Window seat. Rattletrap bus. Cold night air leaking through pellet gun holes in the window glass . . .
The #91, jammed to the gills as always, taking her home. Chalk up another day of classes and work. Again, endlessly again.
The bus hits a pothole and the window rattles again. Angie notices a Band-Aid stuck to the window cracks. Idea for story. Or a one-act play?
No, she decides. A documentary.
She whips out her phone, aims it at the window and taps video mode. “Roll it again. From the top,” she whispers into the cell’s microphone, channeling Werner Herzog:
Window seat. Rattletrap bus. A long, early-winter’s night. Everyone staring, at tiny screens, out windows, or at the littered floor. Avoiding the vacant gazes of fellow patrons. Ignoring the devastation, misery, and despair all around them. Next to my seat, stuck to the gunfire-ravaged window glass, is a Band-Aid. An ordinary, impotent Band-Aid. Someone bereft of awareness, tripping on jungle mushrooms perhaps, had imagined it could mend the damage. And end all the world’s suffering too? From now this snowy-snowy night and onward forevermore? Maybe the Band-Aid donor—the mastermind behind this limp gesture—fantasized exactly that.
And why not?
Fuck results. It’s the thought that counts.
Next to the bandaged cracks, traced in the steamy, grimy window glass, are two names and a telltale heart. Some kid loves some other kid.
That’s nice. Yeah, good for you.
Little shits. They’ll figure it out someday:
Love kills, every time.
Angie exits video mode and puts her phone away. And she sighs.
Another pothole. A big one this time. A crater. People grabbing straps and poles, slippin’-and-a-slidin’, glomming each other in an urban transit dance.
Idea for TV show: So You Meatbags Think You Can Dance?
It’s cold outside that window. Snowfall, sticking to the streets. But it’s hot in here. The huge guy seated next to her tries to take off his down vest. But he can’t. Not enough room to maneuver. His elbow jabs Angie in the ribs—”Sorry ’bout that, young lady,” he says—and as the bus veers around a corner, the man’s bulk squashes Angie against the window. For the driver’s inelegant encore, tires bump over the curb.
“Turn the fuckin’ heat down and maybe learn how to drive too?” somebody yells. Not some anonymous schmuckface screaming taunts like a drunk in the cheap seats. Not the big guy either. It was she, Angie, guilty as charged. She had a bad day—again. And so far, her evening’s not going too swell either, thanks. It smells like a flock of sheep pissed themselves and sweat to death in here. And the ace citizen next to her? Garlic for lunch. He’s gigunda. Six-six, two-fifty? Hard to tell because he’s sitting down. Half-seated anyhow. One butt cheek on the seat, the other cheek hovering the aisle. When he uses an outhouse? Needs a two-holer, the way his booty sprawls. And that big fat down vest he’s got on? That’s not slimmin’ his profile any. On his gorilla of a fist, a Band-Aid. Again with the Band-Aids? First the one stuck to the window and now this. Must be her lucky Band-Aid night, she figures.
Big Boy’s sneaking peaks at her. Gawd . . .
Nine stops to go. Hang on, baby, hang on.
The driver looks a lot like her ex-boyfriend. Same ears, small. And those dangerous-looking hands, large, choking the steering wheel.
The driver lays on the horn and stomps on the brakes—a cat or a dog or maybe a drunk must’ve run in front of the bus—and bears down on the steering wheel with those killer’s hands of his, sending the bus into a slide.
Kamikaze bus: I.e., kamikaze bus attacking the street in a Take no prisoners/Don’t you hear my horn?/Look the fuck out, kind of way.
Under control now, nice and easy, the driver kisses the brakes, easing the steel and rubber monster to a stop. Angie sighs. The giant sighs. Everybody in the bus lets go a sigh of relief. Temporary relief.
“Yep,” she mutters. “Quite the fancy pants time/space continuum we’ve got happenin’ here, folks.”
Should she switch majors back to English Lit again? Nah, she decides, the time-honored study of Physics is her ticket to the future, as it were. Physics’s gonna be way more practical. If she has what it takes to get into grad school.
Distracted as she’s been lately, all her troubles, she’ll be lucky to get a C in 101 without blowing the teacher.
Fifth & Sycamore. Five more stops to go. Nobody’s talking to each other. Most of the faces are buried in screens. The rest are staring at the traffic signal, wondering, Will it fuck ever change from red to green? Wipers swishing, fighting snow, flip-flip, flip-flap. Each flake a little universe, each one different somehow. Like all these faces. This multiverse-in-a-bus of variously sad faces. Case in point: she finesses a peek at Big Boy. She’s theorizing how his mug got so sad. And how’d his nose get broken so butt-ugly like that anyways?! But he notices her. So she looks down. Catches the time off his phone: 6:37 PM.
She was to remember the time forever.
6:37 PM, a Friday night, date and year recorded for posterity. Because that’s the moment she saw, through the bus window, just past the sidewalk and up a three-step porch, a door. A door, opening.
Light running out the door: three hundred thousand klicks per second. Angie versus light: head-on collision . . .
And a man, bundled up against the cold, stepping off the porch. Under a streetlight now. Small man. Coat collar turned up. Wooly scarf. Bowler hat . . . Professor Nakamura.
Her physics teacher.
The expression on his face is hard to read through the swirl of lamplight and falling snow. He looks right at her. Puzzled? Sad? A lot of both.
He’s walking away from her now, his head down, hands in trench coat pockets. Coat buckles unfastened, swaying like ship lanterns in a storm. Red galoshes, small as a girl’s. Gone.
His face stays with her. She can’t shake it.
Green light. The bus lets go a little roar, eases through the intersection and into the abyss, transmission chomping through the paces.
The expression on Nakamura’s face. Exactly like this morning during his lecture. These past few weeks, he hasn’t seemed there. Maybe people would say the same about her. Angie’s eyes, as sad as his. Confused, distracted. And her mouth, and his, likewise enigmatic. That dead-fish curl of mouth. Stuck. Lost.
His face. She just can’t shake it.
She yanks the stop cord and tries to squeeze past her giant seatmate.
“Hang on,” he says. “Gimme a sec to get up … Jesus.”
No time for that. She crawls over his lap, just about.
“Your hat?” she hears him ask. He flings the hat at her; she catches it.
When he found her hat? Before he tossed it? She bets he sniffed it.
“Stop the bus, asshole,” she yells, pushing her way through the crowd.
“Hey you?” It’s the driver, yelling at the back of her head when she steps out the door. “If you want to ride with me ever again? Behave.”
She turns around, gives him the finger. The bus pulls away. Angie gives every face that stares at her the finger. She gives the giant mug in the window both barrels.
She’s running, trying to catch up with the professor. Nobody’s out tonight, just the two of them. The professor and the tail.
Three actually. A blackish form behind her, in the distance. Vague, sexless, out for a jog. The only three people in the world, she figures, gaga enough to be out on a frozen night like this.
There he is. The professor, halfway across the street, headed for the park. He’s unknotting his scarf and taking it off. He must be too warm. Odd: he’s holding the scarf stiff-armed, like it’s some foul thing. He drops it in the street.
She stops running. “Professor Nakamura?” she tries. Hears only the bliss of snow flakes. Her thrumming heart.
The professor’s walking past a sign. Thomas Jefferson Park. His outline evaporates in the park’s woodland, galoshes fading from red to snow white.
She runs across the street and into the park. Statues: our silent, third president; and some poet nobody’s heard jack from in a million years. Tree branches drooping, weighted down by snow.
And in the snow—footprints. Small ones. His.
She hears something swish past her. A pigeon? No, it’s the professor’s bowler hat, skimming the snow drifts, landing now like a 1950s sci-fi movie prop.
A belt flies through the air, twisting end over end. That swooshing bullroar sound. “Professor?”
In the snow. Tiny footprints. Black trench coat, the arms entwined.
More footprints . . .
One red galosh.
Footprints . . .
Another galosh in the snow. An envelope’s tucked inside it. Why?
Footprints . . .
Footprints . . .
Polka dot boxer shorts, and . . .
Huddled under a tree, a little man, naked but for socks and half-unbuttoned shirt. Next to him, half-buried in snow—a pistol.
“Professor? I just want to help.”
“Please . . . don’t.”
She brushes snow from his hair, his forehead, his lips—his lips turning blue, blue, blue, a somehow phosphorescent blue. His face hovers the drifts as if disembodied. That expression again: trapped somewhere between here and nowhere at all. Like last week and this week and this morning in class and when she spotted him descending the stairs. But now his anguish a thousand times fold.
Does he recognize her? His head tilts like a puppy, that innocent puzzlement. “Angie . . .?” His back to the tree trunk, he slumps to the ground.
She’s down on her knees, hands brushing snow from his naked chest, stomach . . .
His eyelids close.
She runs for help.
Angie’s running, running, running. She ignores her burning leg muscles, doesn’t care that her lungs want to pop out of her throat like a bloated fish dragged from the bottom of the sea. She’s running, running . . . running for help.
And running even harder now, harder and harder . . .
now that the giant’s chasing her.
He must have gotten off the bus right after she did —he followed her oh Jesus sweet Jesus sweet baby Jesus, no.
She hears his boots crunching the snow behind her. Almost hears his snuffling nose, half-hunter half-beast, catching her scent—all of it. From hat on down the line. She almost can see his fist and the bandage on his fist, that giant fist. Almost feels his hands ripping her clothes, the giant this close to raping her, beating her blow after blow after blow with that fist, beating her to death with that fist, that fist, that giant goddamn fist.
All he has to do, she fears, is follow her footprints. She thinks of the kid in The Shining. Maybe she can fool the guy like the kid did? She walks backwards, tracing her footprints, covering them with snow.
Running again, but the opposite direction, back toward the professor. That tree, there in the distance. Isn’t that the one he passed out under?
The ploy didn’t work, the giant’s behind her. She catches a whiff of garlic and wool, sweat and piss. She’s like a shark that way, filtering one part adversary from a million parts snow; the quiet beauty of the earth.
Her lungs and heart are almost down and out. Where’s the fucking police when you—
“Stop, police!” she hears somebody yell.
She hears it again: “Stop!”
Why doesn’t the cop just shoot the—
“Or I’ll shoot.”
There you go. Sounds like a plan. Tax dollars at work.
She yells, “The fuck are you waiting for—?” Interrupted by
Huh? What lady?
Pigeons head for the stars, wings beating up snow flakes trying to make their way to earth. The pigeons, the snowflakes—they don’t make it. The world’s in stop motion, except for . . .
Angie, turning around.
Angie, expecting to see: blood in snow, the giant dropping to his knees and falling forward. His face a death mask in snow.
None of that.
Instead, the giant, wheezing and panting, displaying a badge in his left palm, a gun in his other hand. Plainclothes transit cop. RUFKM?
And the naked professor, holding a pistol, barrel aimed at the sky. He lets the pistol drop into the snow.
The cop steps on the gun. He looks at the professor, at Angie. He says,
“Yer both under arrest.”
She feels her face droop. What?
“That’s right. You. For doing the Jap in public.”
“What?” —she shakes her head—”No. I was trying to help him.”
“That’s what it looked like to me too,” the cop says. “Who doesn’t need that kinda help from time to time? C’mon, I saw you on your knees. Girlfriend, right?”
“No is right. I saw money in that envelope. Prostitution, resisting, false info . . . That makes you a three-bagger. Disturbing the peace? Maybe that too. I tailed you ’cause you were acting so weird on the bus. Took you for a loon—who wouldn’t? I yelled ‘stop’ over and over and over, you know. Five, six times easy.”
“No wonder you didn’t stop. You prozzies . . . Get a real job, okay?”
“No, no,” she says, “I was caught up in adrenalin. That’s all.”
“Even more of a rush for him I bet. Okay, the money was in an envelope. In a shoe or something? Back there somewhere wasn’t it?”
Nakamura, almost naked, shivering, his hair wet. “It’s not money. It’s . . . it’s a note.”
Pause. Nakamura, pulling himself together. “A good-bye note, actually.”
Another pause, then
“As choices go? Perhaps selecting green note paper was among my poorest choices tonight.”
“A green suicide note? Nice save, mister, that’s a good one. I’ll put it in my screenplay, you mind? Jesus . . .”
Nakamura says, “You’re skeptical? What do you suppose my gun was for?”
“You’re a lousy shot, lucky me? Shit, I dunno. Work it out at the station.”
Handcuffs for two, Angie and the professor, slogging through the snow, the cop behind them.
“Angie and the Professor . . . ” she says to Nakamura. “Good name for a TV show. Make it The Adventures Of. Even better, yeah? Ooh, the pilot? Can’t you just see it? Plainclothes cop catches Angie going for an easy A. Plainclothes cop, wow. You fuck kidding me? Talk about coco-loco.”
“This isn’t funny, Angie.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Well, maybe not here and now. Not in this particular time/space continuum, no. But in . . . ”
“Yeah. The future.”
“Huh,” he says. “Let me get back to you later?”
She laughs. The professor stares at her. The cop shakes his head and calls for a car.
They find the professor’s clothes. Don’t find the envelope with the note. But the cop says he knows what he saw.
Under street lamps that illumine the lowest strata of the sky, Angie stoops handcuffed into the back of the patrol car. Cop radio squawking, Professor Nakamura beside her, Angie wonders how the story of this night would play with her parents if she shared it at their dinner table next week. Her hypothesis: worlds would not collide, and parallel paths would not simultaneously be constructed and destroyed, were she to bring a distinguished, older, Japanese gentleman to the Thanksgiving table.
“Professor? You implied that we’d laugh about this later.”
“How about next Thursday? You don’t have any family around here, yeah?”
“Um . . . ” He looks at her, and in the pull of his eyes—his black-hole eyes—she sees a world of things: a glint, as in earlier tonight, of recognition. And a glorious wholesale birth of stars and light everlasting. A brand new multiverse called into existence by a mere proffering of turkey, cranberries, pie, the works.
Ray Nessly‘s work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Apocrypha & Abstractions, MadHat Lit, Yellow Mama, Do Some Damage, and the Irish literary magazine, The Penny Dreadful, among others.
–Art by Marina Ćorić