Along For The Ride
 

Marcella O'Malley
 
 

© Copyright 2004 by Marcella O'Malley
 
 

 

Photo of a young woman in an eerie cathedral.  (c) 2004 by James Nichols.

The bus pulled away with a hiss, into the cold, Minnesotan night. Kate lurched slightly and fell into a hard plastic seat. Sipping the last of her low- fat, decaf-mocha, she dropped the empty cup onto the floor, flipped open her notebook and continued writing.

He hasn’t called. I feel emptiness in my heart and in my rumpled bed. The rain falls in drowsy drips down the cracked pane, pain like tears. On the television the African babies with their swollen bellies cry from hunger. I want to reach through the glass and through the miles and wipe the crystal tear that slowly tracks its way down a brown cheek. My hunger cannot be sated with food.

Kate looked briefly out at the streets lined with frozen brown slush illuminated by yellow streetlamps. A billboard advertising Hooters gleamed white and orange, the busty woman in the picture had her hands in long hair and a promising pout on her full lips. Kate saw her own reflection in the bus window as the street grew darker. She sucked in her cheeks slightly and scrunched her hair.

I am like a star out in the black night sky, shining brightly to no purpose. Would my breath freeze in space? Would I exist?

 Her eye wandered back to her reflection in the bus window. She ran her fingers through her hair again and began rummaging through her bag for her lipstick.

 “That’s a bit soppy, dear,” a voice said.

 Kate looked up. An old woman in a black coat had seated herself next to Kate and was reading over her shoulder.

 “Excuse me?” she asked.

 “That’s a bit soppy, all that,” the old woman said again, nodding at the notebook and pulling off her black leather gloves.

 “That’s nothing,” a woman’s voice came from behind them, “You should have seen the tripe she was writing in that women’s writing group of hers.”

 Kate turned in her seat. The speaker was a dark-haired woman. She sat straight and tall, statuesque. She was very noble looking and beautiful. Almost beautiful, Kate corrected herself, the woman would be beautiful if she wore any make up on her thin lips and deep-set eyes.

“Susan, you do go on,” said a very small woman who was sitting with two others in the handicapped seat. They were small enough that three could share the seat normally reserved for two on the city bus. The one who spoke looked familiar. She had her hair pulled back from a center part and a very pale face. The one on her left was homely, with big sad eyes, a large crooked nose and looped braids. The older lady had sparkling black eyes.

Kate dismissed the women and turned back to her notebook.

“I am empty now while rumpled Darkness sits, like a velvet blanket you brought for me. We were at peace, satin piece, I want to write to tell you how…” She gave up and dug deeper into her bag for her lipstick.

 “See?” a voice said from right above her.

 Kate looked up startled. The tall woman had moved from her seat behind and was standing in the aisle, her head tilted, reading.

 “That’s as bad as all that nonsense you wrote about the coffee bubbling over onto your white enamel stove,” she said, pointing a long white finger at Kate’s notebook.

 “How do you know what I wrote in class?” Kate said, shutting her notebook and facing the woman.

 “Class?” the woman said contemptuously, “I taught school for 14 years, what kind of class is that, I would like to know.”

 “It’s a creative writing class,” Kate said defensively.

 “Creative? Did you ever hear the like?” The tall woman said turning to the other passengers on the bus.

“More like,” she ticked off the offenses on her long white fingers, “Poor spelling, shoddy structure, soppy subject matter, and I won’t begin to talk about your grammar.” She glared at Kate fiercely.

 There was a mummer of assent from the other passengers. Kate looked around mortified. The bus was filled with women. Women all bundled up in dark traveling coats, capes, hooded and bonneted; some wore gloves, some carried muffs. The bus was full. They varied in age and height. Most of them sat in twos and threes; a few sat alone. They all had their eyes fixed on Kate and the tall women. Kate blushed furiously and turned to face the window. She wrapped her new, brightly patterned GAP scarf tighter around her throat. Her stop would be coming up soon. She would simply ignore this crazy woman until then.

 The small white haired woman next to Kate tapped Kate’s arm gently. Kate didn’t turn. She stared out at the dark frozen landscape. It didn’t look familiar. This was the number 5 the route from the University down to the corner of Lacroix Square and Scribblers Coffee Shoppe, where Kate’s shift began in 15 minutes. She rubbed the cold glass of the bus window and her heart lurched. She could make out in the clear cold night by the light of a huge moon, a frozen cornfield. It stretched for miles to the black horizon. She was going to be late for work.

 “She’s trying to ignore us, Susan,” the white haired lady said, gently.

 “Too right,” the tall woman, Susan, stormed, “She’s ignored us far too long. They all have.”

 Kate stood up, “I’m not ignoring you. I missed my stop. Excuse me, please.”

 “What stop?” Susan said looking around. “Where are you going anyway?”

 “I missed my stop,” Kate insisted, stepping around Susan into the aisle. “Excuse me, please. Stop!” she said, pulling the cord. She stumbled in her trendy platform shoes. Straightening up she tugged her short jacket until it met her jeans at her hip just covering her navel.

The driver, without looking around, put on his indicator and pulled with a hiss to the side of the road. Kate clutched her notebook to her chest and stumbled down the aisle. The women pulled in their coats, skirts, and small feet as she stumbled by. She grabbed the railing of the steps and turned. The women watched her. Susan still stood in the aisle frozen and impassive watching with those dark eyes. The little white haired woman smiled slightly at Kate. The three tiny women whispered together.

“Crazy” Kate thought, “They’re all crazy.” She stepped off the bus.

The midwinter wind cut though her. She looked around wildly. The fields stretched endlessly all around her. The dark vast sky over her head twinkled with bright stars, and the moon as white and fair as she had ever seen seemed to move closer as she watched.

“Where is this?” she asked the driver.

 The driver, a big African-American in a gray uniform shrugged comfortably, “This? Oh this is where you are,” he said.

 A blast of wind from the north whipped Kate’s hair; she clutched the notebook closer to her chest and buttoned up her stylish denim jacket.

 “Where’s the city?” she yelled.

“The city?” the driver smiled. “The city is where it always is.” He started to close the door.

Kate panicked. “Wait!” she screamed and banged on the door.

 The door opened, and Kate climbed breathlessly aboard. She would just have to wait until the route was completed and the driver headed back to the city.

 The women, still in their seats, watched her wordlessly as she came back through them and resumed her seat next to the white haired lady who smiled at her and patted her hand gently.

 The bus pulled back out onto the road.

 “I’m Kate,” Kate said, feeling foolish and smoothing her hair.

 “Hello Kate,” the woman said.

 “Those are beautiful trousers,” a little woman leaned over and said. She blushed and turned her face back to the window.

 “Thanks.”

 “Now, don’t mind Emily, she’s shy. But she cared about you. She cared enough to come on this trip. Didn’t you Emily?”

 Emily turned her head slightly and gave a quick nod without meeting Kate’s eyes.

 The three women whispering together grew animated. The one with the large nose threw back her head and laughed. The older one covered her mouth with her hand and her whole body shook. The middle one with the shiny hair and big eyes, smirked slightly.

 “Now, Charlotte has got Mary Anne and Mrs. Gaskell going. They’ll neither of them be any use for a fortnight,” the white haired woman said, two patches of pink showing on her cheeks. “Really Charlotte, you know we have work to do and our time is very limited.”

 Charlotte shrugged and waved her small hands up in a gesture of helplessness, which made the other two laugh even harder.

 “Wait a minute,” Kate said. “Charlotte and Mrs. Gaskell?” She looked again at the three. “Charlotte who?”

 “Charlotte Bronte,” the middle of the three said rising and extending her right hand. “And these two magpies are Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Anne Evans.”

 Mrs. Gaskell wiped her eyes on a lace handkerchief and rose to shake hands. Mary Ann Evans simply nodded her head in Kate’s direction.

 “Oh, nice to meet you Charlotte,” Kate said, giggling, “I loved Wuthering Heights.”

Charlotte dropped her hand and said coldly, “That was my sister.” She turned and resumed her seat whispering fiercely to the other two.

 “Oh dear, that’s torn it with Charlotte I’m afraid,” the little white haired woman said.

 Kate, unrepentant, looked around, “Is this some kind of ‘dress up as you favorite author day’? Why didn’t they put it on the University website? That’s so cool.”

 “Cool?” Susan said. She stopped talking to an elderly woman and stood up straight.

Kate, beginning to enjoy herself, turned to Susan. “Who are you supposed to be? Mary Shelley?”

 A very pale woman with a dark hood pulled up close around fair ringlets that framed her face leaned forward. “Present,” she said, in a low, soft voice before sitting back into the shadows.

 “I am Susan Anthony,” the tall woman said. “And you, Kate, are wasting time.”

 “Your costumes are great,” Kate said. “But where are we going?”

 “Now listen to me you silly girl,” Susan said. “Costumes and poses have distracted you for too long. Is this…” she hit Kate’s notebook out of her hands. “Is this what we fought for? What we worked for?”

 Kate’s astonishment turned quickly to anger. She stood up. “Listen, Susan, I think you may be taking your role a little too seriously.”

 “Oh, dear,” the white haired woman muttered.

 Just then the bus came to a stop with a jerk. Susan fell into Kate, and they both toppled onto the floor between the seats.

 “Oh, for the love of Mike!” Susan said, struggling to get up, her long dark cape tangling her arms. Kate scrambled to her feet quickly and then bent to help Susan.

 “All right ladies?” the big bus driver after pulling the bus onto the verge throwing it into park, called as he stood up.

 “Yes, thank you Hal. We’ll be fine here,” Susan called, finally regaining her footing.

 “O.K. I’ll see you then,” Hal said and stepped off the bus.

 “What?” Kate screeched. She hurried to the front of the bus looking frantically out every window. But the view of the deserted cornfields was the same.

 “Wait, where are you going?” she hopped off the bus and looked around.

 The moonlight shone on the ribbon of the road stretching far into the night and disappeared over a gentle hill in the distance. The fields on either side of the road were stubbled stalks of harvested corn frozen and shuddering in the winter winds. The night was clear, and Kate looked around, no bus driver. He had simple disappeared.

 Kate turned and looked at the bus. Shadowy figures filled the windows, but she couldn’t make out any clear shapes. What was happening? This was no fancy-dress literary party, who were these women? What did they want with Kate? The icy wind bit easily through her jacket, and she shivered. She turned and looked as Susan came and stood on the bottom steps. She smiled slightly and gestured for Kate to return. Kate staggered under another blast of icy wind and climbed back onto the bus.

 The ladies had arranged themselves in a sort of circle all turned to face the center where the white haired woman now sat alone. As Kate climbed back on the bus, Susan swept down the aisle. The white haired woman smiled encouragingly and patted the seat next to her. Kate took her seat next to the white haired woman and sat in a daze.

 “Now,” Susan said. “Let us bring this to order shall we?”

 The women nodded.

 “Fine then,” she began. “I think the most profitable use of our time and this girl’s time,” she began and pointed a finger at Kate.

 “Woman,” Kate corrected.

 “Pardon me?”

“You called me a girl. I am 23. I am a woman.”

 “You write like a God damn little girl,” mocked a dark haired woman, smoking a cigarette.

 Emily gasped.

 “Now, Dorothy,” the white haired woman said gently.

“Yes, well,” Susan continued, “Woman, girl, Kate. We are all here for Kate. Agreed?”

 “Excuse me,” Kate interrupted, “but who are you?”

 “This is a God damn waste of time,” the dark haired woman said.

 Emily put her hand to her mouth and the three little women began to whisper again.

 “Please Dorothy, we spoke before about your use of profanity only for shock value,” Susan said.

 Dorothy lit another cigarette and smoked in silence.

 “Well, let’s begin,” said the white haired woman. “I’m Dorothy Wordsworth. And you’ve met Susan Anthony, Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte and Mary Anne Evans.”

 Susan nodded formally and the three little women each met Kate’s eyes in turn.

 “The little bird by the window is Emily Dickinson,” Emily smiled shyly and then turned back to the window.

“That’s Dorothy Parker, and Virginia Woolf,” Dorothy Wordsworth said indicating the dark haired woman with the cigarette and a frizzy haired woman who sat scribbling on a pad in her lap.

“Katherine Porter, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Richardson,” she said pointing. Then she lowered her voice and continued, “Dorothy really invented stream of consciousness, though no one reads her nowadays.”

 “It’s that ridiculous Joyce!” the woman screeched. “That little Irish upstart stole the style I invented! Finnegan’s Wake, I ask you…” She fumed and Edith Wharton, who looked like she had heard this tirade before, patted her hand.

 “Yes, well” Dorothy Wordsworth gestured to the bus, “I dare say you’ll meet the rest as the meeting goes on.”

 “Meeting?” Kate asked. “What meeting?”

 “Why this meeting,” Dorothy said gently.

 “Do you see? She has no grasp of details. No idea how to interpret events into a cohesive unit. ‘What meeting?’ My God, this is useless,” Dorothy Parker said.

 “Easy, Parker, she just needs some training, some mental discipline,” Virginia Woolf said, looking up from her note taking,

 “This whole thing,” Dorothy Wordsworth gestured to the bus, “Is Virginia’s idea. She has marvelous ideas on time and relativity.”

 Virginia smiled, and Dorothy continued, “And so dear girl, we came here to help you.”

 “Me?” Kate asked. “Help me how?”

 “Help you with your writing,” Susan said. “And from following you around for a couple of days, I think we may be too late. You spent forty five minutes washing your face last night, an hour reading a magazine called Glamour and fifty minutes picking out those trousers. When you do write, it’s all this, whining and moaning and words that don’t say anything. Listen to this,” suddenly Susan had a sheaf of papers in her hands, “’The coffee spills in black blobs. I am twelve, my mother sits with her cup halfway to her lips staring at nothing, I hug her. She won’t hug back. I am ugly. I have coffee colored hair. Coffee, tea, why not me?’ Good God girl, what does that mean?”

 “How did you get that? That’s my journal writing,” Kate said trying to snatch it back, but Susan held it above her head.

 “Journal writing?” Katherine Porter asked in a quiet voice that carried to the corners of the bus. “Is that an allegory?”

 “It’s an exercise,” Kate explained, “to get in touch with the inner writer.”

 The bus was still as the women took the concept in.

 “But surely, the inner writer has to be connected to the outer woman," Edna St. Vincent Milay said. “The tone of the piece can help illuminate the complex issues. Moral freedom, for instance, addressed with freshness and even gaiety becomes a lovely toffee.

“Journal writing is for finding your voice,” Kate said, smoothing down her hair.

“But certainly a little navel gazing goes a long way,” Charlotte Bronte added, still piqued about the Wuthering Heights comment. “And really, all that wasted effort on coffee.”

 “Darling Kate has a mellifluous voice, as sweet as a sugar cake. But as far as her little thoughts can go, we need a coffee break,” Dorothy Parker recited.

 Some of the women laughed.

 “It’s too much paper,” Emily said quietly.

 “What’s that dear?”

“Too much paper. I remember back in Amherst, the paper was so precious that I had to think so carefully before I could use any of it. I would find scraps and save them and write so tiny to save space. But the words you see, they had to be special to be put down. Now there is too much paper.”

 “I think she’s not too far off,” said Mary Shelly in her husky voice. “But I think it’s something darker, more insidious. I see what is being made into books today. Women are portrayed as neurotic, over-sexed, self-indulgent dolls! And some of the writers creating such monsters are women!”

 “Or abused, alcoholic, recovering, self examining pathetic little creatures,” a beautiful woman said. “Hello, I’m Zelda Fitzgerald,” she added, shaking Kate’s hand. “I think women have to apologize for taking up anyone’s valuable time with a book by first explaining the neurosis that forced them to write it.”

 Susan had picked up Kate’s journal and was leafing through the pages, her mouth set in a thin line, “Why didn’t you stay with the African babies?” she asked.

 “What?”

“There,” Susan said pointing, “You were onto something with the African babies but you left it. Why didn’t you stay with it?”

 “It’s all commercial now,” Virginia said. “A woman needs money and …”

 “A room of her own,” every woman on the bus chanted.

 Virginia smiled, “Yes, well I dare say you’ve all heard me say it enough, but it doesn’t take away from the truth. A woman must have economic independence to write good work.”

 “Yes, so you keep saying,” Dorothy Sayers broke in. “But why a woman? Why on earth does a woman need economic independence, and yet no one would think that a man needs the same. Your way of thinking has in fact brought us this…” She gestured to Kate. “A young woman without a scholarly turn of mind, who wants to be a writer without having to discipline herself in the classical tradition. Now a young man would perhaps find this aspiration impossible to attain, but a young woman? No, she simply buys a ‘notebook’ signs up for a ‘class’ and spends most of her time when she is not brewing coffee scribbling any odd thought that pops into her empty head. If the work is unstructured, why then it is simply called, “free verse”. If it is emotional to the point of vulgarity, it is classified as “soul searching”. This is where your separatism of women writers has brought you,” she said glaring over her half- moon glasses. She hitched her wool great-coat over her shoulders in a shrug, and said coldly, “Chick Lit.”

 “Girls today have more distractions than they did in our day,” a grandmotherly woman said to Dorothy Sayers.

 “Oh Agatha, you’re quite impossible,” Dorothy Sayers said.

But Agatha only smiled and continued knitting. “Hello dear, I’m Agatha Christie. I think what Ms. Sayers is trying to say is you seem to be taking this ‘finding your voice’ a little too far. I’m sure there are abused and trapped, voiceless women. There certainly were in our day.”

The women nodded.

 “They need to discipline their thoughts,” Dorothy Richardson said.

 Agatha gave her a sharp look. “But the point is, dear, we can’t let that abuse dominate all of our creative energy. I’m sure it isn’t very nice to be molested as a girl or taunted for having braces, but surely women don’t need to continue to use that as their only source of creative inspiration. It makes the work so, well, singularly women’s.”

 “It’s not their fault!” Susan Anthony said. “The publishing houses in this country are closed men’s clubs. The only women who can get published on a regular basis have to conform to ‘what the market demands’, meaning that as long as they produce work that enforces the status quo about women they have chance to see their work published. Consequently, the best-selling books, that sell by the millions, invariably begin with half naked women tied to trees, women corpses or perfectly healthy women in crisis. Books today consistently perpetuate the view of women, unfulfilled, yearning for something beyond their ken, trying to find something or create meaning in their lives. The women in books live in mortal terror of losing their men and their looks, and society is expected to believe that would be enough to drive away any vestige of sanity woman had retained.”

 “That’s not true,” Kate said. “There are lots of strong women these days.”

 “Silence you foolish girl!” Susan thundered. “You have all been brainwashed into arguing with each other over men, breast size and carbo diets. Your brain is cluttered with ideas of satisfying your men, stealing each other’s men, and trying to look like girls all the while griping about not being called women. You wear shoes you can’t walk in and clothes that don’t keep you warm. I have seen how you fritter away your lives with petty concerns about dress and looks spending no time on your minds or your souls. You have sisters with whom you compete in society and nip like bitches at each other instead of uniting and redefining the art and the ideas of your time. Is it for this we worked our whole lives?” she asked, holding Kate’s journal over her head.

 “The irony,” Edith Wharton said. “Is that half the population is women. Half! Half the writers, half the readers, we could really change things if we refused to accept this rigid, stifling mores of the society.”

 Susan turned and pointed to Kate, “You have been sold a bill of goods! You have been convinced that somehow if you can correct your own deficiencies, the world will be more accepting and life will be sweeter, instead of realizing that the problem is in the world. You should be thinking about changing the world not yourself. You have allowed your preoccupation with your own angst to distract you from doing serious thinking--serious work! All this fuss about ‘self’ is crippling you. No one cares how men writers look only what they think.”

“No one cared how Henry James looked,” Edith Wharton said.

 “Never before has life been so easy for women and yet never before have our voices been so quiet.” Susan said, dropping the journal back in Kate’s lap. “And quieted not by a constraining muzzle nor a stifling hand, but quieted by ourselves.”

 “But, I’m not like you, I have nothing to say,” Kate said softly.

 “Sister, they’ve been telling us that for eternity,” Susan asked, kindly putting her hand on Kate’s shoulder.

 “Why,” Kate asked. “Why would you care what I’m doing? Why would you care what I write?”

 “Because,” Dorothy Wordsworth said. “We’ve seen the book that you could write.”

 Kate’s eyes were blurred with tears, but it seemed that the women were nodding and smiling. “I can’t,” Kate whispered. “It’s too hard.”

 “And what does that have to do with anything?” Dorothy Wordsworth asked patting Kate’s knee.

 Kate looked up. The bus was moving. The city streetlights flashed through the windows. Her journal had fallen off her lap and lay in a brown puddle of melted snow at her feet. The bus was almost empty, just another Thursday night run from the university to Lacroix. An old man in a plaid shirt sat across the aisle and a teenage couple sat intertwined in the last seat. The women were gone.

 The bus came to a stop, “Lacroix,” the driver called.

 Kate stood up in a daze and bent to pick up her notebook. She shook the water off it and tucked it under her arm protectively. Paper was precious.

She turned at the bottom step and glanced at the driver, a very tall woman in a gray uniform with long white fingers lying on the wheel. The driver stared straight ahead and the door shut with a hiss. As the bus pulled away, Kate breathed in the clear, cold air of the night and watched the retreating taillights. Her heart skipped, whether it was a trick of the light or the teenaged couple in the last seat she couldn’t tell, but for one split second, she thought she saw shadowy figures at the bus window, waving.
 
 

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