by Julie Parks
I stand and wait, and then wait some more until the right bus arrives. Better chance taking one of the old ones, the long yellow wormlike vehicle that puffs black devil’s breath through its rooftop nostrils. Those are usually safer bets with ticket controllers. I smile and nod, letting all the old ladies get on first, the true gentleman that I am, then the little girl with her mother. When I finally hop on and squeeze through the mass of lumpy bellies behind all the winter coat fabrics and find a relatively comfy one-arm spot on a pole for balance, while the screeching yellow worm sways off the curb, I hear the familiar announcement.
“Tickets, please. Prepare your tickets for control!”
They always pick this spot, this foresty patch right between two stops so that people would feel more intimidated of them and oblige to pay the fine.
“Present your tickets, please!” It’s a low and dutifully-formal female voice but I can’t see her yet. I wonder if she has a couple of kids at home. And if yes, do they buy tickets for every ride they take? It’s either that or a cone of ice-cream, or a McDonalds shake, or a pirated video game from Maxima, or even a DVD of a new movie if you’re lucky.
Keeping my head low, I glance around, she cannot be alone. They never are. Someone jerks on my elbow discourteously and I spin around right in the face of a uniformed controller, “You too, young man, ticket please!” Male (Caucasian, late thirties, medium built, slightly thinning brown hair) is standing tall and what you call composed.
At first I feign searching for it in every possible pocket-crease-corner of my attire but he calls my bluff within the first ten seconds, they usually do. “Young man, do you even have a ticket? What’s the plan here, hmm?” His too-serious-to-take-any-shit voice raises a notch. Adults always ask these serious questions, but they’re never ready to receive equally serious answers.
I shake my head humbly.
“Follow me, please.” He sends a little head signal to his colleague and the bus driver and they usher me off the bus. I can see that I’m not the only one; Female (Caucasian, late thirties, slender, fake blond hair) has a drunken Passenger (Caucasian male, late fifties, heavy built, indefinable hair color under his wool hat) under her arm. I can’t see his face but and he smells of something that makes me almost want to skip my dinner. She lets go of his arm for a second and the limp body collapses right there in the mud. I look down at my own feet and fear shoe-drowning while they go through their protocol questioning. Where do you live? Where were you going on this bus? Why no ticket? See, now we will have to give you a formal fine, see how much your parents will like that.
“What’s your name, boy?” Male barks at me.
“Karlsons,” I look away.
“Now how about that?” He feigns surprise and says to Female, “Did you hear that? Real imaginative this one, thinks he’s Karlsons. The one that lives on the roofs in Lingren books?” He asks me rhetorically because he knows as well as I do that I can say whatever I want to that – I’m only ten and don’t carry any formal ID yet, if you don’t count my school ID but that’s just a folded carton with my picture glued on the inside, right next to my name that’s written in pen and can be erased if you’re smart and tricky like I can be sometimes. Once I even stole the school Secretary’s (Caucasian, late twenties, slender, blond hair) pen before she issued my new ID just to be able to lend her my own, my very new fading ink pen I’d just gotten online. That time I didn’t even have to do any hard work, the ink disappeared off the paper as I was walking out the door of her office and from then on, for the remaining school year, I could be whoever I wanted to be.
Since I’m on the short side, I used to be able to tell them that I’m actually five years old and don’t even need a ticket, but then things changed and I started telling bigger lies.
“OK, smart one. Here’s your fine, Karlsons. See what your parents say about that.” He tears off a piece of paper that’s as thin and airy as a poison ivy leaf and might sting equally badly if I don’t play this right.
“Sure, if you can get one of them to read it,” I shrug and toss it in the mud, and start walking away, my shoes stained and sticky with mud.
“What did you just say to me?” He walks after me, trying to intimidate me with the thunder in his tone.
“I said nobody’s going to read it anyway.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“Because,” I pause to swallow the lump in my throat, “my mom’s gone and my dad’s mostly…” I glance back at their other victim, all dreams-and-snores by now, in the same muddy patch back where we got off the bus. Thankfully it’s nearly spring and he’ll wake up in a few hours when his body has sobered up. But once I saw one of them trying to sit it out here in snow. The entire walk through the forest I wanted to turn back and make sure he’s awake and knows his health risks because the controllers sure don’t care, they only want you to pay. Pay, pay, pay. Dad (Caucasian, early forties, medium built, brown hair) constantly complains about all the Latvian government instances that just make us citizens pay, pay, pay. Pay more for gas, for the added VAT on food, for the rugged roads in the country side, for the increase in pension, for the increase in state salaries, even for the new welfare for Syrian refugees. But what about the rest of us, what about the ordinary citizens – when will someone pay us more?
“You mean he drinks?” His tone softens a bit, followed by a deep sigh. Female taps him on the shoulder and says something only they can hear, but her attitude is changing as well.
“Boy, what is your real name? It’s OK, you can tell us.” She suddenly chirps at me like I’m a toddler and scared of the big bad world. I think about it for a second, trying to decide between Nemo and Palle, but then mutter Erik, opting for a slice of truth in the midst of all the pretense. It’s nearly dinner time and I’m tired.
“Erik, what a beautiful name. Where’s your mommy, Erik?” She honeys at me again, all smiles and encouragement, giving me the last boost I need to complete my story.
“She left when my dad beat her up when she didn’t make his pancakes thin enough, the way he likes them. She’s not very dexterous and no good at sliding the dough around the pan and flipping them speedily enough…”
“OK, we got it. When will she be back?” Male asks, his voice returned to ordinary human tenor.
“One day,” I circle my foot in the mud. Up here where they’ve stopped me the second time, the ground is already drying up and I don’t have to fear losing shoes to a slurry mud bath. “I know she will. So I stay with him even when he drinks.”
“Does he khmm…does your daddy ever hmm…”
“Does he raise his hands on you?” Male finishes for her.
I look up at them and draw in a long and pensive breath, blinking wildly to fight back the tears. “No, never. He’s just drunk and asleep all the time.”
“Oh shit,” Male lets out, “sorry for that, I didn’t mean to…I shouldn’t…cursing is real bad, Erik. I’m sorry to hear about your mom and dad.”
“Yeah, so many assholes for parents these days, makes me sick.” Female says more to herself than us. She doesn’t apologize for her cursing. “Here, take this. Get yourself something hot to eat tonight, OK? And be strong. One day things will change. At least when you’re eighteen they will.”
She has no idea.
“Yeah, take five from me too. Sorry, I don’t carry much cash lately. But let me give you a ride through the forest. Our van is right around the corner.” He points to a spot I am very familiar with. Once a long while back, when I wasn’t so fast with my story a pair of equally uniformed controllers took me all the way to their precinct. They also drove me all the way home when I finally did tell them the story. I think back then I used to leave the pancake part out, though. It might have been the one with my parents losing a child in fire or the one where my mom had an affair with her lady boss. But those bits were too emotional. I mean the controllers were tearing up faster than I could do it myself, so I downgraded it to a simple pancake fight.
I thank them and jump out of their on-duty van and cross the street to the bus stop that will take me back through the same forest to the side of it that is my home. This time my ride is smooth as our pale green kitchen linoleum and even before the yellow worm rounds our corner and makes its gradual exhausted puff of a stop, I can see the two gold lit windows in our matchbox building. When I was younger I kept searching for Mom’s (Caucasian, late thirties, best built for a woman, curly blond hair, the sweetest voice on the planet) curtain pattern because all the grey apartment blocks looked the same. They are actually all the same both on the inside and outside, the only difference being their inhabitants. But it’s home. For now at least.
“Not again. I can see it on your dumb face,” Erik (Caucasian, nine, slim built, curly blond hair) says the second he opens the front door for me. “Hurry up, mom’s nearly done making dinner and dad keeps asking about that website you found with all the discounted summer vacations.”
I throw my jacket on a hook in the hallway and run to our room to change out of my scruffy scene clothes, props for a proper character really.
“How much this time?” He leans against the door frame of our joined room and squints at me.
“No shit, Karlis. You’re something.” He smiles and shakes his head, and then giggles. It’s a friendly laugh, though. Besides, he keeps it between us. He’s a good brother like that. Maybe when I’m finally eighteen and will have saved up for my ticket to Los Angeles to find a better acting job I’ll buy one for him as well. But for now I keep working on my savings plan and practicing my scenes on the streets.
I throw on a pair of clean sweats and follow Erik to the kitchen where something deliciously roasted is already tickling my nostrils, leaving the fifteen Euros in my special box and kissing the caption that’s on it for good luck.
“You pray for rain, you gotta deal with the mud too. That’s a part of it.” Denzel Washington