Bus Fare
By T.C. Logan

"Unruly mess of damn . . ." and the rest was vehement but unintelligible. 

Some time back in the early '70s Bill had started talking like that.  It reminded him, and anyone else who had had the misfortune of meeting his father, of the way dad used to talk to him. 

At him. 

"So this is how they treat us?  Leaky bunch of rack-brained. . ." dad would say.  And so, now, did Bill.

It was a comfort in the morning to know that there was continuity.  Who knew what today might bring?  Still, to talk like dad meant to be somehow like him.  Bill hated dad.  For the first twenty years and now for another forty, he harbored the deepest, most twisted rage a human being can against his father. Hating was easy to do.  But it was mockery, too, to talk like him, at him, at anyone, because it didn't matter if they listened or if they cared.

From the window seat, so coveted by every bus rider, Bill wiped the sun-glinted mist off the glass and peered out into a cold Seattle dawn.  It was late enough in winter, and early enough in the morning to witness a real jewel: an impressionist painting of the sun rising.  Sunlight was pink and then orange and then buttery crisp on the underside of high, stretchy clouds.   They were like lava flowing over the pink-white mountains peaks in the distance.

"Look at that, would ya!"  he pointed stiffly toward the painting, "Could live another day at least. Damn!" and Bill laughed the high, dry cackle of one who sleeps outside at night.

The bus was empty.  Just starting it's route.  "The forty-three." Bill recalled.  It was a long bus ride, even to a tired, sick old man.  "You get your start at Shilshole, right on the water, wind up through Ballard and up onto Phinney Ridge."  "Uh huh." said the bus driver reflexively.  Phinney ridge...there was one -- no, two -- old folks rackets up there.  He knew some of the inmates.  Bill never had family enough to care to put him away, but he had argued with others who had spent time in "Retirement Facilities."   Bill always argued; in the parks, at bus stops, and all across town.    The subject was usually what had gone bad with local people, America, or the world at large. There was general agreement that something  had gone terribly wrong, but the cause and potential solutions were angrily and stubbornly debated. "Ugly bastards, I can tell you.  Made me think twice about living."  He laughed again. 

The bus was slowing.  The first of the busy people on their way to them towers of glass 'n shrapnel waited for the doors to open.  "Never can get much out of them.  They can't get nothin' out of me!"  Crock of bunk, really, he thought to himself.  Business suits and business suits. Here they come. Show your pass and find an empty seat.  Plenty of 'em.  Don't look at me, you hoo-haa mangy weirdo.  You, too!  Get off at the nunnery, I ain't your type!  That's right!  Spend a lot on that coat, did ya?  Nice umbrella.  Yeah, nice umbrella. 

"Hah!" He saw someone new get on.  Good-looking young kid.  Fourteen?  Blond, self-conscious, well-fatted for a hungry world. Like the hair, kid, like the hair.  It was cut short, really short, with enough on top for gel and a wave.  Damn, that goes back a ways.  "Gas station attendant on fifth, up north there by the reservoir."  Bill said, barely parting his lips.  No one noticed. Chapped, damn, they hurt anyway. Got to get me a shave.  Boys had hair just like that, back when you started off working for a living.  No hand-outs. 'Course we gave 'em tips and such.  Good kids, mostly.  Not like now!  On them skateboards bowlin' people over into the street and eating crap, spittin' it all over, throwin' it on the sidewalk. 

Seattle's streets were the most different, now.  You could see how buildings, fountains, sculptures and other artifacts had remained almost the same, or just evolved along a predictable and depressing path of human egocentrism.  But the streets, throbbing aortas of the social beast, were very different, very unstable.  Used to be you could talk to a suit, or a hard hat, or the gal behind the counter.  Not now, nope. Now courtesy followed money, and there was no gentleness, no concern.  It had really been concern, too, back then, not just conformity or nosiness.  Of course there were always people who would appear friendly, then abuse privilege and convention, or mock it with their petty over-effort.  But those people were still around, it's just that now they're more obvious 'n there's more of 'em.  And most...most everybody don't give a hoot nor toot.

And Bill really didn't care, either, not anymore.  Successive bouts with the government, retailers, strangers, and with the "them" that somehow transcended any tangible persons, had numbed him; he had battled honestly and lost.  Who the hell's to blame?  You couldn't answer Bill.  The "they" seemed more palpable, controlling and inescapable with every word from his sparsely-toothed and awful-smelling mouth.

The tall woman was boarding now.  She was amazingly erect for her height; you would have expected her to slouch or at least tilt her head forward a bit.  But she didn't or wouldn't, and her austerity and grace fought with each other. A person's eye, not for beauty or sensuality, but conflict and tension, would be driven toward her every time.  Every morning, in fact.  Bill found her very threatening. Never been caught by a woman and never will. "Don't have a chance!" and he grinned at his double-edgedness.  She never looked at him, though.  She never looked at anyone other than, perhaps, the person unlucky enough to be sitting in the seat she usually sat in:  The boy.  He slouched into his acid-wash jean jacket like he'd been kicked in the stomach.  He probably had, one time or another.  The tall woman sitting down right next to him -- as close as she could get, willing herself to be in her regular seat -- didn't help.  This battle amused Bill much more than his own thoughts, an unusual imbalance, so he moved to the front of the bus to get a better view.

Outside the clouds were breaking up, forming islands of pale gold that flattened and smoothed as they stretched away from the horizon.  Christine watched them while she waited in the cold for the bus.  She disliked waiting so much that sometimes she walked the twenty minutes it took to reach the Good Shepherd Center.  It was a good edge, anyway.  Most of the other girls had their parents drop them off at the door.  They got up later; sat until they arrived for warm-up.  They were barely awake when Christine, charged with energy and plans for her someday-soon New York debut, brisked onto the dance floor and took position with poise and pounce. God! My tits hurt!  She felt gingerly at her left nipple and stiffened at the soreness.  Ouch!   She looked up at a passing car, self-conscious and awkward.  Everything was awkward about her. 

At twelve years and 5'4" she was all bone and toned, still-developing body.  Her friends (at first she was very popular) teased her about her "ballet" and braided hair and dressy clothes.  Did she have a choice?  Her mother was exquisite, entertaining, intelligent and had the best sense of humor.  On an off day mom could charm anyone with her warm smile and quick wit. She could, and often did, make some man or woman she wanted to impress guffaw uncontrollably.  But when it came to ballet, braided hair, and dressy clothes, mom had her funny bone locked away. Christine was mom's daughter, and this was how mom's daughter was to act and dress. But there was something tense and mysterious growing between them; the giggling talks for hours into the night were fewer and fewer.  And each time Christine challenged the "image" she was supposed to present to the world, mom got increasingly irritated.

Christine was irritated, now.  Where was the bus?!  The sun was just capping a nearby hedge, spilling warmth and stinging brightness onto the sidewalk, the Metro Bus sign, and Christine.  She suspended her impatience and turned toward the warmth, letting her thoughts drift to favorite, quiet places.  Hiss. . .Squeeeeek. She woke and scooped her satchel from the ground.  Psssss. Tilting herself into the opening doors, Christine bound up the steps, disarmed the driver with her own version of mom's smile, and looked for a seat.

What a smell!  She always sat in front, but the bench across from the tall woman was taken by that old man.  Was he what smelt?  It was like being on the bus downtown in mid-summer, all bare skin and sweat and stench.  "Yeah, yeah." the old man was saying.  She looked nervously past him to safety next to a middle-aged woman with a flower-patterned scarf, and made for it. 

"Yeah, yeah," today is a good day, Bill kept telling himself, "you been down to the Kingdome?"  He watched elatedly as the boy squirmed to avoid his eyes.  These were the only seats in the bus that faced in toward the isle, just behind the driver, so it was hard to avoid contact with the people sitting across the isle unless you had a book or pretended to sleep.  C'mon, kid, whip it up.

"Well, I, uh. . . sure, yeah, all the time."  The kid answered, frowning.

"I worked the crews that put them big concrete blocks in the ceiling.  You know how much they weigh?"  Bill said this in just the right way, and the boy's face flushed as he stammered:  "Uh, no. . .I dunno.  A lot, I guess."

"Damn right, a lot!  Three tons!  Hundreds of 'em, and every one of 'em was three tons!"  He laughed victoriously.  The kid was looking toward the back of the bus, and suddenly gained new courage.

"Uh huh.  How did you get them up there?"  He almost looked Bill in the eye, but not quite.

"Hot air balloons!"  Bill cackled again. The kid's brows dug downward, then he smiled, ”Right."

"What's 'a matter?  Don't you believe me?"  Little nitwit can't even joke around.  Look at him!  Got to look around to see what other people are thinkin'.  Who's he keep lookin' at. . .Bill followed the kid's quick glance.  Squinted at the girl.

"Um.  No, I guess you ought to know."  The kid said, voice rising to a crack.  Gettin' a little cocky, there, aren't ya.  Yeah.  Got a pretty girl to perform for.  Kick your butt, too.  But Bill wasn't looking for conflict, not really, he just wanted to talk.  He watched the tall woman.  She was impassive, unconcerned. Sitting beside her, the kid was a churning, gushing wound next to a slab of cool, polished marble.  That was what it was like, back then.  A lot of gushing wounds and no place to hide.  Where was the marble then?  Coming home was like that, too, lots and lots of marble, but then it was too late.  Too late to find friends that might understand, or to tell his dad what it was really like.  It was more of a neat and stately tomb, not a refuge at all.  Coming home from the war was like going,  almost.  Fear, ignorance, a new set of rules, and a whole bunch of ideas that had to be thrown away.  Yep.  Throw 'em away or die.  It was exactly the same.  Bet you don't want to talk to me, do ya.  He looked from the tall woman back to the girl.  She, in turn, brought his gaze back to the boy, who was looking nervously down at his own crotch.  Bill burst out laughing.

"Damn.  You know, I had a woman give me fifty bucks once.  Just out of the blue."  At this a snicker or two came from the nearer seats.  Suits and skirts shifted.  The tall woman actually colored a little.  Bill laughed again.  "You ever been overseas, kid?"  The kid was grinning sheepishly.  This was overtaken by a plaintive look, which he offered right to Bill's eye.  "Uh, no."

But Bill went on: "Well I been everywhere.  Spent ten years over in Europe.  What do they teach you about Europe?  It's different than that, you gotta be there."

"I've been to Europe."  It was a feathery, high voice. 

Christine felt very hot, suddenly.  The tall woman was looking right at her.  Some other people glanced up from newspapers and novels where the pages hadn't been turning, anyway.  What am I doing?  She was absorbed with the old man's callousness; somehow repulsed and yet drawn by it.  She was also aware of her effect on young boys, but she really didn't know why she had just entered into the conversation. This is what makes me different from the other girls, she reasoned, I get up early and do things.  I should have walked today.  She went on:  "All over the Mediterranean and northern Europe.  My favorite place was Ireland.  Southern Ireland is very beautiful.  Have you been there?"  I can't believe I just gave that old man. . .

Gonna stick your cute little face in, are ya?  Won't get you anywhere. You aren't old enough to have seen nothin'.   Bill couldn't quite meet her eyes.  "Been to England, but not Ireland. No. Never been." His head wagged slowly.  He glanced toward the kid, who was thinking hard, it seemed, on something to say.  "Don't have no Irish heritage.  Mostly German, Swedish, a little Italian.  That's where I went -- places where my ancestors come from."  The wind was subsiding from his game.  Poked a hole right in there, didn't ya, girly?  Bill puzzled over the hole which just got larger with his silence. 

Christine let her own fire die down a little.

They were into Wallingford now, and much of the business clothing was gathering itself in the doorways.  Traffic noise and fumes wafted in cold currents from the opening doors across each face, and finding their way through the coarser overtones were subtle temptings of bakeries and espresso carts, nestling themselves into the passengers' consciousnesses.  Get off this bus!  The smells intoned.  Don't go to work!  Enjoy!  But no one could get off.  The forward lift was being lowered for a disabled passenger.  All that could be seen of the source of this disruption was a fiberglass wand topped with a bright orange triangle. The flag waved frantically from side to side outside the bus windows.  Everyone watched.

Busriders do not -- ever -- relax judgement against anyone who makes the bus slower, or late.  Woe betide anyone who causes the lives of passengers to be disrupted in any way.  And being a few minutes later to work, where they hated to be and wanted to leave as soon as possible, was cause for immense inner turmoil to every Metro Transit patron.  This turmoil had so far manifested itself in the stabbing of three bus drivers during the past year.  Injuries, only, but enough to cause management at Metro to crack down harder on drivers, who now must avoid even the appearance of tardiness.  Buses were to bypass stops altogether if they were running behind.  "Catch up, catch up with your time table!" the two-way radio would bellow at the sweating busdriver, and perhaps for the benefit of the passengers writhing with impatience.  And so instead of stabbing there was only rock-throwing as buses a minute or two behind schedule whizzed by mobbing patrons who stood, rain-soaked, angry and screaming obscenities.

Today, there again would be no acceptance of tardiness.  The lift whined and clunked and the orange flag jerked and whipped.  The front doors stayed open for the lengthy procedure, continually welcoming the chilly, damp winter air; the smells.  The passengers grew restless.  Clearing of throats, irritated flashing of the eyes toward the front of the bus.  But the whining, clunking progress of the lift signaling DELAY!DELAY!DELAY! in each self-centered consciousness.  An ever-increasing concern over pneumonia and frostbite heightened the agitation.  Irrational people, these bus riders.

After a time, the wheelchair and its occupant were aboard.  Everyone looked, and then looked away.  Jeez, she's not much older than me.  Christine watched the young woman control the wheelchair with sudden and vague hand motions on a worn joy stick.  The chair responded with jerky electrical lunges down the isle.  The tall woman's delicate leather foot was caught for an instant against the giant rubber wheel, then withdrawn hastily as far as possible from the wheelchair's path.  The good-looking young jock gawked stupidly at his own feet.  Big feet with white hi-tops and laces undone.  He pulled them back from the isle. Where is she going to sit?  Somebody has to move.  All of these buses had forward seats which could be folded up to make space for a wheelchair, but no one was moving. 

"Excuse . . . me, sir, but . . . I have to get out of . . . the isle."  A low, thick and difficult speech.  The young woman smiled and pointed her free hand, which dipped and climbed with her voice, toward the old man's seat. The wheelchair lift whined and clunked back into position behind her, the doors closed.

"Them people could move just as easy as me!"  Bill exploded at the tall woman and little punk.  Spittle spun from his dry lips across the isle.  Damn right!  I can't move my legs no faster, neither.  Can't get no sympathy here.  Can't tell me what to do.  I been everywhere, damn it!   At another time, Bill might have offered his seat freely, sneering at the lazy, mannerless passengers who didn't give a hoot-nor-toot.  He was mad today, though. The wheelchair-bound young woman raised her eyebrows, mocking surprise and dismissing the angry outburst. "Ohhh," she said "Well excuse me for. . . being so stupid!"  She smiled real humor and caught Christine's heart as she surveyed her audience, which was trying not to watch.  "I'll just wait . . . for somebody to give me a . . . seat while the bus just sits here."  The young woman looked very content, crossing her arms.  It was true about the bus. . .the bus driver, who had already cocooned himself away from the conflict in a thermos-dispensed cup of coffee, wasn't going to move until the wheelchair was securely tied down.  It was a law.  A rustle of suits and skirts, a clearing of throats.

That old man!  Inside Christine things were sputtering and crackling.  It was like her school's hallways nearing summer with pranks, tension and desire -- all run underfoot by aging "authority" coated with inflexible condescension.  Just like every old person: always in the right, always making accusations and pushing and pulling.  Why won't he move?  She stood and walked quickly to the front of the bus.  Already the blond jock was standing to vacate his seat.  The tall woman looked dedicatedly forward through the windshield, clutching her umbrella very tightly, still sitting.  What am I going to say?  Christine became very self-conscious,  hesitating. Oh, God, what am I going to say? She stopped at the third point in a triangle of drama.

The old man peered up at her from under hateful, fearful eyebrows.  Christine looked at him.  Their eyes met for a very long time.  There was the softness, and pain, the gentleness and crying out, fear, anger buried inward, rebounding over and over again from mind to soul within.  There was newness and curiosity and jaded disposition.  There was doubt.

What the hell are you goin' to do?  Damn you!  You got it all, don't ya?  Got your fancy-dancy clothes and your attitude lookin' down at me like that!  Damn you! I seen it all!  I been there and back -- on the beach bleedin' and squashed and firin' the crane operator, the damn drunk, and duckin' punches from hippy-bikers -- and everywhere between, and you stand over me like judge and God-damn jury!  Who the hell do you think you are!  Who do you think I am!?
Look at him.  Look at him, Christine.  Is that someone you know? Where have I been?  What does this come from?  Why am I doing this?  What should I do, mom?  What happens next? He's wrong, isn't he? He's got to be wrong.
"Are you going to . . . save me, princess?"  The thick, unsteady voice broke in.  Enemies disengaged and looked at the young woman in a wheel chair. She was smiling, looking at one, and then the other.  Christine and Bill could not look at each other again; could not confront, accuse or defend.  Their heads and thoughts were pushed and bent away like opposing magnets.  There was an interminable breath taken in, very slowly, and held.
Silently and quickly the old man got up, his face red and his hands shaking as they clutched his worn jacket about him.  He turned without looking at anyone and stomped to the front of the bus.
"Let me off this goddam bus!" He spat at the driver.  The doors hissed open, and with footsteps heavy and forceful the old man angrily exited.  Crap for a day, anyhow.  'Get me some of that coffee.  'Get me some of that damn coffee.  The thought of how his father might have handled the situation flitted uninvited into his mind, and he forced the specter back into darkness.  Deep fear overtook, then completely quenched, any remaining indignation.  His lips stung with cracks until the sunlight began to warm them.
I'm standing here and everyone, absolutely everyone in the world is looking right at me.  Her faced reddened and her eyes got wet and looked out the window.  Oh, God.  The jock was smiling to himself, and to Christine, and the tall woman's hard features didn't soften at all, and the clearing throats, and the rustling of skirts and suits. . .the bus was still waiting.  Here.  Get the seat up for her.  Don't cry, you idiot!  She felt a gentle, warm touch at her shoulder as she bent to worked at the seat's release lever.  She looked up at the young woman.  "It. . . doesn't matter.  That's just. . .people."  That's mom's look.  She's looking at me just like mom would.   "Yeah.  I guess so,”  said Christine, standing and backing out to make room for the wheelchair.  "What's your. . .name?"  The young woman backed the chair into place. "Christine,"  she wished she had asked first. . ."Diana," said the young woman, smiling again "my name's Diana and . . . it's very nice to meet. . . you Christine." The bus started off so quickly that Christine was herself nearly catapulted down the isle.
At the next stop a slender young person, well-dressed and with the posture of a dancer, stepped lightly onto the rain-soaked sidewalk of a sunny winter morning.

*** END ***