Victor was the first. Before Victor I'd guess where the other passengers lived and worked and let it go at that. But I couldn't figure Victor. He got on a Dupont Circle, with a briefcase, like a lot of middle aged men. He dressed like a lot of middleaged men. He dressed like a foundation type, like an analyst at Brookings or the Institute for Policy Studies, a heedless Ivy League look.
But his nose, Anglican and beaky, had been broken very badly once, and that seemed wrong. And Victor didn't have the glazed-over brashness of the foundation types. He looked wily, way beyond cynicism or even resignation. At the same time he had a WASP boyishness. Combined with the wiliness, it made him seem corrupt.Or was it a trace of the swashbuckler? He held his lips neutral and tight over teeth which, I suspected, were the sort of bad teeth educated Americans get from living poor overseas for too long.
For art? Was Victor failed sculptor? A poet? No. It had been something more rational, or philosophic, or yes, political. At this point in my conjuring, images started flying through my mind - a tooth still hollow where the cyanide had been hidden, the tubercular prisons of the Balkans, parachute drops, partisans, some vast political neurosis . . . Clearly, the context of Victor (why did I call him Victor?) sitting down in his favorite seat, just behind the rear door, was not enough. I had to create a time, a place . . . Victor
The Greek watched him come in. The latch was broken and Victor had to lift the door across the sill, and the Greek watched that and didn't say anything. Behind the door, the fog was curling down the street, pressing up against the gilt letters on the window that said "Visas" in French, Russian, Arabic, and Greek. The Greek watched that too, like he'd been watching it all 'night. Victor wondered if he'd been there as long as it had taken for the gilt paint to flake down to skeletons of letters.
Victor kicked the door shut and pulled the papers out of his trenchcoat: carte d'identite, passaporto, railway permissions, all dog-eared and creased and rubber-stamped. He could almost hear the fog behind him bedding down on the wet cobblestones, hiding all the freighters that had been waiting for weeks to sail. Even the waterside cafes were closed. The sailors were broke, everyone was broke, waiting and watching.
"This is a terrible winter," the Greek said.
Victor laid the papers on the counter, next to the Greek's hands. The hands had fat hairless fingers with the nails cut long and lacquered. They looked like he just might have them for sale. Victor agreed about the winter, but he didn't say so.
"I'm sailing in the morning," Victor said.
"That is news to me," the Greek said.
"Fine," Victor said. "I need a visa stamp."
"You are a spy?" the Greek asked, with a little Levantine smile, just a way of pursing the lips. "Only the spies here think a ship will sail, or mail is coming, or mail will go, or the telephone will work again, or the government will change its mind."
"I'm not a spy," Victor said.
"Of course you are not," the Greek said. He lifted his right hand as if he were considering buying it himself, now. He reached under the counter. "You are a machine tool salesman," the Greek said. "You are a tourist. You are a journalist." He lifted a grease-stained little paper package onto the counter. He opened a pocket knife, very old, with the blade honed down to new moon. He sliced the string at the knot. "Baklava," he said. He stared steadily over Victor's shoulder, beyond the door and into the fog. "I will share it with you."
Victor knew, then, that he didn't want to turn around. But then, why shoundn't he? His papers were in order, were beyond suspicion, and no doubt they'd already searched the bag Victor had left at the hotel, and found nothing.
"Have they talked to you?" Victor asked.
"They are talking to me right now," said the Greek, shrugging.
Victor looked over his shoulder, then, and saw a match flare inside the old Citroen - a thick moustache, a fedora, then the red cigarette end pulsing. They'd been following him ever since he stopped at the cable office, once he stopped at the cable office, two of them, in moustaches and fedoras. Now they were parked under the dirty halo of a streetlight. They'd left their lights on. They wanted to show themselves.
"They must be bored," Victor said.He could hear his won voice. Lately, the only way he could tell he was getting frightened was when he started hearing his own voice like that.
"Oh, no," said the Greek. "It's just that I am the only interesting man left in the port. I tell them I don't care who wins, so naturally they don't believe me. I tell them I don't know why I have not been fired, so they think I am powerful. When there is nothing for the police to do, they think people are keeping secrets from them. When the trouble comes, when the messages come through for new arrests, they think they are only ones who know anything. They are always wrong."
VIctor watched the Greek slice the honeyed pastry into diamonds. It was so quiet he could hear the knife against the paper.
"What would we do without them?" Victor asked.
The Greek tucked his head back on his neck and let a smile tighten his eyes.
"Yes, very good," the Greek said. "You understand that. Now they will never leave you alone. If they come to believe you have nothing to tell them, they may even torture you. Baklava?" Helen
Helen sits as close to the driver as she can, usually in the seat reserved for the handicapped and elderly. I know all about her.
Helen is a lethargic, finicky girl who always picks all the onion off her hamburger, every little fleck, if she gets one with onion by accident.
She is a puzzled blonde who appears to have a temperature of about 87 degress.
But when she misses the points of jokes or stories, Helen doesn't bother people and ask them to explain.
She is terrible at remembering names.
Helen says things like: "Can I get as aspiring from you? I usually carry them in my purse but I must've just run out."
She also has a way of not finishing sentences.
Helen is actually very intelligent.
She is waiting for "things to settle down." Little Old Lady
It's a great evening for the bus. It's June, and twilight, and we got a guy who looks like H. R. Haldeman, though with a hangover and bad feet; and Bruno, I see him a lot, with the eyes so deep and dark they look like bruises (lobotomy leaves no memory trace, eh Bruno?); a bus driver who talks to himself; and a little old lady, about four-and-a-half feet high,who, when the bus pulled up, had spurned the chivalry of Bruno and me and Haldeman to move to the back of the line. Why?
The rest of us pay. The little old lady stands in the doorwell juggling shopping bag and umbrella in gloved hands until the driver pulls away from the curb.
Then she asks: "Does this bus stop at Florida and 18th?" She asks it loud enough that we can all hear. She is so tiny, teetering on the quilted metal floor in high heels. She wears a cloth hat with beads and netting. Is she sick? Her lips make an O that gets bigger and smaller, panting.
THe driver, gives a huge, epic shake of his head as he leans into the wheel.
"This is the N2," he says.
"I was told that the N2 goes up 18th Street," says the Little Old Lady.
"Mass," the driver says. "Stright out Massachusetts Avenue."
"Then it doesn't go to . . ."
"Lady, how could it go . . ."
"I was told . . ."
" . . .the N2 . . ."
" . . .some mistake . . ."
All this is good for about ten blocks.
If buses were democracies, we'd all vote not only to head for Florida and 18th, but to give the old lady the driver's pension. But all she gets is ten blocks. It's hard to be confused for much more. Feisty, hurt, a classic martyr to bewilderment, she demands to be let off.
The driver pulls over. He opens the doors.
"I'd like a transfer, please," says the little old lady.
The driver has class. He doesn't even look at her. He just says: "Hey."
The little old lady gets off, stretching down those big steps, tiny calves tugging at the hem of her dress. We pull away. When last seen, the little old lady is walking along not 18th Street, but on Massachusetts Avenue. I wonder where she's going. I keep wondering where she would have gone if she'd gotten the transfer. Roger
It's raining out, and dark. The bus stops across from a bar named the Greenery. A guy runs out from the awning. He runs like men who don't like ot be seen running for buses, sort of a vaulting goosestep.
He hoards. He's about 45 and trim, but panting. I fugure he's a lawyer, a partner some place old, rich and tough: Brooks button-down shirt, Patek Philippe watch. He looks sheepish and jabs around in his pockets for coins, which he counts slowly, like he's not used to it, before he drops them in the slot.
For all his body-language snobbery about riding the bus, I decide he's a nice guy: sturdy but not hulking; boyish but not cruel, like the boyish WASP types tend to be. His name, I decide for mental accounting purposes, is Roger.
Who was Roger drinking with at the Greenery? It's not his kind of place. No bar is Roger's kind of place, unless it's at a private club, or maybe, out of town 800 feet in the air, and rotates. The Greenery is more like Roger's secretary's kind of place, distilled hedonism among the ferns - the kind of place he might have taken her for a drink, just now.
Roger and his secretary! Copping nooners in a pied-a-terre he shares with an old fraternity brother! I can do a movie about it in my head, set in one of those six-month-lease apartment houses, full of low-grade diplomats, off Thomas Circle. But as I watch him sit down in a seat nearthe front, I realize it couldn't be true. (Roger sits down in this gingerly way he does everything, very preppy, as if his whole body were pigeon-toed.) I study his face, which is beefy but articulate, with blue eyes faded to near transparency from, say, years of smallboat racing off Martha's Vineyard. You'd trust him with anything. Then I imagine his wife: earnest and sunburned, fond of comfortable shoes and attacking friends who either spoil or mistreat their pets.
Besides, there's something about Roger and women that's wrong. I don't know why I think so, and I'm sure it's nothing kinky or even neurotic, but there's something wrong with Roger-as-lover, the kind of thing that women might never tell him about.
Our bus hisses into traffic. Roger glances back at the Greenery. He half-smiles. Then he checks out two women sitting across from him. I see glint of totally wrongheaded smugness on his face. It's as if - and here my imagination starts to heave the facts at me - a woman told him once . . . a college girl, a Hollins girl, I think, at a fraternity dance at the University of Pennsylvania . . . this Hollins girl told Roger that he had "animal magnetism."
I can picture it all, the punch and the clam dip, the union musicians in tuxedos slapping out "Mountain Greenery" . . . and this Hollins girl decided to try her "animal magnetism" line on Roger.
"What do you mean?" Roger asked. Good old Roger.
"It's just that some men have it and some men don't," the girl said.
Nothing came of it, even though Roger immediately phased into the courtship behavior of males of his class, which is to say he got drunk. But by the time he got his courage up, the girl was gone to some other party.
Roger never forgot her, or the fact that he had "animal magnetism." Later, in the Navy, one night on watch in a destroyer off Korea, Roger decided to list all women he'd ever had. When the list topped out at three, he added, with no qualms, the Hollins girl.
Now, on a bus headed for the suburbs on a rainy night, I suspect Roger is convinced that the two women sitting across from him have been giving him "the old onceover," as he'd put it. After twenty-five years of being animally magnetic, Roger, on a good night, begins to fell like a human bomb of sexuality.
This is a good night. The reason, I figure, is that he had not one but two drinks with his secretary at the Greenery.I think about the secretary. Her name, I decide, is Alice, and ROger takes Alice out for a drink at least once a month. He fels excited and guilty about it, and he does not tell his wife. If fact, Roger thinks, it wouldn't have started if it weren't have started if it weren't for the way his wife acted the night he told her he'd hired a new secretary, named Alice.
"Alice," Roger's wife said, over dinner. "Her name is Alice?"
"I don't know. It's a perfectly normal name, I suppose."
"Yes," Roger said. "It is."
"A secretary named Alice," his wife mused.
"Oh, for God's sake," Roger said. He could never understand how the best racing crew in Martha's Vinevard could get in these moods.
So Roger decided not to discuss his secretary with his wife, the way men do to prove they're not having affairs with them. A month later, he asked Alice's opinion on a tattersall shirt he bought at Brooks. In Roger's world, asking your secretary's advice on clothing is a very sexy thing to do. Alice told him it was dull, that he should shop at Britches. He didn't, but he liked her saying that. He started sitting on a corner of Alice's desk, now and then, to chat. Alice kept a nested apple on her desk, one of those apple-within-the-apple Chiness things. Roger would unnest them as they chatted, and line them up on top of her typewriter. If he stayed only a minute or two, Alice would look at him with huge eyes and say: "Only a two-apple chat?"
Now, inside the Greenery, Alice orders another Campari and soda from the bartender she can never decide whether she's in love with or not. Alice thinks of herself as being not beautiful or even sexy, but as "striking," on the strength of having brown hair with black eyebrows. Sometimes, in dry spells, she considers taking her vacation in Italy, but she's always thought it's sad when a girl thinks she has to do that. Sometimes Alice thinks about doing something with Roger. She decides against that, too, but she doesn't know why.
She knows Rogers thinks he's terribly sexy, and he's one of these old Ivy League types who doesn't understand that it's not his old war and football stories that turn women on, but big, long, lightly haired fingers that make any glass they pick up seem fragile, or turn the simplest act, such as unnesting a Chiness apple, into a bit of surprising grace.
It doesn't bother her, either, that Roger probably has almost no experience with any woman but his wife, who, Alice is convinced, treats him badly in some secret deadly was only another woman could understand. So while Roger doesn't know it, he wants and needs Alice. And sometimes Alice gets wildly curious about Roger. But she always decides against it, and wonders why.
She watches through the window. Having insisted he coundn't find a cab "in all this rain," he sprang across 18th Street to catch the bus, after tossing down a $5 bill to cover a check which, she'll discover, will come to $6.80. She watches the bus pull out. Maybe he'd just be dull, she thinks, so dull that his wife hates him for it, having been disappointed in him for so long that Roger carries an aura of her resentment with him, like the smell of he perfume.
The bus heads norths past apartment houses, Chinese restaurant houses, Chinese restaurants, people with umbrellas walking dogs. Roger, warmed by the scotch he drank with Alice, lets himself lean against the cool window. Sweet Alice, he thinks. How crazy she is about him. This monthly drink is unfair to her, he thinks. But maybe she's seducing him, maybe that's why he finds himself with this urge . . . well, sweet Alice, and he thinks about that in some detail, finding it pleasant to think about (he can't calculate how many times a month it happens with his wife; it's gotten so he doesn't want to know) that he starts doing the same thing he's always done, all the way back to prep school, in these moments of high animal magnetism. I can barely see it and it would have to be much quieter than this bus to hear it - his jaw muscles flexing as he grits his teeth, back and forth, like a dog having its back scratched. Benny
It's nearly dark, on Friday night. I'm waiting for a bus in that little wedge of park where 18th angles into Connecticut Avenue. A short, fat guy and a little boy walk up to the stop like they've been walking for a long time.
"Ask thay guy, Benny," says the little kid. He means me. I can't guess his age, but whatever it is he looks like he's probably small for it.
"Don't bother the man," Benny says. He has a moon face with no front teeth, a Spanish accent, and brandnew brown and white shoes made of plastic. Reflections of the streetlights slither around on them.
Benny says to me: "You know that movie 'Space Wars'"?
"Same difference," Benny says. "We want to catch the bus that goes past where that's playing."
"That's the L2," I say.
"Where's that go?"
"It'll take you out to see 'Star Wars,'" I say.
"No!" the little kid yells.
"Shut up, Ricky," Benny says.
"We're going to another movie out there," Ricky says. "Out where they got three theaters, where they had 'Cinderella,'"
I ask if he means the Avalon. I tell him the Avalon has only two theaters.
"No, three," Ricky insists. I stare at him. Everything is heart-shaped - heart-shaped pixie face, black heart-shaped eyes, red heart-shaped little mouth.
Ricky says: "Gimme your camera. I'll take a picture of you."
"Don't bother him," Benny says. "That a really expensive camera, that camera cost about $400. Anyhow it's dark and you gotta have infrared film or a flashgun and he don't have a flashgun."
Benny holds up his hand, fingers curled, and makes a crackling noise, like a flash-bulb going off.
"You got infrared film?" he asks me.
"How much that camera cost?"
Benny grins a grin that is pure joy, especially with no front teeth. He looks at Ricky. Ricky is not impressed. Father and son? Uncle and nephew? I ask Ricky if he goes to school.
"No," Rickys says.
"His mother gets him a tutor," Benny says. "The school is full of blacks. They all got guns and knives. You can have one as your friend but he'll always turn on you."
Benny talks very loud, I say to myself. I try to look like I'm not with them.
"Hey, Ricky," Benny says. "Where do the black come from?"
Ricky's got that one for sure. "Michigan!" he shouts.
"Come on," Benny says, "How come they say 'Afro'?"
"That's right. They used to eat people. Instead of going out and buying a ham or a chicken or some ribs, they used to eat people. They'd eat you ribs, Ricky, how'd you like that?"
"It'd be okay," Ricky says. "I'd be dead."
You Jewish?" Benny asks me.
What's your name?"
Benny mulls it over. Ricky reaches up to my chest and hefts my camera.
"That camera stinks," he says. "When you want the pictures, you gotta take it to the drugstore and leave it for a whole year."
We stand there talking Downtown has gone dead, except for some taxi action down by the Mayflower. I explain that the L2 and L4 go out Connecticut Avenue, and the only theater out there that is'nt showing. "Star Wars" is the Avalon. They don't know if it's the Avalon they want. They don't know the nake of the movie, either. We argue whether they can get there on my bus, the N2 which goes out Massachusetts Avenue. Benny is sure they can. I picture us having coffe and sandwiches together at my house out in Maryland.
By the time the bus shows up I can't tell if it's real love or just infatuation I'm feeling. The bus ia an N2 and Benny and Ricky get on anyway and sit across the aisle from me.
"The light is green in here," Benny says.
"It's blue," Ricky says.
"Don't argue," Benny says. He gets up to talk to the driver. He leans over the driver's shoulder and says: "You know the movie 'Star Wars'?"
I can see the driver wouldn't touch that one with a long pole. He's a professional. He discovers it's the L2 or the L4 that Benny and Ricky should transfer to, at Dupont Circle. Benny sits down. I suspect he feels he's betrayed me, by checking out my advice like that.
"You know," Benny says at last, "there was a guy invented this car that could fly, like you could fly right over the mountains in it. It cost about $30,000. But the first time they flew it, the fist time , it only got up 300 feet and then it crashed into the ground." Benny plunges his hand toward the floor, and makes a plane-diving noise, which doesn't quite work, with the teeth missing.
"The things was," he says, "not only the test pilot got killed but it killed the inventor too." He grins. He is a man who has seen cosmic justice done.
We're one stop past their transfer. I tell them they'd better get off. Benny says it doesn't make any difference, but gets up anyway, wearing a why-not look on his face.
"You know what I do all day?" says Ricky, still in his seat.
"I watches television."
"Hey, come on," Bennysays. "We got off here."
And they do.