Al Batt: Monster hiding under my bed was a family of muskrats

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

I was on a chicken bus in Mexico.

Al Batt

It was called that because chickens sometimes rode the bus to market. A woman seated in the rear of the bus I was on held a live chicken — a little red hen.

Email newsletter signup

The bus driver ground the gears on every shift as the vehicle struggled uphill. He couldn’t be blamed, as the shift lever on the floor was at an odd angle, indicating it had been broken and welded back together. At least it wasn’t duct-taped in place. I understood. A friend broke the shift lever on the steering column of my car when I was in high school. I had lent him the use of my beloved horseless carriage. How do you break one? It takes a certain talent — one not in high demand.

The floor of the bus had more holes than floor. Dust took a ride with us and took up more room than needed. Despite there being no bus stops, the bus stopped often at the mere wave of a hand. More dust boarded the bus at each stop. Dust caught onto everything like a bur on a beagle.

Thoughts of dust filled my mind — the gold dust I’d failed to find and the phrase from the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer, “We therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

I mumbled, “Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky; It slips away; And all your money won’t another minute buy; Dust in the wind; All we are is dust in the wind.”

Those words were sung by Kansas. Not the entire state of Kansas, just the rock group of the same name.

I’ve encountered dust devils formed in areas of strong surface heating in fields and dirt roads, but never on a bus. The small whirlwinds carrying dust and debris happen when a piece of ground heats faster than the ground surrounding it on a hot, calm, dry day. They occur anywhere but are commonly seen in the desert southwest, in states like Arizona.

I’d read a magnificent book, “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” a meticulously researched book of compelling and tragic stories of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s written by Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl covered 100 million acres of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Colorado, where nearly a million people left farms in 1930-1935, leaving behind dead livestock and stunted crops. Schools closed, towns folded and many died from dust pneumonia, a condition born of inhaling swirling topsoil. The native grasses covering that land, feeding the buffalo and holding soil in place, were denuded in the 1920s by farmers eager to cash in on cheap land and high grain prices. Tractors made the job easier and the wet weather in the late ’20s made farming on the arid plains feasible. When the Great Depression hit, wheat prices crashed and bountiful farms went fallow, abandoned to the relentless drought and persistent winds.

Dust is a protective cover for fine furniture and is so valuable, vacuum cleaners collect dust. People have told me we come from dust and we return to dust — and that’s why they don’t dust because it might be someone they know.

I stayed in one of the lower-priced hotels in the city. No, even cheaper than what you’re thinking. It was a one-star hotel without a star. My room didn’t have a shower, but it had dust bunnies. I discovered them after I’d entered a foreign realm when my pen fell to the floor and rolled under the bed. With trepidation and a fading flashlight, I discovered a petrified chicken leg, a red high-heeled pump with a broken heel, an empty Corona beer bottle and a family of chaotic muskrats, but no pen. Further investigation proved the muskrats to be full-grown dust bunnies. Why are they called dust bunnies? It might be because they’re fluffy, quiet and multiply rapidly.

How does a shower-free man survive in the company of a pack of vicious dust bunnies?

The good folks working at the hotel dusted me thoroughly when I checked out.

Al Batt’s column appears every Wednesday in the Tribune.