Days Before an Incident

by mdjb

She was sweet-faced, silver-haired, imperturbable, as plump fingers turned the pages of her novel every afternoon on the bus going downtown. The roughnecks would laugh a little too loud and their girlfriends would howl at most of what they said as if they were dating the world’s top comedians. Occasionally, they disturbed other passengers, but the old doll never seemed to notice.
Leonard silently fumed. He had never been like that as a youth. Sure, he had done some offcolor things, but never in an ostentatious way. He wondered why the bus driver didn’t stop the bus and throw them off when they got like that. They were daily passengers – too old for school, likely not yet working, piking off parents – and frequently boarded through the back door of the crowded bus, fare-beaters acting haughty because it was easy.
One morning, he was sitting beside the woman. He glanced down at her book, and took in the words, “…and then you stole into her room and took advantage of the situation, didn’t you, Mr. Dodd?” Agatha Christie or somesuch. She looked the type.
“Do they bother you?” she asked.
“Excuse me.”
“I only ask because you look as if you’re ready to boil.”
“They’re punks. For two cents, I’d…”
“They’re just kids. We were kids. Could anybody tell you anything when you were that age?”
“I never provoked people just for the sake of trying to amuse my friends.”
“I see.” She returned to reading, not speaking until the bus reached her stop. Then, she excused herself to pass Leonard, and as she did, said, “My name is Martha. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She got off and walked westward, but not far, when one of the roughnecks stuck his head out the window and called out, “See you tomorrow, Martha.”
Leonard glared at him. The kid said, “Oh sorry, man, don’t wanna step on your toes. She’s a little old for me anyway.”
Leonard said, “Don’t you respect your elders?”
The kid pointed to his tee-shirt which read QUESTION AUTHORITY.
“Smart ass,” Leonard said.
The kid laughed. His friends laughed. Their girlfriends laughed.
Leonard had never enjoyed being the butt of a joke. In days gone by that kind of thing would have been enough for him to take action. He promised himself if he ever came up against this punk while he was alone, he’d make him sorry for laughing.
Leonard got off on 34th Street, and the kid wolf-whistled through the window at him. He did not turn around as the bus continued toward the Village.
His annoyance fazed him less in the open air. He should be thankful to the kids for one thing. His response to their activity had caused the old doll to break the ice. She must have been a stunner at one time, not so long ago. He recalled his being quite the ladies man, never finding difficulty making small talk. How she unsettled him. He watched her reading every day without ever screwing up courage to start a conversation. He was losing his touch, no doubt, and at only fifty-nine.
He figured she might have a couple of years on him, but kept herself in good shape – stylish hair silver-white in a way that doesn’t occur naturally. And she just let bothersome noise flow past – he envied her calm, lacking in his own character.
Next morning, she was in a window seat, but someone was already next to her. He tipped his hat when she looked up. She smiled.
A few of the kids got on two stops later, but not the wiseguy. He and his girlfriend came onboard three stops further down.
It was not intentional, but Leonard’s foot, a little too far out in the aisle, caused the gangly youth to stumble. His friends laughed as he almost fell. Righting himself, he looked a little foolish. When he screwed up his mouth in annoyance, they stopped laughing immediately.
Leonard said, “Jesus, I’m sorry.”
Intentional, or not, Leonard had triggered a situation. They were enemies. Rather than attempting to move toward the back, the tough stood over him and crooked his leg slightly, pressing his knee into Leonard’s thigh. He couldn’t move because the man in the window seat was huge.
When his thigh started to throb, Leonard said, “Do you mind?”
“Jesus, I’m sorry,” said the kid, imitating him, “But if you weren’t sitting next to Fatso, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Hey,” said the other man.
“Watch it, kid,” Leonard said, “You’re going too far.”
“I’m going to the Village. Where are you going?” the kid said. “A nursing home?”
“The hell you say. I’m old enough to be your father.”
“Exactly my point. We put the old man in a home when he started acting feeble.”
“Feeble? Why you punk,” Leonard said. He raised himself with difficulty and backhanded the kid across his jaw, forgetting he wore a signet ring, and regretted his action immediately. The kid’s face was knocked sideways. He lost his grip on the overhead bar and fell onto people behind him. Through the gap, Leonard saw Martha. She was not smiling. Before the kid was on his feet again, a bruise was already evident.
The driver called out, “What the hell is going on back there?”
“You’re dead,” the kid said to Leonard. “You’re dead, old man.”
The driver stopped the vehicle and wended through the passengers to assess the ruckus. Tall and broad, he said, “Son, I think you should switch buses,” and doled out transfers.
He didn’t argue, but as he exited, said with a smirk, “You should’ve warned your boyfriend not to mess with us, Martha.”
That was too much and Leonard started towards the exit also, but felt a tugging on his jacket. Martha was shaking her head. He looked at the kids getting off and looked back at her. Other passengers were staring at him. Several options crossed his mind.

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