[wpaudio url=”/audio/december12/Ries.mp3″ text=”listen to this story” dl=”0″]
He arrives alone, with a shiny suitcase and a limp in his left leg. His jeans are ringed with snow at the ankles, his face pink and damp. He checks the large clock above the ticket booth. Ah, but no need: he is not confined to a schedule.
At this eerie hour the ticket line is one deep: a young woman, perhaps a student too, in some sort of hurry. She is dressed in a knee-length high-collar coat, tan with furry white trim. He waits at a distance. Even if she is a student there’s no chance he knows her. Girls in the Institute (rare as they were) didn’t own coats like that. No chance.
The young woman gathers her things – ticket, purse, luggage – and hustles off. After a brief pause he steps forward. The ticket clerk is wearing a mouse-gray sweater and oversized glasses. A long yellow cigarette hangs from the corner of her mouth.
“Help you,” she grunts.
“Yes, well, I’d like a ticket.”
“This is the place.”
She waits. It looks as if she’s on the verge of speaking – an accomplishment in its own right due to the cigarette dangling there, angled toward the counter, impossibly acute, defying gravity, really, just dangling there as it would in a photograph – she waits but doesn’t say anything for a few moments.
Then: “Well where to, then.”
“I’m not really sure.”
“You aint really sure.”
“Somewhere south, maybe.”
“We got Rochester, we got Albert Lea…”
“No I mean south. Like, Texas south.”
“Texas? Abilene, Dallas, Houston…”
“Not literally Texas.”
The ticket clerk looks up at something on the wall above the window, sucks on the cigarette, blows a sheet of smoke down toward her lap. She folds her hands and looks at him through the window like a lawyer might a prisoner. Then she rolls back from the counter, fishes around in a drawer or cabinet, then returns and slides a brochure through the transaction tray.
“Here’s the fare schedule,” she coughs, “let me know when you get it figgered out.”
“Does this have the prices on it?”
“Okay, thank you.”
“Map’s over there.”
“Yes, thank you.”
He borrows a pencil-nub from her and compares the schedule to the map. Really gives it a thorough analysis. Not such a bad habit. Most destinations fall distinctly into one of four categories: too expensive (popular group, that one), too far (Miami by bus?), too infrequent (now, it has to be now), or not far enough (what’s the point, kiddo?). He makes a little game of it, separating cities into these four groupings. A being too expensive, and so on. Boston is an A. Des Moines, a D. El Paso, A but also a little B. So AB then. Flagstaff, C.
Halfway through the schedule he realizes he doesn’t have a metric for the good destinations, the possibilities. The whole point of the exercise. So he erases the initial judgments, starts again. A little star for the finalists. He likes the little stars, four neat intersecting vectors that really do draw attention to the viable cities. He gets maybe a little star-happy as a result. But that’s okay: he can get as star-happy as he wants. No equations to guide him, no integral limits to bound him, no distinct solution waiting for him.
A bus enters the station, airbrakes wheezing, and emits a cloud of exhaust.
He can’t help himself from totaling the results in a little table at the bottom of the schedule. It’s pointless, of course, really he only cares about the little stars, but he does it anyways, just a quick count. The As dominate. But there’s no way he’s going to apply percentages to each of the columns, no siree. Besides the ABs complicate matters, so it’s not like there’s a clean distribution anyhow. Precision and accuracy are two different things.
So, the little stars. After some contemplation he decides it really needs to be now. No waiting. The station smells like…exhaust, of course, but something else too, something metallic. Rusted steel, maybe. Not a pleasant smell. It has to be soon.
At the ticket counter the clerk is flipping through a newspaper. The classifieds, from the looks of it.
“So, zero zero is midnight, right?”
She takes a long drag from the latest cigarette and mashes the filter out in a tin ashtray. “Zero zero is midnight, yeah.”
“So this one here, this leaves at twelve ten? Tonight?”
“Okay, this one then.” He points to the schedule.
He finds an empty cluster of chairs – green, plastic, cold – near the terminal. The garage is mostly deserted. A coach idles at the far end of the building. A few rows over, a scrawny man in rags snoozes happily. A prim old lady in a pillbox hat diligently watches the clock above her head. A janitor in a denim jumpsuit hums while dragging a mop across a concrete island.
There’s a magazine in his suitcase, but he doesn’t feel like getting it. The suitcase is full – complete, is the word he’d come up with. The suitcase is complete. He doesn’t want to disturb those neatly packed rows, the order contained within that plastic shell. Anyone else would have just jammed everything in there all haphazard, overcome by the urgency and exhilaration of the moment. Not him, no siree. He’d packed with conviction. Calmly, scientifically (well why not? you wouldn’t believe how much stuff he’d fit in that suitcase!). No need to rush. Slow made it real….
A loud clack of shoes echoes across the terminal. He turns, expecting to see the young woman with the tan coat. But no, coming up the sidewalk is a man clad in an acorn-brown suit and polished wingtips. He has an overcoat draped over his wrist and a salt-and-pepper beard and a dark complexion and a long curving face. Looks like a washed-up jazz musician or pool shark, someone who tries too hard to look like someone he isn’t, or someone he used to be. The stranger walks past the chairs and leans up against a block wall near the exit.
Popular Mechanics is the magazine. He’s already read most of it anyhow.
After a few minutes the stranger comes and sits in the opposite bench. He has a peculiar odor about him, like stale oranges (strange thing is, he’s smelled that same smell before, that exact smell, only he can’t remember where). The stranger takes a moment to size him up and then smiles. Sits there smiling, in fact, for what feels like five minutes. There’s a tooth missing from that smile, too, a lower incisor, which is pretty much impossible to ignore.
“Hey man,” the stranger finally says, “I know you probably don’t like being disturbed, and all.”
“But don’t worry.”
“Hey your secret’s safe with me, all right?”
The stranger leans back and lets out a throaty laugh. “It’s cool, it’s cool. I got you.”
There’s no way out of this conversation short of up and leaving. Which, all things considered….
“Look sir I don’t – ”
“You don’t want to be disturbed, I hear you.”
“No, I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Okay man, sure. Sure.” The stranger winks, makes a zipping motion across his lips. He’s quiet for a while, tapping his legs, coughing, looking around out of either curiosity or paranoia. Then he says, in a near-whisper, “I know, though.”
“You. I know you.”
“Sir, no offense, but – ”
“You that guy, what’s-his-name. From the movies.”
“You know, that – hell, man, you! You’re you, that guy. The comedies.”
“No, I think – ”
“Hey your secret’s safe with me, all right? No one here to tell anyhow.”
“Sir but I’m…” He stops for some reason, stops right there and thinks about it. And you know what? He’s not that, not anymore, he’s not an engineering student any more than he is a pianist or tinkerer or programmer. Heck why not a movie star? No labels. It’s become rote, that grand exposition, that pompous speech borrowed from somewhere, some place in his imagination, well actually I’m majoring in electrical engineering, actually, and yes of course it’s difficult but you know not that difficult…And how proud it made his mother, his grandparents, all those aunts, and best of all how it infuriated his brother. Labels. Unthinking. Mouth opening as though coin-operated or remote-controlled, those nice-sounding words, keep ‘em comin’ kiddo!
“Just let’s keep it between you and me, okay?”
The stranger smiles like it’s the happiest day of his life. “I knew it! Man, I knew it!”
“And no pictures.” Says it with some authority, even.
A serious look comes across the stranger’s face. “I don’t even own a camera.”
Labels are like units. Half the Exam was units. Ridiculous conversions. Pounds per cubic foot to Newtons per cubic centimeter, frivolous stuff like that. Time-consuming calculations. Units.
“Thank you,” he says, falling back into a relaxed pose, knees crossed, hands folded. He wishes he had a pair of sunglasses.
“How come you’re here, anyhow?”
“I’d’a figured you for a limo man, myself.”
“Oh. Yes well, actually…”
The stranger leans in close.
“I’m researching a role.”
The stranger snaps back, looks around again. Then he steps across the aisle and sits, leaving one seat between them, eyes white and wide.
“What kind of role?”
“A hobo. You know. Or more like a drifter. Bus station type. No offense.”
“His friend lives here. Girlfriend. My character’s girlfriend. Actually,” and he hasn’t had this much fun in years, “actually it’s not his girlfriend. It’s this girl he left, or that left him, a long time ago, which led to his – ”
“She lives in Minneapolis?”
“She’s…a student. Yes.”
“This a comedy?”
“Oh, sure. I mean – yes and no. I don’t like labels. Hate labels.”
He feels a little bad for the stranger. Poor guy is so enthralled with the scuttlebutt, you know his own life is anything but interesting.
“Hey though, can I ask you something?”
The stranger leans in again. “I always wondered, you know, with the movies…”
“Because you bank, right?”
“You mean, at an actual…?”
“You aint living in the poor house, exactly.”
“Oh well, yes we – I do all right.”
“So all this cash, right?”
By now he’s downright excited for the question, what’s this stranger going to ask? Something sordid, maybe, Hollywood decadence, girls and alcohol, the depravity. You’ve got one question for a celebrity: quick, what do you ask?
“But like pro athletes, man, they got salaries, they got contracts.”
“But actors, they do a bunch of different movies, some actors do a lot and some don’t.”
“And so you get paid every time, every movie…”
The suspense is killing him, get to the point already! He’s a little jittery, truth be told, let’s just hope this guy doesn’t get creepy here…
“Well what I always wondered was…”
“Well what I always wondered was, do they pay you all at once, or do they give you like paychecks every Friday? Like any other job?”
“Hey, but you don’t have to say if you don’t want.”
“No I – well they, most of the time, at least, they – you get – I like to, at least, I like to have them…split it up, sort of…”
The stranger looks satisfied, relieved almost. He draws back, crosses his arms. “Smart,” tapping his skull, “I knew you was smart. See if it was me, and they give me all that bank right away, I’d blow it. I would.”
“You think so?”
“Cars. I got a weakness for cars. You were probably thinking women, right?”
“Booze, cards, that whole scene?”
“Not at all.”
“Normal vices. Everyone’s got a vice. Me, I like my cars. Old school. I’d blow through them checks like nothin’.”
“I can see how…”
“Splitting them up. Smart.”
He waits for the stranger to follow up, ask another question maybe, but no, the man is quiet for a long while. So that’s that, then.
He limps off to the bathroom. Checks the time: not much longer now.
He keeps coming back to the Exam. All those hours of study, days and weeks and you lose track. The formulas you forgot you knew, theorems, proofs, integrate and evaluate between a and b…Heck when you think about it you spend four plus years preparing for the Exam, courses, assignments, other exams that at the time seemed terribly significant… You put in all that effort and the Exam comes and you spend half your time on units, fractional conversions, middle school stuff. Feel your way through a problem, trial and error, you search for the proper equation, the correct series of derivatives, maybe even figure the thing out and you get to the end and they want the answer in some esoteric unit. A slap in the face. You fry your brain pretty quick going through those elementary mechanics – shut off the mind, get out the calculator and punch in numbers. Hope you don’t make a clerical error, either, best pay attention to that handwriting kiddo.
Back at his seat the stranger gives a nod. “You got a bum leg there?”
“Oh, well, my character, he’s an amputee.”
“Oh yeah! Yeah, what’s that called again?”
“Method, is that it?”
“Oh, yes. Method. Yes.”
“Looks good too. Real.”
“You’re good, man, serious. I seen a lot of movies, but you got a special talent. Serious.”
Five minutes til departure now. It’s been fun. Plus the stranger looks happy, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt. Victimless crime (not a crime, but). Win-win. It’s been fun.
They’re quiet for a while, the two of them, nothing to do but check the time, yawn, rummage in pockets for nothing in particular. He can hear the clocks, dozens of clocks microseconds out of sync. And once you’ve got a ticking clock in your head, boy, it’s not going away any time soon.
He has an idea. Gives him chills actually, this idea. He knows he probably shouldn’t, poor guy’s put up with enough already, plus how much longer can he maintain this front, really. On the other hand he hasn’t had this much fun in years.
He eases into it: “Well I’m on the next one…”
“Let’s see,” the stranger checks a gaudy wristwatch, “another hour.”
“Home sweet home. Joliet, Illinois. And you?”
“I – well if you don’t mind I’d rather not – ”
The stranger puts up a hand. “Say no more, say no more.”
He lets that simmer for a minute or two, then: “Hey,” full-on smiling now, “would you like an autograph?”
The stranger raises his eyebrows. “Hey man, but I don’t want to disturb you…”
“It’s nothing. Really.”
“You sign enough autographs as it is, I bet.”
“Come on. My pleasure.”
The stranger rubs his nose. “Well hey if you don’t mind…” The stranger digs in the pockets of his overcoat, finds a little scrap of paper. Drycleaning ticket. “Guess this’ll have to do, all right?”
He still has the pencil-nub loaned from the ticket clerk. “All right.”
The stranger intervenes quick: “If it aint too much to ask, can you make it out to Annie?”
“Annie.” Not sure why, but the introduction of a name sort of puts a damper on things.
“My youngest. Big fan.”
He tries to imagine Annie. He can’t picture this man as a father, much less father to a young girl. Seems like the type of man who has plenty of women but no wife, or maybe an ex from a passionate, instinctive youth, but no family. Certainly no young kids, given his apparent age.
He raises the pencil-nub. It feels weightless in his hand. And when’s the last time he handled a pencil without an eraser? Somehow he’s nervous. The pencil hovers there for a moment. And just as he’s about to lower graphite to paper he realizes he has no idea whose name he’s supposed to write.