Greg Anderson stood at the bus stop. The mid October sun hadn’t risen just yet, but there was enough of an orange-yellow hue across all of south Denver. The draft cars made as they passed by him messed his graying hair. Roars of them passing by with their diesel smog filled the air around the bus stop.
“The 6 o’clock rush hour is starting soon,” Greg grumbled to himself, “and I don’t get to be in it. Can’t believe I actually miss it.”
He pulled the auto shop card from his gray peacoat pocket. The scratchy blue pen ink read the estimated three weeks left he had to wait for his car to be done with repair after the car accident. The sterling silver watch on his right wrist caught his eye. It read 5:56 with the single cut he got from the accident hidden under the watch and his coat sleeve. He quickly pulled the sleeve over and looked down the road for the bus. His attention was focused south in hopes of catching a glimpse of the bus that was already almost half an hour late.
The bus finally pulled up eleven minutes later. Screeching of the breaks took him back to the car accident two days ago; the devastation of losing his life efforts of getting a job that paid well enough to afford a car and avoid public transportation pained him.
The doors whined as they flung open. An older woman dolled in excessive make up shoved him out of the way to get on. He caught the smell of alcohol from her and stared at her as she presented her bus pass. A teen boy in a hoodie decorated in shoe brand logos got on past him and dumped tokens into the slots by the driver. Greg hesitated on touching the handlebars that were covered in a yellowish liquid. He hoisted himself up the steep steps. He fed in the ticket and flinched as the driver offered a transfer. He backed away and sat to the nearest pair of available seats.
He sat at one of the first seats on the same side as the driver. Across from him sat an older woman in dirty, tattered clothes. A man in his 20s sat next to her. His clothes were cleaner than hers, but still a bit tattered and worn. Minorities, a few men in their later 50’s and two teens further back on the bus. The teenager’s rap music blared through the bus as if to drown out everyone else’s conversation.
Greg kept his eyes on the old woman across from him. He grew more and more uncomfortable as her coughing seemed to persist. The young man’s stoic expression as he lightly rubbed her back bothered him, but he wasn’t sure why.
“Andy,” the old woman coughed.
The old woman hunched and started coughing profusely. Andy grabbed her farthest shoulder with one hand and laced his other hand to her chest to hold her steady. She began to fall over and cough more deeply. Her coughs began to sound more scratchy.
A small pool of blood formed between them. The shaking of the bus made her vomit up more and have it leak closer and closer to Greg.
“Stop the bus!” The young man shouted. The bus screeched its way over to the nearest sidewalk edge to an abrupt stop. The driver left her seat as the woman fell closer to the blood pool. The young man kept her steady as she slipped to her knees in the blood puddle, still coughing up more.
“Call 9-1-1.” The young man said.
“What’s happening Andy?” the bus driver asked as she reached to the emergency phone.
“Tell them 85-year-old Donna Peterson is vomiting blood on a public bus pulled over at whatever streets we’re on. Possibly a severe case of pneumonia, difficulty breathing, still conscious and not coherent. Uninsured and her grandson will tell them whatever they need but not right now.”
The driver dialed the number and repeated everything he said. Andy continued to hug the old woman tightly, telling her she was going to be fine to keep her calm.
Once the driver promised an ambulance was on the way, she released the back doors and evacuated the passengers. Greg waited until last to get off to avoid contact with others.
“My sincerest apology everybody,” the driver said in a monotone voice, “an ambulance is on the way to help the elderly woman. The next bus should be at the nearest stop half a block south of this street here in five minutes. I sincerely apologize for this inconvenience, but we have a medical emergency with a passenger that must be handled right away..”
People asked questions about what was happening and complained. Younger passengers insulted the driver for the incident while the older ones asked more about the next bus arriving and where the stop was. Greg looked down the street to see the stop. He started towards the stop, but turned around when the sirens of the ambulance rang. He watched the young man talk to the paramedic like they were old friends while two others carried the woman to the gurney. A sharp pain ran through Greg’s body and a sense of nausea and he looked away. He walked towards the stop and tried focusing on the roars of the passing cars instead.
“That’s what you get for not taking care of yourself.” Greg mumbled to himself.
* * *
He boarded the next day, still uneasy about the incident the day before. The same driver and most of the same passengers boarded. He went at sat at the same seat as he did before.
Andy sat by himself in the same seat as well. A box with the corner of an old wooden picture frame and photo album peaking out the top rested on his lap. Though his head was down, he seemed to be staring into space.
Greg remembered the old woman. He grew curious of the connection between the two and the promise he made to himself. He wasn’t sure if he recognized the look on his face, but he felt a pain within himself at the thought of the box of photographs.
He stood up and moved over to the seat parallel to the young man. He thought of what to say, but didn’t know what would or wouldn’t come out wrong and upset him.
“New to the bus system?” the young man asked. Greg jolted with the surprise of someone talking to him.
“I’m Andy.” he said offering his hand. Greg stared at it and didn’t offer his back.
“Uh, Greg and yes but I don’t plan to be a regular. I’m just doing this until my car’s finished in the shop.”
“How long is it going to be in shop for?”
“Don’t know. Apparently the automotive company went out of business some time ago and it’s an old car so now they have to hunt for parts.”
“Could be a while then. What company was it?”
“Pontiac. Grand Prix Sedan Turbo. I probably would’ve replaced the damn thing if I could trust people driving them to the dealers were as clean as the cars look on the outside.”
Greg stopped for a moment. He debated how he could ask about the box or the old woman. Andy returned to the way he was when Greg first got on the bus.
“So, what’s in the box?” Greg finally asked.
“I’m bringing over some things from home for my grandmother.” Andy said, “We were on our way there the other day when she started bleeding.”
Greg felt a small pain in his chest at the thought of the two being family.
“That woman was your grandmother?”
“You were there? Oh yes, now I remember. Sorry, seeing her get this bad is something I never get used to. I’m glad she’s alright though.”
“So you’re going to visit her at the hospital then?”
“Yes. I don’t have anything else to do. If she doesn’t stay in a good mood, she always gets worse like every frown adds an extra day and we really can’t afford that.”
“How can you handle going there? any possible thing to get sick and die from lurks on every wall. The nurses and doctors are supposed to be clean, but that doesn’t mean they are.”
“I’m too young to worry about that. I’ve been around her when she’s had pneumonia before and I haven’t gotten anything yet. I’ve learned a lot about it from all the visits and as long as you’re young and healthy and don’t smoke you have nothing to worry about. I have bigger things to worry about that are more likely to happen anyway.”
The bus screeched to a halt to the hospital’s side doors. Andy stood up and left out the front doors.
“I’ll tell her you said hi.” he said as he left.
“Brave or stupid, you’re still nuts.” Greg said with a laugh.
No Greg, he thought to himself, you’re the one whose nuts. Maybe it’s not so bad.
* * *
Greg boarded the bus as he normally did, but this time he intentionally sat parallel to Andy.
“You need to work on your fear.” Andy said.
“I don’t know how. I’d like to know why I’m so afraid, but it’s almost like I don’t remember anything from a certain point in my life. It doesn’t really bother me, it’s like how you can’t remember being born or every single day of summer when you were a very little kid.”
“Maybe there’s something you’re trying to forget.”
“Don’t know. I don’t really care right now. I’m just glad someone isn’t calling me self-centered like everyone at work does for once.”
“You see a whole lot worse on the bus stops and train stations than you do in the men’s room at a public office, trust me. Hey, this might be a weird idea, but do you think you’d want to visit my grandmother? I’m sure she’d love some company besides just me for once and there’s nothing for you to worry about if you’ve had your flu shot this year.”
Greg thought of it. The thought of hospitals sickened him.
“You sure that’s even safe?” Greg asked, “I’ve had my flu shot, but are you sure?”
“Pneumonia can be an infection caused by the flu virus. Shots like that shoot a dead or weaker version of the virus itself to get your immune system an idea of what to look for. Visitors aren’t allowed when it’s contagious and that still matters on everything else. Much older people who smoke are more likely to catch it and even then it isn’t guaranteed, so you have nothing to fear.”
Greg pondered the idea. He wasn’t sure why Andy’s promises of being fine somehow angered him. He knew it was wrong and wondered why again. He knew it was a chance to figure out why he was afraid.
He agreed to go. They planned for the visit that Saturday.
* * *
Greg sat hunched over near Andy. He could feel Andy’s hand resting on his back like he saw him do to his grandmother. It bothered him to feel so scared, but he knew there wasn’t any turning back.
He followed Andy up to his grandmother’s room on the fourth floor. He watched as the nurses greeted Andy by name, knowing him well thanks to frequent visits.
The thick odors of medicine and illness wafted to him as he entered her room. It worsened the closer he got to her. Her thin hair seemed to vanish in the white of the pillows. Aged sunspots and wrinkles were more obvious under the florescent lights. The oxygen nose piece hung loosely over her face. White flakes of her chapped lips matched the tiny white flowers decorated on her hospital gown. The IV in her arm fed fluids from a half empty bag into her blood. An extra end was orange inside from blood backup. A cotton ball taped to her hand where a needle had been tried was brown underneath.
“Good evening Nana.” Andy said as he walked up to her.
“I brought what you asked for Nana.” Andy said as he handed a fast food cheeseburger with the wrapped made clear from excessive grease.
“Is that even?–” Greg tried to ask.
Andy grit his teeth as he swiped his hand across his neck. Greg stopped talking and looked away.
She looked up at Greg and stared for a moment. She then turned to her burger and started eating it as quietly as she could.
“Hey Greg, is the nurse here yet?” Andy asked in an overly enthusiastic tone.
“I don’t see any.” Greg answered as he peaked past the curtains, “They wear those ugly foam shoes, right? None.”
“Then can I talk to you for a second?” Andy whispered to Greg as he got up.
Greg followed Andy to the other side of the hospital bed. Andy held his hand open behind his back near his grandmother.
“Don’t tell anyone about this.” Andy whispered.
“About what?” Greg whispered back.
“The food. She’s not supposed to have outside food yet, doctors orders every time.”
“What? Then why give it to her? You want her out of here, right?”
“I don’t think they feed her right here. They take too damn long and the food is horrible. Between you and me, the doctor guesses she may not have too much longer. Nana has heard the doctor say this before and she’s taken it to heart. Her and I agreed that if she doesn’t make it on any night, she wants her last meal to be junk food so she can die happy with onion breath, not hungry.”
“That’s obscured. Are you sure you aren’t making it worse?”
“If you didn’t have long to live, would you want to stop living for a few extra seconds that can’t be promised to you?”
Greg looked over at the box of photos on the table. In the corner of the photo with the old wooden frame, he saw a smiling young woman. Her hair was a rich auburn with lively curls. The white of her teeth appeared much brighter than they would have been in person. A gaudy gold necklace from the 50s hung around her tanned neck. The top of a reddish purple blouse could be seen with the rest of the photo hidden within the box.
In his mind, Greg’s mothers orange red hair fell from behind her shoulders. He remembered he was seven or eight when his dad saying it was the same orange as the olympic flame. The way it caught the sunlight wasn’t the same as the way it caught the fluorescent lights in the hospital room.
Andy swung his hand over to his face with the half eaten burger in his hand.
“He wasn’t quite the best, but at least he was useful to the team, you know?” Andy said cheerfully with a nervous wink.
“Hello Mrs. Peterson.” A nurse said as she brought in a cart covered in trays. She sat a scuffed, dark green tray on a metal pull tray and left.
Andy took a quick bite of the burger and Greg suddenly felt nauseous. A pain of sadness stung in his chest; he wasn’t sure if it was sadness for Andy risking his own health, him feeling as though he was being reminded nobody would take a risk like that for him or both.
“How can you eat that?” Greg insisted as he inched away.
“Yeah they got the order wrong yet again. Expect a trainee to not know how to put in orders right for the regulars.” Andy said, playing along to his own show for the nurses,“Hey, just because you’re allergic to the tomatoes on this thing doesn’t mean it’s an abomination.”
“I better go actually.” Greg said as he started to leave, “With how far out this is, I better go now just in case the last bus doesn’t arrive. I hate how they completely skip, but you can only blame yourself if you expect it to be reliable, right?”
* * *
“He talked to you like you was a friend from childhood.” Greg said to himself once he made it to his bedroom, “Too bad there’s nothing friendly about you.”
He fell onto his bed and stared up at the ceiling. In the random cluster of bumps on the ceiling, he started making out the shape of a face. He stared at it longer; it began to look like a caricature of a photo of his mother he hadn’t looked at for years.
Memories of her returned. Her smiling face as she watched him play and the ones she faked when she was in the hospital room came to him. He suddenly remembered his father. The thoughts he had the day he learned the true cause of his mother’s death came back for him to relive. He questioned his age when she died, his age when he found out, the age of his father then and now and even how long he had been ignoring it. The death certificate’s word “infection” under cause of death, her muffled crying he would always catch when he left the room, and his father’s resentment to the doctors flooded his mind.
“Whose fault was it?” Greg asked himself. He thought about her cause of death: surgical infection caused by staph, gone unrecognized by the doctors. He remembered his father’s arguments that it was the fault of the doctors for not being clean.
He then remembered Andy. He thought of him sneaking food to his grandmother, the way he explained his reason, the box of albums and photos from the wall and his determination to keep the food a secret. Greg began to tear up. He then understood why he was so drawn to the young man so much like the man he wished he could be.