She (w)hore her sex on her sleeve.
Love the left. There are no bus stops on the left. Lazy left. Bus back, bus butt. Point rider.
Bus driver boredom, “I’m going to see if I get up to 60 mph before the next light.”
With two hundred and some drivers mixed from both genders, working all hours of the day and night, it became common for affairs of the heart to spring up, prompting his trainer to inform him that, “There’s a lot of love at The River.”
She’d point out single women who she thought he should consider, not knowing his circumstances but assuming that he was unattached.
There was one driver, at The River, who used to turn his bright beams on so that they’d reflect into the mirrors of vehicles in front of him, usually compelling them to pull further ahead so that the lights didn’t blind them. He referred to this zone, which was created, as his Safety Bubble.
Back on the route 60, it was mostly kids and young adults getting on the bus. The main campus was thirteen miles, or so, from the downtown campus and there were a lot more reasonably priced rentals in town than out there in the country where the primary school was, plus a lot of the kids still lived at home with their parents. Some of the older kids were married and lived with their spouse and children in town, also. Now and then a grad student or a professor would ride, and then there were people who knew the system and had nothing to do with the university who would catch a free ride just to go shopping or whatever; it saved them a $1.50 each way – they looked kind of guilty when they climbed aboard, especially if you were a new driver and they thought you might ask them for a school ID. He never did ask them, figuring it didn’t cost the system anything, really. After a few weeks or months of driving, drivers would make some “friends” or, at least, get to see some regulars. On Walter’s run, there was a lady professor who wasn’t that old, she appeared to be younger than he was, who had a stroke and needed special attention getting on and off. There was a young woman who, he assumed, was a graduate teaching assistant or something similar. She would ride almost every day, including weekends, and got on and off always at the same stops. He imagined she was from Peru or some similar South American country. She had a good but not spectacular figure, pleasant face and nice bouncy brunette hair. At first she seemed extra friendly but later became just polite. There was Mary who rode mostly on Wednesday and was in a wheelchair. She got on near the YMCA, was very polite but seemed to be going downhill the more time passed; looked like she suffered from MS. Some of the regulars were regularly indifferent or impersonal. The one young girl who kind of glowed, who was always lighting up whenever she got on, was there that day and they said hello.
“She’s so cute, full of life – just nice,” he thought, as always.
That day Walter thought, “She either doesn’t know about the illusion yet or she’s seen through it and found the miracle.”
She always made him smile when she climbed aboard. She was dressed a little different that day, not quite hippy-like but definitely in her own style; the air she brought on board with her smelled fresh, her hair was dark and in curls and a little disheveled. When Walter’s shift ended, he pulled in to the New Campus, as opposed to the Garage where he started his morning, and exchanged his bus for one of the shuttle vans that the relieving driver drove over to start her shift.
“How’s the bus?” she asked.
“The brakes are a little loud and one of the advertising panels looks like it’s coming loose,” he had said.
He’d let her know if anything was left on the bus by a passenger and if there had been any problems, in case some angry passenger or free-rider came back to haunt the new driver. Sometimes they’d talk about union or contract news. The company gave the drivers fifteen minutes, or so, to drive the shuttle van back to the garage and drop off their time card, so there wasn’t a lot of time to waste.
When Walter got the van back to the garage that day, he ran into some other drivers who had been in his training class whom he hadn’t seen in quite a while so he spent a little time talking with them, something he usually didn’t do. By the time the conversations were done, Julie was coming in at the end of her run. She dropped her time slip off at Dispatch and then walked directly over to Walter.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hello,” replied Walter.
“Are you done for the day?” asked Julie.
“Yep,” came his reply.
“Want to get a beer?” she asked, “There’s a place I go to, over on Michigan. That’s near you, isn’t it?
Walter had to think about this for a minute, as you already know, there was a strong attraction between them. She was a pretty woman, dark haired, probably about five foot five or six, nice figure through the clothes. What he liked the most was her face. He didn’t have the energy for a new relationship, especially not “one on the side”, and though he and Mara were no longer lovers, he did still love her and had no plans to leave her; and then there was Jade.
“Okay,” he said, “What’s the name of the place? I’ll just meet you there, if that’ll work for you.”
“Sure. Great! It’s the Logan’s Ally,” she answered, “Do you know it?”
“Yah. I’ve never been inside but I drive by every day. I’ll head over as soon as I change, okay?” from Walter.
There was an exercise room with gender specific locker rooms and showers just down the hall from Dispatch. Walter kept a change of clothes and a few other things in his locker.
“Yes. See you in a few,” she said, not smiling but there was a pleased look on her face.
Michigan Street was a good representation of River City, in general. Coming from the direction of the bus garage, heading west to east, when Walter got near his destination he drove past the Selam Store that sold African food, then the American Legion North East Post No. 456, Duke’s bar, Farah’s Bar, The Lord’s Chapel, Howie’s Bar, Bob’s Sports Bar, Angellous where they sold Christian symbols, finally arriving at Logan’s Ally where the sign out front said, 7-11a.m. Happy Hour – that was their morning sign still standing on the sidewalk.
“We’re a little early or late,” he thought.
He got there just a little after Julie and pulled up to the curb a few yards from the front door of the tavern and parked just behind a black Saturn Sky turbo with a custom license plate that read, “Jewels.” In her mirror, she saw him pull up so she got out of her car and walked back to meet him as he stepped out of his.
“Thanks for doing this,” she said, and grabbed his hand and pulled him through the front door of the establishment.
Inside it was dimly lit but no there was no smoke, like in the old days when he used to drink; the laws had changed things. It was a pretty standard bar but had its own character; it had a painting of Abe Lincoln with the bar’s name stenciled on his stovepipe hat. The bar ran along almost the entire length of the western wall, mirrors and glass shelves with bottles behind it. To the left of the door, as you came in, there were two shuffleboard tables. He noticed that there were no windows big enough for a person to go through, only a small glassed slit in the door and a window placed about seven feet up the wall measuring a foot on each side, that was in line with the street light out front and it let a little of that glow in. Along the eastern wall there was a row of fixed tables divided from each other with wooden panels, making them fairly private on three sides. Between the bar and the fixed tables there was a row of loose tables that could be pushed around to accommodate different sized parties. The red neon sign over the hallway in the back left corner said, “Restrooms” and there was a swinging door, to the right, that looked to be where the kitchen entrance was. The place wasn’t too wide but it was long and Walter guessed that there was room for around one hundred citizens and he figured it was about half full right as he got there. He figured there had to be a back door to the outside somewhere in the kitchen area and, probably, an emergency alarmed exit somewhere past the toilets.
Julie, slightly in front of him, took a quick look around and then headed to the next to the last fixed table, the only one still empty, and grabbed a seat. Walter sat down across from her where he could see anyone who came or went through the front door. She looked nice; she had washed up a little bit and he could smell the soap, and she had changed into casual clothes, a fuscia colored t-shirt with a V-neck and jeans and sandals. She was a woman who knew that she was beautiful but didn’t seem to care. Walter still had on his black Diesel boots and dark blue uniform pants but had taken off his white T-shirt and the burgundy uniform shirt he was driving in and now had on a turquoise short-sleeved pullover.
They each ordered a beer, Sixpoint Craft Ales, the Bengali Tiger, which had citrus and grapefruit, for her and the Resin, which was a balanced summer brew, for him, and began talking. Walter used to have an almost insatiable curiosity about people, especially beautiful women, which kept him asking questions, trying to find out about their early life and experiences, wanting to understand what made them tick. Now, he hardly talked and couldn’t really care less about the past or what made most anyone tick, he just appreciated the moment; it made him quiet. This silence, on his part, came across as confidence and made him more attractive to most women when, in fact, it was just symptom of his ambivalence. Confidence, or the lack of it, never entered the equation for Walter.
“You’re gorgeous,” thought Walter, and then he asked, “How was your route today?”
“The usual,” she said, “It’s just a job that pays better than most. Let’s not talk about work.”
“Is Jewels your real name?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” she answered, “My family calls me that, and a few good friends, too; for different reasons, I think. If you know me long enough, you might call me that. Call me whatever you want.”
“Heaven on Earth,” he thought but kept it to himself.
Their beers arrived and they toasted each other and took a drink. The liquid was cold and went down smoothly. He watched her lips on the bottle, her neck as she took the fluid in, a closer look at the fingers on her right hand holding the bottle, her eyelids as she half closed them, tilting her head back slightly. There was hardness about her.
“She wasn’t always this tough;” he thought to himself, “too pretty for that, almost flawless. Life got to her. She seems to be handling it well.”
Just as he was finishing his thought, a flash of light went through the bar. He was aware of it and thought, “Must have been something outside on the street.”
“Do you run? You know, jog?” he asked her getting that out of the way.
“No way,” she said.
She asked him a few questions. He deflected, but was charming in doing so.
He countered and it opened the floodgates. She grew up in Detroit and married her high school sweetheart. He held a blue-collar job but made good money and she didn’t have to work outside of the home. He also drank and ran around. She had two kids with him; they were now in their early twenties and lived in Detroit, about three hours away. She’d see them, usually, about once a month and talk with them several times a week. She left her husband more because of the physical beatings than the emotional ones and she was still a little bitter about her collapsed dreams but knew it. Her father left her mother when Julie was in her teens. Her mother remarried and Julie became very close to her stepdad until recently. She worshiped her mother and had nothing to do with her biological father because of his leaving. Her mother died less than two years ago and she got teary when she talked about her. He stepfather had already found a new girlfriend and Julie was upset about that; it was too soon. She was a Christian and wanted to be a writer of children’s books and write about Jesus; she threw in a little religious talk as she went along but not too much. She knew that her mom was watching down over her. She took her mother to Mexico in the year before she died and they met an older man, younger than her mother but not by much, while they were there and Julie married him within six months of their return to the U.S. He lived in Illinois and she moved there to be with him. She welcomed the sex, found older men attractive, but found out that he was a liar and dishonest so she left him before a year was up. His fishing boat was still parked outside her home and he wouldn’t come pick it up even though she’d called him and written to him about it. She wanted to sell it but the title was still in his name so she didn’t know what to do.
Walter was still thinking that she was beautiful but started smiling to himself, as she talked, and thought, “I love life. The Universe makes things so interesting!”
She then explained to Walter, somewhat hesitantly, how her neighbor is a sixty-five year old black man who was caring for his daughter’s two-year-old child while his daughter was in jail. Julie had fallen in love with the child and, then, with the grandfather and had confessed to him and they had become lovers but she just found out he was cheating on her and she didn’t know what to do.
Walter said, “Sixty-five?”
And “cheating on her?” was his thought.
“I like older men. They’re wise and nice,” was her response.
Julie went on to tell him how between marriages she met this guy, another black man, in this very bar and they became lovers. He moved in with her and things were fine until, one night, he kind of had a psychotic break and started trashing her place, breaking the furniture; he threw her on the bed and raped her, breaking her ribs in the process. From their conversations, she knew that he was wanted in Minnesota so she turned him in and got him arrested and he was doing time there. He kept calling her, from prison, even though she got a restraining order against him. He was to get out in six days and she was worried that he’d come back for her.
Walter started to understand their meeting.
“How old is he?”
“He’s younger, about your age,” she said.
“Are you still afraid of him?” asked Walter.
“Yes,” she kind of whispered.
“Do you own a gun?” from Walter.
“Not anymore,” was her response, “I used to keep one around the house but he found it and started shooting things, just to see if he could hit them, so I got rid of it.”
“What kind of things would he shoot?” asked Walter.
“Birds, bottles, a cat, anything that got left around in the yard.”
They were hungry so they waved down the barmaid and ordered from the menu, which was tucked behind the napkin holder on their table. They agreed to split the Garden Quesadilla; it sounded good: Grilled Red Onions, Succulent Sundried Tomatoes, Fresh Spinach and Portabella Mushrooms, all tucked into a Flour Tortilla with a Special Herbed Goat Cheese Spread and side of House Salsa. They could add meat but she was happy without it and Walter preferred not to eat anything that once had a face; he also preferred corn tortillas but they were hard to come by in restaurants. They each ordered another beer, changing to the Righteous Ale, dry-hopped with herbal and citrus hops, for Julie and the Sweet Action, which was touted as being hard to define, for Walter. He was thinking how she could be his sweet action but he was getting the sense that she wanted another kind of action from him.
When the food came, things went silent. As they’d done with their first beers, they each took a taste of the other’s then agreed that the Tiger was the one they liked best. They talked about leaving so she got up to pee and a wave of fresh air followed her. Walter took a look around the place and thought he saw a familiar face on a person just before he walked out of the front door but couldn’t be sure. Julie came back and, just after she did, a girl in her early twenties walked up to her and asked her if she’d play a game of shuffleboard with her.
Julie smiled and turned to Walter and asked, “Do you mind?”
“Go right ahead,” he answered with his own smile.
While she was playing, Walter got up and went to the bar to pay the tab and talk with the bartender and another patron until she finished.
About a half-hour later Julie walked up to him, took his hand, and told him, “This happens all the time.”
Out front, they kissed.
She said, “This was nice,” and then, “What do you think I should do about my problem?”
Walter thought, “Which one?” but said, “Let me think about it.”
She said, so quiet that he almost couldn’t hear it, “I prefer the cock to the puss,” and then walked off to her car.
Watching her walk away, he smiled and thought how perfect life was.
“This… Here… Now – Breathe In… Breath Out,” Walter practiced.
He turned around, headed the few feet back to his car, when there was that flash of light, again, the one he’d seen through the window in the bar. There was nothing he could see to assign the light to. He was putting the key into the lock on the car door when he heard something behind him. He turned the key, unlocking the door, and then pulled the key back out and held it between his index and middle finger on his right hand, key fob inside his fist, key shank pointing out like a knife, and then he turned around.
“Hey Friend,” said the wiry guy who had just stepped off of the curb and into the street, coming from the opposite side.
He was smaller than Walter but looked to be all muscle, kind of greasy, with hair too long and uncut, a Detroit Tigers jacket on, left hand out and reaching towards Walter, right hand still in his pocket, unblemished white Nikes on his feet.
“What’s up Sport?” asked Walter, thinking the name fit.
“How you doing?” came the response, the man still approaching, walking faster.
Walter started to move, turning slightly, reaching for the handle on his car.
“No, hey, no. How you doing?” said Sport, moving faster, not yet running but within three steps from Walter.
There was that flash again. The guy was moving his hand in his pocket. Walter saw the butt of something extending just past Sport’s right hand as it started out of the pocket, but couldn’t tell if it was part of a knife or a gun. Whatever was in the pocket got stuck on the fabric. The delay was just for a second but that was all Walter needed. As Sport took one more step towards him, Walter also took a quick forward step, closing the gap and bringing him within combat range; he swung his left hand wide and around and, with an open palm, slapped the guy’s right ear, knocking the attached head sideways and bursting the eardrum. As the shock of that took effect and Sport stopped his attack, Walter pulled back his left hand, as if he were swimming, pushing his body forward in the process, pivoting on his feet and legs, shifting his body weight, and struck the lump, or laryngeal prominence, at the front of Sport’s neck, crushing his vocal folds, injuring his laryngeal nerve, triggering the closure of his trachea, and dumping him backwards onto his butt in the middle of Michigan Street.
“The key to survival in combat is violence without hesitation; total, no holding back, and then, if wounded, it’s presence of mind rather than slipping into shock,” Walter remembered the instructor saying, a former pro-football player, standing in the depression in the middle of the Georgia woods, bare chested, K-bar strapped to his waste, holding a chicken above him, drinking the blood as it pumped out, having just bitten its head off.
Walter turned and saw Jewel’s car just turning the corner two blocks away. A thin, hard rain was just beginning to fall, carrying on from where it had left off the night before. He got in his car and drove the mile to Mara’s house in the time it took Sport to suffocate.