An Incident on Route 50
“Hey, hey, Miss Eva Johnson. C’mon in.”
“I guess that’s me,” Eva flashed her bus driver a sincere smile and stepped aboard. Reaching into her ketchup-splattered, PJ’s Diner apron, she found the fifty cents required for the ride, deposited them promptly and settled into the front seat. His nametag read “Mervin: your friendly driver,” and Eva thought it suited him well. He was a black man in his late fifties with a half dozen grey hairs protruding in each sideburn. He listened to artists like Dobie and Aretha occasionally, but low enough not to disturb passengers wanting to engage in conversation. Eva, always the sole rider on her way home, laid long-ways in the seat, pulling up tired feet and began counting tips as the bus roared past quiet department stores and flickering street lights in the night.
When they passed 42nd and Main, Mervin broke the silence with a curt laugh. “They really build thin’s fast ‘round heah. So quick... it wuhdn’t but two weeks befo’ wuhdn’t nuthin’ on this cohnah. Now, whammie-oh! Gitcha’ gas heah.”
“Yeah,” Eva affirmed. She looked up and observed the blinking building with big green lettering illuminating “STOP ‘N’ GO” against the wet pavement. Rubbing her ankles, she added, “It’s a fast-growing world and they’re all growing up and going to IHOP, I guess. Fifty bucks tonight, Merv, fifty.”
Mervin smiled and replied with a “humpf,” shaking his head. “Yuh got a good head on yuh' shoulduhs, Miss Johnson. Uh cin see that. That's mo' 'n' a lot of people that git on this heah bus. Yuh gon' be alright.” As he slowed down to make the turn onto Crestline, he bit his lip and glanced at the wind. He seemed to take note of it as if he'd seen it act this way before and didn’t like it, as if he anticipated an incoming storm.
Eva looked out the window, too, and disapprovingly pursed her lips at the grassy hill on Redbud and 42nd. “So my son-of-a-bitch ex-husband calls me the other day yelling about the court date and blah blah blah. Who egged his car yada yada-” Eva started.
“Yuh did that?” Mervin reached below his seat and retrieved a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil.
“-and I told him where to shove it.” She pulled out Loreal's Fiery Crimson Nail Glosser and began touching up her fingertips. “Friggin' son-of-a-bitch living with that little Melinda tramp from the office, while I'm waiting tables with bum feet. Look at them. These need medical attention... surgery maybe.”
Mervin took a bite of his sandwich and glanced in the bus rear-view mirror at Eva's extended legs. “Look fine, Miss Johnson.”
“You think?” Eva stuck out her lip in contemplation. “Maybe I can use the money to get this schnoz fixed, then.” At that, she turned again to the bus window and began pulling downward on her nose with her left index finger.
When she became bored, Eva reached into her sack and pulled out Dr. Phil McGraw’s Self Matters; flipping to her bookmark, she called up, “Do you believe this crap?” Then she recited, “’You have within you every skill, capacity, insight, and wisdom necessary to your mission in life. If your journey through this life has been such that it has developed and nurtured that uniqueness, you have stayed focused… If not, a world-defined, fictional self has dominated you.’ I don’t know why I buy this shit.”
“Uh try not tuh read thins that mik me feel small,” Mervin agreed, finishing his sandwich. With his left hand, he held the wheel and with his right, he carefully smoothed the foil against the dash, folded it, and placed it gently in his corduroy pocket. “Uh wanna feel big fuh muh gran’-baby Joel. Hey, hey, he gon’ be ten next Satuhday. Time sho’ goes by fast. Whammie-oh!”
At this, he went on and on about how his grandson liked baseball and Freddy movies, and that all he wanted for his birthday was a shiny, red pair of tennis shoes just like Michael Jordan wore when he slammed dunked against Pitt. State. He told her that he taught his grandson to read when he was two-and-a-half because he had always felt a calling to be a teacher, but sophomore english class and he never seemed to get along. Eva smiled and listened to his stories. She was grateful for them; they made the ride go by faster so much so that she didn’t stop him once, not even to complain about the rain.
Eva noticed a hooded man walking quickly from Sunset over to the bus, carrying a long pipe under his jacket that glinted from the rain water under the lamplight. He reminded her of Siggy Plumett, the lanky engineer who liked to come in PJ's on Saturday afternoons and order with a terrible stutter. The stutter didn't bother her so much as the bits of buttermilk biscuit that were flung from his gapped-teeth and onto her blue-striped uniform when he ordered his apple-cobler-cheesecake dessert. And he always ordered dessert. Eva sighed and pulled up her feet again, hoping the precaution would be sufficient enough to keep the rider from dripping rain water tainted with his soiled clothing on her ankles. 'Just one more block and I'll be home. Just one more,' Eva's thoughts were interrupted when the man stepped aboard and pulled the pipe from his jacket.
An ear-splitting crack echoed through the night, interrupting the soft squeal of Mervin’s old brake pads. Eva found herself on the bus floor amidst flying quarters and dimes, clutching her bag with her left hand, clenching her eyes shut and instinctively protecting her head with her right hand’s wide-spread fingers. She had no idea how she got there or how long she stayed. She heard a struggle, grunting and yelling, then fast feet scampering down the pavement. The rain was really coming down now. Fat droplets were hurled down from God or chance or some force with the power to create them; they didn’t know where they were going, but journeyed their appointed paths side-by-side until splat! That’s all it took, a collision with something new. The obstacle itself didn’t matter much: a street lamp, a stucco roof, or a bus stopped at 77th and Sunset Blvd. on Route 50. The point was that life for the rain drops had immediately changed; the droplets slowed down and spread out… wide, fusing completely with their fellow droplets; and this was a good thing.
It was Mervin’s voice, but Eva didn’t answer.
“Miss Johnson...” A warm hand touched her quivering forearm and left behind small droplets before retreating. Mervin was panting, “It’s OK, Miss Johnson. Yuh cin open yir eyes, he gone.”
Eva rose to her feet and was shaking her arm free of water when he repeated, “Open yir eyes, Miss Johnson, yuh sif now.”
Eva stood for a while, frustrated at her trembling hands and cursing her bad luck while Mervin radioed the police. When he came back, he said, “the law’s cumin’ in thuhty minutes. Jus’ sit tight, Miss Johnson.”
“Sit tight!” Eva exclaimed, “I’m going home.”
Mervin looked surprised, “We almos’ been robbed!”
“Almost… yeah… so it’s ok and I’m gonna go.”
“Miss Johnson, now, that kid didn’t tik nuthin,’ but that’s his gun theah ‘n he shot straight through mah collections. See?”
Eva turned to the door and pulled her sweater tight to prepare for the rain.
“Miss Johnson, stop!”
“Get your hands off my collar! You hurt my ankle!”
“They ain’t gon’ believe me. They gon’ thin’ Uh did this. Uf yuh don’t stay Uh’m gon’ jail tonight.”
“Don’t touch me!”
“Yuh cin tell ‘em, it wudn’t mah fauht, ‘n they’d listen tah yuh ‘coz yuh pretty ‘n smaht. They ain’t gon’ listen tuh me.”
“Let go!” Eva wriggled free and panting between adrenaline surges, she kicked hard and sprinted out the bus and down the street. She’d made it maybe fifty feet when the second crack split through the night and stopped her flight dead. She turned back; Mervin was holding a smoking revolver in his quivering grip.
“Uh ain’t never held a gun befo’ so walk slow. Yuh gon’ git back on this bus, Miss Johnson. Yuh don’t unduhstand nuthin.’”
Mervin sat down in the front seat and told Eva to drive. The drive took a long time and blocks seemed to stretch for miles. Eva passed schools and liquor stores and clubs pumping rhythmic fun into the alleyways. The rain was starting to let up, too, and the streets were lined with small rivers flowing together down the hills. He called down curses on himself as they rode and rubbed his sweaty palms against the plastic passenger seats.
“You’re not gonna get away with this,” Eva finally said.
Eva slowed to make the turn. “Did you friggin’ hear me?”
“That's why Uh'm takin' yuh wit' me. The law can't stop me 'till Uh git wheah Uh'm goin'.” He shook his head. “Yuh see that sto’ on the cohnah theah?”
Eva looked to the left at a small, dark building, hidden behind four strategically placed lilac bushes and illuminated solely by the street lamp intended to reveal the cross-street for the dead end it was. “Scotch,” she said. “I take my dry cleaning there.”
“That’s wheah Lisa wuhks. She wuhks nine tuh six ‘n reads the classifieds ever’ day. She’s sleepin’ with huh boss, Steve, too.”
“The po-lice,” Eva drug out the word and snapped it like a rubber band; she spoke as if talking to a deaf man. “They’re gonna get you.”
“’N ABC Liquo’ Sto’ right theah; they been robbed sev’n times last month ‘coz they skylight don’t have no lock. Uh guess now, this bus gon’ have its own story, too. Whammie-oh! Ain’t that sumpthin.’”
“Aren’t you afraid of the police?”
Eva felt his eyes shift back to the revolver in his clutches, “Miss Johnson, yuh comin' wit me 'til Uh git back tuh muh gran'-baby 'n' that's that. Yuh smaht, but yuh don't unduhstand too much.”
He motioned for her to turn onto a tightly compacted residential area with tall, brick apartment buildings and flat roofs, so she did. There were no fences and rusty Buicks of all colors were parked solid on the right side of the road. There was something about the air that bothered Eva here; it was thick and hung like clumps of wet cotton balls in her mouth.
"Yuh got family, Miss Johnson?"
"Family… yuh know."
"I can't breathe."
"Nev'mind." He tilted his head slightly and sighed. "The weathuh's gon' git bad soon. Mik sho' yuh pay attention as long as yuh on the road heah. Yuh always gotsta be lookin' up 'n out. Yuh only one puhson on this road heah. OK, Miss Johnson?"
“I said I can't breathe!”
“Yuh alright, Miss Johnson.”
"That's nice, Miss Johnson… nice."
Eva thought about her daughter as the wind whipped soggy leaves against the windshield and wondered if she was safe. She thought about daytime television and eating Captain Crunch with little Clara before school, and how that thought had spurred her into a fit of rage two days before when she'd kicked and kicked and kicked those shitty trashcans outside Days Inn into aluminum heaven when she'd been denied the manager position. She thought about driving in summertime. Her thoughts took her down roads filled with “all kin's a people” who yelled at their children and wore too much make-up, or who rubbed their white, middle-aged, round bellies with stubby fingers beside their barbecue grills, sucked twelve packs of Milwaukee Best dry and talked about UFO conspiracies. She was afraid of them. She was afraid of their flaws and existing in a world full of them, a world in which all might not be well and in which she was powerless to do anything to fix it. The world was big and the buildings were tall and the air was so thick a person could chew it and spit into a can.
Eva slammed on the brakes; the bus protested, screamed and slowed. “I'm not moving until you tell me where we're going. You can just friggin' shoot me!”
“Uh ain't gon' shoot yuh, Miss Johnson. We mid it. That's muh house theah.”
“You went home?”
“Miss Johnson, I know’d how this was gon' end fir me when that kid stahted wavin’ his gun lahk it was his savin’ grace. Couldn’t ‘a ended fir me any othuh way but this’n heah. One way o ‘nothuh, this was it fir me.”
Eva's tears pooled above her lower eyelid, and her face grew hot with anger. “You can't just do that to people. I'm not your friggin' student.”
Mervin inhaled and rubbed his knuckles on the seat. “Uh'm sorry, Miss Johnson. Uh jus' wanted tuh be big fir muh gran'-baby, Joel. Didn't want them to stop me fo' Uh mid it heah.”
“You've got no right to-”
“Change people like this. What are you going to do?”
“A man can't be big in no iron cage.”
At that, Eva dropped her purse on the coin-littered floor and lunged at Mervin. She hated him for the bus ride and how he'd made her feel so small in this suffocating world. She prayed for death, for relief from the developing storm and an answer to the madness gnashing about in her brain and got neither. Unsatisfied with God's lack of response, she'd ripped the gun from Mervin's slippery grip and fallen hard into the broken metal collection tube. Breathing slowly and intentionally through her small nostrils, she pointed the weapon up at Mervin and stared straight ahead into his corduroy overalls, wet and stuck to his skin.
“Eva,” he said. His eyes looked a little sad as he rose steadily to his feet and placed his enormous, age-cracked hands comfortably at his side.
Eva waited for him to lunge, step forward, say something else, anything else. But he simply stood meeting her gaze and the lamplight down the street illuminated his wet neck and head a deep blue.
Eva fired off five cracks in the night and crimson droplets spread out wide against the seats, windshield, and Eva's PJ's Diner apron. When she was done, she rose to a small crouch and smeared the red splatterings on her uniform into smudges, wondering how she would afford a replacement. With small quivering fingers, she picked up a red tube of nail polish, fifty cents, dropped them together in her purse and wiped the trigger clean with her apron. The rain eventually let up and the air cleared. As Eva walked home, she rubbed irritated eyes with dirty hands and cursed her bad luck under the ever-present rustling of wind-teased oak branches above her head; at her feet a small river, slightly tinted pink, flowed past her, down the hill, turned left at the cross-street and went fast-streaming toward the city.