Chapter 7 – Garage
Get mad, then get over it.
It was a Saturday and early, earlier than he’d ever been to the garage before but he was covering for another driver and needed to start his shift at 4:45 a.m. For some reason, Walter parked his car on the street that day, rather than under the garage where the employee parking was. It was humid, already making him sweat, but there was no rain and the forecast on his iPhone called for a clear day that day. The birds were up; he could see a murmurtion of European Starlings strutting on a ledge that was lit up by one of the outside security lamps. A block away, a freight train was making its slow pass through the industrial part of town, steel wheels on iron tracks, a distant flashing of the crossing lights and their warning sound. He had walked around the block, just to loosen up his legs and back before driving, and had passed by the Tea Roses and Wavy-leaved Asters that were planted around the building, and was entering the garage through one of the bus doors that hadn’t been closed. He saw himself in the large round mirror the drivers used to make a safe entry into the garage, and noticed some people inside. When he rounded the corner, he could see four of the bigger Union Stewards milling around with Lee, the Union President, and Brady, the Operations Manager and some guy lying on the cement floor of the garage.
The cement next to the guy had a water puddle on it, “Probably from the night crew washing the elephants” thought Walter.
Brady and Lee were big guys and the guy on the ground looked to be pretty big too, but Walter could tell he’d been injured. From what he saw, Walter knew what was going on and he knew that at least part of Union and Management were in it together, he just didn’t know why, specifically.
When they saw him, the stewards turned towards him in warning, Lee said, “What the fuck!” and hit the injured guy with a tire iron hard enough to burst his skull and, obviously, killed him.
Nobody said anything until Lee, breathing heavily and still holding the tire iron in his right hand, wiped his face and said, “Get it out of here and clean this mess up;” “It” being the dead guy.
Two of the stewards moved to pick the body up and carry it somewhere while a third went to get a bucket and mop; the fourth steward stood staring at Walter and said something to Lee.
Walter noticed that the automatic ceiling windows were open and he caught a glimpse of the sky and some birds, “Probably Tree Swallows” he figured.
Lee turned, stared at Walter, and then walked over to him.
“You’re in early, Walt” he said to Walter.
“Yep,” said Walter, and then, “It’s Walter,” he corrected.
That seemed to piss Lee off. They stood there, silent for a few moments, and then Lee made a mistake.
He said, to Walter, “You say anything about this to anyone and you and everyone you hold dear will be dead! You understand?”
Walter said back to Lee, “Just so we’re clear. You’re threatening to kill me and everyone I hold dear if I ever say anything about what I just witnessed, right?”
“Right…Walter,” said Lee.
“I understand,” said Walter.
Walter didn’t know who just got killed. He didn’t know why they killed him. He couldn’t say if it was a just kill or unjust, who was right and who was wrong. He did know that what had just happened was as old as mankind; that insanity ran rampant in the world. What he also knew was that survival was the second law and that his survival had, once again, been threatened. He walked around Lee, around Brady and the steward, over to the security door where he swiped his ID/keycard and went in to Dispatch, not upset, not panicked, just normal Walter. He checked his wristwatch against the clock in Dispatch, adjusting his watch by half-a-minute, knowing that the Dispatch clock synchronized the universe.
He looked up his bus number; it was 256…Gypsy, filled in his timecard, and got ready to drive.
When Walter returned to the garage to Pretrip the bus, the gang was gone and there was no sign that anything untoward had happened; the wet spot where they had mopped up could have been elephant droppings. He pulled his assigned bus out of the garage and turned left instead of right as he usually did. The operators were trained on all of the routes and had printed schedules, called Paddles, which detailed the bus stops that had time points attached. It was a standing joke that no driver wanted to be on The River without a Paddle. In Dispatch, there was a bulletin board, as well as placards standing around, that reflected road construction and any detours or route changes that were in effect. He had driven this route before and had covered for the regular driver a couple of times in the last two months. When he turned up College Street in the dark of the predawn hours, he saw the same guy he’d seen every time, riding on a skate board, rolling along on the shoulder of the road going against traffic. He pulled up to the stop at Bricker and Western Ave., carrying six passengers; it was 5:45 a.m. and he had to wait until six to depart. He flipped the switch for his four-way flashers, pulled on the air brake, shifted into neutral, kneeled and opened the doors. A half-block in front of him, the usual helmeted, bearded guy on the bike, white front light on, red tail light flashing, lunch box strapped to the rack over his rear tire, wove his way towards the bus, looking forward and then back over his shoulder, half wobbling as he did so, and then crossing over to the right side of the road before passing by the bus.
“Probably on his way to work,” thought Walter.
A car pulled up and let off the cute Latino high school girl who was always there. She got on, inserting her student 10-ride into the fare-box as she faced him.
“Good morning,” she echoed before retrieving her ticket and walking back to sit by her boyfriend in the seat just beyond the rear exit.
Another rider stepped on and said, “I lost my pass and don’t have any change. Can I still ride? I’m telling you the truth.”
Walter smiled slightly and said, “Sure”. There was no point in having an empty bus.
The Avail system signaled that it was time to move on so he went through his routine, closing, lifting, shifting, checking and then moving, on towards the next stop.
He thought about the last time he drove past this spot. A guy with a broken-down shotgun in his bag had gotten on. The other passengers noticed that something was weird and one of them alerted Walter as she exited. He had pressed the silent alarm and then received a call, from Dispatch, telling him to pull over and tell the passengers that there was a mechanical issue. He did so, then stepped off of the bus, walked around to the rear and opened the engine panel. A moment later, two city police cruisers pulled up and the officers got specifics from Walter before boarding the bus, handguns drawn, and arresting the gunman. It turned out that he was on his way to see his ex-wife who was demanding an extra $10 per month in child support. That demand had pushed him over the edge. Walter had thought how some marriages are like benzene; they never degrade and when you take them on you assume responsibility for them for eternity. With that incident, he had fallen fifteen minutes behind schedule and Dispatch wanted him to “put his foot in it” but he hadn’t; he had just driven at the speed limit trusting that he would catch up, not caring too much if he didn’t. He was the boss of the bus.
The sun had started to make its appearance and the passengers took that as a sign to start chatting amongst themselves. Sometimes it was good entertainment.
“I was raised Baptist but married Catholic so I was always either the world’s worst Baptist or the world’s worst Catholic. There was a certain comfort in that,” one man had said to another.
“I’ve got money coming out of my floorboards at home,” he heard the guy, who he’d let ride for free, say.
At the next stoplight, one of the River Supervisor vehicles, a shiny new SUV, passed through, the driver nodded to Walter, Walter nodded back. The light turned green and the bus moved on.
It was still very early but, in that town, the drinking started even earlier. At the next stop three drunks started to get on, arguing over who would board first.
“You got room?” one of them had asked, “Can he get on first?”
“There’s no boarding order,” said Walter, “just get on.”
“People don’t seem to understand that there’s always room on my bus,” Walter had thought, laughing to himself.
He had gauged how rowdy they might be, knowing that, as a general rule, he should lock the belligerent people out of the bus, not in. The River wanted the drunks to ride rather than having them drive their own cars and cause an accident. Walter agreed. If they were jerks, he knew they’d get off before he did. Everyone was just trying to roll down the road.
At the next stop, one woman swiped her ticket and then turned sideways and stood as close to Walter as she could, separated from him only by the arm of the driver’s seat, as the other passengers paid and moved on to seats. She was sexy with a cute face and body but she was missing some teeth and her skin was the color of death.
“Probably a heavy smoker and well on her way out,” he had thought.
He had seen her before, on some of the other routes, but that was the first time she had stood by him like that. She just talked to him for a moment, nicely, saying hello and asking how he was going, wondering if he was happy.
“You’ll have to move behind the yellow line so we can move” he had said to her.
She didn’t say anything but had moved behind the line and then leaned against the bulkhead, behind him, as he started moving again.
He got to his turn-around point and followed a loop of road through the parking lot of a library. A woman came out of the building, saw the bus as it approached and ran until she got just off of the curb and into the crosswalk in front of Walter. She made certain that she had eye contact with him and then she had slowed her pace to a deliberate walk, making him stop the bus to let her pass.
“Why do they do that?” the sexy, toothless one behind him had asked. He’d forgotten she was there.
“I don’t know,” said Walter, “Maybe they’re just impatient and think the bus will slow them down.”
“Or maybe they know The River has deep pockets,” she had said.
He called that move the Suicide Trot. Surely they knew what would happen between a body and a bus if the driver didn’t see them.
Walter had started back on the fast part of the route, heading back in to Central Station. As Gypsy picked up speed, she had started making her Cicada sound. Walter wondered if Maintenance would ever fix whatever was loose inside her frame. When he reached the speed limit, there had been a bright flash, as if a mirror had reflected the sun light into the bus, and Walter had seen an image reflected in the windshield. It looked like a frizzy red haired woman, wearing an eye patch and standing right where the sexy, toothless one was. He looked up to his inside mirror and had seen neither the eye patch woman nor the toothless one. There was nobody standing behind him where the reflection would have come from and where there had been a passenger just a moment before.
“Phew…must be losing it,” Walter had muttered to himself.
On the run in, there were mailboxes planted close to the road, often with their doors open and hanging out past the curb right where the traffic is heaviest. The powerline poles leaned out over the road, also, and some wise person planted the road signs closer to the street than the city ordinance allowed.
“Love the left”, passed through his head, remembering what Marti always advised.
Walter followed behind a dump truck that was dropping random bits of gravel, just as he got to the mailboxes, and there was a line of cars coming up on that side. It was a tight squeeze but he had size on his side and moved the cars over towards the center lane. Walter had been watching all of this and then, as if in slow motion, he saw a rock slide off of the back of the truck, bounce once on the asphalt, and then hit square on the bus’s windshield directly in front of him. It sounded like a gunshot. The bus windshields don’t shatter but he had gotten a new knick that he had to report when he got in. The bus kept rolling, everything was normal and under control. He remembered the funniest time he was shot at.
Felito had come over from a Force Recon unit with the Marines and Lickass joined them from his A-team. It was just the three of them taking an easy walk through the woods looking for somebody or something, he couldn’t remember what. Walter was the team leader, in the lead and starting up a muddy embankment that was partially covered with leaves, Felito and Lickass were spread apart behind him, when one shot flew through the trees and sparked off of a rock by Walter’s right foot. “Sniper!”
If it’s set up right, there’s no way to make it out of an ambush alive unless you rush the gunners and kill them before they can kill you. With a sniper, things are a little different. The three of them were trained to run towards gunfire but they couldn’t really see where this guy was. At the top of the embankment was a large walnut tree and Walter charged straight up the slope and dropped to his knees behind that cover. Felito and Lickass started to duplicate his moves but one-by-one and in turn they slipped on the leaves and mud and fell before making it up the slope. More shots rang out. Felito slipped again and Lickass started laughing at him until he slipped another time and, by then, they were both laughing. Walter had just stared at them as if they were crazy which, of course, they were. After three tries, they finally made it up and to the tree. Felito jumped on top of Walter and then Lickass on top of Felito right as another round sunk in the dirt beside them. Now Walter was laughing. Stacked on top of each other and covered in mud, they huddled there for a good hour after that last shot came in.
He remembers what Felito used to tell him, “If you get in a fist fight with someone you don’t know, don’t screw around. Go straight for the throat and then get the hell out of there. You don’t know how bad the other dude might be.” Lickass used to always advise talking your way out of a fight, taking the peaceful route.
Walter had breathed deeply and thought, “Here…Now…This,” and remembered that each moment mattered as he kept driving the bus. He felt grateful for the experience and tried to minimize his boredom and anxiety, his wish not to be driving, his thoughts that he’d learned all he could learn from this. He had mumbled his thanks to the elephant, looked in the mirror at the young adult bodies with dead children inside, riding behind him, and remembered that we all wake up when we’re ready.
The guy in the burnt orange Honda Element, that he always saw, drove by; right hand on the wheel, left hand to his chin, holding his head erect. At the next stop, some got off and some got on.
He had come to a four-way stop and a beat-up old blue Mercedes with a double roof rack came up to the corner, perpendicular to him, and slowed but didn’t stop as it rolled through the intersection. The guy driving the Mercedes had on an old-fashioned hat, grey hair in disarray, gray beard and eyes shining with the light of the universe and a slight grin on his face. He was the spitting image of any picture Walter had ever seen of Walt Whitman and so, to Walter, he was.
The rest of that Saturday was pretty much the same. Walter had completed his runs, turned Gypsy over to his relief driver at Central Station, shared a shuttle van ride back to the garage, and turned in his time card and Inspection Report. He stopped in the locker room, to drop off a few things before heading home. Each locker had a combination lock built into it and he’d been given the code the day it was assigned to him. He kept a few odds and ends in there, a change of shirt, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste but that was about all. When he opened the locker that day, there was an obvious letter sized manila envelope that he knew he hadn’t placed there. There was no writing on the outside and it was sealed but just barely. He slipped his fingers under the flap, opened it, and pulled out the sheet of paper that was folded inside.
“Remember what we said, or else,” was typed near the middle of the sheet.
It was a common day in an ordinary world, except for the killing…well, and maybe the reflection.