A bus stop somewhere in Northern Utah. It’s nearly eight o’clock in the evening and the summer sun is just now realizing that it has overstayed its welcome. A woman, about fifty years old, sits on the bench, scratching her newly styled hair. It’s short, curly, and dyed the color of old blood. A man, who can’t be younger than seventy, shuffles breathlessly to the bench and lowers himself beside the woman. His knees pop audibly. In one arm, he cradles a small gift.
The heat from the bench seeps through the old man’s stiff trousers. He shifts his weight and becomes aware of a sour odor coming from his crotch. “My doctor told me the sunshine’ll do me good,” he says, dabbing sweat from his brow with a once-pink handkerchief, “but I think he just wants me to die faster. Feels like California heat, don’t it?”
The woman stares at her off-brand sneakers and says nothing. She wraps her arms across her protuberant belly and begins rocking back and forth.
The old man wonders if he’d spoken loudly enough. He’s used to being asked to speak up by his wife and daughter. It’s been nearly ten years since his hearing began to fail him, but he obstinately refuses to wear his hearing aid. If my ears are meant to go, he thinks, let them go. There’s not much worth listening to anyway.
“I said it’s terribly hot,” the old man says, nearly shouting. “It started as such a nice day though.”
“It didn’t,” the woman says flatly.
The old man shrugs. “It wasn’t too hot this morning. Not too cold either—not that I mind the cold much. I’m not one of those old men who ache whenever the wind blows.” This is a lie. He aches all the time, and even now he 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 for the first time. Her face is yellow and wrinkled, aged beyond her years, and her eyes are wide and trembling. She looks away suddenly. “I just… I’m sorry.” She isn’t, really. “It’s just, there’s more important things than the weather.”
“That’s true,” the old man says. He thinks about his daughter in California, her present sitting in his lap, wrapped in gold, tied with a red velvet bow. Will she really come like she said? If her mother were here, she would make her, but… “You know, my daughter’s supposed to come up for Independence Day.” He gestures to the gift. “It was her birthday last week. I tried to call her, but you know how kids are. She texted me.” He scowls at the word. “Anyway, I got her the first book in that Outlander series. My wife was simply obsessed with them. I didn’t wrap it though. Had it wrapped in the bookstore. It’s poorly done, but what can you expect nowadays? Everyone’s in a hurry over something. Not my wife, though; she used to do all the wrapping. But that was before—”
The woman suddenly begins to sob. She covers her face and bends low over her knees. She’s making horrible gasping noises between cries like a child with whooping cough.
The old man is stunned. He sets the gift to his side and slides closer to the woman, tentatively placing a hand on her shoulder. “Now then, what’s this? Did I say something to upset you?”
She looks up at the old man, her brow tightly corrugated, her expression defensive—shocked, even. Then the corners of her mouth curl down and her face screws up into a mask of pure misery. “It’s my son.”
The old man’s mouth, which hitherto has hung slack with confusion, forms an ‘O,’ and he straightens up in his seat (as straight as a seventy-something-year-old man can, in any case). He looks at the passing cars for a moment, thinking how to start. The woes of aging parents is an epidemic that no doctor cares to address.
“Let me guess,” he says. “Your son promised to come up for the holiday, too, but now he’s not sure he can make it.”
The woman sobs even louder than before. The old man pats her back.
“The older you get,” he says, “the more knowledge you accumulate. Now, I’m very old, and I like to think I know a thing or two. And 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. Now, your son, does he live far?”
“He’s dead!” the woman shouts, drawing the attention of a young couple who are passing by on the sidewalk. They take one look at the two elderly folk sitting on the bench and hurry by like old age is catching. It is; they just haven’t accepted that yet.
So her son is dead, the old man thinks. What a cruel turn of fate. Death and its first cousin Sorrow have made themselves intimate with him, and he understands their debilitating effect. It’s comforting, in a horrible sort of way, to meet others who have been likewise acquainted.
“Excuse me,” the old man says, “that is something quite different. I’m sorry for your loss, truly I am. I should have known. You see, death is no stranger to me. My wife—”
“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 shiny trail on her wrist. She seems to be preparing herself for a recital. “I told him a thousand times to be careful on the streets.”
“Ah, yes,” the old man says, “motorcycles are dangerous machines.”
“Motorcycles? No, it was nothing like that; that would have made sense, but this?”
The old man gives the woman a confused look.
“My son had been trying to lose weight for years,” she continues. “He worked from home. He didn’t get out much. He was the kindest man, but he worked from home, you see? I bought him a bicycle for Christmas one year.” Her lips tighten, threatening to let loose another wave of cries, but she stays strong. The old man is glad for it. “He loved that stupid bike. He loved to ride it. He said—he said it felt like flying.” She smiles weakly. “He rode it to work every day. Every day.”
There is a high pitched screech as the route 446 bus slows to a stop in front of the pair. The woman quickly wipes her eyes and digs through her purse for her ticket. The old man pulls out his own ticket from his shirt pocket; it’s not his bus. Apparently, it’s not the woman’s either, because she replaces the ticket, hugs her purse close, and resumes her bent posture.
“You know,” the old man says, rubbing his chin, “I used to ride when I was younger. I didn’t even have a car in those days. Of course, it was much safer then. The roads weren’t filled with so many people. I don’t even drive now. I could, if I wanted to,” another lie, “but it’s not worth the risk. People get crazy behind a wheel. It’s no surprise so many bicyclists are killed each year. He was struck then? By a car?”
The woman bites her lip, looks toward heaven, gives it a knowing, sarcastic look, and shakes her head woefully. “Oh, he was struck alright, but not by a car.”
The old man blinks. He is becoming weary of this woman’s oblique explanations. He considers that he might have avoided this conversation altogether if he had just stayed home and ordered his daughter’s book from Amazon like everyone else did these days. But there’s no help for it now.
A mother and daughter strolling by, hand in hand, catches his attention. He notices that the daughter is wearing a heavy felt shirt. It’s too hot for a shirt like that, he thinks. If his wife were here, she would have a word or two for that mother. But she isn’t. How long had it been? Six months now? He realizes the woman has started speaking again and forces himself to give her his full attention.
“My Robert was very conscientious,” she says. “Every time we spoke over the phone, he assured me that he was being careful. We spoke almost every day. He loved me dearly. Every day, that is, until… Until he was murdered.”
“Murdered?” the old man says, now utterly perplexed. “My God, by whom?”
The old man’s face contracts into an expression of incredulity, but, 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 sagely.
“He murdered my Robert,” the woman insists. “My Robert 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… But he loved that bike, the bike that I gave him. God struck him dead with a bolt of lightning, not five miles from where we sit. A bolt of lightning, straight through the head. The doctors said it was the metal bike that drew the lightning. The bike that I gave him.”
The woman is a mess now: fluids leak from her eyes, nose, and mouth, and she’s pulling at the sides of her shirt, writhing in her seat.
At this point, the old man feels a powerful desire to run, if only his knees could take it. But being unable to escape, he feels obligated to say something. He touches the woman once, lightly on the shoulder, then withdraws his hand as if from a hot stove and buries it in his pants pocket. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “That’s a bad turn,” is all he can think to say.
“He killed him. He killed my son. And for what? My son was an honest, religious man. He was a good man. He was a good man. I taught him to be a good man, to care for his mother. And who will care for me now? I’m alone! I’ve been alone for years now! How could God be so cruel?”
The old man looks up at the darkening sky, feeling suddenly very out of place and disoriented. Years? Her son has been dead not for days or weeks, but years? He looks around the street, at the cars speeding by, his vision blurring their lights into streams of yellow and red. Where is his damn 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, pulling him back to reality.
The young man wears a large, greasy coat, patched with silver tape. The hood is pulled down low over his eyes. His large work boots are covered in something black. He looks at the old man uncertainly and says, “I just ran out of gas. I’m trying to get home to Provo. Could you spare a dollar?”
The old man stares dumbly at the young man for a moment. He has heard this routine a hundred times. It’s almost always bullshit. But it doesn’t bother him anymore. He derives a strange sort of pleasure from giving money to those who have the bravery to ask for it. Small amounts of course. Rarely more than a dollar. But it’s a pleasure he seeks out when he can. He remembers himself and 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. Go bother somebody else with your lies.”
The young man looks down and shuffles his feet, his dirty cheeks reddening. When he looks up again, it’s at the old man, a pleading look in his eyes.
The old man, for reasons unknown to even himself, removes his hand from his back pocket. He becomes suddenly very interested in the gift in his lap, too ashamed to look the young man in the face.
The young man nods, rubbing his mouth with a greasy hand. Then he sulks away. Before he’s out of earshot, he mutters, “Old prick.”
The old man’s hearing works well enough to hear it. He feels heat radiating from his cheeks. He purses his lips and gives the woman a sideways glance. She apologizes, saying that she can’t stand people like that. They have no shame, no decency. She says she never gives their type money.
“They just want alcohol,” she says, “or drugs.” The woman’s face screws up, and the tears start flowing again.
The old man closes his eyes. He wonders why alcohol and drugs are so bad. He remembers a time when he tried to buy a homeless man a bottle of alcohol and was stopped by one of the employees before he could. They told him the homeless man couldn’t have alcohol, that he was not allowed to drink. The old man felt bad about that. He wasn’t sure if he felt worse for not getting the alcohol or for being reprimanded by the young employee. His wife always said his heart was in the right place, but…
“You know,” the old man says, as if coming out of a dream, “I lost my wife, not six months ago.”
“My Robert is dead!” the woman shouts, pulling at her hair.
There is a high pitched screech as the next bus arrives.