As always, the bus was late. The first snow of the year had fallen, and a crisp, silver halo had begun to form around the full moon, whose blue light shone brightly, even through the glow of the yellow street lamps. I switched my cigarette to the other hand and put the cold one in my pocket.
I gazed at the city skyline and took a big, long draw of smoke, thinking of how peaceful the snow makes everything. The longer I had to wait for this bus the more frustrated I became, until I just told myself that this was nobody’s fault and to relax, to bottle up the anger. I began to think of everything I was going to say if I ever made it to the Red Moose in time for dinner. As I was standing there in my half dreaming state I saw the figure of a man approaching from down the road. He was limping a bit, and moving slowly. He looked drunk. By the time he got to where I was standing I had sized him up thoroughly, and thought that if he was going to start something I could easily take him. I wasn’t afraid, but he didn’t look right, either. He stopped close to where I was and said hello, turned around once, twice, and stood staring out into the night with his chin pointed upward, his jaw slack and his arms akimbo.
I supposed that he was waiting for the bus.
Another minute passed, and still there was no sign of the 52, so I took out another JPS and popped it into my mouth. I noticed that the man had done the same thing, at the same time—with the same twist of the wrist I had learned in Poland, as if he was miming me. I brought out my lighter, gave it a flick and lit my smoke. He jerked toward me and gave me a start. Got a light? he asked. Sure, I said, and handed him my lighter. When he finished lighting his Matinee Extra Light, he held the lighter out to me and said Hi, I’m Jim. I took my lighter and said Hey, Mick. He put his hand back on his hip, and turned and stared out into the night.
I really wanted to mind my own business. I was content in my warm thoughts, and wanted nothing more than to forget my freezing hands and numb toes and lateness. I looked down at my boots and kicked some snow onto the street. As I turned to look for the bus down the street, I saw Jim smoking. In no more than three puffs the cigarette was down to the filter. I was enraptured by his approach: smoke billowed out of his nose, his mouth, his ears, out of his hat. His eyes seemed to be focused on a point somewhere in the distance. He pinched off the tip of the cigarette, put it in his pocket, pulled out another cigarette and put it in his mouth. Then he pulled a handful of lighters from his coat pocket. His coat was nothing more than the shell of an old ski jacket over a green, black and red woolen pullover. Not zipped up, but flapping loosely by his sides. He lit the cigarette. Before I’d taken three puffs, he had destroyed two entire cigarettes.
The bus appeared down the road. The bus is early, he said. No, it’s late, I said. It’s scheduled to come at six fifty-nine, he said, and pulled his coat sleeve over his wristwatch. It’s only six fifty-three. Yeah, I shrugged. I’m going home, he said. Where you going? For dinner, I said.
The bus rolled up to the curb, with its squealing brakes and huffing engine. I got on first. As I walked to the back I kept saying to myself, please don’t sit next to me, please don’t sit next to me. I figured Jim for a talker, and I wanted some solitude. There was one other guy on the bus, way at the back. He looked kind of shady, so I took a seat in the last row of forward-facing seats. Jim was standing at the front of the bus. You’re early, he said to the bus driver, who said, No, I’m late. It’s not good to be late, Jim said. I’m never late, he continued; I smoke three cigarettes in the morning after breakfast and I’m right to the bus stop at seven-fifteen. I can’t afford to be late, I have a regimen. Being early’s not so bad. The driver ignored him. Jim went on until the driver said, listen, buddy, sit down. Just sit down, I have to drive the bus. Jim stood there for a moment with his mouth open. He moved to the seats at the front and was making to sit down—he bent his legs and placed his ass above a seat, but the bus screeched to a stop and he tipped over sideways and hit the floor with one knee. Ahh, he said. The floor was mucky with slush and his pants got soaked. Ahh, bugger, he said loudly. He walked back up to the front of the bus. The driver said, you gotta make sure you’re sitting down or holding on, buddy. What do you want me to do? Jim said. He looked angry, as if he might yell at the driver, or hit him, but he turned around and went back to where he had tried to sit, and sat down.
He looked to the back of the bus and caught my eye. He was a little red in the face and I looked away quickly. I was just minding my own business, and nothing there concerned me. Still, I felt like I had walked into some unavoidable tragedy. I shook my head and laughed inside. These things always happen to me. I always fall into bad situations. I’m too sensitive. Whenever I see somebody struggling I begin to get lonely and heartachey. My own troubles seem superficial. I hate feeling sorry for people, because the world isn’t perfect and I can’t feel sorry for every unfortunate bastard I come across. I don’t like this unstable environment. My imagination starts to run through all the scenarios. Beatings, armed robberies, blood and guts: this Jim fellow might have had some notion to smash the bus driver’s head in or follow me off the bus and brutalize me. The longer I looked at my own reflection in the window the more uncomfortable I became. I looked at Jim and saw that he was now staring straight ahead of him, out the side windows. His face was still flushed, but he seemed calm. Good, I thought. No need for anyone to get violent.
A minute passed in silence. I noticed that Jim looked a lot like my friend Darcy. That’s not so bad, except that Darcy is a woman. I found myself staring at him again. I saw his reflection in the window and imagined that rather than staring out into the dark he was watching me stare at his reflection. He had a cool expression in his eyes. I thought maybe he was lost in thought, or that he was just some vacant idiot, but then he turned toward me and smiled; it felt really awkward. I froze. He got up very slowly without taking his eyes off of me and walked to the back of the bus. I looked out the window. My heart raced. He stopped at the back door. I could see his reflection in my window, looking at me, with that smile on his face. He rang the bell. The bus stopped and the back door opened. It felt like he stood there for an eternity, looking at me with the door open. I turned to him. Thanks for the light, Mick, he said, and got off the bus.
Shit, that was my stop. I rode to the next one so I wouldn’t run into him. I pulled the little green box out of my coat pocket and began to fiddle with it. The silver ring inside was sparkling like a bejeweled moon. My heart sank. Just the night to be late, I thought. Why did I take the bus?