Features & Columns

William T. Vollmann (left) does his own reporting when researching his novels. Photo by Greg Roden

In one of the bays behind
the Greyhound station he met a bearded little man, almost elfin in profile, who had parted ways with several teeth. His face shone red and his pores were coarsened by hard living. The woman beside him looked tired and old. Their daughter was sixteen going on forty-six. They sat on the blacktop, waiting for something to happen. How this world could contain both them and Jacob was a question for moralists, sociologists and theologians, but not for Matthew, who wanted to make friends, which was why he gave the man ten dollars, and asked about his life.

The man said: Originally I'm from Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. My wife, she wanted to come back home. Now she wants to get back out of here. We came from Spokane. Everybody knows everything about everybody. Trying to rip everybody off... I got in trouble with the law. And then got out, found the manager of the money I had, and he never paid it, ripped me off...

His name was Roy. Matthew told his own name. They sat down on a bench away from the wife and daughter, and Roy began again to speak, perhaps because that strange May weather had opened the hearts of everyone, although the ten dollars could have had something to do with it. He lisped a little, on account of his missing teeth. He said: First time I been on the streets, I was seven years old. Got away from Washington, ran away to Fresno. You see, I decided to get in people's cars and trucks and kept on goin'. Fresno was lot of killings. I started doin' dope and went to heroin. Started doin' it all. You name it, I done it.

Now, my wife, her Dad was the head of the Hell's Angels and I been workin' with him since I was about seven. I made him a hundred eighty grand in about six months. And I'm one he's afraid of. I have no problem pullin' a gun, pullin' the trigger, and laughin' about it. I don't care. I got no heart.

Matthew did not care if this was true or not. He just felt happy that Roy was telling him things. And Roy said: Some guy swung on me. I walked up and popped him. When I hit him, my hands turned illegal; they're registered. I have killed but not on purpose. I killed the head leader of the Fresno State Bulldogs. They're Bloods and that, or I call 'em, slobs. I been a Crip since I was seven. They're makin' us into so many new gangs. In Portland they got the Dragon Eyeballs. A bunch of fuckin' niggers. Oh, you're prejudiced. No I'm not. I'm a cracker. I'm fuckin' white trash!

And Matthew, being Matthew, could not help but wonder whether he himself might enter upon this sort of life, warring and begging and hiding, free and angry or free and scared—or had Roy paid for nothing this price of becoming bitter and maimed?

He disliked the mean things that Roy said. But since he never stopped hoping for answers and had just today in this marvelous green sunshine realized what he cared about most of all, he said: Tell me what you think about America.

Sucks, said Roy, staring into his face. —Because we keep givin' Iraq weapons and then they're tryin' to bomb us. And all these people who got money and they think they been better than us.

Right away, Matthew decided that America sucked. How then could he make America better? He would start by going to the best place, and learning what made it good. So he said: I'm hiding out. Where should I go?

Fresno. People are actually really really nice. There's this one lady who look works out there, a Mexican lady; we call her Mama; she makes us fresh watermelon juice and won't take no money for it. . .

Matthew thought to himself: Fresno sounds just like Redding. I think I'll stay in Redding.

So what I wanna do, said Roy, is to be gettin' out of here and findin' something somehow to help us get to Fresno. I can get a one-bedroom apartment for six hundred. I was on SSI but I have a misdemeanor warrant. I got caught with thirteen days in the county jail. I have a problem with authority; I'm unextraditable.

And then what?

I wanna own some more land and be happy.

Should I do that, too?

Why fuckin' not?

Up until now Matthew had supposed that his life would somehow make something, not a child but something else. It might be that he would improve the world, or even save it—but never bit by bit, as if he were some nine-to-fiver ageing for the sake of a paycheck from which he would save nothing but money. But maybe land, a woman and a child would be his destiny.

Trustingly he asked Ray: What's the most beautiful kind of woman'

Smart. Looks, I don't care about looks. I mean, I dated girls this big. I dated girls that big. This one here, I did fifteen years in the slammer and she never left. She never wrote me but she was there when I got out. Plus I got eight kids, and she don't mind.

That's good, said Matthew. Where can I find a woman?

Roy called over to his wife: Baby, where's a good place to buy a bitch?

Off of Cypress, by the park.

When does what's-her-name the black bitch show up there?

About nine thirty, ten-o'clock.

Roy remarked evenly, with triumphant contempt: I know every Spokane ho in there. In Pullman I know 'em all cause they're all mine. There was one nigger and I took every one of his prostitutes except one, and I didn't take her because she's fucking ugly.

Thanking him for his advice, Matthew walked on. Should he make a child, wander the Deep South or pick avocados? His eyes were on the bright green sunlight of Redding. Had he told anybody, your sunlight is green!, it might not have turned out especially well for Matthew, so he kept quiet as always, studying the people and trying to decide whether he should become one of them.

Against the outer wall of the Amtrak station lay a homeless man who explained: This place is my living room. —gesturing at the tracks and the Greyhound station behind them, he said: There's my TV.

Matthew leaned up against the wall beside him. He asked: Do you have a good life?

The man said: I'm from Alturas. That's a really small town. If you're on the main street after ten-o'-clock at night the police are gonna take you in. Here, nobody bothers me because I keep it clean. I pick up after myself and others. And I've learned how to be happy. I'm happier here every day. I want to stay right here, all my life.

Matthew thanked him. He decided he believed him. Perhaps the man was Christ, or one of His relatives, in which case what Matthew should do was sit down right here and watch the tracks for half a century. But for some reason he found himself continuing on.

He walked up and down, then closed his eyes, pretending that something better or worse than Redding would appear when he opened them; that was a game he had often played, and until today the results had been consistently disappointing; just now he opened his eyes and was glad to still see Redding.

Now he had better find a room. Twenty minutes later he was watching the paling of the cloudy sky from the second floor deck of the Sunshine Motel where somebody in Room 29 was plinking on a ukulele and singing in imitation of Neil Young while a cool breeze came from the cottonwoods and the cars in the parking lot did nothing but sparkle. It was all new to Matthew.

He looked around his room and loved it. No one would find him here. He had paid the Gujurati desk clerk thirty-two dollars cash, no identification required. He lay down on the big double bed and decided to get a girlfriend and bring her straight here. He still wanted to make a child.

Locking his door, he descended to the street, found a restaurant and ordered a hamburger. The waitress was sweet; he felt happy just gazing shyly at her hands; so he asked whether she would like a drink. He never expected her to say yes, but she did, because this was Redding, where everyone was friendly, at least while the green sunshine lasted. He was drinking beer; she she poured herself a shot of vodka and thanked him. Then she went to attend to her other customers while he returned to his hamburger—the best ever, of course.

Ten minutes later she was back at his table, so he bought her another drink. She told him about her marriage, her child and her vacation; he bought her shots and she kept giggling and saying: What are you trying to do to me?

Make you happy, he said. —And in truth that was all he wanted.

Then she brought her friend the barmaid whom she said was amazing, and the two women stood drinking together sweetly, flirting with him, after which they offered him a free dessert! Matthew thanked them and said he was too full.

The waitress leaned her hip against his table, smiling, and now he could see the bright green sunlight rising up from her; she might have been the one he was meant for.

When he went up to pay, the barmaid took his hand. This too was ever so sweet. He almost felt as if she would have gone with him, which unnerved as much as flattered him. Which one should he make a child with? Feeling happy and embarrassed, he quickly walked away. As soon as he had rounded the corner he began to feel ashamed; he had probably disappointed the barmaid. But what if she had only meant to be kind to him? He did not go back.

It was dark now. He returned to the motel, then went into his room feeling happy. He thought about the homeless man whose television was the railroad tracks and everything beyond them. He might be the most fulfilled person on earth. Why shouldn't Matthew do the same? Opening the he door, took out a chair and sat awhile looking out across the world. The lovely shadows of the railing kept curving around on the bright deck and a man ran across the parking lot, while the smell of stale food rose up in the cool breeze, mosquitoes biting Matthew silently, and across the parking lot the jumbled white letter-squares of the letters MOTEL supported a great yellow sun with orange neon rays shining out from it.

He realized that he had failed to watch the sunset. The old engineer in the bar had told him about Redding sunsets, and he had forgotten! Well, he would that tomorrow night.

At ten-o'clock, Virginia, who was sixty-three but looked a hard, sexy forty-three, came knocking at the door of the adjacent room because some girl had stolen the vacuum cleaner; he promised that it wasn't him and that he lacked any connection to that unknown girl. Virginia believed him. He asked her how the motel was, and she said: Oh, they've cleaned it up real good. We're not even on the bad list no more.

She had been living in Room One for two years. Her son lived there also. He asked what she thought about America, and she said: What's not to love?—Right away he realized that she was right; how could he not love his own country?—He wanted everybody to be right. He would feel better believing in everything.

Virginia rushed off and he could see her sweeping the sidewalk down by the office. She wanted the place to look good for the Greyhound drivers who checked in at night and slept during the daytime.

Matthew wandered in and out of his room. It was ten-thirty; Virginia kept sweeping the sidewalk. Two doors down, the magnificent black woman who had been haunting the doorway upstairs now stood patiently facing the parking lot, half-smiling, with her arms folded across her big breasts.

Reminded by her of the prostitute who according to Roy's wife would now be working "off of Cypress by the park," he considered hunting for her, but decided that he liked Virginia better. Maybe when she had finished sweeping he would ask her if she wanted to travel the Deep South with him and buy land.

And Matthew stood listening to the world. To him it was all very wonderful.