“The Blues Museum,” by Jaz Franzel, was the winner of the fortieth Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, and was originally published on November 16, 2015
The Blues Museum
by Jay Franzel
Camp looked through glass doors and across the shoulderless highway. A patch of grass across the road was covered with white trailers washed clean by the rain. He stared out a side window at the brown back of a gas station. A red and yellow sign, mounted so high he had to twist his neck to see it, seemed like it should have been turning but sat still against a gray sky.
What do you find in a bus station? Long waits under dirty fluorescents, grimy floor and seats, gloom on scattered faces. Soup, coffee and candy vending machines. If someone could gather it up, all the pieces a bus station’s handed down through the years, you could start a museum. You could cover the walls with black and white photos, pictures of a million people. Pick out any one person, nobody special, just someone with some place to go, or no place to go.
Behind Camp, a girl speaking on the payphone. In the corner, a soap opera playing on a small TV. Maybe when the westbound took the few watchers away the guy behind the counter would flip the channels, find something different. For a moment the girl’s voice sounded familiar. An old illusion — before Camp even turned her way he’d stopped listening.
You wouldn’t have to advertise this museum, people would just hear about it. Maybe stop in their way by. You wouldn’t promise them anything. People are promised so much. In a bus station you feel that.
Camp kept staring out the doors and window, through thin grey Windex streaks. A whitewashed concrete overhang kept rain off the glass doors. Sandy haired fellow behind the counter was friendly enough, though he didn’t answer his busy phone very often.
Don’t worry, he’d tell every ticket buyer, I’ll tell you which bus is yours.
He spent part of his time in a back room, part leaning on the counter, watching TV. Seemed like an awfully long soap opera. Must be the second one, thought Camp. Maybe the third — I’ve been here over an hour.
The Bus Station Blues Museum, it could do well. People would know the faces on the walls. Not the actual faces, but the expression, situation. We recognize our own.
Going into this museum would be like going into the station itself. Only you wouldn’t go in because of the rain, or the loneliness of the road, or running away from something to nowhere, you’d just go. Maybe to watch without being caught in it.
It would be special by being so ordinary. There wouldn’t be a station pictured because a politician gave a speech there or because it was a historic building about to be demolished. Just another gray station on another bloodless highway or dull city block or small town Main Street. Maybe near a diner or donut shop.
Vending machines, stained plastic seats, a little dust and grime behind them, someone kicking a used coffee cup around. You wouldn’t know if they worked there and that was part of the job or just felt like kicking a coffee cup. People on pay phones, maybe they were part of the place, maybe not.
A wire thin, gentle looking lady of forty to sixty slipped into the station, quietly closing the glass door behind her. She clutched a black pocketbook to her narrow frame; it looked like it could topple her over. A shopping bag in the other hand, as if for balance. Sandy hair behind the counter smiled.
Any news about Roy, Freddie?
Yeah, he told that girl reporter to get off his case or he’d give her a case — in court!
Well. Good for him.
Camp shook his head. Local gossip.
Freddie stepped into the back room, commercial for dish soap on the set.
Virginia left her shopping bag beside a yellow seat and walked to the Ladies Room.
When you stared at your reflection in a bus window long enough you forgot why you looked to begin with, whether you were watching something outside or just your reflection. Your image changed with the shifting light, the background flashing outside. You moved close and saw less of yourself, or moved back, watching a person across the aisle or in the seat beside you, image ghostly, wheels, motor droning underneath.
There wouldn’t be good mirrors in the museum, just some cloudy glass, in thin tin casing.
‘Do you deny having had relations with Ms. O’Day when you were in Chicago?’
‘I don’t deny it, no, but I didn’t conceive her child. We slept together but what’s wrong with’– Oh, she gone to the bathroom?
Freddie grinned a little sheepishly.
Yeah, I think she did.
I was just filling her in what she missed so far. She gets out of work at two and her program’s two thirty, and her bus isn’t till three forty five. Hey, that’s your bus, too, right?
No, that’s not yours, either. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you which one’s yours.
Does she always come watch the soap opera?
Oh, yes. Lessee, you got the one after, express. Hers is the local.
Virginia returned, sat carefully beside her shopping bag. Freddie caught her up on the show.
There’d be music. Maybe live, but like a soundtrack. You wouldn’t know — was the musician part of the museum, or just busking? Music and the low drone of wheels and motor and distant voices. Hooker maybe, John Lee, the blues man. How many songs did he record, under how many names? Hooker had this song, Bus Station Blues. Camp began singing to himself, tapping heavy soles on dull tile.
Mmm, mmm, mmm….
Hooker didn’t need words, just tap his shoe, play those low notes, go Mmm, mmm, mmm…
That’s the music people would hear, but just barely, while looking at pictures on the wall, sipping bitter coffee, sitting on plastic seats, staring into cloudy mirrors, waiting…
Once Camp was walking toward the highway when he saw a sign on a pole saying Hooker was playing in the city nearby. He hiked to the station and caught a bus. Hooker wasn’t playing a big place, it was a bar with two rooms, both full. Camp, sandwiched between two big women called out, Bus Station Blues!
But he sang it a lot longer than Camp had heard on any records.
Gonna get a Greyhound, and ri-hide,
get a Greyhound, and ri-hide,
and ri-hide, and ri-hide,
and ride ride ride-ride-ride…
Guitar in a highway rhythm, bass notes like bumps under a bus wheel,
Lord have mercy, I ain’t got no friends,
got no friends,
Glancing up, Camp saw Virginia smile at him, her teeth and cardigan deep white against her dark skin. Suddenly he wanted to know her. Did she have kids?
Where was it she worked? What had etched those lines into her face and shot gray through her hair? And how had she endured it with such grace? How could she smile like that?
Virginia shifted her huge pocketbook onto her lap, pulled out needles and cloth, turned her attention to the TV. Camp didn’t move toward her. He thought someone like her would be in the museum, sitting, stitching, sometimes smiling at you.
The phone rang. Freddie leaned elbows on the counter, chin on his hands, watching the TV, letting it ring. Camp glanced at Virginia, her needles working as if by themselves. She checked her watch, folded her hands in her lap, slowly lowered her chin.
Camp looked down at his boots, waves of exhaustion pouring over him. He’d been hitch-hiking, leaving New York City in the night, standing in Delaware rain at dawn, catching rides and walking, catching rides, walking some more, finally hiking to Freddie’s bus station.
He felt his eyes closing, TV voices blurring. Folding arms on his knees, resting his head. He thought he’d check the new program but never lifted his head. Folding into his green seat and the seat beside him he thought he heard it start raining again.
Camp woke, jerking his head from the metal bar against the plastic seat.
Almost fell asleep, he thought. He blinked and looked around. All the other seats were empty, a movie on the TV. He finally noticed Freddie just behind him; Freddie’s hand still rested lightly on Camp’s shoulder.
OK my friend, that’s your bus.
Freddie smiled, jerking his chin toward a bus droning outside the windows.
Yeah thanks. Must’ve fallen asleep. What’s that?
A handkerchief was draped over the top of Camp’s pack, a clean square with embroidered edges, startling white against the pack’s dark grungy green.
Virginia left that for you.
She does that sometimes.
You better get your bus.
Camp hoisted his pack, pushed through the Windex’d doors, bus droning outside. Rain blew in his face, dampened the handkerchief in his hand. He paused at the door. It would be just like a regular station but you’d come away with something, something beyond a ticket stub and routine emptiness. Releasing the door he heard the phone ring behind him.
Freddie let it ring.
A guy like Freddie, could run the desk at the museum.
Jay Franzel lives and writes in Wayne, Maine. A poet, he has published poems in various journals and anthologies, along with two chapbooks. He has received poetry grants from Maine Arts Commission and St Botolph’s Foundation. Jay has worked with at-risk youth for over thirty years. Musicians often leave him awed by what they produce.
(Biography originally published in Nov. 2015. It has not been updated).