Bus Route 270
The mind is a vast sea, her turbulent waters formless, yet there is form. The road there, his hands there on the huge bus steering wheel, the twelve people sitting behind him on this lonely-ever ride from East Taylor Avenue all the way to Stearns Mall and back. Clive was only 33, but he felt 40. He was too fat for 33. He had found solace in food, and the sitting, of course, led to 150 pounds too many. The solace he sometimes found was a gift, seeping in from the edges of life. Then there were his nightly bus dreams, so random. Half the time he was at ease but then he would flit into a tense and shaky world.
Had there not been a barrier between he and those four million people he knew that he would have lost it long ago. He wouldn’t have been able to control yelling at the masses that do the stupidest things: bring cigarettes on to the bus, become belligerent, or do things like talk uncontrollably while hordes wait to board. Stupidity was so prevalent among his riders that he gave thanks to the Almighty for the barrier. The payment system was automatic and flawless. The only ones he had to worry about were those who didn’t pay, but most paid. Few feel that they can scam a city bus and get away with it. The bus driver was always right there.
But Clive wasn’t right there, not really, for he was too much aware of life. His thoughts were his burden. He could not pull himself from feeling the wracking yet silent storm that doctors call the unconscious. While others go through their lives in basic, outward ways, Clive lived as a true introvert. He made friends with moments, friends or enemies, that is. Unlike others who looked forward to the future while holding tightly to the present moment, those heroes, Clive’s present moments were always things that grabbed him, or perhaps he them, and he was whirled upwards, this way or that, or even all the way down.
Perhaps he was bi-polar, an ex-girlfriend had told him that, but she had been angry with him. He didn’t think so. He was a man who felt as deeply as any woman. He just couldn’t stop feeling the show, the movement of the inner realms. He never made a show of his inward confusions or expansions. Never rambled or raised an eyebrow. He betrayed nothing, but he traced and remembered every colored mood, often perplexed by how things he didn’t even know he was thinking about made him feel.
“You’re too sensitive, Clive. Why don’t you be a man about it,” once said Nancy. Nobody had ever taught him about this unseen ocean inside. He had never sought help. He was simply its chained perceiver, living in an unlikely way, dismissed by most as emotionally void, as day traded day. He didn’t like it, didn’t like living in what he once thought to himself, driving the bus down 12th, a “poetic” fashion. If he could communicate what he felt people might sympathize with the death of his upward mobility, his petrified potential, but they wouldn’t understand him. No way would they understand him. It would be like a foreign language to them, nothing but symbol and fateful, invisible causes; hurts and answers all wrapped up in a cloud.
He couldn’t help attempting to follow the logic of his personal chaos. Sometimes the unconscious river would rise and he would feel a certain emotion that would provide an explanation pointing at actual forms, reasons for his existence and state, like a bottle suddenly visible bobbing on top of the placid movement of the water. These realizations could carry him if only briefly. It would perhaps be a discovery concerning something somebody had said; a relative in the past, perhaps an injustice recently survived that would give him peace and a sense of forward movement that he felt might possibly lead him away from hopelessness, which was the number one thing that kept him driving the bus and not taking chances.
The flow went on and on as he drove these manic streets and he knew about it mainly through his moods which he studied like a scientist, hoping that some final redeeming, life-giving truth would be released and end the process once and for all. He hoped, and there was a lot of hoping, that he would be allowed in on the true story of the process of what he was, because it held secret promises of safe and happy dreamworlds into which to escape and rest.
To live in dream, to bathe in fantasy, with its smooth edges and lifting truths, was the only thing that would budge him out of his chair into a better future. Non-interruption of the dreaming flow could provide the initiative to find more practical truths, things you can take to the bank, like finding that first bit of gold in a giant unseen vein beneath you. To live in dream would be to live easily without first having to wade through those fetid emotions that Clive ducked like incoming fire.
He turned on 7th again and then scratched himself under his thigh ferociously. The itch was a spike, as though his body were revolting suddenly. When he turned he noticed the woman sitting there. She sat on the side seat reserved for the elderly, of which there were none, and when he turned he found that she was staring at him. He smiled faintly and then turned back to his job. The feeling of the woman stayed with him. She was also an African-American, 30-ish just like he was, and pretty, much too pretty for him, but plain enough that he entertained the idea of halving the window down and speaking with her, just for the hell of it.
He felt her while he avoided looking at her. Once again the feeling led him directly to all things past and present, the whole morass, necessary to deal with first in order to attain some better future. The process, so only his, frustrated him. He hated himself. He thought of Nancy and her way of being that was so other than his, then the way that she looked when he first met her at the bar on Tally Way back in Swiss Township, Maryland, where he grew up. Always Nancy, at first, then at last, for Nancy loved him and then ceased to love him.
Already this woman was painted with the color of Nancy so that she was really only half woman to Clive, half stranger and half Nancy, and therefore the mere idea of her was already polluted by the million thoughts that he knew he would have to endure if he were to actually pursue her. He pushed the dream of a new beginning away by snorting out through his nose, a push of air that he tried to cover up by wiping his nose as though he had had a natural impulse, a little sneeze. Aware of his odd reaction, his head naturally turned to the side and back at the woman. He was already tagged when their eyes met. She was still staring directly at him.
Perhaps she wasn’t staring at him but was only looking in his direction. Of course this could be the case. He turned nonchalantly and looked, this time straight on, just to answer the question for himself. She smiled at him and then lowered her eyes. My god, he thought, she likes me. She likes Me! But then he clammed up. The engine roared as ever. Of course, she doesn’t like Me! He quickly reasoned it away. When he looked again, she was no longer looking, but staring out the window just like all the others, watching the city go by, probably feeling what he felt every hour of his day. Of course she had disappeared. He wasn’t sure, but he had perhaps furrowed his brow. Or it would have been the distance that he could put between himself and another in a millisecond without knowing he was doing it. She was probably just like him, he thought. Life was here and now and if we cannot get away from the ugly and dull realities by making our lives better, then we are simply left with ourselves. But he doubted that she had ever gone as far as he could. He couldn’t conceive of such a thing by another, for Clive felt that we are left hanging by an unexplainably strong thread over a million-foot drop. What skill can keep you safe from the unseen world that wants to take you as its own, use you as its sustenance, yet lives unmolested inside in the guise of a perpetual flow of questions, beliefs and fears? We fear the silent monster of who we are behind our eyes, under our skins. In that space that made up Clive’s monster there were too many variable truths swirling and floating and begging for release. We humans, Clive felt, were here to provide that release, but the release is not for us, it is for it, the monster, the sleeping monster whose body is thought buried and pain unrealized yet fully anticipated. It is a ghastly thing, but Clive danced with it anyway, like dancing with a skeleton even while he knew that a woman would be a better dancing partner.
He had no other choice but to abandon her immediately. Nobody but he knew about the battle and, to be honest, he didn’t either, for he didn’t have the words, but he felt it, always felt it, and his belly grew fat in an attempt to appease it, his belief in it ever going away diminished with each passing day. For this reason, Clive had the feeling that he was on the way down. Although still relatively young, he was going down and away from the sweet oblivion of innocence and would soon be saddled with a knowledge that was not knowledge, but only ferocious reality, pointing only to the death of things, the end of things, the reality of hard social stratifications, the idea that there truly is nowhere to lay your head. He could not do harm to such a pretty woman and he knew he wouldn’t talk to her.
The woman got off of the bus without looking at Clive. She hadn’t liked him. He knew he had made sure of that. He did not have the energy to take on such a thing. Why would you go out there and find someone else not down here, the monster inside seemed to ask. Why would you try and escape the world that is more real than any other real because it is a part of you and the other is not? Why do you think that you could escape my knowledge ever? You must come back down and rest. All of everything inside of you will float you forever, take you from here to there. You will be pleased to be with me because I am what you would call “no more.”
More added complexity and confusion. No more gave hope that things would simplify, that Clive’s sensitivities would shrink. He would man up. It was this shrinking that he actually sought, but to go there just fed the monster in that it was also the reason he had put on the pounds. With the daily giving over of himself to the monster he had tried to replace himself with food. Unconsciousness seemed too much like death and he filled in this gap by eating as much as he could.
The incidence of food was perpetual. He ate a big breakfast, a bigger lunch and, of course, a huge dinner, a buffet if possible; The King’s Corner or Madame LaWang’s on 17th street. In food there was once again color, lightness and substance that seemed to bring on forgetting. It was a tangible act that reminded him that there was more inside than just a dark, swirling cloud of need. Hopelessness was briefly stayed. It was a clear marker of where the future actually lay, a real truth, physical. The future became the moment the food hit his tongue. The chewing sent the pleasurable real form into a pleasant real place that allowed him to revel in his body. He ate fast, he ate hard, like a man. He ate with style. It was always good form. But he also only ate alone, ever.
The thought of Madame LaWangs was pulsating inside of him now. It was 4:53 in the evening. In seven minutes he would wrap up this day’s work and someone else would get on the bus and take over for him. There was 9th to 15th left and he had a pretty full bus. The thought of Madame LaWangs eased him. He always got a little bit anxious towards the end of the day as the bus filled with people going home from their long days of work. There was more stupidity on the other side of the barrier toward the end of the day too, maybe because he had less tolerance for it, but still he believed it to be true. He would hold the angst inside of him and try to contain it at this late hour, but he knew it would only exit once his feet hit the pavement and he was on his way to Madame LaWang’s Buffet.
This day was like most others. There had been a few problems where he had to open the window and speak to someone in a tone he despised. He would slam the window shut and it would be gone, but it would have been an extra something to add to the swirling world inside that owned him. Clive knew that he would have a heart attack after awhile if he kept on this job. He understood about stress and its deleterious effects on the human body, but he had no choice. He was a bus driver, fat and too old to do much else anymore. There was 13th Street. Eight off, six on. Of course, he wasn’t too old, but he had accepted the notion that he was.
Nobody knew how much Clive felt relegated to what he did, how he himself insisted upon his career without wanting to, how the monster inside insisted upon it. Nobody was going to cut him a break anymore. He had lost his beauty and his personality, given them up willingly for a paycheck until he perceived himself as everybody else did who got on the bus, as one of the unfortunates in the world, someone whose existence was relegated to going round and round and round on the same track day in and day out not unlike a rat in a cage.
Clive knew he was an object of pity, not scorn, he didn’t warrant that, but pity was just as bad as scorn. It is something that you cannot address with your fellow man. It is one of those things that people live with silently until they break down and cry silently to themselves, usually for other reasons. Tears are for when the monster gets too big and in order not to kill its host allows a venting of steam. A dead host equaled a dead monster. The pity of others was one of the things that made Clive want to melt.
He saw the last stop. He would get off here and take the system to the restaurant and then back home. He didn’t have to pay, of course. He just got on across the street, transferred once, and the next thing he knew he would be outside Madame LaWang’s, and then, after that, his apartment complex at 28th and Fairfield.
He pulled up to the last stop and there was Rachel, also African-American, who once opened her window and threw her shoe at somebody. She was aiming for someone far at the back of the bus, but instead hit an old man sitting in the third row. She had lost it, gone crazy, been suspended for six months, but returned because she was really a charmer, a really nice girl, and the bosses liked her. That’s Rachel, they all said, but that man in the third row wasn’t thinking that when that shoe hit him in the face. Clive made the stop, but did not open the door. He then motioned to the customers who wanted to get on that there would be a change of drivers. When Rachel was at the front of the row Clive opened the door and she got on. He quickly closed it.
Hey, Clive, the demon-children out today for ya?
Nah, not too bad today. How you doin’ Rachel?
I’d rather be on the French Riviera right about now, but I think I’ll do this instead. God, I hope they’re nice tonight.
They’re okay today. The full moon of the last few days not got them riled up about anything too much.
The moon don’t know how to act during the day. You got the sun. Them people sing songs to themselves in the daytime. That moon you talking about is on my shift, the moon and a bottle of Jack.
You deserve a medal then. Remind me to get you one for tomorrow.
A medal? Shit, I need a shrink. Once Robert’s settlement comes in I’m cutting back. Waaay back.
Maybe I should try and get a settlement.
You wanna have a bad back for the rest of your life? Shit, I’d still take this crummy job. He cries out in the night sometimes. He’s earned that money coming to him.
Keep her light, Rachel.
You too, Clive.
Clive stepped out of the bus and waded through the people all the while saying “excuse me.” There was only one thing on his mind and that was Madame LaWang’s. Being on a bus all day is like living in a rolling cage. Once Clive got on the ground things changed. The monster inside of the cage with him shrank a little bit, disappeared a little bit with the power of its host suddenly surging forth. That’s why they named these buffets fancy names about Kings and Madams, because when you’ve decided to go there you are in a position of power, you are tossing caution to the wind since too many instances of eating at buffets can kill you, and you, for a brief moment in time, stand up for what you want and go out and get it anyway. After a hard days work there was no hesitation. It’s the poor man’s simulation of a rags to riches story.
He got on Route 62 and made it to Madame LaWang’s in fifteen minutes. It was different as a passenger on the bus even though he was still in his uniform. People see you more as a person than an unfortunate automaton. There was a nice elderly couple sitting side by side in the elderly seats in front of him. They smiled at Clive briefly. A quick smile to someone on the bus was like a pot of gold. You would think that it would happen more, but it was really a rarity. Most smiles on the bus were defensive, but then again, you never know who you’re smiling at and Clive was no different than anybody else. This was a different plane and Clive relished it. To sit in the drivers seat is to sink into a vortex and do all that you can from going all the way down. Here was calm flight that made him know that the day’s battle was over. He had won another day’s pay. It was a small victory, the only kind he knew.
He got off of the bus a block from the restaurant and walked the rest of the way, passing a motel and a Circle K. The place was hopping. Clive forgot it was a Saturday evening, which brought him down a notch, because he used to plan every Saturday night by the middle of the week. Now Saturday had all the panache of a Tuesday. He went inside and the young girl just inside the door, Chinese, smiled and took him to a table. He didn’t wait. He went to the buffet line and grabbed a plate. First it was a little salad, a little thousand island, egg. Beside it was the Jello, which seemed wrong, but he knew he would come back for it. He moved on and went straight for the meats: chicken and noodles, beef and broccoli, chicken on a spear, beef on a spear. He piled it up on his plate beside some rice and then smothered the entire plate with sweet and sour sauce until he had to wipe the edges with his fingers and then embarrassedly lick them there in line.
He went back to his table and ordered a soda from the waiter. The waiter was good and quick and Clive drank a good portion of his soda before digging in to his food. It felt good. It was right and good. There was a God. When he finished the first plate he went back and got some of the things he had neglected the first time, the pot stickers, a little cheap sushi and some more barbecued pork, chow mein and rice. This would be it except for the Jello. He devoured the second plate almost as fast as the first. By the time it was clean he knew that he was done. He wouldn’t go back for more although he felt like he wanted to. The eyes are bigger than the stomach they say. After sitting there silently for a while, nursing his soda, he got up and went for the Jello. They had green and red, as always, and he grabbed the red for the hell of it, no other reason. He went back to the table and sat down and that’s when he felt the first pain.
He thought it was from sitting down too hard, but there was a dull yet distinct pain just underneath the rib cage on the right side of his body. He pressed his fingers into his belly right there and tried to relieve the pain by diverting his attention from it more than anything, but it did not go away. It was dull, but it was real. He couldn’t figure it out. He’d never gotten food poisoning before, ever. He put the Jello aside. He wouldn’t eat it. He’d had enough. He stared down at the remnants of his feast. Both plates still lay on the table. He studied the outlines of the plates and even the knit weave of the white tablecloth, something, anything, because this pain was growing stronger and stronger. After ten minutes he knew he was in trouble and he got up and paid the check and left. Outside, he went to the bus stop again and waited for the 270 to come and take him home. He would get in bed or take a bath and then watch TV in bed.
“Goddamn,” he said to himself, pressing down into his side, feeling for what was going wrong inside of him, but not knowing what he was feeling for, not knowing anything, but that he also sort of wanted to vomit now, too. Two minutes later after making this realization he did just that, sending a healthy Chinese dinner into a monstrosity that somebody working for the city would have to clean up with curses on their breath. Nobody was at the bus stop but Clive. For this he was grateful, but soon a young girl, about seventeen, white, walked up to the bus stop, also waiting for 270. Clive was in obvious pain now, but the girl said nothing. They stood there for a few minutes when she spoke up.
“Are you alright?” she asked him.
“No, yes, well, no, I’ve got the worst side-ache of my life. I just ate Chinese at Madame LaWang’s and I think they were trying to kill me.”
“Where is it at? Your stomach?”
“Yeah, sort of right here,” he pointed at the spot.
“Yeah, that’s your gallbladder. You got gallstones. My dad’s got gallstones and when he has an attack he’s curled up on the couch for hours. He says that taking a hot shower sort of helps, but really the only thing that works for him is pot. You got any pot?”
“No, I can’t smoke pot because they test me. I drive a bus.”
“Oh. Then take a hot shower. I don’t know if the gallbladder can bust or anything. I don’t think so. I think it’s your gallbladder.”
“Okay, thanks, my gallbladder. Jesus…”
They stood there quietly for a while as Clive moved from here to there, anything to keep the pain away. The girl said nothing more, fully comprehending the severity of the pain, her father after all. All Clive could think as he looked for places to press on his body that he hoped would trigger some sort of pain relief was “why?” Why me? Why now? Why not some other way that wouldn’t have led to a defective gallbladder, gallstones, whatever this girl thought it was? Why would God put all this fat on my body? Why wouldn’t God just tell me to stop it all, to stop the torture, the permanent ruminating over things that are real only if you allow them to be so? Why would God be invisible so that we all think that invisible things are good things, powerful things, things worth listening to? Why? Why? Why?
The bus came for the crowd. There were eight or nine of them. Clive got on last, gave a brief hello to Shari who was driving, but nothing more, and went and got a seat in the back to be alone with his pain. Everything was luckier than him. All of these people lived their day to day lives so sweetly. They lived in another world because they did not have the pain that he felt. They were rich and didn’t know it. The pain had escalated to twice what it was when he first felt it. It grew steadily, getting worse and worse even when he thought that it could get no worse. He considered going to the hospital, but he hated hospitals. It didn’t sound like it was life-threatening according to the girl whose dad gets rid of it with hot water and a bong hit or two. He’d ride it out. Besides, something inside of him was taking a whipping and the feeling, akin to anger, was actually somewhat delicious.
The monster that lived inside of him, lived on him, feasted on him, was screaming in pain just as Clive wanted to but didn’t because of the people on the bus. Lost questions were instantaneously asked, sudden deeply embedded angers were thought of and expressed through quick movements disguised as pain. His hatred of the inner world that had come to control him was gaining an upper hand through this painful episode and if he could, he would have killed it completely. He would have made it so that he never thought about his thoughts ever again. Then he would walk through the world proud and strong, and do only things that he was called upon to do, things that only had their place in the outside world, and he would gain traction and be bolstered where it counted and he would be a hero because his enemy would not be inside of him anymore, but out there, a simple place really, a place where the eye can see the situation and the brain can tackle it. No more full-body angst, wordless questioning, wordless answering, eye movements that are furtive because totally uninformed. He was sensing just how he was controlled by a million past experiences that had all sunk down deep into him and formed a coalition to resist ever facing the open day ever again. These were Clive’s failures. Clive’s. And Clive knew it now.
The dialogue within was a one-sided conversation about every failure that Clive had ever known. School, where he dropped out. He was going to be a doctor, yeah right; Nancy, a failure, because she loved him and yet he wanted to go out on Saturday night and bag a few blondes while he was still filled with his youthful vim and vigor; work, where he was afraid that the corporations he could have joined at one or two junctures would never let him become what he wanted to be, one, because he was black, and two, because he was uneducated, although everybody told him that he showed real aptitude at what it was that he had the opportunity to do; to be a psychological aide. Who knows, he might have become a psychologist. Instead he called it poetry and it almost killed him, but no more.
This poetry was being confronted with a steely gaze now by Clive as he sat in the back of the bus quietly boiling over with anger. It was all self-directed, an acknowledgement of his pitiful state, the monster he was realizing that he just perceived as “God.” He had never really done that before. Had he been wrestling with God every day in his cage of the bus? Could it have been that it was God that hated him so much, needed him so much, that he had lost any semblance of his former self? Once again, why? Why would God do that to me? What did I do? Then, where will I go? He knew it now. There was no way for him to stay. The pain was getting unbearable. He decided that he would go to the hospital. He screamed out.
“Hurry up! Hurry the fuck up!”
Shari looked crossly at him through her mirror.
“I’m not going to hurry up and you, of all people, should not be yelling at me from way back there. I’ll come back there and kick you off the bus and report you. You’re an asshole, Clive, I never liked you!”
“Yeah, why don’t you shut the hell up, man. Leave the lady alone.”
It was a long-haired hippie type sitting just in front of him wearing ear buds and reading a book. He was standing up for something. Here he was, in pain, dying possibly, not really, but it might as well have been since he had been dying slowly these last six years anyway, and this college kid was telling him to shut the hell up.
“You don’t know who I fucking am, do you?” said Clive.
He relished the way he said it. It was unlike any way that he had ever spoken anything before.
“No, I don’t know who the fuck you are and I don’t care. That lady didn’t deserve your shit. You’re just drunk anyway.”
Clive stood up and immediately started hitting the kid on the back of the head with his fist, just his right fist, over and over, a clumsy punch from an overweight man who wasn’t anything near to being a fighter.
“You don’t know nothing! You don’t know nothing! You don’t know what I got in me! You got nothing! With your book and your white lucky skin! You know what I got in me! I got God in me! God! God!”
Upon this realization, coupled with the fact that he was watching his hand hit the curled up young man’s covered head over and over, Clive began to melt. He sat back down. The pain was just about gone or he’d forgotten about it. He knew he was crying in front of everybody now.
“I got God in me. That’s what it is.”