~This story was previously published in Coal City Review (2010)
In November we’ll board bus 16Y at eight-thirty in the morning and wonder about the man in gray: who he is, why he’s angry, why his hand is hidden in a brown leather satchel.
He’ll be standing in the back, wearing a wool jacket to his knees: the feather of granite in a cemetery. We’ll notice his spectacles, how they’ll wrap around his ears and perspire on his nose, how his pants will be too short and tapered around his ankles. We’ll see the nape of his black business socks, a thread coming loose, and we’ll think of a string on a kite, in the park, in the wind.
We’ll wonder if he works for a department in the city: of energy, of transportation, of education. We’ll think he’s an intellectual. He’ll be holding four books, two red, one navy, one black—a Bible we’ll think, King James—and we’ll wonder if he’s a religious man. We’ll wonder about our own religion, about god. We’ll question everything, then lose that thought because it will not matter: the man in gray will only be a stranger, passing.
We’ll fold our arms and close our eyes and listen to the wheels driving on asphalt, the sound of acceleration and release. We’ll wish we were flying somewhere tropical, that we could escape the rain, our routine, our staplers and computer screens.
“Black man in the back; I see how the fuck it is,” the man in gray will say, into the silence of our bus. We won’t know why he’s shouting, why he’s sitting in the back; we never told him to. There will be so many seats in the front and we’ll count them with our eyes: four on the right, seven on the left, so many seats. Take one, we’ll say, take a seat.
“I said I see how the fuck it is,” he’ll say, and his voice will sound louder, red in the quiet. We’ll want to cover our ears, hold our breath, give him our calm. We’ll recall a child, a temper tantrum we’ve seen in the park. We’ll remember how to ignore an instance of acting out. We’ll wonder if adults are really children. We’ll wonder if the man in gray is an adult or child, flailing his arms.
“I said I want a seat,” he’ll say, and we’ll wonder if this is a performance. We’ll think of a stage. We’ll be a little envious of the man in gray: venting, spewing. We’ll remember our civility. We’ll wish he’d just be quiet now, let us go back to dreaming against a windowpane, our tropical island far from rain and November, under a papaya tree.
“Some women want one man,” he’ll say to us, “one fucking man you understand,” and we’ll wonder if his wife left him for another in the middle of the night, if he found them, together. We’ll wonder about the circumstances. We’ll remember there are always circumstances, that there are reasons for pain. We’ll remember moments we’ve been abandoned by our mothers and fathers and lovers. We’ll mourn their loss. We’ll hold them in our esophagus and swallow. Afterwards we’ll wish the man in gray would just be quiet.
The man in gray will not have a wedding ring. He’ll have a lighter shade of skin, a circle around his finger, no gold or silver or platinum: all absent. We’ll wonder which color he had, in the beginning. We’ll wonder if it was a beautiful wedding, if everyone was barefoot, if it was under a Bahamian sun.
“This is a fucking conversation I’m having here,” he’ll say, and he’ll say this but we’ll not know to whom he’s saying it, what the conversation is about. We’ll decide it’s kindest to ignore him, that it’s easier. We’ll think we are being compassionate. We’ll breathe in our compassion. We’ll turn away. We’ll open our newspaper. We’ll read an article on the 12.5 percent rise of crime in our city. We’ll wonder if it starts here, like this, with an absent ring. We’ll fold the paper again and close our eyes; we’ll close our eyes and wish ourselves on a hammock on a Wednesday, just like this one. We’ll dream of open spaces and blue skies licking watery horizons, our feet and knees in denim cut-offs, our shins baking in the sun.
We’ll watch morning traffic pass us. We’ll watch another bus. It will signal orange and take a right hand turn. We’ll long to be passengers over there and not here when the man in gray begins shouting, when our wheels are crawling in inches. We’ll imagine that the other bus knows a portal through the city, under its marble monuments, far beneath the metro tracks and teeth. We’ll think about standing up, asking to be let out, running away. We’ll worry how to get home. We’ll worry it’s nine o’clock, how our jobs are never certain. So we’ll stay. We’ll ride it out. We’ll see.
Our bus driver will stop the bus. The emergency brakes will breathe, a swish, an explosion of air under the shock suspension. We’ll have stopped. We’ll be on the highway at a red light.
“Sir, please sit down,” our bus driver will say in the rearview mirror and we’ll see her brown eyes pleading, her driving gloves on the wheel: ten and two. Her voice will sound like silver, and we’ll think of a knight and a dragon, a tower, breath, fire. Our hero.
“I’ll give you a C minus for effort,” the man in gray will laugh at the driver. “You should’ve just thrown me off,” and he’ll open his brown leather satchel and wave a Glock 19 in front of our faces. He’ll make big invisible circles with his arms, the gun a long, black finger. He’ll flail his hands, “Can’t even bother to listen,” he’ll say and choke on laughter. “Just too bothered by yourselves.”
The blast will come from behind, the sound of a firecracker, a tire popping, an explosion in November. The direction of the bullet will be disorienting. We’ll pad ourselves down, our chests and foreheads and shoulders. We’ll feel for a heartbeat. We’ll look up and see only a single hole in the ceiling of our bus. We’ll exhale relief. The hole will be tight and angry, a raisin sinking in dough. We’ll feel the echo ringing in our ears, behind our neck. We’ll crane upwards to see the raisin, if any rain will come through.
“What do you want us to do?” we’ll ask, and our hands will be in the air. We’ll be focused now, our tropics faraway, our eyes wide and wondering.
“Just get out,” the man in gray will say. “Just get the fuck out.”
We’ll look at one another. We’ll wonder who he’s talking to.
“All of you, get out,” he’ll say, and now he’ll be crying.
We’ll stand up, slow and caged. We’ll leave our briefcases and purses, our high heels and lunches. We’ll stand up with our hands as high as the ceiling will let us. We’ll pass the man in gray. We’ll watch the Glock, watch it become heavy and sigh in his hand. We’ll wonder if he’s held a gun before.
We’ll want to lean over and ask him something. We’ll want to whisper something. We’ll want him to know a Glock isn’t the answer. We’ll want to talk to him about the tropics, to help his trembling.
We’ll eye the barrel and say nothing as we spill out onto the shoulder of the highway, our dark clothing and hair in the rain, our bodies against a white sky.
We’ll watch the man in gray pace the aisle, we’ll see him through the windows: a gray line passing squares. His hands will rise and fall; his nails will claw his temples, then release. He’ll shake his head and then nod, a storm inside. We’ll imagine he’s mumbling. We’ll wonder if he’s living a dream, if he’s ever thought of sun and water, if he’s ever considered this.
The shot will fire quick and muted, the sound drowning itself in rain. A red firework will burst against the far left window and the man in gray will disappear behind the explosion: one quick rush, an invisible creature pulling him under.
We’ll be silent on the shoulder. We’ll stare at the firework. We’ll convince ourselves that it’s just paint, it’s only color. We’ll wait for the man in gray to emerge. We’ll wait for any sound. We’ll try to think of our papayas trees, of our island faraway.
We’ll find that we can’t get there, that we won’t want to, not with the man in gray flown up and away like this: like a kite with its string, loose as the thread on his business socks. We’ll want November, only; we’ll want only rain. We’ll think of Christmas lights strung on houses, on lawns, on bushes. We’ll wonder who will hang them this year, on his house, in his absence. Why all this, the man in gray, why, we’ll ask, and wish we’d only asked him.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The first question people ask me about this particular story is, “did this actually happen to you?” and then, before I can answer, they’ve offered me a 1-800 number to an excellent trauma center. The answer, however, is “no”—this has not happened to me. However, the idea for “Hindsight” emerged from the realization that it very well could. As an inhabitant of the DC metro area, I commute everywhere by bus or metro or both. Over the last decade, there have been a handful of incidents where a fellow passenger has erupted in aggression—sometimes talking to themselves or picking a fight with an innocent bystander, or—only once—railing into the bus driver herself. In these circumstances, I was most curious about my—and everyone’s—attempt to ignore such an outburst, as if pretending it wasn’t there would somehow erase our discomfort and silence the rage and sadness of the aggressor. Inspired by this, I attempted in “Hindsight” to explore our collective reactions to an imagined and more escalated scenario of violence—specifically, the kaleidoscopic and often conflicting emotions in the face of such danger.
ABOUT ALLYSON ARMISTEAD
Allyson Armistead is a graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University. She was listed in as one of 30 Under 30 exceptional emerging authors and has been nominated for and a Pushcart Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in , and . Her short story “Oasis” was awarded the William Van Dyke prize by magazine’s top-five bestselling author, Leif Enger. Currently, she is at work on a novel, , a story set around the events of the Nanking massacre. She resides in the Washington, DC, metro area with her husband and cat.