In which our hero encounters the giant of emptiness.
He took the bus home from work. It was well past rush hour and only a handful of tired people were scattered throughout the bus, their heads pointed down into the glow of cellphones.
At the third stop a tall, old man got on, craning his head to keep it from bumping against the ceiling. He was wearing a cream colored shirt with a brown vest and brown pinstriped pants. The clothes looked old and faded and they were too wide for his frame. The old man was slim and ethereal looking and the clothes seemed more to be wearing him rather than the other way around. As he walked down the center aisle he held on to the little handles dangling from ceiling as though he were climbing through a jungle gym.
The old man chose the seat next to him. Even sitting down he was a little too tall for the bus, but rather than bending his head he just allowed the crown of his head to press against the metal ceiling. In his periphery he could only make out the old man’s hands, which rested firmly on his knees. They were veiny and liver spotted with a delicate thinness that drooped slightly off the framework of his bones. There is a slight shake to the man’s right hand that seemed involuntary, but otherwise he sat very still with his whole posture pointed forward and his attention on some fixed point beyond the windshield.
At some point during the ride the man pulled out a soft candy and very delicately unwrapped it. In the old man’s huge fingers the candy seemed like a pebble and he was surprised at the delicacy and deftness with which the man could pull open the plastic. The old man placed the candy in his mouth and very slowly began to suck on it, pushing it back and forth with his tongue knocking it against his teeth and the insides of his cheeks. There was something animalistic about this sucking sound, something that reminded him of how cows or horses eat.
After a while of furtively staring at the man’s face he began to realize that the old man seemed completely unaware of him. There was something in the man’s gaze that seemed to pull all significance and substance out of the world. Looking in the old man’s profile—the vacant eye lodged deeply into its socket; the deep, dry grooves crossing the firm brow and loose jowl; the undulations of the cheek as the soft spherical candy crossed back and forth into it’s pocket—he felt himself hollow out. For a long, lingering second everything—his work, his phone, the dull ache in his back and shoulders, the slight dizziness in his eyes from staring at a computer all day, Anise, Lily, his mother, his thoughts, his sense of time, the bus, the passengers, the yellow handles dangling from the ceiling—transformed into a hum that passed through his ears like a taut, diaphanous string suspended above a dark emptiness.
Suddenly, the bus came to a sharp stop and pushed him out of this hypnotic state. The old man very slowly got up and moved into the isle, turning to exit through the back door. Before he moved out of the aisle, though, the old man turned only his head to stare at him for a moment. The old man looked at him with an empty gaze emanating from his cocked head and the two stared at each other with the perplexity of deer. After a moment the old man very delicately opened his mouth and spit the thin remainder of his candy on the floor beside his foot.
“It’s incredibly rude to stare.”
Then, grabbing onto the yellow handles with both hands, the old man slowly made his way to the exit.
Image Source: Urbane Legend via Wikimedia Commons