Gray skies. Unremitting light rain. Barren, naked trees shivered as cold winds passed unimpeded through their limbs. Winter had made its way into Eugene. With it came winter smells. Peppermint, gingerbread, pumpkin pie, hot chocolate—seductive fragrances counterposed by something sour and sharp. Wet clothes and hair. This latter pungent aroma had been sprayed in excess across the seats of the Emerald Express like a free sample bottle of perfume in a mall.
Yes, holiday cheer smelled a lot different on the bus. Holiday cheer smelled like bygone memories and dirt-stained clothes saturated in Mother Nature’s washing machine. Holiday cheer smelled like tangled hair clinging damply to unshaven faces and backpacks stuffed with wet, mildewing content lounging on a seat next to their owner. The backpacks, happy to be inside, graciously soaked the cloth padding of the seat for the next rider.
The scent was multiplied by the excess of riders during the winter months. People sought the warmth of the bus like moths to a flame. They frequently boarded with no destination in mind, content to luxuriate in dry comfort. The braking and jostling of the bus paled in comparison to biting cold and the incessant patter of rain against a tent body.
I was aboard the bus on a winter day. My nostrils flared at the odor. It was a living, breathing smell. It strolled up and down the single aisle introducing itself and settling in next to passengers for a conversation. It had a lot of old tales to impart if you were willing to listen. Well, it actually didn’t matter if you were willing to listen. It chatted and chatted like a gregarious older relative without the need for a reciprocating partner.
I gazed absentmindedly out the front of the bus while the effluvia washed over me. The windshield wipers swept back and forth like pendulums. Then, the thrum of a conversation caught my ear. Conversation in the bus typically floated about me mostly unregistered, but this arrangement and octave of words pierced the din with their ringing note of distress.
“Did it scare you? Did it scare you when I touched you with my hand?” a whining, supplicating voice inquired.
“I wasn’t scared. I wouldn’t call it scared. It just took me off guard is all,” a gruff male voice replied. His words were choppy and short with frustration.
The conversation was coming from across the aisle. I panned my gaze to the left.
In the lower front-facing seat sat an older man. He sported a full white beard and wore a large, military-issue green backpack. Its bulging contents crowded the seat, so the man sat precariously on the edge. An aged baseball cap was pushed down firmly on his head.
“Would you like to talk about it? Would you like to talk about how you felt?” A young woman sat on the elevated, aisle-facing seat right above the old man. Her body was turned to face him. She wore a wet, purple sweatshirt that was much too big. It hung on her like a giant eggplant.
“Look, I’m not the person you want to talk to.” The man’s tone didn’t welcome negotiation.
The woman looked down between her knees and kneaded her hands together. The kneading continued and grew more vigorous. It took me a second to realize her hands weren’t engaging in a nervous activity, but a gladiatorial struggle against one another. Her left hand was desperately trying to escape the grasp of the right hand. It was thumb wars but with all fingers in play—a mad, desperate battle. The dust settled and the left hand emerged victorious and ripped itself away from the right hand’s grasp. The defeated right hand dropped into the woman’s lap like a dead fish. Her left hand, hovering mid-air above her lap, clasped and unclasped into a fist as if it was an escaped convict breathing fresh air for the first time in ages. Then the left hand stiffened with fingers outstretched, poised for action. The right hand had just been the cell door guard caught unaware. There was still an obstacle before true liberation could be achieved. The woman shifted in her seat and cast a furtive glance from her free hand towards the back of the man sitting in front of her.
I almost choked as the woman’s left hand began to slowly drift into the abyss between herself and the man like an astronaut taking their first step into space. Slowly, ponderously, methodically, the left hand crept through the air. Closer. Closer. The prison wall was almost within reach. One more valiant push and . . . the alarm system blared to life. Some sixth sense had alerted the man of the escapee and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“You don’t want to touch me, lady. I’m a veteran.” The man added the last sentence venomously as if it was a threat that required no further explanation.
The left hand floundered like it had been shot. The great plan had been foiled right at the precipice of victory. The left hand returned dejectedly to the cruel confinement of the right hand.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I have a neurological disorder. I’m so stupid, I’m sorry.” The woman looked down between her knees and kneaded her hands together.
Something in the woman’s sad, plaintive words crossed the bus like her hand never could and touched the man. His face softened, grew younger, and his scowl relaxed into a sad smile.
“You’re not stupid. Don’t let anyone, especially yourself, ever call you stupid. Everyone has things they’re working on or experiencing. That doesn’t make them stupid and it definitely doesn’t make you stupid.” The tone was forceful, but kind.
The woman continued looking down between her knees and nodded. Her eyes glistened.
The man pulled the cord to get off at the next stop. He got to his feet and shimmied into the aisle with his large turtle shell. He looked down at the woman and opened his mouth as if to say something, but then he clamped his mouth shut. The woman concentrated on her still hands in her lap.
The bus doors opened. The old man lingered for a moment before he turned and silently headed out. The doors closed and the bus lurched forward.
“Thank you.” It was a small whisper that wafted through the bars of a prison cell.