~This story previously appeared in Apalachee Quarterly (1996).
The passenger in back bothers no one. He is quiet and polite. “Good evening,” he says as his ticket slides down the chute. “Thank you,” as the door hisses open. The driver notices him only because he favors two separate stops some eighteen blocks apart and because often he walks. She sees him forty or fifty feet from his destination, the steak house corner with the big Cadillacs and Lincolns and the vans unloading families in the lot. This is a total of thirty-six blocks from his point of origin, undoubtedly his job. It must take him half or three-quarters of an hour. She herself would never travel such a distance on foot, but she is portly and given to short breaths after two flights of steps. A sixteen would fit her except through the hips. A seamstress friend, whose girl she watches between shifts when the child gets home from school, alters her dresses and is discreet enough to cut out the labels. She knows the styles the driver likes and buys them on sale and then is reimbursed. The rest is considered an exchange.
Arlis is a pure-bred genius with a Singer machine, and handwork doesn’t trouble her in the least, but she is unable to curb the driver’s appetite for sweets. Any bonbon proves irresistible. It’s not as if she craves candy or schemes for it. A large refillable of diet lasts the whole day’s driving, and she only nibbles at some fruit or has a small sandwich with Venetia in the afternoons, but let her see a Hershey bar or a Whitman Sampler box, and her money practically flies out of her billfold. She’ll have part of it unwrapped and in her mouth before she starts the car. And once opened, it will not last the night. “Its life expectancy is nil,” she tells Arlis. Just last night she watched Jimmy Stewart fly across the ocean in some rickety tent-flap plane, and as the screaming Frenchmen carried him away on their shoulders, she wiped her fingers of their last trace of chocolate. It’s not the wanting it that infects her, but the having it. That’s why she could not take a job like Candy Boy’s, which is not his real name but what she calls him. When she sees him the words just appear in her head. Candy Boy. They’re there before she can say, “Hello.”
He rides that last run, usually sits behind Manny, and is a touch overweight but hardly so you’d notice. Really he’s just soft. Outside his job, she doubts he does much. She suspects he lives with his mother and is not the type to’ve moved back in despite the grey in his hair she’d bet money his mother cuts. Every couple of weeks, it just looks lopsided, usually on Wednesdays. That makes it Tuesday nights that he comes home in his black pants and red knit shirt, both wrinkled, baggy, and ready for the wash, and sits in the chair dead center in the kitchen. She ties a sheet around his neck and clips and buzzes until her squint through the humid air steaming with pots of boiling cabbage tells her, this will do. Then she sweeps up the lank curls while he washes for dinner. And changes. She cannot abide the stink of sour ball flavorings on his clothes. And he showers to take it off his skin. It must be good and hot or she will not serve him at her table.
He spends his life in steam, the driver thinks. She knows he boils the candy at the shop and pours it into molds. He inserts the lollipop sticks. He also creates the caramel nut fudge, and when his kitchen work’s done, he helps behind the counter. That’s the part she knows would kill her. Hands slipping in and out of candy cases, scooping it into sacks, maybe removing several pieces to make an even pound, this would be her downfall. She would eat those extras once the customer left. She’d pluck a piece off a display or unthinkingly filch a creamy nougat. She’d be as big as a house, but Candy Boy isn’t fazed. You’d never look at him and say, oh, he must eat the livelong day. It’s a job and then he goes home. When she picks him up, it’s the last of several transfers.
Candy Boy doesn’t much think about the passenger in back. Initially the two different stops were a puzzle, but he soon ignored it as one more fact of life. The man is large, which can be imposing, and he is quiet, which again abrades some people’s nerves, but he clearly is not threatening. He does not talk out of turn. His voice sounds at the right pitch. He is not like the Earless Man Candy Boy often sees by Beneficial, where so many of the secretaries huddled at the stops are convinced weirdos wait to snatch them into their cars.
The Earless Man surely has ears, but sometimes Candy Boy wonders. In junior high his chemistry lab partner had a plastic ear affixed to what must have been the stump of his original, sliced off in some freakish accident Candy Boy did not wish described. He certainly never asked. He found it difficult merely to speak to the boy because he was too distracted to listen. It was the stump that held his attention, a small, fleshy node he assumed resembled the tail of a chicken. Without it, the fake ear, off-sized and not quite a natural shape, could not have stayed in place. It wasn’t glued, and obviously was not stitched, to the side of his head. The stump, which the artificial ear slipped over like a sleeve or a collar, was the only explanation. He imagined it wiggling with a life of its own, a warm, wormish nub vaguely phototropic in its plastic shell. Nonsense, he knew, but these were the thoughts occupying him as crystals formed in test tubes cooked in Bunsen burner flames until one day his partner said, “Hey, what’s this?” and curled his fingers around the slender, hooped pipe rising from the black work table. A water drop pulled and receded at the nozzle’s end, and his partner huffed and puffed. “What’s this? What’s this?” His fingers jittered, and water splooshed into the stainless steel sink.
Then he gawked at Candy Boy and said, “You don’t even know, do you?”
This sort of unseemly behavior is unlikely from the Earless Man, but the secretaries are cautious. His looks put them off before his manner has the chance. He wears a wool cap tugged down to his jawline and pulled back so one sees only his round bowl face and bulging green eyes. He does not appear to blink. He smokes, or carries a lighted cigarette, but Candy Boy’s never seen him put it to his lips. He claims to ride the 41. He mentions it to other passengers, who are comparing departmental Christmas policies while standing at the shelter.
“Mr. Shannon pulls out this box of paper decorations all covered with dust, and then we have to take turns hanging a snowman or a Santa. All of us have to do it. It’s not like he leaves it to the eager beavers.”
“Do you have to sing? We have to sing.”
“Like carols? Like Jingle Bells?”
“We have to sing in groups or we don’t get any candy.”
“I have to wait here until 6:15 for my bus,” says the Earless Man.
“You don’t get any candy? If you don’t sing, you don’t get any candy? Like trick or treat? This is Christmas.”
“The stuff that arrives, like the Russell Stover boxes? We have to sing a carol a day outside his cubicle or he won’t put it out on the table. And then it’s been picked over. He leaves the ones with the pink stuff.”
Blue smoke wraps around the Earless Man like his own poisonous cloud. “I have to take the 41,” he says. “I got to wait a long time.”
The secretaries flinch, but Candy Boy knows he’s right about the time. A 41 would put him across the river. Since the schedule change before Thanksgiving, a lot of 41-ers have been stranded here for an hour or so. To Candy Boy they all look like carny workers or dope fiends. He is sure a few are on parole.
“How long you got to wait?” The Earless Man’s face is tight with fat. Nothing moves when he speaks except his lips, which are repellent and prehensile. They seem to finger every short syllable that leaves his mouth. “How long you got to wait?” he asks. “What bus do you take?”
“A five,” says one.
“The two,” says the other.
“Oh.” The Earless Man looks up the street. “I take the 41.”
If there is time, he will talk about monkey meat eaten in Thailand or dog flank steak in Sumatra. Or something worse in Borneo, where Candy Boy has heard there are cannibals. Not that he himself is squeamish about what’s put on his plate, having purchased squid from the freezer case at Food 4 Less, but the Earless Man might well have wrung the neck or snapped the spine himself. Candy Boy is happy to catch his transfer, and then the later one downtown, the 10, and leave the Earless Man’s round face hanging like a small moon in the near dark as secretaries stream past the cafeteria dome.
“They ought to run those people out,” says the woman sitting behind him. “But they won’t.” She is the woman he always lets on ahead of him, although it slows down traffic in the aisle, and she never speaks except on the bus, where her opinions are well-known. “They’ll say they can’t,” she says. “They’ll say he hasn’t done anything and the sidewalks are public property and there’s no harm in striking up a conversation, but he’ll be arrested someday, and it won’t be for anything pleasant.”
Impending misfortune is her favorite topic, just after the miseries of the past. Candy Boy figures she’s old enough to know. She remembers the streetcars and 40th Street as the west end of town, when the city hugged the river instead of fanning away in all directions. For all he knows, when she started at Beneficial it was still called Oglala Life. She takes the 24 down by the stockyards, where the July smell of blood must be sickening, or used to be until the slaughterhouses started closing along with the railroads and the bomber plant just after the war. Of course that couldn’t stay open forever, but people hoped. No one expected the airplane business to move all the way to Wichita. And Chicago, for God’s sake. Why ship cattle and pigs to a city on the edge of a lake the size of an ocean?
Shortsightedness such as this she treated as a personal slight, and her husband’s death was one more annoyance. That’s why she still has to work. He did not leave her enough to feed the birds, much less the cats. Those little tins cost money. The stores don’t just give them away, even if they are just scraps. If she had any sense she’d let the pampered darlings outside to fend for themselves and eat the sixty-three birds she calls by name, and she’d be done with the whole batch of tripe.
First the stockyards and railroads and then the breweries, and now it’s the department stores and small shops. The shabby little man who bought Pattee’s from the two remaining old biddy sisters ran the business into the ground and sold it to a chain, which shut it down for taxes. He has since been indicted for pandering. His taste runs to boys. No one who saw him loitering at the corner newsstand, which survives on a city subsidy while larger businesses fail, can be surprised. He disappeared from the sidewalks at roughly the same time the store fronts were emptied. Candy Boy passes their darkened windows every night and stands among them, waiting for his transfer. It takes twenty-three minutes. Two stops later, and sometimes twenty, if at all, the passenger in back boards the bus, but by then Candy Boy is absorbed in whatever Manny has noticed in the paper. It’s always some real-life item most people miss, or it’s gossip he passes on to the driver, gossip because he’s a bus driver, too. He’s on his way home and sits in the handicapped/elderly seat so he and the driver can talk.
She doesn’t say much and doesn’t need to. He likes to talk and knows she doesn’t. Rumor has it she’s raising somebody else’s kid and having a hard go. The girl’s age guarantees it. She’s geared to sass at twelve or thirteen, some borderline titty age, but if Manny knows black girls, there’s nothing borderline to it. One minute they’re little kids, sweet as chocolate angels. Next thing they’re bouncing and flouncing down the aisle, calling each other names that make him sweat. Blackie and Big Lips. They say these things themselves. Their voices are big and loud, like they own the place, and he’s more or less willing to concede the issue. As long as no one’s hurt, that’s all he cares. He had to call in a heart attack once, and that’s enough.
An old man in a straw hat got on at the drug store across from the Commodore, keeled over, and bumped his head going down. Manny thought the cut over his eye, gushing like a boxer’s, was the injury to treat but quickly saw that was secondary. The old man clawed at the glasses case clipped in his shirt pocket, and Manny discovered the CPR instructors were right. He did remember the training. It came back to him right away, but didn’t work. The ambulance crew was very kind and told him he’d done what he could, and they drove off without the sirens. He had to finish his run. There weren’t any substitutes. It was a bad season for flu, and people were legitimately sick. The best the company could offer was pulling in the next driver an hour early, but by then he’d passed the abandoned theater four more times, enough to imagine the old man’s spirit standing on the corner, holding his little drug store sack, grateful that his passage was not delayed. That body was too old and filled with pain. He was afraid he’d be revived.
It’s not just senior citizens who tell these stories. Youngsters, too, kids who’ve drowned and been wrenched back to life. They say it’s awful being yanked to the world of the living. Everything’s peaceful, there’s a tunnel with light, and maybe your grandpa at the end. You watch all this fuss over someone lying on the ground and think, oh, yeah, that’s me, isn’t it? And then they’ve got you. You’re back in it, back in the body, coughing and choking, and that means you’re healthy, you’ll make it, from now on you’re alive.
“But no one believes you,” says Manny. “Because you’re a kid, right? You got conked on the head. What do you know?”
The passenger in back shrugs at moments like this and seems to smirk, but it’s not condescension Manny sees. It looks more like agreement. He knows the highfalutin types. All the drivers do. This guy just gets on the bus and doesn’t talk. So what? He nods along at all the right places.
Candy Boy tells about his uncle who talked to his dead wife for seventeen years and did it daily, carried on whole conversations, and in the presence of others. He kept his end up even at holiday dinners, and Candy Boy remembers the muttered thanks of aunts and cousins that at least no one had to set another place at the table. His uncle, appalled, looked up and said, “That would be silly. She’s dead, you know,” and continued tucking his napkin into his collar. He drove a car until his eyes went bad at 87, and he was shingling his roof at 93. His last words were, “Let me get my pipe.”
The driver isn’t sure anyone in her family has ever died, but judging by family reunions, it had to be the men. There are only two males over the age of eleven, and both of them are second husbands. One’s with the phone company and the other’s overseas with the army. Except for children, then, it’s women, women as far as the eye can see, and they are stacking up in age. Three generations alone stand between her and that fine, still working pump organ of Aunt Eugenia’s. Every August picnic, the driver sees a little more grey in the air, and this year she’s plucked three of the wiry little rascals from her very own scalp. It’s looking hopeless if anyone expects children out of her, unless one counts Venetia, and no one else does.
Arlis Porter’s daughter is giving her fits. She thinks a lie’s as good as the truth if it’s faster. That’s problem number one. Number two is boys, with the side problem being she likes them two and three and four years older than herself, and why not? The ones her age are little pencil necks. But at her age she is still only her age, never mind the outside packaging. The driver swears her bra size changes every two or three weeks, and the girl is stealing the replacements. Too many new ones show up in the wash for either Arlis or Venetia to afford. It’s embarrassment, by the looks of it. A child with the vilest mouth the driver’s ever heard, who will shout swearwords across the street to get someone’s attention, is ashamed to buy her own underwear. She acts like tampons are a personal affliction, like they glow through the clothes for every soul to see. She wouldn’t dream of going to school those days, but she is right at home at the shopping mall. Or worse. The driver dares not imagine. But her travels to the mall are easy to trace. She takes the bus. She takes the bus just as calm as you please, like every dayside driver on the route couldn’t possibly know who she is. Is Venetia stupid? Does she think no one would tell?
More likely it does not matter. It hardly does to Arlis. The most she’s said is, “Don’t tell me you never cut a class.”
It just isn’t worth the closets full of clothes. That’s the announcement that must be made, but the right time is never available. Arlis is always tired. So is the driver. Christmas makes it worse. It’s the middle of the school year. Routines are settled. People depend on those nine months of habit. Arlis doesn’t need the sudden worry of Venetia unattended. Not that on this subject she loses any sleep. She loses it over her Christmas sewing. Arlis is hemming choir robes for a Christmas pageant and will go deaf from the thump of her machine. Delivery is in three more days, so she runs it long past midnight. Venetia says whenever she gets home her mother is still bent under the hot single light over the table.
“I oughta get myself pregnant just to see if she’d notice. That’d show her!”
And the driver has seen girls do it for less. They do it by default. They do it for fun. They do it because their mamas did, or a friend does. They think those babies will give them love.
Gets home from where?
The driver forces herself not to say those words out loud. The question should not be hers. She must break herself of clocking the comings and goings of Venetia Porter.
After the holidays. Maybe after New Year’s but before school starts. That would be fair. Arlis would have time to make some other arrangement. The driver could stay home at night. She already does, but she has to run her errands first. This way she could shop or do laundry between shifts, then come home after the second and eat a meal, a real one, fry up some chicken in Crisco, make some biscuits. She’s got no place to wear all those clothes anyway, and even if she did, suddenly, have an occasion, the truth is almost every item would need to be let out, just a smidgin, sometimes more, they’ve been sitting so long. She should wrap them up for the Goodwill. The money she’d save not buying dresses would purchase a VCR and then some. She could rent the movies she wants or just tape them off cable and not stay up till 2:00 and 4:00 o’clock.
She wonders if some video might make a good present for Venetia. Christmas is awfully close, and she hasn’t bought the poor child a thing. She does seem to like old movies without deigning to admit it. Some of them are sinking in. Just the other day, before coming in the house, she was talking to a friend.
“Who you callin’ nigger? You look like the African Queen your own self.”
“The African Queen is a boat,” said Venetia. “It’s a movie about a boat. I seen it on the TV.”
“A boat? Well, take a look at her butt. I’ll show you a damn boat.”
It’s not the language Miss Hepburn would use, but at least the girl is exposed to a little polish. A more refined manner might occur to her, long shot though it is, but no longer shot than that German ship running smack into those two little torpedoes in that whole big lake and blowing to smithereens with Miss Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart saved from hanging by the explosion. That was far-fetched, but what movie isn’t? They do that to make a point. Romance and a happy ending aren’t all bad late at night when you finish a box of chocolates. You go to bed and get some sleep. Where’s the harm in that?
Candy Boy has put some thought into the very same question because he resents the tone overheard at the drug store. He’s spent far more time cooking than doing counterwork, but serving the public has taught him sound carries very well, especially when people talking assume others they don’t really see aren’t really listening. Private conversation is off limits until attention is officially engaged.
“Can I help you?” will do it in the shop.
Boyfriends, sex organs, and the cold instruments of gynecologists are forgotten instantly when customers take up the subject of sweets. They mull over their choices while he takes in their intimacies as his own. Some nights they turn out to be useful. He can hardly believe that coarseness and actual vulgarity are the currency of so much conversation. He has learned more by staying silent an extra few seconds than a hundred years of newsstand browsing could teach.
By the same token, he knows they can hear any idle chatter of his. Sales plummet on days Hoa Nguyen loiters at the taffy rack to discuss favorite recipes. He strolls over when his noon rush is done because he needs an appreciative audience. The salt water taffy doesn’t hurt.
Poor Hoa’s daughter is so Americanized she has to ask him what’s in the food if a customer is hesitant. Candy Boy has seen her grimace when she gets the information. The daily specials she does not recommend seldom sell well. Hoa himself appears fairly wild. Skinny, with high cheekbones and a chin that tapers like an insect’s, he has teeth that jut like a heap of yellowed stones. His small, black eyes dare you not to order. Between his head-bobbing daughter and his own intimidating air, Hoa is lucky anyone consents to buy an egg roll, but once they do, full courses will follow. He is a superb cook. Even shoveling quick quantities at a shopping mall food court, it is obvious. Candy Boy has suggested he open a restaurant, a larger one with waiters and a wine list so he can make real money, but Hoa just tugs on the belt dangling from his waist and says, “I not yet fat enough for that.” Until then, he dreams aloud of what he’ll cook.
Stuffed squid is the worst offender. Consumers of divinity and fudge flee the store. Candy Boy, convinced, went home and tried it. He himself chopped the tentacles and extracted the ink sac, refusing to buy the preprocessed. It was the chewiest darned stuff, like gnawing on rubber bands, and it tasted like chicken, but so do frog legs, rattlesnake, and crocodile meat, or so he’d be willing to guess. Those exotic meats all taste like chicken. That’s why they call for spices. He doubts he’d bother again with squid, but Hoa’s tantalized him with other dishes and condiments he does not know. Lemon grass, for instance. He’s curious whether it will taste like the onion grass he chewed as a kid. Of fish sauce he is leery and takes care not to mention it in the store. He pictures catfish in a blender, imagines the whining wobble and grind. Customers, he knows, would hear “fish sauce” and run. Even before translation it is an ugly sound. Nuoc mam. Candy Boy’s face pinches as tight as Hoa’s daughter’s.
“Are you all right?”
A fat woman he has never seen looms in the aisle as Candy Boy opens his eyes. He blinks. Of course he’s all right, but in the bus’ pitch forward she leans uncertainly and asks again.
“Mister? Are you okay? Are you okay, mister?”
Her eyes drift like unmoored planets through the blurry space of her glasses. Headphone wires from her ears straggle into her down coat, which used to be beige but now looks flattened and old. She exudes an odor like summer sweat and something else a little stale. He wonders if it’s risen from one of the plastic shopping bags looped around each finger. She could be carrying a half dozen turkeys, two or three from last year.
“I think this man’s in trouble, driver. I think there’s a man down.”
Candy Boy’s eyes meet the driver’s in the mirror. She smiles back at him, shakes her head for Manny’s benefit, and keeps driving. She hates this woman. She’s a talker. She’s got some telemarketing job out west, answering incoming calls. It’s a robot job to match her robot voice. You’d think talking all day would run her larynx dry, but she gets on the bus and unloads her life story, or just says stuff, stupid stuff, whatever enters her head. Things everybody else thinks but immediately ignores, she announces like an insight. Like anyone cares a grocery cart sat outside the library last Tuesday. Or that toenail clippings shoot off and get lost until you step on them barefoot a couple days later. One look at her and you start considering what else might crunch underfoot.
The driver’s smile tells Candy Boy to wait and this woman will leave him alone. If she were a customer it would be easy. People of her ilk usually haven't the funds for candy made on the premises and only want a Mars bar anyway. They can be shunted to a Walgreens. If he is pleasantly attentive but in no way impatient even the most slow-witted of dawdlers will get the point. So, too, the fat woman. The broken-toothed gears and ratchets of her mind gradually register the fact that he is neither ill, injured, nor a danger to himself or others. He senses her disappointment. She has, now, no reason to stare. Slowly she turns, positions herself over a seat, and drops into it, butt first.
Alcohol, he decides, is the extra scent. It surrounds her. It may account for her tardiness. The driver knows her and he does not, but obviously she’s from the neighborhood. It is filled with people who will stand for hours with their breath sloughing in and out. She probably lives in a half-mile radius and is off her normal schedule. She’s been drinking, then, but is not a drunk. Perhaps there was a Christmas party at her job, although he can’t imagine such an unkempt specimen employed by anyone with eyes. She is greasy and she is enormous. Her breasts droop like little beanbags atop her gigantic stomach. Add to that the smell of beer, and he is repulsed.
Why is she not the subject of jokes by clerks?
It wasn’t so bad when Pattee’s pharmacy stayed open till 7:00, Thursdays till 8:00. Businessmen and career girls still shopped downtown. They took advantage of the After Work Specials. It was nothing to see a shoebox or two under the arm that carried the briefcase. The window displays were changed every week by smart young men in natty clothes. While waiting for his transfer, Candy Boy killed time at the newsstand run by the fifty-year-old identical twins. These days, they’re shutting down, if not already closed, by the time he arrives, but they used to operate as late as the stores, carrying the early edition of the next day’s paper.
They are short and weatherbeaten and likely to whistle if a woman is pretty. Newspapers and magazines they roll with a snap of a rubber band, then extend them like batons. “There you go, sweetheart,” they say, both of them, so that Candy Boy has never known which is which, or even if they differ, despite seeing them side-by-side in clothes unalike. They could be the exact same guy seen twice at once. Both sets of eyes scan the streets as if spotting, then reading the minds of, potential customers. “Yes, sir!” they say, handing over a journal or a blue sheet. Cars pull up honking, and hands pass through half-open windows. The twins are friends with everyone, even those, like Candy Boy, who buy nothing and with whom they never speak. Certain people seem to orbit the stand, which they allow so long as no one’s a nuisance. A good example was the shabby little man in the ill-fitting windbreaker. He owned two, pale yellow and pale blue, and his hair sprouted from his head like stretched tufts of grey cotton. He talked to teenage boys waiting for buses on their way home from school, but never the big or athletic ones who played football or wrestled or lifted weights. He chose the smaller, unprepossessing boys who might welcome a little conversation. Candy Boy saw it over and again as he memorized the magazine covers before descending to Pattee’s basement pharmacy to make his real selection.
“They claim the ribbed ones are more exciting, but I’ve never found that to be especially true, have you?”
Candy Boy paid the voice no more mind than anything else he overhears. Except at the shop, very little is addressed to him. The world’s conversations might be interesting, but they’re none of his business. He waited for more.
“These I’ve found to be the sheerest. That is, if you’re concerned enough to bother.”
It never occurred to Candy Boy to compare brand names. He had his own views, unswayed by ribs or nonoxynol-9, but he certainly wouldn’t offer them aloud. As unobtrusively as possible, he lifted his eyes toward the convex security mirror to see who might be discussing such a thing.
Fish-nosed versions of himself and the shabby little man ballooned across its surface. Each was waiting on the other. The aisle was otherwise empty.
Candy Boy left the store without a purchase.
“You’re shy,” said the voice. “I’ve rushed you.”
The escalator didn’t travel fast enough, and three or four clumps of package-laden secretaries prevented him from bounding up the moving steps. Hand tight on the rubber railing, he searched the forest of limbless brown mannequins in briefs and T-shirts as snug as skin but did not see the pastel smear of yellow he thought might follow him up as it had followed him down. His feet clipped quickly to street level and twilight and the safe hiss of traffic.
Twin One or Twin Two, he couldn’t tell which, said, “Money talks,” and gave him a wink.
“But it doesn’t always know,” said Twin Two or Twin One, “when to shut up, now does it?”
“No, sir!” they both said at once.
All Candy Boy heard was the last echo of the voice downstairs. “Let me make it up to you. What are your sizes?”
A tough question, and one that seemed unnecessarily asked. The clothes that arrived at Candy Boy’s door fit perfectly, far better than those he bought himself. In two weeks of checking the hallway at dawn he acquired more garments of higher quality than any he’d even considered since high school, and then his taste was a teenager’s. Some would argue it hasn’t improved. It isn’t lively. He knows that. Red shirts and black pants fill his closet. Six sets for work mean that by the weekend he has a load for the wash and an extra to spare, all kept in rotation. Around the apartment he wears what he wants, usually boxers. Regular clothes aren’t worth the bother. Pants cinch or sag. Buttons trail threads. His heels tramp on his cuffs, and shirttails creep out with a life of their own. He can’t help looking disheveled, so he might as well be at ease. Boxers are fine. In winter he adds his dead uncle’s bathrobe with pipe cleaners in the pockets. Most of them are curled or broken by now and should be replaced to give his fingers something to do. One can’t reach under the loose elastic twenty-four hours a day.
The shabby little man seemed to do very little else, that was the miracle of it. Reading the indictment stories in the newspaper, one couldn’t imagine he had time to manage his fortune. Imagining the fortune took some faith. This man was rich? He was an absolute ragamuffin. Had he ever combed his hair? Had his shoes been shined once? He was practically a hobo, but there were parties and trysts that crisscrossed the country. Boys from downtown were put up in a penthouse. All of them mentioned the generous gifts. This was one of the city’s true millionaires, on a scale with Otto Krska, the beer king, who housed his empire in a brick palace that featured a pool on the tenth floor to which one ascended, by invitation only, in elevators lined with suede made from pigs. He hired one man to roll his cigars and another to accompany the cured leaf on its journey by rail. His billiard tables were wide enough for two to sleep comfortably and of a sturdiness to accommodate those choosing not to sleep. So hinted a former doorman to the press when the building was razed.
The modern frolics lacked the grandeur but only due to taste. The funding was more than adequate. Candy Boy’s temporary benefactor owned a bank and a sports team and ramshackle real estate all over town. He provided a pavilion to the zoo. He endowed three chairs for the symphony. Pattee’s was his, although he let it decline and finally killed it. He might simply have pilfered too many gifts. Egyptian cotton shirts, wool gabardine trousers, even underwear in red and blue and burnt sienna, all these arrived in boxes the elegant enamel maroon of Pattee’s. Candy Boy found them outside his apartment. Shoes and ties and suspenders and coats were propped at his door as he stepped out for work, and they fit like tailor-made. Not one unintended wrinkle greeted him in the mirror. He marveled that he could look so fine, so like the magazines and professional men. He had all but the haircut, and that could be fixed with money.
He wasn’t sure where he’d go. The shops in the mall didn’t have barbers as he thought of barbers. They had girls like models in clothes that made his own feel more constricted. He couldn’t sit blithely while one of them washed his hair. That sheet around his neck wouldn’t hide him forever. The only place he knew that looked familiar, that had a grey-haired gent and a chair that worked off a foot pedal, was on the ground floor of the Tower Manor, the old folks’ high-rise downtown. IT PAYS TO LOOK WELL—MAKE AN APPOINTMENT said the sign in the window, but the photos that hung beside it had been there fifteen if not twenty years and were faded to blue and orange. FLAT TOPS AND RAZOR CUTS A SPECIALTY. He figured he did just as well with kitchen scissors in his own mirror, standing on a newspaper to catch the snippings. It wasn’t stylish, but who was he trying to impress? He’d given up that cause long ago.
The supply of clothing stopped after two weeks, on the dot. He got up, cracked the door a wrist’s width, and found nothing to grab. A mistake: it must be. But the next day confirmed it. The third was hopeless. It was a weekend. He let himself sleep in.
On Monday he climbed into his red shirt and black pants and resumed his unbroken life. Tuesday he cut his hair. It was comfortable and close, necessitating no hair net in the fashion of so many fry cooks, who wore theirs long and coiled down the backs of their necks like snakes in a sack. It wasn’t until the indictment hit the papers that he realized all those clothes refolded in tissue and stacked in his front closet represented himself as an investment. He was one of the failures. He didn’t pay off.
When Pattee’s closed, he couldn’t say it broke his heart. It is a shame for the city, of course, because so many people loved the Christmas windows, the elves hammering toys and the penguins on ice skates, but his own shopping was not disrupted. Since his encounter at that pharmacy he has patronized another. It’s at an earlier transfer point, across from the old Commodore, which hasn’t shown a movie in five or six years. Somehow it has stayed free of graffiti despite its cracked marquee and soaped-over windows. Candy Boy thinks someone at the drug store looks out for the place. They are responsible folks who’ve owned their business thirty years and wish not to exist across from an eyesore. Solid merchants, really, except for their hired help. Teenagers lack perspective, but that doesn’t excuse their manners. There’s no reason why he should walk in to make his usual purchase and hear one of those loudmouths mutter, in a voice that carries the length of the store, “Here comes Mr. Box-A-Week.”
He’s a predictable customer. He minds his own business. Where’s the harm in that?
He may not be rich, but he wouldn’t sneak up behind someone at the prophylactic counter and initiate that sort of talk. That’s just plain smutty, no matter how you frame it. Nor would he travel drunk on the city’s buses. He keeps his mild deficiencies of character at home, where they belong, and even in private he keeps himself neat. That’s the advantage to latex. Peel it off, tie one end in a knot, and flush it away. No messy tissues, no stains on the bedclothes. And then he fixes himself some ice cream with any number of toppings.
The bus stops for the passenger who sits in back and never talks. In his heavy coat he has to pivot sideways through the chrome bars and angle his way up the aisle. He glances at the regulars, maybe even nods, and displays some small surprise at the fat woman who smells of beer. She is certainly an addition to the schedule. Manny is telling about accident victims, but she interrupts with utter disregard for the fact of his voice. It could just as well be engine noise. So could hers. It seems to operate just because it’s on. Candy Boy sees her gape at trees strung with odd silhouettes of light outside the telephone building. The bulbs meander like sparse constellations through the naked branches. He can see them through her lenses, like smudged beads of glowing red and white. She says, “Oh!”
Manny hesitates, as if she might be injured, and stares at her.
“I don’t even remember what those trees look like,” she says.
“What trees?” demands the driver.
“Those trees. I don’t remember what they look like.”
The driver snatches a look at the last in the line and says, “They’re just regular trees.”
The fat woman doesn’t hear the ire in her voice, Candy Boy can tell. Or if she does, she cannot quite identify it. The tone is there, but the cause is absent. She sits awhile, idling, as Manny talks of death.
The driver wonders if he knows more than he’s telling. He’s a little poochy in the stomach these days, like maybe there’s a tumor, but otherwise looks healthy. She’s sure he hasn’t seen a doctor. He won’t go to a dentist. He has five black holes in place of teeth, two on top and two on the bottom and one more on top but way in the back so you have to be looking. His big, friendly smile on his company I.D. doesn’t even show it. His stubbornness, or possibly mere reluctance, makes no sense to her because the company’s plan is so good. They pay for every check-up and almost all the surgery, which he wouldn’t need if he took what was offered free. A man his age has no business missing teeth.
“People know,” he says. “They can tell. A husband and wife in a car wreck get taken to separate emergency rooms. They see the same thing. They come back and they remember. They’re not so scared anymore. The doctors, shoot, what do they know?”
The fat woman says, “You know what I did?”
Manny says, “The doctors, they just want you alive to keep paying bills. How else do they make a living?”
“I won that jar of candy. I can’t believe I did this. You had to guess the number, and I just happened to remember it from last year. Of course it wasn’t exact, but I was within two or three. I just happened to remember it, so I won. A whole container of M&M’s.” She holds her hands apart with space enough for a commercial mayonnaise jar, and her plastic sacks rustle like labored breathing. “Maurice about wanted to kill me. He gets so mad when he sees me eating candy. He hates it more than anything. Pastor Maurice is about like my dad, we’ve gotten that close over the thirteen years, and Jimmy’s like a little brother.”
Manny waits to see if there’ll be more news of Jimmy or if she’ll count down to the last M&M. Obviously she can quote the sum, but she looks out the window as if not a word has come from her mouth. He wonders why she bothers. She reminds him of the Indian he saw the other day when they had that wet snow in the middle of the morning. It was damp and miserable and cold, and he was drunk already by 10:00, but he was pushing a shopping cart full of books. The wheels left four crooked, grey tracks in the snow. He wore a thin cowboy shirt that was soaked to his skin. Why, if you’re drunk, would you go to the effort? What makes some people go on?
“There’s this guy in the hospital,” he says. “He’s been lying there for a month, all hooked up to tubes and wires. The room just gurgles and beeps. There’s not another sound except the shush of his breath. And then one day he says, ‘Help me stand up. I want to greet him.’ He looks up and smiles and dies right there, except they try to revive him. It doesn’t work, though. He’s finally too happy.”
“See, there’s the gas station,” says the fat woman. “I live about two blocks down and over three more.”
Like every night it’s a discovery, thinks the driver. Like she’s just moved in every night for the past fifteen years.
Candy Boy is surprised she doesn’t ring for a stop but remembers this is the last run for the evening. She’ll probably ride to the end and get off on the northbound so she doesn’t have to cross the street. It might save her six or seven thigh-chafing steps. He imagines that inner skin is raw.
“I live right down almost behind Cantoni’s,” which she pronounces Cantonese. Candy Boy supposes he should give her points for trying, but he also wonders, what is she, following bread crumbs?
She says, “You know, the Italian people are a sweet people, but they’re a rowdy people.”
He will grant her that. He was wakened at 4:00 the other morning by the sound of fireworks. His bedroom window looks down on a small house with a flat grassless yard awash that morning in green light like a wall of water people walked in. He heard pops and bangs and bappity-baps, and red and yellow whirligigs fizzed overhead. He saw homemade confetti bombs left over from Santa Lucia. Bottle rockets whistled through the trees.
He stood in the spent elastic of his underwear and watched for half an hour.
Manny has moved on to the topic of heaven generally. As the bell sounds for a stop and the bus approaches the steak house corner, the one with the awning that announces Granzotto’s the Famous as if proclaiming the realm of some medieval king, he says, “I hope they’ve got steak sandwiches or mostaccioli or something. Like a Granzotto’s. That’d be perfect.”
The bus wheezes to a stop at the corner, and the passenger in back pauses when the door opens. “Free beer and chicken,” he says. “That’s what they’ll have.” He steps lightly to the curb and unzips his coat as a first, fast snowflake skitters through the air. “And chocolate sundaes for the kids.” His breath puffs out in a cloud.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This story is an instance of curiosity allowing imagination to step to the fore. I once boarded a bus and discovered a group of passengers, along with the driver, engaged in a discussion considering the nature of Heaven, or at least of an afterlife. Some of these people were previously acquainted, but clearly the larger number had just met on the current ride. As a latecomer, I was intrigued by the notion that a colleciton of mostly strangers had come upon this particular topic of conversation. It wasn’t long before I was wondering my way backward to how they arrived at this juncture, and connecting the dots I made up in my head gave the story its shape and trajectory as well as the omniscient voice gathering the stories into a whole. In the process a variety of ideas which had been drifting through my thoughts suddenly found a home, which became one of the earliest pieces in building the infrastructure for what I call “Phantom Nebraska Stories,” which I suspect the local Chamber of Commerce would not endorse.
ABOUT JAMES REED
James Reed’s fiction has appeared in such periodicals as West Branch, J Journal, and The Gettysburg Review as well as The Jazz Fiction Anthology (Indiana University Press 2009), and among other awards he holds a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.