JENNY ROSE RYAN
I stared out the bus window at the passing yellow grasses.
Have you ever heard of Sweet Betsy from Pike who crossed the wide
prairie with her husband, Ike, with two yoke of cattle and one spotted
hog, a tall Shanghai rooster and an old yellow dog?
The song rang through me repeatedly, forcing me to stare at the
monotony out the window, or, at my hands, which were cracked and
bleeding from late-autumn night walks when I tried to decide what to do.
Some people like the prairie. Some people find its numbing sameness,
its tranquility in the waving grasses, comforting. Not me. It chokes
me. On the prairie, there's nowhere to hide, except single, mocking
trees six miles away-much too far to run toward when you're tired or
trying to get away. The bus was the tallest thing for miles. Even in
the shallow irrigation ditches, a person stood tall compared to the
rest of the land. The sky heavy sky thudded against the earth, its
breast beating hard against the wheezing land.
When you're afraid of your shadow, it's important to have a space where
you can retreat. Even burrow a hole into the ground.
Mom once told me about a drive her sisters and her grandmother took
across the prairie, on their way to California to visit grandmother's
husband. They sang the Sweet Betsy song, inserting their own phrases.
Sweet Betsy became Sweet Lucy and the world seemed hilarious. They
weren't running away. They were moving toward something new and
exciting-a vacation. And the oppressive prairie was just sand in their
hands. They sifted right on through its needlelike grasses.
In a small gas station near the Nebraska border, a curly-haired young
man leans against the counter. His eyes are rimmed gray and his glasses
slide down his greasy nose. He pushes them back, regularly, with a
single, ink-stained finger with torn cuticles dangling and bleeding.
His ingrown toenail butts against the inside of his boot, and, to see
that he's paying attention, he presses harder into the steel toe until
the pus breaks through the skin and soaks his holey sock. He doesn't
want to care as it stings. He wipes sweat from his chin with his
shirt-collar, sucking on the salty fabric as it pulls away. He sees the
bus approach and lights a cigarette, flinging the matchstick to the
I shifted in my seat, from one numb hip to the other, deciding if I'd
get off at this stop, or if I'd wait until the next. I pushed my face
against the window, leaving an outline in oils, pores and dead skin. It
looked like a ghost, and I knew no one would steal my seat if I got up.
Who would want to stare across the prairie through that mask?
As I walked toward the gas station, I thought about cigarettes, and how
sometimes I missed stinging menthols corrupting my lungs. Maybe I'd
grab a pack or two, to waste some time as I continue west-like Sweet
Betsy and so many before her. I don't delude myself into thinking I'm a
pioneer of anything. I just needed to get away.
I walked into the convenience store, running my hand along the
cinder-block wall, flaking mint-green paint toward the floor with my
fingernail. The clerk looked up from the counter, where he seemed to be
staring at his reflecting in the polystyrene sheet covering lotto
examples. He raked his hand through his hair, sending dust and dandruff
into the afternoon sunlight. The particles rained, invisibly, to the
I meandered through the snack aisles, looking for something substantial
to take up the growing space in my belly. He cleared his throat,
snuffled. Everything looked too bright, too packaged and too dirty. I
walked toward the ancient, rolling hot dogs and the microwaveable
sandwiches, glancing out the window toward the still-empty bus. As I
walked toward the back of the store, I glanced over a framed map near
the restrooms. In a large, red marker, someone had written, "You are
here" over the town's name. Beyond that, I held no conception of time
or place. I felt the waving grasses close around me. It was like the
grasses and the regimented, chain gas station competed for the title of
most mundane and most soul-sucking. But I don't believe in souls. The
guy behind the counter was clearing his throat more often now. His
knuckles were covered in paint and ink. I wanted to mention the bright
pink institutional liquid soap in the bathroom and remind him he could
use it. But I didn't have an ID on me and I wanted cigarettes, so it
wasn't time to be rude or condescending. I imagined that his home was
covered with piles of dirty clothing, food and spilled ashtrays. Maybe
the brand-new carpet beneath his bed was blue, while the rest was a
dull gray, flaked with crayon dust, charcoal bits and ground-in potato
chips. Maybe giant, black flies lived under the sink-where most
Midwesterners store their garbage cans. The cleanest place was probably
the toilet. The dirtiest, his bed.
He looked at me through smudged, taped glasses, trapping me to my spot
in front of the lotto examples. I forgot that I held a plastic bottle
of orange juice in my hands, and it bounced to the floor, rolling
underneath the stand of day-old doughnuts and fritters. As I retrieved
it, I grabbed a Danish. I wondered why he looked at me like that,
peering, questioning, and I paid for my cigarettes, my food and walked
outside to the bus.
My seat was still there, unoccupied by anything but a worn copy of
Weekly World News. I grabbed the paper, scooted toward the window with
my shoulder leaning on the glass, and drank my juice. The bus started
with a chugging grunt and we were on our way again. My head lolled
forward with every lurch, and I drooled juice onto the front of my
shirt until I had sense enough to sleep.