September 26, 2018KR OnlineFiction

From Where We Rush Forth

When I saw the professor’s obit in the newspaper, a familiar pang of shock rushed to my chest. The obit didn’t say how he died. Just that he left a wife, one son, a brother, and a mother behind. My mother read it in the newspaper. She almost always reads the obits, especially lately.

I hadn’t planned on going to the service. But then I found myself getting dressed in the only dress shirt and tie I own before cramming into a seat on the twelve. I sat there, swaying back and forth with the start and stop of the bus, wondering why the professor had called me only the week before, if maybe he had a premonition about his death.

He’d been my geology professor at City College during my most recent term. Five days before he died, he called me. When I got the call, I thought the unknown number was another one of my mother’s doctors. I hadn’t been to the professor’s class in three weeks because I’d dropped out. For the few weeks I’d attended his class, I was a good student. I asked questions and took notes. I only ever talked to him briefly, so his call surprised me.

I had told the professor about my father’s sudden death, but I didn’t tell him I left university to take care of my mother. Thirteen days before my father died of a heart attack, we’d discovered that her lung cancer had reached stage four. I’m uncertain if his heart attack was quick and whether he was frightened. It happened at night, in the car, alone. He was about to drive back from the store. The keys were in the ignition, left unturned. He’d gone to pick up pound cake and strawberries for my mother.

I asked the professor why he called and he said he’d wanted to see if I was OK. There was a silence that grew awkward. I could hear him breathing heavily. I wondered why I felt I knew him, why the part of me that thought he was crossing a line wasn’t annoyed, only relieved.

He apologized again for the loss of my father, then he said, “You’re a good student, Marco. I hope you come back and study the earth sciences again. There’s a lot to learn and apply to one’s life, as innocuous as it may seem in a culture that’s so often disconnected from what’s natural. There’s much to learn and unlearn about our thinking.”

I agreed with him on the phone, even though, at that moment, I wasn’t sure I believed in anything. I’d never had my mother’s intuition or my father’s belief in a larger order of things, a belief that all our experiences are unfolding exactly as they should. But I believed the professor that day when he told me that forms must break apart, must shift, and some life must die for other forms to persist.

• •

The bus was packed and the driver seemed annoyed when I’d gotten on, telling me to wait a minute. I thought she wanted me to wait to pay, so I stood there, awkward, trying not to fall as the bus jerked. She looked at me confused, and I couldn’t help but stare at her. She had dark skin, braids, and perfect, long pink nails. I’d seen her driving the twelve before. I always hoped it’d be her pulling up when I was waiting at the stop.

“Is it OK to pay now?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, us both realizing we’d misinterpreted one another.

Shortly after I got on the bus, an old white woman boarded with an empty cart. She squeezed herself into the seat next to Sara, a plump woman I knew from around the block. She never said hello to me, in Spanish or English, but she’d always responded to my father, even blushed a little when he tipped the brim of the pageboy hat he always wore on the weekends.

Sara played on her phone while the other passengers stared in her direction, and I pretended not to notice. Spooky noises were coming from somewhere near her—the sound of a door creaking, a creepy laugh. The same sequence repeated over and over every few minutes. A young girl signaled to a curious old man sitting next to her that the noise was coming from Sara’s bag. “Oh!” he said, relieved.

Sara never looked up. She only clutched the bag containing the Halloween toy more firmly between her feet. Next to her, the old woman sat expressionless, holding her shopping cart against her legs. She was wearing a knit wool cap. Her gray hair pushed out where it could beneath the hat’s weight.

The bus stopped somewhere near Folsom and Third when I heard a man say, “What’s up, sister, how you doing?” to my crush driving the bus. Before I even saw him, I could smell alcohol and cologne. He was tall, lanky, and older-looking than the sound of his voice. He leaned against a white cane, straightening the navy tie he wore against a bright-red Hawaiian shirt. His hair was thick, light gray, and wild. He stumbled toward me at the front of the bus, his cane hanging behind him and occasionally hitting my shins as the bus swayed and he continued his conversation with the driver.

“I’m heading to a funeral,” he slurred. He was shouting even though no one was talking. There was only the sound of the toy—the door creaking and the creepy laugh.

“My brother’s funeral,” he said. “He died in my arms the other day.”

“No,” she said. “Are you for real?”

“Yeah, it was crazy, man. Heart attack. He was at my house for dinner. Held him in my arms while I called an ambulance. I felt his last breath. He died before they even got there.”

The driver moaned in disbelief and I felt my stomach drop. I wondered if we were going to the same funeral.

“Man, there ain’t anywhere to sit,” the man said. “This cab is packed.”

I thought for a moment to get up, even though there were still a few open seats.

The old woman spoke up quickly. Her voice was sharp. “There are seats open,” she said. “You can sit here and here.” She motioned to the seats. There was a seat open next to her.

“What?” the man said, confused.

“You can sit here or here.” She pointed again while the man ignored her and continued talking to the driver.

“I told you there were seats!” she shouted.

“Shit, man.” The man grabbed the nearest pole so as not to fall, his cane hooked on his forearm as he squeezed into the seat next to the woman. “You ain’t gotta yell at me. I ain’t your son. I’m a man.”

She looked ahead, avoiding eye contact with everyone. “There were seats open!” she shouted.

“You don’t say nothing to me. I’m on my way to a funeral. I got enough grief as it is.”

He kept talking to the driver, telling her about his Hawaiian shirt, how he wore it because he’s Hawaiian Filipino and people should know where he and his brother are from even though his brother was some fancy professor. The old woman mumbled something.

“What’d you call me?” he said to the woman. “You keep talking and you’ll get slapped upside the head.”

“I dare you!” she screamed. She turned her head to look at him while clutching her cart. Passengers looked at each other nervously before turning back to their phones, pretending not to notice. I did the same.

“You’re a crazy—” he began to say, but the woman interrupted him.

“I dare you! I’ll get you arrested!”

“You think I haven’t been to jail before?” he laughed while looking around the bus. I looked away before he could make eye contact with me.

The woman looked forward out the window. I gazed up again. Her concave chest moved up and down quickly.

“You’re crazy,” he said, looking around the bus again for support. I felt like I should intervene, but how? I didn’t even know who I sided with. I only wanted to impress the driver.

“I bet you’re going to Food Co. Can’t even afford a real grocery store,” he mumbled. “Drop this lady off at the Food Co.,” he said to the driver. “Get this lady out of here, man. My brother died and I gotta deal with this. You know you’re going to the Food Co.,” he said, turning to her.

The driver shook her head and the old woman stared ahead, pretending not to hear him. The spooky sounds continued on repeat.

“Whose phone is that?” the driver shouted. No one spoke up. “Whose phone is it?” she said again.

Sara finally looked up from her phone, but she didn’t say anything until the driver asked again. “It’s in my bag,” she said.

“You can’t turn it off?” the driver said.

Sara looked confused, but reached inside the bag anyway, moving her hand around before saying, “No.”

“Oh,” the driver said. “It sensored or something?”

“Yes, I think,” Sara said.

The driver laughed. “I thought it was coming from your phone.”

The young girl and the old man sitting next to her laughed with a handful of others as the spooky sounds began again. The man yelled once more for the driver to drop off the old woman. The next stop was in front of the Food Co. The old woman got off the bus while the man shouted after her, “I told you crazy was going to the Food Co.!”

The driver looked at him in her rearview mirror as more people boarded. “Come here,” she said. “You gotta behave yourself.”

“Girl,” he said, standing up and walking toward her. “She pissed me off.”

“Shoot,” she said. “If I reacted to everyone like that, I’d lose my job.”

The next stop was ours. I stood tall behind the man, staring at the tree-lined street as the bus rolled to a stop. When the doors opened, he turned his head to say good-bye to the pretty driver. As he stepped off, he missed the last step. The driver shrieked before his head hit the ground, a puff of breath pushing out of him in panic and surprise. His body crumpled onto the pavement, his face pressed against the sidewalk. He didn’t move or try to pull himself up.

I jumped off the bus to check his head as the driver called in the accident. I could hear the worried murmurs of all the passengers. Without even looking, I could feel their faces pressed against the windows.

“Hey! Hey!” I shouted, pulling his eyelids up with my thumb, but he wouldn’t come to. The driver got off the bus and knelt next to him. She covered her mouth with the palm of her hand when, next to his head, she saw blood on the pavement.

• •

When the ambulance arrived, I got into the back with the man, saying I was his brother. I saw the bus fade away through the window of the ambulance, the siren blaring as we attempted to speed through city traffic. The man’s eyes began to open slowly until they became wide with fear. I looked at him, searching for a sign of the professor, looking for pieces of him in the man’s eyes and the strong line of his jaw.

The right side of the man’s head was red and brown from blood and dirt. He grabbed my forearm and pulled me close, my shoulder hovering near his ear. He held me there and we stayed put, close and quiet like family, comforting each other in our silent terror. I stared at the gash on the side of his head, then shouted “Whoa!” as he hit his head against my shoulder, at first softly, then with as much force as he could, his hand grabbing tightly onto my sleeve as he screamed, “I ain’t shit, man! I ain’t shit!” The EMT restrained him saying, “Sir, you need to relax, sir.” The man’s grip softened as his body convulsed in sobs.

• •

I waited anxiously in the ER lobby for thirty minutes, watching the new emergencies roll in, mostly quick stitch-ups and broken bones. Then I left, looking behind me when I escaped through the automatic doors. I never made it to the funeral that afternoon. I walked for what must have been a mile before I caught the next twelve home. When I boarded, the passengers were quiet, and the bus felt unbearably empty.

The afternoon the professor called me, I hung up the phone then paced my small room before punching a hole through the thin wall my father once built so I could be alone. My hand bled. I didn’t care. I let it bleed until it stopped. Then, I took my mother to the hospital for one of her final appointments, before I’d have to watch her die at home.

Rachel Ann Brickner
Rachel Ann Brickner is a writer and multimedia storyteller from Pittsburgh. Her fiction appears most recently in Los Angeles Review and Joyland, and her essay “Another Year Older and Deeper In Debt” appears this year in the anthology Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Currently, Rachel is at work on her first novel. You can see more of her work at rachelannbrickner.com.