Country Comfort’s any Bus that’s Heading Home

Henry in his happy cottage place

As you may know, last week the Greyhound bus had its last victory lap. No canine rescue happening here. No bucolic retirement pasture for the hound, that, truth be told, I have called horrible. Even though I steadfastly maintain I was right, I do apologize for dissing the dog. Because I, like many other people, have relied on him to shepherd me through many life transitions. As a eulogy for the hound, I offer an excerpt from my book, Nowhere like This Place. Spoiler alert, it is part of the last chapter.

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The bus ride home from the University of Waterloo for Thanksgiving is actually three buses. The first one, a Greyhound from Waterloo to Toronto, takes three hours to complete its leisurely path through southern Ontario farmland. I look out the window at cows standing in the rain on grass that’s still green. I’m reading Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, except it’s in German so the cover says Briefe an einen jungen Dichter. I mostly just hold the book in my lap, like I’ve just set it down for a moment to rest my eyes, so anyone who looks can see I’m reading in German. My pretentions know no bounds. Ruth’s choice for impressing bus passengers is Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. “This is interesting,” she says. “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. Kant is so profound! What did we do before we knew Kant existed?” Almost all the subjects I’m taking I never knew existed. Philosophy. Sociology. Political science. Computer programming. My brain hurts.

Our second bus goes all the way to Pembroke, but not until we’ve cooled our heels in Toronto for two hours. The bus station is right downtown and looks like it was an exciting place to be when it was built in the 1930s, before the terrazzo floors got smudged black with discarded gum and the comfortable chairs were replaced with molded orange plastic seats with no backs, scarred with cigarette burns. The waiting room is not a place anyone wants to wait. Instead, Ruth and I kill time by going across the street to get Chinese food.

The Kwong Chow restaurant is on the second floor of a short brick building that’s seen more of life than it wished it had. We go up a stairway lined with peeling red velvet wallpaper embossed with golden fans. The stair treads are shiny and concave from all the feet that have previously beaten a path to chow mien. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never even had Chinese food before. Ruth knows Kwong Chow because she’s eaten here with her aunt who lives in the Toronto suburbs. “It’s really, really, fancy,” she says, “tablecloths and everything.”

An Asian man wearing a grey suit vest and black bow tie ushers us to a table beside the dusty window, and a waiter hands us huge menus encased in red vinyl with a gold tassel on the spine, which are only slightly sticky from previous patrons’ culinary adventures. There are posters on the walls advertising specialties of the house in Chinese script and, inexplicably, black and white photos of movie stars from thirty years ago. There are indeed tablecloths, but on top of the tablecloths are the exact same scalloped-edge paper placemats highlighting fancy mixed drinks as we have at the Deep River Restaurant. Only here, there are people actually drinking them. So that’s what a Singapore Sling looks like in real life. The cherries really are that red. I want one of those little umbrellas. “Let’s get one,” I say. “We can share.”

We pile our grubby yellow ripstop nylon knapsacks on the extra chairs. The knapsacks’ claim to fame is that they fold away into a little pocket when you aren’t using them, but once you liberate them from their pocket and open the drawstring at the top, they expand exponentially into mini duffle bags. Their tragic flaw is when you stuff the knapsack to bursting, you can see right through the yellow exterior, so my pink underwear is on full display. Good thing nobody knows me.

“I always get the dinner for one for one,” Ruth says. “Or you can get the dinner for two for one, or the dinner for three for one. But not the dinner for four for one. I don’t know why.” The dinner for one has an eggroll, sweet and sour chicken balls and mixed vegetables. The mixed vegetables are canned peas and diced carrots. Maybe I have had Chinese food before and didn’t know it.

The door on the bus to Pembroke wheezes open and greets us with an infusion of tobacco mixed with eau-de-road-salt. Ruth and I each grab our own two seats in the middle. Not so close to the front that someone would quickly notice an empty seat and be tempted to sit beside us, and not too far towards the back to have to experience the smell of the bathroom ripening over the next seven hours. The bus chugs past high rises, low rises and industrial lands until we finally leave the urban sprawl that clings to Lake Ontario behind, when we turn north off the highway towards Peterborough. It starts to sleet and the windshield wiper metronome squeaks as it keeps time with the weather. We stop for twenty minutes in Peterborough, enough time to use the land-based bathroom and drink rusty water reeking of chlorine from the fountain that loses pressure every time someone flushes. Only four hours left to go. Rilke isn’t turning out to be as exciting as I thought. I buy a Cosmopolitan magazine at the newsstand. “How to Tell if You’re Dateable: Take Our Quiz,” it says on the cover. Territory Wittgenstein is certainly not going to address any time soon, even if he wasn’t dead. I do not take the quiz. No need to prove the obvious.

We head on north, through Lakefield, Young’s Point, Bancroft, Bird’s Creek, Maynooth, Combermere, Barry’s Bay, Wilno, Killaloe, Golden Lake, Eganville, Shady Nook. North and norther towards the Valley. It’s snowing now. Big, wet flakes that slap against the bus windows and slide down to the sill where they pile up in the corner. “By the gar, when youse get to Shady Nook ya know youse er close to home,” says a guy at the back of the bus. Clearly and proudly a local. “Any youse young lads got smokes left?” he asks the bus in general. I dearly hope not. I’ve already smoked a pack vicariously.

Pembroke’s the end of the line for the Greyhound bus. To get all the way home, we need to wait another hour or two for the westbound Voyageur bus that heads towards North Bay, and then eventually goes all the way to Vancouver. The bus even says Vancouver on the front. Ruth and I share some fries from the chip truck that’s clearing out its dregs before packing up for the night. Half price. We sit on the curb on top of our knapsacks, which are busy enhancing their grubbiness. I can see my breath. We left Waterloo this morning at eight and it will be close to midnight before we get to town.

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