My brother and I drank and dined on this story for ten years after it happened. It was performed – yes, performed – for family, for friends, for barflies, for complete strangers. We had a routine, first one would speak, then the other; we knew our lines and like a long tennis rally the audience would shift from me to him and back again. It was rarely embellished; there was no need. After several years it was a standard, and in gatherings, usually late at night, usually full from a good meal and properly intoxicated, after everyone else had told their stories and it was finally quiet, someone would, especially if there was a virgin in the group, inevitably look to my brother and me and say, “Tell it. Tell the one about waiting for the bus…”
Denver is a sprawling metropolis. Although the city proper is no larger than it was forty years ago, its surrounding bedroom communities spread up and down the Front Range, making it almost one giant metroplex from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. Downtown Denver is bustling with nightlife after the renovation and gentrification (read: loftification) of its old warehouse district and the addition of Coors Field next to the Platte. It is an action-packed urban center, albeit rather homogenous.
In the 1970’s, however, things were different. After 6:00 pm, downtown Denver died. The bankers and oilmen slipped out of the offices, returned to their suburban homes, and left the center of town empty; a wasteland. Not a soul could be found save the occasional character from a Bukowski poem and the odd, lost visitor looking for something akin to nightlife. The sidewalks rolled up in that cowtown. Buses would rumble through but only so they could get from one side of town to the other in the most direct fashion. Cars were nonexistent, preferring the freeways. On particularly desolate and windy nights one could see tumbleweeds blowing down 16th street. It would have been an ideal location for an end-of-the-world film.
In 1978 I was going to high school in Denver, although technically I shouldn’t have been. We were living in another school district - another county - west of Denver. Fate had dropped a bomb on our family. We were homeless. We had moved in with friends who put us up while our mother worked as a waitress trying to save enough to get us on our feet. I had no desire to add yet another institution to my curriculum vitae (it was the third high school I had attended by my junior year) so we lied to the district and I continued to attend my old school. My brother, Lee, still in junior high, had felt the same.
Our commute was huge. Every morning we would rise at five and get a ride into downtown where we would catch a city bus, transfer to another and then walk eight or so blocks to our respective schools. In the evening, we would catch the two buses back downtown where we would then catch yet another bus for the 45 minute ride back home. It made for long days and, due to the lack of district residency, discrete ones as well.
For anyone who has ever taken the bus on a regular basis, depended upon it for their transportation needs, there is an understanding of the kinds of passengers with whom one shares a seat; the kind of people one meets at a bus stop. For us there was the regular with the tinfoil hat. There was the guy who smelled of last night’s rum and yelled out the bus window every morning at the same elderly jogger, “Keep it up, you ain’t got much time left.” There was the wino who, one morning as we walked to the stop, begged us for last 35 cents he needed to purchase a bottle of Night Train. When we obliged him, he said, “Bless you. I been waitin out here since Jesus died.” There was the homeless guy who, upon spying my brother taking pictures at the bus stop one morning, offered to let Lee photograph him getting into and digging through a dumpster, all for the small fee of one dollar. My brother gave him the buck, but declined the reciprocation. We met all kinds back then.
In the early spring of 78 I was doing a play, rehearsing after classes until five or so in the afternoon. My brother would meet me at my school and wait impatiently for my rehearsals to end before we began our long jaunt home. A couple of times I had run late and we had been forced to wait longer than usual for the bus out of downtown; a bus whose schedule became less frequent after rush hour.
One night in March I was again late getting out of rehearsal. As a result my brother and I got downtown just a little before six. We waited at our usual stop as the sun slipped behind the mountains to the west and the air began to chill. The last of the commuters were fleeing and the streets were seeing less and less traffic. We ignored one another the way teenage brothers do; the staring off into space interrupted only by an occasional comment from one or the other of us. Time dragged on. It grew darker and darker. Eventually no traffic went by on the street in front of us and, more importantly, no buses arrived. After an hour or so we began to bitch and grumble. We were getting cold, hungry, and the bus was most certainly late.
We sat on the bench and began to argue about whether we should, and which of us would, find a payphone, make a call and get someone to pick us up. The sticking point being that the bus could come and strand the unlucky phone hunter. The argument took some time and no resolution came from it, but by that time it was 7:30 and still no bus.
The wind and trash blowing down the street were the only noises we heard until…
From around the corner came the sound of singing; children singing. At first we ignored it. Either we weren’t aware of its oddness or we just didn’t care, but later we both agreed that it was curious that we didn’t investigate immediately. As it got louder and was accompanied by a rattling we finally perked up. I got up from the bench and wandered around the corner to take a look. A block or so away, in the middle of the street, was a shopping cart. Pushing the shopping cart were two children; a boy, maybe ten, and a girl, eight or nine. Within the shopping cart was another boy, perhaps four. As they pushed, the older boy and the girl were singing a version of Happy Birthday, but squeezing in the syllabically unsuitable Valentine’s Day for Birthday. They rolled merrily towards our corner. Were it not for their modern dress they would have been described as Dickensian; grubby, unwashed, urchinlike. One expected Fagin to be leading their parade.
I walked back to the bench and sat down. My brother asked me what was going on and I told him there were three kids and a shopping cart coming our way. He got up to take a look, but ran back to the bench saying they had spotted him and were now running to the corner. The increased rattling confirmed it.
They came around the corner, this ominous trio, a song in their hearts and one of their asses in the cart. They were excited to find we had not run away. The older boy had badly cut hair; chunks missing here and there. The girl wore jeans and a jacket, both filthy. Her hair was long, dark and hung in strings in front of her face. The boy in the cart had on an ill-fitting shirt over a t-shirt and no pants, socks or shoes – just his underwear. He drooled from one corner of his mouth.
“Hi,” said the older boy, pantingly, “Whatcha doin?”
My brother and I looked at one another. “Waiting for the bus,” I said finally.
What’s your names,” asked the girl as she pushed the cart along the curb in front of us.
“Lex,” I answered. My brother ignored the question so I answered for him, “That’s Lee.” There was a long, strange pause. “We’re brothers,” I finally added.
“Can’t he talk?” the girl asked, “Jesse can’t talk." She pointed to the drooler in the cart. "His head got hurt,” she added, apologetically, “He’s our little brother.” She parked the cart with Jesse at the end of the bench we were on. Jesse smiled at us so that spittle oozed out over his lower lip and down his chin. I looked passed him for any hint of a bus.
I don’t remember the older boy’s name. After thirty years it has slipped away so I will call him Carl, but the girl said her name was Mary.
“Don’t you need to get home or something,” my brother suddenly asked.
“No,” said Carl. The wind blew and our unlikely groups sized one another up before Carl asked, “Umm, wanna squash some mustard?”
"Yeah, mustard,” cheered Mary.
Jesse became excited at the prospect.
“What?” I asked.
“Mustard. Wanna squash some?”
Carl pulled from his coat packets and packets of fast food mustard. He gave some to his sister. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll show you.”
He dropped a packet to the pavement and with a technique obviously refined through a great deal of practice, he stomped it. Mustard exploded up and onto the large window of a department store behind us. Gobs of yellow goop dotted the glass. Mary followed suit. Mustard shrapnel splattered the window.
“Wanna try?” asked Carl.
“Uh, no, thanks.”
“Come on, it’s cool,” taunted Mary, punctuating it with another stomp.
Carl dropped three packets and hit them simultaneously. Gobs were hurled to the plate glass and oozed down its face. Jesse could hardly contain himself, bouncing up and down in the cart, as pack after pack exploded onto the window.
Lee and I just looked at one another. It was too bizarre. Where did these kids come from?
Mary dropped more and launched her yellow splats. The plate of glass was becoming pollocked from the frenzy. Carl stepped off the curb and into the street. "Watch this," he said dropping a couple to the pavement. He jumped into the air and both feet came down on the packets. Globs of mustard flew everywhere.
My brother leaped to his feet. "Hey, you little shit, knock it off!" he yelled, "You got mustard all over my pants." Mary and Carl halted, staring at the flecks of yellow that dotted Lee's corduroys. "Lee," I yelled, "They're just kids." "Fuck that," he countered, "I don't want mustard all over my clothes." "It was an accident, Lee," I said, trying to calm him. "Yeah, well they accidentally got mustard on you, too," he said. I looked down and my pant legs were dripping mustard. "Knock that shit off!" I yelled at the kids, "No more!"
Silence. The chided children looked harmed. In desperation to return to the fold of friendship they began their song again: Happy Valentine's Day to You. The girl and older boy danced as they sang, skipping in front of the bus bench. The words were an offering, an apology. They sang it quickly in their frantic desire to make things right and not lose us. In hindsight it was tragic; at the time it was merely annoying. And it became more so...
As they danced in front of us all I could think was: where is the damned bus! I scanned the street as far as I could see, unable to see anything moving. I turned to my brother and he was looking past me for the bus as well. I started to say something to him when I felt a hand grab my head. I knew it was the little boy. As I turned to him he used my head for leverage and pulled himself from the cart. Out of fear of prompting his fall I sat still as he climbed like a primate over my head, his fingers and toes grasping my clothes. His journey continued across my scalp and along the back of the bench. Carl and Mary clapped and laughed. Jesse spun his frame forward and dropped with a thud to the seat, comfortably nestled between my brother and me. I could feel his spittle in my hair.
"He really likes you!" exclaimed Mary.
"He isn't like that with everybody," explained Carl.
Jesse did seem extraordinarily pleased to be cozied betwixt Lee and myself. Carl and Mary returned to their song, much of the desperation replaced with a sense of glee. Jesse pawed at us and made noises.
"Where's the fucking bus? Lee whispered.
"This is getting too weird," I answered.
Jesse bounced on his ass while his sister and brother continued their ditty. The three of them were giddy, laughing. Then, I heard the noise; the distinct sound of water. I looked at my brother and he was hearing it as well. Bang, realization - we both jumped up. Jesse was peeing. Urine was pouring from his soaked underwear and through the bench slats to the sidewalk. "Whoa," was all I could muster as I skittered out of the splash zone. My brother got more out: "Oh this is one fucking great night." Jesse looked as if he would cry.
As Lee and I shook our pantlegs of their accumulated urine and mustard, we grumbled. Carl and Mary grumbled as well. Mary rushed to her little brother and exploded. "You peed your pants! You're bad!" And with that she slapped him. Across the face. Carl yelled at him too, but didn't hit him. Jesses screamed, in shame, in pain.
Lee yelled, "Don't you fucking hit him again."
"But he peed on you!"
"It doesn't matter," I said, "You don't hit him for that."
"You don't tell us what to do," Carl growled. Despite his age and size, in that place, at that moment, after everything that had happened, there was something legitimately menacing in Carl's tone.
"You don't hit him for an accident," I said as I patted Jesse, his crying trailing off some.
"I'm sorry, Jesse," Mary said, but she was looking at me. Carl glared.
"Let's go," Carl said.
"No, I don't want to," Mary replied, and then to us, "We're really sorry. Bout the mustard and Jesse and the pee. Can we wait with you?" She sat down on the bench with Jesse who was recovering.
"Yeah," Lee said, sitting down next to her, "You can."
I stood there. No one said anything for a while. Carl stood by the cart fiddling his hands in his coat pocket. Jesse burbled.
Then Mary asked, quietly, "Where you going?"
"What?" I asked.
"Where you going on the bus?"
"Oh. Home. We're trying to get home," I said as I looked up the street. I thought I saw something coming - way off.
"Is it nice? Your house?" Mary asked.
"It's not really our house," Lee said, "It's a friend's."
"Maybe your bus won't come and you have to stay here," Mary offered.
I squinted up the block and saw it; the bus was coming.
"That's it. Thank God. Lee, the bus," I said, grabbing my backpack.
Lee looked and sighed, "Finally."
"That ain't your bus," Carl said.
"What?" I said looking again. It was our bus. I was certain. "No it's our bus."
"It ain't gonna stop," Carl said quickly.
"You don't have to go," Mary said, getting up. "You can take another."
"No, we're taking this one," Lee laughed.
Mary was struggling to get Jesse picked up and back in the cart.
The bus was stopped, waiting for the light a block away.
Carl said, "It ain't gonna stop for you."
I ignored him, but moved closer to flag it just in case.
"Don't go," Mary said.
Jesse was shaking the cart.
"It ain't gonna stop," repeated Carl.
"Stop saying that," Lee yelled at him. "You're getting on my nerves."
The light changed and the bus started toward us.
"You wait. It ain't stopping for you." Carl was not letting it go.
The bus was getting closer and I held out my arm.
"Please, don't go," pleaded Mary.
"We have to get home. I'm sorry," I said. The bus was slowing and pulling to the curb.
Jesse was climbing back out of the cart. Mary was trying to keep him in as the bus came to a stop.
"Stay!" Mary yelled as she pushed Jesse down into the basket.
"Shut up!" Carl yelled at Mary. He tried to hit her but Mary was pushing the cart toward us as the doors opened. Lee shouted at Carl to leave her alone and would have gone after him if I hadn't dragged him on the bus. Carl bellowed, "Don't tell me what to do!"
Mary pushed the cart to the doors, pleading with us to stay. I told the driver to shut the doors and go. He ignored me and asked Mary if she wanted to get on.
"No," she screamed, "I want them to stay."
"Just go," I said. He had no idea what was going on but took me at my word and began to pull away slowly, watching them in his mirrors. Mary pounded the side of the bus, screaming. We ran down the aisle to the back of the bus, looking out the windows at Mary, and Jesse in his cart. We watched them from the rear window. Carl had stepped into the middle of the street and was glaring at us. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out of it. We squinted to see what he was holding and then it clicked - he had a gun. He lifted it and aimed it at us. Shock and disbelief kept us from ducking. He glowered at us, but he did not fire. We watched all three of them as they faded into the night.
For years Lee and I argued about the gun. Neither one of us held firmly to one position or the other. It could have been a toy; it could have been real. We were never certain. Because of the uncertainty it was the one element we felt comfortable including or deleting depending upon the audience and our whims (you got the deleted, mom - sorry). Funny, that we would wonder about the gun's existence when we never doubted anything else about that night.
During the years we recited the tale Lee and I always let the graveyard humor carry it; the after-the-fact chuckle that comes from a narrow escape. It made the story pleasurable for us. I find now, it feels cowardly. Wrapped up in our own problems we left them to their own devices. We were, of course, not much beyond childhood ourselves, just boys, and so I forgive us our errors, but what of the three of them? 45 minutes was all there was between us and I still see them so clearly, hear her pleas so sharply. I am not haunted, but I am troubled.
Halfway home that night I moved up to a seat nearer the driver. He asked me what that was all about. I told him he wouldn't believe me. I asked him why the bus was so late. He said he didn't know about all the buses on the route running late, but he heard on the radio about one of them. "Bus had to get towed," he said. "Shattered the whole windshield. Coulda killed somebody. Nobody got hurt, but damn. Who would do that? Who would throw a whole big jar of mustard through a windshield?"