June 11, 2015
Number 4 Bus
The bus, running west on Santa Monica Boulevard as dusk gives way to night, is fullish, with people standing in the aisles despite an empty seat here or there–there’s reticence to ask a stranger for access, or to sit adjacent to someone who has an air of inebriation, or too many tell-tale, dingy, overstuffed bags.
At the front of the bus, a bench of three seats has been raised to accommodate a disability scooter. The woman on it is heavy and pale, with a wide, flattish face. In the next row a wiry black man sits the aisle seat. He lets a person or two walk past, but scoots to the window for the tall girl with the dyed red hair, saying, “You can sit here, Angel, I ain’t a big man,” his voice a melodious baritone. The girl evaluates: He’s missing a tooth or two, but he’s dressed clean and holding a shiny cell phone. He seems calm enough to not be crazy. She takes the seat next to him.
Immediately the man starts talking to no one, or maybe to himself, saying not to worry, that Jesus is going to take care of us all. The girl having already been proselytized once that day, avoids eye contact, hoping his ghosts will keep him occupied.
But gradually it becomes clear that the man is not talking to inner voices but to the large, round back of the woman in the disability scooter. The woman doesn’t—perhaps can’t—turn around, but when she speaks her voice travels along the bus windows beside them, clearly audible
“Maybe I’ll buy one a them five-dollar tickets,” she says, “and win five-hundred. Wouldn’t that be somethin’?”
“It would be something,” says the man, “it would be some kind of luck.”
“Some kind of good luck. It would be very good luck.”
“What would you do if you won that five hundred?” the man asks, eliciting an added stillness to the woman’s form that signals the question has landed. “Ha,” says the man “that’s the dilemma, right?”
“Contacts maybe,” she says. “Or the car. My contacts or your car.” And like that the fun has turned to worries.
“Don’t you worry,” the man says, calm as a lullaby to the woman’s back, “Jesus is taking care of us, and maybe he’ll give you that decision to make.”
Then the woman reminisces about how once she spent ten dollars buying two lotto tickets, and both tickets lost. She didn’t win a thing. She’d wanted to buy more, but the man had stopped her. He joins in the recollection, saying he hadn’t wanted to see her whole check go that way. He knows how she felt because he’d sometimes like to take his check to the liquor store and spend the whole thing.
The man turns to the girl and with a half-grin and nods to the woman’s back, asking, “can you believe I’ve been with this one for thirty years?”
The bus has emptied some, the lights inside is are on. Outside it’s full night, hard to much but the signs lit brightly enough to combat the reflections of the windows.
“See that?” the man jabs his finger on the glass, pointing to a red glowing sign that floats past, advertising check cashing with just a one percent fee. “We could cash the checks right here, and not have to travel so far east.”
“Well it’s okay when we’re going anyway, if we have to go the doctor’s appointments.”
“But the other days. You’re riding, I gotta walk, and my dogs is tired.”
“You could ride the other scooter.”
“No, we’ve been over that,” his voice is still smooth, but has an added intensity. “What if you get on the bus and then there’s no room for another scooter, and what we do then? I don’t even want to conversate ’bout it.”
“Well, you could ride on my lap when you get tired then.” The woman’s tone is flat making it hard to know if it’s a real suggestion or humor.
“Oh, you’re real funny, Barbara, you make good jokes.” His voice is likewise mellow, and the girl isn’t sure if it’s sarcasm or genuine appreciation.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve seen wives ride on their husband’s laps.”
“I’ll ride when it’s direct atop four wheels. That’s it.”
Barbara doesn’t answer.
“You’re thinking, you’ve got six wheels, aren’t you?” says the man.
The girl tries to glance under the scooter, wondering if there are two more wheels. She hasn’t fully tracked the direction of the conversation, is startled to hear the man say, “I’m sick of you Barbara. I’m just so sick of you.” His voice is still so even that his words might be a joke or an endearment.
Barbara is silent. Her back, which hasn’t moved appreciably during the ride, seems to the girl even more still.
“It’s been a long day,” says the man after a moment. And then, “but it’s been a good day. We had the devil on our tails, but gave him the slip, didn’t we Barb?
The well-lit bus rumbles through half-visible intersections like a motley-crewed spaceship aimed toward some destination where it might never arrive.
“I guess so,” Barb finally answers.
“I guess we did.”