where the writers are

The alarm woke him.  It was a shocking sound, tearing into him, leaving a broken edge to his sleep.  Tom awoke frightened, calling out for help.  When he realized that the noise was only his clock, previously unused, his fear eased enough for him to turn it off.  Even then, his anxiety persisted.  The noise was inside him now, jangling erratically with grim persistence.  Something was wrong.  The morning had not started as it should.  The whole day might go wrong.

As soon as Tom got out of bed, he saw his suitcase at the bedroom door.  He remembered then; today he was going to visit his cousin Beth, in Kitchener.  He hadn’t been outside Carleton Place for years and even then he’d never been farther than Ottawa.  He shouldn’t have agreed to go.  It was dangerous to break your routines. 

Tom picked up the shirt and pants lying on top of the suitcase where he’d laid them the night before and began dressing.  In the small apartment kitchen he filled the kettle and put some bread in the toaster.  While he was waiting, he stirred equal amounts of sugar and instant coffee into a mug.  He began to relax, performing these simple acts, identical to every other morning.  It was good, after all, that he’d set the alarm.  He’d have plenty of time for his morning routines before Paula arrived to take him to the bus terminal in Ottawa. 

He poured the boiling water into his mug, buttered his toast, and carried them over to the kitchen table.  Before he ate, he bent his head.  It had never been up to him to say grace and he didn’t now, but he bowed his head, as always.  He thought about the journey ahead of him.  No, that was wrong, he was supposed to think about the food on his plate.  Thank you for the food on our plates…  That’s how it went.  No one had told him how to pray about journeys.  Even so, he felt better when he raised his head.  Perhaps the day would not turn out very wrong after all.


            “Yes, he is capable of taking care of himself.  He just needs assistance with the transfer in Toronto.”

Tom looked around, not really listening as Paula talked to the man behind the ticket counter.   There were too many people here, too much noise – voices, cars, horns, busses, it all ran together, meaningless.  He should be at home, in his apartment.   He felt uncomfortable here, uprooted.

            “Wouldn’t it be simpler if the bus driver just--  Alright, it’s not his job.  But someone will meet him at the Toronto depot when the bus arrives?”

A woman with four children came to stand behind Paula.  Tom moved aside.  Two men lined up behind the children, and then three teenagers, talking and laughing together, edging Tom further and further away.

“Tom!  Where are you?”

He didn’t want to answer.   People would look.

“There you are.”  Paula appeared through the crowded line.  “You mustn’t walk off in a bus terminal, Tom.  You could get lost.  It’s easy to get lost in a city.  It’s not like Carleton Place, where everyone knows you.”

“I’m alright Paula, for gosh sakes.  I’m right here.”  Tom looked around, but no one appeared to be listening or laughing.

 “I’m going on holiday today, too,” Paula said, smiling.   “For two weeks.  But I’ll be back the day before you.  I’ll be here to meet you when you come back.”

Tom nodded.

“Here’s your ticket.  Someone will help you with the transfer in Toronto, and Beth will be there to meet you when you arrive.  Be careful not to lose this, Tom.  It’ll get you all the way to Kitchener and back home again.”

Tom took the ticket from Paula, intrigued.  It opened up like a fan, like the paper dolls all holding hands that Beth used to make when they were kids.  He’d never been able to figure out how she did that, even when she tried to teach him.  He’d pretended not to care, dolls were for girls.  But he kept the one she had made for him. 

Beth had written names on all the figures; “Grandma” in the middle, with “Tom” and “Beth” each holding one of her hands, then beside Tom, “Aunt Betty” and “Uncle Bill.”  At the other end, beside Beth, she’d written “mom” and “dad” on the last two dolls.  The names had confused him, as though mom and dad weren’t the same people Beth called Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill, but Beth explained that “mom” and “dad” meant her parents.   She should have written “Aunt Ruth” and “Uncle George” beside the Beth doll, if that’s who they were supposed to be, but he didn’t tell her that.  It made him feel good, seeing himself there in the middle, with Grandma and his parents on either side of him, holding his hands. 

Tom opened and shut the serrated ticket a couple of times, picturing himself on the bus as the center sections, with Beth’s home in Kitchener on one end, and his home on the other.  Then he carefully folded it back together and put it into his fanny pack.

He felt okay about this trip now that he saw the way the ticket worked, and how he was safe in the middle of it.  He wished he could remember Beth better.  He’d told Paula he hadn’t seen Beth since they were both kids, but Paula had said no, Beth had been at his mother’s funeral two years ago.  She’d taken him and his friends, the pall bearers, out to dinner afterwards.  He remembered the dinner, but not much else. 

They were all gone now, the people who held his hands in Beth’s paper cut-out.  First his dad, then his Grandma, and last, his mom.  But he kept doing everything the way they showed him, just as if they were still standing beside him, telling him what to do.

Every morning he made toast and instant coffee.  Eat it nice and slow, then go outside on the balcony for his cigarette, then his morning trip to the washroom.  Toilet, shave, wet and comb his hair, wash his face.  Sometimes the phone rang or someone would knock on the door during his morning routine, but he ignored them.  If he did everything each morning the way he’d done it the day before, and the day before that, then the rest of the day would stay the same, too.  It had to, hadn’t it? 

“Here’s forty dollars, Tom.  In case something unexpected comes up on your trip.  Beth will give you some more holiday money when you arrive.  You take good care of this, put it in your fanny pack with your ticket.”

“Sure.  Sure I will, Paula.”

Tom pulled open the zipper on his fanny pack and put the money carefully inside.  He hoped it would stay there.  Tom never could keep hold of money.  As soon as he had any, he had to go buy something.  That was just the way it was.  When he had money in his pocket, he had to spend it.  It didn’t really matter what he spent it on.  Usually his friends would come around and they’d suggest something; candy or comics when he was a kid, then later magazines or movies, and now, cigarettes and beer.  Whatever it was, was fine with Tom.  Just so long as he had a good time with his friends.  He didn’t see them very often, but when he did, they all had a good time.  So that was okay, then, wasn’t it?

When he was younger, Tom had a lot of good times.  There was a wide, slow-moving river running through one end of town, with a beach where everyone went swimming.  The men had anchored some rafts in it, a small one near the shore for the little kids and a bigger one way out in the middle of the river.  That was for the big kids.  A good swimmer could get there easy.  Tom was a good swimmer.  His father was a strong swimmer, and he taught Tom.  He took a long time teaching Tom, making sure Tom did it right.  And Tom became a good swimmer because his father was.  That was the way it worked.

Tom had liked swimming.  Boy, he sure did.  He could swim races all summer long, he liked it so much. Too bad you couldn’t swim in that river any more.  You had to go way over to Perth to go swimming now, and Tom didn’t have any way to get there.  He wouldn’t have gone anyway.  He wasn’t a kid any more, for gosh sakes.

“See this paper, Tom?  It’s very important.  This paper says you’re a ‘special needs’ traveler.  I’ve arranged with the Greyhound Bus Company for someone to meet you in Toronto and make sure you get on the bus to Kitchener.  If anyone asks to see this, you be sure to show it to them.  See?  There’s your name, Tom Willis.”

“I can read, Paula.”

Tom put the paper in his fanny pack, beside the money.  She didn’t have to show him his name; she knew he could read.  His grandma taught him, when he was a kid.  He’d been reading ever since he was a kid, so she didn’t need to go and think he couldn’t do it now.  His grandma said he was a good reader.  Well, that was his grandma for you.  Maybe he wasn’t such a good reader as he was a swimmer.  There was a lot of thinking in reading, you had to go slow or you’d make a mistake. 

His dad hadn’t understood about that, about thinking slowly so you wouldn’t make a mistake.  His dad thought you could hurry, and still get it right.  Well, it just couldn’t be done, his dad was wrong.

Paula understood that.  Paula was an okay social worker.  She’d started visiting him after his mom died, so he was used to her by now.  She helped him with things that were hard to remember, like paying bills and saving money for groceries.  She could be pretty bossy sometimes, though.  Mostly he just ignored her when she got that way.  And she had a habit of repeating herself as though maybe he didn’t hear her.  There was nothing wrong with his hearing, that was for sure, so why did she have to repeat things?  Anyway, he was going to buy her a present.  She’d said he didn’t have to, but he was going to anyway.  A key chain or a coffee mug, maybe, from Niagara Falls.  Beth had written that they’d go to Niagara Falls when he came to visit.

“Enjoy your holiday, Tom.  Beth and Peter will be waiting for you in Kitchener.  They have a lot of exciting things planned.  You’ll have a good time.”

“Yeah, sure Paula.  Okay then.  Goodbye,” he patted her arm.  His mom and his grandma had hugged him.  He’d guessed you hugged women.  But Paula had said no, best not to hug someone unless they hugged you first.  He’d have to remember that, be careful not to hug Beth first.

Tom sat in the front seat, so he could see everything on the trip.  Also to be close to the driver, in case he had any questions.  He watched the bus driver carefully tear the first section of his ticket along the serrated edge.  The break was neat and final.  His nervousness returned as the driver handed him back the rest of the ticket.  He wasn’t in the middle anymore.

But Paula had said Beth would take care of him.  Beth understood the things he didn’t, just like she’d been able to make those paper dolls.  Beth’s mom was smart, and so was she, he guessed.  Some people were smart, that’s the way it was.  He could swim circles around Beth when they were kids, though.

When the bus stopped, Tom was confused at first, until the driver announced that they were pausing for a lunch break.  He seemed to have forgotten Tom, so Tom waited to see what the other passengers would do.  They all got off the bus and Tom followed them into the little restaurant, even though he didn’t normally eat lunch.  But this was a different day.  It had started out mostly the same, though.  Tom bought chips and gum and a pack of cigarettes.  Then he saw the camera.  Everyone took pictures when they went to places like Niagara Falls.  It was lucky he came in here.  He picked it up and put it on the counter with his other purchases.  Beth would be able to show him how to use it.

Back on the bus, the driver closed the door and looked at all the passengers, walking down the aisle and slowly backing up to the front again, counting heads.  Then he got out the ticket sections they’d given him and counted them.  One of those ticket pieces was Tom’s.  He watched the bus driver sorting through them.  Would he look at Tom when he reached Tom’s ticket?  He didn’t, but Tom was glad he’d watched, anyway.  It was good to know other people’s routines.

The bus swayed a little as it pulled back onto the highway, but Tom was getting used to its motion.  At first, he had clutched the arms of his seat, not liking the sensation.  It had reminded him of the way you wriggle a loose tooth; carefully, back and forth, easing it out of its place, trying to cause as little pain as possible.  He thought about that as the bus swayed around another corner.  Nobody wanted lost teeth; they were garbage.  Everyone knew that.  Tom had lost most of his teeth by the time he was forty.  His friends had laughed at him when he kept them.   Did he think teeth could be put back in again, they asked?  Finally he had thrown them out.  Once a thing was uprooted, that was that.

After a little while the bus reached the highway. It stopped rocking when the road straightened, and Tom fell asleep.


He woke with a start.  The bus was stopped, its door standing wide open, and the driver was gone.  Most of the other passengers had gone, too; only a few stragglers were left collecting their belongings and shuffling down the narrow aisle to the exit.  Tom hurried after them.  Outside, his suitcase stood waiting, all alone beside the bus, abandoned, forgotten. 

Where was the driver?

Tom turned all around, frightened.  He was surrounded by buses, a row of possibilities frozen on either side of him, with the threatening din of unfamiliar voices and snarling rush-hour traffic beyond.  He jumped when the bus beside his gave a deafening groan, followed by a rhythmic pounding.  Its sides shuddered.  Slowly, still moaning, it began to move, bearing away its burden of people.   Tom backed away from it, against his empty bus.  Oh, this was a bad day.  He could hear his alarm again, jangling inside of him.  He should never have set that alarm.

He had to think.  He should go into the bus terminal.  Beth would be there.  That was it, the bus had reached Kitchener and Beth was waiting for him.  He was late getting off the bus because he’d fallen asleep.  He hoped she wouldn’t be angry that he kept her waiting. 


            “Spare change?  Any spare change, mister?”

            The old man  stood just outside the door to the bus terminal.  His coat was dirty, with a tear on one side.  Even though it was summer, he wore several layers of clothing and dark, heavy shoes.  He hadn’t shaved in a long time, but his hair and beard had been cut back by hand, and his face was washed.  He shifted slightly, his eyes moving away from Tom’s direct stare.  Tom looked at the ground.  Did the man see something there that he couldn't see?

           “Spare change?”

           The old man was looking at him again; he was speaking to him, Tom.  He wanted something.  Tom remembered the paper, the one with his name on it.  Paula had said to show it to anyone who asked. 

           “Spare change, mister?”

           No, the man didn’t want to see his paper, he wanted money.  Was Tom supposed to give him some?  Tom reached for his fanny pack, paused with his fingers on the zipper.  He thought carefully.  What had Paula done this morning?  Had she given money to anyone?  Yes, she had.  She’d given money to a man behind a counter, inside the bus terminal.  Then he told her where she should take Tom, which bus to put him on. 

           This man wasn’t behind a counter, he was outside.  Maybe if Tom went inside, this man would go behind a counter.  Then Tom could give him money and he’d tell Tom what to do.  Tom started to go inside the terminal.  He watched, but the old man didn’t follow him, or say anything more.  He would have to find someone else, behind a counter, or else find Beth.

           Inside, Tom walked from one end of the seating area to the other, looking at the picture of Beth and her husband that Beth had sent him.  The waiting room was full of strangers, every face looking away, shutting him out.  He was interrupting them.   They were determined to ignore him as he ignored interruptions at home.  He sat down to wait for Beth. 

           From where he sat, Tom could see a counter with wickets just like the one that Paula had gone up to in Ottawa.  He could also see the old man outside.  He watched as two women gave the old man money.  Inside, several people went up and asked questions of a woman behind one of the wickets.  Tom couldn’t hear what they said, because the alarm inside him was getting louder.  Finally he went up to the counter.

           “I’m waiting for my cousin Beth.”

           “Where’s she coming from?”  The woman’s voice was rough, bored.  She didn’t look at Tom.

           “Kitchener,” Tom said.

           “Next Kitchener bus comes in at 7:00 p.m.”

           “Paula said I’d be there at 8:00,” he said, straining his voice to be heard over the clamor of the alarm inside him.

           “Where?” the woman behind the counter was looking at him now.


           “You want to go to Kitchener?”

           Tom nodded.

           “Why didn’t you say so?”  The woman was frowning.   She didn’t wait for Tom’s answer, which was good, because Tom could barely speak.  Somehow the alarm had got caught in his throat.  If he opened his mouth, would a mad ringing come out, instead of words?

           “Over there, across the street.  You want the Elizabeth Street Terminal.”

           Tom picked up his suitcase.  He should leave, the woman was angry.

           “You’ll need to buy a ticket,” she shouted after him.

           Tom wanted to tell her that he had a ticket; but no, the bus driver had his ticket.  The end that the bus driver had taken was supposed to be Kitchener; then there were the two sections in the middle that were Tom, traveling each way; then the other end that was home again.  The first section was gone.  Tom was at the edge, now.  He had only imagined himself safe in the middle of the ticket.  Why hadn’t he noticed how easily the sections could be pulled loose?

           When he got to the terminal across the street Tom looked around for Beth, but this time he didn’t really expect to see her.  For some reason the bus had stopped here, instead of Kitchener, where Beth was.  He went up to the wicket.  There was a man in front of him, and he listened very carefully while the man bought a ticket.

           “I’m going to Kitchener,” Tom said when it was his turn.

           “One way?”

           “One way or return?” the man repeated.  Tom looked at him.

           “Are you coming back here?”

           Tom shook his head.  He was going to stay with Beth.


           Tom unzipped his fanny pack and reached in for his holiday money.  He didn’t have much left after buying the camera.  What if there wasn’t enough?  The alarm inside him jangled louder.  His fingers closed on the paper with his name on it.  Should he show it to the man?

           Paula said to show it if someone asked to see it, and the man hadn’t asked.  Tom had to do exactly what he’d been told.  It was important, Paula said so.  The man’s lips tightened into a thin line.  He glanced over Tom’s shoulder.  A line of people had formed behind him.  Tom could see that the man wanted him to hurry up.

          Tom couldn’t think, the ringing jarred him.  He gave the man all his money.  He was too nervous to count it himself.  He would hurry, and there would be a mistake.

           It was very hot.  The man counted Tom’s money, frowning.  Then he was ringing up the cash register.  It made a tiny sound, one cheerful little ring.  The man handed Tom a ticket.  This one didn’t have any folds.  It was Tom, on his own.  He looked at the man, mute with gratitude.

           “Number eleven,” the man said, pointing without looking up.  “You’d better hurry, it leaves in five minutes.”

           Tom nodded, scooping up the coins the man had pushed across the counter toward him: two dimes, a nickel, three pennies.

           He took his suitcase onto the bus with him.  He wasn’t sure if that was right.  On the other bus, Paula gave it to the driver, who put it underneath.  But no one told him what to do, so he just kept holding onto it.  He wanted his things with him.  It was an unusual day, you couldn’t count on anything.  He hoped Beth would find him at the end of this bus ride.  

           As the bus pulled out of the station, Tom looked out the window.  The old man was standing in the dark shadow of a bus, his face and clothes the same dirty gray as the pavement, so that he was almost invisible.  He stood alone, with no one on either side of him. 

           Tom had felt alone like that, standing at the ticket counter while the man counted his money.  What if there hadn’t been enough?  He should never have bought that camera. Once a person was uprooted, that was that.

           The bus lurched onto the street.  Tom grabbed the arm rests, holding on tightly.  He wobbled a little, but he kept his place.

           He looked back at the old man, until the bus turned a corner.

          Anything could happen on a bad day, when you broke your routines.