By: Tom Sheehan
They kicked in then, at sight of the wild-eyed gunman on the Greyhound bus moving into Vermont and on to Canada, my other lives, the separate and strange ones, spinning back through me, each one of them, but never in degrees, never at slow motion, with an immediate assumption of my whole person except for my current mind; in possession at once, like complete ownership anew, a take-over in an order of occurrence. Terror, calmness, security, danger, body slams in the mix and middle.
Mystical? Hell, as real as dung or dirt they were, or a rotten wash pail or a bloated canister. Life being lived, endless parades, cheers, screams, drought and agony, love and all else making demands on the hale, the scrawny, the disturbed. In different moods, memorable as could be, as can be.
Back in a rush came my very first life, the tip-off I believe. I saw the spread of a gray and drab Kansas town, the drear scene grasping for a name forever lost, where I once wore a marshal’s star on my chest, the marshal who lost half a dozen deputies in a range war. (Oh, Port Byron comes crawling back in a dim echo, the Great Trail divided too many times, cattle eating buffalos’ grass three foot high.) Then, swift as an arrow before gravity grabs it, I was at the head of a classroom full of students and a book in my hands and a wood-burning stove as large as me showing a glowing red edge to shivering students almost as young as eggs, merely their stares gathering warmth. Then, in a quick flash, I caught the meandering, slithering file movement of a World War I German patrol trying to sneak past my secluded observation post somewhere near the Maginot Line, wary of their target marking for Big Berthas, Ottos, Brunos, Fahrpanzers, Paris Guns, or terror twisting L40 Feldcanones or 10.5 cm Feldhaubliges 98/09. And then as suddenly and as imaginable as possible, I was transferred to feel the heat of a Boston three-decker fire leaping up the stairs behind me, and experiencing again my falling through air and slashing wildly at that air as I came down onto a net held yet by phantoms out of that past ignition.
Heat, as we know, is transferrable.
Thus counts terror, faults, failure, fear … or being forsaken.
Almost asleep in the back of a Greyhound bus after a late night, we had left Boston slightly after 9:00 AM, bound for Montreal. As the first one aboard, I began my usual study of all the strange lots coming onto the extended vehicle, which appeared plush, roomy, promising more sleep en route. My study began with the driver, whom I supposed had been a dozen or so years at the helm. Relaxed, nodding at boarders of all shapes and looks, some consumed with inner business, he looked to be about 40, trim, his uniform neatly pressed, a new haircut showing its line above his jacket collar. Surety and confidence he carried with ease, the way good pros do it in all activities. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he had a military background. He in turn, as part of his regular concern, eyed each passenger as they boarded, his eye following some to where they sat, how they managed to sit, what they sat, how they appeared or presented themselves, what similar place they might have been found in his experience … or their duality, seen before.
More than once, I noticed, he looked back at me looking at them too; we appeared to be in some kind of partnership, some discovery working in unison. I wondered if he was seeking an alliance, an unspoken, unannounced alliance. Once or twice we marked the same passenger with the same lift of an eyebrow, the same assumptions, the same awareness; Time will tell, I managed to extract from my mind, weighing judgment, holding decision in abeyance. Kind of a quick curiosity, I understood … then thought better of it; I’d been around too. Maybe a smaller circle than the driver, but more than once around the block, a real ride that now and then indicated a mission of some order
Where I’d been, the things I’d done, I usually carry with me, part of my person, my own baggage, but I have no control over such baggage. It’s not like the driver could separate me from my baggage, it being without ticket or token, without mark, pawn or pledge.
Why the driver and I seemed to put our odd but interested chips on the same man, was not acknowledged, at least, not openly. I had repeatedly, in the course of out-bound movement, traffic thick all the way, paid stricter attention to one man beyond all others. It was not because of mannerisms, give-away-signs, or known behaviors from similar situations … but rather his non-movement, lack of attention to even the younger man beside him, or the young woman across the aisle from him, the space around him, the odd silence between those sharing the same seat. His neck seemed rigid in place, his shoulders taut in their span, his head always straightforward, a man ill at ease or a man in the sturdy command of paying tight attention to all around him.
The driver, I soon found out through his rear view mirror reflecting the inside of the bus, paid a casual but alternating eye on the big man whose neck was wrestler-enormous, wide as his head. He interested two of us; that was important to me. I’d been places where such interest paid great dividends. Of course, I had taken such rides before, made such assumptions, caught such awareness, right on the button. Due diligence and awed attention pay off.
With apparent ease and in a short time, it seemed, the way time and the road flies past us, we had eased out of Green Mountain territory and were fast-forward after passing through Richmond, Vermont and entering the Champlain Valley where Route I-89 changes the tone of the ride, the hum of it, the road and rubber music, the background song of asphalt hurry.
The move was sudden, jarring, at odds with the music of the road. The stiff-necked odd lot thrust a hand gun into the air, jumped out of his seat as if he had been propelled, cowing and frightening every person on the bus, and yelled loudly at the driver, “Driver, I’ll kill half a dozen people before I kill you if you don’t start braking now and slowing down for the field ahead of us less than a half mile away. It’s on the right side of the road.”
He added clear punctuation with a shot through the roof of the bus. Passengers huddled and jammed themselves tightly in their seats. Some of them screamed. Some cursed. Some cried hysterically. One older man spun out of his seat, bent on instant reprisal, and was shot in the leg as he stretched it into the aisle. He fell with an ugly and sickening sound dislodging from his throat. There should have been silence, but there was none, not a speck of it
The bus shuddered as the brakes were applied, parts of its underneath framework threatening to break loose, come apart, an axle lose a wheel, the main frame split connections, send vehicle and passengers, all of us, off the road in a mighty and calamitous crash, tossing us like struck candlepins in a tight alley. The bus teetered on edge, the thick-necked gunman getting swung around in the aisle as he tried to keep his eyes on every passenger, his scowl and disdain widening, sour as Hell itself, one hand on the back of a seat, the blonde girl shrinking in terror in that seat, her mouth open as if to scream, but nothing coming out of it. I saw veins in her neck stand out like blue ropes, the same blue coming at her lips.
The wild gunman fired another shot through the roof of the bus.
Now there came silence … and in the echo of that thunderous blast, the smell of burnt gunpowder rushed through the captured air quicker than the smoke moved, some slow learners realizing what war smells like at times, how it promises to hang on.
His hand, not the gun hand, suddenly caught my eyes. It had obviously been injured, perhaps smashed, in some accident, or some retaliation. One finger was partially missing; another appeared mangled and distorted, and the thumb probably could tell a story if it had a tongue, it was so misshapen, the tip of it blunt, square, maybe sliced by a doctor to be saved or carved by an angry butcher. Surely, he was other than just extremely dangerous, a huge question mark or concern in a blue jacket and a just-fired blued pistol marking him such, even as the smoke from the tip of the pistol floated idly in the thick air.
“Easy, driver,” the gunman yelled. “Easy does it. I’ll kill you and a dozen others before we come to a stop if you don’t play it easy.” The gun waved again. “I said, slow down, slow down, and keep it cool,” the harsh words matching his demands, loaded with vitriol, deathly promise.
The driver obeyed, slowing the bus gingerly and I could feel the change in speed, the road grabbing back at the weight on the wheels, the old song-of-the-road like a change of a cover song. Beside the gunman, I knew I was an odd passenger, from way back. None of these others had an inkling of my past, though they might have come a close guess on the gunman’s past.
It was my turn, a churning inside me. Memories squashed in their own time, leapt free. I said, a sudden new tone taking place of the old voice, “You with the gun, this I promise you: if you shoot me, you’ll have to carry my body all through eternity. I weigh 221 pounds at last check. That’s a sure load for any rugged stevedore to handle. Go ahead, shoot me if you need to, if you want to, if you have to, but you will, I promise, carry the load of my body all through eternity.” I pointed at the two bullet holes in the roof of the bus and said, “You’ve made your mark.”
“How the hell do you know I’ll have to carry the load of you? You got some kind of power beyond this?” He held the gun over his head.
“I’ve been killed three times already, and each time my killer had to start carrying my body for all eternity.” I looked upward, the bullet holes in the roof of the bus. It was a way of demonstrating my promise.
“You’re as crazy as I am.”
“No, I’m not. Each time I was killed, my soul was transferred to another body, newly born, but in need of a soul that had seen travel through the universe. I’ve been a sheriff in Kansas, a teacher in Wyoming, a fireman in Boston after being a Doughboy in World War I, the full life of a firemen. In each life my body was taken on by my killer or the one at fault in my death, taken on for eternity. That’s a long time to carry a load. I now weigh 221 pounds, as I’ve said. ” I paused and added, “You ought not ignore that.”
“Port Byron, Kansas was a quiet but hustling town until I was killed, then it folded in on itself. It’s long gone now. I was someplace else, somebody else, when that happened. That’ll happen this time, too.” I hadn’t changed my stance since we started talking.
“What if I kill someone else?” The handgun was swung around as if he were selecting new targets, the odd and disfigured hand holding tightly to the back of a seat, the other waved the gun around and he said, “Like two or three of them?”
“It’s obvious your math is way out of whack,” I said. “Your sack has been loaded for the trip. You’ll just make it heavier. The weight will be egregious for all eternity.”
“I oughtta do you. You’re funnier than any of them.” He waved the gun, only a serious grin crossed his face.
“Your bullet is meant for me. It’s up to me to take it. Better think before you pull the trigger. I’ll come back as somebody else, and maybe quicker than before.”
On the floor of the bus, the man with a bullet in his leg, the blood trickling slowly from his wound, guts galore, obviously a comrade in the ranks in other years, reached with two hands and yanked at one ankle of the gunman, who toppled toward me, surprise lighting his face, the gun going off almost in my face, my displaced mind saying, with a sudden newness, mostly with ultimate awe, “Where is all this going now?”
It was accompanied by small and understanding laughter.