He entered the crowded bus with a tangled bunch of blue balloons in one hand and a forty in the other. I hoped he wouldn’t sit next to me, but of course he did. The edges of the old man’s soaked faded jacket rubbed against my knees as he squeezed in front of me into the window seat. The latex balloons squeaked as they rubbed against the smudged and muddy bus windows. I put my earbuds in, even though my phone was dead, and stared at the ground. The universal “do not disturb” sign on public transit, or so I hoped. Then the dripping from the rain soaked balloons over my head. Even on the bus I couldn’t escape the rain.
I considered the only other available seat. It was next to a woman who was on the phone and in a heated argument with some poor bloke. Sure, he had forgotten that on Fridays he was always suppose to pick up their kid after band, but I’m sure it was just a long day at work and he honestly forgot. Damn, I hate public transportation. Next rainy day I’ll stick with my bike regardless.
A woman with short blunt hair slicked against the rigid sides of her face fidgeted in the seat in front of the old man. She vigorously brushed the water drops off of the shoulders of her tan tailored coat. At the next stop she stood and turned to face the old man.
“Excuse me sir, do you mind?” Her lower lip quivered as she tightly clutched her oversized umbrella.
The old man kept his eyes fixed on the balloons over his head, looming like a raincloud.
“Well.” The woman huffed. She poked at the balloon closest to her with the tip of her umbrella before taking her seat again.
Every available crevice of the bus was filled by South Bernard Street. A group of drunk teenagers packed the aisle in the back of the bus next to us. Their scruffy faced ringleader punched one of the balloons, bouncing it off his friend’s face while laughing obnoxiously. The friend swatted it back at him.
“Who brings balloons on a bus?” The scruffy kid swung his arm wide knocking three of the balloons over my head sending water droplets flying.
“This guy.” The scruffy kid laughed loudly.
The old man sat still, his gaze fixed forward.
“Dude, just leave him alone.” I said.
The scruffy kid looked at me, sizing me up. I was at least five years older and bigger than him.
“Or what?” He asked, puffing his chest out while swaying drunkly.
“You’re a joke.”
I turned away. The last thing I needed was to get in a fight with a bunch of stupid high school kids, though beating the shit out of them did sound like a good stress reliever. They stopped messing with the balloons and became enthralled with a YouTube video, playing it loudly on one of their phones over and over while manically laughing. Five more stops, just five more stops.
“It’s our birthday. Today. It’s our birthday.” The old man said like we were in the middle of a conversation. His eyes on the balloons.
“Um, happy birthday.” I said awkwardly.
“I liked the color blue, he liked blue,” he continued.
“That’s great, man.” I said.
I could see the next stop a few yards ahead. Only four more after that.
As we approached Orwell Street the bus was nearly empty. The woman in the tan coat, who had changed seats at the first opportunity, a young mother in the back cradling a sleeping toddler, me and the old man. I stuffed my earbuds into my jean pocket and stood up. I quickly swung my backpack on as the bus jerked to a halt. As I exited the bus I heard the old man rushing up behind me, the clattering of the balloons in tow.
“Wait,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the bus driver, but I decided to believe it was the latter. I zipped up my jacket as far as it would go, sunk my hands deep into its pockets, and walked quickly down the vacant sidewalk. It was cold, dark, and misting.
All was quiet. I tried to forget about the old man, but a part of me, curiosity, wouldn’t let him go. I turned around. I didn’t see him or anyone. I walked back to the bus stop. No one. As I gave up my pursuit and turned to walk home, I spotted movement in the decrepit cemetery. Its fence ran along the sidewalk behind the bus stop. The place always creeped me out. Of course he would go there.
“We looked out for each other. He’s my best friend.” The old man continued our conversation that had never started.
Something about the way he spoke drew me in. I opened the rickety gate of the cemetery and approached the old man. He sat on the damp grass, facing a headstone. He poured the beer on the grave before taking a drink himself. I squatted down by his side to read the inscription through the balloons placed in front of it.
May 18th, 1943 – November 7th, 1999
“He was your…twin?” I regretted engaging immediately.
“I told you, it’s our birthday. Today. It’s our birthday,” the old man snapped back, irritated. He took a long drink.
The old man stared at the headstone, a distant gaze. The balloons jerked and twisted wildly as the wind picked up. It started to rain again.
“He liked the color blue, I liked blue,” the old man said.