Horace Budge finally left Robert Morris University in Peoria with a degree in animal husbandry and $775 in graduation money. He had been there five years because he hadn’t wanted to rush himself and now there was a war on in Afghanistan and he was jobless. He’d been told, notably by Professor Puget, that he would find work easily once the conscriptions started, but there had been no draft and no one had left running for this war either and when he went to apply for the position of line cook at the Over Easy Cafe on East Lake Street he had been told to come back. When he went back, he was told that the position had already been filled.
Budge stood there peering through the fog of grease and grease smoke for a moment for the one who had taken his job. There was an eager, mocha-colored man at the range who might have fit the bill. He was monitoring a pan, getting directions from a taller, darker man in a hairnet, but Budge could see that in a matter of hours, maybe even minutes, this new man would be far better than he ever would at his job. Budge had his diploma folded in his back pocket and was conscious, after standing there for a moment observing the line cooks, of not making any impression at all. If he stood there any longer like this he had the feeling that they would think he’d decided to stay and order after all, that perhaps he’d gotten it into his head that all interviewees were sent on their way with a free lunch and a fountain drink.
He spent the rest of the morning wandering up and down University Avenue in his golf shorts looking for other positions that needed filling. It was late June and the morning sky was like a finely combed lawn, the temperature an even seventy degrees Fahrenheit by the Savings and Loan clock and dry as styptic. Budge filled in some more forms, chatted about this and that with helpful managers and owners and store clerks. He was struck dumb when he was asked at one casual interview how he saw himself contributing to company culture. They asked him this at a discount shoe store and Budge couldn’t answer. At that moment he thought darkly that Professor Puget had gotten it all wrong, that it was he who ought to conscript himself, that with his degree in animal husbandry and his midwestern drawl he was unfit even to size shoes in his birth city.
Budge had never intended to use this degree of his to diagnose bovine grass staggers. He had not planned on touching hog futures or hog feed. Now that he thought about it though he wasn’t sure what he’d been thinking when he’d enrolled in Puget’s Elements of Veterinarian Science as a freshman or why he’d persisted all the way through to Equine Nutrition, a course not even taught by Puget but by Puget’s assistant, Burton, who always returned Budge’s papers with dismissive finger-shaped barbecue sauce smudges in the vicinity of Budge’s ever-present C’s.
It was Friday, the end of a slow work week, and Budge stayed in bed until Monday. On Tuesday, on the advice of his mother, he went to talk to Uncle Morton in nearby Cuba, Illinois. Uncle Morton had added three hundred dollars to Budge’s graduation pool, nearly half of what Budge now had in his pocket. He took the municipal bus to get there.
Budge hadn’t thought to bring Lub Moxley’s The Pioneers of Vision with him and now wondered if Uncle Morton would notice its absence on his person. Uncle Morton had given Budge the book wrapped tightly in Kraft paper as part of his “going away package” and would expect him therefore to be able to speak comfortably about the 5 Ps and the Arc of Encounters and of the proper implementation and scope of Moxley’s widely imitated Weekly Breakdown. He would expect this and Budge would be able to throw it all right back at him because he had studied the thing like a hawk in the three weeks since he’d matriculated. He’d peered deeply at that text and he knew that if he wasn’t meant to be tugging on cow teat or sizing shoes or scoring pleasing grades in Equine Nutrition, he was that very rare thing Moxley had addressed his book to. He was a pioneer of vision. You maybe just couldn’t see it yet.
Budge whipped off the 5 Ps at the bus’s smoked window like a man telling rosary beads until the tract housing of Peoria disappeared and there was nothing much to look at. Out there the pig dung hung in the air and the air did not move and Budge figured if Moxley had ever passed through Central Illinois in the doldrums of summer he would have had something to say about it, some easy, motivating words that would have made it sound better than it actually was.
Budge had the bus driver make a special stop on Railroad Street. He was still repeating the 5 Ps when he caught sight of Uncle Morton on his porch swing wrapped in a heavily pilled cotton blanket staring out at the fringes of his property, which had just been chopped up by some monkey on a freeway mower. Budge looked at Uncle Morton but he didn’t wave. That would have been superfluous, he felt, and besides, Morton hadn’t waved at him.
“You’re still here,” Uncle Morton said as Budge stepped up to the porch sniffing at dandelion seed.
Budge took a seat next to Uncle Morton on the porch swing, conscious of the fact that Uncle Morton dragged the swing down lower on his end even with his twisted old frame long diminished by his ornery bowels and his furious retreats to the bathroom to void them. The dome of Uncle Morton’s head shone like milk quartz.
Uncle Morton said, “You’re looking ill fed. Have you been worrying? Tell me the 5 Ps.”
Budge snapped to, but then he began to stumble. He recalled the interview at the shoe store, how they’d defeated him with their simple question, and now he was stopped dead in his tracks at number three. If there had been a mirror and Lub Moxley had materialized out of the blue of day and pushed him at it Budge doubted he would have been able to look himself in the face.
“Protect yourself from the shadow of negativity at all times,” Uncle Morton said. “Power is not the key but the lock to be turned. Have you found anything yet?”
Budge related the news of last week’s ill-fated job search and the two men watched another bus go by. Uncle Morton sighed.
“A man cannot expect to find work in golf shorts. Jesus, boy, do you think Lub Moxley ever went about in bare legs? Forget about jobs. Do you ever get randy? Let me ask you this then. Was there ever a female in the history of the world that was wooed by a man in shorts? You have cricket legs and I can see a piece of wax hanging in your ear. Do you expect this is pleasing? That personal presentation plays no role in the cult of personality? I’ve just eaten a fried egg. Would you like one?”
Budge didn’t want a fried egg, though he marveled at the idea that Uncle Morton had a frying pan at all, that he had built a house that he had paid off on his meager railroad switchman’s salary and had two acres of sodden lawn to do with as he pleased, to spit on if he wanted and moisten the soil in whichever direction he spat, even shriveled up on his porch swing in a cotton blanket as thin as a towel. Budge tried to unearth whatever wax Uncle Morton had detected in his ear, figuring it must have been the left ear Morton had meant since he was sitting on Morton’s right. He didn’t feel anything in there but he shivered sickly at the notion that some waxy glob of effluent had been malevolently agglomerating in his ear for a week or so, that he had gone to interviews with this thing in there. Maybe Uncle Morton was right and an overhaul of his personal hygiene would do him some good.
“You’ve got to leave,” Uncle Morton said eventually. “Get on out of here. No one ever did anything in Peoria. You know how to get on a bus. Get on a bus and don’t get off until you hit a body of water. You’ll know when you get to wherever it is you belong.”
Uncle Morton was wrong about Peoria. Budge took the bus back home and went straight to the lending library on West Monroe Street and proved it. Peoria had been home to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen of Life is Worth Living fame. It had been home to George D. Sax and John Coleman and these men, these last two, if you thought about it, had done as much to shape the consciences of his fellow Americans as anyone that Budge could think of. Sax had invented the drive-thru banking window and Coleman the Weather Channel. Budge couldn’t imagine life without either.
At home Budge found his navy blazer with gold captain’s buttons and his maroon chinos and he laid both out on the bedspread and admired them. He found his other suit, his reading tweeds, and he folded it into an old Samsonite Silhouette he’d taken down from the crawlspace in the hall with a mental note to seek out a drycleaner’s when he first hit water. The suitcase had elastic netted pockets and silver details and was a pleasing orange color and it had no wheels, a modern indulgence Budge found almost repugnant.
Budge began to fill the thing piece by piece with his clothes and possessions, his library, but as soon as he got to his underthings, rolled or otherwise folded by his mother in her special way, he was absorbed by a moment of doubt. Had Sax actually conceived of his drive-thru window while waiting on line at a bank in Peoria? Or had it come to him elsewhere, maybe while he was thinking about a bank in Peoria where you had to wait for some fussy old mule behind the counter to lick her fingers as she peeled off your money like ransom victims, something that would never happen in whatever big city he had migrated to and become the toast of the town of? Where had he thought up that pneumatic chute?
Budge slept better than he’d expected to. He slept like the proverbial stone. He thought of Uncle Morton first thing in the morning and he fried an egg. His mother was brewing a pot of coffee. Actually, Budge noticed, she was staring at the filter holder as if she might have used the same grounds once already and couldn’t remember.
She said, “I want you to use that wisely.”
Budge folded the extra two hundred dollars into his billfold pocket without a word. They were crisp new notes, most probably delivered by pneumatic chute. George D. Sax was just everywhere. He glanced at his suitcase. It seemed a fair indicator of at least one of Lub Moxley’s 10 Cerebral Modes of Decisiveness, maybe even one of the 5 Ps, of turning the lock or of finding the lock that needed to be turned. He didn’t doubt that he’d found the lock. He had yet to visit the bus depot though and knew nothing about the schedule. He figured they’d have to pass through Champaign and maybe even Chicago before they started heading east.
His mother sat down across from Budge with a pot of coffee and she was now looking at him in the same way she’d been looking at the filter holder.
Budge said, “I figure I might send off a letter before I call.”
“Why don’t you just find a computer and email? I heard they’ve got them on every street corner in New York City.”
She knew Budge was against email communications, that he thought they just debased the whole art of correspondence. He’d call before he sent a message through the Internet and even that was something he preferred to avoid. What he preferred was face-to-face communication, a brisk handshake, a lingering clap on the shoulder. He liked to see the shape of your eye and the fit of your mouth when you were speaking at him. That was what Lub Moxley called the Cult of Personality and what Budge knew he sorely lacked but would never correct at a keyboard.
“I want you to have something to prove I was there,” Budge said to his mother.
“Were where? New York City?”
“You might stick it in a scrap album for whoever’s interested down the line.”
Mrs. Budge was unused to this talk coming from her son, these affectations, and had only the night before sat queasily through a meatloaf supper of Budge’s cryptic insinuations. At one point he flat out said that he would be joining the ranks of George D. Sax and Reverend Sheen as a pioneer of vision. She had never heard of Sax and certainly not Sheen and as far as she knew neither had Mr. Budge, deceased five years now.
Budge Senior had been holding forth at a steak and potatoes dinner one night when he simply stopped chewing and folded his head neatly onto his dinner plate like a puppet. But he had at least done something with his time on earth. He’d kept a job. He knew how to fix a toaster without a butter knife, how to squat down and rub a wet dog behind the ear and talk to it. She turned to her only living seed and said, “Are you talking about New York City I said?”
“If that’s where I get to. There’s sixteen hundred miles of macadam out there to choose from, mama. I figure I’ll know when I’m ready to get off.”
But had George D. Sax?
It was seven o’clock in the evening before the bus left Chicago and Budge had been snoozing in waiting rooms since two, so when they hit Toledo at midnight he was delirious when he snapped to and lurched forward for his travelling snacks only to find that the fat man sitting next to him had fallen asleep with his hand on his freshly pressed chinos. A great fear of overstressed proximities shot through Budge’s pores like hives. How many more fat, slumbering, greedy men like this were there out there on the road? He foresaw complications and ignominy. The barren exchanges he would be having with his fellow transients at rooming house dining tables over fixed platters of waxed fruits, the plasticized key weights slipped into his palm in exchange for hard cash with the copper keys on them slapping about like lascivious dried-out tongues. There was no doubt about it. He would be dead before he was fifty, just like his old man, of fatty motel dinners and airplane liquor.
From his seat Budge was almost close enough to engage the driver in conversation but slouching down as he was, slouching with the fat man’s hand on his knee, he didn’t know if the driver would be able to identify him, to put a body to the voice, so he didn’t say anything in the end though he was burning alive to know where in the United States of America he was.
But soon he was listening to the steady beating of bus tires on macadam and this was soothing in the darkness and he fell asleep again. When he awoke for the second time the fat man was gone and the bus had been consumed by a heavy fog. Budge looked out the Greyhound’s giant curving front window.
In the distance, burning through the fog like a beacon of welcome, was a blaring yellow harbor light. There was a motley of noise-making birds hung in the fog that Budge took for chattering seagulls. From these signs Budge determined quickly that he’d survived the bus ride east and that the bus had already slowed for its descent into the Lincoln Tunnel. He checked his billfold one last time and made sure his shoes were tied right.
He claimed his suitcase and was soon disembarking, hurrying down the aisle pushing his luggage out in front of him like a strikebreaker, waking passengers with his loose swiveling elbows. Such was Budge’s firmness of purpose to get off the bus that the driver eventually stopped and let him off, though it was certainly an anomaly. When he finally got off, Budge was so shrouded in fog he couldn’t even see the bus pulling off again, but he heard it. He decided to walk in the same direction.
When the morning fog eventually burned off Budge realized he had made a vast mistake. He was nowhere near the Lincoln Tunnel. His harbor light had been nothing but a passing semi-trailer truck blurry and cyclopean in the strange fog. The chattering seagulls were oil-colored cormorants poised high up in the very green and abundant roadside treetops waiting for a piece of dead meat to roll under their beaks. Budge began to grow dizzy in the colossal shadow of the cascading greenery and without the rumor of even a tractor to gain his bearings from he felt thirty miles beyond the pale of hell. He threw his blazer over his one shoulder and forged on with his suitcase in the other hand.
It was already hot and stiflingly humid when he came to his first road sign. Budge had never heard of the town, Sloatsburg, and didn’t have a map to consult other than his folding map of New York City, which wouldn’t do him much good out here other than to serve as witness to the fact that he was not some commune-bound vagabond or unhinged son of the earth with a robed following in Phoenix but the pupil of Dr. Ransom Puget from the heartland bound for a body of water he had lost his way to.
Another hour passed before a burnt orange pick-up truck with a running board and a grill like an RCA radio drew up beside him and offered him a lift. The driver’s name was Vernon Sallust and directly Sallust offered Budge a sip of coffee from a thermos. Budge thanked Sallust and sipped on the strong hot brew as Sallust shifted into gear and rumbled off into the canopy’s asymptote.
Budge didn’t volunteer any information about himself as Sallust thought he might and when they passed Tuxedo Lake and then Southfields and Budge still hadn’t said anything Sallust was in the uncomfortable position of filling in the silence with details about himself. Budge showed himself to be a polite and thoughtful listener, however, and when Sallust mentioned for the third time some project he was involved in, something he called his “little men of the woods,” he wondered if Sallust wasn’t himself a pioneer of vision.
Sallust didn’t deny it. He said, “If you put a scarecrow out there on the tree line or even in your tomato patch, do you think any sonofabitch gopher with feed on its mind is going to stop busting holes in your property? They’re sharp. That’s your problem. You tie a firecracker to a gopher’s hindquarters and light it with the intention of blowing its ass out its ear and it will snuff the hot little thing out in the soil before you have the opportunity to disfigure it in any admonitory fashion.”
Budge enjoyed listening to Sallust talk. He began to feel as if perhaps he hadn’t made a mistake jumping off the New York City-bound bus after all if all Easterners were as industrious as Sallust and as clear-eyed in their judgments and unwavering of vision. Sallust himself hadn’t tired of hearing his own voice either and he began to explain in more detail his business of constructing eighteen-inch men out of spruce wood and selling them as domestic guardians of pond, garden and glen. Sallust had had great successes so far warding of gophers from all over the area with his little wooden men, in fact, and was now thinking about moving into more intractable pests like skunks and coyotes.
Listening to Sallust’s riveting defense of his wooden lawn soldiers, Budge was suddenly reminded of his first steps in the fog-bound forest. He remembered unpleasantly that even sitting by Sallust’s side, heading in a definite direction, he was still lost and hundreds of miles from home.
“I was hoping to find the Lincoln Tunnel,” he muttered at Sallust’s ash and cigarette butt-packed ashtray.
Sallust had never heard anything quite so ludicrous coming from a wandering redneck. He had a better look at Budge and eased his mind with the knowledge that Budge was traveling with a suitcase and blazer and had not once inserted into their conversation any talk of extraterrestrial helpers or odd dietary habits or prison time. He said, “Well you’re on Highway 17 now, bound for Chester.”
Budge was silent.
Sallust said, “Upstate New York. Either that bus got lost in the fog or you got on the wrong bus. I can take you as far as Chester.”
Budge had no idea which direction that was, and tired as he was didn’t care.
Talk then turned to a triangle of land on Schunemunk Mountain that didn’t belong to Sallust on which Sallust had recently entrapped and dispatched over a period of days a migrating tribe of nutrias with a circular flanking operation of his little wooden men he compared to General John Hunt Morgan’s victory at Tebb’s Bend. He pointed out in the distance a marsh called Goose Pond Mountain where he suspected the nutrias had come from and then dropped Budge off at the Bismark Hotel on King Street with a phone number in case times proved hard.
Alone on the curb, Budge tilted his head back and had a good look at the Bismark. A handsome room on the third floor caught his eye through a sash of clean morning light. He could see an iron-footed desk at the dormer window and a curtain of plum damask. This room breathed new life into Budge’s travel-weary shape. He moved further down the building to a very dark, brick-faced restaurant on the first floor called the Admiral’s Club where a curled menu stood in a gold-plated window box. The rest of the Bismark was maroon clapboard, by Budge’s estimation about eight or nine rooms.
The day manager, Duquesne, put Budge down for a month at the off-season extended stay rate of $450, which did not include breakfast but which covered a sheet change and shoeshine at the end of every week and a basket of complimentary scalloped soaps. There was a laundromat around the corner on Bank Street. Budge was given a plastic bag for his laundry and what looked to be a vacuum cleaner bag but which turned out to be a sanitary bag.
Duquesne warned Budge off bringing nocturnal visitors to the Bismark, of lending his bed out to anyone. He also advised Budge to stay away from a man named Sink who lived in 317. He took Budge’s money and gave him a key to room 315, the street-facing window Budge had asked for, and Budge hefted his suitcase up a narrow winding staircase of peeling iron, wondering why with its eight or nine rooms the Bismark had settled on such an elaborate numbering system.
The floorboards inside 315 smelled of a recent Murphy waxing, clean enough in other words for Budge to consider removing his ribbed socks and putting his sore feet to. He walked to the bed and dropped onto it, first testing the mattress, which was firm to the point of convexity and wrapped tightly in a fitted mauve sheet. Budge was exhausted but disoriented and humming with delight at his eventual victory over the bus. He read the occupancy and fire safety charts and moved still further down the wall to a domed thermostat. Next to the thermostat was a framed notice. Budge removed it from the wall and carried it back to bed with him.
In fact, it was a short essay on the life of a cloudy figure named Edwin Popish, one of the Bismark’s many noteworthy residents and the inventor of the gas-powered candle. The author of this treatise, Budge read, was a man named Daryl Ellis Fard.