The Improvised Bus Ride
Although he was curious by nature, Jules interacted with his neighborhood using extreme caution, carrying around his dad’s stubborn mistrust of people. He didn’t own a bike, nor did he want to join in the street games of football, basketball or wiffle ball, so he kept to the maze of hidden passageways throughout the neighborhood, the stretches of woods between rows of houses, the gaps between fence lines, the railroad tracks, or the concrete drainage ditch that spilled into a brown, winding steam near the park. Sometimes though, when there was a sound that caught his attention, he would investigate without hesitation. In this way, he became familiar with everyone in his westside Atlanta neighborhood who played an instrument, owned an old, noisy car or rusting lawn mower, had a backyard chicken coop or bred dogs.
Closer to home, however, Jules was met by the sad, mysterious silence that filled the rickety bungalow where he lived with his father, Richard. A towering magnolia tree stood behind the house, a giant motel for the neighborhood cardinals, finches and robins. Richard complained that the birds woke him up too early, upsetting his injured leg somehow with their incessant chirping. But most mornings, Jules found his father lounging on the back patio humming along with the birdsong. From his vantage point at the window, Jules would tap his foot to keep time, pretending for a moment that his dad’s jazz band had been reunited.
One muggy afternoon in late summer before his seventh grade year, Jules received an unexpected call while his dad was away. The piercing rings from the corded desk phone jolted him out of a lonely stupor. Mama Brown had cancelled his weekly piano lessons due to her persistent sickness, and Jules’ best friend, Sebastian, was up in Illinois visiting relatives. Lifting the phone to his ear, Jules turned down the jazz music on the radio so he could hear the woman on the other line. She told him with her tiny, calming voice that she worked at the rehab center where Jules’s mom, Janet, was staying. He was dumbfounded. This was news to him. His mom was supposed to be in prison down near Savannah, too far away for him to visit.
Jules knew that Richard wouldn’t join him on the bus ride to the clinic south of downtown. Jules trusted, deep down, that his dad wanted to, but Richard had his stubborn reasons for why he wouldn’t make the cross-city trek with his son. Like looking for a new job or avoiding the past.
When the woman said he could visit his mom, Jules scribbled down the address on the back of an envelope and immediately got off the line to avoid answering any of her questions. Turning the radio up so that it crackled, he paced the creaky wood floor in the stifling summer heat.
Should I take my sheet music to show her what I’m learning on the piano? Do I bring photos in case she can’t remember me?
The phone rang again when his dad returned home. Richard promptly yanked the cord out of the wall and flopped onto his faded orange easy chair.
“Too many calls.” Richard sighed, thumbing through a stack of new lottery tickets. His mahogany cane was leaning against one of the upholstered arms.
“It’s about mama.” Jules sat on a wooden chair and felt for the envelope in his pocket. They hadn’t spoken about his mom in months, and then all of a sudden the mention of her passed between them like a casual greeting.
“I know, I talked to them yesterday.” Richard’s voice caught, betraying his sadness. He had never been married to Jules’s mom, but his love for her revealed itself in small and persistent ways, like the flashes of fireflies on a summer night.
“It’s been forever since we’ve seen her,” Jules said.
Richard switched the radio to the sports station and settled back for his afternoon nap.
Jules slipped out of the house while Richard was asleep. This way he didn’t have to ask his dad to join him, and his dad didn’t have to feel bad for refusing.
The bus stop was a few blocks uphill from their house, past rows of other small, old houses, each fronted with overgrown grass and concrete steps leading up to a small porch elevated above the street. There was a woman leaning against the bus stop sign, humming as she picked at the bark of a scraggly dogwood. Her wooly black hat and baggy blue trousers were much too heavy for the Atlanta summer heat. Jules had heard from a classmate that she squatted in one of the abandoned houses around the corner. He kept his eyes forward, like his father would have told him, as the woman continued her wordless tune. Before long, the bus rumbled to a stop, its brakes hissing like a locomotive. The vast side of the vehicle was emblazoned with a flaming Olympic torch.
The drive was long and winding, so Jules had to switch buses a couple times. He didn’t feel anxious around strangers when he was able to keep to himself. Instead, he became a hungry observer, the conductor of an unknowing orchestra of raw sounds, disruptions, and chatter. He was familiar with the first two bus routes that took him east over the congested interstate and then south down roads with too many traffic lights. Passengers filtered on and off as the bus lurched between stops, each person a curious blend of noises. One woman took up the entire front section of the bus with her booming voice, talking loudly to the old man traveling with her. A man with his Walkman attached to his ears swung his head around wildly. Two little girls argued fiercely about how many days of summer remained before school started again.
Thankfully the third bus was mostly empty. The driver looked like an intimidating army general. Jules sat near an elderly white woman and tried to appear non-threatening as he stared out the window at the sleepy office parks, convenience stores and brick houses that passed. When the woman disembarked, her arms laden with canvas bags, the driver told her to be careful. Jules worked up the courage to ask the driver about the address written on the crumpled paper in his pocket, the one the caseworker had shared with him over the phone. The driver chided him, saying he should have gotten off two stops ago. He brought the bus to a stop a moment later and let Jules off without any well wishes.
The piers of a concrete bridge lined the street like gray, angular tree trunks, bearing the weight of a train traveling overhead. Jules backtracked along the bus’s route following the elevated railroad tracks, which ran parallel to a busy street. He weaved between the columns because he liked the way the thundering traffic was muted by the rough pillars as he passed by each one. Some men under the bridge nodded at him, but he didn’t nod back, remaining stoic as if his dad were walking with him. His stomach cramped. He was both hungry and nervous.
Will they make me sign a form? Take my picture? Call my dad when they see I’m alone? He was worried about all the ways the visit could go wrong. He had visited his mother in jail a few years ago, but only because his dad had gone with him. This time, it was his choice, and he was on his own.
He recognized the address on the rehab center’s sign. The tan building with dark windows sat next to an expansive parking lot rippling with patches and cracks surrounding a lonely Chinese take-out restaurant. Two men in white aprons hunched against the dumpster talking past cigarettes. A white van pulled up next to the side of the rehab center and a muscular man unloaded boxes. It only had windows at the front, as if whatever was carried in the back was secret, dangerous, unworthy of daylight. Was mama brought here in a vehicle like this?
Inside the lobby, the woman at the front desk eyed Jules suspiciously. Her hair was very short, and her red glasses bobbled on her white nose as she smacked gum. Jules gave her his name and she pushed a piece of paper toward him to sign. The words and symbols were cryptic and complex like an algebra test.
A young black woman with wide hips and an oversized gray pantsuit entered the lobby and introduced herself as Ms. Cindy, his mom’s case worker. As she shuffled through a bundle of papers on a clipboard, she asked if he’d come with a guardian. Jules’ stomach dropped as he shook his head. The case worker pinched her lips together and glanced at the receptionist, who scowled as Ms. Cindy beckoned Jules through the security door and down a dimly-lit hallway. Ms. Cindy told him that he needed to be patient with his mom, as she was on a new medication and wouldn’t be her normal self. Jules wasn’t sure what version of his mom was normal. He braced himself for the possibility that she would be comatose, unable to recognize him as her son.
After being led through a maze of echoing hallways, Jules found himself waiting alone at a round table in a small room with a faint scent of glue. The table was low to the ground and made him self-conscious of his long legs and knobby knees, which had been wracked with growing pains all summer.
Another woman walked in, wearing oversized clothing that looked like pajamas and a light purple shower cap covering her hair. She moved slowly, as if wading through water, and avoided eye contact with him. Her body, though appearing like Jules’s mother, seemed to be possessed by an unfamiliar spirit.
Jules wanted to greet her, to stand up and run over and hug her. He also felt the urge to yell nasty words at her and run out of the room. But he had already commuted an hour to get to the facility and had waited for years for this reunion, so he just sat on his hands and kept waiting.
She finally lowered herself into the chair, carefully surveying her surroundings like Jules had on the bus, except her eyes passed over him as if he were another piece of furniture. Her focus settled on a red stain on the tabletop.
“I’ve missed you,” Jules said, the conflict of emotions causing his voice to crack.
Janet’s face was still tilted toward the spot on the table. Is that a tear falling down the side of her nose? She rubbed her face with her hands before he could tell for sure, her eyes drooping as if she had just woken up. He saw himself in her features, the puffy cheeks, almond eyes, long thin fingers clasped together on the table, light brown ears protruding outward from below the frills of the shower cap.
“You okay, mama? They taking care of you here?” Jules had no idea what he was allowed to talk about. He saw a camera perched on the wall in one corner of the room, staring at them like an eavesdropping crow. He was even less confident of what his mom could hear him say. Is she even there?
She sighed heavily and rubbed her chest just below her neck. She looked so different, so much older than when they’d last met.
Jules told her how he was nervous about starting seventh grade in a week. “I’m learning to play piano. And I’m gonna get dad to teach me what he knows about playing the trumpet, too,” he said haltingly, expecting her to interrupt him at any moment. Instead, she tilted her head and swayed, her torso rocking back and forth as a hum began in her throat and then grew into a gentle lullaby.
“Do you want to hear a song?” she asked.
“I know that’s why you came.” She looked at the black, bird-like camera in the corner as if it was preparing to sing with her.
“Don’t worry mama. You don’t have to . . .” Jules straightened in his seat.
“Our band is the best in town. We ain’t fancy but we can play.” She placed her palms against the table in front of her and arched her back, her shower cap reflecting the fluorescent light like a purple crown.
Jules felt like he was in a dream. But he blinked, nodded his head, and wordlessly willed his mom to sing.
Janet smiled, stood up from her chair, and climbed onto the table, her balance wobbly but her eyes now narrowed in determination. Jules tried to grab her arm to steady her but she shook him off.
She cleared her throat and mumbled a phrase to herself. Her face softened and she pulled the cap down over her ears as she looked up at the ceiling and released the air from her lungs in a haunting, shaky melody. It enraptured Jules; he remained frozen as he watched her posture slowly melt as her voice went lower, raspy yet direct, moving in a winding path toward a certain destination. Jules began to press soundless chords into the edge of the wooden table with three fingers on each hand, instinctively matching her cadence. Their music changed as they played, a living, breathing entity in its own right. As his dad used to say, improvised music was the most authentic and pure.
There was a harried knock on the door and Ms. Cindy re-entered, her eyebrows arched in concern as if the crow-camera in the corner had warned her of Janet’s performance. The case worker helped Jules’ mom down from the table.
“She can’t over exert herself.” Ms. Cindy eyed Jules warily. His cheeks burned in embarrassment.
“Don’t be jealous. We were making music.” Janet’s voice was shrill, accusatory. “You didn’t even knock.”
“We were just talking, and then she wanted to sing for me,” Jules insisted.
“The table is not for standing on.”
Janet looked him square in the face. “Don’t let her tell you nothing. You have a gift, and nobody can take that away,” she said before marching to the door.
Tears stung his eyes, and he let them fall. Now he wanted to yell at Ms. Cindy for interrupting them. Instead, he was tugged out of the small room by his mom’s mysterious personality. He had to stay close if he was going to get another glimpse of her. Unfortunately, she retreated back to her lethargic state as soon as they were back in the hallway, shepherded by Ms. Cindy back to a staff member’s care. Jules wanted to hug her goodbye, but Janet didn’t even look back at him.
“Jules, can I meet with you in my office?” Ms. Cindy’s words were distant. After a minute she touched him on the shoulder. He jumped like a broken guitar string. “I know you’re going through a lot, but it would help your mother out if you could answer some questions.”
Ms. Cindy’s office was in a similar state of disarray as her clipboard. Square yellow notes dotted her desk like a patterned jacket. Jules scanned the words that jumped out at him and was horrified to find seemingly all of the details of his life on Ms. Cindy’s papers.
“Can you state your name please?” she asked after they had sat in two wooden chairs, facing each other.
“I’m Jules.” Should I stay silent? But this woman seems to know everything?
“Full legal name, please—to verify your identity?”
“Thank you, Julius. I work with the Division of Family and Children Services. I’m technically not supposed to ask you about your mother’s case without your guardian present. Your father is Richard Devray, correct?”
Jules nodded. He was thinking about how his dad would have reacted if he had been in the room with his mom singing on the table. His earliest memories of seeing his mom sing on a stage were tied to the image of his dad watching her wide-eyed, with a toothy grin and his arm around Jules’ shoulders.
“He hasn’t been returning my calls,” Ms. Cindy continued. “It’s been making my job very difficult. When you picked up the phone today it was the first good news I’ve had on this case.”
“He doesn’t like to talk to strangers.” Jules was intrigued by the woman’s earnest speech. “What’s going on with my mama?”
“I took your mom’s case because I truly believe the system hasn’t been fair to her. I’m trying my best to get her the help she needs. She’s serving far too long of a sentence for someone in her condition. She needs support. I know you care about her, so anything you’re willing to share with me would help greatly.”
“Of course I care about her.” He fidgeted with his hands and imagined that somehow if he spoke his mom might leave the facility with him. He talked mindlessly, as if she was pulling information from him with a string—about the short years that he lived with both his parents, about his mom’s drug use. Ms. Cindy nodded at him in encouragement as she scribbled on her growing collection of yellow note squares.
“And what about Xavier?” she asked after a while. “Your brother?”
Jules blinked. The room sounded like it was underwater, and his breaths grew short and rapid like he was clawing at the surface for oxygen.
“I don’t stay with my brother. I’ve . . . never met him.”
“I see. Well, I’m trying to find a home for him. His guardian passed away, and since your mom is incarcerated . . .”
“I have to go.” Jules interrupted, standing.
Ms. Cindy tried to protest, but he had already opened the door and retreated to the lobby. He blocked out the woman’s calls after him as he emerged onto the cracked black top parking lot and took in huge gulps of air.
- - -
Richard was waiting for Jules at their neighborhood bus stop. He was sitting on a brick wall with his hands clutching his cane in front of him. Standing up, he angled his dark brown face toward Jules. His breathing was normal, and his large, round eyes were stern but not angry. The list of excuses Jules had devised on his return trip instantly evaporated from his mind.
“She would have liked seeing you.” Jules returned his gaze. His dad seemed older and more fragile, even though he’d just turned forty, which was the milestone Richard always referenced. Jules tried to decide if his dad could withstand the full force of his emotions. He tried to focus, to force the thoughts in his mind into words. For once, he didn’t care what his dad thought. “I told her how I’m learning to play music,” he added.
“Thought we could stop by the corner store,” Richard replied, ignoring his son’s earnest remark.
“Weren’t you there earlier?” Jules cocked his head.
“I need to grab a few things,” his dad said. Jules could see the whirring slot machine fruit reflected in Richard’s eyes.
On their way home from Mr. Ranjit’s shop, Jules carried two plastic bags over his shoulder, creating a barrier between him and his dad. He stared down the street at the cars as they passed and listened as each one produced a different mixture of whirs, rattles, and drones. One driver had his windows rolled down, letting Outkast’s music thunder into the humid air. The man at the steering wheel flashed them a golden smile. Jules quickly diverted his eyes back to his shadow on the sidewalk, his ears prominent on each side of his head’s silhouette.
“The lady asked me a lot of questions,” Jules said as they walked across a street.
“The one taking care of mama. Ms. Cindy.”
“Ain’t no one taking care of your mama. That’s the problem. She won’t let no one take care of her.”
“She asked a lot of questions about you. Told me you needed to return her letters and calls. She said she’d come by to talk to you.”
“Oh, Lord. Why did you talk so much?”
“I couldn’t help it. You should have heard mama sing to me. It was like she was performing with your old jazz band.” He imagined his parents onstage together for a jam session, himself at the piano and the faceless shape of his brother on the drums.
“She ain’t in her right mind,” Richard replied, placing a large hand on his son’s shoulder.
But Jules saw the way the corners of his dad’s mouth turned up slightly. The bus ride had been a connection to the past, a small gate into his dad’s memories that Jules intended to hold open. However, for the time being, he decided to keep the mention of his brother to himself.