Jennifer Schneider : Flash Fiction : Nov 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: As a student at one of the South’s finest public universities, I rediscovered my childhood penchant for long conversations, piping hot, locally roasted coffee, and kind souls who always have enough time for tradition. The public transportation systems aren’t bad, either.

The 32 Bus

The 32 bus is late, again. My pores itch with scorn although the schedule is rarely acknowledged. I, Janie H. Juniper, blame the bitter and unseasonable cold of the iron bench against my thinly clothed body. Wrinkled cotton blouse, a skirt with a zippered waist when I crave elastic, and heels a half size too small and an inch too high. Add the stench of garbage piled five feet high and the rumble of trucks outside my window 5 AM most mornings. Along with the man at the bench’s far corner, counting math facts out loud. His answers are always wrong but I don’t interject. 

Experts say habits take a good seven months to stick, but who has that kind of time? My New Year’s resolution had been working for a while. Writing three daily things of gratitude in the small spiral on my nightstand, I transfer my focus outward. Lately, I’ve been slipping. The bus isn’t alone in the race to stay on schedule. I already have a small gratitude for today: The 32 bus will come, eventually.  

I step outside my own senses and seek 32 stories as I wait. Daily gratitude number two. Stories are everywhere. I’ve seen him before, though he looks smaller somehow now. His nose is pressed flat against the glass. Mismatched socks, one brown, one red protect his feet. Odd sandals with a single strap secure his socks. The brown one, limp threadbare cotton, hugs his ankle, leaving some skin bare.

I stare. Hard. The elastic band snaps and I jump. The force of my stare. My desire to break free of the zippered skirt that restricts my breathing. Should I scratch my second gratitude?

His left-hand holds a garbage bag. His right a few coins. His head turns toward a laminated menu taped to the interior of the restaurant window. Rows of four digits or more, in a bright red, fill the 12 by 8 rectangle. Beneath a dark curtain of hair, eyes scan, up and down. His breath mark matches the steam on the other side of the glass.

I stand and walk to the window. The math counter calls out, but my eyes focus on the salad bar. Daily gratitude number three? No, out of reach. Two rows of twenty compartments flush with nourishment. Chocolate pudding, apple butter, fresh-cut vegetables, and macaroni salad. Pots of steaming soup, chicken, beef, clam chowder. Lush, heavenly, ample, excessive sustenance. On the clear protective glass, a sticky note warns those who approach not to reuse utensils, glassware, and dishes. The faded yellow sticky is secured with tape on all four corners. A second “p” in “approached” is covered in whiteout paste. I worry about my sight and my spelling. Is it me?

Glancing down, I see a couple at the wooden table on the other side of the glass. They either ignore or do not see us. Perhaps both. Their lips move at just the right tempo. Quickly. Quicker. Puckered. O. His, a soft, plump pink with upturned corners. Hers a glossy, deep red, painted to perfection. Lush cranberries, plump juicy grapes. I watch his lips and read his words.

“We’ll take the nachos, extra spicy,” the male says to the approaching server. 

I had the time. I wait. The man to my left waits, too.

Within moments a tray emerges. Steam blanketing layers of melted cheese. Specks of green jalapenos, tiny bits of bell peppers, squared corn kernels with a hint of brown char. Triangle corn chips.

I can taste the crispy tortilla and the warm blanket of cheddar. I turn to smile at my partner in dreaming, but stop. A finger taps the back of the man to my left. A deep voice tells him he must leave. My back remains untouched. My cheeks flush.

I hear his belly growl, a long and sad roar, and watch his eyes peek out from under the curtain of hair. He turns and walks away, pausing first at the trash can next to my former seat at the bench. He pulls out a pair of ketchup stained khakis, skunk scented denim, and the half-empty can of Pepsi I tossed in there 5 minutes earlier. My cheeks flush further as I catch my recycling error. Another habit I’m working on.

He stuffs the clothing in the bag held in his left hand and takes a swig from the can with his right. He too tosses the can back in the trash and moves on. I’m left standing. Full of shame. Alone. In a city I no longer recognize. 

I need to see. Beyond the marks of our breath on the window. Beyond the cloth that warms our bodies and marks our standing. Beyond the flashing lights that beckon and the bells that ring. 

All I hear is the growl of his belly. I stare. Hard. Then the glass breaks. Perhaps my heel broke. I, Junie H. Juniper, may need to replace a shoe. Perhaps two. 

I grab the tray and prepare to flee — after first passing my second shoe and my loot, the bounty oozing goodness, to the man who had taken my spot on the bench waiting for the 32 bus. Gratitude number three.