Getting off the bus

Winter never gets easier. Every year it closes in on me, just like the commies and the mother-in-law and my horrible boss, and the accounting department. I’m the ad-man at a doomed company. There’s no way we can compete with Remington, Smith-Corona or IBM. I don’t see the point.

I ride the bus, freezing despite the overworking heater, with my coat open to keep the sweat from getting too much on my newly cleaned shirt. This tie is suffocating. I never should have given up the fisherman’s life. Everyone told me to get out of Salem, get out of your father’s hard life, get away from manual labor, go to college. The war was hard enough on you, Jack, they said. They have no idea. I thought they had some, but now I regret listening to them at all. The newspaper is more of the same. Even the sports page is depressing.

The bus stops and I have to make a choice. I could sit here, pretending, believing somehow, that I had forgotten where I worked, end up in Boston and go confess at the church in Copley. I could end up in Watertown and visit mother’s grave, the one I didn’t choose for her like I always said I would. I could just go home and get in the car and drive. Drive to Salem. Drive to N’Hampshire. Drive to Maine. Drive off the face of the earth. Who would miss me?

Something forces me to get up, roll up the paper and walk to the rear door. That’s as suicidal as anything else, so what’s the difference? What I can never account for, as much as I want to see good in humanity, is how sloppy people are. They’ll make a mess and leave it for someone else to slip on. For some reason a pile of sand waits for me on the final step out of the bus’s rear door, but I’m not looking down. I lose my balance and fall, straight onto my knees into a puddle next to a fire hydrant. My hands go up to my head, but of course there’s no helmet there, just a hat, but still I’m looking around, waiting for the grenades to start landing.

What do I see instead? Phyllis from accounting, the last person I would want to see if you asked me, leaning against the lamp-post in a red wool coat, the brightest thing in the dull New England sky, bright enough that I squint at her. Her red lips blow smoke from the side of her mouth, and then she smiles.

I wait for her to laugh, knowing that if it’s not that it’s my late expenses. One hand on my briefcase handle, propping myself up with the other, I say “I’ve got those slips for you, Phyl.”

She steps forward and drops her cigarette. “Don’t worry about it, Jack,” she says and reaches out a hand. “You need a cup of coffee.”

By the end of the third cup, I’m done talking about that day and the horrible day before. I’m not telling her about France. I’m telling her about George’s Bank, what it’s like to sleep on the boat, what it’s like to be out there where the roar of the waves on the hull becomes your most constant friend. She’s hearing me with her eyes, compassionate almond portals edged with black ostrich-quills set amid the rosy warmth of her pearl-edged face. It’s like no one has heard me say these things, and not because I’ve never spoken them before. My clothes are done drying, and we head to the office, myself wondering if anyone will ever hear me again.