Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cigarettes and Champagne

When Chelsea left work early she always went to the bar under the El tracks and bought a glass of champagne because she liked the narrow shape of the glass and that it was called a "flute," which she thought went well with the tickly way the bubbles made her throat feel. She liked to light a cigarette and then take a sip of champagne and hold the smoke in her lungs until the fizzing went away and then blow it out her nose while looking up at the ceiling, which made her feel cultured in a black and white movie kind of way. On those days when she was supposed to be at work, and she was sitting instead two seats down from a family of tourists who had stepped off the Magnificent Mile and couldn't find their way back to the TGI Fridays and so had stopped in a bar to cool off, she would tap her unmanicured fingernails on the bar and wish she had a cigarette holder so she could wave it around while deep in conversation with the young blonde bartender with tattoos on his neck. But, even though she often ate her lunch in a booth in the corner and came in for happy hour an hour early nearly twice a week, she had never learned the regular bartender's name, and he didn't seem to recognize that he had greeted her with a nod at least one hundred and thirty three times.

And so Chelsea sat on the fourth stool from the tap, as usual, tapped the ash from her cigarette into a glass tray and worked on a crossword puzzle that one of the regulars had left behind under a plate. When she didn't know the answer, Chelsea would put in swear words because all she had in her purse was a pen and so she knew she wouldn't finish it right anyway, but it turned out that matching up five and seven letter curses at right angles with the names of Shakesperean plays was harder than it seemed and she gave up on even that with ten blocks still unfilled. Unfolding the paper she looked for the comics, but the Tribune didn't have Garfield, which was the only one she really liked because she read once that Jim Davis wrote the strip about bugs, but was told that no one wanted to read a comic strip about bugs, so he changed it to cats.

When she left the bar, Chelsea took the paper because she thought it would make her look busy on the train, and just as she pulled the door open she turned toward the blonde bartender and waved, but he was filling a beer and probably didn't see her, but either way he didn't wave and Chelsea thought maybe tomorrow she would try the Bennigan's on Michigan Avenue instead.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Drabble Entry, AKA "Kevin"

When Kevin sat down at the bar there were two old-timers with six teeth each and a young couple watching the baseball game on one of the corner TVs and swapping fries for onion rings. He looked at the bottles arranged behind the bartender, who was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt with paint on it that showed the edges of a blurry black tattoo. Kevin wanted to order whiskey with ice, but he hated calling it "on the rocks," so he left the bar, stood on the corner in the summer heat and thought about gopher holes sunk into the prairie.

* Drabble
** Inspired by a "contest" on Peter deWolf's blog

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Sarah was on the side-facing seat in the bus when she looked over and saw her leg and thought, "Is that my leg? How did it get all the way over there?" And then she thought, "My leg is touching that other man's leg." And then she thought, "Why can't I feel that? My leg. Which is all the way over there. And touching that other man's leg." But then she thought, "No. That is not my leg." And she felt better.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Jaime looked deeply into Alex's eyes and thought as hard as she could: "I have a secret I have a secret I have a secret I have a secret," and he turned to her and he leaned in close and he whispered,

"I have a cat named Clarence."

She couldn't help but laugh.

The couple across from them turned to stare because they hadn't heard what he said or what she thought but they had heard her laugh because it was loud and abrasive and it woke their little curly-haired child who was sleeping in her stroller encased in a plastic rain covering, and now the child began to fuss and pull at the plastic and it was their stop and it was raining buckets outside, but the child did not care about the rain, only about the oppressiveness of the plastic.

And Jaime felt bad about waking the child, but not about laughing because she didn't really have a secret after all, except that she wanted to know if her boyfriend was psychic which was only half a secret because they had tried it before, thinking things at one another, and it had really never worked, but had always always always been funny because he could think the most absolutely random things, and all she could ever think was "I have a secret," and yet he could never guess.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Riding in the back of a cab as it headed north up State Street, Wallace saw another ad for Amos' Carpet Cleaning posted on the inside of a bus shelter.  Asking the cab to pull over, he jumped out, snatched the flier and jumped back in, his patent leather shoes barely squeaking as he whirled.  Amos had a lot of nerve making off with his Kinko's card in the middle of the afternoon and then using it to advertise a barely existent business founded largely on constantly borrowing Wallace's upright carpet steamer.  

Wallace's own carpets could use a good cleaning, he fumed, as he stared at the block letters handwritten with sausage-sized Sharpie markers and poorly spaced so that the phone numbers crowded together at the right hand of the page.  If Amos had ever so much as learned to turn on the iMac, he could have made a much more professional flier.  On the other hand, then he probably would have used all the ink and paper in Wallace's aging printer, which would have coughed and sputtered and frustrated even Amos until he gave up and took the salvageable copies to Kinko's and still used all the money on Wallace's card.

Wallace ground his teeth and kicked the seat in front of him.  Swearing in Swahili, the driver turned to glare at Wallace, still moving forward in traffic.  "I know those words, you know," cried Wallace, gripping his armrest, "I ran track with KENYANS!" he screamed the last word as the car coasted to a stop inches from a bicyclist.  The driver turned back forward, but glared at Wallace in the rear view mirror.  

"What?" Wallace sneered.

"Wamos Brothers Cleaners," the driver replied, "They are not nothing.  AND there is one brother. It makes no sense."

Wallace frowned down at the flier and then held it up to the light.  "AMOS," he said, "Amos... Brothers."  He pointed at the A.

"Wwwamos," nodded the driver, "with a double you.  Funny name!" He laughed and threw his head back as he changed lanes.

Wallace squinted at him and then at the flier again, and finally he saw it--a large, flowery W before Amos' name, which he had mistaken for a decoration.

Staring out the window he thought very hard about the name, about his copy card, and about his upright steam cleaner.  He came to no conclusions, but he decided he wouldn't ask Amos about the card at dinner tonight after all.  


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Three Names

Regina Amanda Wilson had huffed all her shopping bags three extra blocks because the sales clerk had pointed the wrong direction to the bus stop, and so she woofed out all her breath when she sat down on the fire hydrant.  Her dentures were loose and they were starting to bother her gums, so she sucked at them, making a chirping sound like a bird, and said "Summertime.  Summertime" to herself, thinking of the November heat.

Jennifer Lawndale Montgomery was never one to stare, so when she heard the chirping noise she glanced for no longer than 2.5 seconds and then gazed off at the wooden artists' dummies in Blick's window.  She had also had great difficulty wearing lipstick, and found the waterproof/smudge-proof/nuclear-attack-proof kinds made her look like a Kewpie doll, so she felt only sympathy when she noticed the woman had bright red smudges staining her front teeth.

Regina's back was bad and her legs were worse, but the words for both conditions always eluded her when she needed them, so she just gave voice to her complaints with a low pitched "Oh.  Oh" and "Oh my" as it occurred to her.  She stretched her neck around and around and thought that the twitchy young woman in front of her might be wearing a wig.

Jennifer stared intently in as many other places as possible, but she felt that the chirping woman  was staring at her and it made her scalp crawl.

Regina noticed that the young lady kept touching her unusual hair, and she murmured "Mm Hmm" to herself before going back to contemplating her sciatica.

Jennifer snuck a peek at the woman on the hydrant and found that she was, in fact, staring at her, and so she felt justified in rolling her eyes before turning away again.  When Jennifer's bus arrived, she boarded it in relief and quickly made for the very back corner seat where she could safely pretend to sleep.

When Regina's bus arrived, she noticed that the unsettling wigged woman boarded it ahead of her and considered waiting for the next one.  But the hydrant was starting to put her legs to sleep, so she heaved herself up, gathered her bags, and boarded the bus.  On the back bench seat she sat beside the young woman and inspected her hairline from another angle.

Jennifer almost opened her eyes when she heard the chirping approach, but instead she screwed her eyelids closed even harder.  As the bus picked up speed a nice breeze came up the back of her neck and cooled her head.

Sitting beside the young woman, Regina could tell that her hair was real, especially once the wind started to batter her from behind.  She felt sorry for her, that her real hairdo looked so much like a wig.  "At least she don't have cancer, though," she said to the man to her right who nodded and looked out the window.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Red Bull

When Mitchell's car broke down he had to ride the bus everywhere for two weeks and he thought for a bit that he'd have to ride it forever thereafter because he didn't have any kind of money, really, much less two thousand dollars to fix a burned out piston line or whatever the hell that was they told him.  He wished he'd taken auto shop instead of home ec, which he took for the girls, but the girls in home ec turned out to be none of the pretty ones, and only the kind that already looked matronly and were planning your children's names while they helped you thread the sewing machine and then looked sorely disappointed in you like your mother when you sewed the cuff of a shirt on inside out.  He'd wanted to ask out the one thin and mousy girl who always looked lost when she looked at your face, but then the teacher had yelled at her for mishandling the washing machine, and she had some kind of panic attack where she couldn't breathe and great gobs of mucus flowed down her face, and she went out into the hallway, and Mitchell didn't see her again after that.  Not that it would have changed his car situation now anyhow.

Mitchell hated the way the bus smelled of food and diapers as if its mission was not to transport people to and fro, but to remind them that they were mortal animals and everything they did was somehow in the service of fried chicken and infants.  He thought that when you thought about things in the long run like that, it was bound to make you depressed and even suicidal, and the last thing the world needed was him depressed, because wasn't he enough of a drain on the energy of the universe back when he had to drive a 1989 Pontiac Sunbird around?  

He realized finally after two weeks of more self-pondering and seat-sharing than he thought was good for anyone that he wasn't getting his car back, but he certainly wasn't riding the bus for the rest of his life either, and when he told a man at the bar about his problem, the man bought him a Red Bull and vodka and told Mitchell he had a business proposition for him.

Apparently having the kind of job that requires you to haul ass all over the city every day, as well as being, on balance, fairly young and not misshapen, qualified Mitchell to receive free use of and even get paid for his time in, the Red Bull car.  This car was shaped something like an old Gremlin, painted silver red and blue, with the Red Bull logo on the side and a giant plastic Red Bull can on the top.  Mitchell would drive it around for work and hand out coupons and advertisements and make some money while he was at it.  

In his first day in the car, he drove by his old bus stop, slowed down and honked the horn and flipped off everyone standing there, which made him feel better about himself while simultaneously feeling bad about himself for feeling good about flipping off young mothers and professional types with briefcases.  He instantly resolved not to think about it at all anymore, but then the light at the corner was red and he had to sit there in the silver car with a Red Bull can on the top, right next to all the people he was not thinking about, and he wondered whether he should give them some flyers.  Then the light turned green and he drove away.  


Thursday, March 19, 2009


Dust kicks up in the wake of the bus and, turning her head North, Krista tries to close every orifice but involuntarily licks her lips and tastes powdered sugar.  Looking up and to the South she catches them, giant rotating snow machines sprinkling sugar from the rooftops.

"Gak," she clears her throat in disgust, and an elderly man nods in agreement, or in time with headphones.  Tiny blondes are dressed for the club, swathed in unnatural fibers and ringed by slouching striped-shirted men whose belts match their shoes.  Sweet dust settles in their sticky hairdos and they do not notice that it glows in the light of their Bluetooth headsets.

The elderly man's mp3 player gives out with a click and he pulls it from his too-tight corduroy pockets and shakes it.  When sugar comes shivering off the square screen along with the usual lint, he scowls up at Krista with mucusy eyes.  She just wrinkles her nose at him and scratches her chin, but he thinks this is a gang sign, a rallying cry to the girl's hidden henchmen, and he lurches behind the lone, iron-fenced tree.

Hurt, Krista recedes from the curb and strides up the street through the sweet mist in search of a more personally conducive stop.  Approaching the homeless man who halfheartedly hocks Streetwise outside the smoke shop, she imagines herself opening her wallet to him, emptying all of her cash, probably over forty dollars, into his faded paper cup.  His squinty, sweaty face would light up at her and he would stammer appreciative words in a tumble so confused and excited that they could not form themselves rightly into sentences.  He would praise God, undoubtedly; bless Her, personally; call her beautiful, likely.  He would tell her she had a beautiful smile, as people always did if she were smiling, or beautiful eyes, as people always did if she were not smiling.  

But she had passed him now without a nod or smile, and without money in his cup she was beautiful to no one.  No matter.  With sugar falling from the sky today, flour yesterday, it was liable to be eggs or yeast tomorrow and soon enough he could make all the meals he needed from the dust shaken off of tourists' umbrellas as they stared, giggling, up at the clouds.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Truth or Dare

The evening light tinged the buildings softly orange and the last of summer's dying bugs flailed about wildly in the glimmering air.  "Ugh," Kristi said and thought about spitting in the grate on the sidewalk, "Never play Scruples with your parents.  You find out things you do not want to know."

Jessie giggled and swayed her shoulders back and forth.  Kristi was her best friend, inordinately funny, eminently cool and a thousand other things besides.  

Kristi wrinkled her nose, forehead and lips and rolled her eyes.  "So not kidding," she said and did spit in the sidewalk grate.  Jessie was her best friend, terribly immature and kind of short, but a fantastic audience.

Jessie laughed harder and tried to work up some spit in the back of her mouth.  "What's Shcruples?" she slurred slightly as the spit gathered.

Kristi stretched her neck from side to side, trying to get it to pop like her older brother's did.  "Umm..." she said, her voice pinching and stretching with the shape of her throat, "It's like Truth or Dare in a card game.  Only without the dare part.  And the other people get to accuse you of lying and tell everybody about how they think you're a liar and then vote on it."

Jessie swished spit and squinted at her.  Tipping her head back, she gargled "Whad they asg?"

Kristi wrinkled her nose, drew a deep breath and blew it out hard at her bangs.  "Oof!" She said, "I'm telling you.  You do not want to know."  

Jessie stuck her left hip out hard, jammed her hand down on it and spat in the grate.  Wiping her chin, she grinned.  "It's not my mom!"

"Jesus, Jessie!"  cried Kristi and squinted at her, "Did you get any in the subway, or is it all on your face?"

Jessie blushed, but grinned wider.  "My loogie was bigger than yours anyway."  Kristi could always think to do something cool, like spit right in front of everyone at the bus stop, but Jessie could do it too, and she knew that Kristi was impressed.

Kristi shook her head at her and rocked back on her heels, staring up at the whorls carved into the tops of the buildings high above.  

Jessie watched her for a moment, swirling her key chain round and round her index finger.  "So?" she said at last.  

Kristi stomped forward onto her flat feet.  "You're such a damned busybody Jessie!" she said.  Jessie might know how to laugh at a joke and even how to tell one every once in a blue moon, but damned if she knew when one was over.  

Jessie narrowed her eyes at her, then turned away and looked toward oncoming buses.  "Whatever Kristi.  You effing brought it up."  She checked her watch and ran her tongue between her upper teeth.

Kristi laughed out loud then and grabbed Jessie around the shoulders.  "Oh my God, I'm just kidding.  You're such a Froot Loop!"  Jessie's shoulders were meatier than she expected, and she hugged her closer. 

Jessie shook her head and smiled slightly.  "So.  What happened?" She asked.

Kristi thought hard for a moment, staring at the sidewalk cracks and patting Jessie's arm.  Jessie knew this gesture, and thought she was about to get the superior eye roll and heavy sigh.  But Kristi suddenly squealed and turned to put her mouth right by Jessie's ear.   "Holy crap," she yelled, "My mom totally said that if people were having s - e - x on a park bench she'd stop to look!"

"Eeeeew!" Jessie wriggled away from Kristi and jumped up and down.  "Your mom is a total psycho!"

Kristi sighed, punched Jessie on the arm and said "Don't I know it." 


Thursday, March 5, 2009


All of a sudden, at the age of 34, Marian discovered that her teeth were narrower at the tops than they were at the bottom.  She had several cascading thoughts about this.  The first was that she really ought to be more observant about her own physiognomy, though this wasn't the first time something like this had happened to her.  When she was in college a man had pointed out to her that her toes didn't curl under, but laid flat just like fingers, and that the second to last one was longer than the middle one.  She had stared for a few moments at her vampire finger toes and then put on her clothes, left the room and never had a one night stand with a man with gel in his hair again.

Marian's second observation was that she should take her fingers out of her mouth or people were going to start staring at her, if they hadn't already.  Besides which she had no idea what kind of turbo germs she had just communicated into her mouth via her fingernails, seeing as how just a moment before she had been absentmindedly scratching the side of the bus shelter.  It had an poster for the new Batman movie on it and when she looked over she had seen her fingers scraping across an enormous reproduction of Christian Bale's face, airbrushed free of pores or facial hair.  

Her third thought was that she wished she had a mirror so she could look closely at her triangle-shaped teeth and see what impact this freakish oddity had on her smile.  Casually she leaned closer to Batman's gigantic head and tried to catch her reflection in his dark hair, but she could not see whether her teeth looked any different without grimacing abnormally at herself.  She sucked her tongue and leaned back again.  

Finally, staring intently at the Bale head, she wished that it was a poster for a light romantic comedy, or Channel 5 News, or some other brightly-colored sea of smiling faces that she could inspect for tooth shape and at least get some idea of whether she would need to make a dentist appointment as soon as she got home.  She ran her tongue over the front and back of all of her teeth, but she could not feel the shape of them as well as she could with her fingernails, and she longed to be home where she could inspect herself in the mirror, wash her hands and stroke her teeth with her fingertips or turn on the television to look at the toothy faces.

Marian gazed around her, looking for someone to make face-contact, but everyone stared vaguely into the distance.  They were all dressed for fall--thin men in white shirts and dusky blue sweater vests, pudgy young women in peasant skirts and brightly-colored scarves tied artfully around their necks.  But the late afternoon was still summery warm, and the bus exhaust blew across them in waves, bringing jewels of sweat to the chins and foreheads of the well-dressed commuters.  Leaning her head back and away from the onslaught of traffic, a middle-aged woman got caught in Marian's stare.  She wore a teal tweed suit with a silk blouse--no doubt soaked through with sweat at the armpits by now.  Marian smiled at her.  The woman stared, looked quickly behind her and then checked her watch.  Terrified, Marian automatically stuck her fingers back into her mouth and felt her teeth.  That seemed to clinch it.  Something awful had happened to her gums during the course of the day and she was now wandering the streets grinning at strangers with a horrific triangle-toothed smile that was extremely off-putting.  Marian was sure she would remember if people had always had this reaction to her smiling at them.  

Or at least fairly sure.

That stopped her heart for a moment, and she added flipping through old photo albums to her list of things to do as soon as she got back.  The mentally ticked off the list; one: check the state of teeth and gums in the mirror.  Two: see how current teeth and gums compare to earlier teeth and gums, particularly as relates to happy pictures with other people in them also looking happy and not uncomfortable or afraid.  Addendum: people not related to me.  Three: compare current and past shape of teeth and gums to examples in film, television and magazines.  Addendum: research whether examples have had their teeth capped.  Marian took a deep breath.  With this list compiled she felt much more prepared for whatever might befall her.  Wincing, she added a possible fourth: call the dentist, oral surgeon or emergency room, whichever seemed appropriate given the situation.  Pulling out her wallet, she checked the amount of cash inside, stepped to the corner and hailed a cab.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Annabeth's grandfather stepped off a number 146 bus half a car-length from where she stood and didn't so much as acknowledge her existence.  She stood with her hands in her pockets and her headphones in her ears and watched him look around the bus stop twice and then lumber off up the block.  The clothes he wore were unfamiliar and his step looked more uncertain than she remembered, but his hair was still dark, with only a salting of gray, and his enormous glasses were just the same.

He disappeared around the corner as Annabeth's bus arrived, and she hesitated just long enough to be elbowed out of position by a woman who looked like a nine-to-five hooker and smelled of vanilla.  

On the bus ride home Annabeth looked back at the woman's cheetah print jacket and remembered going to the Iowa Symphony Orchestra surrounded by fur-coated Great-Aunts who fed her sticky lavender candy and bitter soda at the intermission.  Her grandfather had slapped their hands when he saw the candy and made a guttural growling noise that she later found out meant he needed a cigar.

Annabeth wondered if she should call her mother when she returned home and tell her that her ex-husband's father had wandered from his southern Iowa nursing home as far northeast as the shores of Lake Michigan, but she imagined there would be no response to that news but silence, and so she kept her peace as well.  If she had her ex-stepfather's phone number, she might consider calling him herself, but Danny had long ago fallen off the grid somewhere in the hills of Ohio, and besides he had rarely appreciated the mingling of his family with Annabeth, even when she was only twelve and newly fatherless for the third time.

She thought now she ought to have gone after her grandfather, just to see if he was going to a night job as a janitor in a high rise like the one where she worked.  She guessed he would not recognize her and imagined she could shadow him to see if he still kept used tissues in his sleeves like the Italian mob ladies in the movies.  

The more Annabeth thought of her grandfather, however, the faster the bus went, until the cord between them snapped again, and she thought only of violets.  


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Ephraim stood on the rainy corner in the dark and tried to use his psychic powers to draw attractive women with umbrellas closer to him.  He wore a thin, grayish-blue raincoat that was too large in the hood and sleeves and leaked at the collar.  He thought if the rain didn't slow down before his shirt soaked through, he'd settle for a moderate-looking woman or even a plain woman with good hair and an umbrella.  

When he turned his head the giant hood on his coat held its place, and so everywhere he looked he saw half women in power suits carrying half umbrellas and stomping on their half stiletto heels.  A bus pulled up and Ephraim turned to face his reflection just as a woman cleared the steam from her window with a violent gesture.  She stared out at Ephraim, who glared at her for a long moment before remembering to turn away.  When he turned back, the window was fogged up again, and the woman was biting her nails.

As Ephraim began to take a step forward, a short man with a scraggly beard and a gigantic woman sharing his a umbrella walked along the edge of the curb and stopped three-quarters of a step too close to him.  The man had flat face with a scar in his forehead like a dent and the woman had shimmering golden hair in a curly spasm on top of her head, which she shook and it released sparks of rain.  The two swayed from side to side, hands together on the bulb of the umbrella, and came within inches of the runoff of Ephraim's left coat sleeve.  Ephraim thought he would crack open and red jelly would come spilling out at their feet.  

He wanted to push them into oncoming traffic.

The man scratched his beard and took a quarter step closer to Ephraim, who could now smell paprika, celery, sweat and eggs.  Ephraim took a deep breath through his mouth and tilted his head back to look at the dark and roiling sky.  Large, bulbous drops of rain plopped onto his face and ran back into his hood, soaking his hair and pooling at the back of his neck.  Ephraim blinked quickly, but the drops got larger and larger, and when one landed in his nose, he sneezed and wheezed and had a flashback to being dropped in the deep end of the pool at the age of six.

"Oops.  Sorry 'bout that," said the enormous woman, and tipped the umbrella back upright.

Ephraim shook the water from his face and snorted and gasped, while the bearded man stared.  When Ephraim caught his breath, the couple had turned back toward the street, and the short man had his free arm around the woman's waist.  Ephraim bumped them with his shoulder as he passed, and boarded the bus at the corner without checking which one it was. 


Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Alma always knew the difference when people said "Excuse me," but meant "Excuse you." She could tell when people were tapping their feet to music or just shaking their legs and if they were frowning or their mouths were shaped that way. She knew that people lived a thousand secret lives and thought a million strange things, but everyone shied away when a pigeon came at his head and most of them pretended they didn’t.

She liked to look in the rear view mirror at people not watching one another on the bus, especially the wakeful ones without books or newspapers or headphones who studied their own reflections in the window glass and moved their eyes like lizards in the sun.

Alma was married and had three children, but she didn't know anyone as well as she knew the people at the bus stop. She told her husband once about the different smells on different bus lines and he smiled and asked her to take out the trash. The children were too old now to come along on her rides--they were in school learning about the American Revolution and how to find the area under a curve. Ever since the youngest turned ten Alma lost at every game of Trivial Pursuit and no longer had to shape her mouth into a big O and make impressed noises when they got all A's on their report cards.

The other bus drivers said they sometimes listened to headphones, even though they weren't supposed to, and usually stared straight ahead at the road, even when opening and closing the doors. But Alma tried to talk to the folks who came on and sat nearest to the front--she would ask about their bags of fried barbecue chicken and the boxes they were taking to the post office. She talked to a woman once for an hour and a half as she rode the full length of the number four route, holding a sleeping baby on her lap. The child had the kind of mouth that looked like an upside down bow, with the upper lip jutting out as she sucked on the lower one. The woman held her tight across the chest and steadied a stroller with her foot and didn't seem to notice that the baby had soiled herself near the beginning of the ride.

Alma's favorite days were the ones when the display on the front of the bus was broken, and she had to stop at every stop and tell the people who leaned in which route she was on. People would gather around and she would yell out the numbers and the route name and they would board or wander slowly off, and then another group would cluster near the door. Her second-favorite days were when she drove a new route for the first time, and she could ask someone who boarded early to sit up near the front and help her out. These days that happened less often, since Alma had driven most of the routes in her sector at least a few times, but now she thought about pretending she hadn't, just to strike up a conversation with a young woman in a colorful scarf or a middle aged man in a suit.

When she went home at night and settled into bed, Alma could hear the people talking and the tinny noise of their cell phone ring tones. She closed her eyes and let the sound drown out her husband's snoring as she tumbled into sleep.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


At the age of three, Alfred had carefully and thoughtfully licked the stickiness off of every sheet of a lint roller he found in a laundry basket beside his mother's bed.  "He had to be rushed to the emergency room," his mother told her friend Cecilia, "because the adhesive was toxic, but that was just the first in a long line of dangerous things he licked or sucked until he almost died."

"Mom!"  Alfred hissed.

His mother laughed.  "Oh, it will come in handy for him someday, I'm sure!"

Alfred cringed.

"We had to start reading all the warning labels on everything and hiding the most unusual household items.  'Avoid accidental ingestion,' they'd say, but I tell you when I walked in on Alfred he was going after that lint roller like it was his full-time job!"

Cecilia laughed aloud and took a sip of her Pepsi.  "Kids are sick individuals!" she said.  Alfred curled his upper lip and bared his teeth at her, and she shuddered.  "Sick," she muttered.

Alfred's mother had been looking upstream at the oncoming traffic.  "What's that?" she asked, turning back to Cecilia.

Alfred narrowed his eyes at her.  "Nothing, Mother."

"I was not speaking to you, was I Alfred?  Now, go back to your Gameboy and let me speak to your Auntie Cecilia." 

"She's not my Aunt," Alfred muttered and turned away from them and toward the giant Batman poster on the side of the bus shelter.

"What's that, Alfred?"  His mother put her hand on his shoulder.

Alfred bent himself forward and wriggled from underneath her.  "I said it's not a Gameboy.  It's a PSP.  You should know, you bought it."  

Alfred's mother tsked at him and turned back toward her friend.  "He's at that age now, you know.  Won't hear a thing from me anymore."  

Alfred hated the way his mother spoke to him in hypothetical questions and about him in platitudes.  He hated the way she referred to all her female friends as his Aunties, which just about ruined the fact that some of them had really fantastic cleavage.  Speaking of which, facing the Batman poster at the right angle, he could just about see down the front of Cecilia's low sweater, which jiggled as she laughed at his mother's inane list of other products he had sucked or swallowed.  He could think of a thing or two he'd like to...


Alfred swung around roughly and glared at his mother.  "What?" he sneered.

"Why do you have the Gameboy," she rolled her eyes, "the PSP in your mouth?"

Alfred dropped his hands to his sides and bit his lip.

"This is exactly what I'm telling you about, isn't it Cecilia?  You'd think we'd be done with it, what that it's been ten, eleven years, but no!"  She laughed, "He hasn't changed from when he was a toddler!"

Alfred wiped his lips with his sleeve and glowered at Cecilia's breasts.  

"Alfred!" His mother cried.

"What!" He snapped back at her.

"Isn't that your school friend, Natalie, over there?  Why don't you go say hello to her?  I wonder if she's taking the same bus as we are, I imagine she lives near us, doesn't she?"

Alfred scanned the bus stop erratically, wiping the PSP back and forth across his pant leg and drying his mouth with his other arm.  

"Never mind, Alfred, you missed her.  She just got on another bus.  Why don't you ever pay attention when I'm pointing things out to you?  If you paid half as much attention to the things coming out of my mouth as you do to the things you put in yours, well..."

"Gross, Mother!"

Cecilia laughed, and her sweater slipped down so that Alfred could see the bow on the front of her bra.  He smiled winningly at her and said to his mother, "Our bus is here.  Could you stop being embarrassing for a minute?"

"Alfred!" His mother said, "Will you grow up?"  She turned to Cecilia "He is such a trial!  Did I tell you about the time we found him sucking the antifreeze out of the car?”

Cecilia laughed again, and Alfred pushed ahead of them to board the bus alone. 


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When Joe Died

They had not sung Amazing Grace at the funeral, because the organist did not know it and besides, everyone attending was over 80 and most of them never knew Joe.  The organist was a small boy, wearing brown pants that were too large for him and lugging a shiny-looking book of service music that was made to open flat.  He had stood to the right and behind the pastor, his father, until the service started and then sat up high on the bench and could not reach the foot pedals.  Anna had not given the pastor any other hymns or favorite readings because by the end Joe was agnostic when it came to almost everything and Anna had never cared much for church herself. She sat on the folding chair in the center of the first row and the rest of the funeral regulars arranged themselves around the room.  They all cried for the people they had lost long ago and no longer remembered, but Anna held very still and gripped the Kleenex the pastor had given her.  At the end of the service she shook his hand and looked for a long moment at his little organist boy and then walked out to the bus stop and waited for the bus that was headed downtown.  

The air around Anna cracked and shattered as she sat at the bus stop looking at her hands in her lap and wondering where they came from.  She had forgotten to wear socks, and her skirt pulled up around her calves when she sat, revealing cold, grey ankles and flat, backless shoes.  She also forgot where they kept the sugar and how to make lasagna and what time they met their friends for poker.  Days seemed to pass as she sat and forgot things because Joe had kept them for her, had tuned their radio and bought the eggs, and all that was left was the breeze that shifted her light collar against her neck.

When she got into downtown, Anna had to walk four blocks to her bank, and the dry snow sifted underneath her feet.  Behind the tall counter, the bank teller was kind enough not to smile when she took Joe's check register and closed the account on her computer.  She handed Anna twelve crisp one hundred dollar bills and a little slip of paper that slid away and drifted to the floor.  Folding the bills in half, Anna tucked them into the inside pocket of her coat and made her way back to the bus stop.  

Bits of Joe bumped up against one another in Anna’s head, and their shells were brittle and already cracked.  She still knew which way was South and that she needed to take the number 29 bus, but if she turned too quickly that would be lost too, and so she held very still.  A young Asian woman sat down on the bench beside Anna, and she asked carefully, "The number 29 stops here?"  But the woman did not hear her, and so she had to say it again, too loudly now, and the woman nodded her head and said, "Yuh huh," but she was wearing very unusual shoes that Anna had never seen before.  Casually she moved her fingers and thought they looked like earthworms.  She thought of the face of a bus and the shape of the numbers two and nine, and also of Amazing Grace, which floated around the back of her throat.

When the bus came Anna still remembered it, and climbed aboard carefully and piled her bag up on her lap.  She would think of the door to the nursing home for the entire ride and save her energy for tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Star Crossed

Lucia looked at the rainbow reflection of her water glass on the white tablecloth and realized that she was star-crossed, she just didn't know with whom.  It certainly wasn’t with Bear, sitting across from her, stolidly munching on a crust of bread.  Bear’s real name was Julius, but he had been born a ten pound, eight ounce baby covered in hair and grinning with gums as sharp as teeth.  By the time Lucia met him, he had been known only as Bear for more than 25 years and had grown to fit the nickname even more than could be expected.

He looked up from his food and smiled at her, crumbs tumbling from his mouth and catching in his beard.  Lucia smiled back and thought of the security guard in her building, who had dark skin and a shaved head and teased her about not stopping to talk to him on her way in and out of the building.  She saw him once in the Walgreens down the street from her office, buying a bag of chips and a fancy bottled juice.  They talked in line about the self-help book he was reading and about visiting his children, who lived with their mother, over the holidays.  He was charming and handsome and altogether too approachable to be her star-crossed lover.  

Bear worked as a receptionist in a dental clinic, hunkered down behind a semi-circular wall and entered patient information on the black and green screen of his computer.  He read the same copy of People Magazine over and over, listened to talk radio shows about hockey and straightened his brown knit necktie anytime anyone came up to the desk.  Lucia brought him lunch on her days off, and they sat outside on the wall in the parking lot when it was warm.  In the winter they chose the smallest table in the back corner of the employee break room and chatted about the low temperatures for the upcoming week.

There was a man Lucia saw at the gym most days that she went, who signed up for the cross-trainer next to hers and asked her once about what she was watching on the television.  He was short-ish and portly and hadn’t gotten any more slender in the months she had seen him at the gym.  Other than the interchange over the television, Lucia had never spoken to him, but she saw him at least twice a week, sweating through his gray t-shirt and carrying around a cream plastic water bottle with a maroon top.  Once, they left the gym at the same time and headed in the same direction, and she had to walk an uncomfortable middle distance behind him so he would not think she was following him and she could still go a reasonable walking speed.  He had turned off a couple blocks before her apartment, and she wondered how close he lived.

Bear was paying the restaurant bill now, slowly writing out the check in his crabbed left-handed writing, although Lucia still had two ravioli left on her plate.  She scooped one into her mouth, mashed it and swallowed, then followed it quickly with the last.  Two ravioli were too few to take home and too many to leave on her plate, she reasoned as she chewed, following Bear out into the snow falling heavily on the darkening street.  She wondered about the Hispanic grocer named Luis who always nodded to her from the cheese aisle and the slim young bus driver who wore his glasses on a chain around his neck.  Bear grabbed her hand to stabilize her as she slipped in the slushy snow and then led her to the bus stop where they sat down on the empty bench, hand in hand.