By John Thomas Tuft

Annalee steps out the front door first thing each morning, Monday through Saturday, ties her tattered papushka tight on her head, grips her cane in her left hand and with her right grasps the handle of the collapsible wire cart with wheels and heads out into her day. At the end of the walk, she turns left up the hill, her galoshes making a rubbery stomp with each step. You never know when it might rain, and she was prepared. Always. In Pittsburgh if you don’t live near a river you are either going uphill or downhill to get anywhere. Annalee lives near the corner of Florence and Chestnut on the Ohio River hillside of Avalon and she’s going uphill to California Avenue to catch the 16-Brighton bus for her daily shopping. California rides along the ridge of the hills on the eastern side of the river, the bus making its way to Brighton Road and on toward the city. It is a short, steep climb, but Annalee is nothing if not determined. Habit becomes routine becomes ritual becomes sacrament. She pats her coat pocket to make sure she has the requisite number of hard strawberry candies, the elements for a sacred transaction.

As she crossed Duff Alley, she saw the Pittsburgh Regional Transit bus chug past, heading down to make the loop and start the trip into town. Annalee smiled. Everything would be okay; the bus was on time. For some reason, so many things were uncertain anymore and she appreciated what stayed the same. In minutes, the bus pulled up with the sharp sigh of airbrakes, and the doors opened. “My sweet Buska!” said the driver, a middle-aged man in uniform, greeted her with a smile. “Are you going to the Giant Eagle?” It was the same every morning, a trip to a local grocery chain. Annalee adjusted the scarf on her head and returned the smile, with a knowing nod. “Yakshemash?” she murmured (excuse my phonetic Polish) as she fished a wrapped candy from her pocket. “Dobje,” nodded the driver, “I’m good, Buska. I’m good.” She handed him the candy, noticing his nameplate. ‘Phil’, it read. Annalee made a note of it and wrestled her cart into the seat closest to Phil.

From this vantage point she could see the picture that Phil kept clipped to the visor above him. She could see him in the big mirror, checking on her as the bus resumed its journey. She studied the picture. A beautiful woman in her 40s maybe, stood proudly beside a young man in an Army uniform. The young woman was holding a picture of a couple who looked stern, unsmiling. “She must be so proud,” whispered Annalee.  “My parents were from Krakow,” she spoke louder, addressing Phil. “I was just a little girl when they came here during the war. Papa worked in the mills. He worked hard to provide for us. I live in the house he got for us. When I got married, we moved in with Mama and Papa. You’re not eating your candy.” Phil caught her eye in the mirror. “I’m saving it for later, Buska.” Annalee gave a little delightful laugh. “Oh, are you Polish?” Phil smiled and nodded.

“Mama always said to just get food for the day. That way you didn’t waste any and left some for others,” Annalee continued her litany. “Just like the old country,” she added as the bus lurched to a stop. She handed another candy to Phil as she paused at the top of the steps. “For you, my lobuz,” she added with a girlish giggle before going off to do her shopping. She carefully selected a pork chop, an apple, a potato and a small bunch of fresh beans, paid for her purchases and went back outside to wait for the bus ride home. The bus pulled up, and the doors opened. “My sweet Buska!” came the greeting from Phil. “Going home?” Annalee fished another candy from her pocket and handed it to him. “How did you know?” Phil shrugged as she took her seat. “What did you buy for your dinner, Buska?” Annalee peered into her bag and carefully lifted out each item, proudly showing them to the nice man with the picture always above his head.

Later that evening, Phil parked his bus back at the garage, carefully counting the four candies in his pockets as he changed out of his uniform. It was getting hard to find that kind anywhere lately. He removed the picture from the visor and kissed it before sliding it into this shirt pocket. He stopped at the Giant Eagle and bought a pork chop, an apple, a potato and a small bunch of fresh beans. When he parked in front of his house, he paused for a moment. Just one minute for himself. Mom had progressed from MCI to dementia. Her short-term memory slipped away, never to return. She needed reassurance constantly and could not hold memory from context to context.  Phil grunted and sighed as he got out of the car. The old house on Florence needed lots of work but driving a bus does not a gold mine make. He grabbed the Giant Eagle bag and headed inside. “I’ll have dinner in a little while, mom,” he hollered as he came in. He found her in the kitchen, crying.

“What is it?” he asked, already knowing. “Something is missing,” Annalee pointed to the refrigerator. “I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s gone.” He smoothed her hair and kissed her on top of her head. “I’ll see what I can do, Buska. Could you get me a pan for these pork chops?” While her back was turned, he slid the picture out of his pocket and placed it back on the door with a magnet. “There, that’s me and you and you’re holding a picture of your mom and dad. See, everything is as it should be.” Annalee touched a finger to the photograph as Phil lined up her galoshes where her coat hung, next to the wire cart. From one pocket her papushka protruded and he carefully, lovingly slid the four candies back into the other one before turning back to the picture of a picture of a…

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