by David Alexander
Going uptown on First Avenue in the steady morning rain, the M-15 bus pulled over to the glass-paneled kiosk where a lone passenger waited. Pete, the driver, opened the front entry door and the guy in a wet yellow rain slicker climbed the steps into the bus, pushing the hood back off his head. Pete saw who he was dealing with and frowned.
"I thought I told you never to get on my bus again," he told the passenger.
"Fuck you, man," the guy told him back, shoving something into the slot at the top of the change receptacle. "You don't run this city. I'll fuckin' ride on any bus I want."
"Not if you don't pay your fare."
"That is my fare, man," the guy said, staring down at Pete.
"That's a piece of crap."
"Take it out and read it."
"Get off the bus."
"Don't push me, asshole."
Pete looked away for a second and shook his head.
"Look, come back tomorrow," he said. "Just not today, alright? I'm not up for this today."
"No tomorrows for me. I'm here now," the guy said. "Read it."
Pete started to say something else but bit down his words. He took the sheet of paper, which had been folded and refolded many times over, from the change receptacle and spread it out.
"This is garbage!" he shouted, crushing the sheet into a ball and hurling it in the passenger's face. "Get the hell off!"
The passenger just laughed and sat down.
"I thought that would get a rise outa you," he said. "All this rain and fog today reminded me of the time you and that guy ... shit, he was really a kid, then. But it was a day kind of like this one, and you -- "
"Okay. I'll shut up. But you better get going. We both know I just paid my fare."
"You can't sit there," Pete told the guy. "Those seats are for the disabled and elderly. You ride in the back."
"Make me, asshole," said the passenger. "Get up the guts for once."
"Don't give me ideas," said Pete.
"You tryin' to be funny, man?"
Pete sullenly closed the door, flashed his left blinker and pulled into the uptown stream of light traffic, slowly rolling toward the corner of Twenty-third Street. Stretching out his legs into the aisle, the passenger reached into his pocket and took out a bent Marlboro which he stuck in his mouth and lit up, dragging deep and blowing a stream of smoke in the driver's face.
Slowing for a red light on Twenty-fourth, Pete stopped the bus at the crosswalk.
"Put out the goddamn cigaret," he told the guy.
"I need the goddamn cigaret," the passenger told him. "I'm nervous. Cigarets are the only things that calm me down."
"Then get off my bus."
"It's not your bus, man," the passenger responded. "Besides, the light's changing."
Pete cursed under his breath but took his foot off the brake pedal and the bus rolled across the intersection. There was nobody waiting at the next kiosk on Twenty-sixth Street but he swung to the right anyway, flashing his blinkers.
He was supposed to do that, just in case somebody was waiting in a vestibule, out of the rain or the dark, and wanted to run into the bus and the driver couldn't see them. But Pete also did it in the hopes of annoying the rider, even if he didn't think it would.
Ridership was going to be light this morning, he could tell. It was a combination of things. The express buses that went down the avenue and picked up big groups of transfer passengers at the main cross streets, the weather, the time of day. Things like that. Sometimes on this run the bus ran practically empty from Stuyvesant Town to Yorkville.
Leave it to that scumbag who got on to pick a day like this, Pete thought. But he had a knack for it. He knew just when to put in his appearances, and he seemed to know which days Pete was least able to deal with his bullshit.
"Don't think you're gonna have too many customers today," the rider said, crushing out the butt of his first cigaret and lighting another one. "Must be the weather or something. Or maybe it's me."
"Yeah, they must'a heard you were here today and all stayed home."
"Oh, you are so fucking funny," said the passenger. "You always did have a great sense of humor. But they say that adversity breeds comedy. Or at least I say it does. I mean, that's the only way to stay sane, right? Making a joke out of existence."
"I'm not listening to you," Pete said.
"No? Then lemme whisper sweet nothings in your ear."
The rider lurched to his feet as the bus accelerated from another empty waiting area and sprinted across the intersection just ahead of the red signal, Pete honking at a cab that was jumping the light from the cross street.
"Get away from me or I'll hit you," Pete shouted. "So help me, I'll punch you right in the mouth!"
Propping himself on the shiny tubular railing of the stainless steel cage that surrounded the driver, the passenger leaned over Pete, breathing his nicotine breath into his face, and laughed at his threat.
"You kidding me or what?" he said. "We both know you won't take your hands off the wheel." Leaning close, he began whispering into Pete's ear. The bus began to lurch as Pete's hands started shaking and his foot on the gas pedal began to get numb.
"You want us to crash? Is that it?" Pete hollered, his face red. "You wanna kill us both, you fucking sicko?"
The passenger straightened a little and glanced through the windshield. The rain was still coming down, covering the glass with a filmy layer that was pushed away to the beat of the single wiper blade over the driver's side. Pedestrians moved on the sidewalks, going into the shops lining the streets.
"Tell you what," he said to Pete, softening his voice. "I'll make you a proposition you can't refuse. You're gonna love this one. Wanna hear it?"
"No," spat the driver. "Just get off."
"That's exactly what I was proposing to do, old buddy. You shouldn't have shut me up," the passenger said. "Now maybe I don't feel like telling you." He exhaled cigaret smoke through his nose, breathing the stench of it on Pete.
"Okay, I'm sorry. Let's hear it."
"Fuck you, you high and mighty piece of shit," shouted the passenger, slapping Pete in the face. "I ain't telling you dick."
"No. I mean it. I'm sorry. If it'll get you off the bus, I want to hear it."
The passenger put his hands together in a gesture of prayer and made a simpering expression. "'I wanna hear it,'" he mimicked in a falsetto voice. "'If it gets you off my bus I wanna hearrrr it.'" Speaking in his normal voice, the passenger went on, "You sure know how to take a slap, I'll give you that much. You didn't even flinch." The red prints of his palm and fingers were all over Pete's face. "Beg me and I might tell you."
"Okay. I'm begging you. You got that? I'm begging you, I said. Now tell me."
"You beg pretty good too," said the rider. "So here it is: At Thirty-fourth Street you make a left. You take me up to Hell's Kitchen and let me off on Eleventh Avenue by the Javits Center. That's it. I'm outa here. You might never even see me again."
"I can't do that and you know it," Pete replied.
"Why not? It's not like I'm asking you to run over a cop or anything. Just go off your route for a couple of blocks. Nobody will know or even care. Shit, man, in London they got cases of whackos hijacking buses twice a day and nobody gives a fuck. In Rome the drivers make up their routes as they go along. And in Jerusalem ... well, forget Jerusalem. So why should New York be different? Go for it."
"We've been over this ground before. I can't do it. They got supervisors all over the streets. Something like that would get me fired. Then who would you have to bother?"
"Rationalizations. Bullshit. You're just fucking your own mind. We both know you want to go off the route as much as I want you to. You've been thinking about it for years. I know you inside out. Get it off your chest. Do it."
"No, no, no. Drop it. Just drop it!"
"Alright," the rider told Pete, patting him on the shoulder. "Have it your way. Just don't ever forget I tried being reasonable, okay? I wanted to negotiate. But you didn't want to deal. So what happens next will be on your head, not mine."
"Do what you gotta," Pete said.
"Better believe I will," answered the passenger. "I always do, anyway."
The bus now slowed in a knot of traffic past the Thirty-fourth Street intersection. The rain had worsened somewhat. It was coming down in sheets now, beating against the roof and slapping against the windows. The warmth inside the passenger area made vapor condense on the windows.
Sliding back into his seat, the passenger wiped a swathe with the sleeve of his mack. He peeked out through the dripping arc of transparent glass and saw a meter maid giving somebody a parking ticket. Grinning around the cigaret in his mouth, he got up again and used his forefinger to write something on the windshield of the bus.
"That's Latin," he said.
"It's garbage, like what you wrote on the paper," said the driver. "Pure shit."
The passenger rubbed out what he'd written with the sleeve of his raincoat. The driver honked his horn at a U-Haul van that tried to cut in front of the bus as it rolled through the Thirties, into Midtown, slowing for another light that was yellow through the fog and rain ahead of them.
"Okay. So let's begin," said the passenger. "We're now on ...." he craned his neck to peer out the mist-veiled windows, "...Thirty-sixth, right? So in another three, four blocks, a little girl about eight years old is gonna lose the crayon set she's carrying in her coat pocket. Before her older sister can do anything about it, she'll run back into the middle of the street, right in front of the bus. You won't be able to stop in time. You'll run right over her, getting her brains all over the front tires."
The driver shook his head and let out a long sigh. "There's an old man at Montefiori. He's got cancer of the bladder. They'll be operating again tomorrow morning, but he's not gonna make it, even though the doctors had high hopes. He'll have a heart attack and go fast."
"Who's the old man?"
"He's nobody, believe me. Just an old man."
The blocks went by, the driver's eyes scanning the street to his left and right while the passenger smoked his cigaret and stared at the floor, propped on the bars of the driver's cage. Approaching the crosswalk at Thirty-ninth Street, the driver thought he saw her. She was crossing the street just ahead of the changing light, her sister glancing at the bus and urging her to move faster as it approached.
"Okay, he's a chemical expert. On munitions. His firm did a lot of work in Kuwait after the war. You know the guy I mean." The driver kept his eye on the girl and slowed, but his foot was unsteady on the brake and his hands trembled on the wheel. "Come on!"
"Yeah. Okay, I'll accept that," the passenger said at the last minute, spitting on the floor and toeing the gob with his dirty sneaker. "But only because I'm a nice guy and I kinda like you." He said this with a smirk that was familiar to the driver and fished yet another smoke from his pocket.
The bus slowed to a stop on the slick asphalt just in front of the little girl, who stopped to retrieve something that had fallen from her pocket. The passenger used the butt of the smoked-down-to-the-label cigaret to light the fresh one he'd taken out as the driver waited for a pedestrian to finish crossing against the light, then nosed the bus into the intersection. In the middle of the block, the rider glanced up and saw two men waving for the bus to stop.
"Slow down," he said. "You're gonna miss them."
"I intend to."
"Hey, fuckhead. Stop the bus!" the rider shouted.
"No way. You know those guys, so stop shitting me." Picking up speed, the bus left them behind, shooting up the avenue.
"I don't know them from the hole in your ass," said the rider. "I just wanted you to get some business today. Can't have you driving around an empty bus all over Manhattan, now can we?"
"Cut the bullshit. You knew those two guys. I could tell just by looking at them." The driver slowed as he went past another untenanted kiosk in the hard, cold, rain, the tires whooshing against the slicked asphalt as they planed across the wet, reflective surface. "Let's get it over with."
"Sure," the rider replied. "And maybe I did know one of those guys. But, anyway, it's like this: there's this disease, right? It's kind of like a combination of the face-eating disease and AIDS all rolled into one. Really bad shit. So there's this shipment of Brazilian cockatoos going to a pet store in Monterey, California. And this shipment of cockatoos contains these organisms that carry the viral spores of the disease. I'd say it gets through Customs at LAX in about five minutes or so."
"Come on! Gimme a break!" shouted the driver. "That's only like Forty-sixth Street or so. For that I need at least till Fifty-ninth."
"I'll give you till Fiftieth Street," the rider said.
"In Yemen ..." the driver began, but the passenger cut him off.
"Nothing in the Middle East or in Africa," he interjected. "Yeah, I know I forgot to mention that, but that's how it is. I got my reasons."
The M-15 was already rolling through the intersection at Forty-sixth Street. For once the driver found himself cursing the lightness of the traffic. He would have liked to slow down. He scanned the sidewalk to the right of the bus near the waiting area but there was still no one standing within the kiosk. Nothing he seemed capable of doing would slow him up enough.
"In two months Azarbaijani separatists will stage an insurrection. They've been stockpiling weapons and explosives for the last couple of months. The Russians will come in and use chemical weapons, not giving a damn what NATO or the UN think. The death toll will be big."
"There's a nuclear reactor at Saljany," the rider said, dragging on his half-smoked Marlboro. "They would have to blow one of the cooling chambers in retaliation. That would kill about two hundred thousand."
"No way," said the driver, aware that he was approaching Forty-seventh Street. "I can't do that."
"Can't you? Just think about what you're saying. The cockatoos go through at LAX, infecting L.A. with the virus. Before they can even contain it, you've got the Valley and San Diego, then San Francisco, Oakland and the rest. Soon the jet stream carries it north, and we're national. How many we talking about in the first week? Two million? Six million, maybe?"
"You like that last number, you fuck."
"I just call 'em as I see 'em," the passenger said. Then he smiled broadly. "Looks like you got two live ones at the kiosk at Fiftieth Street. Fifty must be your lucky number. Now, better answer fast."
The driver saw the two people waiting under the glass canopy, out of the rain. He recognized the elderly woman. He'd seen the black kid in the goose down ski parka carrying the knapsack before too. Lot of schools on his route, though it was late in the day for that crowd.
"Yeah. The reactor too, you sonofabitch," he said, swinging the bus over and stopping in front of the old lady. "You got me by the balls."
The rider took his seat as the new passengers got on, the woman first. She smiled at Pete as she came on, steadying herself against the handrails as she mounted the steps.
"How are you, Pete?" she asked the driver. "How's your brother doing? He's in the hospital, right?"
"No, he's out, Betty," he said, lying to her because he didn't want to tell her the truth about what had happened to his brother, especially in front of the first passenger who watched him like a hawk. She dropped a token into the slot and took a seat opposite the rider. The black kid dropped in a handful of quarters and walked toward the rear, sitting down near the back exit doors and thumbing through a comic book he'd taken out of his knapsack.
"Your name's not Betty, it's Jean, right?" the rider told the elderly woman.
"Yes," she said. "How did you know that?"
"I ride this bus a lot," he said. "And I know that Pete here always talks to you when the bus isn't too crowded. You sit in the same seat every time and you tell him all about yourself and he tells you all about himself. Like about his sick brother, for example. But there's another lady who he talks to on the downtown trip named Betty. Pete isn't too good with names. So he gets you mixed up."
"You're right, he always calls me 'Betty,'" she said. "But I've never seen you before and I've got a pretty good memory for faces."
"I used to have a beard," he said, "and I wore glasses. Now I have these contacts. I look totally different."
"Yeah, but there's a couple of things Pete here didn't tell you about his brother," the rider went on. "A couple of things he never told anybody. Like what happened many years ago."
"Hey, you jerk!" Pete shouted at the rider. "Don't bother the lady." To the woman he said, "Lady, don't talk to this guy. He's a psycho. Go to the back of the bus. It's better there."
"It's a free country," the rider said back. "I can talk to anybody I want. Besides, I don't have to say a word to Jean here. She knows all about your brother already.
"Lady, get -- " the driver began to shout, but it was already too late. The woman had begun to jerk spasmodically, her arms shooting outward and her teeth chattering as she slipped to the floor of the bus. She thrashed around at the feet of the rider, howling gibberish phrases in a mangled voice.
"I think she's having an epileptic seizure," the kid from the back said after rushing over.
"Just like your father has every month, right, kid?" the rider told the boy. "That why you wanna be a fuckin' doctor? To cure the sick and heal the lame and all that bullshit?"
"What?" the kid said, staring hard at the rider.
"Forget me, kid. I'm just a psycho. What do I know?" He sucked on his cigaret and blew a stream of smoke on them. "Me, I have another take on it. I say she's speaking in tongues." He blew some more smoke down at them. "Anyway, looks like she's coming out of it."
The woman had stopped her thrashing. She stared hollowly up at the rider and he nodded at her with a smile on his face, lighting a fresh cigaret with the butt of the last one he'd smoked, then grinding the butt into the railing to send a cascade of hot, orange sparks to the floor. The kid helped her back into her seat.
"You want us to call an ambulance?" he asked her, handing her handbag to her after picking it up.
"Why?" she asked. "All I did was drop my purse."
The kid nodded and went back to his seat, resuming his comic book reading. The woman pressed the black rubber strip that rang the electronic stop signal and lit up the Stop Requested sign over the windshield. The driver slowed the bus and pulled over to the next kiosk on Sixty-fifth Street, and the woman got out through the front exit while the kid left through the rear. The rain continued falling amid a thickening fog. No new passengers came aboard.
The rider stood and propped himself straight-armed against the chromium bars of the driver's cage. He leaned in close and whispered in the driver's ear. Pete cringed and again shouted at him to get the hell off his bus. The rider laughed at him through a stale cloud of cigaret smoke.
"One more chance to get rid of me," the rider said. "All you have to do is turn the bus at Seventy-second Street. A left turn toward the West Side, that's all it takes, and I'm outa your hair. Maybe even outa your life."
"Believe me, you fuck, I want to," the driver told him. "But you know damn well I can't. So don't say it anymore."
"Three blocks up Seventy-second Street," he told the driver. "Just three lousy fucking blocks out of your way. That's all I'm asking." The passenger pointed through the windshield at the approaching intersection. The light was green. "I'll make it two. Two stinkin' blocks, man. Do it. For once just do it!"
The driver's hands trembled on the wheel and the rider knew that for maybe the first time since he'd been riding the bus, the driver was weakening in his resolve. He watched him expectantly, hoping that he'd do it, knowing how much depended on his doing it, but still expecting the driver to cheat him at the last instant.
"No!" he shouted. "I told you I can't do it." The driver pushed down on the pedal a split-instant before the green light, which had changed to yellow, changed to red, and sped through the intersection toward the vacant bus kiosk at Seventy-third Street.
"Alright," the rider told him. "Have it your way. I tried being reasonable again but you wouldn't respond to my overtures. But if that's how you want it, that's how you'll get it." He dragged deeply on his cigaret. "So we'll just have to pick up where we left off before those passengers came on," he said. "Just remember that it was your call. Because it's gonna get much fucking worse before we're through today."
The rider began telling Pete about what would happen as the bus approached the intersection of Eightieth Street and First Avenue, watching the driver cringe as the words were spoken. The driver was tougher than he looked, the rider knew, but he had all morning to work on him, and if that didn't do it, then he'd be back some other time. One way or other, he would get the driver to turn the bus. No matter how long it took.