It used to be more than his job. It was a career. It was his profession, his identity. No, it used to be even more…it was art. As surely as Picasso swished a brush or Michelangelo altered stone. A twist of experience, a dash of street sense. Don’t speak. Put the deal on the table and wait. He did it well. He did it easily. He thought he would do it forever. Rake in money. Toss crumbs to the cold and hungry gathered outside that fancy house he lived in. Put the deal on the table and wait. If old folks want to sell out, their house too cumbersome, their children caught up putting their children through school, make friends with the wives. Visit after all the lunch meetings when she’s just put the beef steak on the counter to thaw, covered with a bit of tin to keep the cat off. She’ll have time to talk then. Keep a ready supply of ink pens and contracts ready. Put the deal on the table and wait. Now, his Buick is parked in a great nephew’s unheated garage, and he can’t make it beyond the front stoop without his cane. From the senior van he eyeballs the value of houses on the way to buy groceries. In this market he’d be able to put in a second swimming pool, shallow enough for the babies to play in, like Margaret always wanted. He’d could take her to Belize. But he couldn’t take Margaret anywhere anymore; she lies in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. She doesn’t remember who he is. He plays cards with friends he’s made at the senior center. They bet straws and coffee stirrers. He does well. Puts the deal on the table and waits.
Most people who were in the mood for looking, kept their gaze on his shoulders. He knew it. He’d known it for years, and focused on it. He practiced in front of two mirrors to learn the exact way to flex them for attention, spent hours with his tailor draping fabrics across his back and arms to see whether the cloth would ripple or cling, and at the last faire, colleagues taught him a dehydration technique that thinned his skin across the shape of his muscles. Beyond all that, he made certain to exercise. His career warranted it, of course, but he put in extra, because of the stares he garnered.
He’d fathered several children, on both sides of the blanket, because of his shoulders. He’d wed twice, both times to women, although there were some fine young men in the world, and he never turned away what they offered. Neither marriage lasted. None of his relationships did. They were intense and flattering, but invariably short-lived. It wasn’t because of him. He never did anything wrong. He took care to be polite, gentle, and supportive. No, it wasn’t him. It was them. They couldn’t accept his line of work. He was successful, in fact, renowned — as renowned as someone deliberately anonymous could be. He owned a large house, ate well, and kept a smart team of fast horses. Yet, every single lover he ever had abandoned him once they discovered his line of work. He supposed, since it was so small of a city, it was inevitable that they all knew someone he’d handled professionally. Someone whose head ended up on a spike outside the city gate.
He wondered what more they wanted. After all, it was swinging the axe that kept his shoulders so strong.
He perched on the back steps, his long legs stretched awkwardly, his thin, shoulder-length hair tumbled into his face, his afternoon cannabis rolled in new papers and pinched between the index finger and thumb of his right hand. As he sat there alone, he watched their dogs bouncing in circles while tugging back and forth at the same tree branch. In the nearby shade, unsightly moss crept along the edge of the patio stones, and he supposed he would scrub the patio clean of it one day.
He had run out of words. The task was so simply. Wash the blue jeans. Put them into the dryer. Take them out of the dryer and fold them neatly with the seams apart so that the bellbottoms flared right to left when worn. How hard could that be? Folding the seams together so that the bottoms flared front to back was ridiculous. Nobody wore hip huggers that way.
He’d tried to explain the first time she did his laundry when they’d been married only a couple days. The wedding had been easy. They’d call their friends on the phone and said, “Getting married in the park on Saturday. Pizza at the house afterwards.” A good thirty people made it. It had been spontaneous. It had been fun despite the rain.
He’d tried to explain it again the next time she did his laundry a week later. She’d peered over her eyeglasses at him and continued what she was doing. It was a reaction he’d admired when he’d seen her target others with it.
When he’d tried to explain it two days ago, she opened her hands and let his jeans drop to the floor in front of the dryer.
Just five minutes ago he’d said loudly, “I guess I’ll have to pick my own jeans up off the floor.”
She simply answered, “Yes.”
He wished they could go back to that moment, before the phone calls had been made and the pizzas were ordered. When it was still fun. Before it was like this. Sighing, he pressed his left hand against the wooden step and pushed off to rise to his feet. The hemostat was in the living room and he’d need it if he were going to keep smoking. He’d picked the jeans up and put them away as he went by.
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 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.
To Amelia, the passing of time was important.
She stood proud as you please in the center of us, pointed her finger toward a blue sky we could only imagine, and declared: The eyes of posterity never blink. It knows who turns the keys in these locks and it will remember who shoveled dirt onto the bodies of our men.
The bit of illumination she followed was long and thin, taunting us through an arrow loop in the donjon wall the way guards sniggered through the iron bars. Long after the rest of us let go, she held on, tightly squeezing blood from welts and knife wounds to make one demarcation for dawn and another for dusk.
Dawn was easiest, not only for her but for all of us. The light would suddenly be there. Brilliant, even though without warmth. Tantalizing, even though unreachable.
Nightfall was harder, was always harder. Crying grew louder. Shrieking echoed off stone. Screams couldn’t be unheard no matter what we used to seal our ears. Amelia sprinkled a few drops where she thought the sun vanished. Coming back each day to scatter more, over and over. Loss of her drawing medium was never issue. What scabs dried and fell off one day would quickly be replaced, until finally she shouted triumphantly: Here. Right here. This is where day ends.
The next morning, they took her away. We sat quietly, watching the track of sunlight creep over the dirty, bare floor. They never brought her back.
I ask you: Does it matter where the shame lies, once the righteous are lost?
The hook flew up, down, in and out.
She watched the white-haired crafter as the bus shuttered and grumbled. Up. Down. Wrap the yarn. In. Out. She wondered how the woman could focus. Her own head throbbed. Hip-hop roared from some punk’s headphones. Two sisters, well, they looked to be sisters, animated a loud conversation with gestures and laughter. A small child chanted, “Itsy Bitsy Spider went up the water spout” in a shrill singsong. She could barely think and all she had to do with sit there. Yet here was this old woman working away; her hook blurring in a purposeful, methodical rhythm. Up. Down. Wrap. In. Out. The bus jolted to a stop as the driver avoided colliding with a light-colored Kia which had suddenly braked. The driver blared on the horn. She couldn’t see what difference it would make. Clearly the Kia’s operator was just as trapped as the bus. Up ahead she spotted billowing smoke swallowing the horizon. From somewhere behind the all the stopped vehicles, she could hear the whining of a siren and see pulsating lights. The fire department, she guessed, and wondered how they would traverse the traffic jam.
A young couple, possibly students, rose and navigated between commuters to reach the front of the bus. “Would you let us out here, please?” the young woman asked. The driver shook his head. “Not safe.” “All the cars are stopped. We’ll make better time walking,” the young man said more persuasively. “Nope,” the driver responded.
The couple shrugged and headed back to their seats. She thought she heard the young man swearing but couldn’t be sure. His shoulder slammed into the guy with the headphones, knocking him nearly off his feet. “Sorry” he mumbled.
“What the fuck?” the punk said. As he regained his footing, he pushed the young man backwards causing him to fall into his girlfriend who tumbled across the two sisters.
“Hey,” the sisters cried out in unison. “Be careful.”
“What do you think you’re doing,” the young woman shouted.
“Your boyfriend needs to watch where he’s going,” the guy sneered.
The young man swung his right fist at the guy, missing him by only a couple inches. The guy with the headphones grabbed the man’s shirt and slammed him against the fire extinguisher.
She glanced toward the front of the bus. The driver was watching everything in the rearview mirror. The old woman continued crocheting: Up. Down. Wrap the yard. In. Out.
“Driver,” she called out. “Can’t you do something?”
Just as he unbuckled his seat belt and climbed out from behind the steering wheel, a loud crunch jolted the bus, sending all the standing passengers to the floor. An SUV hit the rear of the bus while trying to get out of the way of the fire truck. The bus, in turn, crushed into the Kia causing the driver to pitch into the metal fire extinguisher case.
“Shit,” several people said at once.
“Fuck,” several other people said at once.
She righted herself, located her belongings and looked around. The punk with the headphones and the angry young man scrambled over passengers to reach the injured driver. The sisters and the young woman helped people get up from the floor.
The small child howled.
She stood and made her way to the priority seats where the old woman slouched with her chin against her chest. The woman looked up at her when she spoke, touched the back of her hand to her bottom lip, and shook her head as if to clear her thoughts.
“I’ve phoned the police,” a voice said from the middle of the bus.
“We’ve got people back here hurt,” another said.
“The driver is unconscious,” the student said.
“Let’s get him onto the floor,” the punk suggested. Together the two stretched him out in the center aisle between the rows of seats.
The old woman looked around as if she had dropped something, then spying her yarn on the floor, leaned forward to pick it up.
“Here, let me,” she said. “You stay where you are. I’ll get it.”
Her boyfriend retrieved it and passed it to her then she gave it to the woman.
A police officer pounded on the front doors of the bus, so the punk with the headphones located the mechanism and opened them for him.
“Everyone sit tight,” the officer said. “We need everyone to stay on the bus and remain calm until we get things sorted. EMT’s will be here shortly.”
“As soon as they can make it through all this traffic,” someone said and everyone laughed. Then, satisfied that the danger was past, they exhaled a collective sigh of relief.
The old woman picked up her yarn, looped in around the fingers of her left hand to maintain the tension and began to crochet again. Up. Down. Wrap the yarn. In. Out. Up. Down. Wrap the yarn. In. Out.
Not many folks were in the park. Most massed on the sidewalk waiting for the light to cross onto Winter Street – that’s where I was headed myself. I clipped through Boston Common as quickly as I could without actually breaking into a run and getting my Hugh Boss sweaty. Light Gray. Skinny legs. Nice. Behind me was a chubby black girl, maybe 18 or 19; too much make-up and a hoodie. She carried an iced coffee and listened to music on her phone. Ahead of me tottered an old woman who had a battered backpack slung over one shoulder and a plain, metal cane in her right hand. She progressed so cautiously that I wondered why was she even out at eight in the morning, I mean, when the rest of us are trying to get to work. Surely, Granny could run her errands another time. After studying the area as if trying to get her bearings, she turned to swing around Brewer Fountain. I quickened my pace to pass her, and as I did, the cane skidded sideways on a patch of uneven bricks. She plummeted face-first but managed to bend her elbows so that her knees and forearms took the brunt of the fall. When her backpack slid free, a wrapped sandwich tumbled out. She glanced my way with a pleading look on her face. Clearly, she was struggling to get up and needed assistance. Noting that blood trickled from one of her skinned knees, I thought about my new suit. As I hesitated, the girl with the ear buds and lipstick called out, “Are you all right?” Thank God, I thought to myself then darted onto the Tremont Street sidewalk just as the light turned.