According to the information board at New Orleans’s Greyhound station January fourth’s predicted high for Chicago was 32 degrees with a low that might hit twenty-three. NOLA’s average January low is forty-five. Ten CC’s, ‘Walking in the rain and the snow and there’s nowhere to go and you’re feeling like a part of you is dying,’ rang out in John’s mind. “One thing I haven’t missed is subzero Iowa days,” he said, fishing the Alvar Public Library’s Some Luck novel that he’d borrowed out of his duffle. “Two hours ought to put a dent in this,” he added opening Jane Smiley’s book, placing his black bag on the empty seat to his left and stretching his feet under the window seat cattycorner to himself rather than directly ahead of him. “One nice thing about the first leg of this trip is that it shouldn’t be too crowded.”
The bus filled faster than John had expected and before he knew it every row of double seats had at least one person making a stake for his or her own tiny plot of real estate. John sighed, stowed his bag in the storage compartment above his head and put his feet under his own seat. His first inclination was to move over to a window seat but decided against it. His current posture and positioning struck a nice balance between territoriality and accommodating his fellow wayfarers and he hoped that if someone did end up occupying the seat next to him that perhaps he might land someone more like Chaucer’s Parson rather than a Pardoner for a traveling companion. As fate would have it the man that stopped next to his seat looked a lot more like the Shipman than any other Canterbury Tale character. “That seat taken?”
John looked up at the ropey, deeply tanned man who had addressed him, tried to covertly cover his nose with his hand, and said, “No. All yours,” he added, standing up to give the wiry thin man access to the interior seat.
“Thanks,” the man said. “Matt Montgomery,” he added, not extending his hand. “Where you headed?” he asked with a crawdad lilt to his speech as he settled into the bus seat.
John knew that he was far from fresh smelling but Matt reeked of stale alcohol. “My name’s John,” he answered nodding his head three times. “I’m heading up to Chicago.”
“Chicago?! Brrr. Bad time of the year for that. I’m just going back up to Baton Rouge. Made a long weekend over New Year’s but now it’s time to get back to work. You from up there?”
John nodded and said, “Almost. I grew up in Iowa about two-hundred miles west of there. You from Louisiana?”
“Born and bred, by the grace of God. But I travel a lot. So, you’re going home after the New Year too?”
“No, I live down here now. Just going up for a visit,” John answered, picking up his book and opening it.
“You want to read now, don’t you, my friend John? Don’t let me stop you. I have been drunk for four days and am a bit hung over. I think it would be good for me to sleep. Don’t let the bus take me away from Baton Rouge though; okay, my friend?”
“I’ll be sure to get you up,” John replied. “Go ahead and sleep some of it off.”
“Thank you, my friend. I will do just that,” he answered as he slipped off his jacket, bunched it up in a ball and rested his head against the window. “See you in a little bit.”
John smiled but didn’t answer. Matt’s smell was a bit overwhelming but he knew that would abate soon. He opened the Smiley book and started reading about Iowa a century ago, contrasting it to what he’d known for the first 22 years of his life.