The Trailways bus drove out of Tallahassee in the darkest hour of the morning heading west. The bus's seats were full, so some quiet folk were standing. They were neatly dressed and faces clean on their way to work. The bus stopped here and there, discharging these slow moving, friendly souls in front of flat, elongated buildings, mostly without windows.
Florian Obumsalin sat in the rear of the bus, in the back compartment, which was several feet higher than the front compartment: this bus was called a scenic cruiser. He was a long way from home, a long way from anyplace he knew about, and he was on his way in this bus to somewhere, he was unsure where. He was a young man, just twenty, and he was afraid that he had lost his way. In a time in his life, sometime, something had happened, and he had lost his way. He thought that somehow if he could find that time, and get back to it, he could right it, and find his way again.
The bus slowly proceeded out of the darkness deeper into the countryside. A pungent dawn rose over the great flatlands. Piny woods, harsh and fervent, prickly as a porcupine's back, imprisoned the road. Hellacious little cabins, half broken in the morning but not quite broken, stood in the dark clearings. Grey headed black folk, sitting on porches stained white, but any color except white, watched this whizzing passing with grave indifference.
Now only a few people remained in the bus. After awhile the motion of the bus drugged Obie's eyes so that the monotonous landscape slowly disappeared. Then the strong voices of two black women sitting in the next row behind him began their domination.
"Now, you live down near the airport, don't you, Perl? That place they call Wildville?"
"Then you must know Barney Slocum."
"Sure. Who don't? What a wild bunch they are! A wild bunch from Wildville!"
Laughter transcended the road noise.
"Wasn't always so. Barney was once a nice fellow. So were Jed and Louis. I myself could never quite take to William, though. He went up north, Richmond or Raleigh, one of them. You could never quite pin him down like the other boys. He meant to please, but you always knew his mind was elsewhere, usually on himself, his next drink, his next woman; a slim to the hips boy with spindly little legs to stand on.
"Now Barney, he could talk. He had the gift of it, swept you right off your feet. Ain't much at all like he is now, heavy mouth, face groaning. How he got that way and took to drink, I was once inquisitive. Lord knows, I was married then, four of my own, and about as slowed down as you can get without stopping. And my ways about town, as they say, were all in a different direction from Barney's for some years. But years do pass and mama gets out more, by-and-by. My husband, Eddy White, you know him, don't you? the electrician? Used to work for the water works?
"Lately on Saturday nights Eddy and I have been inclined to tip a few at the Social Club? On Beach Boulevard? Eddy knows how to dance, that's why I married him, but back when my man Barney, Lord, he was put on this earth to dance! Jed, too, though not so much Louis and William. We weren't but old kids. When Barney would strut, usually with that little brown girl lived on the Crescent, Jamaican, I believe, Molly Lafleur, and myself on occasion I don't mind saying, how he'd light up the world! As if the strands tying him to earth were entranced to release, and all the hunger and joy flowed out. He had the joy and the light that was all his own, his own particular. Certainly that should protect you from whatever to come, that skill, that presence of being, shouldn't it? I mean, a holy man is always holy, isn't he? How could a man blaze the way he did, then one day cross the street an angry decrepit old fool, all closed in, not even seeming to remember what once was? So dead to what he used to be so feeling about?
"He left home and wandered, Loo, didn't he?" Said the other woman, Perl. "Didn't one of them, besides William, leave home? Louis, Lord knows, has been around and kicking for since I can remember, but didn't Barney go up to New York or Boston for a time. I believe so."
"Well, I sure wish it could be something simple. Left home. A squabble with the law. Ruined by the riots. Lost in love, that would be a good one. Something simple a person could explain to herself. Anyway, one Saturday night me and Eddy were down the Social Club. There was that little lady singing, Katy Gibb, you heard her? My, I'm proud knowing she came from my home town. Eddy and I were kicking our heels, when who do you think walks in, sits in the darkest corner? Left his usual haunts on Green Street near the overpass?"
"Barney? Hard to imagine. They let him in?"
"Oh, all cleaned up. Fresh out of the detox. He's sitting, drinking CoCola. What a surprise! So I turned over my Eddy to Marlene Randall, and I couldn't help myself to walking over, arid bones creaking. You know the way he is, I was more than a little worried about what he and I would say to each other. Well, he didn't look too bad; not like usual, not like a stray dog. He even smiled a little as I sat down. Surprising how, now he was sober, he could help me remember. Skinny dipping with Clyde Banks, teasing Bob Smith, the motorcycle man with the limp, Hank Bonney, and all the dancing and singing and playing guitar, especially dancing, Molly Lafleur, Mary Lou Banks, Duke Henry, Alice Carr. It was the life we had. We talked for the longest while. Still had his teeth, the faintest remembrance of the grin used to light up the empty spaces, and the colorful twang in his speaking voice which'd lift the worries off your heart. Lord, it was all almost there, but hollow, as if just a matter of habit. I can't tell you, I got surpassing curious. I don't remember he had any great attachment to anything growing up, not even beer. If he'd been on something, or truant that way, wouldn't I know about it? At least back then; before when he went away. I grew up with him! He was the strongest of us all! Didn't even like putting himself up to a boyish risk. Just straight and hardy. What happened? Why? I'll tell you what a desperate craving I had to ask him why. Why Dick True? Slowest, lowest, most lovelorn of all us poor souls is in the Legislature and not Barney Slocum? Why Ted Lovell, with two left feet and matching brain, owns the hardware store and the shopping plaza it's smack in the middle of? Frank Parsons, God, he sucked his thumb and drooled till he was near sixteen, who's on the TV every night now telling us, not me, I can tell you that, who knows him only too well, telling us what's true? Why? I wanted to ask, why not Barney Slocum? And now this man, still handsome, I ain't saying he wasn't, slim to the face and quick eyed, though generally more baleful, sort of, than I remember from before. Baleful, now, not glowering or mean like, more watchful, observant, oh, but still handsome, not with the pretty used to be, but grown up and keen.
"We talked for the longest while, telling each other this and that. Turned out he had been married to a girl in South Carolina. Pretty little thing, younger than he was, but didn't work out. Said he spent fifteen years in the Marines, injured in Korea, hung out for awhile, then rotated out with a pension. That surprised me some, 'cause I couldn't remember a time when I didn't see him at all, maybe not often, but never not at all, or didn't seem like, and never once saw him in uniform. Never even believed him to be the type. But what does a mother know about these man goings on?
"He'd traveled, been to Europe, Japan, Australia, Lord knows, places I don't know how to dream about. Alaska! But wouldn't that make a man happy, knowing he'd had some staying one place and some not staying at all? Certainly wasn't the end of his life, not this man sitting in front of me now, though not forgetting how many times past few years I had seen him squatting half asleep in a tattered pile of shit. How it burned in my mind! We continued to chat, but no way could I get myself up to ask him, 'What happened to the dancing man?' No way!
"And just as I was about to give up, because the conversation had slowed, I was starting to notice my Eddy was dancing maybe a bit too close to Marlene Randall to suit me, all of a sudden he catches my eye and says, 'My soul got up and left me.'
"Dumb as I am, how am I supposed to take that? I thought his wife left him, soul meaning an endearing sort of term for wife, because the real meaning was more distant and terrifying than I wanted to come upon just then in that place. I'd have chided him one way or another, 'Well, women being so fickle, some men might call that a piece of luck,' I might have said, or something to that affect, but his eyes were so sad and far away, finally I said, 'Soul?'
"'Yes,' he says, 'my soul went away.'
"'No,' I says. 'No such thing ever happened.'
"'Yes. Sometimes that can happen, you know. You blow it. It can happen in a few days, a few minutes. I blew it. I went to New York, and I learned false steps. I knew they were false, but I learned them anyway. I was hungry and I wanted to make money. Then my soul went away. I couldn't do anything any more but the false steps. So I wanted to die, I was so ashamed. I could not go home. I could not even kill myself.'
"'But God wouldn't do that,' I says, 'would he?'
"'I don't know about God,' he says. 'I only know about my soul, who went and left me. Oh, I felt so empty. There was nothing that could please me any more. And all the steps I did embarrassed me so because the falseness was in them. Still, the falseness is in me. I can't move a step without feeling it. I walk down the street false. I am banished from myself.'
"Well, I was scared, Perl, wouldn't you be? Him looking at me so earnest like. I wanted to leave, and then I didn't want to leave. So I said to him, 'Won't He ever give you your soul back? If you are good?'
"'I don't know, I am trying to be good.'
"'But where did it go? Back to heaven?'
"Imagine me asking a fool question like that? But I couldn't leave. I felt he'd be hurt. So I couldn't. But every fool question has a fool answer, and this was one I had to listen to.
"'No,' he said, 'it fell in love with another body, a student of mine, who could not learn the false steps I was trying to teach him. He didn't refuse, he wanted to, he tried, he just couldn't. So my soul went into his body. I did everything I could think of to win my soul back. But it would not come back to me. It would not. This boy, whom I had been teaching was a thief, born without a soul. He was evil. He was scarred. He was full of revolt. I hated him because he had no style, didn't even know what style was, and yet I was empty, and he became full.'
"By that time, Perl, I had fallen in about to my neck and sinking fast. What was I going to ask him next? What did it look like? He has to be rational enough to know he'd put a serious damper on things…"
"But maybe he did see it," Perl said.
"No, who knows why it is one man with problems falls while another man with even more problems don't. I tell you, it's a mystery to me. Fallin's easy."
"But this soul business, going from one person to another and all that, if he actually saw it, that'd tend to set you back. Would me, anyway."
"Oh silly! No man ever saw his soul, not even Barney Slocum, less he was crazy. Besides, if it did ever really happen, it would damn sure scare me into fear enough of the Lord I'd sure as hell straighten out than end up worse cracked."
"You got no way of knowing, Loo. You remember Angela Berry up Harper's Well. She lost her oldest boy to pneumonia, I believe, the very glint in her eye, and she took to drink. She never drank before in her entire life. And you with four all growed and husband healthy as an ox. How would you know?"
Loo carried on in a deep voice about the strength of her character, before she finally admitted softly, "I been lucky."
Perl laughed, and said finally, "Thank God for you, girl."
The Trailways bus sped west on the road to Mobile. Obie listen to the women's soft whispers which slowly died out. His body became numb so that he could hardly move, hardly even lift a finger. But his mind roved all over his life. They were not dreams: memories changed, reduced, simplified; he was not so much asleep as in a trance. The dark fecundity of the coastal wetlands, the vibrations of the bus over the uneven highway entranced him. They were voices! Voices as if from a jukebox in a tattered cafe. A metallic arm slid up and down a stainless steel rail that snatched at random any record--he had no control which--, flipped it onto a turntable, and he must listen, he must listen. And there were voices played back, and he blushed in anguish.
Oh God, I have seen cruelty, that I have seen; but greater than any cruelty, I have seen compassion, and so I was amazed.
"Barney married again," said Loo. "Sweet little girl from Baton Rouge. Pregnant last I saw. Then one night beat her near death. When you fall, where's the stopping? When you falls, you fall."
Both women got off in Mobile besieged by a human tide of happy family.