~This story was previously published in Antietam Review (2001).
Two days after her father’s funeral, Maggie found herself on a Washington, D.C. tour bus next to a man who wore a leather jacket, combat boots, and a black beret.
“How’s it goin’,” he said, zipping open his knapsack.
She looked away. “Fine.”
“Where’re you headed?”
“It’s a tour bus,” she said to the window. “I’m just headed around the city.”
“You live here?”
She turned to him. He’d taken off his hat. Perfectly bald. No hair whatsoever. And very pale with dark blue eyes. He looked like a grown baby. His eyes were that blue.
“My parents do. Did, I mean. My mother still does.” She had to concentrate to focus only on his face and not let her eyes explore the globe that was his head.
He stared at her, waiting for something, it seemed.
“My father just died.” It was the first time she’d actually said it.
“Oh.” He took out a paperback book and began to read. She watched his eyes go from left to right, left to right, reading the lines.
“He killed himself,” she said.
He looked up. “Who?”
“Oh. Was he sick?”
A wave of relief washed over her. “Sort of. He’d been depressed.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I guess so.”
She felt her face curl into a snarl. What was wrong with people?
The bus moved slowly through the streets. Monuments flew by—and statues with important men on horses. They lulled her to sleep until the tour guide announced that they were approaching the National Zoo. Maggie opened her eyes to the throngs of tourists waiting at the crosswalk.
“Did it just happen?” the man said. “The suicide?”
She turned to him. “Why?”
“Well,” she said, turning just her shoulder toward him. “All his life he was depressed. I mean, that’s what we grew up with.” She paused, waiting for something— a reaction, maybe. Or compassion. Sympathy. Something. But he just looked at her. His eyes were flat, like a pond.
“But hearing the news,” she went on. “I mean, one minute he’s alive and the next . . . ”
“All I ask is that I’m not tortured to death.”
Maggie squinted. “Uh huh.”
“Definitely not the way I choose to go.”
“Well I’m sure it won’t happen then.”
“You never know what’s in store,” he said. “The big man’s got all kinds of plans.”
“Uh huh.” They passed the National Cathedral, which the tour guide called “a stunning work of art.” Maggie found it imposing and scary. It reminded her of all the things her mother told her she was crazy for not enjoying, like tomato aspic and Neil Diamond.
“It’s called the big R,” he said.
She turned his way. “Excuse me?”
“Retribution,” he said. “I’ve done some things I’m not too proud of.”
“Well, we all have,” she said, sounding even to herself like a prim schoolteacher.
He smiled in a cultish way.
“What?” she said.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve done—stolen a Snickers Bar? A pack of Juicy Fruit?”
“We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. Isn’t that what life is—”
“Like what?” he said. “What’ve you done, exactly?”
“Like—” Maggie froze—not because her list was long; for years she’d followed the path that her mother had showed her—this boy, that subject, those friends.
“My point is that, up there?” He pointed to the roof of the bus. “That guy doesn’t miss a beat. What goes around comes around? That saying? It’s my fucking mantra, man.”
“I used to wish my parents would get a divorce,” she said after wracking her brain. “Okay? Is that good enough for you?”
“I killed someone,” the man said. The bus turned and sunlight hit his face and he squinted. “It was an accident but who cares? The point is that it happened and God doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you felt bad about it or not.”
“How do you know?”
“Believe me, I know.”
“I didn’t realize God was so big into capital punishment,” she said.
“This isn’t about that.”
“Then what’s it about? Haven’t you heard of forgiveness?”
“This isn’t a debate. I know what I’m talking about.”
“So what’s the problem? You’re worried you’ll be tortured because—”
“Paid back. It’s the way it works. I didn’t get caught for what I did, alright?” His eyes looked smaller now, and bloodshot. “I got cancer.”
The sun illuminated his head like an orb.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “You think you got—”
“Yes, I do.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know about that.”
“Well I do.” Like Maggie, he was probably early twenties, but the baldness threw her. And the cancer. She hadn’t known anyone that young with cancer.
The bus slowed down, reaching its final destination.
She turned her whole body toward him, wanting to get this straight. “So you’re saying anything wrong you do, you’ll get punished for it.”
His eyes moved slowly from the window to her. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“What about people in war?”
“You think those vets don’t pay the price?”
She sighed. She didn’t know what she thought. She didn’t know why she was even having the conversation.
“You strike me as a very selfish person,” he said.
He put on his beret and zipped up his knapsack. “Life is quick,” he said. “It’s like—” and he snapped his fingers three times—“that quick.”
“What are you—some kind of prophet? You think you can sum me up after five seconds? You don’t know anything about me.”
He stood. “Strange things happen when you’re faced with death. For one, your eyesight improves dramatically.”
Good for you, she thought. Good for your stupid eyes. She opened her big black bag. She wished she had a notebook and a pen. Maybe that would make him go away. She pawed at the bottom of her bag and came up with nothing but old crumbs and loose pennies.
He stood. A whiff of stale cigarette smoke drifted over to her.
“You killed,” she said.
“Yes I did.”
The bus stopped and the doors opened.
He stood in the aisle gazing down at her. Was he waiting for her to say something? She felt a pang of embarrassment for having gotten so drawn in and defensive.
“Well I hope everything goes alright with you,” she said.
“Oh it will.”
“Well, good.” She buttoned her black pea coat, wishing she hadn’t said anything. Then she was glad that she had.
“I hope everything goes alright with you, too,” he said.
She stood. “Don’t worry.” She began to walk down the aisle.
“I will,” he said in back of her.
“Please,” she said. “I think I can handle my life, alright?”
Maggie stepped off the bus. The fall air engulfed her. She pulled back her thick hair with the rubber band she kept around her wrist.
The bald man looked at her as if he were engrossed in a movie. He looked different outside—healthier, maybe.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I need to be somewhere,” although, of course, there was no place she needed to be. There was nothing she needed to be doing.
“Can I ask you something?” he said.
“Oh great,” she said. “I can’t wait for this one.”
“Why aren’t you married?”
“Who says I’m not?”
“For one, there’s no ring. And two, it’s your dad’s funeral. I hope the guy would’ve made a little effort.”
“Maybe I’m about to be married. Maybe I don’t wear a ring.” She glanced down at the sidewalk. “Maybe I’m like, a little young to be married?”
“Maybe you’re waiting for something.”
“Maybe.” She glared at him. “What are you—a psychic?” She was annoyed and intrigued. “Why aren’t you married? Or wait—you want me to guess?” She closed her eyes, then opened them, and in a mocking palm reader’s voice, said, “You met someone many years ago. You fell in love. Now you ride around on buses telling strangers what you think about them.”
“That was good,” he said, nodding. “Very accurate.”
“Thank you.” She smiled wider than she wanted to.
“So, is marriage something you want?” he said. “Is it a goal?”
“A goal? You make it sound like a business deal.”
“What about you? We didn’t get to you yet. You never answered my question.”
“About why I’m not married?”
He gave her an incredulous look. He glanced around quickly as if a joke were being played on him.
“Because I’m dying?” he said.
“Well that’s—” but she didn’t know what to say. She counted the zippers on his jacket.
“There was someone but that’s over with.”
Maggie glanced down at her black Converse sneakers. “Oh.”
“We were together eight years. I’m not saying there weren’t problems.”
“So what happened?”
He took a deep breath, then started coughing. He turned away from her and it kept coming. His back went up and down as a deep, hacking cough overtook him.
When he collected himself, she said, “You shouldn’t smoke.”
“You shouldn’t wear lipstick.”
“You’d look better without it.”
Her mind scanned her jumbled makeup bag, wondering which color she’d applied that morning. Then she looked into his blue eyes. “Are you really dying?”
He didn’t seem a bit surprised by the question. “Unless someone hurries up and wins that Nobel Prize.”
“Are you scared?”
“No?” She didn’t believe him.
“Why would I be scared?” he said. “I’ve had this thing for six years. I’ve had time to deal with it.”
She remembered that he’d killed someone. She pictured him as a little bald boy sitting too close to the T.V. A surge of warmth rushed through her and she wanted to say, Of course they’ll find a cure. And soon.
“Would you mind sitting with me somewhere for a warm drink?” he said. “I get cold easily.”
“Oh.” She thought a second about what to do. Her mother would say, “For God’s sake, he’s a murderer!” but she said, “Sure.”
From the top of Wisconsin Avenue, they walked into Georgetown and made their way toward M Street. People carrying shopping bags bustled past them, moving in and out of stores.
Maggie turned to the bald man next to her who moved slowly along the sidewalk, as if it were his first time out in the world. She felt like a nurse bringing her patient out for some fresh air.
“What’s your name?” she said.
For a second she thought he might say, Anything you want it to be.
“Kenny?” she said. “Really?” It sounded so innocent.
He half-smiled. “What were you expecting?”
They went into a Starbucks.
“You sit down,” she said. “I’ll go get everything.” She took off her pea coat that she’d found in the basement bin of Canal Jean Company a few years ago. She wore black leggings and a roomy pink V-neck sweater with nothing underneath. These were the clothes she’d been wearing since she’d hung up her black funeral dress.
Kenny took off his jacket slowly, as if the movement hurt each bone of his body.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“Do you want a coffee drink?” She lowered her eyes in a seductive way, then pushed out her chest a little and turned to the side so that he could view her curves. “Or juice?” she said. “That might be good for you.” She had no idea what would be good for him but she wanted him to think she did.
“Juice would hit the spot,” he said. His hand went into his pocket and he came up with a twenty-dollar bill.
“No, no,” she said. “I’ve got it.”
She went to the counter and ordered a large orange juice and a large cappuccino. As she waited, she tried to look casual, lingering by the espresso bar. The man behind the bar put a large cup on the counter and she reached for it.
“That’s not yours,” he said.
She backed away and moved in front of a display of colorful mugs and silver coffee containers. Kenny had taken off his beret and was now turned toward the window with his eyes closed like a cat bathing in sunlight. He looked so different from the belligerent man on the bus. He was big boned with nice square shoulders, but the sickness came through. The pale skin looked like more than just a passing flu.
As if startled awake by her stare, he opened his eyes. His expression was blank at first, then a warm smile appeared, one that she hadn’t seen until now—a remarkable glow.
“Large cappuccino,” someone yelled. It was hers, finally.
At the table, Kenny took his juice from her and leaned forward. “What were you thinking just now?”
“That—” For a fleeting second, she actually knew what she was thinking, but it vanished like smoke and she told herself and him that she had no idea.
“Are you nervous?” he said.
His broad shoulders were hunched by his ears. “I like you,” he said. “You’re unusual.”
“Really?” she said. “Unusual how?”
“Unusual feisty. Unusual curious. Unusual sexy.” His eyes bore into her and she had to look away. She focused on his hands, clasped together calmly, the nails square and clean.
She looked up. “What was your girlfriend like?” Immediately she regretted asking. She didn’t even want to know. She felt herself gently pushing him away, which was the opposite of what she wanted to do. Somewhere in her unconscious, a red flag was waving. You don’t even know him! He’s dying! Somewhere else a part of herself that she never listened to said, Uncover me. Try me.
“Look,” he said. “I want to be honest with you. I feel something here.”
She nodded and felt for her silver necklace with the St. Christopher medallion.
“I’m coming from this different perspective, see. I don’t have a lot of time ahead of me. When I feel something I have to embrace it.” He looked down. “I haven’t felt a connection in a long time.”
There was something about a person who didn’t need to use his hands to speak, who looked directly at you and said what he felt.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“How come you were so different on the bus?”
His eyes darted away from her, then came back. They seemed beady now, and dishonest.
“Let’s just say you pushed a button,” he said. “All that stuff about your dad? It’s a bad subject.”
She nodded, waiting for him to go on, but he didn’t. He looked like a psychopath now and the whole situation felt creepy and wrong. Thankfully she was in a public place where plenty of people would remember the bald man and the wiry young woman with the pink sweater. But then another look at Kenny and he seemed harmless. The translucent skin, the shine in his eyes, the smooth head. He reminded her of a tough Hare Krishna. If her mother saw her now, she’d say, For God’s sakes, Maggie, use your head. But that was precisely Maggie’s problem—using her head too much. In the past when she was faced with a hard decision, people said, Listen to your heart, and she thought, What heart? Her heart didn’t speak so she couldn’t exactly listen to it. Not once could she remember relying on her heart to make a decision.
“Can I take you somewhere?” he said.
She must’ve flinched in fear because he said, “Just over here,” pointing to the Potomac, which was rough today. “I want to show you something.”
Like fish? she thought. Like a dead body? Maybe he’d killed the person a few days ago and wanted to see if the body had washed ashore.
“Okay?” he said.
A headache singed her brain. She stood. “Okay.”
Kenny held the door open for her. Outside it was that fusion of late afternoon sun and evening, like an eclipse.
They walked in silence, toward the river. Several people were out, jogging, shopping, touring the city. If anything weird happened, people were right there to help her.
When they got to the Key Bridge, which connected Washington to Virginia, Kenny broke the silence. “First let me just say that my dad was a real bastard, okay? Treated my mom like—like . . . Believe me, it was bad.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
“Alright, so I was sixteen and my dad and I are the only ones home. He worked early in the morning so he always went to bed early. Anyway, my mom was out with my sister and brother at some recital. I was home sick with the flu—throwing up all over the place. It was horrible. Anyway, around nine I hear my dad in his room gagging, like he choked on something, like he was trying to breathe. I kept thinking it was about to get better, but it didn’t. I just sat there on my bed listening, wondering if I should call 911.”
Maggie pictured the entire scene. She could practically see Kenny in his pajamas and a thermometer by the side of the bed. She could feel the grip of his hands around his sheet.
“I just lay there,” he said again. “When they got home I acted like I was asleep.” He turned toward the river, put his hand on the railing.
“So he died?”
“Kenny, am I missing something here? You stayed in your room, right?”
“So you didn’t really kill anyone. You just . . . let it happen.”
He turned to her. “That’s killing in my book. Hearing someone die. Hearing your father die.” He stared at her, trying to convince her how awful he was.
“But maybe the hospital wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” she said.
“Believe me, that’s what I told myself in the beginning. Living with it—that’s a different story.”
The shape of his head was strangely pleasing. Maggie wanted to reach out and touch it.
Instead she placed her hand on the back of his jacket. The thinness of the leather surprised her. She actually felt his spine. “Hey.” She kept it there a minute. “You didn’t kill anyone.”
He exhaled slowly as if this were something he’d been practicing how to get right—breathing. It took a few minutes before she realized he was crying.
Her hand moved a little, uncomfortably, back and forth, swishing like a windshield wiper on slow speed. She’d never been good at this kind of thing. When she cried—as a child—her mother used to pat Maggie’s back quickly, saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” but clearly it wasn’t okay. Her mother wanted her to stop crying. Kenny probably had needed to cry for weeks. She imagined the cancer coming out in his sobs, great big buckets that they could throw into a dumpster. She imagined his hair growing back, nice thick hair that was wild and free, like a field of flowers.
“You’re going to live,” she said with a confidence that surprised her.
He looked at her. His cheeks were stained with tears.
She let out a strange awkward laugh. “You are.”
“Okay,” he said. “It’s decided then.”
“Really,” she said. “I want you to.” She realized how absurd that sounded, as if her desire was enough to change his condition, but then why not? Didn’t this kind of thing happen? Weren’t people quoted as saying, “I was on my deathbed when she came along and helped me through.”? Didn’t this happen in life? Wasn’t it what life was all about?
That night they lay down in Kenny’s single bed and kissed. She held her hands around his face like a frame. His skin was perfect. His lips were a rose. For his bald head he’d been given the gift of sight. This man was nowhere near death.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This story poured out of me. I hate it when people say that. But honestly? My fingers were flying across the keyboard. I was actually laughing while writing the dialogue. I felt a little manic. My then-boyfriend came in the room where I was working and was like, “What’s so funny?” Needless to say, he backed out of the doorway and left me alone. I’ve written stories since but never has it been “fun” like it was writing this one. I have no idea where Kenny came from. I’ve never known anyone like him.
ABOUT JAMIE HOLLAND
Jamie Holland’s short stories have appeared in Antietam Review (winner of the 1998 Literary Contest), Baltimore Review, Brain Child, District Lines, Electric Grace: More Stories by Washington Area Women, Gargoyle and Literary Mama. She has written a novel, The Lies We Tell, and also is working on a young adult novel.