Is this the bus to New London?
I looked up from my perch atop my luggage. I was tired of sitting, but too tired to stand. Yes. Well—to Hanover, I said. It stops in New London.
I’m going to New London, he said. My mother’s in the hospital there. For surgery. Her heart. He poked at his chest, his eyes swelling under thick glasses. We thought she was going to be okay, you know?
I’m so sorry, I said, rising. Do you need to use a phone? The din of the terminal swallowed my voice. I hoped I hadn’t sound patronizing.
Oh, I have a phone. I’ve been calling. My sister works in the kitchen there.
At the hospital?
Yes. She’s been there a long time. She’s with my mother. I haven’t talked with her. The operation is now.
Minutes before, I’d been the one asking for directions, from the young man with earphones ahead in line. He’d nodded briefly before returning to his music, attention fading from his eyes. He didn’t need a conversation.
New London has a good hospital, I told the man. She’s in good hands.
I’ve been on the bus since yesterday, he said. Yesterday at three. I came up from North Carolina. The seats were only this wide. He made a gesture and smiled, revealing ranks of crooked teeth. I wish I could take a shower, he added. You know how you get when you travel. I might smell bad.
He smelled like sweat and anxiety, like days without sleep. His tee shirt and pants were deeply stained, and his baseball cap bore the patina of hot work. But his shirt was tucked in, and he wore a belt. He looked like he’d spent years caring for himself.
This bus is comfortable, I said. Nice wide seats, and they show a movie.
I didn’t have money. My sister had to send me money, for the ticket.
There was a long pause. At the far end of the terminal someone began rallying a group of campers boarding a bus to the Cape. Their cheers boomed in the linoleum hall. Travelers looked around warily, knuckles tightening on their bags.
Suddenly the man grabbed an object from his belt and jabbed it toward me. It was his phone. I got three of these for fifty dollars! A good plan, you think?
I nodded reflexively, regaining my composure.
And I get 1,000 minutes and I can roll them over. I always let people use my phone. Because I don’t care. I have a lot of minutes.
He pulled the phone away and thrust his big hands into his pockets. He paused again and looked around. I sat back down. I was interested in his story, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the one he kept telling it to.
Is there another hospital up there? he ventured.
Yes, a big one in Lebanon.
That’s where my mother is. The big one. That hospital.
That’s a good hospital, too, I said, then added hesitantly, I have a friend who’s a cardiologist there.
Suddenly he seized at the neck of his tee shirt and jerked it down past his collarbone. I was dead for three minutes!
His pale, arching scar looked ghoulish in the fluorescent lights. I think I said, my goodness.
They were going to leave me, you know? Then I opened my eyes and they couldn’t believe it, because I had no pulse. But the man upstairs, he was looking out for me. It was because of him I came back. It was all gray and fuzzy. I couldn’t hear. I was in the hospital for five weeks. Then a few weeks ago this thing failed, and I had to have surgery again and be in the hospital for another ten days.
I reviewed the math. It’s good you’re well enough for this trip, I said.
I’m supposed to call my sister when I get halfway, so she can meet me. I can wait in the lean-to. Then I can go see my mother.
I nodded. There was another long pause. Finally he said, isn’t it interesting who you meet when you travel?
I watched him get off in New London and claim his oily duffle. A shapeless gray-haired woman hurried from the shelter to embrace him. He leaned into her, patting her back lightly. She was wiping her eyes, or maybe just squinting.