God and Buses
by Yuvi Zalkow
This work of fiction was originally published in Glimmer Train (issue #78).
First thing you should know about me: I’m into buses.
The 57 is bumpy and dreary and it twists you out of the beautiful belly of Portland and into the strip mall nightmare of Beaverton. I used to take that one to get to work. But now I’m free of that job.
The 15 covers plenty of ground and takes you from the breakfast joints of the Belmont district into town and then out to the fancy pants excitement of 23rd Avenue and it eventually takes you to St. Johns, if you’re cool with sitting alongside a few drunks, which I am. I used to live along that bus line. But now I’m free of that house.
The 14 is full of life and noise and passes in and out of the excitement of Hawthorne Blvd, all those hippies and yuppies and yippies and huppies, and then takes you across the Willamette River by way of the Hawthorne Bridge. And I have a reason to be under the Hawthorne Bridge, so that is my bus of choice this morning.
Next thing you should know about me: I may be a Jew by heritage, but I don’t believe in God. Or else I believe in him only for the bad things, for the tsuris. And maybe that’s why God has suddenly started speaking to me. His voice is scratchy like Tom Waits if you must know. But He’s less poetic and more critical than Mr. Waits. Today He says, “So you medicate yourself to get over her. That’s awfully original.” And so I say to Him, “What the hell else should I do?” And everyone on the bus looks at me like I’m less than normal.
There are other things you ought to know about me. But I’ll save them for later. For now, God and buses are enough.
A man from Powell’s Books asked me to write a story about life in Portland.
We need it for an anthology, he said. It needs to be representative of the place.
My writing gigs had been getting scarce. I definitely could have used the money. But I worried about this project.
I’m not such a representative kind of person, I told the man. I’ve already had a conversation with God.
Oh, he said. Not a good sign. But try it anyhow.
Oy vey, I said to him.
Yeah, he agreed, this might not work out.
It’s beautiful underneath the Hawthorne Bridge. Especially in the morning. With the bridge above me and the river to one side and the highway ramps on the other side and the downtown buildings across the river. It’s quiet and noisy and sunny and a little foggy. You get a chance to look at the city from the bottom up. Which is very soothing. Though sometimes that view also smells of urine.
“This feels like a drug deal,” I say to him when he arrives.
“Yeah,” he says. “But it is a drug deal.”
“But this is more of a fakey drug. And besides, you’re my brother-in-law.” I pat him on the back, but he doesn’t budge or smile or give me anything to work with. He’s never had much of a sense of humor.
“Ex-brother-in-law,” he corrects.
“I haven’t signed any papers,” I say. “Do you have the weed?”
“They don’t call it weed anymore.”
“Oh yeah? What do they call it?”
“She’s still mad at you,” he says. And he hands over two baggies with the stuff.
I consider the two bags in my hand. “Better give me three.”
He refuses to take any money for it. “I know you need it for medicinal purposes,” he says.
And then he says, “Adios,” and then I say “Shalom alechem,” and then it’s over.
The 19 takes you along Burnside and even to Glisan and lands right at the Shir Shalom synagogue. I get off the bus a few minutes too early for torah study. The name of this place means “Song of Peace,” which I could use a tad more of these days.
My wife is parked in the synagogue parking lot. She is sitting in her car (what was formerly our car) waiting for the thing to start, and so I put my face up against the driver side window and I scare the crap out of her. Unintentionally.
She waves me to go around to the passenger side and so I get into her foggy car. I hope she won’t smell the smoke on me.
“Jesus, Yuvi,” she says. “What are you doing here?” My wife is tall, she’s got four inches on me, and this little car feels too small around her. I feel too small around her. Like she’s grown and I’ve shrunk during our time apart.
“What are you doing here?” I say. “I’m the Jew.” It’s true that she’s got dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin. But she’s got none of the guilt. She doesn’t even know how to worry properly.
“You never took my conversion seriously,” she says. “You’re the one who kept saying that Portland is too beautiful to bother with a stale religion and a stale deity. I’m sure you only came to this thing to bug me.”
God says to me, “She has a point,” with his cool scratchy voice. I’m embarrassed that God has to be exposed to the nasty things I’ve said about Him and His religion.
“Yes,” I say to my wife, “but you converted because of me. You can’t leave me and take my religion. Get your own.”
“Are you getting dumber or is it just me?”
“It’s probably both,” I say, and God agrees.
It’s nice to smell the inside of her car again. It is a combination of stale tea and old apple cores. I want to stay in here for an eternity.
“So what now?” she asks. My wife’s voice is scratchy, as if she were a smoker, though not as scratchy as God’s. Even when she’s frustrated, it’s a soothing voice to listen to.
I take in the smell of tea and apple cores and then say, “We go inside, we get all torahed up, and we go home.”
“Torah isn’t a verb,” she says.
“She has a point,” God says.
I hate when they team up on me.
I explained to the Man From Powell’s that I’m currently separated from my wife. I told him that I have dreams of dead babies and rabbis in clown uniforms. I told him that I linger under the Portland bridges for something new to happen. I weep when I pick up my unemployment check. Do you really want a story like that in your anthology? Don’t you want more of a crime story?
I need it by next week, the man said.
I’m a bit of an insecure schmuck, I explained to the man.
I’m getting that, he said. But I’m still one story short. And you need the money.
About twenty people come to this basement torah study session. I say hello to people just like a normal day. But my wife mingles better, she always has. She knows these people better because she comes here more often. The rabbi is a lady whom everyone here loves. People who swore off religion long ago suddenly got interested again because of her. She does Judaism, Portland style: with grace and openness, and with a sense of activism, helping the community and the planet. That’s what appeals to my wife about this thing. As for me, I don’t care for it so much. I’ve had enough of His words. Who needs to study the word of God when you already have God breathing down your neck?
“I don’t even breathe,” God tells me. “That’s a terrible metaphor.”
“Shut up,” I say to Him.
I sit across the room from my wife so that we can look inconspicuous. But then I realize that it is even more conspicuous that a husband and wife suddenly sit across the room from each other.
“Thou shalt not foolishly sit across the room from your wife,” God says.
“That is not a commandment,” I say to Him, and the two people next to me look at me like I’m crazy.
In this part of the torah, the Jews are wandering in the desert. The rabbi loves this part, apparently. She lets her hair down when she’s excited. She takes these deep breaths like she’s breathing in the desert air as she speaks. This rabbi speaks about wandering in the desert as if we’re talking about a boy wandering through a video arcade with too many quarters. So I raise my hand.
“Rabbi,” I say to her. “Isn’t wandering in the desert bad? Don’t we want the Jews to get to their destination faster? What’s so good about being lost for forty years?”
My wife covers her eyes with her hand.
God says, “What a schmendrick!”
But then the rabbi smiles in that wise way she can smile. “It’s not a better thing or a worse thing,” she says to me. “It’s the condition of our species.”
After the session, my wife tells me that she doesn’t know if she ever wants to get back together with me. She needs to think things through. She needs more time away from me.
“Who doesn’t?” God says.
My wife says that she will be picking up her stuff from the apartment later this afternoon and she doesn’t want me to be in the apartment when that happens.
I nod. “I can do that,” I say.
And I hope she doesn’t hear God say, “Yuvi is full of dung.”
My wife is less than thrilled to see me at the apartment when she arrives. She slams the door a little too hard when she comes in.
I’m sitting on the couch. Smoking a joint. I’m excellent at rolling a joint. I can roll one as skinny or as fat as you need it for that particular purpose. “Too bad that skill doesn’t cross over to your love life,” God says.
“You promised you wouldn’t be here,” my wife says.
“You promised to stay with me forever,” I say.
“Here we go again,” God says.
My wife walks into the bedroom in an angry, stormy kind of way. Her long hair is beautiful when she’s storming around the house. She then storms back into the living room and sits on the couch next to me.
“Do you think I like living with my drug dealing brother?”
I don’t answer. I know a rhetorical question when I see one.
“You and I don’t work well together,” she says. “We’ve killed three babies. How many more do you want to kill?”
“Six,” I say. When I’ve had a little too much weed, I sometimes answer rhetorical questions. It’s always a mistake.
“What?” she says.
“I think it should be six babies before it’s all said and done.”
My wife looks at me like she’s close to killing me. “You’ve gone insane,” she says, and then she goes back into the bedroom to start packing up her things.
“The last baby almost made it,” I say, when no one is around.
We had just moved into this apartment when she left me. Before this place, we bought a little starter home in North Portland. Our dream home. It was an easy jaunt along the light rail to get into town. We even had a room we called the baby room. We used it as a study room, but we kept the walls painted baby blue for when the time came. Not only was it baby blue, but it had little boats painted on the wall. A rowboat, a sailboat, a canoe, a yacht. Each one individually painted by the former owner. For when his kid was a kid.
Even after the first miscarriage, we couldn’t stand to go in that room. After the third, we were both dying to sell the house. Those fucking boats.
My wife comes out of the bedroom with a box of her stuff. “That’s good for now,” she says. “I’ll come back when I’m sure you won’t be around.”
I’m looking at a bus map of the city as she says this. To keep my mind occupied. “The number 31 goes all the way to Estacada, Oregon,” I say to her. “Imagine the dedication.”
“How much did you smoke today?” she says.
“Enough,” I say.
“Actually,” God says, “a few hits beyond enough.”
The Man from Powell’s called me, wondering why I was late mailing him my story.
It must have gotten lost in the mail, I said.
Are you talking electronic mail or snail mail? he asked.
Both, I said, the electrons and the snails are all against me.
He said, This kind of thing doesn’t get lost in the mail — I’ll give you three more days and then I’m calling the police.
I explained to him that there’s nothing illegal about not writing a stupid story.
Try me, he said.
I go down to the Hawthorne Bridge again (using the 4 this time). I sit underneath the bridge and I try to write a story that takes place in Portland. There’s a breeze. A dragon boat goes by. There’s a drummer on the boat and everyone is paddling to the beat. A car honks from somewhere above me. A homeless man warns me that he’ll be sleeping where I’m sitting later tonight.
I try to write a story about a man whose wife left him (“Pretty original,” God says). I try to write a story about a woman who leaves her husband (“You just don’t get it,” God says). Then I write a story from the womb of a lady who had a miscarriage. The story is all fleshy and bloody and it still smells of the rotten placenta inside the lady’s uterus. In fact, the placenta is the one telling the story. But I don’t know enough about a woman’s body, so it’s not entirely realistic. For instance, there’s a dragon boat floating around in there. The front of the boat is a dragon’s head and the dragon has horns and even a long black beard, which is dragging in the amniotic fluid.
My eyes burn something awful after writing this story.
I await God’s criticism, but He is silent. So I keep writing.
And when I’m done with the story, He just says, “Hmm.”
And I say, “Amen.”
After this suspiciously successful writing period, it gets dark pretty quickly, and I get on the first bus I can find and sit all the way up at the front, where the lights are florescent pink and I use that light to look at my placenta story. In the back of the bus, there’s a man howling. As loud as he can. He’s drunk; I can smell him from all the way up front. And as I read and edit my piece, I realize that the placenta is now making the same sound, howling inside this uterus.
The bus driver pulls over and waits for the police. When Howling Man is forcibly pulled off the bus, I get off too. And I walk home from the corner of 39th and wherever. I can hear the howling for what seems like the whole night.
The next morning, I take the 6 up to Alberta, where my brother-in-law lives. You can smell the marijuana from outside the front door. When I knock, I hear a cough. And then he opens the door. “Great,” he says. “It’s fucking you,” and then he walks back to the couch with the door open. This is how people who know me well speak to me.
Rather than go through a fakey discussion with him, I walk straight back to the guest bedroom, which I imagine is now my wife’s bedroom. The door is closed and so I put my ear to the door.
“That’s disrespectful,” God says.
“I know,” I say, and I keep listening.
I imagine what it would be like if I were to open the door and see her with another man. What if she were naked with another man. What if they were having sex. What if she had his baby. I think about all this with my ear to the door when my wife opens it. She’s in her sweats and looks sleepy.
“I thought I heard you,” she says, and then walks back to her bed where she sits down.
Nobody is all that excited to see me today. I probably should have showered.
I sit down next to her and we both look at a poster on the wall. It is a poster with four fancy cars in an absurd four-car garage. The poster says, “Justification for a Higher Education.” First of all, I know she also hates this poster. Second of all, the poster is so un-Portland-esque. Third of all, her brother didn’t even graduate high school. He just likes stupid cars.
“I dig the poster,” I tell my wife.
She laughs. “Me too.”
In the movies, with this kind of conversation, you have this one chance to make it right. And so I try not to screw things up. To calm myself down, I picture my wife in her underwear. But that doesn’t help. So I picture myself in my underwear. But that doesn’t help either. So I picture God in His underwear. And that helps.
“I could smite thee,” God says in His underwear. And I know He could. So I try not to think about anything at all.
“I did some thinking,” I tell my wife. She’s still listening. She hasn’t told me to leave. Which is better than I expected. So I continue: “I just wanted to understand what it was like. Your body was a giant World’s Fair, with the hormones and the blood and the fluids and the sore breasts and the nausea. And I had nothing going on inside of my body.”
“Hemorrhaging,” she says, “isn’t like any World’s Fair that I know about.”
“She’s got a point,” God says.
“I got to where I hated you and your body. I rode the bus all day to avoid you.”
“It didn’t have to be that way,” she says. “You could’ve just talked to me. I gave you so many chances. Why did you stay so detached for so long?”
“It’s the condition of our species,” I say to her.
She doesn’t take me back. She needs more time. Hopefully not 40 years.
When I leave the apartment, I hear her brother say, “Amen.”
I clean up my story. I do a few edits. It feels close. But I also realize, as I’m cleaning it up, the impossibility of me writing about a placenta. Me, a person who lost his wife because of it. Me, a person who has an easier time with buses than with people. Me, a person who doesn’t know the difference between amniotic fluid and the Willamette River. It’s pathetic.
And it makes me like the story even more.
So I get on the 20 and head to Powell’s Books. God hasn’t been saying much to me lately, and I treat that as a good sign. The others on the bus also appreciate that I’m speaking to God less.
When you walk in to Powell’s, you can instantly feel the bigness of a bookstore the size of a city block. You can taste the one million books between your teeth.
I decide that my story isn’t such a good story to represent Portland. Who knows how to represent a weird city like Portland, but it sure isn’t my way. And so I don’t contact the Man From Powell’s. But perhaps someone in this town will take to my story. Maybe someone could learn from my mistakes.
So I go into the fiction section. I pick a row. Any row. Row 612. And I stick my placenta story between two used books. Cozy and snug in there. The story should be safe now, held between these two books.
Soon after that, I leave the store. I pick up the 31, which goes all the way out to Estacada, to find out what’s on the very edge of this bus system. Maybe from that point, I might see the Promised Land.
But just before leaving the bookstore, I say a prayer in front of all these books, and in front of my placenta story. I pretend for a moment that I am a religious man. Like God is hidden inside every one of these books.
And when I’m done with my prayer, God says, “Amen.”