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Strangers on a Bus


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We were riding south on the Clark Street bus on one of those hot, dizzy afternoons. Not much talk, everyone floating in various stages of wakefulness. Mostly male, mostly young. One of the exceptions was a middle-aged man with an avalanche of graying hair, overdressed in a stained, wounded blue suit. He was of indefinite ethnic lineage, probably a European but long enough in America to have lost the major signs of his nationality, not to mention his dignity. His hands were crawling suggestively around the hips of his companion, a much younger woman whose harsh, angular face was intensified by a permanent look of bitterness; even her occasional smiles looked painful. He kept whispering in her ear, or maybe he was just tasting it, always getting the same enervated response, a grim expression of acceptance.

Finally he withdrew one of his hands, reached up and pulled the buzzer cord to get off. As they stood, he whispered a sudden, urgent question that seemed to be the grand finale of all the sweet nothings that had preceded it; but if the girl was caught off guard she didn't show it, replying dully, "You just can't have everything you want." The man shrugged, "Why not?" And then, to the irritation of everyone, he lit a cigarette.

"Put it out, old dude," snarled a young dude sitting next to me. In answer the old guy blew a fat, heavy cloud of smoke in our direction.

"Put it out, I said," the guy next to me repeated, "or lose it."

But the moment had passed. The old dude was already off the bus, dragging the girl with him toward the doorway of a drugstore. He paused as the bus swam by, flipped us all the finger, and called out his parting shot: "Look for me on TV when I win the lottery, you assholes."

Across the aisle were two black guys who'd been watching impassively; they smirked. "If I saw that guy on my TV," said the taller of the two, wearing a City of Detroit sweatshirt, "I'd change the channel."

Everyone nodded or grinned, except for the guy next to me, whose entire weltanschauung seemed to consist of equal parts disgust and fatigue, and who only responded, "I hope she melts that old geezer."

More nodding and general agreement. Then the smaller black man added, "Maybe they'll just ugly each other to death," causing everyone within earshot to laugh out loud. I could see the driver of the bus, sweating and uncomfortable, gazing at us in the mirror, wondering what was going on. A few seats away, a white guy who had an eager look, and had been childishly flipping a brand-new tennis racket in the air, jumped in.

"He's only with her for one thing," he announced breezily. Then, when no one showed any interest in that, he added, "Ever notice how many really useless people win the lottery?"

"You ever win?" This sarcasm came from the young dude next to me.

The guy with the tennis racket went blank, realizing he'd been insulted but not quite sure what to do about it.

"If I ever won the lottery," declared the tall black from Detroit, "I'd take my first check, you know, and I'd get it xeroxed and use the copies for stationery."

"I like that," answered his friend as they slapped five.

"But that wouldn't make any sense," objected the tennis guy, "because then everyone would know that you won the lottery and they'd all come around looking for handouts."

Both blacks scowled. The worn-out guy next to me shook his head in what was already a familiar gesture of contempt. "You're not from around here, are you?"

It was as much a statement as a question; the answer was already known, revealed by the guy's overfamiliar talk, his manner of holding the tennis racket, and his failure to rise, in spirit, above the oppressive weather and into the fantasy dimensions of love and money, where idiot men are melted by sex and lottery checks are transformed into stationery.

Oblivious to the secret meaning of things, Mr. Tennis Racket replied, "No, I live around here. But I grew up in Downers Grove." A damning piece of information. But there was more to come. "My name is David." David from Downers Grove! The short black guy's body was shaking in silent laughter. David then furthered his misfortune, or so it seemed, by waiting for the rest of us to introduce each other. Maybe he thought we were going to start a basketball team.

"Is your name Ron?" he asked my seatmate.


"Yeah, it says Ron on your T-shirt."

"My name's not Ron. It belongs to my brother."

"Oh, so your name's not Ron."

"Yeah, that's what I said."

Now it was my turn to laugh. David's inflection was so subtle that he made it sound like this guy's name was Not-Ron. An unexpected bit of one-upmanship, even more successful for the fact that Not-Ron didn't notice it.

"You know," said David, plunging fearlessly on, "if I won the lottery I'd buy that house in California, the one that William Randolph Hearst built, you know, the guy in Citizen Kane. It's so big the state of California can't even pay for its upkeep. It's got something like 52 bedrooms."

"Wow," exclaimed the guy with the Detroit shirt, suddenly interested, "52 rooms. Imagine playing hide-and-seek with your kid in that place. He might be an adult by the time you found him."

"No shit," agreed his friend, "and you could have three or four wives 'cause they'd never see each other. And even if they did, and one of them asked you who those women were you could just tell her, 'It's the new maid, babe.'"

"Yeah, but see, the problem is, the house would probably eat all your money in upkeep and taxes," David pointed out.

"That wouldn't matter," said Detroit, now thoroughly into the idea of a 52-bedroom house, "there's all kinds of ways of getting money. I heard about this guy who asked this girl out on a date. And he took her to the best restaurant, wined her and dined her, bought a couple of bottles of Dom Perignon champagne. The whole shot. But the girl was cool. She liked the guy a lot, but they just stayed friends. Anyway, about three months later, he calls her up and they're talking and he tells her that things aren't going well. He's got a debt he has to pay and he needs $5,000 to pay it, he doesn't have it, blah blah blah blah. And the chick says, 'I've got $5,000 I can lend you.' And the guy says, 'No way, I'd never take money from you.' But the chick says, 'Really, it's OK' and they go back and forth and finally the guy says 'All right' and she goes to the bank, gives him the money, and never hears from him again."

For a moment, everyone sat quietly meditating over the sad, inevitable conclusion of this yarn.

"House of Games," exclaimed David from Downers Grove.

"Isn't love terrible," added the black guy's friend.

"Marriage is worse," summed up Not-Ron, in a tone of perfect disgust.

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