Fiction: Exact Fare Please (The Hours)

The light turns grey around the blinds, grey like dirty water, and I hear the church bells toll. The bells ring Bringing in the Sheaves. “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the master.” The hell. It makes me feel scareder even than I felt all night. Scared sick.

When bells ring out the time, the time passes strangely. The space between tolls seems impossible, like it’s hanging, waiting for something. For me. So I count the bells, and I say to myself, if he rolls over or snores or opens his damn dark eyes, if he makes any movement at all before the last bell chimes, then I will wait and see what happens. But if he is still and quiet as a dumb stone, then I will leave his sorry skinny ass forever. And lying there beside him, not knowing when the bell would stop tolling, with its strange, slow impossible pace—I knew what I was waiting and wishing for. So I have to leave. And of course he lies silent like the tomb, barely breathing.

The bells toll five times. I wait for another but it never comes. I move his arm off me. And for a minute I miss him before I leave him. His damn wiry arm, soft and hard at the same time, with that smell of his that’s sharp but sweet. I miss him already as I shift his goddamn arm and move out from under it. I don’t have much but I put it all in a bag. I take five dollars from his wallet. He owes me that. I can’t leave him without it cause I have nothing of my own. He stirs when I touch his wallet, and I freeze with fear prickling all down my skin, but he doesn’t wake up, he doesn’t move again.

My shoes are aligned and facing the door, when I find them, so I know I’m doing the right thing. At the first turning of the stair I wait, I think I hear his voice. But it’s a yell from outside the window. The window is open part way, and it only lets in a pale dusty breeze, but it smells like grease and coffee and yesterday’s rain rising out of the street. It smells new and good, like waking up.

In the pearled mourning midnight light he runs his clever fingers on my rib bones, my sharp hip bones, my collar bones. Dove bones he calls them, dove bones. His voice is husky, his face is flushed, like a fevered child. He says I’m killing him, I kill him. And in my dreams I do.

It’s cold this early. So cold my scars turn blue. When I hit the street I wait for a sign to tell me which way to go. There’s always something if you look hard enough. The people on the street at this hour are in a daze, and you don’t trust them if they aren’t. They look dodgy if they know where they’re going—only the men in slick suits giving me shitty questioning looks are canny at this hour. Everyone else is lost and weaving: some had been up all night. Some were stumbling to an early job of work. Some were just stumbling, all the time.

There’s a crumpled beer can on the street, the kind my boyfriend drinks. It’s sliced open, sharp and raw. I think about picking it up. I think if I don’t pick it up something bad will happen. Then I think if I do, something worse will. I shake my head, to clear my thoughts. But the pain in my face and my head is blinding. When I open my eyes I see the birds.

The pigeons are alright. They know a thing or two, but they never just come out and tell you. You have to watch them. So I do. I stand for a while and watch the pigeons—purple grey and gold, strutting and cooing. The smell of grease and pancakes from somewhere is killing me, but I focus on the pigeons, on their dark surprised eyes rimmed in white. Oh yeah, sure enough. They show me the way. They take off in a flustering of wings to the south, down the street running to the south. So that’s the way I go. Down.

Woozy with beer, sun, the spiking hot light in his car, I tell him my dad told me I was a fucking waste of space and I’d be dead before I hit 25. He says me too, girl, me too. And he laughs. His ragged laugh. We both laugh at the shittiness of it all. We can’t catch our breath for laughing. We laugh at the same weird shit, and he only laughs with me. He told me he only laughs with me. I try to think of him sharing a strange joke with anyone else on the planet. On the whole round earth. No. No no no.

Of course the pigeons are right, like I knew they would be. The street is dark and light in patches—like dawn and dusk at the same time, but mostly cause of the scaffolding on and off along its crumbling length, holding it together like sutures on an open wound. Finally I come out on the corner in bright real sunlight, real morning sunlight, and that’s how I know I’d come the right way. When the sunspots clear from my eyes I see the bus stop. Yeah.

I pull up to the bus stop as the bus is pulling away. I know they see me coming. They always see me coming, and they always pull away in a cloud of evil black smoke. I wonder if the birds have steered me wrong, and I sit for a minute in the shade of the shelter and read the billboard ads.

A phone company wants to reward and connect me. A toothpaste company wants me to show my happy face. Big wide-open teeth-baring grin, and someone has drawn a cock in her mouth with a sharpie. The hell. Makes me sad to see her smiling like that and not knowing about the cock in her mouth. The hair on the balls is just little X-es. Lazy. Makes me more angry than it should. So lazy. So crudely drawn.

There’s a flyer on the bus stop wall with tags to tear off that just says TRUST IN GOD BUT TAKE SOME CARE YOURSELF. Every tag has just a phone number, and who do you reach with that?

I’m checking the schedule for the next bus, thinking if I add the numbers I can figure something out, it might tell me something. But someone has broken through the plexiglass and scribbled all over the paper. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING? And when do you expect to arrive at your chosen destination?” The rest of the paper is torn, but it doesn’t matter cause the bus never comes when it’s supposed to anyway. And my lucky numbers have been anything but lucky, lately.

I’m about to take off my coat when a guy comes into the shelter with a look I recognize. A guy who has a message for everyone he meets. I pull my hood over my head and I slump.

But they love that. They’re drawn to it. He comes too close and exhales right in my face, with mothball martini breath. Predictably, he wants to tell me about the end of the world.

“Open your eyes!” he breathes on me. “The world is going to end!” He’s not wrong. As an afterthought, despite the impending doom, he says, “You should smile more, you’d be prettier if you smiled.”

I feel my face grow hot, hotter. Throbbing with pain. “Are you blind?” I ask him.


He moves his face even closer and squints at me, ragged breath and rasping curiosity. He says, “Oh. My god.” When he reaches out to touch my face, that’s when I stand to leave, but the pigeons all fly up in a flurry, in a celebration, when the big yellow bus lights up that early morning street.

I pull myself onto the bus, the crumpled five dollars burning in my hand. The driver shakes his old head and says, “Sorry, miss, exact fare, please. It says so right there on the bus. I’m sorry. And you in that state.” And I say, “I read that sign, but I didn’t think it was talking to me.” And he says, “Sorry, miss, it means everybody. The signs are for everybody.” I say, “Can’t I go somewhere that costs exactly five dollars?” And he laughs and says, “Nowhere on this route costs five dollars. You go and find some change, miss, and you catch the next one.”

So I climb down. It feels as though from a great height. The bus feels like flying away and my feet are heavy, walking down those steps. I don’t wait for the pigeons this time cause they were damn wrong last time, damn birds. Wasting my time. I just walk. I walk till I come to a shop that sells newspapers and candy. It’s cool and dark inside and it smells like mint and bubblegum, newspaper ink and cigarettes.

The man sits in a frayed folding chair in the corner. He’s about one hundred years old. Short-sleeve button-down shirt. Big hands, which he flutters around his face, and glasses about an inch thick. He peeps up at me, he looks like some old mole, looking up out of a hole made of magazines and soda bottles.

He looks hard at my face, and his eyes are all watery and sad behind his thick yellow lenses. “Oh dear, girl.” He says in a weird low voice, strangely deep for such an old guy. “Oh dear. What do you need, child?”

Just some goddamn exact change. I can feel that I might fall apart all over the place if he talks to me in that way again. I buy a bottle of ginger ale and a roll of peppermints and I’m gone. He yells after me, “Have a nice day!” And it makes me want to cry, because I think he means it, and I don’t see how I can have a nice day, starting from where it did.

Everything is heating up all around me; you can smell the rain steaming out of the damp dirty streets. I’m suddenly thirsty as hell, and I drink the ginger ale so fast it burns my throat and fills me with bubbles. I could float away. If only. I eat a peppermint after that, and that’s a bad idea.

 I’m nervous as hell so I offer him a peppermint and he says that’s very cheeky, and while my brain scrambles to figure out how, how is that cheeky? he kisses me just like that, tasting like peppermint and feeling more right than anything had ever felt in my life. More ripe. I think about his thin hard body, so strange and new and I know I can touch it anywhere but I’m scared. He’s not scared. His hands are searching, testing, seeing how far I’ll let him go. Anywhere. He can go anywhere. I am wide open.

I think about his hands and then I grow very cold and turn and walk the other direction. I look at my hands and see the crumpled dollars there. Three damn dollars. Well, shit, I hadn’t even gotten the change for my exact fare. I hadn’t even done that.

All of a sudden I have to pee like a motherfucker. Damn ginger ale. Things go right through me like that. Everything does. And then I smell those pancakes again, and I figure that was the sign that I’d missed. I was supposed to stop for pancakes to get change. So I go back and see if I can get back on the right path, if I can get myself going in the right direction again.

It’s a coffee shop, all funereal pleather and stale sickly shining lights. Of course I don’t have money for pancakes now, cause of the damn peppermints, so I get a donut. I sit at the counter and get a donut and a waxy glass of water that tastes like soap. I sit down next to a girl, a young girl, younger than me, even. She’s a mess: fancy dress: torn. Heavy makeup: smeared and running. She has soft dark hair, soft plump arms, soft pale skin, and wings on her shoulders. The hell. She’s wearing a pair of wings that fasten under her armpits. Probably they were pure white and perfect once. (They have silvery glitter on them like the birthday card my grandma sent one year. It had a cat with a lasso catching a bluebird. It said “Be mine” The cat was fuzzy and the bird was coated in crusty glitter. I carried that card everywhere, till it was worn smooth and falling apart.) But now the feathers are limp, tattered, grey, like some old taxidermied bird. The grime of the city and the weight of the world on her shoulders.

And she’s frowning into a bowl of cereal.

“What did those cheerios ever do to you?” I ask her. “You look as though you could murder them.”

She turns to me with a scowl, but when she sees my face she laughs, with a hard raucous laugh. “Speaking of murder, girl!” She yells. “Somebody did for you, girl! They got you good! They got you bad. Aw, right in the pretty eye. That is not fair. That is just exactly not fair. Poor kid.”

I say “Yeah yeah yeah,” but she just keeps staring and laughing like a little kid. I don’t want my donut much anymore, and I remember about having to take a piss. I follow the signs to the ladies room. The room is yellow, like my bus, but it has a weird underwater light. It smells like bleach and pink soap and shit. I choose the booth on the right, cause three is a lucky number, but there’s no toilet paper, so I have to go in the middle one.

Then I look in the mirror cause I can’t not any longer. The mirror is bright and beveled and a little fancy and the slanting light hurts my eye. My eye is purple and grey and gold like a pigeon, and maybe that’s why they steered me wrong, damn birds. I touch it and it hurts. Why is that? When you see a bruise you have to touch it, even though you know it’s going to hurt, of course it is. Why is that? Or maybe it’s just me.

Hissing and scratching, yowling mad and always always hungry. The cat greets him like a brother. Scrawny and ornery. At our window every night. He lets it in and I have never seen him so gentle. He cleans it, names it, feeds it. He’s calm, for once, sitting and stroking the scarred matted fur. One night it bites his never-so-gentle hand. It’s gone, out the window, never to return. Hissing and howling mad he streams curses and tears. I back flinching away, but he wraps his arms around me, hugs me, weeping into my neck, hand bleeding all over me, hugs me so hard I can’t move or breathe.

Back at the counter and the girl’s eaten my donut, but I don’t care. She has crumbs on her face, and she’s very serious now. She looks at me with her dark eyes, her dark messy eyes.

She says, “What happened last time you left?”

“I found…” How did she know, how did she know? “Nothing. Nothing happened. I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

“What are you gonna do this time?”

I don’t know. I’m hoping she will tell me. I’m waiting for her to tell me. She sighs and shrugs her winged shoulders. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know. I pay for my donut, and the waitress gives me my change. My exact fare. I look at the coins in my hand. Somebody puts a song on the jukebox and I think, this will tell me, whatever this song says, that’s what I’ll do. But it doesn’t really have any words, just a guy saying “hey,” and I don’t know what that means.

Out onto the bright hot street with my exact fare hard in my hand, cutting into my hand. I walk back to the bus stop and I stand and wait. The bus comes, bright and yellow barreling down my street. In the window on the door I see a bright red car, my boyfriend’s bright red car. The door to the bus opens with a tired hissing whine, and I see my face in the reflection. My boyfriend yells, “Hey,” and opens his door, too. The birds all fly away like fireworks and the church bell chimes.

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