down in back

Fiction, 4/20/12

Two older women stood in the rain to wait for the 526. The bus was scheduled to arrive in Enumclaw at 6:32, but it was running a few minutes late. A young man joined them at the bus stop. “Has the 526 come by yet?” he asked. They shook their heads. When it did come, a little while later, the man climbed on and took a seat near the middle. He had recently gotten off work; he still wore battered gray workpants and a heavy jacket with the insignia “Rainier Valley Steelcutters Union” sewn onto the back. He carried nothing besides a small black cellphone that he pulled out, fiddled with, and then pressed to his ear.

“Hey bro, what up? Just seein’ what you’re up to tonight…” He sat with his back to the side of the bus, his arm on the headrest. “I just got off…yeah, man, they been working me real hard lately…so hey, man, you wanna kick it tonight? For real…I was thinkin’ we could hit up Marcus…” He spoke unctuously, at a volume audible to most of the passengers on the small bus. A few flicked their eyes in his direction. He continued to talk until the conversation had ended, and then he put away the phone.

The intercom beeped, and for a moment the other passengers thought the driver would upbraid the young man for his carrying on so loudly. Instead, very sternly she said, “Ma’am, keep those kids seated, please! The kids need to be sitting down.”

At the back of the bus sat a young woman with her two small sons. One of them, the older of the two, had been standing on the bench, holding onto the pole for support. “Coby, sit down! You’re getting us in trouble with the bus driver!” Coby remained standing, and he smirked at his mother. “I don’t wanna,” he said, and gripped the pole harder.

“Ma’am, I don’t want to ask you again. The kids must be seated at all times.” The young woman grabbed at her son, bodily yanking his rear into the seat. “Coby, sit the fuck down. You heard the bus driver, right? You’re getting us in trouble, you see that? Just stay down!”

The bus had been idling at the Auburn station. Once the driver was sure Coby was sitting, she released the brake and they took off. At the next stop, in Kent, Coby stood up again and moved to the bench opposite his mother, who was talking on her cellphone. He climbed onto the bench and reached for the handrails.

“Ma’am, the child must be seated at all times!” The driver looked highly agitated, and many of the passengers turned to look. The mother turned the phone against her cheek. “Coby, sit…the..fuck..down!” She pulled viciously at her son’s jacket and forced him over to her bench. Coby began to cry, and then his little brother started crying, too. “Mommy, ow! I hate you!” Coby wailed, and her face contorted with such fury that she looked on the verge of slapping him.

At this the young man in the union jacket stood up from his seat and walked to the back. He took the seat across from them and said, “Young man, you do not disrespect your mom like that.” He winked at the mother, who looked apprehensively at this stranger in their midst. He continued. “You do not disobey when she tells you to sit down, okay?” He looked over at her. She was pretty in a downtrodden, sad sort of way, and his eyes lingered on her shapely chest. Coby had stopped crying and sat down, and he stared at the man. “Thank you,” she said, relaxing a little. “Thank you. I’ve just had the worst day with these two.”

The man smiled and nodded to Coby. “You’re a big man, huh? Talkin’ back to your mom an’ all that? Where’s the big man now, huh? Where’d he go?” The woman tensed up again, and a few of the passengers were watching. The driver eyed them wearily from the front. “Not so big now, right?” He leered at the child. Coby flew into a rage, crossing the aisle and pummeling the man with his little fists. “Coby!” For a second the man flinched and a look of anger crossed his face, but then he started laughing. “Coby, what are you doing?! Coby, stop that right now!” his mother yelled, and the driver got on the intercom. “Ma’am…the child must be seated! Sir…excuse me, sir, are you with them? Sir! Are you with them?”

He looked at the mother for an instant and then said, “Yes, I am. Let’s just get on to Renton, could we?” The driver stared dubiously at him and the other passengers watched the exchange. Then she sighed and said, “If there is one more incident I am calling a security officer, okay? Keep the child seated.”

“Coby, you’re getting us in big trouble, you see that?” his mother scolded. “You’re gonna get us kicked off the bus.” Coby began to cry again, and the young man softened. “Look, he’s not gonna get us in trouble, okay? Hey Coby, you’re not gonna get us in trouble, alright? It’s all good. I was just sitting up there, bored, and I heard someone disrespecting their mom back here, and I wanted to do something about it, that’s all. No hard feelings, right? Gimme a pound, big man.” He held out his fist. “Give the nice man a pound, Coby,” his mother urged, and Coby reluctantly did so. “There we go, big man. You tough, man, I’ll give you that.” He winked at Coby’s mom. “Ain’t no one gonna fuck with this kid, you can tell.” She smiled wanly. “You don’t gotta be so tough, you know?” he said, addressing Coby again. “Sometimes it can be good to be nice to people. But you gotta watch out, some people seem like they nice, but they really out to get somethin’ from you. You gotta watch out for those people.”

The young man remained at the back with them, and after a few minutes Coby started opening up to him. “Our daddy’s a mechanic,” he said, moving to sit beside the man. “He makes cars, an’ one day he’s gonna make me one.” The man nodded in an absentminded way and grunted in approval. He continued to steal glances at the mother’s figure, and she kept her eyes nervously on the floor. At length they reached Renton, and the man stood up to disembark. The driver and all the passengers watched him carefully. “See you later, big man. And listen to your mom, you hear?” He walked out the back door. She followed him with her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.

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