CONNECTED THAT WAY
[This is the short story that was selected from nearly 1,000 entries for Chicago Public Radio's "Stories On Stage" contest. It was presented by actor CeCe Klinger at the Museum of Contemporary Art in November 2005 and will air on May 20, 2007. This past fall the story was published in RIVER OAK REVIEW]
I had a baby. Mary came out me, and we’re together always, riding the bus, eating, walking side-by-side, bussing tables at the Nite ‘N’ Day. Now she’s big as me. Her and me’re hard to tell apart, except I got only a few teeth so you see my smile and know I’m the mom. Mary doesn’t call me Mom. She calls me my name, Sally. The City takes care of us, gives us a room, makes sure we go to work and earn a paycheck. Aileen is the City. She stays at the House with us and the others. She is real nice to me and Mary. Mary’s good at making sure I cross the street at the light so cars don’t hit me. I’m good at making sure Mary wears washed clothes. I separate what’s clean and what’s not. The dirty ones don’t go in the drawers. We got keys and cards kept all together around our necks. The keys open doors and the cards let us get on the #49 bus, showing who we are with photos and names. Hers says Mary. Mine says Sally.
On the #49, Mary says she hates the diner potatoes while I’m sitting across from her, right behind the driver, waiting to get to Diversey. I say they’re like raw. The sun flashes yellow in my eyes, so I close them.
“Some people’d say yours are boiled too much,” she says back, which is true. I boil potatoes in a pot at the House. Then Mary tells the driver we get off at Diversey, reminds him that’s our stop. She keeps track for me or I’d ride to the end of the line. “You’re a good driver,” she tells him too. Mary’s kind like that, telling people nice comments. I don’t. I forget most the time to be nice. I’m nice. I just forget to tell most the time.
“Boy, that Don, he’s not nice,” I tell. Don’s the owner of the diner.
“Yeah,” Mary says, laughing loud. “He’s a J-A-C-K-”
“With an A-S-S,” I finish. Lots of times Mary and me finish what the other says, connected that way. “But not next week Don’s not.”
“Cause we won’t see him.” Mary shuts one eye to the sun.
“Cause we’ll be in Iowa.” I shut my eyes again, seeing only red.
“And Don won’t. He’ll be here in Chicago.”
“The ding-dong,” I say. We laugh.
We say all those words because we won’t be in Chicago next week. We’ll be in Des Moines where my half-sister Cindy lives with her husband and kids. Mary and me are taking a vacation on the Greyhound. The tickets are kept on the dresser below the mirror next to the clock until we need them to get on the long distance bus, not the #49. I’ve never taken a vacation. I’ve stayed home, forgetting when’s work and when’s not, before Mary was old enough to remind me. But vacation with traveling, never.
Aileen let us use her travel bag, a blue one with metal buckles, big enough for shirts, pants, socks, bras, underpants, but not shoes. We’ll wear those on our feet. Aileen is my age with all her teeth and a big smile. She tells us things we don’t know or forget sometimes. The City pays her to be nice, but she doesn’t mind. Mary remembers what Aileen says. I forget, but I do remember when Mary was smaller than me, when she lived with the Fosters and had problems with school and friends and all. Me, I never went to school. My mom gave me up. “For her health,” is what she told me when I saw her that once. After I got big and the city had let me loose, I found her in a drugstore before she died. She’s the lady from the picture I had, but old and small, walking slow on State Street, a cane in her hand, a purse and paper bags in her elbow bend. She turns into a revolving door. I’m with my bags too, but they’re plastic and not from shopping and I’m full of a smell regular people make faces from. I drop my bags at the corner and follow, step in, revolving. I talk to her at the make-up counter where she tells me about her health, but I didn’t tell her much cause back then was when I lived behind State street, had my own independence, hunting down food and places to sleep without rats and angry men. I did all that by myself until Mary come out of me and The City got nicer.
Mary’s thirty. She’s my friend. She still sits across from me on the #49 laughing at me saying, “Ding-dong,” her whole self jiggling, her hands holding her chest, making me laugh too, saying, “Ding-dong” again, the laughs making all the old ladies on the bus look away and the young kids settle their eyes on us. Mary’s keys jingle around her neck. Mine shake too. But that all stops when the bus driver shouts, “Diversey,” and Mary rings the stop cord. We stand up. Mary reminds me to hold tight since the bus stops fast. Mary tells me the Iowa bus will be different. “Remember what Aileen says? How fancy them buses is.” I don’t remember, I tell Mary while I’m climbing down slow for my knees, the hurt jabbing up my legs. “Tell me again,” I say while we walk down our street. She reminds me how they are good, big buses with soft seats and lights above and a fan that blows air and no stop-cord to worry about, because the bus just slows real easy when you get to Iowa where Cindy is waiting and driving us to her house instead of her coming to Chicago to our room in the City House, sitting on Mary’s bed, smiling, asking funny questions like is Aileen around much and do we remember to clean and eat regular. Mary and me laughed, light like pebbles, because we get by fine, but Cindy leaves quick, so Mary and me decide not to laugh at her in Iowa, not even light, cause she’s good to us. Mary will remind me, poke me in the side, if I forget.
When we get home, Boombox Rasheed is on the stoop. His radio don’t work, but he carries it on one shoulder, listening to songs we can’t hear. That makes Mary laugh more. She punches him in the shoulder, asks him what he’s listening to. He’s Mexican, or foreign like lots of people on our block. He laughs too, his eyes wet, trying to talk to us, but no words making sense. His mom watches him from a window across the street. The low sun makes her white dress red. We go inside, check in, and sit on my bed to eat a box of cookies we saved, their crumbles falling to the sheet like snow, us talking about what’s maybe in Iowa that’s not in Chicago, waiting, nervous, happy, but nervous to go.
Today is friday. We ride the bus today, the vacation bus. Our bag is packed with underpants and toothbrushes. I’m wearing my boots. Aileen packed us two a sack of snacks to share. I peaked– Raisins in tiny boxes, Mountain Dews, and a baggy of saltines too. We’re talking a lot about plans. Aileen reminds us of the stuff we need to do, puts her phone number in both our pockets, and checks our money supply. I’m asking a lot of questions. Mary gets mad, crinkles little lines around her eyes, says I’m asking the same already-answered things. I’m not going to work today, I know. I’m taking the fancy bus without the pull-cord for stops. I know Cindy’s picking us up, but I have to check again. Mary fists up the front of her Bulls sweatshirt, stomps off. I pat my wrist and rock back and forth. Aileen says everything will be fine. I ask her all the questions again. She answers them calm and kind.
Mary waits by Aileen’s car while I put on my coat. I’m making like we’re going to work. I’m slow with my mittens. Maybe I’ll hide them. But Aileen carries our bag, puts her arm over my shoulders, takes me to the door and I step out. She’s driving us to the station. I get that. The bag is heavy, I guess, it scrapes the sidewalk, her ankle, until she shoves it in the trunk. Mary climbs in the front seat, tells me I’m in back, and no more questions, covering up both her ears. Aileen tells her to be calm. I’m just nervous, that’s all. “Yeah,” I say, “I’m nervous is all. Leave me be.” I knot up my mittens in my fingers, shove my hands under my legs. It snows while Aileen drives. The white is little crowds of people rushing around downtown, only they hurry over the windows and run off into the wind.
“Flurries,” Aileen says, seeing me in the mirror. “So pretty, aren’t they, Sally?”
“It’s a storm. It’s gonna get worst and worst. The drivers won’t see through this stuff. It’s gonna stop us from going.”
“Ugh,” Mary says, snaking her neck around toward me. “Snow’s snow, Sally. Just snow.”
“Don’t worry. It’s just a sprinkling,” says Aileen, driving past our regular bus stop.
“Where’re the tickets?” I ask. Still looking at me in back, Mary jumps her arm out at me, slaps my knee two three four times.
“That’s enough, Mary. Stop,” tells Aileen. Mary stops, turns back around, crossing her arms tight and sliding far down in her seat. I stay quiet, thinking Mary’s going to be meaner on the bus ride. When she’s mean she’s loud and people complain. I stay still, pressing my fingers into the seat, making them hurt me. The downtown is full of people like the snow, rushing, rushing, crossing not with the light, honking horns at each other, squeezing their coats over their faces. “Oh, you two,” Aileen says as we’re getting to the station. “You two are going to have so much fun in Des Moines. Cindy is going to enjoy having you both there. . . .” She keeps telling us nice stuff until she’s in a spot, stopped, her blinking lights click-clacking click clack click, then tells us it’s time to get out on the sidewalk side, grab the bag. We have to hurry, she can’t leave the car there long. Out we go, slamming doors. I stand close to Mary, our coats touching. People brush by talking on phones and yelling for taxicabs that screech stopped. Aileen leads us to busses all rumbling in a line, finds ours. The driver stands by the door taking bags and putting them in drawer-spaces under where we’ll sit. The windows are big and dark. The bus is tall. The driver says, “Good afternoon, Ladies. Where to?” Aileen says that it’s us two going, not her, that we’re going to Des Moines. Mary smiles at him, tells him we’re going on vacation, tells him he looks like a good driver, that he’s nice. He nods, smiles big, his few hairs, thin and white, whipping in the wind. He takes our bag and put it under, on top of others. A red string hangs out my mitten. I chew on it. I look to where the driver’s going to sit, way up the stairs in a seat like a recliner. The front of the bus says SALT LAKE CITY on a sign. Not Des Moines.
“It’s the wrong bus, Mary,” I tell her.
“No, no,” Aileen says before Mary can yell. She looks up, sees the sign, says the bus just keeps going after we get off.
The driver nods, says, “That’s right. I drive on to Utah.”
“He’ll tell you when to get off.”
“I’ll get us off the bus, Sally.” Mary pulls the tickets from her coat pocket.
I feel like I’m behind State street again, the world full of tricks, telling you one thing, meaning another. Mary is used to different things than me. I’m troubled when the city opens up to be everything it’s full of, all the people and cars and houses and jobs and shops and chores and kids and animals and streets and sky and garbage and noise, all the tricks they play on a person, somebody else’s life getting tangled in mine, they don’t take the #49, they cross the street in a different direction, they have a dog and I don’t, go in doors I don’t go in. All of it around me drops like a heavy blanket, pushing down on me, trying to take me in different directions, away from food, away from walls, from keys.
“I don’t have my keys,” I tell them, my voice shaking. I grab at my neck, not finding them there. They are always there. They are not around my neck, and I grab and grab.
“Sally, your keys are in the bag. You don’t need them now,” Aileen says. But I keep grabbing and grabbing, tearing off my mittens, dropping then on the wet cement, and grabbing and crying.
“Sally,” Aileen says reaching for my hands, pulling them away from my skin.
“Sally, Sally, Sally,” Mary says. She says my name, but I don’t hear it. I hear it, but it doesn’t mean me. It’s a sound she’s making. The driver helps other people, all of them looking at me. I smell my body like trash and dirt, eyes on me like all eyes are. I suck in air, can’t get enough inside until Mary, not mad, not mean, says solid, pushing my ticket into my hand, “Mom.”
I hear her. I listen to the sound of her. She says me again. She tells me we are leaving, tells me she’s going to be there and we’ll sit next to each other, riding a bus like always. I breathe and say, “Okay,” giving them a smile. “It’s okay.” I have to tell myself that, even on regular days. My smell is gone. I cleaned this morning with soap. My wet mittens in the melted snow get picked up by Aileen, wiped off. The whole world’s moved away from us like a bunch of pigeons, so it’s just Mary and me and Aileen and a bus and a grinning driver at a open door.