plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

The Megabus


by Sam Allard

Downtown by Rebecca Kim

Cleveland, Ohio. My stalwart lover. Leaving her always feels like some cruel trick. Sneaking westward into the night, less like a spy and more like one whose sobriety dawned early, and with it, a crisper view of an unspeakable bedfellow. It’s one of the midnight Megabuses, the kind where you arrive at Union Station just as the sun’s coming up and have to kill an hour and a half before the L gets going. The kind where Indiana becomes so pitch black along the way you feel like you’re in outer space. Everyone’s asleep in really purposeful ways. Except me, because I can’t, no matter how many new positions I try.

I’ve been thinking for most of the day about Diana and Doreen Costello, old friends from Cleveland’s Near West Theatre. I guess Diana mostly, but it was Do’s MySpace page I unearthed after my dream last night—neither of them was on Facebook, which was statistically curious, more than anything else—and I came upon some photos. Photos of some seedy outdoor music festival, a Fourth of July picnic, and some backstage shots from Brigadoon—all those argyles and aprons and bonnets.

And then more recent ones too, organized according to MySpace’s philosophy of zero efficiency or logic, in many of which Diana was wearing heavy makeup. This was big-time irksome, but not because it made her look so much older, which it did. It’s just that she had always been so damn cute on her own. She’d had that type of smile that instantly made you feel like the world could be salvaged, that there was innocence on this planet of ours after all. The skin around her eyes scrunched up and her mouth just kept getting wider and wider, and the radiant thing her face became made of your glum environs a puppy-and-lollipop world.

And now this makeup business. Her face had always been super white. Not exactly pasty and nowhere near that lamentable ghost-white of so many Irish girls you see and then immediately start wondering when the last time you applied a healthy coat of sunscreen was. Diana’s face was much more an aristocratic thing, almost powdered-looking. The stuff of moons. Her hair was thin and multi-colored blond, but she wasn’t frail like so many girls with thin blond hair are. She was tough. Recklessly frank, curious, and intellectually oblivious, which had the effect of making her more charming. She would wear cotton shorts and loose t-shirts to those Brigadoon rehearsals, her hair always dangling about her face in little ropes, tumbling out of that adorably unkempt bun she wore every single day.

But the newer images of Diana on the barbarous MySpace page made her seem tampered with in some essential way. For one thing, her hair was all one color now, not like that spectrum of gold she used to sport. Even her smile hadn’t quite emerged from teenagerhood unscathed. The happiness within seemed somehow less accidental, less ferocious. The eyes still sparkled with that distant, starry electricity, except they were visible now, as orbs instead of slits. Her face had hardened almost, as if that perfect earlier version had been just a momentary gift.

I haven’t spoken to either of them in more than four years; and there was just one phone call in the three years before that. It’s like over these seven years the Costello twins have become adults without asking me—while my back was turned, so to speak. I really have no business complaining, or being shocked. Their faces have changed in all the ways they’re supposed to when you become an adult. All the ways you don’t think about every day, but then someone who hasn’t seen you in ages all of sudden hits you with “you look so different” and you start staring into a mirror wondering what the hell went wrong, and just sort of assuming you’ve put on weight. Diana was no less precious than I remembered her, just older, in that tragic and inescapable way.

Point is I’m getting weirded out and sad thinking about the idea of maturation. And I’m horrified by the idea that beauty can be so tarnished—not tarnished, I guess, more infiltrated—by something as unprejudiced as age. But the loss of Diana’s youth and beauty is not why I’ve been thinking about the twins all day. I’ve been thinking about them all day because I had a dream about Diana last night, a dream in which for some reason I knew or felt that she was facing some grave peril. Trust me, I know this sounds ridiculous. But what unsettled me most about it, what chilled me to the bone more than anything, was that it was a peril from which I could not protect her.

But so the Megabus’ engine is whirring along 90, not yet to Toledo, and at this point not only haven’t I slept, I’m fairly certain I haven’t blinked.

Here are the four culprits:

1) Probably the guiltiest: Like an idiot, I indulged in two cups of coffee between 9:30 and 11:30. I was watching a movie with my brothers before I left, and the coffee was on. Seemed silly to waste.

2) Indeed, the most futile: I can’t get Diana off my mind. And now, the traitorous idea that I’m somehow abandoning her. Makes me feel yanked at. I don’t know why all of a sudden I feel like her protector again after seven years. A selfish guardian, the more I think about it, because all I appear to want—and all I’ve ever really wanted—is to preserve the image of her that I found so inviolate; not defend it. Embalm it, if anything.

3) Easily the most annoying: There’s a dreadlocked man of really quite striking girth snoring in the most unpleasant manner imaginable about six seats up. It’s a constant guttural snarl, within which I can actually hear his phlegm reshuffling in his sinuses and lungs. It’s coming from down deep. Up from his stomach’s gooey and cavernous interior. Or maybe even deeper, from the embittered bundle of his loins.

The people who were sitting closest to him have already vacated, down to the first level. And now the nearest ones are (at least, thank God) far enough away as to not be spit on by the mortar-esque projectile saliva. They’re all trying to sleep, or were, and are now debating in hushed tones whether or not to say something to him. An eager-looking guy in a Dallas Cowboys hat keeps harrumphing to try to wake him up, make him cut that nasty shit out.

4) The most pressing: There’s a deranged-looking fellow licking his fingers and rubbing his hair—licking and rubbing, sort of janitorially reminiscent of a cat’s shower—in the seat next to mine. He’s wide awake, and he’s suddenly developed a singular interest in learning my first name.

The Megabus has worked out a lot of its kinks. As early as a year ago, generally speaking, a scheduled departure time of 11:59 p.m. meant an actual departure time of somewhere between 12:45 and 1:00. Back then it was fashionable to talk trash, affectionately, about the Megabus’ evident disregard for promptness—in much the same way that for years, it had been fashionable to talk trash about Cleveland’s RTA, without the affection—sort of how you might talk about an offbeat sister who always forgets to set her clocks back for daylight savings. Riders entered into a casual understanding with the Megabus that went something like: for prices that cheap, it matters very little what time you decide to roll in and out of town.

Ridership shot up when college students started telling their friends and families. Double-deckers were purchased. Destinations were added, all jumbled within the arteries of interstates pumping buses in and out of Chicago’s beating heart. Cleveland got a midnight bus to tack on to its morning and afternoon departures. And these late-night trips were typically a pleasant reprieve because there were fewer passengers to deal with—you were practically guaranteed your own two-seater. This is what makes the man’s sitting next to me so notable and so strange. He’s frightening in that Denzel-Washington-when-he-has-long-since-abandonded-taking-anything-in-the-way-of-shit-from-anybody-type way, and who knows what other riders must be thinking. Distant uncle? Family friend?

And then, there’s that unfortunate social reality which dictates that even (especially) when scary or illegal or conceivably bodily cataclysmic shit is going down only inches away from you, you just ignore the absolute daylights out of it so it doesn’t become your problem; a descendant of the old emotional detachment beats attachment followed by brutal, emotionally-ravaging disattachment school; a school, by the way, cultivated in the tearful-face of Tennyson’s “better to have loved and lost” ideology. And by this point, the two of us have had a few hours of history, such that his sitting down where he does, trapping me, makes me feel like his prisoner.

Earlier in the evening, I’d taken the Rapid to Tower City from W. 65th. Both my mom and my older brother Pete offered to drop me off but I was just sort of in the mood for the train, maybe eager to compare it to the El or something. The first time I saw this dude was when he got on at the W. 25th St. station, the tower of giant glass windows and fire truck-red steel beams. He looked like he was looking for somebody. He stood at the doors for a second, making up his mind, before seeming to decide that it was me he was looking for and sitting in the seat behind me. Except for the woman near the back in heated conversation with her grocery bags, we were the only two on board.

There has to be a system, doesn’t there, for the specific amount the homeless and degenerates ask you for. Some formula or function has to exist which they all must have memorized. Because he sized me up for only maybe a hot two seconds before he seemed to have me pegged:

“Can I get 70 cents?”

“Sorry,” I said, trying to be friendly, even patting empty pockets as proof. I opened up Maugham’s Cakes and Ale to a random page and began pretending to read in earnest.

“Just 70 cents, man.”

“I really don’t have any change on me.”

“Sixty-five cents?”

“Look man, I promise you I don’t have any change. If I did, I really would give it to you.”

“Yeah yeah. Okay okay. Whatever.”

I had a duffel, as far as bags were concerned, sitting on my lap; and an open copy of Cakes and Ale atop my little cream-colored notebook speckled with wood chips.

“Alroy,” the man said, extending a sword-like hand sideways between the top of the seat and the metal bar over it. I took it and shook it quickly, avoiding eye contact at all costs. Alroy then nodded at the Rapid’s doors, which seemed to close at his command.

And then came the familiar jocular jolt, a punch on the shoulder, the torturous clicking ascent of an aging roller coaster that you still ride for fond memories’ sake, after which we started moving fast.

“Just 50 cents.”

“Look, man—”

“Alroy.”

“Alroy. Look, Alroy. I’m really sorry, but it’s like I said—”

“Or if you’d prefer, you could just call me Roy.”

“Yes. Roy, yes, okay. I’m very sorry.” My knees were shaking bad and my duffel was doing that thing where it slides from a position of security to insecurity with agonizing slowness.

“Where you headed?”

Oh God. “Chicago.”

“Chicago? Airport’s the other way, my friend.”

“Well, I’m not flying.”

“Hitchin’ a ride?”

“No. Megabus.”

He paused. “You gotcher ticket on you?”

“No. I mean, it’s just a number. There’s no…it’s not a ticket really.”

“What kind of a number?”

“It’s a code. A code sort of. Like a reservation thing. There are some letters in there too.”

“You got it on you?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t be scared. Why you look so scared?”

“I’m not…not scared. It’s just been a long weekend is all.”

“Why is that?”

“Many, many reasons, Alroy.”

The train stopped suddenly over that iron bridge before the tunnel into Tower City with all its rust, like bushy eyebrows on a man, making it seem somehow more appealingly ancient and sage-like. Sometimes it just sat there for awhile.

“Sometimes it just sits here for awhile,” Alroy said, “like it’s making some kind of a big decision.”

“Yeah, or like it has to psych itself out every time before it goes underground.”

“That makes two of us then.” Alroy stretched and yawned. “So can I get that code?”

“I really, really, really need to get to Chicago tomorrow morning, man.”

“Can’t you order a plane ticket online or something?”

“No. I just don’t have the money to do that right now.”

“Well, I’ve got tons.” He got really close to my ear here. “I’ve got millions, man.” Then he got an idea. “Why don’t we share it?”

“That doesn’t work. The driver is standing at the front of the bus and marks down the ones who board.”

“All of ‘em?”

“Yeah, of course. There’s like a clipboard or, you know, just a typed-up piece of paper with all the numbers.”

“Then can I please get it?”

“Why do you need to get to Chicago? Do you even know anyone there? It’s not even worth anything. It’s not.”

I pulled the printed paper from my pocket and held it in front of my face. “I paid eight dollars for this. Eight dollars.”

“Can I get eight dollars then?”

“No! Man—”

“Alroy.”

“Fine. Alroy. I do not have eight dollars. I do not have any change.”

“Do you swear?”

“What? No. I’m not going to…I don’t…”

“Ah ha! See. So you do have something then.”

“My mom just died.”

“Whoa whoa whoa. Easy there, brother. Take it slow. What’s happenin?”

“I go to school in Cleveland and I need to get home to Chicago tomorrow for the funeral.”

“Where, Cleveland State?”

“Case.”

“Good school, my man. What’d she die of?”

“It was cancer…heart…cancer issues.”

“She had some heart cancer?”

“No. It was heart problems. There were complications or something which led to cancer because…because she was a diabetic.”

“Sounds like she had quite a few issues.”

“Yes. Quite a few.”

After a knowing pause. “Was she obese?”

The train started to screech forward. And then it reached the tunnel and everything was black motion. Alroy was only on the periphery of my consciousness as I raced up the escalators through Tower City and made my way to Prospect Ave., where I boarded the bus. Once the Rapid had lurched to a stop in the steaming bowels of Tower City, I just sprinted off the train without looking back. I have no idea how he got on the bus. I don’t think he really even showed up again (maybe he was on the first level) until about 1:45 a.m., after I had convinced myself that contacting Diana was bearing greater and greater resemblance to the definition of “lost cause” (she probably didn’t even have my phone number). He just kind of appeared next to me, with his fingers actively digging into his hair, gouging and picking at those impossibly tight coils so close to the skin. And then he started that thing where he was licking his fingers and rubbing his scalp hard, periodically looking at me and nodding, like we were in on a secret together, expecting me to say something.

“Well,” he said, sitting there, staring.

“What?” I had my little journal out and was making notes, just jotting down some ideas.

“It’s just that I’ve told you my name, but you haven’t told me yours.”

“Again, sir, information which I’m not entirely comfortable giving out.”

“It’s a long drive.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just sayin.” He had that oily Afrosheen in his hair, the provenance of which is endlessly unidentifiable, and which, because of all the rubbing, had gotten onto his hands and smelled funny. Some chemical. He was rubbing so hard—the hair was so short and stubborn. And for some reason, the repetition of it was setting me off. I just wanted to scream that it wasn’t doing anything.

“I’m Alroy, if you’ve forgotten.”

“I know. I know. I know. And I can call you just Roy if I’d prefer.”

“That’s right, but I don’t know what to call you.” He turned to face me, hair bizarrely askew. A perfect buttcrack of a part down the middle of his head with one side, the side nearest me, pressed flat to his scalp, and the other side jutting out in little bumpy puffs. A portrait of asymmetry. “What’s your name?”

“Come on. What is it?”

“What’s your name?”

“Name name name? What. Is. Your. Naaaaaa—”

“Hal, for Christ’s fucking sake man. It’s Hal. Okay. Harold Llewellyn Baudrillard, if you want the details. Formerly Harold Llewellyn Coby-Baudrillard, but I officially dropped the Coby at age 18, to my mother’s residual angst, because the whole thing was just too cumbersome. But my mom’s really upset with my older brother Pete, not me, if you’re still following, because he was the one who went and set the precedent. And she knows that I pretty much do (or at least did) whatever Pete does and then Green does just about everything that I do. My mom’s especially affronted, Pete told me later, because he suspects she was secretly hoping that after the divorce, if anything, we’d just adopt her name. And if you’re really curious, my parents settled on Coby-Baudrillard only after bickering for the duration of the painful almost-ten-month gestation period resulting in the violent and messy marathon birth of my brother Pete who I just mentioned, and then discarding the hideous amalgamations they’d conceived therein, the likes of which, by the way, have rarely made cameos even in the detritus of teen sci-fi fiction: Cobrillard, Baucoby (and its shortened cousin BoCo), Drilloby, Cocollard, Cobra.”

“Lotsa l’s.”

“A great many l’s yes.”

“Well, hate to be devil’s advocate, but at least she won’t be upset about it anymore.”

“Not sure that’s the proper use of “devil’s advocate,” Roy. And by all accounts she will be upset for quite some time.”

“Ghosts and shit, man. Pissed off even beyond the grave. Damn.”

“…Ah. Yes.”

“Well, I’m calling you the Cobra then.”

“Oh, please don’t do that.”

“Cooooobra it is.”

“The Coooooooobra!”

“Just STOP, man!” I said it louder than I intended to. All eyes from the front of the bus instantly turned to me. Through the darkness, they were beads. And then it was somehow extra quiet. As if something dense and constant had been sucked from the atmosphere—the sudden noiselessness of basement water heaters. The one guy up near the front took off his baseball cap sort of ceremonially and offered what appeared to be a salute. He was saluting not me, it became clear, but my unconscious derring-do, which had silenced the dreadlocked behemoth of the gastric sounds, who had, at my shout, emitted a series of demonic glottal coughs and, with a final hack, fallen silent. The sets of beads across the bus all rose in unison, perfectly round and glistening and thankful. A standing ovation.

About the Author


Sam Allard

Northwestern University

Sam Allard is a senior journalism major at Northwestern University, where he is also an alumnus of the Creative Writing Program's fiction sequence, and the former executive editor of North by Northwestern, where this selection first appeared. His writing has appeared in STACK (a magazine about amateur athletics), DRAFT (a magazine about beer) and Outdoor Life (a magazine about outdoor life and knives.) He is from Cleveland.

“The Megabus,” in context: This selection is a segment of an increasingly burly novel that deals intimately and amiably with the practicums of collegiate creative writing, the magazine industry, the American Midwest, and youth; and, more cosmically, with the idea of truth being a constructed rather than a reported thing.

Here we find Harold Llewellyn Baudrillard (formerly Coby-Baudrillard), the novel's questionable hero and narrator, prior to the novel's present moment. He is heading back to college post-Thanksgiving, and finds himself in the throes of some mystifying emotional tempest. The shadowy man he encounters on the Megabus known as Alroy becomes an integral part of Hal's creative ignition (the most integral part of which is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), which sends him on a spiral not downward so much as inward, a retreat into his characters and into himself.