The weathered old man stood there on the corner clutching a dog leash. It was one of those Indian summers and the rain had not come. He lowered himself to the sidewalk and fingered a cigarette end out of the crack. The bus lurched forward as he held it to his lips. Jer leaned back in the plastic blue seat and watched the rest of the city pass like images in a slot machine. The bus was a knife cutting through the center of the earth. Here it was a desert.
The inside was almost emptied, and bathed in yellow, artificial light. Directly behind him, a man whispered into a cell phone. Jer uncapped the flask and took another. Liquid caramel burned like snapping cedar, popping, glowing, and finally ashing over into black. He screwed the cap and ran his thumb over the Eagle engraving.
Three years have passed since he returned to this life. Now he drifted from one job to the next because work was supposed to be what a veteran needed. Jer didn’t know what he wanted.
Three blocks from his apartment is this little Mexican joint called Ray’s. Spanish music plays from a small radio. It’s one of those places. Ray and this short, dumpy old woman are always behind the counter when he drops in. He takes the order and the wife prepares it. She wraps burritos in double foil. Her hands are delicate and shine as if they were rubbed in baby oil. He watches her work. It’s strangely beautiful, like a mother toweling a wet child. Then she gives him a brown paper bag.
The man behind him now talked with his wife. Jer pretended he wasn’t listening. He looked up at the no-smoking sign above the driver. And then the bus sank under a bridge. Jer was a hummingbird in the past life, dipping, fluttering, and carrying nectar to the oasis. The man asked for his girls, Cynthia first and then Sarah. He promised both that he would be home in three days.
Last night he rested in a folding chair and watched the cup of milk shake on the kitchen table. When the El train passed he counted the seconds until the ripples disappeared. Then he ate the burrito while the glass pipe slowly smoked. It took four or five hits for the night to go. Twenty-six Christmases have passed. His head sagged and the ball of foil fell to the floor. This was meditation. Here was a present.
Jer stares fixedly at a fly on the top of the seat in front of him. She scrubs her wings with her hinder legs. He listens for a moan. She is cleaning herself all over, twisting and untwisting her forelegs like a woman under a showerhead. She knows that she’s being watched and touches herself in slower, drawn movements. Jer keeps his distance, not wanting to scare her. He just wants to keep watching.
The breaks lock and another episode.
Jer jolts forward like one of those dummies in a car safety ad, expressionless. The cell phone is now two parts in the aisle. He looks back and the man holds a hand over the wormhole in the middle of his forehead. Blood flows like sand in an hourglass.
“Call an ambulance,” the driver might yell. Then he’ll pry the door with two hands and run into the center of things. Jer ducks below the window line to protect himself from gunshots.
“You’re going to be okay. I’ll get you out of here.”
He is a hummingbird, dipping, fluttering, and carrying nectar to God only knows. The flask slowly empties the rest and it runs down the small rubber slats of the aisle, right up to the man’s shoe. Thunder cracks. She is too far-gone. The sky opens up and knots of black worms squirm down to Earth. Now he is going home.