The bus was very late as I was coming home from work, and when I got on it was crowded, so I stumbled to the back. There I found, like a flashback to my life in the South, that most everybody back there was black; this was cool with me, as black people have always treated me better than other whites have.
I sat there, eavesdropping on this lady heckling her man, when the guy next to me got up, and this demented-looking guy staggered forward, almost falling on me, then almost falling back onto the girl in the seat opposite. He was wearing a red rain slicker, cutoff jeans and a ball cap underneath a bike helmet-- although he had no bike --and was carrying this fruit box full of junk. He looked like some kind of aging hippie/redneck crossbreed. He promptly sank into the seat beside me, leaning against me and thrusting his stash underneath the seat. He was building up a good head of body odor, not quite ripe but well on the way, and I eyed him from behind my sunglasses, wishing he would ease up some.
Thankfully before long he moved over to the next seat and slouched there, striking up conversation with anybody who made eye contact with him. From his stash he took a bottle which had once held some kind of Asian asparagus beverage but now contained a yellowish liquid like weak urine. He pulled a cork from its mouth, but instead of drinking from it he breathed through the opening.
"You wanna buy some food stamps?" he asked the lady on the other side of me. "I got extra food stamps."
"How much you got?" she said.
"Do you got a hundred dollars?"
"No, I ain't got that much."
"Then you ain't got a lot," she pronounced. "How much you selling them for? How much for a hundred dollars?"
The guy looked reproachful, exasperated. "It's a dollar for a dollar," he said.
The lady laughed. "You wanna sell them, you gotta go like 50 dollars for a hundred." The consensus at the back of the bus was that 30 dollars for $100 worth of food stamps was the going rate. The guy said that was fine, he would use them himself. "I'm gonna eat steak," he said. "Prime cuts."
During a silence he directed his attention to me. "Are you a musician?" he asked me. I knew from experience that crazy bus-riding guys get angry if you pretend you don't hear them, so I looked his way. But I didn't know how to answer that question. "I could tell," he said, grinning, "because you looked kind of picky to me." I figured he was talking about my fingernails, which were quite long, and showed them to him. That seemed to do the trick.
"I got a six-string and a twelve-string," he said. I was pretty sure all his worldly possessions were in the fruit crate, but I didn't interrupt. "A couple of studio monitors, and last weekend I picked up a Crate. Now it's time to go on down to Starving Musician!" He laughed for no reason I could tell, and I nodded enthusiastically. I caught this acrid solvent smell I'd been noticing off and on, and realized the bottle was full of ether, or maybe mimeograph fluid. I'd breathed chloroform recreationally in college and the scent reminded me of it. The guy was huffing from his bottle between monologues.
After a while he got into a conversation with his prospective food-stamp customer about the relative merits of medication in treating various mental illnesses. During the course of this, she produced a bag of peppermint sticks. My man all but begged for one and asked how much they cost... he said he'd give a quarter for one. "Thirty percent," she said, chuckling, but gave him one for nothing. As he crunched through the candy I was mildly surprised his teeth could withstand the treatment, and I tried to imagine what a combination of peppermint and ether must taste like.
Three Latino kids moved to the seat near the rear exit. They were all brothers; two of them were kind of overweight; one was slight and had a very close crewcut. The guy joked about the kid's haircut, asking him if he was on his way to have brain surgery... this got a round of laughter from the back of the bus. Then, perhaps to be concilatory, he said he could see the kid was smart. "I have the shine," he said. "I can tell. He's gonna graduate college in a couple of years." The kid, who was perhaps ten, looked shyly away and his brothers snickered. "Yeah, you're gonna go on a long trip."
One of the two older brothers asked the guy what he saw in their future. He started haranguing the boys about staying away from McDonald's and doing some exercise. "All those hamburgers and fries, they mess up your heart, they make you overweight." He implored them to go see a doctor and get their cholesterol level checked. The kids took this well, but even at their age were already wearying of fat jokes without this grizzled vagrant starting in.
The scent of the ether was starting to get to me... it was disturbingly seductive and I tried not to breathe any more than I already had.
Then the guy started talking about their futures, about how one of them was going to accompany his prodigy brother on the long trip, but one of them was going to have to stay "right here." When pressed by the boys, the guy would not elaborate. "You don't need to know that right now." The kids were becoming creeped out and quiet. I bared my teeth at them helpfully as they looked my way. The guy blessed them, marking the sign of the cross in the air, and went back to his ether.
I had to know what his vision of my future was... I had my own idea but I shamelessly craved affirmation from this poor derelict. "So you've got the shine, huh?" I said.
"That's right," said the guy. "He's got it, too." He started pointing around the bus. "She's got it, he's got it, he's got it... he's got it," he said, pointing at me now. I just kind of looked at him, not knowing if I should affirm or dismiss this. "What do you wanna know?" he asked.
"I don't know if it's my place to ask," I replied.
"Sure it is!"
I paused. "What do you see?"
"Are you a musician?" he asked.
"Not yet," I said coyly.
"Well, you write poetry? You're an artist."
I felt this was painfully obvious from my appearance. "You could say that," I said.
"Kinda like Andy Warhol. Guitars. Maybe keyboard. Vocals. Painting."
I became conscious of my dark glasses again, and took them off, and looked him in the eyes... I figured if he was really seeing anything I'd make sure he got a good look. I imagined he was startled by this but his own eyes were a crazed and unblinking blue. We stared at each other for a good ten seconds, until I realized I had him transfixed and put my glasses back on again.
"Yeah, you got the shine," he said. "You got it big."
"It's hard to accept sometimes," I said.
"Well, you got it."
"It's something to think about," I replied. He nodded.
He explained to me if I imagined power coming from between my eyes in the form of a feather, and concentrated with my fingers on my temples, that was how I could create my third eye. "Is that Hindu?" I asked. "That's right, Hindu," he replied.
He went on to explain how I could kill a man, by striking him in these places... he revealed, in addition, that a man could be disabled with the Vulcan Neck Pinch, showing me where by touching each of my shoulders. I was surprised that I did not flinch from him, as fragrant and demented as he was. I told him I would keep it in mind.
My stop approached and I got up to leave. I thanked him for his insight. "Hey, my name's TJ," he said. I tried to decide if I should introduce myself, and in doing so missed my stop. I got off at the next one and walked home, feeling a little lightheaded, trying to decide if it was the ether or if I'd caught some disease from my new acquaintance.