The Tree At Bus Stop #91
No one in Bridgeview had any idea what kind of tree it was. It certainly wasn’t a particularly remarkable specimen. Nothing that might entice you to stop and admire it for any reason in any season. Nondescript leaves, ragged bark and droopy tangled branches broke off easily in the wispiest of breezes thoroughly littering the ground beneath. It was just there. Other than losing its lusterless, small brown leaves every fall and quietly growing them back every spring, it didn’t seem to change much, even in height. On the rare occasion that anyone did think about it, they doubted it was an elm or an ash since most of those trees had been disappearing recently. Some kind of insect infestation or tree virus people said. But it was just there. Had been as long as Jerry had caught that 6:50 a.m. bus…which already seemed like forever even though it had only been 18 years he reckoned,
roughly the same as his marriage.
Irma would pack up his sack lunch every morning, double-bagged, a tuna, egg salad or meatball sandwich if she’d made spaghetti recently, carefully wrapped in wax paper that she’d wash and re-use at least twice, along with his dented red-and-black buffalo plaid coffee thermos, leaving everything on the small wobbly table next to their front door. Sometimes he’d remember to give her a kiss good-bye. Other times he’d just amble down the crumbling concrete steps out of their apartment building then trudge down the five blocks to the bus stop.
Although no one seemed to notice, the tree kept the worst of the summer morning’s blistering sun off of the three dozen or so men waiting to board the bus. In the winter, the tree was bare, its black twisted branches a gargoyle-like silhouette against the frigid dawn. People stamped their feet while waiting in the dirty snow, tamped by thousands of footprints of all sizes. Even when the passengers disembarked on the opposite side of the street in the evening no one noticed the tree, cloaked in eerie darkness in the winter months or vibrantly undulating with the rusty reds of a summer sunset. It was just there.
If there was still a seat on the bus, a rarity except around certain holidays, Jerry would pull out a day old newspaper, left from a rider the previous night, and scan through the Piggly Wiggly ads. He’d have placed it on the wobbly table by the door when he’d gotten home and then picked it up again that next morning. If there was an ad or a coupon for a rump roast or a pork loin or a roasting chicken he would tear it out and leave it in the middle of the kitchen counter for Irma. She had a catch-all drawer where she neatly assembled her coupons, rubber bands, paper clips, pens, pencils, birthday candles, exactly $2 in quarters and $.50 in dimes for the Laundromat, and the dog-eared Bridgeview yellow pages, and he could easily have put it in that drawer. Then it would have been on top when she went out to do their marketing early in the day before she headed over to the hotel to clean the newly vacated rooms each morning. But he preferred to leave it visible on the counter so she would realize that she’d forgotten to look through the paper that previous night. Missed it after having finished washing up their dishes and ironing the dress shirts she brought home each night from the hotel’s regular laundry service. Neither of them ever mentioned it to the other, however. It was just how things were.
A series of lingering ice storms had finally ended in late April that year. Everyone eagerly shed their grey flannel long johns and scratchy wool mufflers, trading these items for black umbrellas that dangled over elbows, a ubiquitous sight as common as rifles in a war zone. One evening in May as Jerry got off the bus and crossed the street he happened to notice that the tree’s branches had no leaves yet. Well, that’s a bit of a stretch I confess because actually he didn’t notice it: as he crossed the street he overheard someone else remarking to another passenger. Two days later, no buds, no leaves the two men pointed out. Two weeks later, still no leaves. Two months later, still no leaves. Even on cloudy days the scorching sunlight now radiated through the barren branches until the wheezing air-cooled bus arrived. Once all had boarded, the door swung shut and the outside world rippled by through the dust-runneled, green-tinted windows as the bus rumbled along its route.
Irma had been complaining since just before Christmas of becoming nauseated from the cleaning fluids at the hotel. She wanted to quit her job there but Jerry said only if she could hire on elsewhere first to replace the money they would lose. He’d point to the pile of medical bills still awaiting payment from last year when she’d fallen down the flight of concrete steps outside the hotel’s parking lot. She was looking into bringing more ironing home but Jerry shook his head, vehemently opposed. No way. Ironing didn’t pay near as well as her current cleaning work. She’d be crazy to even consider leaving that guaranteed housekeeping job right now he argued.
His job was hard too, he grumbled. Much harder than cleaning a couple toilets for cryin’ out loud! And hot. She had no idea how hot, not to mention how dangerous! Sparks flying everywhere at the foundry. Freak combustions were common. Two men last week who’d been careless while changing out some equipment had terrible burns from a gas explosion and were hospitalized with a doubtful recovery. But he stayed on that job because it paid decent. Union saw to yearly increases too. Her hotel work provided guaranteed wages even for part time. Enough about fumes!
On a Friday evening late that August a torrential thunderstorm hit just as the factory whistles blew, snarling traffic for miles in every direction. Well over two hours behind schedule the bus had finally crawled up the hill within a few blocks of the #91 stop, but then had to detour down a side street. The entire area was flooded with a foot of water. The bus driver had gotten word from a cabbie that lightning had split that old tree in half, sliced straight through, exposing its black rotted core. The half remaining upright whipped maniacally in the howling grey rain, its branches snapping off in the fierce wind. The other half had shattered into wood chunks bouncing like enormous bowling pins onto the road claimed those who saw its actual demise, ultimately getting sucked down into the storm drain creating the flood. A crew of a dozen men was working to clear the debris, get the drain open and get the traffic moving again. But savage tongues of lightning licking the ground forced them to again abandon their task and take shelter over at Casey’s Tavern. Jerry and most of the other bus passengers also fled to Casey’s.
Well, this would certainly be something to talk about with Irma tonight he chuckled to himself. He assumed they’d be having meatloaf since there was plenty left over from yesterday. He hoped it wasn’t dried out like a leather dog chew…that she’d had the sense to remove it from the oven once it was obvious he wasn’t going to be home on time. She rarely said much these days other than occasionally mumbling that she still wanted to quit that housekeeping job. Several other maids had also complained about the fumes and the manager had finally switched to another disinfecting product, but it hadn’t helped much with Irma’s headaches.
Maybe he should make more of an effort he thought as he signaled the bartender for another beer. Some of the guys had mentioned tonight that they were trying to make more of an effort at home. And, truth be told, his wife actually had been looking just a little ragged recently. He’d offer to wash the dishes tonight he resolved, brushing the foam off his upper lip.
When Jerry walked in the door there was no smell of meatloaf, burnt or otherwise. He plunked two Piggly Wiggly ads down in the middle of the kitchen counter as he called her name. No answer. The apartment seemed oddly cold. And very damp. A window must be open somewhere. What was she thinking in leaving a window open he muttered in exasperation as he walked into their bedroom.
She lay motionless under the window, a tiny crumpled heap, wearing her yellow hounds tooth housedress, a transparent shroud soaked from its hours in the rain. A stroke deduced the coroner upon examination, but definitely a blessing. Her brain was riddled with cancer, crumbling for months. Impossible to predict he quietly assured Jerry.
You know…it was just there.