I was headed down Hennepin that morning after the production meeting for The Gay Mob when a dart of movement in a grate below the sidewalk caught my eye. Two pairs of berry-bright black eyes regarded me for just one second, and then the baby raccoons slipped out of sight.
I waited a little bit to see if they would reappear, but when they didn’t, I strolled on, adding them to the list of all the improbably lovely things in the world, in my life. Baby raccoons in Minneapolis-St. Paul, not six blocks from Uptown Station. The croissants we’d had at the meeting, buttery-hot and washed down with milky Earl Grey. The warm wash of approval as everyone agreed that my idea for a Pay-What-You-Can dress rehearsal was a brilliant way to make the show accessible to the underserved portions of the LGBT community. The comforting weight in my backpack of the comics I’d just bought from the shop next to the theatre, tie-ins from old TV shows: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Steed and Mrs. Peel, the eighties Marvel version of Doctor Who—the Fourth Doctor ones with the gorgeous art in the original sixteen-color palette—and best of all, an issue of Young Avengers that I was ninety percent sure, based on the cover art, was the one with The Kiss.
I couldn’t really afford the comics, but I’d get a check from the company in a few months and I could suck it up and live on peanut butter sandwiches with coffee shop jam packets until then.
There was a man in a Hamline University sweatshirt walking down the street playing a flute, and I couldn’t help but grin because how delightful was it that I lived in a city and a world and a space-time dimension where there were men who walked down the street barefoot playing flutes, and glimpses of baby raccoons, and eighties comics of silly sci-fi shows from the seventies?
It was a day for trying new things, for leaping forward unafraid.
That’s what I tell myself, anyway. Now, when it’s too late.
In Vita.MN’s yearly poll of “sketchiest bus routes,” the 21 routinely snags second place, losing out only to the 16. Westbound, there’s just the 21. Eastbound, there’s the 21A, which takes you all the way to the renovated Union Station; the 21C, that operates only late at night and drops you on University kitty-corner to the 24 Hour CVS; the 21E, which lets you out at the Wendy’s just off Minnehaha; and the 21D, which detours to end at the University of St. Thomas for some reason.
And then there’s the 21Z.
It was almost ten in the morning, so I was surprised to see the 21Z pulling into Uptown Station. The 21 could run pretty late, but I’d never seen it go over sixty minutes, and I could’ve sworn the Z was one of those once-a-night witching hour apparitions that I never stayed out quite late enough to catch.
“This bus does stop at Marshall and Fairview, right?” I asked the bus driver.
She grunted something that was probably a yes.
Ah well. It was a lovely day, and if I got lost, I’d just get to know my city a little better. I’d come away with a story.
I took a seat, and the automated voice from above the bus driver said, “Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street,” the words scrolling in red across the sign at the front of bus.
I wish I could tell you if the bus looked normal when I sat down. I wish I could tell you if the other passengers looked normal.
But I had a backpack full of comics just begging to be read, and honestly, nobody ever really looks at anybody on the bus.
I don’t know where she got on. I had managed to read my way past the unsightly clot of a K-Mart that cut Nicollet’s blood flow dead, past the Midtown Global Market in the old art deco Sears Roebuck building, past Heart of the Beast and Mercado Central and uncountable halal butcher shops, taquerías, and cheap Chinese places. Around the Cedar Avenue cemetery I finished all the Star Trek stuff, and the traffic meant that by the time we had inched past the gay pride flag on top of the old firehouse that held Patrick’s Cabaret, I was midway through my guilty Anglophilic pleasures. Steed and Mrs. Peel managed to be more sexual by sharing a glass of champagne than most couples actually having sex. The Doctor solved everything by traveling back in time to punch himself in the face, a solution I couldn’t say hadn’t occurred to me before, especially that time he left Sarah Jane behind in Aberdeen.
“Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street.”
If the woman wasn’t there the whole time, then I think she must have gotten on somewhere in between Merlin’s Pub (I didn’t look up, but I heard the jingle of bells from the Morris dancers) and Viking Laundromat, you know, the one with the fifty cent peanut butter crackers in the vending machine and the free tribal newspapers on the tables.
I looked up from the last page of my Young Avengers, and there she was.
“Whatcha readin’?” she asked.
My first impression was that I was being addressed by a coat. A shaggy grey and black faux fur behemoth of a coat that would have been just right for Minnesota in February, but was an overreaction in October.
Eventually, my eyes focused on the sleeves, which led to very small hands (or was it just the comparison to the coat?) covered in black gloves with the rubbery palm grips cracked and the fingertips cut off. Her long pointy nails were black too, from grime or nail polish, I couldn’t tell. Her fingers twitched and trembled and dove repeatedly into a bag of Lays Sour Cream and Onion potato chips.
And then my eyes found her head, popping out above her coat like an afterthought. Her eyebrows were white and her hair frizzed away from her face in a stripy haze nearly indistinguishable from the faux fur, permed and dyed brown and grown out gray and permed and dyed black and grown out gray again. Cat-eye sunglasses had slipped down her pointy little noise to reveal darting oil-black eyes. They moved back and forth like flies, but one always seemed to stay focused on me.
“Yeah, you, girl,” she said, and sprayed some chip crumbs. One landed next to my right boot. “Whatchu readin’?”
I held up the issue. “Comic book. Young Avengers, uh, Children’s Crusade.” I tried to look down again right away to discourage conversation, but she was too quick for me.
I swallowed. “Um, yeah. It is. Some of it.”
“Bi, yes.” Why did I always automatically answer questions honestly?
“You sure about that? You look pretty lezzie in that vest.” She laughed a chittery little laugh, not quite a cackle.
I cut my eyes to the right to see if there were any empty seats I could take farther away from her. No. Shit. “Yes, I’m sure. I like this vest. Thank you. I got it for five bucks at Goodwill.”
“You look pretty fucking fancy,” she said, and belched. I caught the scent of alcohol on her breath along with the chemical formula sour cream. “You come from a play or something?”
“Sort of. A production meeting. For a play. The Gay Mob.” Extraneous details kept slipping out of my mouth like water through my fingers. “I’m the front-of-house manager.”
“Front-of-house manager,” she repeated. “That’s really fucking fancy. Is that what you’re going to do? All your life? Be a fancy-dancy fucking front-of-house manager?”
“I want to be a writer, actually,” I said, and reached for the line to request a stop.
“No shit!” the woman said. She was leaning forward now, much more interested. “A writer, huh? That’s great. So maybe you can explain me a thing. Why is it Coyote gets all the credit?”
“What?” I pulled the line.
The automated voice said, “Stop Requested.” The red words scrolled across the screen at the front. More red words, echoed by the voice: “Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street.”
“I’ll tell you why,” she said, which was a good thing because I didn’t have a fucking clue and in the end, nodding and sympathetic noises can only take you so far. “Prejudice. Sex prejudice, working class prejudice. I’m a working mother, do I got time to be tooting my horn? Of course fucking not, not when I gotta buy orange juice and go to fucking parent-teacher conferences. But I pull a full day’s work and I’m proud of it, which is more than I can say for that motherfucker. Outsources practically fucking everything these days. To Japan, can you believe it? To fucking Fox. Is that patriotic, I ask you?”
Okay, so she was definitely crazy. That was always good to know. “I guess not,” I said.
“Too fucking right,” she answered, nodding emphatically. “So why do the writers always give him credit?”
The bus wasn’t stopping.
“Uh, driver?” I called. Too soft. My voice was sticking in my throat, shriveling. “Driver? My stop? Please?”
“Don’t be shy now,” the woman said. “We’re just shooting the shit, aren’t we? Just killing time. Pay no attention to that asshole in the convertible following us, that’s just my no-good ex. Never fall for a fucking musician, honey. Or a German.”
“Okay,” I said, but I couldn’t help glancing out the window. There was a convertible next to the bus, the speakers making the windows rattle. The guy driving it looked familiar. He wore a Hamline sweatshirt.
“Anyway, like I was saying, German musicians are the absolute fucking worst,” she said. “It’s all me me me, and ‘listen to this techno dubstep chamber orchestra fusion piece I’m working on’ and before you know it you’ve been slapped with a half dozen noise complaints from the cops and he’s lured three of your kids to his magical fucking kingdom under a mountain.”
She pronounced ‘kids’ a funny way, like ‘kits.’
“Only two left now,” she said. “I had to pull the whole mother-bird-dragging-a-leg shebang to get him to follow me instead. Fucker. And you know what? Coyote was the one who set us up too, blind date. Is that industrial sabotage or is that industrial sabotage? Free market, my ass.”
I was trying to follow this, but I kept getting distracted by the sparse whiskery hairs sprouting from the moles on her cheeks. How had I not noticed them before? It was like no one had ever told her about tweezers.
“And now it’s this big fucking custody battle like we’re on Judge Judy or something,” she said, and sighed. “I really worry about the effect it’s going to have on the kits.”
“Hmm,” I said.
That was a mistake. Her eyes had gone all off-into-the-distance and misty as she talked about her children, but that single noise snapped them back to me. “So really, why do writers always give him the fucking credit? My work not good enough?”
“That’s, uh, well I don’t know,” I stammered. “That’s not really the kind of thing I write.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So what is it you write?”
“Science fiction.” I made a little flying motion with my hand. “You know, uh. Spaceships.”
“So?” She slapped her leg. “Spaceships, who’s got a problem with spaceships? Put me in a spaceship, put him and him in a spaceship, I’m fine with that. The future, the past, lemme tell you, I’m always there. They’re basically shit and inherently circular.”
“Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street,” said the automated voice.
But we were going over the Mississippi River now. The trees on each side were so bright in their festive fall-wear they could have been on fire.
They were on fire, and the fire made laughing faces.
I blinked, and they were just trees.
“But we’re coming up on Marshall and Cretin,” I said. “Is it broken?”
“Shit, girl,” the woman said. “Haven’t you ever taken this bus before?”
“Sure,” I said. “I take the 21 all the time.”
She shook her head with pity, and pulled something from the crinkly Lays bag that was not a chip. It looked like caviar, and it looked like a hundred tiny eyeballs. She tipped the slime down her throat, and licked her fingers. “What’s your name, my love?”
“Gabby,” I said, startled, and immediately regretted it. “What’s yours?”
“I’d like to think I know better than to give a complete stranger my true name, honey,” she said. “Old flame of mine used to call me Lotor; you can call me Lottie.”
The convertible was still behind the bus. Why did the man’s face look so familiar?
“It was nice meeting you, Ms. Lottie,” I said, pulling the Stop Requested line again. “I really do need to get out here. This really is my stop. I need to go to the Merriam Park Library.”
The bus slowed, and I stood, but her hand shot out and grabbed my wrist. Her hand was even smaller than before—no, of course it wasn’t. Of course her fingernails weren’t sharper.
“I’ll give you a story,” she said. “I’ll give you an adventure. Would you like that?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, tugging but not too hard, scared but still not wanting to be impolite. Why was I always worried about being polite? “I’m sorry, I have to be—this is my—what do you mean?”
“You’re a narravore,” she said. “Got that when you stepped on the bus. Threshold girl too, not one thing or the other. You like a good once upon a time, you’re a writer, you said so, don’t you want the scoop? Extra, extra, read all about it.”
“No thank you,” I said again.
“Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street,” said the bus.
“Well then, what kind of writer are you?” the woman asked.
And it was stupid. I knew it was stupid. I was yelling at myself not to do it, even as I did it. But the way she said it, the way she sounded like every voice inside my head, the way I had just been wishing for an adventure and if I turned it down now, then—
I sat back down.
I know, right?
Please don’t rub it in.
As soon as I sat down again, it got harder to move.
The bus was turning left on Snelling now, starting its slow curve around the strip mall till it came back around to Selby. The bus was turning left on Snelling now, and Snelling was a snake with glistening rainbow-oil patterns on its shifting black scales.
“Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street.”
“It’s a state of mind, hon,” Lottie said. The hair had spread out all over her face; her sunglasses were a bandit mask. Her hands were so, so small. Her hands were paws. She pulled a crawdad out of her crinkly chip bag and crunched it between her teeth.
I ain’t going to tell you the sunglasses story, because everyone knows the fucking glasses story and anyway it’s bullshit. I never stole nothing—well, nothing worth complaining it into a fucking myth about—and if Raven liked it he shoulda put a ring on it. Anyway.
Don’t worry about the view out of the window. So what the scenery’s speeding up like a DVD stuck on fast-forward? On the seventh day, God said, ‘Actually I’ve seen this one before, can we just skip to the next episode?’
Nah, I don’t think I’ll tell the crawfish one neither. Spider’s always twisting that one, fucking arthropod solidarity or some bullshit.
Lemme tell you the story of how I made the universe.
You never heard that one? Well of course fucking not. I never get any credit.
But think about it. Who else would’ve made it like this?
Before ‘once upon a time,’ everyone lived happily ever after, ’cept for the ones with a fucking hangover like an atomic explosion in their skulls, who also had to pee like a racehorse. So I pissed out the stars and the space-time continuum and narrative causality, which I thought was a pretty good joke, but what-fucking-ever, did I ever get any compliments? And then I got a real bad case of the shits, and wiped my ass and went back to fucking bed because the kids had Sunday School in the morning.
Lemme wet my whistle a second. You want some blackberries? Don’t worry, just washed my hands.
And then you-know-fucking-who comes along and decides to treat my shit like modeling clay and he makes himself a whole fuckin’ Smurf Village, like I don’t already have problems. I need a pattern-seeking bunch of shit primates who can’t climb trees, I need that like I need a hole in my head and my tail made into a hipster hat.
Oh hey there, stop that. You don’t want to get off here. You’re hungry, aren’tcha? Take another bite. It’s a little sour for a just-so story, but call it an etiological myth and it’ll go down easier, ‘less you’re lactose-intolerant.
Anyhow, like hell I need more of you opposable thumb assholes, but Coyote keeps making you in the past, and you’re always there in the future, and empires of shit are falling and have risen and will never have existed, and here I am on this bus trying to resolve a custody dispute and one of you wanders in with her shit-head in the clouds, dreaming her little shit-dreams—hey Gabby girl, you actually written anything recently?
I blinked. Pictures swam before my eyes, out-of-sync film just catching up with sound: the green awning of The Home of the Fifty Dollar Weave, the horseshoe pressed into the sidewalk across the street from the Mississippi Market Co-op, the two gray marble men with PETRVS and PAVLVS engraved above them in the high walls of the Cathedral of St. Paul as the bus slid downhill past it, descending past patrician mansions into the steel-and-stone downtown . . .
“I’ve been busy,” I said, trying to catch ahold of the conversational thread. It floated somewhere outside my grasp, like the scenery passing by—trees? Rice Park? “I get home and I’m so tired, I read a chapter and I fall asleep. I wake up and it’s time for work.”
“You think that’s a fuckin’ excuse?” she snapped. “I’m a goddamn single working mother operating an independent business with Coyote, Inc. cutting into my motherfucking profit margin like a chainsaw! You got a lot to fuckin’ learn, my love.”
“Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th—”
“Oh for the love of Christ, shut up!” She threw a fish at the sign. It stuck for a second before sliding down.
I felt heavy, dull, Thanksgiving-dinner-full, my mind swamped in words of grease and salt that weighed me down and lulled me to near-sleep, even while a sharp little dessert-desiring voice cut through, whispering, not enough, not good enough, still hungry . . .
“That story,” I said. “It didn’t—”
“You try living in a world where you gotta get your kids’ Happy Meals from someone made out of your own shit,” she snapped. “I have OCD, you know. I’m a hand-washer, always have been. I’m trying to run a business and raise a family and there go all of you, boohooing and clear-cutting and smoke-stacking and holding out your empty Denny’s Doughnuts coffee cups, crying for your cup of stars, cup of stars, ‘oh please please please tell me I’m not like the rest, I can have my cup of stars.’ Well, I’m trying to do my part to maintain the balance of the universe, and lemme tell y’all, a mass of incandescent gas undergoing nuke-ular fusion is pretty damn well going to unbalance all your shit!”
I could not move my head. I strained my eyes to the left, to the right. There was a man in a tall black top hat, with half his skin cerulean and half never-seen-the-sun pale. There was a woman in petticoats woven from spiderwebs and fish-scales. There were people with the heads of fanged donkeys, of golden centipedes, of scarlet storks with coiling cobras for tongues. None of them were looking at us. None of them were looking at each other. A girl chewed the sticky pink ends of her candy-floss hair absentmindedly as she played Angry Birds on her phone.
“I’m just sick to fucking death of disorganized belief systems and people who catch buses without double-checking the route on GoogleMaps,” said Lottie. Her teeth were longer. Her nose was pointier, her nostrils migrating to the front and taking on a shine. Her hair and her coat were merged together; a tail that Davy Crockett would’ve coveted was starting from her back.
“I usually get off before now if I’m lost,” I said. I knew there was something else I should have been protesting, but it was dancing, dancing, dancing away and out of my reach.
A maple leaf danced past on the window behind Lottie’s head. It was red, and it held there for one second like a star against the rising concrete bridge above the railroad and broken buildings, red over grey over grey.
“You’ve never been to the end of the line, have you?” Lottie asked.
“Now approaching 1st Avenue and 35th Street.”
I could not move my head, but I could see out the window behind Lottie, behind Raccoon—I could see what she was now, because her transformation was complete or she had stopped pretending?
The hill stretched forward like it would never end, and fire-trees danced in the wind. There were castles built of ice and shimmering high-rise apartments whose walls were whirling flocks of ravens, screaming as they beat their wings against invisible barriers. Neon signs blinked in windows, advertising specials on the Apocalypse, on Creation, on Fat Free Milk and Cigarettes (Lowest Legal Price!!!). The sky was made of tears, and the grass was made with the diary pages of pre-teen girls, and the road was a snake again, and it hissed its welcome as we rode through a wrought-iron gate.
The gate slammed shut behind us with a clang that vibrated my teeth, followed by the squeal of brakes and rending metal as the front end of the convertible that had been following us crumpled against the thick iron bars, the car speakers cutting off with a silence as violent as sound. The driver in the Hamline University sweatshirt hopped out of his car, swearing; he rattled the gate. He was still carrying his flute.
“Next stop: 1st Avenue and 35th Street,” the voice said, and the bus stopped.
Raccoon and I were the only two left on the bus. Even the driver had disappeared.
“Well, this is my stop,” she said. “Now, I don’t want you to think I hate you just because you’re made of shit. You stink like every mistake I ever made, but you’re going to come in handy. Throw my no-good ex off the scent.”
She walked towards me, and I was so full I could not move.
Her clever little paws worried at my cuticles until she found a seam, and then she began to peel away my skin in one long winding strip. It stretched and stuck like pinkish-brown taffy before snapping away, revealing the map of muscles and veins beneath it. The clothes came off with the skin as if they were stuck to it, and I felt other things come off too: my name, and certain sounds, and memories, and the cinnamon-sweet taste of horchata, and something my mother had said to me a long, long time ago . . .
Her touch itched, and tickled, and burned. It was loss, it was losing, and it was the freedom of straight-down falling and falling and knowing there was nothing I could do to prevent my fate—
But there had been something. A thing, a word, no, a story, something I was supposed to do—Something less than a memory, a place where a memory had been . . .
She pulled my skin on over hers, and it stretched and rippled and strained over her coat, bulging until she looked like the Michelin Man. She smoothed it straight, and the only clue that she wasn’t me was her eyes, midnight marbles.
“It’s not like you were using it anyway,” she said. “And you shouldn’t have helped Coyote hog all the credit and set me up with the piper man.”
“But I didn’t do that,” I said. I was trying to be angry. I was trying to be afraid. Those feelings had been peeled away with my skin. Or maybe I had forgotten them a long time ago. Maybe I had never been a real person. “I didn’t do anything at all.”
“Well, isn’t that worse?” she said. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for everyone to sing Broadway musicals while they dance on the skulls of the dead.”
She picked up my backpack, pulled out my comics. Slipped them from their clear protective plastic binding, and I thought I felt something, remembered something, for just a moment. Mine, maybe. Or, don’t hurt them.
“He’ll follow me,” she said. “I don’t mind. It’s flattering, in a way. And my kits will escape, slip through the soft underbelly of your city, and grow strong. Start up the old family business. Go after the social media angle, maybe; I never really committed to that the way I could have.
“But if I’m gonna lead him a merry chase and a hey-nonny-nonny, I’m going to need some transportation.”
And she ripped the pages from the issues like the fragile wings of dragonflies—Deanna Troi with a phaser, Mrs. Peel with a jetpack, Hulkling with a tender hand at the back of his head—and folded them in some arcane origami, until she had made a bicycle.
“Minneapolis is ranked as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country,” she said.
I thought about pointing out that we were in St. Paul right now, but instead I said, “You lied.”
“Well, boo-fucking-hoo with a shitty maraschino cherry on top,” she said. “You got a story, didn’t you? I never promised you a nice one. Never promised you a new one neither. It’s not my fault you were too blind to see the same story being told over and over before now. Humans only ever tell one story. It’s not my fault the part I played; talk to the casting director.”
“And who’s that?”
“Ain’t that the sixty-four thousand dollar question?”
“Aren’t you going to explain anything?” I asked as she mounted the bike.
“Why should I?” she said. “I’ve got places to be. I’m not your Wikipedia entry or your 33 Things Ever Girl Should Know.”
“It wasn’t a fair deal,” I said. “I didn’t like the story you told.”
“Shit, girl,” she said with an eye-roll. “That story wasn’t the story. The story’s what’s happening now, what you’re gonna make with the story if you can stop cutting out Valentine’s Day cards to send to Lazy Fuck, U.S.A.”
Maybe she was already missing her kits, or maybe I looked plaintive—I was trying, but plaintive was a thing that I couldn’t quite grasp between the emotion and the adjective, both of them part-peeled away with my scalp—because her gaze softened and she said:
“Oh, don’t go all kicked and battered Lassie at me. I’m just borrowing it, aren’t I? I’ll bring it back when I’m done. I might never be done, but I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”
I’m bad at judging facial expressions, and clearly I don’t make good choices, so I’ll ask you:
Should I have believed her?
The paper-bike whispered and whiffled as she sped away, sending flashes of starships and circus rings, bowlers and black holes. In the distance, I heard the roar of a convertible, overlaid with a lilting flute.
The sun was high in the sky, and it melted away the ice castles and the scattered the ravens, and I was alone in an empty parking lot, without my skin.
A new driver stepped onto the bus, and drove us west.
And so here I am, waiting for Lottie, for Raccoon, for whatever her true name was, in a battered old bus of the 21 line. Waiting for her to keep her promise, to come back with my skin. I could leave—couldn’t I? But where would I go? What would I do? Who would I be?
So I wait.
I watch the seasons change, I track the changing leaves and the trails of mud and snow slush on the bus floors. I map the topography of woolen layers taken on and shed with the coming and going of winter. I speak to no one, but I am not alone.
I know, you’re wondering: how can you stay on the bus? Doesn’t the driver order you off? Don’t the passengers scream to see your skinless face?
Don’t worry about me.
Nobody really looks at anybody on the bus.