FICTION







Ramola D

Salt





L. Annette Binder


Taking the 11:10

The man with the knife wore a hand-tailored suit. This is what she noticed first. He had real buttons at his cuffs, with working buttonholes, and not just the fake ones that most men wear. It looked like a wool-cashmere blend. Maybe a super 120 or even a 130, she’d need to feel it to be sure. Seven years in the shop and she knew the good wool from the ordinary stuff. Seven years sewing suits for men with fat waists and no asses and hand-stitching their lapels and the man on the bus was wearing one of the nicest ones she’d seen. He’d given her his seat when she climbed on. He stood right up and waved at her, and nobody had ever done that before, not on the 11:10 Aurora bus. People were tired on that bus. They looked at the floor or at their reflections in the black window glass, and the few men who held newspapers open across their laps were too sleepy to read the stories.

It was cold tonight. People coughed and rubbed their hands together, and the driver shouted if somebody was slow to climb the steps. She wiped a spot on the window with her mitten so she could see outside. The first flakes were coming down. She’d better hurry when her stop came. She’d better be quick because sometimes her sister Marta forgot to set the space heater. The baby’s room was cold as a cellar then, and not even the thickest quilts warmed him back up. It was the soap operas that distracted her. All day long she watched them, and it did no good to scold her or to complain because she’d just sit back down on the sofa and cry. Why’s it always so cold, her sister would say. It’s stuffy in here, and I can’t open the window, not even a crack.

More people came on at Twelfth Avenue and then at Sixteenth, and now he was only a few feet from her, this man who didn’t belong on the bus. She breathed in deep and tried to detect his cologne, but it was only the other people she smelled. Oil and wet boots and sweat from the fat woman who rode alone every night and talked to herself in the corner. She tried to look up at him without his noticing. GDO his monogram said, in navy against his blue shirt. Higher up she saw a cufflink, and it looked like gold from where she was, rich as something from the pyramids. His shoes were polished and his hair was trimmed short, and he looked like her father somehow though her father had been lighter, more cream less cocoa her mother always said. Wish you’d been born that way. Her father yelled then because it wasn’t right to talk that way to a little girl, but after he was gone, her mother said it all the more, calling her raisin girl and little brown monkey, and after a while she saw nothing beautiful in herself, not even her long hair that was shiny and had no kinks.

 The tall boy came on just before midnight. He waited most nights at the Community College stop though she was certain he was no student. He had his friends with him this time, those two short boys who might have been twins except one was paler and had a lazy eye and his cap and his hoodie couldn’t hide the terrible asymmetry in his face. She held her jacket closed when they stepped up and swiped their cards. They liked to stand around her. Sometimes they pressed in extra close, and once the pale one had reached right inside her sweater. What you got in there, he wanted to know. What you been saving for me? All around the people slept or looked at their laps and those boys gathered around her and touched her and nobody said anything, not even the driver who saw it all in his mirror.

The tall boy looked for her, and he smiled a little when he saw her. His eyes were watering from the cold. It wasn’t even November, and already it was snowing. Her mother had been right about the mountains. It was worse than the desert how the wind blew. The air was always dry, and she had goosebumps even in August when the sun was shining. The boy was waving to his friends, and they came together up the aisle. They walked with authority. Jutting out their chins and pushing people aside. Demons in parkas is what they were. Demons with blue eyes and not green ones.

“Here she is,” the tall one said. He stopped in front of the man in the suit. “Waiting for me like I told her.”

The other two came alongside her. They stepped in and pushed the man in the suit back a space. “She’s got them Chinese eyes,” the pale one said. He reached for her. Instead of stroking her cheek he slapped it, lightly at first and then harder. She looked away from him and that drooping lid. She didn’t turn his way until he began to pull on her earring.

She tried to count, and she tried to pray. She remembered songs from when she was little. The virgin is singing between the laundry lines. Her hair is gold and her comb is silver. Her father had a strong voice. It carried all through the house. She bit her lip and thought of his face and how he closed his eyes when he sang. Best not to say anything. Best just to push aside their hands. No good comes of talking. Give them anything, even a word, and they’ll take more. She reached for her earring, a hammered silver hoop, and held it between her thumb and her index finger to keep the boy from tugging it free. He pulled harder then. She could hear him laugh, and it was the only sound on the bus. The man in front of her pretended to read his paper. He kept his eyes low. The fat lady in the corner was quiet for once, and even outside she heard nothing, no brakes and no honking horns, nothing but the boy’s laughter and a strange pulsing sound inside her head. Water is what is sounded like. She was twelve and holding her breath down by the Los Barriles shore. Her mother was under the umbrella, and her father was swimming far below. Diving down and coming back up with shells for her and starfish and sand dollars that still had all their spines. She stayed just beneath the surface, letting the waves break over her head and it was just the same now, this surging behind her ears.

Her father had given her the earrings just before he left. They work the silver in the mountains, her father had told her, they work it fine as silk, and she wore them even in wintertime when the wind blew and froze them into her ears. And so the boy yanked and she yanked back until she felt something warm against her throat. She let go of the earring then. He’d torn it clean through her lobe. The hoop was in his hand, and he held it up like a scientist or a bingo winner. The other two stepped back a little. Maybe it was the blood that did it. Maybe it was how she screamed. All at once she could hear again.

“Give it to me.” The man in the suit had come back beside her seat. He was pointing to the earring.

The lazy-eyed boy looked at the earring and then at the man, and he didn’t move or speak.

“I said give it to me.”

The boy blinked. He shook his head slowly as if awoken. Something in the man’s voice seemed to provoke him. He waved the earring back and forth, and he smiled at the man as if daring him to come closer. “Why you want silver when you already got gold?”

The other two circled the man now, too. They’d forgotten about her and her Chinese eyes and the blood along her jaw. They were looking at his suit and the overcoat he carried and his cufflinks that were more yellow than any gold she’d seen at the store before. They came in close, and their eyes were hollow as sockets.  

“Let me see,” the tall boy said. “What kind of watch you got?” He reached for the man’s wrist and the other two leaned in, and that was when the man pulled out the knife from his jacket pocket. He was fast as a hunter how he reached for it. He unfolded it with his thumb, and it gleamed in the light of the bus. It was an ordinary folding knife, with a plastic handle and serrated teeth, but it flashed even more than his cufflinks or the earring they took from her.

“Give it back,” the man said again. He ignored the boy and his threats and turned toward the pale one instead. He held the knife loosely in his hand, the way other men might hold a pencil or a telephone. “Give it back and it’s only one crime and not two.” He was patient like a teacher how he talked. “How many misdemeanors do you have already?” He held the knife steady. “How many felonies?”

The pale boy began to falter. She could tell. He was looking at the knife and not the other two.

“Give it back to the lady.” He came a little closer to the boy. She squeezed her purse against her chest then, afraid for this man who stood so close to those boys. They were wild as bobcats on the streets. Wild from birth because nobody raised them right, and still something flickered in the pale boy’s eyes. Some response to reason or to the blade or maybe it was just all the people sitting on the bus and watching him hold a bloody earring in his hand.

The boy dropped both his hands. “Take it then,” he said. He shrugged a little. “It ain’t worth nothing.” He tossed it at her, and it bounced against the window frame and landed at her feet. She reached down and found it without looking away from the man and his monogrammed cuff and the folding knife that fit so well inside his palm.

“Time to get off the bus,” the man was saying now. He turned back toward the tall boy and pointed his blade toward the door.

The boy laughed at that. He shook his head. “Don’t look like my stop yet,” he said. “Maybe it’s yours.”

“Time to get off,” the man said. And he pushed the boy backwards up the aisle and down the bus steps, and the driver pulled over for them though it wasn’t really a stop. The other two came along. She knew they would. They were lost without the tall one.

The driver pulled back into the street, shouting at a car that tried to cut around him. “You blind?” He waved his fat forearm at the car, and he skidded a little because the snow was starting to stick. She turned around to see where the man had gone. Before the bus turned the corner, she thought she caught a glimpse of him beside the curb, but when she leaned closer to the window it was only the snow and the empty doorways she saw. The man was gone and the three boys, too, and just another stop away her baby was sleeping beneath his blankets. She set her forehead against the window glass. The flakes were falling slantwise in the light from the streetlamps, and the city was almost beautiful just then.