Two days into America, I stopped off in Cleveland. I was changing planes and reckoned I may as well stay there. I had been to the War Memorial and the new shopping mall. At the Art Museum I had seen the Egyptian pot, Indian vases and I was looking at the Jackson Pollock, when I heard a voice.
'Nice isn't it?' A lanky boy with a flop of blonde hair and a tee shirt with ‘Rhode Island,’ across the chest, stood in front of me. 'Have you seen the Van Gogh and the Degas?'
'There's more?' I asked.
'Sure. Cleveland has one of everything.' He opened out his arms, embracing the scope of the paintings.
'Yeah, really. You English?'
I shrugged. I never knew what to call myself. I had arrived in New York a month ago and was heading to Mexico. I wanted to see as much of the States as possible. What did that make me? A tourist? A traveller? A bum or a hobo. I didn't care. I had left behind two men I had become involved with at the same time and it had got too much. Really, I was on the run. Scaredy cat on the run.
'Sort of,' I said.
'Sort of. What kind of nationality is that?'
'I mean … my parents are Irish.'
'My dad was too but my mother's Norwegian stock. You visiting?' A soft leather bag hung from his shoulder. It swayed as he moved.
'I'm heading for San Francisco and then South. A couple of grand uncles came out for the Gold Rush, I thought I'd follow their tracks.'
He was called Ben and in computers but I didn't hold that against him. He led me to Van Gogh’s field - the land churned up and ravens flying above. We strolled past interiors with vases and rooms which opened onto terraces, the sea slung far out. We left long rooms overlit by glass roofs and, in the Museum shop, I searched for postcards and he helped me spool the stand around.
'This is the only city with a forest around it. You should stay a few weeks,' he said.
'I'd like to but I've got to meet a friend in Texas.'
‘Oh, well. Next time, then.’
In the museum café we sat in a far corner, away from the throng of kids let loose by their teacher. They wore red back-packs and kept joggling up against one another until the teacher told them to line up.
Against the clatter of plates and spoons, the swish of the urn and other people chatting, Ben told me he was past thirty though he looked like eighteen. He said his mother was dying of cancer and told me about how they’d had a nice house but sold up after her divorce and bought a condo by the waterfront - once it had been a cool place to live but since the crash a lot of properties were empty. She had not been able to work for years. She used to be the secretary at the largest Volkswagen garage in town.
'We're lucky, though because my uncle helps pay for the treatment,' he said.
'How do you mean?'
'She'd die. I mean she'd die quicker. The charity hospital would look after her but wouldn't do anything long term. He's a doll, so I go South to see him every once in a while. We go to Atlanta for nights out, even though it's got problems.'
'You mean … race?'
He nodded and fiddled with a stick of sugar. 'It's still on the boil.' He took a slug of beer. It turned out he had some connection to me. He said his great-grandparents had left Wexford, arriving at Ellis Island where they were checked for illness or madness.
'And they've opened it for tourists. Can you believe it?' He added.
'What happened to them?'
'They made out good. He bought land and got rich. That's how my uncle in Virginia is a millionaire.'
'I've only got uncles who are farmers and builders. America offers more chances.’
‘Yeah, chances for everything.’ He smoothed down the peak of his baseball cap.
He said it would be fun to go to Cedar Point for the afternoon. 'It has the next-biggest rides after Disneyland.'
'Better than Coney Island?'
'Much better. You'll love it.'
He got a free day-ticket through a friend. We rolled in ‘Thunder Can’ and ‘The Mean Machine.’ The vibration split my ears. When we went in the Roll Around my body was leaving me. I came out at the end gasping for breath while he laughed.
'Don't you have rides in England?' he asked.
'Yes. But I don't go on them. I'd like to but I can't say any of my friends would be interested.'
‘Really? Well, I am.’
We started the drive back to the city.
‘People come out here for holidays with their families, spend the whole weekend.' He told me. 'They stay at these places.' He waved with his hand to, 'Blue Lagoon' and 'Lakeside Hotel,' brandished in neon. Glamourous red. Gold. Electric orange.
'I guess I could get to like it,' I said.
We passed places to eat, casinos and drive-ins and we made a deal. If I stayed on one more day, he would show me Niagara Falls, because he was not working. Over a blueberry pancake and cream at two in the morning at Perkins Pancake House I agreed and he dropped me off at my small hotel.
He picked me up the next morning and we drove past Lake Hudson on the highway at the back of the city I had come out of. It took four hours to drive to Canada, so we stopped mid-way. When we were lining up for coffee at the café, I noticed a poster showing the face of three children in tones of grey and black. The eldest was sixteen and the youngest were both aged 12.
‘ ... last seen in Oregon’ ‘...went to school one morning and did not come back’ ‘...known to have been going to California’
Where were they? Jimmy Tufts, Howard Jacobs, Mary Teale?
'Don't think about them. They've made the decision about their lives,' he said.
'I don't think I can do that. There are so many.'
‘Come on,’ he persuaded. ‘Your time is limited. You have to make the most of it.’
We sat and drank our coffee.
‘I can't stop seeing their faces,’ I said.
‘I know. It`s tough. I guess you get used to it. There are always posters like that around. They might get picked up in time, by the police. Or they might head home. A person driving might even recognise them.’
‘I hope so.’
‘In some ways they're lucky.’ He stood his spoon in the froth of the coffee.
‘They …get to live… to go places …’
I didn't quite get that but in the end, I saw there was nothing I could do and I was unlikely to run into any of them. There was no point getting down.
Niagara turned out to be like the postcards but bigger. The spray rose as we walked along the front.
'The force of water is cutting back the rock, see,' he said, pointing. 'And someone died last year trying to cross it.'
'They still do that?'
The 'Maiden of the Mist,' passed, full of people, going right into the heart of the falls. Afterwards we walked in the back streets where shops burst out. They were low-down and tacky but I was about twelve again and excited. A shower of light, a curtain of sparklets.
We moved along up the street, caught by the stalls outside. Ben held up a Bart Simpson tee-shirt with 'Family Photograph,' on the back. On the front they were fighting.
'Go on.' He had paid the assistant.
'Thanks.' I put it in my back-pack not sure if I would ever wear it.
'My pleasure,' he said.
We walked through an amusement arcade, passed a girl with long hair sitting at a mic in front of a mock golf course.
' …you get the red or yellow, ten dollars for a full round fifteen if you wanna give the balls a try again the red ball in the left corner hole in one swing and you win twenty dollars, twenty dollars.....'
We sought refuge in the Elvis Museum. 'Will you love me tonight,' played in the dark, cavernous tunnels his gold suits were displayed. Paste rubies and emeralds shone on a black jacket. His watch, guitar, and bracelets lay on cushions as if they had never been worn, or as though he had not died. 'Jailhouse Rock,' began. It was too much, we escaped to ground level, where strains of Beyonce blared.
It was nearing six and I was hungry. We walked down a street full of restaurants near the lake and he led the way to one. From our table outside the restaurant, the illuminated pink and green falls crashed in the dark.
'This is for honeymooners.' He gazed over the terrace.
It was then I guessed. He had lost his girl. He had planned on coming here. What a dope I was not to see it.
'I could come back for that, if I needed to. If I ever get that far.' I turned to him and smiled.
'Not really. There are lots more places I want to see. Where would you go?' I asked.
'No. Not anywhere outside of the States,' he said.
'Is that true?'
'Best holidays I ever have are in Virginia with my uncle - shooting. Come on we'd better be making tracks. You going by bus to San Francisco?'
'Yes. If I can stand it.'
'The last time I went round the oldest section the Mission and I took a look in at the cemetery next door. So many buried there are Irish. I didn't see any other sign of them.'
'Can you recommend places to see?'
He shook his head. 'I was mainly......at the hospital.' He put down his fork. The pasta on his plate heaped under a garish tomato sauce. 'I'm HIV positive. I went there for treatment. Still do in my home town.'
His face was pale, his eyes were tight and dark. Under his thin tee-shirt his boney shoulder stood out. I thought of the drips on the canvas we had first seen. I shivered inside but I didn't want to show him. His fingers splayed on the table were thin. Little bits of white in his nails, on the ones not eaten down.
'Does it bother you?' he asked.
I shook my head, hoping I was convincing.
'That's why I can't travel much, but I want to pack a lot in. I've been to New Mexico. I love the the colour, the vibrancy. San Francisco speaks of death, though I liked it once.' He laid his palms open on the table like shells or mountain ranges I had flown across. 'I think it was this German guy over from Berlin. He was travelling.'
I said sorry, though I didn't know why. 'Do they say … how long?' I asked.
'They don't say anything. This is it. Happens all the time, even in Middle America. Look, don't you worry. I'll give you the name of a place where you can get a great Chinese meal. And go to that Mission and say a prayer, right?'
Next day on the bus heading west, passing fields and barns, with the country and western music station on, I saw Ben's eyes like water, maybe like his mother's and imagined his uncle down South, who he called a doll.