“People with dementia often ask to go home. … many nursing homes and hospitals have installed fake bus stops. When a person asks to go home, an aide takes them to the bus stop, where they sit and wait for a bus that never comes.” Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Memory House,” New Yorker (October 8, 2018)

On our nightly walks, my husband and I see a bus trundling by, lit up inside like the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” but completely empty. Every night, the dark outside, the artificial light inside the bus rumbling along the empty street. The silhouette of the driver, the rows of empty seats. We’ve contemplated getting on the phantom bus, just to see if it’s real, but some superstitious dread prevents us.

Imagine instead the Alzheimer’s patient who sits patiently at a fake bus stop. “I’m going home,” the elderly woman says to no one in particular. She fiddles with the top button on her coat, plants her purse more firmly in her lap. The aide has promised to pack her bags and send them later. She’s been waiting a very long time. When is the bus due? There’s no schedule posted. She’s hungry and tired and wants so badly to go home. Night is falling. 

Even as she waits, she knows that her home is no longer there. The cupboards with their orderly stacks of plates and bowls and cups, the drawers with silverware neatly sorted, the closets filled with outdated clothes she couldn’t bear to part with. The yellow sofa she should have reupholstered. All gone. 

Still, she waits. She can picture the phantom bus so clearly, the empty interior brightly lit, the driver who will kindly stop for her. The brakes will wheeze as it pulls up to the bus stop. The folding doors will open with a thunk and the courteous driver will get out to help her up the stairs. He’ll be wearing a plaid shirt like her husband’s. He’ll comment on the weather, ask how she’s been doing. Best get moving, he’ll say. You don’t want to be late for your family reunion.

She stands and raises her arm, ready to wave when the bus appears.


The story behind the story:

It wasn’t until I read about the fake bus stops in memory care facilities that I found a way to write about the strangeness of the empty bus my husband and I saw every night on our walks. I hadn’t yet heard the term “speculative nonfiction,” but the flash veers from the factual and remembered (itself both real and surreal) into the realm of the speculative with “Imagine instead.” There are more paragraphs devoted to the fictional Alzheimer’s patient’s experience than to our nonfictional walk. Though she is imagined, I hoped I could make her “real” through concrete details (such as the purse planted “firmly in her lap,” the yellow sofa that needed reupholstering in the house she left behind). She too “can picture the phantom bus” as she waits, “the empty interior brightly lit,” the courteous driver in the plaid shirt “who will kindly stop for her.” I often use literary allusions as subtext. Emily Dickinson in particular haunts my work.

Jacqueline Doyle is the author of the award-winning flash chapbook The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). She has published creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, The Collagist, matchbook, Passages North, and Fourth Genre. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads” and has earned seven Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at and on Twitter @doylejacq.

“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was first published The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts (Matter Press).

Header Photo by Lucas Quintana on Unsplash

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