by Josiah Leonard
Narrated by Bob Eccles
It was a flushy midsummer’s day, like a peach just turned overripe. No day for a bus ride and the people aboard Comfort Line 507 to Houston were all in a constant uncomfortable shift. There were seven in all. People, not passengers. Miz Dee, the driver, and six riders. And though seven is a sacred number, there was something decidedly unholy about this trip. Maybe it was the heat. Though the windows were open, the heat roared in like a baby’s cry – keening, wailing, never quite gone from your mind. It was the kind of heat made you wish you hadn’t dressed up for traveling. And though their motto ‘Choose Comfort First’ was painted on the side of the bus, Comfort Lines didn’t have air conditioning and the general rule among most people was choose Comfort last. It was cheap and unnoticed and so attracted a specific clientele.
Mamacita sprawled in back, whimpering babe at her side, awash with a Sunday afternoon weariness – the kind that sneaks in midsermon and don’t leave ‘til after church. Maybe that’s where she thought she was; hands clutching at her dress, she muttered every so often, “Lawd, Lawd, Lawd . . .” She leaned her head back far as the seat would allow, so as little flesh would be touching as possible. Didn’t matter much though: Mamacita, despite the name, was a woman of incredible width. Her stomach and hips slipped over into the seat beside her. Every well rounded part touch another.
In the middle sat a man in a blue suit coat and pants, his briefcase beside him. His hair was parted and a thin fuzzy mustache dusted his upper lip. He was slight, fine-boned and possessed of a quietness, a calm, not of self-confidence or maturity, but rather the discipline from a lifetime of flying under the radar; he hardly seemed to breathe. The briefcase was a scaly, black affair. Such was his protective manner toward it that you had to look twice to see it wasn’t chained to his wrist: he hadn’t let it go since he sat down.
A kid up front sat picking at a banjo. He’d been the first passenger on and had grinned his chipped-toothed smile at everyone who’d come after. His black mop of hair hung down as he hunched over, playing what sounded like a Spanish lullaby. It was low and sweet and must’ve been a cool breeze ‘cause he was the only one not breaking a sweat. Even Mamacita’s babe had a slick sheen.
It was the last passenger to arrive that everyone was worried about. He’d shown up just as the bus driver had introduced herself as Deborah or Delilah – that was the best approximation the scratchy intercom would allow.
‘But you can just call me Miz Dee.’
At this point the last traveler had stumbled in and dropped a crumpled ticket in her lap. He looked uprooted, pulled straight from the blessed and wild ground; he was certainly dusty enough. Little white hairs like roots stuck out the faded and holey parts of his jacket. And while one eye rang clear and blue the other was overrun by flesh and pinched permanently closed. The rest of his face was covered in knots of gray hair.
‘I know what to call you.’ His voice seemed to rasp low and high at once, like twisting metal. He turned from her, picked two seats toward the middle of the bus and sprawled over both. His feet hung off the edge and yellow nails peeked out his worn-through shoes.
Her next comments, though delivered through intercom, were directed to him: ‘I don’t want no trouble, I don’t want no noise, we keep this trip quiet and no nonsense, we keep it fast. And we all want to get where we going fast, ain’t that right?’
She’d waited a moment while no one answered, then she’d put on her best smile and turned to the kid up front to let him know it was alright he played his banjo.
Half the ride gone and everything had been quiet ‘til:
It was a rending, ripping, scratching shriek, one that snuck out from a place he’d kept like a secret, hidden a long, long while. It trembled your ears and sang out that there’s a secret like that inside every one of us; I hope I never live to tell mine. Afterward, he sat up rigid while Miz Dee was asking what in the hell was happening back there, and letting everyone know she’d stop this damn bus, if she had to.
From some pocket he withdrew a bottle of Crow’s Foot whiskey two-thirds gone and drained the rest. It was as if he didn’t notice no one else around him. His one blue eye was wild with movement and some whiskey spit dribbled in his beard. He was quivering and primeval and then the muttering started – low and hum-like, a shamanistic incantation, just under the ear’s reach: names, cold and fresh from the dirt. It went on a full minute ‘til one stopped him.
‘Ol’ Paul, Ol’ Paul. He kno’ed my name. He kno’ed Ol’ Paul. He kno’ed my name, He did and He’s a’comin’ for me. He’s a’comin’ soon so soon, and soon, so soon, He’s a’comin’.’ He sounded pitiful, so puerile, almost whimpering.
The kid with the banjo took pity on Ol’ Paul. ‘It’s ok, amigo, ain’t no one gonna get you here.’ It was a gesture of goodwill, though accompanied by nervous laughter, laced with a high whistle like your tea was done. ‘It’s okay.’
‘It’s not ok!’ His scream was savage, no longer childlike. ‘Death’s comin’ for Ol’ Paul. I sawed it in my dreams. He’s a’comin’ to take me to His lake of fire and burnin’ and He’s here soon, so soon, comin’ for Ol’ Paul. Cause he kno’ed my name.’ His eyes flicked up to the kid and the recognition that sprung up there made the kid’s whistle laugh start up all over again. ‘He talks to me, He does, tells me lotsa names, Death does. He kno’s you too. Kno’s your name, Federico, kno’s you well. He’s comin’ fo’ you.’
I don’t much remember what happened after that. He was cackling a litany of names at Federico; friends, family, people he had loved or did love or would love, telling him all along that Death kno’ed their names and was a’coming. Federico’s face told everyone that each name had a tangible human attached. Tears leaked out his eyes. The man in the blue suit stood up and Ol’ Paul turned toward him.
‘O he kno’s you too, ma frien’, kno’s you bedder’n most.’ His blue eye gleamed with special recognition: here was a kindred soul. ‘Yessir he kno’s you so well, Mister—”
‘Enough.’ The man in the blue suit spoke calmly, his voice girlishly high and breathy. Ol’ Paul grinned and opened his mouth to say his name; he might’ve said it too, but Blue Suit’s yell swallowed it up.
Mamacita’s baby began to cry. Ol’ Paul wailed and his keening mixed with the babe’s; it was hell met heaven on earth: the babe’s angelic, uncertain, and Ol’ Paul’s diabolic with a wretched assuredness. Through it all Federico’s staccato whistle laughter.
Time slowed to pictures: The white of Miz Dee’s eyes, large and powerful scared in the rearview mirror. Mamacita’s great broad back turning to protect her babe even as she braced for a blow; the third button from the top missing on her floral dress. Federico, hands over his ears, head between his legs, laughing, whistling, choking, crying. The man in the blue suit casually reaching towards his hip as if he’d known this was supposed to happen. My fist clenched out in front of me, not knowing who to hit or who to comfort or who I was.
Before any of us could get to him, Ol’ Paul’s wail stopped, shifted to a groan, a gurgle. He fell backwards and there was blood on his teeth, down his chin. There was no thrashing about or noise once he hit the floor of the bus. He’d spent it all just a few minutes before.
Mamacita’s babe’s cry died at the same time as Ol’ Paul and the only sound or motion was Federico crying and whistling up front. Finally Miz Dee’s voice came on the intercom, shaky, saying we’re heading back to a town to get to a hospital or some help. She started turning the bus around. Blue Suit told her to stop, but she didn’t hear him, so he walked up to the front.
He opened his suit coat and something gleamed heavy and dark at his hip. He said again Miz Dee’d better stop the bus. This time she did. And when he reached over and took the keys from the ignition, she leaned her head against the steering wheel.
He turned to Federico and quietly asked if his broke teeth ever cut his mouth.
‘No.’ And that steam kettle laugh tittered.
Well, Blue Suit told him, they would very soon if he didn’t shut it off. The boy put his hand in his mouth and, though it was clear he was still shaking with nervous laughter, the whistling ceased.
Blue Suit addressed the rest. He voice was no longer girlish; it was high and sharp, taut like a guitar string or a garrote’s wire. He told the bus they didn’t need to make any calls, didn’t need to go to hospitals, didn’t need no po-lice in their hair, didn’t need nobody in their business. They was just going to take care of the situation like rational adults, and when they got to the station, well, better to keep everything real quiet. And if any-nosy-body did go to the cops no one else on the bus’d back up their story and ain’t that the God’s honest truth?
“Now, you, Mama, why don’t you come grab this briefcase here and go for a little walk with me. An’ you, biggun, with the tie, give me a hand with this shit.” He drew out that word too long, so it stretched something like ‘sheeeeee-it’. And he grabbed Ol’ Paul by his knobby ankles and hoisted him up. That one blue eye glared, but I helped anyway.
Outside, Blue Suit said, ‘Ain’t no way that bus’s a’leaving without you an’ tu hija. Even if Miz Dee does have ‘nother set a keys.’ He sounded smug and out of breath. His pocket jingled reassurance.
And small and short as it was, Ol’ Paul’s funeral procession moved with a strange dignity: the two pallbearers both had dressed for the occasion and carried his body with a delicacy and purpose he’d not’ve gotten elsewhere. The great and solemn girth of Mamacita in tow lent a dignified air and her babe watched with wide eyes, as true a witness as any.
There was no burying, just a sand pile next to an old cactus. I tried to close his eye, but he’d have none of it and we left him there staring at the sky.
As Blue Suit grabbed the briefcase from Mamacita, my thick fingers moved on their own and gingerly reached down and plucked a thin chain from Ol’ Paul’s neck. It was a St. Jude’s medal. Guess Ol’ Paul was a man for lost causes. Taped on back was a picture of a girl, nine or maybe eleven with green eyes and a smile that made you want to cheer her up. Seeing her was like remembering someone you never met. It settled down on me, sank in between my bones. I been carrying picture and medal ever since.
Back at the bus, Blue Suit grabbed Federico’s hair and pulled him in close.
‘Didn’t try an’ get Miz Dee to leave without us, eh?’ But it was clear he hadn’t moved ‘cept to wipe nose and tears. His hand was still in his mouth and his banjo lay in the aisle; Blue Suit kicked at it nonchalantly and tossed Miz Dee the keys. ‘Take us to Houston, would’ja?’
And perhaps if had done so right then, maybe I’d be able to sleep through a night without waking up in sweat and dreams. But she wept at the wheel and no threat Blue Suit whispered in her ear would stir her. He was ready to take over driving himself when for the second time that day a terrible cry rose from the bus.
Mamacita stood pointing out the window, mouth agape and quivering. She clutched her babe to her chest and cried aloud for God himself.
By the cactus, Ol’ Paul’s body was bathed in a pool of light. A lake had sprung and he writhed and twisted in the mirrored surface, seemed to be waving at us, seemed to be calling to us, seemed to be telling us he was saving us a seat in the lake beside himself.
‘It’s just a mirage.’ But even Blue Suit looked flustered. ‘Drive, Miz Dee.’
‘But he’s alive.’
‘It’s the heat.’
‘It’s a vision.’
‘Take us away, Miz Dee.’
Now Mamacita said softly, like a chant, ‘A lake of fire. It’s a lake of fire. Death done dragged him down to a lake of fire, Death done come for him cause he knowed his name, Lawd A’mighty, Jesus have mercy, Death’s coming, coming for us all, He knows our names have mercy Jesus save us.’
By the time Miz Dee stopped her shaking long enough to get the bus started, the lake had faded and no one could even see Ol’ Paul’s body anymore, ‘cept on the inside of our eyelids and hearts and minds. It started to rain on the desert, but there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
It’s been a while. I haven’t slept much since then. Been looking around a lot. Looking for her. I keep the picture and medal around my neck; ain’t took it off in five years. But she ain’t passed through this city yet. I know she will, though, know it in my bones. I just have to keep my eyes open. Don’t like sleeping anyway. In my dreams some nights, there’s a light so bright, I can’t see for an hour when I wake.
I was just starting to see again when a man come walking my way. Don’t know anybody in the city, so I tensed up. He stopped a few feet away.
‘Been looking for you, hombre.’
I said no one looks for me and that he better just keep moving, that I was more trouble than it was worth to him.
‘No, amigo, I just want to talk. Look at me a sec. You know me, man.’
By now the bright had faded a bit and I took him in for the first time. I don’t know too many people anymore and he didn’t look like anyone I’d seen recently. Finally, though, I recognized him. It was Federico – just Rico now, he said. He’d changed completely, his mop of hair slicked back and his cheeks filled out to frame a set of impossibly perfect teeth. He’d had them done first thing, he said.
‘Everybody have teeth ‘at look this way. I just get them a little later.’ And he smiled a charming smile, asked if I’d get a coffee with him. He needed to talk.
He took me to some cafe with a Spanish name where he was apparently a regular; upon entering he snapped and held up two fingers then led me to a booth in the corner. A waitress soon appeared with two coffees and left. We stared at our cups while he tittered his breathy nervous laugh. I was surprised to learn it no longer whistled, just wheezed. Teeth must’ve fixed that. He looked tired. He asked if I wanted anything else, something to eat maybe.
‘No,’ I said slowly; it had been awhile since I’d spoken in sentences longer than that, not to someone real anyhow. ‘No, I already ate.’ And we were quiet again.
I asked if he still played the banjo and he said he hadn’t, not for a long while. ‘Forgot it on the bus, you know? Just never picked up a new one.’
I said I knew what he meant. We sat a bit longer while he sized me up.
‘You been okay, amigo?’
I said I had at that – though it was a lie and he probably knew it. He looked down, said he’d been to see Mamacita a few times before she’d told him not come around no more. He didn’t say why or how he’d found her.
‘But her kid, amigo, her nina grown up a bit. She now five years old.’ He held up five waggling fingers for emphasis, then leaned in close. ‘But you know what? In five years since then she ain’t said no words. Nada.’ And here he whispered. ‘It’s like he stole her voice.’
I said I didn’t see talking about it was going to change anything. Far as I was concerned the little girl had the right of it.
He reached into his pocket. ‘I been looking for you, hombre. I need to show this to you.’ He pulled out a creased and ripped newspage. It was dated over a year ago. He’d been looking for me a while. It felt strange to have someone looking for me, when I’d been searching for so long.
I couldn’t focus on the words and felt a powerful need to get out and away. I handed it back. ‘It’s interesting.’
‘Look at the picture.’
I did. Grainy and small, it showed a man sprawled on a dirty mattress. He was wearing a blue suit and had an empty bottle of Crow’s Foot by his head. The caption read, ‘Drug Runner Drinks Himself to Death.’ His eyes were open, but he looked calm, even peaceful. I envied him only a little.
‘Guess Death knew him after all.’ And Rico laughed and laughed and put his head down on the table for a long time. I was about to leave when he said, ‘You have any dreams lately, amigo?’
‘Dreams . . .’ He looked up at my tired face.
‘You know . . .’ He squirmed when he said it. I met his gaze ‘til he looked away, then said no, no I hadn’t.
‘I see him in my dreams. He’s wearing a blue suit and his teeth are chipped. He cries like a baby and dances in the rain and tells me,’ a breath shook his chest, ‘tells me He’s a’comin’.’ He met my stare this time. ‘You telling me you ain’t had nothing like that?’
I got up, thanked him for the coffee and turned to go. He reached out and grabbed my wrist, but let go immediately when I looked at him.
‘You ever try to leave?’
I said I didn’t know what he meant.
‘You don’t know . . . Bullshit. I have. Nothing leaves with me on it: cars break down, trains just plain don’t come down the tracks. Every plane I ever got on since had mechanical problems. Don’t feed me shit like you don’t know, you’re still here, you ain’t left yet.’
I told him I never much thought of leaving and I ain’t had dreams for a long while – at least the first was true – and I’d had as much coffee and conversation as I could take. That was true too. I left and as I passed by the window outside, Federico’s head was down on the table; I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying. I wish I could help him, but I’m doing the best I can.
I brought the medal up to my lips for a kiss and started walking again. I don’t mind losing sleep; can’t find someone with your eyes closed. I got something to give her and then I figure this business can rest and maybe us, too. She ain’t been through yet, but I got a good feeling about what’s coming. Soon. She’ll come rolling in soon, yes, soon, so soon on a sweaty midsummer’s day where the wind blows in Spanish lullabies and rain without clouds.
BIO: Josiah Leonard’s story, Comfort Lines, is his first story. He is proud to have it published in Liquid Imagination. He currently lives in NYC where he works as an actor.