Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Passenger

He's got grungy, crusty, too-long pants that drag on the ground behind him. Holes in his shirt and blackened nails jutting from gnarled fingers. Arthritis set in, the doc says. Happens to a man of his years and circumstance. Shoulders hunch and a gleaming bald scalp distract from cloudy eyes. It's been a year or more since he shaved. But the damn beard grows in odd patches. At best he looks a mess, at worse, a serial killer.

The bus is late today. Not that it matters. He's got no money to buy a ticket. So he sits and waits. The custodian hates him. She shakes her head and asks the ticket agent if she can boot him, for the fifth time today. They think he's deaf. But he's not. The old ears work just fine, the mind, too. That's the joy of watching your body twist up and crumble. The outside looks like hell, but the inside stays pristine.

The custodian grumbles as her mop bucket clambers across the tile.

Not much traffic today.

A little girl with a hula-hoop. A distracted lawyer. A phone obsessed mother. And the sun baking them all. He should've rode his bike off the Grand Canyon the day he realized he couldn't grip the bars and ride it anymore. Had he known he'd be stinking up a bus bench all these years later--he would’ve.

The hula-hoop crashes to the floor. A loud sandy sound. The girl starts up again. She's not very good, but determined.

A cool breeze offers momentary relief from the bitch-ass sun. The lawyer squints into the sky. Checks his watch. The lawyer's too important to be waiting here. The old man smirks. DUI?

There's a loud rumble in the distance. A ghost come calling. An Indian Chief rolls up with a specter revving its engine. The old man sits up straighter, more alive than he's been in years. The specter stares at him, gives a nod. The old man works his way over to the phantom on unsteady legs. "Quite a bike you've got there." A shadow grin follows. He's just a kid, the old man thinks. The kid seems pleased, "Wanna ride Old Man?"

The old man lights up, then remembers his hands. He looks down and frowns. The kid sees it, but remains undeterred. "Just hold onto me. You'll be alright." With a bit of a struggle the old man climbs on the back of the bike. "It's been a long time, Son." His heart so close to bursting. The kid chuckles, "Well, then let’s get to it, Old Man."

And then it was the long, black road snaking onward. The wind rolling over aged shoulders and gnarled hands. It was the sun rising high, paying respect. The bus bench a footnote in time and the horizon the future before him.

The custodian shook her head in disdain. She couldn't stand hobos. "Mister." She poked him, "Mister, wake up! You've soiled yourself." The ticket agent came over. "What's the problem Wanda?" The custodian rolled her eyes. "He messed himself and I can't wake him up." The ticket agent leaned forward, looking at the old man for the first time. Something inside her flickered, some memory long forgotten. She looked again. "Dad?" 

She hadn't seen her father in years. He'd gone off to "be free" her mother said. But this old man looked so much like him. It couldn't be...could it? She tried again, "Da--er--Sir? Sir wake up." Nothing. She leaned back on her heels. "I think he's gone, Wanda. Better call someone to collect him." Hesitantly, she reached into his pocket, looking for some identification. She found it. Looking with shaking hands. Carl Davis on an expired driver's license. And a faded picture of a little girl with lopsided pigtails. Tears streamed down her face. How many times had he come and sat on this bench? She couldn't remember. Almost every day?

Wanda shuffled her feet impatiently, "Why you crying? You know him?" The ticket agent cleared her throat and blinked. "No, not really. But he seemed like a harmless old guy. Too bad he died alone." She put his identification back in his wallet. "Better call someone, Wanda." And she went back to her ticket window, the faded picture tucked safely in her hand.

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