By Julieanna Blackwell
Illustration by Erica Gilchrist
She stood at the corner. She was going to visit her friend. Old. She never wavered or paced, nor did she fidget back and forth. Solid, she stood on the sidewalk along a slim lawn that separated her from the busy street—waiting for the bus.
Her name was Ella.
She wore a pastel tweed coat. She and the coat were a cut from decades long past. She, not the coat, had shrunk in size. The fluffy green strands from her lambswool knit hat were the only parts of her affected by the breeze. Pastel eye shadow flaked under her eyebrows and her red rouge had collected in the creases of her cheeks. Her face held an expression of experienced waiting.
That was Ella.
It was midday. She only took the bus after the rush—fewer people. Soon a young man in a faded jacket, possibly out of work, joined her. Then a short Spanish woman leaned against a parked car as she was reading a Spanish comic book. Ella didn’t move an inch. She knew exactly where the bus would stop—right at her feet.
And so it did. The bus roared up and its doors opened before her as the hydraulic mechanics lowered the stairs to her level. She raised an arm, then a leg, pulling herself up to the first step. The young man stood behind her. The Spanish woman waited at the back of the line. When both her legs were on the first step, Ella extended her arms up the railings and steadily placed her left foot onto the next step.
“I’m right behind you, don’t worry,” the young man said. The Spanish woman huffed.
Ella boarded the bus, as she would have, with or without help—slowly.
She noted she never had this particular driver before. She grinned at him as she reached into her pocket for her Senior Citizen Discount Card and some loose change. Her expression changed to one of slight concern and she hesitated from putting the coins into the fare box. Instead, she squeezed herself to the side to allow room for the others to board.
The young man dropped a token into the slot and found a seat in the front of the bus. The Spanish woman paid her fare with a card and headed to the back, never lifting her eyes from the comic book.
At the very instant the doors closed, the bus hissed with a jolt of acceleration. The driver must have been running late. Ella wrapped her arm around a pole and spread her legs apart to assure herself a steady stance. Holding her palm open, she counted her money, touching each coin with the tip of her white gloved index finger.
“It seems I’m short,” she said to the driver.
The driver didn’t answer, swerving the bus around a pothole. His expression was one of experienced toleration.
She pulled a glove off. “I seem to be a quarter short. I don’t understand. I know I had it. I counted my money before I left the house. I always carry exact change.” She slowly searched through one coat pocket. “I always have my fare ready with my senior card.” She dug into a second pocket. “Oh, this is so embarrassing. I must have lost a quarter somewhere.”
An old beaded coin purse appeared from her pocket. Like a prop, she unzipped it. Looking through its contents, she raised an eyebrow to those riding on the bus.
“Oh dear, all I have is a five dollar bill.”
She looked at her fellow passengers. No one seemed to notice her, or her situation. Two boys horsed around in the back. The Spanish woman’s lips moved along with the comic. A fat construction worker snored, his head suspended within the motion of the bus. A pretty young lady read the newspaper. A heavyset woman, with gold teeth, stared out the window. So did the unemployed young man. Indeed, her survey confirmed that no one cared about the little old lady in the front of the bus.
“Maybe someone has change?” She flashed a sweet smile to the possible solution.
By this time, the bus had reached the next stop. The doors opened and two schoolgirls lumbered up the steps. Still straddled around the pole, Ella squeezed herself to the side, again, to make room. “Excuse me?” she asked. “Do either of you two have change for a five dollar bill?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” the girls shouted, running to the boys in the back of the bus.
The driver sighed as he steered the bus out into the street.
“I’m sorry, do you, ma’am?” Ella asked the heavyset woman. “Do you happen to have change?”
“No, no, no,” the heavyset woman repeated, shaking her head. Maybe she didn’t speak English.
As the bus rocked, Ella moved along the aisle. She passed the sleeping construction worker and approached the pretty young lady. “Excuse me? Would you happen to have change for a five?”
The young lady did something unexpected; she pulled out a huge handbag from between her legs. “Hmm, let me see.”
“Maybe,” Ella stated, looking hopeful as she quickly glanced out the window checking on how far the bus had taken her.
The young lady stopped short from opening her bag and sighed. “No, I don’t. I just did laundry the other day, and, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
Ella slowly turned her head and glanced over to the young man. “Do you have change?” she asked him.
“Oh, I wish I did. I have no cash on me at all, not even a token.” He shrugged.
“Oh dear,” she sighed. Ella was right—he was out of work.
“Maybe the bus driver will let you ride with only the amount you have,” the young man suggested. “What, you’re just a quarter short?”
Ella’s expression changed with an amused eyebrow and she moved back towards the fare box.
The driver cleared his throat. “Exact change, lady.” He sniffed.
“I’m only a quarter short,” Ella pointed out.
The bus listed through an intersection causing everyone’s heads to sway.
“You know the rules; exact change.” The driver placed his hand over the fare box.
“What has this world come to? An old woman rides the bus every day and once she is a quarter short. Now, the city can’t survive without my twenty-five cents?” Ella asked.
The young lady said, “Just let her ride.”
“Really, let the old gal pass,” the young man added.
“Why thank you, but I can fight my own battles.” Ella turned and leaned in close to the driver’s ear, pointed her crooked finger and said, “I think after the amount of taxes I’ve paid to this city over the years, I should ride for free.”
“Either pay or get off my bus.”
“There you go—there you have it. One can never depend on the kindness of others,” she fumed. “Look at a bus full of passengers and no one has change for a little old lady. Except for these two nice young people, at least they tried.” Ella motioned to the pair. They in turn smiled at each other. She felt they made a handsome couple—too bad he was out of work.
“What’s it gonna be, lady?” The driver stopped the bus at a stop sign and turned in his seat. “Either put that bill in the fare box or get off my bus.”
“What!” Ella gasped. “The whole five dollars? And pay the city extra for nothing? You’ve already taken me four blocks from my house.” Ella shook her head. “Let me off here!”
“Fine,” the driver snapped.
The hydraulics hissed, as the doors swung open right where another old woman happened to be standing—waiting for the bus.
“What a rotten world, when no one finds it in their heart to help an old woman. And you,” Ella said to the driver, “I hope you find yourself old and feeble some day. Then we’ll see. A city pension won’t be enough.” With the driver behind her, Ella’s expression shifted to one of satisfaction. She made her exit off the bus, step by step, down each stair—slowly.
The driver hesitated from closing the doors, waiting for the other old woman to board. She didn’t move. She just stood there—with Ella.
“Well what about you?” the driver yelled.
The other old woman pursed her lips. “I don’t want to board your bus. I’m waiting for someone.”
The doors slammed. The bus drove off.
Ella folded the bill into her coin purse, zipped it shut and slipped it back into her pocket along with the loose change, one white glove and her Senior Citizen Discount Card.
“Hello, Ella,” the other old woman said.
“Hello, Agnes.” The two old women coupled arms and started walking.
“Ella, what was that all about?” Agnes asked, looking back to the bus. “Don’t tell me you’re still pulling that ‘Little Old Lady Short on the Bus Fare’ scam, are you?”
“Why should I pay full fare to go four blocks? Marvin, God rest his soul, always said we pay too much in taxes."
“But Ella, what if someone gives you the change?”
“Never,” Ella said, shaking her head. “When has anyone ever given someone else change on the bus?”
The two old women turned and walked into a courtyard building—slowly.