“Green Evolution” by Suzanne Stryk 2010
One day a year, but only one, Smoothie and The Tailor talk about the past. They buy a Proto-burrito and a small Styrofoam cup of refried beans at Proto’s Eateria, and they eat in the back of the bus. They talk about the news, about their paper sales, their regular customers – as much as they can remember. They talk about the look of the new automobiles inside and out. They sing together a little. The Tailor is Smoothie’s oldest living friend.
For over twenty years Smoothie has been bundle captain on the Route 9 bus in Las Almas, New Mexico. He distributes the newspaper bundles to the street vendors, and he troubleshoots for them. He chooses new members of the team whenever that must be done.
His first full day on the job was November 22, 1983.
The fare machine tumbled his fifty cents.
“Are you sitting here?” he asked the elderly woman, the sole passenger, because she had rustled mysteriously, had glanced at him in unsettling readiness as he sat down near her in the front of the bus.
“I’m always here,” she answered. She removed her red vinyl shoulder bag from between them: the zipper closed around the nose of a gun barrel. “Bee. Two e’s,” she said. Her chipped nails were painted pale-sky blue. Her shining lipstick was Vaseline. Her damp hand went inside his, weakly gummed and gripped him.
“Where to?” he asked. He actually wanted to know. He wished he had asked differently.
“Going to hell,” she said. “You going?”
One: where she was. Two: who she was. Three: where she was going. Four: what she wanted to know. In thirty seconds she had told him all of that.
The blackening sunspots under her eyes and on her temples were not at all attractive. Her short silver hair and her small ears were severely compressed against her head by a scarf. Her black eyes were gold-flecked. Old leopard are the words that came to his mind. Later, he would write them down. He was a man who wrote things down. Long after, not knowing how they mattered, he would throw them away.
As the bus departed from the Mesilla Valley Mall, the doors made the hydraulic sound he liked on buses, probably because he had that sound in his memory, and it reminded him of how many years he had ignored public transportation. He had owned a car and known people who owned cars. He had rented a house when he had a job, when he was in circulation, had friends and still made new ones.
Bee said, as if to the bus driver, “Lord, look at him,” and he was on the bus alone with her, so he looked at himself reflected in the opposite window. He should rinse his neck and face in a sink. He should slap the dust out of his black jeans, get a belt or rope to hold them up better. He should, he thought, recite the verses of his colorful tee shirt: that would – it always did – make him happy.
Out the window beyond them was more of the radiating New Mexico desert heat, the white match-head of afternoon light during the day and the icy wind at night. At Lenox & Elks, a stooped old man boarded, sweatshirt on and hood drawn close around his face. “Firey!” he said to Bee who said, “No lie,” and said, “This here’s Smoothie, our new Captain.”
Now Bee grinned, and the old man bent down to get a close look, and spit-laughed a stinking spray directly at Smoothie. Smoothie thought it must have been that he was funny, that something about him was humorous. He said, “Do you always ride this bus?”
The man’s face retreated a little into his hood. “The bundle bus. Bee’s bus,” he muttered.
Bee said, “Show Smoothie some respect.”
Talking through Bee to Smoothie, the bent man said, “Him? He’s our new Bundle Captain?”
Smoothie said, “I don’t –“
Bee said, “He –“
“Today?” the man asked.
“Today,” she said.
Smoothie knew he could not add to or improve upon this kind of conversation. Once, it would have made him anxious to be talked about or at. In order to be rid of that, at thirty-eight he had been prescribed an anti-anxiety drug. The drug worked so well he was able to tell the unwelcome truth to his family members, to old and new friends at the newspaper production offices where he worked. He found that all of them thought he was a good man right up until the time he was actually an honest man. The drug released him from trying so hard to free others from their curses. It made him turn himself in for his own crimes. It made him run at blind cliffs of self-recognition. When he owed, he knew how much. When he fell, he saw how far. The drug was The Supreme Smoothie. It had taken only three years to sail him from what felt like the center of things to an unassignable destination.
Bee said that they were right on time for a call from The Super. When they pulled over at Telshor & Del Rey and stopped in front of the Shell, the pay phone was ringing, and she made him come with her to take the call.
She stretched the steel phone cable so she could stand in a wedge of shade from the building. She listened to The Super, she pushed at the nylon shroud of her scarf and scarf knot; she said back to the person on the other end of the phone line: “I name the day.”
The black shade seemed to have bowed her upper body towards the ground. She cupped the phone to her ear, her other hand to the other ear. Smoothie thought he saw her cower. “Smoothie is his name,” she said into the phone, and, “Well, you will soon enough.” She handed Smoothie the phone. “Say hi.”
“Hi,” said Smoothie.
“Route 9,” said the other person in a tin-bell voice, “a good route.”
Bee took the phone back. She stepped into the light, the silver phone cable and the handset glinting. She hung up, and they returned to the bus. He remembered his mother’s voice, so much like the voice of Bee’s boss. She had been the last of Smoothie’s living relatives to die.
A woman in a knee-length paper-thin dress boarded, carrying a water-filled gallon and a cardboard sign. U Buy I Sing U Don’t I Sing.
That steaming sound. Departing.
Bee, who knew her of course, introduced him as Smoothie.
Her sign facedown in her lap, the woman asked, “Is that name the truth?”
Smoothie said she could count on it.
She greeted the old man as “Tailor,” and took the seat next to him, offered him her gallon. She had to punch his arm to keep him from draining it.
“Give a crush,” The Singer said to The Tailor who tightly grasped invisible oars as he puckered up, and they leaned toward one another in their small imaginary boat, and kissed so hard they slurped.
The Singer sang, not nearly loud enough. The Tailor and Bee sang softly with her, “All at once am I several…”
The bus driver probably sang, but in any case, some bass crept in. It could have been the bus driver.
When they were done and the bus was accelerating again, the group seemed to appreciate Bee’s honest assessment of it as unjustifiable songicide. They applauded her, and Smoothie joined them. Bee opened her purse, raised it and swung it in front of her so that it seemed like a small puppet making a bow or curtsey for her. She sat.
“He’ll do,” said The Tailor.
“He might,” said The Singer. “Starts tomorrow?”
Bee said, “That’s the plan.”
Smoothie could not fathom how Bee had chosen him. He looked the part; it was the opportune day; his need seemed the greatest: this is what he later speculated.
He was offered a handshake from The Tailor, and, from Bee a pat on the shoulder, and, from The Singer the gallon, which he refused. She unsuccessfully offered again. She rummaged in her dress pockets, stood up in order to rummage deeper. She hooked what she was fishing for but only fingered it, only looked into the pocket, without withdrawing her hand. “Got it,” she said.
“Good,” said Bee. “Little gift?”
The Tailor leaned forward, gave Bee the on-the-downbeat signal of people in a band.
The Singer offered Smoothie an unwrapped glycerine suppository in silver foil.
The object mattered to her. Its bubble was triple-coated in space-age plastic; its crenelated foil backing was embossed, compounding its mystery and communicating its worth with a holy invocation: EDILGYSAE. Smoothie could see how it mattered. It was cool to the touch, and it smelled of warm silverware drawn from a soapy sink.
It was time to accept.
Now The Tailor asked, “How long?”
“Hard to say,” Smoothie answered. He held the silver-cloaked bullet up to the light. How long have I been homeless? he thought. It had all begun three years ago; he had landed on the streets two months ago, or weeks, or even less. He decided he wouldn’t answer The Tailor until he could remember.
“It found me,” said The Singer. The gray tip of her tongue moistened her lower lip. “It did. It did.” Smoothie could almost imagine the unlikely path; some teenage driver would think how funny that would be as payment for a newspaper; some doctor would offer it with confusing instructions.
Smoothie gave the suppository back, for which she was grateful. It could have traveled to her from galaxies eons away. She held the suppository package near her face and read it wth the dessicated bark of her fingertips, her transfiguring strangeness emerging into full view.
At the Flea Market stop Temp and Tech, dark-skinned twin brothers, Smoothie’s age or a little younger, or fifties, or late fifties, introduced themselves.
Tech and Temp were found in the Valley View Elementary dumpster, dead from exposure, on December 7, 2001. In 1989 The Singer’s daughter boarded the bus, told them The Singer had died two days earlier on September 11, from undiagnosed cancer. They had never met her, though they knew of her. She asked for a crush. Her voice, familiar to them all, verged on song. She got off at Telshor & Del Rey. The driver, at sixty-three years of age, would die of stroke on the Route 9, at Roadrunner & Foothills, Veteran’s Day of 2000: a lasting sleep after a drive-thru meal at Proto’s. Bee took her own life on November 22, 1983.
Tech and Temp carried twelve newspaper bundles on board. They sat atop the two high piles like Rumplestiltskins.
“Our new Bundle Captain,” said Bee.
“He’s ugly, ain’t he?” said Tech.
“Correct,” said Temp.
Tech and Temp received a crush from The Singer, and she forgot herself and gave them another, forgot herself and gave another, longer, to The Tailor. And then there was soft off-key singing, “Can you hear a lark,” and everyone, including Smoothie, singing, “in any other part of town?” And The Singer, fanning herself with her signage, grinned at him.
And Tech said, “Loverly,” and Temp said, “Es verdad.”
Inside him, Smoothie braked. His thoughts pedaled backward – better at that than moving forward – and he counted the crew members: Tech, Temp, The Singer, The Tailor, Bee, the driver, and himself.
His first day on the Route 9 bus. His first day as bundle captain. He asked, “What day is it?”
The bus stopped at Mesa Grande & US 70. A woman with an almost-newborn, those tiny hands reaching out of blankets, stepped up into the bus, glanced at all of them. She stepped off.
Smoothie thought the baby in those rosy blankets had sounded like it might say something. It didn’t have words, but it had emitted a wordsome gurgle. The Tailor looked like 2 AM and The Singer a little before. The brothers, perched side by side atop their bundles, stretched out their legs next to each other, clock hands in the minute-past-midnight position. Their worn khaki pants were the same country club color of marigolds.
“What day is it?” he asked. His first hour ever completely surrounded by the crew. He asked them all, “What day? Tell me.” He was too embarrassed to ask what year, what month.
“Eighty-three – November-twenty-two,” said The Singer as if that was an answer. Her face was crusted with sunspots at her temples and jaws, the same as Bee, as The Tailor, Tech and Temp. The brothers had swept-back white hair and very full identical fu-manchus; they breathed through their blistered mouths, blowing yellowing white moustache hair outward.
Smoothie stared because he wanted to stare. On his meds he acted and, in fact, was like the human a human might think he was. He stared at their lean jaws and slack, squamous necks and heads, and at the unlit jewels of their eyes.
They stared back, baring what teeth they had left. He said, “You call me ugly?”
“We agree on it,” said Tech. Temp nodded, with conviction.
Bee said, “You really are. But –“
Temp said, “Plain fact.”
“Homely,” said The Singer.
The Tailor said, “All your life, I bet,” and seemed to size up Smoothie for a custom ugly suit.
The driver raised his hand, though he had no question. He was pointing at the sign above the windshield: DO NOT TALK TO THE DRIVER WHILE THE BUS IS IN MOTION.
Bee said, “Unanimity,” evidently pleased that her crew could be so accurate. Smoothie remembered a half an hour earlier when she had handled her purse that certain ventriloquist way.
“He’s ‘homely,’ then,” said Tech. “We agree?”
Definitely. The driver might have said it, Smoothie couldn’t be sure.
The driver had stopped the bus at Roadrunner & Morningstar where no one came on but where the fare tumbler loudly chewed the coins, and the inadequate engine hmmphed and huffed under the bus hood.
The doors steamed shut and the STOP sign near the driver retracted like a wing stump or a gill. When the driver’s shrill-sounding wide turn emptied all the brightest light from the bus, Smoothie asked, “Will you tell me what time it is?”
“No,” said the driver. It was him. Or it could have been him.
Bee told The Singer to fan Smoothie, though he doubted if she meant for her to fan so hard, circulating the diesel and gasoline exhaust that perfumed them all.
Smoothie said, “Put that down. And don’t look that way at me: I don’t want a –“ he caught the switch in her expression – “crush. And –“ she was already humming – “no song, okay?” Already, the words were coming, “Are there lilac trees—“
“Is that your whole damn repertoire?” he asked.
A man, unnaturally tall, a spotty thin gray beard furring his chin and neck down to the bottom of his throat, leaned over Smoothie. He had come from nowhere. His shaved head was shiny and smelled of oranges studded with cloves. He kissed Smoothie’s forehead. “Plenty of time. ‘s early.” He did not move. Smoothie could pull away but. Smoothie could wisecrack, he could be rude, but.
The man said, “’s almost one in the afternoon, Captain.” As if Smoothie had been awoken from a pirate nap, his head still far inside his pillow, his closed hands warm under it. As if a dream had placed him on a bus with steam sounds, with a motor coughing and coins clinking and his mother’s singing voice fading.
The gray man had been the last on, but he was the first dropped off with his bundle of newspapers at the westernmost part of town, the stop at Roadrunner & Morningstar.
Smoothie thought he heard Bee say, “No one will pick you up at 7:10,” but he misheard.
Later that evening – promptly at 7:10 – everyone on the bus called out to him, “Grayman!” He boarded.
Grayman was fifty-one. He was as old as he would ever be.
He took Smoothie’s elbows into his hands. He took Smoothie’s forearms, firmly took them, pulling him forward. Grayman’s ears and eyelids and brows and temples were sunburned almost black. For the longest time, he did not let go.
At 6:50, before they picked up Grayman, they picked up Tech and Temp at the Flea Market. Tech reported that he and Temp had sold almost fifty. He reported it to Smoothie. Smoothie, flustered, said, “Well. Well.”
“God bless,” muttered Tech.
Before them, at Lenox & Elks, The Singer boarded. “Poor sales,” Bee said, not quite loud enough to be heard. “Always, poor sales.” Bee nodded at the facedown sign. “The singing.”
The Singer shared the water bottle and good crushes all around. 6:40
Before her, The Tailor – “Good location,” said Bee, “Telshor & Del Rey” – climbed aboard at 6:30. He jingled his change-maker and held up his coin-stained wooly palms, and everyone high-fived him, Smoothie and Bee last.
Bee and Smoothie had spent the day at what was his new, his destined location, Loman & Telshor, where she showed him the ropes as she had been shown by her predecessor.
Hardly believing where he was now, Smoothie wondered where he was then.
On that same day in ’63, he was nineteen years old and at a job interview for copy reader at the Las Almas Sun-Times.
The interviewer, a very old man, shoulders bowed, back bent, had him sit down. He waited for the young man to settle before telling him the news about The President. He explained he had over forty years in at the Sun-Times. It was done. It did no good to hope it wasn’t. Drawing typed questions from a clean manila folder, the man then tried to interview Smoothie. At that time in his life, Smoothie had a name. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember his full name: the answer to the first interview question. The old man’s eyes and Smoothie’s filled with tears. The two felt as if the bones and muscles and the skin of their faces could not hold. Tears poured into their throats.
“Impossible,” said the interviewer, instantly not a stranger at all.
Smoothie tried. He could not speak.
He remembered thinking that the interviewer was right. To be flung from the world as if you were a word crossed through: impossible.
Kevin McIlvoy lives in Asheville, NC. As “mcthebookmechanic.com” he offers mentoring, manuscript editing, and writing workouts. His work has recently appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Graywolf Press published his most recent book, The Complete History of New Mexico and Other Stories.
Read a conversation with Kevin McIlvoy here.
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