It’s six o’clock in the little town of Layton, Utah. The sun has already set and the sky is covered with a seeming endless coat of dark clouds. On Main Street, at a small bus stop, sits a woman in a purple windbreaker. Her short, curly hair is newly dyed the blackish-red color of old blood. She is nearly elt
ifty, bent forward, looking down at her off-brand sneakers, wrapping herself with her arms and rocking back and forth. An old man with seventy-five years and a heavy, goose-feathered coat on his back, carrying a small present wrapped in golden paper, tied with a thick, red bow, slowly lowers himself onto the damp bench beside her.
“Looks to me like we might be in for some snow the way the clouds are sagging over the mountains,” says the old man. “You would think these weathermen could get the weather right now and again.”
The woman stares at the floor, her face is pale, eyes red.
The old man wonders if he had spoken loudly enough. He is used to being asked to speak up by his wife and daughter. It has been nearly ten years since his hearing began to fail him, but he refuses to wear a hearing aid. “I said, it looks like snow,” he says, almost in a shout. “It started as such a nice day though.”
“It didn’t,” says the woman.
The old man shrugged. “It was clear enough. Not too cold — not that I mind the cold. I’m not one of those older men who ache in the winter.” It was a lie. Even now, the old man longs for a warm bath and some Aleve to ease the pain in his joints.
“Who cares about the weather?” The woman looks up at the old man’s face for the first time. It is yellow and wrinkled, but the eyes are steady and kind. “I just — I’m sorry.” She isn’t really. “But there’s more important things than the weather.”
“That’s true,” says the old man, nodding. He thinks about his daughter in California, her present sitting in his lap. Would she come? If her mother were still alive, she would come. “You know, my daughter is supposed to come up for Christmas.” He gestures to the present. “Thought it wise to get the shopping done early. People lose their minds around Christmas. I had it wrapped at the bookstore. It’s poorly done, but what can you expect nowadays? My wife used to do all the wrapping, but that was before she—”
The woman begins to cry. She covers her face and bends low over her knees.
The old man is stunned. He sets the present aside, slides closer to the woman and puts his hand gently on her shoulder. “Now then, what’s this? Did I say something?”
The woman removes her hands from her face. Her brow is lowered, her expression is defensive, shocked. She looks at the old man for a second and then quickly away. Her mouth curls down. Her brow lifts. She takes a sharp breath, like she had momentarily forgotten to breathe. Her lips quiver as she exhales. “It’s… my son.”
The old man’s mouth forms an ‘O’ as he straightens up. He looks forward, tucks his lips into his teeth, takes a slow, deliberate breath, tonguing the inside of his mouth. “Let me guess, he’s not coming for Christmas?”
The woman begins crying again, more loudly than before.
The old man pats the woman’s back. “The more years you accumulate, the wiser you become — and I’ve accumulated many, many years. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that children are their own people. We try to teach them right, to give them everything we can, but sometimes there’s nothing we can do. It’s just out of our hands, you see. Does he live locally? My wife used to say—”
“He’s dead!” the woman blurts out, drawing the attention of a young couple passing by on the sidewalk and hurrying them on their way.
The old man gazes at the desperate woman. He realizes too late what he has started.
“Now, that’s something different…” says the old man in a somber tone. “I’m sorry for your loss, I truly am. I had a wife once, but she—”
“He loved that stupid bike,” the woman says with a sigh. She wipes the snot from her nose with the inside of her sleeve, leaving a shining trail. Her whole body is trembling. She seems to be preparing herself for something important, a grave recital. The old man asked for it, and here it is. “I told him a thousand times to be careful riding that bike.”
“Ah. Yes,” says the old man. “Motorcycles are dangerous machines.”
“No, nothing like that. That would have made sense. But this? My son, he had been trying to lose weight for years. He worked from home. He didn’t get out much. He was the kindest man, but he worked from home, you understand? I bought him a bicycle one Christmas. He loved to ride it. He said it felt like flying.” She smiled weakly at the old man. “He rode it to work everyday — everyday.”
There is a high pitched screech as the route 446 bus slows to a stop in front the them. The woman quickly wipes her eyes with her palm, digs into her purse, finds her ticket. The man pulls his ticket out too; it’s not his bus. It’s not the woman’s either apparently, because she deposits her ticket back into her purse, hugs it close, and resumes her bent posture.
“You know,” says the old man, “I used to ride when I was younger. I didn’t even have a car. Yes, it was my only transportation. Of course, it was much safer when I rode. The streets weren’t filled with so many — people. With all these people on the roads, it’s no surprise so many bicyclists are killed. He was struck then? By a car?”
The woman bites her lip, looks toward heaven, gives it a knowing, sarcastic look, then shakes her head. “If only. You can survive being struck by a car.”
The old man looks perplexed. A mother and daughter walking by, hand in hand, catches his attention. He notices the daughter isn’t wearing socks. It’s too cold to go without socks… If his wife were here, she would have a word or two for that woman. But she isn’t. How long had it been? Six months? He realized the woman had started speaking again.
“My Robert was very conscientious. Every time we spoke over the phone, he assured me that he was being careful — we spoke every day. Every day until…” She takes a deep breath. “Until he was murdered.”
“Murdered?” says the old man. “How horrible. By whom?”
The old man’s face contracts into an expression of incredulity, but upon becoming aware of it, he quickly changes it to one of deep thought. Where is his bus? “God plays a role in all our deaths,” he says.
“He murdered my Robert,” the woman insisted. “My son was riding home from work in the rain. I told him never to ride in the rain; the roads aren’t safe; people can’t see — no one can see… He loved to ride that bike. The bike that I gave him. God struck him dead with lighting on Hill road. Why? A bolt of lighting just struck him, right through the head. The doctors said it might have been the bike. It must have been the bike. The bike I gave him.”
The woman is a mess now: she leaks fluids from her eyes, nose, and mouth.
“He killed him. He killed my son! And for what? My son was an honest, religious man. He was a good man, a good man. I taught him to be a good man.”
The old man feels a powerful desire to run, if only his knees could take it, if only his heart could, but being unable to escape, he feels obligated to say something. He wishes he never decided to take the bus that day, that he never left the house at all. He touches the woman once, lightly on the shoulder, then withdraws it to his coat pocket. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Er, when did this happen?”
“June sixth,” says the woman. “June sixth, two-thousand thirteen.” She hardly finishes before lapsing back into noisy sobs, now leaning in against the old man, covering his coat with her slime.
The old man looks up, feeling suddenly very out of place and disoriented. He looks around at the darkening street, at the cars speeding by, his vision blurring their lights into streams of yellow and red. He looks down the street. Where is his bus?
“Excuse me,” says a young man, stopping in front of the bench. His sudden appearance halts the spinning in the old man’s head.
The young man wears a large, greasy coat with the hood pulled up. His floppy hat and large work boots are covered in something black, and his woolen gloves and scarf are frayed at the edges. He looks at the old man uneasily and says, “I just ran out of gas. I’m trying to get home in Provo. Could you spare a dollar for gas?”
The old man has heard this routine before. It was bullshit. But it didn’t bother him anymore. He derived a strange sort of pleasure from giving money to those who ask him for it — small amounts of course — a kind of excitement. He leans to one side, reaching for his wallet.
“Excuse us,” the woman says, her tone an affectation of distress, putting a restraining hand on the old man’s arm. “If you don’t mind, we are in the middle of a conversation. I don’t know who you are or where you come from, but you have no right coming up to us and begging for money.”
The young man looks down and shuffles his feet. When he looks up again, it’s at the old man, a pleading look in his eyes.
The old man, for reasons unknown even to himself, removes his hand from his back pocket, and buries it back into his coat, looking away from the young man.
The young man nods, rubs his mouth with his open hand, then walks away.
The old man feels a heat coming from the bench. He purses his lips, gives the woman a sideways glance. She apologizes, saying that she can’t stand people like that. They have no shame, no decency. She never gives their type anything. “They just want alcohol,” she says, “or drugs.”
The woman’s face screws up again, and the tears start flowing. The man closes his eyes. He thinks of a time when he was going to buy a homeless man a bottle of alcohol, but was stopped by one of the store’s employees before he could. They told him the homeless man can’t have alcohol, that he was not allowed to drink, that he was dangerous when he drank. The man feels bad about that still. He isn’t sure if he feels worse for not getting the alcohol, or for being reprimanded by the store clerk. His wife always said his heart was in the right place, but…
“You know,” says the old man, “I lost my wife last year to —
“My Robert is dead!” cries the woman.
There is a high pitched screech as the route 664 bus arrives.
This is a story sketch I’ve been working on for a few days. Tomorrow, I will post some of the relevant journal entries and notes regarding the characters and theme of this sketch. If you enjoy reading my work, please follow me on Facebook or use the form in the sidebar to subscribe for updates and writing tips.
Thanks for reading. I write for you!