CW: Alludes to emotional abuse, childhood poverty, gender dysphoria
On her days off, Granma would take me on bus rides. We would walk past the mechanic shop and wait at the bus shelter in front of the old record store on Main. In rain, the shelter’s overhang wasn’t enough, and we would huddle in the record store’s bricked recess, where stickers with thorny white letters made no sense to me and soon lost my interest.
Granma’s hair, rain or shine, was wrapped in a headscarf. On rainy days she added a plastic shawl that fogged with damp. She smelled of mothballs and cigarettes and old shoes, though I didn’t know the names for them then.
In fall, when the air was clear, before the clouds settled in until spring, I squinted to be the first to spot the bus. On good days I could distinguish the bus’s windshield glitter at the corner of Hillcrest. Granma would make a fuss over me, over my prodigious eyes. I asked several different ways how far Hillcrest might be, until Granma finally marveled it was a mile, and I felt like a nascent god, slowly realizing my powers.
The Number 7 bus was an electric trolley. The first ring of bedroom communities around Dayton’s core were knit with a spaghetti sky of trolley wires. The 1, the 3, the 7, the 8—all the old bus lines felt like siblings, born together but living separate lives, with fond get-togethers at the transfer point downtown.
Sometimes, if we transferred onto one of the unfamiliar lines, I wondered what life I could lead in these same-but-not-same streets, riding the same-but-not-same bus. Some streets had more trees than ours, nicer cars, cleaner brick fronts without graffiti and trash and bent metal. I wondered if my life on this street was nicer than the one I had in Santa Clara, just off Main.
Sometimes I felt some other self out there and knew myself incomplete. I was a boy, I guess—but why just a boy? I was also a girl who kicked nice shoes into leaf-piles and had a Mom, a real tangible Mom, and a Dad who was nice and built me a tree-fort with a swing and didn’t hit me if I made too much noise and never locked me outside because I didn’t come in the first time he called. I didn’t know the words for those things, either.
But most days I stayed in my own body, and we hopped off in downtown. Granma’s favorite seat was curbside, just behind the well of the rear door. I’d scoot in next to the window and Granma would balance her immense purse on her knees. On a warm fall day, the window might be cracked open just enough to grant me lungfuls of cool wind, freshened with speed.
Crossing the Great Miami bridge was the gateway, the transition, the arrival to downtown. The buildings were skyscrapers to me. I always asked Granma which was the tallest, hoping she’d change her answer, because knowing it was only a bank was a letdown.
My favorite building was the Elder-Beerman department store. I didn’t understand words like poverty. I only understood that I didn’t want to go into the dollar store, didn’t like their flimsy boring toys, wasn’t satisfied with a bottle of blowing bubbles and a bow and arrow that didn’t stick to anything and a box of stale marshmallow candies. I wanted to go to Elder-Beerman and luxuriate in the basement where they displayed countless Lego sets in brilliant yellow modularity. Once there, I wouldn’t budge until Granma agreed to let me bring a box home. Don’t tell your dad, she might say, and those times I got the best Lego sets of all.
As I got older, and our poverty less flexible, we often rode the Number 7 on past downtown, into the strange wide streets and industrial reaches southbound. Granma had, at some point, discovered the Hostess bakery thrift-store off Patterson, and made regular trips to replenish her store of cherry fruit-pies, her staple breakfast all through her last years. Afterward, she’d take me to the nearby Goodwill for my own treat.
At first I liked to buy boardgames. Games of lost treasure, games with missing pieces. But even the games that took batteries and made sounds and flashed LEDs paled, shriveled away. I don’t even remember their names now.
In the last little while that I still rode the bus with my Granma, my treats were always books. Reader’s Digest condensed books—slimmed down summaries of some other decade’s bestsellers. Novelizations of Indiana Jones and ET: The Extraterrestrial. World Book Encyclopedia supplements from 1979 that painted the wonderful future of monorails and undersea bases and prosperity for all.
Riding the Number 7 back to Main Street, our neighborhood now gated away and abandoned by a cash-strapped and uncaring city, plywood replacing glass, I would turn the pages of my newest World Book Encyclopedia supplement and immerse myself in its musty-smelling futurism.
The future, at least, had to be bright.
Rick Hollon (they/them or fey/fem) is a nonbinary, intersex, bi/queer author from the American Midwest. Feir work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, (mac)ro(mic), perhappened, Prismatica, Whale Road Review, and other publications. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia.