Take the Bus


 

The bus ride started pleasantly. The driver adjusted his cap and sunglasses and smiled at him as he climbed up.

“Can you let me know when we are just about at Mayflor?”

“Sure thing.”

Buses were inviting. He liked this bus with its friendly driver. He had always liked being whisked away, riding high, able to look around. Buses were cheap, too. He jingled the change in his pocket and fingered the bills folded there. Alice would be pleased he was shopping for her. He wished Gamble’s was still in business; he could just ask for something. They had known him. Frank would say,

“Hey, Lloyd, what can we do for you today?” “I’m looking for a present.”

“Lady?”

“Of course. What do you have?” “Let me show you. I’ve got an idea.”

Gamble’s had never failed him. It was sad when Frank died and the store closed.

Now the familiar places where he used to buy most everything whizzed by the bus. These neighborhoods warmed him, sunny, homey and right-feeling.

The bus took the turn and moved uphill. Here the road was dappled in sun under huge trees hugging the road. Were they eucalyptus? He thought so, but he wasn’t sure which kind. Hadn’t they been brought here? For lumber? But it didn’t work out. Something. The sunlight dampened under a passing cloud.

The bus rode on. The neighborhoods grew less familiar to him. Now the bigger, brassy, brash-feeling houses, set back from the road, stood, strangers in the trees. The windows looked back at him impersonally, blankly, like people on the sidewalk keeping their eyes fixed and distant. He shied away from the bus window, watched the other passengers. The lady with the crocheted shopping bag looked in a pocket mirror, tucking loose hair beneath her tam. Two high school students, one carrying a book, thumped their backpacks to the floor. He noticed the driver had changed. Had that happened at one of the stops? He hadn’t seen that. Lost in thought. She was now a big, Latin woman who draped her uniform coat unevenly over the back of the driver’s seat. She wore ear buds. She was chewing gum viciously.

He looked out again. Houses had disappeared now. He saw a few large storefronts behind parking lots, gas stations set around hummocks of lawn and red-leaved ornamentals, and something—was that a fire station?— fronting the street with three high garage doors. Just beyond, he saw huge blank-walled buildings through the maples and acacias, then, a round tower that marked the corner of one like a castle turret. The bus idled at a traffic light, moved under a lofty, goading arch spanning the road. He did not recognize this place. Did the driver call out Mayflor? No. That was worrisome.

The arch grew from twin geodesic-structured towers; in the center of the arch and supported by the gigantic, polished metal letters, M-a-y-f-l-o-r, a huge tulip in a filigreed circle spanned the road. The bus turned under the arch into a parking lot, stopped at a bus shelter that had a similar, smaller tulip over its own arching roof. He got off.

The mall had grown incredibly. It looked strange, foreboding and a bit frightening but, oh, yes, this is where he was going. To buy Alice a gift. She’d been so nice. He could afford to get her something. Something simple. The lady with the crocheted bag and the students got off. The bus left. He stood at the bus stop. Now, without the bus moving beneath him, he felt unsteady. Which way to go? What store was it? What store had it been? Where were those two giant eucalyptus marking the entry? He did not see the trees. Was it always Mayflor? He didn’t remember.

He felt lost. He followed two women passing the bus stop. They seemed to know where they were going. One looked an awful lot like Alice. He walked a few paces behind, following them through the crosswalk, up a curving ramp bordered by polished aluminum railings toward high doors, under another Mayflor sign, over which hung another gigantic tulip circled with copper and brass leaves. When the women went into a lingerie store just inside the doors, one of them looked at him over her shoulder. It was not Alice. He walked past the shop, looking in the opposite direction, into the mall.

He saw a gift shop. Cards, figurines, baskets of soaps.

The man arranging a display of perfumes looked at him through goggle-like lenses. His eyes were huge.

“Let me know if you need help.” “Yes, I’m looking for a present.”

“Well, we have plenty of them. Look around and let me know.”

The clerk went back to his work. Lloyd looked listlessly at the shelves in the far corner. He didn’t know. What would be nice? He wasn’t sure. He worked his way toward the door, glanced at the man whose back was now turned, and slipped out of the store.

Down a wide passage lined with gaudy sports apparel shops and gewgaw stores, he passed a kiosk where a young lady shrugging a tattooed shoulder chatted with a bearded man. They seemed quite familiar. He heard murmuring. He looked away and up into the atrium soaring, one, two, three flights above him. The hall he had wandered down led him to this echoey vault that stretched up and off to the right and left as well. The unsteady feeling he had brought in from the bus stop surged. His legs felt tired. He was thirsty. He gaped at the skylights forty feet above. Clouds had gathered. The sun darkened.

“Can I help you?”

It was the young shrugging lady. “I, I’d like some water.“

He felt parched. A bit dizzy. He had been leaning on her counter.

“Well, there is the food court down that way.” “Food court?”

“You can get water at McDonald’s.” “McDonald’s?”

“Henry, maybe you’d better show him.”

Henry sauntered round his side. He peered into Lloyd’s face. “You’re sweating, Bud,” he said.

Then, Henry took his elbow. He noticed Henry wore a uniform jacket, like the lady had taken off and draped over her driver’s seat. He didn’t like the way Henry squeezed his arm.

“This way. I’ll show you.”

They moved off to the left, around other kiosks. He

looked back but couldn’t see the tattooed girl. Why didn’t he ask Alice to come? He pulled to free his elbow but Henry tightened his hold.

“It’s just down here. He indicated a narrow hallway.

You’ll see.”

“What? Oh!” He felt weak.

“McDonald’s. The water. You want some water, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes. And I’d like to sit down.”

“No problemo, Bud.”

He didn’t like being called “Bud.” He didn’t like the way Henry steered his elbow.

“Here we are, McDonald’s. Sit here, I’ll get you a cup.”

Henry steered him to a plastic seat and table behind the little white-picket fence that had an M worked into its stiles. The seat was harder than the bus seats. He wanted to be on the bus again going home. Alice would understand. But where was the bus stop? Now he was turned around. How many turns had he taken? Had he been there before? Maybe, but a long time ago. The mall was too big now. What had happened to Johnson Company? It seemed to him to have been just inside the door, but now that lingerie shop was there, those ladies, neither of whom were Alice. When had all that changed?

“Here’s your water. Water with ice.” “Water.”

“Listen, Bud, sit here, drink your water, and I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

Henry put his hand on the table and leaned toward him, looking at him intently.

“Just stay here until I get back. Okay?”

He nodded but he didn’t like the way Henry said “Okay.” He didn’t know who Henry was. He drank some of the water. It was cold. Then he wasn’t thirsty anymore. He looked around. Henry was gone. The woman across the room tossed the end of a scarf over her shoulder. That’s what he could look for.

Alice would like a scarf.

He looked around for Henry. Out of the food court, down the long hallway, he turned right, away from the tattooed girl’s kiosk. Three stores displayed scarves in their windows.

He looked at hundreds of scarves of knit cotton in stripes and snowflake patterns, of silk in paisley and dotted patterns—some had famous paintings screened on them; he recognized the painters—and of wool in dozens of shades and colors displayed in a linear rainbow of hues.

Later he was looking at blouses in more prints and colors, some sequined in spiral patterns on the sleeves. Hundreds of different blouses. For a short time he looked at bras and slips, but the sales clerks kept asking if he needed help.

Then he looked at kitchen gadgets. Alice would like this. It was for squeezing limes. Then tea pots with little yellow flowers on them. Table settings: plates, deep bowls, soup bowls, cups and saucers, salad plates, dessert plates, pitchers; in twelve different colors, butter dishes and salt and pepper shakers. Silverware. Hundreds. The chef knives sharp, sinister. He turned away.

Chairs! No, he couldn’t buy furniture, It wasn’t personal, and it wouldn’t fit on the bus. But he sat in chairs, lay on beds all made up in a half dozen layers of sheets and covers and ruffles and bolsters, beds full of blankets, duvets, covers, coverlets, shams, pillows cases on puffy pillows, embroidered covers, shaggy comforters. He didn’t know what kind of bed Alice had. He sat in over-stuffed, deep, leather reading chairs, on dining room chairs holding backs straight and severe, on floppy director’s chairs and tall maple stools. No, furniture wouldn’t work.

Then he looked for records. She liked music, but he could not find records—just these little things.

Ten stores sold T-shirts, dozens of T-shirts.

More showed shoes in the windows. What was her size?

More scarves. Music boxes. He liked the music boxes. Did she?

Glassware. Champagne glasses?

Mirrors, brushes, combs, make-up, a thousand little bottles, tubes, jars, vials.

In a bright store phones, computers, little things he had never seen before. Alice would not like them.

More shoes.

Ah, a store selling stationery. But the array, the incredible, confusing, overwhelming numbers of papers with matching envelopes and pens displayed in fan- shaped boxes and placards confounded him, put him off entirely.

He found many things Alice would like. None of them seemed just right. All of it whispered to him: buy me, buy me, no, me, me! There were too many things. Rows and racks and rails of things. Rows of racks and rails. Rows of rows. All sitting out there; you could touch each one. Not one floor, not two floors, or three, but floors and floors of things. He touched each one. He moved through displays and stores as in dreams, endless, nebulous seeking, never able to find. Finally he had wandered near the top.

He looked up through the skylight just overhead now. He heard the drops tapping on the panes. It was raining. The sky was black and wet. He was hungry. The weather looked cold, forbidding. Now, it poured. He didn’t know where the bus stop was. In all the clutter, he hadn’t found anything for Alice. There was nothing just for her here. He grew unsteady. It all seemed false. Thirst thrust its fingers near again. His throat ached dryly. Rain fell. It grew darker above him.

“There you are, Bud. I thought you were going to sit tight.”

“Is this the guy?” Another man in the same bus- driver-uniform looked down on him over the driver’s side of the electric golf cart Henry drove.

“I’m, I need to get something.“

“Yeah, I know. It’s been two hours since I told you to stay put.”

“Alice. I need to get something for Alice.” “Listen, Bud, what is it you want, for Alice?”

“I want, I want to get something, something she likes. She is so kind.”

“Sure, Bud, but we can’t have you wandering around here getting lost, you’ve . . . . led us on a big chase here and . . . .”

Above the skylights, lightning crackled. He fell to his knees. The floor was hard and hurt. He felt very weak. The rain murmured above, he heard voices mixing with the rain. The bus. Alice. Why couldn’t he find something for Alice?

“Up we go. Cal, grab his other arm there.“ Cal squeezed hard. Henry dragged him up.

“We’re going to help you here, Bud. Just sit up in the cart and everything will be all right. Can you call Alice?

That’s right, sit there with Cal.”

The seats were more comfortable. First the elevator, padded walls quieting the ride. He felt steadier then, better. The polished floors moved under him like a smooth river. He saw McDonald’s; his cup of water was still on the table. He liked being whisked away from the confusion and lies. And Alice? Would she understand?

 

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Comments
  1. Michele Sullivan says:

    Very compelling read and also disturbing.
    What we don’t ever want to happen.
    You know after a while where it’s going but you hope you don’t but you want to keep reading…

    Like

  2. Lila Christensen says:

    Tim, This story drew me into the man’s thoughts, memories, and confusions and I was captivated! A wonderful, yet difficult, story.

    Liked by 1 person

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