by Mary Anderson Parks
A short story published in the Spring 1995 issue of Tampa Review, Literary Journal of the Univesity of Tampa
He slows the bus to look over his left shoulder as he eases around the curve—the whole bay spread out in smoggy splendor—it grabs him every time. One of the perks. He chuckles to himself and turns his eyes back to the road. She’s sitting there safe behind him, across the aisle where she always sits, her feet in white socks and polished Mary Jane shoes not reaching the floor, just hanging there. He glances back and confirms what he knows. She is looking earnestly straight in front of her with her squinty eyes. Has someone told her not to look at strangers? He strongly suspects someone has. It is comforting to keep her safe on the ride they take together each day at four in the afternoon, well before dark, to her home. He wonders about that home. Are there parents, or is it a home for the retarded? He can’t very well get off the bus and follow her, make sure she gets all the way to wherever she’s going. He checks the rearview mirror and catches a movement on the right-hand side halfway back. The man who got on back at the university has shifted over to the aisle seat. He watches the man’s movements, something in him alert, on guard, protecting. Roosevelt Kennedy Jefferson, his mother’s voice sounds in his ear, keep your mind on your driving. That unnerves him, his mother scolding him, using his full name. I can’t help it if I’m not president, Ma. He doesn’t know if to laugh or to cry would be worse. He glances in the mirror again. The man’s eyes are fixed on the girl, on the innocent body sitting upright in readiness, emitting a kind of joy that nobody else, none of them in their right minds, has.
Roosevelt lets out his breath in a ragged sigh. He hates the feel of the man’s eyes on the girl, more intense now than in preceding days, and he speeds up without noticing until he has to brake suddenly at the stop where the old lady gets on. She takes her usual time, setting her bag on the step and then clambering up after it, stooping to lift it up to the next step, and at last depositing it by the moneybox while she searches her pockets to find her pass to show him. She always gets out her pass, even though he tries every day to wave her on. This one stop costs him three minutes at least off his schedule, and he has to speed to get back on. Today he tells her, “I’ve seen your pass. Just sit down.” Her blue eyes startle, and he knows then his voice was rough. “Just take your time and settle yourself in,” he adds. He wants to say, sit there on the other side of the girl and cut off that staring path of evil, shield her. He doesn’t. He waits, doesn’t start the bus until the old lady shuffles to the first front-facing seat on the left side and arranges her bag beside her.
The girl’s gaze follows her with the equal interest she gives to everything, when she forgets she’s not supposed to look.
And here comes trouble. She always gets on here or at the next stop, rides a few blocks, and sashays off. She pays full fare, no pass, and gets her money’s worth flirting with him. He inclines his head briefly, trying to maintain distance, but she leans into it, her soft pink sweater blurring the space between them.
“Real nice day, isn’t it?” she asks, fumbling in her jeans pocket for change. If her jeans weren’t so tight she’d have better luck finding it, he thinks.
“I know I had a dime in here.” She smiles warmly at him and hitches herself up, one hip rolled out to the side, to feel deeper into her pocket. Roosevelt glances involuntarily into his mirror and, as he feared, the man in the suit is watching them. He gets on downtown, before the university stop, and rides to his house at the top of the hill, the end of the route. He reads the business section of the paper word for word, finishes it a block before they reach his stop, folds it, and returns it to his briefcase. He gives the impression of having stepped off a glossy magazine page advertising clothes for the successful executive. But he’s not successful with women. Roosevelt can see that in the tightening of his face muscles when an attractive woman comes anywhere near him. He darts off furtive glances toward them, the fear of rejection mixed with longing. Now he lays the paper down to watch Miss Trouble-in-a-Pink-Sweater flirting, and Roosevelt sees the other thing in the man’s eyes that worries him, the pure envy—no, not pure, it is deeply laced with resentment. She seats herself at last, next to Mary Jane, whose habit is to sit smack in the middle of the bench, with barely enough room for Miss Trouble to wedge herself in as close as possible to Roosevelt. Mary Jane turns and beams at her, but she doesn’t respond. She is busy tucking her sweater into the waist of her jeans. Then she runs a hand languidly through her thick red-blonde hair. The man in the suit is having difficulty staying with his newspaper.
Roosevelt notices something else, that sets off a new alarm in his head. The man has not wavered in his attention to Mary Jane. He is oblivious to her sexy seat companion. It’s worse than I thought. Roosevelt wonders if he said it aloud.
She is getting up already, preparing to stand swaying near him for the next couple of blocks until they reach her stop.
“Don’t you just love this weather?” she says. “I do! But I should have worn something cooler, don’t you think?” She laughs and tilts her eyes at him.
He returns his gaze to the road. “It’s a warm one,” he says.
“Bye-bye! Thanks now,” she calls back to him as she descends the steps.
“Have a good one.” He says it as neutrally as possible. It is a relief to close the door on her and drive off.
As they wind further up the hill, people visibly relax. There are no more blacks on the bus. They all got off, one by one, down below, and now he sees these people who own the hilltop, and the fresh air and peace and quiet of it, come into their own. They breathe easier, they move their heads around more. Roosevelt’s mind travels off into thoughts of how it is when he rumbles down the hill into his own neighborhood, at the other end of the route. If any whites are still on the bus then, as they penetrate deep into the all-black neighborhood, they sit straighter and hold themselves in suspension, their eyes bright and tense, unwilling to meet the eyes around them. Usually though, there aren’t any whites by that time, and the bus gathers a new, vibrant energy. Some good-natured back and forth teasing takes hold, and women who have worked all day for other people begin to regain a sense of self, as one takes out a hand mirror to check her makeup and another sets her purse and packages down beside her, lays a hand over them, closes her eyes and rests into the rhythm of the bus, softness settling into her mouth.
Mary Jane is different. She is always the same. She gets on at a corner not far from his own house, right near the boundary of his neighborhood, at a time his wife is likely urging the kids to get started on their homework. She remains imperturbable throughout her journey, taking in the gang members who jive their way out at the downtown stop and the professors who ascend with bemused dignity at the university with the same trusting eyes. Loud voices make her smile, or even giggle. Then her pale freckled hand flies to her mouth to clap over it and keep it silent. Has she been told not to laugh? Sometimes her aim is off and she slaps herself awkwardly in the jaw, which strikes her funny all over again. Roosevelt’s own mouth widens into a grin at those times.
He is not smiling now. This is the fifth day the dark-haired young man in expensive slacks and cashmere sweater has eyed the girl, from the seat halfway back on the right, where Roosevelt has a good view of him in the overhead mirror and can see the strange gleam in the man’s eyes, an unhealthy, obsessed gleam. At almost every stop someone gets off, and there aren’t many left on the bus now. The old lady is mumbling to herself, he can hear her, and the professor with the wild shock of white hair is shaking his head over his newspaper. The man in the suit is reabsorbed into the business section. The two young boys with blond ponytails, who get off at the next stop, pull the cord and begin to move forward. The road narrows here, and Roosevelt, concentrating on edging forward so the boys won’t have to step into a clump of shrubbery, almost misses seeing the dark-haired man move up, a couple of seats closer to the girl.
“You’re welcome, have a good one.” His reply to the boys is automatic. His attention is rooted on the man, who is now only two seats away from Mary Jane. She has her feet stuck out in front of her and is inspecting her shoes. Then she lets her feet drop and cranes her neck around to look out the window. She gets restless toward the end of her ride. He has noticed that before. He tries to relax the muscles in his neck. They have knotted up, and when he rolls his head from side to side he hears them crack. It’s no crime to look at somebody, he tells himself. Anyway, he’ll get off in two stops, well before she does. There’s nothing to worry about. He waits for the man to pull the cord as they round the next bend, but the man is sitting forward in his seat, breathing with his mouth open. He has no idea Roosevelt is watching him. His attention is all on Mary Jane, who, Roosevelt now sees, is walking her stubby fingers up and down the buttons on the front of her white blouse. Roosevelt wants to yell back to the man: these are all things she does, they mean nothing, have nothing to do with you!
Now she turns her whole body sideways, toward the front of the bus, to see better out the window. She always starts watching for her stop several blocks ahead of time. Her right hand is poised in the air over her head, waiting to pull the cord. Roosevelt sees the man tighten all over, like an animal about to pounce. He feels helpless, trapped in the bus, unable to prevent trouble, and yet trouble is coming as sure as rain; he smells it in the air.
She gets hold of the cord and hangs on it, like she always does. Feeling the grimness in his face, Roosevelt crunches the bus to a stop, his muscles taut. She steps out of the bus carefully and, once on the sidewalk, turns back to him with puzzlement written across her broad, flat features. She has noticed something is wrong, something is different. He has not called out his usual goodbye to send her on her way, and now, to his astonishment, she stammers it out herself. He sees the struggle it costs her to form each word, separate and distinct.
Roosevelt nods to her and tries to smile. She turns in the direction opposite to where the bus is headed and starts off on her walk.
The man runs forward and exits quickly. Roosevelt leans out of his seat and observes him set off after her, a few paces behind. He has a brief vision of himself dashing from the bus, seizing the man by the arms and yanking him back onto the bus, forcing him into a seat and driving off. But he can’t do that. He isn’t allowed to leave the bus, and he certainly isn’t allowed to assault anyone. Merit raises are coming up next month. His wife is counting on the raise, not only on him having the job he’s had for twelve years, but on having a slightly bigger paycheck so Denny can get braces. Roosevelt closes his upper lip down over his own front teeth that have stuck out all his life—you lead with your teeth, Roosevelt, you sure do, his mother’s voice exclaims. And JFK, too, I bet, afore he got his braces. Her face is in his mind as he throws the bus into reverse. There is no time to waste, Mary Jane is about to turn the corner and pass out of view. Finally he is going to see her house. He grins as he begins to back up. Slowly he eases the bus around the corner. There they are, Mary Jane trotting along unaware, and her sinister follower finally noticing Roosevelt. Making use of his mirrors, Roosevelt backs slowly down the street, keeping pace with Mary Jane. Now she sees him. She smiles her broad smile and stops to wave.
“Just keep going, honey,” Roosevelt calls out. “I’m seeing you home!” He grins at the man in the cashmere sweater, who gives him a confused, thwarted look and stops walking, unsure what to do.
The old lady has stopped mumbling and is peering out the window. The professor looks up from his newspaper. “I say, we’re going backwards,” he comments.
“Just for a block or so,” Roosevelt tells him. “Then we’ll get ourselves on track again.”
The man takes off with long, swift strides, down the cross street. They ease along for another block, with Mary Jane back to her earnest trot, already used to the idea of her bus following her home. She turns into the granite stepping-stone path to a huge Spanish-style stucco house, and Roosevelt watches as she rings the doorbell and waits, rocking back and forth on her heels, until an unseen person opens the door and lets her in. She doesn’t look back.
The man in the suit rises from his seat. He lurches to the front of the bus, as it jerks into forward motion again. “I’m writing down your number and reporting you immediately when I get off this bus,” he says. His thin lips are compressed into a tight line, and there is grim satisfaction in his eyes.
Roosevelt’s mind is not without replies. It’s just that his mother wouldn’t approve of any of them.
“Yes sir,” he says.