and leaned over the tray, gobbling the soft, salty food.

"You look like you been fightin' fires," she said.

"There was no fire . . ."

She nodded, knocked twice on the table, the way convicts do, and walked away.

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