I put the bus in park and picked up my clipboard.
"Hey, Edward," I said, turning around to face my passenger. "Do you know a lady named Stella?"
"Stella?" he sputtered, chewing the air and twiddling his gnarled thumbs lightly over his breastbone.
"Yeah. She lives in the building next door to yours. I was supposed to pick her up this morning, but she's not answering her phone." The bus sat idling in the parking lot between matching redbrick apartment complexes.
"Oh, Stella!" he said, with a queasy little smile. "You know, I had to yell at her." His hands came apart and made elegant sweeps and arcs in front of his face.
"So you know her."
"Yeah," he said. "She kept coming by my place and knocking on my door at all hours. I had to tell her to stop."
"What did she want?" I asked.
"Oh, you know," Edward growled, folding his arms across his chest and falling back into his seat. "Some dick."
"Shit!" I said, and coughed, choking on my surprise. "Some dick, huh?"
"Well, of course," he barked.
Each morning I spent a little over an hour gathering senior citizens from their apartments and delivering them to a counseling center, and Edward was always my first pickup. They'd spend a few hours there--chatting with other clients, eating lunch, playing games, watching the occasional movie--and in the afternoon I took them back home.
I called Stella again on my mobile, and an answering machine picked up. I circled the word "no" next to her name on my list, set my clipboard on the console to my right, and put the bus in drive.
As we headed south along Sheffield, Edward talked in detail about the weather. Every morning he'd ask what I'd heard the weather was going to be so we could compare findings. As he talked I watched his long, sallow face in the rearview mirror. The weight of his 60-odd years tugged at his jowls, and he kept his salty hair short, in a sort of chaotic flattop. Edward wore the same tan cargo shorts just about every day. A pair of blue-striped tube socks were bunched around his slight calves. Watching his sagging breasts as they lolled about inside his teal tank top, I sensed his weariness, but the fire in his eyes gave the impression that hard living hadn't broken him.
I turned left on Armitage. "This is a very expensive area," Edward volunteered.
"Yeah, I know. Nicole works in a salon over here. It's very bourgeois."
"Oh, that's right," he said, furrowing his brow. "How is your wife? What's her name again?"
"Nicole," I reminded him. My wife had ridden with me on a couple of afternoon rounds, and one day she'd come in to the center to cut and style some of the ladies' hair. "She's doing very well."
"You know, she ought to be in movies," he said.
"I don't know that she'd be interested in that," I said, making a left onto Halsted.
"Well, she's got that star quality. Tell her I said so."
I pulled the bus over in front of Betty's building and called her on the mobile. She picked up after six rings.
"Mmmmhellomm," she answered. I could tell she wasn't wearing her teeth. Since it took her a while to get ready, I'd called her about 40 minutes earlier. "I'm fixin' tah come down noawh," she said, and hung up.
"What I wouldn't give for a cigarette right now," Edward said as we waited.
"You're out of cigarettes?" I asked.
"No, I've got plenty."
"Well, you can get off the bus and smoke. I think Betty is going to be a minute."
"The old driver let us smoke on the bus," Edward grumbled.
I opened the double doors and he exited with careful steps. I hopped out of the driver's seat and followed him over to a nearby bench.
"Cigarette?" he said, situating himself and offering me a filterless Pall Mall from a silver case. "They used to call these commanders," he told me, holding one in his yellow teeth and massaging the flint wheel on his 99-cent torch with an arthritic thumb.
"Commandos?" I asked, taking the lighter from him and getting the flame to his cigarette.
"No, commanders!" But no explanation followed. Edward's eyes flashed above his bowling-pin nose and bright, pocked grin as he took the light. "You know, sometimes that takes me a while."
I lit my own cigarette and sat down next to him on the bench.
"Is she coming?" Edward asked. "Or are you going to have to go up and carry her down?"
"Hopefully she'll make it down on her own," I said.
Betty usually pushed a wheeled cart that was overloaded with a duffel bag and several torn plastic grocery sacks. I would haul the cart into the bus and set it at the back where she could sit next to it. A counselor at the center told me that she only let a few other people touch her cart. One day Betty pushed a crumpled envelope secured with several rubber bands into my palm. When I opened it later I found a modest stack of pocket change. "Ah know it's a hassle fuh ya to hauw mah cart up an down ageen," she'd said.
The Pall Mall was making me dizzy, so I flicked the unsmoked half to the sidewalk and stood up.
"We gotta go, Edward. I don't think she's coming down."
"You're just going to leave an old woman behind?" Edward asked as he sat back down and I put the bus in drive.
"Yes, I am. I love her, but we've got a schedule to keep."
"Who are we getting next?" he asked, looking out the window.
"Oooh, Lucille!" Edward's ears crept up the sides of his head as he grinned. "When she gets on, I'm gonna tell her to sit here next to me." Edward always asked the first lady we picked up to sit next to him. "Then I'm gonna put my hand down like this just before she sits down!" Glancing in the rearview, I saw a claw opening and closing on the seat next to him. He watched it in quiet delirium.
Edward and I bounced down Webster in relative silence. I turned north onto Lake Shore Drive, then Edward piped up, asking a question I couldn't hear over the engine.
"I said," he yelled, "would you like to hear a song!"
"What would you like to hear?" I could see him leaning far forward in his seat.
"Do you know any Perry Como?"
Clearing his throat, Edward asked, "Which number?"
"How about 'Hot Diggity'?" I asked. "Do you know that one?" He took a moment, then closed his eyes and got to it.
"Oooooooh, hot diggidy, dogs diggidy, boom, what you do to me, it's so new to me, what you do to me. Hot diggidy, dogs diggidy, boom, what you do to me, when you're holding me tight . . ."
His eyes remained closed, and he was bouncing up and down in his seat. His slightly sour, off-tempo crooning had an Edith-like sweetness. All he needed was an Archie.
"Never knew that my heart could go zing that away . . . uuuuuhh . . . ting-a-ling . . ." He trailed off. "Shit--how's the rest of it go?"
"I don't know. There's something about a cottage."
"Oh hell, I can't remember anything anymore." He stared out the window and kept quiet until we exited at Wilson.
"You know, this used to be one of the worst skid rows in the city. Maybe even the country. There'd be men lined up and down this street for, shit, I don't know how many blocks. Men with their jugs of wine."
"Did you know many of the skid row drunks?"
"Know any? Heck, I was one of 'em!" he chuckled. "I remember waking up on Wilson Avenue one morning. I felt like shit and I had no more money for wine. I decided I'd had enough. To hell with drinking--I walked all the way into the city and checked myself into a rehab center down there at the church."
"Must have been a long walk," I said.
"I thought I'd never make it." Edward looked at his hands in his lap. I turned east onto Argyle.
"Are we on Ar-jul street?" he asked, butchering the pronunciation.
"I know that," he snapped. "I used to work with a hillbilly gentleman from Kentucky. That's how he always said it: Ar-jul." I'd heard this story before. He'd worked as a bartender at the Chicago Athletic Club in the 60s. He said all of the clientele there loved him, and that they were always eager to feed him drinks.
"Say, are we picking up that Mexican fellow today?" Edward asked. "What's his name? Rudolpho?"
"Oh, right." Edward turned toward the window and sighed. "I like him. You know, he's very intelligent if you listen to him speak." Alphonso, now in his early 90s, had worked on an alligator boat in his native country and had spent time as a detective in London and Jamaica.
Lucille was waiting on the corner. I kept an eye on Edward after I pulled over and opened the doors.
"Hello, darling," he gushed. "Why don't you rest your laurels here next to me?" He patted the seat. "I've kept it warm for you."
"I'll bet you have," Lucille answered wryly. She was no novice at dealing with him. In the curved mirror I could see his hand on her seat as she turned to sit, but it vanished at the last minute, and when I looked up again Edward was grinning at me.
Mia and Gertrude were next. They waited together in the foyer of Mia's building. As I drove north on Sheridan toward Mia's, I could hear Edward and Lucille arguing about whether Johnny Depp was just an actor or both an actor and a rock musician.
When I pulled up to Mia's building, Gertrude headed for the bus's double doors as Mia puffed the last few centimeters of a cigarette.
"Good morning, Josh," said Gertrude. She was in her early 70s and wore a bob wig.
"Morning!" Mia cooed. Her voice was husky but soothing.
"How are you?" I asked the ladies.
"Yes," Edward asked Mia, "how's your liver?"
"Oh shut up, Edward," she rasped.
"How dare you talk to me that way," Edward replied. "I'm an old man! I could go at any time."
"Are you trying to get me excited?" Mia asked.
"No, but I'm sure I could if I tried," he chuckled.
I headed toward Rogers Park to pick up Alphonso.
"Hey, Josh," Edward said, in a pleading, childlike voice, "how long until we get to the center?"
"Twenty minutes maybe. Why?"
"I've really got to go to the bathroom."
"Is it an emergency?"
"Not yet, but it could be."
"Number one or number two?" I asked, sending both Mia and Lucille into fits of laughter.
"It's number one," he whimpered.
"Well, can you try and hold it?" I asked, pulling in front of Alphonso's house. I could see him waiting on his porch.
"I suppose," Edward whined, looking out the window. "Who lives here?"
"Jesus, Edward," Mia said. "Alphonso, for the hundredth time already."
"I knew that," he proclaimed. "You know, I like these old houses. They have so much more character than all these goddamned high-rise buildings going up everywhere."
Alphonso had glaucoma, and he descended the concrete stairs in front of his house with careful steps. Once he reached the bottom, he struck the ground twice with the tip of his cane and broke into a healthy gait toward the van. A few feet from the bus, he lifted his cane and waved it from side to side until it tapped the edge of one of the opened doors. "Good morning, Mr. Josh," he said, climbing the steps. "Good morning, everybody."
Soon we were cruising down Clark Street, south toward the center. As I merged onto Ashland, Edward piped up again. "Say, how much longer we got?"
"Is it really that urgent?" I asked.
"Yeah," he pleaded, "I don't know how much longer I can hold it."
I turned off onto a side street and let Edward out at the entrance to an alleyway. All the ladies on board giggled as they watched him fiddle with his belt buckle. Then he relieved himself, partially obscured by a green Dumpster.
"Feeling better?" I asked as he climbed the steps back onto the bus, holding up the front of his shorts.
"Yes. Much better. Thank you, Josh."
"You're welcome, Edward," I said.
I finished sprinkling the melting salt that formed a path to the bus's double doors and quickly climbed inside. The heater was going full blast. I sipped some tea and watched the center's back door through the rearview mirror. It opened slowly and Edward emerged, wearing a pair of blue sweatpants under his trademark shorts. He made his way across the small parking lot in flimsy leather boat shoes, and as I opened the doors he flashed me a warm smile.
"Why don't you go ahead and take the ladies home first," Edward said, taking slow steps up into the bus.
"All right," I said. Normally I'd take Edward home first, because he had the longest ride in the morning. "If that's what you want."
The rest of the clients made their way onto the bus, and soon we were in the middle of thick Friday-afternoon traffic.
"Oh god! What I wouldn't give for a humidifier," Mia moaned. Though it was the middle of winter, she'd been complaining about how dehydrating her air conditioning was about 15 minutes earlier. Since then, Edward had been going on about food poisoning.
"What are you talking about, Edward?" Lucille asked.
"I'm talking about the Mexican food that gave me hives!"
"What did you eat?" she asked, through spits of laughter.
"I told you!" Edward snapped. "Mexican food."
"What did you order?" I asked.
"I don't know. I can't speak Spanish. I ate what they brought me."
"And how long was it before you broke out?" I asked.
"I paid my bill and went home. When I looked in the bathroom mirror I had red splotches all over my face." Lucille started giggling uncontrollably. Edward glanced at her and continued. "Then I looked at my hands and they were red too. I felt all hot and itchy. It was terrible. I ended up on the toilet for about two hours."
He raised his right hand and scratched his nose, exposing a tan scab on one of his knuckles. His cat had gotten ahold of his hand while they were playing a few weeks earlier. "Normally I have a pair of boxing gloves that I wear when I play with her, but I guess I forgot to put them on that day," Edward explained. The scratch had become infected, putting him in the hospital for four days. Since then he hadn't been the same. The infection had nearly given him a fifth heart attack, and he was growing increasingly weary and distant.
I dropped Alphonso off first, then Mia and Gertrude. After I left Lucille's it was just Edward and me, coasting down Lake Shore Drive.
"Say, Josh," he said, "I need to go by the Walgreens over there on Halsted and Diversey. Can you drop me off there and wait for me?"
"So it was a clever ploy?" I asked.
"Acting so noble about being dropped off last. You just wanted a ride to the pharmacy!"
"Will you wait? They said my pills would be ready for me."
I crowded one of the handicapped spots in the parking lot and played a feeble version of Pong on my mobile. Edward came back out about 20 minutes later.
"I didn't think you'd still be here," he said, taking his seat. "Look, you can drop me off at the liquor store across the street from my place. I need to pick up some beer."
"You still drink?" I asked.
"Yes. I have two beers a night, for my heart."
"That makes sense. What kind of beer?"
"Old Style is my favorite." He pointed out the window to a liquor store near the el. "This is where I buy my beer."
I stopped the van, and Edward shuffled over to the door, then grabbed a pole and looked back at me.
"Do you want a beer, Josh?"
"No. Thanks, though."
"C'mon," he urged. "I'll buy you one."
"I can't, Edward. I've got stuff to do."
"All right," he said. "Thanks for taking me to Walgreens."
"You're welcome," I said. He reached his hand over and rubbed the top of my head.
"You're fuzzy," he said, stepping off of the bus and onto the street. I left the doors open a moment and watched him make his way into the liquor store, wishing I'd said yes to the beer.
When I called Edward the following Tuesday, the phone rang three times before he picked it up.
"Edvard?" I asked in a cartoonish German accent.
"Yes," he croaked.
"Your vide vill be zere to get you in approximately ten minutes."
"Listen, Josh," he said meekly, "I won't be coming in today. Katie's coming to get me at one. She's taking me to the doctor." Katie was his counselor at the center.
"Do you have to go for a checkup or something?" I asked.
"No, I had a bad night," he said. He sounded like he was about to cry.
"Jesus, I'm sorry, Edward. Are you OK?"
"OK," he responded ambiguously. "I'll see ya."
He hung up.
Later that afternoon as I drove past his building, there was an ambulance and a fire truck parked in front. I had a sinking feeling, which was confirmed when I got back to the center. When Katie had gone to pick him up he hadn't answered his phone. The building manager took her upstairs, where they found him. A fifth heart attack had left him cold on the floor of his apartment.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornschemeier.