By Christopher Mahon
I had been working in a flower shop in early March 1978 - the Peter Pan Flower Shop - on Jefferson Avenue, in Detroit, just across the border from Grosse Pointe, where my family lived. This was perhaps an odd occupation for someone who had, two months before, graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in English. Many of my fellow students had chosen to go to medical school or law school. Yet I myself was living at home, with my parents, and had elected to begin my post-undergraduate professional life in flowers. Delivering them. Becoming a poetic intermediary between the greenhouses of California and the snow-drifted doorways of southeastern Michigan.
I had only the vaguest of plans then for my future. Mostly, I think, back then, I wanted to be a poet, or a writer of some sort, and had been communicating with an uncle in Pennsylvania and a friend in Berkeley about perhaps moving to one of those places so I could do "some writing." Of course, my job at the flower shop wasn't the greatest of jobs, certainly nothing I needed a degree in English for, but in many ways, I think now, looking back, I rather liked it.
One of my duties every morning was to unpack the long boxes of flowers that had been flown in from California: the mums, the roses, the carnations. I'd use a knife to snap off the bottom ends of the flower stems before placing the flowers in water. The thing was: the flowers were wrapped in newspapers from San Francisco. Often, they'd be wrapped in the pink pages of the Sunday Datebook Section, which was the entertainment section of the paper. I would often read through the many listings of events that were happening and wonder about what it would be like to live out there.
Nights, I'd write in my journal, outline novels, write poetry, read through thick tomes of philosophy and literature.
One afternoon when I was delivering flowers, I rode down Vernier Road, toward the express way, on my side of the median, going the speed limit: 40 miles per hour. And up ahead of me, through the windshield, I could see an accident starting to happen. A little old lady in a conservative sedan had made a left-hand turn from her side of the median and, instead of stopping at the red light she had just encountered, continued with her turn. I was on target to crash right into her, and I did. She wasn't hurt. I wasn't hurt. But the cars were totalled.
When I got home from work that night, and sat at the dinner table with my mother and father (and my younger brother Mike), I didn't mention what happened. It was bad enough that, after four years of college, I was working in a flower shop, and had no other plans. It could only make matters worse if I mentioned that I had just been involved in a catastrophic auto accident.
My father, of course, wasn't too happy about me not applying myself in the real world. And one Saturday morning, we finally had it out.
I was sleeping in, as usual, upstairs in my bedroom. It must have been about ten o'clock when I heard my father downstairs in the kitchen yelling at my mother.
"What in the world does he think he's doing? When is he going to wake up?"
I woke up immediately.
I bolted out of bed, ran downstairs, and announced to my parents that I was leaving. I can't quite remember what was said. It was rather like being in the midst of a verbal firefight: words flashing and emotions exploding all around you, making yourself almost senseless.
My Dad yelled a lot in those years. I never liked the sound of it or the fact that much of his emotional firepower was waged against my mother, who rarely fought back, except with exasperated pleas for peace.
Nobody asked where I was leaving to. And my actions began to speak louder than words. I went upstairs and took a quick shower. Then I went down to the basement and found my big blue metal-framed Jansport backpack, the one I had used on my hitchhiking trip through the upper peninsula two years before. I grabbed it, carried it back upstairs into my bedroom and started packing it with my belongings.
I told my parents I was going to Berkeley, and I walked out the front door, striding down the middle of our suburban street - Merriweather Road - singing "Don't Think Twice." Small, well-built colonial brick homes stood on either side of me. Cars were in the garages or in the driveways. No one was out on the street, but perhaps a few housewives or husbands or children were peeking at me through the living room drapes.
I hummed and sang my way down Merriweather Road for a block and then turned right on Beaupre, still singing. I kept walking all the way to Kerby School, where my little brother had attended classes. I turned left on Kerby Road and walked up to Chalfonte.
After walking down Chalfonte, I turned left on Moross (or Seven Mile) Road, and made a bee-line to my bank, which stood on the corner of Seven Mile and Mack.
The bank doors, alas, on Saturday mornings, were closed.
Luckily for me, however, the drive-in window was open as a convenience. So I walked up behind one of the cars, and waited my turn. When my turn came I stood at the window and informed the drive-in teller that I wanted to withdraw all my savings from my account. I had $250 in my savings account. The teller, however, behind the window, speaking into her microphone, explained that I had to be in a car in order to withdraw funds. That it was against company policy to issue funds to people who had walked up to the window - especially, I imagined, people wearing backpacks.
I explained to her my situation: that I was leaving town, that I needed every penny I could get. Perhaps she was someone's older sister. Or, maybe, she was a young mother, looking years ahead and hoping against hope. In any case, out of the goodness of her heart - the first anonymous angel on my path! - she made an exception to the company policy, closed my account, and gave me $250 in cash.
The corner of Seven Mile and Mack is a fairly busy intersection - on the boundary of Grosse Pointe and Detroit proper, filled with a gas station and fast food delis and a J.C. Penney Store, in the shadow of St. John's Hospital - and on that corner I found a public telephone and dialed the home number of my older brother, Rick.
"Rick!" I told him. "I'm leaving home. Can you come out and pick me up?"
"What?" he asked.
And so he came, and minutes later, as I walked, I saw his car coming toward me, pulling over, him leaning over in the front seat to open the passenger door for me.
At Rick's house I immediately called my friend in Berkeley - Brother Paul - and asked him if I could stay with him for "a few days" once I arrived in Berkeley.
"Of course," he said.
My next phone call was to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Detroit. I wanted to get prices and schedule information for trips to the west coast. Again, I was in luck. They were having a special: anywhere in the USA, one-way, for $59.
Sounded good to me.
And so I began to confer with my brother Rick and his wife Claudia, who was always level-headed and kind. Could I stay here through the day? Could Rick drive me to the bus station so I could catch my 6:30 bus to the west coast?
But first, I had to call my parents and let them know that I was, in fact, going.
I spoke to my father, who had become quieter and understanding, now a part of my strategic exit. I told him that I wanted to come back home and pick up some books to take with me to Berkeley, and he agreed to drive over and get me. He came along with my younger brother Mike, who was only 15 at the time, and served as an acolyte of peace. Dad knew there would be no arguments in Mike's presence.
The three of us drove back to Merriweather Road, and I walked past my mother back upstairs to my room, and found the black duffel bag my Uncle Leo had once given me and packed it with books. I grabbed my Yamaha G-65A classical guitar, which I had bought for $56 two years before.
Mom was crying when I left.
She stood at the front door and handed me a loaf of bread. She had to give me something. Bread, I think now, was as good a gift as any at a time like that. On the bus, of course, I wondered how practical such a gift was. It took up so much space, that loaf of bread, but I did eat all of it on my way across the country, as Michigan disappeared more and more completely behind me. She told me later that she cried for 24 hours straight after I left. Or perhaps it was 48, or 72. I forget.
She didn't hug me goodbye on the morning I left for California. She just cried. And I think now of those words by Townes Van Zandt, from the song he wrote, "Pancho and Lefty": You weren't your mama's only boy/But her favorite one it seems/She began to cry when you said goodbye/And sank into your dreams.
"This is the best thing you've ever done," my Dad told me.
"Dad," I said. "I only have $250."
He waved his hand, dismissing me.
"You know how many people have started out with less?"
I grabbed my duffel bag full of books, and my guitar, said good-bye to my brother and my Dad, and then walked back into Rick's house.
Claudia made cheese omelettes, a salad, and tomato soup as an early dinner that night and, then, at about five o'clock, Rick and I climbed back into his car, and he drove me to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Detroit.
The bus station was full of light, gleaming off the dirty white tiles of the floor, gleaming out of the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling panels, bouncing off the interior glass that looked out onto the street so that the dark glass acted like mirrors when you looked into it, careening off the metal poles that separated the women and children from the men. And it was full of people, too, checking in and checking out, making their arrivals and departures, in that weigh station for the grittiest and most gravity-bound of travellers.
I'd been there before, of course, on my way back and forth from Notre Dame, boarding the bus for Kalamazoo and Dowagiac and Niles, then watching the cornfields pass through the window and all the other fertile familiar landscapes under the infinite Midwestern gray sky, but it all seemed a touch strange on that evening. It was a much deeper point of departure this time and all the strangers seemed to be more deeply strange, further from my own life than any other bus station companions ever had - especially the middle-aged man who issued me my ticket, standing high above me on the raised platform, behind the glass, in his shirt sleeves, his glasses, his thin tie, the thinning black hair. I had the sensation he must have smoked ten thousand cigarettes in his life, seen a million different people like me up close.
I walked away with my paper ticket, sat on the floor against the wall, in the back of the station, where I could see through the long windows the angled buses parked in the garage, and waited for my turn. When it came, I stowed my backpack in the belly of the bus, with the rest of the luggage, carried my guitar and duffel bag of books up into the aisle compartment with me, and waited for the big machine to pull out of the station. It was already dark. But soon - so long ago - we pulled out, crossed the thresholds, crisscrossed through the network of streets leading to I-94, and we were on our way.
I remember the mother and daughter in Wyoming. The mother must have been in her forties. The daughter must have been 19. They both looked as strong and sturdy as the backpacks they themselves were carrying. The older one had gray hair, dry as straw, tied in braids. Her face seemed to have been formed by the wind. And her daughter was a younger version of herself. Dressed in those parkas and jeans and hiking boots. They were traveling together, obviously, going who knows where and how far? And at the moment that I saw them we were all standing outside on a parking lot, near train tracks, at about three in the morning, underneath the floodlights of the bus station. We could sense the long open fields in front of us, the mountains at the end of them.
There was the bus station in Omaha and the unbelievably clean bus station in Salt Lake City. There was the gasoline station bathroom somewhere out there in the country, where I stripped off my T-shirt, washed my torso, dried my arm pits in the hot air blower above the sink. There was the talkative bus driver in Wyoming, riding high above the road, heading toward the mountains, happy as a hawk, speeding down a road upon which there were few other travellers. There were the long silences in the night and the lights on the hills that floated in the night sky like stars.
We drove through the night, driving right past and through the lights, following the road, like the world ahead of us was nothing but the air that in fact it was.
Christopher Mahon has published poetry in the anthology What Have You Lost? and fiction in the Jessamyn West Review. He is currently working on a memoir. He can be reached at cemahon[at]cox.net.