The small man was sitting in one of the sideways-facing seats on the bus. He was short, and very slender, and he had his legs crossed in the way of very skinny men whose pants are always a bit too large, crossed in the way of men who spend a great deal of time visiting, sitting on kitchen chairs with cups of tea in one hand and perhaps a cookie or triangle of sandwich perched on the saucer. Of course, they tend to lean forward, the toe of the crossing leg touching the floor, a forearm across the thigh, as if to better listen, or to make a point.
This man had a smile on his face but was otherwise visibly holding himself together, the way you do when you’re in such pain that an untoward twitch could spell the end of your composure. The way you sit when you have a migraine or a very bad hangover. He had a hangover that he knew would ease off if he could just open one of the cans of beer in the bag on the bus floor in front him and drink it down, but instead he’s sitting up straight, legs neatly crossed, holding himself together.
Smiling because he’s on his way to his sister’s for a holiday dinner, the single, 50-something, black-sheep brother spic and span, hair an inch too long but slicked back neatly, wearing his best shirt, the cuffs and collar fraying hardly at all. Passing. Bringing enough beer to share but hoping he won’t have to. Bringing enough beer to share but hoping no one will notice when he drinks most of it himself. Just has to hold himself together long enough to get there and have that first can — doesn’t want to look over-eager, so not too soon after arriving, but please God don’t make him wait too long.
He’s smiling because he can go to his sister’s with his head held high, he’s cleaned himself up and he’s working. He brings out his wallet and starts counting the bills. He’s working and has his own place — just a bed-sit in Sandy Hill, but still, it’s better than where he was — so he’s feeling respectable and confident enough to show his face at family gatherings again. Friday was payday. He hasn’t had this much money in his wallet at once since god knows when. He’s going to slip the niece a $20 and tell herself to buy something pretty, show off how flush he is now that he has a job. Make her feel good so she’ll think well of her uncle when her mother starts in on him, talking about what a loser he is… Frowns, counts again. Closes the billfold — the kind with the flap that snaps, that has a chain that hooks to a belt loop on his clean, pressed jeans. Thinks for a moment. Opens it up and counts again, dread washing over his face. Counts again, lifting each bill up but not out, rubbing it, making sure it’s not stuck to another.
What did he do with the money? There’s that black space where a memory should be … where could he have spent it? He only got paid on Friday. Counts again, frantically. Thinks, visibly. Then, resignedly, tucks the wallet into the back pocket of his cheap, no-name jeans. His eyes start to water. There’ll be no feel-good $20 for the niece today. He might not be able to make rent on that bedsit in Sandy Hill. His shoulders slump. He looks out the windshield, weary, realizes his stop is coming, pulls the cord. He lifts up his bag of beer as if it contains the weight of the world, and exits the bus.