2009 story submission by “Misanthrope” (Ryan Kelly, Natalie Walker, Sarah Fonnesbeck, Arthur Ross)
The crowd of mingling people coalesced into a line and looked attentive down the street at the approach of the bus. Foremost among them was a man in a worn but pleasant brown jacket, holding a large book in one hand and smiling in the warm weather. He greeted the driver as he ascended the few stairs into the bus.
“How you doin’ hon,” she said.
“Oh, you know me Lori, still standing.”
She busied herself taking the fares of the other passengers and the bus lurched into motion a moment before he had sat down, bringing him hard into the seat and against the elderly woman sitting next to the window.
The bus pulled away from the stop and as it did so a young man on a bicycle came racing along side, yelling, “Hey, wait, hold up! Hold the bus!”
The driver brought the bus to an abrupt stop and the unfortunate cyclist, not expecting this, twisted the handlebars before being thrown straight over them. Several people on that side of the bus laughed but the man with the book said, “That’s not right. They shouldn’t laugh. He might be hurt. They shouldn’t laugh at him like that.”
The elderly woman looked on and said, “I hope he’s alright. He’s standing up now, I think he’s ok.”
“They shouldn’t laugh,” he said again.
The bus driver opened the door to where the fallen bicyclist was now standing, and he indeed did seem alright, more shamed than hurt, and he laughed with the driver when he came aboard after securing his bicycle to the rack outside. He took a seat next to someone who appeared wholly uninterested in him now that he seemed likely to remain upright.
“That’s nice,” the elderly woman said, “At least he made it to the bus alright.”
The man nodded. He had the book in his lap now, and brushed a thumb back and forth along the contours of the closed pages. “Those bicycles can be pretty dangerous. My aunt never learned to ride a bicycle, but she always wanted to.”
The bus hit a bump and the passenger’s heads nodded in uniform agreement. The man went on, “She always wanted to, but she never learned when she was a little girl. She tried to pick it up when she was an adult but she could never quite manage. I remember watching her try and try when I was a little boy.”
The old woman nodded, pleased at having the conversation. “Did she give up?” she asked.
“Oh, after awhile. Would you like to see a picture of her? I’ve got one here.” He opened the book wide across his lap and one side fell so that it rested against the old woman’s thigh. The book was filled with photographs, black and white, some with grainy faded colors, most worn and some with evidence of having been folded or otherwise abused. He flipped through pages until he came across a photo of a smiling woman standing next to a bicycle.
“I would think that was the day she bought it,” he said, “because I don’t ever recall her smiling anywhere near that thing. She would try and try, make it about twelve feet and then tip right over. ‘Why does this keep on happening?’ I remember she’d ask. No one really had an answer I suppose. It seems like either you can ride a bike or you can’t.”
The woman nodded, still smiling, but she was looking at all the other photos on the page, a woman sitting at a kitchen table, another woman smoking a cigarette on a beach.
“And who are these people? These are some wonderful old photographs.”
“Mostly family” he shrugged shyly, “This is my mother here.” He pointed to a dark-haired woman laughing over a table laden with wrapped packages. “This was her birthday… I don’t remember what year. I must have been a small boy then.” He skipped ahead a few pages “This is both her and my aunt when they were getting ready for a church bake sale. I remember smelling pies and cookies all day and they kept chasing me out of the kitchen.”
“How sweet you’ve kept all these pictures! It must mean a lot to look back on old memories.” She leaned closer and studied a scarred photograph of a young girl with a cat in a baby carriage.
“That’s my sister, she must have been four years old then. We found that kitten outside in a storm and my mother couldn’t bear to leave it out in the cold. She always taught us to do the right thing and treat everyone kindly, even animals.” He glanced around the crowded bus as it wound around a corner and slowed to a stop.
“Well my dear, this is where I get off,” the elderly woman rose unsteadily to her feet and he rose also to let her pass. “I enjoyed your photo album. I hope we meet again sometime.”
“Oh I’m always on this bus,” the man replied, shutting the worn album. “Just ask Lori.” The driver nodded, smiling in the mirror.
Once again the bus crept forward, he reopened the book and turned through the pages.
“Your stop hon. Hyde park!” the voice broke into his reverie.
“Thanks,” he murmured and stood up, drawing his jacket close. He looked around at the surrounding passengers and sauntered off with a friendly wave.
He followed his usual path to the park, where his bench was waiting. It was a broad wooden bench worn with years of rain, graffiti, sunshine, and the imprints of wistful souls contemplating the weight of the world. As he settled into his spot he began to survey the park. There was a basketball court full of teen boys engaging in some mindless form of sport.
His gaze fixed on the playground where young mothers discussed how they met their husbands and their particular pregnancy tribulations while intermittently tucking an infant under their shirts to breastfeed or kissing the outstretched limb of a whimpering toddler. There was one woman with long brown hair tied in a ponytail, her small hands resting on the double jogging stroller filled with twin toddlers lured from the swing set with half peeled bananas. She smiled and waved at one of her friends and began to push the twins up the path towards him. He smiled at the children who shyly looked away from him. “Cute kids,” he called to her as she got closer. “Thanks,” was all she could reply, a bit breathless after the small hill she had to push them up.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day today? You should sit down and rest a bit.” She hesitated, but seemed to find his round smiling face unthreatening. As she sat down next to him, she pulled out her stainless steel water bottle and took a big swig, mindlessly gliding the stroller back and forth.
“My eldest sister had twins too,” the man said. “They were a handful, always getting into trouble.” He chuckled to himself as he thought about them. The young woman nodded in weary non-commitment.
One of the babies screeched. The weight of her attention went back to the occupants of the stroller. “Emma, that’s for your sister. You have your own snack.” She stood up and pushed them away, without looking back at the man who continued to strum his fingers across the worn cover of his photo album.
The low cacophony of the park continued around him and he was left to the solitude of his bench. A basketball rolled past his feet and a man came running to retrieve it. He nodded to the man on the bench in greeting and then threw the basketball back in the direction of the court, running shortly behind in pursuit. The man rose from the bench and walked to the street.
The café occupied prime real estate at the intersection of two streets busy with foot traffic. Black metal chairs and tables on the patio, trendy young people, business people, crepes and lattes and the accoutrements of middle-class leisure serviced by black-clad waitresses, bustling for attention in the anonymity of a midtown crossroads. He waited across the way for sometime, looking through the glass of the front door and then at some cue seen only by him crossed the street and entered.
When he entered, the girl at the host stand looked around as if for some other person, but no one was there. When he approached he said, “Hi, Lisa. How’re you today?”
She looked down at the stand where there was a book, presumably full of reservations or other tradecraft. She had dirty blond hair and more pens than she could possibly use jutting from the pocket of her apron. She did not look up when she replied, “Pretty good. Just yourself today?”
“Yep, just myself, just me. Unless you’ve got a break coming up.” She did not look up from the book. “I’m just kidding, of course,” he continued, “I know you’re busy. I saw a table outside, is it alright if I take that?”
“Yeah, of course.” She led him out to the table of which he’d spoken and left a menu without a word.
There were half a dozen such tables along the front of the café, delineated from the sidewalk by a low black chain and in the afternoon sun his arrival meant that they were now all occupied. A man on the sidewalk snorted hugely and then spat into the gutter, and the man at the table grimaced in distaste. A busser came by with water, but he did not look away from the uncouth gaggle of humanity on parade past his vantage. A mother leaned down and whispered some threat to her child, who began shaking his head, eyes now huge in his paled face. Two men walking without shame, hand in hand. Somewhere around a corner, a car alarm erupted and would not be silenced.
Two women were sat behind him and they began discussing the annoyance.
“Isn’t that awful? I think they should outlaw those things.”
“Oh, I know. They’re so loud.”
He turned around to see them, two middle-aged women of short and medium-length dark hair and similar taste in thin-rimmed glasses. “You know,” he said, “I heard that they don’t even work. No one pays attention to them anymore, so they can pretty much drive off with the alarm still going.”
“That doesn’t surprise me even in the least,” replied the woman nearest him. She had also turned to look back at him, and her assessment had apparently found his old-fashioned brown jacket and close-set eyes to be harmless. She smiled.
He went on. “You know, my aunt once worked in a bank for three days with the alarm blaring the entire time.”
“What?” the farther woman asked. “How did that happen?”
“Well, she couldn’t really blame anyone but herself. She set it off her first day at work. A man came in with long hair and a handlebar mustache and a gun on his hip, and it was a different time, back then, is what she says anyway, that it was a different time so that when she saw this man with long hair and a mustache with a gun she thought it was a robbery about to happen. Tripped the alarm right then, didn’t bother to look closer and see he was wearing a uniform and a badge.”
Both the women laughed and one said, “Oh no!”
He smiled and said, “Would you like to see a picture of her? I’ve got one here.”
“Oh yes, please, I’d love to see her.”
He rose and took his book to their table, sitting down next to the older-seeming of the two ladies. He opened the book and found a picture of a young woman in a light floral dress watering some plants.
“That would have been taken a few years after she foiled the big heist. Anyway, for some reason or another they weren’t able to turn the alarm off once she’d tripped it. This was in a small town, you see, and there wasn’t anything to do until they could get someone from the alarm company to come down from the city and fix it, which didn’t happen for near three days. And since she was the one that had caused the trouble, they made her work every single day, in all that ringing. Said she could hear that noise for the rest of her life. And she also said that if anyone had ever had a mind to rob that bank for real, there wouldn’t have been a better time, seeing as everyone in town had just stopped paying attention to it after about six hours.”
Both women had been staring at the photo while he spoke, and the others on the page like it. “I love this album,” one said, “Can I look at some of the others?”
“Oh, sure. Go ahead. They’ve almost all got stories behind them. Most have more than one, even. My family’s like that: much storied. Great people.”
One woman began turning pages and furrowed her brow. “Are these photos just of the women in your family?”
The man put one hand toward the photo album but then replaced it to his lap. “Great people,” he said. The women looked to each other and then one resumed turning pages.
“Oh, well I bet you’ve got a story for this one.” She pointed to a photo of a smiling woman sitting on a sofa.
There was a hole to her left where someone had been carefully removed with a pair of scissors. From the hole protruded a large arm and it came around her shoulders where it would have been impossible to erase without removing her head in the process.
“Who used to be there?” she asked.
The man started to stand but then sat again and looked at the picture. He took the album from the woman and this time did stand and as he did so said, “If you’re going to insist on being a snoop, you might as well have the good sense to keep your ignorant questions to yourself.”
He returned with as much dignity as he might to his own table and made a show of studying the menu. The women he had abandoned whispered to themselves and then walked into the restaurant. Five minutes later the manager approached him.
“You need to leave,” the manager said.
“You need to leave. Don’t make me say it again. This is your last time here.”
“Where’s Lisa?” the man asked. He took the photo album from the table and clutched it with one arm against his chest.
“Lisa doesn’t want to talk to you. Don’t come back here asking for her anymore.”
He rose from his chair. People had stopped eating and were looking at him. When he spoke he spoke so they could hear, “Well, I wanted you to know anyway, that I have been sitting here for thirty minutes and no one even once asked for my order. I wouldn’t come here again if you asked.”
Leaving the manager thus reprimanded, he shuffled away as quickly as he could, the album trembling in his hand as he walked.
Tinny victrola music and the odor of mildewed paper greeted the man as he pushed through the flimsy metal door. An autoharp mounted on the door frame announced his entrance with a tuneless strum.
The solitary store clerk glanced up and he wove his way between racks of moth-eaten letterman jackets and once stylish party dresses.
“Can I help you find anything?” the clerk asked with the enthusiasm of someone eager to impress. The man assessed this lanky young guy and asked tersely “Where’s Starla?”
“Not here today, but I know this place pretty well. What are you looking for?”
“She usually sets some things aside for me, maybe I’ll just come back.”
“What sort of things? Maybe I can find it in the back here.”
He paused a moment and ran a finger along the spine of his album.
“Ah, we did just get some from an estate sale. Let me dig them out.”
The old man walked over to the victrola and lifted the needle. The brassy Sousa march halted and he slipped a Garland record into its place. “That’s better,” he muttered as the familiar standard began to play.
He turned uncertainly to the young man holding an uneven sheaf of photos. Placing his book on an available desk he took the offered stack and began to leaf through. Coarsely muscled and uniformed rows of men, their triumphant faces leering met his distasteful gaze. He snorted and flicked it aside revealing another record of athletic prowess, sweat and trophies, arrogant stares, their black eyes peering outward. Each image seemed to mock his growing agitation.
“These aren’t right,” he said shoving them back into the clerk’s hands. “I’ll just come back when Starla is here.”
He tucked his book tightly under his arm and turned toward the door. As he made to leave his eye fell on a large framed print, a graceful dancer’s leg arched upward as she leaned toward four or five small girls, each bent on following her gentle instruction.
“How much for that?”
“Sixty-five dollars, it’s an original print.”
“Oh, just reminds me of something.” He continued to move through the dusty collections of other people’s pasts.
“But wait,” the clerk said, “I have some more photos here. I’m sure you’ll find something you like.”
The clerk dragged a box out from behind the counter and from it withdrew a creased manila envelope. Enclosed was a faded snapshot of a lone girl clad in a bathing suit and swim cap, posed beside a pool. Water still beaded on her smiling face and she held a small trophy. The man’s face softened as he took the photograph.
“Yes, I like this one. It belongs.”
He studied the girl’s slightly blurred features, “My cousin, she was a champion swimmer. Yes, I’ve been looking for her.” He slid the photo back inside the envelope and paid the bemused clerk.
“Yes, she belongs,” he said softly and opened his album. He turned through the pages, each woman smiling reassuringly to him. Pressing the covers closed, he held both book and envelope tight against his chest and wandered outside without another word. A breeze scented with decaying leaves met him as he crossed the street toward a bus stop. The slight shelter a welcoming sight to his heavy frame.
He sat alone at the bus stop, a light gray rain falling on the shelter above him. The sun was fresh-set behind the buildings of the city around him, and in the monochrome and urban dusk he rubbed the photo album across the tops of his thighs. The manila envelope protruded out from between the pages.
He did not see the bus come and he looked up in surprise when the bus driver called to him from the open door. The bus seemed huge before him and rumbled with impatience and the driver called down, “Three-fifty-eight, you gettin’ on?”
He tripped on the stairs and stumbled aboard and the door closed behind him before he knew what was happening. “Where’s Lori?” he asked the driver.
“Pay as you leave,” the driver said. The driver was overweight and had a dirty beard and the man clutching the photo album before him like a fetish seemed not to know what these words meant nor their import, so walked with halting steps to the rear of the shaking bus.
Bits of street and blackened storefronts passed alongside the bus, all known to him but somehow unfamiliar in the night and miasmic rain. His fellow occupants inside the bus were loud and cartoonishly animated. The overhead lights further darkened the passing city and he felt a growing conviction that they were being carried inside some neon-lit urn to a destination of finality. He tightened his grip on the photo album.
A young girl sitting in front of him alternated between looking at the face of her cell phone to see if it was on and holding it to her head to yell into the receiver. “Dad? Dad? No, I.. I can’t hear you. Dad?”
The bus came out onto a bridge and the man looked around for a landmark but beyond the water beading back along the windows the lights were blurred like run ink. He took the manila envelope from the pages of the photo album and removed the photograph. The woman there beamed up at him, holding her trophy out for him to see, her hair still contained beneath the white swim cap. A man spoke loudly at the front of the bus, “No, I already got the tickets. It’s on for the whole weekend, green-lit the whole way. Sick.”
The bus stopped and half a dozen young men boarded. They cursed and laughed and pushed each other as they made their way to the rear and one sat next to the man, angled outward so he might talk with his companions. This he did for a moment until two of them began in on some argument, and he sat back, uninterested. He looked at the man next to him who was still intent upon the figure in the photograph.
“Hey man, how’s it going tonight?”
The man with the photograph pretended not to hear this, but this new arrival would not be ignored.
“I said, how’s it going?”
The man looked up to his neighbor. He was wearing a baseball cap and sandals and he smelled like several kinds of alcohol.
“Um, good.” He replied. The argument in front of them grew more heated and one of the men began to swear. The drunken man next to him gestured to the photo sitting atop the book. “What do ya got there?” He asked. His breath was hazy with booze.
“Nothing. A photo.”
“A photo of a girl. Let me see.”
“I was just putting it away.” The man said.
He fumbled with the manila envelope and the drunk took the opportunity to snatch the photo away. “Oh, classy. But you know they got better stuff on the internet now.” He laughed at his own cleverness.
The man tried to snatch the photo back but the drunk held him off with one arm. “Hey guys,” he said, but his friends were all focused on the arguing pair, who had taken their dispute further up the bus.
“Give it back, that’s mine. That’s my… sister. Give it back!”
“Alright, damn. Calm down. It’s just a picture.” The drunk handed the photo back and the man’s hands were shaking so that he nearly dropped it.
“My sister.” The man said.
“Alright, Jesus.” The drunk indicated the arguing pair ahead of them, “Look at them. Fighting over nothing. Well, they’re fighting over something but you know what I mean.”
The man didn’t respond. He had opened the photo album and was searching for an open space to place it.
The drunk watched absently. He came to a page with a space in the bottom right and began sliding the smiling woman and her trophy behind the clear plastic film. The two men up front were now standing and yelling into each other’s faces. The bus slowed and came to a halt and the drunk stood half in his seat.
“What is that?” There was real force to his question and the man looked up from his work with an animal terror. The drunk was looking down at the photo album, and reached a hand toward it.
The man spasmed in fear and tried to close the book but the drunk leaned down and tore it from his hands.
“Where did you get this?” The drunk demanded. He was pointing at the photo above the swimming champion, a photo of a woman in a sundress on the front porch of some house. “Where did you get this?” He demanded again.
The bus was stopped. People somewhere around him were shouting. He said to the drunk, “It’s mine, that’s mine. Give it back. She’s mine.”
The drunk looked at the photo to which he himself was pointing. The woman in it was smiling and calm. “This is my mother, you psycho. Where do you get this?”
The man lunged upwards from his seat, trying to take back the album, but the drunk pushed him savagely back down and his head rebounded against the window. The drunk stood in the aisle and ripped out the woman in the sundress and stuck the photo in his pocket before he began to rip out pages from the book, scattering the still images and familiar mementos. The man looked on, clutching his head, held in place by some unknowable horror until the drunk had satisfied himself and stalked out the door of the still unmoving bus. When he was gone the man stood and then stooped down in the aisle.
He tried to scoop photographs up from off the floor but they stuck or slid around, smearing wet dirt and debris across the smiling borrowed faces of women. He tried to shake off this grit but it would not be shook and he saw beyond these photos the lurid leering faces of his fellow passengers peering out the side of the bus. The men who had been arguing before had disembarked and were engaged in a fistfight. The larger of the two men struck the smaller in the face and he saw even through the bus windows this struck man spit blood from between his teeth. Even the bus driver had parked the bus and was craned around in his seat to view the proceedings. A ragged pair of teenagers was using the distraction to make out, and the boy’s hand was disappeared somewhere down the girl’s shirt. The other passengers catcalled and tapped broken fingernails loud against the window glass, and he knew the broken rampart of his family lying at his feet was no adequate refuge, would not hold at bay the bestial honesty of this mob disparate and isolated even from each other. The bus began to move again and it brought him unprepared to a rough seat in the filthy aisle, from which vantage he could see down the length of the bus and out the front window where infrequent streetlights marked progress toward whatever destination there were likewise or unwilling bound, and those who are displaced will not be put back again.
© 2009 Ryan Kelly, Natalie Walker, Sarah Fonnesbeck, Arthur Ross