Let Us Off
“Sorry, folks,” says the bus driver, addressing the angled mirror above his head. “Looks like we might be here for a bit. Lights are down. Nothing’s moving. Nobody’s going anywhere.”
“Jesus Christ,” mutters a man standing in the aisle, one hand gripping the overhead handrail, the other clutching several plastic bags: Banana Republic, The Gap, Aldo, Levi’s, Buffalo Jeans. He leans toward the window, watching pedestrians shuffle along the snowy sidewalk, heads huddled, bags swinging.
The man beside me closes his eyes. He reclines his head, folding his thick arms across his thick chest. He inhales deeply through his nostrils, holds it for a moment, and releases it through his mouth. His breathing settles into a steady rhythm and I realize he’s fallen asleep.
A woman stands up from her seat, squeezing her way through the crowd until she stands beside the bus driver gaping at the giant windshield wiper swinging across the windshield.
“Can you let me out, please?” the woman asks. “I’ll get out here if you don’t mind. I have to get home. I have to——”
The woman, it seems, has anticipated his response, and she leans closer to him, stammering into his ear, her long blonde hair brushing against his shoulder. “Please, I really have to get home. You don’t understand. It’s an emergency. Basically.”
The bus driver inhales her perfume—he doesn’t even try to hide it. I catch a whiff of its scent; for a moment it replaces the stench of sweat and wet hair and wet clothing and cigarette smoke and body odour—all the smells I’ve endured for the past twenty minutes. How long has the bus driver endured them? How many hours? How many days? How many years?
“Sorry, lady,” he replies. “I can’t do that. You could slip and fall. Hit your head. Break your neck. Die. It’d be my ass on the line. Sorry, lady. I just can’t do that. It’s my job.”
She opens her mouth to say something, possibly another plea, possibly a rebuke, a retort, an angry comment of some kind, but she says nothing; instead she grips the pole, sets her bags at her feet, and watches the windshield wiper swipe snow from the windshield.
My son—our son— never learned to speak. His vision, too, failed to develop properly; he possessed only partial sight in his left eye. I use the past tense because he no longer possesses any sight at all. He’s dead. He died last October. His name was Kenneth and he was eleven years old. The doctors hadn’t expected him to make it to twenty; they’d reminded us of that fact for years. They’d explained his condition to us over and over again using large words. I never understood even half of them. I never asked for clarification; it didn’t seem necessary at the time.
“They’re probably fake,” her friend says. “Just to make us feel safe. Like oxygen masks on airplanes. As if they’re even real.”
The girl wipes the heel of her hand across the window, peering outside. “What do you think he’s doing right now?” She speaks quietly—even cautiously. “Do you think he’s with her right now? He is, isn’t he? Right now. I know he is.”
“Don’t think about him,” her friend replies. “You promised me you wouldn’t think about him. Think about Christmas. Think about all the cool clothes you’ll get tomorrow. Think about that instead.”
“Four months is a long time,” she says. “It’s, like, a third of a year. He can’t just throw that away, can he? Not just like that he can’t.”
“You don’t love him,” I told her flatly, standing in the garage. I don’t remember how we ended up in the garage, but then again I don’t remember a lot of things about our marriage.
“I love him,” she said, gazing at the highball in her hand. “I’m his mother. I love him. Nobody can say I don’t love him.”
“We aren’t qualified,” she countered, her eyes fixed on her glass again. “You know that. The doctors have always made that very clear.”
“To hell with the goddamn doctors!” My voice boomed inside the small garage. “They might be wrong. They come and go, telling us what to do, giving us their professional opinions, their recommendations, and none of it’s worked. You know that as well as I do. The nursing homes can’t handle him. We have to do something for our son.”
“We’re not qualified,” she muttered.
It was an old response to an old argument. As hard as I tried to change her mind, as hard as I tried to awaken her motherly instinct, I really wanted her to say no. I needed her to say no. I needed to try to change her mind, to be the loving parent, the one on the right side of the argument, but I also needed to fail. I didn’t admit this to myself at the time—but I admit it now.
“It’s not a competition,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “My family’s bigger than yours—of course they’ll fill more of the church. Why does it matter so much to your mom anyway?”
“She’s just worried her family won’t be represented,” the young woman says. “She’s put a lot into this wedding—you know she has—and she just wants it to be perfect.”
“I’m sorry my family’s bigger than yours.”
“Don’t be like that.”
The young man laughs, retorting, “Immature? I can’t believe you just said that. I really can’t.” He shakes his head slowly.
“Let’s just drop it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’ve had enough of this wedding to last me a lifetime.”
They look at each other. It seems as if something has just occurred to them. The girl lays her left hand on top of his right hand. Her engagement ring catches the light; it flashes once before disappearing into the shadows. They look away from each other, the young man’s eyes turning toward the window, the young woman’s toward the floor of the bus.
“Kenny killed one of the cats,” he said. “He crushed its head with a rock.” He cleared his throat apologetically. “I’m sorry, Stuart. The board’s made their decision.”
I didn’t say anything. I opened my mouth to reply—to make some kind of refutation—but no words came out. I didn’t have the energy to argue. Finally I said, “I’ll pick him up this afternoon. Is that okay? Is that okay with you?”
“You’re quite the little artist,” notes the old man sitting next to him. The old man tugs at his earlobe, considering the image on the steamy window. He inserts his thumb into his right nostril, pulls it away from his face, rolls his thumb and forefinger together for a moment, and reaches beneath the seat.
“I get my Nintendo tomorrow,” the boy tells him.
“Lucky you. I guess Santa thinks you’ve been pretty good this year.”
“I don’t believe in Santa,” replies the boy with confidence.
“You don’t believe in Santa?”
“Why would I believe in him?”
“This is your bedroom now, Kenny,” I said, leading him by the hand. I gripped him by the shoulders, turning him so that he saw the entire room. “See your plants? See your stuffed animals?”
If he saw them, he didn’t show it. He just stood in front of me, his head bobbing slightly, his misshapen mouth dripping drool, his fingers twisting at his pyjamas, under which his diaper bulged.
“Are you tired?” I asked him, guiding him toward the bed. I flung the covers back. I eased him into a prone position, straightening his legs beneath the covers, straightening his arms at his sides. “You’re probably tired. You’ve had a long day. You’re probably ready for bed.”
He stared at me. I don’t know if he saw me, but he stared at me anyway. And I stared at him, trying to see something new beneath those milky eyes, trying to see my son, whom I’d helped create, my little boy who didn’t know me as his dad, who didn’t know me as anything at all, but I saw nothing I hadn’t already seen before.
“Still coming down, huh?” he says.
“Yeah,” I reply, and I suddenly realize that my headache has subsided. It hasn’t left entirely, but it’s not as painful anymore.
“It could be the start of an ice storm,” he says, quite seriously.
I look at him.
“I lived in Montreal during the ice storm. It started just like this.”
“Nobody really knows how bad it was,” he continues, scratching his chin. “Nobody out here anyway.” He lifts his eyes toward the ceiling, as if the memory hangs in the air above his head. “No electricity. No heat. No running water. No telephones. No transportation. Nothing but ice.”
“What did you do?” I ask, sensing in him a dwindling desire to talk.
“I survived,” he says—almost with annoyance. “What else could I do? I survived one long day at a time—just like everyone else. Well, not everyone.”
“Did many people die?” I feel that I should know the answer to this, but for some reason I don’t. I remember hearing about it on the news at the time, reading about it in all the newspapers, but I can’t really remember any details. It could’ve happened in Russia, as far as I was concerned.
“Enough,” he replies without emotion. “I volunteered to help search for the bodies. We hauled them out for days.” He looks at me for the first time. “Elderly people mostly. Old people living alone. They didn’t have a chance. Most of them died in their beds, huddled beneath a foot of blankets and sheets and towels—anything they could find. They were curled up like foetuses when we found them—that’s what I thought at the time—they looked like little dead babies.”
I I have nothing to say, but he doesn’t seem to expect anything from me. He reclines his head again. He closes his eyes, his nostrils flaring as they take in two lungs of air. I turn toward the tumbling snow. Tears slip down my cheeks.
I called 911. I hauled my son from the bathtub and laid him on the mat. I sat on the edge of the bathtub, staring at the floor tiles, until the paramedics burst through the front door. I got down on my hands and knees beside my son. I pinched his nose. I lowered my mouth onto his. I exhaled. I was still exhaling when one of the paramedics pulled me out of the way.
I was asked a few simple questions—first by the paramedics and then by the doctors—but no one seemed to doubt my story. If they did doubt it, if they had any suspicions at all, they didn’t show it. I took their silence as a sign of support.
Linda didn’t attend the funeral. It surprised me at the time—her absence from her son’s funeral—and two months later, as I sit on this bus, the fact that I was even surprised remains the only thing really surprising about that day. She left a message on the answering machine four days later. She told me that she was sorry. She reminded me that everything happens for a reason. I withdrew from the kitchen before she continued, and her voice receded and receded, and I didn’t hear the rest.
The man beside me stands up. He does it quickly, with purpose, as if he’s planned to do it for a long time. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” he says, glancing at the faces turning toward him. “But I don’t have time for this.”
The old man stands up too, shuffling toward the front of the bus. He says, his voice loud and authoritative, “This is ridiculous! The bus stop’s right there! It’s right there!”
Swiping his palm across the drawing of the sub-machinegun on the glass, the young boy insists, “I have to get home for dinner.”
“Forget the regulations,” the young man with glasses says. He adjusts his frames, meeting the bus driver’s eyes in the mirror. “These are special circumstances. The regulations don’t apply.”
“You can’t keep us in here all night,” adds his fiancée, not loudly, but not quietly either. She reaches for the young man’s hand.
“Let’s, like, use the emergency windows,” the young girl with the toque suggests, her gloved fingers teasing the release lever. “Let’s see if they’re even real.”
“It’s not like it isn’t an emergency,” her friend mutters.
“Please let me out,” pleads the blonde woman standing beside the bus driver. They’re the first words she’s spoken since asking him the first time. Her voice gets louder. “I’m claustrophobic! I have to get off this bus right now! Please open the doors!” Her eyes are rimmed with tears.
“For chrissake!” says the man standing in the aisle, his fists clenching the shopping bags at his sides. “It’s Christmas Eve!”
“Open the door,” someone else demands.
“Let us out,” orders another voice.
People stand up from their seats. Bags are gathered from the floor. Eyes turn toward the front doors. The crowd begins to advance—slowly at first, then quickly, nearly a hundred feet stamping against the floor, rocking the bus with their progress, until the front half of the aisle has filled with bodies. Their voices rise, merging into one loud command.
“Let us off the bus!”
“Sorry, folks,” replies the bus driver, coolly meeting the countless sets of enraged eyes in the mirror above his head. “I can’t let you off this bus. Sorry. Regulations are regulations. It’s out of my control——”
The crowd swells, surging forward, dark mouths gaping, a barrage of words exploding into the dank air of the bus, and although their enunciation has been lost in the rising volume, their message is clear. The bus driver huddles in his seat, one arm shielding the door’s release lever.
I stand up. I flinch, expecting the pain to shoot through my head, but nothing happens. The pain has left me. I notice the snowflakes crashing against the beaded window, and all at once I’m overcome with a feeling of safety. They can’t get at me—they can’t get at us—not in here. I open my mouth. I utter a few words, quietly at first, then speaking louder and louder, my confidence rising with every syllable, my purpose becoming clearer and clearer. A head turns in my direction. I keep talking, my mouth forming words I’ve never articulated, my mind shaping thoughts I’ve never composed, until every set of eyes on the bus has turned toward me. And I keep talking. I don’t intend to stop until I’ve said everything I need to say. I have to make them see what they have to lose.