Swayin' Shirley

By Sandi Martinez

Turning onto Colfax Avenue, Shirley swears to herself that one of these days, she really is going to do it. She’s gonna stomp the pedal to the floor like the old days when she drove the I-25 route, and just—vroom. That first burst of speed will be delicious.  She won’t ever lift her foot again. She imagines planting her toe, and then her foot and her leg becoming like a trunk of a tree, with deep roots.  When she hits that first thing—and she will hit something, oh yes, she won’t be on no highway at all, but on this damn city street—it will be as if flowers blossom out from her head.

The funny thing was, she had played a tree in that very first recital, Nor’easter in the Garden. She had listened pouty faced as skinny Mrs. Carlisle, the ballet instructor, had whispered to the man who was doing the costumes, “Shirley here is short and stocky, rather have Nancy or Sylvia do it, but they’re our Roses, naturally. Guess she’ll do.” Shirley could still hear Mrs. Carlisle chanting Sway, Sway, Sway! at her in an exasperated, breathy voice, could still remember the surprisingly strong teacher’s unsuccessful attempts to get Shirley’s short and thick arms to be as long and graceful as the other girls.  Shirley thinks of her awkward body moving from side to side, a tree blowin’ in the wind. That final leap, when the tree, bested by the storm, fell dramatically to the ground. She practiced for weeks, Shirley recalls, and she nailed it too.

 Her Daddy had told her Mama, “Them fancy shoes are too expensive for Shirley to be a god-damn shrub in the background.” Still, she had kept up dance for awhile. She never was in a role anything close to Garden Swan, that was true, but she had loved it.  Her body still has that muscle memory, not for steps, but for driving down a road. She knows just the right way to move during curves. Her legs are built for speeding up and slowing down, and she prides herself on perfect timing.

It was that homeless man that set her off this morning. Crumpled bus ticket revealing itself, vivid against a dirty palm, and then dropped carelessly on the floor.  A snobbish woman with an armload of “fragile” shopping bags, “Could you please wait?” A few stops back, she had let Mr. “I had no idea this pass expired last year”  past her post, but mumbled under her breath, the year is printed right there, clear as day.

Thinking again of her notion of mowing down creation, Shirley suddenly has an absurd vision of her bus, sporting downy white angel wings, soaring through a blue sky, complete with fluffy white clouds. She’s still behind the wheel,  but here, there are no passengers and she can whoop and roar with glee. The Angel of the Bus.

The seat belt around her waist seems to cut. Soon she will need to start her daily regimens to keep her mind from going plumb crazy. Her go-to is a game she calls “Second Pullers.” Ol’ Shirley’ got eyes like a hawk,  they can go back and forth from the road ahead to the interior of the bus just like that. 

A person—known as the first puller—yanks the cord for a stop. Then a second someone, ninety-nine percent of the time sportin’ headphones, unaware that a stop was requested, will pull the cord again. They don’t hear the ding, or the cool automated voice telling them the intersection of the stop. That moment of panic, even if it lasts only a split second, is another scrumptious thing. Shirley makes sure to eye the road instead of  the second pullers looks of relief when the bus makes its stop.

Then there’s I-Spy. She must spy a woman wearing red. Or three funny hats. A man that could be a pirate.  She has no rhyme or reason to who she must spy—it’s simply whatever floats into her head. It’s often weird or difficult, but Shirley loves a challenge. When she finds her  mark after a long day of searching, her sense of accomplishment is much greater than what amounts to the simple task of getting people from point A to B.

She drifts back to the clouds. She’s not  behind the wheel anymore, but gracefully pirouetting, extending her legs to the ceiling, even through the emergency exit!  The bus glides in and out of the clouds. A dancer. Today she must spy... a dancer.

 White flurries float softly down and pile up. The day wears on, coats and scarves wrap bodies, and Shirley thinks it might be difficult to spot the one.

Shirley’s eyes finally flit to her prize during her last run. A stand out, as if struck by a spotlight. The thin-as-a-beanpole young woman waits patiently at the end of a line of people waiting to board.  A small duffle bag slung across her chest, which Shirley will bet  on her life contains the sacred satin footwear. A thick sweater over the young woman’s frame,  Shirley spots a bright purple leotard poking through.  Long legs, which must be pointed in her trainers,  draw circles in the snow. Bouncing  outwards in quick pliés a few times, to keep warm perhaps. She does a sort of prance up to the door.  Her hair is  pulled up  messily into a top knot, secured with a frilly pink flower barrette.  Humming to herself as she shows Shirley her ticket. The girl declines another passenger’s offer of a seat. Now it’s relevés as she holds the  upper rail strap and the bus takes off.  Shirley loses track of her, doesn’t see where she gets off, but she’s mostly satisfied, though she wonders if the young woman is a first or second puller.

A child and her mother begin to run across the street, though their crossing light is red and Shirley’s is green. Shirley is a good distance away, plenty of time to stop if she needs to. For a brief moment she wants to follow through with her fantasy, speed up, damn everybody and everything. You cross when you’re supposed to cross. Become the dark angel. Yet so vivid, like the dancer’s flower barrette, she sees her flying bus, now surrounded by smoggy, acrid clouds.  A horrible plummeting sensation, her stomach in her throat. She’s ended up in a fiery chasm, dark air. She’d better change the tempo of her step.

Back at the depot, the day is done. Tomorrow there will be other passengers,  maybe another storm. Might as well keep going, retirement is only a few years away. Shirley, after shutting off the engine, the lights, and pulling the key, pauses at the top step, looking left and right. No one is around but old Joe the mechanic, she won’t care if he sees her. Her heels spring up and down. She thinks of roots pulling apart in a shower of dirt.  She leaps gracefully through the bus door, her legs forming a perfect triangle, her toes pointed, and lands on the pavement below.