The Natives

My main fear, as I scurried across the icy street in high-heeled boots, was that the busdriver was an asshole. My next greatest fear was that the light would turn green.

If the light turned green, the bus would easily make it to the stop before I could. If the busdriver were an asshole, he would see me now, scurrying across the icy street in high-heeled boots, and he would not open his doors or even pause. He would blaze on down Avon Street as if that bus stop did not exist at all, and I would have to walk to the next stop to wait for a different bus, and even if that bus were on time, which would be the biggest freaking miracle in the universe, I would be at least a half hour late to the party, but more likely forty-five minutes, and if I were forty-five minutes late to the party my good friend who I hadn’t seen in ages would think I didn’t care enough about her or her cooking to just show up on time: after all these years, to just leave my apartment forty-five minutes earlier, couldn’t I handle that?

The light turned green. I began to book it, hopeless, as my bus whirled through the intersection — and came to a squealing stop right next to me in the middle of the road. “Hey there!” a man smiled from the front seat. “You want on?”

Until this day, there had been three certain facts in my life: death, taxes, and buses do not stop for you if you are not at a stop, and they will only let you off at stops, because I don’t know, that’s like a law or something.

“Get on!” the busdriver waved jovially. “I hate to see you running on the ice like that, you could hurt yourself.”

I stepped on hesitantly and then swiped my Charlie Card. The bus was completely empty: bright blue plastic chairs buzzed in the fluorescent light, roadsalt patches making neat little placemats in front of each one, white shadows and scuffs from former feet. “Some weather outside, isn’t it?” he grinned at me. “Isn’t this just crazy? My wife just called, she wanted to know if she could turn the heat up.”

What parallel universe have I stepped into? I wondered. Maybe I’m dead. Maybe this is a last hallucination. The bus just hit me, and I am unconscious on the road.

“I told her, of course you can turn the heat up, it’s freezing outside, y’know what I’m sayin’? But she says, she says oh, but you get so worried about the heating bills. I say, but I’m not even there, and you’re cold, for cryin’ out loud! Turn the heat up, don’t just sit there, y’know, like, shivering for Christ’s sake.”

“Heh, right,” I said experimentally, sitting down in a seat halfway down the length of the bus. I began untangling my headphones.

“I’ve lived here all my life!” He had to shout a little now, to compensate for the distance between us. “Boston born and raised. You know back then, nobody had central heating?”

“What?” I said.

“Right? Nobody had central heating! Can you believe it, in these winters. We all just had these little space heaters, these little things that looked like fireplaces, but weren’t, they were electrical, you know, it was much cheaper than getting a new furnace or whatever.”

“That sounds like a hazard!” I yelled back.

“It was, it was I guess! But mostly just cold as hell. ‘Cause you only had one or two of those things, y’know? And you’d sit around it, everyone would sit there with blankets, and it would get dark at four in the evening and we wouldn’t do anything. That’s what life was like then.” He paused for a moment to look at me in his rearview mirror, and I smiled and nodded. Maybe I’d just slip these headphones on and he’d — “So yeah, I’m 58 years old, I was born in 1951, that’s what it was like. We lived in one of these houses like everybody has, the three-family home, y’know? No central heating. Crazy. I recently sold that place, ’cause, y’know, it’d been in our family for so long, but I said, I said, I want to be closer to the city, get myself a nice condo, something small, just for my wife and me. Y’know? Just unnecessary, really. We don’t need all that space. But I kept it for so long, because I put my mother there.” He looked back at me in his mirror.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, she got sick, you know, she got liver cancer. She’d moved out and gotten her own place, but we wanted her back near MGH, and so we could keep an eye on her, look after a little bit — so I said to my brother — he had three kids at the time — I said, you take the second floor, we’ll put mom on the first floor, and the third floor we’ll rent out. And that’s what we did.”

” . . . Oh . . . hey, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, she was really young then, too, to be dying of that. Kind of nuts, had been the healthiest thing alive before that, but I guess that’s always how it goes. But so she lived there, she lived on that first floor for many years, while she got treatment for it, and my brother and his three kids on the second floor, and let’s see . . . that third floor . . . that didn’t actually get rented out for some time, so I lived there for a while, and then . . . let’s see. Market just wasn’t there at the time I guess. But it eventually did, we did rent it out, to a few Tufts students, so then the condo thing worked out, and then when the cancer spread and our mother passed away, my brother moved out to Revere with his three kids and his wife and I just sold the thing, the whole shebang, right before the market crash, can you believe it! Boy was I lucky.”

“Wow.”

“I made something from it too, nothing like what you could make today! The man who bought it, he was some really rich guy, he had like three houses or something, a vacation home in upstate New York, the whole deal. He’d done a lot of investing, in uh, in online companies I think.” He looked back at me, and I nodded on cue. “Yeah, he hurt a bit with the whole economy thing, but not too bad. He’s doin’ alright. We’re all doin’ alright.”

The busdriver pulled the bus to a stop, and the doors accordioned open: a thick, older black woman’s face appeared and smiled at him. She wore the reddest wool coat I’d ever seen, and a neat grey hat.

“Hey there! How are you doin’ tonight?”

“Oh, I’m doin’ alright, I’m doin’ alright,” she chortled.

“Some weather, huh? What a night.”

“It’s the wind! The wind that kills me.” She arranged herself on a seat directly across from me as the busdriver continued on his detailed housing history, nodding and laughing when appropriate. The rich man had come to his house unannounced, had just knocked on the door, made him an offer, there hadn’t been a sign up or anything, no realtors. Wasn’t it incredible. My headphones remained half-wrapped around my thumb and index finger, unused. We blazed and bumbled together further into the darkness.

* * *

It was the last stop, and the other woman and I began gathering our things. “Have a good one, now!” she called out. “Nice talking to you,” I said on my way out.

“Hey, you too! You have a really nice night.”

I had begun telling the story to my friends in my head halfway through the ride, but then I’d stopped, uncertain where to take it. “It was the craziest thing,” I would say. No. “He was the nicest guy,” I would say. No. “He just wouldn’t stop talking, I don’t know what to do with talkers any more, I can’t tell if they’re nice or crazy and if I’m making a human connection or if I should be wrapping my fists around my keys the way you do if you might need to stab a person in the eye.” I skipped down the stairs to the Kendall stop.

There are bells hanging between the trains at Kendall, operated by hand-turned cranks at either end of the platform. Only tourists and drunk people tend ever do it, and even they have to be feeling a little audacious, a little more touristy or drunk than usual. But it was six in the evening on a Wednesday night and the bells were tolling when I went down the stairs, and it was something unusually haunting, calming. For a moment I thought they were playing David Byrne’s “Astronaut.”

Poked my hand in a hornet’s nest —
They flew out around my face!
I guess it’s just self . . . defense.

I looked across to the outbound platform. A younger man was smiling at me, cranking the bells. The whole city was connected and happy, shivering in the cold, it was a dream I was having. We locked eyes and a train was thrown between us; I got on.

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3 Comments

  1. I love that feature. I love abusing it. “So and so is tying his shoes.” LIKE. “So-and-so posted a link to the New York Times.” LIKE. “So-and-so was tagged in a [compromising] picture.” LIKE. “So-and-so is no longer in a relationship.” LIKE.

    It wouldn’t be so hilarious without the wee thumbs up graphic.

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