General Fiction posted June 2, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
How a bus ride changed a life.

The Bus

by jusylee72

 I didn't know what I was getting into.

My car needed a new transmission.  Now I had no choice. I had to ride the bus.

I walked the four blocks to the nearest stop complaining the whole way; corporate shoes were not meant for walking. 

I called the via helpline.
"Don't you have an express bus from Middletown to Main Street?"  

 "No Ma'am, there is no direct route.  You will change buses at Military. That bus will take you within three blocks of your work."
My usual commute was thirty minutes.  This changed everything, my sleep schedule, my eating schedule, no stopping at my favorite taco stand.
Five people sat on the bus. I chose the fourth row. 

We drove four blocks before we stopped again.  At the third stop, an elderly woman got on.  She sat in the seat across from me.   "Good morning", she said. 

 I am polite. I had to say something. "Morning." I hoped she would hear, 'Morning, don't bother me.  I had to get up so early.  My car broke down.  I don't want to talk to anyone.' 
Next stop two elderly men got on.  "Gertrude, so delighted to see you this morning."  She called one Max, the other Bill.  I was so relieved when they started a conversation.   Now maybe I could shut my eyes for a few minutes. 
Big mistake, I missed my stop.  I asked the driver what to do. 

"That's not my route Ma'am."

Gertrude stepped in.

"Just get off the bus with us.  We have our coffee here at Jim's Restaurant.   It is free for veterans like Max and Bill.  You will have time to have a cup before the bus you need comes.  No sense waiting without something to snack on.  Your bus won't be here for twenty-five minutes.  I'll get a Via Pamphlet and explain it to you." 
Coffee did sound good.  I was late, basically lost anyway. 
We picked a table up front.  I called my boss. He said to get there as soon as I could.

 "Remember you have your evaluation in two weeks." 
The coffee came quickly.  I had a cinnamon roll with mine.  Gertrude tutored me on the via pamphlet.  She told me which buses, "2722 is the bus you need.  The driver on that bus is always on time.  You have about 6 minutes.  Finish your coffee then leave.  She will be coming around the corner when you walk outside." 
As she handed me the pamphlet, I noticed it.   On the inside of her wrist, a number tattoo, the kind I'd seen in history books, the mark of the concentration camps.

I walked out the door just as 2722 rounded the corner.
I realized how late it was. I walked by my boss's desk. He barely acknowledged me. 

We had a meeting at ten o'clock.   It was already 9:30.  I was the head of the committee.  I picked up my notes and got to the conference room about 5 before 10
"My expectations are high. Here is what each of you needs to do." I made my vision clear and strong.  "Tomorrow, we will meet again and you will show me how far you have progressed."

Melissa approached me after the meeting. I liked Melissa but I didn't need friends, I needed action.  I had my career on a timeline. 
"I won't be here tomorrow.  We have to take Jimmy in again.  This time they think something is really wrong."  Her four-year-old son was constantly sick.  I personally thought they babied him too much.  
"Look, your husband is a teacher. He has sick leave.  Let him take Jimmy.  You need to be here tomorrow. We have a deadline."
Her answer surprised me.  "I won't be here tomorrow." Then she turned and walked to her desk. She picked up her purse.
I hesitated then followed her. 

"Melissa, I'm sorry, I'm just having a hard day. My car broke down.  It is going to be expensive to fix.  I had to take a bus to work."  I tried to make a joke of it,  "Can you imagine me on a public bus?"
"Just having a hard day?" Now she was angry. I had never seen her like this. She always followed my lead, no questions asked. Her voice got louder.  "You are no different today than any other day.  You bark orders at us.  You act as if you are superior. You never listen to any of our ideas. I am always defending you to the others.  But they are right, not you.  Did you even listen to me?  I have been keeping it a secret. Jimmy had his blood tested for Leukemia yesterday.  My husband took him.  Tomorrow, when we get the results, we will both be there. If you have a problem with that just let me know.  I simply don't care." Now her voice was dripping with sarcasm.  "Sorry about your poor car.  Hope they can fix it."
She left.  The office was quiet.  Everyone had been listening to our conversation.  I had no words to say.   Embarrassed and humiliated, I slunk into my office and shut the door.
Was I really that bad? I finished the day trying to deny the truth.
The car dealership called about 4 o'clock.  

Transmission - $1437.25.
Parts would arrive Monday. 
3-5 days labor.   
I had one credit card with about 500 left on it.  I would have to ask my Dad for the rest.  I could hear the lecture now. 

"You should have saved that card for emergencies.  You buy too many expensive clothes.  You need to budget better."
Right now all I could think of was my feet. They really hurt.  The high heels I was wearing cost approximately three hundred dollars.  My feet were actually swollen and blistered.  I took them off and walked barefoot. I didn't care that my pantyhose ripped.  That night, I soaked my feet in warm, sudsy water.

The next day I wore my tennis shoes.  They were Nikes fresh out of the box, clean and white. I didn't even remember how the got in my closet. Then I remembered, I planned on taking up tennis some day.  I found an old beach bag and put my high heels and my pantyhose in it.  I didn't look in the full-length mirror to see how the tennis shoes clashed with my black suit.  I would change when I got to work. The walk to the bus seemed so much shorter.  The air was crisp.  A breeze teased the air.  I was fully awake. 

I didn't expect Gertrude to be on the bus.  As soon as we got to the third stop she was there.  She greeted me.  I said," Good Morning"  I found myself wanting to talk to her.  " I hope you don't mind, may I ask you about your tattoo?"  

"I was eleven when they loaded us on the train to Auschwitz.  I was with my mother.  My father and two brothers were on a different train.  The older women had been talking on the train. My mother listened. I could tell what they said was bothering her.  I was tall for my age, almost five foot four.  My Mother called me to her side.  She quickly undid my long braids.  She took the hairpins out of her own hair and put my hair into an old lady bun." 

"You are no longer eleven.  You must stand tall.  You are eighteen. You do not know me. You must not acknowledge me as your mother.  No matter what happens you must not cry like a child.  Pinch your cheeks. You are healthy and strong and willing to work." 

"As I walked down the ramp, I became eighteen.  I did everything my mother asked.  They were separating families. They were tearing children from their mother's arms.  My mother was one of the last people off.  She did not want to be seen with me. I hid my smile when they put us both in the same group.  We went to the left. Everyone who was sent to the right died that night." 

We got off the bus at Jim's.  "It helps me to tell my story.  If you come back tomorrow, I will tell you more."

Max and Bill had boarded the bus a while back.  They saw that we were talking and didn't interrupt us.  We walked off the bus together. 

The coffee was delicious.  This time I had an English muffin for breakfast.  We talked about everything and nothing while I waited for 2722.

Melissa, true to her word, did not come to work. She did not return the next day either. I began to worry about her. I kept listening to her words in my head.  I had an hour before our meeting.  I went to my office and made some adjustments to my agenda.   I was in the habit of walking around in an aggressive manner making sure people were listening to me. Today, I changed my tactics to see what would happen.  I stopped lecturing and sat down. I looked around the table, "Do any of you have any suggestions? We still have three days before our deadline."  

Had I ever really looked at their faces before?  There was silence in the room.  They were afraid to speak up.  Slowly, Karen raised her hand. 

"I have a few suggestions."  Two of her three ideas were brilliant.  Why hadn't I thought of that?  Frank was next.  I never knew he had a sense of humor. Soon he had all of us laughing. They were discussing, throwing out ideas, arguing their points clearly. 

I noticed something else.  In my eagerness to work on my agenda, I hadn't changed shoes.  My feet didn't hurt. I never knew the absence of pain could feel so good. I didn't notice until I got up to go to my office that my boss was standing in the doorway watching us. 

Gertrude’s next recollection was sad. 

"You never get used to hunger.  Your body adjusts to cold. Your mouth becomes useless. You have little food to eat.  You are not allowed to express your opinion. The clean water is for the guards. You take the dirty icicles off the windows. You learn to live inside your mind."
Melissa did not return all that week.  The diagnosis of Leukemia was confirmed.  My last words with her haunted me. 

Now, I was the one who needed to talk.  Gertrude listened intently, lovingly, never judging me.  I rarely cry yet I was openly weeping on a public bus.  

"Listen, Darling," she said. "The first thing you have to do is forgive yourself.  You made a mistake.  Then you have to act on it.  Go to the hospital.  See her.  Ask her forgiveness openly. Self-forgiveness is the hardest lesson we have to learn in life.  We expect more of ourselves.  We let our spirit down.  When we do something wrong we have to acknowledge it. The next day we have to decide how to make life right, not wait for life to right itself."

It was time for coffee. 
That day I called Karen and Frank into my office.  Our project had been analyzed and accepted by our superiors.  Now it was time for the presentation.  I had a hard time believing what I said next.  "I would like the two of you to present the project to our clients."  They looked at each other in disbelief.  "I think your sense of humor and professionalism will impress the client."  

My boss called me later that day.  "I need to postpone your evaluation.  I will be out of town.  We will reschedule when I get back."

That Tuesday, the client accepted our proposal.  Our committee was ecstatic.  We went out for a celebration dinner.  One of them gave me a ride home. 
The next day I left work early and took a cab to the hospital.  I saw Melissa and her husband as I walked in the lobby.  Jimmy was having a procedure that was painful.  The parents had been asked to wait outside. 

I didn't wait to apologize.  I blurted it out in words and tears.  I was so humiliated and angry with myself.

Yet, in the midst of all the pain Melissa was in she simply said, "It's okay.  I am so glad you came.  You have always reminded me of my sister.  She was so much more practical than I am.  She died several years ago.   I always went to her when life confused me.  You always seemed to have the logical answers.  There is no logic now.  I have no answers, only hope. I have missed you.  Thank you for coming."  The doctor summoned them to the room.  The procedure was over.  Melissa grabbed both of my hands and said, "He is getting better.  We will see."  She practically ran to her son’s hospital room. 

Liberation Day  -  "I was lucky. We didn't come to the camp until the war was almost over.  We were only there about eight months. The troops that came to save us had no idea how to help us. They didn't have enough food for us.  It would take a while to get us some. A young soldier gave me a chocolate bar. My mouth was important again. I will never forget that taste."

"My mother and I both survived. My father and my brothers did not.  We were put in a transport truck.  They were taking us back to our old neighborhood.  I sat on my mother's lap. My birthday had passed uneventfully several weeks before.  I asked my mother if I could be twelve again.  I didn't want to pretend anymore. She undid my bun. She stroked my head. She braided my hair. She kept repeating, " I hope you can." 
My car was ready.

Monday I had my evaluation. My boss started slowly.  

"Do you know why I postponed your evaluation?"  

"You had to be out of town." 

"That's true, but I had to redo the entire paperwork.  You see I was going to fire you." 

The realization hit me hard. 

"You were so hard to work with, no one liked you.  All I heard was complaints.  Yet, this last month you have changed. People are smiling again.  Jobs are getting done faster.  If this continues I not only would like to keep you as an employee but I could possibly see promoting you.  It is too soon to tell.  What happened to you anyway?  Why the sudden change?"

Tears were behind my words.  "A bus ride" was all I managed to say. 

I still take the bus at least one day a week.   I have more to learn. 


I Just Didn't Know contest entry


This was an interesting journey. I had no plot when I started, I just wanted to explore why some people think they are entitled to life, instead of learning from life. I enjoyed this bus ride. 2496 words.
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