I finish my book at the bus shelter and spend some time flipping back and forth between the chapters, as though I’m picking up the crumbs from a muffin with a wet index finger, making sure I haven’t missed anything. The bus is late. I have an appointment in an hour and I have to stop at the store first.
I have to squeeze into my seat because the man sitting by the window is all sprawled out and doesn’t seem to notice I’m there. It’s a ten minute ride. A couple of seats in front of me, facing sideways, are two girls in their early twenties, probably. Next to them sits an old man with a long white beard and a gorgeously carved and decorated cane. A non-ironic trucker hat with a couple of pins stuck in it, a jacket frayed around the zipper. How are you doing, he asks the girl sitting next to him, who has paused in her conversation with her friend. How has your day been?
She answers politely at first. Fine and yours, she says. He opens his mouth and all the words come spilling out, spilling out, as she droops despondent and trys not to roll her eyes. I can’t quite hear everything he’s saying through his beard because the wheelchair ramp won’t unfurl and there is beeping and shouting and clanking and stomping and around the corners of those noises I hear: “Finland.” “Fisherman.” “Free religion.” “Stubborn.” “Dumbest people in the world.”
Finally the bus driver gives up and moves on and someone in the front unfolds the side seats and the old man and the girl…did her friend get off while they were fussing with the ramp?..switch to the other side of the bus. He has not stopped talking, she has not stopped cursing her fate and reminding herself to respect her elders and wondering when he’s going to get off, is he going to stop talking at all before her stop, will he ever stop? Her hair is perfectly straight and curls under a little by her chin, in the winter sun through the filmed windows of the bus. Several more people squeeze themselves and their iPods onto the bus. They don’t hear what I’m hearing.
“Half-Norwegian,” he says, looking at the arch of her eyebrows. “1925.” “The first Baptist in the country.” “Her gravestone was this wide, carved like nothing you’ve ever seen.” “The lead weight was enormous.” “There used to be trout in that river.” “My grandmother.”
She is silent and doesn’t even nod. She looks away, wishing for an iPod of her very own. The bus lurches and aches slowly forward, catching every red light, waiting for every straggler to heave up the stairs in puffery and sheepishment, just the way I did this morning. My appointment is in forty minutes and I have to go to the store first.
Another pull on the ringer and he gathers his plastic bag and zips his jacket. “Nice talking to you,” he says, and she flicks her eyes at him and gives what may be a smile, though I can’t see it from this angle. Maybe she mumurs “You too.” As he waits for the door to open, a man wearing a sober gray Rasta cap says “You have some interesting stories, man.”
I think about all the history you can never know, and the precious illusion of privacy. I think about old men and their houses and wonder where this bus took him, and I wonder who gave him the cane. What were the pins on his hat for? What class had she just been in? Had she been brought up to be polite? I imagine a bus full of iPodded heads, none of them bearded, smiling into the middle distance with their hands in jacket pockets. I couldn’t stop hoping he was going to someone who had made it into one of his stories, before my stop came up and I went to the store on my way to my appointment.