“Forgive me, ‘cause I’m just a stranger…,” he said.
I suddenly thought I had made a big mistake. He laughed. My black suit made the day seem hotter. I was trying to avoid getting too clammy from sweat. I had folded my jacket as neat as possible and it was sitting on my lap. I thought I was in for a long bus ride. I made the blunder of greeting another within the confines of Mass Transit. Being only in Spokane for two weeks and just wanting some tidbits about my new town, I instead entered the unknowns wilderness of conversation with a stranger.
He just sat down next to me moments before. Most people keep to themselves on public transportation once they become familiar with a place. It is safe. Parked in the financial district of Spokane (or what is of it) filled with a mix of Victorian office buildings, freshly renovated or in dire need of renovation buildings from the boom in the eighties, we waited for the departure time of the city bus. I looked out the bus window and saw a newly formed pit. Next to the downtown station, there was a hole where there stood an early twentieth century brick building just a week before. Spokane was in the middle of transforming, the latest attempt at urban renewal.
“I am getting off on the Northside to drop off a resume…” I replied, ignoring the dangers of forgiveness and listening. He was a resident alien and to open a space for him to deposit his narrative would change him in my eyes. The bus was half-full. Would he reveal himself and force me to enter love? I wanted to concentrate on my job prospects. Did I have enough for such momentary love when he most likely would disappear after our bus adventure? The engine started.
Would he, on the other hand, bore me with his rehashed story drained of life from years of retelling? He looked like some car mechanic’s grandfather. The driver grumbled at the last passengers rushing onboard. I had only myself to blame. I started a conversation with him with the promise of listening.
I remembered the advice from one of my self-empowering seminars that listening is a simple and rare commodity. Given as a warning, that instruction suddenly occurred to me. Most people thirst for a living well to dump in their stories. People can become the perfect black hole to discard one’s past, if you let them. In the right circumstances, it can empower your opportunities by impressing the right people; it can also lead to boring unproductive exchanges. What was I to do? I just wanted to know more about Spokane. I started the mess with a question and was stuck sitting in my seat. I felt thirsty. I pulled out a bottle of water and got ready to listen. “So,” I continued, “please, go on.” Making small talk with an agenda can be anything but delicate. The city bus started pulling out.
He straightened up and coughed without covering his mouth. He almost turned in time as not to aim in the direction of my face. I started to regret being friendly to him. When I have dared risk opening another’s box by listening, I have found a few gems, though, more often the box pops up media processed opinions about politics, the latest sensational crime or scandal, or some tedious tale from the person’s past; in other words, the human mechanics of defense. The day’s heat made me impatient. I opened his box, and once opened, the box spilled out like a boat ride. Just strap in and try to enjoy the ride, I thought. We passed by a red brick warehouse that seemed abandoned since the Depression, which advertised crackers I had never heard of.
“Anyway, I was a teenager. I lived just off on the corner of Mission and Park in the Valley when that part of town still seemed like the country. Do you know where that is?” he asked. I shook my head as I took another sip from my bottled water. “You are new her?.”
I noticed that I spilled water on my tie. I had on a tie with Degas’ The Dance Class on it, and the drops discolored the shoulder of one of the ballerinas. I had bought it from the Norton Simon museum a year before. I was trying to make an impact with a potential employer with a chic and contemporary look. Out the bus window, you could see the twin spires of St. Aloysius that marked the border of Gonzaga University.
“Well that wasn’t smart of you to spill water on your tie. Anyway, don’t worry. It should dry.” He continued. “Anyway, it was just after we had finished bashing the Nazis and the Japs in the War. My father had died earlier in the Philippines in ’42 as General Macarthur vowed to return. My dad never retuned. Funny huh? Anyway, I was about to turn fifteen and hanging out with my friend Joe. That was the time where boys had real names like Joe, John, and Tim. Not like today with all the Trevors, Taylors, and Randys. My Grandkid’s named Trevor. What a crappy name for a boy, huh?”
“What did Joe and you do hanging out?” I replied. I already felt offended by his use of “Japs.” Judging by his discount store jeans and green checker shirt made of cheap thin poly-cotton blend, I presumed he lacked a certain sensitivity and education. I was uncertain what he would teach me about Spokane. I realized he would tell a story the way some people hike, going this way and that, following whatever shimmering thought that caught their fancy. I realized that I would continually have to steer the conversation with questions. Moreover, I liked the name Trevor.
“Well he didn’t come from a good family. He was a good guy who had it rough. His dad was bit of a drinker on account of his working for years as a welder and machinist. The paint fumes kept him out of the army and always coughing. He took out his shit on his kids and wife. Joe never brought it up, but the word around town was that he also hung out with gals not Joe’s Mom. His mom was from the Silver valley and had gotten so use to rough living and knew no better. Joe said it toughened him up just like his granddad, who was a miner. But, Joe couldn’t wait to get his butt out of there the first chance he got. I, on the other hand, loved my mom and on account of my dad being a dead war hero and all. . . Anyway, I was coddled by my mom and my teachers. I didn’t like that. But what’re ya going to do, huh? Moms are moms.”
“So what did you and Joe do?” I injected, fearful that I was keeping the conversation going. He was going off like a jukebox, speaking any scattered phase that skipped into his train of thought. I had to intervene in his story before I heard all the gossip from a world long gone. The sky was blue with the haze from pollution coloring the horizon.
“One Sunday afternoon in the summer after Mass…Joe didn’t ever go to Mass but my Mom made all us kids go and my older brother just hated going to Church…well anyway, Joe met me after church just to hang out. All of a sudden he suggested hopping the train to Coeur D’Alene on a account he was bored and wanted to leave town. I said I would go if we could be back by night. It was summer and daylight would hold out until nine or so. We had done it a couple of times before. Most times it wasn’t a big deal. This time it was. Joe’s eyes told that he had a wild hair of an idea. I knew he was planning something but didn’t know what.”
“What was different? What was he planning?” I ventured forth. I was starting to get interested.
“Well, anyway we hopped the train heading to Coeur D’Alene. I thought that we would look for girls at the lake like we’d done a million times before, but when we got closer to Idaho, Joe suggested we keep on the train to Wallace or even further to Montana. I hesitated for a moment, but what the hell? I said nothing as we stayed on the train in Coeur D’Alene. I was scared about not looking grownup. Sometimes life sweeps you in a huge moving swell like a hurricane. I said nothing as we hopped a train in Montana to Colorado a few days later. I figured Joe knew what he was doing. The country was happy then ‘cause we just won a war. People would give us small jobs here and there or feed us when we looked hungry. We stopped in Denver for a months or so. It was hot, I remember. Then it was Kansas and Okalahoma. I remember we went to a tent revival in Tulsa. The preacher was sweating in his black suit like yours, but he saved and healed some people. His tie was a plain thin black one. When he called for folks to come up and take Jesus into their hearts, Joe was up there crying for salvation. Joe was saved for a week or two. He stopped when I razzed him too much about him becoming a missionary in Africa or China. And he liked the girls too much to be a man of God. But, he didn’t ever want to go back to Spokane. When I mentioned it, he just said he’d never go back to that hellhole. Strange the way people see it. For him Spokane was a hellhole, and seeing how much guff his Dad gave him, I see how he thought that. I missed my mom and Spokane had been nothing but good to me, but I was having too much fun, like I was living in some movie.”
“What happened? How did you get back to Spokane?” I asked. Looking out the window, Spokane revealed itself in a parade of pawnshops and payday loan outfits promising help between paychecks for a steep fee. The drone of the bus underpinned his voice.
“I am getting there. Slow down and listen. Anyone ever tell you got to work on your listening. Folks like to be listened to. Anyway, Joe and I ended up in New York. We didn’t have much, but the country was happy on account of our victory over of the axis. Joe liked New York ‘cause it was so big you could lose yourself and no one would care. We had been gone from Spokane almost six months. Joe got work washing dishes at a fancy restaurant. I found a job with a Polish butcher cleaning up the cutting room. Figurski was his name. Not bad work if you can stand the smell. Good money for a boy on the lamb. Funny, poor people’s jobs have a lot to do with cleaning up crap. Maids, janitors, and trash men are here to handle the dirt of life. That’s how come they are dirty half the time. Dirty from cleaning other’s people’s shit. Anyway, I suddenly became homesick something painful.” He said.
“In six months was this the first time you felt alone?” I asked.
“Man, you aren’t the brightest. Sure I felt homesick before, but when you are always moving, it was nothin’ but a passing feeling. New country and you forget yourself. It was when we stopped long enough that I started to miss my mom. Don’t get me wrong. New York is full of stuff to do, more than here. But, when you put your head to the same pillow for even a short time, that’s when you feel it. That’s when you remember. Anyway, I thought my mom wouldn’t want me back. Still I shot her a postcard. And a little more than a week later, who should come through Figurski’s door but my mom. Funny, she’d never been east of the Mississippi before or since and there she was fetching her son back home.”
“She came back for her prodigal son,” I said.
“Nah, the good book tells us that the prodigal wanted to come home ‘cause he couldn’t hack it. I could. I was making money and had my own place with Joe. It was tough at times but nothing I couldn’t handle. I don’t think I would have come home if my mom didn’t fetch me. I was happy when she came for me, though. Boy, was she mad at me. Papa Figurski got mad at me too. He knew I was young but thought my family threw me away. When he and my mom talked, he realized I left for no reason. I caused her such pain when I left. He talked about how he lost some of his family to the Nazis and I should be grateful for such a loving mom. He got to shouting. I thought he would kill me before I could go home. I don’t think she was in New York more than a few hours. She got there in the morning and by that night we were heading home on the train.”
“Did you ever want to return to New York after you became a man?” I asked.
“The only time I left Spokane, not counting vacations, was a tour in Korea. That was also tough on my mother. But you can’t say no to Uncle Sam. Can ya?”
“I wonder where you would be if you stayed in New York. Were you angry with your mother when you got home? Who knows how many adventures you would have had?”
“Na, I caused her too much heartache as it was. I was surprised she forgave me so quick. I mean I had to pay for my adventures with chores. But she forgave me and that’s what matters.”
“How long did she take to forget what you did?” I asked.
“I’ve thought a long time about that. I think they got forgiveness wrong. They think we got to forget to forgive, but my mother never forgot I left her. She just never let it get in the way of loving me. See, she already forgave me by the time she fetched me back to Spokane. I was always her son and that is what it means to forgive a person. She would tell her friends how I up and ran away and how I made my own life at fifteen. I think a piece of her was proud that I could go out on my own even as teenager. She just missed me, and when she found me again, she always treated me with love. To forgive means to treat people right. All that crap about forgetting has nothing to do with forgiving. Even though I didn’t mean to, I hurt her and she still saw me as her little boy. It can be messy work, forgiveness, and can dirty you up, but my mom taught me it was worth it. That is love. That is forgiveness.”
I pulled the signal cord for my stop. The day’s heat made the concrete hot. I got out in front of the blue bus stop sign. I felt the sweat in my black socks. The afternoon light washed out the office building and hurt my eyes. I dropped off my resume. Two weeks later, still jobless, I called my father to break a twenty-four year gap of silence between us.