ou lost somebody, honey?” is what Irma asks me. “Way you sound, you must’ve lost something.”
Inside of the bus barn the buses are parked in long line nose to end, like children jamming at the bottom of a slide. I said ‘hangar’ the first time, when we were pulling in through the sliding metal door, and Irma corrected me, “No, this here’s the barn.”
“Couldn’t we pretend like it’s a test?” I ask. I’m sitting in the very front seat, the one that faces sideways. “And you can test me. I’ve always been good at tests.”
“Don’t know if I follow,” she says.
Irma pulls out a bottle of blue liquid and sprays one of the two big squares of glass that make up the windshield. She is a large woman—oval face, thick neck, swollen fingers—and while she swipes at the window with a wad of paper towel her breasts smash against the steering wheel.
I tell her, “Instead of asking ‘you lost somebody?’ you would say, ‘Please finish the following sentence: I am unhappy because, A, I recently had a home taken by fire-slash-flood, or B, my really job sucks, or C, I lost somebody.’ Like that. Then I pick my answer.”
Irma laughs the way I eat. When I was a kid my father called me the Vac-u-matic; he said the people at Webster’s needed to think up something stronger than ‘bolt’ and put my picture with it. If she ever let’s me tag along again, maybe I’ll bring my cassette recorder and get a sample that laugh on tape. I could loop the track, make it five minutes long with no breaks or blips, and play it for my class. We could dance around the room, waiving our hands like spatulas, stomping our bare feet on the floor, and I could write in big letters on the board, HAPPY MIRTH-DAY TO US!
“Act of God. Shitty job. Lost somebody. Got it?”
“But those aren’t the only options,” Irma says.
“No, you’re right. But they’re good ones. Three solid possibilities.”
“Alright,” Irma says, and she lays out my options while doing something with the dashboard, probably checking the gauges. She makes notes on a clipboard. “So?” she asks. “What’ll it be?”
“I guess its C. There was my wife, I lost her recently.”
“Oh, baby,” Irma says. Her eyes jump down to my shoes and then right back up, like she was following a rubber ball. What she’s wondering, I can tell, is just how old I am, whether I am old enough to have had and lost a wife. Twenty-eight is what I’ll say if she asks. The real answer is that plus two, plus one more, but I have an unlined, boyish face and sometimes I like to see how low I can go. I rub a raw spot on my fourth finger back and forth and back again, one time for every year I would subtract.
“How did you—” she starts. “I, mean, really?”
I scratch my head thoughtfully, the way I do when one of the kids in class shoots a hand up and asks something like, did the first monkey in space miss baseball, or, who decided to call it Waterloo, anyway? What a remarkable inquiry, is what I say to them, scratching my temple and banging my other hand flat against the plastic desk. You have me positively buffaloed—which sends them all into stitches.
I scratch my head until it hurts. Finally, I tell Irma, “Well. It depends what you mean by ‘lost.’”
She looks at me uncertainly, her mouth doing two things at once. “As in,” she asks, “you lost her in the frozen foods and found her in produce?”
“No, not like that. That is definitely not what it is like. I’ve never actually been married.”
Irma belly laughs again, big gulps of laughter, and I explain to her that what I mean is I feel like I’ve lost a wife—ever since I was ten years old I’ve felt that way. I pull on the peanut-shaped level beside the steering wheel and the door opens with a dry, vacuum suck. “And honestly,” I ask, “isn’t that worse? Inside it’s like I buried a girl I never even met. The girl of my dreams. When I try and remember her there’s this little nothing where here face should be, just a smudge. I know exactly what she smells like but I can’t describe it because it’s like nothing I’ve ever smelled.”
Now that I’ve got some momentum, I go on and explain to Irma how I measure every other girl against the dead one. This one’s not as pretty, I think. Not as smart, tastes funny. This one can’t hum “Blue in Green,” which I could forgive except she doesn’t like bananas in her pancakes, which I can’t. I ask Irma, taking a breath and slowing down so that she knows I’m serious, “You ever tried to walk around with a refrigerator in your purse?”
“You got girls where you work, Miles?” she asks. She pulls the key out of the ignition and the instrument panel goes dark.
“Yeah,” I say “But they’re all nine.” With my thumbnail I pry a piece of lime green gum from the bottom of my shoe.
“I’m a teacher,” I add, and Irma stands up from her big green seat, rising like a mountain. She says, not unkindly, that it’s time to go.
As I follow her across the barn, through a door that moans on its hinges, and down a long corridor into a very small office with a stained coffee pot sitting on the center of a folding table, I’m wondering if I could do this every night. “Any bus in the city,” Irma told me earlier. “You stay on it long enough and it’ll take you here.”
She wriggles her arms into a light brown Carhatt coat, runs her time card through an electronic reader mounted on the wall.
“Could I take you out to dinner?” I ask her. “Anywhere you like.”
“You think you’re wife will mind?”
“That’s not funny, Irma. Not one bit.”
Her hand is flat on the table next to the hot plate. She probably thinks that if I try anything funny she can brain me with the coffee pot. “I’m sorry,” she says.
I ask if that means no, and she nods her head. There is a small pink scar over her eyebrow, the left one, and when she nods it catches the light from the filthy tube buzzing above us. I tell her that one of my kids broke his arm last Christmas and came back from vacation with a cast up to his shoulder. The first day he wore a red hoodie with one of the sleeves hacked off, and after lunch he raised his good arm, the one sheathed in the bright red sleeve, and asked me how long does a scar last. Only until you forget about it, I said, and then realizing he might tell his mother just that, I gave a quick impromptu lecture on vascular damage and dermoid cells.
“I’ve never in my life seen a bus barn,” I tell her. “And I really appreciate it. If you’d let me, I’d like to buy you at least a cup of coffee—one cup. You don’t even have to sit down.”
So, she checks me out again, one quick up and down. I’m wearing a dark blue sport coat and jeans, a t-shirt, new white sneakers and a fifty dollar watch; I am young and healthy, and I have something like eighteen bucks in my wallet.
“Please,” I say.
She draws a slim cell phone out of her jacket pocket and flicks it open with her thumb. I’m having trouble believing that those big fingers of hers can navigate the tiny numbers. “If I’m gonna be late,” she says, “I should call my husband,” and she looks at me like I better know what that means.
The small coffee place is bright and clean. Tonight it’s full of young girls in big jackets and dark jeans, a murmuring flock of them crowded around three small tables. When Irma and I walk in and stomp our shoes, one girl jumps up from her seat at the far end of the cluster. She zips around to the other side of the circle, her jacket flapping behind her like a big black wing and whispers something into her friend’s ear. Then she stands up, ignoring the other girls asking whatisit, and walks casually back to her seat like, no big thing. I glare at the girl, waiting for her to turn my way, but Irma walks on oblivious.
She orders a certain kind of tea, a something-mist, and I get a big cup of sour coffee and a sugar cookie. What’s funny is that I want to tell Irma the truth, that this is my dinner, but I don’t want to make her worry. Instead, through a mouthful of cookie, I say, “My father’s in the hospital. He has some bad stomach things. That might be why I’m acting like this.”
She asks if that’s the honest to God truth, and I say it is. “I only tell people the truth once they’ve earned it, that way it’s a fair trade. And you’ve earned it. Scout’s honor.” I hold up two fingers, then three.
Irma blows on her tea. She waits a long time, ventures a sip, and then asks me if he’s going to be alright, my father.
“He’s older than you’d think, but yeah, he should be fine. Just costs a whole heap of money, though.”
At the door she says, “You can walk me to my bus,” and I think she’s grateful that I don’t crack an easy joke. I hold the door open for her and a chorus of giggles bubbles up from the tables behind me.
It starts snowing while we walk, but right away I can see it won’t stick. I tell Irma as much and she asks if teachers get snow days.
“Bus drivers too,” she says, and flashing a smile full of skinny, straight. So many little teeth it makes me dizzy for a moment.
The shops are closing as we hustle down 4th, both the running shoes store and the Mexican furniture place literally flip their signs when we walk past, as if we were two bad hombres, Irma and I.
She catches her bus by the park on Washington St., and most of the way there we talk about her daughter. “She wants to go to college in South Carolina,” she says. “You even know how far away South Carolina is?”
My cup, when I toss it, banks off the inside of the garbage can and splashes coffee on the sidewalk—I have the urge to fish it out and try again.
“What’s in Carolina?” I ask, and Irma says Lord if I know.
“So. Let her go.”
“It’s not that simple,” she says.
What happens is that I walk her to her bus and I decide not to wait with her. There is a moment, after we step up to the curb and I see the puckered, pink faces of the people huddled together under the awning, when I want to admit to Irma that my father is fine, which is the real truth, the true truth, but feels like a lie to me. In the end, I shake Irma’s hand and tell her, like the end of an old movie, that I bet we’ll meet again someday. She laughs and says, “Yeah, someday tomorrow.”
The snow is really coming down, but something tells me that it still won’t stick. I walk a few blocks north to a bar on William where some of my friends from college still hang out, the type of place with thirty-seven TVs and three types of beer. The only person I recognize is the waitress who usually serves my friends, a young woman whose name is either Meredith or Merica, I can’t recall, so I ask for a table in her section.
All of the televisions are playing sports, but for the small one behind the bar and big one hanging over my table, which are both tuned to cable news. When she comes up to take my order I smile and say, “Doesn’t it seem a little unlikely? All these games being played at once.”
She doubles over, fishes a pen out from somewhere in her nest of blonde hair and says, “Sorry?”
“Nevermind,” I say. I drop my finger blindly on the little list of beers. She scribbles something and is gone. When she comes back I’m turned around in my chair, craning my neck to see the screen, and I tell her, “Check it out.”
The big news story is a field, dust brown and full of long planting troughs, where a farmer found a body. The shot is from high overhead, a helicopter, and as we watch together the camera zooms slowly and shakily on the blue sheet covering the body. Men in black with fur caps rush around like ants, and then the camera zooms again and there is just the sheet filling the screen, bright blue, and a spill of female brown hair from one end. Little lumps of feet. Lumps of hands and breasts.
“Oh my,” says the waitress.
“That could be Irma’s daughter,” I say. “Or my wife.” But Meredith or Merica doesn’t hear. Maybe she has her own people it could be. Just as she turns away I see the heady beer, black as tar, on my table. I grab her sleeve and say, “Sorry, but this isn’t what I wanted.”
I point to a different beer and she says, “Oh.”
She says, “Of course. My mistake. Be right back.”
I try to shove my hands into my jacket pockets but one of them misses and slams against the edge of my chair. If it really were my wife on the TV there would be all sorts of arrangements to make, I know that, and then sometime tonight the first wave of grief like an electric pulse throbbing in my stomach, a reverberation in that empty circle of space around my heart—but, after a month or a year, one tiny pinprick of light through the mantle. If she was mine—or so I imagine. One, then another and another and another.