Michael Mcneilley



On the bus, returning at last from his tour of duty, nearing home, he still wears the uniform. He imagines everyone at home has forgotten him, but this is not true, as they will remember him, and will not forget him until he takes off the uniform. He stares blankly out the bus window at a parade of small suburban houses, defocusing on things past the glass, drifting through background pastels interspersed with wider swatches: the blue of a small lake, forest green, shopping center grey. His high school sweetheart Elizabeth has waited for him; it has not been nearly so long as it seems. They will marry this summer, and he will return to his job at the gas station and his old blue uniform, until his father retires and then it is his gas station and he can wear jeans and flannel shirts and leather jackets and a baseball cap with Caterpillar on the front. There will be children, and he and his wife will eat together, for some time even at lunch, sleep together and settle in: boating and swimming and bowling; softball and little league games; attend the usual functions and do the normal things. He thinks of it and can see it all, and his eyes take on a widened haunted look as he remembers Butzi and Oberammergau, and he glazes out the bus window as an attractive redhead boards at the corner. He hardly notices her, watching instead out the window to his right, looking without seeing, shifting his focus between the world outside and the bus window glass as he blinks away the blurs blinks and his vision resolves and his eyes lock onto those of an old man in an apartment, behind his apartment window watching as the bus pulls away.


An old man looks out his window, watching a bus. As the bus moves out, he holds his coffee cup, swirling it although there is no coffee in it, considers taking a bath. She always told him not too much coffee, just the one cup in the morning, and that he should remember to bathe every day, as these were the kinds of things he would soon forget once she was gone. He places his cup among others in the sink. The bathtub is clean and damp, still warm. He sits on the toilet and watches as the tub fills. By custom, he draws too much water, so that some always runs out the overflow as he gets in, leaving behind as much water as will fit, making a sound he always liked hearing. He images a spider trapped in the overflow, washing down the pipes. As he slides into the water he thinks of her, and although she is not here to scrub his back he smiles. His toes surface and submerge, and he watches them break through floating rafts of soap bubbles, then sink again, like a shipwrecked crew of drowning men. After his bath the water circles down the drain, but without his glasses he cannot tell if the whirlpool drains with or counter to the clock, although he understands or thinks he remembers that it always turns the same way, like a dog circling nose to tail on a carpet looking for that one best spot. The word "coriolis" slowly surfaces and submerges again in his mind, and eyes closed he watches it as from a moving vehicle, experiences it as he would a neon sign flashing past in the nighttime. He makes a note on his mental blackboard to watch closely next time which way the water circles as it drains. He smiles again, as he can have his coffee now that he has bathed.


A lovely woman in a black bathtub, watching the water drain. Her blonde hair contrasts with an excellent tan, acquired mostly from the tanning bulb mounted in the ceiling above the bathtub. The water circles counterclockwise, turning down the drain with the aroma of bath oil. Slowly she scrubs herself dry, lightly stroking her breast, careful not to check for anything beneath the skin, a small thought rising to the surface...was it saline or silicone...then disappearing again. She prepares herself for another Friday evening with a practiced hand, almost automatically, unconscious of the small eyes in the window behind her. Fine brushes, many colors to choose from: coordinating the colors and the aromas and textures and shadows among and around the shadows she applies lipstick with a soft pointed brush, to the sound of backporch windchimes. She pictures a large man doing mechanical work on a sportscar - a low, powerful-looking car - perhaps, although she cannot spell it, a Maserati - and she laughs to herself at the silliness of the thought. The lines of her lips are long and smooth, seeming to be moving though still. It is windy outside, and the wind creaks through the house like a burglar. Her hair color needs touching up, the hint of dark roots shadowing her forehead, she thinks, but it is, so far, only a hint. She brushes her long hair. Her hair. Brushes her long hair.


I can't control my hair. Some people say they like my hair the way it is, but that has nothing to do with me, I can't control it. Most of the women I know complain that their hair is always straight: that they work like hell with heat and stretching and pulling and rolling to curl their hair but the curl falls out at the slightest dampness, or gravity pulls it down. Most of the men I know say nothing of their hair, ever, as though these problems never affect them. Gravity has no effect on my hair: it curls more with water in the air, in a fog, after a rain, after swimming, at the beach, although I never go to the beach, except in winter, because I don't have the time to get the tan I would need to allow myself to be seen there. And my hair grows too fast: with the beard and the outgrown hair I look like a dandelion in the wind. It stays the right length for what seems to be only a matter of days, then it's suddenly too long, as though it sprouted in the night under the rays of some secret hairgrowth blacklight. I could ask for shorter haircuts, but though this would allow me to stay away from the barber for longer intervals, I would hate the way my hair looked much more if it was too short. Already the barber downstairs is beginning to stare when I pass him to buy a paper from the corner newsman: he watches wonderingly as I pass and return, as if I am part of some unfathomable conspiracy to keep him from earning a living. It hasn't been so long, but my hair is, and already the strands are getting in my eyes, the shallow waves of haircurls appearing above my ears, so that my head looks like it's going to fly away on little chicken wings. I wash it and try mousses and gels and each new conditioner and rinse but it goes everywhere, out of control.


Out of control, the car crosses the white line, then the yellow one. It is twilight, and the car is a white car or a grey car. A man in a passing sedan leans out his window, yells something, honking and making common hand signals: the driver sees none of this, hears none of this, he is held by a dream, of a woman and a small baby with no face. He knows the baby has a face, or only thinks that it must have one or that he knows this, or perhaps thinks he can discern a face that is familiar to him, or that he should be able to, or only expects a generalized sort of baby face, at least that, but he cannot make it out. In his dream he tries to move closer, but his motions are slow and oddly retarded, as though he were in water up to his chest, trying to run through the surf, perhaps to escape a jellyfish floating nearby, but unable to make any progress through the water, unable to lift his feet and swim for fear of having them wrapped by stinging tentacles. As the tires bite gravel, the dream shifts back to another, earlier dream and the child disappears, in fact recedes like a missed bus. The last thing he sees before the dark is not the telephone pole, not the web of cracks flashing through the windshield or the dashboard coming up but her face.


My face is no good, she tells herself, brushing her teeth while watching the movement of the brush in the mirror, once again distracted by her imperfections. A coarse face, doughy: makeup helps of course, but it causes her skin to break out. She uses various brands of hypoallergenic makeup, natural makeup, granola abrasives, avocado masks, lemon and honey conditioners, rubbing various foods into her face. Distilled water, unscented coldcream, mineral oil, pumice creams, nothing helps. It seems to her that her skin was better when she was a teenager, but it was not. Her skin seems to be degenerating: she is 28. This weekend, she and other volunteer Girl Scout advisors will assist a dozen or so young handicapped women on a camping trip. It will matter to no one how she looks. She scrubs her skin angrily. It makes her feel good to help others. They will arrive at the lakesite at dusk, but the tents will already be set up; the fire will be blazing. In handicapped camping it is best for the campers to skip many of the tedious organizational details, to shove them aside unexamined, in order to get the most out of the camping experience. They will tell stories and roast hot dogs and marshmallows but she will not eat the marshmallows. The gestalt is the core of the thing and the meaning of the thing, is the thing they go there to reach, really the only reason to be anywhere, but certainly so in this case she thinks, plucking her eyebrows. The center: the feel of nature surrounding without fear as the dark closes in the moments after dusk; the glow and the warmth of the campfire, not the logs and the splinters and the frustration of a fire that goes out; not people burning themselves; not the carrying and placement of the logs but the release of the energy they hold and the constructive destruction of the logs by the flames. The pitching of the tents, impossible for some anyway, is of so little real importance compared to the enveloping experience of the space within the tents, the defined space and the smell of the canvas and the rain, if there is rain, on the tent; not the stakes and the poles and the unfolding and the surprising weight of it all, she thinks, picking a zit. A boundary shouldn't weigh anything. The only thing she likes about herself is her naturally curly red hair. Her freckles all but pass from her consciousness, but only because awareness of them depresses her. Actually, she is quite attractive, although no one who has tried has been able to convince her of this. When she is older, she will look at early pictures of herself and wonder what was or seemed so wrong with her, but she will be older then. She brings a book along, but she does not expect to have much time to read at camp. Handicapped camping does require careful attention to those details that must be attended, or someone will fall in the lake again. Stepping outside her door, she arrives at the corner at the same time as the bus, smiles as the doors open, steps up and inside.