BUS PORTRAITS by Kai Ming McKenzie

BUS PORTRAITS by Kai Ming McKenzie

A man on a bus is writing in his day planner

There is a slender man who spends every morning bus ride one winter scratching out notes to himself in a little day planner. He looks so busy that we who are seated near him are tempted to try to read over his shoulder to see what he is writing about. He has tiny and meticulous handwriting, and he writes straight through the delineated intervals of his days with a fine-tipped pen.

Everything is done with quick and efficient motions, which paradoxically give the impression that there is something wrong, a neurological syndrome of some kind at work. Perhaps it’s just that he never seems to have to pause to wait for the next word to come — if those tiny marks even are words. Maybe they are symbols forming some other kind of record.

When he gets close to his stop his busy hands loudly rip apart the velco straps of his insulated, soft-sided lunch container and put the pen and the planner back into the front pocket. Then he pulls his knit hat down over his ears and carefully rewraps his scarf around his neck, three times. It is eight o’clock in the morning, but the page of his day is completely inked over.

We want to know where he will record the rest of his hours, since his day is already filled in.

A kind of fastidious graphomania or sheer nervous energy channeled out through the fingertips — that’s how I described it when I wrote about it in my own little book, while I was sitting in the seat behind him, looking on.


One bus rider draws portraits of another

A woman is sitting near the front of the bus. She can’t stop waving her arms. Her crooked fingers brush her black nylon kerchief and catch in it; her head bobs left and right with the ruts in the road. She is making gestures that seem devotional or beseeching, but may be meaningless. There is a white crust around her lips. Her face is gaunt, her muscles taut and ropy under her warm, dark brown skin. Naturally we do not look directly at her, but around her, carefully.

Seated further back is a white man in his fifties who got on earlier. He is balding, but retains a ponytail; he is dressed casually; he is not on his way to work. He has a large newsprint sketchpad propped on the seatback in front of him and he is drawing this woman with soft vine charcoal which he pulls from a ziplock bag in the pocket of his leather vest. He spends about a minute on a portrait, then turns the sheet over with a quick flourish and starts again. They are pretty good gestural sketches. She is shown in profile, since she is in the handicapped seats and he is facing forward. He pays attention to the face.

This is what this guy does — we see him on the bus all the time. He pays his fare and rides around for a couple of circuits, drawing the passengers, then when he gets bored of us he puts his pad under his arm and gets off at the coffee shop near the university.

After the fourth or fifth portrait she seems to notice he’s drawing her and she grows agitated, but can’t seem to turn to him to communicate, can only glare at him out of the corner of her eye. His sketches begin to show her evolving rictus of distress. If she wanted to get him to stop, she would have to rely on help from someone who could read that this was a new and different kind of distress than her default state. Actually, we do understand — but we are trying to look away. None of us tells the artist to stop.

Eventually, and with some trouble, she produces a ballpoint pen and grasps it in the air before her, making parodic, palsied sketch-strokes in the air, still not looking at him directly. Now her expressions are genuinely ugly. Then she finds a piece of paper and slashes at it with great effort, producing some marks — a portrait of the artist — which she clumsily rips up and tosses to the floor.

We do our best to ignore this exchange. We have ridden with the artist before. Those who have sat in front of him have been annoyed; those who have sat behind him have mostly just watched him draw.


A woman writes a note in the stairwell of a bus

The bus lurches down a dark street, behind schedule by a few minutes. Although it is night, there are still plenty of us riding, headed towards downtown. At the stop at the corner, a woman is waiting in a dull yellow pool of light with a two- or three-year old girl in a stroller. The bus stops in front of them and the doors open, but instead of getting on, the woman tries to ask the driver something. She doesn’t seem to be able to move her lips and tongue in order to form words; she can only gesture and make loud, inarticulate noises.

While she does this the bus driver is half-yelling, what? where? to her while keeping both hands on the steering wheel. She can only respond with more blocked sounds.

We passengers sit listening to her moaning and the bus driver yelling back for a while, seemingly in a stalemate. The engine has an irregular idle, and it rocks us gently. Finally someone from the back of the bus says in frustration, for fuck sake, give her something to write with, and everyone comes back to life, fumbling for pen and paper to take to her. We are glad to have something we can do.

She gratefully takes the pen and the scrap of paper from a passenger and writes something down and passes it up to the driver, who says, with an emphatic head nod, yes, I stop there, get on. So she stands her daughter up on the sidewalk for a moment, then collapses the spindly stroller and tucks the U-shaped handles over one arm while gathering her daughter in the other. She mounts the steps and takes a seat at the front, quickly unfolding the stroller, setting the brake, and getting the child buckled back into it.

As the bus pulls back into the street she starts to take off her coat and, while doing so, finds that she is still holding the pen and the scrap of paper that she wrote her destination on. She folds the paper up and pockets it — she might need to show it again when she gets off at the other end. Then she looks up at us, holding out the pen to return it, scanning our faces to find the owner, showing no emotion that we can see. Keep it, keep it, we say, shaking our heads.

From the stroller on the floor the child is turning her head to catch her mother’s every movement, looking mutely up at her with love in her bright eyes. She fidgets against her seat belt, looking like she’s got something to say, as if she is getting ready to speak for the first time, to say I know what it’s like.

Kai Ming McKenzie works in the belly of the consumer products branding industry. In the nineties, his stories appeared in Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. This is is his first publication in twenty years. He is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. You can visit him here or @kaimingmck.