Tandem – A Short Story


Here is a short story that I wrote a few years ago. It’s been “under construction” for it’s whole existence and will probably undergo a few more edits. It was almost published in a literary magazine, but it was far too long. I was happy just to be considered. Anyways, here it is…

Tandem

The bus pulls into the station; 2:00am. The air hisses as it releases from under the bus, lowering onto its tires. The doors swing open with a metallic creak and a man dressed in a public transit agent uniform steps out. His heavily shoed feet hit the pavement with a slight smacking noise.

He looks tired, the bags under his eyes are heavy and red, the skin on his hands is dry and cracked, his hat is skewed atop his head, his pants are worn and wrinkled, his tie is crooked and loosened, his jacket carries the distinct combined smell of sweat and bleach, and his brown shoes are scuffed with ripped laces. He sighs and closes the bus doors as he vacates; his shift is over, his everlasting bus ride has paused for another night.

He leaves the bus depot, closing the doors until the early birds come and take the buses for their morning outings. The buses will start with a jump, leaving their beds gleefully, forgetting that they won’t have time to rest until they are put back in their dark closets.

*****

            It’s 10:00pm. The clock’s minute hand races by the numbers when I look to the mounds of paper laying on my desk, waiting to be sorted, but when I look up at the clock, it slows, so slow it looks as if time has stopped. I’ve already taken up all my over-time hours, so I’m not being paid, not for the last week of nights spent trying to deal with these mountain ranges of paper. I don’t even know what I’m doing with them.

I have to finish one more stack, just one more stack and I can head home, home to my one room apartment with the single bed, kitchenette, and typewriter, one that seems to only gather dust these days. The paper sits in it, taunting me. It smirks and jeers, telling me I’m a worthless writer, that ever since I took that office job to “pay the bills” I’ve become a cubical prisoner.

The final stack for this days pointless greetings, water cooler chit chat, and “yes sirs”, “no problem Cheri, Cindy, Sally, Marge, Becky” (or any other generic secretary name) is finally diminishing. One more paper to sort, one more stamp to ink, one more card to punch; but it isn’t one more really, it’s never one more, every day it starts again.

I leave the office, the same one some are so proud to have found a steady job in. They can have my job if they want steady, reliant, punctual, nauseating. –These are the adjectives my authoritative mind has been reduced to, generic, boring, nauseating…that one comes up a lot.

I wave to George, (the so called) reliable janitor. He’s never forgotten to take out my trash. Maybe they should have given him my position. I’m sure his reliability would come in handy. I could take his job.

I see myself in the blue-grey janitor jump-suit. I would write Jerry, John, Bob, or Pete on my name tag. I’d watch the men dressed in their suits come and go, smiling because I would know where they head off to. I would know everything because I would take out their trash; I would piece together their discarded lives and know who they were from their disposal lives.

George isn’t old; he only looks worn out, some call that old. But he has this look, one of mayhem. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day George’s Masters Degree in chemistry led him to give all these phony business men a good Bang. But then again, he could just put bleach in the coffee maker. The real question is why hasn’t he done it already?

With briefcase in hand, (my prop of a briefcase, the one containing only my wallet, a few pennies, and a stick of gum), I walk up to the bus stop. I see the graffiti on the bus stop sign every day, the “BUS” in “BUS STOP” has been crossed out in red spray paint and in its place they have written “DON’T” in a think black permanent marker someone has added “IT’S NOT WORTH IT.” Amen, Friend.

The 11:15 bus pulls up to the curb with a squeak in the tires. The doors open to reveal the bus driver, the same one I see every night. He’s middle aged, but thin. I know him by the red bags under his eyes; I smile at him when I plunk my change into the toll box. He manages to lift the corners of his mouth. He puts the bus into gear and I sit at the front, side ways watching the world go by.

Who’s on the bus tonight? I catalogue these people, as if I were going to try to pawn them off on someone else. A young women with a little girl…the woman can’t be more than 23. She’s thin, but the beauty in her has been beaten out by life, most likely when she had to give birth in her teens. A kid with a mohawk sits near the back of the bus, head phones on, face pierced and make-up around his eyes. When did youth become so painted? He’s dressed as if he can’t afford any new clothes, but judging by the shiny new mp3 player that sits in his palm, he’s just trying to piss off Mommy and Daddy. An old woman sits, leaning against the clear plastic pillars that separate the back bus doors, she’s asleep. A shawl is wrapped tightly around her hair-pin curls, her mouth open, exposing her pearly white dentures; her hands cling to her handbag on her lap. (I wouldn’t trust us bus goers either.) There’s one more man, I missed him sitting in the back corner with his hands clenching the seat in front of him. He’s jittery, and his eyes are tiny. A junkie, most likely. His fix looks like its wearing off. He’s so thin, probably hasn’t had anything to eat in days.

I watch them; my suitcase taps at my foot as the bus jumps over potholes in the concrete. The young woman clasps onto the shoulder of the little girl. The little girl is restless, she wants to stand, walk along the aisle of the bus, and she’s not afraid of people yet, only curious. But the young woman is, she’s seen too much in her youth to trust them. “Stella, sit still we’re almost there.” She looks sharply at the little girl. She’s cute, the little one, could be in a TV series, one of those family shows where the kids get into some crazy shenanigans and the parents lovingly teach them a lesson. Her mother isn’t like that, she’s stern, afraid. She has the right to be, or at least I think she does. (What do I really know about these people? These arbitrary riders all of which have nothing to do with one another, look how none of us interact, we just sit.)

I glance out the window, and I recognize the buildings trotting by, shit. I pull the rubbery line that runs along the bus, connecting us all, (I hope we haven’t passed my stop.)

The breaks creak and the bus driver sighs. I pass him and nod a thank you, I don’t believe he needs, or even wants my words. I step off into my dingy street and look up at the bus stop sign. This one is graffitied too, the “BUS” in the “BUS STOP” is also scratched out, it now reads, “STOP IT ENDS HERE.”

*****

My ankles are swollen again, this medication is no help. Good thing the pharmacy was open late though. The pharmacist reminds me of Jack. I miss him.

I wait for the bus on the street, it’s a nice enough neighbourhood, my joints are getting weaker but I refuse to let Karen drive me around, I may be old but I can get around myself. My, I’m getting so tired… no wonder it’s 9:30! I should have been home ages ago.

The bus is pulling in at the stop, thank goodness. I get on and thank the bus driver, he smiles. What a nice young man. I waddle to my seat (my sore ankles make me waddle) and lean against the clear plastic, I’m so tired…

 

“Excuses me!” I wake with a start, did I doze off?

“Ma’am, isn’t this your stop?” I look up the bus driver is shouting at me from the front. I stand and put my hand through the rings on my handbag.

“Oh yes! Thank you so much I almost missed it.” The bus was already sitting in front of my little house. I glanced back at the seats and only saw a very thin young man sitting in the back, he must be starving, skin and bones he is! I do hope he has some place warm to go home to.

I get off, and my ankles ache as I step down onto the hard road side. Good thing I live so close to the bus stop. I waddle towards my house and Scarlet comes to greet me, meowing. “Oh you little devil, I must have left a window open. She rubs her head against my leg, she must be hungry. I usher her inside and lock the door behind me.

*****

“Stella, please honey keep up we don’t want to miss our bus.” She’s hyper from spending too much time at my mother’s, she must have given her coco. God damn it Mother, now she’ll be hyper on the bus and never stop moving. How many times do I have to repeat myself to that woman?!

Its 9:57, the bus is going to be at the stop in 3 minutes, “Stella, honey, pick up your feet!” I don’t want to wait on this corner for an extra half hour; Stella’s teachers already complain that she is too tired in class. What do they expect? I’m a single mother, I have two jobs and Stella spends most of her time with my retired mother who refuses to help me out in any other way, she insists “you’ve made your own shitty little bed, now go ahead and lay down in it.” Thanks Mom.

I drag Stella as we turn the corner, good we haven’t missed it. As we step up to the bus stop the bus rounds the corner. It creaks and we get on. The bus driver smiles at us. He knows us by now, the teenage mother and her little girl. I smile back, I know how he must feel, working the night shift.

I usher Stella to a seat near the front of the bus. An old lady leans against the plastic separator next to the back doors. She’s asleep, I pray Stella doesn’t wake her; I don’t need to deal with that.

Stella’s sugar high is kicking in; she fidgets and squirms as I try to keep her on her seat.

In the back of the bus I see the same junkie I see on this bus every night. His face scares Stella, and I don’t blame her, she calls him Skeleton Man, he sure looks it. A punkish kid sits in the back near the junkie. I’ve seen him around our street, he lives in our building. His parents are well off but refuse to move to another place, god knows why. I think his name is Neil…but his friends call him something else. He looks a lot like Tucker when I fell for him, what a stupid idea that was. I’m surprised he stuck around for more than a day after Stella was born. He wanted a boy, he didn’t get what he wanted, and neither did I.

The bus slows around the business district. I watch as a man in a wrinkled looking blue suit steps on. His face is vague and uninteresting. I don’t worry about him so much, a clicking, something like pennies hitting one another, comes from his suitcase, Stella looks amused.

I grasp Stella shoulder to keep her on the seat. God damn it kid stop moving! “Stella sit still we’re almost there.” She whines, of course. I keep an eye on the junkie in the back; he doesn’t seem to be moving other than his constant twitching. The punk kid is oblivious to me, but I know he’s seen me in the building.

The ding of the line being pulled startles me; I wasn’t paying any attention to the business man. The bus driver slows the bus, the brakes creak again, Stella giggles. She once told me they sound like her favorite cartoon characters saying, “eeek”. The business man gets off and I see him stand in the place where he was dropped off while we drive away, he must have gotten off at the wrong stop, poor guy.

Stella keeps on squirming; the sugar high is at its peak. “Stella, sit down now.” She pouts and swings her feet. Yeah, yeah just keep still will you. She never stops. Finally I see our stop up ahead, good.

“Mommy when we get home can I watch TV?”

I sigh, “No honey, its late you have to get to bed when we get home.” I tug on the line. Again she pouts, you’d think I was telling her that I killed her puppy.

That punk kid is stirring, getting up, standing at the back doors. I can feel the bus braking under my feet. Stella shoots out of her seat and hurries to the front doors.

“Thanks” I say to the bus driver as we get off, he nods, yeah I wouldn’t waste your vocal cords on us either.

I watch the punk kid go straight into the building as I fumble with Stella. I hurry off towards the door of the building, hoping that Stella will fall asleep soon, I need some sleep.

*****

“Hey man, I better head out; my parents will be pissed if I’m not home by eleven.” I hate having to leave early; Devon always makes fun of me.

“Ha-ha, you’re parents have you on a short leash there N!”

“Fuck off man! They pay for my shit, even if they don’t know about it.”

“Hah, alright man I’ll see yah.” Devon waves me out the door.

I walk towards the bus stop, I think it’s the right one, but who cares, I can be a little late, wont kill my parents, they hate everything I do anyways, one more thing wont kill them, unfortunately.

The bus pulls up and the brakes creak annoyingly. I pull my mp3 player out and put my earbuds in. The bus driver looks old, and pitiful. I drop my fare in the metal box and walk to the back of the bus. An old lady sleeps against the plastic thing that bars the sides of the back doors. She has her hands clutched tightly around her little purse, not like she’d have anything worth stealing anyways. I sit at the back of the bus; put my feet up against the seat in front of me. My mohawk grazes the back wall of the bus. I need this thing to be shorter, but I can’t cut it, Devon will think I’m a pussy for not being “devote” to it.

The music blasts my ears, “TRASH FLAVOURED TRASH”, but I feel the bus slowing under me, its jerky and creaky, get a new bus old man. A cracked out guy gets on, he’s shivering, must have no where else to go. Not the worst idea, getting on a bus to stay warm, I guess it’s cheaper than a hotel, and less shitty than underneath the over pass. He sits on the opposite end of the seat I’m on. He better not touch me, he looks dirty.

I zone out, until the bus jerks again to pick up somebody. It’s a chick and a little kid. She must have been hot once, before she spat that brat out. I notice that the kid won’t stop jerking around.

I stare out the window and watch the buildings go by, they are all so cold and dark, and they seem to smile. Then they stop running at a business looking building. A guy gets on, he looks haggard and worn. Blue collar slave, I won’t succumb to that shit, even though Dad’s pushing me to get a job. Maybe I can work in the metal shop, or at the rock shop down on Main. That would be kick ass.

The blue collar guy gets off first, what a chump rides the bus for like five minutes. Oh well, my stops getting close anyways. The music blasts through my head.

Finally I notice the bus slowing, shit did I miss my stop? Nope that chick who I think lives in my building is getting off…at my stop huh guess she does. I get up and stand by the doors waiting for them to open. Finally they do and I rush for the door, shit its 11:10, Dad’s gonna let me have it.

*****

It’s so cold on the street. All I have is a quarter, and some change I found on the side of the pavement. A bus rounds the corner! I have enough for a ride, its warm on the bus. I’m all jittery, that spice I bought earlier is already wearing off. Man that guy sold me some real shit. But it should get me threw the bus ride, and then I can detox somewhere else for the night. The dealers always find me by morning.

The driver looks at me funny. He’s seen me before, nearly every night this week. Sorry man I gotta keep warm.  I see an old woman sleeping against the plastic wall of the back door, and a kid all punked out at the back where the heaters are. I’m sure he doesn’t want to sit with me, but too bad kiddo I need to be warm. He glares at me with his painted eyes, I used to be like you, you know? Don’t take what you have for granted kid, you’ll miss it a whole lot more than you think.

A bit of the actual spice hits my veins, a feel the serge of my weakness. Oh thank Jesus; at least I get a little bit of the good stuff. My eyes fixate on the back of the driver’s head I may creep him out but I need this… “I” melts away into everything and nothing…yes.

 

No, no! It can’t be over, not yet. What total shit. I pass in and out of lucidity, I remember the old lady getting off and looking back at me sadly, and the kid getting off without a look at anyone, and a woman with a little girl, she was cute but her mother didn’t look too happy about her being around, and that guy, that plain vacant man, he must have it bad, not too bad, but internally he looked…dead.

My eyes feel glazed. “Hey last stop!” the bus driver looks at me with sad eyes, he must know I came for the warmth, like I try to every night. I nod at him hesitantly; my knees knock together while I get up. My body shakes as I vacate the bus. I’ve been dropped off near a city park. That should have a bathroom or something I can spend the night it, to detox…what a pain that will be, at least there’s a toilet to throw up in, oh the little luxuries of life.

*****

I put on my brown shoes, I hate these they hurt my feet. I get up and put on my worn old uniform. It’s older then I am, but hey a guy’s got to work. I kiss my son as he naps in his crib. He’s so big for six months. I kiss my wife good bye, she’s tired…it’s her time to rest, my time to work. I always get the night shift these days.

I walk to the bus depot and get into my old rickety bus; I think she’s even older than my uniform. I have the greatest urge to name the bus Betsy.

It’s 5:00pm, time for my tandem ride to start.

©M.E. Kalous

3 thoughts on “Tandem – A Short Story

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