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Strangers On the Bus

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Ottó waited to pull out from his starting point knowing all that would happen that day. Most of it had been happening on bus #27 everyday for more than 10 years. He drove the small bus like hell on a short looping route filled with twists and turns and lots of people. As he sat in the driver’s seat the bus filled with passengers who only ‘flashed’ a ticket or pass towards him and promptly found a seat while they could. The rest would have to stand.

He checked the time, it was 7 after and time to go. With a buzz he closed the doors and glanced in the mirror to see if any other passengers were coming. He saw a woman running and waving, he didn’t recognize her so he pulled out with a chuckle under his breath.

Buzz – Tas vezér utca

At the first stop a father and son got on. He remembered when the son was too small to walk and the father carried him. He remembered when the son rode a push bike and the father would carry them both onto the bus and sit in the open area near the middle and set the bike on the floor in the wheelchair section. Now they both simply walked and sometimes held hands. Ottó enjoyed watching the man care for the son.

Buzz – Szüret utca

An old woman got on here. Always with a cart she could barely handle, even when it was empty. She smelled old and dirty, but had the sweetest missing teeth smile. She never smiled at Ottó directly, but he’d see it shown for others. Ottó always watched to see from whom it would be that she demanded help. Usually she’d demand help from a late 20s to early 30s man, though occasionally she’d be offered help from a similarly aged woman. Ottó loved it when the helper would sit near the woman. He’d laugh internally at the helper’s naivety. When they made such a mistake the old woman would drone on and on to no one and about nothing in particular. And if the helper sat too far from the old woman she’d sit alone staring out the window and still speak about everything and nothing to the passing cars.

Between Szüret and Ménesi stops sprawled the Buda Botanical Gardens (Budai Arborétum). He’d see the tall green trees in summer and smelled the flowers every spring, but he’d never actually visited the garden.

Buzz – Ménesi út

Next up was the couple with the child. She was always drunk it seemed, barely able to walk down the aisle. She’d hold on to every seat bouncing off of passengers’ bags and sometimes shoulders. The man would simply care for the child with obvious embarrassment. Ottó pitied them more than anything else. But what could he do, he was just the bus driver. Here stood the couple at Ménesi út, the man holding the child’s hand and the woman swaying back and forth barely able to stand at the side of the road. He stopped and they got on board. Just as he imagined, and witnessed so many times before, she bounced down the aisle and Ottó just smiled at the boy who was oblivious. Pulling out of the stop he always wondered how it was they could manage living here among the villas next to Kelenhegyi.

Buzz – Iglói utca

Now it was the businessman in the suit and nice jacket with the expensive shoes. Always on his phone and never interested in anything or anyone. Ottó didn’t remember the man looking at him even once. He always walked on and right past him without making eye contact or even a nod of the head. This was one of Ottó’s regular challenges. Could he make the man remove the phone from his ear or his hand from his pocket? He’d look in the rearview mirror to watch the man. Once the man passed the entrance, Ottó would press the gas harder than necessary, watching to see the man jostle about finding a seat. As he came to the next stop Ottó would now unnecessarily press the brake repeatedly creating a rocking motion and then press it one last time even harder pulling into the stop. If the man hadn’t found a seat Ottó would watch the him lean and bump into the glass doors or windows trying to brace himself from stumbling.

The closest success Ottó found was the day he ‘drove’ the man into a seat beside the toothless smiled old woman. She started at once and without relent, even though he remained on the phone. She raved about the weather, the construction in the city, the big supermarkets, and kids. The man never looked her way until she’d chosen him to remove her cart. She stood, smiled, and asked “Would you help me please?” gesturing to the cart sitting in front of them both. The man never broke from his phone call but, the woman stood smiling and asked again with growing indignation. He looked at her and picked up the cart by the handle. Then she held out her hand for help getting off the bus as well. The man paused for a moment unsure about exactly what he should do. He put the phone to his shoulder and pressed it against his ear, picked up the cart, and took the old woman’s hand. She refused his hand, took the cart back from him, and walked off the bus while stepping on both of his expensive shoes and smiled at the man the entire time.

Buzz – Balogh Tihamér utca

Time for the school kids, smiles and laughter filled the bus for a few moments as they passed by Ottó. Each kid with an over stuffed backpack, plus a few of them had instruments or sports bags tagging along as well. Many had food with them too. They weren’t supposed to have the food, but what could they do? And what would Ottó do? He let it pass without a word, they each smiled at him and showed their IDs and passes. Then moved to a quad seat or the middle of the bus and stood about talking and laughing and were a little louder than he’d have preferred. But they were harmless.

Buzz – Kelenhegyi lépcső

Katarina was next. She was beautiful and polite. She smiled each time she got on, but he hadn’t the courage to even smile back, most often he didn’t even look up from the dashboard. He’d gone unnoticed by so many others he couldn’t imagine Katarina’s smile as anything more than being polite. But he did imagine going home to her. He imagined she’d have a glass of wine and dinner ready for him when he arrived. She’d ask about his day and actually enjoy the monotony simply because it was his voice telling it. And he’d listen to her day too, because anything, anything would have to be better than this life. She was that kind of a lady. He knew it. He’d work the days and she’d help him through the nights. Greeting him with a kiss each and every evening when he arrived home. She worked too of course, but at night. And he’d make her breakfast in the morning.

Buzz – Rezeda utca

Here it was the drunks. They got on single file in the back. He knew they didn’t have a pass or tickets. And he knew they must have smelled bad because each time they got on the surrounding passengers moved away. Even those passengers lost in watching the panorama unfold gave up their most sought after window seats. They’d move away as quickly and in any way that they could making a path through the already crowded bus.

Buzz – Búsuló Juhász (Citadella)

His most impolite stop was generally the tourist’s stop at the Citadella. He didn’t know them and hadn’t ever taken the time to even make up any names for them. They all just got off here and walked the half-kilometer to the Citadella. Sometimes they’d ask if he knew where it was. Of course he knew, but he never said a word, simply pointing in the same direction as the surrounding signs that each said ‘Citadella’…with an accompanying picture. It never bothered him that they weren’t locals, it bothered him that they didn’t know.  Ottó felt they’d come to collect photo like badges of statues and monuments, but seemed to care so little for the intrinsic significance of each. He wanted to tell them about Raoul Wallenberg, that saint of a man, who’d loaned his protection to the convent on Ménesi Way from 1944-1945. Ottó assumed none of them had ever gotten out at any stop, save this one, and walked through the streets hearing the wind rustle these tree’s leaves and simply listen to these villa’s voices.

Buzz – Mihály utca

This was one of Ottó’s favorite stops. Here he’d watched the same man get on before and after work and always with 2 tickets, one used and the other unpunched. The man always ‘flashed’ the unspent ticket to Ottó but would switch to the used ticket when he went to validate it in the manual ticket punch. Ottó realized it years ago, but the man still played this game as though Ottó had no clue. Of course the man knew too, but in this angst they were comrades. They both loathed the forthcoming digital ticket punch.

Buzz – Szirtes út

Here is where the girl with the piercings got on the bus. So many piercings, he thought, and always with the headphones. He never could decide whether in life she was lost and searching for something or decided and heading to somewhere.  She seemed nice and sat quietly and would get off near the middle of the return loop.

Buzz – Sánc utca

This was the end of the line, but not for Ottó. He’d simply turn his little bus around and head right back into the same twists and turns from which he’d just come. He’d pick up a new crop of strangers and familiar faces, some with similar stories to tell. This end was the beginning back through the residential stops and the bus emptied from its swell near the middle of the route. Here is where the drunks would get off, and Katarina too.

He imagined the best and the worst for each passenger as he turned his little bus #27 back towards the stop he’d just left, but his imagining lacked true concern for anyone other than himself. How many times would he drive this route today? How many times had he driven it this life? It didn’t really matter. It was all in his head. He’d never said a word to anyone, he simply sat in his seat, the driver’s seat, and judged them all in silence.

The passengers didn’t always get on at the same time of day, they didn’t even all get on every day. They did, however, all get on, and they did all get off, and he never did speak to a single one.

~~~ The End  ~~~

About the author: Russell Ridgeway is an American writer living in Budapest. He posts stories weekly at www.neildylan.com.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be republished in any form or by any means without prior written permission.

Featured image by Fortepan.

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