Into the Night (Mr. Cuprum)
By Anne Earney
Mr. Cuprum hadn't intended to get off the bus outside of St. Louis that afternoon, but he hadn't been offered a choice. When the driver announced they'd be stopping for repairs, he looked out the window as the ailing motor coach rolled up to the one-story tan brick building that was their sudden destination. Four-foot red letters along the roof read THE DIAMONDS, and a neon sign at the other end of the parking lot echoed in hiccups, HE D AMO DS. After the other passengers had disembarked, he picked up his black leather bag, flung his coat over his shoulder and winced as his fifty-five-year-old knees complained of sitting too long. But Mr. Cuprum maintained a schedule of exercise to keep his figure trim, so by the time he reached the door of the station he felt fine. Here I am, he thought. Do with me what you will.
He made a point of paying attention to the details of the places he went because otherwise experience blurred, one stop indistinguishable from the last, and the next. The Diamonds was not only a bus stop, but a restaurant, cafeteria, coffee counter, arcade and gift shop. Steam hissed from the warmers on the cafeteria side, rising up over the shoulders of the passengers already in line for fried chicken and mashed potatoes. He approached the coffee counter instead, sat in the middle of the row of stools with swiveling red tops, settled his bag on the floor between his feet and looked around.
The girl working the counter was attending to two large women, passengers from the bus. Mr. Cuprum hoped they were staying; one of them snored. It bothered him not to know the exact name of the town they had stopped in, so he looked for something telling, but there was nothing, and his eyes returned to the women, who had hair dyed an improbable shade of pink, color-coordinated to match their stained jump suits. He supposed they'd been traveling for days or months; maybe even years, like himself.
Six days before, Mr. Cuprum had finished a job in Los Angeles and headed toward another on the cold November shores of Chicago. Before L.A. he'd been in Anchorage; before Anchorage, Seattle. He traveled only by bus. Though his trips were long, he enjoyed the days of travel. If all Greyhounds were considered one place, which he believed they could be, then each ride was also a homecoming of sorts.
The girl gave the women their change and frowned when they didn't tip. She turned to Mr. Cuprum. "Help you?"
"Coffee, please," he said. "You wouldn't happen to have a cinnamon roll?" Although it was close to dinner time, he wasn't especially hungry.
"I'll get one off the cafeteria line. They're pretty good today. I had one myself." She smiled at him and walked off.
Mr. Cuprum wished she'd set him up with coffee first. The young ones meant well, but never got it quite right. She returned with his roll, microwaved into a warm blob with icing running down its sides, and poured his coffee from a full pot.
"So the bus is broke?" she asked.
He reached for his wallet. "I suppose it is."
"One seventy five," she said, ringing up his order.
"That's all?" He handed her four dollars and told her to keep the change, wondering how the place stayed in business. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Ruby." She waved her hand as if it didn't matter.
"That's a nice name," he said. Ruby had the sort of face he suspected would become attractive as she aged, but which boys her age probably didn't appreciate, although there was a womanly curve to her figure. "You from here, Ruby?"
"Right down the road."
"Old Route 66," Mr. Cuprum said. He'd read the sign while the bus was on the highway.
"I don't think of it as that," she said. "It's AT to me."
"You know, like a state road."
Mr. Cuprum blew at his coffee, which was hot and strong. He wondered what was like a state road, but wasn't. "In school?" he asked.
"I graduate in May."
He had decided she was closer to eighteen than twenty-one, so he assumed she meant high school. "Going to college in the fall?"
She nodded. "Southeast Missouri State."
"Which is where?"
He'd never heard of Cape and wanted to know where that was, but he felt he was asking too many questions. There were no other customers, and Ruby rescued the conversation with a question of her own. "Where are you headed?"
"Nowhere," Mr. Cuprum said, pulling a piece of sticky dough from the roll. "But, if I were headed anywhere, if the bus were still running, I'd be going to Chicago."
"Cool," she said. "I've never been there."
"Never? Chicago is the second best city, after New York." He paused as the roll stuck to the roof of his mouth like glue. He had trouble getting it down.
"I've never been anywhere," Ruby said, "except Arkansas, Kansas City and just across the border."
"Well, go, if you get the chance. Go anywhere. There's a whole world out there."
Mr. Cuprum remembered the day he'd gotten on his first bus, and how his father had waved him off. Though Mr. Cuprum had been to his father's funeral some years before, he had not seen the man once during the years between, and as a result, his father would always be waving in Mr. Cuprum's memory. "What's the name of this town, anyhow?" he asked.
Mr. Cuprum tried to imagine what could have led to that name: fog, smoke, a man named Gray who thought he'd reached the summit.
"What were you going to Chicago for?" Ruby asked.
"I'm an artist, of sorts. I have a job there."
She leaned on the counter in front of him and he could smell the strawberry gum she chewed. "What kind of artist?"
"I make models with copper wire."
Her brow wrinkled. "Models?"
Mr. Cuprum smiled generously. "When someone builds a building they're proud of," he explained, "or they have something they want to commemorate, they hire me to build a model. I use copper wire, ideally one continuous piece, and I sculpt it into a replica of the building, bridge, statue, whatever."
"Here," Mr. Cuprum said, "I'll show you." He reached for his bag, built like a doctor's bag with a clasp at the top and a rectangular bottom. Inside, he kept spools of round copper wire of various thicknesses, clippers, gloves, a small welding torch, and other specialized tools. He felt strongly attached to his bag, as if it contained his very life, rather than simply his livelihood.
He picked up a small spool of shining copper and offered it to Ruby.
She took it in her hand and peered at it. "You make this into things?"
Mr. Cuprum smiled. "And people pay me to do it."
She laughed and returned the spool, from which Mr. Cuprum unrolled a few inches of the shiny pink string. With a pair of tongs, he made a one-inch square, which he then transformed into a perfect cube. He clipped the end of the wire and handed his creation to Ruby. A smile spread across her face, different from the one she'd had earlier, and she looked like an awestruck little kid. Mr. Cuprum wished he could drag her around the country with him, watch her smile that way a million times before the world grew old. He longed to smile like that again himself, but at the same time, wondered if he ever had. Maybe the day he discovered what he could do with copper wire, when the future had suddenly filled with possibilities. The thought made him want to cry.
"Wow," she said, turning the cube with her fingertips. "This is really neat."
"Careful of the edges; they're loose. I'd weld them, but I don't want to fire up my torch in the restaurant."
She held the cube out to him.
"Keep it," he said. "It's yours."
Ruby placed it on the cash register. "How long have you been doing this?"
"A long time," Mr. Cuprum replied, as he began to work on another creation. Once he got going, he didn't want to quit as long as there was someone to appreciate his work. Otherwise, he might have gone on to tell her about growing up in his dad's junk yard: the pennies they'd paid for scrap metal; the wheels of copper wire bought during some electric company's darkest hour; the days he'd had nothing to occupy himself with, out in the sticks of Alabama, other than that wire. He'd ruined his mother's kitchen shears, her sewing shears, his dad's saws and the hedge trimmers before they finally bought him a pair of wire cutters. Later, he'd traveled so much there hadn't been time to get to know girls like Ruby. Or, more honestly, he had known someone once, a young woman who would have been happy to be his wife, to live at the junkyard and never see the world. But instead, he'd listened to a man who'd come from Las Vegas, dropped by the county fair where Mr. Cuprum was showing the copper model he'd made of the town square, who'd then taken Mr. Cuprum to Vegas to make a model of the man's new hotel.
As he twisted the supple wire, Mr. Cuprum wondered if he should have advised Ruby to travel after all.
He might have told her these things, but instead he made her something. Ruby refilled his coffee cup, trying to see what he was making, but he hid his work from her with his hand, a piece of showmanship he'd learned long before. Five minutes passed before he clipped the wire.
"Not just yet," he said, reaching into his bag for a pair of wire strippers, which he used to sharpen the end of the wire into a point. Only then did he hold his design out to Ruby. "Careful," he said. "It's sharp."
He dropped it into her hand, which rose a bit as if she'd expected something weightier. She looked at her prize: "Ruby" spelled out in round, curving letters.
"It's a pin," he said, "but you don't have to wear it. I won't be offended."
"I love it," she said, already pushing the end through the white collar of her uniform. She bit a piece of eraser off the end of a pencil which had been lying on the counter and put it on the sharp end.
"Very good idea," Mr. Cuprum said, as Ruby ran to show another waitress, who looked at the pin, then at Mr. Cuprum.
He waved. She was older, and as he took in her graying ponytail and tired slump, he remembered what a relief it had been to get away from the junkyard. And it was still a relief to be a stranger everywhere he went, to no longer be the junk man's son.
Ruby returned to the counter. "This is the best tip anyone's ever given me," she said. "My mom's going to love it."
For a brief second, he thought she'd ask for a pin for her mother, but she didn't. Mr. Cuprum opened his mouth to say, "It was nothing. You deserve it," but the bus driver's voice cut him off, cackling over the intercom system.
"All right folks, all aboard for Chicago, everything's fixed but we're runnin' late now, all aboard, last call for Chicago."
Mr. Cuprum shook his head; the drivers gave last call only, never first or second. He clamped his bag closed over the tools of his trade and stood up. "Thanks for the coffee and food. And good luck in college."
"No problem," Ruby said. "If you come back through, stop and see me."
"You'll be gone by then," he pointed out, moving towards the door.
Ruby nodded, no longer smiling. "Yeah, probably so."
Mr. Cuprum took a seat in the middle of the bus, a position he had determined was least likely to cause him bodily damage if they crashed. He folded his coat onto the adjoining seat and watched as two heads of pink hair settled in several rows ahead. He put his bag under the seat in front of his feet, leaned his head against the cushioned head rest and closed his eyes. Two minutes later, the engine revved and the bus lumbered out onto the highway.
When the Vegas man had asked Mr. Cuprum to make the model of his hotel, he'd offered to send the architectural mock-up and photos, but Mr. Cuprum had insisted on seeing the structure personally. And ever since, he'd professed a belief in working from the original. But that night, he wondered if he couldn't have done just as well from pictures, in the junk yard, his wife by his side. An image of the two of them formed in his mind, Ruby in place of the other girl, but he couldn't hold it.
The bus passed within sight of the St. Louis Arch, the steel catenary curve of the gateway to the Midwest, or, as Mr. Cuprum thought of it, the entrance to the vast, average middle of America, a place he could never fit in, and he noted that when he would normally feel relieved to be getting on to Chicago, he felt melancholy instead.
Thanks to the coffee, he was wide awake, so he took out a roll of his finest wire and fashioned a small arch, complete with tiny trees, meant to mimic the park. After that, he made another name pin for Ruby, this one a bit fancier, with a daisy at the end of the "y" and a proper hook to secure the sharp end of the pin. He was about to put both pins back in his bag when he decided he'd mail them to her, care of The Diamonds, Gray Summit, Missouri. Maybe she'd never get them, but then again, she might. He put them in a box and lay the box on the seat next to him, under his coat. And as darkness overcame the bus, chasing rays of gold and pink across the Illinois plains, he fell asleep.