Getting on this bus is not easy, dragging the just three year old Timothy dressed up in a pair of my high heels, his sister Alexandra’s outgrown dress (which she never wore anyway – she’ll only wear designer jeans), and his grandmother’s old corset on top. Alexandra has to fend for herself, as on many other occasions; her younger brother is often as much as I can manage. I tell myself that the good side of this is that she can become extremely independent, but, as we push toward the back of the bus where there are possibly three seats together, and I watch her concentrate on placing her tiny Reebok-ed feet between other passengers’ enormous ones, large grey eyes emphasized by the straight black bangs of her designer haircut, carefully balancing, trying not to trip, I feel guilty.
“What an adorable little girl,” says the woman across from us. She’s not referring to Alexandra, who is glaring at the woman’s green felt hat.
“She’s not a girl,” I say, straightening Timothy’s skirt, getting him comfortable on my lap, as there’s no other available seat. I push his high heels off my own skirt, which I need to keep clean because we are going to a special interview, an appeal, because, unjustly in my opinion, Timothy hasn’t passed the probationary period for acceptance into the Upright Community Nursery School. This is supposed to be a period of adjustment for the children, but in Timothy’s case there’s a question of acceptability.
Timothy’s entire school career, and my freedom for five hours a day were at stake, when, during our first interview at Upright Community, he got down on all fours and only responded to introductions or questions with short and long barks. Delighted as I might have been in other circumstances at the skilled mimicry of my child, and in the pleasant discovery that my very own son would make an excellent Spitz, or Greyhound or with his service-oriented type personality, perhaps even a St. Bernard, it was difficult to avoid feeling extremely embarrassed with four members of the Upright Community Nursery School staff, and Mrs. Baptist, the director, staring at me solemnly, humorlessly, with disgust. And why did they look at me? It wasn’t me crawling across the polished yellow linoleum floor, fingernails tapping, heading straight for the new cubby, with clothing hook and blanket shelf.
“Woof, woof,” said Timothy, sitting in the cubby on his haunches, front paws straight ahead of him on the floor. All the other three-year-olds-to-be were seated in each of their cubbies, arms around their knees. A few wandering eyes, maybe a nose-picker here and there, but as I gazed hopelessly along the row there was not only no other animal, but absolutely no manifestation of divergence that I could feel would exonerate us.
I looked at Timothy sitting at attention. His high slanted eyes are like mine, as are his long face and the way his gums show when he smiles. His reddish hair color is mine, though its texture resembles his father’s. His little body shape predicts Marty’s too, with his little fat fingers, short legs, and wide shoulders. Only the broad blob of his nose is his, its future shape nearly indecipherable.
“I guess he’s a little insecure,” I said, sorry that I’d said it as soon as it was out. I wasn’t sure I should apologize for him. So what if my son is a dog?
“He’ll be fine,” said Mrs. Baptist, patting my hand. We looked at the straight line of children marching to their cots, a tiny blanket under each arm. We saw Timothy, loping along on all fours, carrying his blue woolen blanket skillfully in his teeth. “Right Timothy?” called Mrs. Baptist, encouragingly.
“Moof, moof,” said Timothy, bark muffled by blanket.
“They have no sense of humor over there,” Marty said, buttering his toast with a scratch, scratch, laying it carefully as if it were paint, or plaster, trying not to miss any spot. I stared, hypnotized by this obsessive buttering. “What do they mean he’s not ready for nursery school?” he continued, unaware of my hostile scrutiny. “Does that mean he’s supposed to stay home and watch Sesame Street for a few more years? Where is he supposed to become used to nursery school if not in nursery school? Do they want all the children to be alike? It upsets me to realize that, instead of encouraging individualism, they are training robots. Maybe we shouldn’t send him to school at all.” That idea had its appeal, but it wouldn’t be Marty who’d be spending every hour of every day in a playground for the next couple of years.
Demolishing in two bites the toast he spent fifteen minutes buttering, he patted Timothy, who was on the floor, paws up, begging for crumbs.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t humor him,” I said.
Alexandra, who wanted Marty’s attention too, said, “Woof!”
Marty just gave her a dirty look.
I said, “Mrs. Baptist told me that, as well behaved as he is, they just can’t have a dog attending nursery school. It’s disruptive, she said. He has to learn how to verbalize, but all he does is bark, lap up his milk, and worry his snack all over the linoleum. She said,” I admitted, “we’re supposed to set limits for him.”
“Tell them you want to appeal,” said Marty, firm. His ability to defend his son, to know whether or not we should set limits impressed me, because although I saw Mrs. Baptist’s point all right, and even if I fully agreed, I was never positive about where or when the limits were. Like when Alexandra wanted only Reeboks, and Marty said, why spend so much just to look like everyone else, and what ever happened to those fifteen dollar Pro-Keds, and Alexandra made a barfing sound, then began to cry pitifully. I gave in because my mother used to make me wear dresses that were so short that everyone in class made fun of me. Then I felt I should buy Timothy the bright red leash he barked for.
“Why don’t you appeal,” I suggested. “You could do a much better job than me.”
“Okay, I will,” he said, suddenly determined, picking up all the crumbs from the table with his fat forefinger, which he held out to Timothy, who cleaned it off with the flat of his tongue.
“That’s truly disgusting,” said Alexandra.
“Come, little pup,” said Marty at the door. He was wearing a clean sport shirt, but no tie, jeans with a nice belt, a jacket. I admired his ability to combine his personal taste with a neat acceptability, which he carried off with a grace and elegance.
When Timothy shuffled in on high heels held on with rubber bands, the pink tulle dress with grandma’s girdle over it all, his tiny cheek bones highlighted with rouge, and placed his miniature fat fingers with the minute purple polished nails into his father’s hand, Marty turned pale.
“I think I’m getting that Chronic Fatigue thing again,” he said. I watched an obnoxious expression of self-pity twist his features.
“I should have known,” I mumbled, rummaging around among my clothes to find something appropriate. “I was just admiring your firm loyalty, but when it comes to the gender thing – well, at least now we don’t have to worry about needing a pet-carrying case on the bus.”
“That’s mine, man,” says a black man with one eye nearly swollen shut, seated near us on the last seat that runs across the entire back of the bus.
“No it ain’t man, it’s mine,” says the man next to him.
“No it ain’t.”
I shift around, trying to see out, so I can see where we are. All I can make out are metal garbage pails festooning crowded doorways – no street sign.
While the bus is stopped, a young man, hair cut high, completely flat on top, enters the bus from the back doors, which he’s pulled open from the outside.
“He didn’t pay,” whispers Alexandra.
He sits in one of the seats next to the arguing pair, vacated by frightened passengers who prefer the smothering crowd near the front to a possible fight.
“Move to the back of the bus,” calls the driver.
“Oh my god,” someone says.
“Let’s not have a fight,” says the man who entered without paying. “Cool it.”
Just then, one of the men who’d been arguing throws a gum wrapper on the floor.
“You pick that up,” says the other, the one he’d been arguing with.
The first man just folds a stick of gum between thumb and forefinger, and shoves it between his teeth.
“Look at that.” The woman in the hat points to the wrapper.
“And the other man told him to pick it up,” argues her companion.
“I want a piece of gum,” says Timothy.
Alexandra looks at me hopefully. I rummage in my purse, which is large and limp, and shares my lap with Timothy, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no gum.
“Go fuck yourself,” says the man who threw the wrapper.
“You pick up that fuckin’ wrapper,” says the man who came in the back door. “Don’t you got no respect?”
“You didn’t even pay, so you keep your mouth shut.”
“Don’t you use that kind of language here,” says a black woman holding the elbow of a little girl in a pink dress, earrings, bracelets, lace-trimmed socks, pink patent leather shoes, and tiny pink gloves, who stands between the woman’s enormous knees for balance. The miniature pink vinyl purse dangling from her tiny wrist by a gold chain swings back and forth as the bus stops and starts in traffic. “If you can’t have respect for yourselves, you’d better have respect for my child here.”
The man who dropped the wrapper looks for a moment as if he’s going to punch someone. Then, without getting up, bends way over to retrieve it. There is a collective sigh of relief.
“I want a purse like that,” Timothy shrieks, pointing at the shiny pink purse swaying in front of us. “I want it, I need a purse like that.”
A dog has its advantages, I think, anticipating our future interview. If this were only a new school where they didn’t know my son, I could pretend he was a girl.
“Make way for the Angel of Death, I am the Angel of Death.” A man, wearing a dress, his hairy muscular legs melting into enormous brown men’s shoes wends his way toward us. He also had a green hat, but with charms and bracelets hanging all over it, attached with large safety pins. “The Angel of Death needs a seat,” he squeals, coming closer. Conveniently for the Angel, a number of passengers leave their seats again, in order to move to the packed, but less colorful anterior. I start to sweat. I can’t decide whether to move or not. Am I taking a chance, exposing my children to danger? I can’t decide. We’re comfortable here, and I’m not one to panic at a little eccentricity.
“You look more like the Fairy of Death,” says the chewing-gum man, running a large brown eye over the costume, eloquently resting it at the many chains around his neck, from which charms and safety pins hang, the bony knees that, now that he’s seated stick out, slightly orange compared to the darker sienna of his legs, from under the dress-hem, also hung with charms.
“That Angel of Death looks like Great Grandma Nanny,” says Alexandra. “Is he crazy?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
I like to give a little leeway; I refuse to commit myself to a definite answer. Who knows exactly what crazy is? When my mother thought that her mother, my grandmother Nanny, was nuts, I was the one who defended her.
“She’s saner than you,” I told my mother in one of those rare moments when I’d say anything to her. “You just don’t like to have her sitting in your front picture window all day waving for people to come in and have their fortunes told.”
Only a few months before, Great Grandma Nanny was found by a neighbor, nearly dead in her apartment in Brooklyn. Brought by my mother to her adult community condominium in Fort Lauderdale, she not only recovered, she became imbued with an other-worldly spirit she’d never before possessed. My mother thought she’d lost her mind.
“Everyone’s had other lives,” said Great Grandma Nanny, “whether in other times or only in fantasies, lived in conjunction with a present life, or so-called ‘real’ life. These conjunctive existences, which move in and out of consciousness, and influence actions, can either enhance a life or screw it up,” continued Great Grandma Nanny, the coins dangling from the edge of the shawl she wears over her grey upsweep, trembling and tinkling above her eyes like zany bangs.
My mother flushed, either from the heat, or rage, as she ran an old dishtowel she uses as a dustrag along the knick-knacks that fill the windowsill.
“It would be more profitable if you became a shrink,” said my mother, trembling. “No one in this kind of neighborhood tells fortunes. Gypsies tell fortunes.”
“What’s wrong with Gypsies?” Great Grandma Nanny asked.
My mother sighed, dusting the redundant Venetian blinds that Great Grandma Nanny, after pushing aside the drapes, held up with the hand that wasn’t gesticulating to geriatric neighbors on their way to the pool or the clubhouse.
“These people welcome nothing but death; they’re rehearsing now,” said Great Grandma Nanny, pointing out the window at the block-like condominiums, all alike. “Perhaps I really died in Brooklyn, and this is the afterlife. I’ll never know.”
“How’s my princess?” my mother asked Alexandra, her eyes chewing up Alex’s Reeboks, her Natalie Portman flip.
That was the same summer she sent my sister’s daughter, her other grandchild, Moira, back to New York early.
“She gets up at twelve, she eats what she wants, wears her nightgown all day– all she does is comb her hair and apply nail polish. Who does she think she is? Snow White?”
“It sounds like you’re jealous,” said Great Grandma Nanny. “You wish you were treated that way.”
My mother, as usual, didn’t listen. “But you,” she said, pinching Alex’s cheek, “you…” She was speechless. Finally found the words. “Someday you’ll be on the Larry King show! And with a father like yours, that’s amazing.”
She thinks Marty is incompetent. She thinks Great Grandma Nanny is senile. And I think she’s insane.
“The Angel of Death is speaking to you all, man. Just what is it you want to know?” he pipes in his falsetto.
“I want to know just when it was you was castrated,” says one of the men from the back.
“Yeah,” says a friend, lips drawn sideways in a half-grin.
The arguers seem to have banded together; it seems okay to relax.
“I told you not to use that kind of language in here,” says the woman with the child. “You’re gonna have respect for this child whether you like it or not.”
Someone’s nervous snicker sounds loud in the tense silence. Then the first man says, “Yeah!”
“What do you mean, yeah? You the one who started.”
“Don’t argue,” says the third, the one who came through the back doors. He stands, then removes a closed knife, like an enormous penknife, from his back pocket, holding it, closed like that, in front of him. “You want a voice like that Angel of Death over there, I’ll give you one.”
At that some of the passengers rise once more, and there’s a shuffling as they rush forward. Wondering whether I should move to the front, I’m surprised to see the woman in the green hat, smiling. I assumed she’d be frightened, or at least anxious to get away.
Her triumphant smile reminds me of when Timothy was around two. In the playground on the corner, a small boy kicked him hard right on the shin, and Timothy just whined and panted, and cringed.
Instead of stopping, the little boy kicked him again. I got up from my bench, as did the boy’s mother. But instead of stopping her son, she just stood there, gleefully grinning. I wanted Timo to hit him back instead of crying. I nearly pulled the little kid’s arm out myself, tears of pity for my son running down my cheeks.
When I dragged the children home after that, Alexandra was angry that she had to leave the park so soon
“You should have let them work it out for themselves,” she said, dragging behind, scuffing the toes of her new shoes.
At the bus stop, two passengers go up to speak to the driver. The man with the knife presses a button, and it opens with a loud metallic click. The driver gets out of his seat, climbs under the metal bar, and leaves the bus. Alexandra’s fingers tighten into my arm. Timothy is absolutely still, his high heels pressing hard into my thighs. The two men remain still too, like a photograph, one with the knife raised, the other with his arms out, eyes squinted, snarling mouth. They seem unaware of the suspended motion of the bus, the extraordinary silence.
Suddenly two enormous policemen push their way toward us. A third pulls the back door open with a crash, and jumps up and in.
“Get out!” one of them yells. With the gun from the holster on his hip, he prods the man, who no longer has the knife, so hard under the ribs that he doubles over. At the sight of the gun, most of the passengers scream and rush out the front door, including the woman with the little girl, who’d already moved to the front. I remain immobile, unable to decide whether to leave or not. Timothy and Alexandra stay absolutely still, mesmerized.
The policeman shoves the one with the swollen eye out the back door so violently that his head smashes into the top of the doorway. Someone screams. The woman with the hat, still there, looks pleased.
“Anyone else?” shouts the third cop, waving his gun.
Another black passenger shrinks, as if trying to hide, as does the Angel of Death.
When the bus starts up once again, Alexandra releases the flesh of my upper arm. I pat her and pull her head against my shoulder.
“Were those the good guys?” asks Timothy. “The cops? Did they save our lives?” I think for a moment. Alexandra looks up at me too, for my answer.
“It depends how you look at it,” I say slowly.
Alexandra looks disgusted, as if I’d told a lie. She likes things clear and simple, but she rests her head on my arm again anyway.
I hug Timothy to comfort him, nuzzling my face into his hair and cheeks, trying not to smear his eyeshadow, his blush.
Lynda Schor is the author of three short story collections, most recently, The Body Parts Shop published by FC2. Her stories have been nominated for an O.Henry award.
Lynda Schors latest collection of short stories, The Body Parts Shop, was recently published by FC2. She lives in the West Village.