Still unfamiliar with the Emerald Express bus schedule, I found myself with an unexpected amount of time on my hands as I waited for the next bus at the Commerce Station stop. I had made an evening trip to Walmart with the intent of buying a few groceries and being on my way. As it goes with visiting Walmart when your house is completely devoid of furniture and your wife (both of which were still residing in Japan), I began perusing every aisle. My steps had taken on a slow, lackadaisical pace of someone with plenty of time to kill. I congratulated myself on satisfying my social outing requirement as I passed by other late-night shoppers and eavesdropped on their conversations. What would have put haste in my steps was the knowledge that the Emerald Express’s 10-minute rotation on my route increased to 30 minutes after 2100. A fact I was confronted with for the first time at 2130 that evening as I despondently looked at the displayed schedule at the Commerce Station terminal screen. The next bus wasn’t coming until 2200. My stuffed reusable shopping bag and backpack bore down on me like anchors.
Ironically, the end of the line for the Emerald Express was right around the corner before Commerce Station. The large green bus was parked in view from the terminal. Its orange neon sign “Not in Service” above the front window gleamed like a taunt.
“I could pick you up, but I don’t feel like it,” the bus sneered.
Frustrated, but not one to sit around, I decided to walk down the road to the next station along the route. It would help pass the time and get me closer to home. Not long after I set out, I felt sweat forming on my forehead and contact areas with my backpack began to feel moist. Even this late at night, the heat wave hitting Oregon was still showing its face. I congratulated myself for satisfying my exercise requirement for the day.
My self-congratulations gave way to misgivings with each passing step. Commerce Station, due to being the last stop on the line and its position between Walmart and Target, was popular and well-lit. The same couldn’t be said for Bertelsen Station. Streetlights and foot traffic became increasingly sparse as I traveled further. As I entered a crosswalk towards the station, a large blue truck pulled up to the stop sign. Once I passed the beam of its headlights, the driver revved the truck’s engine and it roared like a hungry bear. I could feel the driver’s eyes boring into my back, but my head remained forward and I kept the same pace. I congratulated myself for not jumping.
While Commerce Station appeared to be strategically placed, Bertelsen gave the impression of existing only to satisfy a city requirement to have a bus stop at mandated intervals. On any of my previous rides, no one had ever departed or boarded from Bertelsen and the only popular destination in the area seemed to be a run-down 7-Eleven standing in the background of the terminal. Imagine my surprise then when I noticed a man sitting at the stop bench. He sat hunched over looking into his hands. Strapped around his head was a black LED headlamp that shone into his palms. His mouth was moving and I heard undecipherable whispering emitting from him. A red and black bicycle was resting on its stand next to him. I contemplated walking to the next station, but I was nervous I would miss the bus and find myself back at the start of my current predicament. I compromised by standing a few feet away from the bench.
I browsed my phone and intermittently looked down the road in the direction the bus would come from. There were a few minutes to wait even with the walk.
“Do you like rocks?”
The question seemed louder than the revving engine and I gave a start. I turned to see the man at the bench was standing and looking at me. He had turned the headlamp off and he was partially covered in shadow. Oh boy, here we go. My earlier concerns about walking about at night were coming to fruition. I felt my stomach tightening and I placed my glasses in their case. My fingers curled into fists.
The man, unperturbed by my curt dismissal, inched closer. One hand was guiding his bicycle and the other was outstretched towards me with the palm facing up. He looked about my age. Well, my age if you looked like an actual adult and not a youthful, pretend adult who was sporting unruly medium-length hair in rebellion to their recent departure from the military. He had short brown hair and the black shirt he was wearing was covered in dirt.
“Rocks, like from the ground. I collect them,” he said. His voice had an imploring, almost pleading tenor to it.
I took a more measured glance towards him and saw that his hand is cupping a collection of . . . normal, unassuming rocks. I had taken off my glasses to appear more imposing and so I blinked a few times to make sure my vision wasn’t playing tricks on me. Was he really just showing me a bunch of rocks?
“You can have some if you want. I have a bunch of them. Do you want some?” The sentences came out like semi-automatic rifle shots.
With the adrenaline and sense of danger coursing through my veins not fully depleted, I found myself unable to muster a friendly response.
“I’m alright.” I must be a dumb, malfunctioning robot.
Sensing my discomfort, the man stopped moving and stood up a little straighter. “Hey man, I am just trying to show you some rocks. I’m a veteran, you know. I did ten years in the Army and served in Iraq.” His tone, no longer supplicating, had taken on a harsh edge.
The man offering me rocks at the bus stop at 2200 is offended I wasn’t more welcoming . . .
I squinted my eyes trying to gauge the truth of his words. Was he another stereotypical homeless and mentally unstable veteran? Why immediately leap to the proclamation about his service? Was it meant to assuage my fears that he wasn’t a deranged homeless person and instead a completely sane veteran? That is, a completely sane veteran who happened to be hanging out at a bus stop at 2200 trying to push rocks onto a stranger. Maybe it was a card he liked to play because he knew it would garner him sympathy. Of course, all these internal judgments started to feel silly when I reflected that I was a veteran occupying the same bus stop who had only managed two words of dialogue. This man was trying to be friendly and loved collecting rocks.
“Where were you stationed?” It was an innocent enough question and I thought it would help validate his claim.
“I was in Germany mostly. Did you serve too?” The man’s harsh tone fell away and I sensed his genuine curiosity. His hand, still hovering in the abyss between us, no longer held ordinary rocks. They began to take on a glimmering, radiant texture. The dirt on his shirt wasn’t from sleeping under the stars in the nearby park. He must have been toiling in a mine shaft for these gems and now he was returning home after a long day. A sense of camaraderie began to fill the gap between us.
“Wow, Germany probably wasn’t too bad of a place to be stationed. I did ten years in the Marines. I just moved here from Japan.” My fingers relaxed.
As if sensing the danger had passed, the bus pulled into the station. The driver, likely unaccustomed to picking up passengers at this stop at this hour, overshot the loading area and came to a jerking halt a few feet past the station. The conversation took a momentary lull and the two of us boarded. I took a seat towards the middle and the rock enthusiast went to the back to put his bike in the onboard rack. I’m not sure why, but I found myself surprised when the man took a seat right across from me a few moments later.
“How long have you been in Eugene?” he asked.
“I flew in a couple weeks ago. I’ve been wondering if I should go back. America doesn’t feel the same after being overseas for so long. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.” I gave a half-hearted chuckle.
“You need time to reacclimatize yourself, man. It’s the same with everyone. Welcome to Eugene.” He reached a hand (free of rocks) out to me from across the aisle. I clasped it in a firm handshake.
“What did you do in the Marines?” he asked.
It’s an expected question. When veterans talk to one another, there’s a well-defined script to follow. What branch were you in? Where were you stationed? What did you do? It was an easy formula to break the ice. An element of it always felt hollow to me, especially now that I was on the outside. It was the shattering of expectations. What did you do in the Marines? The question was posed like a knife at my throat. They wanted the answer. They wanted war stories. They always seemed a little disappointed when I unveiled the truth. I sat behind a desk for ten years. And just like the formula predicted, they uttered a surprised “oh really” and their eyes took on a glossy hue. I didn’t need them to throw a fucking celebration, but I wanted something else. What form the “something else'' would take still eluded me.
“I didn’t do anything.” The response came quick to my lips and I turned my head to look out the window. My chest felt tight as shame wrapped its cold fingers around my heart. Maybe the embarrassment stemmed from him mentioning being deployed to Iraq.
Unbidden, I recalled one of my friends from boot camp, long dead. He was crushed by a tractor bulldozer while he slept in a foxhole during a training exercise. I wondered if he woke up as the tractor bulldozer drew close, but didn’t understand what the noise was amid his drowsy confusion. I hoped he went to sleep that night and never woke up.
“It’s alright, everyone has to do something.” The words were succinct and unpretentious, but they carried a gravitational pull with their enormity. I found myself drawn back to the bus seat.
“How long have you been in Eugene?” I asked.
The rock hunter accepted the shift without hesitation. There was an understanding look in his eyes. His eyes were brown. I didn’t notice when I met him at the station. I hadn’t noticed a lot of things about him.
“Eugene is like a vortex. You might escape for a few years, but it’ll drag you right back. I can’t seem to stay away. I’ve been here on and off for years. I was born here and I’ve tried to run away a couple times.” He let out a short laugh. “The weather and the people are nice. There are good rocks out here too. I’ve walked and biked these streets countless times, but I always find something new to appreciate. Maybe it’s the youthful quality brought out by the campus every year. We hibernate in the winter and summer, so we can live more fully in the spring and fall.” The almost manic tone he had back at the station was a distant memory. His voice was calm and wistful.
The station near my home was quickly approaching and I pulled the tether to signal a stop request.
“Sorry, this is me. It’s a short ride.” I’m not sure why I said “sorry,” but it didn’t feel wrong.
We sat in silence for a few moments basking in his words. We exchanged uneventful goodbyes and take cares and I departed when the bus came to a stop.
As I walked home, I realized with a sense of shame that I never asked the man for his name.