1400 words long
A small portrait of a severe personality clash.
Notes from the author:The old woman is making knots. Her fingers dart over the soiled threads like insane maggots, raveling and unraveling the mess, laying it against her wrist for size. She mutters a song to the strings and feathers, "Heart beat, rain drums, blood and water and wine," and outside the bus window, a small Methodist church passes in and out of view. Its billboard advertises ultimate redemption and Bingo every Saturday. "Mandrake roots and parsley soup and bubbly pea green smelly goop!" She cackles loudly and licks her lips.
Begun in my head while riding a bus from Nacogdoches, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana, in early August 1993. I was the one making knotted friendship bracelets; my seatmate was the wild-haired drifter. She told me stories about housesitting all over the country, seeing places, living posh, going to each assignment with the clothes on her back and coming back with suitcases full.
That 386 laptop kind of dates it, though, doesn't it? It's a Compaq Aero 4/25. That really dates it.
The businessman wrinkles his nose and wishes he could have sat elsewhere. He'd been the last one to board the Greyhound in Shreveport, and every other seat had been taken. He wants to look out the window, let his mind numb to each landmark along well-worn I-49, but the muttering woman with her filthy knots occupies the window seat. Her hair's obscene tendrils frame his view of small town gas stations and highway road signs, and they smell like used cat litter. It's going to be a long ride, he thinks.
He opens his briefcase and takes out his battery powered 386 laptop. It clicks and wheezes, muttering its mechanical ditty of Ram and Rom and Stocks and Bonds and Data Data Data in formal capital letters across the screen. Maybe he can finish his work before he arrives in Alexandria. But the stringy woman's twig like fingers flicker and dance in the corners of his eyes. He flinches at the incessant motion. "Flash, crash, make a mad dash, the clams are coming to town." She giggles and points at imaginary shellfish on the sidewalk. The businessman shifts in his seat, turning toward the aisle to avoid her twitchy hands. She must be on her way to New Orleans, he thinks. He has never actually been that far south, but he knows that's where all the crazies go.
A baby starts crying in the seat behind him, its tinny thin voice punctuated by every bump and rattle of the bus wheels. Its mother scolds and whines. The woman looks up with a delighted, wide-eyed smile. "Newborns and firstborns and hot coffee on cold morns," she cackles, and thrusts her face over the seat to peer at the baby. "Jewels and fools and traveling ghouls, ranting raving rickety rules." The bracelet has grown an inch, its pattern twining in crisscrosses and snake back diamonds.
The 386 has inexplicably frozen, and the businessman closes his eyes, counts to ten, and reboots it. The laptop clicks and wheezes and spits out its Data Data Data. "Electric paralysis?" asks the knot woman in a concerned tone of voice. "Random analysis? Mad lady Alice is." Her dirty nails click against the computer screen. The businessman tries not to look at her gnarled fingers. If he believed in witches, he'd swear she had put the evil eye on his laptop. But of course he doesn't, so he swats her hand away from the machine without an apology. He looks off to the left, closing his right eye in order to shut her out of his peripheral vision.
The other passengers sit in sensible silence, some reading, some sleeping, some gazing out windows. The bus is now passing fields and farms, unbroken horizons of green and brown and gold. The businessman wishes the woman would be sensible and make less noise so that he could be sensible and not have to think about her. But she croons and cackles, conjuring another inch of knotted thread beneath her fingers. It seems to impose its pattern onto the businessman's mind, turning his orderly brain-folds into crisscrosses and snake-back diamonds so that he can't keep his mind on his work.
The 386 freezes again, this time accompanied by a whining beep, beep, beep that startles the wailing baby into silence. The businessman turns the computer off, counts slowly to twenty, and turns it back on. He pulls his mind back together and remembers that when in danger of losing one's temper, one should always count to twenty before doing anything. It was his mother who told him that, or maybe his grandmother. He finds it uncomfortably strange that although he can't recall when he was told, or even which woman said it, the smell of her voice is coming back as if she were sitting directly beside him.
"Peppermint?" Something taps him on the shoulder, and he turns. The string woman is grinning at him, and he wishes she wouldn't expose her teeth that way. A small, grimy red object glistens wetly in her hand and stains the lines of her palm a grubby crimson. No, he tells her, he doesn't want a peppermint, and his voice grates unusually loud and angry in his own ears. This time he counts to thirty, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. He looks out the window across the aisle, looks at the patient cows in their patient fields, munching the patient grass.
"Peppamin," crows the baby from behind them. "Hush, hush," pleads its mother. "Here," cackles the knotty woman, pressing the candy into its chubby hand. "Ten miles to Alexandria," announces the driver.
The bus smells like peppermint and hospital rooms and white leather jackets. The businessman wishes he could open a window and let in some fresh air, but he couldn't have brought himself to reach over the crazy string woman even if the windows did open. "Sugar and spice and everything nice," she is crooning to the baby's mother. "Rockabye, rockabye." She winks at the baby, who gurgles through a chinful of peppermint drool. Its mother looks the other way, her lips moving painfully as if counting the seconds that bring her closer to getting off this damn bus. Probably headed for Baton Rouge, thinks the businessman. Or Lafayette. Somewhere sensible.
Outside the bus, factory smoke comes into view, thick and brown and oily. Its insiduous smell clouds everything, sticks in the businessman's throat, muddies his thoughts. Then the computer starts to beep again and spew garbage and gibberish over his files. The businessman forgets to count to forty before pounding at the keyboard, finally hammering CTRL C over and over again until it quits. Symbols and numbers and letters are left to crisscross and diamondback over the screen, mocking him with foreign curses. The woman's threads stick together between her fingers, wet with peppermint spittle. The knots have grown another inch. It's not a bracelet anymore. Too long. More like a necklace, or a noose.
The gibberish characters won't go away, although the businessman flips his computer on and off countless times. He swears at it, mutters a litany of Ram and Rom and Stocks and Bonds and Data Data Data because the 386 won't and someone has to. The woman leers over his shoulder at the stubborn screen. "Right and wrong and rocks and stones and rabbits, rabbits, rabbits!" She giggles in his ear and bounces in her seat as he bangs and bangs at the keyboard. His computer is speaking in tongues, and he yammers back at it--junkyard, auto wreck, broken asphalt and glass! "Rubble and stubble and seagull muddles, the oranges are going fast," agrees the woman, and ties a special knot in her bracelet just for him. Oranges, he echoes, pressing his forehead to the keyboard. Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clemens.
She holds out another sticky lump. "Peppermint?" He looks up at it with helpless eyes. "Everybody likes peppermints," she says in soothing tones, and presses the candy into his limp hand. She pats him gently on the back, staining his grey business suit with gummy red dribble. Butterscotch, he thinks brokenly. Mint chocolate chip, double scoop please. He smears the candy onto the laptop screen like a crayon, forming red crisscrosses and snake-back diamonds. Pretty, he thinks, and draws some more.
The baby starts crying again, and the bus becomes noisy with the movements of waking passengers. "Alexandria," announces the driver over the rattly speakers. "If this is your final stop, we thank you for riding with us. For those bound for Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans, or beyond, we ask that you please remain on board, as we will only be stopped a few minutes."
Inside the station, the businessman's wife is waiting to drive him home. Occasionally she glances at her watch. Hasn't the bus arrived yet? She looks up at the ceiling, drums her fingers against an armrest.
She has been waiting for a very long time.