On a number 11 bus I sit next to an elderly couple who are ramrod straight in their seats. From what I can see out of the corner of my eye (I am sitting sideways and they face front), they look refined and somewhat old-fashioned. The man holds a package delicately in front of his mouth as if to prevent germs from flying in. He is so erect that his back does not touch the back of the seat. They do not speak for several blocks and you can’t help sensing the tension between them.

At last the woman says in a small voice, “Clinton is sweeping the south.”

The man rumbles something inaudible and silence once more prevails.

After another few minutes the woman says, in a louder voice, “Yes he is. He’s sweeping the south.”

The response is sharp. “I don’t care what he does.”

“Well someone has to beat Bush,” says the woman in a whining, persistent tone.

“This is not the election,” he says in a tired, patient voice, like one you might save for senile rest-home inmates. “It’s only the primary.”

Silence falls between them.

I turn toward the woman and see a puffy face with big, sorrowful blue eyes. Her mouth is toothless, causing her swollen lips to project.

“Who are you going to vote for?” I ask. The man stiffens and I expect to be told “None of your business.” But I keep my eyes on the woman, waiting for her reply.

Her eyes flicker at me and seem momentarily to brighten. But she thinks better of it and says nothing.

After a brief pause the man announces, “I’ll tell you whom I’m going to vote for. And it’s not Bill Clinton. I wouldn’t want to know him or that woman he sleeps with. No sir. I wouldn’t want to know either of them. I suppose I’m going to have to vote for Tsongas, though he’s not my first choice. My first choice would have been Kerrey: a fine upstanding man who lost part of a leg in the Vietnam war. Now there’s a person that decent people can vote for.” Here he throws a castigating look at his companion.

Politely I nod. I turn again to the woman. “And you? Who will you vote for?”

The expression brightens once more and then turns dull. “I suppose I’ll have to wait and see what it says on the ballot,” she says stupidly.

“Ha-ha!” crows the man. “A little too late, I’d say.”

His look is triumphant and he thinks he has won the debate. The woman bows her head, closing off further communication. I don’t know who she’ll vote for in the privacy of that booth, but neither does he.