The Cantalino Bus Ride
The bright dryness of the day was cut by calls of waterfowl and sparrows over the multi-colored crowd. Cici weaved among faces, seeking a return of her glance, guided by the cunning of her desire. She regarded each face, each pair of eyes, their many directions and the sea-like swell of their passage all around her. Between the bodies she passed invisible, drawing no notice or concern.
Cici was tired of searching. She decided to wait for a bus. The Cantalino Bus Company ran up and down Yuletide Avenue, where there were many shops, parks and restaurants. At the next stop Cici met Ms. Gollifol, a friendly woman with a broad gregarious laugh.
“Do you know the way to Wayting Square?”
Ms. Gollifol thought a moment, then flicked her finger in the air.
“Don’t know that place. But the driver will know. Oh, you can find it all on Yuletide. Garden tools, party dresses, electronic doodads and cheeses from the Adirondacks to the Antipodes... my, I can’t name them all. Psychedelic wines, real estate option funds, oh...”
“And apatosaurus videos,” said Kid Soffer, spreading his hand at the end of a tattooed arm. Although adult with a creased and well tanned face, he had the air of a boy who had just learned to pronounce apatosaurus.
“And fishing tackle,” chimed in Wade Ames. He was a lanky angular man with a large grin that seemed to take in everyone. He affirmed that if anyone would know how to find Wayting Square it would be the bus driver, John Sockett.
“Johnny’s always on time,” said Wade, as he checked his watch and leaned to see up the road.
“Cantalino Bus has always been reliable and fair,” Ms. Gollifol affirmed. “They get you where you’re going.”
“I need some burlap for my smoker,” Wade confided, spitting out a seed shell. “Can’t do better for bees than burlap.”
Ms. Sedgell stood back and smiled at the sky.
“I gotta see a lawyer about a house. My daughter. I’m happy for her but I swear, you can’t expect much business sense from newlyweds.”
“Too busy cooking up the future,” chuckled Ms. Gollifol.
The bus came and they filed in. The inside was very modern. Cici admired the plush bucket seats, clean pillows with lace linings and even special movie screens like in airplanes.
“Do you know the way to Wayting Square?” Cici asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Johnny Sockett returned without even a glance. He moved the bus into traffic and turned red eye focus on the driving. “We go there.” His bony arms manipulated the controls with practiced reach.
“Well, I...” Cici began but the man was so intent that she felt shy troubling him with more questions. She joined the others along the aisle of the bus.
Before long the driver switched on the videos, which showed a crime drama with ritual murders.
“That’s so good,” Ms. Sedgell pointed, leaning forward with a prompting finger. “I like the way they do that inward glance when they know something and you have to guess what it is. So intriguing.”
“It’s really good acting,” said another.
“And the scripts... my....”
All watched contentedly till the ad came, proffering “Happy Duck IQ Insurance --- for Professionals who really want their pet to excel. We make sure.”
Kid Soffer announced out loud that what he was after was boat parts.
“And I know just the chandler. It’s a ways, but it’s worth it to get what you really need.”
“Amen that,” said Will Click. He explained that he was after planting seeds for his yard. “What the cat dug up,” he allowed with resigned smile. He turned to Mary Toombs with a glance of acquaintance over many years.
“Oh, yes,” she granted and her curious regard came over to Cici.
“And where are you going?” Cici asked, since it appeared they all knew each other and were uncommonly open to conversation.
“Sheet music,” Mary Toombs said. “You can’t find it everywhere and I want to work on a sonata. I heard it and I just can’t get it out of my head.” She airily pointed at her temple.
While they went on talking Cici observed that there were other people who were probably going to work or coming home, who had little interest in idle chat. She wondered about their lives, what each one could be like and if it was possible to see in their faces any of what they went through day by day. Probably yes, she decided, although she felt she could tell more from a person’s walk or gestures in conversation if she got a chance to see that.
The bus stopped and people got off. When new passengers were on and had paid their fares, the door remained open. Johnny stared out and waited, a hand on his thigh. Finally, with an air of exasperation he got up and went down the steps to help the last person on. When he reappeared, he was holding the arm of a large simian with auburn fur. Near the end of its long tail was a broad strip of red ribbon tied in an elaborate bow. Johnny let the animal stare at the other passengers and then as if it was only expected, the creature dropped coins in the cashbox and made a lip-folded screech at the rest of the bus. Some people chuckled and joked with one another over this cute trick.
“That’s some monkey,” said Will Click.
“Oh, no,” said Wade Ames. “That’s no monkey. That’s a chimp.”
Several others corrected Mary Toombs who declared the animal must be a baboon.
“A baboon is a very different species,” Ms. Sedgell confirmed and others agreed.
The creature stood by the cashbox and fingered the sheaf of maps. Johnny moved his knee to nudge the animal aside so he could drive.
At this point the chimp leaped up with an athletic grip on a steel bar and swung heavily into the driver’s seat. Wild laughter rippled through the car. Johnny Sockett tore at the animal’s arm but the bus had already started to move into traffic. With wild unconcern the beast wheeled across two lanes and with a sudden jerk extracted the steering wheel from its housing. There was a screech of tires outside. Johnny yanked the animal by the neck and with one motion hurled it and the steering wheel against the door. There was a loud squeal. Johnny kicked the animal several times and the creature did what it could to kick back. Finally with a yank of the steering wheel Johnny maneuvered the door open and with one muscular slap drove the animal to fall on the pavement. The driver resumed his seat and fitted the steering wheel just as the bus was about to crowd a palm tree on the center island. All through the bus there were gasps of relief.
“Can’t let this bus be guided by a dumb monkey,” Johnny Sockett growled.
“Amen,” and “True that,” several echoed.
“I’m the one who’s responsible,” he went on with an expert whirl at the wheel to get it back into its accustomed lane.
“I think it’s really better,” said Ms. Gollifol with a deep sigh, “if the bus isn’t guided by some creature with a long tail.”
Out the window Cici saw the furry creature high-tailing on knuckles and knees across several lanes of traffic. The bright color of the ribbon tied to its tail flapped high in the air. Astonished drivers braked to let it pass.
The bus veered off onto Denverton Street and Cici looked around.
“Oh, that’s the usual way,” said Wade. “Don’t you worry. That’s not....”
“But that beast,” exclaimed Mary Toombs. “Didn’t that monkey,... I mean...”
“The chimp didn’t make no difference,” said Kid Soffer. “No difference no way no how.”
“Did too,” said Will Click. “Disoriented. I knew he was on the wrong track. Almost got us wrecked.”
“We’re going where we ought to go.”
Mary Toombs turned an expectant look at Ms. Gollifol who nodded back with a knowing smile.
“Johnny, he knows what he’s doing,” said Wade. “That critter, whatever it was, I tell ya, that critter was only a stand-in. Didn’t belong here at all. Now he’s gone, we’re all better off. You’ll see.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Ms. Gollifol. “Everything’s better with a person at the controls.”
Cici noticed they all relaxed back in gratitude when Ms. Gollifol said that and Cici herself felt vaguely reassured. Ms. Gollifol with her flowing sense of certitude had resolved the tension everyone felt after the strange event.
“He’ll take us where we want to go,” she went on. “He’s the driver.”
She smiled and there were understanding winks exchanged. Once again congenial calm felt its way over the faces down the aisle.
Out the window Cici watched the caravan of scenery file past. Long streams of trees and houses trailed in pastel tableaus for miles. Soon traffic grew sparse and the bus seemed to have the road to itself. With a gentle swerve it turned and went up another street. Cici saw a sign:
“Lyle Avenue to Little Gringer.”
Mary Toombs looked worried.
“I don’t think we’re on Yuletide anymore.”
“He doesn’t usually go this way,” Wade Ames mused, half in a haze.
“Must be some construction,” said Kid Soffer.
“Johnny knows what he’s doing,” said Ms. Gollifol. She settled back as if the detour, if that was what it was, was more reassuring than the scheduled route.
Soon the passengers began to notice the streets weren’t the ones they knew.
Cici said: “Where do you think we’re really going?”
“Oh,” said Ms. Gollifol, “we’ll all get to the right place. Meantime you have to feel the journey. Feel it. See there?”
She pointed at the video, which had stopped for another commercial. A cherub figure clothed in pink and blue floated over the image.
“Now that, that’s Meedia Baby. The real. See? What a smile she has. And that little sparkle in her eye. You have to feel it, feel the journey she makes you want to see. And she can tell you, tell it all to you, without her saying a word. Meedia Baby knows all our feelings, even feelings we can’t imagine yet, things you didn’t know you’d ever feel.”
“I don’t know,” said Kid Soffer. He nervously squirmed in his seat. “I don’t think we pass Dunster Cycle Shop going this way.” But his eyes flicked back and forth with fascination at parts of town he’d never seen.
“Where are you taking us?” Cici asked. She went forward and leaned next to Johnny Sockett and made her presence so persistent that he could not ignore her as he had the others. His face was smooth with sweat and the collar of his uniform was perfectly pressed to a sharp point. He looked around and smiled as if she was a piece of window glass he had not seen before. He made no answer and turned back to his driving. The circles around his eyes spread, hungry to press forward. Cici noticed he didn’t stop to pick up passengers any more. It began to get dark and the trip felt like it was going on longer than before. The orange of evening shown through paper-seeming trees cast now in silhouette. The bus passed up stops that Cici watched trailing away, looking forlorn under each pale cone of light.
“Are you taking us on a new route?”
Still Johnny didn’t answer. He only pressed on.
The bus passed Finnoaken Enclave and Willibas Street. From there they turned up Simulant Way and the florid stretch of Demise Boulevard.
“I know this part,” said Kid Soffer. “That’s Gallows Hill. It’s been in a lot of movies.”
Slowed by rude bumps, progress down the broad street turned onto a country road that led through hilly woods. The bus wound up a steep incline and came at last to a ridge of ragged sedge. From this high point the passengers could look out over a quiet village where the lights of nighttime were just going out. The downy fleece of lost light stretched out over the town.
“My,” said Ms. Gollifol looking down. “It looks so peaceful.”
“Bed early,” said Wade Ames.
In the front of the bus there was a loud yelp of the hydraulic brake. The door wheezed open to the loud trample of the driver’s feet.
“Everybody out,” Johnny Sockett called.
“Well, I guess we should,” said Ms. Gollifol with some diffidence. She gathered her shawl and pushed it into her purse.
“Yeah, must be a good reason,” said Wade.
“Rest stop,” said Will Click quickly collecting his things.
Down the aisle and overhead blue lights came on to guide their way out. Soon all the party stood out beside the bus near the top of the bluff. Mary Toombs wondered up at the stars, which glowed like dust beyond furtive clouds.
“It’s all so calm,” she breathed in a voice like a song. With a hopeful smile upwards her eyes grew dewy and she wiped them with a little embroidered handkerchief. “I wonder why we’re here.”
“Must be a reason,” said Wade again. “Johnny wouldn’t lead us on a side track.”
Now Cici saw they were waiting around in a state of mild disorientation with no particular complaint or aim. Their mild wonderment had become a mode of seeing all that was around them, even themselves. The driver strode easily to a lever on the baggage compartment and snapped open the lid. Out poured a gaggle of half open crates which shown in the automatic light of the door. Johnny kicked the crates and their contents broke out on the ground: shiny assault weapons, grenades and grenade launchers, long snakes of belted ammunition and ammunition in compact clips lined in opulent rows.
“My, that’s strange,” said Mary Toombs. “I didn’t know they carried all that on a bus.”
“Oh, you need it,” said Kid Soffer. “Never know what you’re gonna come up against.” With a greedy eye of new found treasure his fingers pawed the shining metal. Cici could see that for him these machines glowed with a sense of power held in steel to the point of bursting. His hands played over the milled surfaces and armored casings with reverent envy.
“Something you wouldn’t expect,” said a ponderous man who had not spoken till now. With idle curiosity he hefted an assault rifle and jammed in the clip. Johnny Sockett cut the bus lights and the faces of everyone arose in shadow, illumined by unreal light from below where the cavern of the luggage compartment spilt forth its strange wares.
Mary Toombs cast a look of sad longing on the rounded forms of the hamlet below.
“My. They’re all asleep.”
With a loud clatter Johnny threw a gaggle of weapons out on the grass.
“They’ll wake up soon enough,” said the bus driver.
Kid Soffer picked up an assault rifle with a telescopic scope, admiring the intricate complexity that bespoke so much facility. He snapped off the safety.
“That’s it,” said Johnny. He passed out flyers with the company logo which some could barely see: a smiling bus with wry headlights and the name “Cantalino” at the top. In the half light some made out the word God repeated several places in bold letters. Wade struck a match and showed the others how below were careful paragraphs confirming some legal order. Cici backed away, seeing in their faces a meaning she did not want to read. Each piece of paper was signed by Johnny and other important men in the company, signatures that looked quite official.
“Burn ‘em,” Johnny said gesturing down at the little town. “Waste ‘em. God told us, clear enough.”
“Yeah, getcha metal down,” said Will Click. He hefted up his own, a grenade launcher with a satchel of RPGs.
“Set the town on fire?” called Ms. Gollifol. “You really think we should?”
“He’s the bus driver,” said Wade. “He oughta know.”
Down the line spotty fire began.
“No. No. No. No!” Cici backed away screaming. The shooting rose up and they might have shot her but in the din they could not hear.
Now in a league they crowded the edge of the bluff with houses in easy view. Along the rough grass Cici saw men and women who were only silent passengers moments before, stolid and indifferent to any conversation. Now these like the others took up the offered ordnance with willingness and even zeal. Those who knew showed the others how to snap in their clips and load the breach. With the first burst cold flashes illumined their faces. After an experimental volley Wade aimed phosphorus grenades through the windows down below. Bright colors blossomed in the carbon black. Soon from the sleeping houses human figures raced in shadow. Even through the racket of fire distant screaming could be heard.
As their homes were set alight, more villagers scrambled from their beds. Some were naked but many were in bedclothes as they ran out the doors.
“Couldn’t even get dressed,” Wade spat as he reloaded. “Shows the kinda people they are.”
He sprayed into darkened windows, set inner walls aflame.
“That’s where they hide,” said Kid Soffer with admiration at Wade’s aim.
“Nothing better than nine millimeter explosive round,” said Wade between bursts. He spat on the barrel and watched it sizzle. “Fire and forget. Betcha. Launch once, God’ll do the rest.”
Ms. Sedgell looked in amazement at the effect of her weapon, an especially late model.
“Why this is so easy,” she said. “No recoil at all.”
“It ain’t real without ‘coil,” said Will Click after a spray of incendiaries. “Recoil makes the weapon. You get a ‘47, feel the kick, makes you know you accomplished something.”
He grimaced over the flashes that lit his face. After several tries he chose the heaviest of Johnny’s weapons and he aimed carefully as the targets fled out of doors and became more elusive. Ms. Gollifol reached in the canister of ammunition.
“Like you say, better load with incendiaries to make sure.”
When she aimed again, she fired with more confidence. Her eyes glowed as bedding, rugs, pictures and people burst out the walls in blossoming flame. People with their clothes on fire ran and tried to hide.
“Yah,” said Will Click as he shoved in a round of white phosphorus. “White pete, you can’t beat. Takes the oxygen, but you still see ‘em trying to breathe.”
“Get the running ones first,” Wade called to make sure others knew. “Ones on their knees can wait.”
Johnny Sockett with RPGs tucked under his arm passed out more clips. Sagely he advised them:
“Get ‘em all, ever’ one. Then no one can take revenge, see? Can’t talk about it either. Simple enough.”
“Oh,” said Ms. Gollifol, “that makes sense, now that you explain it.”
Paroxysms of flame erupted from the ridge and fell everywhere there was a person or building standing.
Soon the town was only blackened ruin. Smoldering humps lay shadowed by remaining fires. No survivors moved. The bus riders relaxed back. They dropped their weapons and some withdrew back to where the bus was parked. Ms. Gollifol stood looking through the smoke. She surveyed with some uncertainty the dark remains of the town.
“Well,” she said, “I guess it’s all right. Since God told us to do it.”
Johnny spoke over his shoulder as he was sealing a crate.
“Um,… did I say God? I think you misunderstood. I said Todd told you to do it. Todd.”
“Todd? Oh, works at the filling station down Vardaman Street. Yeah we go way back, Todd and me. He’ll be glad to know you took care of it. Did a helluva job.”
“Oh, I’m sure the paper said God,” Ms. Gollifol called above the others.
“Hey,” Johnny corrected. “Hey. Get it straight: I didn’t pull the trigger. You did.”
Ms. Gollifol urged everyone to find the signed papers. In the confusion many had cast them aside and the wind had taken others. In the dark no one knew where they were. Will Click struck a match and searched among the weeds but not a one could be found. Cici watched from a secret distance as they circled without clear aim.
“I know it said God,” cried Ms. Gollifol. “Johnny’ll get us a new copy.”
But Johnny had disappeared.
“Where’s the bus?” called Kid Soffer.
The bus was gone. There was some consternation and indecision about what to do and if they should leave the guns just laying in the grass. Finally, since some of them started walking, the others followed in knotty groups. They walked along the rutted road till they got to the place where the paved streets began. Strange words were forgotten in the befuddlement of dark and the gloom of a profitless night. Eventually they dispersed, each ignoring the others. Some stopped in all night cafes to eat pound cake and wait for dawn.
Cici heard later that Johnny had given up his job at the Cantalino Bus Company. He retired to his ranch. There he proclaimed that bus driving was but dreary work. He devoted himself to bass and sturgeon cultivation in especially constructed ponds for the benefit of guests when he threw parties. Grenade fishing, he granted with a twinkle, had been all his passion from boyhood.
On her long walk back, Cici felt impoverished and weakened by what she had seen. She felt she might never find Wayting Square. Her anguish came eventually to a twinge of question about the peculiar man who had guided the atrocity. She had the strange intimation that, unlike most bus drivers, Johnny had entered the field to avoid some other problem he could never define.