limbo fare

by aaron a reed

the number 44 idles in the darkness outside the light rail stop, the end of the line and the beginning of the line.

the sun is long forgotten but business still proceeds by artificial light, and few are yet asleep though many wish they were, and the unused warehouses and shops and schools and civic buildings drain away into the black of night and leave nothing useful behind. the bus idles in the darkness as the driver takes his cigarette break, and the people on the bus wait patiently, wondering when it will finally start to move.

the bus has always been idling here.

the passengers are lit only from above by the gutted light of fluourescent strips, which combine the worst of natural light: the harsh glare of sun and the sickly pale of moon (there are no stars in the city). the flourescents bounce back off the windows, hiding from those inside all signs of a world beyond in their lacquered reflections, save vague hints of orange smudges in clouds, a lazy stagehand's suggestion of city.

luisa parker, fifty-nine, sits four rows back on the left side, clutching her purse and staring straight ahead. she has grey hair pulled back in a comb but frizzling and fraying loose now at the end of a long day, and wears the same frame on her glasses she wore twenty years ago, oblivious as they tumble farther and farther into unfashionability. she listens to the teenagers behind her and is shocked at their frank sex talk and repulsed by their crude and debasing language, their attitude to authority and culture, and their disrespect of women and parents. she does not want to listen to them but she can't help it, they talk so loud, so she merely tightens her lips and pointedly does not look back. she hopes they will notice her not looking back, see the stiff curve of her neck and notice the grey in her hair and feel ashamed. she passes the time constructing taut fantasies wherein she turns sharply around and tells them in a strong but wounded voice to watch their language, or asks in a devastating tone what their mothers would think if they were here, or tells them with firm and grandmotherly words that they ought to be ashamed. she plays these small scenes over and over in her mind, carefully adjusting the nuances and specific words, the angle of her head, the position of each facial muscle to achieve the utmost impact, but never dares carry the fantasy beyond that moment to imagine a response from the teenagers, nor even the looks on their faces as she speaks; the dream begins and ends with the reprimand. she sits and perfects her imaginary performance and continues listening and staring forward and hoping they will notice her staring forward and listening. she has been sitting and staring and hoping and listening on the bus for seventeen years.

two seats back and across the aisle is samantha corning, twenty-seven, reading a book. she has read it seven hundred and fourteen times now. the words have long ago ceased to have any meaning for her and they are merely patterns of sound and structure, sometimes evoking images, often not. she loathes the book but there is nothing else to do other than stare at the old woman ahead and across the aisle and feel sad for her, constructing mute biographies to explain the severe yet sloppy hairstyle, the embarrassing glasses, the premature wrinkling in the face: coathanger abortions and drives home to abusive and loveless marriages; or maybe the quiet desperations of spinsterhood, evenings alone with solitaire and bob barker and cigarettes and whisky; or instead what about maybe a husband and son immolated in some paroxysmal freeway accident while she, no longer mother and wife but only woman, was left to quietly endure all the years to this moment where her only way home is the last bus through darkness. but then samantha feels a flush of shame and guilt for these dark fantasies and how she projects them almost maliciously on this old woman she knows nothing about, and turns in embarrassed haste back to her book, staring down at the crawl of letters on the page organized into words and sentences and paragraphs that seem utterly, utterly meaningless, focused but not in focus, and tries to read again, and though her eyes make the correct movements, saccades across each row of letters and neat jumps back and down precisely one line, reflex arcs of muscle movements practiced since kindergarten and more efficient than any typewriter, the words only twirl loosely through her mind like fall leaves dancing in infinite vacuum without direction or gravity.

the bus idles, its engine struggling to stay alive in thick rhythmic growls somewhere beneath the passengers, solid mechanical connections from piston to pivot to block to joist to strut to bolt to frame transmitting the constant tremble through their seats and into their bodies, so that the resistance of their bones and their blood against the trembling are part of the classical physics that govern the engine's movement. fumes of oil and deisel drift through the open doors at the front and middle of the bus, staining the air with the queasy taste of combustion. the summer night is hot and the driver won't turn on the a/c until the bus leaves the stop so sweat beads on every forehead but never quite gathers the momentum to coagulate and fall.

one of the fluorescent lights in the strips above buzzes, flickering dozens of times a second, fast enough that the flicker is only visible from the corner of an eye. arthur adams, thirty-nine, sits underneath the flickering light (nine rows back on the right) and the flicker and the buzzing are a constant and intolerable annoyance. he closes his eyes but the flicker patters against his eyelids and he still sees it. he tries to hum or think of music but the buzzing cannot be tuned out; it is an electric mosquito that cannot be swatted, will never move on to a new victim, needs no rest, and will never even land to feed, only hovering eternally three feet above, buzzing at the same frequency and flickering with the same patterns forever. arthur tries to think of other things but can no longer even remember what those might be: the flickering light and the buzz and his hatred for them have taken over every neuron in his brain, memories and faces and skills and opinions withering away as dendrites snap in twos and threes, the brain rewiring itself year by year to think only of the buzzing and the flicker and his hatred, even the weariness and annoyance they once provoked now molten and merged with the hate of his sole remaining thought. arthur has waited for the bus to leave for forty-six years but no longer remembers that either.

the teenagers at the back of the bus keep up a steady stream of bullshitting, the only voices on board. they posture and swap catchphrases from tv and needle each other in an endless loop with almost no variation, patterns of words with weaves made of bitches, pigs, fags, cousins; my piece, my blade, my jacket, my smokes; tats, jails, blunts, bros, and fucking cocksuckers, woven together with words and with noises that mean disgust, acceptance, denial, rage. each of them hates the others more and more with every stupid thing they say, their lies and brags and self-important shit and lame-ass jokes and fucked up stories, wanting desperately to somehow break out of the endless cycle of conversation but not knowing how, what else is there to talk about and what the fuck else are they gonna do anyway. at times tensions rise and voices harshen and the other passengers tense with the nervous potential of a fight, but there is never a fight. things are always smoothed over with bros and mans and chills and it's cool. it's the last bus and they don't want to be kicked off so they always simmer down and glower at each other, hatred burning deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper.

the bus idles.

sarah warren, thirty-one, sits staring at her hands in the sixth row aisle seat on the left next to dennis jans, twenty years older, by the window. being so close when there are so many empty rows on the bus makes her uncomfortable but the thought of switching seats is embarrassing; she has no reason to move to another seat and she knows he and the other passengers would think she was being rude, and she doesn't want to be thought of as rude. she keeps a vague half-smile on her face in case he should happen to glance over at her, though he never has, and each time the sleeve of his suit brushes her arm or his bony knee tugs on the material of her sun dress she makes carefully considered movements choreographed to appear natural, to appear as if she didn't notice that his knee brushed her dress or doesn't mind that it did, and although she really doesn't mind she is worried that he might think she minds and she doesn't want him to think she minds such a simple moment of contact between two strangers on a bus. the pain she feels as she holds herself in a posture carefully designed to seem natural and comfortable and not minding sitting next to him is nearly unbearable since she has been holding it for years. he smells faintly of stale cologne and reminds her somehow of her father, feels more real in fact here in the fluorescents of the bus than her father, some distant and half-remembered totem, and she wants him to like her. she dreams of striking up a conversation with him, imagining him turning to her with a kind smile and giving her his attention, so that he could become a real person and not a no-one she must pretend to appear she doesn't notice or mind she's sitting next to, and she doesn't mind sitting next to him really but she doesn't want anyone to get the impression that she minds by a sudden awkward movement that might be perceived as rude or a dismissive turn of the head in the wrong direction that might suggest she's looking at him, because then she would seem like she was staring and she doesn't want anyone to think she's just another weirdo on the bus. she thinks of things to say, conversation starters, lines she's heard in movies or seen other pairs of strangers use to break the ice, and they always make it seem so easy, but sarah cannot conceive of how to breach the wall between her and her stranger to say such things, how to navigate the awkward moment of turning towards him, opening her mouth, watching his eyes roll and head turn at the movement, suddenly becoming aware of her but not yet knowing her or believing in her, believing in her as a real and sane person and not a crazy on the bus, that moment when she will breach his circle of privacy and thrust herself unwanted into his life, and so she stays silent instead, hands folded in her lap in careful precision, sweat pooling in hot itchy rings around each finger so that she longs to move them but is frozen into immobility by fear of that motion being misinterpreted or drawing attention or making him think she is uncomfortable, because she really isn't but she doesn't want him to think she is.

the driver, marco dominguez, forty-five, smokes his cigarette in the hot breeze just outside the bus and waits impatiently for the next driver to arrive, signaling the end of his break. he likes being able to get off the bus and stretch his legs for a minute, enjoy a breath of unbus air, but he hates being forced to take a break before his last route of the night when he would rather just get the day done with and head back home and heat up a frozen dinner and maybe watch some tv and go to bed. the pleasure of the cigarette he began smoking nine years ago has long subsided, the breeze no longer noticeable; all his attention is focused on the dim orange smudge of the streetlight at the end of the block, waiting for the next bus to round the corner, anticipating the swing of the headlights over the gritty pavement, the sharp yellow sharpness of the route number gleaming above, the blue-grey of the fluorescent and empty interior (always empty coming this way this time of night), the yellow-white of the headlights and red of the running lights, and the distant sound of the engine growling up into second as the driver accelerates out of the corner and heads his way. when the next bus arrives he can leave and do his last run and he wants to leave more than anything now, finish his shift, one last run with no pick-ups this late, only silent drop-offs, disgorging his passengers one by one until running quiet and empty to the end of the line, and then the long black drive to the garage and another long black drive in his rusting toyota out to the west side and his unmemorable but gated, gated at least thank god apartment complex, the gate silently swinging open as his neighbors sleep and he's almost home. he anticipates all these moments in rich detail, pre-living them in his head as he fixes his eyes on the orange smudge of the streetlight, straining to hear the faint sound of a struggling engine, studying the stretched oval of half-lit asphalt for hints of brightening, taking listless drags off the cigarette and smelling only the fumes of his bus and bone tired. he forgets to blink for weeks at a time, the muscles around his eyes cramped and straining with the intensity of his focus on that spot, as if the more conviction he stares with the faster the bus will appear. the next bus is very late. he hopes it comes soon.

the passengers wait with the patience of the impotent, the immobility beyond frustration or anger when everything you are or want must wait for some next step from powers beyond control and understanding who will never explain their unreasoned, unreasonable delay. sometimes they sigh, or look in despair at their watches, hands now seized in place from years of rust and motionlessness, try to convince themselves that it can't possibly be much longer but not really believing it. there is nothing that prevents them from rising to their feet and stepping off the bus through the two open doorways, to strike off into the blackness and find some other way home. but then again there is no other way home. hitchhiking would be suicide in this part of town at this time of night. taxis are distant and overpriced phantoms. and it's much, much too far to walk. they have no friends or family to phone, ingratiating and pleading, or at any rate not enough faith or not enough money or too much pride to make such calls. no. the bus is the only, only way home and always has been. so they wait for it to leave. they do not even get up to step off and stretch their legs because it is the last bus, and if through some accident it should leave without them while in some tired stupor they stray too far from its open doorway... no. they wait. they think to themselves that soon the bus will leave, and if they can just endure the changeless boredom of interminable delay for a little while longer, they will be on their way. as soon as the bus moves everything will be fine and the strange sad mood will break, this dim and slippery feeling that they have always been waiting for the bus and always will be and maybe even always were, that nothing can or will happen to end this moment, this transit limbo.

the light sputters and buzzes and the engine idles and teenagers bullshit but at sudden lucid moments the people on the bus know they really wait in darkness, and silence.

background from a photo by hugovk
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