The Halfway Diner

A Short Story

BY JOHN SAYLES

SOME OF THE OTHER girls can read on the way but I get sick. I need somebody to talk to, it don’t matter who so much, just someone to shoot the breeze with, pass time. Si no puedes platicar, no puedes vivir, says my mother and though I don’t agree that the silence would kill me, twelve hours is a long stretch. So when Goldilocks climbs on all big-eyed and pale and almost sits herself in Renee’s seat by the window I take pity and put her wise.

“You can’t sit in that seat,” I say.

Her face falls like she’s a kid on the playground about to get whupped. “Pardon?” she says. Pardon.

“That’s Renee’s seat,” I tell her. “She’s got a thing about it. Something about the light.”

“Oh. Sorry.” She looks at the other empty seats like they’re all booby-trapped.

Lucky for her I got a soft heart and a mouth that needs exercise.

“You can sit here if you want.”

She just about pees with relief and sits by me. She’s not packing any magazines or books which is good cause like I said, I get sick. If the person next to me reads I get nosy and then I get sick plus a stiff neck.

“My name’s Pam,” she says.

“It would be. I’m Lourdes.” We shake hands. I remember the first time I made the ride, four years ago, I was sure somebody was gonna cut me with a razor or something. I figured they’d all of them be women who’d done time themselves, a bunch of big tough mamas with tattoos on their arms who’d snarl out stuff like “Whatsit to you, sister?" Well, we’re not exactly the Girl Scout Jamboree, but mostly people are pretty nice to each other, unless something happens like with Lee and Delphine.

“New meat?" I ask her.

“Pardon?”

“Is your guy new meat up there?” I ask. “Is this his first time inside?”

She nods and hangs her head like it’s the disgrace of the century. Like we’re not all on this bus for the same reason.

“You hear from him yet?”

“I got a letter. He says he doesn’t know how he can stand it.”

Now this is good. It’s when they start to get comfortable up there you got to worry. We had this girl on the bus, her guy made parole first time up, only the minute he gets home he starts to mope. Can’t sleep nights, can’t concentrate, mutters to himself all the time, won’t take an interest in anything on the outside. She lives with this a while, then one night they have a fight and really get down and he confesses how he had this kid in his cell, this little mariquita, and they got to doing it, you know, like some of the guys up there will do, only this guy fell in love. These things happen. And now he’s jealous, see, cause his kid is still inside with all these men, right, and damn if a week later he doesn’t go break his parole about a dozen different ways so he gets sent back up. She had to give up on him. To her it’s a big tragedy, which is understandable, but I suppose from another point of view it’s kind of romantic, like Love Story, only instead of Ali McGraw you got a sweetboy doing a nickel for armed robbery.

“What’s your guy in for?” I ask.

Pam looks at her feet. “Auto theft.”

“Not that. I mean how much time.”

“The lawyer says he’ll have to do at least a year and a half.”

“You don’t go around asking what a guy’s rap is in here,” I tell her. “That’s like personal, you know? But the length of sentence—hey, everybody counts the days.”

“Oh.”

“A year and a half is small change,” I tell her. “He’ll do that with his eyes closed.”

The other girls start coming in then. Renee comes to her seat and sets up her equipment. She sells makeup, Renee, and her main hobby is wearing it. She’s got this stand that hooks onto the back of the seat in front of her, with all these drawers and compartments and mirrors and stuff and an empty shopping bag for all the tissues she goes through during the trip. I made the mistake of sitting next to her once and she bent my ear about lip gloss for three hours straight, all the way to the Halfway Diner. You wouldn’t think there’d be that much to say about it. Then after lunch she went into her sales pitch and I surrendered and bought some eye goop just so I wouldn’t have to hear her say “our darker-complected customers” one more time. I mean it’s all relative, right, and I’d rather be my shade than all pasty-faced like Renee, look like she’s never been touched by the sun. She’s seen forty in the rearview mirror though she does her best to hide it, and the big secret that everybody knows is that it’s not her husband she goes to visit but her son, doing adult time. She just calls him “my Bobby.”

Mrs. Tucker settles in front with her knitting, looking a little tired. Her guy is like the Birdman of Alcatraz or something, he’s been in since back when they wore stripes like in the Jimmy Cagney movies, and she’s been coming up faithfully every weekend for thirty, forty years, something incredible like that. He killed a cop way back when is what Yayo says the word on the yard is. She always sits by Gus, the driver, and they have these long lazy Mr. and Mrs. conversations while she knits and he drives. Not that there’s anything going on between them off the bus, but you figure over the years she’s spent more time with Gus than with her husband. He spaces out sometimes, Gus, the road is so straight and long, and she’ll bring him back with a poke from one of her needles.

The ones we call the sisters go and sit in the back, talking nonstop. Actually they’re married to brothers who are up for the same deal but they look alike and are stuck together like glue so we call them the sisters. They speak one of those Indio dialects from up in the mountains down south, so I can’t pick out much of what they say. What my mother would call mojadas. Like she come over on the Mayflower.

Dolores comes in, who is a sad case.

“I’m gonna tell him this trip,” she says. “I’m really gonna do it.”

“Attagirl.”

“No, I really am. It’ll break his heart but I got to.”

“It’s the only thing to do, Dolores.”

She has this boyfriend inside, Dolores, only last year she met some nice square Joe and got married. She didn’t tell him about her guy inside and so far hasn’t told her guy inside about the Joe. She figures he waits all week breathless for her visit, which maybe is true and maybe is flattering herself, and if she gives him the heave-ho he’ll fall apart and kidnap the warden or something. Personally I think she likes to collect guilt, like some people collect stamps or coins or dead butterflies or whatever.

“I just feel so guilty ” she says and moves on down across from the sisters.

We got pretty much all kinds on the bus, black girls, white girls, Chicanas like me who were born here and new fish from just across the border, a couple of Indian women from some tribe down the coast, even one Chinese girl, whose old man is supposed to be a very big cheese in gambling. She wears clothes I would kill for, this girl, only of course they wouldn’t look good on me. Most of your best clothes are designed for the flat-chested type, which is why the fashion pages are full of Orientals and anorexics like Renee.

This Pam is another one, the kind that looks good in a man’s T-shirt, looks good in almost anything she throws on. I decide to be nice to her anyway.

“You gonna eat all that?”

She’s got this big plastic sack of food under her feet, wrapped sandwiches and fruit and what looks like a pie.

“Me? Oh—no, I figure, you know—the food inside—”

“They don’t let you bring food in.”

Her face drops again. “No?”

“Only cigarettes. One carton a month.”

“He doesn’t smoke.”

“That’s not the point. Cigarettes are like money inside. Your guy wants anything, wants anything done, he’ll have to pay in smokes.”

“What would he want to have done?”

I figure I should spare her most of the possibilities, so I just shrug. “Whatever. We get to the Halfway you get some change, load up on Camels from the machine. He’ll thank you for it.”

She looks down at the sack of goodies. She sure isn’t going to eat it herself, not if she worked at it for a month. I can picture her dinner plate alone at home, full of the kind of stuff my Chuy feeds his gerbil. A celery cruncher.

“You want some of this?” she says, staring into the sack.

“No thanks, honey,” I tell her. “I’m saving myself for the Halfway Diner.”

LATER ON I WAS STRUCK BY HOW IT HAD ALREADY happened, the dice had already been thrown, only they didn’t know it. So they took the whole trip up sitting together and talking and palling around unaware that they weren’t friends anymore.

Lee and Delphine are as close as the sisters only nobody would ever mistake them for relatives, Lee being blonde and Delphine being one of our darker-complected customers. Lee is natural blonde, unlike certain cosmetics saleswomen I could mention, with light blue eyes and a build that borders on the chunky although she would die to hear me say it. Del is thin and sort of elegant and black like you don’t see too much outside of those documentaries on TV where people stick wooden spears in lions. Negro como el fondo de la noche my mother would say and on Del it looks great. The only feature they share is a similar nose, Del because she was born that way and Lee because of a fieldhockey accident.

Maybe it was because they’re both nurses or maybe just because they have complementary personalities, but somehow they found each other on the bus and since before I started riding they’ve been tight as ticks. You get the feeling they look forward to the long drive to catch up on each other’s lives. They don’t socialize off the bus, almost nobody does, but how many friends spend twelve hours a week together? Some of the black girls are friendly with some of the white girls, and us Chicanas can either spread around or sit together and talk home-talk, but black and white as tight as Lee and Del is pretty rare. Inside, well, inside you stay with your own, that’s the beginning and the end of it. But inside is a world I don’t even like to think about.

They plunk down across from us, Del lugging all these magazines—Cosmo, People, Vogue, Essence—that they sort of read and sort of make fun of, and Lee right away starts in on the food. Lee is obsessed with food the way a lot of borderline-chunky girls are, she can talk forever about what she didn’t eat that day. She sits and gets a load of the sack at Pam’s feet.

“That isn’t food, is it?" she asks.

“Yeah,” Pam apologizes. “I didn’t know.”

“Let’s see it.”

Obediently Pam starts shuffling through her sack, holding things up for a little show-and-tell. “I got this, and this,” she says, “and this, I thought, maybe, they wouldn’t have—I didn’t know.”

It’s all stuff you buy at the bus station—sandwiches that taste like the cellophane they’re wrapped in filled with that already-been-chewed kind of egg and chicken and tuna salad, stale pies stuffed with mealy applesauce, spotted fruit out of a machine. From all reports the food is better in the joint.

“How old are you, honey?” I ask.

“Nineteen.”

“You ever cook at home?” Lee asks.

Pam shrugs. “Not much. Mostly I eat—you know, like salads. Maybe some fish sticks.”

Del laughs. “I tried that fish-sticks routine once when Richard was home,” she says. “He ask me, ‘What is this?’ That’s their code for ‘I don’t like the look of it.’ It could be something basic, right, like a fried egg starin up at em, they still say, ‘What’s this?’ So I say, ‘It’s fish, baby.’ He says, ‘If it’s fish, which end is the head and which is the tail?' When I tell him it taste the same either way he says he doesn’t eat nothin with square edges like that, on account of inside they always be cookin everything in these big cake pans and serve it up in squares—square egg, square potato, square macaroni. That and things served out in ice-cream scoops. Unless it really is ice cream Richard don’t want no scoops on his plate.”

“Lonnie’s got this thing about chicken bones,” Lee says, “bones of any kind, but especially chicken ones. Can’t stand to look at em while he’s eating.”

“Kind of rules out the Colonel, doesn’t it?”

“Naw,” she says. “He loves fried chicken. We come back with one of them buckets, you know, with the biscuits and all, and I got to go perform surgery in the kitchen before we can eat. He keeps callin in—‘It ready yet, hon? It ready yet? I’m starvin here.’ I’ll tell you, they’d of had those little McNugget things back before he went up our marriage woulda been in a lot better shape.”

They’re off to the races then, Lee and Del, yakking away, and they sort of close up into a society of two. Blondie is sitting there with her tuna-mash sandwiches in her lap, waiting for orders, so I stow everything in the sack and kick it deep under the seat.

“We get to the Halfway,” I tell her, “we can dump it.”

SOMETIMES I WONDER ABOUT GUS. THE HIGHWAY IS SO straight, cutting up through the Valley with the ground so flat and mostly dried up, like all its effort goes into those little square patches of artichokes or whatever you come past and after that it just got no more green in it. What can he be thinking about, all these miles, all these trips, up and down, year after year? He don’t need to think to do his yups and uh-huhs at Mrs. Tucker, for that you can go on automatic pilot like I do with my Blanca when she goes into one of her stories about the tangled who-likes-who in her class. It’s a real soap opera, Dallas for fifth-graders, but not what you need to concentrate on over breakfast. I wonder if Gus counts the days like we do, if there’s a retirement date in his head, a release from the bus. Except to Mrs. Tucker he doesn’t say but three things. When we first leave he says, “Headin out, ladies, take your seats.” When we walk into the Halfway he always says, “Make it simple, ladies, we got a clock to watch.”And when we’re about to start the last leg, after dinner, he says, “Sweet dreams, ladies, we’re bringin it home.” Those same three things, every single trip. Like Mrs. Tucker with her blue sweater, always blue. Sometimes when I can’t sleep and things are hard and awful and I can’t see how they’ll ever get better I’ll lie awake and invent all these morbid thoughts, sort of torture myself with ideas, and I always start thinking that it’s really the same exact sweater, that she goes home and pulls it apart stitch by stitch and starts from scratch again next trip. Not cause she wants to but cause she has to, it’s her part of the punishment for what her husband done.

Other times I figure she just likes the color blue.

For the first hour or so Renee does her face. Even with good road and a fairly new bus this takes a steady hand, but she is an artist. Then she discovers Pam behind her, a new victim for her line of cosmetics, and starts into her pitch, opening with something tactful like, “You always let your hair go like that?” I’m dying for Pam to say, “Yeah, whatsit to you, sister?” but she is who she is and pretty soon Renee’s got her believing it’s at least a misdemeanor to leave the house without eye-liner on. I’ve heard all this too many times so I put my head back and close my eyes and aim my radar past it over to Lee and Del.

They talk about their patients like they were family. They talk about their family like they were patients. Both are RNs, they work at different hospitals but both on the ward. Lee has got kids and she talks about them, Del doesn’t but wants some and she talks about that. They talk about how Del can eat twice as much as Lee but Del stays thin and Lee gets chunky. They talk about their guys, too, but usually not till we get pretty close to the facility.

“My Jimmy,” Lee says, “is now convinced he’s the man of the house. This is a five-year-old squirt, he acts like he’s the Papa Bear.”

“He remembers his father?”

“He likes to think he does, but he doesn’t. His favorite saying these days is ‘Why should I?'”

“Uh-oh.”

“At least he doesn’t go around saying he’s an orphan like his sister. I introduce her, ‘This is my daughter, Julie,’ right, she says, ‘Hi, I’m a orphan.’ Cute.”

“I used to do that,”says Delphine. “Evertime my daddy spanked me that’s what I’d spread round the neighborhood.”

“So Julie says she’s an orphan and Jimmy says his father works for the state.”

Del laughs. “That’s true enough.”

“And he picks up all this stuff in the neighborhood. Cod I want to get out of there. Lonnie makes parole this rotation I’m gonna get him home and get his head straight and get us moved outa there.”

“Like to the country or something?”

“Just anywheres it isn’t so mean and he’s not near his asshole so-called buddies.”

“Yeah—”

“And I want—oh, I don’t know, it sounds kinda stupid, really—”

“What?” Del says.

“I want a dishwasher.”

Del laughs again. Lee is embarrassed.

“You know what I mean—”

“Yeah, I know—”

“I want something in my life I just get it started and then it takes care of itself.”

“I hear you talkin—”

“The other night Jimmy—now I know some of this is from those damn He-Man cartoons and all, but some of it is not having a father, I swear—he’s in their room doing his prayers. He does this thing, the nuns told him praying is just talking to God, that’s the new breed of nuns, right, so you’ll go by their room and you’ll hear Jimmy still up, having like these one-sided telephone conversations. Uhhuh, yeah, sure, I will, no problem, I’ll try, uh-huh, uhhuh,’ and he thinks he’s talking with God, see, like a kid does with an imaginary friend. Or maybe he really is talking to God, how would I know? Anyhow, the other night I peek in and he’s doing one of these numbers only now he’s got that tough-guy look I hate so much pasted on his face like all the other little punks in the neighborhood and he’s quiet for a long time, listening, and then he kind of sneers and says—‘Why should I?' ”

WE ALL SORT OF PRETEND THE FOOD IS BETTER AT the Halfway than it really is. Not that it’s bad— it’s okay, but nothing to write home about. Elvira, who runs the place, won’t use a microwave, which makes me happy. I’m convinced there’s vibes in those things that get into the food and ten years from now there’ll be a national scandal. Whenever I have something from a microwave I get bad dreams, I swear it, so if something comes out a little lukewarm from her kitchen I don’t complain.

The thing is, Elvira really seems to look forward to seeing us, looks forward to all the noise and hustle a busload of hungry women carry into the place, no matter what it is that brung them together. I imagine pulling into someplace different, with the name of the facility rolled up into the little destination window at the front of the bus, us flocking in and the waitresses panicking, the cooks ready to mutiny, the other customers sure we’re pickpockets, prostitutes, baby-snatchers—no way José. So maybe the food here tastes better cause it comes through Elvira, all the square edges rounded off.

She’s a big woman, Elvira, and if the country about here had a face it would look like hers. Kind of dry and cracked and worn, but friendly. She says she called the Halfway the Halfway because everyplace on earth is halfway between somewhere and somewhere else. I don’t think being halfway between the city and the facility was what she had in mind, though.

When we bust in and spill out around the room there’s only one other customer, a skinny old lizard in a Tecate cap and a T-shirt, never once looking up from his grilledcheese sandwich.

“Make it simple, ladies,” Gus says. “We got a clock to watch.”

At the Halfway it’s pretty hard to make it anything but simple. When they gave out the kits at Diner Central, Elvira went for bare essentials. She’s got the fly-strip hanging by the door with a dozen little boogers stuck to it, got the cornflakes pyramided on a shelf, the specials handprinted on paper plates stuck on the wall behind the counter, the morning’s Danishes crusting over under their plastic hood, the lemon and chocolate cream pies with huge bouffants of meringue behind sliding glass, a cigarette machine, a phone booth, and a machine that tells your exact weight for a quarter which Lee feeds both coming in and going out.

“Have your orders ready, girls!” Elvira calls as we settle at the counter and in the booths, pretty much filling the place. “I want to hear numbers.”

Elvira starts at one end of the counter and her girl Cheryl does the booths. Cheryl always seems like she’s about to come apart, sighing a lot, scratching things out, breaking her pencil points. A nervous kid. What there is to be nervous about way out there in the middle of nowhere I couldn’t tell you, but she manages. I’m sitting at the counter with Mrs. Tucker on one side, Pam on the other, then Lee and Del. Lee and Del get talking about their honeymoons while Pam goes off to pump the cigarette machine.

“So anyhow,” says Lee, “he figures we’ll go down to Mexico, that old bit about how your money travels further down there? I don’t know how far it goes, but after that honeymoon I know how fast. He was just trying to be sweet, really, he figured he was gonna show me this wonderful time, cause he’s been there and I haven’t and he knows what to order and I don’t and he knows where to go and all that, only he doesn’t, you know, he just thinks he does. Which is the whole thing with Lonnie—he dreams things up and pretty soon he believes they’re true, right, so he’s more surprised than anybody when the shit hits the fan.”

“Sounds familiar,” says Del.

“So he’s heard of this place—jeez, it’s so long ago—Santa Maria de la Playa, something like that—” Lee looks to me for help. “You must know it, Lourdes. It’s on the coast—”

“Lots of coast down there.”

“There’s like these mountains, and the ocean—”

“Sorry,” I tell her. “I’ve never been to Mexico.”

Delphine can’t feature this. “You’re shittin me,” she says. “You?”

“You ever been to Africa?”

Del cracks up, which is one of the things I like about her. She’s not oversensitive about that stuff. Usually.

“Anyway,” says Lee, “he says to me, ‘Baby, we’re talkin Paradise here, we’re talkin Honeymoon Heaven. I got this deal—”

“They always got a deal,” says Del.

Elvira comes by then with her pad, working fast but friendly all the time, “Hey, girls,” she says, “how’s it going? Mrs. Tucker?”

“Just the water,” Mrs. Tucker says. “I’m not really hungry.”

She doesn’t look too good, Mrs. Tucker, kind of drawn around the eyes. Elvira shakes her head.

“Not good to skip lunch, Mrs. Tucker. You got a long ride ahead.”

“Just the water, thank you.”

Lee and Del get the same thing every week. “Let’s see, we got a Number Three and a Number Five, mayo on the side,” Elvira says. “Ice tea or lemonade?”

They both go for the lemonade and then Pam comes back dropping packs of Camels all over.

“How bout you, hon?”

“Um could I see a menu?” More cigarettes tumble from her arms. I see that Pam is one of those people who is accident-prone for life, and that her marrying a car thief is no coincidence. A catastrophe waiting to happen, this girl. Elvira jerks a thumb to the wall. Pam sees the paper plates. “Oh um—what are you having?”

“Number Three,” says Lee.

“Number Five,” says Delphine.

“Oh. I’ll have a Number Four, please. And a club soda?”

“You know what a Number Four is, hon?”

“No, but I’ll eat it.”

Elvira thinks this is a scream but writes it down without laughing. “Four and a club,” she says and moves on.

“So he’s got this deal,” says Del, getting back to the story.

“Right. He’s got this deal where he brings these tapes down to San Miguel de los Nachos, whatever it was, and this guy who runs a brand-new resort down there is gonna give us the royal-carpet treatment in exchange—”

“Like cassette tapes?”

“Fresh from the K mart. Why they can’t go to their own stores and buy these things I don’t know—what’s the story down there, Lourdes?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” I say.

“Anyhow, we got thousands of the things we’re bringing through without paying duty, a junior version of the scam he finally went up for, only I don’t know because they’re under the back seat and he keeps laying this Honeymoon Heaven jazz on me.”

“With Richard his deals always have to do with clothes,”says Del. “Man come in and say, ‘Sugar, what size dress you wear?’ and my stomach just hits the floor.”

“And he brings the wrong size, right?”

“Ever damn time.” Del shakes her head. “We took our honeymoon in Jamaica, back when we was livin high. Girl, you never saw nobody with more fluff in her head than me back then.”

“You were young.”

“Young ain’t no excuse for stupid. I had one of those posters in my head—soft sand, violins playing, rum and Coke on ice and I was the girl in the white bikini. I thought it was gonna be like that always.” Del gets kind of distant then, thinking back. She smiles. “Richard gets outa there, gets his health back, we gonna party, girl. That’s one thing the man knows how to do is party.”

“Yeah, Lonnie too. They both get clear we should all get together sometime, do the town.”

As soon as it’s out Lee knows different. There’s a silence then, both of them just smiling, uncomfortable. Guys inside, black and white, aren’t likely to even know who each other is, much less get together outside and make friendly. It does that to you, inside. Yayo is the same, always on about los gachos gavachos this and los pinches negros that, it’s a sickness you pick up there. Or maybe you already got it when you go in and the joint makes it worse. Lee finally breaks the silence.

“I bet you look great in a white bikini,” she says.

Del laughs. “That’s the last time I been to any beach, girl.”

Cheryl shows with the food and Mrs. Tucker excuses herself to go to the ladies’. Lee has the diet plate, a scoop of cottage cheese with a cherry on top, Del has a BLT with mayo on the side, and Pam has the Number Four, which at the Halfway is a Monte Cristo—ham and cheese battered in egg, deep fried, and then rolled in confectioner’s sugar. She turns it around and around on her plate, studying it like it fell from Mars.

“I think maybe I’ll ask him this visit,” says Del. “About the kids.”

“You’d be a good mother,” says Lee.

“You think so?”

“Sure.”

“Richard with a baby in his lap ...”Del grimaces at the thought. “Sometimes I think it’s just what he needs— responsibility, family roots, that whole bit, settle him down. Then I think how maybe he’ll just feel more pressure, you know? And when he starts feelin pressure is when he starts messin up.” Del lets the thought sit for a minute and then gives herself a little slap on the cheek as if to clear it away. “Just got to get him healthy first. Plenty of time for the rest.’ She turns to Pam. “So how’s that Number Four?”

“It’s different,” says Pam. She’s still working on her first bite, scared to swallow.

“You can’t finish it,” says Lee, “I might take a bite.”

Del digs her in the ribs. “Girl, don’t you even look at that Number Four. Thing is just evil with carbohydrates. I don’t wanta be hearing you bellyache about how you got no wallpower all the way home.”

“I got willpower,” Lee says. “I’m a goddamn tower of strength. It’s just my appetite is stronger—”

“Naw—”

“My appetite is like Godzilla, Del, you seen it at work, layin waste to everything in its path—”

“Hah-haaah!”

“But I’m gonna whup it—”

“That’s what I like to hear.”

“Kick its butt—”

“Tell it, baby—”

“I’m losin twenty pounds—”

“Go for it!”

“An I’m quittin smoking too—”

“You can do it, Lee—”

“And when that man makes parole he’s gonna buy me a dishwasher!”

“Get down!'

They’re both of them giggling then, but Lee is mostly serious. “You know,” she says, “as much as I want him out, sometimes it feels weird that it might really happen. You get used to being on your own, get your own way of doing things—”

“I hear you talkin—”

“The trouble is, it ain’t so bad that I’m gonna leave him but it ain’t so good I’m dying to stay.”

There’s hardly a one of us on the bus hasn’t said the exact same thing at one time or another. Del looks around the room.

“So here we all are,” she says, “at the Halfway Diner.”

B ACK ON THE ROAD PAM GETS QUIET SO I COUNT DEAD rabbits tor a while, and then occupy the time imagining disasters that could be happening with the kids at Graciela’s. You’d be surprised at how entertaining this can be. By the time we pass the fruit stand Chuy has left the burners going on the gas stove and Luz, my baby, is being chewed by a rabid Doberman. It’s only twenty minutes to the facility after the fruit stand and you can hear the bus get quieter, everybody but Dolores. She’s still muttering her good-bye speech like a rosary. The visits do remind me of confession—you go into a little booth, you face each other through a window, you feel weird afterward. I think about the things I don’t want to forget to tell Yayo. Then I see myself in Renee’s mirror and hit on her for some blush.

THE FIRST WE KNOW OF IT IS WHEN THE GUARD AT security calls Lee and Del’s names and they’re taken off in opposite directions. That sets everybody buzzing. Pam is real nervous, this being her first visit, and I think she is a little afraid of who her guy is going to be all of a sudden. I tell her not to ask too much of it, one visit. I can’t remember me and Yayo just sitting and talking a whole hour that many times before he went up. Add to that the glass and the little speaker boxes and people around with rifles, and you have definitely entered Weird City. We always talk home-talk cause all the guards are Anglos and it’s fun for Yayo to badmouth them under their noses.

“Big blowout last night in the mess,” he says to me. “Anglos contra los negros. One guy got cut pretty bad.”

I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. The night Yayo got busted I had the same feeling but couldn’t think of anything to keep him in the house. “Black or white?’

I ask.

“A black dude got stabbed,” he says. “This guy Richard. He was a musician outside.”

“And the guy who cut him?” I say, although I already know without asking.

“This guy Lonnie, was real close to parole. Got him up in solitary now. Totatmente jodido.”

It was just something that kind of blew up and got out of control. Somebody needs to feel like he’s big dick by ranking somebody else in front of the others and when you got black and white inside that’s a fight, maybe a riot, and this time when the dust clears there’s Lee’s guy with his shank stuck in Del’s guy. You don’t ask it to make a lot of sense. I tell Yayo how the kids are doing and how they miss him a lot but I feel this weight pulling down on me, knowing about Lee and Del, I feel like nothing’s any use and we’re wasting our time squawking at each other over these microphones. We’re out of rhythm, it’s a long hour.

“I think about you all the time,” he says as the guard steps in and I step out.

“Me too,” I say.

It isn’t true. Whole days go by when I hardly give him a thought, and when I do it’s more an idea of him than really him in the flesh. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, but what the hell. Things weren’t always so great when we were together. So maybe it’s like the food at the Halfway, better to look forward to than to have.

Then I see how small he looks going back inside between the guards and I love him so much that I start to shake.

THE BUS IS ONE BIG WHISPER WHEN I GET BACK ON. The ones who have heard about Lee and Del are filling in the ones who haven’t. Lee gets in first, pale and stiff, and sits by me. If I touched her with my finger she’d explode. Pam steps in then, looking shaky, and I can tell she’s disappointed to see I’m already by someone. When Del gets on everybody clams up. She walks in with her head up, trying not to cry. If it had been somebody else cut her guy, somebody not connected with any of us on the bus, we’d all be around bucking her up and Lee would be first in line. As it is a couple of the black girls say something but she just zombies past them and sits in the very back next to Pam.

It’s always quieter on the way home. We got things that were said to chew over, mistakes to regret, the prospect of another week alone to face. But after Del comes in it’s like a morgue. Mrs. Tucker doesn’t even knit, just stares out at the Valley going by kind of blank-eyed and sleepy. Only Pam, still in the dark about what went down inside, starts to talk. It’s so quiet I can hear her all the way from the rear.

“I never thought about how they’d have those guns,” she says, just opening up out of the blue to Del. “I never saw one up close, only in the movies or TV. They’re real, you know? They look so heavy and like if they shot it would just take you apart—”

“White girl,” says Del, interrupting, “I don’t want to be hearin bout none of your problems.”

After that all you hear is the gears shifting now and then. I feel sick, worse than when I try to read. Lee hardly blinks beside me, the muscles in her jaw working as she grinds something out in her head. It’s hard to breathe.

I look around and see that the white girls are almost all up front but for Pam who doesn’t know and the black girls are all in the back, with us Chicanas on the borderline between as usual. Everybody is just stewing in her own thoughts. Even the sisters have nothing to say to each other. A busload of losers slogging down the highway. If there’s life in hell this is what the field trips are like. It starts to get dark. In front of me, while there is still a tiny bit of daylight, Renee stares at her naked face in her mirror and sighs.

ELVIRA AND CHERYL LOOK TIRED WHEN WE GET TO the Halfway. Ketchup bottles are turned on their heads on the counter but nothing is sliding down. Gus picks up on the mood and doesn’t tell us how we got a clock to watch when he comes in.

Pam sits by me with Dolores and Mrs. Tucker on the other side. Dolores sits shaking her head. “Next time,” she keeps saying. “I’ll tell him next time.” Lee shuts herself in the phone booth and Del sits at the far end of the counter.

Pam whispers to me, “What’s up?”

“Big fight in the mess last night,” I tell her. “Lee’s guy cut Delphine’s.”

“My God. Is he okay?”

“He’s alive if that’s what you mean. I’ve heard Del say how he’s got this blood problem, some old drug thing, so this ain’t gonna help any.”

Pam looks at the booth. “Lee must feel awful.”

“Her guy just wrecked his parole but good,” I say. “She’s gettin it with both barrels.”

Elvira comes by taking orders. “Rough trip, from the look of you all. Get your appetite back, Mrs. Tucker?”

“Yes, I have,” she says. Her voice sounds like it’s coming from the next room. “I’m very, very hungry.”

“I didn’t tell him,”Dolores confesses to no one in particular. “I didn’t have the heart.”

We order and Elvira goes back in the kitchen. We know there is a cook named Phil but we have never seen him.

I ask Pam how her guy is making out. She makes a face, thinking. I can see her in high school, Pam, blonde and popular, and her guy, a good-looking charmer up to monkey business. An Anglo version of Yayo, full of promises that turn into excuses.

“He’s okay, I guess. He says he’s going to do his own time, whatever that means.”

I got to laugh. “They all say that, honey, but not many manage. It means like mind your own business, stay out of complications.”

“Oh.”

Delphine is looking bullets over at Lee in the phone booth, who must be calling either her kids or her lawyer.

“Maybe that’s how you got to be to survive in there,” I say. “Hell, maybe out here, too. Personally I think it bites.” Mrs. Tucker puts her head down into her arms and closes her eyes. It’s been a long day. “The thing is,” I say to Pam, “we’re all of us doing time.”

Lee comes out of the booth and goes to the opposite end of the counter from Del. It makes me think of me and Graciela. We used to be real jealous, her and me, sniff each other like dogs whenever we met, on account of her being Yayo’s first wife. Not that I stole him or anything, they were bust long before I made the scene, but still you got to wonder what’s he see in this bitch that I don’t have? A natural human reaction. Anyhow, she’s in the neighborhood and she’s got a daughter by him who’s ahead of my Chuy at the same school and I see her around but it’s very icy. Then Yayo gets sent up and one day I’m stuck for a babysitter on visiting day. I don’t know what possesses me, but desperation being the mother of a whole lot of stuff I ask Graciela. She says why not. When I get back it’s late and I’m wasted and we get talking and I don’t know why but we really hit it off. She’s got a different perspective on Yayo of course, talks about him like he’s her little boy gone astray which maybe in some ways he is, and we never get into sex stuff about him. But he isn’t the only thing we got in common. Yayo, of course, thinks that’s all we do, sit and gang up on him verbally, and he’s not too crazy about the idea. We started shopping together and sometimes her girl comes over to play or we’ll dump the kids with my mother and go out and it’s fun, sort of like high school where you hung around not necessarily looking for boys. We go to the mall, whatever. There’s times I would’ve gone right under without her, I mean I’d be gonzo today. I look at Lee and Del, sitting tight and mean inside themselves, and I think that’s me and Graciela in reverse. And I wonder what happens to us when Yayo gets out.

“Mrs. Tucker, can you hear me? Mrs. Tucker?”

It’s Gus who notices that Mrs. Tucker doesn’t look right. He’s shaking her and calling her name, and her eyes are still open but all fuzzy, the life gone out of them. The sisters are chattering something about cold water and Cheryl drops a plate of something and Pam keeps yelling, “Where’s the poster? Find the poster!” Later she tells me she meant the anti-choking poster they’re supposed to have up in restaurants, which Elvira kind of hides behind the weight-telling machine cause she says it puts people off their feed. Mrs. Tucker isn’t choking, of course, but Pam doesn’t know this at the time and is sure we got to look at this poster before we do anything wrong. Me, even with all the disasters I’ve imagined for the kids and all the rescues I’ve dreamed about performing, I’ve never dealt with this particular glassy-eyed-older-lady type of thing so I’m no help. Gus is holding Mrs. Tucker’s face in his hands, her body gone limp, when Lee and Del step in.

“Move back!” says Lee. “Give her room to breathe.”

“You got a pulse?” says Del.

“Not much. It’s fluttering around.”

“Get an ambulance here,”says Del to Elvira and Elvira sends Cheryl running to the back.

“Any tags on her?”

They look around Mrs. Tucker’s neck but don’t find anything.

“Anybody ever hear her talk about a medical problem?” asks Del to the rest of us, while she holds Mrs. Tucker’s lids up and looks deep into her eyes.

We rack our brains but come up empty, except for Gus. Gus looks a worse color than Mrs. Tucker does, sweat running down his face from the excitement. “She said the doctor told her to watch her intake,” he says. “Whatever that means.”

“She didn’t eat lunch,” says Elvira. “You should never skip lunch.”

Lee and Del look at each other. “She got sugar, maybe?”

“Or something like it.”

“Some orange juice,”says Lee to Elvira and she runs off. Mrs. Tucker is kind of gray now, and her head keeps flopping if they don’t hold it up.

“Usually she talks my ear off,” says Gus. “Today she was like depressed or something.”

Elvira comes back out. “I brung the fresh-squoze from the fridge,” she says. “More vitamins.”

Del takes it and feeds a little to Mrs. Tucker, tipping her head back to get it in. We’re all of us circled around watching, opening our mouths in sympathy like when you’re trying to get the baby to spoon-feed. Some dribbles out and some stays down.

“Just a little,” says Lee. “It could be the opposite.”

Mrs. Tucker takes another sip and smiles dreamily. “I like juice,”she says.

“Here, take a little more.”

That’s good,”she says in this tiny, little-girl voice. “Juice is good.”

By the time the ambulance comes we have her lying down in one of the booths covered by the lap blanket the sisters bring, her head pillowed on a couple of bags full of hamburger rolls. Her eyes have come clear and eventually she rejoins the living, looking up at all of us staring down around her and giving a little smile.

“Everybody’s here,” she says in that strange, far-off voice. “Everybody’s here at the Halfway Diner.”

THE AMBULANCE GUYS TAKE SOME ADVICE FROM LEE and Del and then drive her away. Just keep her overnight for observation is all. “See?" Elvira keeps saying. “You don’t never want to skip your lunch.” Then she bags up dinners for those who want them cause we have to get back on the road.

Nobody says anything, but when we get aboard nobody will take a seat. Everybody just stands around in the aisle talking about Mrs. Tucker and waiting for Lee and Del to come in and make their move. Waiting and hoping, I guess.

Lee comes in and sits in the middle. Pam moves like she’s gonna sit next to her but I grab her arm. Delphine comes in, looks around kind of casual, and then like it’s just a coincidence she sits by Lee. The rest of us settle in real quick then, pretending it’s business as usual but listening real hard.

We’re right behind them, me and Pam. They’re not talking, not looking at each other, just sitting there side by side. Being nurses together might’ve cracked the ice but it didn’t break it all the way through. We’re parked right beneath the Halfway Diner sign and the neon makes this sound, this high-pitched buzzing that’s like something about to explode.

“Sweet dreams, ladies,” says Gus when he climbs into his seat. “We’re bringin it home.”

It’s dark as pitch and it’s quiet, but nobody is having sweet dreams. We’re all listening. I don’t really know how to explain this, and like I said, we’re not exactly the League of Women Voters on that bus but there’s a spirit, a way we root for each other and somehow we feel that the way it comes out between Lee and Delphine will be a judgment on us all. Nothing spoken, just a feeling between us.

Fifty miles go past and my stomach is starting to worry. Then, when Del finally speaks, her voice is so quiet I can hardly hear one seat away.

“So,” she says. “San Luis Abysmal.”

“Huh?” says Lee.

“Mexico,” says Delphine, still real quiet. “You were telling me about your honeymoon down in San Luis Abysmal.”

“Yeah,” says Lee. “San Something-or-other—”

“And he says he speaks the language—”

You can feel this sigh like go through the whole bus. Most can’t hear the words but just that they’re talking. You can pick up the tone.

“Right,” says Lee. “Only he learned his Spanish at Taco Bell. He’s got this deal, right—”

“Finalmente,” one of the sisters whispers behind me. “iQué bueno!” the other whispers. “Todavía son amigas.

“. . . so we get to the so-called resort and he cuts open the back seat and all these cassettes fall out, which I know nothing about—”

“Course not—”

“Only on account of the heat they’ve like liquified, right—

“Naw—”

“And this guy who runs the resort is roped off but so are we cause this so-called brand-new resort is so brand-new it’s not built yet—”

“Don’t say it, girl—

“It’s just a construction site—”

“Hah -haaah!”

The bus kicks into a higher gear and out of nowhere Gus is whistling up front. He’s never done this before, not once, probably because he had Mrs. Tucker talking with him, but he’s real good, like somebody on a record. What he’s whistling is like the theme song to some big romantic movie, I forget which, real high and pretty and I close my eyes and get that nice feeling like just before you fall to sleep and you know everything is under control and your body just relaxes. I feel good knowing there’s hours before we got to get off, feel like as long as we stay on the bus, rocking gentle through the night, we’re okay, we’re safe. The others are talking soft around me now, Gus is whistling high and pretty, and there’s Del and Lee, voices in the dark.

“There’s a beach,” says Lee, “only they haven’t brought in the sand yet and everywhere you go these little fleas are hoppin around and my ankles get bit and swole up like a balloon—”

“I been there, girl,”says Del. “I hear you talkin—”

“Honeymoon Heaven, he says to me—”

Del laughs, softly. “Honeymoon Heaven.