Lilly was a voracious girl, craving everything that came before her. Chocolates were the more obvious objects of her desire. Remnants of their brief visits littered themselves in the bowels of her purse, or could be found wadded up into small, tightly wound balls tossed in the trash can, the ashtray, atop her bedside bureau. Then there came fine literature, the classics, the underground writers who wrote of living surreal lives, lives Lilly could only dream about, surrounded by lascivious artists who could turn the mundane into the erotic with a swipe of their brush, a stroke of their pen. A single note on a sultry saxophone could send shivers to the very core of your soul, she knew. Kerouac had written of such musicians, and so had Bukowski, as well as Burrows and Miller. And though she had never heard such music as these men described, she loved to read about the men who could create it with their lips, their bodies and souls.
As a result, Lilly fancied herself a lover of jazz. Rhythm and Blues drove a stake through her chest and nailed her to the floor. She felt a tear spring to her eye whenever Louis Armstrong reached for that last note in “What a Wonderful World.” There was a time and place for Country, she thought, and even a need for the mind-numbing, over-amped, cement mixer driven metal that screamed at her from the tops of her stereo’s disembodied lungs. She loved all music, she realized, even classical. And though Mozart had come close with his symphony of strings, angelic arias climbing up straight through the stratosphere, and Bach was ( well, Bach was Bach, no harm done, and Stravinsky tackled the impossible, as did Beethoven, a strange foreboding told her that if she listened to enough of their music she would never hear that one single note she’d read of so many times before in the books buried beneath her narrow bed.
A note that could raise the sun from its death-bed.
After that, she figured tasteful wines came into play, then enigmatic films: the kind where all of the actors speak French and an entire scene can revolve around the impact of a single rose petal falling, silently. Then there was the occasional cigarette or two, the long talks with close friends over froth-topped coffees, and the kiss that seemed to last for a full eighteen months. Perhaps after these, if she had to continue the list, she’d claim a love of mediocre literature. The kind sold only in paper-back, on the bottom tier of the bargain shelf in a third-rate bookstore that deals solely with obscure titles by unknown authors. Then there were the tabloid magazines, but only because these served to remind her that there were far stranger things happening in the world, events more bizarre than even her erratic imagination could invent. Finally, she would admit, she loved the color purple. Why, exactly, she couldn’t say, though. Maybe it reminded her of lust, in a way only a color can. Or, perhaps it was simply symbolic of bruised skin and throbbing hearts. Regardless, she felt it to be the color of desire gone crazy, of desire’s own desire, where the safety of everyday objects stacked neatly upon the coffee table ceased to matter, were thrown carelessly to the floor in a fit of passion. It was the color or raw sex, she knew.
She also knew women weren’t supposed to admit such thoughts.
At least not to others.
Somewhere amidst this mess she figured men had a niche, though she wasn’t quite sure exactly where on the pyramidical tree of loves they belonged. Somewhere below chocolates and the diaries of Anaïs Nin, she knew, but before Mozart. Maybe even before French Cinema Bleu, though she wouldn’t want to be held to that declaration. The truth of the matter was this: she hadn’t had much experience in what her mother would off-handedly call “the ways of the world.” From the way her mother talked, though, it wasn’t really any wonder. In her gray, matronly eyes, there were only two uses for women in a man’s world — and Lilly had neither the desire nor the strength to subject herself to the role of whore or mother.
With a sigh, Lilly realized she craved just about everything. Life was her manna. From it she wanted to glean the best, the tastiest, the juiciest it had to offer, just like a glutton will attack a feast, picking over the fine meats first, settling into the subtle side-dishes later, in the end devouring everything sat upon the table.
She wanted to consume the very marrow of life, to suck its sweet juices with the same urgency a baby will suck from its mother’s breast, restless and colicky if pulled from the tit too soon, before it has filled its swelling belly. Before the instinctual hunger has been satiated
She wanted to scream out the name of the theology to which she prayed nightly: Carpe Diem! She wanted to attack the waters of living with the same head-strong persistence an Olympic diver possesses, with hands above her head, feet poised, entering at a rippleless angle that would carry her to life’s very depths.
But she was hesitant.
She suffered from stage-fright, she knew. “All the world’s a stage,” she cursed. “And I vomit beneath the spotlight.”
She was scared, scarred by the possibility of rejection, of traipsing her way down life’s merry path only to discover she was lost, dark alleyways closing in on her. The laughter of predators rang in her ears.
And so she remained as she had always been, perhaps from the time of her birth. She hid in the shadows, averted her eyes from the unassuming smiles of passing strangers, listened well though talked little, tried vainly to summon the courage that would let her take that first step, and drowned a little in the murky waters of self-doubt each time she found her courage had abandoned her.
Hunger was her theme, she guessed. If a person could have a theme, well, this was surely hers. She wanted to be more, see more, live more fully, but some strange premonition of failure always appeared at the forefront of her thoughts, leaving her wanting. Hungry.
Lilly thought for a moment, flipping through the back pages of The Star, waiting for her shift at the Save-on to end, then figured it might be true. If you approached people from a certain oblique angle you could see their themes, clearly as if they were clothing. Hemingway, before he blew his brains out, had been an alcoholic, a lascivious glutton of wine, women, and song. Tragic, spiritual unfulfillment had been his theme. And Van Gogh ( Sweet Jesus! The artistic idiot savant, no less a genius before his death than after, had worn suffrage and certitude like a Nazi armband, defying the world to contain him within one of the neat little boxes in which society aims to place all of its citizens. Surely he had had a theme. One of mad brilliance. And what of Don Juan? Or Don Quixote? Or Emily Dickenson? Or Jimmy Hendrix? All of them had written their own entries within the book of Fates, dictionary descriptions that could only be explained by placing a picture beneath their name and an inscription that read: “Nuff Said.”
Yes! Certain people did have themes. Memorable people. People of great fame or influence. The rest, the other twenty-seven gazillion people who had walked the earth since its inception, were simply themeless, having skipped their turn beneath the spotlight when it swung around to focus upon their shoulders, thinking, perhaps, that they didn’t have anything interesting to say, or do; nothing worthwhile to really write home about. Or maybe, she thought, they had all been like her: awaiting their turn, hoping for a certain preordained series of events to occur, a slip of the stagehand, a crack of the whip — whatever — anything that would force them into the limelight, that would make them take charge of their identities. Happenstance occurrences, purely coincidental (so they could not be held in blame should things get screwed up), that would jump out onto the stage for them, use their name in forgery, and define them, ultimately, without they themselves having to lift a single finger.
Oh, but Lilly had tried. She really had. Of this she had to give herself some credit. She had decided early on in life, after having read a perilous and intriguing Nancy Drew mystery, that she would define herself, on her own terms. She would invent her own theme. She would become like that great detective, throwing illogical caution to the wind, relying on her resources and instinct, and dig through the lies and cobwebs that hid the truth. She would listen to advice when the advice was reasonable, bound in logic, but trust herself to distinguish between a good lead and bad one — despite what her critics might say.
Sadly, however, Nancy Drew didn’t have Bernadette Summers for a mother. Nor did the detective have an alcoholic for a father. Nor did she ever endure the burning stares Lilly was forced to endure at the hands of her mother’s lovers. The words that were uttered, the accusations made; a girl is apt to believe what she’s told if the message is repeated enough.
Still, Lilly tried to be strong. Over the years she’d tried on different hats, so to speak, searching for a theme, discarding the ones that didn’t suit her, gleaning certain properties from the ones that did. In the end, at the point where Lilly now found herself, feeling there to be little hope of her ever changing again, she’d ended with an eclectic conglomerate of styles. A hodge-podge of themes.
Lilly checked her reflection in the polished chrome base of the cash-register. Her face screamed hunger.
It wasn’t a physical type of hunger, though. She knew no one would ever look at her and feel a tugging at their heart-strings. Nor would they ever feel compassion, empathy, pity, or even desire. She wasn’t a beautiful woman, she knew. Her face was blemished, the dual effects of chocolate and fatigue coloring her freckled skin, and her body had headed south on her several years before. At twenty she felt she looked thirty: thirty years old, thirty pounds over-weight, thirty steps from the grave. Sure, she had thought about dieting before. She had even enrolled at Jenny Craig. But the money, the time, every little ounce of energy that was required to meet the high standards of beauty seemed forever just beyond her reach. She scolded herself for her laziness, walked the seven miles home from work on impulse occasionally, then fell into self-deprecation, feeling there to be little worth in her efforts. Really! What was the point in going to all this trouble if she was to be the sole admirer of her labors?
Oh, but the hunger was there. It was inescapable. As noticeable as the lethargic, hebetudinous, bruise-colored rings swinging on the loose flesh of her face beneath her dull gray eyes, giving her the appearance of doltery, painting a false shallowness to her depth. Her physical appearances defied her, defiled her in ignorant ways. But the hunger? Oh! She knew it wasn’t physical. No, no. It was something more. Something that gnawed at her soul, but not in a spiritual way. Not in the God-sense, at least. No. It was — oh how could she describe it? — a simple yearning, perhaps? A nagging munchiness? A subtle, anxious apprehension that tugged at the pit of her stomach in such an acute way that it seemed like hunger?
She didn’t really know. She could spend years beneath the frail umbrella of self-analysis, she knew, and not emerge with an answer. The riddle lay too deep, buried beneath a dark rock she couldn’t see for the shadows. She couldn’t name her dilemma; she could only feel it when she left for work each afternoon, catching the Blind Widow downtown to the Save-on.
Lilly had to laugh. The Blind Widow.
Now most of the people in town called the number five bus simply by its number, or by the destination shown on the marquee above the driver’s window: Downtown. A few of the more observant and marginally witty referred to the old silver and blue beast as “The Toothpick Express,” because it began its journey on the corner of Ash and Elm, headed south on Forest Drive, then east on Maple, finally ending its route on Mill Street, four blocks south of the store where Lilly worked. Lilly, however, humbly referred to her morning ride as the “Blind Widow” — in memory of a dice game one of her mother’s boyfriends had shown her when she was eleven and starting to show.
Oh, but that man had been full of himself, hadn’t he? He blew on his dice before he threw them, praised them as they tumbled across the carpet, then cursed when they came up Nixes. He’d had names for the different sets of dice he owned, names like Spats, Spangles, and Quicksilver. Monikers that called attention to their multi-colored faces or styles of marking. He’d had names for the different ways a person could throw them, too. Flat-Foot, Knuckles, Bare Back. Flimsy, she remembered, meant throwing the dice under-handed, palm down. Flimsy would spank you with double-sixes, nine times out of ten. It was a handy throw to know when you were in a jam.
He’d also had names for all of the possible combinations a person could throw with a set of dice, she remembered. Snake Eyes meant you were dead, Deuces were a two-to-one return on your bet, and Trips were a throw-away. You may as well not even throw if you were going to throw Trips. Lucky Stars had been the three-four combination, good only for moving the bet round the ring, and Cat Tails was a four-five set named after the Cat ‘o Nine Tails once used for flogging prisoners so many years ago.
Lilly winced. A whip would have been preferable to some of the losses she suffered throwing Cat Tails. Skin could grow back. Eight hundred dollars — a full month’s worth of wages — was a little harder to come by.
Blind Widow, though. That had been the name for double-fives. And even though in the game Blind Widow meant a four-to-one return, the ominous overtones of the name gave Lilly the strange feeling that it was a throw she should never hope to see. Something about getting money from a blind widow, it ( it, well, it made her think of life insurance policies and accidental death claims; huge sums of money that were awarded as compensation for some terrible act. Money that carried an immense price-tag; paid in blood, or with a life, money that reminded you daily of the one who had suffered for your good fortune. Maybe that’s why it seemed an appropriate nickname for the bus she took to work every morning. Number five, the Blind Widow. Someone always suffered.
Work. God, just the thought of it sent a dead chill through Lilly’s bones. She could, quite literally, feel death creeping in, swapping marrow for black lead. The Blind Widow took her, without compassion, without even an apology, to the Save-on each afternoon at two. She would grab a cup of coffee and a chocolate eclair from the Winchell’s at quarter ’till and clock in by three.
Each day it was the same.
She’d spend a full eight hours each evening running poorly packaged goods over the bar-code reader, punching in the discounts for the coupons the patrons gave her, not really caring that their coupons were for a quarter off a two bar purchase of Ivory soap when she knew they had really only purchased one. There were the disheveled housewives and the sultry mistresses, each coming in to purchase their daily supply of cheap perfume, few of them realizing that to their respective men there was very little difference between them. Just a thing called familiarity, something that seemed to grow pungent with time. Around four there came an influx of frazzled mothers with their screaming brats in tow, kids they would pull like mops over the linoleum floors, ignoring the messes the children made as they used the display racks for jungle-gyms and monkey bars. In the late afternoons the occasional shop-lifter would be caught, face forced up against the glass of the manager’s office window by one of the burlier stock-boys eager to play the part, enforcing his own long-armed version of the law, waiting for the cops to arrive. Lilly had to laugh at these petty thieves, though. The majority of those caught were teenaged punks, boys usually, who got their kicks stealing petroleum jelly and condoms. Useful items, probably, just too embarrassing to buy.
And then there were the drunks.
As regular as atomic clockwork they would stumble through the door at nine, wander aimlessly around the store for the greater part of thirty minutes, then stagger up to her register — always, her register — with a fistful of food stamps in one greasy hand and a six pack in the other. She hated these customers with a passion she held for no one else. They were always troublesome, never understanding that they had to have cash and identification to buy beer, never caring that she could get fired for taking their food stamps and library card instead.
They wanted the beer. That was all that mattered. And Lilly sold it to them.
Ever since one of those bastards had stuck a pen-knife in Sydney Weatherby, over at the Safeway on west Lincoln, Lilly held her breath every time one of them came in. You never knew if it was your turn, she figured. You just never knew.
She exhaled slowly now, feeling slightly dizzy. There had to be a better way to live.
Still, she figured, the money was decent. She wouldn’t be buying a forty-acre ranch any time soon, but at least she could pay her bills and throw a little in savings each month. And if she had to deal with the drunks and the shop-lifters, with the mothers and their kids (both of whom she felt like throttling), well, then, that’s what she would have to do. Every job had its down-side, didn’t it? She was certain there were days when even Donald Trump didn’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, so who was she to whine?
The clock finally struck eleven and Lilly closed out her register and carried herself into the back office. Clocking out, she stepped through the back door of the store and lit a cigarette. The night was starless, sky the color of squid ink. She thought of the Rio Negro in South America. The Black River, flowing like a strip of asphalt from the jungle into the ocean.
Lilly had spent the night at Eileen’s a few weeks before, carrying the poor girl through the fallout of another failed relationship. To say Eileen had trouble with men would have been an understatement, Lilly thought. The say she was a disaster waiting to happen would have been more accurate. The girl just had bad luck, or insidious karma, or some invisible sign hung around her neck that only men could see; a sign that read: steal my money, my heart, my furniture, then sleep with my sister in my own bed — on my birthday, no less.
Well, that’s how her last relationship had ended, anyway. And though her previous boyfriends had not behaved any better, they had at least possessed a modicum of class. Enough to keep their extracurricular activities away from Eileen’s apartment.
Lilly thought about the Rio Negro, again. She had watched a show on the Discovery Channel that night at Eileen’s and for some strange reason the image of the river had stayed at the forefront of her thoughts while the details concerning Eileen’s woes had slipped quietly away.
Water was the great concealer, wasn’t it? An indomitable force. Every thing else slipped beneath the surface.
She remembered a scene from the show. Waters at their full crest, dolphins swam between the stilts upon which the villagers’ houses stood. Canoes sealed with tar made from rubber tree plants slid quietly through a forest of dwarfed trees, the older men from the village hunting for food: fish and birds. The river covered everything. The grand scale of the forest was reduced to a mimicry. A Lilliputian shrubbery patch. Boys strung fishing line from out of their bedroom windows and waited. Mothers and daughters washed clothes, sitting on their porches, feet dangling in the water. Their world diminished in size. Families became individual nations, vast tracts of open water separating them from their neighbors.
They smiled, bright porcelain and pearl teeth in sharp contrast to their olive skin.
They had nothing but themselves and the black river filled with dolphins. No electricity, no telephones, no mail delivery, no convenience stores and shopping malls and mass transit systems.
Yet they were happy. They smiled like Lilly had never seen another soul in Tucker Falls smile.
She envied them, suddenly. Maybe this is why the show had stuck so persistently to the tack-paper of her brain. Here was a civilization, a tribe of people who lived in conditions several leaping bounds below even the worst third-world nation, and yet they were content. They were happy. They went about the harsh routine of their daily lives and yet still found a spot within them that allowed them to grin the grin of children who believe in Santa Claus and find presents beneath their Christmas tree every year, without fail.
It was depressing, really, if you thought about it.
Lilly then thought of one of the kids who had lived in the house the Discovery Channel had spot-lighted. Butt-naked, his hair blacker than the dark river itself, his eyes brighter than stars, he had splashed and shown-off for the camera, doing cartwheels and standing on his hands before jumping into the water. She then thought of Andy Warhol, of how he had said every person would one day have their fifteen minutes of fame, and of how this nameless boy from an insignificant little village along the bank of the Rio Negro had had his. She wondered when her day would come.
It was just under a quarter of a mile from the Save-on to the bus stop, yet Lilly felt the distance to be far greater. Her coat weighed heavily on her shoulders, its thick wool like steel armor, and her purse, loaded down with all of the necessary accouterments of femininity, dug a rut into her shoulder. She felt like a pack mule, suddenly. “Somebody strike a switch to my ass,” she muttered.
Still, eager to give the world the appearance that she was a woman with a purpose, and not just some check-out girl heading back to her sparse apartment after yet another miserable day at the grind, she jogged down the sidewalk, stopping beneath the Plexiglas awning of the bus stop slightly winded. She clapped her hands together, coughed into her mittens, and thought briefly about taking up aerobics. She felt heavy beneath her skin. Too heavy. As if her soul were made of iron or lead. She knew she could use losing several pounds, that the exercise would do her thighs a world of good, but let the impulse pass and, instead, lit up another cigarette. Smoking was becoming a real habit with her, she realized. Second only to chocolates.
She puffed on her Marlboro Light, watching the ember glow soft and seductively beneath the dim light of a street lamp. All of the really important writers had smoked, she told herself. Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger — or so she imagined. No one really knew what Salinger did anymore, did they? He could have changed his name and become a congressman, or a race car driver, for all she knew. His reclusiveness was so absolute that even the ever-mongering press had tired of covering it. It just wasn’t news anymore. Who really cared? Hell, she thought, he might even be dead. After all, who would know? Ghosts don’t exactly leave footprints, do they?
Still, she realized, there was a certain ( well, je ne sais pas about his hermitage. To not give a damn about the world that lay right outside your window took an incredible amount of resolve. She wondered if he had cable television, or if he had seen the Challenger shuttle explode. Did he know about CNN, or the Persian Gulf War? Was he still writing? And, if so, did he use a typewriter or a computer?
She thought about all of this for a moment then shuddered. The man, in all likelihood, had never used an ATM, or seen a hologram, or listened to a CD.
She suddenly felt very sad. Even her pathetic life was better than his. Imagine(
The bus arrived shortly after eleven-thirty, several minutes late as usual. The door opened with a hiss and she climbed inside, holding onto to the rail above her as the driver sped off. She didn’t need this, she thought. All day it was rush, rush, rush. She just wanted to relax, and now the bus was rushing her along the street. Always rushing. Always rushing.
Towards the back of the bus a group of three teenaged boys with yellow bandanas tied in a skull-cap fashion around their heads lay sprawled over the seats. They sneered at her as she stumbled down the aisle, jerked from side to side as the bus swerved around a parked car then back into its lane, swiftly.
“Swee-eet,” one of the boys whistled.
Lilly clutched her purse to her chest and sat down in the first open seat, next to a gray old man in his late sixties who’s shoulders hunched over themselves. The weight of living seemed just a little too much for him to bear.
“Probably Salinger,” Lilly thought to herself. “The rat’s finally left his cage.”
Lilly kept herself occupied with these thoughts for a while, up south Winchester and part of Forest Drive, then fell headlong back into the hum-drum that made up her life. Junky’s Rules, she scolded. Always falling back on the vice when she knew, in the end, it would be her undoing.
If she only had Salinger’s money, she thought. She’d travel, she’d see the Seven Wonders of the World. She’d go to Paris and Rome, spend a month in Moscow, then Prague. She’d go to Venice and hire a handsome Italian man to steer her through every canal in the city while she sat pretty in his brightly painted gondola. She’d do everything, she figured. Wild shopping sprees in Milan and New York City, skiing trips to Aspen, Vail, the Swiss Alps. She’d see every hidden corner in the world, would walk the entire length of the Great Wall in China; she’d climb to the base of Mt. Everest then fly to the North Pole. She’d write journals of her travels, then pay handsomely to have them published. Gilded pages set in the most stylish of type-faces, bound in luxurious leathers, cloth-bound versions printed solely for those who found leathers appalling. She’d sail around the world, would have front-row seats to every show on Broadway. And then(? And then she would take a canoe and paddle up the Rio Negro, would find that bright-eyed boy, and go swimming with he and his dolphins.
“Strange how things slip by,” the old man sitting next to her muttered. He held his hands on his lap, fingers clenched tightly together, forming a shallow, wrinkled basin.
Lilly smiled, humbly, then nodded.
“Time. People. They slip through your fingers. You don’t even notice.”
Lilly looked at the man’s hands. They looked wet, stained with tears.
“One after the other,” he continued. “An endless stream of people and hours, as thin as rain.” He unclenched his fingers now and stretched them. His knuckles cracked with a sound that reminded Lilly of dry, brittle branches being snapped in half.
“That’s the way life goes,” she said.
The man looked at her, his eyes startled. She suddenly realized he’d been talking to himself — not to her. She felt ashamed, slightly embarrassed.
“Can’t catch it in your hands,” he said.
Lilly just nodded.
The bus rounded the corner and turned onto Ash. Lilly suddenly remembered something else she had seen on the Discovery Channel. It had been a show on the giant pandas of central China.
According to Chinese legend, she remembered, pandas had originally been completely white, from nose to tail, like their polar bear brothers to the north. Settled deep in the heart of China, all of the pandas had lived in a lush valley filled with groves of bamboo, surrounded by steep, mist-capped mountains on all sides. It was a peaceful life. One where they had spent their days rolling with each other in the valley, playing in the trees dotting the landscape, and remaining ever-loving of a gentle shepherdess who had been tasked by the Emperor to watch over them.
Lilly thought for a moment, trying to remember the name of the shepherdess. Had it been Ling-Ling? Or Sing-Sing? She couldn’t remember. She only knew that it had been two names that were the same, acting as one, like Duran Duran, or Humbert Humbert. With a frustrated shake of her head she realized she probably would never remember. Names had a funny way of slipping through the cracks in her memory.
Regardless, one day the shepherdess was returning from a visit with the Emperor. She had been asked to appear to give her yearly report on the Empire’s most-prized treasure and, perhaps putting too much faith in her position, had denied the court escort offered her when she departed. What did she need with an escort? She had been the pandas’ shepherdess for many years, now. That alone would assure her a safe passage back to the valley, she figured.
Now in those times, so many thousands of years ago, roads were merely a foot-path that led through the dense forest, with steep switch-backs climbing up one mountain then down another like zig-zag stitching along the hem of a dress. The shepherdess walked for several days, sleeping beneath the stars at night, roasting berries and nuts over a small fire during meal times. She sang to herself as she walked, picked flowers and strung them through her hair. She was happy to be returning. Her pandas needed her, she knew. They cared for her just as she did for them. It was a beautiful relationship.
On the last day of her voyage, the shepherdess was less than a hundred yards away from her beloved home when she rounded a corner in the path and spotted a panther crouched in the undergrowth. Panthers were a danger to the pandas, she knew. Despite their pristine, snowy beauty, panthers only saw her bears as meals in fancy furs.
Grabbing a stick, the shepherdess ran after the panther, shouting at the top of her lungs for the pandas to run, to seek shelter. The panther, perhaps startled, or angry at her for scaring away his dinner, turned on the shepherdess. She was killed instantly.
“Ash Street,” Lilly thought. The street had been named for a type of hardwood tree, but the color the name gave reminded her of the pandas.
In China, the show had said, the arms of mourners are covered with ashes. Symbolic of the body returning to the earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — the bereaved will paint their arms and hands black then will wail their laments.
For the pandas, this meant painting their arms as well. But as they hugged each other in sorrowful embraces, as they dried their tears from their eyes, as they clasped their paws over their ears to block out the horrible sounds of their own cries, the black ash stained their fur.
“They carry the markings of sorrow on their skin, still,” Lilly thought. “How poetic.”
Quite suddenly, then, without any warning, the bus screeched to a stop. Lilly stood up, uncertain if this were her stop or not. Looking out the window, from behind her she heard the bus driver yell.
“Okay, I’ve had about enough of your punk-ass,” he screamed. He was a burly man, nearly as wide as he was tall, and he was headed straight down the aisle towards her.
Lilly, in a panic, backed up against the window, pressing the old man between her and the wall of the bus.
What had she done? she wondered.
But then she caught a glimmer of yellow out of the corner of her eye. The three boys who had been sitting at the back of the bus were now on their feet and moving forward. The one in the lead had a devilish grin on his thin lips. Lilly noticed the scar above his left eyebrow, an inch long and riveted with purplish swirls that looked like glass beneath the skin. She held her breath.
“Just drive the bus, fat boy. We ain’t home yet.”
“I don’t think you understand,” the driver said. “This is your stop. You’re getting off now.”
The driver stared at the three boys with a look of fire and fear. Lilly felt for him. She knew he must be scared out of his wits, but he was doing an admirable job of not showing it.
The boy with the scar turned to the kid behind him and laughed. “Seems our chauffeur don’t want the job,” he said. “You feel like steering?”
Lilly gasped and the last boy — the one who had whistled at her when she’d hopped on the bus — smiled. “Maybe princess wants to drive,” he said.
“Uh — no, no. That’s —”
“Always slipping away,” the old man behind her muttered. “Time. Life. Soldiers marching on.”
The boy with the scar laughed again. “Now there’s a new one. Old man’s got a great seat,” he said. “How much you charging him for the view?”
Lilly felt the blood rush to her face, felt it drain from her bones.
“That’s it!” the driver yelled, this time more forcibly. “Get the hell out.” With that he grabbed the first boy by the collar and started to pull him towards the door. But, before he could take his first step, the boy had a knife in his hand, gleaming silver beneath the florescent lights. Lilly screamed. The driver turned just in time to see the knife slide beneath his skin, at a point just above his belt, in his side. His eyes grew wide. A single drop of blood flew through the air and landed on Lilly’s hand. She screamed again. The driver, seemingly more disturbed by the screaming than the knife in his side, reached out to her. Lilly pressed herself tighter against the wall of the bus. He had the look of the dying in his eyes. A contagious look.
In slow-motion, Lilly watched the boys standing behind the one with the scar start to climb over the seats, the one at the end of the line coming towards her. The old man between her and the wall of the bus sighed; with a deep, defeated moan that sounded like air being let out of a tire, he collapsed. But then, in the next instance, the boy with the scar was flying backwards into the aisle, his back arched, his arms flaccid in front of him, the knife still held in his hand, its blade wet with blood. The driver had not been reaching out to Lilly, she realized, but had been swinging at his attacker. Without thinking, Lilly swung her purse and felt the solid smack of it as it made contact with one of the boy’s faces. She swung again. And again. When the police finally arrived she was still swinging.
Lilly didn’t hear the sirens when the two police cars came screaming down the street, screeching to a stop, one in front of the bus, the other behind. She didn’t hear the cops yelling at her through the open window to put her hands in the air and to step into the aisle. She didn’t even really notice when one of them tackled her in the seat and cuffed her hands behind her back, pinching the cuffs so tightly that her wrists bled. She only noticed the commotion later, as the bus driver was being hauled off in an ambulance and she found herself sitting in the front seat of Officer Sills’ Ford Taurus.
“Ms. Summers,” the officer said. “Ms. Summers. We need to ask you a few questions.”
Lilly shook herself. She felt tired, like she had just awaken from a deep sleep riddled with nightmares. Her eyes focused themselves uneasily, falling first to her hands lying in her lap, to the spot of blood there, then to the young face of Officer Sills. He was a good-looking man, she realized. Probably not a day over twenty-five. Instinctively, she looked to his hands for signs of a wedding band. “Forever searching,” she told herself. “Forever and ever.”
The officer asked her several questions over the course of the next few hours. She answered them as best she could, first in the car, then later at the police station. It all seemed like just a bad dream to her, she told him. Flashes: the glimmer of the knife beneath the lights, the look on the bus driver’s face at the moment he was stabbed, the sharp stab of the old man’s face in the small of her back when she had jumped back against the wall of the bus. Throughout it all the officer smiled, knowingly, writing down notes on his clip-board as quickly as his pencil would allow.
By two in the morning Lilly had told her version of the story over six times, she figured. Officer Sills seemed to want to know everything. He would ask her a question, write down her answer, then ask her the same question again, but this time in a slightly different fashion, using different words, attacking the scenario from a different angle, again noting her answer. He was looking to put an air-tight case together against these kids, he told her. Something that would stick in court.
“Jinx — the kid with the scar above his eye,” he explained, “has been in and out of here twelve times in the past year. He keeps getting off because he’s got a slick lawyer who knows how to find the pin-holes. The slime-ball could make Mother Theresa out to be a whore if you gave him enough money,” he spit. “Guys like him make it tough on the rest of us.”
Lilly just nodded her head.
The officer watched her. She was a cute girl. Young, though brave. This town could use a few more like her, he figured. But she was sealed off, vacant. He had the feeling that he was saying the wrong things to her, which was too bad, but he needed what she knew if he was going to keep those punks off the street.
“I mean, they deserve their day in court. That’s what America’s all about, right? I just wish it wasn’t so hard to put the bad guys away — so people like you and me could feel safe riding the bus at night, you know?”
Lilly looked at him and smiled, weakly.
“I’m tired,” she said.
“Yeah. Sure.” He shuffled the papers on his desk into a neat little stack then peeled one off and handed it to her. “I just need you to sign this,” he said.
Lilly took the paper and tried to read it. The words were a jumble; hooks, arrows, and springs that jumped helter-skelter from right to left in a manner that reminded her of Chinese calligraphy. She blinked, then turned the paper around. Her eyes were too tired to focus. She sighed.
“It’s your statement,” the officer said. “We need your signature.” He waited for her to respond, then added: “DA’s rule — not mine.”
“Sure,” she muttered, taking the pen he held in his hand. She followed his finger with her eyes as he pointed to a blank line with an x beside it, then scribbled her signature across it in sloppy fashion. Her mother would be disappointed, she thought. Neatness was a virtue.
“And this one, too,” the officer added, handing her another sheet, again pointing to where she should sign. “This corroborates your statement with Davis Johnson’s.”
“The bus driver,” he smiled.
Lilly again scratched her name across the line and handed the paper back to Officer Sills. He looked worn down to her, almost sad. She wondered if he’d ever travelled to Europe. Had he seen the Eiffle Tower?
But his eyes were blank. The city lights didn’t sparkle within them.
“Just one last one,” he said, handing her yet another sheet of paper. “This one’s so we can justify dropping the charges against you.”
“What?” Lilly suddenly sat up straight in her chair. “What charges?”
“Don’t get upset, now,” he said. “It was clearly self-defense. We know that. Mr. Johnson told us that if you hadn’t done what you did, well, you’d both probably be dead right now.” Lilly looked aghast. The officer thought about what he’d said, then added: “Jinx did come at you two with a knife, right?”
Lilly nodded. Then she shook her head. “I don’t —”
“Billy-Boy — the one you hit with your purse?” Lilly shrugged. “They just went in to operate. His face is fractured in seven places.”
Then the officer reached beneath his desk and pulled out Lilly’s purse. Dropping it on the table it made a noticeable thwump. He arched his brow and, reaching inside, pulled out a large book and set it on the table next to the purse.
War and Peace.
“Pretty ( uh, heavy reading,” he laughed, though gravely.
Lilly blushed. “I didn’t mean to(”
But he stopped her. Picking up the book, he thumbed through its pages. “I never made it through this one,” he said. “Dostoyevsky — that was the extent of it. You know, Crime and Punishment? The Brothers Karamazov?”
Lilly nodded, not exactly sure where this was headed, only hoping that it would end soon.
“Anyway,” he said, as acutely as if he had read her thoughts, holding the book in one hand and tapping it against the other — as if he were calculating the force with which it would impact. “Just sign the statement and you’ll be on your way.”
Quickly, Lilly scribbled her name, stood up, and reached for her purse. Slinging it over her shoulder, she took the book from the officer’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. “I — uh — thank you.”
The officer smiled. “We should be the one’s thanking you,” he said in a sudden gush of good-will. “You’re a regular hero. Don’t see many of those any more.”
“A regular hero,” she repeated to herself as she left.
It had a strange ring to it. Familiar yet foreign. Lilly thought about this as she pushed open the glass double doors of the police station and stepped out into the dark, cold night. The sun would be up in less than three hours now, she knew. It was over a mile to her small apartment but the walk would do her good. It would give her time to sort things out, make sense of what had happened.
It would, she hoped, help her come to terms with being a hero.
As she set off down the lonely sidewalk she thought about what Officer Sills had said. So, he thought she was someone to be admired, huh? Brave, even? Courageous? He hadn’t seen her at seven in the morning without make-up and only two hours of sleep dragging the ground beneath her, but he’d thought he’d seen enough to call her a hero?
Lilly chuckled to herself, amused with the officer’s fool-heartedness. Granted, his compliment felt good, somehow partially filling that hungry little spot in the pit of her stomach that craved such delights. But, as the police station fell further and further behind her, she knew better. She realized that excitement like this night had shown her would never really leave her satisfied. Adrenaline created more hunger than it satiated. Heroics were, well, tiring. They sucked the energy right out of you. And in the end, regardless of what people said, or how they would come to look at her, she knew she would only end up wishing for something far more simple. The quiet life. The life she had already been living, with her job, her books, the drunks, the shop-lifters, and the Blind Widow intact — just as they always had been.
Lilly lit a cigarette, drew the smoke deeply into her lungs, then exhaled with a sigh.
She wondered what Salinger would have done, had he been there.