I am distracted, because I am nondescript, because I cannot help
myself, I am sitting on a bus station bench, casually eavesdropping
on two men who hover near the planter and talk loudly, carelessly.
These are two middle-aged men I see every day on the bus ride home
from work, pals who appear to work together or know each other from
some outside context, a couple of guys who didn't just meet on the
bus. One of the men, battling his 50s with cynicism and a combover,
wears a brown leather jacket, which cannot hide his sizeable paunch.
The other man, even heavier, dons thick bifocals and always seems
to be in a pair of dingy khaki slacks. The leather-jacket man talks
a lot and smooths his dwindling hair, while his friend listens with
varying amounts of interest, rocking from one foot to the other.
I have overheard their conversations before while sitting behind
them on the bus; they never seem to care much about who else listens.
They are largely idiots, and I revel in it. When they talk politics,
they repeat only what they glean from the clumsy meeting place of
local news and mediocre intelligence.
The one: "Damn Arabs causin' trouble. We'd be able to take
care of business if we didn't have all these yuppies running around
acting like terrorists are just 'misunderstood.' You see those Saddam
supporters outside the courthouse yesterday? Those morons don't
know what it means to be an American."
The other: "It's true. Worst thing is, they take the wrong
side, they'll end up paying for it with other people's lives. As
if we can trust every immigrant just on the basis of them being
poor. You know, I never liked the idea of work camps, but I'll tell
you, when good people are at risk, good working people and their
families, it makes a person start to think."
I feel a surge of desire to do physical harm. Not serious physical
harm, of course, but some sort of symbolic maiming, like a quick
stab to the eye or a clubbing of the ears. They are dangerous, these
two. They make me feel what they feel, a sort of passive-aggressive
desire to assert myself forcefully, and it makes them smaller of
mind yet bigger in threat with the effect of inspiring simultaneous
boredom and enthrallment.
But mostly, I am glad there is no requirement that I join the conversation.
I am certain that doing so would make me into their parody, a young
kid with idealism outweighing experience, and even more disparagingly,
a young woman. Damn kids, I think for them, and I recognize that
being dismissive feels like power.
Over the top of my book, I watch the No. 2 bus unload. The station
isn't crowded today, so the action catches my eye. A group of three
men and two women, all around five feet tall, amble away from the
bus toward the median, toward me and the planter and the two men.
When I notice the
lanyards around their necks, the laminated cards fastened to their
jackets, I cringe. One of the men, the one with the combover and
the brown leather jacket, laughs gruffly and nods at the group.
"Retards. Every bus in this town is a short bus," he
says, and his friend with the khaki pants smiles, looks at the pavement,
awkwardly kicks a pebble into the side of the planter.
"Why do you think so many take the No. 2 bus?" the friend
says, still grinning at the ground. He glances up for approval from
leather-jacket guy, who smiles without taking his eyes off the group,
now only about 10 yards away.
"Watch this," he says, and I lower my book, stiffening.
The man in the leather jacket waits until the entire group is on
the median, looks at the two women, who move in more of a waddle
than a walk, and lets loose a long, low whistle. They stop.
Only a few feet behind them, their male counterparts stop. All
five look nonplussed, disoriented, vulnerable. Each bears distinct
features of Down's syndrome, and except for one woman, they are
all wearing blue jeans and plaid flannel shirts. This is too easy,
I think. This isn't grade school, for Christ's sake. Two of the
Down's men shuffle uncomfortably, but the third one, without looking
at either leather-jacket guy or his friend, speaks haltingly, with
"Linda. Linda. Go 'way to the other bus. The. The other bus."
The man in the khakis must sense this is his chance. "Hey,
yeah, Linda," he affects an awkward, slow voice, "do like
your boyfriend says. Go away. Nobody wants you here."
One of the women, wearing a pink sweater and too-long jeans, begins
to wail plaintively. Her friend it is not clear which woman
is Linda pats her on the shoulder, strokes her short brown
hair, and mutters soothingly in her ear.
I am immobilized. The scene is like a play, one I am too close
not to be involved in, and still, one that will go on, with or without
me there. It is ludicrous that I haven't done anything yet. Why
haven't I said anything?
I am fighting my urge to fight, and I justify it weakly, stupidly,
by realizing that if I say something now, I lose my anonymity, my
ability to ride the bus with these men and hate them without them
knowing it, to watch and feel superior to them, to observe without
The fuse finally hits the powder: the short, squat man who spoke
to Linda is heading straight for my pair of idiots, baring his teeth
and furrowing his brow in a look of utter hatred. He looks like
animal, and neither leather-jacket guy nor his friend can believe
We are all staring at him, expecting him to ball up his fists and
start swinging away, despite the incredible odds against him. But
just before he reaches the man in the khakis, the little man stops
abruptly, raises his middle finger, and shouts, spitting, "Mother!
Fucker!" Turning to the man in the leather jacket, he repeats:
This is entirely unexpected, and marvelous. The little man's friends
start laughing, and it is a strange, sinister laugh. "Mother-fucker,"
one says quietly.
"Mother-fucker!" the third Down's man yells gleefully,
and all three of them are singing together now, a cacophonous rendition
of "mother-fucker" ringing up and down the covered median.
They begin to cross the median, easily forgetting their former attackers,
trying the curse in staccato, in operatic verse, and inadvertently,
perhaps in rounds. The women have begun to laugh, too, raucously,
tears rolling down their cheeks.
It's maudlin, fascinating and circus-like: none of it seems real,
least of all to the two men whose insult has made a quick boomerang
turn. Both leather-jacket man and his nervous friend are frowning
confusedly, reeling from the scene of insane joy they have created.
Past the planter, past the bench, the Lindas and the two less-assertive
Down's men march, looping arms when they meet up, and continuing
from the median to the next row of buses. Only the challenger, the
fierce man with the brilliant exhortation, follows at a distance.
He wants to keep
watch over his enemies, wants to make sure they know they cannot
retort without consequence.
"Mother." He continues to mutter. "Fucker."
Nearing me at long last, he suddenly takes notice of my presence.
Looking me in the eye, he spits again: "Mother! Fucker!"
I do not budge, for I am in a moving picture so surreal that it
could be nothing less than real life. Three words occur to me, holding
me fast to my place on the bench. I am beyond believing it, and
yet I am sure that this man, above all other people I have known,
sees my cowardice as clearly as my face, all complacencies, laissez-faire
attitudes and Laodicean tendencies rising like a boil from my skin,
frothing to the surface even when I disagree, when I am full of
reproach for intolerance
and indignity and misunderstanding.
I say nothing. I do nothing. Mother-fucker. I am. I am! I live
three words, yes.
One of them. One of them. One of them.