It was a migraine this time, stretching the halls into shimmering periscopes, long dark tunnels at the end of which twinkled fractured destinations—the table, the conference room, an office door. It was a migraine that she had this time, not a headache, but the big one: a shifting kaleidoscope dizziness that halted her movements. Her walk was a barely controlled lurch and her hands appeared bulbous and grotesque when they reached for something.
“Go home,” her co-workers told her, and her supervisor asked, “Joanna, will you be all right on the bus?” She didn’t want to take a cab or Uber. She hated cars, enclosed spaces, the suffocating smell of oil and dangling air freshener warmed in the sunlight.
She would be all— “Right,” she had said to a co-worker’s suggestion that she take ibuprofen, or that she not and sip some white wine instead—white wine, yeah, it was ten o’clock in the morning—white wine?—she would be all right on that bus, but first she had to cross that lobby. It lurched around her, or rather she lurched through it, and now it seemed impossibly bare, huge, and echoing. Joanne to the door, into the wind and the sun. At the bus stop, she sat down on the bench and rested her head in her hand. As if on cue a vehicle pulled up to her, turning expertly so that the door slid within her reach, but it was just a car, not a cab. She opened her eyes and saw a man, an older man, bespectacled with a Big Gulp cup to echo the gulp that she took, leaning out of the passenger window.
Oh, great, she thought, every damn place you go.
But he wasn’t leering at her; he wasn’t holding out a twenty-dollar bill. He was older, rotund and grey, with a green-and-black checkered flannel shirt and a beard, and crinkling eyes, intellectual and seemingly normally jocular. He looked intensely serious, though, even angry, but not at her—agitated, and briefly emboldened.
“Hate waiting for the bus?” he called to her, and she, having just relaxed, stiffened again, and prepared herself to refuse a proffered ride with him. He swung his gaze from her to the wad of pamphlets that he clutched in his hand and, picking through them as if to pull out a card from a magic deck, he nodded conspiratorially at her. He handed one of the brochures out of the window at her. When she didn’t lean forward for it, he strained and deposited it with a precise toss onto her lap.
“PRT,” it said, “Personal Rapid Transit.” It showed an idyllic cityscape, ostensibly downtown, with a tiny, red, gleaming pod like the small shuttle pods in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, gliding along a white concrete beam high above the ground, next to the second-floor windows of an office building. A cut-away revealed the inside of the pod, and its riders—a man, woman, and young boy—reclined in apparent luxury upon the generous upholstery. They were all smiling, and the man had his hands spread as if to say: I’m steering this thing with just my thoughts!
“It’s there when you need it, and it takes you exactly where you want to go!” bellowed the man in the car. “A three-person cab at your beck and call! No more waiting! No more riding the bus with people you don’t even know.” The light at the intersection had turned green but still he lingered there, apparently waiting for her to respond.
“Thanks,” she said.
“We need everyone’s support at the legislature,” he yelled, more cheerfully now, and slid behind the wheel again. “Americans don’t want to ride mass transit with a bunch of strangers!” He rolled forward just as another car bore down on his bumper from behind and blared a long honk of warning. The two cars raced down the street, the second one closely trailing the first and emitting short, impatient beeps. At the next intersection, both cars stopped in queue for the red light. As they waited, the car behind the first began to honk again, and the horn of the pamphleteer sounded in turn, longer and bolder. The two horns honked and held, each trying to outlast the other, like rival opera singers holding a high note. Joanne’s head felt like it was being pierced by two swords. She sighed.
Joanne stuffed the pamphlet into her bag and rested her head in her hands again. Around her, the sunny day drifted away from her as garish and flat as a billboard in the windshield of a speeding car. She remained this way for a few minutes, until she felt a presence at her side.
“Do you know where Plymouth Avenue is?” It was a young woman who was sitting on the bench and speaking to her, or rather it was a middle-aged woman with long, brown-blond hair, a teen-age hairstyle with bangs surrounding a face that was gaunt and lined, held up by a thin, veined neck. Her teeth were crooked and discolored when she bared them—not intentionally, but she bared them like fangs when she spoke again, and her voice sounded like a deep-lung cough, although her manner was polite and very ladylike. “I’m trying to find Plymouth Avenue.”
Joanne knew where it was but before she could remember, she was already shaking her head. Her thoughts seemed to occupy the space just behind and slightly above her left ear. “Sorry.”
“Waiting for the twenty-two B?” asked the girl-woman.
“Got a headache.”
“Oh, excuse me,” said the woman softly. When Joanne looked at the woman directly, she saw that the woman was wearing a waitress uniform—white, spotted tennis shoes, black shorts, green T-shirt with a V-neck and a bar logo above her right breast, although the shirt was spotted too, and threadbare. It was practically the same uniform that she had worn, while cocktail waitressing ten years ago, far from here, in her hometown during the summer between high school graduation and her freshman year of college. This one, however, looked as though the woman wore it every day.
“Going to work?” Joanne ventured.
The woman turned back to her and abruptly smiled as if Joanne and she shared a secret, and Joanne was the only woman who understood her in the whole world. “Nope!”
Joanne slouched on the bench and fervently began to fold the pamphlet into a square, then a triangle, then a wad. It went flying from her fingers to land in the trash receptacle ten feet from where they were sitting.
“Good shot!” said the woman, as Joanne began to dig in her purse for her ibuprofen. The not-waitress regarded Joanne soberly as Joanne prepared to spit-swallow the small red pill—which rather resembled that small red PRT pod, in fact. She hated not taking water with pills; she was always afraid of choking. Especially with ibuprofen wasn’t it dangerous? Could it give her kidney failure or something? It took her several tries before she had the guts to swallow the little red pod, because she kept imagining that small pamphlet family screaming from inside of it as they traveled down her throat in their fantastic voyage. The bus was taking forever, as usual, but she wasn’t sure what she thought about waiting for a small pod to show up late instead. What would prevent a small, potentially underfunded vehicle from acting like a large, definitely underfunded vehicle? What if somebody put pennies on the monorail? After all, graffiti artists manage to paint the entire undersides of highway overpasses. What if some dude hopped into the pod with her at the last minute, and she was stuck with him when the hatch came down? (Did a hatch come down, or would she have to yank on a handle like a car’s? Did it rise and lower like the door of a DeLorean or slide open like Star Trek? What did it do?)
Had Mr. Big Gulp anything to say about what would happen if that pod suddenly stopped in the middle of its monorail, trapping her with that not-driver, his wife, and their tantrum-prone son? At least the driver of a bus could take an alternate route. Once during a huge blizzard, in which the city saw four inches of snowfall in one hour, the driver decided not to get in line at a particularly crowded intersection and had instead struck out on a side street, taking Joanne and a homeless man past a deserted block of warehouses and emptied offices, and making an expert circle that, with a final right turn, deposited the bus at the next stop in its route in less time than it would have taken to cross the traffic-entangled intersection, in which two hummers traveling the same direction had mysteriously collided, one of them wrapped around the front end of the other like the letter “t” in archery font. The homeless man had begun monologue that was so comedic that other passengers turned to listen to him, and then turned to Joanne and asked if she could speak any Somali.
“Yes,” Joanne had replied. “Iská wárran!”
The man did not answer her directly, but proclaimed, “I speak Somali, too!” and launched into what sounded like glossolalia, while Joanne sat trying to translate, and a young Somalian woman buried her mouth in the hem of her hijab and giggled.
“Barasho wanaksan,” Joanne interjected desperately. Good to meet you.
“Ha,” giggled the woman, but she was nodding. “Ha, ha!” HA was “yes” in Somali, but to Joanne it sounded like a double entendre. The man continued his monologue, in English, with some broken Spanish. By the time that she exited at her stop, the whole busload was laughing, even the driver.
“Going to work?” asked the un-waitress. “Hope not, with your headache.”
Joanne turned to her and managed the same conspiratorial smile. “Nope!”
They both laughed.
Years ago, Joanne had been a waitress. She had been a food waitress during the day and a cocktail waitress at night, frequently working sixteen hours a day in the hotel restaurant and bar behind the mall, and often between shifts she had napped alone in room number one, or The Psycho Room, as the hotel cooks had christened it. It was the unofficial party room for the hotel staff after hours, and a crash pad for anyone too tired to drive home after a shift, and sometimes it was a tryst room for the endless combinations and re-combinations of busboys and room attendants who supplied the front desk with its weekly quotient of gossip—and the management never knew about it.
The head cook had told her the story of how, one night after the end of the night shift, at one-thirty in the morning when all of the cooks were hanging out and drinking in the Psycho Room, room number one was signed out to a customer by a new clerk at the desk who had not yet been backed into a corner of the staff lounge and told the unwritten rules. The sound of a key in the lock at room number one had halted all laughter within, and one of the cooks rose to throw his weight across the door as it opened. He drew the chain and, one by one, the cooks slipped out the window and ran across the patio outside, disappearing into the shrubbery, leaving their twelve-pack and whiskey bottles behind on the table by the bed. The sleepy salesman, unable to break the door chain, had roused the front desk clerk who, after gaining no entry through the door, eventually led the customer through the window that the cooks had just escaped from.
The green youth of a clerk had been mortified to discover the mess, but the customer had taken it all in stride: “Hey! They left me the worm!” the salesman had crowed, hefting the nearly-empty bottle of tequila to his lips.
Joanne herself had never participated in these parties, no matter how many times the cooks had urged her to (and “urged” had meant what every young, pretty daughter’s mother feared that it meant). She had only gone swimming once with them in the hotel pool after work, but the cut and fit of her bikini had been the whisper of the hotel’s male staff just the next day, so she never socialized with any of her co-workers again, politely refusing their invitations to stay at the bar past closing and drink with them illegally after hours. As for the waitresses, though they had been more her age many of them were already mothers, and they had kept badgering her about when she would be having a kid. Most of them were not married; those that had a husband went over their time limit on the phone, yelling at their men and then crying in the darkened break room while Joanne struggled to cover all of the tables. (She didn’t complain, because she got more tips that way.)
Her had tips smelled; she had not expected that. Even lunch-counter tips didn’t smell like a grill, but what few bar tips that she received fairly stank of alcohol. They were often sticky, and they just reeked. She could wipe food off the dollar bills, the gravy and the meat juice that dripped onto them, but wiping didn’t quite clean the dollars of the lime vodka or the beer—especially the beer. There was a cigarette tinge to it too, just like the stale aura that clung to her hair afterward, forcing her to shower again. Every week, when she deposited her cash into her checking account at the local bank, the women behind the bank counter would give her such irritated looks that she began in earnest to wash her tip money beforehand. Of course, she knew that wet coins wouldn’t rust, but she also learned to her delight that a dollar bill would not fall apart when dunked into a sink of warm water with detergent. A dollar was cloth, and it washed out like cloth. It drip-dried like socks, and towel-dried like hand washed undergarments. Sometimes she even thought that George Washington looked at her in gratitude from beneath the soapy water.
When one day she went to the bank again, after a week of carrying our Founding Father fresh from his bath and toweling-off at home to his nap at the bank, one of the women asked her—quite casually—where the cash was coming from, so she replied honestly. She added that it was for college. Pleased with the reaction, she also added—very casually—that Palmolive got the bar smell out, and that dollar bills, being of cloth, could be washed out and hung up like nylons.
The bar smell would cling to her after even just one shift. After she had arrived home every night, she had always had to take a shower, even if it was two-thirty in the morning. She simply had not been able to sleep with that stale cigarette smoke in her hair. As for her uniform, she’d washed that out every night, too—and the symbolism of all this washing had not been lost on her.
“Quit your job?” the anti-waitress finally asked, as if she had never spoken earlier.
“I wish,” Joanne replied, but she emphatically did not wish to leave her desk job at the museum. It was one of the few jobs she ever held where she was not on her feet most of the time trying to please disgruntled customers. She gave the reply only to keep alive the sense that she and this other woman had a lot in common.
The woman turned to her proudly. “I did today!”
“Congratulations!” said Joanne.
“I’m getting married,” the woman replied. “You married?”
“Married to your work, eh?”
“Married to my shirk,” Joanne improvised without meaning to, and after a pause the woman laughed again. Her headache had ebbed somewhat. Maybe it wasn’t a migraine after all.
At last, their bus was approaching, and she and the other woman stood up. The sky was darkening above them, clouds rolling over the museum like billows of artificial fog pumped onto a movie set. A car roared by, its passenger window filled with an ugly, jeering man’s face, all teeth and squinched eyes and triumphant, blaring yell. The woman next to her bellowed an epitaph in turn at the retreating vehicle. The bus pulled up and stopped for them, and they climbed the steps. “I can never understand what the hell people are saying out of windows,” Joanne grumbled. “I mean, I can’t even hear it, so what’s the point?”
“Great for your headache, eh?” the woman said to her as they boarded the bus.
Joanne sighed, and the driver nodded politely to her. “Actually, I’m better. If this storm comes in, it should be gone. My skull is a natural barometer.” But a migraine passed with its own rhythm, like the invisible wave of a tsunami still far out to sea, disturbing nothing traveling with complete invisibility until it swelled grotesquely just before it crashed onto shore, and pulled civilization back with it into the depths. She found a seat to herself and sat down.
The two men sitting up front in the handicapped seats at first sounded like they were arguing; then she realized that they were just teasing each other, really loud. They were criticizing each other’s shoes. “Go down to the airport and get a proper shine! Go to Bernard’s—right there by Security,” said one of them, to which the other replied, “Man, shine what? Shine what, man? My tennis shoes? My fucking loafers?” “Well, get some proper shoes, then!” “Man, I got’s my shoes already. They don’t need shining. What you all hyped up on a shine for?” “Brother, I keep tellin’ you—if it don’t shine, it can’t be mine.” These last sentences startled a few grins out of nearby riders, but otherwise everyone ignored these two. The bus lurched on, stopping first at a neglected bus stop before the overpass, at which men in floppy pants sat gripping bottles in brown bags and ignoring the bus, then at the shopping center on the other side of the overpass, where the unwaitress dismounted, then at a new housing development close to downtown.
A woman got on here, a middle-aged, stoutly peroxide-blond woman, garishly made-up and in a t-shirt, leopard-skinned stretch pants, and gold slippers. The slippers clashed with her outfit like a pair of army boots with a prom dress. “Like that, like that shine?” said one of the men in the handicapped section. He spoke very softly and respectfully but the woman swung around and fixed him with a drunken glare.
“Shut up, you bastards, show some class,” she snapped, and continued to amble far to the back. There was no beer smell from the woman as she walked by Joanne; it was the distinctive reek of pot, which did not make sense. Suddenly irritable, the woman plunked herself down audibly toward the back and began to mumble to herself. “People don’t have friends—like that stupid white woman up there.” Joanne smiled and assumed that the woman meant her, since besides the speaker she was the only white woman on the bus. “Ain’t got no friends. Ain’t got no life. Ain’t got no damned stupid life at all! Stupid white bi—.”
“Hey, cool it back there,” warned the driver over his intercom.
The woman’s voice dropped to an angry grumble, and another woman, an elderly woman across the aisle leaned toward Joanne, though she occupied the window seat and did not decrease the space between them by much. She was the smallest woman Joanne had ever seen, with nut-brown skin and a pair of wide brown eyes. “I don’t have any friends either,” she teased Joanne with a wink. The two smiled at each other, and the woman burst into laughter like the chiming of silver bells. “And I don’t have a life!”
“Neither do I,” Joanne bragged. “But we can be friends.” Oh Christ, you did not just say that, she thought. Way to be maudlin.
“Oh, heavens, no,” chortled the woman. “Then we would have to back-bite each other, the minute that we step out of our limos at the charity fundraiser!”
Thanks for the save. “And we would have to wear the same dress,” Joanne replied, thinking suddenly of a certain episode of “Dynasty.”
“Which means one of us would have to spend the entire evening in the powder room! Or—fight in the koi pond.” The woman laughed again, and it was infectious; the two men up front began to laugh, and the bus driver smiled at Joanne.
The woman at the back of the bus yanked the cord to signal the driver that she wanted the next stop. As she stood up and walked toward the front, everyone stiffened, but she began to sing. She had a lilting, almost angelic voice and it filled the bus like light. Now at the front, she turned to the passengers and bowed. “Merry Christmas!” she trilled.
“Happy New Year!” replied one of the men at the front. The two men watched in fascination as she descended the steps to the street.
“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” mocked the old woman to Joanne’s right, and she and Joanne grinned at each other again.
“What de fuck?” asked the first man at the front, the one obsessed with shiny shoes.
“Takes all kinds,” replied the second.
The bus ambled good-naturedly through the downtown traffic, while the sky above turned grey, then black. At the pull of one of them on the rope, the “Stop Requested” sign lit up and emitted its school-bell gong.
The two men at the front finally stood up and walked down the steps to the pavement, but the tiny old woman near Joanne waved her hand at them. “Hey! You forgot your stuff! Hey!” she said, and pointed to a shiny sack of government surplus dried food that had fallen over on the seat. The second man, who still stood at the top of the stairs, was held up when the first man, halted in the act of placing a foot on the sidewalk, turned around and stuck his head under the other man’s arm to look back at their seat. He uttered a dramatic cry of surprise and ducked under his friend’s arm to climb back into the bus and retrieve his bag. “Thank you! Thank you!” he bellowed at the woman and, after approaching her bowing extravagantly to her, presented her with the bag.
“No, sir, no,” the woman said, embarrassed.
“I insist! Thank you, ma’am! For you!” He brandished the bad before her like a suitor presenting a handful of flowers. When she shook her head again, her cheeks pink, he placed the bag in her arms, then turned to face the rest of the passengers and blew everyone a kiss with both arms flying out from his lips.
He blew a kiss at Joanne. “God bless you, everybody! Have a nice day!”
He turned, seized the old woman’s hand and planted a kiss on it, flashed a grin at the driver, and bounded to the front of the bus and down the steps to the sidewalk, where his buddy already awaited him. “We all got’s to stick together! Ain’t nobody who can get us down. Power to the people!”
His right fist pumped the air above his head as he smiled at the occupants of the bus, and they all, Joanne included, burst out laughing, and the old woman turned beet red and clutched her present, and the first drops of rain marched to their own snare drum cadence on the top of the bus.
Kristin Harley is a freelance writer whose fiction has appeared in Ricky’s Back Yard, Sprout, Profane, Haunted MTL and Deadly Quill. Her journalism has appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Indexer, Public Libraries, and Gemini, a publication of the Minnesota Astronomical Society. She works in a public library.