Mario Lowther - SITTING UNDER A CRESCENT MOON ON THE EDGE OF THE BACK SEAT OF THE BUS OF FOREVER
Mario Lowther pecks away at a keyboard in a small attic in a cottage in the trees on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. His genre and literary fiction have appeared in Necrotic Tissue, Imaginarium, The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals, and Remarkable Doorways; is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine; and has been a Glimmer Train New Writers Top 25 Finalist.
SITTING UNDER A CRESCENT MOON ON THE EDGE OF THE BACK SEAT
OF THE BUS OF FOREVER
by Mario Lowther
Just a few hours ago I was a successfully married man.
Then the horn blew, and I abandoned my wife in the lovely house with maroon walls, plied her with pills, stuck plugs in her ears and flowers on her eyes, stole her car and drove it, lights out, back one hundred miles to the Bus of Forever, where I sit, as still as stone beneath a glowing crescent moon, the Pentaprism of Love outside writhing on his back with his feet in the air, and the Answer to All Known Life just beyond my fingertips; squeezed, in fact, under a red cushion which I can’t reach because the barrel of a Mossberg 935 Magnum Turkey is tracking a bead of cold sweat trickling down my forehead.
This is no ordinary pickle. I'm terrified. And excited. In a dying-too-early kind of way.
But there it is. Bad time to feel like a new person.
One A.M. at the Corner of Highway 3A and the Road to Nowhere
I told myself I could follow the treetops, and I did. Down a highway at night pale as old worn jeans, lit by the askance smirk of a dazzling crescent moon. A dirt road glowing dull gray reaches out midway round an s-curve and beckons into black wilderness. Shannie’s blue Tercel rattles over the neglected surface as I swerve in and brake to a hard stop.
I get out for a look and to check my courage, just as a transport truck flies by, the biggest I’ve ever seen, all lit up like a movie set with lights and backdrops, riff rock blaring, and folks in outrageous clothes and funny hats hanging over handrails and swilling champagne bottles, racing off the way I came, down this highway bent like a string pulled tight at both ends then released.
I get back in. I’m about to go over the roller coaster, and this time I think I’ll stand.
Seven A.M. and Days Earlier in the Hall of Things That Don’t Yell At Me
“Hold on, just a minute,” my mother calls as I descend to the basement, each ancient step groaning. “And don't look at my mess, please!” Brightly, she adds, “But I've made a dent in it!”
One faint hope at a time. I look around, sickened, while overhead floorboards creak as Shannie cases the house back to front, sees to windows and doors, calls cats, flushes the toilet, stacks bags and knapsacks in the living room, and swings open the den closet to fetch her coat.
My mom shuffles out, shouldering aside overladen wardrobe hangers. Back in my teens, I vowed to live heroically fancy-free and unfettered; I'm not so much neat as possession-specific, but Mom is a pack rat. Crevices interconnect her bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and the washer/dryer area, the equity too unbearable to part with: clothing and purses, nicknacks and gadgets, and mementos that recall the touch of her parents who died early, the husband who tried to kill her, the boyfriend her kids drove away, the two kids who left violently, and her youngest who finally returned to decelerate her decrepitude and to finance a chance to make his own luck.
Nothing of mine or of me is apparent - I erased myself as best I could - but there must be a cache around here still, buried like a jewel in a drawer, a cupboard, a box beneath boxes, of the unsullied me; the sweeter, non-defensive, non-contemptuous me; of the boyhood me, the lost me.
Mom grins like a starlet. Her dental work cost ten grand. She could've toured Europe on that. Instead, she's eighty-three, gray-haired and hunchbacked, and she's shrinking; my mother will be a shelf ornament soon. She was a post-war nonconformist; I recall one of many shopping bags toppling over, a photo album yawning open, exhaling sepia snapshots of a peacenik with an Ava Gardner smile. Her fidelities and passions became ours. As a family, we love impregnably.
She opens her arms and we hug. Me one-handed and awkwardly because my wife and I resent how she lives. She both-handed and tenderly because in spite of that we're inseparable.
“You be careful,” she says.
Shortly Before Eleven P.M. in the Lovely House With Maroon Walls Shannie opts for a sleeping pill and a drink of water. I emerge from the bathroom holding a blue ceramic mug, a cartoon of a bug-eyed black cat with a white face and chest painted on the side. She leans on one elbow, her long, wheat-blonde hair in a pigtail, and guzzles the nightcap down. “Thank you, dear,” she sighs, and welcomes relief after a busy travel day. She hands me the mug back, cat side out, cooing,
“Awww, just like Jem.”
We miss our cats, Jem and his sister, Scout. Born feral. They’re affectionate in their own way. Probably hiding under the bed and in the closet, my mother rummaging for them, driven to convince herself she hasn’t lost them, they’re inside the house, haven’t run off; terrorizing them. “Our host provided the cup,” I smile.
Our host, the gruff man with the log cabin who forgot our reservation and stone-facedly welcomed us inside like Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror.
Shannie smacks her big white fluffy pillow until a satisfying shape is created that'll last for a minute until she readjusts and smacks it around again. She’s a light sleeper; perfect pillow placement matters. Ditto comforter arrangement. After some final shifting she floats back, grins, and dreamily admires the cedar beams and maroon walls of the Rose Room. “Isn’t this lovely?”
It’s Queen Victoria meets Grizzly Adams. It’s kitschy but quaint. Shannie grins. Early on, we tried for a child, gave the clinic a shot, got pregnant for two nerve-wracking weeks. Until. In retrospect I joke that given our lifestyle we’d have been better off conceiving a nineteen year-old ready to move out. Sometimes at night I wonder that we're such a pair, why Shannie loves me, why she wants me, why anyone does because sterling mediocrity is all I ever see in the mirror. Now, swaddled in bedding, she blinks at me with her pink face, and a blonde hair out of place that I nudge back. After years of looking, her stylist found one gray strand. The rest are on me.
She yawns, glances at the night table, sags dramatically. “Nuts, I forgot my ear plugs.”
Her backpack is across the room. “Good one. You'll want your eye shades too.”
“Um... actually, yes please. If my wonderful hubby doesn't mind.”
In a tiny way, he does. “You know it means you won’t hear or see yourself snore.”
“My eyes are achy enough.” Shannie yawns bigger. “How dare you say I snore.”
She snores sniffly, lilting wind chime rhapsodies. I’ll lie still, listening enduringly until sleep overcomes. Me, I’m told I'm basso profundo and rattle glass. Thus the ear plugs. I hand them over. Offered to insert them once. Just trying to help. Not a husbandly duty, it seems.
Shannie yawns, lioness-wide now. “I'm really tired,” she marvels. “Hey, are you okay?”
We kiss. I lift her head and gently slip the strap of her flowered eye pads behind her ears, the flaps standing erect on her brow like twin awnings. “Been an eventful day,” I murmur. Her plugged ears can’t hear. I cup her cheek in my palm, stroke her arm, and whisper, “Goodnight, dear.” She lip-reads that, bids goodnight back. Her eyes close with the grace of a child and her breathing becomes heavy. I watch her while she sleeps, thinking pained thoughts: thank you for coming into my life and for not making me confess that I can't surmise why I love you. Careful not to disturb her, I ease her flaps down. She wheedles a little night music: sniff sniff wee ehnn...
Shannie’s a light sleeper and sometimes wakes herself. If she’s edgy, she’ll take one pill to help her rest; if she’s wired and afraid she’ll awaken and not fall back to sleep she’ll take two. Tonight she asked for one. In the bathroom I mixed her two and a half. She’ll sleep deeply and untroubled, and rely on me to stay up and read for awhile or review the pictures we took today.
But not tonight. The Tercel is parked downhill, and at this hour I can roll away unheard.
I kiss Shannie’s sweet pink forehead, shrug my explanation, toss on my shoes and coat and grab the keys to the car. My life has become unsettled, and there’s some place I have to go.
One-Thirty A.M. at the Door to the Bus of Forever
He slams the rifle butt against the bus doors, metal bashing on metal, manic, determined. The folding two-leaf doors swing apart an inch, then rebound closed. He throws his body into it, pounds away in a fury, the doors giving, giving more, until surrendering and springing open. Up the steps he clambers, a formless shadow in the pale radiance of the crescent moon filtering into the bus, and blusters down the aisle, rifle out like a bayonet, barrel levelled, ready to make hell.
Me, I'm in the back of the bus, pure fear and wonder, hands protecting my face, almost laughing, it's unbelievable. This is a bad dream, a black joke – guffaw, I get it. How can this be happening? I'm going to die here? Now? My penultimate thoughts are of Shannie: dear, I’m so sorry I've done this to you... why didn’t I leave you a note... make sure you cope without me...
He pulls up, a hulking, anamorphic shape, heaving and wheezing, his craggy, life-beaten face a photo negative in the moonlight. The rifle is aimed square for my chest, and he utters the last words I ever expect to hear, punctuated for maximum emphasis:
“This. Is a. Mossberg. Nine. Thirty five. Magnum. Turkey...”
These aren’t the last words I expect to hear. Despite myself, I make a desultory noise.
He rears back as if he's caught spittle. “What the fuck? You think I’m kidding!”
With that, he fires. The whole bus shakes with the blast of the discharge, and the window beside my cheek explodes, showering me with glass as I throw my hands in front of my eyes.
“You fuck!” he bellows, re-aiming. “What are you doing in my fucking bus?”
Somewhat Past Noon and Several Miles Up the Road to Nowhere
Our vacation road map and the notes I made for our trip are organized on Shannie’s lap. She traces her fingernail along a snaky line toward a black dot and the name SANDON. They hit silver there over a hundred years ago. Half a dozen operating mines. Fifty other unproven claims. Twenty–three hotels and saloons. Two servicing railways. Like locusts they swarmed in and fed. And after they left, Nature wept and covered their tracks. Not well enough, though.
“A real live ghost town,” Shannie enthuses. “Shouldn’t be much farther.”
We don’t fly places; we hop in the car and drive. I reef the wheel left and right, dancing down a pothole road blasted through what God had surmised would be unassailable forest.
Shannie rubs my shoulder. “You’re pretty quiet. You okay?”
I’ve been stewing for miles. She’d sensed immediately, giving me my time and space, not firefighting until prudent. “Yeah,” I frown, “it’s just that thing that happened.”
“That thing back there.”
“That’s still bothering you? There’ll be other horns.” Shannie’s smile thinks I’m cute for getting moody over a small deal. She tugs at the belt ring in my jeans. “I love you,” she reminds me. Tough words for us. Words we avoid degrading with overuse. Words saved for a meaningful moment, such as now, although she has to yank her wrist out of the way so I can shift into low because we’ve rounded a bend and we’re suddenly bounding over an old plank bridge.
I can't imagine why, but my life began with Shannie. And there will be no other horns.
Early Morning Interlude Aboard A Monument In Another Town
The brochure says the S.S. Moyie is the world’s oldest intact passenger sternwheeler and a National Historic Site. It goes on to describe the leaded glass windows in the dining room and the parquet floor on the Saloon deck, how she began with the Klondike and ended with Sputnik, and daily plied the four shores of Kootenay Lake toting goods and commoners and royalty alike.
Great, but for me it’s too cool there’s a 1919 Model TT Ford truck stowed on the freight deck, and a communications room festooned with knobs and levers to pull and press, and cozy little passenger staterooms like luxury tree houses with bunks to bang your heels against. Even better, there’s a Pilot House up a dizzying staircase and a Ship’s Wheel spoked with thick oak handles like something black-eyed Ahab would’ve spun about to chase the white whale down.
The wheel is locked. Fear not! In my grip Kootenay Lake transforms into an endless high sea and all the cluttered basements and potholed roads of my world become spray and hurricane, fanfare and gunfire. For a minute, there’s an open road ahead and I’ve my entire life to live over.
Shannie points to a sign on a charity box that states with a contribution of five bucks you can blow the ship’s horn. I just bought breakfast, so I know I’ve spent all my small bills. Excited, Shannie checks her wallet, finds a ten. Full speed ahead! I pull the handle and the Moyie’s piping horn startles the town, its familiar hoot resonating off the mountains surrounding the lake. She carefully slides the money into the charity box, and I pull the handle and the vessel sings again.
Shannie is stunned, and gapes at me. “Dear, you blew the horn! That was my turn!”
One P.M. In the Place Where Hope Shrugged
There wasn’t enough room in the floor of the canyon so they built Main Street right over the creek. Two thousand enterprising madmen fought, sweated and slaved here. All that remains are a trio of pine cabins with shingle roofs, a pink shack housing the still-operating hydro-electric substation, a museum in what once was the grand olde Mercantile; and an emporium cum second hand store in the city hall, a three-story box with irregularly-placed windows that leans and looks as if it was made up as it went along. The sign on the door says Closed, but the door is open and there’s nobody around. The lady volunteer in the museum is polite when approached; otherwise she smiles wanly and seems unmoved to get into a chat with visitors. Miles of rusted chain and steel cable lie coiled amongst the trees on the slope that rises from Main Street, and old boards from boomtown buildings jut out of the rushing creek like testaments to failed prosperity.
And one other thing - there are buses.
Seven derelict city trolley buses are parked one after another alongside Main Street on a patch of grass that climbs from the emporium to the museum. There’s an ancient blue bus with a white stripe and roof; the others are all-white with orange striping. Six are in an extreme state of disrepair: dented, paint cracking, tires flat. The other, apart from the rest, nearest the emporium, and the only one with trolleys, has been renovated, dents pounded out, windows cleaned, with a fresh coat of paint. There appears to be no earthly requirement for a fleet of city busses in this isolated, nature-reclaimed place, yet all are parked so perfectly they might release their brakes and pull out to begin their routes. It’s like someone is trying to say ‘We mined for silver and we took the bus.’ Each bus displays a number and route name on an overhead banner, once rotated by hand, now frozen in time. There’s the 4 POWELL. The 7 NANAIMO. The 19 SLOCAN TO KINGSWAY. And the renovated bus - the 11 STANLEY PARK.
One Twenty-Five A.M. Without and Within the Bus of Forever
Crescent moonlight outlines a pale path up Main Street, past the emporium to the door of the Number 11. It acts as my tightrope; I leg it double time on tiptoes, outstretched arms parting the shadows, so keyed up I left the Tercel down by the plank bridge and finished the trek on foot.
The bus sits manifest in the darkness like a ghost ship on a black ocean: bone white body, trolleys raised, unit number 2201 etched above sightless headlamps, four vertical glass planes on twin folding doors like a pair of number four dice. They feel solid to my hesitant touch, the glass thick; how things used to be made. I half imagine alarms should go off; just the creek whooshes along unseen in the gloom. The doors give a little to a push. I wedge my fingers between them and pull hard. They stick, they defy. But I won’t be denied. With a snap, they fly open. I’m in.
The air smells like the world forgot to open the windows. I can’t see the rust spots on the steel poles and frames, the cracks in the original vinyl seats, the damp on the rubber floor runner, but oh man are they there. Strange, there’s a hint of warmth; it’s not as cold as one might expect.
No matter, I haven’t come to critique the progress of the renovation. I’m destined for the back of the bus, where my long dormant manchildness has been aroused and I have to face what by. Two steps I take down the runner, and promptly trip over something sticking out in the aisle. As I miss the seats to either side and fall face first to the floor, I realize that the object was a leg.
There’s a yelp of surprise and a form leaps up from the seat like a stag from underbrush. In the moonlight I glimpse a frenzy of limbs, and a rifle barrel waving, before the person, nature undetermined, aims, and in the same second stumbles off the top stair of the bus and goes head over arse out the folding doors still armed, the doors banging shut tight behind him.
One Minute Later
He’s as distinct as a snowy TV image, this moonlit apparition brandishing a rifle at me from outside the bus. Appears to be early twenty-something, wears a gangland overcoat and his baseball cap on sideways. Sports half a face of prime time idol good looks. The other half is disfigured, the skin stretched, a permanent perturbed expression dragging back over his ear.
“Udduh fffuh!” he hollers. “Wuh drewing? Wuh wutter you drewing? Doing?”
I’m frozen to the spot with a chest-pounding heartbeat that rather hinders the explanation I'd like to quickly offer. Then again, what are the odds an armed nutbar shouting gibberish at me would understand? So, instead, I stay put and pray for the bad light to swallow me up into the blackness of the bus and Fate to ease off on the trigger of a rifle big enough to clock an elephant.
My companion brightens, as if suddenly struck by an essence to our encounter. In his best tour guide voice, he hails me: “Ow er you oo-day? I am ood.” He nods that I should comprehend, his smile angling back of his cheek like a check mark. He motions the rifle at the bus. “Mmmm buh.” He motions the rifle again at the bus, insistently. “Mmmm myyy. My buhhh buhhh.”
Then he turns, fires, and blows the side mirror off.
I hit the floor, blurting omigods and scrambling on all fours, stopping when I clang head-first into the metal frame that signals I've reached the back seat of the bus.
At which point, from the distance, there comes a shout. Somebody is displeased.
I drop down behind the back seat and squint out through the big front window of the bus. The darkness is on the move. A black-on-black shape storms down the hill from the direction of the one barely-illuminated, shingle-roofed pine cabin of the three I noticed earlier that overlook Main Street. It limps badly, as if trying not to somersault; still, it makes marvellous progress. An unbroken stream of raging invectives intensifies as it approaches, indicating this volcanic bulk's absolutely, positively last final fuse has been irrevocably lit.
This has a severe effect on the gangster with the gun. He backtracks a couple of fearful steps and goes into a crouch, thrusting out the gun as though to fire, hugging it back in the next beat. His hips shake. His shoulders rock from side to side. He starts to perform a lateral dance.
And with perfect pitch, he sings: “Geh yer eyes onna roh, yer anns uh-on uh wee-ul...”
There's a flurry of action. The gangster, once alone, now no longer is. He stiffens.
He, and presumably the other, consider the blown-off side mirror. The gangster gestures with the rifle. At the bus. At me. A beastly hand, white in the moonlight, descends on the weapon, rips it from the gangster’s grasp. The rifle butt lashes out, flat against the gangster’s cheekbone, dropping him.
Then the folding doors of the bus are struck. They creak. Another strike, then an angry, hard push. The doors don’t release. They’re stuck. The window next to me, can I open it, I hope. When the rifle butt does a missile shot on the door, I attack the window, elbowing the glass.
Which is unfortunate, because I can see it.
I can see the Answer to All Known Life.
It's right there, right between the seats, right in front of me.
Intermission: Contemplations Upon a Crescent Moon
The moon used to scare me because some nights there was less of it. What have you got to cry about, my mother, single with three kids and weary after a lifeless day of medical steno, would demand. Give it back, I'd wail, it's not theirs to take, whoever's doing it. How can it hurt you, Mom would ask. Because, I`d sniffle. If the moon's different, I'll be different.
That it would go away, then come back each time, proved someone was messing with me. And I was different, a little more between every falling and rising crescent moon. Don’t be silly, Mom would tell me, sometimes in exasperation, sometimes tenderly, you’re supposed to change, it means you’re growing up. You want to grow up, don’t you?
I still don’t know the answer to that question.
All I really learned is people change like skies change, and the Moon comes home. Year after changing year it returns, a glass quarter full or three quarters empty, and always the closest connection in a dark night sky. And the Moon takes me back. It's not only a glass - it’s a bridge.
Almost One Thirty-Five A.M. Within the Bus of Forever
“You fuck!” he bellows, re-aiming. “What are you doing in my fucking bus?”
My head’s in my hands, side window glass pelting like stones. I'm rigid with terror. This man has pointed a gun at me and actually fired. There’s no guessing how far such a man will go and I’ve few ideas how to persuade him to lower his weapon. Begging him to take it easy, could set him off. Apologizing and promising never to return if he lets me go, isn’t telling him what he wants to know. There’s always the truth: sir, ignore that I’m awol and off the map, I busted into your fucking bus to find the Answer to All Known Life, and it’s right here, so this won’t take a minute. And oh yeah, I’m fessing up because, after a self-protective childhood, and re-inventing myself twice to become this supposedly mature, un-lost me, it’s my privilege not to plead for my life. So, if fade I must, if finish me you must, let me go out, reconstituted dignity intact, okay?
Right, I'll opt for the truth. Have to. And if I wind up in some nameless hole, I only hope my wife, my mother and anyone who values me assume no responsibility for my disappearance.
Something knocks on the window frame beside me. My breath seizes. Another knock, sharper, insistent. I steel myself, thinking this is it. Slowly I lower my hands, and turn to look.
The gangster is outside, his disfigurement pressed to the window. He points at me. Points at the desperado sharing a bus with me. Grins like a ghoul and waves at us. Extends his thumbs, makes vees of his fingers, and retreats almost against the next bus.
Then he rocks his shoulders two beats at a time, and in a thick voice he goes into a rap: “Pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison uh luh.” He adds a headbang. He gyrates on the downbeat. “Pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison uh luh.” He executes a perfect Michael Jackson moonwalk, right there in full view with the moon shining down on him like a spotlight. “Pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison uh luh.” He flings himself onto his back, his hips shaking, his thick boots up and punching the night.
It’s dead quiet inside the bus. A simmering, loathsome, half mad kind of dead quiet.
“Pen a prison of love,” I repeat, venturing to sound sympathetic.
The rifle barrel chastises my forehead and the silence menacingly corrects,
“Pentaprism,” adding: “A five-sided prism with two silvered surfaces giving a constant deviation of all rays of light through ninety degrees. Used chiefly in the view-finders of single-lens reflex cameras.”
My solitary selfish side wholly gets it and finds this first-time intimacy with a Magnum Turkey every bit as thrilling as going over the roller coaster standing. And just as I’m processing that, an old skin molts off me and a New Me, a living, pulsing Me emerges. I awaken as if from a series of long, overlapping delusions. I know where I am and why, how I feel and why; crucially what I was just hoping and why. This is my first-ever epiphany. It's stunning and disconcerting, mystifying and wonderful. Because I never dreamed such thoughts, such feelings, were in me.
“I memorized that,” the silence says. “You wondering what it means?”
Well no, I’m thinking about something completely else, but I nod anyway.
“It means when he threw the fucking dictionary after the first week of rehab, that's the page it fell open to. Now, last fucking time. What...”
Sharp and cold, the rifle barrel taps my forehead.
“...are you doing...”
“...in my fucking bus?”
And push. Hard.
Late Afternoon Interlude Sailing Away Upon A Hot Pool Noodle
I’m suspended, weightless, legs splayed, arms draped over three pool noodles I've made into a raft, my head back, raindrops falling on my face, afloat in a hot spring that crowns a tree-covered mountaintop. Steam rises in white clouds and dissipates into a gray mist that cloaks the treetops and inches closer like an oncoming ceiling. Soothing piped-in New Age keyboard music rides the air. It’s been a long day, and I’m going for a cruise before dinner in the town site below.
I’m surrounded by unsmiling seniors clinging to the edge of the crater-shaped pool. They glower at a young couple who nuzzle, submerged to their necks, down at the far end. And at two teenage girls dangling their calves over the concrete deck whose pouts complain they wish more kids were here. And they glower at me. I neither pout nor nuzzle. I have usurped all of their pool noodles. I'm the one adrift in the middle of their retirement. I feel like a carrot in a bowl of soup.
Shannie, who’s had her dip and gone hiking around the hilltop with a bounce in her step and bear bells in her hand, has long since forgiven me for my horn self-interest. I haven’t. She's not dwelling on an occasional juvenile gaff, but I am and I'm perturbed why. I dwell on that too. What I know for sure is there will be no other horns. And what I've come to realize, while a-sail in apparent bliss on three hot pool noodles, music in my ears, rain on my face, haunted seniors glaring, is that I have to leave Shannie. The horn only started it. I have to go back and finish it.
One P.M. In the Place Where Hope Shrugged
Shannie and I consider the refurbished 11 STANLEY PARK bus, parked here on this grassy swath alongside a roaring creek on the floor of a remote canyon in a ghost town, with identical expressions of bemusement. Same faces we wore when we stood before Stonehenge.
Touch the old, re-painted frame: it's real. Press the double folding doors: they give a bit. Peer through the glass: three steps rise to the driver’s seat, the cushion looks uncomfortable and thin. There’s the fare box with a glass panel and a tumbling coin path like a poor boy’s pinball machine, and a brass change maker like a pan flute for quarters, nickels and dimes. All polished clean and shiny with loving care. The grand old rubber steering wheel aches for turning.
A gust of waking wind jolts up the canyon, through the trees, en route to nowhere. I pogo the length of the bus, glimpsing red-fabric benches, chrome frames and poles, a pull cord forever drooping. There should be traffic noise, car horns, laughter, conversation, the Who and Zeppelin on transistor radios, the ping of the next stop. Only the turbulent creek fills my ears. I jump up to get a view of the back seat, then grasp the window, wedge the toe of my boot into the wheel rim, and raise myself to take a closer look. This becomes an unexpected, long and quizzical stare.
“Dear, come down, you shouldn’t do that,” Shannie frets. “It’s not your bus.”
Almost One Forty-Five A.M. At the Back of the Bus of Forever
The mouth of the Mossberg 935 Magnum Turkey forces my neck back and presses into the lines of my forehead,.
“Answer me,” warns the silence.
It’s truly life or death what I say next.
I lick my lips, which are drier than deserts, and swallow. My Adam’s Apple bobs.
My response is succinct: “What. Is. Your. Fucking. Bus. Doing here?”
The guy’s eyes fly open, wider than Munsch’s scream, wider than Goya’s Saturn, wider even than big-screen zombies. His mussy-haired, bushy-bearded, caved-cheeked, Easter-Island-chinned face twists up with raging indignation, and in the crescent moonlight he’s a nightmare squeezing his rifle like he’ll soon be able to wring my blood from it. “Fucking hell,” he seethes, “life isn’t sad enough, some invading dickhead’s gotta challenge me on shit in my own space.”
A bead of cold sweat trickles down my forehead, in time to the movements of the creek rushing outside. Water from nowhere, within and without, similar by description, dissimilar by execution; the notion almost makes me laugh, sitting there rigidly with a rifle to my head. Some kind of black-humored torture to go out scared, wet-faced, blinking uncontrollably, just when the boyhood Me, the lost Me, becomes the found Me. Can’t abide that. The bead trickles down, onto the mouth of the rifle, then pools as if to continue down my nose. Geez, anything but. I make a taut face, holding on. A craggy expression of something akin to youthful awe hovers above me. Our gazes meet, and widen in wonder. Then I don’t feel the bead anymore. He follows my eyes. The bead is gone and we realize what happened. It went down the barrel of the Magnum Turkey.
The silence loses it. There’s a split second warning of an anguished scream and I duck as the rifle fires, the bullet ruffling my hair which stands on end. The rear window disintegrates into splinters of moon-gleamed glass. I slam my hands over my ears, deafened by the discharge.
Muffled, I hear a rant. Places the silence used to go on the bus. Stanley Park, all the time, every day in summer, to Second Beach for chips and fries, to Third Beach with his transistor and a towel to tan and listen to Jolly John on LG-FM all afternoon. Downtown to Pacific Centre just to hang out, to Seymour Street to roam Record Row...
The gangster appears at the side window, wild-eyed, waving his arms in panic. “Pennuh prison,” I hear him cry, “aye ma...” He dematerializes as the silence turns and blows away what’s left of the side window frame, the jagged remains sucked off into the crescent moonlight.
...or to Movie Row on Granville Street. To the old bookstore on West Pender Street with the creaky wooden floor. To Woodward’s, and the fifth floor toy floor or the supermarket in the basement, or through the walkway over Cordova Street into the Coggery to get concert tickets...
The gangster, probably still wild-eyed and waving his arms in panic, pops up at the rear window. “Pennuh prison,” he cries behind me, “aye ma...” And again he probably dematerializes as I drive my nose to my knees and whatever clings to the rear window frame shatters in a clang of glass and metal.
...or to Gastown, and Blood Alley at midnight, or early morning after an all-night drunk when a dawn mist hung on the cobblestones, or to that English chick at Tiffany’s who cut your hair and shared her smokes with her nose bandaged after getting into another bar fight...
“...this bus was my fucking way out!” the silence roars with climactic fury, shoving my head down with the rifle barrel.
“Mine, too!” I plead, my voice weak, shaky. “Mine, too.... mine, too...”
And I confess everything. This bus, this fucking bus, took me to Stanley Park too. To the zoo, when there still was one; and to the Aquarium, and to Granville Street, to the hippie theatre, remember the hippie theatre, the Retinal Circus, bad foreign films and worse popcorn. Gastown, what about the wax museum, that guy dressed in a cloak in the Chamber of Horrors would jump out, scare the girls and tourists, I’d go every week. The English chick, her name was Suzette. The bookstore was Ainsworth’s, after comic books it’s where I became interested in the classics...
Venting gives my voice encouragement. I catch my breath, wipe my nose, and look up in hope. “...it’s where I bought... my first Sherlock Holmes...”
“Kerouac.” I think it’s what the man slowly lowering the Mossberg 935 Magnum Turkey mutters. He blinks at the destruction of the back of the bus like Pollock detoxifying, then checks around in sudden fear. His eyes close, he sighs and does a shoulder sag as the gangster reappears, framed in the side window, a family portrait, flashing his macabre smile and nodding sheepishly.
I could tell them my life story; he could tell me theirs. I could relate I grew up ugly, poor, weak, disabled and bullied, with a family laboring to trust that there was love deep down because none could forgive another to show it up close, and that when I reached my inevitable crossroads I chose the path that would lurch me through self-destruction to Shannie, without whom I’d have never survived to immaturity. He could perhaps fabulize he’d squandered his dream of escaping poverty and disillusionment on drugs and drink, ending up disabled, pensioned and isolated from humanity, with his nephew, his sole remaining brain-damaged relation, to care for, and a fleet of derelicts, acquired from an advertisement in return for free transport, his life’s project to restore.
Or other amazing stories. But what happens is he gives out a huge, soul-weary sigh and waves the gangster away. Pleased, it seems, to have met me, the gangster salutes and says, “Av-uh ood ay. Be seen seening seening seeing you, dude.” Weakly, I salute back. He grins with pride and dissolves into the incorporeal moonlight. I watch him leave, like a Rorschach striding up the hill toward the lone lit shingle shack. I’ll never know when, where and what was his catastrophe, or how he perceives his future. Saddens me, as I expect we may have faced similar crossroads.
The silence monitors him until the shack door opens and closes, light burning within. Then he turns and frowns at me, the rifle lowered. “So what, you came here to reminisce?”
I shake my head. “To find the Answer to All Known Life. But then I had an epiphany.”
It strikes me such an answer might make him raise the rifle again. His scowl agrees. “You had an epiphany. In my bus. An epiphany about the Answer to All Known Life. Really.”
“Actually, the epiphany came later. I saw the Answer to All Known Life this afternoon, when I jumped up and looked into this back seat. See? It’s here. Been right here, all this time.”
I point. Squinty-eyed and cautious, the silence edges forward in the moonlight and peers over the seat in front of me. Down at the dog-eared corner of a manila envelope poking out from under the seat cushion. His head snaps up, he shows me a fierce face, he looks again harder as if there has to be something else. Me, I’m elated. It’s suffered over the years, got a big crease in it, a couple small tears, a long wrinkle where it pushes up against the cushion, and a smudge, maybe the fingerprint of whoever stuffed it in there. But that’s it alright. Just a knuckle’s width beyond my reach. It's the Answer to All Known Life.
Before I’m shot in self defense, I explain. That when I was a kid, I was just ten years-old, the first year the Canucks were in the NHL, I sent them a fan letter. Said how excited I was, and could I have Andre Boudrias’ autograph. Never did anything like that before. And instead of an autograph, what I got back was they got a sheet of paper and the whole team signed. Everyone, I counted them, I had the autographs of the entire original team. What an heirloom that would be now! But then? Understand: I had nothing of value in my life, or to call my own. Except that.
So I put it in an envelope with my name and address in the return sender corner, and hid it away for safekeeping. Or I thought I did, because years later I searched for it and couldn’t find it. It’d got lost somewhere in my mother’s basement. My mother the pack rat who hoards memories, won’t part with anything, it would be like giving up a remaining minute. Rather than look for it or let me look for it, or help me look for it, she denied ever seeing it, denied I ever owned it. Turning her place upside down would kill her, so I gave in. But I believed she had it, knew exactly where it was and wouldn’t give it up because it was her memory now, her keepsake of the boyhood me. Then this afternoon I find the same bus I rode as a kid, and a corner of the same kind of envelope sticking out from under the back seat cushion, and I think what are the chances? Maybe Mom is right after all.
Maybe, just maybe I left it here on the seat. Someone stuck it here for safekeeping, trusting I would find it again. We talk about karma. Wouldn’t that be karma, all these years later?
“How can you tell?” The silence nudges the Answer to All Known Life with the Magnum Turkey, making me flinch and move my knee away. “What makes you so sure? Nothing's written there. You gotta pull out the corner to see. Could be any old damn envelope.”
His voice sizzles. Bitterness and jealousy seem to make him come alive. That shocks me. This bus would’ve taken him away, then returned him once his escape timed out, to the hammer-smack of his gray-skied, future-light life, till the next provocation. Only a future-less case would resort to restoring it, try to ride it back across the bridge of the crescent moon, to the kid forever trapped on the other side, the Answer to All Known Life clutched to his little pale chest, waving frantically, shouting get out for pity’s sake, turn back, grow up, once and for all and for good.
This is a mistake, a tragedy. I feel strange. I feel sick. “Maybe I’m not so sure. I...”
“Fuck that. You gotta be sure. You have to look, don’t you? Means you still have hope. That’s so fucking sweet.” The silence sucks in a long breath, and spits something livid on the floor. “Go ahead then, damn you.”
“Yes... right... I came back to look... That’s all. Just to look...”
No choice now. I reach out, fearful as a child, and touch the envelope. The paper is cold, dry and brittle, it’s ancient parchment. Been here a long while, abandoned, resigned, waiting. If this is truly the Answer to All Known Life, I’ll heave the biggest sigh of relief ever. If not, it’s still in my mother’s basement, where I'll find it, I suppose inevitably. When I do, I won’t blame Mom for denying its existence. I mean, what can I say really, she’s my mom, she did her best, we both have... right?
Long as we’re still joined in our way, that’s what matters in the end. I envision her now. Living every day, alone and fragile in her basement crammed with lifetimes, while I'm upstairs living a shiny life with my soul mate and her patient, tactful, intelligent daughter-in-law.
Yet when it was time for us to go, she was the one telling me to be careful.
Neither that, or anything else, struck the first dent in me until that blessed horn blew.
But now it hits me. And I realize, now I really know, what my mother actually meant.
Right there in front of me, like the Answer to All Known Life. Long sigh. Oh, man.....
Two A.M. Sitting Under a Crescent Moon On the Edge of the Back Seat of the Bus of Forever
I frown up at the barrel of the Magnum Turkey and the man still apparently entertaining the possibility of blowing off some part of my extremities.
“You’re really gonna hate me,” I tell him, “but I’m having another epiphany in your bus.”
I pull back and lay my hand in my lap, bow my head, and sit there, facing the envelope, breathing gently. Even the creek that was roaring outside the blasted-out back window a second ago seems to shut off to hear what'll happen next.
Who’d have thought the world could be dead silent, yet look and sound so alive in the moonlight? This is what being at peace means. This is how everything coming together, and finally making sense, feels. In the end, the New Me, the Found Me, not about me at all. So ironic; bewilder me for ever missing it. Saccharine, but true.
So what I want more than anything else is to get up this very moment and ring the bell to get off the bus. Along with clarity, an epiphany, it seems, gives one a case of the sillies, a floating on air-ness, never to come down from, where anything from curing cancer to achieving universal brotherhood feels do-able. And next to ringing the bell, I want my fellow bus rider to have one of these soul-altering experiences for himself, because my pithy but simple conclusion is: positivity kinda really beats otherwise, and I figure he’s due, and why not have your world open up again? After blowing Shannie’s horn, and leaping up and finding what could be the long-lost Answer to All Known Life peeking out from the back of a seat in a crosstown bus parked alongside a raging creek in the bottom of a lonely canyon, it’s happened to me. Selfish actions that felt unmotivated and wrong, tremors of a coming quake. Now I’m overjoyed, I’m supercharged and bullet-proof, I want to share, I want to open up to the guy gaping down at me with the howitzer, explain about life and the whole thing, in case believing got beat out of him at some point, that in fact there are no Answers to All Known Life, but if you keep your dreams true and just follow your needs, then you might be lucky enough to experience the big reality about the limited power of one. Problem being, wonderful as all that sounds, given the context of our situation this is honestly the worst time to prattle on like a self-help disc, so the best I can do is resolve to look him plain in the face and declare to him that - same as my mom in her basement - I’ve just made a dent in my mess.
He had the rifle on me; during my reverie he’s taken a step back, he’s unsure, ready and watchful, now has it pointed crossways. Everything about him shrieks dead-end horror; second-hand, third-hand, hand-me-down sadness; last gasp, loser at life; radiating desperation, the ghosts of his failures moaning over his shoulders. The disbelief on his face asks how can I have possibly decided not to reclaim what might be my long-missing treasure. This isn’t a doorway he’s sitting in, dishevelled, hand out, saying you’ve had your revelation, mister, that’s fine, so can you spare some change. He wants an answer. He deserves an answer. To a lot of things. Great, so let’s try to say something about hope that isn’t condescending.
Something believable, something that works. Such as what. Such as nothing. My adrenalin withers, I throw up my hands, haven’t the temerity to moralize on chance to the unblessed. He points toward the front of the bus with the Mossberg, motions again sadly when I don’t react. I shake my head: what. Then I get it. He doesn’t want me around anymore, he’s disgusted I had a notion of anything real for him, he’s saying do you want to go, okay then, go if you want to, go ahead, you lucky, epiphanic bastard, just get up, get out.
In his tired eyes I see all the way back to the first time his old man slapped him around. There's something of my mother in his gaze. What was this long-missing treasure I came here for - a past hope, a personal token, a trivia answer. Like a tourist with opened eyes, if I'm to beat my drum about my Brand New Answer to All Known Life, then my audience must be the answer.
I stand as ordered, grasping the seat rail awkwardly. It comforts me that the silence and I are the same height. He looks at me, waiting for me to leave. I look at him, waiting for him to blink. “I’m not leaving,” I announce, “till we talk this over and you tell me how I can help you.”
He makes a pained face in the crescent moonlight, arches his spiky, unkempt eyebrows, bemused by some meaningful futility, and nods to say that sharing my providential gift is a fine idea. Then he turns the Mossberg on me, sticks it in my gut so hard I jerk backward, and fires.
And the creek that a minute ago stopped roaring outside the blasted-out back window of the bus roars right back to life, making my ears thrum. For a moment, every notion I have is laid open, every nerve in my body sounds an alarm, and the world I’ve been dulled to all my life hails me, touches me electrically, is fragrant with thrilling nature and painted with vibrant, vivid color. And this is how it feels, I realize, this is what it is: the transition isn’t through a bright, beckoning light, or a glittering miasma leading to a radiant, cloud-carpeted uber-reality - it’s consciousness, it’s an awakening, it’s a final relieved, deserved step before gliding across a moonlit bridge from the regular world to a mirrored world of eternal magic, wonder and peace: Been here all along...
It’s a beautiful moment. It’s the beautiful moment before the next moment when I realize I’m still alive, that getting shot didn’t hurt, that the silence stands in the middle of the aisle of our childhood bus, his face twisted by a mad half grin and a whaddaya-think-now smirk, hands apart for emphasis, in one the Magnum Turkey, in the other the last remaining Magnum Turkey shell.
He could only have removed it while I was in reverie. We wouldn’t have reckoned on this causing an even more beautiful moment for us both. Just thinking of the possibilities ahead starts me trembling and repeating “Oh my God” under my breath, like I’m having a once in a lifetime experience slated for people who win lotteries or discover Egyptian tombs. The silence loads the shell back into the rifle, and gazes at me firmly, defiantly. Then he chuckles as though surprised, delighted and buoyed by the consequence of following me into a dark alley I had to explore. We exchange a knowing look. Together, we’ve just learned something we couldn’t have apart.
He steps forward, seizes my hand and pumps it, his skin rough and hard, like embracing a cheese grater, yet a powerful grip, full of life. Laughing now, and shaking his head, he turns and lurches off the bus. Halfway down he stumbles into a seat rail, glances back embarrassed, I wasn’t supposed to see that. As he disembarks I charge after him: I want to thank him, I want to know his name, and tell him mine. But he limps away with incredible agility and speed, over the crescent moonlight and up the hill toward his warmly lit cabin, and in agreement I head the other way, soak in the fresh night air, and find the ground wonderful to feel beneath my feet.
Three A.M. at the Corner of Highway 3A and the Road to Nowhere
I tell myself I can drive the return trip with the lights on, and I do. The dirt road that leads from nowhere is bent like a string pulled tight at both ends then released, and I dodge potholes as best as I can. But they can’t all be avoided, and I’m not really for slowing down to try, and some of them, well, to hell with it - suck it up, brother, speed up, the blow won’t kill the Tercel or me.
The highway in the moonlight is blue like a river and ribbons into the night as if it has somewhere to go. I stop and get out to take a look at the currents of fluorescence in the asphalt, just as a transport truck flies by, the biggest I’ve ever seen, all lit up like a movie set with lights and backdrops, riff rock blaring, and folks in outrageous clothes and funny hats hanging over handrails and swilling champagne bottles, racing off in the opposite direction that I’m heading, unthinking of an end to the highway and unfeeling of the forks in the road.
I get back in. I’m about to go over the roller coaster, and this time I’ll hold onto my hat.
The lacy white of a new sky rises on the horizon, and the crescent moon sets behind the tree-covered mountaintop a hot spring crowns. Because everything feels different, because I feel like a child without the vocabulary to express or explain, against my better judgement and a vow to actually behave responsibly I cut the Tercel’s engine and switch off the headlights and coast in neutral up to the lovely house with maroon walls. In the stillness, I park quietly and tiptoe inside.
Our room is dark. I stand rooted for a minute, accustoming my eyes. In setting the front door and room keys on the chest of drawers of course I drop them on the floor and they make a sound like a thousand windows shattering. But our surly host isn’t roused from his bed, doesn’t thunder down the hall, cell in hand to report an emergency. And from the vicinity of the pillows and comforter a soft, sweet melody comes unbroken: sniff sniff wee ehnn... sniff sniff wee ehnn...
It’s a big world, Shannie, and it appears there’s just you and I to handle it, and I'm ready to handle it for us both now, whenever I need to. And I'm glad you're never too young to realize you don't become a better person for yourself; meanwhile I'll work on improving my vocabulary, and I'll get undressed and slide under the covers where it’s warm and at day’s end my privilege is to sleep beside a girl who improves the best of me and lets the rest of me be me.
Shannie jolts awake, lifts her head, looks around in alarm, and only then realizes her flaps are down. She raises them, and finds me frozen in the act of stretching and getting comfy. She’s beautiful when getting her bearings. Just me, I smile, and I snuggle next to her. She pats me as though to say she hopes I had a nice trip to the bathroom, then removes her eye shades and ear plugs, places them on the night table, and lays back down and wraps my arm around her.
“I’ve had the strangest dream,” she murmurs.
I nod. “Tell me all about it,” I say, and I draw her near.
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