The Bus

The Bus,
published in the anthology "Building Bridges from Writers to Readers"

Douglas had started taking the bus a lot since Eleanor died, not that he needed to, of course An investment banker with an uncanny ability to move himself continually up the corporate ladder had sustained his family and his penchant for Porches for more years than he cared to remember. But now the silent isolation of that small sports car seemed unfavorable, even frightening to the man that claimed never to be scared of anything. The simple smell of the tan leather upholstery and the way all sound was shut out as soon as he closed the door was enough to make him nauseated or even launch a full-blown panic attack.

No. He liked being around people now – actually enjoyed standing squashed between others on the crowded number one line as it plodded its way up Sacramento Street, eventually depositing him just a few blocks away from the home he and Eleanor had shared at the top of the hill in Pacific Heights. No more speeding up and over the hills. No more looks of disdain from jealous younger men who wanted so badly to be in his position. No more gawking from the endless parade of tourists who had probably never seen a Porche in real life before.

No. The bus was better. The bus was comforting. Maybe it was just the simple fact that Eleanor had always wanted him to take the bus while she was alive, frightened that he would meet a gruesome, bloody end behind the wheel of “that glorified, expensive coffin” as she called it. But he hadn’t listened, had thought that her worries were needless and wrong, and they turned out to be just that. But it seemed he wanted and needed to do whatever he could for her now, and taking the bus home from work was simply one action he could take.

The usual crowd gathered at the corner stop in the financial district, mostly young business people who were either over-environmentally conscious or simply thought dealing with parking downtown was too much of a hassle to even consider. No doubt most of them could have easily afforded a car, but they chose to take the bus. On many occasions, Douglas would study their faces on the ride home, trying to determine what their reasons were and maybe even little specks of their life. He found it amazing, now that the pace of life had slowed since Eleanor’s death, how much he could observe, how much he could determine by simply studying the face of a random stranger on the smelly, overcrowded bus.

Eleanor had always been wonderful at that sort of thing. A trained psychologist, she could tell almost immediately if someone was dealing with some sort of emotional issues just by looking at them, just by taking in one quick measure of their eyes.

“The eyes are the most vocal part of the body,” she had said in one of her many desperate attempts to explain to him exactly how she did what she did for a living, sitting out on their brick deck amongst the orchids in their tiny backyard. Eleanor had been wearing a lilac dress that day made of some sort of light, almost transparent material. Chiffon, was it? Douglas could never remember these things. It had short frilly sleeves that the wind picked up and lifted almost all the way up to her chin. She had been sipping green tea out of a white china cup with a rim painted with pink roses that almost perfectly matched the shade of her lipstick – light and beautiful. She was a vision even then, though the first strokes had already begun to take hold in her body and were getting ready to strike, getting ready to take away everything she loved in a slow, drawn-out venomous decline.

“In peoples’ eyes you can see glimpses of their past, the tales of their present, and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, insight into their future,” she said, winking on her sea green eyes at him.

Douglas had simply shaken his head and ran his fingers through his short, feathery, already graying hair, thinking about how everything Eleanor said had to be phrased in poetry. She loved poetry. When they had first met, her prose-like way of speaking had captivated him, but after so many years of marriage, it had become customary and old, dusty like the cheap paperbacks Eleanor would always read and then insist on keeping in a large stack in a corner in one of the spare rooms.

How many years ago had that been? He couldn’t really remember, but the conversation was as clear as if he had only just spoken to her, had just sat with her on their deck days ago and watched her short blonde hair blow around her angled face in the cool ocean breeze.

A young woman with the same haircut, the same color hair even, that Eleanor had had came to a stop in front of him, standing on her tip toes to squint down the street, before pulling back the sleeve of her black overcoat and looking at her watch and tapping her food on the pavement. The bus was late again, but that was nothing new.

Douglas studied her for awhile. He liked the way her hair seemed to flow like waves back and forth as she turned her head this way and that, constantly looking for the bus. Her impatience didn’t seem to fit with her demeanor. She seemed at first to be calm and peaceful. Douglas wondered why she was in such a hurry. Maybe she was late for an appointment of some kind, a doctor visit maybe? But she looked perfectly healthy, but then again so did Eleanor just seconds before she had her first stroke.

Douglas felt a sharp pain his chest as he remembered that horrible moment when everything had changed. He had been sitting at their dining room table, reading The New York Times. It was a Sunday morning. Eleanor was rinsing out her coffee mug in the sink. He had not yet finished his own. One second she was standing, the next she was on the floor. That would be the last time she ever stood anywhere on her own.

Douglas squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. No. He wouldn’t think about it now. Thinking about it did nothing. It was pointless. When he opened his eyes again, the bus had arrived. The impatient blonde woman was bounding up the steps in blocky heels in front of him. He didn’t care much for that latest fashion of big, bulky, almost oppressive heels on women’s shoes. He like the slender curved ones that Eleanor had always worn, even though they probably made her feet hurt. That’s probably why this blonde woman wore blocky ones – because they were more comfortable, probably easier to walk in.

Douglas followed the woman into the bus and toward the back where they were both forced to stand because it was crowded as usual. For the first time, he caught a glimpse of her face, pale and thin like Eleanor’s had been, but this woman’s eyes were bright, almost blinding blue, not the pale green that had stared at him for years, had grown paler when the realization that her time was limited had bombarded his brain.

The memories were being especially harsh today. Maybe it was the striking similarity between this woman’s physical appearance and Eleanor’s, but the similarity didn’t seem to extend far beneath the skin or the flowing blonde hair. Douglas offered the stranger a brief smile before turning away. He didn’t want to look at her anymore. She reminded him too much of how he had once been, flying through life, taking everything and everyone for granted. Not willing to slow down for anything, no even for a minute to gaze a little longer into those loving eyes that always seemed to have more than enough time for him. And yet here this creature stood – the epitome of him encased in a body so like Eleanor’s.

Most of the rest of the bus held the stereotype of the time – men and women in pressed suits, not looking anywhere but at the newspapers they were holding, or blankly staring ahead, taking in nothing while some other being chattered to them through their cell phones.

The bus jerked and plodded along. Douglas reached up and grabbed the silver bar, which was uncomfortably warm from other hands that had no doubt grasped it in the not-too-distant past. The small ocean of bodies swayed with the movements of the bus as it slowly started to ascend the hill, growing ever more crowded as it made stop after stop. Douglas watched the people as they off and on, most of them on their way home, possibly to be greeted at the door with a smiling face and a kiss, something with which he would never again be greeted.

He was about to close his eyes to stop the tears from coming when he noticed an elderly woman standing at the front of the bus. It was obvious from her stature that it was difficult to stand in a stationary situation. She probably wouldn’t be mobile for very much more of what appeared to be an already long life. Before Eleanor died, Douglas wouldn’t have looked at this woman for more than a moment, if he would have noticed her at all, but today she caught his eye and his sympathy.

He made his way as politely as he could through the crowd in the bus up to the front and positioned himself right next to the woman, so that if she fell, he could catch her before she hurt herself. He also noticed, once he was up at the front, that a young woman, no more than twenty-five, was sitting in one of the front seats, babbling in a high pitched voice into her tiny cell phone about nothing at all, completely oblivious to the world around her. She had tight, curly black hair pulled back into a pony tail and lips that were way too red.

Douglas let her be. He could have asked her to stand up and let the poor old woman sit down, but he knew all too well that the fates would repay this woman for her being inconsiderate. They certainly had paid him back. He was suffering the consequences everyday.

The bus ride was pretty smooth, but the old woman did fall once, right back into Douglas. He gently grabbed her elbows and helped her stand back up before she started apologizing.

“That’s alright. It’s nothing,” he said. She smiled at him, the wrinkles in her face forming outlines around her mouth and eyes. Those were laugh lines. This woman had had a good life or at least she had laughed a lot.

The old woman got off the bus about six stops before his own, but Douglas followed her off the bus at her stop. It was a nice neighborhood at the top of Nob Hill, filled with warring architectures of modern and Victorian. He kept his distance about ten feet behind the woman as she walked, half-limping, down the street. Suddenly, she stopped and turned, heaving a chest heavy sigh before starting up the steps to what was apparently her destination, a pleasant cream-colored building with jet black trim. Douglas ran up behind her.

“Here, let me help you,” he said taking her arm and practically lifting her up each individual marble step, until they reached the top.

“Well, thank you very much. Do you live around here? I’ve never seen you before,” she asked, her eyes looking abnormally large through dated glasses.

“No, I live about six bus stops further up the next hill.”

“Oh. Well, why did you get off here?”

“No reason.”

The woman looked confused, but turned and entered the building, leaving Douglas standing on the step. He watched her until she got too far in the reflection of the street in the glass drowned out her image. He went back down to the street and headed back to the bus stop. Realizing he would probably have to wait awhile for the next bus, he was about to hail a cab, but then a Porche drove by and he decided to wait.

Copyright 2009 Nicole Tanner

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