FNS: Crowded Bus Driver by Jenny McBride

Every Friday night we feature a short story, essay, personal narrative, poem,
spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.

Tonight’s flash fiction is from Jenny McBride

People get just a little bit crazy in southeast Alaska when a summer day brings not only sunshine but temperatures above seventy degrees. Adults dress and holler like children, children scamper recklessly, and the ravens are quiet for once, unnerved by this profound display of playfulness. But by the end of the day, the people who can’t don shorts and sandals and blast a spree of music, the front desk personnel from City Hall to Fish and Game, the perennially rushed road repair crews and the bus drivers, are hot and streaked with exasperation.

When Hannah boarded the bus on Friday at 5:15 it was crowded, and seemed even more so due to the raucous noise level. She showed her pass to the hulking driver, Steve, who nodded as always. Hannah always felt awkward holding up her pass because Steve knew she had one, knew where she lived and where she worked, but the rules were rules. Sometimes when the bus was mostly empty he’d joke with her. Other times he’d try to make simple conversation, but Hannah usually just put on a brave smile and nodded or laughed, or did whatever it took to effectively end the conversation she couldn’t hear. Dialogue was her worst fear.

She made her way up the aisle of the crowded Friday evening bus at a loss where to sit. She was unaccustomed to even having to look for a seat, and usually had two seats to herself. It was as if everyone she’d ever seen on the bus was riding at the same time: the young, very fat woman with the curly-haired boy and sassy little girl, the older native man who smelled of alcoholism but sat quietly, the slightly younger native man who had told her how his grandmother taught him to sew, even the lonely teenager with royal blue hair that fell across his eyes. Hannah came to a stop by the bus’s rear door and looked up the steps to the unfamiliar territory at the back, but it was no use; every seat was full. So she tightened her shoulders in a vain attempt to keep her rucksack from protruding into another passenger’s personal space and gingerly prepared to stand for the next mile and a half.

She looked outside and envied the cyclists coasting down the cross street, rain gear temporarily but decisively stowed. Such a beautiful day long after the rhododendrons’ pink flowers had fallen to a soggy sidewalk finale. But the landscape outside the window wasn’t moving as landscape seen from a bus should.

“It’s you,” said the overweight mother from just a couple feet away. Her voice was clear and loud and she was talking to Hannah.

“What?” Hannah was confused, embarrassed, ridiculously vulnerable with her hearing loss. She looked at the driver and was mortified to see him glaring at her in his mirror.

“Because of the door,” the woman explained, “can’t stand there while the bus is moving. Go figure.”

Hannah hastily retreated two steps to what she hoped was a safe spot, but just then a young man who had made a vacation of the sunny afternoon slid into the space she’d fled, bantering joyfully with a likewise carefree buddy.

“I need that door clear now!” the driver boomed.It had been a long, hot day of overgrown teenagers for him, and he sounded like an exploding classroom teacher wilting in the profoundly gentle heat.

The standing passengers shifted again at his command, even Hannah, and were slightly quieter, while the bus got underway. But a couple blocks later, while crossing the bridge over the cold and dreamy Gastineau Channel where fog meets whales and fishing boats tempt their fate, the voices rose to meet the mercury again.

Hannah stood quietly delighting in the marvelous snow-capped peaks visible to the south from mid-bridge. With that image soaring in her heart, she began to recover from the reprimand.

“I need a badge that says ‘I can’t hear’,” she thought, trying to smile but still smarting. Then she wondered about her relationship to Steve, whether he was simply usually able to hide what was a basic dislike of her. It wasn’t his fault she couldn’t hear – of course he grew impatient when she didn’t react. But it wasn’t her fault either.

She felt the need to respond somehow to his harsh words. If she could think of something, however small, it would allow her to put the whole accidental embarrassment behind her, to get on with her Friday evening and get back to the lazy joy of summer. Otherwise she might find herself sulking after a delicious pint of local IPA.

“I won’t say thank you this time,” she decided, and felt relieved at once. It was actually a pretty big deal in a town where even the most punked-out riders thanked the driver when disembarking the bus. She didn’t have to say anything when simply not saying something would make a statement.

The mother and two children got off at the low-income apartments, as did the sewing man and a couple other passengers, and Hannah found a seat. The greasy-haired guy who always looked like he was in a trance got on, followed by a teenager with a baby, and a couple more loud boys. Hannah watched the last two test the driver’s patience, and reconsidered her course. Her proud heart softened. Of all the things she loved about living Juneau, the bus ranked near the top. She hated driving; she didn’t envy the bus driver his job.

In the true spirit of the joyful weather, she understood that saying “thank you” when she got off the bus was the only thing to do, and that it would feel good. She pulled the cord for her stop, swung her rucksack back over her shoulders, and stood near the door as the bus lurched toward the Capital Transit sign at the condo driveway. The back door popped open, and before Hannah could step down and toss back her parting words, Steve called to her, “Thank you.” She caught his apologetic eye in the mirror and shot back, “Thank you” with a heartfelt emphasis on the last word.

Jenny McBride’s writing has appeared in Star 82 Review, The Rappahannock Review, Streetwise, Green Social Thought, Tidal Echoes, and other journals. She makes her home in the rainforest of southeast Alaska.

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