A Ride on the 11:10 by Melanie Haws
The bus wasn't anything Betty would have considered before James passed. She hadn't ridden a bus in years, and then only a yellow school bus on one or the other of her children’s school field trips. She had endured the bouncing and jarring and the din of shrieks and shouts then, and in the end, she was always glad to get back to the sanctity of her own car, a ship-like ten-year-old Buick with gadgets and buttons she had never learned to use. Besides that, buses were something that other people rode. Poor people, Betty thought, then shamed herself for her lack of charity.
She watched the city buses pass by her house at regular intervals throughout the day, putting aside her book of crossword puzzles. They swished and roared down the street, sending the leaves awhirl and the neighbors’ dogs yelping. Betty wondered how she could have missed them all of these years, all that noise and the way they glinted in the daylight, which led her to consider what other things she might have missed as well, things that were right in front of her, as she sat in what had been her late husband’s favorite chair. She could not dwell on that now, not on a March morning as fine and bright as this one. She began to count the buses, keeping track of them with a tick mark on the folded-over morning newspaper. One, two, three, and the day was still new. All of them headed somewhere; she began to wonder where.
Buses had been on her mind since the night before, when her phone rang just after supper. “Meemee!” Her eldest granddaughter, Emma, was calling, sounding breathless like she always did, as if her life was a great prize and she was its only winner.
“Oh, I’m so glad you called, Emma! So glad!” The empty kitchen was quickly awash in light, with that young lilting voice. Emma was the first in the family to call her “Meemee.” No one knew where the name came from, but it stuck. Betty didn’t care for it at first, the cloying sound of it, but she soon loved it coming from the sweet tongues of her grandkids. She now thought of herself as “Meemee” as much as she thought of herself as Betty.
Emma launched into her conversation and Betty listened, dizzily amused, as her granddaughter jumped from talking about the stray cat she was feeding to her microbiology studies to a parking ticket she’d just gotten. “And you know what else?” Emma said, without waiting for Betty to respond. “I decided that I’ll just leave the car parked, and take the bus everyday.”
“The bus? Aren’t you afraid?” It still horrified Betty that Emma had chosen to go to college in Atlanta, such a big city for a young girl. She pictured bus doors opening and closing, dour-faced, sweaty people swarming on, engulfing fair, freckled Emma.
“Why, no, Meemee.” Emma sounded aghast at the idea.
“But I bought you a car so you could get around town.” Betty had written the check herself for a perfectly nice new Honda, Emma’s high school graduation present. Virtually indestructible, the salesman had assured her.
“I need to reduce my carbon footprint,” Emma said. “We all should.” Her voice chirpy and earnest, she then went on to talk about lessening traffic and mindfulness and the overuse of plastics. Betty listened, lost, hopelessly so. She felt as if Emma spoke a different language. After she hung up the phone, she sat and looked at it for a long time, wondering when exactly she had gotten so old. She was eighty-three now, but occasionally she was off by a year or two in her recollection. Sometimes she had to consider her exact birthdate, or her place in her family. She forgot that she was the sixth-born, after Patsy and before Sam, but then she would remember that both Patsy and Sam were dead. It was a jarring thing, a heavy feeling, when everyone around you began to die. She was alone in the house now, and some days the only person she saw was the postman.
After the call, Betty had watched her evening TV programs, waiting for the darkness to fill in the emptiness of the house. Then she spent a fitful night, sleeping and waking at the littlest sound: the creaking of her old house, the murmur of the TV that she never turned off. She’d called this place home for most of her life. It was at least thirty years old when she and James had bought it in the mid-fifties, a stodgy, square two-story with a stoop, of no discernible school of architecture. Betty had always coveted something new and easy, with wall-to-wall carpeting and a two-car garage. She didn’t want a house that bore someone else’s lives and losses, but James, a most practical man, said they should stay put. The neighborhood on the south end of Knoxville was still good, the price had been right, and the mortgage had long been paid in full. Still, she’d spent many Sundays poring over the newspaper classifieds, looking at unblemished ranchers in outlying subdivisions.
In the end she accepted the house, settled in for its ever-cracking plaster, its tingling winter drafts, its rolling and tilting floors. Life was a great deal like that old house, she thought. She’d had given up so much else, to keep the peace. She had planned to keep on teaching school after they married, not only for the money, but because she liked the smell of the chalk and the books, the third-grade hands flying up in the air to answer her questions. James insisted that she quit. He’d wanted her home with the children, who came sooner than her plans. He would be the provider, and after a few years of law school, the success. And then there was that long-ago business with the other woman. She remembered well the sickening flutter of her pulse the day she found out. It ended soon enough, and she carried on her way with the school events, supper on the table every night at six, watching every penny, nursing the yard and the shrubs. She never forgave, she did not forget, and she stayed—leaving in that time was something they only did on TV.
Susan, her eldest, said the house was too much for her, and maybe she was right. Betty wasn’t able to climb the stairs to the three bedrooms up there. She could still recall the way the rooms looked when her children lived in them, though she had not been up there in many years. The team of cleaning ladies who came once a week kept everything in order. “It’s like you’re waiting for one of them to come home,” one of the cleaners said, following Betty’s instruction that nothing be moved or discarded, not the portable TV sets that no longer worked or the stereos with silenced turntables. Two rooms were full of Susan’s and Cindy’s trophies and ribbons, yellowing yearbooks, and prom dresses still stuffed in the closets. The third bedroom, painted blue, the one that looked down the sweep of the yard to the river, belonged to Tim, the middle child, their son.
Susan and Cindy lived across town, near the mall and the movie theaters. Betty didn’t know where Tim was. She felt a strangeness rising from him the minute she first held him, a resistance to her, and to James especially. He was a fretful child and already a disappointment to his father, who wanted a beefy boy, a football player. He never fit in with the other children at school, and spent most of his time at home up in that room, talking aloud to someone who was not there, whole conversations. James and Betty took him to doctors, who gave Tim medication he refused to take. He disappeared right after high school graduation, headed to Cocoa Beach, and he didn’t call for a year. Then he was in Oregon, roofing houses, and down through the years he’d moved to California, where he delivered mail, to Texas, where he drove a cab, to Maryland, where he was put on a psychiatric hold. He might call weekly for a time, then they would hear nothing from him for years. Betty could not remember when Tim last called. She wished that she could point to something she had done, or not provided, and she laid awake many a night, blankets bunched nervously between her fingers, trying to conjure up Tim’s face, as it had been, the freckles she’d tried bleaching, as it might be now, a stranger to her. Her only son, her boy, out there somewhere.
The subject of a move to an assisted living center had come up back in January, when Betty had fallen after she’d gone to put out bird feed. She wasn’t hurt, at least not badly, but she was terribly embarrassed. The neighbors called an ambulance, and both of her daughters came, and there was a quite a ruckus when—she was fine. A few bumps, hurt pride, a realization that yet another bit of simple goodness was lost to her—that was all. Her daughters toured several places—nursing homes, Betty thought—before Cindy, on her day off from her banking job, drove Betty across town to their first pick, Autumn Acres. The place was almost new, the trees planted outside only saplings, naked and fragile. It sat atop a hill overlooking a new strip mall, all of it cut quite suddenly into what had once been a large dairy farm. Betty was surprised to see that the city limits of Knoxville had crept so far into the country, and now there were no open fields in sight. The walls quivered with the cars passing quickly on the four-lane road outside, but inside, Autumn Acres was warm and well-lit, full of ferns and carpet that Betty’s feet sunk down into, as if she were trudging through mud.
“Just look at this. Cheery, wouldn’t you say, Mother?” Cindy only called Betty “Mother” at times like this, when she was instructing Betty about something. Her voice also grew a bit louder.
Betty looked over at the brightly colored walls of the main reception area, covered in floral wallpaper, big cabbage roses, impossibly showy. Betty had never liked wallpaper. It seemed so permanent, and expensive, too. She preferred a nice coat of scrubbable eggshell paint, preferably antique white, since it went with everything. She wondered how much all of this cost. She walked over to have a look at the seams of the wallpaper, to see if it was hung properly, but Cindy summoned her back. “It’s time for our tour, Mother.”
They were met by a tall, rangy woman who smelled of freshly chewed breath mints. “Susan White, but please, you’ll call me Susan,” she said, as if the matter were already decided. She led Betty and Cindy on a walk through the facilities—the dining hall and the craft area and, finally, a room just like the one Betty would occupy. It overlooked a darkened line of trees, which Betty noted with some longing. In the afternoons, she liked to walk. Would she ever reach those trees on foot? She didn’t realize it, but she had asked the question, aloud.
“Oh, no, I don’t think we’d let you get all the way out there. But if it’s activity you want, we have that!” Susan chirped. “Every morning at nine, chair yoga—“
“Chair yoga?” Betty repeated.
“Yes, very gentle on our folks’ joints.”
“Isn’t that what you do? That yoga?” Betty asked Cindy. “I don’t want to do that.” She worried that yoga was some sort of hippie religion. She had no desire for that type of thing, and she wondered why her daughters would partake of it. She should have taken them to church more often.
“Yes, Mother.” Cindy looked at Susan. “Except I do Bikram. Hot yoga.”
“Me, too!” Susan said. “It’ll change your life, girl! Even the chair kind!”
“I don’t want to learn yoga,” Betty said.
“Fair enough! We have a minibus that takes our residents to the mall for walking there! Every morning at eight, except Sunday.”
“I wouldn’t want to walk indoors,” Betty said. “And, generally, I walk after Days of Our Lives finishes. In the afternoon. I walk then.”
Susan White’s eyes roved from Cindy to Betty and back again. “I’ll see what we can do about that, hon. There’s so much to do here that you’ll be ready for a nap by the time your soaps come on.”
Betty stiffened. “I don’t nap. I have never napped.”
Susan went on talking as if she hadn’t heard Betty. Everything was done on a schedule at Autumn Acres. Breakfast at seven, arts and crafts at nine, then a Bible study, or bridge. An outing scheduled every Tuesday. Lunch at twelve, dinner at five-thirty. Special events in the afternoon, like Toby the Elvis impersonator, pet therapy, a middle-school string quartet. Quiet time began at eight, lights out at ten. Betty half-listened, and then the tour finished. It was noon, and the residents were carefully making their way to the dining room.
Susan White walked them out to the car. “See you soon?” she said, patting Betty’s hand.
Betty looked down at the woman’s smooth, pink hand. Susan had so much of life in front of her. “I doubt it,” Betty said, and she heard Cindy gasp. “I eat when I want to. I knit when I have a mind to knit. This isn’t the place for me.”
“Mother!” Cindy reprimanded. They drove the eleven miles home in silence, Cindy driving faster than she should.
Betty was relieved to arrive home again, to see the sweet familiarity of the place waiting for her, and she felt a hot flush of shame that she had ever disliked the house and its off-square rooms, its leaky windows, that she had ever wanted to flee its memories. They sat at the curb for a full minute, then Betty said, “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Autumn Acres is the best there is, Mother. We’ve looked—”
“Everything will be decided for me there. When to wake up. When to sleep. Doing things that I have no interest in doing, to pass the time. I can only get my hair done on a Wednesday. Not on a Friday, if I wanted. Nor by Kathee, who’s styled me for years.”
Cindy did not reply. She gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead down the street.
Betty went on, “I hate to leave the phone number I’ve had all these years. If Tim were to call—”
“Tim,” Cindy said. “Always Tim.” Betty was stung by the bitterness in her voice. “He hasn’t called you in years, Mother. He didn’t call when Dad died. He may never call you again.”
“But if he were to call—” Betty’s voice was drowned out by the dong-dong of Cindy’s car door opening.
They walked into the house together, so that Cindy could make sure that Betty was safely inside. As Cindy walked back to her car, she called over her shoulder, “You can’t fall and break a hip in this house waiting for Tim to call.”
She passed another night of restlessness, thinking of how her life was no longer hers to decide, and then weeks of fitfulness, until she no longer remembered what a satiating night’s sleep felt like. January passed, then February, and now it was a hesitant March tiptoeing its way in, like every spring came to Knoxville. On TV she saw the Pope talking about the upcoming Easter. She was far from Catholic but she had always liked the popes, all of them. Her brother Jack had been in Rome during the war, and one of his last letters had read, “The angels are everywhere here. They really are a sight to see.” Jack was killed in action in a little village not far from Rome, but Betty had kept a feeling for angels, and Rome, and popes.
She stepped outside to sweep the front porch in her housecoat and felt the morning’s warmth in her bones. When she was a schoolgirl, this was exactly the type of day that she sat longingly looking out the window at, waiting for dismissal, thinking of how she’d peel her socks and shoes off for the walk home.
Outside the house the morning sun slanted bright across the yard. Crystals of ice weighted the blades of grass. Across the street Betty saw daffodils—buttercups, her mother called them—lining the Thompsons’ sidewalk. A redbird landed on one of the bird feeders, pecked around in search of seed, found none and flew away. Across the street a new family had moved into Mrs. Williams’ corner house. Betty had yet to meet them during the winter months, but the husband, who wore a full beard, was putting a sign in the yard—IT’S A GIRL: MIA CHARLOTTE. He waved excitedly at Betty when he saw her watching from the window. She returned the wave. She remembered those days.
A bright morning, and a day that somehow restored some freshness in her heart. She would be leaving the house soon, not for Autumn Acres, but for another assisted-living home Cindy had found, even newer and further away from downtown. She had fallen again, and just last week she’d gotten lost coming back from an errand, and it had taken her hours to get home. “Mom, it’s time,” her daughters said, after they’d both left work to drive across town to look for her. She stepped outside to sweep the front porch in her housecoat and felt the morning’s warmth in her bones. When she was a schoolgirl, this was exactly the type of day that she sat longingly looking out the window at, waiting for dismissal, thinking of how she’d peel her socks and shoes off for the walk home.
A bus rolled by, slowly, cautiously, then slowed to a squeak at the street corner right beyond her house. A bus stop there, and she had paid it little mind through the years, but she looked again, and there was a small sign on the light pole with a picture of a bus on it. She thought for a minute, of Emma, then went inside and found her telephone book to search for the number for the transit authority. She would not sit inside on such a fine day. She picked up the receiver of the wall phone and dialed the number.
“If you want to talk to a person, press zero. Keep pressing zero,” her grandkids had told her, and she did that today. She disliked those menus, as they called them, because by the time all the choices were called off, she had forgotten the number she was told to press, and sometimes even what she was calling about in the first place. The phone rang and rang, and just as Betty was about to hang up, a voice crackled on the other end. “May I help you?”
“Yes, I hope that you can,” Betty said. Then she waited.
“What do you need?” the voice said, male, youngish, impatient.
The day was still early for impertinence, but Betty didn't speak her thoughts. Instead she said, “I would like to catch the bus.”
“Where are you at, and where do you wish to go?”
“Island Home. 2407 Spruce Place. Do you know it?”
Betty heard the man clicking away on a keyboard, then the squeak of a chair. “Now, where do you want to go?”
“Oh, for a bus ride. Anyplace.”
“You want to go for a ride? That’s what you want?”
“You need a place to go. A destination.”
“Oh, yes. I suppose I do.” She looked around the house. She couldn’t think of a destination quickly. The man on the other end waited. She could hear him breathing.
“The store. The Kroger’s.” The idea came to her as a safe bet, even though she didn’t need any food—the daughters kept her pantry stocked.
“Kroger, ma’am? The one closest to you? That would be Chapman Highway.”
“Yes, yes. That’s where I shop. Ever since they closed the Food City. Yes, that’s where I would like to go.”
The man asked Betty to get a piece of paper and a pencil, and he gave her the instructions for the route, speaking slowly and a little louder than he had before. She wrote them down, repeating the instructions back to him. “That’s correct. Now what I’ve told you here—this is the route that you will take to Kroger on Chapman Highway.”
“Oh, thank you. I’ve never done something like this before. My husband died three years ago, and well, it doesn’t feel right to drive anymore. I feel like the cars are coming right at me, so fast.” Betty stopped. She was talking too much, again. She added quickly, “Like the bumper cars at the fair, you know?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The man’s voice took on a gentle timbre. “Everybody is in a big hurry these days, aren’t they? Now, you carry those instructions with you and you’ll be fine.”
“Yes, thank you, thank you so much.” Betty was hanging up when she heard the man speak again.
“We didn’t discuss the fare, ma’am. Seventy-five cents for a single ride. Senior fare.”
“Ah, senior fare,” Betty repeated, writing the amount on the note. She usually forgot to ask for a senior price. “Not many things are seventy-five cents anymore, are they?”
The man chuckled. Betty liked talking to him. “So a fiver will do the job?” she asked.
“A fiver?” The man laughed again, easy and longer. “My old man used to call it that.”
“So did my husband,” said Betty. “A lot of us called them that, back in the day. When they bought a sackful of groceries. Or a steak dinner.”
“Yes, ma’am, before my time, but oh yes indeed,” the man said. “Anything else for you today, ma’am?”
“No, no, that’s it. I thank you.”
He wished her a good day, and his end of the line went quiet. Betty placed the receiver back in the cradle and sighed. She wished they could have talked longer. He might have enjoyed hearing the story about Emma taking the bus. She was sorry she hadn’t given him her name, and she hadn’t asked for his. She wondered who his father was, if she might have known him. Knoxville was still like that, especially the south side, her end of town—you either knew the person, or you knew them through someone else. Betty could remember how it was to go out with James, who practiced law for four decades. People were always approaching them, to shake hands, to get a word of free counsel. James never forgot a name or face or the connection he had with the person. “I represented your mamma, didn’t I, when she fell on the job down at Levi’s? Wasn’t it seventy-nine? August, if I recall?” This conversation was repeated and varied—a parent, an aunt or uncle—countlessly through the years, until the day when James began looking at people blankly. He’d try to recall, fumble for the name, the previous meeting, but he could not, and the person in front of him looked knowingly, reminded him of how they were acquainted. James would begin to cry when he and Betty were back in the car. “I’m slipping,” he would say. “Goddamnit, I am.” Too soon, he didn’t realize even that. His face went as smooth and blank and pliant as a child’s even before the doctor diagnosed Alzheimer’s.
Betty roused herself. She often got lost in thoughts, in the past, when she should be paying attention to the task at hand. She dressed and then went around the house checking that all the doors were locked, the stove was off. Then she repeated the ritual—“Better safe than sorry,” she said aloud—and gave the cord on the coffee maker a satisfying tug. So many years she had been an unapologetic woman of habit, of coupon-clipping and clock-watching and arising at the same time, eating the same sugarless oatmeal and drinking black coffee, watching the street outside from the big window, afraid to stray too far or make plans, in case someone needed her. Oh! But how quickly eighty-something years could pass. She quickened her step, the oak floors creaking underneath. In the hallway she paused looking up at the family pictures, all those smiling young faces, bad haircuts, polyester clothes. She sought out Tim’s pictures, met his hazel eyes staring down at her, and nodded back. Of all the things, she wished for him something different. She put on her coat—springtime in East Tennessee might call for anything—picked up her purse and the notepad she needed, and left the house, her cane in hand.
The bus stop was not far, but with Betty’s achy hip and knees, still a travail. She moved slowly but noticed everything. The morning was nippy but the blue of the sky promised coming warmth. The redbuds had already bloomed out, and on their heels came the burst of dogwoods, with their twisted, reaching branches. All of the colors were bright, and the air was clean. A lawnmower started up from a couple of streets over. Betty made her way to the corner where the old-fashioned concrete bench, the kind that used to be everywhere but were now only a few, marked bus stops. She eased herself down and waited for the 11:10 to take her.