Bus Driver, by Jessica Barksdale

Early winter rain beats down on the windshield, counting out Nick’s list of failed aspirations. It goes like this: nothing, swish, police officer, swish, Army reserve officer, swish, wild land fire fighter, swish, landscaper, swish. But then finally, swish, success: senior center bus driver. Left out of the list are all the other random jobs he applied for, most of which never called him back, jobs he never even had a chance to aspire to.  Things had gone downhill fast. Things, as his mother might say, had not gone as planned from that moment almost two years ago when he graduated from college with a degree in history.

Nick sighs, starts the big bus engine that rumbles under him like bad plumbing, buckles himself in tight. The seat under him is a soggy marshmallow, except when he shifts and feels first one hard spring and then another. As he puts the bus into drive, the armrests chatter.

He’s only twenty-four, and yet he looks back at the past two years with nostalgia, as though his hopeful self was a movie he watched years ago in a theatre.  There he is, eating popcorn, watching.  How he stood straight and stern, wearing his green cap and gown and holding his diploma, smiling at all four of his parents–his mother and stepfather and father and stepmother–as they held up tiny digital cameras.  His girlfriend Lila’s parents took photos of them both, beautiful Lila with her sharp green eyes staring up at Nick, her five foot two to his six foot one.

“Another shot!” someone said, and then someone said again: “Smile!”

How positive he was, at that moment, that things would work out. How happy and excited he and Lila were as they packed up their little blue house and moved down to the Bay Area so Lila could start her master’s program in English and he could enter into one of the various police academies that would imminently accept him. At that moment of graduation, he’d had three academy interviews.  Flying back home to the Bay Area three times over that spring for each, he took three tests, passing all with high marks, especially the physical tests: the mile, the wall climb, the pull and sit ups.

The interviewers slapped him on the shoulder, shook his hand, nodded. Later in the parking lots, Nick stood in groups of applicants, all of them standing wide-legged, their arms folded, joking around as if they were already a force, a squad, colleagues discussing overtime. Now he wonders if any of them got admitted.

After each interview in San Jose, Livermore, and Novato, Nick came home to his mother’s house, Lila there waiting for him, and they along with his stepfather celebrated Nick’s obvious good fortune. At least, they’d had steak and glasses of red wine.  Nick was sure that when he and Lila came back in a couple of months, he’d have a certain, definite life waiting.

Except for the form letters stating that his applications would be put on file for one year, he heard nothing.

Now Nick clicks on the bus’ turn signal and pulls the great beast into the round-a-bout, idling in front of the center’s automatic double doors and waiting for the parade of the slightly dead to hump out and pile in and then it would be off to Trader Joe’s, Safeway, CVS, or some big box store, and the park, though the outdoor outing was likely going to be cancelled today.  Ramona, the activities coordinator, would tell him what was on the agenda.  All Nick had to do was help the folks in and out, drive, and stand by the doors to make sure none of them left the stores during the visit.

That’s what he could write on his resume now:  Babysitter.

The windshield wipers beat one, two. The rain slid down the shield, the heater pumped out great gasps of hot air, the temperature having to be one hundred fricking degrees or the old ones moaned and shivered.

Nick leaned back, his left leg twitching.

At his last police academy interview, a dude sitting next to him during the written test said, “Army reserve.”

“What?”

“That’s right.  Army reserve.  Do a stint and then you’re golden.  Shows you know how to fit in.  Pull together.  At that point, you’d be Army, man. You’d be bone fide.”

Nick never saw the guy again, but after the third academy never called back, he took the dude’s advice and went to the local reserve office. He’d told Lila but not his extended parental unit, knowing that at least two of them would have anti-war morality objections.

“You are the perfect recruit,” Sergeant Gallagher said. He was tall and thin except for a belt of fat around his middle, a rounded laziness of smooth pudge that was tucked down into his unwrinkled, possibly polyester based pants. The recruit office was small and dark, the blinds warped and partially pulled and crooked.

“Broken,” Sergeant Gallagher said.  “On order.”

“So you think that I can get in?”

“No brainer.” The sergeant talked more about the process, handed Nick all sorts of informational packets and a huge application. There were so many questions about family history and former addresses that later, Nick was forced to call his mother to find out the details about his step-father as well as his father, places of birth and parents’ names. Somehow, she’d swallowed back the anxiety Nick could feel through the invisible phone call air.

“I also need to know something else,” he began. “What was the name of that psychologist I went to in high school?”

“Hmm,” his mother said, and she’d hung up, promising to call him back when she found the doctor’s name, which she did on an old check register.

And that was what caused the problems.

Peering out the bus and through the double doors, Nick watches the elderly line up, the women clutching purses and empty Trader Joe’s bags, the men as jaunty as they could be in their slacks and caps and buttoned up sweaters.  Nick likes older people, sort of how he likes old movies or art work, both things he views occasionally, on purpose, in controlled areas. But these folks aren’t controlled, really, and do what they want to, at least when they get into the stores.

Once as he stood near a store exit waiting for Ramona to herd them all toward the exit, a middle-aged couple passed by saying, “Shit, it’s like night of the living dead in the aisles.”

“Discount Tuesdays,” the man said. “Bring out your feeble and infirm.”

“They’re using the carts like walkers,” the woman said.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Now as Nick watches Eveline through glass open and close her umbrella—open, closed, open, closed—and Sam yank on his belt and Montserrat stand stock still and stare out the door glass right back at him, he agrees with the fast walking couple who darted outside to escape.  In fact, right now as Nick sits in the bus, he can still feel them as they whooshed by, pouring out into the sunshine of the rest of their fabulous middle-aged day.

“We have so many applicants,” Sergeant Gallagher said on the second visit, “that while a psychologist’s report once would be excused, not so much now.  We need him to write a letter.  A rebuttal to his diagnosis.”

“Diagnosis?” Nick said.  “What do you mean?”

Nick stared at Gallagher’s face, feeling his suddenly enormous heart beating in his throat, his legs tingling.  He wanted to get up and run out of the room, but he forced himself to sit still, his eyes on the sergeant’s.

“Social anxiety,” Gallagher said.  “It’s a big disqualifier for the Army.  You know, a big no for us. Needs an explanation from the doc. And then another hard look at your application.”

Out on the street later, Nick knew it was no good.  Everyone in the country was like him—educated and broke—so who would take a socially anxious person over some dumb eighteen-year-old with no problems or brain, for that matter.  All the easier to turn him “Army” and totally bone fide. Golden.

He’d left the office and never went back, never called his old psychologist who’d diagnosed him that year when his parents burst open all their lives, that year when his first real girlfriend Allison ran away from home not with Nick, but with Brian, that douche bag who wore the black jeans and the long chains, one for his wallet, one around his neck. After that, all he wanted to do was stay in his room for the year of the no Alison and the separation and divorce and then the courtships his parents went through with different people, new people he was suddenly supposed to love.

Social anxiety? Well, yeah.

“Hi, dear,” Eveline says, walking onto the bus, her umbrella still partially open, water dripping off the brim of her floppy yellow hat.  “Having a good day?”

Nick nods. “Morning, Eveline.”

Eveline smiles, spends some time furling her umbrella, even though Sam and Montserrat are right behind her, Montserrat shaking her Trader Joe bags like crackling musical instruments.

“Let’s get on, shall we?” Ramona says from behind Sam.  Eveline starts, apologizes, and tiptoes down the bus aisle.  The rest of the folks board, saying hi to Nick, Nick nodding and smiling as he was told to do when he finally found this job.

“Think of yourself as a tour guide,” the center director Mrs. Ryan said. “You are taking them to the amusement park. You are taking them out for the time of their lives.”

So Nick jokes a little with Sam and the other old gents and lets Ramona take care of the meltdowns and bladder control disasters. He’s prepared for disasters, though, having now gone through two intensive wild land fire fighting training sessions in Salida, Colorado. He can run up dry hills with water hoses and buckets.  He can put out fires with fires.  He knows how to cover himself with the fire resistant blanket and let a wall of flame roar over him.

He’s ready for the seasonal job, only four months of the year, the rest in some job like this.

But so far, Nick is still waiting, stuck on the list of the people to be called if any county or state economy decides to hire anyone to do anything.  Everywhere is so broke, Nick supposes they might just let the hills and forests burn and burn and burn.

Because he thought it would be a good way to keep in shape and stay outdoors, Nick asked his father’s friend Max for a landscaping job. But Max wanted to pay him as much as he paid the men he picked up on 4th street in Berkeley, the guys from Guatemala and Oaxaca and Sonora, the guys who would do anything for anything. Nick knows he is really in the same boat, though maybe he sits in the captain’s chair and wears a fancier hat.  But he couldn’t haul dirt all day up and down backyards and dig trenches and tree holes for eight dollars an hour.

That failure led to Mrs. Ryan, this wild adventure tour job he now has paying twelve fifty an hour plus lunch.

“I’m going to get some of that delicious salsa,” Montserrat whispers to him from the seat just behind his.  “Hide it in my room.”

She sings the last part, her whisper a swell of up.

Nick looks at Montserrat in his driver’s mirror, the thick, wide expanse of glass that allows him to see all his passengers.  Montserrat must have been a beautiful woman when she was younger.  Maybe she still is, her skin wrinkled but not folded in on itself, her hair completely white but long, tucked into a neat bun, like a ballerina’s. Her eyes are dark and bright and intense, no thick glasses between her and the world.

He should tell her to not hide the salsa in her room, but he doesn’t.  The center has a communal kitchen and shared refrigerator, but most of the residents still want something for themselves. He should tell Ramona about Montserrat’s plan.  But he doesn’t do that, either.  Instead, he winks, closes the big bus doors after Simon sits down—complaining about having to sit in the front seat like a baby—and drives on to Trader Joe’s, Montserrat’s secret safe.

As Nick waits for the folks to do their shopping, he stands by the buckets of cut flowers, shifting on his feet, feeling his phone buzzing in his pocket.

“No phone or texting while on duty,” Mrs. Ryan said.  “You don’t know how sharp some of our residents are.  They can slip by you like water rats.”

Today he’s glad he can’t look at his phone, knowing that Lila is likely the one trying to get his attention, his phone jumping since he left their apartment in a deep funk, his body feeling heavy as concrete pilings.

“What does it feel like when you ‘can’t do anything’?” his psychologist asked him once. “What is it like in your body?”

Nick couldn’t describe the stuck, suffocating feeling he had back in high school, but he knows now, his body like that poem he read in college, Ozymandias. There he was, King of Kings, a lump of forgotten history buried in sand: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone.

Lila wants him to go back to school. His mother wants him to go back to school. His grandmother wants him to go back to school and get his PhD in history and then work for the movies.

“You know every gun there is to know!” she said once after they left a war film that had featured guns from the wrong war in pivotal scenes that were all wrong, too. “You could tell them what’s what.”

His father wants him to take the job another one of his friends offered him, entry-level customer service at a technology company.  Sitting at a desk and answering phones. Sixty thousand a year, five days a week, 4:30 am to 1:30 pm plus benefits and paid holidays.

“You can’t always do what you want to do,” his father said.  “I don’t know why you think a job should be something you love.  Why do you think they call it work, for god’s sake?”

Nick nodded and let his father send him the email info, but he never contacted his father’s friend and tried to ignore his father’s subsequent efforts to encourage.

“Sixty thousand,” his father said during their last phone call. “I can’t imagine starting out like that. Jesus, Nick.”

Dead, Nick thinks.  Starting out dead in a chair in an office in a building. Nothing to do but talk to unhappy people about service they weren’t getting but thought they should.

“Potential for advancement,” his father said.

Death first, Nick thought. Death and burial and then a promotion.

“I’m going to buy it,” Montserrat says, cutting Nick a sexy, furtive old lady glance.  “I’m going to the cash register.”

Nick nods, watches Montserrat swing herself over to the express line.  As if robbing a bank, she looks over her shoulder once, twice for the authorities, and then, relieved that Ramona is nowhere in sight, she inches forward in line, hands the clerk the salsa, and pays for it, smiling and chatting as she does.

“What’s she buying now?” Ramona asks, sidling next to Nick like a cat.  She smells like cocoa butter or a cracked warm coconut, something tropical and heavy. Her hair is a wild twirl of curl, her eyes on her charges even as she stands by Nick. “Come on.  Don’t try to hide it. She tries this every time.”

“Salsa,” Nick says.

“Humph,” Ramona says.  “Remember what happened with that guacamole? It was a disaster.”

Montserrat hid a container of guacamole in her dresser for two weeks until it started to almost walk. Eveline told Nick all about it, adding, “I must admit it smelled untoward and foul.”

Nick wants to tell Ramona to leave Montserrat alone, to turn away and head up the frozen foods aisle to get Sam away from Florence, the couple unable to curb their habit of walking abreast with their carts, a bulldozer of age hogging the aisles.

But he knows she’s just doing her job, and like his father said, why would anyone love a job?

“Where are we going next?” he asks.

“Wal Mart,” Ramona says, looking at her watch.  “Then back to the center. The park is out due to inclement weather. Hey! Sam! Hey.”

Ramona is off, bee-lining toward Sam, who is nuzzling Florence and causing a log jam.

Nick feels his phone jump again, and he puts his hand on his pocket, pressing the phone to his thigh, feeling it pulse like a bad heart.

He’s going to, what? Go back to school, take the desk job, start landscaping with the hombres from everywhere but here.  He’s going to break up with Lila so she can be with someone who is doing something worthwhile, smart, good.  He’s going to go and find Allison, who moved back to their hometown a couple of years ago.  He’s going to tell her how she broke his heart and then laugh about it. He’s going to hope she looks horrible. Or really good. He doesn’t know which scenario is better, but he’s going to tell her about his year of pain and make her listen. Nick is going to find that fucking psychologist and tell the asshole how he ruined his life.  First he didn’t fix his life and then he ruined it worse. He’s going to tell his real parents that they suck for staying married so long while being unhappy and for breaking up what he’d gotten used to. He’s going to tell his stepparents that they are just okay.  Fine. Suitable. He’s going to ask his college for a refund, four years tuition including one session of summer school, payable now.

He’s going to tell Montserrat to keep the salsa in her room. He’s going to buy her a bag of chips. He’s going to remind her to eat everything.

The rain has stopped, the sky broken bits of blue and white glass, the green hills around the center glistening. Nick has turned down the heater and promised Eveline that they will go to the park tomorrow.

“If it isn’t raining,” Ramona reminds them both from the back seat of the bus.

“Even if it is raining,” Nick whispers, knowing that Eveline can’t hear him.

At the center, the residents disembark, and Ramona tells him to pull the bus around back and give it a good vacuuming (Fred opened his bag of Asian snacks all over the carpet).

Nick salutes, closes the door, and then feels his phone vibrate again. He sighs, and wonders what he will tell Lila this time. Nothing happened to him again today, nothing that would make her love him more, only less, everything eroding until she finally leaves him, too.

He looks at the screen and sees the evidence of twenty texts and messages, the last one something he can’t stop staring at, the words like Russian or Arabic, even though the message is in English, from Lila, and it reads:  goddamn it nick! where are u? they called here at home!! call me!

Nick doesn’t know what to think, but his body does, everything inside of him shaking, almost two years of waiting trying to leave his body all at once. He can’t move or breathe, and he doesn’t want to, needing to stay right here, in this moment when he can believe, wants to believe, imagines, yes.

***

Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, and teaches online creative writing classes for UCLA Extension.

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