Where The Bus Was Going

By Stephen Elliott

Jimmy was there for his sister Paula’s wedding. He was there because if he wasn’t she would never forgive him. He had asked if he could bring a date and Paula had said no. A date would have made it easier, someone to talk to. But there were already eighty guests. Weddings are expensive.

It wasn’t a real wedding, he thought. His sister was marrying her long time girlfriend. They had already bought a condo together, which was more serious than a piece of paper or a ceremony anyway. Beyond that, gay marriage isn’t recognized in Illinois. “What if I just pretend to fly there?” he had wanted to tell her. “And you can pretend to get married, and we can all say we had a great time.”

He’d bought a suit for the occasion. A navy blue Hugo Boss double breasted with two buttons and shoulder pads. The cotton was rewoven. The suit was more comfortable than his pajamas and he’d spent much more on it than he could afford. But he figured he needed a suit. He was probably entering a phase of his life where a suit was going to be a more common occurrence.

He watched from across the street as the guests arrived. It was Sunday morning. There were three fold down seats on a bar in the bus shelter. On his side of the street there was no one around and the stores were closed. The curb was painted yellow. He counted the cars pulling into the lot. People arrived together; they were carpooling. The cars weren’t fancy. He saw his little brother turn into the lot in his rust brown 1970 New Yorker. Jimmy shook his head. The car was as big as his bedroom. Bob was almost twenty years younger than him. They had different mothers. Two years ago Bob had almost joined the marines but opted instead for the police force. His mother had some connections through her South Side Irish roots and now Bob was a cadet. Bob wore a cheap tan suit and pulled on his belt as he emerged from the vehicle. He opened the trunk, moved some things around, and went inside the hall.

It was getting close to time. Paula had been very specific about not being late and about how important this was to her. “I’ll never ask you for anything again,” she had said. But he couldn’t seem to rise from the seat. He was supposed to tell a story about his sister as part of the service, and someone from her fiance’s side would also tell a story. It was an honor. But he never got around to writing it. Now he figured he would just improvise. He’d have to.

Part Two

The hall looked exactly like Jimmy thought it would. A flat one-story building with a line of cement barreling the roof, lots of glass, thick purple drapes and a sign standing above the corner of the lot announcing Freddies! in bright, orange letters. It resembled a cross between a diner and a funeral parlor. He’d come back to Chicago for plenty of these weddings. The only thing she was doing different was marrying a woman.

If Jimmy ever got married he would do it differently. He was as poor as anyone, but he had gotten out, and he would make a show of it. He lived in Santa Cruz, California, in a studio attached to a hot dog stand. It wasn’t the worst business model, actually. He sold a Chicago style dog, which meant a thicker casing, beef instead of pork, full buns with poppy seeds, a single tomato wedge and fresh chopped onions. If he expanded, paid college kids to run shacks up and down the coast, he might have some money in the bank. But he didn’t want to do that. Not now. He wouldn’t have minded if he had already done it. To have done it and retired from it, that would be the thing. But he had set out with a philosophy of life, and lived that philosophy. He was there when the wind shook the palms and he could lower the grate and grab his board and be out in that ocean in under five minutes. His hair was nearly yellow from the sea and sun and his skin was thick and brown. That’s the kind of life he had built for himself.

Nights in Santa Cruz Jimmy hung out with musicians and other beachcombers but recently there had been a shift. A lot of his friends had been coupling off, moving away, or not moving away just settling down. Sometimes that meant marriage and children, sometimes it just meant staying home more. Jimmy had mellowed too. He’d had some trouble and alcohol didn’t go over very well these days. He still went out, he just didn’t drink. He still danced to jazz at the place on Pacific, shaking his head and stomping his feet, even if he didn’t see anyone he knew in the club. And he’d made some new friends. Kids just graduated, working odd jobs, paddling out to practice their turns in the off hours, biding their time waiting for the big wave.

It was already eleven. Someone Jimmy didn’t recognize stepped from the hall and looked around. He wore thick glasses, his hair carefully parted. It was probably Nicholas, his younger sister’s boyfriend. He’d heard about Nicholas who went straight from college to law school.

“Your sister’s dating an ambulance chaser, God bless her,” his father had said on the phone.

Liz, was twenty-one, just a year older than Bob, and Jimmy knew her even less than his little brother. He had left home well before either of them was born. He knew she was a Republican. The last time they’d really talked was four years ago and he was back in Chicago for a wake. An old friend had had an overdose. Liz had said something about bootstraps and how people generally got what they deserved. She wasn’t talking about Jimmy’s friend. She had no idea why he was in town. She must have been seventeen or eighteen, a senior in high school, trying on her outlook like a pair of sunglasses.

“What about billionaires?” Jimmy had said.

Liz hadn’t even paused. “Most billionaires work hard for their money.”

That night, after Liz had gone to bed, he sat on the porch with his father and his father said, “Don’t worry about your little sister. She’s an idiot.”

Jimmy hadn’t responded. His father always tried to play the siblings off on one another.

Paula and Jimmy hated each other growing up. His father had frequently taken sides, passing gossip between them. At some point Jimmy had stopped trusting him. Now that they were older Jimmy and Paula got along much better. They had just needed to be away from him. But they were both almost forty now, the same difference in age as Bob and Liz. They had buried all hatchets but they weren’t what anybody could call close. And anyway her wedding had started ten minutes ago.

Family always meant more to Paula than to Jimmy. They were young when their mother died and Paula called him every year on the anniversary of their mother’s death. “This is a hard day for me,” she would say. “Yeah,” Jimmy would reply. But he never remembered the day so the phone call was always a surprise. It wasn’t that his mother’s death wasn’t hard on him. In fact, it probably hit him harder than anyone. He was thirteen, a terrible age to lose a parent. Paula was sixteen at the time, an honor student, already accepted into the top state university with an academic scholarship. Their father immediately married his long time girlfriend. Jimmy was in eighth grade, experimenting with drugs, cutting symbols into his arms. The difference was that Jimmy had a lot of friends. There might be twenty of them at the schoolyard at any given time in torn jackets and black jeans, patches announcing their favorite bands sewn on their sleeves. Jimmy was comfortable in large groups. He knew lots of people even if he didn’t know anyone well. He liked arriving unannounced. He didn’t want to make plans, he just wanted to be there. And he was attractive and fun to be around. Paula wasn’t. She was thin and quiet and seemed to disappear even in small groups. Paula was only pretty when you looked at her long enough to see it, but almost nobody ever did. Instead of going out Paula sat alone in her room surrounded by a continually expanding pile of books. Which explained why she remained close to their father, in spite of everything. But if you looked at the evidence, Paula had gone to college. After college she got a job. And now she owned a condo and was getting married to someone she loved. Jimmy had gone the opposite direction. Running away, failing out of high school. Family never meant anything to him. He couldn’t understand blind loyalty. Sure, he would see them when he was in Chicago, but not always. At the same time, he knew it meant something. He knew his failure to connect with his father, his uncle, his sister, said something about him as a person. So he tried, for that reason. He tried to be a good brother and a good son. Not because he wanted to be a good brother or a good son, but because he wanted to be the kind of person that wanted to be a good brother and a good son, even though he wasn’t.

He was aware of the contradictions, aware of the absurdity of sitting in a bus shelter on the west side of Chicago in a thousand dollar suit across from a Polish banquet hall. Sometimes he imagined his life as a movie. Like he was performing for an audience he would never meet. He imagined that audience watching their protagonist, unable to attend his sister’s wedding, paralyzed on the hard plastic seat. He wanted to be Syd Barrett. He wanted to star in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

The ceremony would probably be over by now, and the guests would be arranging themselves around the tables. Maybe if he could have sat separate from his immediate family it would have been bearable. Originally Paula had offered that but he said he thought it would be weird, and conspicuous. If she had offered to put him with his brother at a separate table, that might have worked.

Part Three

He had already missed the most important part of the wedding, but it wasn’t really too late. He could claim a flat tire. He could say he got mugged. He could say his flight was delayed. He could show up panting, “You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to get here, but there is no way I would miss my sister’s wedding.” Something like that. He would change the story, make himself the hero. Then he could sit at the table with everybody else. They would finish and there would be wedding cake. He and Bob had paid for the cake. And when he thought of the cake, the suit, and the plane ticket, he knew he had spent an awful lot for a wedding he wasn’t going to attend.

Still, he sat.

An older black woman entered the bus shelter. She was dressed for church and Jimmy wondered if she was related to Paula’s fiance, but she hadn’t come from that direction.

“Don’t you look nice,” she said to Jimmy.

Jimmy turned and smiled at her. “That’s awful kind of you to say.”

The woman nodded and pulled a paperback from her purse. Five minutes later the bus arrived. There were no passengers yet and the woman climbed the grated metal stairs into the well-lit interior. The bus let out a gasp and pulled away.

It wasn’t like Jimmy had never been engaged. He had, it just hadn’t worked out. He was still attractive for his age, if a little weird looking with his necklaces and earrings and seashells tattooed around his wrist. He still found women to sleep with. If he had gone to the wedding and given his speech, what would he have said? “My sister, who I love more than anyone. Her special day. And her wonderful new wife. They’re going to be so happy together.”

Something like that. It didn’t matter. It couldn’t possibly.

So what now? He was familiar enough with this area. He hadn’t grown up here, but it wasn’t far from where he had. He knew there was a schoolyard five blocks south and, at least twenty-five years ago, there had been nets on the rims there. He was wearing gym shoes with his thousand-dollar suit. Real shoes would have been too much. He hadn’t worn anything other than sandals or sneakers in as long as he could remember. There’s only so much discomfort a person can be asked to withstand. He thought of his mother again. It made sense. It was his sister’s wedding and his sister was obsessed with their dead mother. So it made sense that now he would think of her when otherwise he rarely did. He thought of laying with his mother on the couch. He was asking for something and she wouldn’t give it to him and he said, “You don’t love me anymore.” Why had he always said that? What does it mean when a child constantly confronts his mother with that accusation? It would have been a meaningless thing to say to his father but it must have been hurtful to his mother because she was a good mom. Just a good, simple mom. The kind that would organize your animal cards when you were at school or accompany the class on field trips, yell at you when you came home reeking of cigarette smoke. So why did he always challenge her that way, even when she was dying? “You don’t love me anymore.” It was so obvious. Call and response. She would say, “Of course I love you.”

Or, if she was exasperated, she just wouldn’t answer. It seemed now a terrible thing. A massive, unforgiveable sin. He had attached himself to her organs and sucked her dry. He took and he took and he took and she died.

It was late October but not especially cold. Indian Summer. A few of the guests were outside the hall, holding drinks in plastic cups. It was officially too late and anyway Jimmy had stopped caring. He stood, shouldering his pack. Maybe there would be some kids at the schoolyard and maybe they’d have a ball. The suit was so light, the fabric blowing easily around his legs. When he got back to Santa Cruz he would surf in this suit when it was cold. He’d grip the front of the board with his toes and it would look like he was surfing his way to the bank. It would be easy to play in this outfit. It was the perfect material, a little bit warmer than shorts and a t-shirt, not quite as thick and heavy as sweats. He hoped someone was at the schoolyard. He was never very good at basketball, but he loved playing the game. He loved shooting around and hanging out.