Augie Salvatore slid the remote from his sleeping father’s hand and hit the button to call the nurse. A young black lady with Crystal on her nametag walked into the room and touched the foot of the bed. “How’s Mayo this morning?” she said, not looking at Augie.
“The pain,” Augie said. “When he talks. It sounds like he’s swallowing gravel.”
“Well, then,” Crystal said. “Maybe when Mayo wakes up, he should take his doctor’s advice and stop talking.” She spoke the last two words as if she were a teacher tapping a chalk board.
Mayo’s eyelids fluttered, and he said, “Not sleeping.”
If Augie hadn’t been standing next to the man, he’d have sworn the noises came from a creature covered in fur, a bear, perhaps, or a moose. It was far from the imperial voice he remembered booming throughout his father’s bus, announcing the cross streets at each stop: Van Dyke, John R. In that vision, Augie was the kid sitting by the door, trying to catch his father’s eye, proud that the man in uniform with his hands firmly turning the wheel was his dad.
“You should be,” Crystal said. “Sleeping. I heard you were up all night buzzing Michelle like you were a puppy in love.” She shook her head and stepped out the door.
Augie’s father laughed, a grating burst, and the terrible noise made Augie want to press a pillow over his ears, his eyes, anything to block the signs that his father was going to die. It had been twenty years since his mother’s passing, and Augie had learned to live in the spaces created by her absence. But those spaces didn’t include Mayo, his father, the man responsible for her death.
“I’m driving tonight,” Augie said, raising a hand. “Don’t speak. I’m just telling you. I picked up the route for a buddy. Wife’s having triplets. Christmas miracle, I guess. But I’ll be back.”
Mayo nodded, his shaky hand lifting a plastic water bottle as if it were a twentypound barbell. Augie looked his father in the face, noted the milky cloud in Mayo’s right eye, the hearing aids, like puzzle pieces, jammed in his ears. Augie grabbed his coat from the chair, and his father’s cane, which had been leaning against the wall, clattered to the floor.
Augie had been driving the extra Woodward route for the last five days, ever since his father arrived by ambulance at Beaumont for the fourth time that year. Today was Augie’s first visit. “This one’s it,” Dr. Morgan had said to Augie over the phone last night. “You need to understand that your father isn’t going home.”
“Twenty-five years and you’re driving Christmas Eve,” Mayo said, closing his eyes, the words like broken glass crushed beneath a radial tire.
Augie tensed for the explosion, waited for the familiar critical barrage, but held his tongue. If he stayed in his trench, kept his head down, no one could touch him. Mayo had taught him that.
Mayo nodded with each breath, and Augie could see how difficult it was for his father to swallow. The nurses had told him that the drugs kept Mayo groggy from seven until daybreak. If the weather held, if his route ran smoothly, he’d make it back in time. And then? And then tomorrow would be Christmas, and his father would still be dying.
The sun was sinking when Augie pulled his bus to the curb on Big Beaver. He was ahead of schedule, obligated to kill a few minutes before heading south on his final run. He flipped a switch, and the doors collapsed, sucking inward with a hiss.
“Yo, can we get some heat back here? Damn.” The voice came from a teenager in the back row, a kid with a chain dangling from his gigantic jeans. When the passenger load was light, Augie would play a private game, try to predict where each rider would get off. On southbound Woo dward he’d use the mile markers as they descended into the urban jungle: Fourteen Mile, Eleven Mile, Eight. Most white folks got off before Ten Mile, unless they were students at Wayne State. The kid in the back was a Six Mile; Augie knew it.
Augie made eye contact in his rearview mirror but did not turn around. “Heater’s broke,” he said.
The kid folded his arms in his puffy black coat, the kind Augie saw the thugs wearing on TV, a coat bulky enough to conceal a gun, three of them.
“Bullshit, man,” the kid said. “I need to get me a refund.”
Augie slid from his vinyl seat and eased down the steps, stiff fingers gripping the handrails, ankles creaking with each extension of his foot. Not even fifty, he thought, and barely hanging together. As he landed on the pavement, a cold wind ripped at his cheeks, and he turned his head. The traffic rushed along, headlights spearing the darkness outside the mall. In the bus shelter—a transparent igloo perched near the icy sidewalk—a bearded man slurped chunky soup out of a Styrofoam bowl, overstuffed Macy’s bags at his feet. Augie caught the man’s eye and raised his cap. The man put down his spoon, leaned forward, and used his tongue to push a gob of meat between his lips where it lingered briefly before dropping to the ground, a pile of waste that seemed to smolder with each red flash of Augie’s parking lights.
The windows of the mall glowed white. Wreaths hung from every lamppost, red ribbons frenzied in the wind. Augie stepped back on the bus and looked toward the skywalk spanning Big Beaver, where people in striped sweaters rode the moving walkway from one side of the mall (“where the rich assholes shop,” his father always said) to the other (“where the rich assholes” bosses shop”). Augie could only see their torsos as they coasted along, their bodies floating unnaturally, like angels, hovering above an earth they were too elegant to touch.
He didn’t mind the Woodward route—“The Cruise,” his fellow drivers called it. “The Fade to Black” North to Troy, the ritzy mall—the Somerset Collection—then back into the warzone of twenty-first-century Detroit. Augie settled into his seat, his legs squeezing beneath the giant steering wheel, and waited.
He scanned his shivering passengers, bundled-up souls who’d gotten on in Birmingham to escape the cold even though they knew the bus was not yet heading in the direction they needed to go. He figured he had a few Twelve Milers, a couple of Tens. Momentarily, he knew, they’d be joined by a troop of black people wearing janitorial jumpsuits and Sbarro aprons under their winter coats. They’d settle in for the sixty-minute ride to Seven Mile, the fairgrounds, Highland Park.
“It’s freezing, man,” yelled the kid in black. “You wanna close the damn door? Fucking bus. When we gonna move?”
If the heater had been working, Augie would never have heard the complaint. Noise from the back row would have been swallowed by the gushing roar of the booster fans. He raised his eyes to the mirror again and held up three fingers to signify the minutes until departure, then he pointed to the sign next to his mirror: No Offensive or Abusive Language. He pushed a button, and the doors rattled shut. He scratched his thigh through two layers of pants, pulled at the sleeves of his ribbed military-style sweater. He flexed his hands on the wheel, white fingertips wiggling at the ends of his leather fingerless gloves.
A minute later, a fist pounded on the glass door, and Augie’s head jerked forward. A string of riders stood on the curb. One by one, each swiped a card or fed crumpled bills into the machine before claiming seats near the back.
When Augie had started as a driver, when he’d had more responsibility—such as counting change—he’d talked more. Now he just stared forward and let the money machine rattle and hum. Periodically he’d push a button to release the tray of coins into the lockbox, and, every time, the crashing noise reminded Augie of a slot machine.
As soon as the clock blinked 4:20, Augie pulled the bus into traffic and headed west toward Woodward. Over his right shoulder, one of the women started to sing softly, a song about buckling shoes and death knocking on the door. She had a man’s voice, the timbre of a stringed instrument, Augie thought. A cello, maybe. It was, he considered, a Christmas voice. It was bound to make him sleepy as he headed toward the setting sun, so until he turned south on Woodward, he recited in his head the fifty U.S. states and their capitals, a trick he’d learned from Mayo, a colorful map forming in his head.
By the time he was done, the woman had begun an ultra-slow version of “We Three Kings.” Augie thought of his father lying in room 3042, the records he used to play when Augie was a kid: Bobby Darin, Perry Como, Lou Monte. His father had been a driver, too, back in the ’60s when the SMART service was known as SEMTA, the South Eastern Michigan Transportation Authority He’d been one of the only white guys who stuck with the job after the Twelfth Street riots in ’67, continuing to drive the 92 Warren route five days a week. In a union full of black drivers, Augie’s father, Maurizio—light skinned despite his Italian heritage—quickly became Mayo, short for Mayonnaise, and Augie had rarely heard anyone refer to his father without using the nickname. Even the nurses at Beaumont had caught on, and the white-board on the wall of his father’s room read “Mayo’s Meds.”
Augie caught sight of a waving hand and pulled toward the last stop in Birmingham. A black lady wearing a fancy purple hat climbed in, biting off her mittens and reaching into her pocket. A handful of quarters clanked into the money box, and the woman said, through clenched teeth, “Merry Christmas.”
As she stepped past, Augie waited for the box to register her fare. When he didn’t hear a click, he checked her coins and saw that she was short. “Ma’am,” he said, “you didn’t pay the full fare.”
“What?” the woman said, spinning, her hat dipping like a bird. “I paid right there.”
“Not enough,” Augie said. He tapped the fare table on the console to his right. “Fare hike. December first.”
The woman squinted at the windshield. “You think I’m lying? I paid the full damn fare,” she said, her head moving like a plate spinning on a stick. “Go on and drive the bus.”
Long ago, Mayo had taught Augie not to make exceptions. “You let this one go,” he’d said. “You let that one go. Pretty soon, you’re running a charity. Let me tell you one thing, Augie. You are not responsible for the world’s misery. You’re going to get nickeled and dimed every day of your life. That means every nickel and dime counts. Everyone pays their way, you got me? This is a full-fare world. Even God up in heaven keeps his receipts. You understand?” Augie had nodded, his brand-new driver’s cap slipping a little on his forehead.
“You need to find some more coins,” Augie said to the woman, closing the door. “Or you’re getting off at the next stop.” He spun the wheel and stepped firmly on the accelerator. In his mirror, Augie saw the woman stumble backward and collide with a girl whose face was swallowed by a scarf.
The woman dragged herself back to the money box where she breathed heavily in Augie’s ear. Looking sideways, Augie saw the woman pull a plastic Baggie from her coat pocket. It was full of wadded bills and bulging with coins, though the lack of shine seemed to indicate most of them were pennies. “Here’s your full fare, Cracker Jack,” she said, slamming her hand onto the money box. The coins clinked into the bin. “I didn’t hear nothing about raising them rates. I pay my taxes.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Augie said.
The woman huffed. “Now where’s my change?”
Augie stared at the road and pointed to the top of the money box where he knew the words Use Exact Change were featured four times. “I can’t make change,” he said. “Please take a seat.”
The woman stood in the aisle, swaying as the bus shuddered down Woodward. “I put in an extra quarter,” she said. “And I want it back now.”
“Ma’am. Please.” Augie’s hands choked the wheel.
“You didn’t even look me in the eye when I got on this bus, and now you want to argue with me,” the woman said, loud enough for the entire bus to hear. “I don’t need attitude from no white man.”
Augie let the words settle, let the bus go silent.
Every year since he’d been a driver, he’d had to attend daylong “sensitivity” workshops, been forced to sit through role-playing games in which a variety of “challenging” passengers disrupted a route. He’d always thought the acting a waste of time. His real sensitivity training had come from Mayo. “Don’t drive around thinking you’re better than people,” his father had said, pulling Augie close to his face. “You think you’re smart. You better dig deep and find some respect.” He’d released Augie and sat back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “Augie,” he said, his face settling into a familiar impassive mask. “One day you’ll learn: when it’s dark, all sheep are black.”
“Hey,” yelled the kid from the back row. Augie glanced in the rearview and saw the boy moving up the aisle, his hand inside the front of his coat. Augie reached for the radio.
He’d imagined the scenario before: a shooter on the bus. Augie knew to keep his foot on the gas, knew that no one wants to kill the driver of a moving vehicle.
The kid stopped and spread his arms, grasping the ceiling bars on either side of the aisle. “Take it easy, lady. Your bus operator is a trained professional,” he said, and Augie knew he was reading one of the signs posted above the side windows. “SMART bus operators receive nearly two hundred fifty hours of classroom and on-the-job training. God damn, that’s right.” He burst into laughter. “Too bad they don’t teach ’em how to fix the heat, yo.”
Augie released the radio, and the woman shuffled a few steps back, muttering words he couldn’t hear. Everyone else on the bus pretended not to have noticed the scene, a familiar phenomenon on public transportation, one that Mayo used to describe to others as “injustice in daily operation.”
“It’s amazing what we choose not to see,” he’d say whenever he drove Augie through the crumbling neighborhoods surrounding old Tiger Stadium.
Augie understood this desire to avoid looking the devil in the face. For years after the crash, he’d not known how to talk to Mayo, how to understand the pain of a man whose momentary lapse had caused his wife’s death. When Mayo stood charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated, when he’d faced fourteen years in prison, Augie had been unable to look him in the eyes. His father had pleaded guilty, accepted eight months behind bars, asked for it, even, and, upon his release, moved into a tiny apartment in Warren, right down the street from a bus stop. Augie had let him suffer alone. And now, more than a dozen years later, his father, too, was going to die. Augie knew his father wanted forgiveness, wanted Augie to absolve him for destroying their family, but Augie wasn’t sure he could say the words, wasn’t sure whether the words even existed.
The boy in the puffy coat leaned toward Augie’s shoulder. “What time is it, Pops?” Augie waved a hand at the console clock. The boy whistled low and said, “Yo, Pops, you better watch out. That lady was about to tear you up.” His shoulders bobbed in a quiet laugh.
Augie had always been amazed by Mayo’s ability to work his passengers, to riff with regulars while trundling down the road. On Warren 92, Monday through Friday, Mayo Salvatore held court, and his riders always knew the law.
“My name’s not Pops,” Augie said.
“My name’s Give-a-Shit,” the kid said, pulling up his hood. “Good to know you, Pops.”
Augie watched him retreat down the aisle, exchange an intricate handshake with a Latino boy who’d hopped on at the last stop.
With the heater broken and the sun going down, Augie could see his breath if he exhaled heavily. In the mirror, he observed his passengers squeezing themselves tightly, leaning away from the cold walls.
He’d ridden with his father lots of times as a kid. Between shifts, his father walked with him down to Hart Plaza and bought him peanuts, which Augie shelled, dropping the pieces, one by one, into the river. On the walk from Capitol Park, Augie skipped down the sidewalk, careful to avoid each sewer cover, which some of his classmates had identified as the entrances to hell. Augie had a perpetual fear of being sucked downward into the terror that existed below the city streets, and his father had done nothing to alleviate his fears, instead placing a hand on his shoulder and saying, “What the earth swallows is soon forgotten.” Augie could still hear that stony voice, mixing with the rumbling memories of his father’s old diesel bus, and he shivered in his seat.
On the benches behind him, Augie heard the purple-hatted lady talking to an older man wearing a Semper Fi baseball cap. “I got a boy, Royal, in Iraq,” she said. “Corporal, he is. Gets to do some bossin’ these days.”
“Good for him,” the man in the cap said. “All I did was take orders for three years. Vietnam.”
“But you made it home.”
“Yes. I made it home. That’s my burden.”
They were crossing Thirteen Mile, and Augie could see Beaumont Hospital off to his right, behind the Kroger Grocery where the sun was going down. The clouds in the west were red and swollen, an unnatural winter sight. They reminded Augie of animals battling in the sky. His father was in that distant building, his hardened lungs barely able to inflate. Augie braced for the pothole he knew was ahead, and when he hit it, just past the McDonald’s, the rearview mirror shuddered and bounced, the reflection of the bus’s interior quivering.
As the image blurred, Augie saw himself riding his father’s near-empty bus, eight years old, Sunday afternoon, bored. He was standing in the aisle practicing Willie Horton’s batting stance, working on his glare out to the imaginary mound, the one that meant, “Go on, I dare you.” He was picturing the ball floating toward the plate, the invisible pitcher—Catfish Hunter, maybe—holding his breath. Then the bus jerked to a stop, the floor rolled beneath his feet, and Augie spilled forward onto his face.
“Sorry, folks,” his father said, eyes raised to the mirror as people reached for dropped packages. “Cat.”
Augie climbed into his seat near the door, dabbing a finger at the blood on his lip and trying not to cry. His father looked over his shoulder and hissed, “There was no cat.”
Augie leaned forward, tried to see out the windshield.
“When you ride the bus, you sit,” his father said. “When you can’t sit, you hold on to something. Boy, you never know when the world might throw you.”
He remembered the advice even now as clearly as he remembered the smell of his father coming through the front door: sharp diesel fuel and smoky fingers bathed in Murphy’s Oil Soap. It was the advice that he’d clung to when his mother died, when Lily, his second wife, childless and bitter, had finally given up on him and moved to Cleveland last fall. The world, it seemed, was heavy on the brakes.
“My son, the one in Iraq,” the purple-hatted lady was saying, “he says you wouldn’t believe the sandstorms. Megahurricanes, he calls them. Shards of glass splitting his skin.”
“I believe it,” said the man next to her. “I got a chemical burn once when I was working for Ford. Felt like a jagged thumbnail ripping me open from elbow to wrist. Shoulda sued their asses. But that’s not how we did it back then. If I had, I’d be rich.”
“Everyone can’t be rich, some has got to be poor.”
Augie snuck a peek in the mirror at his cargo, the souls he was carrying south. They continued to huddle in the cold, many of them with headphone cords dangling from their ears as if desperate to drown the noise of the world in wave after wave of thumping beats.
The lady in the purple hat shifted to gaze out her window. “That sun,” she said. “Would you look at that? That fire. That glow. That’s the road to heaven. See that? That’s the bridge. Even when it sinks away, it’ll light up the world. You watch.”
Augie raised his voice but continued to stare straight ahead. “Civil twilight,” he said. Then louder, “You’re looking at civil twilight.”
“Whatever you call it,” the woman said. “It’s God.”
Augie wanted to keep talking. “My father was a good man,” he wanted to say. “He was in the army. Inchon. Korea. He used to talk about how quiet the beaches got during civil twilight, how the ghosts were scared of shadows.” If he was driving his normal route, if his regulars were seated nearby, he’d tell a good Mayo story, maybe account for one of his father’s medals.
Here, surrounded by strangers, he cleared his throat, spoke as if reciting an answer in a long-ago science class. “Civil twilight. The last point in the day when the horizon can be defined. But it’ll be over soon,” he said, his voice lowering. “You can always count on darkness.”
The lady in the purple hat got quiet, let out a weird moan, the sound of a nervous dog. The light of the world became diffused, like a blanket slowly descending. Augie studied the scene. His father was dying. He was driving a bus into the heart of a dead city. It was Christmas Eve. It was getting dark. This much he knew.
Augie had been raised Catholic, but it had been years since he’d received the Host. Before his first communion, he’d asked his mother what it would feel like. She’d rested her hand on his forehead and said, “Softness . . . compliance . . . forgiveness . . . grace.” What it had actually felt like was a stale potato chip.
Civil twilight, Augie thought. A fancy way to say it was getting dark.
The lady in the purple hat signaled to get off at Lincoln. Ten and a half, Augie noted. A loss. He’d had her at Nine. As she stepped into the dusky air, her hat blew from her head and cartwheeled in front of the bus on Woodward. She clutched at her uncovered head and spun to see her hat blowing into northbound traffic. Then she clasped her hands over her ears and moved stiffly into the shadows.
An angry voice shot from the back of the bus as Augie shut the door and slid back into traffic. “Damn, I’m about to get pneumonia on this bullshit ride. I can’t even feel my fingers and shit. This is fucked up.” The boy. Mr. Give-a-Shit.
At Ferndale Plaza, outside a bar named the Stolen Pear, Augie lowered his ramp to allow a man in a rickety motorized wheelchair to roll aboard. The chair looked like it had been rigged together in someone’s garage, different colors of metal for the wheels and the frame, black electrical tape wrapped around the control box where the man’s chapped fingers squeezed a knobby joystick. The man wore a baseball cap with 8 Mile stenciled on the front, and around his neck hung a cardboard sign reading Jesus Saves. A tray stretched across his lap, and on it a red plastic cup was held in place by several strips of duct tape. Inside the cup Augie saw dozens of tiny American flags attached to toothpicks.
In April of his senior year, he’d opened the thin envelope from West Point, his official rejection letter. When he turned the envelope upside down, as if the real notification, the acceptance, was somehow stuck inside, a sticker of the stars and stripes had floated to the ground, turning end over end like a strip of ticker tape.
“There’s always enlistment,” Mayo had said, reaching down to retrieve the flag. “You’ll be better off getting your boots dirty.” Augie had waited three weeks before telling him he was taking the grunt job with GM, that if he couldn’t go through the academy, he didn’t want to serve.
“You need to be strapped in?” Augie said to the man in the wheelchair. Augie couldn’t tell if the man’s bobbing head was a nod or a tick, but he hopped up and watched the man steer his chair into the handicapped space behind the console in back of the driver’s seat. Then Augie knelt and pulled the C-Straint safety straps from the compartment in the wall. He slid the bolts into the floor grooves, hooked the clasps under the chair, and pulled the belts tight. The man smelled of fry batter.
“Okay?” Augie said. “Your brakes on?”
The man put his hands in his lap. “Good,” he said, not looking at Augie. “Good. Thank you.”
When Augie spun the wheel and headed back into the travel lane, he could hear the bus laboring. The noises were angry: squeals, bursts, grumbles, growls. Each release of air while braking or shifting gears reminded Augie of the sound of a breathing machine, a noise he associated with his mother’s final days.
His father, too, had spent time hooked to rhythmic machinery as the throat and lung cancer attacked his ability to speak. Ten years ago, after his first major surgery, Mayo, his hands too shaky to hold a pen and his throat stitched and swollen, had balled his fists at Augie, made wild gestures at various objects in the room, the IV stand, the medical cart by the door. Finally Augie had gone to Workplace Warehouse to type a list of words, to have the sheet laminated. He had imagined holding the sheet in front of his father and letting him jab his trembling fingers at the words. Tired. Happy. TV. Window Lights. Pain. Mayo had taken one look at his new vocabulary and tossed the sheet like a Frisbee back into Augie’s chest.
Twilight was turning into darkness as the bus hurtled through Ferndale and neared Detroit’s city limits. At the Eight Mile stop, the back exit door stuck without Augie realizing the problem until angry voices yelled, “Back!” Augie pushed the button again, but the door remained closed. “Open the damn door!” a voice yelled, and, on the third try, the signal went through, and the panels lurched open like a closet door wobbling on its hinges. Up front, a man with half a bushy beard heaved himself aboard. One cheek was bare, the other covered in white bristles as long as worms. Behind him on the sidewalk, a girl waited under the streetlamp, her hand resting on a stroller in which lay a baby boy wrapped in a dirty beach towel. Augie kept the door open for another few seconds until the girl looked up at him and shook her head.
“Trouble is in the world, Augie,” Mayo had announced during one of Augie’s childhood rides. “And these people, they’ve seen it. I’ve seen it, too. I’d change that if I could. But I’m just a driver. My job isn’t to solve anyone’s problems. My job is to get people where they want to go.”
Augie’s old bus moved like a leaking ark, and Augie felt the sink in his chest. They were behind schedule. Against regulations, he reached for the cell phone in his pocket. Though he hadn’t felt any vibrations, he was sure the hospital had called. There were no messages, and he placed the phone in his lap. To his right was the Machpelah Cemetery, where, according to Mayo, the Jewish bodies were buried upright to save space. As a boy Augie had not known whether this was a joke or a lie, but it had always made him think of zombies. Further south, across from the fairgrounds, Woodlawn Cemetery was full of leafless trees and large digging machines, like vultures, silhouetted against the dusky sky.
The bus had grown quiet; the passengers, as usual, were lulled into silence by the disappearing sun. The only noise was a steady hum, like the drone of a refrigerator, coming from the man in the wheelchair. Augie’s buddy, Manley, had a name for this stretch between Highland Park and midtown: “The Infinite Descent.” Augie knew the scenery by heart: the Hennesy billboard, Red Sammy’s Barbecue, the XXX Uptown Bookstore beside the BNB Candy and Snack Shop. He stopped outside the old Temple Beth El, now a Baptist church, and opened the door. A man with an uncovered head faced the bus. Even without the white cane, Augie knew the man was blind. “What bus this is?” the man said, his Afro creating a perfect circle around his head. He poked the ground with a golf umbrella. “Four fifty. Local,” Augie said.
The man stuck the umbrella through his belt and pulled himself up the steps, his fingers wiggling to find the machine where he could swipe his card. Most people with impaired vision sat close to the driver, but as Augie shifted gear, he saw the man reaching hand over hand on the overhead pole, making his way to the rear bench. Augie realized the man hadn’t told him where he needed to get off. His problem, Augie thought. The world’s misery.
A shattered-glass rain began to hit the flat windshield. These new roadboats are like a face without a nose, Mayo would say whenever discussing the superiority of the old diesel fleet. Augie had to agree. In the new models, he felt off balance, liable any minute to pitch forward through the windshield and land on the roof of the vehicle up ahead.
The rain was making the road shine, the angry eyes of the approaching headlights laserlike in the gloom. In the middle of a vacant lot, Augie saw the sign for the Historic Holiday Home Tour and, behind it, the brick mansions whose plywood windows were covered in graffiti.
Cars were braking ahead of Augie, testing the slickness of the road, and the bus slowly emptied of passengers, energy, life. The frozen kid in the back seemed to have fallen asleep next to the blind guy. Jackass probably missed his stop, Augie thought. Out of sight behind the driver-side console, the wheelchair man continued to hum.
Crossing Warren always felt like coming up for air after a long underwater swim. Augie could once again detect the city’s faint heartbeat. Up ahead in JFK Square, the world’s tallest Salvation Army kettle towered over the temporary ice rink. It was almost 5:30. Two more stops until he could swing west to the Transit Center. There he would hop the shuttle out to the site of old Tiger Stadium, where his ’89 Spectrum (minus three wheel covers) was parked. Augie might still make it to Beaumont before his father fell asleep, before the nurses patted Augie’s back and told him to come back tomorrow.
A glance in the rearview told him only three passengers remained: the puffy-coat gangster, the blind guy tracing half circles on the floor with his umbrella, and the wheelchair man making noises like a dial tone. At Congress the bell dinged, and Augie pulled to the curb. The downtown streets were deserted, the rain crystallizing into fat, feathery flakes that stuck to the sidewalk. The wheelchair man cleared his throat, the phlegm breaking up violently, the sound of a fist squeezing a bag of popcorn. “Help,” he moaned. “Stop.” Augie hit a button, and the bus flooded with artificial light.
In the mirror, Augie saw the angry kid waking up, looking around as if he’d just landed on a new planet. Augie smiled a little when he heard the boy say, “Where the fuck?”
Augie slid his legs from under the wheel and stepped toward the wheelchair. Where the hell are you going? Augie thought, kneeling to undo the C-Straint harness attached to the wheelchair’s thin frame.
“Yo, Pops,” the boy yelled from the rear doorway. “Open this shit up.”
The wheelchair man reached into his cup of flags and held one out to Augie. “Just a second,” Augie called over his shoulder, tugging at the belt. “Let me get you out of here.” The procedure should have been simple. Squeeze the release, slide the anchor, unhook the clasp. He’d done it dozens of times.
“Two dollars,” the man said, tapping Augie’s shoulder with his fist. “Help your brothers.”
The belt would not release. Augie straightened his back, then pulled off his gloves and bent forward to try again. “Two dollars,” the man said, his hands raking at Augie’s forearm, nearly throwing him off balance.
The boy in the puffy coat was moving toward them. “Let me off this goddamned bus,” he said. “Now.”
“Just . . .” Augie said, dropping to his knees and jerking at the restraint. “I can’t—”
“Let me go,” the man said, banging his hands on the wheelchair’s tray. “Let me go.”
The puffy coat brushed past Augie’s head, and he looked up to see the boy reaching across the driver’s seat.
“Get away from there,” Augie yelled, rising to his feet and placing his hand on the wheelchair’s tray. The man was humming, rocking in his seat.
“Open the mother-fucking door,” the boy yelled back, kicking at the glass. Once. Twice.
Augie looked toward the back of the bus, as if for help, but all he could see was the blind man’s Afro, a great dark spot on the back wall, silent, unmoving. Up front, the boy’s puffy coat had come unzipped, and it swished with each twist of his body.
The man in the wheelchair squeezed Augie’s fingers, and Augie looked down. The man held a flag in his fist, and Augie realized, too late, what was happening as the man rammed the toothpick down into the back of Augie’s hand.
A burst of pain rippled up Augie’s forearm, and he jerked backward, falling into the seats across the aisle. The man was screaming now, “Let me go. Let me go. Let me go.” He had activated his chair, and its motor was whining as the frame jerked forward three inches, the restraint tightening like a fishing line.
The boy had stopped kicking the door and was standing above Augie, watching the frenzied man in the chair. “Whoa,” the boy said, holding his arms out as if to ward off a blow.
Augie looked at the back of his hand, at the toothpick sunk into his skin, the American flag sticking out of his flesh. Blood was trickling from the puncture, and the knuckle was already starting to purple. He plucked at the toothpick and pulled it free. “Calm down,” he said, untucking his shirt and pressing it to his wound. The chair continued to buzz and whir, a needle caught on a skipping record. The man’s screams became a low-pitched moan as he hunched forward, the Jesus Saves sign dangling into his lap.
Augie stood up, clutching his right hand over his left. The man in the back of the bus was a shadow, his umbrella balanced on his lap like a set of scales. Augie took a step forward and kicked at the harness, the wheelchair, the man. Anything to set him free. To Augie’s right, the boy’s leg shot forward and slammed into the strap. Side-by-side, the two of them hammered at the trapped wheelchair. With the heel of his boot, Augie stomped at the restraint and connected with the hook at the edge of the chair’s frame. The frame bent slightly, and the hook broke loose, dancing in the air for a split second. The chair, untethered, slid free and collided with the console behind Augie’s seat. The man lurched forward and slumped onto his tray. The wheelchair’s motor fizzled, then died.
“Shit,” Augie said, pressing his bloody left hand into his thigh. The boy reached out and dragged the man back into his seat. The man’s 8 Mile cap was crooked on his head, and his sign was spun backward, revealing the words This Side Up.
Augie wrapped his right arm around the man’s chest and pulled. The man sat crookedly in his chair, legs crossed like twisted branches. “Home,” he said without looking at Augie. “Home.”
Augie felt the throb in his hand, the clenching pulse of pain, and he again kicked the man’s chair. “Get off my bus,” he shouted, bringing his face close to the man’s, their noses almost touching. “You fucking stabbed me.” His mouth was filled with salt, his ears full of burning water. It was the feeling he’d known when he refused to visit his father following his mother’s death, when he’d offered the broken man no repair.
The boy in the puffy coat stood silently, hands in pockets, observing the scene. Augie faced him. The boy seemed much younger, a child, really, a kid trying to make sense of the world. “That was messed up,” the boy said. “Your hand okay?”
Augie nodded and took a step toward him. The boy flinched as Augie reached past and flipped a switch to open the front door. They looked at each other for a few seconds before the boy lowered his head, stepped to the curb, and backed away from the bus.
Augie pressed the button that would extend and lower the access ramp and turned to the wheelchair, the pitiful man slumped in his seat. He looked over his shoulder at the blind man silhouetted against the wall, as still and quiet as a corpse. A pile of tiny American flags lay scattered across the aisle. Spots of blood formed constellations on the floor. When the ramp clicked into place, Augie reached for the chair’s control mechanism and found the motor switch. The man was staring straight ahead, repeating the word sleep over and over. Augie pictured the man sinking his teeth into Augie’s arm. “Shut up,” Augie said. Then softer, “Shut up.” He placed the man’s hand on the control box and shoved the stick forward. The chair accelerated with a shudder, moving out into the snow, the right wheel wonky, like a top. The chair puttered onto the sidewalk, then kept going in a straight line past the No Parking signs and a row of potted trees. It continued its slow path toward the glass siding of the J.P.Morgan building. Augie stared, his hand at his side, blood on his fingertips, as the chair bumped directly into the wall and stopped, like a remote control car, like a child’s sorry toy.
“It’s an honest job,” his father had said twenty-five years ago, Augie’s first day behind the massive wheel. “This city may be the auto capital of the world, but it ain’t nothing without the people who ride the bus.”
Augie looked at the clock. He looked at his hand. He reached up and pulled the wire. The Stop Requested sign glowed above the driver’s seat, and the familiar chime echoed down the empty chamber. “Hey, buddy,” Augie said to the blind man. “This is your stop.”
The man stood without speaking and pushed his umbrella down the aisle. Augie thought of his father on the shores of Lake St. Clair, his metal detector strapped to his back, the sensor sniffing the ground for treasure. As a child, Augie had never understood his father’s joy at unearthing a filthy earring, a crud-encrusted dime.
The man did not even ask where they were as he descended the back steps. Augie leaned out the front door and watched him float north, back in the direction they had come. To his left, the wheelchair remained next to the building, flakes blanketing the man’s hat and shoulders, covering him in white. The boy in the puffy coat was gone, swallowed by the empty spaces of downtown Detroit, the forest of office towers and cement. The blind man crossed Congress and continued up Woodward, and then Augie saw him turn around as if looking back.
A wave of warm air passed over Augie, as if the heater had somehow burst to life. “Hey,” Augie called, snowdrops melting on his cheek. “You know where you are?” He wanted to race to the man, wrap a blanket around his shoulders, steer him, peacefully, to his home. He wanted to find out where the man was going and where he had been. He wanted to know the man’s name.
The blind man clasped his hands together, then pulled them apart, a gesture Augie did not understand. A car rose from an underground garage, its headlights exploding in Augie’s eyes, and he was sightless in the sudden illumination. After the car turned left and Augie blinked away the ghosts, he saw the blind man moving again, his back to Augie, his umbrella—Augie could almost see it—making crescents in the snow.
Timothy Hedges holds degrees from Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Michigan, where he was the recipient of a Hopwood Award. His work has appeared in Cottomwood, Fiction Writers Review, Harpur Palate, and the Sycamore Review, among others. He lives near Detroit with his wife and son. When he is not teaching, he supplements his income by designing literary T-shirts for obscuritee.com
“Civil Twilight” appears in our Summer 2011 issue.