Julius Caesar at the Bus Stop

by David Kingsbury

 

I ran into Julius Caesar at the bus stop the other day. Of course, I’d be nuts to think you’re gonna believe me. Nobody ever believes an old fart like me, even when I’m saying normal stuff. End up warehoused at the Breezy Elms Assisted Care Living Facility for seven years, get zero respect because you’re on Medicaid, and have a couple of grown kids who never visit, and what can you expect?

I didn’t know it was him right off the bat, but his attire and accoutrements made him stick out like a cockroach on fine china. Not many people ride the bus in Somerville in one of those shiny brassy breastplates (with matching sheathed sword) and heavy pleated skirts like the Catholic schoolgirls wear. And especially not in February. Even though he was a big cheese, I felt sorry for him. There he was with his knobby knees knocking, his bare arms turning purple, and no hat covering his wispy relic of a combover. I can almost understand a get-up like that in July (get it? July? That’s the month they named after him), but in February? Hell no!

So I sidle up to him and say, “How ya doin’ bud?”

He looks me up and down real hoidy-toidy-like as though I’m some sort of low-life plebian, which I guess I am. He says, “Fine.” Then he gazes down Broadway like one of his legions is marchin’ down it or something.  At least he speaks English. I don’t know no Latin.  When I was back in school a hundred years ago, I couldn’t see no use learning a dead language.

Most of the time I mind my own business, but this guy’s got me curious. So I rummage around in my pocket and pull out some gum. “Juicy fruit?”

He turns back to me from reviewing his phantom army. “Excuse me?”

“Would you like a stick of gum? It’s Juicy Fruit. My favorite.”

“What do you do with it?” he asks.

I see I’m gonna have to explain a lot to this guy. But that’s OK: I’ve got time. Of course, I’m a real jerk forgettin’ they didn’t have stuff like that in ancient Rome.

“It’s called gum. You chew it. It’s like candy.”

He hesitates. I read that kings and pharaohs and other BC big shots always had food tasters back then because they were paranoid about getting poisoned. That’s a bear of a job to have on your resume. Anyhow, I can’t really blame him for not grabbing the gum right outta my hand and chompin’ away.

“Look,” I say. I put a stick in my mouth and chew. “See? It’s real good. It can’t hurt you. You’ll like it.”

He shrugs his shoulders a what-the-hell-might-as-well shrug and takes a stick. All that hardware he’s wearing clinks and clangs like a bunch of empty beer cans. It takes him a while to get the tinfoil off. Unwrapping tinfoil can be tricky if you’re outta practice. Probably the first time he’s ever encountered the stuff.  He sticks the gum in his mouth. A big shit-eatin’ grin spreads across his face.

“Like it?” I ask.

“It is good. Sweet like nectar. Thank you, Honorable Tribune.”

I’ve got him buttered up now: that’s my opening. “I’m Thomas Justin Bullfinch III. My friends call me Tommy Bull for short. What’s your name? That is, if you don’t mind me askin’.”

His brow furrows. He ponders my question like I just asked him to recite “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in Chinese. Finally he says, “I am Gaius Julius Caesar. My subjects call me Caesar. You may refer to me thus.”

Well, thank you very much pal, but I ain’t nobody’s subject. My ancestors dumped a boatload of tea in the harbor and pumped a bunch of musket balls into some redcoats to settle that one years ago. But easygoing guy that I am, I brush off his social faux pas. Sticking out my right hand, I say “Pleased to meet you Mister Caesar!” He jumps back like I just tried to harpoon him. They must’ve shook hands different back in his day. I think I saw in “Ben Hur” that they did some chest-thumpin’ thing.

“Look, Caesar, we have an expression around here. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ This is how we say hi to each other.”

He mulls it over. Finally he shakes my hand. I guess he figures if the Juicy Fruit hasn’t killed him by now, I’m harmless enough.

His grasp’s firm but his hand’s cold as a witch’s tit. He’s got goosebumps the size of golf balls all over his bare legs and arms. “Ain’t you freezin’ dressed like that?”

It doesn’t register.

“Are you cold?” I ask.

“Yes, I am cold. Very cold, Honorable Tribune.”

Hmm, I could get used to this Tribune stuff.  Kinda like the ring of it.

I say, “That’s no way to dress this time of year. If you’re not in a big hurry, I’ll buy you a coffee. Nothin’ like a cup of joe to warm your insides on a wintry day! How about it?”

That gets a rise out of him. “You have coffee here?”

“Sure! Donuts too. Let’s go!”

Two blocks down on the left is a Dunkin’ Donuts.  We go in and it’s nice and toasty and smelling like French Roast.

“My treat,” I say. “What’ll it be?”

He ain’t listening. His eyes are popping out of his head staring at the glassy counter and the Formica tables and stylish pink naugahyde booths. Probably nothin’ like that back in the Forum.

“Two medium coffees regular, a jelly donut, a chocolate glaze donut, and a cruller,” I say to the girl at the counter. She’s a mousy little thing. Her nameplate says Nina.

“Who’s your friend?” she asks.

“Just a friend,” I say. If I tell her who he really is, she ain’t gonna believe me. Probably wouldn’t even know who the hell he was, schools being crappy as they are these days. They don’t teach kids squat no more.

“Thanks, Nina,” I say as she gives me our stuff and we go to sit down.

Squeezing into the booth, Caesar’s armor squeaks and squawks like a rusty door hinge. He starts in on the chocolate glaze donut. I don’t wanna get philosophical here, but there’s one thing I’ve noticed in life. No matter who you are – titan of industry, leader of the free world, or just a run-of-the-mill nobody – when you’re hunched over a donut nibbling away, cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk, everybody looks as pathetic as everybody else. The noble donut is a great social leveler, a potent symbol of our democracy. No wonder they were invented in America.

So much for dime store ruminating. Now I ask myself how the hell I’m gonna make small talk with His Highness the Emperor. Not for the first time, I wonder why I’m always getting into fixes like this. I strain my brain to remember what I know about the guy.

“So what was Cleopatra like? I read somewhere that you got it on with her.”

“She was a woman of great shrewdness and intelligence.”

“A real babe too, I bet.” That gets a blank stare. “I mean, she must’ve been very pretty. What’d she look like?”

“She was blond,” Caesar says as he stuffs half the cruller in his mouth.

“Blond? No way! You gotta be shittin’ me! There ain’t no such thing as a blond Egyptian! Musta been peroxide.”

He goes all beady-eyed and makes a move for his sword. “You impugn my honor?” he growls.

“Whoa! Calm down!” I say, raising my hands palms up in a peace offering. “I believe you. I don’t want no trouble. It’s just that most people, when they think of Cleopatra, they picture Liz Taylor.”

He gives me a blank stare. Guess he’s never heard of Liz Taylor. Anyhow, I figure I better watch my mouth from here on out. A guy like that could have a temper. You don’t get to be top banana of the whole Roman Empire without cracking a few heads.

I change the subject. “These are my grandkids,” I say, pulling a photo out of my wallet. “This one’s Alexander. He’s twelve. That one’s Melanie. She’s eight. Brian there is four.”

Caesar takes the photo in his hand. Numbskull that I am, I forgot to get napkins. Caesar gets greasy cruller sugar all over the picture of the kids. No big deal. I can always get copies.

He stares a good long time, and then asks, “Who is the artisan who created this remarkable effigy? I have never seen such mastery! The gods must have guided his brush. He must paint me in my most ornate imperial finery. I swear in the name of Jupiter, I will recompense him with five Nubian slaves and seven sturdy oxen!”

“It’s digital,” I respond. “Anybody can take one.”

Caesar looks at me like I’ve got a screw loose.  I used to have one of those clunky plastic Polaroids, but not any more. Wish I had it now.

“If you want, we can take the 27 bus to Best Buy and check out the digital cameras,” I suggest. “They’re real cheap these days.”

“You say this one is Alexander?” he asks.

“Yeah, he’s smart as a whip. Good at sports too. He plays shortstop. Even switch-hits.”

Polishing off the rest of the cruller, Caesar dreamily gazes off at some distant point beyond the apple cinnamon donut rack. “Someday I will be even greater than him.  Gaul, Spain, Britain, Carthage, Palestine, I have vanquished them all! My legions are more formidable than Alexander’s ever were! But do those sniveling senators interested only in restoring the debauched and depraved Republic pay the respect due a great conqueror?  No! Never! I will crush them to dust!” He bangs the table with his fist, sending his Styrofoam coffee cup flying.

“We’ve got Republicans too,” I tell him. “I know how they can get under your skin.”

Of course I know he ain’t carryin’ on about George W or my little shortstop either. The Alexander he’s talkin’ about is Alexander the Great. Sounds like poor old Caesar’s got a doozy of an inferiority complex. It’s gotta be tough tryin’ to measure up to a guy who conquered the entire known world before he was even old enough to buy a mixed drink.

He stares down at the photos again. “And what is this young sprite’s name?”

“That’s Brian. He’s four. A rambunctious little tyke. Can’t sit still for a minute.”

Caesar does a Jekyll-Hyde as his mood abruptly gets all saccharine. He smiles wistfully. “Marcus Junius Brutus. My best friend. A brother to me. I will call your grandchild Brutus.”

This hits me like a two-by-four right between the eyes. Judas H. Priest! He doesn’t even know yet that the scum bucket’s gonna betray him! Should I say something? Caesar seems like a nice enough guy. Sure, a little stuck-up, but decent enough. And even if he was a total creep, nobody deserves to get ambushed and sliced up like Swiss cheese. From what I’ve heard, it wasn’t even a fair fight.

But on the other hand, should I really be messing with destiny?  I could screw up everything. Change one little thing around, and there’s no tellin’ where it will all end up.

I feel like a real schmuck whenever this comes up, but I have a longstanding policy when I run into historical personages and know stuff they don’t know yet. I just clam up. A few years back, I was at a matinee down at the Fresh Pond Cineplex. The place is deserted and I’m sitting there munchin’ away on my hot buttered popcorn and Milk Duds waiting for the show to start. A lanky, bearded guy with a big goofy Dr. Seuss hat plunks down right in front of me. So I say, Escuse me, sir, could you take your hat off please. It’s obstructing the view.”

He removes his hat, and turns around to apologize. Holy cow! It’s none other than Abe Lincoln! So do I tell him how he’s gonna wind up? Do I even hint he’d better be careful around theaters from now on? No. I feel like a real ratfink, but just figure, why ruin his day? Just let him enjoy the matinee. Ignorance is bliss and all that. Besides, he probably doesn’t get many chances to just unwind with a war going on and a psycho wife at home henpecking him and who knows what other headaches.

I shared my popcorn with him though. He really liked it. I felt so guilty that I bought him a diet Coke too.

“Great Zeus!” Caesar howls. The jelly donut filling has just gushed out all over his breastplate.

“Sorry about that!” I say. “Jelly donuts can make a real mess if you don’t eat ‘em just right. Lemmee get some water. We’ll have you all cleaned up in a jiffy.”

I go back up to the counter and ask Nina for some water.

“Your friend’s quite a character,” she says. “Why’s he dressed like that?”

“He’s an actor,” I lie. “He’s got a dress rehearsal today for a play downtown.”

“Cool!” Nina says as she hands me a cup of water and a pile of napkins.

Caesar finishes off the donut and licks his fingers while I wipe the sticky jelly goo off his breastplate. It takes me a while because there are all sorts of frilly Apollos and Aphrodites and curvy ivy decorations on it.

“Wanna wash up in the men’s room?” I ask. He agrees. I figure I better go in with him. It’s probably his first time experiencing the magic of indoor plumbing.

“The faucet on the left is hot and the other one’s cold. Turn ‘em both on and you can get the temperature just right. And the squeeze bottle over here is the hand soap. You should use that first.”

He squirts some out on his hand and sniffs. “Fragrant oils? Frankincense? Myrrh?” he asks.

“No, just hand soap. Might have some moisturizer in it though.”

“See ya later kid,” I say to Nina as we head out the door to the bus stop.

“Break a leg dude!” she calls to Caesar.

Back at the bus stop, I squint up at the little sign with the schedule (my eyesight ain’t what it used to be). “Says here the 27 will come in six minutes. That’ll take us to Best Buy,” I tell Caesar. But when I look back over his way, he’s gone. And the ingrate didn’t even thank me for the coffee and donuts!

 

***

 

That was last Thursday. Now I’m sitting in the sun room of the Breezy Elms Assisted Care Living Facility.  A few of the other geezers are making a big racket playing Parcheesi at the next table. More oldsters are just staring off into space, lost in their musty reveries. The room has a sickly suffocating smell of day-old urine dueling it out with industrial strength disinfectant. The urine wins every time.

Gloria, a hefty black woman with a Mike Tyson build, appears with the paper and cup of coffee for me. She’s my favorite attendant. She makes a mean sweet potato pie and brings some in every Christmas and Thanksgiving.

“What’s my horoscope say today, Mr. Goldfinch the Third?” she asks.

“That’s Bullfinch. Wait a minute. Lemmee check the Leos. Says here you’re gonna fall in love with a handsome senior citizen at an assisted care facility, have wild sex with him, and live happily ever after.”

“Only if he’s rich,” she says.

“You’re outta luck there.” I say.

“With a name like yours, I can’t believe you ain’t loaded,” she says. “What good’s a silly name like that if you ain’t’ got money?”

She puts three packets of sugar and a smidge of half and half in my coffee, just the way I like it. “Hey, seen any celebrities down at the bus stop lately?” she asks.

“Not unless you count Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler,” I reply. “Seen some of your people too – Michael Jackson and Sammy Davis Junior. They sho’ can dance and sing. Just love eatin’ watermelon too.”

“Someday, you gonna see Satan himself down there!” she barks, pretending to be angry.

I like razzing Gloria. It’s the highlight of my sorry day. She sashays off and I settle in with the paper.  An article on page three catches my attention.

 

Woman Finds Rare Ancient Coin in Attic

Somerville resident Nina Gemelli knew she was onto something when she discovered a strange shiny object while cleaning out her grandparents’ home at 83 Emory Drive last Thursday evening. “My grandparents were real pack rats. They just kept all sorts of junk around from the old country. But this looked different, real special-like,” she said.

Ms. Gemelli attempted to have it assessed the next day at Mel’s Rare Stamps and Coins  in Malden. Proprietor Mel Blothmeyer alerted the Museum of Fine Arts to the discovery. MFA Antiquities Curator Oswald McFitzhugh-Gibbon said yesterday, “This is a stunning find. We have determined it is a solid gold drachma, currency that circulated in ancient Rome and Greece. Carbon dating indicates it to be over 2,000 years old.”

When queried about its potential market value, Mr. McFitzhugh-Gibbon replied, “I have heard of similar pieces selling in the low six figures. But this coin is of extraordinary quality. It’s like it was minted yesterday. I am therefore hesitant to speculate about its worth.”

Asked about her future plans, a beaming Ms. Gemelli commented, “Right now, I only know one thing: I’m quitting my job at Dunkin’ Donuts!”

 

“Damn!” I say loud enough to rattle the pieces on the Parcheesi board and wake up half the other droolers. Caesar must’ve left the girl a tip when we got up to go to the men’s room.  And that sneaky little Nina girl invented some story about her attic to cut me out of the deal! Bet I could’ve put all three of my grand-kids through college with that coin!

So what am I supposed to do now, an old coot like me? Tell ‘em Nina’s a world class fibber and I was in the Dunkin’ Donuts with Julius Caesar treating him to a jelly donut and coffee? I don’t think so! The Breezy Elms Assisted Care Living Facility has a secure wing for nut jobs. No way I’m spending the rest of my golden years straight-jacketed in there.

I figure it’s best to be philosophical. Easy come, easy go. I look at the round generic institutional clock on the wall. It’s 11:15. Sunny outside too and the paper says it’ll hit the forties today.

I decide to go down to the bus stop, maybe take the 27 to Best Buy and look over the digital cameras.   Better yet, if I’m lucky, I’ll run into my good buddy, Chairman Mao. Last time I saw him I bought him a Red Sox cap to replace his ratty old revolutionary one. I bet I can talk him into hiking over to Davis Square with me to check out the lunch combos at the Szechuan Dragon Palace. Shouldn’t take too much arm twistin’: the Chairman’s a real sucker for their moo goo gai pan and kung pao chicken.

 

David Kingsbury has been published in Kaleidoscope, Defenestration and the Boston Herald. He lives in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and is a member of the Grubb Street writers’ organization in Boston. When not hanging out at bus stops and donut shops, he revises his novel. With only 48 revisions to go, it is on-target to appear in a bookstore near you in early 2026 if bookstores still exist then.  He can be reached at davidkingsbury77@gmail.com.