He seems to be looking at me. I check quickly over my shoulder and then back at the odd, little man one seat up on the opposite side. Fifty-something, I’d say– grey, slightly baggy suit jacket over a pastel pink dress shirt, no necktie… and black corduroy pants.
One of my eyebrows is cocked way up high, I can feel it. Surely, he can’t be…
“Uh, a– are you talking to us?” I ask.
My wife sobs hopelessly on my chest – the sound of her grief has now filled the rear cabin of the packed public bus. The pity from surrounding commuters is palpable, as everyone stares at the poor, grieving young couple. Some may even understand.
“Yeah,” the man answers. “I couldn’t help but notice…”
“Thank you,” I interrupt him quickly, “but it’s really not a good time.”
We got on this bus a few stops back, just outside the funeral home. We said goodbye to our only child, our boy, today– as everyone we’ve ever known watched with us, wishing they could help somehow. And then our car quit in the parking lot. We did stay late, I suppose, to sit and feel something in the lovely courtyard. The last few of them had left moments before… and we just want to be at home.
Seven more stops.
“Of course, I see.” he says.
“Thank you.” I happen to look down at his feet… the man is wearing slippers: pebbled dark grey with lighter grey trim line, a terry cotton slip-on style with rubber soles and open backs. I can see the bright red heel of his socks… some silly novelty gag, I’m guessing.
What an odd, little fellow– as if the comic strip ink hasn’t even dried yet.
“Thanks… thank you.” I repeat quickly. And I truly am thankful to hear only the ambient noise– the hustle and clatter of the bus itself. I close my eyes for a moment.
“But I think I know just…”
“Just what? Huh?!” My wife interrupts this time - - eyes red, mascara bleeding down the sides of her face – as she telegraphs a terrifying scowl across the aisle.
“What, that I’m in pain?” she spits. “That my life is meaningless… that our beautiful boy just died of cancer a week ago tomorrow?!”
The heads of curious onlookers now dart back towards their respective windows, as the bus bounces over a recessed sewer grate.
Six more stops.
Not his head though… no, it doesn’t move an inch. And he even has the audacity to flash her a smile– dripping with charm, he thinks– as he shifts in his seat and tips his obnoxious, wheat-coloured trilby cap farther forward.
Without warning, he throws his socked foot up onto the back of the seat in front us, startling the two women occupying it. The one empty slipper slides sideways on the bus floor beneath him. My wife gasps as he pulls up his corduroy pant leg, her fingertips dig deep into my arm.
And there it is – large as life– his ridiculous sock, in all its vainglory.
Yellow circles and red stars above the toe, with loud, stylized speech bubbles: “KAPOW” and “POOF” and “ZAP” running up the front, and the cool silhouette of a caped superhero flipping us the bird.
“Seriously?!” my wife rattles.
“And how! Amazon.com… $11.95 a pair.”
A group of teens behind us snort, and stifle their laughter. Hell, I would’ve chortled at the same goofy, good-natured stuff even a year ago… and so would my son. He would have loved those socks, damn it!
But it’s much too soon. My wife inhales deeply, and I know to think quickly for a diversion.
“Maybe part of the proceeds helps fund cancer research and treatment, honey.”
“Sorry, no. I can’t confirm that,” the man interrupts, as he pulls out another pair of socks from his backpack, “nor can I make any similar claims about this women’s variety here.” He holds them up– pink with yellow toes and heels, a cloud motif leading up to an animé-style cat character.
“Or this t-shirt, for that matter, which again states the obvious.” He tosses the new socks into my lap, and untucks and lifts his dress shirt to show us the black novelty tee underneath. Yep: ‘Fuck Cancer’. Shocker.
Five more stops.
“All that stuff is fighting the good fight– more at the grassroots level,” he continues, “with positive, personal affirmations and honest-to-God vitriol. It hurts cancer, trust me!”
My wife starts laughing slowly, sarcastically– she does that occasionally, before losing her shit for a spell… it’s been happening more often lately.
Undeterred, he continues.
“This awesome-sauce ‘Fuck Cancer’ colouring book, on the other hand,” he finds it and flicks through, “part of the proceeds from its sale actually does go toward cancer research. So all’s well that makes you laugh while colouring. Am I right, or am I right?”
Four more stops.
“$9.99 on Amazon.com.”
“I don’t thi–”
He cuts me off. “Ah, I forgot to mention that your order will ship free too, if it’s over $25! And Amazon has just about everything under the sun– I personally sift through the search result piles and scope out high quality special interest items… the socks, the shirt, the colouring book… shit, even my slippers and my bad-ass trilby hat– which are two of my favourite finds ever!”
“Nutshell,” he concludes, “I find the coolest stuff on the planet, and I spoon feed it to you… it’s all just a few clicks away from your doorstep.”
I turn back slowly toward this odd, mad, little man. He’s looking down at his feet, obviously impressed with his choice of words, or his footwear… or maybe both. I can’t say I don’t envy him a bit. So cool and collected, and comfortable.
What I was going to say, when he interrupted me, was: ‘I don’t think we’re in the mood to be sold anything’. But I’m now beginning to wonder if that’s even true– and about other little things.
Of course it’s true… but still… so many other things.
“If you don’t mind me asking, is it just some wild coincidence that you happen to have all of these items in your possession right now?” I ask politely.
“Yeah,” my wife jumps in, “on the day of our son’s service, no less– outside the funeral parlour, on the very bus we’re riding because our car broke down?!”
“Now let’s rewind, folks,” he says slowly, palms out in front of him, “I don’t know anything about your car– or about you, for that matter– but I ride this bus a few times a week, like clockwork… my stop’s coming up.” He points past the front of the bus.
“And it is certainly no coincidence that I happen to have these things with me today… I always have them, in fact. Every day!”
“Umm…” I pause, dumbfounded. “Why is that?”
“Why?” he returns quickly. “Why?!”
My wife and I nod in tandem. Most of the passengers are looking our way again, just as eager to hear his quirky reasoning. He doesn’t disappoint.
“Because fuck cancer,” he boldly proclaims, and slowly scans the rows of faces.
A few laughs from farther up this time, and more snorts and stuffed guffaws from the peanut gallery behind us. “He’s right,” one among them concedes.
His gaze comes back to meet mine. “Fuck cancer,” he repeats, “that’s why.”
Three more stops.
“Who are you?” I’m not even sure if I’m being rhetorical, but it doesn’t matter.
“Ho! Where are my manners? Oliver Jay, my good man,” he chimes, as if he was a spokesperson on some 1950’s game show, “but my friends call me ‘The Shameless Affiliate’.”
He stands up, and sticks his big hand out. “It’s a genuine pleasure to meet you, I must say.”
“Shameless indeed!” My wife cries. “I have never in my life heard such–”
“Ma’am, yes, that nickname has stuck with me,” Oliver admits, “but I see it as nothing but a testament to my skill and persistent craftsmanship– and my willingness to go places no one else will.”
“No kidding,” I mutter under my breath. My wife is back to sobbing again, fresh tears well in the corners and roll down her cheeks.
He continues. “If it makes you more comfortable, call me Oliver… or OJ.”
Two more stops.
“I am not calling you OJ.” That is my fast and firm stance, for some reason.
“Fine, fine.” Oliver puts his hands up. “In any case, I take every opportunity seriously… that’s all. It’s nothing personal, although I do feel I genuinely connect with people– I want each kind soul I meet to make a relevant, radical purchase when it matters most!”
“Like… right now,” my wife observes ironically, between sniffs. I’m not even sure if she’s being rhetorical, but it doesn’t matter.
“Exactly!” Oliver almost bounces, but then settles a bit upon seeing my wife’s face drop. “And please forgive me for not saying it out loud a lot sooner,” he continues, “I am truly, truly sorry for your loss. But yes, ma’am– never will these things matter more than right this second.”
“What things?” she bites quickly.
He reaches across the seat and pulls the cord that runs along the top of the windows. Sweet Jesus! This guy lives in our neighbourhood.
“You know,” Oliver grabs the pole in front of our seat and slumps down toward us, “fucking cancer.”
My wife lunges toward him, and she might do some serious damage if I wasn’t already in between them. I had been standing to be ready for the next stop… and now I’m stretching my hand out to shake his– the only redirection that comes to mind.
“I’m Kenneth Kiswick,” I say as cordially as possible under the circumstances, “and this is my wife, Annabelle. We are pleased to meet you.” Annabelle gasps.
Oliver, beaming, pumps my hand enthusiastically– and somehow manifests a small stack of business cards in his other hand. I hold out the women’s socks that he had thrown on my lap.
“You keep those ones,” he says, and I take the cards. “It really is nice to have met you, Mr. and Mrs. Kiswick. All the best from this day forth. God bless.”
As the bus shudders to a stop, Oliver Jay holds up his right fist.
“And fuck cancer.”
The usual chorus of snickers– a few of them even break from the herd and dart out the open door after him. The bus grunts back to life, and I watch him handing out cards like candy as we lumber past.
I’m not at all sure why… but I can feel myself smiling as I shake my head and look down to take a closer look: a simple white card with a monogram logo in the top left corner using the letters SA, and a short poem inscribed underneath:
Our life– and each transaction– is worth
what we give back, and the marks we make.
Bottom lines matter so much less, at first,
than the hearts and minds- and the hands-
His name, his nickname and his job title too– Senior Remote Social Luminary– centered at the bottom, and four links on the right side: the men’s and women’s socks, the black t-shirt and the colouring book.
I pull the cord above Annabelle, finally. Almost home. Smiling still– I can feel it– I reach down to help her. But she’s up in a sudden burst and… Sweet Jesus… one look is all I need… to see… to understand…
… that there isn’t a damn thing amusing about any of it.
I was one hundred and twelve percent wrong. And the smile, which just a moment ago flashed across my face, was an aberration– a glitch in the vita est, if you will– and it is no more. I bow my head slightly as I lead her to the door.
I think now of our arrival home– the realization that my son is not there… that he will not be there, not anymore. Not ever. A lifetime left of days, full of moments in which to feel his absence.
Maybe we’re both fifty six percent right; equal– Annabelle and I. There is nothing funny about the pure face value of a pile of shit like this one… but there is always value in finding a reason to laugh in spite of it all.
“You know what? I think I might need a few new pairs of socks and a colouring book,” I say, as we step out the bus door out onto the sidewalk.
Annabelle spins around, punches me twice in the shoulder and shoots me an angry stare. I laugh, in spite of it all, and hold my arms open wide.
She rolls her eyes and gives me a big hug. It feels for a moment like we might make it… like home… like it might all be…
“Yeah,” she says. “Fuck cancer.”