Nathan managed a foot on the platform, but then had to hold on to the rail to drag the rest of his decrepit body up the steps. It always took too long, and though the bus driver never said a word, the other passengers always gave him hard and cruel looks. He couldn’t help it. He was eighty-four and no longer allowed to drive, so it was the bus or nothing. He feared soon enough it would be nothing. God knew how his knees hurt. He sat heavily on the bench just behind the driver where there were plenty of metal bars to hang on to in the turns. Once he was settled, his lower back shivered as the muscles let go of their great effort to keep him upright against the hard pull of gravity. Of course Lisa, his nag of a daughter wanted him to take the metro, but there were steps there, too. Besides that, even if the walls were white and the lights were bright, there always seemed to be something of a going-down-into-the-pits-of-Hell about the place. Nathan preferred the sun, even if the bus windows were terminally dirty and it looked like rain.
Nathan looked down at his suit jacket. It was terribly wrinkled. He supposed he could have it dry cleaned and pressed, but he had long since given up getting to such places on his own. He knew he could ask Lisa. She would do it, but she would also pay for it and more important, he would pay for it because she would use that as an excuse to start going through all of his things and weeding out what she did not like or what she did not think was important. His hand came up to smooth out some of the worst of the wrinkles, but all he saw was age spots and more wrinkles where his hand used to be. Getting old was as hard as gravity. He let the winkles lay, like sleeping dogs, and decided that no one would notice an old man in a disheveled suit, and if they did, they would not care. He might have sighed, but he used up all of his sighs ten years earlier.
Nathan looked at the other passengers to pass the time. There was a young man about mid-way to the back. Ha! Young? He had to be forty even if he was still clinging to the outrageous clothes of youth and still projecting the attitude of the disaffected and disenfranchised. Nathan could read it in the man’s eyes. He felt sorry for the man who was probably convinced from a very young age that he was incapable of doing anything. Ha! He should not feel incapable of doing anything until he was at least eighty!
With that thought planted firmly in his mind, Nathan turned to look at an elderly woman who was probably older than he was. She was smiling, for Christ’s sake! Nathan remembered the ninety-three year old he found in the supermarket the other day. When he remarked on the two gallons of cherry vanilla ice cream while they waited in line, her response was interesting.
“Two scoops doused in two jiggers of brandy is really good. How do you think I got to be ninety-three?”
Nathan had not thought. He just smiled and she checked out first.
Now this elderly woman was smiling like that one. Nathan decided it must be the brandy. He could not imagine any alternative that would cause such an old woman to smile. He concluded the little-old-ladies club must pass around recipes. Nathan rubbed the back of his hand as if the age spot was a bit of dirt. Then he rubbed the back of his stiff neck and held on while the bus came to the next stop.
“Stupid car!” The man virtually swore and Nathan heard. Everyone heard, before they saw the man. Nathan noticed the collar right away, and supposed the man was a priest or a minister. He shouted the words “Stupid car!” as he dug for the cost of the bus ride and made everyone wait and dig out their hard and cruel looks in response. Evidently the man wanted everyone to hear and see. Nathan understood. It was the man’s way of saying that he did not normally ride a bus and he would not be caught dead on one now if his car had not behaved stupidly. Nathan was not sure it was just the car that was behaving stupidly. He watched as the man looked down the aisle, noticed the young man and the old lady, looked at Nathan, and took the seat in the front, opposite. Before Nathan could speak, just in case he had something on his mind to say, the minister pulled the Washington Post from under his arm and ignored everyone. The bus started again.
Nathan coughed and produced a large bit of phlegm. He even disgusted himself, but he had a handkerchief in his suit pocket so he kept the disgust to a minimum, and while he was at it he rubbed his nose before he put the handkerchief away. He imagined that it was a remarkable thing he did not embarrass himself more often. He had lived alone for too many years and was of an age where he should not care, yet he did care about others – not what they thought of him, but to not disgust them if he could help it. Too many men, once alone, went to pieces. At least most of Nathan’s dishes were currently clean and put away.
Nathan straightened his shirt collar and sat up straighter for a minute. He had not worn a tie, of course, since he retired all those ages ago. He leaned out to look down the aisle once again and noticed the minister with the newspaper slid a little closer to the window which was beyond touching distance, just in case Nathan wanted to touch. The man turned the newspaper page as if to say, “I’m busy, leave me alone.” Unfortunately, there was little more to see beyond the young man and the old lady. There were other passengers, but they were hunkered down to where Nathan, with his not so good eyes, could hardly catch their hair color.
A man stood. He was a big, burly kind of a man; the kind of man Nathan never was. He staggered a little in the sway of the bus and jerked forward a bit as the bus came to a stop. He sat behind Nathan and Nathan guessed he would be getting off at the next stop.
The air whooshed and the bus door opened. Nathan turned to see a little girl come slowly up the steps. Nathan waited for the mother or father to follow, but none came. The bus driver asked for his money.
“Please, sir.” The little girl spoke softly like she was shy or embarrassed. Nathan would have had to turn up his hearing aid if he had not been sitting so close. “I missed the school bus, but I have to get home. My grandmother is very sick. My mother will pay you when we get to my stop.” That took real courage. Nathan admired the little girl
“Sorry kid. You’ll have to walk.” The bus driver looked sympathetic, but it was his job, and Nathan wondered how many rotten things were committed in the name of doing one’s job. He hated that expression. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Here is the little secret. business or not, everything in life is always personal.
The little girl looked ready to cry. “I can’t,” she said and both Nathan and the bus driver were drawn to her feet where one shoe looked stiff and metallic. Nathan did not know if it was a club foot or the result of some disease or accident, but come to think of it, the girl did limp up the steps.
“Listen, kid. I’ll lose my job. I’m sorry.” The bus driver spoke kindly but shook his head before he looked back into the bus as if to suggest that someone from the city might be there spying on him. Nathan knew no paper pusher would leave the warm security of an office to ride a bus, but he allowed that the bus driver might have thought this was a set-up to see who they could fire, given the current state of the economy. “I need my job,” the driver said honestly enough.
The little girl began to cry, softly.
“Look, I’ve got family too. I have to get home.” The burly man spoke over Nathan’s shoulder.
“Yes, can we get on with this?” The minister spoke up from behind his newspaper. Nathan glanced back. The young man turned toward the window to ignore the whole scene. The old lady began to dig through her purse, but Nathan preempted her. He pulled a bill from his pocket.