Strangers and Blueberry Muffins by Kip Hanson

Dec 20 2012

Many people struggle with small talk, especially on a city bus. To Mark Hallman, the bus was like a family reunion where you can’t remember the name of your gap-toothed cousin, or that of the drunk uncle in the Chicago Bears jersey. Every weekday he left the quiet of the Lynwood Mall Park ‘n Ride and, with the apprehension of a visit to the proctologist, climbed into the echoing anonymity of the 13E. From there he rode twenty-five minutes to his job at the credit union, silent and uncomfortable among familiar strangers. Today, Mark would change all that.

To his left sat the young man with the sailor tattoo—Mark called him Popeye (never to his face, of course). Three seats back, the noisy couple who stepped off every day at Murdock Street argued again about who would cook dinner that night. In the very rear of the bus was a plump but not unattractive girl in a tartan knee-length dress and thick Harry Potter glasses. She was staring at him, again. And two seats before Mark was the woman he would someday marry.

She didn’t know it yet. Except for the time he’d accidentally bumped her elbow with his battered briefcase, she’d never looked at him. But the scent of her perfume, mixed as it was among the complex reek of diesel fumes and sweaty human beings, intoxicated Mark. The sunlight through her wheaten hair, the delicate tracery of her ears; these were things of beauty. He would make her his wife, if only he could screw up the courage to talk to her.

Her name was Melanie. M-E-L-A-N-I-E Stellwick—he’d overheard her once on her cell phone, arguing with the bank about an overdraft fee. Mark had a lot in common with Melanie (whose name he’d secretly shortened to Mel). Even though he worked for one, he too disliked banks, and frequently suffered overdrafts. In addition, he and Mel each wore brown shoes. And obviously, they shared the same mode of transportation. Judging by the book in her hands, he knew they both loved famous authors. He started their first conversation with that.

“Ms. Stellwick?” His voice was a whisper above the rumble of the engine. She licked her index finger, then turned the page. His heart pounding, he spoke louder. “I just finished McTeague last month.”

She turned her head and stared at Mark. “What did you say?”

“Your book? I just love Frank Norris.”

She lifted the paperback like a shield. “This is Kathleen Norris. Not Frank. And I hate McTeague.”

“Oh…oh,” he laughed nervously. “I’m sorry, Mel—”

She turned her page, then abruptly rounded on him. “What did you call me?” she said. “How do you know my name?”

“I…nothing.” His face burned. “Never mind. I’m sorry.” The bus slowed—it was Melanie’s stop. Mark bowed his head—someone had dropped a blueberry muffin into the aisle. He watched silently as it tumbled towards her. As she got to her feet, she crushed it beneath the heel of her Easy Spirits. Blue crumbs flew everywhere. “You stay away from me,” she hissed. “Creep.”

Mark pressed his forehead to the window as the love of his life joined a handsome man at a sidewalk café. He’d lost her.

“Fucking women, am I right?” said Popeye with a grin.

Mark nodded. Blueberry footprints smeared the aisle. He stood and moved towards the door—he would get off at the next stop and walk to work.

“Mark?” It was the Harry Potter girl from the back of the bus. She proffered his briefcase. “You forgot this.”

“Thank you.” He was near tears.

She smiled, raising her eyebrows. “Getting off early today?”

“Yes,” he said glumly. “I’m going to walk.” Bits of blueberry still clung to the girl’s loafers.

“I’m Sarah,” she said, and stuck out a hand. “Want some company?”

Kip lives in sunny Phoenix, where he chronicles the life of an exiled Nordic Warrior King. You can find him at Bartleby Snopes, Absinthe Revival, Foundling Review, Every Day Fiction, Waterhouse Review, and a few other places. He writes to keep the flying monkeys away.

3 responses so far

  1. Where’s the rest of the story?

  2. That our stories cut off at the first opportunity is the idea! Though, of course, I can’t speak for the author.

  3. For a short while, he had the soaked sidewalk to himself — until the Joker and Spider-Man showed up.

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