The General

Posted on: January 1, 2013
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By A & M Fuentes
 
 

There is nothing as deplorable as riding the public transportation around this crazed, sprawling city. If you manage to decipher the cryptography of colored lines and numbers on the bus schedule brochures, I am certain you could also become a successful mathematical analysis or a respectable forensic linguist. Just to be clear, there is no reason why you should even trust those flimsy pieces of propaganda they call The Bus Schedule — all the buses arrive when they are good and ready, and that could be an hour from now, or three.
 
 
Once seated on the bus the overwhelming odor of human run off, bitter sweat, musky piss, and a strange sweetness assaults you. The ride to any destination is a bumpy flurry of naps, hissing breaks, and ringing bells, warning the driver to stop at the mercy of his passengers. Every day is misery in this aluminum whale of the road, until the 10th stop, on the F42 route, around 1pm.
 
 
They call him, The General.
 
 
The General stands in the cancerous Florida heat in a button-down, long-sleeve shirt and bow tie. His plank straight posture and white frosted hair match the height of the bus stop sign (which is at least 6 feet tall) – he has the build of a beer-loving linebacker. Once the bus sighs into the stop, The General uses his cane to tap his way onto the bus.
 
 
All the weather-worn passengers left on the F42 begin to shift into a seated attention, stiff and upright, waiting for the daily muster.
 
 
“Good morning, my fair citizens!” The General jubilates.
 
 
A few hushed voices reply, “Good morning, General.”
 
 
The General sits next to me in the front of the bus and grins stupendously at nothing at all. He turns his head towards me, and I get to see his glasses up close – they are scratched and fogged over, apparently on purpose. I can slightly make out the cloudy, lumpy, gray globes which are his eyes, but my stomach wishes I hadn’t tried to look.
 
 
“I don’t recognize you. You must be new here. What is your name?”
 
 
“Alex.”
 
 
It wasn’t my first time on this hulking-mass-o-filth of a bus, it was like my fifth ride on
 
 
“Hello, Alex. A pleasure to meet you. You can call me The General. What brings you here? Not the sights and smells I hope. While I can’t see it, I have been told the city is not much to look at, but I can certainly tell you, it smells like a paper mill. They used to be all over this city and they used formaldehyde on the paper to seal it until they banned it in the 90’s. Best thing this city ever did for itself, though it still reeks of the southbound end of a northbound donkey, if you know what I mean?”
 
 
I didn’t know what he meant; my silence must have tickled him because then The General laughs his gut into a rippling wonder of anatomy, with pieces of his belly displacing into various corners of his face and legs. Dear God this man can laugh, the whole bus seems to shake with his rapture.
 
 
“My word, you are quieter than a moth peeing on a stone! Talk to me child, what brings you here?”
 
 
“School. I go to the community college at the end of this route.”
 
 
“Good. What are you studying?”
 
 
“English.”
 
 
“Well, that’s kinda silly, on account that you speak English just fine far as I can tell.”
 
 
Damn old man. I am not going to talk to him if he keeps this up. Part of me wants to find a new seat in the back of the bus; the other half is curious to hear what southern idioms he will conjure next. His blatant friendliness does not seem creepy, but a side effect of genuine loneliness. He does not smell like the other city dwellers on this bus. He does not look like the wrinkled workers, students, and homeless that frequent this route. I am intrigued.
 
 
“By your silence I can tell you ain’t quite taken with me. I must have offended you. I tend to offend many. Let me make it up to you. Let me buy you a cold one. There’s a nice pub at the next stop.”
 
 
One thing is for sure, I have a weakness for cold beer. I fight with the sound of my nagging mother in my head telling me to “stay away from strangers,” While in this very smelly public transportation environment he looks strange and stands out, he seems like a long lost granduncle from Savannah I am meeting at a family reunion for the first time. My curiosity overruled my mother’s Jiminy Cricket intentions.
 
 
“Yeah, that sounds nice. I had a long day.”
 
 
The truth was I hadn’t. I had just woken up and was skipping an algebra class by taking up his offer.
 
 
The General announces to the bus driver that we would like to get off at the next stop.
 
 
“You checkin’ O’Brien’s? Or you going back to Golden Heights today?” the driver asks.
 
 
“I am goin’ to O’Brien’s, I am taking my new friend Alex with me. Golden Heights can O’Brien’s is not the kind of establishment you take your mother to, the bartenders are all over 60, with visceral fat bloating their bellies and gullets. The walls of O’Brien’s are lined with nudie magazine pictures of women of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The beer menu is a short novel. The General orders two stouts for us.
 
 
“Before we begin I have one rule, let’s stay away from questions about my past. I just don’t care to tell my story,” The General remarks, most ataraxic.
 
 
“Noted,” I reply. I was not expecting that.
 
 
Immediately trying to change the subject he asks, “So, who is running for President?”
 
 
“It’s between Clinton and H.W. Bush.”
 
 
“Well, I will be voting for the one least like Nixon. I am not voting for him again. He did nothing but disillusion Americans. A liar and a thief, that man! If he were in this bar and you didn’t tell me about it. I would kill the both of you. Please take no offense, I hate his damn Quaker-ass!”
 
 
He was working himself into a red-faced frenzy. Note to self: Do not talk politics with The General.
 
 
Shoot, suddenly I feel like I am being interrogated by my grandfather.
 
 
“It’s going well,” I reply.
 
 
The General grunts and turns his grey eyes in my direction, “Something in your voice is lying to me. I may be blind as Helen Keller, but I sho’ ain’t deaf.”
 
 
Some sort of old man Jedi mind tricks make me reveal my shortcomings to him, “Math is holding me up a bit. I can’t pass any of these mathy classes. Everything else is fine.”
 
 
“You should have said so! I happen to be a math whiz, I tell you what! Drop that class, let me tutor you twice a week and you’ll learn more, and faster, than going to that dump.
 
 
He had a point, the community college I went to seemed a cesspool collection of pregnant teens, meth heads, and high school drop outs trying for a second chance to get an education and a better life.
 
 
“Listen, I don’t have much money. I am sure you have better things to do than tutor a listless, unmotivated, and uncultured 20-year-old with dyscalculia.”
 
 
The General sits back and folds his arms as if calculating something in his mind. When suddenly he says, “I think we can find a deal…You need tutoring and I need someone to read me the paper and share an occasional beer. I can’t read the paper, my eyes are useless. If you read me the paper a few times a week I will tutor you in math.”
 
 
What have I got to lose? My algebra professor speaks too quickly and calls me out when I am late to class. Then there is The General who has a slow southern drawl and there is beer involved. I draw up a list of pros and cons in my mind, but what ultimately sways me is the fact I don’t have many friends or distractions, something I think the General can sense as well.
 
 
“DEAL!” I proclaim.
 
 
So, I drop the class and take 6 weeks of lessons with him. I read him the sports and politics sections of the paper, he teaches me about asymptotes and logarithms, we share a couple of beers.
 
 
Six weeks of Nixon bashing, shit shooting, beer drinking, and linear equations came and went. Without telling him, I sign up for the CLAST. (In case you don’t know, the CLAST is one of many forms of baseless standardized testing Florida so sadistically loves to put on unsuspecting students.)
 
 
I show up to our final tutoring session with the results.
 
 
“Alright Alex, your final lesson is a race! You gotta complete all these math problems before Mikey The Barfly, who happens to be good at algebra, or you buy the whole bar a round of drinks,” The General announces.
 
 
The few barflies and barkeep cheer on Mikey. I fumble through my backpack for the results from the CLAST.
 
 
“While that sounds like fun, I have some news for you…” I try to sound as solemn as possible, I really want to surprise him.
 
 
“You got me sweatin’ like a whore in church! What is the news?” The General grows serious and adjusts himself in the chair.
 
 
“I passed the CLAST exam yesterday and I don’t have to take any more lower math.”
 
 

There is a moment of silence as The General meditates on his response, he stands up and raises his glass announcing, “SOOEY! Someone get Alex a beer for passin‘ the CLAP!”
 
 
I don’t correct him.
 
 
Everyone at the bar erupts into boisterous applause and joyous whistles.
 
 
Once the celebrating dies down a bit, The General puts a hand on my shoulder, “Congrats, Alex!
 
 
I am so glad to know my math ain’t as rusty as I thought! And of course I am happy for you too!” His smile fades to a frown as he asks, “So, does the story end here?”
 
 
I look up at The General, it’s hard to believe he can’t see me because he is looking right at my face. The weight in his stare is an amalgamation of hope and loneliness. That weight transfers to my chest. I can’t say no to a friend.
 
 
“I can continue to read you the paper if you want, twice a week.” His eyes gloss over as he grins, “And I will get the beers!”
 
 
We continue to meet twice a week for another month.
 
 
On October 14th, at 1:30pm, he is not waiting for the F42. I turn to the driver as he closes the squeaky bus doors and pulls away, “But, What about, The General?” I sound more whiny than I intended.
 
 
“Pay no mind. This is the way is has to be. I have many more stops to make and people have places to go”, he replies, too dismal for my liking.
 
 
“Then let me off!” I demand.
 
 
I run to the nearest payphone across the street in a grocery store and flip frantically through the phone book. I don’t know his last name or even his first name at all, but I remember him mentioning Golden Heights the other day at O’Brien’s, it sounds like a retirement facility of sorts, or perhaps a gated community. I find the number for Golden Heights and wait.
 
 
“Hello, Thank you for calling Golden Heights, where mental health is mental wealth. How can I help you?” A perky voice asks.
 
 
“Yes, I am calling for The General. He wasn’t at the bus stop today.”
 
 
“I am sorry. Who is this?”
 
 
I hang up the phone. This can’t be right.
 
 
I look through the phone book again, perhaps I got the name wrong, maybe it was Golden River…Golden Estates…
 
 
The pay phone begins to ring. I debate whether or not I should pick it up.
 
 
What the hell. I pick the phone, “Hello?” I answer.
 
 
“Yes, I am Sandy from Golden Heights. Were you just calling for The General?” she
 
 
“Yes,” I bite my fingers, a vile habit in times of stress.
 
 
“Well, this isn’t normal protocol, but The General has no living relatives that we know of and no one has visited him in 10 years. I regret to inform you that he passed away last night. Would you be opposed to picking up his belongings?”
 
 
There is only one response I could give, “Sure.”
 
 
The receptionist gives me the address to Golden Heights it was just a mile down the road from the grocery store. I walk into the front doors and am greeted by curious stares and the smell of ammonia.
 
 
“Welcome to Golden Heights! Where mental health is…”, the receptionist begins.
 
 
I interrupt her, “Mental wealth, yeah we spoke on the phone earlier I am here for The General’s belongings.”
 
 
The receptionist’s eyes begin to gloss over, the beginning of a sob croaks from her throat. She pulls up a small box from under her desk.
 
 
“Here is everything he had owned,” she sniffles.
 
 
“Thanks” I reply.
 
 
I can tell she has a million questions for me. I am not in the mood to answer them. “Do I need to sign anything?” I ask.
 
 
“No,” she replies.
 
 
I walk the mile back to the bus stop and take F42 southbound home. I wait until I am hone to open the box.
 
 
Inside the small box are a few rusted medals and badges scattered on top of a book of word search puzzles and a tiny bundle of letters. I open the first letter, it’s dated May 29th, 1952.

 
 
In a shaky a hand print the letter reads:
 
 
Hello Dad. Today I turned 5. Mommy says you still in Korea. Bobby is playing fetch

now. All the time. Mommy misses you. She helped me write this. I miss you.

Come home,

Mandy.
 
 
——————————————————————————————————————-

This is it? This is how it ends?
 
 
All that remains of The General is a small box with a few letters, rusty metal pieces, and a word search. I am sure he is now in some box or container of sorts.
 
 
Is this our ultimate fate, a fate of boxes? Who was I to him, a consequence of delirium? Just someone else to carry his box, his words, his letters? Who will carry mine?

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