Hugging a Stranger’s Child

The young mother, clearly overworked, wore a thin, ill-fitting jacket and blue jeans. On her right shoulder hung her purse, a diaper bag and three plastic grocery sacks. In her left arm slept a baby bundled in a white snowsuit and pink blanket. There was one empty seat on the bus, so she told her three-year-old son to sit there.

The boy obeyed, but squinted suspiciously at the fortyish woman in layered work clothes and a reflective safety vest sitting next to him. He squirmed. He glanced over his shoulder to see out the window behind him. He turned his face the other direction and eyed the overweight, old lady with a gray, metal cane propped against her knees. The boy stared at her challengingly.

She smiled at him.

He dropped his head, squirmed again, leapt to feet, and darted to his mother. Flinging his arms around her legs, he buried his face against her knees.

“Mikey,” she said uncomfortably. “Mikey, go back and sit down.”

“No,” the toddler whispered.

She shrugged her purse and the diaper bag higher onto her shoulder, leaned forward awkwardly, and placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Go. Sit. Down.”

Mikey shook his head defiantly, looked into her eyes, and started to cry.

Other passengers on the bus pressed against each other, some pointed, others jerked their chins in Mikey’s direction, and all of them snickered. The driver’s angry glare bounced off the rear view mirror and slammed into the harried mother.

“Mikey,” she said pleadingly.

The old woman canted her head as she measured the exchange between the boy and his mother. Finally, she called out cheerily, “Mikey.”

The child twisted around to look at her.

“Mikey, come back and sit next to your Aunties,” the old woman suggested.

The woman in the reflective vest nodded toward the boy, then patted the empty plastic bus seat invitingly.

The boy glanced at his mother, who smiled with desperate frustration and repeated, “Go sit down.”

Realizing that he had been saved by his “Aunties,” the boy raced back, and the woman in the reflective vest helped him climb onto the seat. The boy knelt with his nose and one hand pressed to the window. He used the other hand to gesture at all the wonderful things outside the bus window: the overhead train, another bus, a truck from the south side delivering produce. Tapping his hand on the glass enthusiastically, he grinned and cried out at the truck’s logo, “Let us!”

The old lady thought of the three-story walk up and the twice used tea bag waiting for her at the end of the bus ride. The string from the tea bag would be dangling down the side of the cup and beside it, along the edge of the saucer, would be the half-slice of cold toast she’d set aside for her lunch. She tightened her grip on her utilitarian cane.

“Lettuce,” she agreed feigning excitement. “And tomatoes.”

The Fall of Rowdy Yates

The old woman hadn’t thought of her grandmother’s bedroom in forty years.  She lay in the snowbank and remembered the pale draperies that puffed at the windows; the round blue and cream hooked rug that even then had been in the family three generations.  She loved to stand at the vanity’s huge mirror with dark wooden scrollwork of horses rearing up on each side of the looking glass. She wasn’t allowed to use her grandmother’s gold hairbrush and hand mirror. She did anyway, though, leaving brown hair in the bristles.  If her mother found them, she’d be yanked over her mother’s lap and beaten. If her grandmother found them, the elderly lady would wink at her as she pulled out the long brown strands and tucked them in the small, oval wastebasket under the tissues and magazines to hide them. Horses also stampeded across the scrollwork on the bed.  She and her one-year-older cousin would twist blankets around the footboard and pretend to be cowboys.  Yippee-ki-ya.

Her bag was still on her shoulder, but the zipper had split open and the contents scattered, no doubt destined to remain under the snowdrift until spring. From the direction of the busy pharmacy down the block she heard voices. 

“Are you alright?” one of the voices called out. “Did you hurt yourself?” the other voice shouted.  Two young men hurried toward her down the center of the sidewalk where it was shoveled. One wore his store uniform. The other wore a parka.  “Hang on,” they said.  “Stay where you are. We’ll help you up.” 

To her, the clomp of their boots sounded like galloping horses.