The 8 & I
To the locals, “the eight” is the crowded downtown bus which takes you to the hospitals on “the Hill.” I’m not a local yet, so I just think of it as my ride to work.
The eight cuts a serpentine route through the city collecting the poor, the sick, the young, and the old as it goes. By the time it reaches me, it’s a rolling spectacle, a roiling stew. Mania, perversion, mirth, apathy and frustration spice the pot. With the constant unloading of passengers, people are reduced to snapshots of their problems. The crush of bodies snuffs out sympathy; I have to remind myself that:
The outpouring of colorful, broken sentences is a malady and not poetry. The dried snot on the kid’s nose will be there when he goes to bed. His mother with the Marlboro cough won’t wipe it away. Missing limbs still itch and kick a decade later. The little girl’s ruined grammar is an ugly heirloom from her father.
None of it belongs to me. I count ten blessed fingers and ten blessed toes. What a relief. I speak to the driver with a fluent, native-tongue. I had one of those postcard New England childhoods. There was money in the bank for summer camp. I’ve never spent a day on the tattered fringes. I’ve only romanticized it turning yellowed pages. My mistakes are forgiven, forgotten. No one keeps a file on me. I’m not required to materialize on Tuesdays and Fridays to be recorded, poked and prodded. I could wear a different pair of shoes two weeks in a row. I have never eaten the throw-away parts of any animal. “Venison medallions” makes sense to me.
I could stack these thoughts to lift me above the unpleasantness of the eight, but I don’t want to miss a thing. My eyes are tuned to the faces around me. I keep a fresh pack of smiles ready. What’s happening outside the window doesn’t interest me. The sidewalks are always covered with suits and students. They are ground-fish of every city. Their libidos and dollars make it go. When their population runs low, people begin to worry. If the situation gets really bad, they convene committees; call it a recession, dangerous or Detroit.
The eight is an omnivore, but on the final stretch to the hospital, it has a special taste for suits and veterans. The two don’t always mix well, particularly at sunset when the old green jackets tend to howl. This was the scene today:
A team of four overcoats files aboard and closes rank. The leader sings a supply-chain serenade, and uses a tiny umbrella to keep the group on key. Their voices grow against the din, and then shrink as they feel exposed. The leader proffers a joke; someone outside the circle laughs; the troops fall silent. They sense that something is wrong. Their conservation has caught the sergeant’s attention.
The sergeant is one of the eight’s regular performers. His audience of choice: old ladies, women with babies and the wheelchair bound. For the old women and mothers he apologizes for not shaving, sweetens his drawls and caps every sentence with a salutary “yes ma’am.” He tells everyone that before the army got hold of him he was a farmer, and that his toughest fight was against the bottle.
But today, its slim pickings, there’s not a baby or wheelchair in sight. I watch him dance around the crowded aisle searching for a friendly face, an opening. From within the circle of overcoats, the word “California” stops him in his tracks. It’s not clear why the word is special, but he’s charmed by it and it triggers a stream of sweaty recollections.
For the sergeant, the game is free association. There’s no break, no blinking, no stopping for breath; each memory rolls seamlessly into the next. He doesn’t care if the group is listening closely to the story about his dead cousin or his time in Nam. The rush of images is an algorithm; the words an emotional code. He is trying to unlock their sympathies, dislodge a kind word.
In response, the group condenses, pressing shoulder to shoulder, wool on wool. They are circling the wagons, a natural but misguided move. From my seat, I see what the sergeant sees: four small targets are now one. The young woman in the group is closest to him. After ten blocks of non-stop dialogue, she is carrying the last twenty years of the sergeant’s life on her back. I can’t see her face, but the slump of her shoulders tells me she is reaching a breaking point.
A sudden volley of laughter moves a few strands of her hair. The touch of spittle on her neck is electric. A shudder runs the length of her frame, lifting her to her toes. She begins to turn, but the leader of the group grips her shoulder as if to say “hang in there, only a few more blocks to go.” The circle remains intact.
At this point, a red light drags the bus to a sudden stop. The momentum gives the aisle a new configuration and cracks open the circle. The leader of the overcoats has twisted around and now stands nose to nose with the sergeant. As he registers the sergeant’s unimposing dimensions, shabbiness of his clothes, and his speckled grey beard, his chest swells with confidence. Confrontation changes the shape of his mouth. The sergeant, still muttering, looks at him without recognition or guile. He has been addressing a wall of dark coats and hairlines.
I watch as words of rebuke form on the leader’s lips. He is preparing to vanquish the school-yard bully. I make eye contact with the sergeant and smile. “My old girlfriend used to live in LA,” I say. “She hated southern California, too many cars.” He ignores me. The looming confrontation has created a strange magnetism between the two men. The sergeant leans in, captivated by the complicated tie swinging a few inches from his face. A large vein in the leader’s neck is pumping hard. I try again. “Deena lives in Maine now, not far from Canada.” The place-name, her name, something breaks the spell. His head and shoulders twist slowly as if against a strong current. Our eyes meet, but he says nothing. A minute passes. Heads turn to see who put out the fire. The woman from the group steals a look at me. Her eyes tell me that I’m a hero.
Two stops later, the bus reaches the main terminal and belches its load onto the tarmac. The circle of overcoats dissolves into the crowd along with the sergeant. With the seats clear the eight feels like an empty theater. New passengers quickly climb aboard. A din begins to build. From the front of the bus, I hear a familiar raspy voice. It’s “the philosopher” and he’s seated himself next to a wizened Korean woman…
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Portland Fiction Project
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