Issue 128, Fall 1993
The bus seemed more crowded than it was, because half the passengers were smashed into the forward quarter. I stood with five other people on the steps by the front door; and whenever the bus swerved I held onto a metal post, the doors swung open, and my back hung out over the street. I could see from this recurrent vantage (my head stayed upright), between someone’s bulging shopping bag and someone else’s silver-studded beret, that four feet of standing room in the middle of the bus was empty. Someone I couldn’t see had mutely rebelled in the aisle, refusing to move to the back of the bus, and no one seemed inclined to mention it. I wondered at the messiness of my vision. Skulls and limbs seemed tumbled together from where I watched: a hat on the same level as a shopping bag, worn? carried? —and also that beckoning, tantalizing empty space in the aisle.
The bus driver had taped a blue-crayoned heart to the windshield, and at every corner he screamed something about love and announced the time, as if screaming were what we all needed, or love, or wristwatches. The few people whose faces I could see —the ones jammed against me on the doorsteps. whose breath I breathed — smiled beatifically when the bus driver screamed. Maybe screaming was what they needed. I needed a place to stand. So, without checking to see whether I was close to home, I waited for the doors to malfunction again on a slow curve, allowed myself to fall backward out of the bus and sat down on the curb. I had never gotten close enough to the coin box to pay my fare.
It is clear now that things were not quite normal with me. I was vulnerable to an epiphany. I needed a place to stand. The street where I had landed was unfamiliar, though I must have passed it a thousand times before on the bus. This was my regular route. The houses behind me and across the street were two-story frame cottages, all painted gingerbready — yellow with blue trim, brown with green —and the lawns were small and velvety with no dandelions. Near the street in front of each house was an old-fashioned loaf-shaped mailbox on a post. Some of them were painted to match their houses; stuck on others were colorful decals of small animals holding banners with names printed on them; little red flags poked up from some to indicate to the mail carrier that outgoing mail waited in the box. Everything was clean. I saw no chipping paint around the windows of the houses. I looked hard for a withering shrub in the shade of an eave somewhere, but the vegetation was pruned and eerily healthy, the grass and leaves an unearthly uniform deep and shadowless green. The only sign of disorder was the sidewalk, which was here and there buckled and crumbling. Next to where I sat on my curb a huge tree root had broken ground. I couldn’t even see a tree on the block, which seemed big enough to match such a root. Though it only disturbed the grass a little, like the spine of a sea monster barely cresting a tiny wave, where it tunneled under the sidewalk it surfaced boldly, as if it hungered for concrete, gnarled and knotty, and made a hill. Smaller root fingers reached up through a network of sidewalk cracks. I lay on my back in my business suit and thought about what was burrowing beneath me. This was not like me. This street was not like mine.
I live in an apartment house on a wide city boulevard with trash in the gutters and signs on the lampposts forbidding the parking of bicycles. The sidewalks are in fairly good shape. There are no trees to ruck them up — only now and then ragged saplings planted by the city, none of which ever manages to grow bigger than a large twig, I guess because of gasoline fumes. They die, and the bare sticks stand for two or three years, and then a city landscaping truck comes around and pulls up the dead baby tree and plants another doomed one. I’ve always wondered why bicycles aren’t allowed on my street. My wife says it’s because they look messy, but I don’t understand anyone who would worry about messy bicycles on a street with trash in the gutters, dead twigs sprouting, throngs of teenagers with hostile hairdos slouching between the Wendy’s and the record store across the street and at least one wino asleep on every corner. Now, the street where I sat down after dropping off the bus that day was neat, except maybe for the hillocky sidewalk. Bicycles chained to the trees might make a difference. On this street, there weren’t even any people to look messy. The only person I saw was, from the back, someone sitting on a bench at the bus stop a block and a half away. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but it must have been a cripple, because I could see a pair of crutches propped against the bench and also a small dog on a leash.
My wife is a phony. That’s why she understands about the bicycles. That’s also why I had to get off the bus. I couldn’t stand that bus driver yelling about love. On that day, I was completely fed up with phonies. My wife rides her bike to her health club, which happens to be on the same street we live on, ten blocks down; she pays a dollar to park her bike in an underground parking lot, with all the cars, because of the signs that say you can’t chain a bike on the boulevard. Then she goes high upstairs where the view is airy, and she sits on machines that move her muscles. She’s afraid of the truth. She wears antiperspirant all the time, and she returns from the health club smelling bitterly of lavender. She doesn’t like to shower there because she would have to take too much stuff with her on the bike, so she comes home in her sweat clothes, her sweat glands choked with perfume. Her body looks the way she wants it to —small and hard.