He is young, long mousy colored hair tucked behind his ears, wisps of facial hair making an attempt to form a shape, anything, and failing miserably to serve any other purpose than to lead me to glance hesitantly for my reflection in the bus window, idle fingers searching for any stray whiskers of my own. He is talking loudly over the roar of engines in the downtown bus mall, the chatter of evening commuters making their way home, cell phones pressed against ears, suits moist with perspiration on this unusually warm February day.
The man Mouse is talking to plops down in the seat beside me. I can smell him, sour, not sweet. “So”, Mouse continues, “right now I am just a volunteer, but what I am hoping for is an unpaid intern position.” I smile to myself, wondering if I made this series of events unfold earlier today when I was loading the washer and thinking that I haven’t had a good laugh in three days.
“How old are you Boy?” Sour pronounces boy like it’s a dirty word. Their stale cigarette breath hangs in the air. I wonder if my breath has ever smelled so foul, pull a stick of gum from my purse and pop it in my mouth, just in case.
“You got any particular set of work skills?”
“I can fix a tire on a go-cart faster than anyone else, but that don’t count ‘cause I done it for three years before I turned eighteen and anything you do before eighteen don’t count no more.”
“That’s not a very marketable skill.”
I glance at Sour. He is round and sweaty, his blues eyes magnified by his thick lenses, his mustache carefully twirled on both sides. In my head he is a pipe smoker, and his wife is awaiting his arrival home where she will ladle boiled beef and cabbage into a bowl before him.
“Yeah, but it is a skill, cause I can do it the fastest.”
“Oh really? You can change a tire faster than anyone?” The tone is mocking, almost. I am starting to dislike Sour, and I no longer envision him going home to a wife and a hot meal. His house has gone cold, because he is stingy with the oil, and he sits in the darkness, alone, with not even a cat to chat with.
“No! See, that’s the thing! I didn’t actually change the tire; I just ran out to the track with a piece of rubber and a lighter and melted it into the tire so they could go on and get, trying to pop that damn tire again. ‘Cause there were people out there trying to pop tires for fun.”
“Have you considered joining the military?” Sour is either mocking Mouse or just plain dumb. I haven’t figured it out yet. I am imagining Mouse running out to the track, a piece of rubber in one hand, a lighter in another. I am imagining he was the fastest at getting those go-carts racing again.
“Nah, I couldn’t even join the job corp. or nothing, on account of my SSI. They didn’t want me, but they took a buddy of mine who was a full year older than I am.”
“You are on Social Security?” Sour is frowning now; I can hear it in his voice.
“I can work too, I just can’t make more than $5000 a year or they take it out of my SSI. That’s why the job at the go-cart track was so perfect. I never made more than $5000 there.”
“Why don’t you go back to the go-cart place then?”
“I can’t. My final paycheck was a bill.”
(I will admit to having a silent chuckle at this. I want to be able to say my final paycheck was a bill, but I don’t want to ever have it be the truth.)
“You were fired?”
“My final paycheck was a bill, and then they kept on sending bills for five more months after that too. They said I had to pay for all them pieces of rubber I cut up to fix the tires.” Mouse is looking straight ahead now, remembering, perhaps. I wonder if he took perfectly good tires and cut them into pieces, the squares of rubber waiting in his pocket.
“This here is my stop right here.” Mouse rises to head for the exit door, his dirt streaked black pants falling down to expose white flesh swirled with a delicate pattern of purple stretch marks. I look away from the crack of his ass and close my eyes. He is heading home now. I place a smiling mom at the front door when he arrives, a gentle dad sitting in an armchair; the TV trays have already been set out for dinner; they were only waiting for him to get home before they began eating. A halfway worn out golden retriever gets enthusiastic head rubbing as a greeting and the day slides into the evening and soon the night. His parents love Mouse for volunteering and they are proud. They are proud.