Friday, 21 August 2009

Standing Room Only - - Rachel Chew Blakley

I'm waiting at the 15th street bus stop when The Eccentric shows up. From a block away she looks like a fisherman, shrunken in black boots and a yellow trench coat as thick as tarp, hands and face leathery from overexposure to sun and salt. I check my watch. The bus is twenty-two minutes late.

Much to the appreciation of my optometrist, landlord, and the IRS, timeliness is one of my traits. This bus route is timetabled for every fifteen minutes; that means that I leave the apartment at either eight, twenty-three, thirty-eight, or fifty-three minutes past the hour. Months ago, I stuck those tiny sticky-backed red dots at the appropriate intervals on the analog clocks in my apartment. If anyone comes over, I have to pick them off, or it becomes a never-ending source of ridicule. I haven't needed to buy a second pack yet.

Twelve of us are waiting at the bus stop that morning, and for some reason nobody is sitting on the wire benches. I don't see any wet paint signs or dried vomit on the concrete. I must be missing something. I look up and notice that the clouds look interpretable. Today is the first day of spring. I'm considering taking my jacket off.

Leaning across the dirt-flecked garbage can, The Eccentric is taking inventory of her tote bags. She has disposed of several crumpled polyethylene bags, and fishes out, at last, a whole sandwich. Delicately, she unfolds the transparent wrapping, and sniffs it as if performing a ritual. I can smell it, and I'm a good ten feet away. It's tangy, funky. I identify the pungent smell after a minute: mustard. But it can't be a sandwich made solely of a condiment, can it? The Eccentric takes a bite, uses a thumb to smear the excess away from the corner of her crinkled lips, and tosses a quarter of her meal onto the sidewalk. A pigeon cocks his head, but doesn't approach. Down the block, the broad face of the bus pulls into view.

The coach is filled. "Standing room only," says the driver, his voice gruff. "Keep moving to the back." As far back as I can go, I wrap one hand around a metal pole and stare at my shoes. We lurch forward, merging into traffic. In my periphery vision, I catch a blur of yellow. The Eccentric is standing right in front of me. Oh, God. Each stop thereafter, we pack in closer and closer. The smell radiates from her, rancid. She's finished the first sandwich and is unpeeling a second.

The stink is all I can focus on. An unkind army marches up my nostrils. My eyes water. I look up desperately at the tiny handles of the closest window. It's too far for me to reach from the aisle.

"Can you?" I ask the balding head in the window seat. He turns, frowning at my bluntness. There is no time for niceties. The army has bayonets, grenades. I notice, though, that his eyes are watering too. He stands and tugs on the black window handles. The little hairs on his knuckles waver as he pulls. No luck. Jammed. He shrugs helplessly and blinks the moisture away from his eyes.

I switch to breathing through my mouth and try to find some channel of distraction. We pass a hardware store. It reminds me of that morning, lying in bed, waiting to feel good enough about getting up. I was staring at the two off-white patches on the ceiling, thinking, I should take care of those, I should just get some white paint and be done with it. Every morning, the same thoughts. I try not to wonder what needed to be covered up. It could drive you crazy, trying to figure out a thing like that.

But maybe it's more common than I think. Because come to think of it, when I was twelve or thirteen, I spent the night at Janie Dirda's house, and she had those spots on her bedroom ceiling, too. It was the only time I went over there. She lived with her mom and her mentally retarded brother in a trailer by the fairgrounds. Her mother - who had a bad leg, but was as beautiful as whatever blonde actress we were obsessing over then - crafted us egg salad sandwiches on rye and served them with plastic tumblers of Coke. The ice cubes weren't real ice cubes at all, but plastic and neon-colored. That night, while Janie snored, I'd remained wide awake. For some reason her mother left the hallway light on, and it illuminated Janie's bedroom just enough to keep me up. I was used to drawn blinds, used to sinking into the pitch black. So I stared at the ceiling and waited. Two splotches of off-colored paint were up there on the ceiling, one bigger than the other. I must have stared at them for a whole hour until I dozed off.

Maybe The Eccentric has a pair of these mysterious paint splotches on her ceiling, too. If I've learned nothing else, it's that sometimes you share things with the people you think you wouldn't have anything in common with.

At the next stop, she gets off. The bus idles there for a minute - traffic is congested, and the light is cut short. The Eccentric makes another deposit into the nearest trash can and another offering to the pigeons. These ones - these downtown pigeons, ruffled and often peg-legged - show some interest. They even get close to her, and peck at the yellow-frosted crumbs around her boots, doing a little dance. I admire their bravery.



Photo Credit: Elsie Esq. on Flickr

About The Author: Rachel writes in Seattle, where it's not as rainy as you think. Her fiction has been published or will soon be appearing in Apt, The Battered Suitcase, and Short Story Library.