Quarter by J.D. Smith

Quarter is in the house, in the wider sense of the word that includes the S-2 bus, so I don’t have to check my watch or scam off of someone else’s before going back to my book on why the Anasazi disappeared. I know what time it is: between eight forty-nine and eight fifty-two Eastern Time—and we’re just north of Newton Street, headed toward the White House.

In this window of time Quarter boards and drops her coins in the fare box. Some of the bus drivers just say what they would to anyone else, which ranges from “Have a very blessed day” to nothing at all, just a quick glance at her money before popping the trap door and sending the change to its afterlife in the floor safe.

Others have more to say. The tones echo the preaching they must have heard growing up. The dashboard sermonette goes “Act right now” or “Leave those people alone today.” Once a driver turned his post into a pup-tent revival and issued a dire warning of Metrobus damnation: “Don’t make me put you out at the next stop.” I don’t know if she followed instructions that day—I went back to reading about excavations near Monte Alban.

In my experience, though—one of the great phrases to use in writing an after-dinner speech—whatever the drivers say, Quarter just goes on with her own digging. She starts to work the bus like a candidate working a room—as portrayed by David Lynch.  She poses the same question from the front to the back of the bus, then toward the front again, a land-based salmon going upstream against the passengers who have since boarded and stand in the aisles.

The question being:

“Do you have quarter?”

No “a” before the noun, the words in a breathy East Asian accent. The roundness of her face makes me think Korean or northern Chinese. They don’t, in fact, all look alike. I paid off my M.A. in archaeology, and a couple of other detours that didn’t pay the bills, while helping a Texan with damage control when he’d said as much. My first task: making sure he didn’t call them “they.”

Wherever she’s from, the English, as a lot of the world calls it, is not her first language; the dropped “a” cinches that. That much stays with me from my time in the ESL teaching ghetto before coming over to the Dark Side and making a living.

How dark? Dark enough to work up a pamphlet on the advantages of formula over breast milk. And to write copy for the tourism ministry of an island country that required its beach resorts to be set off with high walls so vacationers didn’t get a good look at the conditions outside. Around the office we called the project “Club Potemkin.”

How much of a living? Not enough to afford a decent car and parking, but there’s hope: I work for men who have them.

Quarter’s progress continues. Sometimes a little dog in my mind salivates at the bell of her words. Not with desire. The little dog drools questions. What if she knows the English perfectly well, accent or no, and means damned well to drop the “a”?  What if she is doing urban anthropology and studying how the natives react? Or what if she is an actress, flush with methods and preparing for a role?

The guesses give way to facts as she begs down the rows.

“Do you have quarter?”

It would be one hell of a performance: the performer submerged in the part, all that.

If she were studying the rest of us, her information-gathering would be flawless, Margaret Mead as Samoan.

But no actor would rehearse a single line for a year. No anthropologist would observe the same population so many times.

All that’s left is the obvious: Quarter is not quite right.

Could she be Mongoloid in both senses?

Scratch that. That phrase would never work in a speech. What is the clinical term these days? Down Syndrome, maybe, though no one calls it that these days. “Developmentally disabled” was the phrase a few years ago. Now it’s “developmentally challenged,” though “challenge” sounds more like a choice than something you’re stuck with. But that’s the term, and I’ve seen candidates lose endorsements and proposals get rejected when someone says thing like “dwarf” instead of “little people.”

There is the outside chance that she is just someone in the normal range of smarts, as if that isn’t disappointing enough, who hasn’t been treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder. She performs the same ritual over and over.

But the intensity is missing, and damned if there isn’t even a certain grace to it. She slowly leans on the handrail and each time, in the same small number of decibels, asks:

“Do you have quarter?”

When the rookies who haven’t cut through her accent ask her to repeat herself, she keeps her voice low and says only, “Quarter.”

This is not the pre-medication spaz I went through, checking the alarm four and five times a night before going to bed, then waking up two or three times again—to check the alarm several more times in the next five minutes. Not like the way I made sure the apartment door was locked before leaving in the morning and then wondering if the coffeemaker was off and having to go back inside and check and then lock the door and suddenly start wondering if the bathtub faucet was still dripping. They raised the dosage then.

Quarter simply proceeds at a steady pace, like a train conductor taking tickets.  Maybe she has a line on that different drummer we hear about. And maybe it’s a shame that she probably isn’t collecting data on us, but it’s a shame only for us. If she has set her sights low, she is succeeding.

Unless she can’t think in those terms and just goes from rider to rider out of reflex or habit, then wonders what to do with all the change.  The first-timers sometimes kick in, and the aged black women reading Bibles unzipped from well-worn leather cases sometimes contribute to the Quarter Fund. They are going to the jobs their generation could get, and those aren’t on the fast track, only the S bus, but today’s Scripture might be the one that mentions the widow’s mite.

Students, still shocked that the world is unfair, are the most reliable source.  A dreadlocked blond boy straight outta Scarsdale or Shaker Heights has no trouble redistributing twenty-five cents, sometimes fifty, of this week’s check from home. Just as generous are the girls who wear backpacks studded with buttons that protest acronyms or advertise bands. They shell out because the World Bank won’t.

The no-inglés vatos of Mount Pleasant, between San Salvador and lunch prep at downtown’s kitchens, usually just shrug. Their pay goes to the rent, and to Western Union. All I can pick out from their flurry of words is something about la china. Triste, they say. Sad.

Maybe. She smiles when she asks and says “Thank you” when she receives. Rejected, she simply moves on to the next person.

A lot of these rejections come from flinty white women on their way to work, a few years and a K Street job since their own backpacks of protest. Some, new to DC, are still in shock about the distasteful “public” part of public transportation. Their answers might begin or end with “sorry,” but usually there is less cushioning, along the lines of “No” or “You know you’re not supposed to do that.” Nothing creates expertise in morals and manners like a steady job, preferably at a good salary. Half of the comments section in my last performance review involved my failure to take an appropriately deferential tone in an email. Hell, before the morning coffee kicks in I sometimes end up telling bike couriers paid at piece rates to stop calling me “bro” or “dude.”

Rebounding from each rejection like a balloon bounced off wall, Quarter turns to the next person in her sights.

Sometimes that person is one of the ruthlessly clean-cut twenty-five and unders in suit and tie.  Some are Hill staffers, and proud of it. Others wear lapel pins with the logo of the Procrustes Institute, or whatever that think-tank is whose Latin motto means “Markets are the answer. What’s the question?”

When she approaches, the tumblers in their mental safes labor visibly.  In a silent film, the caption might read, “What would Ayn Rand do?”

They know, and act accordingly, but they are polite about it. Rudeness is inefficient.

They have a point. I turned down her request once, and there was no point in being brusque or giving her a lecture that she might not absorb. I just said “Sorry” as softly as I could above the cell phones and the headphones spilling out music. Maybe she was in it for the socializing instead of the money; she just smiled and moved to the next row.  The clean-cut young men have a point.

A point.  Hm. A point. That sounds like it should mean something.

It does. Oh, hell. Oh, bloody hell. Oh, bloody, bloody motherfucking hell. I need to have talking points by noon for testimony on the Hill at three,  press conference at two, with at least one rewrite in the middle, and I gave myself time to do that this morning, but now that time is getting eaten up by gridlock that looks like something out of a Godzilla movie where everybody is trying to get out of Tokyo. I have left the laptop at home, I have nothing to write on but the margins of the Post and the back of an ATM slip, and the only pen I have is blue. Blue ink is for grocery lists. Serious work calls for a black pen.

And I don’t have one.

This is what the psychologists call a high-responsibility, low control situation. Like when I was a bag boy in a grocery store, sandwiched between the assistant manager who had found his fiefdom and the customers who wanted everything double-bagged, some in paper and some in plastic, with eggs on top of everything but the bread, and the soft white bread on top of the torpedo rolls. Like the commodities trader on the floor. Like the white collar peon that I am who is at any moment one blown deadline away from getting replaced by an unpaid intern and begging for another entry-level job or just begging, like the unshaven and unshowered guys downtown with Defense Department surplus blankets and paper cups who stake out the heat vents on the sidewalks. The Grate Society.

My pulse is up, but not from coffee, and the doughnut hardens in my stomach; the adrenaline is taking over.  It’s a good thing I’m sitting in the back: if anyone came up from behind and tapped me on the shoulder I would swing first and ask questions later.

If anyone approached me from the front, well, no one would approach me from the front.  Anyone with half a brain can see that I have a paper in front of me, and if they didn’t notice the business section shaking they might think that I was reading instead of producing gastric acid and spin.

The clock is ticking, and it doesn’t care that I am still trying to figure out how a deputy official from a Central Asian ‘stan can pitch his country as a strategic ally instead of an oil-soaked dungeon.

Even as I’m trying to work, my spider sense is tingling, or my peripheral vision. There is heat, an aura, maybe scent. Someone has entered my bubble of space.

“Do you have quarter?”

Goddamnit! The opening words of my candidate’s non-answer slip away. For a few seconds I am silent, still chasing down greased pigs of rhetoric.

My confusion must look like incomprehension.

“Do you have quarter?”

The dog in my mind has taken shelter. There is only a spring, and it has been set off.

“No, Goddamnit, I do not have a quarter.” I do not check my pockets. “I do not have a single, solitary, motherfucking quarter, and if I did I would sure as hell not give it to you.”

A first thought: does she understand what I’m saying?

A second thought: Does it matter?

Relieved of these questions, I don’t have to wonder if I should stop.  This must be what wife-beaters feel when their blood pressure drops and their pulse slows as they draw back to strike. It is the difference between anxiety and certainty.  A normal voice is no longer low enough.

“I will never have a goddamned, motherfucking quarter for the rest of my natural life. I will have nickels, I will have dimes and pennies, I might even have a John F. Kennedy fifty-cent piece or a Susan B. Anthony-slash-lesbian one dollar coin, but I will never, never, ever have a United States quarter for you and maybe not for any motherfucking body else.”

There is no question: this feels good: transcendence of bourgeois good and evil, liberated id, all those concepts by the French guys I read in college, but applied somewhere west of the Gulf Stream and far, far East of Eden. Work-related example?

It means something else to Quarter. She stands stock-still, and angles and creases emerge from her round, flushed face. She draws one quick breath, another, and hyperventilates until the motion presses tears out of her. She takes a quick step in my direction, and I start to wonder how strong she is, but with the next step Quarter pivots left and drops into a seat in front of me, then slides over to a window.

“You hate me,” she says, “you hate me.”

With a thrust of her round and muscular neck and shoulder the left side of her head caroms against the glass and snaps back smartly in a way that’s strange for flesh.

“You hate me,” she says again, and again jukes hard left, like a running back in a broken field.

This time there is a palpable crack. A fissure works its way through the window, and after an almost made-for-TV delay, the blood, more maroon than plain red, starts to seep and then pour from above her left ear.

“You hate me,” she says, and slams again, as another fissure opens up a little higher.

A third time she slams into the window, then again and again.  The blood splatters like something out of a boxing match, and I all can do is duck. Blood is a bitch of a stain.

And I don’t have rubber gloves. I have no way of knowing where she has been, what has happened to her, and what microbes live in her body. What if she bites?

Again she slams her head into the window, and again. Each time she says, “You hate me.” The clotting star on the window thickens and spreads.

Besides the engine’s vibration and the scratchy music spilling out from headphones, the bus is silent in a way like it hasn’t been since right after the attacks.

“I don’t hate you,” I whisper, “I don’t.”

The spell of silence is broken. “Oh, no,” one woman intones. Another says, “Look what you did to her.”

Quarter is locked into the rhythm of her new ritual. Passengers cluster around her, in front of me, and handkerchiefs flutter out of bags and purses. A strong man steadies her neck and shoulder and checks her sideways. A woman starts dabbing the matted side of Quarter’s head. None has rubber gloves.

The bus wheezes to a stop across Lafayette Square from the White House. This time—I am lucky—the back door works. I don’t have to push through the knot of people ahead of me and make an uncuffed perp walk past the driver and down the front step.

I push the back door open and return to the talking points. The bloodstains on my blue notes are already rusting to brown, and I’ll be able to work around them and finish the assignment. As if I haven’t done plenty for one day.

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