I’m on a Greyhound bus to Milwaukee. Last rites for a distant cousin I barely know – but for whom I am the only kin. It’s 6.15 am. The coffee shop at the bus depot in Chicago was closed, and the coffee machine ejected cold brown water. The back of the seat in front of me oozes yellow foam through a tear, like chicken fat. It’s grey outside and the rain seems angry at being awake so early too.
The aisle seat next to me is empty. I park my bag on it and close my eyes. “Excuse me, seat taken?” He places my bag on my lap, smiles, and sits down before I can respond. His many pounds quiver and spill over into my seat. I breathe sour smells each time he moves to get comfortable, which is often. He leans forward and parks his head on the back of the seat in front of him. His hair is short, so short, folds of fat are visible. And giant moles. His faded black T-shirt screams Jesus Saved my Life on the back in big curly cue white letters.
I look around for a free seat, but damn, the bus is packed, even at this hour. I lean against the window, close my eyes and hope to sleep through the 140 minute ride. I feel a poke in my arm.
“Where are you going sister?”
“Milwaukee.” I avoid eye contact.
“Me too. Been on a bus for three days. All the way from California. Heading back, after four years.”
I try not to breathe in his three-days-on-a-bus breath.
“Going home to see my boy. Danny. He’s eight today. He doesn’t know I’m coming. Don’t know if he knows I’m alive… If he remembers me.” He continues to murmur. “Why now? Why now he’ll ask…”
He is sitting straight up, talking to his knees. “I’ve been on a journey to answer that question. I feel ready to answer it. To my boy. Couldn’t give what I couldn’t give. Couldn’t give what I didn’t know how to give. That’s why I’m coming back. To tell him I’m ready to love him.”
I glance at him sideways. “Who is he with?”
“Foster people. Just foster people. I’m his only kin.”
“Four years is a long time…”
He stares at his hands. “I’ve written him a letter. For when he’s ready to read it.” He pulls a crumpled envelope out of the pocket of his shorts and holds it up to the window, checking for the outline of the letter through the envelope. He stares at the address, mouths it, as though afraid the ink might disappear. He keeps the envelope clutched in his right hand.
I stare out at the flatness through the streaked window and wonder where the land ends and the sky begins. I wonder what an eight year old says to a father he hasn’t seen in four years. I wonder what I would say to my father if he ever showed up.
The bus pulls into the Milwaukee station. I wait for him to rise. He is leaning back in his seat, face raised to the ceiling, eyes closed. I touch his sleeve lightly. “Hello we’re here.” He doesn’t move. The envelope floats from his hand to the floor. He doesn’t bend to pick it up. “Hello. Hello Mister. We’re here,” I speak louder. Nothing. I shake his arm “Excuse me…we’re…” His head slumps to his chest. I shout out for help to the bus driver… to the passengers filing quickly off the bus.
I clamber over him to pick up the letter, already covered in shoeprints. Today I will bring a letter to an eight year old boy named Danny in Milwaukee.
About the Author: Mohini Malhotra is from Nepal and lives in Washington DC. She runs a social enterprise, Shakti, to promote women artists from emerging markets and invests profits to better women's and girls' lives. She loves language and her fiction has appeared in Blink-Ink, Flash Frontier, 82 Star Review, a Quiet Courage, and the Writers’ Center, among other wonderful journals.