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This morning there was only one other person on the entire bus. She was sitting in the middle by the isle. She had one of those hobo bags, big enough to fit your entire life into, but she didn’t seem exactly poor. Her long, sleek hair stretched down the curve of her back with a few tiny braids throughout it. Her outfit looked worn down from a lot of use. A stretched out t-shirt that used to be white was matched with a flowing skirt pieced together with an array of different fabrics. As I walked closer I saw skeletal fingers with a ridiculous amount of rings. You would think so many rings on such emaciated fingers would be weighed down but they flew with speed as she played with a deck of cards. Unlike normal cards they were round. She was performing tricks with them on the cover of an obese planner, making them roll from side to side, constantly shuffling, making the pastel design on them a vomit of color.
I sat down in the seat next to her so I could closely watch her masterful hands. I didn’t mean to be creepy but the movement of her hands in time with the cards was mesmerizing. It didn’t take long for her to realize how close I was by now.
“Excuse me?” I said startled out of my trance.
“It’s the fear of being alone. On a bus with only one person sitting on it you chose to sit next to me. Most people would sit either in the front or in the back, away from that one person,” she replies, never faltering in her tricks.
It takes me a moment to realize I’m stuck in a conversation before I manage, “It was only an accident. The tricks you were doing were just really incredible. I’ve never seen a deck of cards like that before.” I turn my body with my final words, hoping to leave it at that. Who would look for a steady conversation with a stranger at five in the morning? She, of course, took no hint.
“I got it at a Renaissance Fair when I was in Pennsylvania. It was weird to find them there being that they look so modern but check out the jokers on the deck. That’s one of the things that makes it for me.”
I only nodded in response, not really caring to talk. This girl, the cards were a change of scenery from my five am routine. Whether I liked it or not, I wasn’t sure yet.
On the corner of 5th and Broad there was a bus stop. I went there every Sunday morning to catch the bus and hitch a ride to St. Patrick Cathedral for the early mass. It wasn’t that I was a religious person. In fact I had never been confirmed or anything. I just liked the habit it had formed on me. Some people sneak out for a quiet smoke or discreet affair; my affair was with the Catholic Church. I liked it because I knew what to expect. I knew every day at five in the morning the priest would be there; that he would give his sermon and at specific moments everyone would respond with the words that they said the week before. It wasn’t a need for God that drew me there; it was the desire for something comfortable in its regimen.
I was knocked out of my train of thought by the question, “If you’re so interested I could teach you a few tricks?”
When I agreed to her offer I leaned across the aisle for a closer look, but I quickly learned she had a different idea. Leaving her bag where it was she skipped across the space into the window seat next to me. Even though she was a complete stranger it was oddly comfortable being near her.
Her hands danced a minute waltz over her lap with the cards, spinning and flipping, flashing from one hand to the other.
“This one’s called the Killed King. It’s fairly basic so it’s a good place to start. It’s all about cutting the deck properly,” she explained while showing what her version of simple was. The second time she did the trick she took away some of her fancy moves to show its true simplicity.
“Why is it the Killed King, though?” I asked still utterly confused.
“Because you take the king of hearts, have the person put it in anywhere in the deck that they want and you shuffle it to the top. See? It’s not much of a trick but its good practice.”
“When did you learn all of your tricks?” I marveled, feeling the need for conversation so I wasn’t just gawking at a stranger like a fool.
She stopped playing with her cards for the first time on the entire ride while saying, “Oh, they’re just things I pick up and practice when I get bored. My jobs are kind of unsteady and I travel a lot so I’m all over the place, seeing new tricks and putting my own personal twist on them. I usually have a lot of free time on my hands whenever I finish a project.”
Now that she was done with her cards she had grabbed her monstrous bag and was rifling through a multitude of items. She did so many things within her bag in such a short time. I happened to catch her push some buttons on a cell phone, clean her hands with a hand sanitizer, and stash a piece of gum into her mouth. There was a smell suddenly which I could only assume came from her bag that caught my attention almost as suddenly as her card tricks. It was oddly familiar, like my grandma’s house during the summer when I would visit her. Something was always baking and the scent of the beach lingered on everybody’s clothes.
“The thing with a good card trick is,” she broke the silence, “is that you can never let on to the people that you know more than them. It’s like magic. You need to be casual and confident, but if you’re smug no one will come within miles of you…This is my stop. It was a pleasure meeting you!”
She slid across the seat and was down the bus stairs before I had the time to realize we never even exchanged names. I was off of the bus one stop later – a good thirty minute walk from where I usually would be. I didn’t mind it all that much. The city was awake but still in a sleepy haze as people started their days. The nippy air stung my face and fingertips, so I shoved my hands deep into my pant pockets. Immediately I noticed something missing; what was it that I usually kept in this pocket? My wallet.
I couldn’t comprehend it at first, but slowly all the events of the morning pieced together in an array that made perfect sense. She had drawn me in more hopelessly than a fish to a worm. I practically threw my wallet at her when I let her jump into the seat next to me and dazzle me blind with her cards. I dropped my guard at her innocent teachings of tricks when I should have seen that the trick had been me.
I felt like a silly child once they learned the cheap truth behind a magic show. Pitifully, it brought the memories of my other naïve moments, of when my wife filed for divorce. In the months leading up to it I had never once questioned the stability of our relationship. I loved her as much as the day when we were married but somewhere along the way the cards were shuffled. When she left without a warning or note she took everything, including my dignity.
All that was left in my pocket was a few bucks; I couldn’t remember if that was my own doing or she was a “nice” thief. Any way it left me with enough for a coffee to warm up on a park bench. It was only just reaching six and it was funny how the difference of an hour crushed my will to go to church. I just sat there contemplating away at things that I wouldn’t even be able to recall the next day.
It wasn’t long before the other end of the bench became occupied. The tattered shambles of what used to be nice clothes hung slack on the frame of a homeless man. I couldn’t tell his true age under the mask of dirt, beard, and weariness. He was staring absent-mindedly into an empty cup in his hand. I didn’t have much change left, less than a buck, but he obviously needed it more than I did. Looking at him and seeing tears in his jacket exposing his skin to the chilly air, I remembered the warmth of my selfishly large bed at home; my comforter and heating blanket that I used in the winter; all of the non-necessities that made sure I was always comfortable in my home. His home was basically any park bench he could curve his body into.
He leaned closer to my end of the bench and mumbled, “Got a light?”
I shook my head and hugged my coat closer to me, feeling colder just looking at him. My fascination with him felt strangely morbid and I kept peering from the corner of my eyes just to get a closer look at this man. Questions of how someone came to such an existence, how did they survive flooded me and I craved an answer.
“How do you manage every day?” I choked out, hardly realizing my insolence until the words were already out of my mouth. He stared at me straight on with the same blank expression, surprisingly showing no signs of offense or anything for that matter.
“It’s like all the elements you’re exposed to every day make you numb, until you’re not aware of passing time any more. You forget when your last meal was but because you don’t feel it, it doesn’t matter. Your entire life is just a numb hole. You know something should be there, something you used to feel and know but have gotten too use to till you don’t even recognize any more.”
As quickly as he had spoken he was done and it was almost as if he had never said anything at all. The void that separated us on that bench was wider than an eternity. Something about him made me feel guilty just for living, as if my existence was at fault for the failure of his. I suddenly felt the need to leave him alone, as if I had intruded enough already into his life. I crossed in front of him to throw out my empty coffee cup, catching another glimpse of a rip through the arm of his coat. The sun was full up now and it wouldn’t be as chilly for much longer. I would be home within an hour. I didn’t say anything; I didn’t think anything needed to be said, but I handed the man my jacket before I stepped away from him back home for the day.