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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT IF
by Erin Bank

 

 

 

“Can’t I have your seat?” The young woman fails to notice any pertinent details of the world around her, besides the five large shopping bags she’s hauling onto the bus, not least of all the age of the man she is addressing and the cane propped by his side. All she knows is that he’s in the closest seat to where she’s awkwardly standing. That, and she knows that she’s angry that the Uber app isn’t working on her phone, leaving her stranded, except for the bus. She is already composing the email and tweet in her head. Why wouldn’t the app leave her logged in and her information saved just because she got a new phone? Of all days for her family’s driver to call in sick. This day is not off to a good start.

“I can’t stand with all this stuff.” She waves her right hand in the general direction of her problem, as if he hasn’t noticed the massive loot she was carrying. In her waving, she nearly whacked the phone she was holding, ensconced in a furry green case, into a young man who was boarding behind her, trying to get around her, a blue hooded sweatshirt pulled up over his head. He bobs out of the way and proceeds into a gap between the configuration of seats that is just wide enough for his small frame.

The old man looks at the young woman, then around the bus, which is still stopped as people board. It is on the late side of morning rush hour, and the bus is crowded with a mix of commuters and tourists getting a jump start on the holiday weekend. Among those sitting are elderly and deserve the seats or have their headphones in and heads down, pretending not to notice. He’d forgive the blonde family speaking a guttural European language—he couldn’t tell if it was Dutch or German—hunched over a paper map, trying to determine their whereabouts, each pointing to a different quadrant of the city. The other on-boarders squeeze past the young woman, shooting dirty looks at the person refusing to move to the rear of the bus, a few mumbling choice words under the breath that she either ignores or doesn’t hear.

“Perhaps you’d like to use my cane.” He nods towards it and notices that she isn’t looking or even paying attention to his gentle snark. She instead is glaring at the woman pushing a shopping basket who is trying to get around her, knocking into her bags and causing them to swing on her arms. He tries to remember if she’s asking him or telling him to move.

“I don’t expect someone like you to understand, but it’s considered good manners for a gentleman to offer his seat to a lady.” She hasn’t made eye contact, but she has seen what she needs to see: even though she is riding the bus, she is someone who knows (or, at least, her daddy knows) important people, and he is a black man who does not. He probably doesn’t even know what Uber is.

The man barely notices the implication: it has happened his entire life and he is tired. And he also knows how to pick his battles. He is on his way to the homeless shelter at which he volunteers every week: that is his current battle. Anyway, what if he stood and helped the still confused Dutch/German family find their way?

“All passengers please move to the rear of the bus,” the driver’s exasperated voice comes on the intercom. He can’t see directly behind him at what is happening, exactly, only that people are crowding into the front of the bus and can’t move back. He can hear mumbles about someone blocking the aisle. The only person not reacting has his headphones turned to a volume so loud the man can hear the beat of the bass leaking through. Him, and the young woman of course, who either ignores or doesn’t hear.

Without a word, he slowly pulls himself off his seat using his cane in one hand and the center pole with the other for balance. The young woman shoves through and slides into the seat next to a hunched Chinese woman muttering to herself before he’s fully standing. In lieu of a thank you, she immediately starts tapping away at her phone.

The old man now searches around for a handhold, and he finds one next to the man in the blue hoodie and near the German—he can now hear them clearly—family. He is dusting off the corner of his brain that knows how to ask them where they’re trying to go, when the bus lurches to a sudden start. He stumbles bumps into several people, most of whom give him sympathetic glances and try to stabilize him. All except one.

“Hey, man, what the fuck!” The bearded man with his headphones on sonic mode speaks too loud as the old man stumbles onto his foot. The old man’s apology goes unheard, his voice unable to penetrate the music, which he supposed was the point. How convenient. The bearded man must have at least seen the man’s lips move, because he gave an indignant huff and a masterful eye roll in response. He slid the massive earphones down around his neck and opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted.

“He didn’t mean it—can’t you see he’s old and it was an accident?” The young man in the blue hooded sweatshirt comes to the old man’s aid, offering a hand under his elbow for support and his real estate next to both a pole and a seat back to hold on to.

“Whatever, man, mind your own business! He stomped on my foot!” He shakes his black steel-toed boot to emphasize the point.

“I’m just trying to help him so he doesn’t fall on anyone else.” The young man isn’t looking at the bearded guy, but instead tries to focus on steadying the old man as the bus picks up speed.

“Well what a fucking hero. Can’t imagine what you’ll do for him next.” He rubbed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. The bearded man sees a few smirks on other passengers, which is just the fuel he needs, even though he misinterpreted their uncomfortable reaction as approval. “Hey, I could use your help, too—getting out of my way.” He shoves the young man hard, sending him back into the old man, who becomes pinned against the pole. Alarmed, the young man’s instincts tell him to raise his fists in front of his face. The driver looks into his rearview mirror at the sounds of commotion; seeing fists, he comes to an abrupt stop.

“Absolutely not! No fighting! Get off before I call the police! I see you in the blue sweatshirt!” The driver shakes under the confrontation—he has no authority to take any action besides stopping the bus and hoping for the best. Every day he prays for a smooth day, one that will get him the money he needs to feed the mouths at home and send back to his parents. Every day he has to kick at least one jerk off his coach, seems to be more and more all the time, he doesn’t understand why people can’t just ride the bus in peace without bothering anyone.

The young man lowers his hands and realizes the entire bus is staring at him. The young girl snaps a photo with her fuzzy green phone. The old man pats him on the shoulder in solidarity. Their shared skin color connects them in an understanding that the best thing, but not necessarily the right thing, is for the young man to quietly get off the bus.

The crowd parts for him as he makes his way to the back door, not entirely sure what just happened. However, even in that moment, the young man knows this is going onto his list of things he’s seen, one of many things that will make up everything.

The bus pulls away, and the young man finds himself stranded on the street, miles from where he needs to be and on the edge of anywhere he wants to be. He isn’t too sure of where he is, exactly—close to downtown but not in a good neighborhood and so doesn’t want to be here for long, nor does he want to risk walking even though the day is bright and warm, the first sunny day after a stretch of rain. The air is fresh, what he can smell of it, anyway, over the soapy sidewalks cleaned daily to hide the traces of human deposited overnight. He can’t afford a taxi, and besides can’t imagine that one would stop for him especially in this neighborhood, so he looks in the direction his bus had been heading. The bus is stopped a block down, and he sees the old man with the cane get off and look down the street in his direction. Is he seeing things, or did he salute him? Maybe he was just pulling his hat down. He waits a minute, long enough for the old man to cross the street, before making his way to the shelter, where he knows he’ll be able to check when the next bus is coming and get his wits about him.

As he approaches the shelter, he sees a jean-clad ankle. He peeks around the large advertisement for the local community college serving as one of the three walls, and sees what he deduces is a homeless man taken up temporary residence in the structure. He is propped up at an awkward angle, leaning against the corner with one leg stretched in front of him across all four seats, the other on the ground next to a large garbage bag nearly bursting at the seams. His eyes are closed and mouth wide open, the only sign of life a snort upon realizing he is no longer alone. His stench is particularly pungent on this unseasonably warm day.

The man peeks out of one eye long enough to realize the young man isn’t a city official sent to force him to move. He readjusts his position slightly, crossing his arms in front of his chest, muttering, “Bus just went by. You missed it.” Followed by some muttering the young man couldn’t understand.

The next bus prediction is blinking an error message. “Thanks, man. Guess I’ll be joining you for a bit.” Instead of trying to sit, he leans one shoulder against the opposite wall. The man grunts, his eye already closed.

The young man digs out his phone from his pocket, verifying what he already knew: his battery died overnight. He had in fact spent three awkward minutes silently digging around the cramped apartment that wasn’t his, in the corner where there had been a lineup of cords extruding from a power strip, hoping to identify a charger. He had—it was the wrong kind. Too embarrassed to wake her from where she had filled in the space he had left when he rose, belly down splayed across her bed, he sat for a moment in the sliver of purple sheet she hadn’t covered with a limb or her beautiful mountain of hair. In that moment, he had to leave. He would have been prepared to stay another hour while his phone charged, maybe investigate the possibility of them still liking each other in the morning; now, he could think of nothing worse. With the stealth of experience, he dressed and slipped out of the apartment, leaving nothing but a faint whisper of the smell of his body and a sad kiss he had blown by way of farewell.

In the shelter, he closes his eyes, it had only been an hour since he had left her apartment and already he can feel the heat of the shame of it rise up his cheeks and down his legs, culminating in a punch to the gut. It’s not the evening he’s ashamed of, he has had enough such evenings to be numb to them. Rather, it’s the image of skulking around for a charger, afraid to wake this person he didn’t even know, seeing himself from above as a complete mess. It’s the image of him leaving her and wandering around her neighborhood in concentric circles until he found a bus stop, putting his hood up despite the temperature to ensure he wouldn’t be seen in an awkward confrontation had she decided to arise and look for him. This is a new feeling, this morning shame, and it is making the young man restless and confused. He chalks it up to getting old, and then quickly changes his mind and decides he must be coming down with something. He’s in a new city, after all, away from the skeletons of his past, why should he be ashamed at having a good time last night? His indigestion is three parts hangover, one part unconscious awareness that he’s no longer having a good time on these nights.

Glancing out of the shelter, he sees a newspaper dispenser with last week’s free newspaper. He saunters over to grab one, desperate for something to occupy his time. After the incident on the bus, he doesn’t feel like trying to talk to anyone, let alone a bum, not that he seems to be that interested anyway. And he doesn’t want to stand there and think about last night or this morning. Better to just distract himself with the list of the top twenty restaurants he’d never be able to afford and wonder over its placement in the free mailer.

He heads back to the shelter and sees the man twitching and swatting invisible flies. Periodically, he scratches at a scab on his left forearm. The young man tries to ignore him. He flips between articles lamenting the rising cost of living and gentrification peppered with advertisements for marijuana dispensaries and gay night clubs. Minutes pass, and soon the young man can no longer ignore the suffering in front of him. He sighs. “Hey, man, are you okay?”

The man looks everywhere but at his face. “Whaddya mean? Are you saying there must be something wrong with me?”

“No I… just… do you have anywhere do go? Do you need anything” He stammers, realizing he no longer has the words to indicate that he wants to help because he realizes he doesn’t have what the man needs. He has no money, no phone—not that he knows who to call, anyway—and only the vague knowledge of someone who’s only lived a few months in a place. He absolutely doesn’t know how to help this man, and too late he realizes that perhaps ignoring him and not offering anything would be better than offering him platitudes that could only be interpreted as condescending.

“Never mind, forget it.”

The man could now focus long enough to stare him straight in the eye, which was enough for the young man to process the red eyes, the dilated pupils, the missing teeth. There is more to his story than being homeless. Without a home but also without sanity, without sobriety, without society. But with a sense of righteousness and indignation, a potent cocktail aged by years of injustice and addiction.

“Forget it, boy? You’re a damn kid. Do you think handing me ten bucks is help? That’s a damn bandaid.” The scratching has increased in intensity, a new trail of blood appearing beneath his fingernails. His lucidity shocks the young man, who has been expecting slurring and nonsense. Apart from an uneven cadence to his words and breathlessness, he is making perfect sense.

“I know… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“No one ever means anything. You just wanna buy your ability to sleep at night, knowing you helped some drugged out bum on the street turn around his life for ten lousy dollars.”

All the young man can do is blink. Blink at this man in response to his truth. Blink because he finds himself in a place he’s only ever circled around and doesn’t know the etiquette or what he’s supposed to do next. Blink because now he wishes he could give him ten dollars and simultaneously feels guilty over wanting to buy his way out of this.

His mind flashes to an image of him sitting beside this man, breaking down under the weight of his truth. What if he listened to the man’s story, heard his voice, brought him hope?

Instead, he blinks. He blinks because he is scared.

The homeless man, tired of waiting for a response, leans back and recrosses his arms, muttering something to himself about a damn entitled kid.

The young man stands still blinking. A bus arrives. He looks at the driver, then back to the man, before climbing aboard through the open door.

The young man makes his way to the rear of the bus, and sees an open seat next to a window. A large woman wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed church hat is sitting in the aisle seat, the folds of her dress (and maybe her body) extending onto the window seat. The young man considers his morning before carefully asking if he can take the seat. With a sigh, the woman doesn’t stand but instead adjusts her legs so they extend into the aisle, assuming he had enough room to slip through. With some awkward gymnastics to avoid the people in the row ahead and the woman’s lap, the young man manages to slide into the vacant seat. He knows he’ll be on the bus for a while, so he puts his hoodie up to lean against the window. He soon finds it too bumpy, so he slides forward and lets his head hang forward down to his chest. He cross his arms and squeezes his eyes shut, wishing the world away. He fidgets again, trying to find a comfortable position in the plastic seat.

“Rough night?”

The young man angles his head in the direction of the woman, surprised to see her turned towards him. His fidgeting has drawn her attention. Her expression was neutral, he couldn’t tell if she was angry at his intrusion or amused at his state or maybe both but she doesn’t really look friendly even though she doesn’t look hostile.

“Something like that, yeah.” He thinks he sounds unduly gruff, although it’s how he feels. “And this morning hasn’t been much better.” He finds himself trying to smile, even though he really doesn’t owe this stranger a smile and certainly doesn’t have much to smile about.

“Well, honey, it’s not my place to say, but here you are on a beautiful day, so things can’t be all bad.”

For the second time that day, the young man finds himself blinking, this time at her brash kindness. Her face still hasn’t changed—not the hint of a smile or a frown, but just nothing. It slowly dawns on him: she’s blind. This both shocks and comforts him, as if it allows him to be just slightly more than anonymous, able to have the best parts of human connection without the risk of judgement.

“I can’t argue with you there,” he says, now grinning and shaking his head from side to side.

At the sound of sirens and the flash of lights, the bus slows down to let an ambulance by. A block later, the bus is forced to a complete stop. The road is closed, with emergency vehicles blocking traffic, and no way for the bus to bypass.

“Looks like we’re going to be here a while. I’d suggest getting off and walking two blocks south to catch the 31.” The garbled message from the intercom causes the entire bus to collectively sigh and murmur their frustration. A slight old man that the young man hasn’t noticed appears to help the woman from her seat, guiding her carefully and expertly into the aisle.

“Have a good day,” the young man calls after her. But she is swallowed into the crowd and disappears down the stairs.

Standing once more on the street, now close enough to home to continue by foot but far enough away from anything familiar to feel isolated, the young man looks around to get his bearings. He can’t help but be curious as to the nature of the accident that is blocking the busy street and caused the bus to stop. It must have just happened, moments before the bus arrived, since the ambulance is just now arriving and early stages of confusion cause horns to blare and drivers to attempt to sneak by in the left-turn lane only to be stopped by a cop. The young man approaches the intersection, where in the midst of the squad of police cars, ambulance, and fire truck (he wonders, why a fire truck when there is no fire), a silver sedan is caught mid-U turn, its tail sticking awkwardly into the intersection. The young man doesn’t see another car, sees no damage, but sees a distraught man on his cell phone, hunched over onto the roof of the car, hiding his face and shaking his head. A police officer stands vigil nearby, taking notes on her clipboard and watching the man. The young man proceeds into the cross-street, now the crosswalk in front of the sedan is visible along with the back of the ambulance awaiting the stretcher that is down on the ground and over which a flock of uniformed responders huddle.

The young man stops short. In the street, away from the point of action, a shopping bag. Next to the shopping bag, a fuzzy green phone.

For the first time that day, tears rise into the young man’s eyes. His life seems to flash before his eyes, and he is dizzy. He had been part of the seconds gained and lost in her life that had led her to be in that place at that time.

Next to the green phone, in the middle of the street, he suddenly sees the missing phone charger, the newspaper from the bus stop, the blind woman’s hat.

He shakes his head, bouncing the image from his brain, and turns toward home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Erin Bank

Erin M. Bank lives, works, runs, and writes in San Francisco, CA. She writes personal essays, short stories, the occasional poem, and is working on her first novel. Her work is about finding her own voice and about characters finding theirs. She blogs at latentlollygagger.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

 

     
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