About time, Rose grumbled under her breath as she snatched up her two half-filled garbage bags from the ground and made her way toward the front of the line. Even with an ankle-length skirt on, there was no escaping the scorching midday heat, and of course, the black skullcap, and matching long-sleeved blazer she wore didn’t help. It only contributed to her body’s clammy stickiness. Sweat trickled down the side of her face, but she could not wipe it away without dropping her bags.
“Y’all, too slow,” Rose muttered as she used her bags to bulldoze her way to the front of the #3 bus line, ignoring the scowling faces behind her. Rose knew that the scowls were for more than just her cutting to the front of the line. Everywhere she went these days she had two strikes against her; she was old and she was homeless. Nowadays people had no patience for either, especially on city buses. It was as if the homeless and the elderly boarded buses purely to annoy other patrons, or at least that’s the way they were treated.
Unfazed by the glares, Rose focused her energy on getting on so she could drop her bags and escape the August heatwave. Normally after such an eventful day, Rose would visit her daughter to tell her all about it, but after this morning, she knew that her normal routine with her daughter would never be the same again. She couldn’t focus on that now. The only thing that she wanted to focus on was getting out of downtown and to the shelter all the way on the northeast side of the city.
Rose’s gray hair, tired bones, and bad knees reminded her daily that she’d lived long enough to deserve first entry onto every bus. As an elder, she felt it was her right, and she had no qualms about skipping people and taking her rightful place in line. Today’s battle with the heat had her body ready to collapse in a seat while the AC cooled her sweltering skin. Upon boarding though, Rose grimaced as the stale humid air slapped her hard in the face. The reeking stench of musk with a hint of urine singed her nostrils. The teasing breeze blowing through the open windows made the bus feel more like a sauna than a cool oasis. Rose briefly scanned the bus, for a seat. Most of the passengers were silent; it just seemed too hot to talk. Rose slammed her first bag onto the front side seat.
AC ain’t never working, she complained to herself as she looked for a spot for her second bag. Rose never thought her entire life would one day fit into two medium-sized garbage bags, but now it was a fact that she carried around with her daily.
“Pass me by if you want to,” Rose mumbled to herself as the second bag made a loud SWOOSH beside the other. She could feel the eyes of the passengers on her, watching. People were always watching her, even the bus driver. She rarely remembered the bus drivers’ faces; she just remembered their judgmental eyes watching her through the review mirrors. She didn’t have to look up to know that was the case. This driver was no different, she just had bright red hair under her MTA hat, but she had those same eyes.
After Rose sat down, the bus driver informed her that she could not sit up front because a “wheelchair-bound” person was boarding at the next stop. Rose’s eyes narrowed as she threw a cold stare at the driver. The bus driver sat and peered at Rose the whole time through the rearview mirror, but waited until after Rose dropped her weighty bags on the seat to say something. Rose’s gaze lingered on the pair of eyes surrounded by tiny red ringlets of hair, staring back at her through the rearview mirror. She snatched up her first bag and hurled it toward the empty adjacent seats on the other side of the bus. A well-dressed middle-aged woman wearing a green chiffon scarf and a black pantsuit sat across the aisle with a toddler in her lap. The green scarfed woman rolled her eyes, irritated that Rose was moving even closer to her and the little boy, but Rose didn’t care.
I’m the one that has to move all the time, not her, I’m the one the bus always passes. Never women like her. She get on a city bus and acts like she too good to be riding it. You feel too good, then get off. Rose shook her head and slammed her second bag down on the empty seat, not realizing she grazed the woman’s leg in the process.
“Watch where you swinging that bag!” the green-scarf lady growled, pulling the boy closer while eyeing Rose with indignation.
Lost in her own thoughts, Rose didn’t notice her at first, but the tone in the woman’s voice caught everyone’s attention, and all eyes were now on Rose and the woman.
“I ain’t gon’ hit that baby.” Rose swatted in the woman’s direction, brushing off that nonsense as she pushed her stuff closer to the window making more room to sit down. The sudden jerk of the bus caused Rose to lose her footing and fall into her seat, kicking the woman’s foot in the process and exposing some of the contents of Rose’s bag.
“Seriously?! I’m trying to sit down….”
“Well try harder. You falling all over, throwing your bags around.”
“Ain’t nobody business what I do with my bags.”
“It’s my business if that bag hits my grandbaby!”
Rose leaned back in her seat and shook her head in disbelief. “Chile, you crazy. I love chillrun…I ain’t never hit no baby, never.” Rose just wanted the woman to leave her alone, all she wanted to do was ride out the rest of her trip in peace. She couldn’t look at the little boy. He reminded her too much of her grandson Tommy at that age. Only difference was that Tommy wouldn’t have wanted to be held like that, he was a big boy and would have wanted his own seat.
Rose looked over at her bags, and pushed the purple plush tail that was exposed back into her bag and tied it up. She remembered when she bought the stuffed toy in the gift shop on the day he was born. He carried that Barney dinosaur everywhere he went as a kid. It was the only thing that was salvageable from the wreckage after the car crash some years back; it was all that she had left of his existence. Barney was the only tangible reminder that Tommy was real, that her life before the accident was real. Rose closed her eye in an effort to block out everything, but her peace of mind was short-lived.
“She obviously ain’t met crazy,” the green-scarf woman leaned over and whispered to another patron.
Rose could feel her ears burning from the gossip and her eyes popped open like a deer in headlights at the mention of the “c” word.
“No, you ain’t met crazy!” Rose stood on her feet and hovered over the lady. It was always people like this woman that gave Rose the hardest time. Just like at the crash. She could feel her blood boiling at the flippant way the woman talked about her. Today, of all days was not the day to try Rose’s patience.
“Lady, sit down. Spitting all over me while you talk.” The scarfed woman and the bus patron next to her both covered their faces in disgust. Realizing that she was now the center of attention and ridicule, Rose fidgeted with her hands and held her head down, embarrassed by the spectacle she had just made of herself.
“If I spit on you I apologize. I ain’t mean to spit on nobody, I apologize.”
The woman looked at Rose and shook her head; she continued rocking her grandson back and forth, as he stared at Rose with a steady uncaring gaze.
“Cuz I know I was loud, so I apologize.” Rose looked around at the faces staring at her as she slowly sat down. She did not realize the bus was so crowded.
“Yes, please sit down. Throwing your stuff around like you….”
“Like I’m what?” Rose stared into the woman’s eyes, as the bus kept moving along.
The scarfed woman sat there tight-lipped and radio silent rocking her grandbaby.
Let it go Rose, let it alone was the voice inside Rose’s head, but Rose’s rage was canceling out her own voice of reason.
“Go’n say what you try’na say.” Rose leaned forward waiting for the woman to challenge her. Rose did not want people to see her like this, not today. However, this woman had enraged her too much for her to walk away this time. Rose was tired of always being the one to have to walk away.
“Lady, will you please….”
“Will you please. You the one bothering me. I just want to sit here.…and….”
“Alright then!” the woman shouted in an effort to dismiss Rose from talking. The woman shouted loud enough to draw even more attention.
“Alright then!” Rose mimicked the same tone in the scarfed woman’s voice. “I ain’t scared of you. What you gonna do?”
“Lady I don’t have time for you. You need some serious help. Psych ward or something….” A couple of college-age kids on the bus chuckled, but Rose ignored it and focused all her attention on the woman.
“We can go right on outside….we can go to the psych ward together.”
“You act like you already been there.”
“Yeah, I been there, and lived to tell about it.”
“Yeah I knew her old ass was crazy,” the woman said, making circle gestures with her finger at the side of her head.
“You got that right….you got that right!” Rose stomped her feet and stared the lady down.
“Bus driver, can you get this crazy lady. She keep spitting on me and I’m going to forget…”
“What you forgetting? Seems like you ain’t forgot it yet…”
“I told you to stop fucking spitting on me….you too old to be acting like that. Shit.”
Rose was so angered; she began rocking back and forth to calm herself down. She mumbled incoherent words as the day’s events replayed in her mind. The scarfed woman watched Rose and shook her head.
“The devil is in your soul.”
“Well I’m trying to get him out of me….” Rose responded, still rocking, trying not to pay the green-scarf woman no mind. But unfortunately for Rose, the woman wouldn’t let well enough alone.
“The devil is in your soul….” The scarfed woman continued, while staring at Rose in contempt rocking her grandson, who looked close to tears.
“Am I the only devil in here? I don’t think so….” Rose half-laughed, disgusted at how the woman was acting, how she was treating her. “Using the baby. She wanna use the baby… she ain’t never liked me. She sitting here like she got it made.”
The woman still sat there shaking her head, and whispering about Rose to the other bus patrons, as if Rose wasn’t even there. It was happening again. Just like it did years ago, when the woman in the business suit, got out of her car, yelling at Rose, calling her crazy.
“All you people saying I’m doing this, or I’m doing that… Imagine if someone take her life.” Rose started talking aloud, but not to anyone in particular, just to whoever might be listening. “I want to get home and all y’all just drive past, and y’all don’t stop for me.” Rose’s eyes locked with the eyes that stared back at her from the rearview mirror. Rose just wanted the bus driver to stand up for her, for someone to take her side, but the driver kept on silently, watching.
Rose turned her attention to the people sitting on the other side of the bus. Surely they understood how she felt. She once was one of them; rode the bus, minded her own business, did not bother anyone. She was a mother, a wife, a grandmother. She was all those things. But today, all she was, was the crazy homeless woman.
“Then she gonna use the baby as mind play….use the baby to say what she wanna say…” Rose kept rocking and shaking her head. She was so tired. Tired of the people, tired of the bus, tired of everything. All she wanted was to get to the shelter before all the beds were taken.
“Bus driver can you call the police and remove this woman.”
“Yeah call, call…call them for me.”
“I want a peaceful ride.”
“Yeah, you need to stop using the baby to say what you want to say…mind playing.”
The bus grew into waves up mumbling and complaining as the driver finally pulled over to the side of the road to call dispatch. The woman did it again. Just like the woman who got out of the car years ago, after Rose’s car skidded off the road. Rose tried to explain to all the people gathering around what happened, but the woman in the suit made her sound crazier and crazier. Rose knew the accident was not her fault, she knew it, but the world never listened to her. They didn’t listen then, and they weren’t listening now.
“Damn. Soon as she make that call, we gotta wait ‘till dispatch get here. Ain’t no telling how long that’s gonna take.” A male patron with a hardhat and neon vest, whined as he threw his head back, crossed his arms and slouched further into his seat. Everyone on the bus was now annoyed with Rose. She could hear them whispering, see them shaking their head. It was all her fault, again. The woman had already painted Rose’s picture. She had told Rose’s story, given the world her version of Rose’s truth. Rose could feel their eyes burning holes into the back of her skull, the tension stifled the air and its intensity slashed her body exposing old painful wounds.
I’m not crazy, Rose screamed softly in her head, but she knew she was not the one that needed convincing. She rocked in her seat again in an effort to calm herself. The bus driver radioed her supervisor; soon someone would be there to escort Rose off the bus. Rose inhaled one last breath of the ugly truth and exhaled its ugliness back into the stale air. She knew what had to be done.
“I’ll leave,” Rose shouted, a hint of defeat lingered on her last word as she slowly gathered her bags. The bags seemed a lot heavier now, more so than they did when she first got on. Rose turned and grunted in the direction of a young man and motioned for him to follow. He instinctively gathered her belongings and followed her off the bus. He hesitated briefly, not sure what to do with her bags. Rose stood strong and stoic with her hands crossed in front of her, and with a slight nod from her direction, the boy took his cue and placed Rose’s belongings gently beside her on the sidewalk. He gave a shy half-smile, before slowly backing up and darting back onto the bus. Rose didn’t return the smile outward, but his kindness briefly softened her heart.
Her grandson Tommy would have been around that young man’s age. Her daughter Precious survived the crash, but was never the same. All she could do was lay in the hospital bed with her eyes open, and blink. After years of Rose putting her life’s savings into medical expenses, doctor’s implied that there was nothing more that could be done for her daughter. Rose moved into a shelter while taking the last bit of money she had to move Precious to extended care in a state hospital. On her visits, Rose often placed the stuffed dinosaur under her daughter’s hands, in an effort to trigger a response from her daughter, but Precious only blinked.
Today was the last time Rose got to hold her daughter’s hand before it grew cold in her own. Rose nearly broke down, when she placed the Barney in the trash bag along with the rest of Precious’ belongings. She couldn’t remember much from the accident, she couldn’t remember driving, swerving, hitting the pole, she couldn’t remember any of it. All she remembered was the crowd that gathered, the woman in the pants suit, yelling calling her crazy, and her grandson’s limp body, being pulled out the wreckage.
Barney had to be pried from his tiny lifeless hands. Rose wanted to cry, but she couldn’t cry at the care facility, she had to get through the day, she wouldn’t make it through the day if she succumbed to her grief at that moment.
So Rose waited for the bus, and waited and waited. She lost count of how many drivers saw her two bags beside her at the bus stop and purposely drove on by. They did that all day, just drove on by. By the time the bus finally arrived, the tiredness, and anger had kicked in to block out the feelings of grief. It was easier to be grumpy than to be sad. Rose knew If she looked grumpy enough people would ignore her or avoid her, but if she looked sad, people would always want to know what was wrong and that was a question that Rose wasn’t ready to answer today.
The loud swift windshield wiper sound of the bus doors closing brought Rose back.
The bus sat momentarily as the driver radioed her supervisor, probably to inform them that Rose willingly exited the bus. Rose wrung her hands, as she gathered her composure, everyone inside the bus stared out at her. She didn’t have to look at them to feel it, but she refused for them to see her broken, so she put her strongest face on, and rested her eyes on a weed growing from the pavement, anything other than that bus.
The engine revved up one last time, as the shade from the bus gradually faded away leaving Rose wrapped in a blanket of instant warmth. After a deep breath, Rose picked up her bags, and walked over to the bus stop bench, geared up for her next battle, she saw the next bus coming toward her from a distance.
Alright, Rose. Keep it simple. Let’s try this again, she murmured as she gathered her bags and attempted to board her last bus of the evening.