Jenna shivers in her light coat and watches the fog curl around corners and thicken until nothing is more than an outline. When the number 30 pulls to a stop, she makes her way through the ghostly crowd and is soon seated just across from and behind the exit door.
She removes a book from her bag before tucking the bag between body and window, and then relaxes and opens the book to a dog-eared page marker, which she unfolds. The story is about a family reunion on a lake in Wisconsin; more specifically, about the 14-year-old narrator who would prefer to be almost anywhere other than at a family reunion on a lake in Wisconsin. He takes a rowboat out, lines the bottom with its square plastic pillows, and promptly falls asleep in the intense afternoon sunlight. It's a big lake and the boat has drifted.
The bus lurches forward and Jenna relaxes into the push/pull rhythm. As they make their way through Chinatown, the bus fills and empties quickly as Jenna listens to the sounds of Mandarin and Cantonese in their endless tonal variations. She used to be annoyed by all of this gibbering while she was trying to read, and then one day found herself distracted by the silence that followed their departure from Chinatown. The sounds had turned from speech to music and each day when the music is gone, she experiences a moment of grief.
She returns to her book in the renewed silence. The boy has just woken up. He looks around, trying not to panic; every dock looks like every other dock and every lawn like every other lawn. He's realizing how big the lake really is and how much time he has, before it gets dark, to find the right dock, the right family, to return to.
The bus is nearly empty now. As they pull away from the curb, the driver hits the brakes hard and heads snap back. The doors open and a man slowly climbs the steps. He's wearing a long khaki green coat and ancient fingerless gloves, his hair and beard are gray. His coat and the careful way he drops his coins in the slot remind her of something, and as she tries to decide what it is, he happens to glance back and catch her gaze. She immediately lowers her eyes and pretends to read, but she can't get past the sentence she's on, the words have no meaning. She's focused instead on the heavy scraping steps of the man in the green coat making his way down the aisle towards her, and the memory that's trying to surface. The footsteps stop and she knows that he's standing next to her seat waiting for her to look up at him. She waits a minute to see if he'll go away.
She looks at him.
"Could I sit here?" He asks in a deep clear voice. She looks at the other passengers, who immediately look away and at all the empty seats around them.
"There are a lot of empty seats, you're right, but I'd rather not sit alone, if it isn't too much trouble," he says.
And then something connects. He reminds her of Uncle Stanley.
Jenna and her parents lived in a small quiet bungalow on a small quiet street in a small quiet suburb; and then, the summer she turned nine, her Uncle Stanley came to live with them.
He didn't act like other grown-ups. There was something deferential about the way he behaved; he sat sideways in chairs, as though he were trying to avoid using the whole chair. He could walk on his hands and juggle five balls at once. That summer he taught her how to ride a bicycle with no hands and how to play poker. Mostly though, they played checkers. Jenna's stomach feels hollow. She hasn't thought of Stanley in years and doesn't particularly want to think about him now. The bus starts to move and the man in the green coat, who is awaiting her decision, has to grab the rail of the seat in front of her. Jenna startles and moves her jacket to her lap. The man lowers himself slowly into the seat next to hers. She smiles at him briefly and returns to her book, waiting for the smell to hit her. But it doesn't; the man doesn't smell like anything. He makes no attempt at further communication and sits quietly while she reads. From the edge of her vision, she sees his left hand abruptly dart out in front of him, and watches him guide it back with his right. He holds his hands tightly in his lap while they engage in a battle for dominance. She turns to look at him. His forehead is lined with beads of sweat. Both hands suddenly jump as one and he forces them back to his lap.
He tries to smile, but his eyes fill up. "I can't help it. It just happens," he says.
She nods. She would like to be sympathetic and to some degree she is, it must be awful to have to live like that. On the other hand, she's reading and doesn't want to spend the next thirty minutes listening to his life story. She looks up from his hands to his face, smiles, and turns back to her book.
The boy is still lost on the lake. He's rowed himself close to shore, but nothing looks familiar. The docks and back lawns he passes are crowded with people who could be his relatives, but aren't. Some wave at him from where they're sitting, paddling their feet back and forth in the cool water below. He waves back and rows to the next house and then the next and then the one after that. It will be dark soon and then the bugs will come out. He wonders what will happen to him. He floats from pier to pier watching other families carry out their summer rituals.
The bus stops again and the driver gets off to reattach the electric cable to the cable line. Unintentionally, Jenna looks at the man next to her. Behind the gray hair and the disheveled appearance are clear green eyes. He isn't an alcoholic, no broken blood vessels, no bulbous red nose. His face has a quiet dignity like the faces on coins. The careful, almost apologetic way he has of holding himself is what, she now realizes, reminds her of Uncle Stanley.
The thing about Uncle Stanley was that he could play checkers all day, unlike other grown-ups who would get tired after a few games. On an afternoon in July, after Jenna had just won a game, he stood up and took off his pants. Then he sat back down in lime green boxer shorts and continued playing.
Uncle Stanley had purple underwear and polka dotted underwear and a pair that had Bugs Bunny all over them. Part of her was always curious about what kind of underwear he was wearing. This became their new pattern. If Jenna won, Uncle Stanley took off his pants. It made her feel guilty and powerful at the same time. She never told anyone.
The man is watching her study him. She drops her eyes.
"You remind me of someone," she says quietly.
"Someone good or someone bad?" he asks.
"I don't know."
One day that summer she was coasting downhill and her jeans got caught in the spokes of her bike. The front of the bike stopped but the back didn't. She got thrown over the handlebars and hit the ground hard. Her bicycle skittered to the far curb. She waited for a concerned parent to come running out of their house and carry her to safety, but nothing happened. No cars drove by. No faces appeared at windows. Everything remained exactly as it was, and she limped slowly and painfully home. Her parents were at a barbeque down the street and she didn't think she could limp that far.
But as soon as she reached home, Stanley ran outside, scooped her up, and carried her into the house. He set her down on the washing machine. Then he cleaned her scraped knee with rubbing alcohol, which is all they had in the house. She didn't make a sound, but tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. When he was finished, he picked her up under the arms and set her back on the floor. Then he put his hands together in prayer, held them to his chest, and bowed once. Stanley left at the end of the summer and she never saw him again.
"Did this person hurt you?" the man who isn't Stanley asks.
Jenna slowly shakes her head
"That's good, I'm glad," he says.
She returns to her book. She doesn't want to talk to this stranger anymore. The boy on the lake is scared. He isn't going to find his family before dark and there is now a steady fog of mosquitoes floating around the boat, around the only warm-blooded creature left on the lake. He has to get off the water. He needs help, but has no idea how to ask for it.
Jenna looks out the window. They're nearing her stop. She flips ahead several pages; she's less than halfway through the story and this makes her think that something bad is going to happen to the boy. She returns to the page she was on and bends the corner down.
"You're a page marker. I haven't been able to do that since I was about five," the man says.
Jenna smiles tentatively.
"My father was a college professor with a great reverence for books. If we damaged a book, any book, he would deduct money from our allowance until he could replace it with a new copy," the man says. "So our house was full of books that appeared never to have been read."
Jenna looks at the man's face and pictures a library of pristine, untouched books, and a palpable overbearing presence somewhere in the background. She holds her book out to him. He hesitates, but she smiles at him and nods. He takes it from her very gently, opens it towards the middle and very carefully and deliberately turns down the corner of the page and hands it back, but she shakes her head. When she reaches the stairwell, the man speaks to her again.
"Don't you want to know how it ends?" he asks.
"Not really," she says and reaches up to pull the cord for her stop.