Chuck was 40 years old and he still believed that one day he would meet the perfect girl. That they would look at each other and just know immediately exactly how right they were for each other. At the bus stop he looked at women. Usually young women, sometimes teenage girls, wearing shorts in the rainy spring weather Portland always had. He'd trace their legs and their long adolescent hair with his eyes. A voice would say -Maybe she's the one. He couldn't help himself, even though he'd been married for years. It was as if he was just biding time.
He got the call at work, the phone ringing just when Tom the engineer was leaning over him, trying to tell him what he wanted. Tom was always kind of cryptic when he explained what he wanted, and most of the time Tom changed his mind in the middle anyway. Chuck tried to listen carefully, but he knew that Tom was not always right on with his requirements. The phone rang and Chuck considered just letting the voice mail get it, but then Tom gave him a look, so Chuck picked it up.
"This's Chuck Parson," he said.
It was Joanne.
"Hi, Jo," he said.
"Guess what happened to me today." she said.
She used that smug tone that suggested she got some kind of free gift.
"You fell off a cliff?" Chuck joked.
"What?" he tried again, "What happened?"
"I got rear-ended." she said.
Joanne had only gotten her license a couple of years ago. This was her first accident.
"Oh no!" Chuck tried to match her light tone. "Are you okay? The car...?"
"The car's fine, just a bent bumper. I'm okay." she said, "No big deal."
"Are you sure? Any whiplash?" he said.
Joanne worked for a law firm that represented insurance companies. They handled a lot of frivolous lawsuits. Usually they won the cases for the insurance companies.
"Well, my neck's a little.... I'll be okay." she said.
"Well, if you're sure..." he said.
"I'm fine." she said.
Chuck asked about the insurance and Joanne said the guy had it.
"His name was Damien." she said.
"What, the guy that hit you?" he said.
"Uh huh." she said.
Chuck went back to work. He was drafting a chilled water flow diagram for the big Hewlett Packard plant down in Corvallis. It required a lot of concentration, so he put his headphones on and listened to Performance Today. He liked Martin Goldsmith's soothing voice; never talking down to his listeners but never assuming they knew too much, either. When the phone rang again, he tugged off the headphones and picked up the receiver without looking, concentrating on his computer screen.
"This's Chuck Parson." he said.
Something about Joanne's voice made him sit up.
"Hi, how you doin'?" he said.
"Okay..." her voice was definitely shaky.
"What's up, you feeling kinda shook up?" he said.
"Yeah," she said. "I think I should go to the doctor's."
Her voice began to get that broken quality he recognized. She was barely maintaining.
"What, your nerves or something?" he said.
"No.. Yeah.. my back is kinda hurtin'. My doctor's out of town. " she said. "They want me to go to the emergency room."
"You should go then, that's a good idea." he said.
Then he realized why she had called him.
"You want me to take you?" he said.
"Yeah," she stifled a sob, "I don't think I can drive right now."
Her voice got high and squeaky near the end.
"Okay, yeah," Chuck stood up, holding the phone and looking around the office. "I can do that. I'll come and get you. I'll be there in about twenty minutes, okay?"
"Okay." she said.
"You hold on, okay? I'll be there." he said.
Chuck hung up the phone. Then he remembered he didn't have his car. Shit, he thought, I'll have to take the bus. He was in Southwest, near I-405. Her office was up in the Northeast, out past 20th Avenue. He didn't even know what bus to take to get out there.
Chuck went over to Tom's desk.
"Tom, I've got kind of an emergency here," Chuck said, "my wife was in a car accident..."
"Go." Tom said.
"Thanks. It's not real bad, I should be able to get back right after lunch."
"Go." Tom said.
Chuck walked over to Sixth Avenue. There was the 17 bus line right there on Fourth, but he was unsure of the service in the middle of the day. He had his TRANE baseball cap pulled down to his ears, and his raincoat flapped around his legs. His hands were jammed deep into his coat pockets, one of them holding his bus pass. Over on Sixth Avenue a lot of the bus lines from Southwest and Southeast would come through; he could take any of them downtown and then hop the MAX train over to the Northeast. From there he was sure he could find a bus to take him down Broadway to 20th.
The bus stop was right by Portland State University. He waited at the stop, shoulders hunched against the gusty chill wind that blew scattered raindrops around like cold spit. A young Asian woman, most likely a student, dressed in jeans and an arctic coat came down the sidewalk toward him.
- Maybe she's the one, the voice said.
She wore glasses. She was thin and dainty in that Asian way. Chuck couldn't help comparing her to Joanne, who had definitely put on some poundage in the years they'd been married. 'Course Joanne had never really been thin, exactly.
- If Joanne was out of the way...
Don't be stupid, he told the voice.
The voice didn't care, just went on about the student.
The bus came. Chuck got on with the four or five other people who had been waiting. People he had not even noticed. They were definitely not the one. Chuck sat about halfway back, and found that he could look directly at the woman's face in profile, because she had taken one of those sideways seats near the front. Her hair was long straight black down her back and her skin had a porcelain quality. She looked right at him for a second and he let his eyes go out of focus, so she wouldn't think he was looking at her.
- Chickenshit, the voice said.
I'm married, he told the voice, I love my wife. What, I'm gonna leave her?
- That might be the one.
How many times have I heard this? he told the voice. When I wasn't involved with someone, I couldn't bring myself to make a move.
- It's different now.
The woman got off at the next stop, and Chuck sadly watched her go. At the stop after that, near the Nike Town, Chuck sat and looked at the open doors. He had planned to ride all the way down to the Pioneer Courthouse Square, where the MAX train ran. The voice said, Go. He jumped off the bus at the last minute. At the kiosk, he checked the bus routes to see which bus he needed. The 77 bus would take him out on Broadway, but he had to take the MAX to get to the Coliseum to get the 77. He should have stayed on the bus until it reached Pioneer Courthouse Square. He wondered why he still listened to that voice at all. He walked as quickly as he could the three blocks to the Square.
At the Square, there were a few people waiting for the MAX. One woman there caught his eye. She was young, no makeup. He liked that.
- Maybe she's the one.
Well, we're not going to find out, are we?
Chuck turned deliberately away from her and looked for the train up the street. It had just turned the corner, five blocks away, it's headlight shining dully in the weak sunlight. Another spatter of rain ran across the back of Chuck's neck like a tiny frog.
- If she dies, you'll be free.
She's not gonna die. Shut up. She just tweaked her back.
- You never know, it could be one of those nerve things, a pinch here or there. What if she's paralyzed?
- No, it'd be better if she died. That would make it all clean.
Chuck tried ignoring the voice. The MAX train pulled up and its doors opened. He climbed on and found a seat, pulling out the book he'd been reading. Since he started riding the bus to work, he'd been able to do a lot of reading. Reading sent the voice away.
The train pulled into the Coliseum station. Chuck climbed down from the car and looked around. He'd never gotten off there before, only ridden through once or twice on his way somewhere else. The platform was empty. Behind him the train hissed and the doors closed. The train pulled away.
Chuck looked for the bus stops. This wasn't what he'd expected. The sign downtown had called this the 'Coliseum Transit Center' as if it was a big deal. It wasn't much of anything, just a couple of tracks and a ticket machine under an overpass. A cross street was nearby, with a bus shelter. He walked over toward it. Halfway there he saw the sign. 'Bus Stop Closed'. Closed. How could a bus stop be closed? Chuck noticed all the construction going on around it. He looked and saw the MAX train at the next stop, three blocks away. He turned and started walking briskly after it. It pulled away.
- You shoulda stayed on it.
How was I supposed to know?
- Did I tell you to get off?
You didn't tell me not to...
- That's not the way it works, bud.
Chuck turned on his long stride, a yardage-eating walk that took different muscles than a normal walk. He'd used this walk since discovering it in college.
- God, what a wimp you were in college.
I know. Don't remind me.
- You had no concept. You just thought the girls were gonna swarm all over you. You had no idea what to do.
Sometimes I did okay.
- Don't kid yourself. Remember that girlfriend you had? She was nuts.
She liked sex, though.
- Yeah, but she was sucking you dry, just an emotional sinkhole.
At the corner of Grand Ave, where the buses ran north, Chuck looked around for a bus stop. Had to be one nearby. He turned and walked north another two blocks. Saw a stop at the corner. He turned to look back down the street. There was a bus coming. It stopped back at the corner he'd just left.
- You coulda waited there.
Don't worry about it.
He waved the bus down as it came up the street. It's route display flashed something about Lloyd Center. When the door opened, Chuck called up to the driver.
"Are you turning here?"
"Yep, going to Lloyd Center."
"I'm sorry, I need to go straight."
"Wait for the number six."
The door hissed closed, the bus pulled laboriously around the corner. Chuck looked back down the street. No bus was in sight. He looked north. Broadway was up there a few blocks. He'd have to go up there anyway.
- You might as well walk up to the corner.
Chuck turned on the long stride, shoulders hunched against the scattered rain. Cars shushed by him on the damp street, throwing up little mist clouds as they passed. Broadway was farther than he had thought.
- You have to catch the bus on Weidler, it's one way east. Broadway is one way west here.
Yeah, that's right. At least Weidler is closer than Broadway.
- One block, that's all.
At Weidler, Chuck looked around for another bus stop. There was one across Grand, back toward the city. There was also a bus coming four or five more blocks down. But the light was against Chuck, and he had to wait for cars. He wondered if he would make it, and started across the street as soon as he could. He ran up to the stop, waving his pass in the air, at about the same time as the bus did. He climbed on and found a seat near the rear door. The bus was mostly empty. One black teenage boy in a starter jacket slouched in the back seat. He gave Chuck that 'fuck you, white boy' look. Chuck wished there was some way he could let this kid know that not all white people were racist assholes. Chuck knew that anything he said would just convince the kid more.
- Ignore him. What's he to you anyway? You tryin' to prove something?
I don't know.
Chuck shook his head. Then hoped no one had been watching.
At 20th Avenue, Chuck pulled the cord and stood up, swaying to the rear door while the bus lurched to a stop. He stepped down to the sidewalk and crossed with the 'DONT WALK' sign blinking, the light just changing yellow. Jogging with his hands in his pockets. His ankle hurt a little. He would have to be careful. He kept up the jog, now that he was close a sense of urgency had come over him.
- They've taken her to the hospital. It got too bad. You'll have to get in her car and drive over there and when you get there they'll tell you it's too late and there's nothing you can do.
Shut up, she's fine.
- Then you'll be free...
Shut up, shut up, shut up.
Chuck took the front steps to the law office two at a time. He pushed open the door and rushed inside, walking in a small, quick circle, looking for signs of the emergency.
"Here he is!" the receptionist called brightly. No concern showed in her voice.
"Where is she?" Chuck asked, breathlessly.
"I'm here," Joanne said, coming around from behind the tall partition. She seemed perfectly okay, not wincing, crying, or limping. Chuck tried to catch his breath.
- Yeah, yeah.
"Are we going?" he said. He couldn't think of anything else. It had taken him almost an hour to get there. "Sorry I'm late."
"Yes, we'll go, I'll get my things."
"I wasn't sure which bus to take. I forgot I don't take my car anymore."
"Yeah," she laughed, picking up her purse and coat, "When you said twenty minutes, I knew you weren't thinking. I kept expecting you to call back, asking me which bus to take."
"I almost did, then I thought I could figure it out."
Chuck drove her to the emergency room. He wasn't sure how to get there, and they got off the wrong exit, then got back on the highway heading the wrong direction, and finally got back on and made it all the way there. Joanne described the accident to him.
"I looked in the rearview mirror and saw him coming. I knew he wasn't gonna stop in time."
"Did you tense up?"
"Yeah, I was pushing the brake as hard as I could. I didn't want to get pushed into the car in front of me."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
At the hospital, Joanne answered some questions, then went inside to get her exam. Chuck sat in the waiting room. There was a young woman there, long dark hair. No makeup. Chuck sat where he could glance at her occasionally, while reading a National Geographic.
- Maybe she's the one...
* * *