The man on the bus was old, 70 maybe, maybe more, born in the time before 60 became the new 40 so he wasn’t masquerading as a younger man. Not that he could have in any case — there is a point beyond which even good clothes and good breeding and good cash can take 10 years off your age and he wasn’t the obvious inheritor of any of those things.
So here was this old guy, let’s say 70 to be safe, riding the bus most days of the week. I noticed him because he always sat in the first seat of the row of five single seats on the right-hand side as you get on the bus, right beside the seats that the signs say are for disabled and elderly riders, where only the truly self-absorbed sit if they’re neither. I always sat in the singles if one was free, especially in the summer, so that no large, sweaty, half-clothed person could press clammy stranger flesh against mine. I’d had too many overly familiar encounters with eaters of garlic, or onions, or sausage, or drinkers of alcohol, particularly beer, who were oblivious to the vile aromas these ingredients created as they pushed back out through the pores. The odours rubbed off on me so that I’d smell them all night as if it was my skin trying to digest them. I’d learned the tricks: sit in the singles on the bus, on the ends of the three-seaters on the subway. It’s the rare person who will take the empty middle seat and if someone did, well, I could always stand.
I used to sit behind the old guy on the bus. I probably noticed him first of all because of the way he was dressed. He always looked like he might be going off to meet his girl, take her to a show. Or to play crokinole at the seniors’ centre. He’d wear a pair of shorts, nearly knee-length, neatly pressed, in some shade of khaki; brown leather shoes, a bit scuffed and not the sort of footwear you usually associate with shorts, and his thick ankle socks always matched the primary colour in his shirt.
And the shirt, truth be told, is probably what caught my eye first. He had a collection of luridly coloured and patterned shirts that would have put an American tourist in Hawaii to shame. Bright, rich reds, purples and blues, all of which set off his thinning silver-white hair perfectly. Some days he wore a tie with the shirt — always a plain burgundy, regardless of the shirt with which it was paired. Otherwise, the short-sleeved shirt would be discreetly buttoned to the collar of his white cotton undershirt.
He would sit primly in the seat, feet together, hands clasped on his lap, smile on his clear, soft-skinned face. That’s what made me think he was going on a date. That expectant, hopeful smile.
He’d get off the bus ahead of me and, walking behind him, I’d notice that a belt held his shorts up, that they were at least a size or two too big and that they ballooned out around his bum the way cheaply-made clothes will, particularly on narrow-waisted old men. The shorts were fraying at the hem and the shoes were run down at the heel. Frugal, maybe. Maybe his wife had always looked after him and his clothes and this was his first foray into the world after her death. Maybe the pension didn’t go as far as it used to.
His shirts were fairly blousy too, but it didn’t look like he’d lost a lot of weight, there were none of the drooping bags of skin that would have been a telltale sign of that, especially at his age. His legs, slightly bowed, looked strong and well-muscled, not flabby. Here was a man who’d kept trim and busy his whole life. The clothes were simply too big.
I’d sit behind him and think about the way old men’s hair reacts when it comes into contact with a collar, how it will stick straight out. I would sit behind him and look at the flakes of dandruff on his shoulders and wonder if his hair stuck out like that because it needed to be washed, or if that’s just what happens to hair when it gets old. I’d look at the mutton legs sprouting down the length of his neck and into his shirt and wonder, who makes sure you get a haircut if you’re an old man and alone? Who notices that it’s time for a trim in these days when there are no more barbershops you can just pop into, shoot the breeze with the other old men in there reading newspapers while they wait their turn? No more places people will notice if you haven’t been in for a while, come check up on you just in case. Itinerant societies come without support networks. The old, the young, and the single in-betweens suffer most.
No one had noticed this guy’s hair. Maybe his wife used to cut it for him, trim the tufts growing out of his ears. Maybe he was spending the money he would have used for a haircut on bus fare. He could probably get there and back — wherever he was going — for two weeks for what a haircut would cost him at one of these places where they play the music too loud and it’s all chrome and glass and mirrors and know-it-all stylists who would take a dim view of being assigned an old man with dandruff and flamboyant shirts, khaki shorts and down-at-the-heels brown shoes and won’t even pretend to be interested in the things the old geezer has to say and won’t notice or care if he doesn’t come back.
I’d sit behind him on Mondays , Tuesdays and Thursdays, even started smiling at him a bit, one regular to another, when I got on the bus, though I can’t say for sure he ever smiled back, or even noticed me. I have to say that I never put a lot of welcome into the smile. When I get on the bus I’m on my way to work and I like a little quiet time — as quiet as it gets, anyway — a bit of meditation on the evening ahead. On the subway I’ll read, but I get carsick if I read on the bus so I look out the window, watch the world and pretend I’m alone with my thoughts. I’ll write poetry in my head, compose letters to the editor. I have some of my best ideas during that 10-minute ride.
I have the kind of face that some people read as an invitation to converse — or not converse so much as tell me their life stories, requiring nothing from me but that I stay there listening with an open face while they recite their tales, usually of woe — so I was afraid that if I made my smile too open he’d start talking to me and I’d never have a quiet bus ride again, at least three days a week. Maybe he saw through my smile to my reticence. Maybe the smile that was already on his face when I got on the bus was for me. Or maybe he was afraid I’d start talking to him.
One day I got on the bus and noticed he didn’t look well at all. He wasn’t smiling and there was an unhealthy grey pallor in place of his usual apple cheeks. When I sat behind him I noticed he was leaning to the left a bit, instead of in his usual head-boy posture. I worried a little — though admittedly not enough to actually ask him if he was OK.
Suddenly I heard this rattle, I guess, if a rattle can be made of air alone, and I watched him collapse as if someone had suddenly pulled his plug, leaving just a … husk is the word that occurred to me. My first thought was “oh my god, he’s dead!” And I sat for a second, wondering what to do, because old men don’t die in front of me on the bus every day, so I don’t know the routine.
And then I smelled it. Was that the bowels evacuating? (I don’t see men die every day but I read, you know.) So intent was I on figuring out what to do about this dead man in front of me that I nearly shrieked when he straightened up a bit (I read those books too).
Fortunately, my brain devised an alternate scenario before I brought unseemly attention to myself — the look on his face hadn’t been caused by imminent death, it was gas.
He stepped spryly off the bus and went merrily on his way. But for me the romance was gone. He was a gassy old man in loud shirts who didn’t employ proper hair care, nothing more.