Mother would have never taken the bus. She had specific prejudices—the train yes, the bus no, taking The Lord’s name in vain, no, calling someone an asshole, yes. It was often hard to follow her dictates; the safest route was to just not say anything or do anything unless directed.
Mother had no say in the matter now, and although Miriam wasn’t big on bus travel herself, it gave her an adventuresome frisson to be doing something in such bad taste. The funeral home’s bronze canister was nestled snug in the duffle bag at Miriam’s feet. She would have liked to keep it on the seat beside her, but of course, a woman with great buttresses of flesh for arms and hair so thin her scalp shined pinkly through immediately sat down next to Miriam.
It’s because I look safe. Absolutely safe and accommodating.
The woman opened a magazine with a celebrity caught in an unfortunate pose on the cover. She had not said one word to Miriam since the bus started off, but Miriam could feel the heat from her like a thick blanket and hear the woman’s little snorts and rumbles as she read.
At her feet her mother settled and shifted in the nylon duffle bag. Miriam’s legs were cramped from folding them in positions that would not disturb her mother. Uncomfortable, her stomach recoiling in a nauseous heave from the bus’s rubber tinged perfume of unwashed bodies and overripe apples, Miriam stared out the window; wondering what it was like to be dead, trying to avoid the greasy smudge on the glass where someone on an earlier trip rested their head.
• • • •
The bus pulled into its first stop, a small city called Hartsville that Miriam never heard of before. The bus station here in Hartsville’s long dead downtown core looked frozen sometime in the 1950s. There was a coffee shop and ticket counter. A few dark shapes huddled under the outside overhang, the red tips of their cigarettes glowing like little animal eyes. The coffee shop was not a Starbucks, or Tim Hortons, it was called Get A Cup N’Go.
Miriam didn’t want to get off the bus and go into the cold night, she didn’t want to push past her mountainous seatmate, but there was no way she was using the bathroom on the bus, despite her earlier sense of adventure. For a second, she hesitated. Should she take Mother with her or not? The bag was tucked neatly under the seat, but Miriam decided she couldn’t trust anyone. She pulled it out and with a quiet “excuse me” squeezed past the woman next to her. The woman shifted imperceptibly to one side to let Miriam through. Miriam felt the soft stone of the woman’s knees on the side of her thigh as she passed. It felt like a hot brand, marking her out. Oh, Mother would be so mad if she knew Miriam had taken her on the bus, on the bus with people like this.
Holding Mother in one hand, her purse on her shoulder, Miriam walked to the front of the bus. Past the passengers slumped, heads on their chests, mouths agape, past teenagers in hoodies who gave off the faint sound of music, wires running to their ears, eyes shut in sleep or ecstasy. No one looked at her. The driver standing outside next to the bus’s open front door did not nod in acknowledgement as she stepped out into the cold and damp. He didn’t even glance her way, just took a sip of coffee from the brown paper cup he held, wrapping his bare hands around it to keep them warm.
• • • •
Under the garish lights of the bus station, the people sitting on plastic chairs bolted to the floor or standing by the ticket counter looked as if their faces were moulded from soft plastic. Their features ran together, of no real colour, just the various flesh tones that come in cheap modeling clay you get from the dollar store. Miriam hurried through the waiting area, clutching her mother close to her side. She was sorry she had left the known smelly warmth of the bus. She could have held it till the next stop, but Mother always said to go when you had the chance; you didn’t want to get a urinary tract infection from waiting too long.
She followed the arrow on the plastic blue notice displaying white outlines of a woman and man. The bathrooms were at the back of the coffee shop; she would have to run the full gauntlet.
She stood at the doorway of the shop and planned her path. A greyish lump of an old man sat in one of the booths. He stared at the top of the table, mumbling to himself and combing the strands of his hair with his fingers. A pimple-faced girl behind the cash bent over her cell phone, fingers working rapidly in time with the gum she chewed. A man seated in the booth nearest the washroom looked up from his newspaper and directly at Miriam as she stood there hesitating. Miriam would have to pass by him to get to the washroom door.
She didn’t like passing by or being near to men of her own age, particularly if they were good looking, and this man was exceptionally so. His blond hair, combed back, brushed the collar of his turtleneck sweater. The sweater’s color matched the astonishing blue of his eyes when he glanced up. Automatically she hugged Mother against her chest, as if she could hide behind the black duffle bag, but he looked at Miriam as she passed by anyway. Watched her the whole way to the washroom and grinned.
When she came out the man was no longer in his original seat. Now she could see the back of his head several booths away. She would have to pass by him again. Now a woman was sitting with him, and they seemed to be deep in conversation. Glad that he was no longer watching her, Miriam hurried up to the cash register.
“May I please have a bottle of water?”
The girl looked up from her phone and Miriam could see fascinating little crusty volcanoes where her heavy makeup caked on raw-looking pimples. Without moving off her stool the girl turned around and pulled a bottle out of the cooler behind her. She handed it to Miriam
Miriam gave a little laugh as she extracted a five-dollar bill from her wallet, “It’s like being at the airport, isn’t it? Just as expensive, only not as nice.”
The girl stared at her as she took the bill and handed her the change. Miriam smiled, trying to look friendly, trying to look as if she travelled on buses every day and wasn’t better than anybody, really, she wasn’t. It wasn’t any use. Mother had the knack of small talk, light pleasantries that coaxed smiles out of waitresses and shop girls, but Miriam didn’t. The girl cracked her gum once and went back to her phone.
Her fingers tightened on the bottle of water. The plastic crackled under her grip.
Miriam turned. Her mother waved to her from the booth where she sat with the man in the blue turtleneck.
This must be a dream, this has to be a dream. Why would my mother be in a bus station? Why would she be sitting in a booth with a strange man? I am asleep, my head nodding against the smeary window.
But the bottle of water in her hand chilled her palm, and the duffle bag bumped against her knee as she made her way over to the two of them.
“Miriam dear. Sit down.” Her mother patted the vinyl seat beside her. “Join us. You remember Joe, don’t you?”
Miriam stood, uncertain. The man in blue glanced up at her, indifferent, and then went back to gazing at her mother.
“Yes, yes, Joe.” Her mother patted the seat again and as if on strings Miriam slid in beside her. She could feel the weight of her mother’s body next to her, solid and assured. Trying to be inconspicuous Miriam slid the duffle bag under the seat. Neither her mother or Joe seemed to notice.
In front of her mother sat a heavy white china coffee cup. On the edge Miriam could see the faint crescent of her mother’s lipstick, the colour she always wore, Cherries in the Snow. A flutter went down her spine. How many times had she seen this, her mother’s mark, on glasses, mugs, even the edges of spoons and forks. Miriam’s father called it “the kiss of death,” laughing as he rubbed it off with his thumb, drinking coffee like he didn’t care that it was in something unclean.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what I’m doing here.” Her mother said turning to Miriam with a smile. “A bus station!”
Miriam just nodded, unsure what to say. She could see the pores on her mother’s nose, the tiny broken red vein on one side of it.
“It was all Joe’s idea. When we stopped he said, why not get a cup of coffee with me? And I thought, all right, I will, why not. So here we are.” Her mother and Joe eyed each other, smiling. Joe passed his cup back and forth between his palms, sliding it on the slick surface of the table, but he didn’t look at Miriam, just winked at her mother.
Miriam’s mother turned again to face her. “I was just telling Joe that really, Miriam, this is the kind of man you need to find.” She tapped Joe’s hand lightly with one finger as she said this, and he caught it for minute, then let it go.
“Maybe even Joe. Maybe he’s the one for you.” Her mother laughed the little giggle Miriam recognized as the one her mother reserved for men, high and girlish. Joe took her mother’s hand, and to Miriam’s dismay, brought it to his lips and kissed it.
“Mother.” The word stuck in Miriam’s throat and she cleared it before continuing. “Mother, where are you going?”
Her mother pulled her hand from Joe’s grasp and tapped him lightly on the nose as he bent to kiss it again. She rummaged around in her purse and pulled out a small mirror and a tube of lipstick.
“Well that,” carefully she outlined her upper lip and then smoothly filled it in, “is a story, darling, quite a story.”
There was silence for a moment as she finished with her lower lip and then bared her teeth at the mirror, quickly running a finger over the surface of the front ones. She put the mirror and lipstick back in the bag. “Much too long for a bus station story. In fact, our bus could be leaving any minute.” Her mother and Joe smiled at each other again. “Imagine me,” she said, never taking her eyes off Joe, “on a bus!” Again, the giggle.
Miriam glanced up for a moment to ground herself, but nothing was changed in the almost empty coffee shop. The old man still sat in the booth, mumbling to himself, the girl behind the cash, furiously typing away on her cell. On the wall behind the counter the clock, the old kind Miriam remembered from classrooms in school, gave a start and clicked loudly. She stared at it. Her bus! It was leaving in a minute. Miriam slid out of the seat. Her mother and Joe were now whispering to one another, their heads close together, their fingers entwined. Neither glanced at her when she stood up. Still holding the bottle of water, purse slung over her shoulder, Miriam hurried out, past the kids jumping on and off the seats while their weary mother slouched beside them, past the smokers still huddled under the overhang, up to the bus, dark and rumbling softly, doors open, waiting.
• • • •
Her seat mate was gone. In fact, the bus seemed to have emptied out almost completely. A few shadowy forms lolled in the other seats, but there was no rustle of papers, no drifting smells of cheap food.
Miriam leaned back in her seat with a sigh of relief. It was much nicer when she had the bus almost to herself. The front doors of the bus closed with a hissing sigh and Miriam closed her eyes. Good lord, what a dream that was, what a strange dream. The bus started off with a hypnotic sway, rocking her like a mechanical cradle. Thank God, on the road again, let’s just get this done with. But before she rested she should check on the duffle tucked under the seat, just make sure Mother was stable for the last few hours of this ride, then Miriam could sleep.
Miriam bent over and felt under the seat. Nothing. She moved her hand around to see if the bag had slid forward or back. No duffle. A slow burn started in her stomach. She frantically dug at the seat next to her, and then stood up and walked up the aisle glancing into each seat as she went, wishing she could get down on her hands and knees and look under every one of them, crawl along the dirty floor until she found her mother. But she didn’t, she remembered tucking the bag under the booth at the coffee shop, pushing it behind her feet to hide it. She had left her mother behind. The driver would have to go back. She hurried the rest of the way to the partition that separated the driver from the passengers. Luckily no one was sitting behind him, so she slid into the seat.
“Excuse me?” She tapped the shoulder of the bus driver, “Excuse me?”
“What?” He didn’t take his eyes off the road, didn’t slow down.
“I left my mother . . . that is, I left my mother’s ashes at the last stop. Can we please go back?”
“I’ve got a schedule. No going back to any stop on the route.”
“Couldn’t you please . . . please, then, stop the bus. Just let me off. I’ll get a taxi back or something . . . or I could walk . . . if you could just stop . . .”
“Look, I can’t stop. That’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen. Go on back to your seat, it’s too late to do anything now. You’re just gonna have to wait.”
Miriam reached out for his shoulder.
He raised his voice. “And don’t touch me again. It’s against the law to interfere with the driver. Just go sit down.”
Miriam made her way back down the aisle, bumping into the arms of seats as the bus swayed on its relentless course. She whispered “excuse me” to a few of the figures, but no one acknowledged her passing.
Back at her seat, she opened the bottle of water, the sharp crack of the seal echoing through the bus like a gun shot. It was real, cold and wet. I am real.
Across the aisle Miriam noticed a little girl. Sitting up on her knees leaning against the window looking out, the little girl swayed lightly with the rhythm of the bus. Miriam could only see the child’s back, the long hair, like Miriam’s own when she had been that age, the familiar sweater Nana had knitted her. The little girl did not turn around, but Miriam could hear her tuneless whistle as she peered out the window into the unfathomable dark.
• • • •
When she opened her eyes, Mommy was talking to herself. Mommy sat next to the window and made Miriam take the seat on the aisle, so she wouldn’t bother her every time she had to go potty. Now Mommy muttered and cried and rolled her head back and forth on the bus window.
“It’s that man’s fault, that terrible man, that terrible man.” Mommy hadn’t stopped crying since they got on the bus. Miriam saw the looks on the other passengers’ faces. They looked quickly at Miriam and her mother, pulling their mouths down at the corners and then quickly looked away. Miriam felt ashamed, like she had done something wrong, but Mommy didn’t seem to notice. She leaned her head on the window and continued with her low moaning and weeping. Even though Mommy didn’t say, Miriam knew Mommy was talking about Daddy. He didn’t come on the bus with them. When Miriam asked where Daddy was, Mommy jerked her hand roughly. “Do you love your Daddy more than me? Should I just leave you with your Daddy? Is that what you want?” Miriam shook her head no and began to cry as well, but she stopped because she didn’t want the passengers scowling at her too.
Now Miriam rubbed her arm where it hurt from Mommy’s pinchy fingers. By mistake she bumped Mommy. Mommy lifted her head and turned to Miriam who tried to make herself as small and invisible as possible. Mommy’s hair was flattened on one side from where she had been leaning on the glass and stuck out on the other, like broom bristles. In the dark of the bus two hollow eyes and two long slashes of red mouth connected by black smears were all that remained of her Mommy’s face. This new person smiled, and Miriam saw yellow teeth and smelled coffee and smoke and the smell of the classroom rat cage when it was time to clean it. She pulled back in her seat, ready to run, but the person said, “are you awake, sweetie?” And touched Miriam on her sore arm with a warm dry hand. “Isn’t this an adventure? Look at the two of us big girls, travelling all alone on the bus together, all alone on the bus!”
• • • •
Miriam juttered awake. The bus had come to a stop. She looked out the window. Maybe she could get out here and take a different bus back to the station where she left Mother’s ashes. Surely another bus, one going back, must come along at some point. Things didn’t only run one way did they? At least not roads.
Outside the bus there was nothing but a cement slab, a bench, and a light post with an arc light. No one milled about in the small circle of light checking their phones or smoking cigarettes, waiting for the bus. What time was it? It must be late. She fumbled with her purse, thinking to find her cell phone to check the time. Her fingers brushed all sorts of things in the seemingly bottomless well of her small purse, but the slick flat thin efficient case of her phone evaded her. She gave up, letting the purse drop still gaping open to the floor, her heart heavy and sick with all the things she lost and would never find.
The doors at the front opened with a sound like the last note of a tableside accordion. None of the few remaining passengers stirred in their seats as a shadowy figure began to walk down the aisle. Miriam knew that gait, brisk, no-nonsense, but stagey, as if an invisible audience watched her every move. Then her mother was next to Miriam’s seat looking down at her. She held a bag up for Miriam to see, and said in a loud voice, not bothering if anyone else heard, “Didn’t you forget something?”
Miriam took the bag and stowed it under the seat again.
“You sit on the aisle, Miriam. I don’t want you bumping me every time you need to use the washroom.” Miriam slid out of her seat to make room for her mother.
“Is this your purse? On the floor?”
Miriam picked up her purse and hastily closed it. She sat down in the aisle seat holding her handbag in her lap as Mother had taught her.
This close to her mother Miriam smelled the familiar smells: coffee, smoke, the bright perfume that always made her father sneeze, and underneath, the faintest scent of, well, Miriam hated to say it about her own mother, but rot.
They rode next to each other in silence. Miriam’s mother stared straight ahead. Every once in a while, she would touch her hair with one hand, or purse her lips in silent thought. Miriam snuck glances at her. In those stock gestures of her mother’s, something was off. As if her mother was a marionette, and someone pulled her strings, jerking her hands to her hair and jiggling her face just so, teasing you into thinking the puppet’s face was animated, was alive. Mother caught her looking. She turned to face Miriam full on. One of her mother’s eyes rolled slightly inward and outward when the bus hit small bumps, or when she tilted her head. Mother smiled, and the ivory coloured teeth slid forward and were quickly manoeuvred back into place by a quick working of her lips.
“Look at us, Miriam, on the bus. I never thought I would have to ride the bus again, not at my age, anyway.”
“Sorry, Mother.” The words were out before Miriam could stop herself. She wanted to say you, you took us on the bus, but she was getting confused. Instead she said, “Where’s Joe?”
Her mother cocked her head and gave Miriam an amused look. Miriam wished she hadn’t, because mother’s left eye slid and rested against the inside of the socket.
“Joe?” The voice was amused. “Who is Joe, dear?”
“The man at the bus station. The one you were talking to.”
“A man at the bus station? What are you talking about? I have never met a man at a bus station in my entire life.”
Miriam heard the edge creeping into her mother’s voice, but she was helpless to stop herself. “You introduced us. You said I should marry someone like him.”
“You’ve always had quite an imagination, Miriam. A man at a bus station.”
Her mother laughed her high tinkling laugh and looked around for her audience. And some of the other passengers did seem to be turning around in their seats. Her mother’s voice got louder. “Miriam, you need to find a nice boyfriend for yourself and stop imagining your old mother with men, with men at bus stations.”
She reached out and pinched Miriam’s arm hard, twisting it just that little bit. Miriam yelped but her mother covered the sound with her laugh. “Now go to sleep, Miriam. You are much too excited. You must have been dreaming.”
Her mother’s face faded in the dark. “Is this because you wanted to stay with your Daddy? I should have left you with him. You always loved your Daddy better than me.”
• • • •
Mommy woke her up roughly, whispering. “Miriam, pack your things, we’re leaving, we’re leaving tonight. We have to get out. Meet me in the front hall downstairs.” She glided from the room as silently as she entered.
Confused, her heart racing, Miriam sat up in bed. Mommy said they had to leave, to get out. Miriam got out of bed and went to the closet. She didn’t dare put the light on, who knew what might happen if someone saw her packing, if he saw her packing. In the closet she rummaged through the stuffed toys and old dolls till she found her little pink suitcase, the one with ladybugs on it that Nana gave her for Christmas. Into the case she tossed what she could grab from the dresser, underwear, socks, her favourite t-shirt that said You Are the Apple of My Eye, a pair of jeans. Would she need a skirt? Would they come back for her other things? She wanted to take a book, a doll, maybe a stuffed animal, but which one? There was no time to choose, time was running out, they had to get out of here. She shoved her feet into her sneakers, zipped the case, and left her bedroom, maybe for the last time ever.
On the stairs Miriam knew to stick to the wall with the rail, stepping with one foot on each tread, pausing in case there was noise. Through the dark kitchen and shadowy dining room, crossing the living room which seemed like such a wide expanse with only moonlight through the windows to illuminate her trek. By contrast, the hall was brightly lit. Mommy was waiting. “There you are.” She handed Miriam her coat.
Miriam put it on and held on to her suitcase tightly, her hand trembling in fear and expectation. They had to leave now! Maybe they would be killed. Maybe he would burst through the closed door that led to his den and her parents’ bedroom and grab her, grab Mommy, strangle them, hit them. She had to use the potty, but she couldn’t go back through that black house, not with him waiting in the shadows. She couldn’t tell Mommy that she had to go, not now, Mommy would be so mad. Miriam wouldn’t make a sound.
“Just wait here,” her mother said, opening the front door. “I’ll be back in a minute.” She went out and closed the door behind her.
Miriam stood still and quiet as a mouse. Every noise in the old house made her heart race, he was coming he was coming they had to get out. She clutched the handle of her case so tight it made her fingers feel hot and swollen. The minutes ticked by. She set the bag down as quietly as she could. In the mirror on the hall door she could see her reflection, as if there were two of her, waiting, alert, the hood of her pink parka lying on her back, the fur on it looking like a small animal crouching just under her tangled hair.
Under the bright hall light nothing could hide, not even the littlest speck. What if she had to hide? What then? She really had to go to the bathroom. Where was Mommy? Where had she gone? Was that a noise from the dark of the house behind her? Miriam’s heart stopped and started again. The light in the hall left nowhere to hide if he should come in. Miriam was alone, and alone, and alone.
Suddenly the front door swung open and her mother breezed in. She carried a carton of ice cream, Rocky Road, her father’s favourite. Mommy stopped and looked at Miriam with bright new penny eyes, as if she had never seen Miriam before. “What, are you still up? Go to bed, you silly girl.”
She brushed past Miriam, through the lightless rooms into the kitchen. Miriam heard her mother busying herself with dishes and silverware. She picked up her ladybug suitcase and started back through the house. The living room, the dining room, the now brightly-lit kitchen where her mother stood at the counter spooning ice cream into two bowls. She didn’t turn and look at Miriam. Back up the stairs and to her bedroom, where Miriam lay down fully clothed, still in her coat and fell asleep, forgetting about her need to use the bathroom. The fur on her parka brushed her cheek as she slept, and she dreamt of an animal turning and turning in a small cramped place, trying to find its way out.
• • • •
Again, she needed the washroom. She cursed herself for drinking the bottle of water. Miriam slid out of her seat as quietly as possible, but her mother did not turn to look at her. Mother’s mouth moved in her litany, one eye halfway out of the socket and resting high on her cheekbone. She touched her hair again and again and again. Miriam hurried up the aisle to the washroom, locking herself in the little cubicle, praying there wouldn’t be a knock on the door.
When she went back to her seat, Mother was gone. There was a damp spot on the seat where she had been; it looked viscous with little clots of something blotching the wet fabric. Without sitting down, Miriam reached under and felt for the bag with Mother’s ashes. There it was, tucked neatly where she left it. She pulled it out and changed seats; leaving the sticky stain on the seat and the oily smudge on the window behind her.
The bus pulled into the stop. Over the com system the driver said, “Twenty minutes for a coffee break, then back on the bus. If you’re late, too bad, I’ll start without you.”
The passengers filed out wearily, Miriam among them. The bus station was busy. There was a large, well-lit building with people moving in and out of it. Through the plate glass windows Miriam saw families sitting together, friends and lovers greeting one another with embraces. On one bench an old man and a woman sat together, and their heads were bent to each other as they talked privately, secretly, about things Miriam couldn’t even guess at. Everything glowed with the warmth of wonderful things passing even as they happened.
She didn’t go into the building. Still carrying the bag with her mother’s ashes, she went around the side. Here there were no lights. The ground sloped downwards towards an empty field bordered by a ditch. Carefully she took her mother’s urn out and placed it on the ground, then she gave it a hard kick. The container rolled and bumped away from her into the dark, hopefully into the ditch, though she didn’t much care.
From the rolling canister, her mother’s voice floated up to her, hectoring, demanding, “Do you love your father best? Do you? Do you love your father better than your mother? Tell me, Miriam, do you love your mother? Do you love your mother better than your father? Miriam, answer me. You answer me right this minute.”
“No, Mother,” Miriam screamed into the night, knowing no one was listening, even now. “No Mother, I don’t love anyone—I don’t love anyone.”