They were going to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There were six of them, three boys and three girls, and they got on the bus at 34th Street, carrying sandwiches and wine in paper bags. They were dreaming of golden beaches and sea tides as the grey, cold spring of New York vanished behind them. Vingo was on the bus from the beginning.
As the bus passed through New Jersey, they began to notice that Vingo never moved. He sat in front of the young people, his dusty face masking his age, dressed in a plain brown suit that did not fit him. His fingers were stained from cigarettes and he chewed the inside of his lip a lot. He sat in complete silence and seemed completely unaware of the existence of the others.
Deep into the night, the bus pulled into a Howard Johnson's restaurant and everybody got off the bus except Vingo. The young people began to wonder about him, trying to imagine his life: perhaps he was a sea captain; maybe he had run away from his wife; he could be an old soldier going home. When they went back to the bus, one of the girls became so curious that she decided to engage him in a conversation. She sat down beside him and introduced herself.
"We're going to Florida," the girl said brightly. "You going that far?"
"I don't know," Vingo said.
"I've never been there," she said. " I hear it's beautiful."
"It is," he said quietly, as if remembering something he had tried to forget.
"You live there?"
"I was there in the Navy, at the base in Jacksonville".
"Want some wine?" she said. He smiled and took a swig from the bottle. He thanked her and retreated again into his silence. After a while, she went back to the others as Vingo nodded in sleep.
In the morning they awoke outside another Howard Johnson's and this time Vingo went in. The girl insisted that he join them. He seemed very shy and ordered black coffee and smoked nervously, as the young people chattered about sleeping on beaches. When they got back on the bus, the girl sat with Vingo again. After a while, slowly and painfully, he began to tell his story. He had been in jail in New York for the last four years, and now he was going home.
"Are you married?"
"I don' t know."
"You don't know?" she said.
"Well, when I was in jail I wrote to my wife. I said, 'Martha, I understand if you can't stay married to me.' I said I was going to be away a long time, and that if she couldn't stand it, if the kids kept asking questions, if it hurt her too much, well, she could just forget me. Get a new guy—she's a wonderful woman, really something—and forget about me. I told her she didn't have to write to me or anything, and she didn't. Not for three-and-a-half years."
"And you're going home now, not knowing?"
"Yeah," he said shyly. "Well, last week, when I was sure the parole was coming through I wrote her again. I told her that if she had a new guy, I understood. But, if she didn't, if she would take me back she should let me know. We used to live in Brunswick, and there' s a great oak tree just as you come into town. I told her if she would take me back, she should tie a yellow ribbon to the tree, and I would get off and come home. If she didn't want me, forget it, no ribbon and I'd understand and keep going on through."
"Wow," the girl said. "Wow."
She told the others, and soon all of them were caught up in the approach of Brunswick, looking at the pictures Vingo showed them of his wife and three children. Now they were 20 miles from Brunswick, and the young people took the window seats on the right side, waiting for the approach of the great oak tree. Vingo stopped looking, tightening his face into the ex-con's mask, as if fortifying himself against still another disappointment. Then it was 10 miles, and then five, and the bus became very quiet.
Then suddenly all of the young people were up out of their seats, screaming and shouting and crying, doing small dances, shaking clenched fists in triumph and exaltation. All except Vingo.
Vingo sat there stunned, looking at the oak tree through his misty eyes. The tree was covered with yellow ribbons, 30 of them, 50 of them, maybe hundreds, a tree that stood like a banner of welcome, blowing and billowing in the wind. As the young people shouted, the old con slowly rose from his seat, holding himself tightly, and made his way to the front of the bus to go home.