For the first hour or so of the 3 hour bus trip from Regina to Saskatoon I thought we'd gotten away with boarding a crazy-free bus, but then the man in the seat behind me began to talk to himself.
I'd seen him earlier in the ticket queue, a slight fellow in a white shirt and black shorts, a thatch of hay-blond hair sticking out from under his black baseball cap. He had an air of politeness, even deference, that probably came from living in and out of institutions. A white crust clung to the corners of his mouth, and the skin on one of his legs was a bright ham-like pink crazed with white markings. From his pores puffed a haze of cheap alcohol.
I'd met and struck up conversations with plenty of people like this one, and I could already map out the course of our acquaintance: a few innocuous remarks that would eventually get a reply from me, and then the chopped-up biography, rearranged and presented for maximum pity. Eventually he would ask me for a cigarette, which I would have to decline (being a non-smoker), and he would wind down our brief friendship and start up the show with the next person.
It's not quite accurate to say that he was talking to himself on the bus. At first I thought that some machine or system had developed an edge or started to heat up, because I could hear a strange humming sound that reminded me of the air conditioner in my office. Gradually the humming took on a kind of rhythm, pulsing with patterns that felt familiar but just out of reach. The sound reminded me of mumbled incantations, the buzz of far-off voices. And then I realized that the noise was issuing from the lips of the man behind me. Worse yet, I knew that the sound was meant partially for me, that it was designed to lure me in to a long and pointless conversation, a psychedelic retelling of all the wrongs done to him. I ignored the sound and turned back to my book.
After a while the mumbling fell away and he started in with individual words. Some of them were responses to a conversation going on in the rear seat of the bus between a young man and woman flirting with each other by trading a series of lies (he charged a hapless jerk six bucks for a cigarette, she was facing charges for beating up her stepfather), other words seemed meant to describe interactions between particles in the air. Cool, he said at one point. Hah at another. I kept my mouth shut. Even the least hint of a response would be an opening.
Halfway through the trip he leaned forward and addressed us directly.
"Excuse me," he said. That's when I caught the light fog of booze enveloping him.
"Yes, how can I help you?" I felt oddly secretarial saying that, but it seemed to formalize the situation.
"What highway is this? I mean, is this the Number One"?
I weighed my response for a moment. We were not on the number one highway, the East-West corridor that runs the length of the entire country. We were in fact over one hundred miles from the Number One, and rushing farther away from it with every moment.
"No, this is Number 11".
"Okay," said the guy, and sat back for a moment. Then he leaned forward.
"Because the Number One highway is the Trans-Canada, right?"
"Excuse me again, but will this bus take me to Ontario?"
This put me at a bit of a loss. Ontario is two provinces over, a solid twelve-hour drive to reach its western border. This was either the most graceless conversational gambit ever, or I was dealing with someone whose mind had been emptied or everything but a few sticks of furniture and some cryptic notes scribbled on the walls. I pictured a wall stripped bare, with the cryptic imperative "GET TO ONTARIO" scrawled in charcoal.
"No," I explained. "We're heading northwest to Saskatoon. Ontario is east of here".
"Okay," he said, completely unfazed by the news that he was heading in the entirely wrong direction, "so how would I get to Ontario from Saskatoon?"
"You can take the bus back to Regina, or just head straight for Winnipeg. Or you could hang out in Saskatoon. It's a nice city".
My shot at humour set him cackling. "Okay man, okay," he said. "Thanks a lot". He sat back in his seat and resumed his strange machine hum of a monologue.
I'm getting on the bus again in a few hours and I won't be surprised if he's sitting there, asking people how to get to Ontario.