Road to Nowhere

hastings

I could smell a bold combination of cheap perfume, stale smoke, and sex excreting from her weathered pores. The bus engine hummed as we climbed a winding road. She scratched her neck and tried to finger comb through her knotted hair. I caught a glimpse of her profile through the break in the seats. Her lips were stained Red with hard lines from smoking. Her face wore the lines of someone who’d experienced some pretty intense moments in life.

We stopped for a ten minute break somewhere on the highway just East of Kamloops. Everybody was eager to get off the bus to stretch, smoke, or take a dump. Nobody dared use the small bus washroom for that!

She got off before me and clutched her black tassel purse, pulling her jacket in towards her. I walked around the small bus station and stared up at the bright star-lit sky. I got the sense that she didn’t know where she was going, that she didn’t have a brother waiting for her in Vancouver like I did.

“Got an extra smoke?” I asked

She looked at me suspiciously, surveying my demeanor before reaching into her purse to hand me a John Player Special. “Here” she said.

“Thanks! These things are for the hardcore smokers” I laughed

She glared at me and said nothing.

“So, where are you off to?” I asked

She looked down at her scuffed pumps and said “I’m just on a road trip”

“That’s cool. I’m moving to Vancouver. My brother is there.”

“I don’t have much family.” she said “Most of them are dead, in jail, or too fucked up to communicate with.”

I shot her a sympathetic glare. “Are you married?”

“Would I be on a bus headed for nowhere if I was?”

“Sorry”

“It’s okay. I am just not used to talking to people who are interested in me, that’s all”

“What do you mean?”

“Look honey, I’m a whore… Okay. I fuck for a living. I shoot up, I fuck, I try to pay my rent in a dirty one bedroom apartment in a nameless faceless city, and I barely get by. If I was ten years younger, sure… I’d do well. You’d do well. But when you’re 35, you’re washed up. Nobody wants you and if they do, they only wanna pay $50 for an hour. It’s an insult. But what choice do I have?”

“Why did you leave Toronto?”

She opened her purse and exposed a large sum of bills. Some crumpled, some folded, some tied with elastic bands. Although it was pretty impossible to tell, I estimated at least a good $5000 in there.
“I need a new life… Hooking is getting hard. I am sick and I need to change my life.”

“You do know that Vancouver is like the Heroin capital of Canada right?”

She smiled “Yeah, but that’s not why I’m going'”. “The mountains, the ocean, the air… That’s why I’m going”

The bus driver hopped back into his seat and gave us all a wave to get back on the bus. We all groaned, it had already been such a long trip. I took my seat and opened my book.

She sat down in front of me and shot me a delicate smile before sitting down. I wondered what made her open up to me… I’m just a random girl on a bus. Perhaps she found comfort in that. I never asked what her name was, she didn’t ask what mine was… We were just two women on a Greyhound.

Several months later, I had landed a gig at a small gallery in Gas Town and was out apartment hunting. I went downtown to look at a couple of small bachelor pads. It was a beautiful day out, tunes were pumping from nearby retail shops, the smell of baked goods filled the air, and people were strolling the streets with smiles on their faces.

The first apartment I was looking at was two more blocks up, I walked past an alley and stared gravely at all of the junkies sitting in their own filth high or jonesing to be high. Some of them were rocking back and forth, others were passing out. I hung my head and continued on.

On the corner of the next block, I saw her. She was sitting on the steps of a coffee shop wearing the same outfit I had seen her wearing on the bus that day. She looked a lot worse. Sores were visible on her arms and face and her hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in months. I slowed my pace as I neared her.

She looked up.

For a second her eyes were void, vacant, and she didn’t know me from any other random person. I almost kept walking… Not wanting to be recognized. But something stopped me.

I stood in front of her, giving her brain time to register.

Finally she cracked a labored smile and slurred “I know you”.

I didn’t know what to say… So I said nothing and just smiled back.

“I tried” she said “Nobody would hire me. Nobody would even rent me an apartment. So now I live out here, on the street. At least it doesn’t snow.” She laughed. “I’m gonna die soon honey. It doesn’t matter.”

I felt tears sting my eyes as I surveyed her damaged body and life. I hung my head and looked down at the gum and cigarette butts stuck to the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to live?” I asked. “What about the mountains, the ocean, the air…?”

She shot me a look as if to say “you stupid naive girl”.

“Look. I’m gonna die soon. I don’t have a lot of time, so what’s the point. I might as well go out the way I wanna go out. At least I’m not hooking anymore and I have plenty of friends out here!”

I swallowed the lump in the back of my throat and said “Well, I can’t exactly say I’m happy for you, but if you are truly happy… then I am happy for that. Please take care of yourself. I have to go… I have an appointment.”

I started walking away from her and she shouted “Hey.”

I stopped and looked back.

“Thanks for being nice to me” she said “I really appreciated that”

And that was the last time I saw her.

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11 thoughts on “Road to Nowhere

  1. I took a few psychology exams for my new(er) job I took 3 years ago. They came back as if I had this passion for creativity, social life, mechanical and analytical thought, and that I was this caring, loving humble person…. Except for altruism. The guy literally said if I hadn’t met him personally he’d think I was nuts or had Asperger’s Syndrome or something because I absolutely did not want to help anyone that was down.

    In my life, I attract the friendships from stoners and junkies. I can talk to any bum and clearly make them think I was their buddy and naively think they were mine, until they ask me for a dollar… I freaking run.

    I avoid pan handlers. I write blogs about it. I hate pan handlers because I know they are gonna take the dollar from me and 20 other people and get a bottle of booze or some fix down some dark alley.

    So in Vegas, I walk by a lady with no legs, bundled up because it was like 50 (15 or 16 in Canadian) and blustery. As I walked by she asked me for money, I quickly handed her a dollar. Fara goes, “Wait!! What the hell?? You never give people money.” I said to Fara, ” That lady NEEDS to be here and I doubt she is doing any drugs… she needs food.” Fara was pretty dumbfounded because she has known me a long time and I never do that. But when I saw this lady it wasn’t an elaborate dope ruse or charade. It was real… probably that 1-2% that are on the street and need it.

  2. It’s usually pretty easy to spot the ones who truly need it… I’d say 90% of the time they are there due to drugs or alcohol, but 10% are there out of desperation!

    That was nice of you Steve… I’m proud 🙂

  3. That story is beautiful, Selina. Since I moved back out too far for the bears to roam, I don’t see this. But, even in a quaint city like Fredericton, I saw my share of need on the street. Its always nice to make a connection. Thanks for reminding me that I need to continue to make those connections. And, yes, I smoked JPS (the longest and the strongest) and I was hardcore.

  4. I can’t believe how nicely you write! I am feeling ashamed now for having let the internet corrupt my writing habits and creativity! And this is a really sad story…reminds me when I used to work in a homeless shelter in the Over the Rhine neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio!

  5. About 3 years ago I had an appointment downtown to settle a grievance I had filed at work. SoI had made dinner plans with a friend who lived in Toronto to go to the Old Spaghetti Factory. Well I wound up having 6 hours in between because the meeting didn’t last very long.

    Since all I knew of the city was the tourist traps I just kinda walked around. Big mistake.

    The city sucked a good $75 out of me for nothing. I normally don’ give money to the people just sitting there begging. And the few times I’ve offered food or coffee I’ve been turned down.

    My problem was the brave souls who approached me with heart breaking stories. I say stories because I bought them at the time but they were clearly fiction created to reduce the friction of me parting with my money.

    The hotel won’t give me my luggage back until I pay my bill. I need to get to the airport for my flight home but have no money. 4 or 5 times that day I got suckered in.

    I dunno though. I think 100% of them NEEDs help. But you’re right that a very small percentage will actually do something to help themselves with it.

  6. Your story powerfully illustrates, through an unassuming writing style, well chosen words and non-indulgent viewpoint, that we all live on the same planet but not in the same world. Each of us lives in his/her own world dependent on choice, decisions and circumstances. At times worlds collide, in a positive or negative manner, most often coincidental and unintended. When that happens to me, and it does happen rather easily in any larger city, it can be a very touching experience that often reiterates the need to care. But I also try to be selective. I believe in the stated 90-10 valuation. I deliberately look for the 10%, the ones that look for help and do something to get it – let it be playing an instrument, no matter how badly at times, performing in some form or manner (and I don’t mean bad behaviour) or just trying to be nice and helpful themselves. But then again, you never know. Sometimes there are people amongst the other 90% that don’t belong there but they feel they do, like the woman in your encounter. It is sad to see them wanting to live a better life only to end up right where they started despite being miles away from whence they came. And I feel as you do, I look, I recognize at times but I don’t always want to stay. It saddens me but I do not wonder or ask why, I often know why having spoken to many of them in the past. It’s all about choice and desire. Can’t always make the right decision but we can strife to consistently make good decisions in our lives. Taking the time to care about her was a good decision, so was writing about it.
    Thank you for sharing, it was a truly good read and reminder.

  7. MrCorey: Thank you!! Now I must berate you for smoking JPS!!! My dad (who’s lungs are black as tar) smokes them! Hopefully your lungs escaped unscathed.

    Devin: Thank you very much for dropping in and I am really glad that this piece resonated with you. I would absolutely love to work in a homeless shelter, although difficult, it must also be very rewarding and meaningful.

    Duffman: I have become very good at spotting scammers and I can smell a junkie from a block away. This heroin junkie approached me in McDonalds one day down on Queen Street and asked me for money for “food”… I looked at her track marks and said “I don’t think so”. It’s important to notice what’s going on on our very own streets.

    Robert: I would LOVE to hear your stories. I bet you have plenty!! Great poetry btw… Added ya to my blogroll.

    Alternate Words: Eloquently put! I agree wholeheartedly. We all live in a world born of choice, circumstance and decision! I get inspired by the most unlikely people… The people who seem to have nothing are the ones who’s eyes inspire me most. I want to know about them. I want to hear their stories and feel their pain. I just want to understand, more than anything.

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