Sometimes a terrible smell known as the Stank, which comes from a nearby oil refinery, descends on Dickens. Two weeks after the border is finished, both the narrator and Hominy are woken up at 4 am by the Stank. Hominy offers the narrator some hash, and the narrator decides to ride the bus to the beach in order to escape the Stank and see Marpessa. A calf wanders in through the open door, also hoping to escape the smell. Hominy tells the narrator that his birthday is next week, and the narrator wonders “what to get the slave who doesn’t even want his freedom.” The narrator asks Hominy to take the calf back out, but Hominy refuses.
Hominy and the narrator’s relationship is constructed on a pattern of mutual wish-fulfilment. While Hominy may not be a good worker, he does occasionally bring the narrator things that make him happy, such as cold lemonade or hash. Similarly, the narrator seeks to fulfil Hominy’s desires, even if this means paying for him to be whipped at over $200 an hour. Needless to say, this is also a comically absurd inversion of the usual master/slave dynamic.
The narrator catches the 5:43 am #125 westbound bus, driven by Marpessa. Years ago, Marpessa marred a “has-been gangster rapper” named MC Panache, which makes her assume—in the narrator’s eyes, wrongly—that she and the narrator have broken up. The narrator tries to sit near Marpessa, but after she tells him “Fuck you” he goes to the back of the bus. The narrator reflects on the shame associated with riding the bus in Los Angeles, a city where “walking is akin to begging in the streets.”
While there may be an overall stigma attached to riding the bus in Los Angeles, the narrator does not seem to care about this very much personally. Rather, his love for Marpessa means that he enthusiastically takes her bus, even if this means facing stigma from the public and getting cussed out by her.
The municipal bus system is called the RTD, which is supposed to stand for Rapid Transit District, but to people like the narrator it stands for “Rough Tough and Dangerous.” When the narrator was seven, he wrote a scientific paper about whose personal space was invaded the most quickly on the bus, concluding that the answer was women. Black men were the least likely to have anyone sit next to them. The narrator watches a newcomer to LA, thinking about all the people who move to the city “aspiring to be white.”
The narrator’s scientific paper raises an interesting point about the way the oppression of women (including black women) differs from the oppression of black men. Women are subjected to intrusive and disrespectful invasions of their personal space, but black men are more likely to be feared and stigmatized. Although they are very different, both are harmful.
A passenger who keeps pressing the stop button calls Marpessa a “fat fucking cow,” which the narrator knows she will not tolerate. However, he does not see what happens because he falls asleep until the last stop. Getting up, he asks Marpessa if she misses him, and she replies that she misses his plums. The narrator remembers when they “rekindled [their] childhood friendship on the bus” when he was 17 and Marpessa 21. They caught each other up on their lives over the two-hour bus route. Eventually, Marpessa agreed to letting the narrator take her to his high school prom. He was in a graduating class of one, making him and Marpessa the only attendees.
Much of the novel is vulgar, bizarre, and shocking, but in contrast, the narrator’s relationship with Marpessa is rather sweet and innocent. The narrator finds respite from the strange and hectic nature of the rest of his life through his devotion to Marpessa, which has endured since he was a child and retained its childish purity. The humorous image of a prom with only one attendee is also a joke about the stereotype of young black people dropping out of high school.
Early the next morning, the narrator had his first kiss in the back of a pick-up truck his father was driving. His father kept turning around and signing “fuck her already” with his hands. While they were dating, Marpessa and the narrator declared books, authors, artists, and silent movies “theirs.” They especially loved Kafka. Back in the present, Marpessa opens the bus doors and asks after Hominy. The narrator tells her that he has an idea that he needs her help with. Then he sees that she has what looks like a pregnant belly and asks if she is pregnant, to which she replies: “Bonbon, don’t play yourself.”
This passage continues to emphasize the innocence and sweetness of the narrator and Marpessa’s relationship, in contrast to their surrounding context—including the vulgar behavior of the narrator’s father. Rather than inheriting his father’s womanizing ways, the narrator has a more respectful attitude. The fact that he and Marpessa share a love of books, art, and silent movies shows that he respects her as an intellectual equal.
The narrator is thrilled that Marpessa has called him by his childhood nickname. She apologizes for treating him rudely before, blaming it on the stress of her job. Years before, Marpessa had a baby, whom she gave the middle name Bonbon. When the narrator asks about Hominy’s birthday present, Marpessa tells him to “get the fuck off the bus.” The narrator boasts that it was he who painted the line around Dickens. He declares that he’s “bringing the city back. Bringing you back, too!” Marpessa wishes him luck and drives away. The narrator lights his blunt and a nearby white boy asks where he got it. He replies: “I know some Dutch coffee shop owners.”
The word Bonbon means candy in French (and other European languages). It comes from the repetition of the word “bon,” meaning good. The fact that this was the narrator’s childhood nickname suggests that others thought of him as sweet and cute—and perhaps still do. The humorous exchange at the end of this passage also undercuts the stereotype of black people as drug dealers.