I don’t mind the sweltering heat of the New York City Port Authority bus terminal or the fact that our driver is already ten minutes late for our seven p.m. departure time. But a lot of the other passengers are really ticked.
“It must be a hundred and twenty degrees in here!”
“I’ve got people waiting for me in Boston. We’ll never get there in time.”
“I knew I should have flown. I knew it.”
A small girl’s shrill voice is cut short with someone’s “Stop your whining or I’ll whack you one!”
I’m actually enjoying the moment, in spite of the heat. I feel kind of like Jon Voight must have felt at the beginning of Midnight Cowboy when he stepped on the bus in Texas for the start of his odyssey to New York City. I’m eighteen and in New York City for the first time, getting ready to board a bus for Hartford. Other than just short, local drives, this will be my first real bus trip ever. New York City to Hartford. A continuation of my own odyssey that started two days ago.
That’s when I flew from Illinois to the Big Apple for my Aunt Tricia’s wedding. She’s my mother’s little sister and ten years older than me. My folks are both dead, and Aunt Tricia is my favorite and closest relative. It was worth taking a week off work to see her get married. I just hope this marriage works out better for her than her first one did.
I’m taking the bus to Hartford to see Norm Harris, my dad’s best friend and former business partner. From there, I fly back to Illinois. I suppose if I rode the bus regularly like a lot of the other passengers probably do, or if I were in a big hurry, I might be angry too. But I’m enjoying myself. From my seat right behind the driver’s, I turn all the way around to count passengers.
Thirty-eight of us in all. Most of them ready to mutiny. Except there’s no one to mutiny against.
“There he is!”
“By God, it’s about time!”
I turn and see him. His ruddy face pock-marked, the skinny driver climbs aboard. He moves past me down the aisle to the back of the bus. He starts back toward the front, collecting tickets. He adds mine, the final ticket, to his fistful. His eyes narrow. He frowns. Counts tickets. Counts heads.
“One goddamn ticket short,” he mutters. “Some sonofabitch.”
His language startles me. Not that I haven’t heard the words before, even used them plenty of times, but he’s a bus driver and there are women and kids around. My dad never swore around women and kids, and he taught me the same. I sneak a glance across the aisle toward a girl about my age and a woman who might be her mother. I wonder if they heard his profanity.
He calls out, “Get out your stubs. Nobody puts one over on me.”
He stomps his way to the back of the bus and checks a few stubs, matching his ticket numbers with the passengers’. He shakes his head slowly from side to side. His eyes burn like headlights as he rushes back to the front of the bus and slides into his seat. “Too slow,” he mumbles. “I’ll get the bastard when he gets off. Can’t make everybody wait.”
I glance across the aisle again. The girl turns toward me, catches my eye and gives me a half smile. She rolls her eyes toward the driver. I grin back and nod. It’s as if we share a telepathic thought: “This driver is a piece of work.”
I’m glad I decided to sit up front. Unlike Jon Voight, who sat near the back, I chose to sit up front so as to get a good look at everything the moment it comes into view. Having a gorgeous girl sitting across the aisle is a nice bonus. The roar of the motor drowns out the murmur of voices. The bus shoots forward. With horn blasting, the driver pushes the bus to a good speed even before exiting the bowels of the Port Authority. A new world opens up before me. The bus snakes through city streets. I see garbage in dingy doorways, painted graffiti on playground walls. Broken buildings seem to be bulging with bodies.
Back in Illinois I’ve seen blizzards of shadflies. They have transparent wings the size of a quarter and wriggly bodies about an inch long. On the day of a shadfly blizzard they suddenly swarm by the millions and collect inches thick on windshields, roads, streetlights, sidewalks. They have to be shoveled from sidewalks, snowplowed from roads. Shadflies live for only a few hours, then they’re gone. They die young but their stench stays a long while, even though their remains are shoveled into eternity.
The window glass protects me from any outside odor, yet the city streets bring back memories of shadflies.
“You son of a bitch!” Our driver’s words seem to rock the bus. It swerves as he shouts them. He jerks his left arm in the air, shooting the bird at a blue Mercury that had apparently cut suicidally in front of the bus to make a left turn. He curses and gives the finger to the Mercury’s driver and swerves without looking into the right-hand lane. A horn blasts behind us.
The inside of our bus quiets. It’s like when someone hits the mute button on a TV’s remote control. Then the murmuring begins to build behind me again.
If our driver knows that some of the passengers are talking about him, he doesn’t let on. He keeps up a constant muttering, swearing so softly that I’m probably the only one who can hear him. Perhaps the girl and woman, but I doubt it. They’re looking away from the driver, talking. The driver’s head is only three or four feet in front of my own, and I can barely hear him myself.
Within moments he explodes again. Another bus just ahead of us cuts a corner too thin, its back wheels climbing the curbing. “Take the turns wider, goddammit! Give your passengers a break!” He shakes his head. “Jesus!” He half-turns his head toward the left-hand window. “Hey kid,” he mutters. I lean forward, almost touching the DO NOT TALK TO DRIVER sign.
“Did you see that goddamn bus up there?”
I tell him I did.
“He’s gotta take those corners wider.”
“I guess so,” I say.
“His passengers are probably bouncing around on the floor, the reckless sonofabitch.”
I hear a commotion in the aisle. An old woman, sixty maybe, rushes past my seat. A hush starts to work its way toward the back of the bus. The woman and the driver are on center stage. The woman is tall, well-dressed. She wears a substantial amount of jewelry. I don’t know jewels; they might be fake. But they look good enough to fool me.
“Hey, get back behind the line!” The driver swings his right arm above a thick painted line.
“I will,” she says, but she doesn’t back away. Seeing how flushed her face is, I’m hoping she doesn’t have a stroke or something right in front of me. “Can you watch your language?” she says. “I don’t want to have to listen to you shout out obscenities all the way to Boston.”
“All right, all right.” The driver gives a slight wave of his right hand. “I’m sorry if I offended your goddamn virgin ears.”
Color drains from her face. Her face muscles tighten; I can see them. It’s as if something is in her head trying hard to get out. Her eyes dart back toward the other passengers. She reminds me of a big fish I saw once pressed against the side of its aquarium. I can’t tell if she’s afraid somebody heard or if she’s hoping for someone to come help her.
I have to hand it to her, though. She doesn’t back down. Within seconds she turns back to the driver and snaps, “How dare you talk to me like that!”
The driver waves her away. “You’re not supposed to be up here. I said to go sit your ass down.”
She takes a deep breath. Then another one. I hope she isn’t planning to hassle him too much in the middle of busy traffic. The guy seems dangerous enough as it is. I see her hands shaking. She just stands there and breathes deeply until the shaking stops. When she finally speaks, her voice is calm again. “I’ll make sure your supervisor hears about you when we get to Boston. I’ll have you fired. You don’t deserve to be a bus driver.”
“Beat it, Lady. Fat chance you’ve got of getting me fired. You probably can’t even get laid.”
Gasps come, and not from just the lady. She spins around and heads back to her seat. I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to sit next to her. I glance back to where she’s sitting. That’s all we need, for her husband to come up and start a big thing with the driver, with us not even out of New York City yet and traffic roaring around on all sides. Her seatmate isn’t a man, though. It’s another woman, even older than her. The older woman seems embarrassed. She looks like the type that’s probably gone through her whole life without ever getting in an argument.
I turn back toward the driver. As I do, he tilts his head back toward me. I interpret it as his signal for me to listen to him.
I lean forward.
“That old broad. Thinks she owns the damn bus. To hell with her. I’ve been driving a bus for sixteen years. I’ve given a safe trip to thousands of passengers — hell, maybe millions — over the years. And she’s going to have me fired?” He shakes his head. Just a little, side to side, but enough for me to tell he’s plenty ticked off. Before I can lean back in my seat, he starts in again: “She’s never heard a cuss word before? Where’s she lived all her life? In a goddamn convent? Hell, she’d cuss too if she had to be responsible for the safety of a bus load of people in this kind of traffic. She doesn’t have any idea how many people I’ve kept safe all these years. I can flat-out outdrive any bus driver in New England. She’s bitching when I’m trying to keep her ass safe? Fuck HER!”
Out of the corner of my eye I see the girl across the aisle looking our way. I wonder how much she can hear.
The driver’s neck starts to turn a deeper red, and I try to think of something I can say to calm him.
Before I think of anything, he goes on: “That goddamn bitch thinks she’s going to get my ass canned? Hell, she’s not going to see Boston. You know, there’s a bridge forty miles up the road. That old broad’s going to be surprised as hell when I drive this bus off that fucking bridge. I guess that’ll teach her, all right.”
He has to be kidding. I wish I could see his face for a sign that he doesn’t mean what he said. But what if he does? What if he’s crazy?
He looks straight ahead now. He’s still muttering under his breath, but not loudly enough for me to hear. A line from one of my favorite movies flashes through my head. The Fastest Gun Alive, an old western with Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford. It’s on late TV a lot. I’ve seen it at least five times. There’s a scene toward the end of the movie where John Dehner, Crawford’s sidekick, goes to a small-town church and tells the townspeople that Crawford wants them to send their fast gun (Glenn Ford) outside. If they don’t send him out, their other sidekick (Noah Beery) will torch the town.
The townspeople protest: it wouldn’t be right. How can he do such a thing?
Dehner says, “My boss, he’s kinda crazy.”
That line seems to sum up the bus driver, too. He’s not stout like Broderick Crawford, and he rides the seat of a bus rather than the saddle of a horse. Carries a clip on his belt for tickets rather than a holster and six-gun. Wears a flat hat with a visor rather than a cowboy hat.
But kinda crazy nonetheless.
I look around for help. Maybe I should tell somebody what he said. But how can I? I picture myself walking down the aisle saying, “Hey, listen up. Our driver’s going to drive the bus off a bridge forty miles up the road.” They’d think I’m the crazy one.
The woman who wants him fired might believe me. Might. But say she believed me. What good would that do? It’s not likely that anybody would go up to the driver and say, “Did you really say you’re going to drive the bus off a bridge?”
And even if they all believed me, so what? What difference would it make? The driver has control of the steering wheel. He has our lives in his hands. If anyone rushes him, all it will take is one quick turn of the wheel to finish us all. If not a bridge, then into an oncoming truck or a building.
If I can just find somebody who believes me, one guy can grab the driver from behind and pull him off the seat while another guy leaps into the seat and gets control of the bus, just like in those stagecoach chases in old western movies. The only problem is finding somebody else who might believe that the driver’s actually planning to drive us through a bridge railing.
Yeah. Sure. Maybe the girl across the aisle heard. But the driver’s face was turned to the left-hand window when he talked to me. No way his words could have carried across the aisle. I inch my way across my seat until I’m close enough to lean across the aisle. When the girl sees I want to talk, she leans toward me. Our heads almost meet in the middle of the aisle.
“Did you hear him?” I whisper. “About the bridge?”
“What about a bridge?” she asks. “I didn’t hear that. I heard what he said to that woman, though. I can’t believe how he talked to her.”
“He’s a piece of work.”
“What about the bridge?” she asks again.
I realize I can’t tell her. Oh, just that he’s going to drive off a fucking bridge and kill us all. Sure. That’s a great way to meet a girl. “It’s not important,” I say. Why tell her and have her either think I’m crazy or else expect me to do something about it? Her mother whispers in her ear and the girl turns away from me. I wait for a minute, then, when the mother glances toward me with a glare as cold as the inside of a basement freezer, I decide to give up and slide back to the middle of my seat. The city falls away behind us. Our four outbound lanes shrink to three, then to two as the highway squeezes into itself. In the west, bright green sky beyond tinted windows covers a dark silhouette of hills.
It’s hard to focus on the landscape, though, with the thought of what the driver might do filling up all the corners of my mind. In some ways the driver reminds me of Aunt Tricia’s first husband. He was crazy, too. Maybe even crazier than this driver. Aunt Tricia’s lucky she’s still alive.
One difference is that this driver likes to talk. I never heard Tricia’s husband, Gordon, say more than three or more sentences a day in the two years I knew him. I was about thirteen years old at the time. Tricia had been out of college or a year or two, working as a paralegal in some law firm. One day Gordon, who I’d never known had been in trouble with the law his whole life, was arrested as the suspect in a series of burglaries, breaking into houses. Tricia bailed him out. Then he admitted to her that he did the burglaries. He wanted her to get a lawyer from her firm to defend him. She said she wouldn’t. He beat her up. She left him. He jumped bail and left the state. A few months later he was shot and killed by somebody whose house he broke into.
Tricia really picked a good one for her first husband.
The bus driver signals me to lean forward.
“Pretty, ain’t it?” The words slide out of the corner of his mouth.
“It sure is,” I agree, even though I’m still a little nervous about what he said about the bridge and kind of irritated by the way the woman across the aisle glared at me a minute ago.
“You know, a night like this makes it all worthwhile. Drivin’ a damn bus. When it’s so fucking beautiful it makes me want to start bawling. Hell, there’s nothin’ beats driving a bus. Every day’s different. Every route. The weather’s never quite the same any two days. The sun’s never quite in the same position one day as it was the same time the day before. The flow of traffic . . . hell, a lot of people have the same boring routine day after day. Not me.”
Is this the same guy who’s going to drive off a bridge?
“You know,” he goes on, “one time I told a gal I was seeing about driving a bus and how things changed every day. A few days later she brought me a book. I don’t read much, but hell, this dame . . . so I read it. Life on the Mississippi. It was about some guy who was captain of a riverboat back in pioneer times. He took his boat up and down the Mississippi River. He talked about how every trip was different. The river banks, the trees, the shape of the river, the depth of the water. They all kept changing. Hell, maybe someday I’ll write a book about my run from New York to Boston.”
I breathe a little easier. If he plans to write a book someday, that must mean he’s not going off a bridge any time soon.
“You ever read it?” he asks me.
“No,” I tell him.
Neither of us says anything for awhile. He finally mutters, “Well, you’d probably have to drive a bus to understand it.”
A red Mustang streaks past the corner of my eye and veers in front of the bus, almost clipping it with its back fender. The driver’s door of the Mustang flies open. The driver sticks his leg out. It looks as if he’s trying to touch the highway with his foot. He doesn’t quite touch it, though. The leg goes back inside the car. The door snaps shut. All five passengers in the car – two boys and three girls, I think — look back toward our bus, grinning. A couple of them give us the finger. They look young, sixteen, maybe younger. I doubt they’ll ever see seventeen.
“Christ! You see that?” The bus driver shakes his head. “Potheads. Acid heads. If that kid’s foot touches the road, his leg’s torn off. Everybody dies. Christ!” A girl in the back seat of the Mustang crouches up against the back window. She pulls down her pants. Moons us. The Mustang shoots away from us. It must be hitting eighty or ninety miles an hour the last I see of it.
“Jesus Christ,” the driver says, tilting his head toward me. “That’s a first. I’ve been drivin’ sixteen years, and I thought I’d seen about everything. But that’s a first. I don’t mean the mooning. I’ve seen a lot of moon shots. Kids seem to get some kind of kick out of mooning buses. But the leg. That’s sick. That’s crazy. The things kids will do when they get high. They sit in the back of my bus, smoke their reefers. I get to the terminal, it’s like an opium den back there.”
I look back across the aisle. I wonder if the girl saw the mooning, and if she did, if she’d been embarrassed by it.
She catches my look. I get the impression that she had seen. She gives a little nod toward the front of the bus. She sort of raises her eyebrows and smiles. I start to think about moving toward her again. Before I move, the driver interrupts me with a question.
“You do drugs, kid?”
“No,” I tell him. It’s true — except for one or two experiments in school, like practically everybody.
“Good for you. Me? I did some heavy stuff when I was younger. Back before I became a driver. Haven’t touched anything since. You can’t do drugs and drive a bus. Not when you’ve got all those lives in your hands.”
“I believe it,” I tell him.
“By the way, what I said back there about the bridge. You know, driving the bus off. Hell, I didn’t mean it. I was pissed, you know. Some broad trying to tell me how to do my job. You know how it is.”
The Mustang had almost made me forget about the bridge. I’m glad I didn’t tell anybody, especially the girl.
Dark hits fast, dropping all around us. On inbound lanes headlights speed toward us like wide eyes, looking forward to a big night.
The driver must be able to read my mind. “Don’t know why they all go to the city. It’s too damn dangerous now. I drive five-and-a-half hours into the city, have eight hours off and drive five and a half hours back. I used to go out on the town once in awhile in my layover. Now? Hell, it’s not safe. Last time I went out, a Chicano came at me with a four inch long knife. No more. I don’t walk the streets no more.”
Movement across the aisle catches my eye. The girl stands and moves toward me. Sits right next to me. “Do you mind if I sit here?” she asks.
Mind? Do I mind? Do little kids love Christmas?
“No, of course not,” I tell her.
“My mother’s driving me crazy. You saw what that girl did, didn’t you?”
“She’s asleep now. Otherwise I never could have come over to talk to you. But after she saw that girl she told me, ‘If I ever hear about you doing something like that, you’ll be grounded for the rest of your life.’ Is that stupid, or what? How can she think I’d ever do something like that?”
I can’t keep from laughing. “It’s not funny,” she says, but a smile plays at the edge of her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, “but it is kind of funny, your mother thinking you might be planning to moon somebody.”
“That’s Mom. I’d hate to see her on a jury. She’d have the person convicted before hearing any of the evidence. Are your parents like that, always expecting the worst, or is it just mine?”
I don’t see any reason to tell her that my parents are dead. Sometimes that spoils a mood.
Instead I say, “I guess all parents are like that. They just like to worry.”
I’m busy watching her so she sees it before I do. It being the scene just before Exit 5. The highway is elevated above a village. The scene seems magical, with dots of light sprinkling the landscape below. She touches my arm. “Did you ever see anything so pretty?”
I turn my look from her face to the scenery, then back at her face. Heat from her fingers warms me all the way through. If I were more confident around girls, I could probably come up with something smooth like, “I’m looking at something prettier right now.” Then she might say, “That’s sweet.” And then … who knows?
But I can’t think of a good line. Instead I say, “It’s pretty, all right.”
That’s me. Mr. Boring.
“Every time I see those lights, I think it’s one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen. It’s like something out of a storybook.” She kind of lowers her eyes. “You must think that’s silly.”
“It’s not silly at all.” I think about adding, “I think it’s sweet.” Luckily, a sudden commotion interrupts me.
A kind of gasp and a burst of coughing. Someone screams, “Help! Somebody help! She can’t breathe! Somebody help!”
Overhead lights burst on. Within seconds the bus eases to a stop in the emergency lane. Almost before it stops, the driver is on his feet, shouting orders: “Everybody sit down. Take your seats.” Quicker than I would have thought possible, he’s in the aisle beside their seat, two seats behind me, the seat from where the screams are coming. The woman with the virgin ears is doing the screaming.
She calms herself enough to say, “Estelle can’t breathe. She can’t breathe.” Beside her, next to her window, Estelle is slumped forward on the seat, her hands reaching at her neck, her mouth.
A few other passengers are on their feet, looking as if they want to help, but the driver gets there first.
“Move, move!” he snaps at Virgin Ears. The woman stumbles out into the aisle as the driver moves in and reaches behind Estelle. He turns her until her back is pressed against his chest. He wraps his arms around her, his hands clenched just beneath her breastbone. I know what he’s doing. I’ve seen the Heimlich taught, though I’ve never used it. Her head is slumped forward. He jerks with his arms. Her head comes up. Something flies from her mouth. It bounces with great force against the window.
Virgin Ears — Estelle — starts to breath in quick breaths. Then deeper ones. She is shaking, but her breathing looks like it’s getting back to normal again.
“Thank God,” Virgin Ears murmers. “Oh, thank God!” Her seatmate moves back to her seat. She bangs her knee hard against the edge of her seat. I wince for her. She is seems not to even feel the crack against the knee, though I suspect she will have a bruise tomorrow.
Before the driver can head back to the front of the bus, Virgin Ears turns and reaches an arm toward him. She grasps his hand in both of hers. It seems strange to me, her grasping so fondly the hand of the man who not so very many minutes before was so rude to her. The man she was going to have fired.
“Oh, God bless you!” she says. “I . . . I thought . . . Oh, bless you. Bless you. You saved her life.”
Unsmiling, the driver nods to her. He turns and moves to the front, sits.
As the bus starts up with a roar and creeps onto the highway, the woman across the aisle says in a loud whisper, “Jill, get back here.”
The girl next to me turns to the woman and says, “I’ll be over in awhile. We’re just talking.”
The woman glares at me for a few seconds, but to my surprise doesn’t demand that the girl go back across the aisle.
The inside of the bus darkens. I glance across the aisle and see that the woman has leaned her head against the seat and closed her eyes.
Within minutes the loudest sound is the humming of the tires. The girl’s hand is no longer on my arm. Why did Estelle have to pick that exact moment to choke?
I see the driver’s head signal and lean forward, my head close once again to the DO NOT TALK TO DRIVER sign.
“You know the Heimlich?” he asks me.
“Good. Everybody should. Damn, but you’d be surprised how many people just stand around with their finger up their ass when something like that happens. That’s the seventh or eighth time I’ve had to use it on my bus. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Mostly kids, though. Little tykes, eating candy. People seem to panic. Freeze up. Worst think you can do, panic. Hell, screaming won’t save somebody choking to death. People don’t realize how much easier it is to save lives if you don’t panic. Got to stay calm. Same with CPR. When my heart stops, I hope to hell I’m near somebody who took a few minutes to learn CPR.”
I smile, in spite of myself. The bus driver, giving a lecture about staying calm.
The girl beside me has been silent through the whole choking episode. I feel her shivering slightly.
“Are you cold?” I’m tempted to suggest she move closer to me.
“No. It’s just . . . scary, to think a woman almost died right here on the bus.”
“Good thing the driver knows what he’s doing.” Maybe he’s not the villain Broderick Crawford after all. Maybe he’s actually an unpolished Glenn Ford.
I barely notice the bus glide from lane to lane, passing cars smoothly, easily, for the next few minutes as Jill and I talk. Jill Murray, she says. She tells me she lives with her mother and father and baby sister and two brothers in Hartford. She and her mother are returning home from a shopping trip in New York City.
I tell her a little about myself, still leaving out the part about my parents being dead. When I tell her my name, Gil Hobbs, she exclaims, “We’d make a nice couplet!”
I give her a blank look, and she explains. “Gil and Jill. We have rhymed names.” She smiles. “A feeble attempt at literary humor. I was co-editor of our school’s literary magazine last year.”
I actually do know what a couplet is, but before I can say something to let her know I’m not a total dunce, the bus swerves, throwing her against me. The front left tires leave the road. The driver steadies the bus, brings it back onto the highway. His hand jerks upward, as if by instinct, the gesture a blur in the dark as a truck-camper breaks away from the bus, its tail-lights shrinking in the distance.
“Did you see that?” the driver calls back toward us. “You see him cut me off? He knew I wouldn’t take a chance with a loaded bus. The dumb son of a bitch. If I’d of hit him ….”
I exchange a glance with Jill while the driver’s head moves from side to side.
The driver surprises me by chuckling. “Wouldn’t that have been a kick in the ass? If old Estelle got saved from choking to death only to buy the farm because some dumb fucking camper makes the bus flip over?” The driver leans forward. Stops talking. I’m glad. I might finally get a chance to talk to Jill without being interrupted every minute or two.
I tell her about my plans to meet my dad’s old friend in Hartford.
“That’s wonderful! You’ll come to see me, won’t you?”
“I’d like to.”
“I’ll show you around Hartford. I’ve lived there my whole life. I can show you some great spots.”
I think of the places I’d most like to see, but I don’t say anything. Not yet. Maybe later, in Hartford.
Minutes earlier, when the bus swerved and threw Jill against me, I’d again had the momentary thrill of her touch. Now, before I know what’s happening, our bodies touch again. I’m not sure whether she had inched over or if I had. Maybe each of us did. All I know is that I’m sure not going to make any move that will break the slight pressure of her shoulders and hips and legs against mine.
“Isn’t this lovely?” For a second I think she means the feel of our bodies touching. But I follow her gaze. “The lights,” she says. “The overhead lights are strung out like strands of some giant fluorescent necklace that’s unclasped and pulled taut. And those green dials on the dashboard. They remind me of aisle lights at an old movie theater I used to go to in our neighborhood before they tore it down. The Rialto. Now it’s a supermarket. Now they sell sausage instead of dreams.”
“I like sausage.”
“I like dreams better.”
“So do I,” I say, and she does something that makes my heart practically leap out of my chest. She leans her head against my shoulder. I sit wondering if I should I put my arm around her, but I’m kind of afraid that any sudden move might make her decide to jerk her head away. And I like it resting right where it is.
I half expect Jill’s mother to come rushing across the aisle to save her daughter.
She doesn’t, though. She still has her eyes shut. Lucky for me.
“Listen to the hum of the tires,” Jill says. “It’s like music, like a symphony of dreams.”
I slide my arm softly over Jill’s shoulders. She snuggles even closer to me.
The driver tilts his head toward us, signaling again. I pretend I don’t see him. The last thing I want to do right now is move from where I am. Finally he turns his head almost all the way around. “Hey kid,” he practically shouts. I try to ignore him, but it’s too late. Jill raises her head and moves slightly away. I lean forward.
A nice thing happens. Jill leans with me. It’s as if we’re one body leaning toward the window, waiting for the driver’s words. Her cheek is almost touching mine; her body is pressing against mine. I’ll happily listen to the driver all the way to Hartford if Jill and I can stay this close.
“See this curve?” the driver says, nodding toward the road ahead. “Ever drive it in winter? It’s a son of a bitch. I don’t worry about time if the roads are bad. The safety of my passengers is too damn important. These roads are good, though. Here in Connecticut you get snow, the trucks are out before you can blink. Not like some places. Like Massachusetts. You get to a toll gate, snow’s all piled up . . . oh, hell. Look at that.”
Up ahead, two cars side by side, going maybe forty-five, block the highway. The bus slows. The cars form an effective roadblock. There’s no way to know if it’s intentional on their part. “Dig dig dig,” our driver urges, climbing behind the left hand car as if to push it ahead. Finally the car creeps away and cuts right. The bus roars past.
The road widens. Green signs multiply, signaling that we’re close to something big.
“Wow!” The word bursts from me before I even know I’m going to say it. The earth has exploded into a trillion lights. Heaven must look like this. The sign says WATERBURY. On the hill a gigantic cross glows down from a hill. Maybe Waterbury is heaven. If Waterbury’s not heaven, at least the bus is. I lean back in my seat, and Jill leans back with me. We take up only half the seat.
A police car flashes by, spinning red. It keeps going.
Our driver starts talking again. Like Siamese twins joined at the waist and shoulders, Jill and I bend forward toward his words.
“The cops aren’t bad here. Or in Mass. Now in Maine. A lot of guys refuse to drive in Maine. It’s like the Gestapo. One guy got three tickets in one week. He won’t drive there no more. One state trooper, he’s got a personal vendetta against bus drivers. A friend of his was a driver. Got fired. So the trooper gets every bus he can. Like notches on a gun.”
The driver chuckles.
“Yeah, like notches on a gun,” he repeats. “Don’t get me wrong. Most cops are fair. This guy that got fired, he deserved it. Too many bad drivers now. We used to have to take a nine hour exam to get a job. Now anybody can drive. But most of the drivers now, they don’t care about their passengers. You get an old man who needs some help, some of these drivers they cuss him, tell him to get his ass moving. Makes me sick to see that. Our passengers, doesn’t matter who they are, gotta be treated like human beings, not, not just somebody to spit on. Take drunks. Never let a drunk on the bus. He’s liable to upchuck right on somebody’s lap, or else get nasty.” He drives one-handed, the other hand jabbing at the air. He’s getting worked up again.
“I know I acted like an ass earlier,” he says. “I shouldn’t of talked to that woman like that. Shit, she’s my passenger. She deserved better. But hell, I had a bad day. You know how it is sometimes when you have a bad day.”
He pauses. Jill takes my hand and squeezes it. I have the feeling that she’s trying to keep a giggle inside her.
I squeeze her hand back. “I know how it is,” I tell the driver.
“Hell, my wife phoned me this afternoon. She wants a divorce. Can you believe that? I think she’s been screwin’ around with someone when I’m on the road. We’ve been married ten months. And she won’t even tell me face to face. She calls me on the goddamn phone to tell me? That’s why I was late for this run. I’m never late. That’s why I said some things I shouldn’t
ought to of said.”
“That’s awful,” Jill says. She sounds like she means it, too. “About your wife, I mean. I’m sorry.”
“Well, some women. You know? If you two get married, I hope like hell you treat him better.” He’s quiet for awhile. Then he says, “But to hell with her. I don’t want to talk about her. I don’t want to think about her.”
I start to prepare myself to lean back against the seat with Jill when he continues. “She didn’t like me being a bus driver. Hell, she didn’t understand that it’s my life. It’s what I can do. It’s what I care about. She couldn’t understand that. She couldn’t understand that we need more drivers who care. Most of ’em don’t give a shit. Hell of it is, it’s like that all over. Take your crime, your wars, your riots. Take Boston. They’re gonna tear that city apart. People don’t get along anymore.”
“We get along, don’t we Gil?” Jill whispers to me, a hint of a smile in her voice. I don’t trust myself to talk, the way my heart’s half in my throat. Instead, I squeeze her hand again. She returns the squeeze. We can speak pretty well without words. I feel a tinge of disappointment when the driver turns onto the New Britain exit and Jill says we’ll be in Hartford soon. I don’t want to give up the feeling of Jill’s body touching mine and her hand squeezing mine.
The driver keeps talking. I don’t really mind anymore. I don’t have to talk to Jill to feel her closeness.
“You gotta handle every passenger different from the others. Hell, I had this hijacking last week. That’s what it was, hijacking. No other name for it. Four blacks get on the bus, the only passengers. They stand at the front, one playing with a long knife. ‘It would be nice if you’d let us off at 17th Avenue.’ Just like that. No actual threat, you understand, but I can read between the lines. I don’t need no trouble. Alone on the bus. I’m not even supposed to drive that part of town where they want off. But I say, ‘Sure, I’ve got time. No other passengers. Be glad to.”
“Did they . . . do anything?” Jill asks.
“Well, when they got off, they pounded me on the shoulder. ‘Right on, Bro. You’re an okay dude.’ I say, ‘Have a good day now. Glad to help.’ They get off laughing. But see what I mean? If I’d tried to argue with them? What good’s it do anybody if we have trouble, maybe have to call in the cops. I mean, safety. Safety and courtesy, those are the most important things.”
He pulls into the New Britain station. Six passengers get off. They hold out their ticket stubs. “That’s okay,” the driver says, waving them past.
After they pass us, I see Jill’s mother. She is standing up. Maybe she has just realized her daughter has changed seats.
“Come over here,” her mother snaps at her. If her words were water, they would be frozen when they left her mouth.
Jill gives my hand a quick squeeze and whispers, “Call me. We’re in the book. Carl Murray.”
Her mother stays standing and guides Jill in past her so that Jill is sitting next to the window. Then the mother sits down, effectively blocking Jill from me.
The bus pulls from the station. “I counted wrong, back at the start,” the driver tells me. “There were thirty-eight tickets.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Hell, you know. You’re in a hurry . . . I just couldn’t think straight after that goddamn phone call. But I’ll see her tomorrow. I’ll have it out with her. She’ll learn who she can screw around with and who she can’t.”
I don’t really pay much attention to him. I’m more concerned about what’s being said across the aisle. I strain my ears but the only thing I hear clearly is, “A stranger. Shame on you. I thought I raised you better than that.” After that she lowers her voice.
The last leg of the run now. For me at least. We will be in Hartford all too soon. Or maybe, the way the mother feels about her daughter’s actions, not soon enough.
“I’ll tell you,” the driver says, “the trouble is, this company is leaving its passengers behind. I’m gonna write them a letter. The way people are treated. Drivers should show respect. Like I had this old man a couple weeks back, blind, couldn’t speak English. What’s he gonna do? My supervisor tells me to move my bus. Forget about the old man alone in the terminal. Well, I let the bus sit ’til I find help for the old man. He could be my father, or yours, you know what I mean?”
My mind flashes back to my father, how much he aged during my mother’s illness, how alone he had seemed after she died. How nothing I said or did could cheer him up. How I would probably never know if the car accident that killed him less than a year later was really an accident.
“Some of these drivers ….” He shakes his head. “Me? Don’t pay attention to this patch.” He points to his sleeve. “It’s sixteen years, not eleven. I’ve got six year patches on some of my shirts. Never have changed them all. I’ve got ten winter shirts, twelve summer. We’ve gotta buy our own patches, one for each shirt. Hell, I can’t change them on every shirt every year. My wife damn sure wouldn’t do it for me.”
The time is 10:11 when we reach Hartford. I glance across the aisle toward Jill, hoping to catch her eyes. Her mother’s head is an effective shield.
The driver keeps talking, even as the terminal comes into sight. “I was in a bad accident three years ago. Thought I’d lose both legs. Got steel pins in them now. The company wanted to get rid of me, but my union backed me. That’s why I don’t live by the month, I live by the second. That’s why I don’t like to complain. Hell, you gotta love life, you gotta love people. Don’t put the knock on nobody.”
The bus pulls into the terminal, grinds to a stop. Jill’s mother half pushes Jill out the door ahead of her. Halfway down the steps, her mother turns and gives me a quick glare before exiting the bus. It’s not the kind of look that usually precedes an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.
I step off the bus. The driver shakes my hand. “It was sure nice having you with us. It’s nice to have somebody to talk to on these runs.”
“Sure,” I say. “I enjoyed it.” I start to walk away, watching Jill and her mother retreat into the distance.
“Say kid,” the driver calls out.
I turn toward him.
He grins at me. “You might want to think about being a bus driver. It’s a hell of a life.”
I nod and turn to see Norm walking toward me.
In Midnight Cowboy Jon Voight’s stay in New York didn’t turn out well. He was plenty happy to head for Florida. But my trip was fine. And I’ve already made up my mind about Hartford. I don’t think I’ll mind staying awhile. I can spend more than two days in Hartford if I want to. Maybe not with Norm; I don’t want to impose. But there are motels, and I’ve got enough money for a few days–a little more time to get to know Jill better, assuming I can get past her mother, or else convince her mother that I’m not a bad guy.
The first thing I plan to do, though, is get a refund on my plane ticket if I can. No matter what might or might not happen here in Hartford between Jill and me, when I’m ready to go back to Illinois, I want to go by bus.
About the Author
Gene Fehler’s short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, most recently Grey Sparrow Journal,Greensilk Journal, Impeachable, Fiction Fix, and Black Lantern. His baseball-related YA novels have been published by Clarion Books (Beanball, 2008), Zonderkidz (Never Blame the Umpire, 2010), and Darby Creek (Forced Out, 2012). When he’s not writing, he can often be found on the ballfield, where he plays about 80 games a year. For more, visit www.genefehler.com.