Lessons From Strangers: Make Your Own Bubblegum

By Chris Fryer

Make Your Own Bubblegum

The bus was packed for a Tuesday afternoon so the woman had nowhere to sit but in the back with me. She smiled and I nodded politely, then slid closer to the window as she plumped down. 

“You look like a young Mel Blanc,” she said, stuffing an overstuffed canvas bag full of rolled-up blueprints between her sunburned knees. “But I bet you’re too young to even know who Mel Blanc is. I met him once. He helped me change a flat tire. How young are you? Don’t tell me. Twenty-two. That’s my son’s age. Do you know Mel Blanc? Was I right about your age?”

Her freckles made her look like a chameleon stuck between color shifts. I stared back at her, dumbfounded by this avalanche of dialogue, stunned by the intensity of her wide, bulging eyes that were too big for her round face. Nothing about her fit a pattern; the chameleon trying to blend in with a swirling Van Gogh wheat field. She had sunglasses holding back her curly red hair, though a few strands had noodled free to dangle over her forehead, partially covering the rainbows with pots of gold hanging under her elfish ears.  

“I’m twenty-five,” I said. “Mel Blanc… Did he do Young Frankenstein?”

Her laugh was boldly beautiful, like an aggressively blooming flower, and she was oblivious to the stares from other passengers who wanted to be part of the joke. 

“No, no,” she said, catching her breath. “Blanc not Brooks. My Mel was the one who voiced Bugs Bunny and that old gang. You’re thinking of the actor/director, who, as a matter of fact, was not a Brooks at all, but a Kaminsky.”

“Oh.” The humor of the mistake was beyond me, but I could tell that this woman found humor in many things that most people overlooked.

“Why do people do that?” she asked, not looking at me but looking at the entire universe out the window. “Change their name like that. My name is Beatrice Quinn. Do I go around telling people my name is Beatrice Lollipop?”

She was really asking me. I said, “No?”

“Never!” Beatrice grinned. She had perfect teeth, sharply contrasting with her erratic fashion. A tattered pale-blue t-shirt was patched with what looked like newspaper clippings. Her belt was red caution tape. Her jean shorts were faded to ghost-white, borderline transparent in spots where chemicals had dripped. She noticed that I was studying her and said, “I bet you’re wondering why I smell like a bubblegum factory.” 

Before I could respond, she said, “Did you know that gum was originally created from tapping into an evergreen tree called the Manilkara chicle? Nowadays they can make gum in a factory. It’s little more than synthetic rubber. Weird, isn’t it? The small degrees of separation between a stick of wintergreen and the tires on this bus. I mean, even you and I are basically the same 99 percent on the genome level as the common ape. We’re bubblegum and they’re rubber boots.”

“Why do you smell like bubblegum?”

Beatrice shrugged. “I was trying to make my own.”

“Is it hard to do?”

“Harder than making moonshine, easier than cooking meth.”

Some of the seedier commuters glanced our way.  

“I’m at this point of my life when I don’t want people to do things for me. I want to make my own gum. I want to grow my own food. I want to evolve on my own path, not the one that’s been presented to us. I wasn’t put on this planet to do what everyone else is doing. I’m here to ask questions.”

“That’s good,” I said. “We should all think that way.”

She grinned and looked down at the yellow smiley faces painted on each of her fingernails. She had tan-lines where rings used to be. Faded remnants of notes she’d penned on the back of her hand. 

During a lull in conversation, I glanced at the faces around us. The bus was still nearly full. We had our usual riders: the wheelchair drivers, the nearly-blind elderly, the students weighed down with backpacks, the homeless on their way to the food kitchen, the poor, the environmentally conscious, the folks with cars in the shop, the working class, the dealers, and the users. I found it easy to define others by their appearance while Beatrice resisted all definitions. 

“Are you going to school?” asked Beatrice. “I dropped out twice, but I still finished. It’s good to finish things you start. Most people, they’re all ideas and first drafts, but they never follow through. I think that’s why marriages only work half the time. People lack vision. People are too near-sighted.”

“I’m going to Sacramento State,” I told her. 

“Beautiful campus.”

“Did you go there?”

“No. I’m not from here. I think all colleges are beautiful, intellectually. I’m passing through town trying to find a construction company that will help me build these houses.” She motioned to the bundle of blueprints between her legs. “There’s nothing like designing a home. We shouldn’t live like hermit crabs. We shouldn’t scour the planet for a shell that suits us; we should make the shell that suits us. A home is an extension of us, inside and out. Why settle for a shoddy prefabricated cut-and-paste condo when you can draw up plans for any dream or vision you actually want?”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

“Did you ever read The Fountainhead?”

“No. It sounds familiar.”

“You should.”

“Can I see one?” I asked. 

She unrolled a blueprint over our laps without hesitation. I couldn’t make sense of the lines and angles, but it looked impressive. The precision of the drawing looked like something printed by computer, but I doubted that Beatrice would let a computer take credit for her creation. She slid her hand over the ruffled paper like a soothsayer reading palms. “I named this one Epsilon.” 

“That’s Greek, isn’t it?”

She smiled. “Very good.”

“We learned the Greek alphabet in high school. For English class. I only remember the first ten letters.” 

“I’m impressed.” She winked. “Epsilon is meant for a coastal location. See the big windows? The porch? I can imagine standing there watching the waves, preferably on the west coast because I prefer sunsets over sunrises. Skylights. A big kitchen. Lots of open space and casual curves.”

“Looks nice.”

“I’ve drawn plans for every climate, terrain, and mood.” She rolled up Epsilon and unrolled another, which she called Gamma. “This one is for the desert philosopher who wants privacy and inner-peace. See the vaulted ceilings? Good ideas collect there like fish in a net and all you have to do is reach up and grab them. With flat ceilings, our ideas just roll right out the window.”

“Never thought of that.”

Usually spending these rides in contemplative silence, it was nice to have someone to talk to during the ride. When Beatrice looked away as though she were bored with our dialogue, I felt compelled to keep our interaction alive, as though she were a life-preserver in a vast and empty ocean and I might drown without her. 

“Have you had any luck? With contractors, I mean?” 

She rolled up Gamma, smiling at my interest in her plans. “Not yet. I’m more of a tortoise in this race, like Howard Roark.”

I shrugged at the reference.

“Anyway,” she said, holding her knobby knees, “I expected as much. They always tell you to think outside of the box, but that’s the biggest scam of them all. There is no box. Our box is our fear. Our fear is an illusion. People don’t take enough risks these days. Those we do take are calculated. Formulaic.”

“No one is original anymore,” I offered.

“Everyone is original. They just don’t know it yet.”

“Even me?”

“Especially you,” she said with a smile. 

Stunned by the compliment, I bowed my head, and I realized that Beatrice was barefoot. She had a tattoo of a simple wooden chair above her left ankle. Catching my downward glance, before I could say something nice in return, she said, “I got that to remind myself to sit down and rest every once in a while. A mind like mine doesn’t rest easily. Not nearly enough.”

“It’s healthy to take time to sit and think.”

“Exactly. That’s what I love about the bus.”

“It gives you time to think?”

“No,” she said. “It gives us a chance to meet like-minded people. Out there, the people in their cars, the people walking with their heads down, you never meet any honest strangers. You miss out on so many connections. You might get where you’re going a few minutes quicker, but at what cost?”

I wanted to say something smart like, “At the cost of truly living,” but she reached over my head suddenly and tugged on the yellow wire to signal a stop request. This is my stop,” she said, gathering her things. Her movements had a pianist’s precision, careful and specific. It was less like watching someone get up from their seat and more like watching a symphony. “Forget about the box. Do what makes you happy. Make your own bubblegum,” she said, and then she was gone.

About the Author

Chris Fryer was born to tell stories. Amidst figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, he’s been submitting short stories, working on a novel, and actively building the blog Thousand Thoughts. On a path toward a teaching career, he looks forward to teaching English and creative writing in the future.

This column originally appeared on Niche’s website on October 19th, 2012.

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