Editor’s note: Back before newspapers modernized, they occasionally would regale their readers with works of serialized fiction. Thanks to a Madera author, Lawrence F. Lihosit, we are able to do that for a few days, with his book, Americruise, a diary of a cross-country bus trip on a very thin budget. Some of you may have met Larry at the recent annual Local Authors and Artists Day, presented by the Friends of the Madera County Library.
• • •
We had not been in the United States long when I first tried to convince my bride that we should explore South America. She wasn’t ready.
“I just got here!” she said.
So, we settled for something else.
Stages of life can be gauged by routines. We had settled into a chaotic one, working minimum wage jobs, studying and rubbing elbows with actors, painters, musicians and even writers, all while living on love in a rented draughty room over a garage: our bohemian years. We were both seeking; my wife a new career and I a publisher.
Neither of us expected the whirlwind, nor could we have imagined what it would bring when a crackling long-distance telephone call from Mexico City changed all that. To Margarita, my wife, it sounded right simple; one of her sisters wanted to visit for a few weeks because she was lonely.
The vote was two to one. They slept on our worn, partially green hide-away sofa bed while Margarita ordered me to sleep on a squeaky, orange, plastic covered, aluminum cot two feet over yonder, saying that it was only temporary.
Four months later (me still on the cot), our black telephone rang again. Another sister called, voice low, from New York City, sad because she was about to move to Boston, alone. According to later telephone bills, the three of them talked it out for quite some time when I wasn’t around until they discovered a strange bus promotion.
In order to increase Mexican tourism on this side of the frontera, Mexicans could purchase books of tickets, each book good for five days of unlimited travel anywhere in the United States or Canada. Each book cost fifty dollars. At least, that’s the part of the truth that the sisters told me. Not only that, but their mother in Mexico City, may God bless her, knew an airline pilot who could fly the tickets from there to here, pronto. Marry Mexican and get the whole family, you betchya.
Anywho, as the San Bruno Mountain fog whisked silently down the hill past our window and my scratchy gray wool sweater slipped over my head, they changed tactics like a flanking movement and invited me along. Margarita seems easy going to a lot of folks but she’s read all them war books like the Iliad and she whispered that we could be alone. I grabbed my heel and sharpened pencils for maps and budgets because that sounded better than the cot.
The aroma of fresh coffee drifted across our room, past the cracked door that we had laid across rough cut saw horses. On top was a messy pile of unsold manuscripts. Next to that was a cigar box filled with rejection slips and my wife’s neat stack of college textbooks. This was her last year studying humanities at a local university, her second career.
We sat down, plastic coffee cups in hand while I bit my lip. On a large map, we marked a route in three hops, each of five days, to cover the continent from west to east across the United States to New York City, then from east to west through Canada in what looked like an oval shaped western belt buckle covering North America.
Margarita told me that she had to be back in five weeks for her university classes. I shook my head, saying that we didn’t have enough moola. My wife spun our globe and rifled through my stack of manuscripts, reminding me that a big-name publisher in New York City hadn’t yet responded to my submission of a novel.
“Why don’t you call them tomorrow? Maybe you could meet with an editor,” she said. So, I did.
The editor lady said to look her up when we got to New York. Once I set the telephone receiver down, I yelled and thumped my desktop. Two days later when the books of tickets arrived, I was still delirious with joy even though we now only had three hundred fifty dollars in the whole world and worse yet, my boss had already told me to go suck an egg. Even when our neighbors and their children all agreed that we were nuts, I was still smiling because a New York editor was going to meet me.
Carl, my black belt in karate motor cycle riding friend next door, scratched his red beard and asked, “You’re going to travel with three sisters?”
I explained that this was no longer just a family journey, but a pilgrimage to our nation’s publishing capitol. After years of writing to myself, my lips were puckered to kiss any trasero worth kissing.
The women ordered me to pull out dusty boxes and trunks in search of our camping gear, passports and money belts. The passports were still valid, the camping gear useable and my money belt’s slightly damaged zipper was easily repaired.
The good news was that Margarita’s boss said that she’d pray for us which meant that at least half of our tiny family had a job when we returned in five weeks, broke. The bad news was that Margarita and Licha had packed up four giant suitcases full of pretty dresses, shiny necklaces, flesh colored pantyhose, pink woven brassieres that looked more like doilies with metal wires to make their breasts stick out and pointy, high heeled colored plastic shoes.
At first, they watched me unload my exemplary compact backpack, including my Saint Christopher’s medal and my dented lucky harmonica given to me nine years earlier just before setting off on my very first adventure. The cool metal touched my lips and the women’s faces went blank as I played three bars of On Top of Old Smokey. Soon, they yelled and screamed in spite of the soothing music, refusing to leave with less baggage.
I was never sure if it was my harmonica or just their principles. But once they tried walking around the block, all the fancy brassieres came out, some of the pantyhose, a couple of the necklaces and one of the many pairs of impossible shoes, leaving them each with one giant suitcase, an empty backpack folded up inside alongside colored coded belts, hairpins and makeup, plus two side bags stuffed until the stitching pulled.
The late morning sun had already burned off the fog when a friend drove us silently to the San Francisco Seventh Street bus station across from a bookstore where five homeless men dressed in layers of greasy, frayed clothing stood on top of a sidewalk grate from which steam rose.
My traveling companions had barely kissed our friend goodbye before they ordered me to take their bags, which I did, scratching my left ear lobe and mumbling bad things at the same moment that the roller on one bag caught the door jamb and broke. I tugged, then dragged the bags, Margarita and Licha ignored me and ran to the ticket counter to present our first five-day book of tickets.
The blue uniformed ticket agent pushed his metal framed bifocals down, examined the books of tickets as the bags were dragged closer. He asked where the tickets were from.
My wife shuffled her feet, “Mexico.”
The agent cleared his throat and stepped into a back room. That’s when the women told me the whole truth about those tickets.
• • •
My big mouth dropped open when they told me how the tickets were only good for Mexicanos, all right for them since they both had Mexican passports, but not for me. I tugged my pea cap low over my light brown hair, pulled out Saint Chris and walked to a coffee machine.
I stood behind a fat woman wearing a thick overcoat who pushed the button for extra sugar. The extra sugar green light lit up, coffee began to splash into a plastic cup just as the agent reappeared next to a thin man with oily hair which was speckled with dandruff.
Slick’s lips were pulled tight. He studied the tickets, then their passports. He punched two sets, stamped on the date in order to officially begin the five-day limit when he noticed me.
He held the third book firmly in one hand, held up a bit while he asked me questions which the women translated into Español as if I couldn’t speak English. I kept my face totally blank like one does listening to their wife nag. I answered Mexicali rose style. The women translated them back in to English.
Well, the agent pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, stamped and punched my ticket. We boarded a bus.