She wakes at 6:00, a far-removed time from the days she went to bed closer to this time. Her eight-year-old daughter has to be at school before 8:30. During rush hour the bus ride can take 40 minutes. The subsequent train ride takes an hour. Prep time involves throwing cereal in a bad for her child and getting her to get dressed so they will not be late. This school year they never have been.
It has been a cold winter, and her daughter hates wearing the jacket because it is too hot to wear inside. She tried to get her to put the coat on, but all she does is fight. After a stressful glance at the clock and a realization that if they do not start the three-block walk to the bus stop right now, they would have to wait for the next bus. That bus would be full and maybe too full for anyone to ride and in the rush hour traffic, an extra 10-minute wait can turn into 40.
“You better stop fighting me before I whoop your ass.” She yells at the child. Finally, she keeps the jacket on. She buttons up the cereal box and throws it on the counter. The last thing she wants is any of the mice getting into the food. She catches a glimpse of one of the utility bills on the coffee table in front of the TV that they also use as a dining room table in the small apartment. Her stomach churns in fear as she thinks of how little her budget is and how she can fit all her bills within the small salary she makes. Logically she knows it is impossible so the thoughts turn to what bills she can avoid paying without receiving anything but a “past due” notice.
She took a sip from a small nip of liquor she had in her purse and shook her head. This was a worry for another time. They had to hustle to catch the bus. She grabs her daughter’s hand and drags her out the door. There’s no time to latch the lock, which is a risk in this neighborhood.
The little girl’s legs struggle to keep up with the long legs of her mother, but she walks as hard as she can to keep up as they walk on the sidewalk. She stops to look around at the buildings and the visible breath coming out of her mouth that looks like smoke. Her mother yanks at her again.
“What are you doing?” She snaps at her daughter. “We don’t have time for this. You have seen these buildings a million damn times a day.
Just a block away the bus was slowing to a stop. Even with passengers visible in the distance the bus never stayed put for anyone, regardless of how early or late it was.
The small line keeps the bus there as people scan their cards and put their coins in the slot. They approach the door of the bus in front of the rest of the line. “Excuse me.” She says, pushing her way through the door. She gets multiple dirty looks from the people in the line, but there’s a general understanding amongst public transportation users to typically ignore unnatural behavior from other riders. One other man ignores this, however. “What are you doing? There’s a line?” He is wearing a suit, has slicked back hair and an earpiece that he used to talk on his phone. This was not the type of person normally seen on the bus, or in this neighborhood in general.
“I have a child.” She snaps back and glares at him as though he just made the biggest mistake of his life. In her mind, if she were not in a hurry he would have. He responded to that, but at that point, she had scanned her card and pushed her way behind the yellow line that riders had to stay behind for the bus to continue its ride.
“Everyone behind the line.” The driver yells as everyone pushes together. He closes the door on the remaining people. The first man to be left off is the man with the earpiece. He throws his arms in the air while staring at her as they drive away. She just shakes her head at him.
“Rude mother fucker.” She mouths to herself. She squeezes her daughter’s hand as the bus drives away. The traffic stops and go, and the little girl hugs her thigh as people bounce around. One of the people who bounce into them is an older woman who nearly knocks her over and causes her daughter to release her grip. She gives the woman a dirty look, but the older woman is gazing out the window. “Disrespectful bitch needs to pay attention.” She whispers.
After the next stop, a man who is sitting in the seats next to where the older woman is standing gets up to leave the bus while the person sitting next to him does the same. She immediately slides into one of the empty seats pulling her daughter with her. Unknowing of this as she is paying attention to the man leaving, the old woman attempts to sit in the seat she believes to be empty, but instead, she sits in the lap of the mother.
“What are you doing?” She yells at the older woman, pushing her up. “Get fuck out of my lap.”
“I’m sorry.” The woman responds. “You really should pay attention though. You just squeezed behind me.”
“Pay attention? You’re the one who sat in my fuckin’ lap.”
The old woman looked around for support from the random bystanders but received none, so instead, she just moved down the bus to stand away from the mother and her daughter.
The bus continued its drive, and the little girl was turned in her seat as she stared out the window watching the traffic and buildings turn into a bridge that went over a large river. Every day the girl stared at these images wide-eyed as though it was the first time she’d ever seen any of it before. As the bus changed lanes, a car blocked her view of the water.
“Mom. Why don’t we have a car?” She said as she still looked out the window. The mother scrolled through images on her phone not paying attention. Her little hands settled on her mother’s shoulder.
“What?” she whipped her head around in annoyance.
“Why don’t we have a car?”
“We don’t need a car. Would you sit down, so you don’t hurt yourself?” The girl turned back in her seat and again faced forward. They sat silently for the rest of the ride. The girl scanned the bus watching people stare at their phones doing whatever they could to maintain their balance while the bus rode anything but smoothly. Finally, the bus stopped in front of the train station.
They again pushed their way through people to get out the door. The mother picked up the girl as they ran down the stairs. The girl hated the stairs and was always afraid that someone would knock them over and there were so many. She hated the escalator too because she was scared that she would miss a step as they moved and when she reached the bottom she would get sucked into wherever the stairs went as they moved down.
The girl continued to be held in the mother’s arms as they went through the gate to the train. The sign overhead said the train was now arriving, so the mother began to run as they could hear the train arriving. As they got to the stopped train and saw people empty out and board the conductor yelled to stay out of the way as the doors were closing. The two ignored this as the mother squeeze through the doors that were about to close on the two of them.
Even though the train was just as full as the bus, the mother scanned the seats as she set her daughter down. There was a young couple who was looking through a couple of textbooks. The college was two stops away, and the mother was sure these two would be getting off at that stop.
“May we sit?” The mother said almost in a sarcastic way as though these two should know that a mother and her child should take precedence in this situation. The girl looked up and at the little girl and said with a smile
“Absolutely.” She said. She hit the guy she was riding with on the shoulder who responded in a less than thrilled manner however he still stood up.
The train continued its trek. The daughter hated the train as it went underground, which not only scared her because it was always so dark regardless of time of year, but there was also never anything to look at. She ignored looking out the window and looked around at all the people who looked the same as they did on the bus, but then a thought went through her mind. She had math homework due today, and though she did it last night, she never put it in her book bag. She remembered laying on the couch she always slept on but never remembered putting it in the folder. The folder was sitting on the coffee table. “Mom.” She exclaimed as she was scared of getting in trouble.
“What now?” she responded.
“My math homework. It’s at home. I need to go home.” She exclaimed as her eyes welled. Her mom rolled her eyes.
“You’re kidding me.” She said. The eye welling turned to tears. People in the train looked at her as she cried. The mom looked around at the people then at her daughter. “Stop crying.” She snapped and took a deep breath. “We can’t go home okay.”
“What am I gonna do? My homework…”
“Look, just tell the teacher you made a mistake and left it at home.”
“But she’s going to be mad.”
“It’s okay. You made a mistake okay. Just stop crying. It’ll be fine.” The little girl just nodded as she stopped crying and calmed. As the train approached another stop yet another look of fear entered the girl’s eyes, and though she did not, she wanted to cry again. The mom let out a sigh and rolled her eyes again. “I forgot my lunch.”
In her pocket she had 5 dollars, it was the remaining cash from her paycheck that wasn’t going to come again until Friday of this week. Today was only Tuesday. She looked forward to using this 5 dollars to get a cheeseburger from McDonald’s, a pop and maybe a small fries if it was enough, but instead, she handed her daughter the 5 dollar bill. “Hang onto that okay. You can use that for the hot lunch today.”
Again, the little girl nodded.
Finally, the train pulled up to the stop near the school. She grabbed her daughter’s hand, and they walked up the stairs to the street above. As they got to the stairs that led up to the front door, the little girl saw some friends and let go of her mother’s hand and ran towards them. She entered the front door of the school, and the mother’s mind immediately returned to the budget which she figured and refigured on the remaining train ride to the grocery store where she worked.