Thud. The weight of the rush hour bus hurdling over the pothole-dotted Roosevelt Road threw Damarion up in the air then harshly back to his seat. He hated taking the bus. His mom’s car had been in the shop for months now. He missed that car, a well-worn Toyota Corolla in a shade of deep blue that had chipped in places, exposing the familiar rust caused by the brutal Chicago winter. Damarion called it his “bat-mobile”. His mother would smirk at him and talk about his extensive imagination…whatever that meant, Damarion thought. For him, that car was his escape. And after two months of riding the bus, Damarion was starting to wonder if his beloved car was actually at the repair shop.
In fact, his mom had only told Damarion this in order to quell the inevitable battle that was sure to rage when the truth was finally told. His father had taken the car. Marcus, Damarion’s father, showed up at the house in early October begging to see his son. Damarion’s mother could tell by the sacks of sleeplessness under his eyes and unshaven scruff around his mouth that it had happened once again. Marcus had failed at whatever new business venture he had begun this month and was clutching the remains of the savings that he hadn’t already spent drowning his sorrows at whatever local waterhole suited his fancy this week.
She couldn’t remember what this exact business plan had entailed but she had learned to ignore the details for they never seemed to matter. After only a couple weeks, Marcus would be back at her door asking for something. And here he was again.
She pushed the screen door open, which had been protecting her from the stench wafting from Marcus’s matted hair.
“Ay, babe,” mumbled Marcus as he cautiously inched toward her.
“Babe! Who you talkin’ to, Marcus. I damn sure ain’t your babe.”
It had been four years since she had loved Marcus. Lured by his light brown eyes and unbeatable ambition she had fallen…fallen too hard. Within a year of meeting him, Damarion was on the way and she was left nursing Marcus’ hangovers and his all too fragile ego.
“Ah, you know what I mean. Let me see my son. It’s been a long week.”
Every week was a long week for Marcus.
“He’s at his piano lessons, Mar. And no need for him to see you like this anyway.”
“Whatchu mean? He’s my son, he can see me any damn time.”
“Alright. You gotta leave.”
“Wait! If I can’t see him, can I at least borrow the car for the night. I got this new business deal comin’ and I gotta drive down south to meet up with one of my guys ‘bout it.”
You would think after knowing Marcus all this time she would have learned the ability to say no to these frequent requests. But after a pause she shrunk back into the house and appeared a few minutes later with a key chain jangling in her right hand.
“Now, you lucky Damarion is getting a ride back from his lesson tonight. Boy, you betta be back in the morning. I gotta work the afternoon shift and get Damarion to school.”
“Yeah, no worries. Your car will be back. Man, always naggin’ me. No wonder I ain’t with yo ass anymore.”
And with that less than endearing goodbye, Marcus turned and marched to the car.
It’s been two months and no word from him.
Thump. The bus ran over yet another pothole jostling Damarion out of his blissful thoughts of the “bat-mobile.” He shot a hostile glance at his mother hoping that in that single look he could show his complete disdain for this form of transportation. To his dismay, though, his mother, Rose, issued a graceful smile back in his direction.
She always seemed to be teaching Damarion about the importance of being grateful in any situation. He almost expected his mother to start clamoring on about the importance of experiencing potholes, somehow relating it to the “long, hard road of life.” Luckily Damarion had learned how to distract himself during these sermons by watching each new passenger ascend the buses steps.
Mostly the passengers formed a predictable parade. Young mothers with distraught babies in tow, commuters traveling to and from their downtown jobs, food service employees with exhausted stares out the large rectangular windows, and kids Damarion’s age with see-through backpacks, which had become an identification badge for all Chicago Public School students.
Softening his glance back to his mother, Damarion asked, “Ma, when am I gonna get to go back to school? It’s been a long time.”
Rose worked full time so without the car it had been hard to get Damarion to school consistently. The past few weeks he had to skipped school and travel with Rose on her commute to work. Even though Damarion thought his seven-year-old self could handle a two-bus route to his school, Rose knew differently.
“I’m working on it, babe. I told you the car is in the shop. Once it’s done you’ll get to school every day. Lemme see if Auntie can pick you up this next week. Alright?”
Rose had worked out a system with Damarion’s school. They knew the situation with his dad and were pretty lenient about his attendance when events like this happened. David, his cousin, had been picking up homework for Damarion to do for the days that he had missed.
“Ah, alright,” Damarion surrendered and returned to watching people ascend the front stairs of the bus.
Mom and her toddler-aged son. Man in an oversized business suit. Teenage boy with short braids. Damarion liked the consistency of the parade. He had gotten pretty good at guessing the people that would join the ride at the different stops. A game that passed the time on these never-ending commutes. His dad had taught him this game.
Damarion remembered Marcus as well as any six year old can remember an important person in his life. It had been almost a whole year since his dad had come to visit him—Rose hadn’t told him about Marcus visiting a couple months ago. She worked hard to allow Damarion to have some type of relationship with Marcus without bringing her own baggage into it. Damarion was getting old enough, though, that he knew he didn’t have a father…Well at least not a father like some of his friends had.
One of his most vivid memories of Marcus, though, happened on this very bus route when Damarion was four. Marcus wanted to spend some time with Damarion so he decided to take him to the Shedd Aquarium because he knew that Finding Nemo had instilled in Damarion an obsession with sea turtles. After the trip, Damarion was tired and hungry so, in order to distract him, Marcus thought up this game.
“Mar.” Marcus enjoyed calling his son by the same nickname that he had acquired as a young kid mostly because it reminded him that Damarion was his. Reminded him that despite his many failures he had created something.
“Mar. Look, look. Daddy’s got a game for you. Now watch. Hear that dinging sound? That means that the bus is gonna stop. So you gotta pay attention.”
Damarion stared into his dad’s eyes motivated partly by amusement and partly by a heavy exhaustion that had settled into his eyelids.
“When the bus stops, see, people get off and new people get on. Ain’t that cool?” Silence. Marcus hurriedly continued, worried that the short attention span of his four year old was wearing thin.
“Yeah, so new people come on and each one is different. See, there’s a momma with her baby. Oh wow there’s a soldier, you know, like your G.I. Joe action figure? Whatchu think? Fun to watch right?”
Damarion had yet to grasp an appreciation for differences and was not gonna be fooled by his dad’s poor attempt to distract him from his growling belly and sleep-deprived body. He answered with a swift head swing away from Marcus and toward the bus window, finding the progressing darkness outside much more entertaining than the people on the bus.
Excuse me. An elderly woman next to him gently nudge Damarion’s shoulder in an attempt to get him to stand up and let her out from the window seat.
Only a few stops away and Damarion could not wait to get out of this packed bus. The seat near his mom opened up so he scurried over there before another passenger could snatch the coveted real estate.
“Hey, boo.” His mom greeted her with her beautiful smile gleaming in his direction.
“Hey, ma. We’re almost home, right?”
“Yup. Only a few more stops. Whatchu been thinkin’ about over there mister?”
Damarion hated that his mom could always tell when he had something on his mind. He could never keep a secret from her because she always knew.
“Ah, it was nothin’.”
“Oh yeah? It didn’t look like nothin’. That vein in your forehead look like it was ‘bout to pop out.”
“Pshh. Ma, why you gotta be like that? Can’t a man have his own life?”
“Oh you think you a man do ya? Alright little man, whatcha makin’ for dinner tonight.”
“…you know what I mean, though.”
“That’s fine.” His mother pouted. “Don’t tell me then. You all grown over there.” Rose always had a way of guilting him into divulging the exact thing he worked so hard to keep to him self.
“Uhh, fine. I was just thinkin’ ‘bout Dad.” Damarion sheepishly admitted.
“Oh yeah, hun? What were you thinkin’ about him? You know it’s okay to talk to me about him. Your father and I have our differences, but he is still your father.”
“Yeah, yeah I know but it’s gotta be weird for you to talk about him with me right?”
“Not really.” Rose held back even though she knew he was right. She hated the subject. “So go on.”
“Naw, I was just playing this little game in my head that I remember he taught me on the bus a few years ago. Not really a game…even though he tried to act like it was. You just watch the different people come and go on the bus.”
Rose laughed. And whenever she laughed it was impossible to not laugh with her. “See that wasn’t too hard now was it?”
“No. I guess it wasn’t. I just… Oh, nevermind.” Damarion didn’t really feel like talking about it anymore so he hoped she’d be satisfied with that one confession.
“Okay, baby. You can always talk to me.” As she said this, she reached her arm up and yanked the thick wire that hung from above the bus window.
Ding! The firm pull his mother had dealt the wire issued forth that most familiar sound. Damarion was relieved they were finally home but that sound brought his mind back to that bittersweet memory of his dad on the bus.
After Marcus realized from Damarion’s less than enthusiastic response that his son was not enjoying the ride, he would have Damarion guess when the bell would ring next. Some stops no one wanted to get off so the bus continued its forward journey uninterrupted. Marcus made it Damarion’s job to guess these stops.
That first ride, Damarion was not good at anticipating these stops. He would randomly pick and choose the stops and he maybe chose correctly once. Now that he was a veteran bus rider, he knew that the stops near the shopping centers, movie theater, and train stops were automatically requested but the ones in between were always a crapshoot.
Obviously, Marcus was pleased that this last minute addition to his “game” succeeded in distracting Damarion enough to get them to their stop.
Something about that bell, though, stuck with Damarion. He was so young but had already experienced his father leaving late at night and not returning until the next evening. He knew he didn’t have a father…well he didn’t have one like his friends had.
Even after this bus ride with his father he remembered getting home and being told to go to sleep immediately. His parents hoped that the thin door separating him from the living room would keep out the noise of their argument. But it didn’t.
“Whatchu thinkin’ keepin’ him out this late. It’s a school night.” Rose exclaimed.
“He’s fine. We were having a good time. I didn’t wanna ruin the day by telling him we had to go home.”
“Yeah cuz you are the fun guy. Why don’t you try taking care of him every hour of the day sometime, huh? Instead of just picking him up here and there and taking him on these trips you like to do.”
Damarion wished he could force himself to sleep, but even the weight of two pillows didn’t block out the words that his parents hurled at each other. He doesn’t remember falling asleep that night but he’s sure he did because he always did at some point.
That bell. That bell haunted him, which is another reason he hated the bus. That bell reminded him of his father and his father’s game that Damarion kept playing on every bus trip.
Have a good day, son! The overly-friendly bus drive smirked as Damarion followed his mother down the stairs of the bus. He had become one of the leaving passengers. He quietly wondered if there was some other kid bored on the bus watching him as he left.
Probably not, he thought. Because most kids have dads that teach them real games like Checkers and baseball…not this weird bus game.
As they walked the mile more to their house, Damarion thought more about his dad and about this game. He even found himself chuckling to himself about the game. Luckily it wasn’t loud enough for his mother to hear. Lord knows she would interrogate him like always.
He laughed at the game because his dad wanted him to watch people coming and going. His dad was teaching him that people come and go. God. What a fucking brilliant plan! Damarion was only seven so he wasn’t allowed to curse so he took great pride in cursing in his thoughts sometimes. He thought it made him seem more like a man…whatever that meant.
That’s why he couldn’t stop playing that childish game that his dad had taught him because every day with each annoying bell ding that echoed through the bus he hoped that one of the men climbing the front stairs was Marcus.
He had gotten so use to his dad coming and going from his life. Leaving without telling him. Showing up for Christmas with a brand new PlayStation game. Calling in the middle of the night even though he knew Damarion was asleep. Marcus was always entering Damarion’s life and then pulling the string to make a quick exit. Just like that shitty bus, Damarion thought.
While he was arriving at that conclusion, their house was in sight. Something was different though. Parked in front of their stone two-flat was that blue car, chipped paint and all. And leaning on the back bumper was Marcus, looking much better than when Rose had last seen him.
Damarion could see the frustration on his mother’s face. She looked like she could cry. He had inherited his mom’s peculiar talent for reading people…she couldn’t hide much from him either, even though she tried.
Marcus rose from his makeshift seat and yelled down the sidewalk toward them. “Hey, fam!”
The words met Damarion’s ears with a sweet sting. Rose let an audible sign of disbelief escape from her pursed lips as they both made their way toward him. Damarion wished he didn’t miss his dad. But he did.
Before he knew it, his scrawny legs had picked up a great amount of speed. He began to run toward his dad with outstretched arms choosing to ignore that persistent bell ding in his mind reminding him of his dad’s inevitable exit. Because in that moment he had a dad… not a dad like his friends had. But a dad that always taught him that life is often a shitty, long ride and people will come and go quickly, but the best you can do is notice them, enjoy them, and join them in the ride while they are there. And that was a good enough lesson for right now.
Image credit to Transit Chicago.