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Creaking, moaning, rumbling, and bumping, the old bus rattled down the pothole filled street. It was mid-August and I had been thankful to get out of the humid, late-summer air and onto the air-conditioned bus. I had handed my carefully counted 9 quarters, totaling exactly $2.25, to the bus driver, who in return gave me a transfer. I juggled my belongings awkwardly on my arms as I held onto the transfer, searching for a seat. As I stumbled down the rows of seats I accidentally dropped my transfer. Unable to pick it up because of my load of things I was carrying – my purse, and my awkward, overstuffed backpack that I carried on my arm -, I left it on the floor, mentally reminding myself to pick it up when I got off the bus.
I now sat, crammed between a large fat man on my right who smelled of cigarette smoke and body odor, and a chubby old woman to my left who was sweating profusely under her out-of-season, wool jacket, except you’d never be able to tell because of the excessive amount of perfume she had applied. Every now and then the bus would lurch over a larger-than-normal pothole, and the man to my right would grunt quietly as he bounced, and the woman to my left would look up and exclaim, “Oh!” before going back to her book.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic when my stop finally arrived. I gathered my things and rushed off the bus. As the bus sped away I took out my sheet that had my itinerary on it and reviewed what I had to do next. I was to take the 76A south all the way back to the intersection a block in front of my house. I reached into my pocket to make sure I had my transfer. Suddenly, I panicked, remembering that I had dropped it on the bus and, in my mad rush to the door, I had left it lying there. I was stuck. I had no more money, because I had been counting on that transfer. Frustrated, I swung my backpack to the ground and rummaged around for my phone. I swear I had put it in the front pocket… But I guess not… Shoot! I thought, Now what?! I was going home from visiting a friend, and I had left my phone at her house!
I looked around me at the shabby houses I was surrounded by. Kitty-corner to me there was a blue one that could have been cute, had the paint not been basically flaked off, and the window in the door not been broken and covered with what looked like saran wrap. The house directly across the street was a dismal shade of grey, and looked as if the civil war had taken place in its backyard. Toys were strewn around like shrapnel after a bombing, and I swear I could see bullet holes in the rotting wooden paneling of the house – or were they termite holes? I couldn’t tell. The thought of termites made me feel itchy all over, so I pulled out my hand sanitizer from my purse, and squeezed a small glob onto my hand as I turned around to view the house behind me. It was not, in fact, a house, but a small store. It appeared to be a sort of grocery store, but I couldn’t quite see in because of the metal mesh that covered the inside of the window pane.
Well, I thought, I there’s not much I can do. I guess I’ll just have to walk home. It can’t be that far. The bus ride from here was only going to be, like, five minutes long. I think… Or was it twenty-five? I couldn’t quite remember. Feeling like I had no other choice, I awkwardly swung my backpack back onto my shoulders, picked up my purse, and began my long trek home.
My back was beginning to ache from the heavy load, and my legs were starting to tire, but I kept going. About ten minutes back, I swear I saw the capital, which is right by my house, so I went in that direction.
As I was walking, I saw a woman walking toward me. She looked very tired and raggedy and I felt sorry for her. She wore a large dingy, tan t-shirt that flopped almost down to her knees, and her baggy, khaki shorts’ pockets appeared to be stuffed chuck full of something. As she approached me she smiled shyly, showing her yellowing teeth. She couldn’t have been more than thirty, but her skin was haggard and covered in grime. She was saying something, but I couldn’t hear what, because she was too far away.
As she came closer she reached out her dry, cracking hands to me and asked in a smoker’s voice, “Coudja borrow me some change? I gotta get mah baby somethin’ ta eat. She’s three mon’s o’d, ya see, and she just won’t shut up ‘til I get ‘er somethin’ ta eat.” Her eyes flit spastically over my white baby-doll shirt and my neat jean shorts, making my uncomfortable.
“Ummm, sorry, I, ah - I don’t have any money, I used it all on the bus...”
“’Course ya don’t,” the woman muttered angrily as she shoved past me and kept walking.
I’d never had anyone ask me for money before. Then again, I’d never really been in a neighborhood like this before, either. I kept walking, feeling more and more out of place by the minute. People shrewdly regarded me from their porches, watching me walk down the street like I was an alien from outer space. I felt like an animal in the zoo, for Pete’s sake. I looked at my watch. 4:15 pm, it was two hours until we usually ate dinner, so I had some time, yet, to get home. I couldn’t be far.
I could see the first brilliant splashes of color from the sun as it began to set, and it was beginning to get a little chilly.
I wonder what’s for dinner, I thought. I was starting to get a little hungry. After all, I had been walking since about 3:45, so it had been about a half an hour of straight walking. I remembered that I had an energy bar in my purse in case I had gotten hungry on my way home, so I pulled it out and ate it.
4:30 now, and the sun was definitely setting, the sky had exploded in a plethora of Heavenly colors of every sort. I was beautiful to look at. I stood there for a second, just taking it in. To think that God has front row seats, and gets to see the sunset so close. I mean, I he is probably sitting there right now, basking in the glow. Then again, he had created it, so maybe it isn’t quite as amazing to him. But God loves everything – all his creations are beautiful to him, so he is probably sitting there watching it just like me. I wonder if—
My thoughts were interrupted by the loud noise of a car rattling down the street. I swear, there could not have been a muffler on that thing. If they ever tried to sneak up on someone… I laughed, thinking about how much that would fail.
“Hey! Babe, ya needa ride? We could take ya wherever yer goin’!” A man yelled from an open window of the car. He winked at me. He was probably in his late thirties and looked as if he hadn’t shaved in days. His dark, foreboding eyes were framed by equally dark hair that drooped out from under a filthy baseball hat. He was sporting a t-shirt featuring a vulgar saying that I don’t care to even repeat. “Free o’ charge!” He and the other two men in the car laughed raucously, like the man had said the funniest joke in the world.
“No thank you! I’m fine!” I called back, shaking my head, but not wanting to be rude. I smiled shakily and started walking again.
“Ya sher? It’s not like we’ll hurt ya! We don’t bite!” Again, the men laughed at some masked joke.
“No - no, really, I’m fine. I can walk.” I stammered.
“Aw, c’mon, we just wanna help a fine woman like yerself.” He winked again. That was getting on my nerves.
This time, I didn’t answer, I just faced straight ahead and kept walking, every now and then glancing at the car out of the corner of my eye. One, I was too scared, I didn’t know what to say. Two, those guys were creeps, who knew what they would do to me?
“Whatever, b****. Suit yerself.” The car screeched away.
I let my breath out. Oh, that was close. I felt close to tears, but held them back because I didn’t want to appear weak to any other sick-minded men who thought they could take advantage of me. Biting my lip, I looked behind me to make sure no one was following me or something. No one was. Phew! I kicked the ground. I had seen enough T.V. shows and movies to know that guys like that were not just in for a ride home. They wanted much more. Free of charge, my foot.
What else can go wrong today, honestly? I had left my phone at Mallory’s house, I had left my transfer on the bus, I hadn’t brought any extra money, so I couldn’t get another bus ticket, and it wasn’t like I was going to ask anyone around there to use their phone. They’d probably rape me or something. I thought with a shudder. The thought freaked me out, but it was also getting a little colder now that the sun was almost completely set. I stopped and got my sweater out of my back pack. Once it was on, and I had my backpack back on, I kept walking.
It was almost 6 o’clock. My family was probably really worried. I imagined my hysterical parents calling the police, while my brothers sat in the living room crying and calling all my friends to see if they knew where I was. I imagined my yard and street packed with police cars, and T.V. reporters just dying to get the story about the poor lost girl.
“She has been gone for…” But that’s where my imaginings were squished by the crushing weight of reality. I had only been gone, in their minds, for about an hour and a half, because my bus was supposed to get there at 4:15, and I would have walked from the bus stop and gotten home at about 4:20. They probably thought I had missed my bus because I was goofing off at Mallory’s and lost track of time. How wrong they are. I thought mournfully.
It was completely dark now. So dark, that I couldn’t even see my watch to see what time it was. But it was probably about 6:15. The sun’s last fleeting rays had been like teases, held out just long enough under the hungry dog’s chin, only to be snatched away in a second when the dog was most desperate.
I looked around me, squinting into the shadows cast by the murky, orange streetlights, which were far too far apart for my liking. Every now and then I would spin around violently, thinking I had heard a footstep approaching from behind. Lights from inside houses just increased my anxiety, as they cast long shadows, making innocent trees look like gnarly monsters, and fences look like gates to the underworld. Every now and then I would hear yelling from inside houses, or the smashing of dishes or some other breakable thing shattering to smithereens. I would speed up my pace to a brisk walk as I passed by these houses.
Some people sat out on their porch, smoking or drinking, or just talking boisterously amongst each other, or in a couple cases to their own lonesome selves.
Lord, please, if I get out of this alive, I promise I will donate half my cloths to Goodwill. Just please help me get home. Please. I know this is cliché, but I promise I will be good for the rest of my life, Lord, if you will just protect me. Amen. I crossed myself, kissing my fingers and looking up to the Heavens.
I could hear glass clinking, and gruff conversation from the porch to my right. I sped up, hoping to go unnoticed. No such luck.
“Hey babe, come ‘n’ have a beer!” called a drunken voice from a silhouette on the porch.
“Ya, come have a cold one with us! We need some good company!” chimed in another, equally intoxicated man.
I kept walking. Fast.
“Hey, get back here!”
“Ah, she ain’t worth it, man. She ain’t no fun. You ain’t no fun, woman!”
Thank the Lord for that. I smiled despite myself.
Up ahead, under the street light I could see the small frame of, what looked like, a little girl. She was slumped over, leaning against the lamp’s post, her back to me. She was wrapped in a dark blanket and appeared to be doing something in her lap because her head was bent down and I could see her elbows moving. The sight of her creeped me out a bit. I didn’t know what she was doing, but there was something about the way she was just sitting there, only moving slightly. Every now and then she would aggressively itch her skin, and then go back to what she was doing. As I drew close to her, she turned to look at me.
I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming. The figure had not, in fact, been a child, but was instead a gnarly old woman. She was not just any old woman though. There was something wrong with her. Her eyes were crazed, and her hair was thin and stringy, giving her the appearance of a rabid, greasy Chinese crested dog (my neighbor, Mrs. Glokenseim, had one, though, obviously, it wasn’t rabid). She had lesions and scars all over her drooping skin. Her hands in her lap held a small roll of paper, and a piece of plastic covered in what looked like baking powder (however, I had a strong feeling that that’s not what it was). Lying amidst the baking soda-like dust was a small blade that looked like the tip of an Exacto knife (but, again, I had a feeling that that’s not what it was). I didn’t know what she was doing, but her eyes scared me enough to back away and run in the opposite direction.
I ran until I was sure I was far away from her, and even then, I kept glancing behind me to make sure I was not being followed. I was so scared. I didn’t remember ever being that scared before in my life. I was desperate to get home. At that point, I knew that I needed to find a way to call my parents so they could come and save me. No matter what that entailed.
Across the street, I saw a plump woman sitting on her porch with a couple men. There was a dim light coming from the window behind her that shed a faint glow out onto the lawn. I stood there watching the house from across the street for a minute, before I ventured up to the porch.
I was scared, because I had run into nothing but creeps, and bad people today. Maybe these people were just like them. Who knew? I sure didn’t. I just had to take the chance. I wonder if all poor people are like this, I thought. Because, honestly, that’s all I’ve ever seen: beggars, druggies, and creeps. Maybe that’s all there is. I am never going to come back here again.
I approached the porch and cleared my throat, trying to get their attention, but it didn’t work. They just kept talking.
”Umm, excuse me?” I called hesitantly from the lawn, leaning toward them, but not wanting to get too close.
“Ya? Can I help you?” The woman called back, not moving, but I could feel her eyes scrutinizing me.
“Do you, ah, have a phone I could use? I need to call…” I trailed off. They probably didn’t care who I was calling.
“Ya, sure, we don’t got no cell phones, but you can sure use our home phone if you want,” the woman stood up. “It’s in this way.” She walked to the door and waited for me to get to her before she opened the door.
I cautiously peered into the house. There were three couches, covered in places where you could see the stuffing from the insides of the cushions. There were bottles everywhere, from beer to vodka to wine. On and around the couches, a dozen people sat squished together and talking. They all held beer in their hands, and were smoking Heaven knows what. As I walked over the threshold they all turned to stare. I looked back at them, trying to stand up really straight to make myself look taller than my actual 5 feet 3 inches.
“It’s over there on the wall,” the woman said, pointing.
“Okay, thanks.” I smiled at her.
She smiled back.
I dialed my parents’ number and told my sobbing mom where I was, and asked if she could come get me (like I could keep her from getting me, even if I tried). I said I’d tell her all about what happened when we were in the car.
I hung up, and the woman walked me back out to the porch. The men that had been with her were gone, so it was just us two standing out there.
“Ya know,” she said, “it ain’t always like this. Only when times get hard. They wanna forget they lives, and so they booze ‘emselves ta sleep. I just don’t want ya ta be getting’ the wrong idea in that head o’ yers.”
“Ya, I get it.” I’d heard this in movies and stuff before.
“Do ya? Cuz I just wanna tell ya that it ain’t easy- livin’ like this. But, ya see, it’s like we get stuck, somehow, livin’ like this. Feels like there ain’t no way outta here, ‘cept ta forget it even exists. Me, now I got myself three beau’iful kids, two girls and a boy. I want the best for them. But it’s so hard when they daddy ain’t commin’ home some nights, and some nights he bringin’ home friends who sit around and smoke and get high. Now I ain’t judgin’ them, they can live how they want, but I don’t want that for my babies. No way. I want my babies to grow up strong, and smart. I want them to have the life I never thought I could.”
She sighed and paused, then, looking up to the sky she said, “When I feel bad, like nothin’ gonna get better, I look up toward God and I see the stars, and them remind me that this ain’t all. There’s a better, bigger world out there. The stars are my hope for my babies. They’re what remind me to keep goin’.” She sat down on the steps and looked up at the stars. “They beautiful, ain’t they?”
“Ya, they are.” I said, sitting down next to her. We sat there for a while, just watching the stars.
After a while, I could see headlights coming down the road toward us. I guessed it was my mom so I watched her as she came closer.
When she pulled up, I saw the familiar black shine of the family car, which comforted me. I felt a peace in my heart to know that I was safe, but there was something else too, I wasn’t sure what though. I just knew that I had changed somehow, and it felt good.
The silence of the night was sliced by the sound of my mother’s voice crying out to me as she flung the car door open and raced around the car to me. She hugged me so tightly I could barely breathe.
I turned to the woman, “By the way, my name is Mary.”
In the car, on the way home, I stared out the window, resting my forehead on the cold glass. I thought about what Ayira had said. I realized what that feeling of peace was: it was the feeling that I had finally gained compassion for those people. I saw them as real people, not just the “poor people.” I could feel how they felt, and so I could sympathize with them. From that moment on, I vowed to myself that I would help those people, not because I felt sorry for them, but because they deserved more dignity, and a better life, and I was going to help them get it. I would make sure that Ayira’s children grew up to be dignified, honorable people, just as Ayira wanted. I would do that for her, and for the rest of the children like her children that might grow up feeling trapped inside their parents’ problems. I would do it because I could, and I wanted to.