They crested the hill and again, with the lurch of the giant machine grinding under his body, it felt like he was going to lose his cookies.
Saul grinded gears trying to find 4th, tried again, slammed the stick home, and careened down into the valley toward St. Paul Street.
Saint Paul Street, he said to himself. St. Paul St. There is no difference between the Saint and the Street. He looked down at the twin tears in his dark blue work pants. Two tears in the shape of two small eyes opening onto the dry, flaky skin of his knees. Two tears – one left, one right. There are symmetries in some things. Still, he thought to himself, I particularly like St. Paul St. “St.” is well on the way to STD – whether saintly or streetly, it matters not.
He pulled the groaning beast of a bus to a shrieking stop at the corner of 24th and St. Paul. A man with a white beard the consistency of a scrub pad pulled himself up the stairs of the machine. His smell was stale beer and fresh vomit. The man’s eyes watered as he stared unevenly at Saul. “Slinger’s gonna get you.”
Saul’d had enough. It’d been 15 years since he’d started, 10 years since the city was officially dead, and 7 years since the dead had started rising, walking boldly through the daylight hours with needles hanging out of their veins and coke lining their upper lips.
“Just get in, old man, and tell Slinger I got his number,” Saul felt the rage conflagrating his guts, but somehow he kept the profanity in check.
The old man cocked a keen eye at Saul, surprisingly blue in his ashen face, “Slinger’s gonna keel you!”
Saul shut the door, shoved the stick into 1st, and laid on the gas ferociously enough to send the old drunk hurtling toward the back, ass over teakettle.
Eff you. Eff Slinger. Eff ‘im right in the A.
And up, out of the valley they rose, the buildings rising with them on either side, hulking and dark even in the bright afternoon. They were giants of the brick and mortar type – factories, storehouses, steel-and-wood doors arching into grand openings of industry. All padlocked. All slumbering. All laid out in eternal sleep along the cold slabs of this mortuary of a town.
There was a groaning in the back. As he looked up, Saul noticed the prostitute he’d picked up farther northward on 24th St. She hung like a beaten doll, her head grossly tossed back over the headrest, her neck mostly blue, her arms stiff by her side.
Eff me. Right in the A.
And that was about the extent of it. The rage was gone. The sunlight streamed in. The whole bus stank like the worst of processed liquids: diesel, feces, and regurgitated alcohol. Saul cussed it all with a whispered grunt that ended with an epiglottal stop. Filth, anguish, despondency, with an end as violent as a curse could grant.
The sun streamed in through the dusty windshield. All Saul could see were star-streamers and the glint of sun playing on each of the infinitesimal imperfections laid into the glass over decades of use.
He stopped the bus. They were up on the other side of the valley now. On the left, Woodlawn Cemetery. On the right, Woodhaven Elder Care.
The bus choked and complained against the turn of the key. It shuddered and then grew quiet.
“Slinger’s got your number, numbnuts,” came from the back.
Saul stepped back into the aisle, his legs creaking in their sudden movement up from hours of disuse. The smell of bile-laced alcohol was suddenly stronger. He saw the shaggy bum everyone called Donny with deep-set brown eyes staring out the Woodlawn side of the bus, scratching hair that had the color and composure of the unused portion of the cemetery – golden brown, overgrown, filled with bugs and life that grew out of the death below. Donny stared, his brown eyes glinting in the light as if the sun was warming him from the lenses on in. He stared and scratched, tiny flecks of organic material filtering from his matted hair and up into the sunlight. Saul stepped past the seat, deeper into the reek of the belly of the bus.
“Slinger’s comin’ for you, you turd. He’s gonna gut you! He will gut you.”
Saul walked on down the aisle, some staring toward Woodlawn, some gazing up at Woodhaven. The ashen man just kept cursing.
When he got to Celia – That had to be her name, right? – he leaned over her seat, gathered her up in her arms. She was ungodly wasted – long-limbed with legs and arms as stringy-stiff as beef jerky.
“Come here, Celia. Come here,” he whispered as he took her in his arms. “I’ve gotcha, Sweetie.”
He hauled her back up the aisle, back up toward the radiance of the windshield-scattered sun and carried her out the right side of the bus, toward Woodhaven.
The brown steel door opened with a sound like a bad cough. At the end of the bleached tile hallway, he found the Duty Nurse filling out some paperwork at the nurse’s station. She wore a name tag that read “Marie” and she sat, waiting. Waiting on a visitor? Waiting on the dead to die already? The desk in front of her was tattooed with the boredom of nurses. I like Johnny’s broomschtik was edged thickly with blue pen at an angle in front of her. She stared down the hallway. It smelled like Clorox. In front of the desk were a thousand black and brown marks scuffed into the floor by the passage of a thousand feet. A clock hung silently on the wall across from her. The wind caught the steel door in a momentary gust and it groaned. That crusty brown mouth didn’t open much. The innards here were dead. The place was already embalmed.
Saul spread Celia out on the counter space in front of Marie. The nurse looked annoyed.
Marie stood up, looking down at the girl’s body. “She’s dead.”
Saul had been sure of his course. He had been sure of his decision to leave the bus parked out front with a load full of thieves and addicts. He had been sure of the holy providence that had guided him here in the first place to an institution that had nurses and drugs and – well, Good Medicine.
Saul had been sure of it all, but now he felt like a kid who’s walked in on his parents doing something that kids shouldn’t know about – like spreading gifts below the tree or trading quarters for lost teeth or making babies.
“But she’s overdosed.”
“Yes,” Marie said. “And dead.”
“Can’t you do—I mean, isn’t there a drug you can give her.”
“I’ll call an ambulance, but it’s a non-emergency call. They’ll take the body away. And the cops. I suppose they’ll want to know where she came from.”
Saul turned back toward the door, his hands dumbly by his side.
“Hey, you should probably stick around though. You know, they’ll want a statement.”
Saul just kept walking.
Up the hallway, away from the desk marked with the passage of a thousand feet – feet on the way from life into death or from death back out into life as if an endless and confused parade of pilgrims walking every way possible and arriving ultimately nowhere but the middle. Up the hallway and through the rusted door that seemed to cough him back out onto the street. Up a stretch of sidewalk warped like the plates of a dinosaur’s back broken by decades of frost heaves and spring thaws. Death comes slowly in the city and still on he walked, up the steps of the waiting bus and back into his cracked leather seat that still held some of the residual warmth of his ass.
The keys had been untouched in the ignition.
He started it up.
“Slinger’s here, you effen turkey, and he’s got your ass in the palm of his hand!”
Saul pushed the stick back up into first, eased the sighing beast off the curb, found an easy block to guide it around and get back on course. The sun had set behind him and he eased himself back onto the leg of the route that ran along Saint Paul Street. St. Paul St. SPS. There is a symmetry in odd places. There is no difference between the saint and the street.
The bus was back on its path.
from the collection of: m. gantee