Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: COMMUTE (07/07/16)
TITLE: Talking, Talking, Talking
By Jan Ackerson
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He sits for the length of his commute with his lunch box on his lap, his hands crossed over the handle. There’s not much scenery to look at between the bus stop and his office, but Stanley likes to look at familiar places, to check and see if all is well. He sometimes feels as if it is his checking of those places that is keeping them intact.
The row of townhouses with green doors—last week, trash pickup was a day late. He’s relieved today to see that all the bins are in their proper places. The produce in front of the Korean grocery is all neatly arranged. The bread truck is making a delivery to Bill’s Burgers. All is well.
At the stop in front of Vivienne’s Nails, a woman who Stanley has never seen before gets on the bus. He turns his head away to look out the window, but even though there are several empty seats, she sits next to him. “Hey,” she says.
He mumbles hello and grips his lunchbox more tightly.
When the bus starts up again, the woman begins talking. In fact, she continues to talk through several stops, seemingly oblivious to Stanley’s lack of response. He has no idea how to make her stop—apparently, the fact that he’s not contributing to the conversation doesn’t bother her in the least.
In the course of her monologue, Stanley learns that she’s new to the city (he’d been able to figure that out for himself), she loves the pretzels at the stand in the park across from her office and does he know of it? (he shakes his head and glances meaningfully at his lunchbox), she’s looking for a spinning class (Stanley has no idea what that means), and she wants to get either a miniature poodle or a pug and which one does he think she should get?
This question, finally, has forced Stanley to speak—he clears his throat and tells her that poodles, he believes, are hypoallergenic. This starts Carrie—he learned her name about twenty minutes into her breathless monologue—into another soliloquy, starting with allergens and moving quickly through smoothies and the virtues of kale.
When Carrie finally gets off the bus, waving cheerfully, he presses a hand to his right ear to capture the silence.
The next day, Stanley’s shoulders slump when Carrie gets on the bus at the same stop and sits next to him again. “Hey, Stanley!” she says, and she’s off. Today’s topics: Project Runway (one of the designers is her friend’s cousin’s son), her boss’s adorable baby (his name is Duncan, can you believe it?), and what’s better takeout, Chinese or Thai?
“Um,” says Stanley, “definitely Thai.” He’s had a bad experience with a Chinese restaurant; suspiciously unidentifiable meat.
Carrie sits next to Stanley every workday for two weeks—talking, talking, talking. And then one day she isn’t there. When the bus leaves her corner, Stanley rises up in his seat and looks back as her bus stop drops away; maybe he’ll catch sight of her running to catch it. But no.
She’s not there the next day, either, or the one after that.
And then she’s back, the tip of her nose red and sore-looking, her eyes puffy and watery. “Hey, Stadley,” she says. “I’b sick.”
He nods, takes a deep breath. “I,” he says, then stops, unsure.
Carrie is uncharacteristically silent. Perhaps it’s because of her cold, perhaps she senses that Stanley’s working up to something. She touches his arm.
He jumps a little in his seat, then turns to look at her. Her eyes are gentle but unsettling; he studies his lunchbox.
“I missed you,” he says. “You…you are a very…”
Carrie snorts. “Obnoxious? Is that the word you’re looking for?”
“Well…yes. Obnoxious and…exhilarating. I wonder…do you find me…”
She takes his hand. “I find you wonderful.” They hold hands, quiet, until Carrie disembarks.
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