on the Bus
by Ric Jahna
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It is not a miracle, Myrna realizes. She’s quite sure of that now. For only a short while she was uncertain, the way the two boys make their running starts, then glide impossibly across the top of the shallow rain puddles like two imitation Jesuses. But it is only a trick, like most things.
She checks her watch. The sun is low and bright, so the shelter gives no real shade, and the heat from the metal bench seeps through her clothes, to her back, her rump. The unlikely truth about the puddle gliders: It has to do with wheels that lay hidden in the soles of their shoes but that the boys can appar- ently summon at will, coast along on them above the shallow water, and retract the wheels again when they reach the end of the puddle. On a better day Myrna might laugh at herself, at her mistake, but she has a lot to do still, and the strangeness of the experience has left her feeling disoriented. At seventy-three, she thinks, one should enjoy a certain calm.
It has been different for her, getting around town this way, different than her first six years spent in Florida when she and Walter would drive past in the comfort of a car. At the level of the street, things are coarser in detail, the heat more unrelenting than she had imagined. She adjusts her weight and leans forward so she can look far down Fourth Street. She still has good eyes, and she can see the front of the bus in the distance, high and boxlike, distinct from the other cars. It will be here within five minutes, she figures, which will be on time, and this will allow her to get to the Winn-Dixie by 4:45. She only needs a box of cinnamon. That’s all she forgot yesterday. It’s for the apple pie, her son John’s favorite, and she wants to have it cooking, the smell filling the house, when he arrives tomorrow afternoon. She knows just what aisle the cinnamon is on. It will only take a minute, and then she can catch the 5:15 bus home. That is the last one that runs on Sunday.
It’s bothersome that she forgot the cinnamon yesterday when the Giffins were kind enough to take her to the market with them, but Mrs. Giffin, with that little scooter of hers, flew around the store like a racecar driver. Myrna hadn’t wanted to be a burden and was forced to rush, and at times like that it is hard to concentrate and anyone’s mind tends to forget things.
Myrna takes a single dollar from her purse and smoothes out the wrinkles. If Walter could see her now, he would not approve, but she can’t help but take a certain satisfaction in the thought, as if to say, look what it has come to for me. Or maybe, look what I’m able to do when push comes to shove. Still, if he were here, he would drive her to the store. He might frown or grumble for a while, but he would take her and use the chance to pick up some Oreos or Funyuns, and they’d be back home again in no time. Funny that back then it had never seemed like a luxury.
Myrna still has her license, but she thinks maybe her driving days are finished. Several months ago she tried to take the Oldsmobile to a doctor’s appoint- ment, but she paused too long at a green light. The cars behind her began to honk loudly, and right after, agitated, she turned down a one-way street and into traffic.
Once in a while she cranks the engine and lets it run a while, but mostly the car sits quietly in the garage, an artifact from an earlier time, she thinks, mocking her. But it is not too much. The bus. This outing. And tomorrow they will be here: John and his wife Crystal, and Myrna’s two granddaughters this time, whom she has not seen since Walter’s funeral. Can it be a year already?
When the bus arrives, the two puddle-coasters are there with Myrna, their breaths coming hard, their bodies smelling warm and something like salty. Behind them, Myrna takes care to climb the steep steps without putting too much weight on her bad knee. At the top she lines up her dollar, feeds it into the bill accepter, which sucks it in greedily. The bus is not crowded, though, and Myna finds a seat near the front, on the same side as the Winn-Dixie. She finds the yellow bar that she will need to press for the “Stop Requested” sign. Requested, she thinks. No guarantees. She prefers the buses that have cables to pull, something to grab hold of, tug.
Inside the bus it is cool, the air conditioner a comforting hum, but above this a group of girls at the back has begun a sort of song, a chant really, and with it there is a coordinated slapping of hands. Myrna has seen them do it before, their limbs moving about quickly, striking each other’s palms, always in rhythm. African American, Myrna thinks, although she is pretty sure that black is sometimes okay too, but not colored, not Negro, and she reminds herself that she is no racist. In Burlington, back when she and Walter were school- teachers, they had been active democrats. They volunteered for McGovern.
It is only the noise, the loud voices that she is not used to, that aggravate her nerves. People are people. There are good and bad of all types. And the young man who yelled out to her that day when she was waiting for this same bus, and him with half his body hanging out of a car window, his face all contorted with meanness and yelling—something—she wasn’t sure what, just that it was a meanness and she thinks the word “grandma” a part of it but not in any nice way, he had been a white man.
The bus stops at Fifty-fourth Avenue in front of an apartment complex, and the two puddle gliders get off with a few others. A woman gets on, carrying an infant. She digs into a very large purse that hangs from her shoulder. She says something to the driver in Spanish, then sits across the aisle from Myrna. The child has dark black hair, thick and wild, and is dressed in a light blue singlet, and Myrna thinks again of John who, unlike this child, had very little hair for his first six months, just a coat of blond fuzz. Now, although marrying late in life, he is a father himself, twice over, and bald once again. Tomorrow he will eat too much, unbuckle his belt and groan in mock pain. But he will save room for pie, for ice cream, before taking a long nap in front of the television, and Myrna will sit and watch him, take in all of him that she can. And some time after that, the next day, perhaps, when Crystal and the girls are at the beach, she might take up something he said recently, how Florida has spoiled her and she’d never last through a Vermont winter. How her blood has thinned and she would miss her ocean, her bridge friends, the senior group at church, and anyway, with his traveling for work he is rarely in town.
The thing she’ll need to get across: She does not love it here. Yes, the winters are cold in Vermont, but that’s what heavy coats are for. It had been Walter’s idea to sell the Vermont home three years ago, not hers, and there is really little left for her in Florida. Being around so many others her age—the talk of operations, estate taxes, bowel movements—only makes her feel older, part of some wretched herd.
By the time the bus passes Sixty-second Avenue, Myrna is cold. It’s more old age than Florida-thinned blood, she thinks, this tendency to chill. She brings her legs together and tucks her skirt under each thigh. Outside, the world passes slowly: a dentist’s office, a seafood restaurant that supports the current war, an all-night laundromat.
She does not need her son’s permission to move back to Vermont. There is money enough. She could rent a small apartment. That’s all she would need. But she isn’t used to making such decisions on her own, and it would be nice to have some support.
She senses the problem before she realizes what is happening, the sidewalk receding in an unfamiliar way. Then the bus is in full left turn. They are going west on Sixty-sixth, toward the Gulf, away from the Winn-Dixie. She turns sideways and surveys the passengers around her, searches their faces for some sign of confusion or alarm, like she has seen on the faces of airplane passengers in turbulence. But Myrna seems alone in her distress, yet she is still sure she saw the number 19 on the side of this bus. The girls in the back continue to talk and laugh. Myrna decides to speak to the woman across the aisle, but the baby is crying now. The woman holds him close to her chest, pats his bottom and whispers something into his tiny ear. Then the woman’s eyes close and she sighs sleepily.
The bus moves on, past the Presbyterian Church and the Springfield Center where Myrna recalls attending a craft show once. It is almost 4:40. She will have to really hurry now. Now she is in an area she does not know well, headed maybe to someplace totally strange and remote where she might end up stranded. She has some change in her purse. She could call the Giffins, maybe someone else from the church, if she could find a phonebook. There are taxicabs, she knows, but she isn’t sure about the drivers or even if they would accept a check. She has never been inside a taxi. They seem theo- retical to her, the way buses once did. Or African Americans. Or widow- hood. It should not be this hard.
She is encouraged when the bus makes a right turn. A possible return to Fourth? Yes, a rectangular detour, she decides. The child has settled down, and Myrna again gathers herself to speak. She has a soft voice, and the worst thing is to ask a question and not be noticed. She leans toward the woman, who throws her purse strap over her shoulder.
“I was wondering,” Myrna says. “This is route 19, I think? Aren’t we on the 19?”
The woman seems surprised and doesn’t answer right away. Finally she says, “Yes,” pronouncing the “y” with a “j” sound. “This is 19.” She pushes the yellow band, and the soft exit tone sounds.
“It’s just that I don’t remember coming off of Fourth this way before,” Myrna says. “I need to get back to Fourth.”
The woman is looking straight ahead. “Yes,” she says. “It will take you back to Fourth.”
But Myrna doesn’t like the tone of her voice. It seems to say: I have my own concerns, old lady. Just be happy you’re still alive.
“I just have to get to the Winn-Dixie before the buses stop running,” Myrna says. She looks at her watch. It is 4:46. She wants it clear that she has a purpose, that she is a mother too and that people depend on her. “My son is coming to visit.”
The brakes make a high-pitched hum as the bus comes to a stop, and the woman gets to her feet with her child and giant purse. She begins to make her way down the aisle, but pauses, seems to think a moment, then turns back toward Myrna, her face constricted. “This is the 19 to Seventy-second,” she says. “It doesn’t go any farther north. What you need is the 19 to Gateway. That takes you all the way down.” She gives Myrna something like a smile before continuing down the aisle and out of the bus into the sunlight.
The doors close. The bus jerks into motion and begins to gain speed. Myrna again feels the chill of the air conditioning in her hands and feet. “I need the 19 to Gateway,” she says aloud. But the seats around her are empty and no one hears her.
(A native of Central Florida, Ric Jahna now lives in Lafayette, Louisiana where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Arizona. His fiction has appeared recently in Mid-American Review and Green Hills Literary Lantern. He is currently looking for a publisher for his short story collection.)