Harry pneumatically lowered the front of the bus. John smiled, went along with the joke, and hunched over as if he were an old man. He grabbed the handrail and turned, asking, “Do I really look that bad this morning?”
“Ain’t saying. But seeing how down you are this morning I thought I’d lower the front end kind of like the bus was a hat – cheer you up. You have a nice visit with your girl.”
John laughed. “Thanks, Harry,” waving an imaginary hat as the bus pulled away from the curve. He’d been coming to the county park on Saturdays and Sundays for a couple of months, ever since his daughter disappeared. Disappeared, that’s how he thought of it. Late mornings it was usually the same bus and driver. Not too many riders on the weekends and eventually they started talking.
John’s daughter Katie was 14; she liked peddling her bike along the river paths. Half-day of school, some special teachers’ program. Late spring – you couldn’t ask for nicer weather – she had left a note on the kitchen table. “Dad, I’m going to the drugstore for stationery and then for a ride in the park.” She didn’t come home that night. No phone call.
They found her bike the next day at the foot of the TV tower in the park. Her empty backpack was in the trash barrel in the nearby parking lot, a crumpled receipt for stationery underneath. That was it. They searched. Looked at the security tapes from the drugstore: a smiling Katie paying for the stationery and a candy bar.
The police asked John all sorts of questions: was she happy, did she have any boyfriends, do drugs, how was she doing in school. John got angry. “You’d think she’s running for some kind of office.”
“We have to ask.”
John punched back, sardonically told them that he was widowed. “So there’s no mother who kidnapped her. And there are no other family who’d be interested in any kind of abduction,” adding in frustration, “she’s a teenager for crying out loud.” And then he broke down sobbing.
The tower was a 5-minute walk into the park. There was a parking lot nearby and he could have driven. He did once, found himself crying and almost hit a cyclist. And then couldn’t calm down, felt as if he was losing it, thought about driving into the tower, knock it down as if it were to be blamed. -, it probably saw what happened and now’s refusing to cooperate. He decided it was safer to take the Red Line bus that ran along Capital Avenue. He could think, even close his eyes.
One time he had fallen asleep. The bus driver let him ride to the end of the line. At the last stop, the driver turned the engine off and woke him. “You looked like you needed the rest so I let you sleep. You have to get out now. I can’t leave you alone in the bus; super comes by, liable to think you’re going to hijack the bus, take it to Cuba – you’re that old – know what I mean? Pit stop, time to use the facilities or smoke a cigarette. There’s a coffee machine here too.”
John went along, told the driver about his daughter.
“Yeh, I recognized you from the paper. Saw it that first day on the 6 o’clock news. Just wished I had been looking down the park road when I went by, I mean besides for traffic cutting in. But I don’t remember anything. You get pretty passive day after day doing this. Eyes open, brain not recording. Yeh, sorry man. Some things you can’t forget. I’m Harry. Don’t like that they posted our names above the driver’s seat. You get some crazy doesn’t like how you drive or stays pissed you didn’t see him running after the bus, they come after you, harass you late at night on the phone. I told this to a Jewish guy rides the bus to work; he tells me it’s a meshugana world.”
On the way back, the driver asked if he wanted to get off at the park. John said, “No, not today.” He went home and to bed, sleeping through the afternoon.
He remembered waking up, feeling groggy, thinking, “Life is a dream but when you wake, then what?” And then he remembered: No Katie! Now he set the alarm when he napped so he wouldn’t sleep too long and start dreaming.
Every weekend John followed the same routine after waking. He splashed water on his face after using the bathroom then desolately dragged himself into the kitchen, popping a frozen dinner from the freezer in the microwave. He’d yawn and drink from the sink faucet, waiting for the timer on the microwave to bing.
Only once had he forgotten to slit the top on the package. The cleanup time caused him to miss Harry’s bus. The tower in the park still waited for him.
If the weather was bad or he was feeling off, he’d stay on the bus. Harry was sympathetic. If the passenger seat behind him was empty, John would sit there and they’d talk quietly. “I’m just going through the motions at work. They gave me two weeks off when Katie went missing – personal time. Didn’t help much, was even more depressing home alone. I told them at least work keeps my mind off things.”
“Got to keep your hopes up, John. Don’t have no choice. Police make any progress?”
John would swallow and whisper, “None that they’re telling me.”
The conversation was much the same on those down days. John needed to get out of the apartment, to talk to someone. Harry listened.
Harry always asked how he was feeling. If John wasn’t able to answer he’d and ask about the weather, the Bucks or Brewers. First time he mentioned the Pack, John had laughed, said it’s become too much of a religion in Wisconsin. “People up in Green Bay act as if the quarterback is the Pope and the receivers Cardinals. Thanks, Harry, I’m going to pass on football.” When he tried to laugh at his joke, scratching sounds came out of his throat.
Harry commiserated. “I hear you; Bucks and Brewers are local. Sport’s good for you though. I play on a neighborhood softball team. If you’re interested, think about coming out or take in a game and cheer. After, we put up a mean BBQ – almost as good as the Speed Queen’s.”
“Maybe sometime. Couldn’t play though, never was much of an athlete. These weekend walks are about it for exercise.”
Infrequently John would stay on the bus even when the sun was shining. Harry would slow for the park stop and John would tell him, “I’ve brought my own rain clouds today.”
Once when the bus emptied, Harry asked if John was getting any counseling. “Can’t do this alone. Got buddies who served over in Afghanistan, came back with PTSD. Your kid disappearing is worse than that, John. Sometimes we’re not meant to carry burdens alone.”
“Thanks, Harry, but I got nothing to talk about.”
Fall came and the trees turned color. John went to the drugstore, bought stationery, the kind he thought Katie would like, deciding he’d leave notes at the base of the tower in case she came back. Or maybe the - that took her will read this and release her. And then if the note was missing the next week, he’d pray that the wind had picked it up and was delivering it to Katie. A couple of times he included a self-addressed stamped envelope. It didn’t help.
It was a rough winter. John wouldn’t bother wearing boots but marched around the tower in the snow. He got sick twice. He appeared gaunt.
Before February was out, Harry pleaded, “Get help, John. I’m your buddy, trust me, you need to get help.” Flustered he asked. “Where’re your folks from?”
John muttered, “Up in St. Paul. I moved down here for the weather after I graduated from Macalester College. Nah. Got my first job here. Weather’s only a tad better.”
Beginning of April, midweek, close to the anniversary of Katie’s disappearance, John got on the bus.
Harry was surprised, asked what had happened.
“Told me to take some time off – so I quit.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Probably ride the bus. You’re good company, Harry.”
John fell silent. Didn’t get off at the park.
Harry swallowed. “You know this’s not a solution, John. You know it. I’m your friend. You need to get help.”
John stood up as if to get off. “Maybe I should stay overnight under the tower. I’ve a tent.”
“There’s no camping allowed. You got any family back in St. Paul?”
“An old spinster Aunt. I was an only child.”
John moved to the back of the bus and rode to the end of the line. He told Harry he’d get the next bus back, wanted to stretch his legs a bit.
A couple of weeks passed without John riding his bus. Harry asked around but none of the other drivers had seen him. Concerned, he called the police, who said they’d check.
The following Saturday John got on Harry’s bus, sat in back and rode to the end of the line. At the lay-over he gave Harry a stamped envelope with a St. Paul address. “That’s my aunt, remember I told you I was from up in the Twin Cities? She says I can stay with her. In case Katie comes on the bus, you give her this envelope. It’s stamped, got my aunt’s address. I’m going to leave another at the tower. I’m moving up next week. Going to stretch my legs again. Thanks, Harry, for being a good friend.”
~ * ~
Harry went back to school, earning an AA degree as a paralegal. His new job with a downtown law firm didn’t start until September. When he cleaned out his locker at the bus terminal, he found John’s letter. Sadly, he had never heard or read about any new developments in Katie’s case. He wrote, told John about his new job and said he hoped he was doing well in Minnesota. Asked him to write when he got a chance. He pasted his address sticker in the upper left corner of the envelope.
Ten days later it came back stamped, “Address Unknown.”
Ken was a Professor of Mathematics, a ceramicist, a welder, an IBMer, and yoga teacher. He lives with his wife in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, writing late at night in his man-cave. He enjoys chamber music and mysteries. He's a homebrewer and runs whitewater rivers. His essays appear online in havokjournal.com and shepherdexpress.com. Please visit www.kmkbooks.com.