I’ve seen the man on the #8 Halsted Street bus for years now. He gets on in Greektown and gets off in Bridgeport. Sometimes, if he’s on the northbound, he’ll get off at the Orange Line instead of staying on till Jackson or Monroe. Every time I see him I think of Ray Milland in Lost Weekend. I can’t help making stories up about him.
His skin is sallow and he has rheumy, far-away eyes. The clothes he wears are sometimes in clashing patterns, always many decades old. This is what Milland’s Don Birnam would look like if he’d waited twenty, thirty years to go for the cure. Years lost, but still alive somehow, trying to pick up the pieces.
One time he had an accordion file full of documents. He settled into his seat, then started pulling papers out, examining this or that one with a magnifying glass. Had he come from court? Is he some kind of detective? Another time he had a worn, sun-faded box with a long-obsolete PC advertised on it. Was he going try the internet after his typewriter finally gave out?
I’ve never seen him smile or talk to anyone. He looks preoccupied and bereft, like he saw it all slipping away. But I’m making that up. I don’t know anything about him. I’ll never ask him anything, I know that much. I wonder if anyone else on the bus notices him or thinks he’s unusual. Most are glued to their screens. I keep looking and wondering if he’s some kind of presentiment from the past or a harbinger of the future. Like he’s visible to me in order to receive a message. But what could it be? The stories I make up about him never resolve, never end.
The last time I saw him, a few days ago, he had a fur hat on with ear warmers underneath. He could’ve been a minor member of the Politburo, gone to seed. It was a cold day. His coat and scarf weren’t frayed but looked past their prime anyway. He had a smudged blue laptop bag. Maybe he’d upgraded his technology? It’s the way he always looks. I can see the flicker of a handsome young man in a business suit strolling confidently toward a bright future. But that was way in the past. How did it all go wrong? Where is he going now? Is there still time to make it right? To salvage some of what might’ve been?
It was a hopeful ending for Birnam because he was in a movie and movies call for happy endings. My guy on the bus is not on screen. The snippets I get of others’ lives in public often have this capacity to be dramatized in my mind. But what’s their true story?
He got off the #8 and walked toward the Orange Line. Everything is a complete fabrication.