We’d never spoken, only nodded greetings to one another in the ripening daylight. We park in the same lot, lock our cars and make our way to the small terminal. He is large and walks slowly, his pack looks like a child’s across his wide, rounded shoulders. His eyes are dark pebbles behind his glasses. He always looks straight ahead as we board the boat. Usually, in one thick hand, he holds a fast-food cup of orange juice; in the other, a paper sack that crackles with each careful step.
One morning, I noticed he had new headphones, very large ones, With a stubby antenna protruding from the right earpiece. A radio transmitter. I wondered if he picked up NPR, or maybe the kind of deep, raging rock that presses into your teeth and makes the world false and too green. Sometimes our eyes would meet as we waited at the loading gate. His face never changes. He holds it carefully, far away.
Others of us share stories, ask about wives, weekends. We gather our coffee and muffins from the galley. He tucks himself away at a tabled seat in a corner and quickly eats his breakfast. Some of us murmur to one another about the news as we check our phones. We all wait for the boat to bump the next dock, so we can begin the island leg of the commute.
Today, he, as usual, he is the first on the bus waiting for us on the other side. Always wedged into a seat on the left side, directly across from the back exit. As I climb the front steps, a thick wall of stink stops me at the threshold. My nose wrinkles on its own, filling my lungs with air. It is harsh for so early in the morning; strangely acrid and heavy. I blow the stagnant air out through my lips with a peevish huff. It’s going to be a long ride.
He looks up from the pocket solitaire game clutched in his fists. He cocks one eyebrow above the rim of his glasses and nods quickly at me, in agreement.
“Skunk cabbage,” he says with authority, and then turns is face back down.