by Kinsey Brown
The man in the corner was in terrible danger of missing his bus. He lay on the bare floor of the terminal, lost in the deep, heavy sleep of a late-night traveller; a sleep which feels so much like dying as it weighs on one’s eyelids and pushes down on the head until it finally collapses to rest in heavy slumber on the chest. I had fought this particular brand of sleep all the way from Nashville to where I stood now, in Louisville, as a human husk in a hospital might battle for one or two final, rattling breaths; that fight to hear the music of the heart monitor one last time before it went from being a steady metronome to one low, flat tone. I wondered if the man in the corner might be dead.
He caught my eye, there on the floor, as I was making my way to the smeared glass door that led outside, seeking relief from the chill of the terminal and a cigarette. My mind had time-travelled into next Tuesday morning, where I would struggle to express in proficient German to Herr Doktor Schweinhund the reason for my absence from class. I did not know how to say I was sick in the past tense, but I did know how to tell the truth, that I had been nach Nashville mit dem Bus gefahren. I considered saying, “Ich bin krank,” I am sick, here and now, in the present tense. This would also be true, because I’d been suffering a terrible head cold for the past few months. My breathing was just fine, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of an ice pack resting just beneath my skull, wrapped around my brain. In German, I’ll tell him I’m brainsick (Kopfkrank? I don’t know), and as proof I’ll show him a notebook filled with blank pages and a comprehensive map of northeast Ohio.
“All passengers departing to Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, your bus is re-boarding at 3:30 at Gate C, that’s 3:30 at Gate C. Thank you for choosing Greyhound.” The smooth, accented voice brought me back to the present. Back to the fluorescent-lit ant farm and my bus which left in twenty minutes and the man who was sleeping or possibly dead in the corner. He lay with a backpack beneath his head and an old t-shirt draped over his face. He was covered almost entirely, save for the yellowed bottoms of his bare feet peeking out from beneath the folds of his green sweatpants. Facing the wall on his side, he was curled around a plastic grocery bag which he held cradled in his arms like a long-lost lover. I watched his shoulders, and then his abdomen for the rise and fall that might settle the question in my mind, but the movement was either absent or imperceptible beneath his heavy sweatshirt. Unsatisfied, yet too uncomfortable to stare any longer, I made my way through people and bags and benches to the door.
The night was close and humid, and felt good after my last long hours on cold buses and inside the freezing terminals. I shivered as the gentle wave of heat rolled through my body, loosening my tight muscles and skin and causing my eyelids to droop. I passed the shuddering frames of the buses as they idled in their spots, waiting for the next load of passengers, and made my way to the chain-link enclosure designated as the smoking area. People watched me, glassy eyed, as I stepped into the cage and took my place along the ruddy white wall. A few were arguing softly, laughing with one another over sports rivalries and the like. I remained silent, watching the thin ribbon of smoke from my cigarette trailing upwards into the still air, and wondered if the man in the corner might be dead.
In truth, I knew I was letting my mind run away. Seeing someone asleep in a bus station, especially in the early morning, is no uncommon thing. Almost everybody I saw, myself included, were either asleep or halfway there. Here there was a man sitting on one of the brown-painted metal benches that crowded the terminal, legs splayed across his bags, neck crooked, mouth open as he snoozed; children in their strollers, resting under the watchful eye of a slovenly, tired parent; those with hoods over their heads to cover their eyes, chins resting on broad chests. And when I got on the bus, I would likely be one of the scarce few to stay awake the whole way to Columbus.
I allowed my mind to keep running, to stretch its legs and test its balance. I felt that it had earned its freedom from the smooth white cage in my head for awhile, to shake off the dust and grime and bathe in the warm orange glow from the lights outside. I feel bad for it, trapped inside all the time. The inside of my head feels sordid and sticky, like a dark bedroom before sunrise where two people might awake to find themselves naked still, clinging to the warm, slick body beside them. I wonder if I poured bleach into one ear, shook my head a bit and drained it from the other, if I could clean it out. I imagine it might feel like a morning, cool and clear, on the porch in the backyard, talking in gentle tones over cigarettes and big, steaming mugs of coffee. I put my cigarette out and bid my mind come back inside, so I could make my way back to the waiting bus.
Back on the bus, I found my seat towards the front and sat down, feet resting on my large grey duffel bag. A stocky Midwestern woman with a pockmarked face and brittle hair dyed red sat down beside me. “You should probably put that under the seat,” she said gruffly, “so it’s not in my way. Not to sound like a bitch.” She did sound like a bitch, but I was in no mood to argue. So I crushed down the top of the bag down with my feet and slid it out of the way as best I could. She was soon asleep and the bus was soon humming down the interstate.
Unable to sleep, I wondered if the man on the floor really was dead, and I wondered how long it might be before someone took notice. The terminal would be open all night, and into the morning, with passengers and drivers and ticket agents and police officers coming and going all the time. His family members might notice his absence and call him, over and over, and the sound of his cellphone buried in his pockets or backpack would play constantly through the station, drowned out by the din of the terminal and dutifully ignored by passers-by. I imagined him lying for days, bloating and forming bruises on the bottom of his body, where the blood would stagnate without a beating heart to circulate it. Maybe someone returning to work would notice, the next day, when he hadn’t moved from his place, or maybe the smell would eventually become too strong. I time-travelled into the future, to some unknown night I might return to that station in Louisville, to that little corner by the wall to find two bare foot-bones, bleached white, and a navy blue sweater, limp and resting over an empty ribcage.