The Polite Commuter

I had a seat near the front of the bus. A good one – facing forward – and there was still one open in the sideways bench seats. I fished out my phone and started checking messages. The bus stopped again and an elderly couple got on. The man gave his wife the open seat, but he didn’t look too sturdy so I relinquished mine, walked to the open area by the back door and stood there. Almost fell when the bus jerked forward so I grabbed a pole then pulled out my phone again. The back of the bus was crowded enough that I had to move each time the drive open the rear door, but I was able to set backpack on the floor between my feet so that helped. I guess it wasn’t a big deal. I just couldn’t focus on my messages and ended up stuffing my phone in my backpack. A few stops later, the stop at the strip mall where the grocery store is, a woman got on with one of those double strollers with a toddler at the bottom and an infant on top. Plus she had half a dozen plastic grocery bags. The driver said they blocked too much of the aisle so she had to stand by the rear door with me. It was a squeeze. The carriage wheel pushed my bag so that I couldn’t reach it, but the mother said she wasn’t going far. When her stop came, the drop to the sidewalk was so steep that she couldn’t get the stroller off. I grabbed the front of the stroller and another guy grabbed the handle and between the two of us we got it off safe and sound, both kids intact and happy. The other guy shifted to one side so the mother could get off. She paused long enough to retrieve my bag with her foot and pull it back near where I’d been standing. I held my hand to help her down. She nodded her thanks and started to push the stroller down the sidewalk. Just as I reached to haul myself back up into the bus the driver shut the door on my hand. I dropped back to the sidewalk cradling my bruised hand and watched as the bus drove away.




My older sister was prettier, of course, with her black hair and shiny eyes, but I was the smarter one. I was always more subtle, sneakier, content to relish the small victories rather than indulge in the large, over-blown hoo-has and celebrations she liked. For instance, that house of hers. Which house? You mean you don’t know? You must have heard about it at some point. Gingerbread. In the middle of nowhere out in the woods. Children found it and killed her for it. If I warned her once, I warned her a thousand times. Don’t be so obvious, I’d say. Don’t let on about what you’re up to. Did she listen? No – and look where it got her. She took after our cousins in Scotland; I mean, good grief, they made an entire song out of it:

“Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Catchy – but not very secretive, you know what I’m saying. Alexander the Great, that was some of my best work; people have argued for centuries about him and they still aren’t sure. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Quiet. Discreet. Not all hi-ho-hi-ho and poison apples. It’s harder these days, of course, but if you know what you’re doing no forensics in the world will catch you. A dash of tainted salt left in a restaurant; a bit good mushroom mixed with the bad; a plate of chocolate candy on the counter for co-workers.

Prayer for an Invisible Friend


Walking across the softball field,
one arm bent across your stomach,
me pleading with you to stay
and play longer. Maybe
one of my many older brothers
walked you home, I want to think so,
but nearly 50 years later
my mind can only conjure that single image
of you heading toward the path through the fence line.
Other memories reach the surface more slowly:
my father and brothers working on the family car when
Mom came outside to tell us; the look on Rick’s face;
being forced to stand on a chair
in my best dress, while my mother
impatiently yanked the knots from my long hair.
“Hold still,” she hissed. “If it were you,
wouldn’t you want her to look nice?”
You were seven.
I was a year older but had never seen
lips and skin as blue as yours had turned.
Wherever you had gone, though
you were still one of us, were still with us.
Every game we played, we counted you in —
dealt out cards for games of rummy, pushed you higher
on an empty swing
when it came your turn.
One time we found some old pieces of wood
that we used to make nameplates:
Rick, Howie, you and me.
We lined them up in the hollows
inside of a concrete block,
until Bob discovered them. Enraged,
he threw your small, chalk scratched block
as hard as he could into distant
weeds that no one ever mowed. We could offer
no defense that he understood
and I am still too careful to mention you,
even when I sense that you’re standing
close by my side.

-For Roberta Peoples as we approached the 50th anniversary of her death
In photo she is the one in the front, a little to the right
Written  7/24/2009