I get a glimpse of my future once riding the 104 downtown. An elderly couple bickering. She, curved around the pole leading to the door well in the middle of the bus; he, still planted in his seat, fiddling with the torn and coffee-stained subway map he’s spread out over his knobby knees.
“Irving, we’re almost there. Get yourself together. Get up for God’s sake!” Her voice is piercing in this enclosed space, cutting through most of the outside clamor: the two motorcycles speeding by, the raucous laughter of school kids crowding into the corner bodegas to purchase a reward for having survived another middle school day which they cram inside their open and waiting birdmouths, delivery trucks idling, cabs whizzing past. “Irv!”
“Shirley, hold your horses, you old bat! I’ve found something worth investigating—”
“I’m leaving now,” she announces as she cautiously pushes open the door. “Last chance,” she says from the sidewalk, holding the doors open for him with her cane. “He’s a f—–g idiot,” she mutters to herself, loud enough for us to hear.
The bus driver catches on. “Let go of the door, Lady!” he orders. “I’m going to have to report you.”
The other passengers and I watch to see how this drama will play itself out. Irving slowly rises to his feet, clearly having no intention of rushing though the stream of people boarding the bus, a line that is long but not interminable. We’re all pushing him with our minds and urging him to get off the bus before it whisks him away to some less desirable location, separating him from his Shirley. Has she picked the right place to get off the bus? Are they in home territory? If so, what’s with the maps? Subway maps? I pray they are natives that we can trust to know their way around. Maybe now’s the time to mention they look to be in their late 80’s. Or even older.
She’s bent and wrinkled, with skin a bit like that outer layer that has to be shucked when you purchase corn at a farmer’s market. She’s wearing short shorts, denim, with peace signs clumsily sewn on the tush and a tie-dyed blouse revealing the outline of her aged, sagging breasts.
The new passengers have boarded the bus; the bus driver is wiping his face and neck with a dirty rag he’s brought along for that exact purpose. He’s giving the guy, Irv, a chance to get up and go about his way, no doubt praying to avoid a scene, and the necessity of filing yet another report. I bet he’s blaming his troubles on the weather which is hovering about 80 degrees today and has been all week. It’s not even summer yet, not August, and he’s got to be pissed the humid weather is starting so early this year. People know the subways are sizzling hot and a poor option so many more than usual are opting for the bus. This might be his last trip of the day; he may be counting on being on the FDR headed home by 4 p.m. He glances in his rearview mirror and catches Irv’s eyes. “C’mon, buddy!” he mouths.
The tension escalates in the bus. The bus driver reaches for his phone. He closes the front door to prevent anyone new from entering. “Wait a minute now,” we hear him say at the same moment Irv finally gets to his feet and approaches the front of the bus. “Can you tell me, sir, if the bus goes all the way—”
The bus driver cuts him off, gesturing at the door, Shirley, clearly visible on the other side. Irv sighs. He turns to the passengers, takes an elaborate bow and says, “Don’t ever get married,” as he gives up the fight and slowly exits the bus. I jump up and follow.
“Irv, are you all right?” Shirley asks. You look a little ashen.” She digs around in her overlarge purse for a thermos of water, open it and pours it into his mouth— well, more like all over his Yankees teeshirt.
“Enough, you old bat!” He storms off down Broadway. He’s much taller than I imagined and way too thin, scarecrow-like, looking like he’s on his last legs literally.
“So where are you taking us, Irv? Surely not on the subway?” She reaches over and manages to mop his brow with a bit of newspaper before he pulls away, shaking himself like a dog.
“You’ll see. Another adventure. Think we can make it onto that 104 coming up behind us?” He wags a finger at her, “No bellyaching, mind you!”
Shirley rolls her eyes at me. Does she recognize me? I station myself near the newspaper kiosk on Broadway and pretend to read the Gotham Writers newsletter. I tuck my journal into my backpack and try to look nonchalant. But I fear she’s onto me.
“I have a right to know where you’re taking me, don’t I? Maybe I don’t care to tag along. Every think of that? Maybe I have better things to do on this sub-Saharan day.” Shirley is becoming quite shrill.
Irv halts his progress, approaches her carefully on the side that’s not holding the cane and speaks into her left ear. “Shirley, love, we’re going to The Port of Many Foibles.” What a goofy grin on his face; “Remember?”
“Oh, lord. Not that again” she says, but I can see she is not displeased. “We haven’t been down there in . . . forever.” He shakes his head up and down, eager to continue on the caper.
“Young man,” Shirley calls out to me. I’ve been made! “I need your assistance, young man,” she continues. A few others on the street glance our way, making it awkward for me to ignore her or pretend I don’t hear her.
At 50 I’m not in the “young man” category any longer, but it feels good to be referred to that way. I walk over to the couple. She wrenches the subway maps out of Irv’s hands and deposits them in the trash can on the corner. Irv howls, but one look from her quiets him. “Listen.” She leans towards me and whispers the destination.
I can’t imagine how these two are going to make their way all the way down to the Battery in this heat and can’t stop myself from inquiring, “Why down there?”
Shirley and Irving gaze at each other lovingly. “The start of our amazing love story. The ferry!” she says, grabbing hold of my shirt and pulling me closer. “My girlfriend, Mabel, you see . . .”
An amazing story, truly, not unlike most told by those in keeper marriages. The price of the story? I put them both in a taxi, and walk the rest of the way home, as puzzled as always. What makes couples put up with each other for decades and decades?
“Did you remember to buy me coriander like I asked?” my wife, Suzy, yells from our galley kitchen as I enter. She peeks her head out, “No? Well you go right back out, Mister, and see if Abdul has some on his shelves. A crucial ingredient for this recipe which, by the way, you’re going to love.”
“I love everything you make,” I say, wriggling out of my backpack and letting it drop to the floor. “But first let me tell you about this couple—”
“After you get the spice.” Suzy blows me a kiss, and points to the door. She’s got flour all over her face, her curls are corkscrewing in every direction, and her hourglass figure’s harder to discern tonight. But she’s mine, she cleans up fine, still as radiant as the day I met her. On the 104 heading downtown.
“Wait till you hear! Right under our noses here in Manhattan!”
The only response, “If you know what’s good for you. . .”
“I’m leaving right now,” I respond as I make good my exit. Alone in the elevator, I’m jabbering out loud. “We’ll head out tomorrow. See the Port of Many Foibles in all its glory. Then—what? Perhaps recreate our own special moment by riding the 104 up and back, lost in each other’s presence.”
Down in the lobby, I sneak a peek at Irv’s maps stuffed in my pocket, retrieved when Shirley wasn’t looking. “All set for tomorrow.”
Turning right on the busy street, I wonder how many bodegas I’ll have to visit. Cardamon, was it? No. Cumin? Chutney?, Surely not cinnamon?
Who’s the old bat now? I call Suzy from Abdul’s. She rakes me over the coals, but oh so lovingly. “I’ll be home in five,” I assure her. And as I exit with my purchase, I can’t help calling out to Abdul, “Happy wife; happy life.”
“Forty years,” he says proudly, pointing to the ring on his finger. “We never fight.”
Is that a wink I see?
Janet Garber received an MA in English from the University of Rochester. Her work has appeared in a score of literary journals such as Forge Literary Magazine and Tigershark and her story, O’Brave New World appeared in the February 2014 issue of RavensPerch. She welcomes visitors to www.janetgarber.com.