watch, read, listen, observe, absorb
This story appeared in the Short and Twisted anthology in 2011, by Celapene Press.
On the bus on the way to work I sat with a man who cried quietly for the duration of the trip, he was blonde and pale, his head craned to the left to stare out the window. The skin on the back of his neck was red and blotched and he clasped and unclasped his hands as they rested on the clean brown leather satchel on his lap. His suit was beige with a thin white pinstripe that ran at three centimetre intervals.
At first I thought he was laughing at something he heard through the headphones running from his ears to his pocket. I realised he was crying when he made a high keening sound. His sobs shook his body and our shared seat shuddered beneath us.
I knew that to say anything would be to say, ‘Are you ok?’ but I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do, and if it was, what then. What would I say next? I considered that here was a man, about to hit rock bottom, and that one kind word might help him.
Then I saw the man, now with his arms crossed, neck twisted farther to the left and I imagined the moment when the words were uttered and how the whole bus would turn and he would be exposed, there, for twenty five people to see him in his grief. And the people on the bus would go on to share this emotion with friends, colleagues, strangers, and the moment would mean nothing to them but everything to him.
So I said nothing.
When I got off the bus I walked two blocks toward my office. Past the shoe store that sells old men’s shoes and comfortable women’s loafers, through St James Arcade, past the jewellery stores still empty of jewels to stand on the footpath, where I waited for the lights to change. I looked to the right to check for traffic. The crying man was at my side. He smelt of lack of sleep and spiced musk. Like his hair, his eyebrows and eyelashes were blond, his nose and chin had no straight lines, the colour of his eyes hidden by his red swollen lids.
We waited. Four cars and a bus turned into the street. The bus accelerated toward the crossing and I looked up at the traffic light where from the side I could see had turned to orange but the bus had changed up a gear, not down, and the crying man next to me shifted his shoulders and prepared to step out and I imagined him dead, his blood on the front of the bus, and his terribly changed body spread over the bitumen.
I knew that someone should reach out, take the man by the arm, to say, watch out, but I wasn’t sure if it was silly or if it was really needed, and if it wasn’t, then how embarrassing, how embarrassing to have reached out and touched a stranger in the street. And the people on the street would see the man with the puffy eyes whose arm was gripped by someone he clearly didn’t know, and what then, what would they do or say next.
Then I saw the crying man who looked at the bus. He took a step back from the kerb, the bus thundered through, and the people crossed from each side of the street.
So I was glad I did nothing.
We walked along the street to the escalator at the bottom of the building where I work, past the escalator into the shopping arcade, and through the crowd until together we were at the place where, every morning, I buy a coffee. He reached the counter a few steps ahead of me. His shoes were the same brown as his satchel, which now hung from his right shoulder across his body to his left hip. The cafe smelt bitter, acrid. He ordered it black, no sugar, take away, pushed his right hand into the right pocket of his trousers, then pulled it out, empty.
The styrofoam cup of black coffee sat steaming. The cafe owner waited. I knew that any customer could offer to pay the three dollars, to give it or lend it, but then I thought of the look he might give, surprised, surely thinking, weren’t you on my bus, have you followed me, or even, what a freak, a stalker. And the cafe owner would see this, these two people, strangers, and would tell his waitress, daughter, wife that today he witnessed a pick up gone wrong and they would laugh, mocking, and a simple act of kindness would be cheapened to less than the cost of the black sugarless coffee.
The cafe owner waved the cost of the coffee away and the crying man picked up his cup and left.
I took the escalator into the building and crossed the floor to the lifts for floors 90 and above. Then I entered the lift and pressed the button for the 108th floor. The lift was crowded, and in the reflection of the mirrored walls I caught sight of the beige pin striped suit, crossed by the strap of the brown leather satchel, matched by the brown leather shoes. Floor by floor the lift emptied, and each time the crying man’s reflection multiplied then rebounded in the shared square space and in the fluoro light he was blotchier, redder, older.
By the 100th floor there were no other passengers and I realised he was crying, not just crying, but sobbing and keening, easily heard above the music piped into the lift from above. I wanted to press the emergency button so that the lift would stop, suspended between floors, and I would take him in my arms and hold him, close, and tell him it would be ok and that nothing could be this bad ever, not again, and he would get through this. And that would be my promise. But then the lift stopped at the 108th floor.
And so I got out.
I made my way from the lift to the wall with the small white box, swiped my wallet at the box which made a brief beep before the frosted glass door slid back into the recess of the wall and I continued to walk, down the corridor paved with green South African slate, past the white cubicles of workers, ten meters to my office where my secretary was waiting. Cradled in the crook of her left arm was a navy blue lever arch folder. She smelt of soap and the jasmine perfume she always wore on Mondays. Her eyelids were swollen, her face red. In the arm that held the folder a tattered tissue poked out between the pearl buttons on the sleeve of her olive green cardigan.
She followed me inside, shut the door behind us and stood behind my desk as I unpacked my brown leather satchel. She shifted her weight from one sensible shoe to the other.
I opened the wardrobe behind my desk. She went on.
I’m sorry. About your son.
Her chin crumpled up and her forehead crumpled down. A tear squeezed out from the corner of her left eye and disappeared into the groove between her cheek and ear. She waited. And I knew that she would know that to say anything would be to say, ‘Are you ok?’ but she couldn’t be sure if that was the right thing to do and then if it was, what next. But I did want her to say it and what would come next would be to tell her what happened. But she said nothing. So I told her.
He was depressed. I didn’t know. You know it had been months since I’d seen him. The other students, I asked them, they said he’d been strange lately, upset, crying in class.
She pulled out the tissue from her sleeve and wiped her nose, her head nodded up and down and shook side to side at the same time and her left arm gripped the navy folder in front of her heart. I went on.
They found him hanging from the back of his wardrobe door. His feet could touch the ground. No room for doubt you see.
I heard her swallow, she blew her nose, coughed, choked, darted her eyes about the room. I went on.
What I don’t understand is, if those damn students could see he was upset, why didn’t anyone say anything? Why didn’t anyone just ask him if he was ok?
She stood there, nodding and shaking her head so I told her to go and she left quickly. Then in the mirror on the door of the wardrobe I corrected my tie and smoothed my suit. My beige suit with a thin white pin stripe that ran at three centimetre intervals down to my brown leather shoes. And the crying man’s face looked back at me.