Air, Water, and Road
By Aynjel Kaye
24 February 2003
Loud crazy bus tears down the street, wild, reckless. The thing's painted like an old wooden ship, if the ship were on acid or X or candyflipping all night long and into the next day. Top's been cut off in the back of the upper deck, and two guys hang precariously from the railing. Mast sticks up from the center of the bus and ropes run from the top to the opening on the deck. Sail flaps, loud snap-cracking sounds, the breeze not consistent enough to keep it taut; it's not possible that the wind is what's driving the thing. Makeshift spiderweb ladder made of latex-coated rope stretches from the deck to the top of the mast where the black flag with its silver skull flies. Above the flag, a spindly girl clings to the chrome crow's nest. An occasional face peeks out from round windows; it's hard to say how many people are on the bus.
Jaz and I jump back; two steps from the curb isn't safe enough in the face of that bus, and two bigger steps don't feel much safer. The wind-wake from the thing tugs at my clothes, makes them tight across my belly and breasts, makes my skirt tangle at my thighs and calves, threatening to trip me up while Jaz tugs on my arm, says, "We should go."
But the bus fascinates me with its intricacies and wild strangeness, with the streamers of rave-bright mixing with punk-bland.
It slows at the intersection of Fourth and Couch, makes a dangerous, wild U-turn, and drives back, coming the wrong way down the side of the street where we're standing. Slow this time instead of wind-whipping fast. Crawling toward where we're waiting, only I don't know what I'm waiting for and Jaz is telling me, "We really should go."
Maybe I'm waiting for the guys on deck to come down, waiting for them to invite me in. "Go on," I tell her. "I'll meet you at Dave's."
And she goes. Glad to be going, because she only glances back once, then hurries faster, her ass swaying back and forth, skirt all tangled in her long legs and thigh-high boots.
Sure, go on. I'll just. . . . Just what? Because the situation sort of hits me. These are bus pirates. You don't mess with bus pirates. They'll do worse than keelhaul you, and the Northwest is crawling with them, come up from the water like some primordial creepy-crawly that couldn't stand fins and evolved, went for tires instead.
The pirates, fuck the pirates. The bus, though. Damn, it's cool. And the figurehead on the front of it totally rocks. She's sleek and latex-covered, her tits held up by a corset, her waist waspishly thin, hips flared. She struggles a little, but I think it's mostly to keep balanced in her precariously bound position.
Booty. Pirate booty. Bus pirate booty.
I should've gone with Jaz. Really should have. I'm thinking this while the bus stops right in front of me.
"Hey, hey, Cookie. Y'got anything you wanna share with us?" The guy calling out is hanging off the railing like it's some kind of jungle gym. Shorter guy is leaning on the rail, looks like he's about to spit and just hasn't decided where he wants it to land yet.
"My name's Asia," I call up to the dangling guy.
He shrugs. "Don't give a shit. You got anything you wanna share with us?"
Jaz is gone; I can tell without looking, but I look anyway. Disappeared down Couch, heading toward Dave's place, and the doors behind me are all boarded up, so nothing there to help. I say, "I dunno," because I'm not sharing anything with them. The bus, though -- if the bus asked. . . . And it was asking just by being there.
And then Don't give a shit and his friend are rappelling down the side of the bus on thick, latex-dipped ropes. Don't give a shit sidles up to me on the left, while the other presses in close on my right. They smell like sweat and salt and smoke.
"We think you might," the one on the right says. The shorter one.
"We know you do," says Don't give a shit.
Then their hands are around my arms, rough and callused and huge. Huge hands, sausage-thick fingers and claw-twisted nails. Not pretty boys. Not like the dolls and dreams at Dave's. Not my type, but it would only matter if they weren't taking me to the bus. I know I should struggle, stomp on an instep or two, try to run. Even though they have huge hands, they're not holding that tightly.
But I don't; I let them man-handle me toward psychedelic wood-grain. Let them drag me to the bus and it welcomes me aboard with the smoky scent of cigarettes and cloves and hazy love, like it knows who I am, knows why I'm there, and I can't even imagine being anywhere else.
Dave's, with the narrow catwalk and pretty boys and prettier girls, is out of my head, and Jaz is gone, too, melted like butter under the heat of the gel lights and old-new retro lava lamps inside the bus; she's run out of my head, slid over my skin, and been sucked into the floor.
"What've you got, Curr?" asks a woman's voice. Sounds like it's coming through a speaker, or maybe she's just off to my right. The voice is honey-thick, but stale as cigarette smoke the morning after.
Don't give a shit -- Curr -- shoves me farther into the bus and how is it so big inside? He shoves me toward the front and the whole thing rumbles like surf and we're moving again. Curr isn't polite enough to hold me up so I stumble toward the front, toward the curtained-off place where the driver's got to be.
"Got us an Asia," says Curr's companion.
"What the hell do I want with a continent?" asks the smoky voice from behind the curtain, and I don't even remember seeing a driver from outside, seeing someone manipulating the bus. Just the sail, but there's not enough wind to move the thing. Not really.
"You tell us," says Curr and he's shoving me through the curtain just as the bus runs over a speed bump or a person and I go tumbling forward, face-first into the lap that belongs to smoky-honey's voice.
The voice's hand tangles in my hair, tugs up so I've got to look at her. Cruel-painted mouth smiles and she says, "Oh, you should have run, honey."
"Her friend did," says Curr from the other side of the curtain. The voice tells him to fuck off. Maybe he does.
"You look smart enough to run," the voice says.
"Yeah? So what's it mean that I didn't?"
She laughs and it softens the smoke-roughness. "It means the bus got to you." And she laughs again at my expression, loosens her fingers so my hair's not a leash anymore and I can sit up, look at her on my own, or look away if I want. But she fascinates me as much as the bus does, soft and hard, sharp and smooth. Like the bus.
"You need a new figurehead?" and my question's only half sarcastic and I'm thinking I might run if she says yes, just because I look like I'm trying too hard when I wear a corset.
She shakes her head. "Missy's doing nicely, even if she doesn't act like she enjoys it."
She leans forward, flicks something off my shoulder, and the sting of her fingernail is there like a threat even though the line of metal covering the tip just scrapes at my shirt, doesn't touch me.
"So you've got two choices," she says, and the way she says it I can tell I don't have a choice at all. "You can stay. Or I can have them throw you off the bus."
That's not a choice -- and I tell her so -- because the bus is under my skin and I can feel it like a comfortable ache.
She smiles. "So you stay."
"And do what?"
Her smile dips down, mouth cruel again. "And I get you ready for a bus of your own."
I've got no idea what she's talking about. Like there's more to the buses and the pirates than just street-gang bullshit. Cruel smile at my confusion and she clangs her nails against a chrome bell. "Back to port," she shouts above the tang of the bell and rumble of the bus and I don't know if there's a driver or if there's someone swinging the mast to catch the nonexistent breeze to take us in another direction.
"We're running short on bus runners," she says, and it's cryptic and she doesn't explain. My right calf is cramping so I shift, lean on her knees, and I feel like a little girl; she looks older from this angle, wrinkles under her makeup, lips not as full as the cruel painting suggests.
The rumble of the bus is soothing and she pets my hair and it's all too strange, but I'm falling into it, nice and comfortable there, her layered skirts tickling at my side where my shirt's ridden up and left tattooed skin exposed. "Just let her talk to you," she says, like it's supposed to make sense.
And the rhythm of the bus tickles at my eardrums, lights flash and fade and flicker and falter and it's tree-bent sunlight and memory that's not mine and maybe it does make sense, starts to, like a tickle becoming an itch, and the rumble-smooth voice of the bus laps at the inside of my skull, surf-insistent, with salt scent and sand scrape in the words.
Sea used to be forever-home. Used to be, once, but it's forever ago like a legend, and we just ignore it, anyway, since we can't go back. We start there now, all salt and slick, and it's birth and death and freedom and capture when we get away.
We didn't always have wheels, didn't always have sails, didn't always have oars and slaves to help us run. We were there, free-floating, going where the wind and the water and the world tried to take us, and sometimes it tore us apart because the wind wanted to go one way, the water wanted to go another, and the world (strongest of the three) went still another.
First we had driftwood, then little rafts that were almost as fragile as we. Then boats, but it wasn't enough.
Now we have wheels, wheels to take us where we never might have been if we had stayed in the sea. Conquered wind and water, but there is still the world.
Always the world.
And the way it moves, it can still tear us apart.
There's something in that voice. Time, wanting, itching, age, dreams, restlessness, something I feel like I should recognize, something that's hanging out at the back of my head. I know it's there, but I can't get to it. Can't turn my head to see it, can't catch it.
The voice teases and soothes and takes away the monotony of the ride, makes the trip impossibly short. Heartbeat comfortable, the voice slowly erases the sounds of the crew, the occasional tapping of Smoke's nails, rubs it all into the background, makes it sound like surf. It tells me stories of running.
Everything mellows to lazy-kitten purring and the rocking, jarring, bouncing of the bus as it slows, stops and Smoke is petting my hair, looking at me like I'm some kind of precious thing, and it pisses me off. I'm not fragile, not going to break if she looks at me wrong. And she's sure as shit not going to put me into some nice safe place.
She doesn't try to. "Come on." And Smoke's all hard and business, like she was when Curr tossed me into her lap.
Cool wet air makes my hair flat in no time, clings in my eyebrows and makes them itch. Old seafront hotels have been converted; look a lot like the buses docked up beside them, between them. Latex-covered ropes string between them, hold salt-water-damp flags and streamers. Some kind of cross between a gypsy camp and a pirate port.
A wasp-waisted girl with a long white skirt comes up to Smoke, calls her by name. Familiar, hopeful, and Smoke ignores her, walks past like she hasn't noticed, like the girl isn't there, like her face isn't flushing at the slight. Smoke leads me past the buses, past the port, to a warehouse at the end of the lane. The wasp-waisted girl glares at me but something blanket-warm and smelling of rubber slides between us, invisible shield, not tangible, but comforting; it dulls the sting I might have felt. Reassures.
Maybe Smoke notices that because she smiles at me, closes her long, age-thin hands around mine. "They're close to finishing another shell."
Smoke nods. "The buses are really just shells. Safe place for them to be."
"Where the wind and water can't tear them apart. . . ."
Smoke nods again, squeezes my hands. Her bony fingers make mine ache, dig my rings into my skin, remind me they're there.
"Come on." She hurries me down a broken concrete path and her booted feet are certain, a hundred times certain, and that rubber-and-blanket air wraps around me, shock absorber to keep me upright when my less-certain toes catch in cracks, or heels catch on weeds growing up around the edges of cement blocks.
Expectation makes the air inside the open-roofed warehouse thick, heavy. Everyone turns to look, look at Smoke and her painted face, at me as she leads me inside.
"We have a new driver," she says, and there's no ceremony, no music, no magic. Just a statement. But the expressions on faces change. Jealousy, guarded nervousness, excitement. Not a celebration, not a party, but they're all there anyway in silks and leather, latex and lace, feathers and fur. Gypsies, pirates, people who don't claim anything but what Smoke has given them.
And they don't matter to her. Not really. The buses matter. And the things that are the buses. "They bring them to life," she whispers to me: child at Christmas, eager, excited, expectant. She points past onlookers, to the crane that dips down through the nonexistent ceiling, metal-tipped nail following the path from sky to floor.
The floor isn't real, just wooden planking surrounding a hole in the rocks. Silver-gray water smooth as mirror stretches between the planks, reflects faces back at those who cluster around. The crane reaches down, huge black mouth bobbing for something more elusive than apples, diving beneath gray water, shattering the smoothness.
It comes up empty once, twice. The third time it holds something, and the thing stretches between great black teeth and softer gray water. Stretches and spreads thin, stretches to the breaking point then snaps and the world closes around me, is only what the crane is moving, sliding toward an empty, dead bus, shell with nothing inside.
The world is only silver and pounding surf, aching heartbeat of a life older than I can dream. A demon, or a god, dripping bits of itself back into the gray water, onto the wood, but never onto flesh. Somehow it misses flesh and hair and the clothing that protects and reveals.
We aren't what you think, or what you dream, or what you know. We haven't always been, and we won't always be, but past and future mean nothing because we are. Now. And we are tired of here, tired of this. There is more. Much more. A whole world we have not touched or tasted or tried to claim and name and own, and we want it.
The thing pours into the bus, ethereal soup, life, ooze, coating it and sinking in, making itself at home inside the metal-and-wood shell, the crazy thing that Smoke's people have created for them, to house them. Maybe control them, but I don't know, can't begin to imagine how Smoke found them, encouraged them to breed, to put themselves at her mercy, at the mercy of her other drivers.
A sound like metal anguish splits the air, stills, and everyone has put their hands to their ears, or to their mouths, and I can almost understand because my head pounds with surf and my stomach rolls and my ears throb and echo with the pulse and pound from the rocks below and from the bus beside me.
The thing is there, trapped, but not. At home, but not. Aching, itching, wanting to be somewhere else.
"She's yours." Smoke's voice is loud and harsh, shrill and sharp after the pound of the bus and the surf.
And I know it's mine. It doesn't have a gender, nothing so simple, so complex. It simply is. And it wants to be. Be elsewhere. "What do I do with it?"
Smoke smiles. "Take her out into the city. You're one of us."
But I'm not. Not any more than the bus is only a bus. "Crew?" Not that I want one. Not that it wants one. They're dirty. They smell. Their voices make it ache; it knows this because the rest of them know. They share the way we can't. The way we won't. So it knows everything they know. Knows the smell of the city, the sounds, the smooth brokenness of the streets.
She looks at me for a moment, like perhaps she wonders if she's done the right thing. Finally, she nods. "You'll have one."
Smoke gives me Curr, and she gives me her waif, the one that called her by name, the one she's tired of. The waif will be the figurehead. Smoke is certain she'll struggle the way every figurehead should. "She'll be perfect for your bus," Smoke tells me, like she's telling me a secret, or wishing me into her bed. But that's not what I want. Not where I want to be.
So we have our crew and it's not as big as Smoke's, just Curr and the waif, and a slight little boy for the crow's nest. The bus doesn't even need that many, but Smoke's not going to let us go out with fewer.
I don't want the city, the bus whispers in my head when I step into it. We've seen all that we can see here. I want the world. We want the world. Want it so there is nothing left that can tear us apart.
I stroke the controls that aren't and think about that while I step back off the bus, circle it once. Cool air and wet salt scent slick to everything and make the figurehead's skirts cling to her thighs, her muscles taut beneath gauze-thin black and purple and blue. She makes a muffled sound around the gag when I stroke her thigh, down to her calf where her feet rest in leather toe-shoes, perfect pointed toes. She's only shivering a little. "Good girl," I say before I climb back aboard.
The world. Until now, the world has been the streets of Portland, Dave's, and more recently the port with its smells and words and buildings that I'd never seen before and had only heard rumors of. But there's more. The bus is certain of it. So am I. A whole world, wide roads, wind tamed and water held fast behind dams and dikes and crossed easily by steel. Places I've never seen. That they have never seen.
"Let's go, then," I whisper, stepping back to the controls.
"Where to, Asia?" Curr asks. He looks out of place on my bus, uncomfortable, but he'll get over it.
"Hitting the road."
"Beat pattern?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"Street pattern?" he sounds hopeful beneath lost. Lost and uncertain. He's sounded that way since Smoke told him he's my crew now. Like he doesn't know how he pissed her off, like he doesn't know how not to piss me off.
I shake my head again. "Open road. Out of town."
"Smoke isn't going to like it."
But the bus purrs beneath me, inside me. Ready. Eager. And Smoke has lost track of what the buses wanted, if she ever really knew. The bus wants to go. I want to go. And Smoke? "I don't give a shit," I say and he flinches. "We're setting sail."
Copyright © 2003 Aynjel Kaye
Aynjel Kaye began life firmly rooted in Normal but has escaped. She is an angst-queen in exile holding court in Erie, Colorado, where she lives with her menagerie. She may or may not be a chocolate lover, a goth, a punk, and less harmless than she was before. For more about her, see her website.