On Thursday afternoon, I locked the door to my room at the Magnolia Inn, turned in the key, I walked across the highway to wait for the bus. Since there was no sign, I had been a little worried about its specific stopping point—running with 50 lb. on your back is as appealing as it sounds—but standing in the grass, almost directly across from my door, was a man with a black garbage back lying near his feet, clearly waiting for the same Delta Bus Line coach to take him away from Woodville.
Although I already knew his answer, I said “Is this the place where the bus stop?” by way of greeting. “Yessir…2:30. I seen you standing outside your door over at the motel last night. Where are you headed?” We both, it turned out, where only aiming for the next stop on the line that runs from Baton Rouge to Memphis: Natchez. I asked him how much the fare was and he said $12.50. That was good. I had a twenty, a ten, and a five in my wallet.
I asked him his name and he said “Bill, Wild Bill.” Fair enough. Wild Bill was short, no more than 5’4”, and withered. His silver hair still had traces of blonde in it at the tips and in his mustache, which connected to a beard that only partially covered his high, sunken cheeks. Bill was wearing a rawhide coat with on sleeve slashed open, a ball cap with words indicating some business or other in Texas, and a relatively new pair of white running shoes that stuck out from the end of his jeans that, like my oilskins, were a little dirty from the road.
I pulled out my pack of cigarettes and offered him a Lucky, which he declined, then thought better of it, and traded me one of his Swisher Sweet cigarillos for. As we stood there huddling inside our coats on what, in Mississippi, passes for winter (it’s closer to a brisk Midwestern spring day, but will chill you well enough if you’re outside long) I asked him if he was from Texas, pointing to the cap.
"No, I’m from Oklahoma. Been a bull rider all my life. But I haven’t ridden in a rodeo since last spring, down in Opelousas. Was working in New Orleans, but work dried up. I heard there was work in Woodville, but I can’t find nothing here. Used up $56 dollars to get that room last night, last of my money is for the ticket to Natchez."
I told him I’d been walking from New Orleans, writing about my trip along the way. I pulled out a card from the Ziploc baggie I keep in my pocket and handed him one. “I haven’t been able to find a job either, but I’ve only been looking for teaching gigs. This thing I put together…something interesting to do until I figure out what I’m gonna do longer term. See some of the country, I guess.”
He said we ought to sit on the bus together, get a chance to talk on the ride. I said that’d be fine, and a few minutes later the big Delta coach slowed in front of us, lowered itself with one of those hydraulic “kneeling” mechanisms, and the driver, a friendly black woman, came outside. “Where y’all going?” We both answered the same. “That’ll be $12.50.” Wild Bill handed her the exact amount, I the ten and five from my wallet; she handed Bill’s $2.50 over to me. “You want to put your bags underneath or carry them on?” Since navigating doorways is hard enough, I didn’t think I could manage the aisle of a bus with my pack. So I said “Underneath.” Bill, with his black garbage bag of clothes, followed suit.
The bus wasn’t full, but there was only one set of seats together on either side of the aisle, the rest occupied by a solitary rider none to keen to give up the extra space. I took the seat by the window, and Bill sat down.
"So you’re a bull rider, huh?"
"Yessir. Started riding when I was 14, doing the pro circuit at 19. Don’t know if I can do it any more though, getting too old." Bill showed me a substantial scar on his belly that he explained he’d gotten from a bull some years back. "I was in the hospital, lying there, I could see my mama next to me and the doctor, but everything was far away. I saw that tunnel of light, but two men—they musta been angels—they took me by the arms and said I had to go back. I sat up on the table and asked my mama for a glass of water. She looked shocked. The doctor rushed over. Said he’d already pronounced me dead." Bill also described how he’d had to have his cheekbones reconstructed after another accident. I asked him how old he was, and he said "51. Born in 1962." Earlier, I would have pegged him at a decade, maybe even two older. I thought about Monty Clift in The Misfits for a minute, and said "Rodeo’s a hard life, I guess, isn’t it?"
"Yessir. I won $250,000 in 1992. Champion. Rode Takin’ Care of Business, the bull that killed Lane Frost. You ever seen 8 Seconds?" I had. "Well, I’m one of the few that ever rode that bull that’s still alive. You can go out to Pueblo, Colorado, to the museum, the check that out. I took that money and bought some land in Oklahoma, some more in Colorado. My youngest daughter, she lives on the place in Colorado, my son in Oklahoma."
I mentioned to him that it didn’t seem like too many people got rich off of riding rodeo, except for maybe Larry Mahan.
"No man, no. I was working down in New Orleans, doing construction. But the work run out. I was staying in a little place, but it caught on fire. Lost everything but what I put together in my bag later. Don’t have no ID. My son is supposed to send my Social Security Card and birth certificate somewhere when I get settled, but it’s hard finding anybody that’ll hire you without a driver’s license."
I told him about how I’d used to work the river, before the advent of the TWIC card (a Department of Homeland Security-required ID for people working in the inland marine business.) I also said I knew there were things in the Natchez area, port work, that maybe wouldn’t require a TWIC card, and that sometimes employers helped speed along the application process.
"I don’t know nothing about boats. But I’m a hard worker. If I don’t know how to do something, I’ll tell you ‘I don’t know how to do this, but I can learn.’"
As we approached Natchez, Bill noted that he didn’t have any money for a place to stay that night, though he had a sleeping bag. He asked me if I wanted to split a room, that he’d pay me back.
The guilt on this was hard to swallow. I’d reserved a room at the Eola Hotel in Natchez, a 1927 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While it wasn’t any more expensive than the other downtown hotels (about $100), I’d chosen it for the contrast it provided to Angola and Woodville: from the hardscrabble part of the South to its grandeur. I knew that rate was beyond Bill’s means even if he found a job immediately, which I think he would have found embarrassing if I’d offered, and I must be honest: though not exactly dressed in a style typical to arriving at a fine hotel, my pack says “guy on an adventure” in sharp contrast to Bill’s garbage sack. I didn’t know if he’d get past the front desk. So I declined his offer to split a room, with more than a bit of shame, saying I’d already made arrangements. He said he had a sleeping bag, and I advised him about churches and public land (Natchez is National Park Service places.) I also handed him the twenty in my wallet and the $2 I’d gotten in change.
When the bus pulled into its stop just off Highway 61 in Natchez, Bill and I got off the bus.
"Hey, thank you brother…you’ve been a real blessing to me."
"No worries, my friend. Good luck!"
As I moved toward downtown, passing from the strip malls and convenience stores of the highway junction to neighborhoods full of antebellum homes proudly announcing the year of their construction, I resolved to call Bill at 8:00 to see if he’d found a place to stay. If he hadn’t I’d sneak him up into my room at the Eola.