The pneumatic hiss of the bus door woke me. I had dreamed of war, plumed bronze helmets, men unscabbarding swords as they clambered over half-built stone walls like angry ants. I blinked; echoes of clashing iron in the squealing brakes, sounding trumpets in the bleating horn.
What time was it? I stared at my wrist until my eyes focused. The little hand had slipped past five while I napped. All over town, women were taking off their high-heeled shoes and driving home in maribou-tufted slippers, or sitting on the bus in stocking feet, massaging their aching calves as though nobody was watching them.
I caught my reflection in the dirty window and watched my hand rake through greasy blond hair, watched a finger scratch chin-stubble. Behind my ghost-double, another ravaged Baltimore block rolled by, fire-blacked bricks, boarded-up windows, gaping panes of broken glass—tesserae in a mosaic of decay.
A man bounded onto the bus, every step spring-loaded. His purple jersey, emblazoned with the number 52, rippled in an unseen air current, writhing as though alive. Every footfall compounded the rage in his eyes, which threatened to burn through his smooth, half-slack face. He stared straight at me. I turned away from his gaze and looked over the woman in front of me.
The girl seemed the same age as the purple-shirted warrior, wriggling out of adolescence like a snake sloughing off its old skin, but shades lighter. She wore a businesslike navy-blue sweater; her glossy black braid slithered back and forth when she turned her head. She looked Latina, I thought, or maybe Asian. I couldn’t see her eyes. She held a book half-open in one hand, a white paperback covered with polychrome angels, a child’s construction-paper rendering of stained-glass windows. Or perhaps a Rorschach blot in which I saw angels; I couldn’t tell without my glasses. A psychology book, or religious text, maybe?
Across from the black-braided student, a woman sat, the wrinkles in her face as fine and numerous as those in her linen suit. Sunlight shone through her skin, illuminating it from the side, so that it glowed. Her white hair pulled back into a tight bun; her bloodshot eyes, otherwise the color of old ivory, darted back and forth behind wire-rim glasses. I couldn’t imagine any other job for her than librarian.
The emergency-exit window, jammed half-open, rattled incessantly. I pictured the window popping off, a rush of air, the porcelain-pale librarian sucked out the window and into the street, victim of a sudden mass-transit cabin depressurization. I wondered if anyone would help her, if she’d lie crumpled on the sidewalk like a fast-food wrapper, if she would catch wind, an urban tumbleweed.
The suspension groaned as the 31 heaved right, off Monroe and on to Wilkens Avenue. Wilkens ran the gamut, from desperate to depressed to merely depressing. This intersection served drug dealers, who needed a corner to stand on. Five miles later, the bus would turn left onto Maiden Choice Lane, passing Westland Gardens—“Wasteland Gardens,” so named by the college students it served. In between, the bus would pass the 2600 block of Wilkens, the Mill Hill “deck of cards,” the longest unbroken block of identical rowhomes in the world. That block stood closer to the first corner than the last.
I looked out the window, watching the city roll by behind glass. Here it was: the deck of cards. A long orange-brick procession, flat between the cornice that ran across the top and the marble steps that graced each house’s entrance. If not for their yellowing and dusty steps, I wouldn’t have known where one house ended and the next began.
I tried to imagine living on this block, tried to imagine coming home every day, wondering which house was mine. I had once walked into the wrong party, mistaking one enclave of two-story apartment buildings nestled around a courtyard for the next set over, finding the front door propped open and the apartment door unlocked. There I was, a scrawny white kid with tousled hair in the middle of a smoky room full of heavylidded well-muscled black men, and women in tight, sequined spandex. Nobody said a thing, but everyone looked at me. I backed out of the apartment and closed the door behind me. When it shut, I heard them laugh; my face burned to remember.
But if I lived here, I would know my place: that chip in the marble steps, or one to the left of the house with the broken railing. Perhaps the one with the stained-glass transom, or the vomit-green shag lamp hanging in the window. They all looked alike to me, but that was only because I didn’t know them.
The Purple-Shirted Warrior stood in the back stairwell, his Adidas sneakers white against the muddy black rubber tread, one thick hand grabbing the chrome rail. He rocked back and forth on his heels, all of his earlier motion reduced to this oscillation, like a self-winding watch: his mainspring ratcheted ever tighter, accumulating potential energy. I didn’t want him pointed at me when he went kinetic.
But here he was, staring at me, trying to stare me down. His eyes flicked back and forth. I realized he wasn’t looking at me—he was checking out the black-braided student. She shifted uncomfortably, pinned beneath of his gaze.
The girl clenched her right hand as she turned to stare back at him, then stuck that fist into the mesh pocket of her messenger bag. Its crisscrossed black elastic stretched across her hand like fishnet stockings over a tiny foot. I thought of Shanghai in the twenties, opium dens, vice shrouded in silk and smoke. I dreamed of women with tiny feet and glossy black braids, eyes downcast as they unbuttoned Mandarin collars. I’m sorry, I thought, and looked away. If she was reading psychology, perhaps she would understand; if she was reading religion, perhaps she would forgive.
A woman in a tight black shirt and white jeans with a line of silver sequins running up the seam stepped onto the bus. I stared at her chest, at her long legs, at her skin the color of espresso and her gold hoop earrings. The Purple-Shirted Warrior turned to look at her, said something I couldn’t make out, made like he was going to grab her ass but didn’t. She laughed, and he turned back toward me to stare at the black-braided student.
“You shouldn’t look at her like that,” my ex-girlfriend Kendra once told me, about two years earlier. She’d grown up in a different neighborhood, in East Baltimore, but it wasn’t too different from this place. We were both on this same route, on our way to school, and I had been looking at another woman on the bus, who looked a little like the woman with the gold hoop earrings.
“Why not?” I asked, “She’s dressing like that to be looked at, isn’t she?” At the time, I thought of the bus as though it was a sort of butterfly collection, full of specimens that could be examined, just so long as I didn’t touch.
“Not by you. By him.” Here she indicated a teenager with baggy jeans and flashy sneakers. “Not by you,” she repeated, “Not that way.” Kendra shook her head. At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant, but I told her I was sorry anyway. She broke up with me a few weeks later. She said we were too different. I didn’t understand that, either.
The tough in the football jersey standing in the back stairwell continued to stare at the black-braided girl in front of me. I kept my eyes on my book, hunched my shoulders, and listened to imaginary music through imaginary headphones. I opened The Iliad and paged past the introduction for what felt like the thousandth time. I moved my lips and tried to hear the words in my head: “Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses…”
A page later, someone kicked the back of my seat. I turned to look; my book flopped closed. I always tried to pay attention to the book, but it just wasn’t my world. The kicker was obviously a student – a white girl dressed like that on this route could be nothing else.
She seemed more Gothic cathedral than woman, severe and thoroughly constructed. Her only concession to whimsy, a shock of mint-green hair, fluttered in wisps on the breeze. I admired the narrow base from which the girl’s trunk and limbs both extended, the black tights clinging to her legs like plastic wrap on candy canes.
The white girl with green hair had wedged herself between her seat and mine. She sat with her back straight, her purple-corseted frame almost perfectly vertical, but her knees pressed against the back of my seat. She let her knee-high black boots dangle loosely, as though she was an animated marionette.
She exhumed a tiny silver cell phone from her coffin-shaped purse and started talking in medias res. “I so saw that,” she exclaimed, then paused. “Yeah, he wanted me to cut his coke… I said no thanks, but he’s got you wouldn’t believe how much vodka, six bottles, all Absolut… I know, I know, but you’ll come along, right?” I rolled my eyes, but wondered if her friend was as hot, if they made out at parties to turn their boyfriends on, or to make them jealous. I imagined her friend, a sweet bonsai tree of a girl, trimmed and bent into her tiny outfits, about kissing her like little fish swimming into my mouth.
The porcelain-pale librarian murmured something to the thug in the Ray Lewis jersey, something I couldn’t hear over the thrum of the diesel engine, over the thump-thump-thump of tires skimming pockmarked asphalt. He turned to face her. I tried to not pay attention. Had he jostled her? Tried to cop a feel? Why would he do that?
“You don’t know me,” he said. No: none of us did, but he made an impression, with his bulldog growl and his sharp-cut muscles. “None of you know me.”
The black-braided student sitting directly in front of me looked up from her book as I flipped past the introduction to mine again. “You should apologize to her,” she said. Her words were light and unusually precise, the sound of someone born and raised here by immigrant parents. I wondered if she’d seen what had transpired, or if she stood by the other woman out of some sense of solidarity.
“You,” the man snarled at her, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” The brakes squealed again; the door hissed and opened. He stepped off the bus without waiting for a response.
“It’s not right,” the girl with the black braid said. She clucked her tongue and shook her head. “We’re all on the same boat,” she added.
The porcelain-pale woman turned to look at her, her eyes wide with astonishment or horror. “Not in the same boat, no. I didn’t come here on your boat.” She turned away, still muttering. “Not in the same boat. Not in the same club.”
The black-braided student didn’t say anything. She made another small sound, not quite a sigh, and stared blankly. Finally, she reopened her book. This wasn’t my fight either, so what I could I say? I reopened my book and read on, wondering what fair-haired Helen might wear if she rode the thirty-five.
This story originally appeared in the atonally-brilliant and rhythmically captivating Volume 6 of The Ampersand Review.
Jon Lasser lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. When not writing or paying the bills, he cooks and scuba dives, though never at the same time. His fiction has previously appeared in The Ne’er-Do-Well and decomP Magazine.