Marianne Waits for the Bus by Richard Hackler
Marianne Waits for the Bus
Tonight, Marianne wore headphones as she waited for her bus. They were big and bulky—air-traffic controller headphones, jackhammer-operator headphones—and she wore them over the stocking cap her mother knit for her three months before she died. I cannot hear you, these headphones said to those standing near her. Do not try to talk to me. The cord snaked through her coat and into the front pocket of her dress-pants, where it connected to nothing.
Snow was falling, insubstantial as flecks of cotton, as feathers from an exploded pillow: she could feel it mounding on her hat, melting through the wool and wetting her hair. The hat was a rich purple, with an orange triangle knit in its center. This was a beak. Above this were two egg-shaped eyes, and, protruding from the top, just behind the band for Marianne’s headphones, were two half circles, which were the ears of the hat. It was not a hat that one could wear in a casual way. It attracted sidelong glances, across-the-street stares, quick double-takes. Sometimes there were remarks: what an interesting hat! Or: where did you get such an interesting hat? Marianne felt unwilling to field more of these questions. And, as she waited for her bus, her headphones muffled the sounds of the city around her and she began to feel very, very pleased with herself.
“It’s an owl,” her mother had said, three years earlier, when she gave the hat to Marianne. She was sitting sideways on her sofa: her body buried beneath an accumulation of quilts, her head tilted against the cushion so that her words curled towards the ceiling. A portable CD player on the coffee table played Paul McCartney’s first solo album—which her mother had been listening to on repeat since her first chemotherapy treatment, and whose songs were now filling up with her mother, would now hold her mother the way a glass holds water—and Marianne sat next to her mother’s feet, reached forward, turned it down. “It’s a funny hat,” her mother said. “I made it for you because you it’s a funny hat.” There was a malignant tumor spreading from her brainstem down her spinal cord. Marianne pulled the hat over her ears, testing what it would feel like to be someone who wore this hat. She blinked at her mother. Her mother smiled and blinked back.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun sank behind the downtown office towers, Marianne would stand outside the public library and wait for the bus that brought her home. If it was warm enough, she would remove her mittens, shove them in her jacket pocket, and read the book she’d brought with her to work. She favored arcane subject matter: books about the salt trade, books relating the history of northern European commercial herring fisheries, biographies of long-ago popes. Because the world—the world outside of work, and bus-stops, and empty conversations had at bus-stops, and sad dates with unremarkable men, and late November snow-events and this gray, potholed city—this world was a large and complex place. It was important to remind yourself of this.
Marianne would lift her head, sometimes, as she waited for her bus and watch the city ignite around her: the streetlights snapping on; the cars flipping on their headlights, one by one, up and down the street. The light draining from sky and pooling indoors, behind the windows of the coffee shops and bars where people drank happy-hour beers and laughed loudly with their hands covering their mouths. She felt, then, standing motionless with her book pressed against her chest, like a fixed star around which the dervishing world flashed, erupted, and burst.
She liked to read aloud to herself, her left hand holding the book and her right index finger tracing her progress along the page. When she read like this she would get stuck inside sentences, would stop and start over because she liked the feel of the words as she said them. “The royal tables of medieval Renaissance French kingdoms were set with huge, ornate nefs, in this case jeweled vessels holding salt…” She would read this, then stop, and start over, and walk back through the sentence as though it were a hallway lined with portraits: “Jeweled vessels. Holding. Salt…” This was how Marianne read books.
There were men, sometimes, who waited with her at the stop, and these men would sometimes smile hopefully in her direction. When this happened Marianne would stiffen where she stood, would keep her head down, would keep moving her lips, but the man would sometimes stare and smile until he summoned the nerve to open his mouth and say, Hi. And though Marianne wouldn’t move, he would open his mouth again: That’s some hat, he would say. And: What are you reading?
She would look up. Because you needed to look up when people spoke with you. She would flash him a smile that was not really a smile, hold up her book so that he could read the cover and then lower it again, start moving her lips again, but the man often pressed on to say, Salt? Is there really an entire book about salt? Or, Enjoying some light reading I see ha ha! Or, How come you’re reading that? Are you in school? and she would be forced, then, to lift her head, to bring him into focus, to drop her book to her side and say, in a voice that hardened her words as they left her mouth: No, it isn’t for a class. And she would raise her eyebrows at the man and smile more broadly, would show this man all of her teeth, would make clear with her expression that Marianne did not regard the man seriously, that she deemed him a nuisance, but he would not notice or would choose not to notice and they would continue with a conversation like this:
Then why are you reading it?
I don’t know why I am reading it. I work at the library. I scan in books, and sometimes they look interesting to me and I check them out.
You work at the library?
I work at the library.
How did you get that job?
My mother got me that job.
That seems as though it would be an enjoyable place to work. Is that an enjoyable place to work?
It is sometimes an enjoyable place to work.
And at some point the bus would appear, would pull to the curb, would rumble and hiss and open its door, and Marianne would look at the bus. Anyway, she would say, and then tuck her book beneath her arm and dart inside, hoping this meant that she could refrain from engaging the bus-stop man in further conversation.
Well, goodnight, I guess, the man would say as Marianne swiped her farecard and moved quickly to find a seat.
There would be no such incidents tonight. Marianne was wearing headphones tonight. She read her book and on her hat and shoulders the snow continued to settle.
Marianne did not speak often or loudly. She played piano, sometimes, after work, in the hotel lobby across the street from the library. She liked to read books in public spaces and forget that there was a public space around her. Her movements when she occupied these spaces were fluid and precise—look at her, say, at the bus-stop, now, reading her book, moving her lips and beginning to smile, slowly, because this sentence is so lovely, and now she’s raising her free hand to adjust her hat and pulling it down over hear ears, slowly, still reading, her smile faint but not fading, lifting up her boot and turning her toe into the sidewalk as though she were extinguishing a cigarette, but, really: she just loves this book so much, loves the sound of the words, and this love is animating her body so that she cannot hold still.
And Marianne attracted men who saw in these actions some sad and hard-won interiority that they wanted to get mired in. These men were gaunt and hollow-eyed. These men were majoring or had majored in English. These men wanted to drown their bony faces in her chest and write prose poetry about her fragrance animating their blood. These men were reedy and nervous and looked at her with eyes that seemed always to be asking for something. They came into the library when she worked and looked at the floor as she scanned their books (their Beckett, their Nabokov, their Marianne Moore—and she wanted to say to these men: You are not special, you know, for reading these books. I have read these books, too), and when she printed their receipt and slid their books across the table and told them to En-joy! they’d look up at her and say, Hey: so what are you doing after work? And then they’d ask her in quick, small voices to go for walks by the lake, or to meet them at Jitters for cups of coffee, to accompany them to bars later and listen to bands with names like Ass Lobster. Ass Lobster is playing a set at the Red Lion tonight. They’re really great. Sort of post-rockish, but not too dancey. You should come.
And Marianne would look at these men as though they were paintings she couldn’t interpret. She would look at them squirming beneath the library’s florescent lights and feel nothing.
But you needed to try. Right? Yes: you needed to try. And so, sometimes, she would inhale deeply and say in a voice like a shrug, Okay. And she would smile. What time? And she would go out with these men, and lean her elbows on coffee shop tables, tilt her head and listen to them speak about the graduate assistantships for which they were applying, their plans to teach in Korea, maybe, someday, maybe next year, listen to them speak about the movies they’d recently seen, these men were always discovering Jim Jarmusch and wanting to talk about his films (“With Jarmusch, it’s about the spaces between the dialogue. That’s where the movie really lives. Do you know what I mean?”). She would follow them into sticky-floored bars and stand near them as they drank either very cheap or very expensive beer, and she would gamely bob her head along to music that sounded like several chainsaws operating at once. And after the show she would walk outside with these men and consider their faces beneath the streetlight—their eyes glassy, their mouths opening and closing in a drowning, beached-fish way—she would look at them and feel cavernous, as if her insides contained a vacant lot, an abandoned warehouse. And they would look down at the sidewalk, these men, their breaths freezing and hanging in the air, and Marianne would think—would actually think, would write the words in her head’s empty sky: I am ready. Give me something. Please, please, give me anything. I am ready. Marianne was an unlit candle. Marianne was an unfurnished house.
And the men would sometimes say, I had a good time, and smile weakly, and shrug, and shuffle past her and away.
They would sometimes say, I really like you, and wince, as if waiting to be struck.
They would sometimes step forward, part the hair from her face and dart in for a birdlike kiss before moving back to look at her, curious.
She was a windsock waiting to be whipped around. Sometimes she followed these men to their homes, where they would give her wine and bring her to bed and undress and paw at her and move their mouths up and down her body.
The last of these men sat up in bed after and asked if he could read her a poem he’d written. Marianne said nothing, waited, and the man began reading in a slow voice meant to imbue each word with gravity and magic. She focused on the shadows jigwawed across his ceiling and started hearing his voice as sound without sense, as a radio station not-quite in tune. She imagined interrupting him. What can you do? she would say. What can you do? People die, they leave you behind, and you can only grieve for so long. You can’t stay forever in the guest bedrooms of aunts and uncles, can’t sleep always in twelve hour increments, can’t spend the rest of your life sobbing in supermarkets whenever the sound system plays a smooth-jazz version of “Maybe I’m Amazed”. You need to move on, to reach inside yourself and remove your grief by force, tear it out in fistfuls, in clumps, like guts from a pumpkin. You do this so you can go to the grocery store without breaking down. You do this so you can live your life.
But what if you take out too much? she would say. How can you be sure not to take out too much? She realized, then, that she needed this man to stop speaking, right now. Stop, she said. Please just stop.
These men: they wanted you dumb and fawning. They wanted you in your underwear, strumming a ukulele while they sat at their desks and got drunk and composed neosymbolist poetry on their Macbooks. And they wanted you to weep with gratitude when they recited it for you.
I guess you didn’t like it, he said, and Marianne shook her head, slid from his bed, dressed to leave.
Here comes Marianne’s bus, rumbling down the street, now pulling to the curb. Marianne’s bus is here and this is how it will go:
The door will open, and Marianne will climb the stairs, swipe her farecard, and stagger up the aisle as the bus lurches forward. She’ll find her seat and slide over to be near the window, and rest her head against it so that the coolness of the outside seeps through her hat, and she’ll watch the lights of the downtown bars and coffee shops blur by and imagine the conversations of the people sitting in booths. And she’ll think of her mother in her hospice room, just a few blocks from here, her eyes open and empty. And Marianne will think of the episodes of Jeopardy she watched in that room as her mother died, and the smalltalk she made with aunts and uncles as her mother died, and the cafeteria hamburgers she ate in that room as her mother died. And she’ll think, and try to sharpen her thoughts so that they break through her skull and become real in the wide world outside of her head, outside of the bus—she’ll think that it is not enough to be receptive. It is not enough to be open and empty and waiting. A person needs to have something inside of her. A person needs something to give. She will think, and think, until, finally, this thought scrolls through her head: Tomorrow, I will walk into one of these coffee shops, maybe. I will order a drink and say hello, to the barista, to the women staring at laptops, to the brooding English majors reading Lacan or whatever, to anyone around, I will say hello and I will mean it. I will say how are you, do you mind if I join you, please, please, if you have a moment, let’s drink this coffee, let’s talk about our days.