The trip required three bus changes, a slight wait, and the chance of no seat. He just wanted to forget work on the humming bus ride home. Before noon, someone clogged the sixth floor toilets. The backup sent water over the walkway as he returned to lunch. After a shower of piss water, Robert Lotz needed a seat.
The bus lurched to the stop letting out a whoosh from its brakes. Second stop on Robert’s trip. He waited behind a college girl in a running suit, a boy wearing eye shadow, and a shopping cart pulled by a hunched-over woman. In college, he organized each weekend frat party dressed in modern pop. Tonight, he was the old man at the end of the line with four kids, two dogs, and a wife who saw him more as a burden than the wild guy she married. Waiting to board, he read the newspaper folded to the business section. The economy needed this market to come out of its flats. He pushed up a pair of bifocals as the hunched woman struggled to lift the shopping cart.
He reached to help. The woman turned, gave him a look of contempt, and smacked his hand back. She pulled the cart into the step again. Unable to lift the cart, she turned and gave him a look of “what are you waiting for.” He picked up the cart and raised it on the bus.
He dropped three quarters in the meter, turned inside, and shook his head. Just as he predicted; no seats. Robert walked over to the straphangers, propped his briefcase between his feet, and folded the newspaper under his armpit. The bus jumped forward and he grabbed a hanger. With his hanging hand he pushed up his glasses. Another night of standing unbalanced. He stood opposite of where the shopping cart woman had managed to wedge between an angry fat man and the skinny track girl. She shoved to position further into the seat, the fat man nudged back, and the reaction slid the college girl off the seat. Catching herself, she grabbed a hanger just as the bus turned onto the highway.
The driver made a fast pace over the rolling hills. The girl, the fat man, and the shopping cart woman all left the bus. Robert sat down three stops from home and scrunched up his toes seeking freedom. He set the newspaper down beside him and watched out the window. The highway gave way to a street lined with elm trees, white cupboard houses, and Halloween decorations. He hit the buzzer and the driver stopped two houses from home.
Children dressed as villans, superheros, princesses, and ghosts jumped on the sidewalk or scurried across the grass. They popped up beside him or in his path in spurts excited by the night of tricks and treats. He marched through the costumes pausing and pitching from side to side. With his dance, he managed to miss most of their twists, turns, and orbits. A crowd of kids blocked his porch scampering for the treats laid out by his oldest daughter Cindy. She ignored him as she dropped small candies into each bag. He cleared the horde of small monsters into the house.
Pandemonium reigned supreme inside as well. The jacket went on a hook, shoes slipped off, and the briefcase landed with a thud on the mud bench. Meanwhile, a teen boy yelled, a daughter pouted, and a mother applied face paint to a second boy mouthing off to the teen boy. A bucket with water and apples sat in a puddle in the corner behind a table of treats. It seemed everyone rushed to switch places around a grey-haired woman who stood in the middle shouting instructions to no one in particular. He dove and dived, twisted and braided his way over to an overstuffed chair offering respite and a color television.
He plopped down and put his feet up. He stretched out and laid down his head. For a moment all the noise, piss water, defeats, and shouting vanished as he closed his eyes.
“I don’t have my scarlet ribbons.”
He opened his eyes and focused on the spinning ceiling fan. The day’s troubles whipped across its blades to gather in the center.
“Mommy can’t find my ribbons.”
To his side, Mary hung on the chair arm kicking her feet. Tear tracks traveled from the corner of her eyes and his youngest held back another cry. He lifted her small body on his lap and dabbed away the tears with his hand.
All things involving hair ribbons, braids, combs, curls, and barrettes he knew enough to avoid. These things he left to his mother or wife to manage. The supermarket put the hairspray aisle next to the frozen foods. But unless you needed vanilla ice cream, your chances of grasping hair spray dropped wildly. Where does one even buy ribbons? The answer never crossed his mind.
Mary made him consider it. She looked at him wishing for a miracle. Her dad knew everything. If only it was true. He wondered how he could make this crisis go away. The four-year old waited for an answer. He stared down and she stared back. Clearly he lacked the patience.
“Leslie, any luck finding Mary’s ribbons?” Robert hoped his wife knew the answer.
Leslie pushed her bangs away. More white face paint covered her arms than camouflaged her son’s face. Every year, the Halloween preparation took more work than the festivity warranted. The search for ribbons lacked any priority in Leslie’s mind. She stopped dabbing the nose.
“I’ve been busy,” Leslie shouted from the kitchen.
Mary looked up in anticipation. Robert knew this problem would take more of his attention than the piss water from the sixth floor. The ceiling fan took this problem, whirled it into the center, and it bubbled up larger than his other troubles. He had no idea where to start.
As a younger man, he would have jumped up and rushed to solve this crisis. As an older man, he just wanted to rest. Mary failed to understand despite his best efforts to send his desire. She waited for the younger man to charge off to the quick fix.
The older man released the footstep and tripped out of the chair. He dropped Mary to the floor.
“I will come back with your ribbons.”
The little girl smiled. Robert strode into the kitchen where the frazzled festivities of Halloween forged ahead in haste. Spotting the ribbons he imagined would take less than five minutes. He just needed to come across the hidden stash of ribbons, combs, and curls. Leslie held the key. He tried courtesy.
“Dear, you wouldn’t happen to know where I can find Mary’s ribbons?”
Leslie huffed. She glared up at him. She touched a whitened sponge to the boy’s face. He squirmed away. She pulled him back.
“I can see this is a bad time,” Robert said.
“You think? I haven’t had time to drop everything and look for her ribbons.” The boy flinched and Leslie steadied him. Robert could see this conversation wasn’t going to fix the problem.
“Maybe in your closet?”
“Why don’t you go look?” Leslie said.
Robert turned to his daughter whose eyes smiled back with implied hope. Robert shrugged and smiled back. He would go look for the ribbons.
The cavernous closet contained boxes of dressmaking material, heaps of shoes, a row of shirts, pants, and dresses, and shelves stacked with clear boxes, shoe boxes, and packing boxes. Robert searched through the dressmaking boxes first. He found sizing, patterns, buttons, and thread. There was a bundle of lacy trim but it was white and too wide for ribbon. He then went after the boxes stacked on the shelf. He found old homework, school pictures, and report cards. He also found his old high school yearbooks filled with sentiments. He would never see those people again. Through it all not one red ribbon. He sat down to rest.
Mary tiptoed up on him and grabbed his neck. She placed both hands on his cheeks turning his head around. She smiled and patted his cheeks.
“Did you find them Daddy?”
He hesitated to answer. If he told her no, she might start crying. He only wanted to recover from this horrible day. Now he would have to find scarlet ribbons for her hair. Perfect, the song played in his head. His father ran a needle through the song too many times when he was no older than Mary. He chuckled. No other option than to go find them.
Robert picked up Mary and kissed her on the forehead. He dropped her down on the floor near a pile of shopping bags and strode out of the closet. Mary fingered the plastic bags while her dad thought of what do next. She raced to catch up when he started down the stairs.
From the top floor to the bottom floor he thought about the ribbons. Where could he find them? Where does one even start to look? Mary’s left foot dropped purposely to the next step as she did her best to keep up. Robert reached the mud bench, slipped his feet into his boots, and grabbed his overcoat. Mary loitered next to the bench. He bent down to kiss her on the cheek.
“I’ll be right back.”
As the door slammed and the commotion raged in the kitchen, Mary stood by the bench waiting for her dad to come back. She hopped on one leg and the other. She leaned against it. She turned to the kitchen and back to the door. Sleep began to fill her eyes and she laid her head down on the seat. Leslie came behind the girl and swooped her up in her arms.
“It’s your turn,” Leslie said. “Time to get you ready for lots of treats.” She wrapped up her daughter and headed up the stairs.
The neighborhood bounced with the shrieks of children. Robert marched past the roaming ghosts, witches, villains, and princesses. He managed to miss most of them, although a few bumped into him or jumped out and screamed. He glanced at his watch. The buses stopped running at 10 pm. If he hurried, he could catch the next one and be back before the trick or treating ended.
The bus reached the corner before Robert and he had to run to catch it. The bus jerked to a jumping stop and Robert waited for the driver to open the door. This time, he found a seat inside an empty bus. Only him and the driver headed back into the city.
Staring ahead at the city thoroughfare through the windshield, Robert wondered who sold ribbons closest to a bus stop. And who would still be open. Most places closed early and only a few stayed open this late. There was the bodega on Walnut and a pharmacy near Parkside. A car honked as the bus stopped. Across the street Robert saw a sign for Elegance African Hair Braiding. He stretched to look at the door. He looked at his watch before rolling his eyes. They were closed. Just my luck. An entire building full of hair ribbons and no way to get them out.
It started to rain. The big wiper on the bus struggled to push the water away. It flopped at the bottom and skipped back up. Robert watched its exertion as he sought out a possible ribbon store. The rain drops made each lamp twinkle. The bright lights of the pharmacy loomed ahead. He inched closer to the seat edge as the bus stopped a block away.
“I’ll jump off here,” Robert said. He waved at the driver as he leaped over a puddle forming in the road.
He pulled his jacket collar up to keep the rain from soaking his head. Running to the pharmacy, he entered just as the security guard was starting to lock the door.
“What do you need?” the guard said.
“Just a sec. I’ll be real quick,” Robert said.
He ran past the toothbrushes and toothpaste, the first-aid supplies, the hemorrhoid creams, and the makeup. He rounded the corner and ran past the books, cards, and flowers. Around the next corner he found bikini briefs, pantyhose, and tampons. But no scarlet hair ribbons.
“We’re closing. What can I help you find?” a clerk said.
“Hair ribbons. I need scarlet hair ribbons.”
The woman looked him over. A large rain spot covered the legs of his overcoat. He looked like a drowned rat. He looked at his watch and back at her salt-and-pepper hair. After a while, she said, “We don’t sell those.”
She reached behind his soaked coat pushing him toward the door. His shoes skidded on the floor.
“Not even hair clips?” He tried to stop again.
“Not even those.”
Robert spilled outside the store and the security guard locked the door behind him.
Across from the parking lot, a big box hardware store still appeared open. If you needed a wrench, this was the store. But hair ribbons? Not likely.
He walked around a few puddles in the parking lot toward the store. At this point a wish for a miracle seemed like the only way to find a hair ribbon.
While he sloshed his feet through the rain water, he whistled the familiar tune.
The sliding doors on the big box opened greeting him with holiday lights, a cacophony of dancing elves, and metal tree stands. There was no way this place sold hair ribbons.
He inspected the row of ceiling fans waxing nostalgic over the nap he missed. A young couple examined a refrigerator. A short man flipped on and off a display of kitchen lights. A sales rep told a middle-aged couple the benefits of adding a water softener. This end of the store lacked any ribbon displays. Further away, the building materials also lacked any femininity.
Near the dancing elves and metal tree stands, stood a display of poinsettia flowers. On each stem a large red leaf circled a yellow button above a planter covered in red or green foil. And holding the foil in place was a large scarlet ribbon. There must be at least 20 or more flowers. A ribbon miracle had occurred.
Robert selected the two closest flowers avoiding their height or condition. He only wanted the ribbons.
“A lot of people put up poinsettias after Halloween,” the clerk said. “These just came in today.”
Robert handed her his credit card. “I wouldn’t need them tomorrow,” he said.
“Then why buy them?”
“These flowers will make someone smile,” he said.
“They are pretty,” she said as she handed him the credit card.
Robert left the store with the plants in both arms. He gazed up at the stars and whispered thank you.
Across the city, at the top of the stairs, Leslie dug through the shopping bags in her closet. Mary stood behind her dressed like Little Bo Peep with a large hoop skirt. She held a large crooked staff with a large copper bell and when she shook the staff the bell clanged a cheerful hello sure to bring all the errant sheep back to the pasture.
“I bought some ribbons the other day,” Leslie said.
“Daddy didn’t find them?”
Leslie looked around the closet.
“Where is daddy?”
“He ran away.”
“He said he would find my ribbons.”
“You mean these ribbons?”
Leslie pulled two red satin trimmed ribbons out of a bag. As Leslie wove them into her hair, Mary squealed and clapped. The bell on her staff clanged out a happy tune.
Leslie searched for Robert in the bedroom with Mary in her arms. She also looked in the living room, around his chair, and in the kitchen. Robert’s mom, Edna, sat at the breakfast table looking tired.
“Have you seen Robert?” Leslie said.
“When did he get home?” Edna chewed off the end of a candy corn.
“Between the boys running like banshees and the endless door bell ringing, I couldn’t tell you.” Edna said.
“Well, he’s going to miss it.” Leslie set Mary down.
“Boys,” she yelled. “We’ve got to trick and treat before it’s too late.”
A Dracula and a pirate bounded into the kitchen. They bounced into Edna knocking her into a pile of candy. She leaned forward as each boy slapped the other.
“Enough,” Leslie scolded.
“Has anyone seen your dad?” Both boys shrugged. Cindy sat down next to Edna. Mary pointed at the door. Unable to see Robert and with no time to look, Leslie pushed the costumed children out the door.
“We’ll be back,” Leslie said.
Robert looked at his watch as he balanced the poinsettias in his arms. If the bus arrived on time he had less than three minutes to catch it. Sure enough, the bus meandered through the parking lot en route to his stop. He rushed away from the big box store missing the two men waiting outside the door.
“Those are awfully pretty mister,” said a man to the right of Robert. He adjusted the flower pots.
“I don’t carry any change,” Robert said. He squinted at the bus still wandering the parking lot. He still had time.
“I’m sure you have a credit card.”
A second man rushed behind Robert pulling his arms back with a quick upward thrust. Robert dropped a pot and it crashed to the ground spilling potting soil. The foil unwrapped leaving the ribbon soaking in the rain. Robert balanced the other flower pot as the man reached into his back pocket for his wallet. He found nothing. Quickly he moved to a front pocket.
“Maybe you think you’re cute,” said the man.
“I’m just trying to catch the bus,” Robert said. “What do you want?”
The man fumbled around some more. He reached into Robert’s other front pocket still hunting the wallet. He leaned over and Robert struggled to break away freeing his left arm. With a sudden crash he brought the pot down on his attacker’s head. The man fell to the ground and Robert spun around. He made a fist.
“One more step and I’ll club you too.”
The second man stepped back, looked at his friend, and ran off into the night.
The first man staggered up with a cut on his head. Robert looked like the devil ready for a fight. The man stood up, shook his head, and ran away.
Robert reached down and retrieved the soaked ribbon from the asphalt. He yanked another ribbon off the pot now lying broken on the ground. With two scarlet ribbons in his hand, he turned to look for the bus stopped a football field away. He ran toward it.
He sat on the seat seething. Oh, the nerve. Why him? His body shaked as water rolled down his face. Robert found a handkerchief inside his coat. It soon soaked up the water running off his forehead.
He fingered the soft underside of the ribbon. As the bus turned toward his house he brushed off the water, smoothed over the velvet, and tied each into a scarlet hair ribbon.
A few minutes past 10, he strolled down the empty sidewalk under the elm trees. A soft breeze blew through the leaves. Small sails of golden and brown dropped a few steps ahead of him and they crackled as he walked over them. The moon rose round above the houses, a white glow rose above the street lamps, and he felt calmer as he approached his house.
He fingered the hair ribbons touching the velvet. He hoped Mary would appreciate them. If she only knew what it took to get them. He clasped his hand making sure they were safe. Each tiny ribbon promised to add a smile to her face.
He hung up his coat, slipped out of his shoes, and walked into the kitchen. A light over the stove lit up a small bowl of candy containing hard candies, sours, and a few mints; nothing he wanted to eat. He fingered the ribbons again and looked around the empty kitchen. He regretted being too late for Mary’s Halloween.
He climbed the dark stairs, rounded the balcony, and poked his head into Mary’s room. She slept in her bed stirring a small bit as he peaked inside. Her golden hair was pulled back into a bun and on the side of her head he saw a bright red scarlet ribbon. He looked down at the ribbons in his hand. It was impossible. There was no way she found her ribbons. He had looked all over the closet. There were no ribbons to find.
He inched closer to his sleeping daughter and reached down to touch the mystery ribbon attached to her head. It was velvety too and weaved through her hair. Where this ribbon came from he had no way to know. He compared his ribbon to the one on her head. His was bigger and seemed more natural to him. He smiled. Mary softly snored with the ribbon bouncing in rhythm.
He placed his two ribbons on the nightstand and stepped back to consider the night. He had stomped off to solve a problem that already had been fixed. He chuckled. He looked at his sleeping daughter and wondered where Mary found the ribbons for her hair. As long as he lived her would never know. But Leslie knew and Mary knew. And in the stories told after the prom, the wedding, and the first child, neither would ever let Robert know where they found those lovely scarlet ribbons. Scarlet ribbons for her hair.