'How Old'

Kristy Athens

The bus wasn't so full; an entire seat was available behind the old man. The man sat in the outside half, discouraging anyone from sharing it. A young woman slid toward the window in the seat behind him.

“Must be foggy on the coast,” he turned and said to her as the bus rolled away from the curb.

“Oh?” she said. She leaned forward slightly; she was not the type of person to ignore someone who talked to her, even if they were retarded or crazy. Or old. She liked to give everyone a chance.

“Yeah, anytime it's hot like this here,” he said. He wore a baseball cap over his head, probably to keep his scalp from scalding in the sun. Maybe too because he was from that last generation that considered it rude to be without a hat in public.

“You see in the west, how it's cloudy, and in the east, how it's burning off?” he said. The bus ran along a bluff that had a pretty good view. “I'll bet it's foggy on the coast.”

“Wow, I'll bet you're right,” she said. She decided that her tone had been a little too patronizing; she hoped she hadn't insulted him. “Then I'm glad I'm not on the coast,” she added in what she hoped was a more normal voice.

There was a pause. The old man was probably thrilled to talk to someone but didn't want to seem desperate. The young woman knew how it was; her next-door neighbor, Marcus, was an old widower too. She talked to Marcus whenever she could. Even something simple, like the weather. Once, Marcus had confided in her that after his wife succumbed to the Cancer a few years back, he'd felt that he lacked a purpose. He didn't have anyone to take care of.

But the young woman didn't really feel like talking; she had just been to a Big Meeting that had eaten up her energy. She leaned back into her seat in degrees, almost imperceptibly. The man couldn't think of a way to continue the conversation either, and so after a block or so turned to face front.

The woman could have leaned forward again, tapped the man on the shoulder in case he was hard of hearing, and asked, “Were you downtown shopping?” Then the man could have told her about his trip to see the specialist about his heart; his doctor in St. Johns wouldn't work on it himself and had sent him to the big hospital. The doctor there was all right, he could have told her, but he felt that his concerns weren't taken seriously.

“That doctor's thinking, ‘This old fool don't know what he's talkin' about,'” the man could have said. She could have told him to not be intimidated by those doctors, they're just all puffed up from bossing the nurses around all the time.

At the next stop, a dozen third-graders and their teacher got on the bus. They lined up in the aisle while the teacher directed each to a seat. The old man picked up his jacket and slid over to make room. When the nearest boy didn't notice this, the old man poked him in the shoulder blade and then pointed at the empty seat. The boy, either due to “don't talk to strangers” indoctrination or perhaps shyness, immediately turned away.

The teacher, who had missed this exchange, said, “Danny, you sit there,” and pointed to the seat next to the old man. The boy considered arguing about it, then sat down with a sigh.

“See, I told you,” smiled the old man. The boy turned toward the aisle, his backpack to the old man. The man turned his smile toward the window.

The young woman watched the old man as he looked out the window. The stubble on the back of his neck reminded her of her grandfather's cheeks: only at the very end of his life had he allowed himself a less rigorous grooming routine. Old habits die hard.

The woman watched the children; their wet hair suggested that they had been at the pool. Their cherubic faces belied their interests:

“You know Spencer, in Mr. Johnson's class?”


“He likes Ashley!”


“Who farted?”

“It smells like raspberries!”

More giggles.

A few blocks later, the children exited the bus. The young woman could have leaned forward and said to the old man, “Looks like they went swimming!” The old man could have told her about how he had been the foreman of the crew that built that pool house back in ‘69. His kids swam in the pool the first day it opened, he could have said, except Jimmy, his oldest, who was over there fighting the Vietnamese at the time. He might have told her that Jimmy never did come home. But probably not.

When it was her turn to disembark, the young woman tried to catch the eye of the old man. He was distracted, looking out the window. As she walked toward her apartment in the fashionable district of the bustling city, she made a note to herself to remember not to hold it against the young people, when one day she found herself a lonely old woman on the bus.