Slow, manic whine of police sirens,
urgent goose-call of fire engines,
anxious “wait for me” of trailing first responders.
All muffled under soft falling snow
and crystallizing puddles
and the breathing of almost three dozen passengers pressed close.
And the incessant growl of city bus engine and tires and radiator,
the whirring mumble not quite able to cover the tired, too-loud conversations of panicking students:
What was your answer?
Did you understand the question?
What kind of a question was that?!
Treble exhale as the heavy bus rushes through a deepening puddle,
leaving pedestrians dancing on the sidewalk.
Emphatic whispers of tires through asphalt-warmed snow,
headlights gleaming in the suburban darkness.
Pounding, distorted bass from too-loud music forced through cheap earbuds.
(How can someone be that oblivious?
Care that little for their aural health?
Please get off at the next stop;
I can’t listen to that for another half hour.)
The stop-request bell plinked, dead in the cold and stuffy air
(please get off, please get off),
followed by a shuffling of feet and brushing of bulky coats
as people shifted to make room.
No one fell as the bus knelt to a hasty stop.
Murmured apologies as the bus moved forward again.
Someone gasped quietly, a moment too late, more petulant than genuine.
Voices rattled around the bus,
what wasn’t absorbed by bodies drumming
on my skull and tearing
into my skin.
Hands over ears barely make a dent.
(Please don’t get caught in construction traffic.
A hasty prayer to a God who never answered—
not mine, anyway.)
The indistinct, muffled music could still be half heard over the incessant growling.
The next stop was long minutes away.
Breathe in,
            hold it and wait, until the pain in your chest becomes unbearable,
breathe out.
Brakes squealed as the bus came slowly to a stop.
The doors brushed open, knocking the puddle onto the curb
as people jostled to get off before the doors closed again.
A handful remained on the bus, scattered throughout its length.
Silence echoed,
hovering under the constant mumble-squelch
of tires over asphalt and mashed-potato snow.
It was no better than the constant rattle of voices—
just different.
And couldn’t be helped by pressing hands over ears.
(Hold your breath, close your eyes.)
Press in my own earbuds. Almost over. Almost over.
Mozart quartets instead, the only available,
so over-played they border on cliché.
But in the darkness of October evenings, they speak of light and hope and springtime.
And at the first weighty double stop of the violin, I breathe out.