Purgatory, or Riding the Bus Home from School

(Original illustration: Leann E. Johnson/www.lea-way.com)

(Original illustration: Leann E. Johnson/www.lea-way.com)

There is no seat you want to sit in, no place
that you belong, so you choose one near
the middle, closer to the back than the front,
one with a kid in it, wearing a faded jean jacket
and striped watch cap. A skinny kid who stares
at his hands, lying in his lap. His fingers are slender,
stunning—and you are ashamed that you notice.

You never sit in an empty seat, nor do you sit
next to the boy in the blaze orange down coat,
his head shaved, his skin the color of onions.
Nor by the girl with the unzipped coat and black
V-neck sweater, her eyes lined in kohl. You slide
in next to the boy with the graceful hands, say,
is it alright if I sit here? He glances
over his shoulder, sees your powder blue ski jacket
says, it’s alright.

The school bus fills. You do not look up as the eighth and
ninth graders saunter down the aisle. You try not to notice
how their jeans ride low on their hips, how those hips move
with a certain ease. You look away, try not to see
the cigarettes tucked in their coat pockets,
the lighter one flicks close to the pink pom poms
on the girl’s hat three seats up. You glance
at their boots—mud-stained, steel-toed,
a size too big.

You and the thin boy look out the window, watch
the houses get larger, the trees get taller, denser,
until rolling hills and frozen ponds take over.
The houses squat, thin out near the highway.
You watch a V of geese head south, spot snow
that falls but never lands.

He gets off at the trailer park, three stops
before yours. Each morning he waits there by the
chain link fence, his breath billowing clouds in the
thin dawn air. You watch now as he walks along the road,
hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. As the bus pulls away
he is swallowed by row after row of white tin trailers.

The sky is empty now, all the birds and color bled
out of it. Even the highway is nothing
but salt and potholes, windswept asphalt.
You close your eyes, try to picture anything
other than his bare hands.

 

Julia Klatt Singer writes poetry and short stories, and is a coauthor of Twelve Branches: Stories from St. Paul (Coffee House Press). She works as a visiting writer in the schools through COMPAS, and hasn’t found a river yet that she doesn’t want to cross.

Illustrator Leann E. Johnson has been creating art (scratchboard illustration, relief printing, and tile design) for over fifteen years. A current resident of Minneapolis, she has illustrated for other publications such as the New York Times. To see and learn more about her artwork, go to www.lea-way.com

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