Wednesday, 7:59 am. I wait inside the Queen and Providence bus shelter for Bus 43 (Belmont Hills – Downtown), which ferries me to work. The rain falls against the dark grey skies. A silver-haired woman paces the sidewalk outside the bus shelter, scrunching her hawkish eyebrows as she complains to Bob and Mary and Ethel that the bus is late. She’s there every morning but never gets on the bus. Did I mention that I’m the only one at the bus stop with her? Yesterday, in deep conversation with Mary about Bob’s recurring sexual dysfunction, her top dentures flew out of her mouth and bounced into the storm drain. She reached into her black shopping bag-size purse and pulled out another set as if this happens to her all the time.
The bus arrives a few minutes past eight. I display my pass for inspection and offer a faint smile to the grey-haired bus driver.
The bus driver snarls and closes the door. “Next time hold it up so I can see it.”
I roll my eyes and take my usual seat that faces into the bus to have more legroom.
At the next stop, the young man wearing the blue baseball cap gets on first. When the bus driver scolds him for not holding up his bus pass, he says, “Yo, dude … your wife still not giving it up?” He grabs his crotch. “Maes-tǝr-beit!” He slams himself into the seat before the rear door, next to the man wearing a bowtie, and sucks his teeth. “Loser…”
The smells of wet earth, coffee and stale cigarette smoke (from the guy seated close to me) overtake the bus. The young man wearing a charcoal grey mackintosh studies me with adolescent curiosity. I travel with the same people every day. They get on and off the bus like corpses — stiff and unconscious of the world around them. We don’t say hello, don’t speak. My eyes rove the bus to avoid direct eye contact with anyone, anticipating the War Memorial that signals the approaching bus stop where I get off.
“Good morning, Mr. Bus Driver. How are you this fine wet day?”
I shift my gaze to the front of the bus, blinded by a shiny jacket with floral patterns enveloping a big-boned woman. Her black frizzy hair shoots out in all directions from her round head. The rouge smeared on her face cements in place the smile stretching from ear to ear.
“Next time hold it up so I can see it,” the bus driver says as he closes the front door.
The woman’s round eyes widen but she’s still smiling. “Oh, yes, we are chipper this morning!” She scans the bus for a seat.
The young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh and a middle-aged woman wearing a cadmium yellow raincoat occupy the seats at the front of the bus, reserved for the elderly and pregnant women. They move. A couple of people snicker, both amused and annoyed at how this woman — with her over-enthusiastic and narcissistic Guy Smiley smile — has managed to disrupt the peacefulness of their morning commute.
“Thank you, thank you,” says the woman in the shiny jacket. “So kind, so kind.”
The young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh sits down across from me, smirks and holds his narrow eyes to mine. I glance away when his light-grey eyes penetrate to my core. The middle-aged woman squeezes between the stale cigarette smoke-smelling man and me. The scent of Bengay and cinnamon fill my nostrils, and I tie my face in knots. The young man across from me sniggers. I check my watch. I need off this bus. I’m relieved to see the flag hoisted atop the War Memorial. Freedom from this hell is two stops away.
The bus stops for a red light at the Marshall and Providence intersection. I move to the rear door and, when the bus edges forward, reach for the blue cord above the head of the young man wearing the charcoal grey mackintosh. Before I can pull the cord he presses the red square button on the pole in front of him and nods. The bus stops, and the green light above the door comes on. I step into the torrential rain and, having left my umbrella at home, bolt toward the seven-storey office building across the street.
* * *
“Good afternoon,” the bus driver says as I board Bus 43 (Downtown – Belmont Hills) at ten minutes to five. He closes the door and sings off-key into the intercom, “Next stop, Marshall and Providence, next stop.” Today he sings to the theme music from “I Dream of Jeannie.” Yesterday, he sang-spoke a slightly modified version to “Old MacDonald had a Farm.” Everyone chuckles, and then we return to our self-imposed meditative states.
I wedge myself into the two-seater behind the seats reserved for the elderly and pregnant women, and stare out the window at the pewter skies.
The stout man next to me, with a Sherlock Holmes-esque moustache, reeks of Old Spice and alcohol. Is that what makes his bald head oily? He speaks with a thick lisp. “Eth-cuz me.” He pulls the blue cord. He doesn’t have any teeth. My wide-eyed look of horror causes the young man from this morning, in the charcoal grey mackintosh, to cover his mouth to stifle his giggling. I smile. The young man rocks gently back and forth, ready to explode with laughter. Then the young woman seated across the aisle (quite the sight with her spiked dyed black hair and piercings in her lip, nose and eyebrow) snickers. The man sitting next to me staggers off the bus at the next stop. Before the bus driver can close the door the young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh lets out a shrilly laugh, and everyone gawks at him. He colours and lowers his head.
The bus stops at the War Memorial, and that shiny jacket with floral patterns mounts the steps one at a time. Mrs. Guy Smiley says, with the same cheerfulness of the morning, “Good afternoon, Mr. Bus Driver. How are you this fine wet day?”
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” the bus driver sings-speaks. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
She places her hand to her chest and grins. “Oh, indeed … indeed.”
The young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh, at hearing that manly voice and set to erupt in another fit of laughter, moves to the empty seat next to me. He’s bent forward with his head between his knees, trying not to laugh.
Mrs. Guy Smiley turns to the young man. “Thank you, thank you. So kind, so kind.”
The young man waves her off and, after a time, sits upright. I sneak a sidelong glance and decide that he’s about thirty, his dark full mane covering the top of his ears and falling flat on the back of his neck. He has a long hooked nose with prominent nostrils and does not wear a ring on his ring finger. He looks at me, his clean-shaven face red from laughing, and I drop my gaze.
The bus hasn’t moved in some time, parked midway across the MacKenzie Bridge that spans the Stockdale River and that separates the downtown from the suburbs. I get off at the first stop after the bus crosses the bridge. In the morning, the young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh gets on the bus at the stop with the gentleman in the blue baseball cap. Did his uncontrollable fits of laughter cause him to miss his stop? Everyone stares out the windows as sirens blare and emergency response vehicles navigate through the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The rain, which had stopped around lunchtime, falls in hard pounding sheets, preventing us from seeing much of anything. The young man leans across in front of me to peer out the window, his left hand on my right thigh to balance himself. I savour his musky scent of lavender and vanilla.
“Sorry.” The young man leans back in his seat. “Do you think it’s an accident?”
I shrug. “Nah. Probably another jumper.” Four successful, and one not-so-successful, suicide attempts this year make the conclusion plausible.
Mrs. Guy Smiley stiffens. “Oh, really? How exciting! I’ve never seen a jumper before.”
I look at her, my eyebrows scrunched, as if to say, “Are you for real?” The young man next to me approaches delirium. I cut my eyes at him. “You need to get off this bus.”
He howls. “I know!”
Mrs. Guy Smiley shimmers in her seat. “I sure would like some of your happy pills.”
The girl with the spiked dyed black hair loses control, and her nasal, cackling laugh ricochets off the walls. Laughter consumes us all.
The bus rolls forward and we resume our self-imposed meditative states. I pull on the blue cord and the bell sounds. The young man next to me walks towards the front door. I follow. Mrs. Guy Smiley smiles at us. The young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh again waves her off, attempting to hold in his crowing laugh. I nod. The bus stops, and the young man rushes onto the sidewalk and opens his umbrella. I run to the bus shelter and take refuge, hoping the rain will let up soon.
The young man waits to cross the street. He looks at me, almost smiling, and then darts through the oncoming traffic to catch the bus approaching in the opposite direction. I watch as he sits down next to a window at the back of the bus. He looks in my direction and offers a slight wave as the bus pulls away. Could it be an acknowledgement of our interconnectedness? Maybe.
I sprint towards my apartment building when the rain lets up a bit. The young man and the others on the bus — maybe we are connected, part of each other’s fabric, entangled in an intricate net of relationships. What will the young man in the charcoal grey mackintosh do tonight? Does he have someone waiting for him at home? I thought that we lived separate orders or reality — until today — when we found our velocity.
Perhaps tomorrow we’ll say hello.
A slightly modified version of this story first appeared in the Fall issue of Other Voices Magazine in 2010.