The girl with the quiet, angry face did not, of course, call herself ‘girl with the quiet, angry face.’ She was Charlotta Phelps, but Charlotta was the kind of young woman who did realize strangers must call her ‘quiet, angry-faced girl’ and she relished having a quiet, menacing demeanor that kept people unseated with her—she was able to project her frustration, sharpen it, and then strangers didn’t approach. A little girl, she looked like one, but she set it up so that men on the street must have been frightened of her. Who needs mace in this city? She was really very good at scaring the men on the METRO, and that was her best defense, and also her favorite game. She reasoned that she had better like doing it to them. Her offense.
There were more than the homeless-looking men who stared to play the game with. She played the ‘don’t you dare touch me’ silent treatment with the business-looking men who stared at the way she wore her coat, her purse, her body. Leaning on the silver pole on the METRO train with hips cocked, as if she had had enough. All those business-looking men could not have been from DC, almost no one living in her city was anyways, but Charlotta had learned that these men could hurt her with their misunderstanding, shame her by making obvious the distance she (knew she feared she) saw between them, if she ever allowed them to get near and take her, and tap her number down, and text her later,
Ur so beautiful. Nice finally talking to someone on the bus. Wanna get coffee later?
And that turned into,
“I can’t believe you’re really from here… a DC native. What do you call that?”
She’d forget the flash of girlfriends and schoolmates forced to flee a gentrified neighborhood, moved out to Maryland, joked about being ‘exiles’ on Facebook. Charlotta tightened smile and said instead,
“I’m just me, Charlotta.” Then, come on girl, show him a little mercy, “Or a native, a metropolitan, a Washingtonian, I bet.”
“That’s so beautiful. A Washingtonian. I’m going to be one soon too, then. I’ve been here about four years.
Where did you go to school again? Did you stay here your whole life?”
Would there be something wrong with me if I had? But, Charlotta said, “I did go to Boston for school. I chose to come back.”
He then spoke to her about how everyone in DC was rude, and obsessed with appearances. Charlotta wondered if he was Korean.
She wanted to ask, badly, but wasn’t sure. Was embarrassed for being black and even from Mount Pleasant, and still being afraid to ask about someone else’s ethnicity. Her brown eyes passed over the crooked popped collar of his J Crew shirt, across the drained coffee cups, into her own empty hands. She reached through the window and passerby, into the sunlight and back to her quiet morning with her sweet parents that day. They had asked her about her plans for the afternoon, and then said for her to stay safe, take a cab if she was late and needed it, all of them surviving together in the million dollar rowhouse that was too expensive to fix. And now Mike with no last name was saying that DC people were mean, DC people were selfish. DC people should change themselves…
Flying Fish was a coffee shop near Mount Pleasant and Hobart streets. Two large padded chairs were set up in the window front, and to Charlotta, it felt more like she and Mike were sitting on two thrones and observing this end of the neighborhood.
Frugalista and Clínica del Pueblo framed their vista while mostly young white people walked by with colored shoulderbags with the caramel straps and flap—Charlotta had no idea where those they-all-look-the-same bags came from, she was a little disgusted by the idea of going out to get one, though she was starting to want one of theirs… and she was wearing a gray hoodie that looked like it was spray painted all over with hot pink stylized fleur-de-lys, something so girly and urban that she found in El West.
Indoors, a slightly angry-looking black girl, and she chose to keep the hood up and look like she was going to gangbang. Mike was really smiling at her during the pause in their conversation, trying to turn a little in their chairs that weren’t really facing one another and see around the hood. It turned into charmed laughter.
Charlotta finished turning her empty coffee cup around in circles, heart beating into her throat, and for some reason said,
“We can’t afford to fix our roof. I can’t afford to move out where I want, into this neighborhood where I grew up…” she might have said more, but was afraid. Charlotta stuffed hands into her hoodie pockets and needed for Mike to think about it.
“You’re so cute aren’t you? When you’re angry.”
“I’m sorry… but what do you mean, you can’t afford a place of your own? Don’t you work?”
Don’t you shut up? You selfish, maybe-Korean, JCrew wearing, superficial guy-from-the-bus-guy… But the way Mike’s shirt was unbuttoned… The way he was always laughing at her… a perfect, perfect smile. His uncle was a dentist, hadn’t he said that once?
All by himself, on the bus, silent Mike had exuded sunshine in that laughing smile until she finally introduced herself. And, he liked mint gum. Easy to tell when he smiled so much. Amazing that someone amazing as this lived just next door. Now, Charlotta leaned out from her fuchsia and gray hood, bit down a smile before hastening to her next point. “My parents always speak kindly to maybe everyone on the street, Mike. Even those borrachos. And, that’s how they raised me. So you know, it’s not everyone like that, either.”
“Everyone who what? God, you’re speaking fast… but, wait, borracho… I’ve heard that before. That’s Spanish? God, you can speak Spanish too? That’s so beautiful. But you’re black, right? And yours isn’t like when I try to speak Spanish at Haydee’s. You’ve ever had dinner there? Pupusa sounds so weird, doesn’t it? I feel like a jackass saying it… poo-poo, poo-poo saaah… but they’re so good. Oh—and I hear there are shrimp pupusas right on the corner, over there,” he pointed eagerly for her to look, through a wall. “In Ercilia’s restaurant. Or, maybe that place is a carry out… that whole place is in freaking Spanish, even the trash cans say ‘basura.’ Honestly, I’m kinda afraid to go in there, haha. But, how do you speak Spanish? All my friends…” he lost his voice a moment, while Charlotta let her hood down, bent over an elbow she wedged into her hip, and then rubbed a bare shoulder, hard, with her other hand. Where was her shirt? Or, no sleeves? And her legs splayed like a man, a thug—or something. Beautiful. And, bad and beautiful. Mike finished his coffee and swifted through a mint trident wrapper. Chewed instantly. Resumed confident, clear speech. “Well, where did you learn Spanish?”
She learned it in college after studying it in high school because they didn’t offer it in middle school, because all her salvadoreño friends already spake it, “I come from Mount Pleasant.”
Charlotta then excused herself, left a ten for what he already paid for, she was so nervous, and left. The little black woman was several indignant quick strides down from Hobart Street before she realized she and Mike lived maybe within a block of one another—her rowhouse was her family home, and his rowhouse was some other’s family home that they were renting out. He would definitely see her almost running away if he left Flying Fish soon after. Well, Charlotta just cussed herself, put up her hoodie and ran…
And the H4 bus was maybe the slowest way home with the two of them on it, as it drove along the shortest route from the Cleveland Park METRO station on one side of Rock Creek Park, down through the trees to Mount Pleasant on the other side. Charlotta lived closer to that side of Mount Pleasant than the other edge nearby Columbia Heights station on its other side.
So anyways, since that bad date, Chalotta the quiet-mean-faced-girl had decided to stop talking to the men and boys on the H4 bus. She wedged herself into the rear doorwell and looked out.
At times, when she was really good at not looking at any more men and staring out through the windows of the ever-late H4 bus, Charlotta saw deer along the road. Klingle Road which was such a fancy sounding thing, that became Park Road, which everybody knew was so urban, going through Columbia Heights too, and Petworth and on… and the deer she used to see with their white butts up, or creeping through the trees to eat, seemed so weird. Out of place, grazing on a hill above the long mural painted by the Latin American Youth Center. She really disliked the park that cut up her commute. Build a bridge over it, tunnel under it, anything… then, maybe the H4 would be on time. And the men couldn’t stare as long.
Once, a woman hit a deer with her car and held up traffic trying to wave people away from where it was lying at the edge, where Klingle became Park Road. The damned bus driver stopped to talk her through how to get help. They chatted as he carefully maneuvered the bus around the weird hipster woman, her banged up car, the stupid deer that wasn’t supposed to even be there in the first place… Why were there even deer in Washington, DC?
Charlotta was facing these trees when she woke up on the bus that Monday morning. She evened her breathing, set aside fantasies of Mike’s mint-tasting sharp smile, and the bloodied deer. The bus driver, a man she once heard called Marlin, was half kneeling in the row of blue seats ahead of her. He was leaned against an opened window of the bus, hand on the wall, other hand pulling by the red emergency lever, to try and slam it back shut again. He jerked his entire body several times, using up all his muscles to get this thing to work. He was handsome, though he was much older. She hadn’t really noticed it before. Charlotta focused on how thirsty and sick to her head that she felt instead. She had a water bottle in her purse. But, her hand came out again with a cell phone.
“Goddammit—no smart phones!” Marlin tried to reach over.
“You can’t take my phone, that’s not a bus rule. I’ve been riding this bus my whole life…”
“I’ve been driving this bus here, in DC, for longer than you’ve been alive. And, where are you even from?”
She told him. One genuine smile happened between them. Two natives. He softened, “When I was coming up in Northeast, you know, they used to say, ‘Don’t go over to Mount Pleasant, it’s crazy over there…”She laughed through her nose. “Oh. The riots. Yes, that was certainly true then.”
“Ya’ll’s were crazy back there.” He meant back then. He also meant back up the hill, in that particular place, that neighborhood with people living in it from around the world, throwing Mount Pleasant days that swelled up the streets, eating pupusas, and everybody finding themselves having to speak
Spanish, or understand a bit of it. Marlin hadn’t needed to explain all that. Maybe Korean Mike had needed all that explained to him. Have a little mercy on him girl, show mercy…
Police officers were making their way awkwardly through the cars outside. Most of them were hunched over in an odd fashion, ducking down to search for something.
Charlotta made a phone call. “I should probably tell them I’m going to be late… or sick. And, God, what happened out there? Why is there so much traffic?” then, she craned around, “The bus is empty? It never is on my way to work… if it’s another dead deer in the road, I swear… I hate those damned stupid deer. Aren’t you annoyed too, that they’re even deer here in DC? So ridiculous.”
Marlin’s eyes went wide. He cursed her and the phone, did get a hold of it this time, threw it to the ground, jammed and shattered its screen with the heel of his boot.
“What the fuck is wrong with you—”
“What is wrong with you, trying to kill us—that thing can go on the internet. Did you just go online, on Facebook or something? You took pictures?”
“Alright, I’m getting out. I’m walking to Cleveland Park. Let me off the bus.”
Please do not stand in the rear doorwell.
“I hate that fake bus voice… Shut up!”
Please do not stand in the rear doorwell.
“And then, you complained about them over the phone. I heard. Did they hear you?”
“What’s that METRO emergency number? 832-2121…”
Please, do not stand in the rear doorwell.
“That’s for the subway. Shit, they’re coming over now. Girl, what’s your name? This is on you little girl, with the little scrunched up, I can’t get a man, too quiet face…”
Someone outside banged on the door. The police. Marlin stood by the break to open the doors. He cursed gently, his hand reaching for the lever quivered. He took one last look at Charlotta. For what? For her to help him? The riders never cared…
“You gonna finally sit down and follow the rules? I can start up this bus again—I think she’ll listen to me, but you can’t be standing in that rear doorwell.”
Charlotta became exasperated. She got mad and flipped Marlin off. Then, she set her hand back firmly on the pole near the rear door, her old spot. Raised above the stairs, looking out everywhere, no one seeing her.
“Go right ahead. Let the police in, so they can arrest you for breaking my phone and trying to trap me in here… And you’re so gross. How dare you—I’m maybe twenty years younger than you are.”
Marlin just shut his eyes (and shut his mouth for a moment too, against what he really wanted to say to this stuck up girl) and took a deep, resigned breath. “Fine. Charlotta Phelps, it’s on you.”
Marlin sat, reached down, pulled, and then the front doors of the bus folded away with a gasp of the compressed air release. The men who walked onto the bus consulted Marlin, and he pointed them down the aisle to his only little passenger.
Please, do not stand in the rear doorwell.
“Charlotta Phelps?” but she gripped the silver pole by the rear door, rather than answer. The policemen were on two legs, but they weren’t… right somehow, those were crooked. Then, jutting up through slots on either side of their helmets, were real antlers. Sharp. Twelve points each. These they used to bully in and prod her away from where she was trying to hold fast.
Charlotta felt her breathing get out of control. She tried to twist back around. They shoved her against the edge of a hard plastic seat. Pain and punishment really took her breath away, then. At the head of the bus, Marlin was already looking relieved to see the officers find what they wanted.
Nasal atonal voices in unison, “You are under arrest for treason against the Stag Emperor. Did you witness the treason, Driver Marlin?”
Charlotta was shivering, still trying to get a real look at them or make herself not. It occurred to her in the tense wait that, whatever was going on, Marlin could say something to stop it. She was the one being accused? All she did was take out her cell phone.
Old Marlin leaned back to get comfortable in his driver’s chair. He grimaced and thought. Then, he brushed the shoulder of his light blue shirt, dusted it in Charlotta’s direction.
“I did. And you might as well take her, she’s not a good citizen at all, officer. Yeah, I heard her say that she hated deer. And, she is always standing in the rear doorwell. Then, she’s mean to all the male passengers on my bus. You shoulda’ heard what she just now finally said about me. And I been drivin’ her sulky ass to work and back, up and down this hill every goddam day…”
Charlotta screamed out all her fear and rage.
Please do not stand in the rear doorwell.
The rear doors would not open, no matter how Marlin tried to work the controls upfront again. So, the deer police got high up on their cloven toes, kicked off and rammed in the glass, taking a screaming, rude little black girl with them. All of them falling through the stripped rubber and pierced plexiglass, and Marlin up in the driver’s seat, laughing broad and wide.
Klingle Road and Adams Mill Road. Stop requested.
The deer police gathered Charlotta Phelps up out of the glass and off the pavement. They licked their narrow, chewing muzzles and said she would be tried for her crimes against all men, the Ungulate Empire, and for standing in the rear doorwell.
1, Busdriver Marlin :: 2, The Quiet, Angry-Faced Girl :: 3, Love, After the Deer Apocalypse :: 4, Moises “Emperor Crush” Romero :: 5, Screaming in Spanish :: 6, His Hoodie :: 7, Amazonia :: 8, Behind the Waterfall :: 9, The Cricket Queen :: 10, Don Juan’s
My H4 bus ride will never be the same!
Haha, yeah–it might be more than a little obvious that this story is based on things that I really saw, felt, and did (I did really get arrested by deer police) while taking the H4 to work from Mount Pleasant.