by Jarred Martin
The cold gray of winter had settled over the city in a fog that merged with the drab concrete edifices, turning the world into an ashen blur.
Ellen sat down on the bench and let the cold creep into her body, listening to the blare of traffic and inhaling the stink of gasoline and car exhaust. She was waiting for the number four bus to take her across town.
“I let him die,” a voice beside her said.
Ellen ignored the voice and looked down the street to see if her bus was coming.
“I said I let him die,” the voice repeated.
Ellen turned to see an old woman, a few years older than herself. The hood of her coat was up and only the small white oval of her face shown. “Are you speaking to me?” Ellen asked.
“I let him die,” the old woman said a third time. “He was having a heart attack and he fell on the floor, grabbing at his chest. He begged me to help him, but I just stood and watched him toss on the living room rug. I could have called an ambulance, or the police, or got a neighbor, but I just stood and watched until he was dead. I told the police it happened while I was out buying groceries.”
“Who?” asked Ellen.
A moment of silence hung between them like plumes of breath exhaled into the open air.
“But why didn’t you help him?” asked Ellen.
The old woman’s shrug was barely perceptible beneath her coat. “Dunno. I was just tired, I guess. Tired of him. He wasn’t a bad man. He never hurt me, but I was tired, so I let him go. He just couldn’t surprise me anymore. Even if he did, the way he surprised me would be unsurprising.” She shrugged again. “So what’s the use?”
Ellen didn’t know what to say. Her instinct would have been to tell the old woman she was sorry, but why should she be sorry when the woman clearly wasn’t? So instead she said, “Good lordy.”
“Good lordy indeed. Okay, I told you one, now you tell me one. But it has to be a good one or it doesn’t count.”
“A good one what?” asked Ellen.
The woman gave her a look usually reserved for dumb dogs who don’t know how to sit on command. “Secrets,” she said patiently. “Tell me something no one else knows. But it has to be something good.”
“I don’t think I have any,” said Ellen.
“Everybody has secrets. You can’t live as long a you have without keeping a few secrets. Go ahead. I won’t judge you. I’ll just listen.”
“I think I’d rather wait for my bus in silence, thank you.”
“It’ll make you feel better,” the old woman said. “I’ll tell you another one. But afterwards, you have to tell me something really good.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Ellen said.
“Too bad. Now, let’s see.” The woman paused, thinking. “Oh, here’s one. You’ll like this: When I was a little girl I stole a pocket watch that belonged to my friend’s father. I took it right off his bureau and hid it in my dress,” the old woman laughed. “And when his father discovered his watch was missing, he beat little Ben so bad he couldn’t go to school for almost a week.” She laughed again.
“That’s horrible,” said Ellen.
“Yes, I suppose so. They were poor folk, too. That watch was the only thing of value they had. An heirloom it was.”
“Well, what did you do with it?” asked Ellen.
“That old thing?” She waved her hand. “I didn’t even want it, but I was too ashamed to tell Ben what I had done, so I buried it in my backyard. Still there as far as I know; rusting in the dirt.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Ellen.
“Why not? I’m never going to see you again. An old woman spills her guts to you at a bus stop; in a week you won’t remember what she said. My little secrets will flutter away, drift right out of your head, but I still get to unburden my soul. Catholics do it at church. Drunks do it at their meetings. I do it at bus stops because I’m Presbyterian and I only have a glass of wine at dinner.”
“And it really helps you to tell these things to strangers?” Ellen asked.
The woman shrugged. “To speak truth disencumbers a heavy heart. Mine’s so light sometimes I have to swallow to keep it down. So are you going to tell me one or what? I’ve already told you two. It’s only fair.”
“I’m thinking,” said Ellen. “Okay, I tell everyone that my spaghetti sauce has fresh tomatoes in it, but they’re canned. And no one even knows the difference!” Ellen sat back on the bench, pleased with herself.
The old woman’s eyes grew wide beneath the hood of her coat. Shocked, she gripped the seat to steady herself before letting loose a piercing wail. “Police! Po-oo-liiice!” She screamed at the disinterested populace hurrying by on the sidewalk behind them. “I’ve caught her! She’s confessed it all to me! I’ve caught the Tinned Tomato Bandit!”
“Stop that,” said Ellen, but the woman only screamed louder. “Get the constable! Alert the media! This woman is a criminal!”
Ellen, flustered, not knowing what else to do, blurted out, “I slept with my brother-in-law.”
The old woman stifled immediately and grinned at Ellen, waiting for her to continue.
“Well I did. He was living with us — me and my husband. He was out of work after his construction company went bankrupt and my husband was gone for his job a lot of the time. And one night we just... we just found ourselves together. It was only the one time, and after that I told my husband I didn’t want his brother staying with us anymore. I told him I didn’t feel comfortable being alone in the house with him all day. So he sent him out. I don’t think he ever forgave my husband for it.”
Ellen looked at the ground, afraid to meet the woman’s gaze; afraid of the condemnation that might be there, afraid to see herself reflected in the woman’s tight black eyes. “I never told anybody that before.”
“It was a corker, though,” the woman said. “How does it feel? Kinda good, isn’t it?”
Ellen nodded, the corners of her mouth curved upward a little.
“Why don’t you tell me another one while you’re at it. I told you two. You say another one and we’ll be square. Then I’ll tell you one and we can trade off till the bus gets here, okay?”
“I don’t know,” said Ellen.
“Oh I think you know all right. I don’t think I’ll have to drag it out of you. So go on.”
“All right,” said Ellen. “This one’s bad, though.”
“I hope so. The worse the better. Let me hear it.”
“When my daughter was about sixteen,” Ellen began, “she used to run around with this Negro boy. I’m not prejudiced. I don’t have a hateful bone in my body, but it was a different time back then. You know that. I don’t need to explain it.”
The old woman gave her a coaxing nod.
“Anyway, the two of them being together was only going to amount to trouble. So one night when I knew he’d be home alone, I called his house and I sort of disguised my voice real low with a Southern accent, and I said: ‘Boy, if I ever see you, or even hear about you going with white girls again, you will be swinging from that oak tree in your own front yard, and your momma and your daddy will cry when they have to cut you down, I promise you that.’ And good lordy, that poor boy started to bawl. I don’t think anyone had ever talked to him like that in his life.” Ellen laughed.
The old woman laughed too. “I bet he turned white as a Kluxer’s bedsheet.”
This cracked Ellen up even more, to the point where she had to flap her hand up and down to shush the old woman. “You shouldn’t joke like that,” she said when she caught her breath. “Someone might hear you.”
“Oh, nobody’s paying attention to two old hens cackling on a bus bench.”
Ellen wiped a tear from her eye. “All right, I’ve got another one.”
“No, you had your turn. Now it’s my turn,” said the old woman.
“All right then. You go ahead.”
“I hit a boy on a bicycle.”
“What were you doing on a bicycle?” asked Ellen.
“I wasn’t. I was in a Buick,” said the old lady.
“Oh yes. I was coming back from the doctor’s and I looked down for a second to adjust the heat, and when I looked up again there was a little boy rolling across my windshield. I slammed on the brakes and I looked at him; I didn’t get out. When I saw he was still moving, that he wasn’t dead, I took off. Drove right over his bicycle. That’s why I have to take the bus. It happened so close to my neighborhood, I’m afraid someone might see me driving through and recognize me.”
The two women sat in silence as the traffic rolled by in the street. Ellen began to laugh. It started as a low chortle and crescendoed to a mad howl that made the muscles in her stomach ache. Soon the old woman was shrieking laughter along with her, and they were both screaming and convulsing in fits of manic glee.
“I steal money from the church collection plate every week.” Ellen spat out in a breathless gush between seizures of laughter.
“I gave my husband’s dog to the pound and told him it ran away,” the old woman cried.
“I haven’t spoken to my daughter in nineteen years because she married outside her religion. I wouldn’t even go to her wedding.”
“I told Abner Lloyd that I was pregnant, even though I wasn’t, and that the baby was his. And a few months later, when he asked me why I wasn’t showing I told him I had an abortion because I couldn’t stand the thought of him being someone’s father.”
Ellen threw her head back over the bench and screamed with delight. She had to stop herself from sliding off her seat she was laughing so hard. Her eyes were blurry with tears, and the muscles around her mouth were sore and burning. She didn’t hear the pneumatic hiss of the bus’ air-brakes as it pulled up to the stop.
Ellen’s mirth was cut short as she realized the harmony of laughter had receded to a solo. She sat up and opened her eyes and saw the old woman standing, smoothing the front of her skirt. She was leaving her. She was getting on the bus.
“Is that the number four?” asked Ellen.
“I hope not,” said the old woman, “because I’m about to get on, and if it’s the number four then I’ll be going in the wrong direction across town. It’s been lovely talking to you. Take care now.”
Ellen watched her go up the steps, and then the doors shut and she was gone.
Her heart sank a little as the bus pulled away: she had been having such a good time.
She sighed, lonely on the bench, looking once more down the street to see if her bus was coming while the traffic passed by, vomiting fogs of exhaust into the atmosphere.
Later, a young woman in a Burberry coat sat on the seat beside her.
Ellen looked over and smiled at her.
The young woman returned the smile. “Is this the number four?”
Ellen, still smiling, said, “When I was in the second grade I took Evelyn’s choo-choo and hid it in the culvert by the school. She never found it.” Ellen giggled. “That’s so bad, don’t you think?”
The woman got up holding her purse up by her chest. She walked away, muttering something to herself. Ellen could only make out the word ‘crazy.’
Ellen remained on the bench. The number four bus came and went and left Ellen sitting alone, waiting for someone to take the empty seat next to her.
She pulled up her coat collar. The day was cold and new, and she had so much to reveal.
Copyright © 2014 by Jarred Martin