From the author: "Miranda could get anyone to smile, and there was nowhere people needed to smile more than on public transportation in northwestern Ohio."
Miranda could get anyone to smile, and there was nowhere people needed to smile more than on public transportation in northwestern Ohio. She boarded with two pastel floral bags tucked under her arms, swiped her monthly pass, and began her way down the aisle.
In the first seat was George, a man who wore the same brown pants every time Miranda saw him, sat in the first seat behind the driver, and smelled of urine. Sometimes she would help him pick lotto numbers but today he looked content, which was nice because she didn’t feel like holding her breath or straining her voice as they chatted from the comfortable distance of a few seats.
“Good morning, George,” she said. He nodded vigorously then returned to his notebook. He was always smiling. There were more riders than usual for her normal route, and this was invigorating because it meant new prospects. She took a moment to sit with Stretch. He sat at the center of the bus and had two tears tattooed on his left cheek; he was becoming something of a regular. Stretch was polite and said little in return, as usual, as Miranda commented on the rain and her aching legs. He came to life a little and said, “I heard that!” when she told him old age wasn’t for the weak with a smile and a nudge. Stretch’s stop arrived, so she wished him a marvelous day, and he smiled—a charming glint of gold at the corner of his mouth.
Sure, Miranda got the cold shoulder sometimes, oftentimes, when she started up a conversation with someone new who didn’t want to be bothered. So she always greeted the regulars first, if only to warm up. Miranda understood as well as anyone that people are busy and stressed a lot of the time, but she’d keep on engaging until she’d see a smile, a shift. She’d talk as long as it took. She’d compliment women and ask men advice. She’d joke with the tough guys and flirt with the quiet ones.
Today, after waving to Joe and Wallace—who were discussing some big game, and heckling a construction worker named Rattle who once made her a pineapple upside down cake for her birthday and was a fan of the opposing team—Miranda sat next to a slender gentleman in a business suit who sat facing the aisle near the backdoor. She liked to guess about the suits. Few suits rode this bus. It didn’t come at the right times for suits, nor did it go to the right neighborhoods. His car must have broken down.
“Don’t mind if an old lady takes this seat, do you?”
“Please,” he said. He had a low-pitched voice with a little grit to it that caught Miranda off-guard.
“Well, oh my, easing down into these seats isn’t as easy as it used to be,” she said. “You know I used to look just like that girl up there, the redhead, only I didn’t have much fashion sense.” The redhead was in a too-short gray sweater dress and a pink scarf. She was the only other well-dressed person on the bus. “I was a bit of a tomboy.”
The man smiled politely and nodded. His teeth were surprisingly yellow. She wondered if he liked the citrus too much, smoked, or had a vitamin deficiency. He said, “She’s very pretty. And you’re a lovely woman now. Young is a different kind of beauty, not necessarily better.”
“Preach to me, young man!” Miranda clapped her hands. “My lucky day. I sit next to a charming, poetic man.” She was surprised by this guy. He spoke with confidence but looked so incredibly insecure; nothing about him seemed to match. His leg shook but his eyes were steady, and he looked straight at her.
Then he gave her that close-lipped smile. It was the kiss-of-death smile that implies he has fulfilled his nicety quota, and now it’s time for him to look out the window and evaluate his life. She wouldn’t let him out of the conversation that easy; he had a curious touch of sadness, even in his smile, and he kept turning his pen over his knuckles.
“You look like you don’t belong on a bus, if you don’t mind my saying,” Miranda whispered, so as not to offend anyone within earshot.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“The suit. The posture. Look around you. No one is sitting up so straight. People slouch on the bus. It’s part of the experience.”
“I’m Jon, no h,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Jon. I never saw a need for an h. I’m Miranda.”
“Me either. The suit’s for an interview.”
“Mind if I ask?”
“It’s at the food bank in Maumee. I’m applying for a coordinator position. I was in sales, but our company went under, so I’m hoping this will give me a good reason to move. My mother’s in Toledo.”
“So is my daughter. She lives in a sort of trailer now. She’s getting back on her feet, so she’s staying with a friend. I go see her every month on the third Friday and stay the weekend. She loves my visits. Loves to have Mom home to cook and take care of her. I make her turtle fudge brownies most months. You get this job, and start riding my route, I’ll bring you some. Can’t eat them myself anymore, but I love to bake, and it’d be my pleasure.”
“That’s nice of you. What do you mean back on her feet?”
“Well,” Miranda paused to consider her words. “Tell you the truth, young man, my daughter got into those methamphetamines. But she’s strong, dedicated to her recovery program. A little shaky on her feet, yes, but who wouldn’t be? It’s been less than six months.”
“I wish her the best. That’s no easy thing, sobriety. But people are capable of a lot.”
“Especially when they’ve been through a lot,” Miranda added. “You are one smart young man, you know that? If my daughter was up for it—and she’s a looker!—I’d want to introduce the two of you. I think she’s got a while before she’s ready for a relationship though. Her program is strict about such things.”
“That’s the one.”
“Good stuff.” He looked away again. His leg was shaking faster now, but his voice was steady and calm.
“You know, I just read a biography about the guy that ran that big computer company. Quite the character, that man, but my real takeaway from the book is that a single person can change the entire world, even in the face of unexpected obstacles.”
“Our CEO made us read that book, at the place that went under. Good book, oddly sad,” he said.
“He made you? Huh. I kind of like that—a CEO that makes his employees read. Not enough people read. Too bad his company went under.”
“Yeah, the guy wasn’t so great. Companies can dissolve quickly, at least from the employees’ perspective. The paychecks just stop. Just like that. The Civic gets repossessed.” He snapped his fingers.
“You look more than competent to me, Jon with no h. I think you’ll wow the food bank folks.”
“I hope so. I think my girlfriend is getting itchy feet. She said she was sick of driving me around, and this is the fourth interview.”
“Ah, no hope for Melissa then.” She saw the crease between his brows and added, “My daughter.” He still looked confused. He stood quickly.
“Excuse me a moment,” Jon said and made his way back to the bathroom with urgency, before Miranda had the chance to warn him about the bathroom on this bus. She knew it wasn’t always the same bus, but one of these busses was old, and the community bathrooms were frightening enough to make a documentary about.
She glanced around. A woman, who had stuffed three matching bags overhead and had two more by her feet, was bobbing her head to some music as she swiped her finger across the screen of one of those electronic tablets Miranda figured came with the birth certificates nowadays. The woman appeared to be looking at pictures of a vacation spot, and there was a gentleman in many of the images that could have been in the movies he was so handsome. The woman, her full lips pressed tight, glared. Miranda continued to smile and stare. The woman narrowed her eyes. Miranda said, “Is that your home? It’s lovely.”
Resigning herself to the conversation, the woman said, “No. I wish. This is a friend’s home.”
Sweet, just a little rough around the edges, Miranda thought. She offered her warmest voice, said, “Keep that friend close.” She noticed that her leg was getting heavy, the way it did before it began to ache. She stood a moment. There was a puffy feeling and shakiness. She sat again and retrieved a Werther’s Original from her purse.
Jon returned smelling odd, like an old drawer, and he was smiling. He sat quickly, pressed his forehead against the window then pulled it back. “You’re sweating. Why’d it get so hot?” he asked Miranda.
“I’m not feeling well, but it’ll pass.”
“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” he said. “What can I do to help? I can help. It’s my new profession. To help.”
Miranda removed the gold wrapper and placed the sweet oval on her tongue. She closed her eyes, deciding that when she regains her composure she will move away from Jon. This kid had just done some kind of powder or pill or smoke in the bathroom, and she couldn’t be around that. With her eyes closed, she could see his yellow teeth. Crack, she thought, but do people still do that? She supposed so.
She wondered briefly why the universe was so cruel, but quickly dismissed the thought as unproductive. Constant evaluation of life is useless, but she couldn’t shake how badly she felt for thinking the man would be a good match for her daughter, for thinking that so immediately. Melissa, or Mel as she liked to be called now, had slipped three times since she first got sober. Miranda never knew for sure whether her daughter would be there or the drug would be there when she arrived these Fridays. Watching this young man, who seemed so smart, change like that in a matter of minutes—it was too much. She had to move. She took a long breath in through her nose and held it. She felt the young man’s hand on her leg. He was going on about something, but she couldn’t hear. Her leg was still heavy, but it reacted to his touch.
She took another breath, grabbed the man’s hand. She curled her fingers around his clammy, bony hand and began to squeeze. Jon might know her daughter, might meet and tempt her. She dug her nails into his skin. Miranda had strong nails, drank a strawberry milkshake every night, no matter where she was, and her nails were tough. She was trying to hurt him, but he wasn’t reacting. She looked in his eyes and said, “What are you on?”
He looked like a child. Not defensive, not criminal, but caught and wide-eyed. He had huge pupils. He whispered to her that he’d done a few lines, and that was all. He needed the confidence boost. His stop was coming, and he was nervous about his interview.
“You are not applying for that job. You apply for that job, and I’ll follow you in and tell whoever interviews you that you’re on drugs.” She shook his hand, keeping her grip tight. “You need to get your shit together young man.” She released him and stood, slowly. She was a little dizzy. She walked toward the front of the bus where a seat had opened up and there were a few familiar faces.
Miranda sat down next to a young woman and began chatting about the weather, and how she couldn’t wait to go see her daughter and surprise her with a dinner at a new restaurant that served sushi. She imagined her daughter answering the door with the same eyes as Jon as she said it, but she kept her smile fixed.
The woman was almost as chatty as Miranda, and was still talking about a “kick-ass dragon roll” she’d eaten at a restaurant called Bento, when the bus stopped and people began filtering out. Jon rushed out, looking down. She caught a glimpse of his hand, still red from her grip. She wished she’d drawn blood, left a mark. She wanted him to remember but knew there was a good chance he’d never think of her again. The addict’s brain is good at selective erasure. It’s an amazing thing. As she watched him run toward the depot, she realized he was wearing tennis shoes with that suit.
* * *
Miranda knocked three times. She knocked three times again. Mel’s roommate had a motorcycle, and it wasn’t around. She felt her heart surge and dug for the extra key she knew was at the bottom of her purse. She was ready to dump everything out when Mel answered the door.
“You made it,” Mel said.
Still looking down, Miranda stared at her daughter’s sandals: the small toenails with chipped red polish. Pants and shirt: clean, buttons all buttoned, everything fit. Neck: bruise-free. Face: unreadable.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Miranda couldn’t find the words. She pressed her hand to the girl’s warm cheek.
This story originally appeared in Burrow Press.