Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Road People

David Gibson

He stood aside to let me enter the gas station door, then he moved through to the outside with a piece of a cardboard box in his hand. A dirty red and white knit cap was pulled down tight on his head. He was filthy. The old jacket and the once-white jeans were covered with months and months’ accumulation of dirt and grime. As I paid my gas bill and returned to my car, I saw them both there at the side of the building. He squatted in front of the piece of cardboard, slowly printing the name of the next hoped-for destination. She squatted beside him, her hair tangled, matted, and dirty. Beside them stood a grocery cart, containing a gray suitcase and a plastic bag of belongings. Road people.

It is sad enough to see a man down and out, hopeless and broke, on the road from nowhere to nowhere, but to see a woman there too really hit me in the gut. I quickly drove down the street to a grocery and bought Spam, canned beans, orange juice, bread, donuts, a sack of candy, and a couple cartons of milk. I hurriedly drove back to the gas station and pulled up near them. They had not moved. He still slowly worked on his sign, she squatting, staring silently.

"You folks traveling?" I asked.

"Yes, sir," he answered.

I got out of the car with the sack of groceries. "Well, I thought you might be needing something to eat," I said as I set the sack between them.

"Thank you," he said, smiling weakly. She didn't say a word as she looked at me, then back at him. They weren't very old, maybe in their mid-thirties—too young to have given up for whatever reasons, to be spirit-broken, afraid, possessionless, exhausted.

"Take care," I said as I got back into my car to hurry to an appointment twenty miles away.
As I sped on my way, tears rolled down my cheeks and my heart ached for those two and all like them. Why were they like this? Whose fault was it? They may have brought this on themselves, but I doubted it. What difference did it make? They had not been drinking that I could tell. They did not seem to be on drugs, yet they moved slowly and responded slowly to my questions. I suspected that they might have spent some time in a mental institution and like thousands of others, were released to make their own way the best they could, alone.
I didn't care. What mattered was that they were forgotten, ignored, without hope, and without any cause for hope. They were just without.

Driving back from my appointment, I decided to go past the gas station and see if they were still around even though two hours had passed.

Yes, they were still there, but now they were leaving the gas station, pushing their cart onto the shoulder of the road. I parked away from them and walked inside and asked the station manager, "Those folks out there, where are they going?"

"To Memphis. They asked the way to Memphis and I told them down that way. We get a lot of 'em by here."

He had pointed the direction to Memphis but not the direction to the entrance to the interstate highway. They were headed off the highway now, down a residential street, out of sight.

I returned to my car, drove from the gas station down the road and around the corner and saw them just ahead, shuffling slowly but steadily behind the grocery cart. I pulled over a few feet ahead of them. They stopped. She looked at him questioningly, maybe a little afraid.

"If you are wanting to go to Memphis, you'll have to go back up the road to get on the interstate," I said. He walked slowly toward me. She stood holding on to the cart.

"I thought the man at the station said Memphis was this way," he said wearily, looking off down the road.

"Well, Memphis is this direction but you have to go back to get on the highway. Tell me," I asked, "would you folks want to hitchhike to Memphis or would you rather ride a bus?"

She smiled faintly and softly said, "Ride a bus."

"Put your things in the car and I'll take you downtown and buy you bus tickets to Memphis."

"Thank you, sir," he said as he turned and together they took the suitcase, the plastic bag, and the sack of groceries out of the cart and put them into my car, then got in themselves, she on the back seat and he on the front seat next to me. The grocery cart was left beside the road, and lying in it was the cardboard sign he had so laboriously printed. "Memphis or Bust" it read. I couldn't help thinking that these two were already "busted." From all of the evidence, it didn't appear that they could ever be any more "busted."

I turned the car around and we headed downtown. Now I realized just how really dirty these two were. In addition to filthy clothing, they smelled like they had not been near a bath for weeks, maybe months. His eyelids were inflamed, probably from lice, and her hair was a shoulder-length, dirty mass of tangles.

"Why are you going to Memphis?" I asked.

"To try to get a job," he answered. "I think I might can find some kind of job around the river."

"What kind of work do you do?"

"Anything." Then after a long pause he slowly added, "I used to play guitar."

We drove on.

"Where do you sleep when you are on the road?"

"Anywhere we can. Last night we slept out behind the Waffle House next to the gas station." I could picture them spending a chilly night lying close to each other for warmth in the tall grass and weeds behind the restaurant.

He continued. "We stayed at the Gospel Mission Monday night but I didn't like it down there. Too many drunks in that place. I didn't want them around my wife. I told Barbara that we were not staying there no more, so we walked out here. Night before last we got off the interstate up at that other exit and Barbara went up to one of them gas stations to use the restroom and that man called the police. I think he had been robbed before and he called the police."

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and continued. "That policeman said he'd take us back down to the Gospel Mission for the night. I didn't want to go back down there. Barbara she said we ought to go so we'd have a place to stay, but I asked her if she wanted to walk all the way back out here again, all the way back from downtown again. I told her we would just stay there for the night and tomorrow maybe we'd get some luck."

Maybe we'd get some luck. His words made me sad. Here was a man and his wife at the very bottom of society, and they still held on to some small glimmer of hope for something good to happen to them.

He recognized the industrial area we were now driving through. "Me and Barbara was over in here a few days ago to the recycling plant. We was going to make some money picking up cans and pop bottles, but they don't pay you nothing for 'em." He reached into his pocket, brought out a wrinkled adding machine tape, and handed it to me. It was his receipt from the recycling plant. It showed a total of ninety-four cents.

We rode on in silence.

Barbara had said nothing since she got into the car. She just sat there on the back seat, accepting whatever was happening. I wanted to make some gesture to her. I pulled up to a drug store, went in and bought a cheap comb and brush set, and returned to the car. I handed them to her, "Here, Barbara, I bet your hair would look real pretty if you brushed it." She took the comb and brush without a word but made no move to use them. We continued on our way and a couple of blocks later I could see her through the rearview mirror as she started to brush her hair for probably the first time in weeks.

We pulled into the parking lot of the bus station. I told them to get their things together and meet me at the station door while I bought the tickets. I really didn't want the ticket agent to see them for fear he might object to their riding the bus. I bought the tickets, two one-way fares to Memphis, then went outside and led them into the waiting room. I gave the tickets to them and pointed to the place the bus would leave from in thirty minutes. Then I gave Barbara the few dollars I had left.

"Thank you," she said with a faint, exhausted smile.

"Good luck. I hope things get better for you," I said as I turned to go.

They stood there with their little belongings, and for the first time I saw where he had written their names with a black marker across the gray suitcase. And there in smaller letters across the corner of the suitcase, one of them had written the words "I love you" to the other. No matter how dismal their lives were, hope and love were no less real.

Their tired, dirty faces haunt me yet.


David Gibson grew up in Winona, Mississippi, and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, after graduating from Mississippi State.

[A portion of this essay was selected by National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" for broadcast in the spring of 1988.]

© David Gibson

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012