The Plexiglas awning gathered the
heat underneath; Momon held a large brown grocery sack between sturdy legs, as
she waited for her bus. She looked forward to the sight of her little daughter,
holding the hand of her nine-year-old son. This was their ritual; the express
bus always arriving within minutes of her children’s school shuttle and Momon
seeing the children through the window as the bus drew to a stop. Today she was
early, as if waiting would bring her joy closer. It was her only daughter’s
sixth birthday and Momon was bursting with excitement. She looked up to the
gray sky, and saw a summer storm gathering and hoped to make it home before the
first rainfall. The paper bag might not survive the drizzle but she pushed her
concern aside, resting in the knowledge that only God controlled the rain.
Momon planned a birthday feast of leftovers from the company potluck, and was savoring the moment her little one’s eyes would sparkle as the frosted doughnuts were unwrapped (squirreled away from the morning coffee room). The dinner would feature a lemon bar, couscous and coconut rice, and four skewers of chicken with sweet peppers. The children would sing and dance and celebrate and curl up with her in their cozy bed and tell happy stories. Her daughter would open the gift (her first very own word book) and they would eat apples, which Momon left soaking in honey and brown vinegar.
When the little family arrived a few years before, their boat was greeted with banners, bullhorns and crowds, some shouting, waving their fists, others smiling, waiting with open arms to help. Their very first apple was bruised when someone from the crowd pitched it at Momon’s head and it bounced off the man in front of her, tumbling to the ground and trampled by the crowd. Momon’s brave boy was quick to scoop the fruit up, wipe it with his shirt, and the little family ate it together as they were shuffled into a huge warehouse, along with thousands of others. They were given a number as they stepped through the metal door into the shelter and her first memory was of rows and rows of beds and blankets precisely arranged to accommodate the refugees. A line of people waited for steaming plates of food. A scoop of meat, dripping with brown sauce was plopped atop a mound of potato. Momon saw a crowd of children skipping around a large brown box. They were pouring milk in the children’s cups through a clamped rubber teat! The milk woman unlocked the nipple whenever a child approached. Momon immediately took her children to the big box, though a young man protested, speaking gibberish and signaling her to stand in another line. She would not budge. The man walked off shaking his arms and howling at a young woman in a military uniform.
The military girl approached and spoke to Momon in her native tongue “Do not fear. There will be plenty to eat here. First we must give you medicine and clean your wounds.” She spoke softly, reassuring with her gentle smile, giving them each a cup, and walking with the little family to the medicine line. A doctor looked in their ears, eyes and noses and redressed their wounds with new, clean white bandages. He finished by teaching them their first word in their new language, slowly pronouncing the syllables, “Laul-eeeee-pop!” He taught them how to say it by resting his tongue at the front of his teeth and forming the word with them as they crunched on the candy.
When Momon reflected upon those first weeks, she remembered the good and erased the bad. This was a great land, she thought. Both her son and her daughter went to school. Momon could work, people were kind to her, often asking how she was and whether she needed anything. One day, when Momon was very ill, the manager of the paper warehouse sent her home early and wasn’t angry at all and even told her that she could call in sick if she needed to. Too late for that, she thought, and she tried to work anyway, closing her eyelids when she turned her head to avoid feeling the pressure at the back of her eyeballs, or accentuating the trail of color that painted the room when she moved too quickly. But the manager insisted that she go home and told her not to come back until the fever was gone. Momon repaid his kindness by showing up early for a while and making the coffee and arranging the donuts in the break room.
Before her husband was killed, her family had cowered like animals at the sound of screaming dragons in the sky. The military planes sliced through the firmament, vengeful demons leaving wounded prey to waste in the field. So many were killed, others left homeless or orphaned or childless, and some had no-one left to gather their remains, so the birds and other scavengers would pick the flesh from the rotting carcasses, leaving the bare bones in the dust. On occasion, her little family would pass one of these skeleton fields on their search for new shelter. Once, they encountered a group of fatherless children at play with the skull and femur of some small child’s remains, like in a game of stickball. But these were not Momon’s children, her sweet departed had seen a proper burial, no one would defile their bodies and make them into play things like these wild ones who had no-one left to guide them.
Momon and her husband had had seven children. Two died in infancy during the embargo years because Momon could not produce the milk to feed them. Medicine, clean water, everything was scarce and babies were dying all around, but Momon did not expect her own breast to betray her. Hoping that she could at least soothe their cries, she rocked them, allowing them to suckle on her barren fountains while she sang her songs, and she nursed them constantly until they were exhausted from the struggle. They would soon take their sleep, she thought, and she held them day and night until they slept forever. They each remained for seven days, exactly. It was a sign from God, she thought, and they departed dreaming. Her three oldest children were not so lucky; they were all killed violently in one day when they mistook a dangerous lump in the ground for one of the packages of food that had been dropped from the heavens. It was an easy mistake. They were tempted by food and often punished for it. Her oldest son was warned to look out for mines, but he was a spirited boy and thought he knew better.
“At least they died together!” her husband wailed at the loss of his beautiful sons.
And Momon and her husband clung together and wept bitterly as they prepared the children’s graves.
But those were images of an old world, a world she hardly recognized. She was here now, on her daughter’s sixth birthday, with food and goodies to spare. There were no dragons here except in the picture books she would read to her six-year-old princess.
The bus was due to arrive in a matter of minutes and the gray clouds rolled in slowly, along with the regular passengers.
“Looks like a summer shower,” said the old man as he pressed next to Momon on the bench under the awning.
“Hmmm,” replied his wife who wore a pretty pink scarf covering her bluish-white hair.
They always took this bus on Tuesdays, thought Momon as she marveled at the old man’s immovable hair. It was stiff, like a dead animal resting atop his head and Momon wondered why he wore this thing. Certainly not for warmth, she thought. The woman’s scarf flapped and rippled with the wind like a spirit had circled through, and Momon looked away. Was her scarf for vanity or protection from the threatening rain? So flimsy. But it was pretty, and Momon admired the way the silk danced and floated like a fairy. For a moment she allowed herself to consider that she would like a pretty scarf for herself, even though her husband was long dead and she would never need to think of his desire again. She was too old for a husband now and could not see any reason to waste money on such frivolous effects.
A pregnant woman on the other side of the bench heaved into a plastic bag and walked her deposit to the metal trashcan over by the curb. Something about the anticipated bus ride seemed to trigger the reflex, but Momon knew the young mother was entering the more comfortable stage, tummy just beginning to swell. The girl vomited much less than she had a few weeks before; she always took the first seat right by the electric door. The regulars knew not to sit there, and the driver instructed everyone else not to sit there either, even after the nausea had begun to subside. The woman-with-child always brought a pocket full of plastic bags, so if she took ill on the bus, the driver would allow her to leave her deposits outside, all around the city, so as not to enhance the summer stench of the journey. Momon tried not to allow herself to wonder about those packages, and who discovered them and under what circumstances.
Across the ramp, another lady with brightly colored bags of leather, plastic and cloth stood separately from the crowd, often speaking to herself and throwing her head back and laughing out loud at nothing. Her purses were stuffed full. And she guarded them with a glare, sometimes screaming,
“Stay away from my treasures!”
And she rifled through her bags, making an inventory of medicine bottles, pretty blue marbles and crumbling stacks of letters with purple ribbons tying them together. Once, Momon observed the bag-lady trying to roll the huge top of a wooden spool-like object onto the bus. It was as big as a dinner table and the driver protested while Momon read the inscription, which had been burned across the top of the spool: “Primary Lead Cable, 37 LBS. 500 ft. Made in Japan. Property of Public Works.” And the crazy lady clutched at her enormous bobbin in the automatic doorway, wedging it open, blocking passengers, delaying the route and arguing with the driver until he finally got out of his seat and helped her on to the bus with her huge wooden prize! Momon loved this bag-lady who made things useful that others had left for rubbish.
Momon had a photographic memory and was at the top of her class in adult school. She remembered the detail of everything she laid her eyes on. In two years she could perform as well as anyone her age who was native to the language. She read to her children every night from the books they brought home from school. Momon was smart, her teacher said, and could do anything she wanted. She was loved everywhere she went because she was always smiling. She smiled because whenever she thought to frown, she replaced her thoughts with a reminder of her new good fortune. Soon, Momon’s instructor helped her to find a job, where she could work in an office that sold paper from a warehouse and she carefully sorted and filed orders. She was a most conscientious worker and she was grateful everyday for her wonderful life. So when she ached or hurt or was tired or had to stand in the rain waiting for her bus, she was still happy.
Momon’s excellent memory sometimes had its own life, and it was not always as she wished. She unwittingly memorized each and every co-worker’s 13 digit employee number on first sight. Momon always knew what paper was depleting or oversupplied by simply glancing at the stock numbers she had been working with throughout the day. Her penmanship was like that of a school teacher, she had learned to copy the letters exactly as she was taught from the posters that lined the adult school room; she just looked at things and remembered them without trying. And when she remembered the image of her husband in the ditch with his legs blown off, and his insides spilling out like slippery noodles, crying, reaching for her as the young soldier pulled her away, she had to work very hard to erase that particular recollection. So she learned to concentrate her talent into numbers and letters and things on the page, and she tried to forget when her photographic recall conjured up distant people and places.
Six. A happy number! Six years old. Half of which were free of fear. That’s good, Momon thought. Half a life of pure happiness, warmth, safety and love. Today was a good day and they would celebrate and remember all there was to be thankful for. Three plus three is six. Six years plus one more day, and she would be on her way to seven. God’s number.
The bus appeared in the distance and the crowd grew thicker along with the clouds, turning the landscape into a moonless midnight rather than an early summer evening. An occasional sprinkle misted over the pavement, crackling like oil in a frying pan. Momon borrowed a plastic bag from the pregnant one, explaining that she needed it to reinforce the now disintegrating birthday dinner sack, and the woman held it up with her head still between her knees. Momon accepted the bag and blessed the girl, bagging the goodies and wondering if her son would keep his little sister dry, by waiting for her bus inside the main station. She imagined they would scurry out when they saw her approach and they would skip home together over rainbow-puddles, outrunning the showers between the storefront awnings; and her skin pimpled with excitement, shivering with joy despite the hiss of rain on concrete.
A man ran down the street, crossing against the red light. Today he was almost hit by a car, which slammed on its brakes and swerved into a post. The crunch and clang of curling metal had barely subsided when the driver screamed,
And the sprinter retorted, “What the hell?”
Everybody looked up and gasped at the near miss. Just as quickly, the crowd went back to its silent stupor, reading, thinking, waiting as always for their transportation. He sprinted just about every day for the bus and sometimes made it, but not today. The driver of the now twisted car insisted the man show his identification, threatening to report the jay-walker to the police.
A group of skinny little school boys flocked together, with back-packs heavy with books, hanging from their soiled white uniform shirts and smoking shared packs of cigarettes, like babies learning to walk. They said, fuck, fuck, fuck, until it lost its sting. They glared at people in the eyes and waved their arms like monkeys and Momon sometimes laughed aloud, imagining them swinging from trees. There was one boy who always seemed a little uncomfortable with the clan and would sometimes correct them if they were too bothersome.
“Fuck!” said the smoker, burning his thumb with a match.
And he spotted Momon looking him in the eyes, smiling.
“What are you lookin’ at?” he growled.
“You wanna get us kicked off the bus again?” said the uncomfortable one.
“We’re not even on the bus yet, mama’s-boy!”
And they moved away from Momon who kept smiling. There was something grotesque and delightful about their strivings toward manhood, she thought, and the “mama’s-boy” looked beautiful and innocent, despite the wild ones who muted him.
A cell phone rang and a man dressed in the familiar bright orange vest of a road works repairman, reached into his pocket with soiled fingernails and answered, clearing his raspy throat. He explained away the noise at the bus stop by saying,
“It’s a little loud today; my office window is stuck open.”
Momon smiled, thinking it was nice that he could pretend so well. Maybe he would have an office one day, and a car. Everyone had dreams in her new country and everyone tried to keep them. Anything was possible if Momon could learn to read and write and work a good job at the paper supplier.
“Okay, Baby...” the vest-man said shuffling his feet and smiling.
Clearly he was in love. Maybe he should tell his lover the truth about his real office, Momon thought. When he finished the call, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a little red folding knife set. He scraped the grime from under his fingernails, switching between the little blade and the corkscrew, concentrating, examining. His hands were rough with the signs of hard labor. Even if he would be able to clean them he could not hide their purpose. His lover must know better, thought Momon.
Two women arrived in laced walking shoes. They sat down talking in loud voices and began untying. She had never seen these women before, they were not regulars, and they prattled on about how “fun” it would be to take the bus to “happy hour” and they pulled out a change of shoes from their travel bags. They flicked their long hair from side to side, while they stretched down to their feet, nearly out of reach, and slipped into their uncomfortable looking high-heels. Momon wondered why any woman would subject herself to such torture. Her feet hurt enough from standing, lifting, walking across the concrete floor of the mill; she couldn’t imagine wearing shoes like balancing on two sticks and a tiny pebble. And the fancy shoes weren’t really pretty, they were just silly. No man would want such a stupid woman. She liked her shoes better. Silver with a light purple swirl embroidered on the sides and made from soft, sturdy rubber with bouncy springs under the heels. Momon would never permit her daughter to wear those other “fancy” shoes and she knew her son would agree.
The children had come home from school one day, claiming a famous shoe-man had visited and given shoes away for free; so they grabbed a pair each and an extra for Momon. When she met her children at the station that day, they came running, spouting an unbelievable tale about the shoe-man, as if he were some sort of god, declaring they could all make shoes and be rich and famous someday, just like him. At first Momon could not believe their story, so she called the teacher to catch the children out. But the instructor relieved her fears and confirmed that some very important man was in fact on campus with free shoes. Momon laughed. But the shoes fit her almost perfectly, and she stuffed the toes with paper to fill the hollow spaces and keep her feet from slipping, and she was thankful to live in this crazy place where a silly man could become famous because of shoes!
Pissssshhhht pierced the air brakes as the bus pulled in.
A young mother stood and plucked the music from her ears, un-strapped her sleeping baby and folded the flimsy stroller. The child was fast asleep. He was a chubby brown boy and had eyelashes like an angel. He remained sleeping as the woman flopped his head over her shoulder and adeptly organized her items with her spare hand.
Momon’s children had beautiful eyelashes too, and their eyes sparkled like precious stones whenever she stepped off the bus.
The bus doors slapped together verrrrr- shhhhuck and woke the chubby one.
The boy looked around, groggy, and caught Momon’s happy eyes. He smiled shyly, as he always did when he saw Momon, and hid his face in his mother’s ample shoulder. The woman adjusted the weight of his little body and settled aboard the bus.
Momon proceeded through the aisle with her bag, taking the first available seat about mid-way, and wedged the sack against the side wall with her right leg as she sat down. A young college boy with thick brown hair sat next to her. He was about her eldest son’s age – or the age he would have been had he not been disobedient. The young man sat silently next to Momon, reading. He was polite and tried not to crowd her, and she liked his manners. He wore a nice, new jacket with many pockets and zippers. His fingers were slender with groomed nails and he smelled of clean soap. He had a book bag, neatly packed and slung over one shoulder, hanging at his left hip. He was probably studying to be a doctor or a lawyer or some other good profession. He would make a fine husband someday.
A distant thunderclap was followed by a lightning bolt and the polite one next to her shifted uncomfortably. Momon wondered if her children were frightened too. She didn’t want her birthday girl to suffer. Not today she thought, and asked God silently to hold his wrath a while. The thunder was like her memory, sometimes striking without warning. But Momon always reassured her babies with reminders of the big boat and the soft beds and how far away the conflict was now. She taught her children to erase things that were bad and troublesome by singing them away. And she knew all would be well when they saw her bag of treats and they would rush home together and change into dry clothes and lay the table.
Wall to wall, people stood clutching at the hanging straps and securing their bodies against the rails, leaning into one another. The stench of the day’s end began to accumulate sections of odors particularly bad with the hot weather, permeating the small pockets of air between the passengers, with occasional sprinklings of perspiration. The bus was suffocating and made Momon’s head light and her arms tingle, and she could sometimes hear the far-away sounds of home. But when this feeling of doom began to engulf her, she immediately rubbed her fingertips together and hummed to herself, breathing through her mouth and imploring God for strength, and the bad feelings usually went away. She hummed and rubbed and breathed and thought about her birthday girl, and concentrated on the surprises she would share with her children in just a few minutes from now.
A cell phone rang and the orange vest man answered. “I’m having car trouble right now. I can’t really talk.”
Momon wondered if any woman was stupid enough to believe a man with so many excuses. At least in her old country her parents did the choosing. She did not have to interview or wonder whether the man was good or bad or had an office or an orange vest. The family sorted those things out and had chosen a good and gentle husband for her. He never struck her, he always worked hard and he mourned loudly with her when each of their precious children had died. She wondered how her daughter would be protected, since all their family was gone. But she decided not to worry because there was time yet for her little one, and her son was proving to be a fine young man who would head the family with pride when he became of age.
The chubby baby began to cry somewhere in the throng, overheated from the tightly packed passengers, expressing what everyone else kept to themselves. It only took a few minutes for the simmering of bodies to boil into an almost unbearable heat as the bus inched along in the crawling traffic on its non-stop express route to the central station. Momon thought that she wouldn’t mind if it rained now, maybe it would quell the rising heat. Steam seamed to climb from the pavement like smoke from the underworld and she looked out of the window and caught a glimpse of the sky, dark and domed like the inside of a cooking pot. The tingles crawled across her skin like insects and she hummed and flicked her fingers like they were wet from washing the dishes. The crying baby settled down when his mother shushed him and gave him some milk. But he was sure to screech again before the journey was over.
There was trouble at the front of the bus; the women with the silly shoes protested the cigarette smoke, and the driver slowed down. The young man sitting next to Momon shifted uncomfortably and she understood him. He was a good boy, minding his own business, anxious to get where he was going and these young ones were holding everyone up with their mischief. The boys were insolent and the driver kicked them off, wrestling their cigarettes away while the crowd grunted and murmured in approval. The pregnant one, not expecting this relapse of morning sickness to hit her so hard, stepped off the bus too, waving the driver on as she threw up on the steamy pavement in the middle of the city. She had given Momon her last plastic bag and was now stranded with those boys who spat at the bus as it passed them by.
There were four empty seats now, and the old man, the woman with the scarf and the women with the stick shoes took their places. But the people who remained standing were still packed like sardines in a can of hot fishy water. Momon saw the “mamma’s boy” staring toward the bus in the growing distance, with deep regret in his eyes. He had forgotten his sack of books, Momon noticed, and saw him looking back at her as if he had just been scolded by his mother. She could tell that he would turn out fine one day and leave that pack of bad ones behind him.
Momon hummed and rubbed and breathed for what seemed like an eternity, until the bus approached the station. Thunder struck again. The sky fell with a menacing crack and everyone jumped and looked around apprehensively. Then it struck again, and again and again, until Momon became as unsettled as her children in a storm. Every passenger wore fear on their faces and began to grumble defensively like a lion’s roar. This was not thunder. This was not thunder!
“Stay calm!” the Bus driver shrieked as he turned a hard right and slammed on the brakes of the massive metal box and the passengers went wild, screaming and clawing and climbing over one another to jump from the still moving vehicle.
“Stay Calm, I said!” commanded the driver.
And the crowd paused for a crack in time.
“Fire and Brimstone!” screeched the bag lady filling the thin slice of silence.
And the old woman with the scarf slapped her, screaming, “Shut up, You!”
Just then, the young man next to Momon smiled a peaceful smile in the midst of the chaos, and in her recurring dream, she looked at this handsome boy, just her oldest son’s age -- if he had lived -- and the young man stood and bowed to her saying,
“God is great!” as he reached his hand inside his jacket and held up his phone or some sort of metal object.
Momon smiled at him, like an approving mother, and could see his clean pressed shirt now, bulging with silver tape and a strange package with wires...
Her lemon bar, couscous and coconut went flying high in the sky through the top of the bus along with the silly stick shoes, the pretty silk scarf, the confiscated cigarettes, baby bottles, plastic hair and the bag-lady’s neatly tied love-letters from days gone by; all mingled together with the soaking red rain of human flesh and blood. The sky rained people-parts and Momon’s photographic memory was permanently erased.
The rain fell like a gush, and the school-boys’ parents splashed through the red sea, wading through the remains, hoping shamelessly that this one day, their sons had been dreadful again and banished from the bus somewhere in midtown. The orange vest was miraculously shielded from the flying fragments of metal that ripped through the flesh, by the airborne texts of Ancient History, Geometry and French that had been forgotten by the mamma’s boy. As the vest twisted from the wreckage, someone grabbed his mangled stump, which no longer had soiled fingernails or a masculine hand attached, and they pulled him out and over to a clearing.
The man sobbed unaware of his missing hand, “Oh, God, oh God, the books! The books... the books...”
The vomiting mother, the too-late sprinter, the bad little boys, and other would-be commuters, frantically made their way to the site in a blood-soaked reunion with the ones who were awaiting them, with tears and rejoicing that they had been diverted from their normal routine that day by the grace of God. And the husbands and wives, parents and children of good and evil wailed and repented of their sins aloud, and thanked the Lord for his special protection.
If she had had a moment to agonize over the fate of her children, Momon may have fretted, “Who will guide my only son? Who will choose my daughter’s mate?” but she need not have worried. Her only daughter lived six years to the day and half of her life was perfect. Her final blessing was quick and she passed without fear to the heavens with her protective brother holding her precious little hand. They were taken in the first unholy clap of thunder just before seven more buses were destroyed, and almost no one knew what had hit them.