I once saw these three guys on a bus and decided to write a story about them. Further proof that, if I’ve talked to you for more than maybe twenty minutes, I have fictionalized you in my mind and will some day include you in a story.
A heavy man in a large, reclining wheelchair waited at the bus stop. Light grey clouds moved quickly across the sky, threatening rain later in the afternoon. Two men dressed in white t-shirts and jeans stood to the side of him. One was stocky and bald, and rested a hand on the back of the wheelchair to keep it steady. The other was taller and younger, with short black hair. He wore a gold chain around his neck and fiddled with a black lighter in his pocket.
They were going to visit a woman they’d never met before.
The bald man, Coco, shifted his weight to lean against the wheelchair. “Man,” he said, looking down the empty street. They were standing in front of a grocery store. He knew that if he turned around, he’d see mothers going in and out, getting in some shopping while their kids were still at school. His stomach rumbled uncomfortably at the thought of food. He wished he hadn’t skipped lunch.
“Man,” he said again, looking at his friends. His tone was light, cheerful, despite where they were going. “How long has it been since you’ve been on a bus, Felix?”
The man in the wheelchair glanced at him without moving his head, looking through silver-rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes. “I take the bus to therapy, Coco.” His voice was deep and booming, like the slow, even beat of a bass drum.
“No, not one of those short buses. A real bus.” Coco hit him playfully on the shoulder, trying to catch the other man’s eyes. But Tony had trained his eyes on the sidewalk, carefully tracing the wide cracks in the cement.
Felix tried to turn his head towards Coco, but it flopped loosely onto his shoulder. Coco gently pushed it upright again, and Felix settled for moving just his eyes. “About two years, maybe. Not for a while.”
Coco knew that, if Felix had been sitting in a regular chair, he would have been shifting in his seat, trying to make himself more comfortable while he answered the question. He remembered going to the hospital, six months ago, and Felix telling him he’d never walk again. Coco had been so glad that his friend was alive – a bullet to the back, who survives that? – that he hadn’t really thought about what paralysis meant. Now he knew.
“Two years, huh?” Coco let out a short huff of breath and shook his head. “Man.”
Down the street, the bus lurched into sight, its breaks screeching as it slowed down to turn. Once it stopped in front of them, Coco went around to the back doors, while Tony waited at the front ones with Felix. Coco walked through the aisle, glad that the bus was mostly empty today, except for a middle-aged woman holding her young boy in the middle of the bus. People tended to look at him when he was just by himself, at his clothes stained with grease from working with cars all day and his prison tattoos. He wasn’t sure how they’d stare at Felix.
When he reached the front, Coco waited for the driver to lower the ramp so that he could grab Felix’s chair. Tony and he maneuvered it through the narrow aisle, strapping it into the small space reserved for wheelchairs. It barely fit. Tony was right when he said that the chair would never fit in Coco’s tiny car.
“Thanks,” said Felix, after they had tightened the last buckle.
The bus pushed slowly forward again. Tony sat down by a window, across from the woman. He leaned so close to it that his nose nearly pressed against the cool glass. Coco stayed standing behind Felix, grabbing a pole to keep his balance. “How you feeling?” he asked, rearranging the blanket pillowing Felix’s back.
Felix’s eyes stared fixedly at the chairs in front of him, three in a neat row. Coco reached over to tap him on his shoulder, then realized and stepped forward instead, to grab the next pole over, so he could look at Felix’s face. He knew that the reasons for their trip haunted him, all three of them. But Felix had insisted they go.
“Are you doing okay?” Coco asked again. Felix blinked a few times, the muscles in his face relaxing.
“Yeah, fine,” he answered. Coco saw Tony glance up at them from behind Felix. The bus braked, and Felix’s chair slid forward a few inches. Tony stood and pulled it back before turning back towards the window, crossing his arms and slouching.
“It’s nice to be out of the wind,” Coco said. He looked at Felix, still concentrating on the seats in front of him. Maybe he would have nodded, if he could. Tony stayed silent. Coco held the pole with his left hand, then switched to his right, then to his left again.
Something pushed against his leg. It was the little boy, a loose baseball cap hanging over his eyes. “Leave him alone, sweetie,” his mother told him, hugging her purse to her chest.
Coco smiled down at him, but the boy inched past him to Felix’s chair, never looking up. He hung onto another pole, glancing from the giant wheels locked into place to the heavy blankets piled all around Felix, encasing him in fleece and cotton. The chair was twice the size of a standard hospital one, the back lowered to almost a forty-five degree angle.
“Hey, mister,” the boy said shyly. Felix glanced to the side, but the boy was out of his line of vision. “Are you sick or something?”
His mother stood and grabbed the boy’s arm, jerking him back to the seat.
“Here, don’t you want to sit by the window?” she told him, placing herself between her boy and the three men. Coco looked away, towards his friends. Tony was scowling.
“We’re almost there, right, Tony?” Coco asked him. “You know the buses better than us. How much longer, do you think?”
Tony turned, and in the dim light Coco could see the puffy bags under his eyes clearly, as thick as two of Coco’s fingers. His eyes looked buried in them, small brown dots that would one day be lost behind creases and folds.
“Twenty, thirty minutes, if the bus don’t go too slow,” Tony said with the lilting rhythm that came from growing up Chicano.
“That’s not very long,” said Coco, patting Felix’s shoulder again. “We’ll get to see her soon, right?”
“Soon,” Felix echoed. Tony began to drum his hands against his thin jeans, patting out a quick, uneven beat. It was a quiet sound, too quiet to fill the large space inside the bus.
The floor slid beneath Coco’s feet as the driver took a sharp turn a little too fast. He gripped the pole to catch his balance before letting go and draping his arm across Felix’s shoulders. He pushed his head upright, letting it rest on his shoulder in case they turned too sharply again.
“Man,” Coco said. “These drivers.” Felix’s fleece blanket felt warm against his bare arm. Coco glanced across the aisle at the woman, wondering if she’d fallen over in her seat when they turned. If she had, she’d already straightened back up, one hand absentmindedly playing with her boy’s hair.
Coco wanted to say something to her, something nice, but her rigid posture kept him from it. He turned towards his friends again. “Almost there, right?”
Tony answered, “I’m going to wait outside once we get there. You only need me to ride the bus anyway.”
“She won’t mind if you come in,” said Felix. “You were there when her son got shot. She’ll want to see you.”
Coco watched Tony’s dark eyebrows draw together as he stopped tapping his legs. “I don’t want to come. I’ll wait for you outside.”
The bus pulled to a slow stop, slow enough that Felix was able to keep his head upright without Coco’s help. He straightened, resuming his place by the pole. The woman stood and began to gather her things.
“Tony, I know my head’s as empty as a coconut, but I still –”
“I’m not coming!” Tony yelled, finally meeting his eyes. The woman shot them a dirty look before tugging her son’s arm and exiting the bus.
Coco watched the street pull away from them, the line of apartments blurring together. The woman disappeared with them as the bus turned a corner.
“Okay, Tony,” Coco said. “Okay. Wait outside. Waste this whole trip. Felix and I will give her your regards.” He turned away from the window.
“It was a waste,” Tony muttered. “I could have been at work. I can’t afford taking the day off just for this. Neither can you. We shouldn’t have come.”
Felix surprised them both by loudly clearing his throat. “We had to,” he said. The deep rumble silenced them. Coco felt as though an older brother was scolding him, and he ducked his head, wishing for something to do. He readjusted the blanket on Felix’s lap.
“We had to,” Felix said again. “We owe it to her to see her grief.”
Coco closed his eyes, trying to push away the image of blood that rose in his mind, blood and dirt on cement in a back alley. He’d only seen it in dreams.
“It wasn’t our fault,” Tony said. “They shot her son. Isn’t it enough that you can’t walk? She shouldn’t have let him go out like that anyway, just a kid and all. Why go see her?”
“I don’t know,” said Felix. “That’s why we’re going.”
Coco felt the bus tug to a stop, and glanced out the window. He was glad to see that they weren’t there yet. Worn houses dotted the street outside the bus, one after another, black paint peeling from the bars covering their windows. He felt comforted to know that the houses weren’t going to get any worse where they were going.
The bus driver slammed the brakes again at the next corner, and Felix’s wheelchair strained against the thin straps, loosening them enough that the chair slid halfway into the aisle. Felix sagged forward, his blankets dislodging as his torso fell into a slouch.
Coco and Tony quickly stood up and pushed the chair back into place together. Coco began to fix the straps while Tony held onto the back of it, his hands covered by the edge of the blanket. He threw the blue fleece off to the side, but it flopped back onto his hands, again and again. Coco stood up and tucked the blanket back in properly before pushing Felix upright.
Tony sat down and pulled out the lighter, ignoring the “No Smoking” sign. His left hand began to search through his other pocket.
“Hey,” said Coco. “I thought you didn’t do that anymore.”
Tony spun the wheel several times, but the spark wouldn’t light the gas.