Chapter 3 – Walter

Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night. Edgar Allan Poe

He walked quickly from his car through the garage, the breezeway, the hall, the kitchen, and with most haste, through the next hall and into his room carrying his load. As he passed through the beaded curtain hanging in the doorframe, the combination of his fear, distraction, and too many things in his arms caused him to drop his umbrella onto the hall floor just outside his door and resulted in an elevation of his anxiety up one more notch. He lowered the balance of his load onto the desk facing the window, got down on his hands and knees, and crawled to the edge of the room, just inside the door and around the wall so that he couldn’t actually see to the left down the hall, nor could he actually see the fallen umbrella that he was trying to retrieve but most importantly, he couldn’t, yet, be seen by anything or anyone whom might be coming out of one of the other rooms down the hall. A trickle of sweat, a dust of perspiration appeared across his face, neck, and forearms. Stretching, straining, he reached his hand into the hall, felt around the carpet, touched something hard yet soft, hooked it with his fingers, and pulled it, as quietly but as quickly as he could, into his room, his level of anxiety nearing the “freak out” point. With great relief, he realized that he’d retrieved the umbrella. He gave it a quick look-over, unsnapped the strap that held it wrapped shut, made certain nothing was stuck to it or had slithered into it, nothing hidden in the folds, nothing attached, then snapped it back and hung it on a hook in the closet.

“The window…is there something at the window? Is there something looking in?” He heard the hiss before It came.

“It’s the wind,” was his first thought. His second thought was, “That’s not the wind.”

By then it was too late to avoid some damage but there was still enough time to survive. That’s what he thought. He started running, out of the house and down the driveway to the street. The one he was worried about rode by on a bicycle. He reached forward, running, to grab the guy on the bike. The move required him to lean forward and stretch out in length. The guy on the bike leaned back and, with one hand, slit his throat from below his Adam’s apple up to his chin. Walter had woken up from the dream, not totally covered in sweat but close. He had felt relieved, given a bit of a laugh and had shaken his head.

“What the hell?” he thought.

He was up at 1:54 a.m. Sunday, and used the upstairs bathroom to piss, sitting that time, and had looked out the window and up at the roof of the garage. There was something on top, sitting there, bigger than a cat, bigger than a raccoon, staring down at him.

“Another dream?” asked his mind.

He had been too tired to go outside and clarify what he had seen and so he just went back to bed, sleeping and unaware of any more dreams or things watching him, until 6:30 a.m. when his alarm went off. It was a day when Walter had agreed to meet me at the East River City High School track for speed work and we were on for 7:30, which would give us enough time to get our laps in before the football players, cross country runners, or any other students needed to use the track. He ground the Midnight Sun dark roast coffee beans and started them brewing before dropping into Mara’s basement for his usual routine, rising back up fifteen minutes later to pour a mug and grab a small bowl of Stoneyfield Organic Plain Nonfat Yogurt with some blueberries and walnut pieces. We liked to do our speed work early and on nearly empty stomachs and he had found that this combination kept him comfortable. It was raining outside, as it had been for several days, but we kept to our schedule through most kinds of weather. Walter had suffered some spinal damage during the years he spent doing the things that he only barely spoke of. Some things he never spoke of, now I’m sure. Anyway, that nerve damage had caused him to lose the dorsal reflex that impacted his right foot and also paralyzed the big toe on that foot. As a consequence, he was never able to wear barefoot shoes, and when going barefoot he always risked the possibility of stubbing that toe, potentially breaking it but at minimum tearing the skin and toenail badly. What he liked to do, was wear his near-barefoot shoes when doing the fast running, so he usually came to the track wearing his Birks and then switching into his Nikes or New Balance, saving his Saucony shoes for actual racing. He was living about ten minutes from the track so he beat me there and was waiting when I arrived.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Hey,” he responded, with a little head lift.

“Let me get loosened up,” I said. “Are you already set?”

He just nodded in the affirmative. I did some active stretching, swinging on one leg and then the other, doing some standing trunk twists and arm rotations followed by twenty-five jumping jacks and a few deep knee bends.

“All set.”

We jogged together, a relaxed four-forty, splashing water as we went along, just to get our blood flowing and then started the stopwatch. From there on, we ran four cycles of a two-twenty flat out, followed by a two-twenty jog, and then switched it up to six cycles of a four-forty flat out, split with a four-forty at a jogging pace. We were soaked to the bone by then.

“You want to do a timed mile?” he asked me.

“I’m not sure that I feel up to it,” I answered.

“How about a mile at an 8 1/2 minute pace?” he wouldn’t give up.

“Someday, you’ll roll that foot over and break your ankle,” I said, giving in.

When we were done, I was exhausted; I don’t know about him. We gave each other a fist bump and he started doing some static stretching in the rain.

“Hills Monday?” he asked.

“Can’t wait,” I said, walking to my car.

That noon, Walter was sitting in Snout & Belly, the hotdog place in East Town where he’d ordered a Tofutti dog, “No Snouts, No Bellies, No Hooves”, and was just finishing his meal. He tried to not eat anything that had once had a face, especially if it was a face he might have known. He had taken his raincoat and hat off and was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and had his elbows on the table with his hands raised to his mouth, holding his food. If someone were close enough to look, they would have seen several thick, short scars across the and backs of both of his hands and one or two lining the skin near his right elbow. His forearms were turned out so that anyone, who wanted to, could see the Nietzsche tattoos that said, “What doesn’t kill you (moving to the left) makes you stronger.” It wasn’t that he wanted anyone to see what was written in his skin, he just didn’t care. To anyone who might have known of Walter’s past, it would have been apparent that the few days he had spent in Vietnam, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf hadn’t killed him yet, but they could also tell from looking at him that the strength of his youth was pretty much gone, although a hard core remained. It was anyone’s guess as to whether he’d tip to the right forearm or the left. “We will all, eventually, tip to the right,” he had told me one day.

In the diner, the television was on above the service counter, and a local news report came on, mentioning The River and catching Walter’s attention. “A week from Friday will be the inaugural ceremony of the new garage for The River. U.S. Secretary of Transportation James Hartwell will be cutting the ribbon and formally opening the structure. Local officials hope to inspire an additional $25,000,000 in federal grants following a closed-door presentation scheduled to take place after the ceremony. The public is welcome to attend the ribbon cutting and can gain access at the main entrance on Jacobs Street, in downtown River City, at 11 a.m.,” announced the reporter. Walter knew that he’d be out of the garage, driving his regular route at that time on that day.

Walter’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket and he reached for it.

It was Mara calling. “Where are you?” she asked.

“I’m just finishing lunch. You remember, right?”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot,” came her voice.

It seemed that she was forgetting more often. He didn’t know if it was the medication and the booze but he knew that the combination messed with the wiring in her head. It could be that she just had other things on her mind; he didn’t really know what went on in there and she didn’t shed much light on it. Sometimes she would seem to not be paying attention at all, not responding to participating in their conversation and then, weeks or months later, she’d quote something he had said or reference the conversation in some other way.

“They are all different,” he thought, thinking of the women. He had sat there, in the restaurant, surrounded by women, looking at every one of them without consciously thinking about it, filtering out the ones he could imagine himself sucking on or them sucking on him. Tummies, some just little pooches sticking out in the front, probably having their period, others wrapping around the sides and back; nice figures, nice shapes with tummies, cute little butts.

When Walter met Mara, his third wife had just left him. They had been married for about nine years. Her previous husband, and the father of her children, was a good looking private detective who both packed a gun and was still in love with her but he was also a man who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants and she’d grown tired of his indiscretions and had left him after the kids graduated from high school. They’d lived about a mile apart and remained occasional lovers until she met Walter. When she and Walter married, her ex called their home crying, professing his love and threatening to kill Walter. Of course he didn’t truly understand who Walter was. When Walter heard the threat, he just smiled.

Sometimes Walter felt that he was a little slow and it was years into it that he realized that she wasn’t happy the day he tried to make love to her and she hopped out of bed and said, “Why would I ever want to make love with someone like you?”

They tried marriage counseling.

Walter said, to the therapist, “I know she loves me.”

The therapist said, “Let’s find out” and, turning to his wife, asked, “Do you love Walter?”

“He’s a good man,” was her response.

“But do you love him?”

“A lot of things would have to change for me to say that.”

“So, you don’t love him?”

“I wouldn’t marry him again.”

She came home one day and gave notice that she had to leave the state, go south, to take care of her parents for a couple of months and suggested that Walter come down for Christmas.

For Christmas, she spent the days with her ex-husband and their kids and said, over the phone, to Walter, “Why don’t you come down for New Years?”

Walter’s response was, “Why don’t we get a divorce?”

To which she replied, “I never thought of that.”

With KK in the passenger seat, he drove the Tahoe into the parking lot, looking for the best place to park to give her a good field of vision, knowing that after he parked and went inside, he’d come out and she’d be gone forever.

They were divorced ten months later, with everything being done over the Internet and through the mail. She came home while Walter was out of town, and took all of the things she wanted from their house. The financial settlement and Walter’s fucked up value system pushed him into bankruptcy but, and I’m just guessing here, it also created the crack in his time based Dreamstate that allowed him to hear the Call.

The more we talked, the more it became clear that Walter knew that he saw everything through smoky glasses, that his whole world, or his perception of the world, was shaded by the pain in his experience and, even with all the things he’d seen and done, his greatest pain seemed to be connected to the women in his life.

His awareness came back to the diner and the television. The reporter was saying, “Record breaking rains with flooding continued across Michigan on Sunday, forcing evacuations and claiming the lives of ten people who drove off washed out roads and were swept away by swollen rivers. In western Michigan, residents around the Lazy River were being warned of possible evacuation. The flooding impacted at least one-third of the community around the Valley. Damage estimates were still being calculated. The cost of repairing public roads and facilities alone is reaching $100 million.”

He gathered up the plastic utensils, paper plate, napkin and foam cup he’d used and carried them over to the trashcan and dropped them in. He was feeling his belly as he went back for his coat and hat, and was aware of his body, his arms and legs beneath his clothes.

“I’m getting hard yet fat at the same time. It must be from running, doing pushups, and practicing yoga, all while eating donuts,” he thought, resolving to cut back on the pastries.

He left the diner, walked steadily through the rain to his car, got in and drove home to Mara’s.

When he got inside, he hit the head and looked in the mirror as he washed his hands, unspoken words floating up from the bed of his mind, “I look better than I am, and I’m not looking too good,” it was becoming his mantra, and then, as if he had no control over his thoughts, “A form, a wrapper, a machine, a tool, a shell, a carrier, a vessel, a cover, a mask, a transporter, a distraction, a deception, a feint, a glove, a decoy, a body, not an illusion because it’s real but misperceived or misunderstood. This is me, breathing. What is this Me? What am I?”

Later that day, Walter had driven Mara to the mall where she wanted to buy some fabric to make a throw for Jade. She had gone into Joann Fabrics and he had decided to sit on a bench inside the mall but not within the store and wait for her to finish her shopping. Walter wanted to tell me what had happened to him that day but he wanted to preface his story with another, so that I might better understand. I think what he really needed was a framework to put things into context so that he could better understand what he had experienced. I imagine it was even more difficult, for him, to try to explain it. I also think that he was beginning to suspect that I thought he was going crazy.

“I knew this guy,” he said, “who was an all-state athlete in high school before he went into the military. In the service, he excelled at everything he did; he took all of the schools that were offered, just to become a better soldier. In addition to the physical training they gave him, he took martial arts lessons off base, studied combat theory, and talked to every combat veteran he could. You could have asked anyone who knew him and they would have told you that he was a world-class soldier, clearly better than the rest.”

He paused for a moment.

We were running on the Kent Trails and a faster group was passing us by.

“He was with a group that took the airfield in Panama City when we went in for Noriega. He was with his squad, so there were eleven other guys with him. They had just taken a position behind a metal airplane hangar, when someone opened up on them with automatic fire. One bullet, just one, ricocheted off of the hangar and killed him. The shooter wasn’t even aiming at him; he was just spraying bullets in his direction. He never even had the chance to fire his own weapon in combat. Out of the 150 or so guys in his company, he was clearly the best and, yet, he was the only one killed that day,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“There’s a lot of randomness in life,” he said, making his point.

“I hear you,” I said.

“So, I was sitting in the mall, waiting for Mara,” he continued, “and I saw something.”

I just waited.

“You’ll probably laugh, or you won’t understand,” he talked on, “but I saw the Void and it scared the shit out of me.”

I just listened, not really knowing what the fuck he was talking about. “I can’t explain it but it was the Infinite Nothing, a depth that was frightening. It only lasted for a few seconds. It was like looking at a gathering of sand covering a piece of glass or a mirror, and then the sand pulled back and I saw what was hidden; there was nothing looking back at me.”

“So what’s that got to do with the guy who got killed in Panama?” I asked.

“This stuff just happens. We don’t know when it’s coming or who’s going to receive it,” he said, “no matter how much we prepare or anticipate.”

“I get that,” I agreed, “but I’ll have to think about what you saw.”

We kept running, staying pretty quiet for the next hour.

In time I finally came to understand what Walter was doing, without him having to tell me. In the words of Joseph Campbell, he was trying to disentangle himself as kindly and carefully as possible from the commitments he’d made while asleep; there were others depending upon his role in their dream, maybe I was one of them, and his intention was not to cause chaos or shake the boat but rather to get out as quietly as possible even if it took him a little longer than he’d like

Chapter 2 – Bus Driver

IMG_0481What are you doing with all this material, making a bedspread?

Ralph Kramden

When all of this went on, Walter was driving Route 60, his Monday through Wednesday route, which ran from River City out to the campus of Lazy River Valley State College and back.  The college paid the transit company for the run and the students covered the cost with their tuition so there was no bus ticket to punch; everyone who wanted on got on.   Walter’s run number 360 would leave the garage at 7:25 a.m., giving him five minutes to get to his first stop.  They started paying him fifteen minutes before that so that he had time to inspect his ride and get situated before driving.  Management liked the drivers to sign-in another few minutes before that and asked that they be in the Drivers’ Lounge, outside of Dispatch, by that time. Five seconds late and they’d write you up; get written up a three times and you were gone.  So, he usually drifted in just before 7 a.m.  The host of Song Sparrows was always there, in the steel rafters, on time. It was about a fifteen-minute drive from where he slept to the parking garage and a couple of minutes from the garage to the lounge so he left home about 6:25 a.m.  At seventeen bucks an hour, he was making about a third of what he was before he heard the call.  Once there, he’d check the roster and, when it was time, head out into the garage and locate his ride and do his Pretrip inspection.

One ordinary day, he had bus no. 1053, lane 16 – they were listed by bus number and the lane they were parked in, on the roster, but sometimes they got moved or taken by an earlier driver by mistake.    Some buses he liked better than others.  No. 1053 was okay but nothing special, a newer one with no personality but he still treated it with respect.  They’re a lot bigger than an elephant but he pretended that’s what they were just to keep it interesting; it was easier with some than others.  He had told a few other drivers about his mind-game and how he named the elephants so a few of them had started playing the game, too.  Occasionally another driver, usually a female, would come to him with a name and the reason behind it which was usually something taken from the character of the bus or sometimes taken from some incident the bus was involved in. Some buses were smooth, some were quiet, and some would brake well while others were just the opposite.

It’ll probably take me longer to tell you this than it actually took Walter to do but, as he walked up to the front of the bus, he checked it to make sure it was level and there was nothing obviously wrong with the suspension as well as looking for spots or, as he called them, elephant droppings on the floor that might indicate a fluid leak.  The front door would be open and it was always dark as he stepped in, slung his bag behind the driver’s seat and planted his butt.  He made sure the air brake was pulled out and that the doors were released before turning the engine start knob two clicks.  The buses wouldn’t roll by accident unless you really screwed up but he’d seen the videos in safety class where an operator did just that.  The dash lights would come on and he would see that the transmission was in neutral before pressing the start button and firing up the engine.  He typed his driver and run codes into the Avail, flipped the overhead light toggle, and stepped out of the bus to do his walk-around.

He checked the headlights, signal lights, and running lights to make sure they were all working.  He checked the windshield for cracks and chips, pulled the wiper blades away from the glass and ran his fingers along them to make sure they were smooth and attached, looked at the front outside mirrors, making sure they were secure, clean and not cracked, pulled the bike rack and checked both arms before hooking it back up, walked around the driver’s side and opened the air valve door and toggled each of the levers to make sure there was no water in the lines.  He checked the tread on the front tire, its inflation, the rim for cracks or welds, the hub for leaks, the lugs and nuts for wear or looseness, and the well for any hanging cables or lines.  He moved along the length of the body checking for damage or loose panels, patting her side while he walked, whispering, “Good girl.”

He checked the back driver’s-side tires, walked around the rear of the bus and checked the brake lights and back-up lights as well as the Luminator Sign, which, by that time, was showing, “LRVSC Connector/Kickoff”.  Just like they taught him, he did all of this again on the passenger side but added a check of the back passenger door to make sure he could open it from the outside, seeing that it wasn’t stuck from the washing. Next, he opened the fuel door to see that the cap was in place, shut the door and then looked under the bus for anything that might be hanging.  Climbing back in, he did a walk-thru, pulling the signal cord at three specific locations to make sure the stop signal worked, checked the floor for garbage; he pulled up the front seats, which would make space for the wheel-chair riders and checked the attachment cords and signal buttons and then put the seats back down.  He opened the back door from the inside and checked the windows to make sure they were shut but would open in an emergency.  He knew that the front windshield could be kicked out in an emergency.

Back in the driver’s seat, he checked the wipers at three speeds, the wiper fluid, the defrost/heater fan, the driver’s booster fan, the power ceiling vents, reset the odometer to zero, checked the oil and heat gauges. There were two dash mounted fans that he positioned and checked on low and high speed knowing that on that not-so-rare occasion in River City when it rained, the bus windows would fog right up and these fans and a cracked-open window were the quickest way to clear his vision.  In a bus, you drive with your mirrors and if you can’t see them you’re quickly in trouble.  He made sure the right turn horn was on, that the engine was switched to fast idle, and that his roadside lights were selected.  He checked the right side mirrors to make sure it was safe and then powered up the handicap ramp and deployed it and then brought it back in.  He adjusted his seat and floor pedals and then adjusted the outside and inside mirrors to make sure he could see what he wanted to.  He wanted to see high and low, near and far outside, and the back door and the seat behind him in his blind spot on the inside. He checked the inside and outside speakers to make sure they were working. He checked the camera light to confirm that the seven lenses were functioning. He slipped on his driving gloves, made sure the air-brake was engaged and then shifted the transmission into “Drive” and rocked the bus back and forth a few times, checking the brakes; they held. He went through the cycle of buttons on the Avail system, confirming the checks he’d made, and then punched the transfer button on the fare box and it kicked out a ticket with his run and the current time: it had been nine minutes since he started.

He’d been recording everything he’d done on a large yellow Physical Check Card as he went along – anything too major and he would have called Dispatch and either gotten it fixed or been issued another bus. After his run, he would turn in the card along with his time card.

Each day, at about this time Julie walked by; she had the same route but a different run that left fifteen minutes after him.  They had only talked a few times, at that point, and he made an effort not to talk to her anymore.   They waved at each other in the garage, in the lounge, and every time they’d pass on their routes but like I said, they didn’t talk. There was an instant and obvious attraction between them when they first met but I guess he knew too much to do anything about it and she knew he wasn’t a plaything.  Sometimes, though, he would think, “She’s so fine,” and then, “Fuck it.”

He honked the horn and moved forward in his lane wondering if everyone reached a point where they give up; not a point where they surrendered to some higher power or something noble and wise and they were left better off even though nothing externally changed, but a point where they realized that all their hopes, ambitions, and dreams weren’t going to come true.  Maybe it was middle-age crisis.  Maybe it was existential angst.  For Walter, the problem was that crappy feeling had been with him most all of his life, he told me, except for those times, looking back, when he was mentally ill or most asleep.  What a waste.  He had more talent than ambition. They say people kill themselves when they’ve lost all hope.  I guess he wasn’t there yet although, from what I know, he certainly had the thoughts.  Three things kept him going: The hope that someday he’d be happy and things would all make sense in more than an intellectual way; knowing that he wouldn’t do that to his boys, and the realization that through some accident or the process of natural decay this life would be over soon anyway.

At the appointed time, he pulled out of the garage while honking his horn in a warning, and headed over to his starting point where he kneeled the bus, took on his first load and waited for the proper time to move on. I joined that crowd one time.

At his 7:30 a.m. time point, a signal sounded and he used his right hand to raise up the elephant and it beeped while the right front corner lifted.  He always imagined his beast doing a respectful curtsy to the riders.  He looked in the right outside lower mirror to make sure no-one was trying to get on at the last minute, used his left hand to turn the lever and shut the bus doors, pushed the drive button on the automatic transmission, punched the air-brake release with his left palm and it made its trumpeting sound, took his left toe off of the four-way flashers and shifted it to the left-turn signal, looked in both the left outside mirrors to make sure he was clear, looked in the inside mirrors to make sure everyone was seated so he wouldn’t drop someone to the floor as he moved, took his right foot off of the brake and pushed down on the accelerator pedal and pulled 40 feet and 36,000 pounds of bus with 6,000 pounds of passengers out from New Campus.  He maneuvered around the two school buses that were, as usual, parked halfway out in the street as it curved around between the campus, the museum, and the parking ramp where the early morning worker bees were rushing in from the opposite direction to store their cars for the day.

It was left on Opal Street, under the S-136 overpass where the lanes merge in a way that almost always caused confusion for the drivers, up to the train tracks by the health club where he put on his flashers then stopped just over the manhole cover, opened his doors, looked both ways for trains, closed his doors and moved forward, keeping the flashers on until the rear-end cleared the tracks.  He would barely notice the conversations taking place behind him.  Even though he’d given them adequate warning with the four-way flashing lights, the early morning commuters would often narrowly miss rear-ending the bus as he checked for trains. It would piss most of them off also, because there was a traffic light there and it was pretty easy to get stuck for an extra minute or two.  Opal transitioned into River Dr. and there was a stop at the next corner where Leeward Street intersected.  He’d hit the right turn signal that also beeped, switch to the flashers and then pull six to eight inches from the curb, making certain that side mirror didn’t hit a road sign or a passenger, then kneel the bus and open the door as quickly as possible.

Walter made a point to greet everybody, while looking them in their eyes, with a “Good morning!” or “Howdy!” and a smile.

“I’m looking for someone who’s awake,” he said, when I asked him why he looked in his or her eyes.

He said that some of the kids looked like they were ready to cry, and some were cranky with the hour but each of them was a jewel in Indra’s Net whether they knew it or not.

It was a mile-and-a-quarter, five traffic lights, one stop sign, and that one bus stop from New Campus through Leeward to the next time point at River Dr. and Bellfield Road and they gave him four minutes; he and the bus were almost always late but they would, most often, make it up later on.

At Bellfield there was usually a car parked as close as could be to the bus stop without infringing on the no parking zone so he would flash, kneel and stop straight out in his lane making sure to protect his rear and the boarding passengers by keeping the bus close enough to the parked cars to prevent a car from pulling through.

“No dipping and diving,” he would remind himself.

More pissed off commuters stuck behind a bus.  The speed limit was 25 mph and there was almost always a cop around there so he kept it at the limit.  Up the hill, merge with traffic from W. Motion Ave. and go under the S-96 overpass to the next stop and time point at Vellco Street, about two minutes away but they gave him four.  There was a brick pattern on the Finest Realty building, behind the stop, that looked like a person and it sometimes tricked him into slowing for the stop when it was not needed.  If there was a passenger waiting, it was usually that thin professor with the beard or the young guy with the skateboard and book bag.  That stop was just past the light and it was a pull to the right shoulder in pretty busy traffic, same routine, then back out again: two minutes to the light and stop at Dalecollin Blvd. in front of the Family Fare unless there was an infrequent someone standing at the stop at Oakleaf Street.

Still heading west, it was a lesson in being present, what with drivers on cell phones talking, or texting though it was illegal, eating some kind of fast food meal, getting spooked and giving him the finger when the bus came near them while they were distracted.  There was usually someone at Oakcrest Apartments where there was a good pull-off but it’s over a hump in the road at a strong speed and the lollipop’s positioned behind a tree so he had to watch closely from a distance.  From Dalecollin it was a five-minute time allowance to Spinney St. and the right hand turn to the left hand turn and the stop behind the Area Fire Station.  There would usually be a bus headed the other direction coming through right around the same time, assuming they were both on time, and the drivers would slow for each other then give a man nod or a wave.  If things were good, he had a few minutes to wait before he needed to pull out from there.  Some drivers read a book for three minutes at a time.

He just sat and thought, “All these kids learning how not to be.”

He would pull out, go back on to River Dr. with a right turn over the sidewalk making sure to miss the pylon, up to the next light at Pilsner then on to the stop at Crest Bank across from the shopping center and at a light.  The day I rode, there were a couple of cars in front of him so he couldn’t quite make the stop.  He always left enough room between the bus and the nearest car so that he could drive around the car if it broke down or there was some emergency.  He waved at the students at the stop, signaling them to stay where they were; he’d be right there.  From there, the speed limit increased to 55 mph.  He usually had a couple of students standing just behind the yellow line, staring straight ahead through the windshield, acting like they’re surfing, watching what he did.  That day, there was a beep and a flash and a signal came over the Avail telling him that he had a message. There was one light at 18th Avenue that he had to watch closely. I watched him as he watched the walk light on the right until it got blocked by a road sign then looked to the one on the left when it came into view; when either one turned red he had seventeen seconds to make it through the street light before it would tell him to stop.  Sometimes it was a close call at 55 mph.  He said that when the road was slick in winter, sometimes it was safer to hit the flashers and pound the horn and race on through rather than trying to stop and risk dumping the standing passengers and still sliding into a car.

From that light, it was about four miles to the next light where he’d make a turn into the campus.  The course was a gentle downhill for a mile-and-a-half, then steeply up, and then dropped 140 ft. in the next mile-and-a-half where it crossed the Lazy River, then back up to the campus turnoff.  He liked to stay light on the brakes and maintain as much speed as he could, without getting too crazy, through that stretch.  On each run, it was a new decision whether to get in the left lane before or after the big bridge.  He had never felt it to be too slick or frozen but, if there was going to be an incident, he would rather it happened before or after the bridge where there was more room to maneuver and more room for emergency vehicles, so it came down to the amount of traffic around him.  If he pulled over too soon, he could end up becoming a block to the faster cars; too late and he could get crowded out or be forced to move the cars back or over with a lane change. Getting stopped at the light allowed him to check the message: “Missing person. White female 6 feet 2 inches wearing a gray sweatshirt and gray sweatpants and a pink and black jacket.  If she’s on your bus, call in.” He smiled to himself, slightly nodding his head left and right.

“She’s not on my bus,” he thought and erased the message.

He had four minutes to his next time-point but preferred three so that he wouldn’t block traffic on the two-lane campus roads where it was illegal for cars to pass a bus.  He had to do a lane change before the next light and he drove slowly to eat some time, hoping that the light would catch him and/or someone would want off or that someone would be waiting to get on at the stop just past the light.  It was on to Dreamstate Hall, where half of the riders got off.  Many of them thanked him and wished him a good day, perhaps having had time to realize he’d said hello when they boarded.  A few more got on, including one pretty lady who acted more than her age.

“As if she already has it figured out but doesn’t hold it against anyone,” Walter told me, later.

She lit up, as he said she usually did, and said, “Hi, How are you!”

When she came on board the atmosphere changed. She was wearing something classy, made of some fine looking material in a pleasing color.  He said she always dressed that way.  That day, her brunette hair was in curls and she had on a rose colored top and jeans.  Her gaze kind of lingered on Walter before she moved on.

“I’m old enough to be her dad, if not her granddad,” Walter thought to himself, keeping things in perspective.

Next he drove on to Kickoff, the student center and terminal on campus, where the balance of the passengers would get off, the Luminator changed to “Campus Connector/New”, and he had time to take a leak, if he needed to.  It was a rally point, so to speak, for the buses that ran students back and forth in loops to the apartments and dorms, as well as the other connector buses.  With a few minor changes, the drive back was a mere reversal of the drive out.  It was twelve to thirteen miles each way and Walter would make seven runs before handing the bus over to the next driver.

– Keep Going –

 

The Homeward Migration of Souls…on Pickeral Lake

Preview

My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.

Clarence B. Kelland

Without moving his head he could see, an arm’s length or so out in the water, a lavender blouse, a bra pulled back, and a young woman’s wet breast revealed.

The nipple looked healthy and erect and the skin was pale but firm and under it he could see her thin, blue veins and he thought, “How perfect”.

The sun had not yet set. The sky was still light but a dirty brown color, not yet blackened by night, and the lightning that had flashed so vividly just before the bridge and the brakes had given out was no longer present. The rain was just starting to get heavy again, coming down with such force that it seemed each drop was a liquid rock and he could hear the next stoning as it advanced towards him, coming in across the river.

“Rain…pain,” thought Walter.

The pain came in waves each time the wind made a pass, bringing with it leaves and small branches out of the Peachleaf Willow trees and moisture off of the river, making visibility that much more difficult.  He could hear the Gods still bowling in the heavens but their rumble was low.   In the moment it took for him to realize that he was both alive and not dreaming, he knew two things:  The way the neck above the breast was twisted and bent was not so perfect, and he could make the choice to not come back from whatever just had happened.

There was a dull ache in his head but it was as if he was detached from the pain somehow, watching. He was lying in the cold, muddy water of the river but enough of his left arm, shoulder, and head were up the bank so that he could breathe mostly air.  The peculiar thing about his arm and shoulder, though, was that while he knew they were there and could kind of see their outline, there wasn’t a clear separation between them and the earth, as if they were all just one piece of something with slightly different variations in color and texture. Rising out of the watery mud, at about the spot where he knew his wrist must be, he could see about half of the black skulls and precious stones of the bracelet Mara had given him to remind him of his death and its place in his life.

Behind him, now and then through the wind and rain, he could hear screams and shouts and the sounds of more pain mixed with fear.  He was about to shout for help himself, just as a reflex, but then part of him knew he probably wouldn’t be heard and he wasn’t even sure he could shout so he kept quiet.  What he didn’t know was that the last thing he needed, at that moment, was to be heard.  His head was turned with the wind, away from the sounds and whatever was flashing. Strangely, in the rain and dampness he could feel heat.

“Move,” he thought.

He had to see if he could move.  He brought his elbows in tight to his body and forced his heart center up and, with a sucking sound coming from the muck, pulled his body out of the water and moved a few feet up the river bank and rested, mostly out of the river’s current now.  Another serving of gravel from the sky hit him.

“Give me a break,” he thought, and took a breath, then struggled and pushed himself higher up the edge of the river.

When he was fully out of the river, he rolled over on his back and looked towards the place where the bridge had been.  With this movement, he became much more aware of the separation of his body parts from the surrounding earth. Through the increasing darkness, the wind and the rain, he could see the emergency vehicles, with their lights flashing, and rescuers, now with flashlights, walking around the wreck and along the river, looking for survivors or bodies.

There were others, amid the emergency responders, searching but with a different purpose.  What was left of Gypsy looked like she was smashed against the wrecked structure of the bridge, and a fire in and around her was just dying out.

Walter’s head was aching and his vision was coming and going and he had the sense that he was in that Modey Lemon song Ants In My Hands – “Well I feel a little tingle in the top of my finger on my right hand and I see a little something crawling up the length of my wrist.  I feel a little out of focus on the side of the road and I think I might crash…”

Looking once more at Gypsy, with a mixture of sadness and gratitude he thought, “Whatever killed her almost killed me.”

Nothing seemed to be improving, as far as the weather and his progress, and most of the flashlights started moving away.  He couldn’t tell if he was bleeding or not, what with being soaked from the rain and the river but he didn’t sense that any of his limbs were broken and they all seemed to work.

The color of the sky seemed to transition from the dirty brown color it was to a golden color and that flash of light he’d been seeing passed by again.

He wiped the mud out of his left eye and started to lift himself up with the thought of walking towards the road and the people when the wind noticeably changed both in feel and direction.   He could tell that it was still blowing, but around him now rather than into him, as if he was in a shelter, and while the rain continued, it stopped dropping where he stood and, behind him, he heard a sound like a million voices saying, “Here,” and when he looked back into the shadow above and beyond, he saw, half crouched behind a sumac, the one-eyed red-haired crazy looking woman who’s image he had seen reflected in the windshield of the bus.  She had a wise and knowing smile on her face and a scary look in her eye.  That eye appeared to be looking directly at him, ignoring the chaos in the space beyond him, and seemed to be totally indifferent to the tragedy.  She gave a little laugh, more like a snort or whinny, tilted her head and raised her arm in an invitation to follow, showing a full patch of hair from under it, turned on her heel, her gauze dress spinning out around her, and off she went at a remarkable pace up the muddy slope in her sweet grass sandals.

There was a flash of lightning and, in that instant of light, all in one glance he saw a woodchuck sitting on its haunches in the mud looking at him, several Chipping Sparrows perched in the branches above facing down and staring in his direction, and a Painted Turtle as it moved its mouth, nodded its head up and down, then turned and disappeared into the river, moving strongly with the current.

There was another flash and then it was as if all of the creatures he thought he’d just seen were gone and in their place he saw someone’s brown book-bag wedged into the mud, a shoe and scraps of clothing hanging in the branches, and his green and orange-striped timbuc2 driver’s bag, its shoulder strap hooked to something under the water, bobbing up and down as if it were swimming along with the current.

“What the hell!” he thought as he laid there, just thinking, trying to clear his head and make sense of it all, when he saw something punch a hole in the earth just a few inches from his head.

He didn’t, actually, see the something, just the hole. A second later there was another and then, closer, another.  At first he thought, “Hail” but then his gut, not his mind, realized he’d seen this before.  It was coming from behind him, back towards the road and the bridge, and with the storm, its wind and thunder, and the rushing of the river and his general disorientation, he hadn’t heard the sound, but his body knew that someone, for some reason, was shooting at him.

That’s when he decided that the one-eyed woman was looking pretty good.

– And On –