A QUIET SNAP
The bus wheels kept turning but Tucker’s thoughts turned to the old man who looked like Jimmy Durante. The guy was sitting in the same position, alone in his seat, but his face bore a stiffened look of alarm, as if his head was a hand puppet and the fingers inside had opened wide.
“Hey!” the Brazilian gagged. “Who cut the dog in half?”
“Who smelt it dealt it,” Ellis quipped.
“It’s Grampa over here,” Alice, the mall chick who’d boarded in St. Louis, sneered. “I think he’s crapped in his diaper.”
“Pu-leaze!” Jersey Girl pleaded. “The old goat’s shit himself.”
“Damnit Gramps! Whyn’t you go to the can?” the Brazilian whined.
The old man regained just enough mobility in his right arm to claw the air, a signal of sorts, but no one paid attention. They were all too busy griping. Except Tucker. He rose, ducking under the overhead luggage rack and stepped over Alice’s long legs into the aisle.
“What are ya doin’?” she gasped.
“I’m going to help him get cleaned up,” Tucker replied. Some of them had been riding together for a thousand miles. He wondered why everyone was so cold now.
Gently, he slipped his left arm under the man’s shoulder and his right arm under the thin, black-trousered legs. The old man opened his mouth to speak as Tucker lifted him up, but no words came—only breath—like a mixture of vinegar and fried liver. The ancient, wrinkled nose was crammed with a mass of pale green phlegm, restrained only by thick gray hairs that lined each nostril.
Ellis stopped fondling his boyfriend Jersey Girl long enough to open the bathroom door and Tucker leaned the old man’s head in first, his shoes clunking and catching on the wall. Inside, it smelled like every Greyhound toilet. Yet it was considerably less repellent than the fumes of the old man, whose trousers and jacket were shiny with grime. His shoes were the sort of red leather clown things found in St. Vincent de Paul stores. They were stained violet from sweat and age and stank. Indeed, the old man seemed to be a mass of uncompromising fragrances—baloney left in old bus station lockers, sweat, piss and congealed fat, and—over and beneath them all—the stench of an obvious defecation.
The wheels of the westbound Greyhound rumbled beneath them, the dim cubicle swaying in motion so that it was difficult to stand. Outside the door Tucker could hear his fellow passengers chattering about the old man soiling his pants. He leaned over to lift the old guy up so that he could turn him around and take down the underpants and trousers. He heard the crick-crack of the man’s brittle old spine. It occurred to Tucker then that without fresh clothes he couldn’t really eliminate the smell—a bigger problem than anyone could solve now. The old man’s breathing was raspy and snot rattled in his nose.
“Here,” Tucker said holding up a wad of toilet paper to the old man’s snout.
“Ah—” the old man snorted out a jet of what looked like green onion dip. Then he started coughing and the more he coughed, the more slime came up. Tucker thought he was going to run out of john paper before he could get down to the real business at hand.
The fresh shit was black with traces of blood. Tucker plucked out a fistful of toilet paper scraps and started swabbing. After a while it became apparent that the old man had a series of large skin tags around his anus, where scar tissue from hemorrhoids and fissures had begun to blossom. Maybe that’s where the blood was coming from, Tucker thought. Even worse, older shit had encrusted itself in the ass hairs and dried to a brown, adobe-like texture. The old man whimpered when Tucker wiped—tearing out hairs no matter how delicately he stroked—trying to scrub the area clean before it became raw. Finally he finished and turned the old man around again, but before Tucker could pull up the dirty underpants a squirt of piss soaked his hand and the old man winced, as if he expected to be hit.
Tucker wiped his hand clean before reaching down to dab the head of the shrivelled penis which scarcely looked human. The old man seemed to say something under his breath. Tucker knew then that the old man was trying to thank him—but at the same time he was pleading to be killed quietly, mercifully, there in the toilet where no one would know. Make it look like he just died. Take the body back to the seat and no one would realize until they stopped in Amarillo to have the bus cleaned. They’d find him but no one would be the wiser. He was very old. He couldn’t go on this way, crapping in his pants on a bus to nowhere. Someone had to send him on his way. Surely God had sent Tucker to do just this.
The old man hacked up another great gob of phlegm and fell back onto the toilet seat, his head shaking.
“Are you...okay?” Tucker asked, taking his wrist to check the pulse. “Do you have any family?” He thought the man shook his head.
Tucker nodded and stood silent for a moment.
Then he took a hand and held it over the old man’s mouth while the other gripped the back of his neck, which felt like something between uncooked chicken and wax. Then there was a gentle snap, quieter than the cracking of a knuckle.
Tucker straightened the old man’s clothes, brushed his hair, and lifted him up again to take him back to his seat.
“Everything come out all right?” Jersey Girl giggled.
“Bet y’all know somethin’ ‘bout the fudge, gay boy,” Alice returned.
Tucker laid the old man down in his seat and as subtly as possible turned the head toward the window. In Amarillo one of the cleaners would find that the old man wasn’t asleep, the body would be removed and turned over to the police. The initial assumption would be that he simply died of heart failure. Naturally the bus company would make as little fuss as possible. By the time anything was officially determined, the bus would be long gone.
Tucker felt relaxed. The old man’s shame and anguish were over. He was free of his Greyhound wanderings, safe and clean in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“He all right?” the Brazilian inquired.
“Yeah,” Tucker said. “Just tired.”
“The next stop is Amarillo,” the bus driver announced, “where we’ll have a short rest break.”
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