Jen Schneider

The 2 AM Bus

I’ve always wondered about the circumstances, the mixed-up bowl and pantry of ingredients of one’s life, that leads to a need, or maybe a desire to wait for the 2 AM bus. The one that runs down the stretch of otherwise empty highway in our always busy city. And its always awful traffic. I’ve often wondered why that same bus often fails to show on time. Despite the token wielding travelers who continue to trust, or maybe only tolerate, the transportation system’s posted promises. I know why I wait, but what about the others? Maybe they’re seeking to avoid crowds. Only to find new ones.

Working nights has always been my adult way, especially after I ran into some trouble, and couldn’t get hired for a regular day job. Seems like employers wanted me only so long as no one ever saw me. I never dreamed I’d work nights as a young girl who cherished traditions and routines, or was told that she did, anyway. But night work pays the bills, and it’s honest.

Cleaning schools, motels, even jails, has been my thing. It works. I get to catch a few hours of sleep before the babies wake. As much as I like my solitude, I never want them to awaken in an empty house. I get them ready for school, then grab a few more Z’s. Later, I pick the babies up at the bus stop.

Not the same one as my 2 AM route. I wonder if the other early morning travelers wonder, too. I’d ask them, if I could. But social conventions don’t seem to encourage my types of questions. Sometimes they don’t even tolerate them. I remember speaking to a hotel guest one day. Turned into a mark on my record. My bad. And my record can’t take any unnecessary marks. I won’t make that mistake again.

I imagine some of the others wonder about me too. I catch their glances every now and again. No one ever asks. Not out loud at least. Except the children. Like the thin, wide-eyed child who sat on his mother’s lap today. Taking a break from staring at a small screen, his eyes wandered, lingering on some of us longer than others. I saw his mouth move, as if he were going to say something. But his mama shifted slightly, silently. Just enough for him to get the message.

And last week, the tall, thin brunette, mumbled in a deep voice to a row of empty faces. Her arm cradled a small dog, whose eyes never looked up. And the unshaven teen, wearing a purple hoodie and headphones, singing along with the jazz melodies that streamed in his ears. The tunes drifted towards me, even though he stood, pigeon toed, with his back facing the rest of us.

Others must wonder. Even silently. Like last Tuesday. The night of the storm. The one that caused widespread power outages and led to transportation delays all over the city. Those outages made the morning news. Of course they did. Our unpredictable stop. Small change. Or should I say tokens?

That night I waited in the drenching downpour. Others waited, too. A stern businessman, checking for his boarding token, rummaged through a tattered, wet briefcase. On a cell phone, a student struggled with directions and broken English. A tall, gray casino worker, trying to smoke a cigarette that dangled from a droopy mouth. An elderly, stout women, securing a hairnet tie, twisted a tight knot. Tiny folds of loose skin draped both sides of the plastic wrap. Two men in white undershirts, sleeveless and soaked. They wiped sweat and rain from their brows in a somewhat synchronous fashion, using their bare arms. Another woman, a regular with a shopping cart. One that could never fit on the bus. Even when the bus showed the woman always remained seated.

Some of us formed a row of tightly packed bodies on a metal bench. Dried by our own cloth. Touching but not talking, shoulder to shoulder. We resemble a circus show, with no program, schedule, or audience.

The prison across the way, on the other side of the highway, seems to enjoy spitting out its residents at this most unbecoming hour. I know because they all look the same. Holding nothing other than their bodies. And two tokens.

I did some research. Learned that most of the city’s prisoners are discharged after hours, when the jail’s main offices are closed. They can’t get back their stuff. Not their licenses, wallets, or clothes. Makes no sense to me, but then again no one asked. No one ever does.

I can tell them straight away. Their shoulders begin to settle. Their eyes shift from looking up to looking down. Do they know the bus rarely shows on time? That it often never shows at all? The irony makes me laugh out loud. Done serving one form of time, only to serve another. We all wait. For something, if we’re lucky.

That’s why I like learning so much. Want to find that something. I like to say I live life according to a wise motto. The one that goes “ancora imparo”. It means we are always learning. Or at least I am, through questions. I like asking them, even those with no answers.

Why do we all wait? Maybe one day I’ll skip my first stop and ride the bus to the end. Once my babies are grown. Take a look at the paradise the others ride towards, or for.

But now, I’m boarding. The bus came, late as usual. I’m the last to board. I turned to see if the woman, the one with the cart, stood. One of the ex-prisoners turned, too. I shook my head no and continued climbing the stairs as the doors closed. The 2 AM bus moved on.

Game Day

A mighty fine group of five women, all from my pod, had gathered around the television for the game. We’d been talking about it all week. Had trouble even thinking about much else, honestly. We each saved up our commissary order for game day snacks.

Our six pairs of squinting eyes scanned the10 point font sheets for coveted items. A commissary clerk counted out our change through glass protected windows. We were all set. Stella had the Tostitos and some cheese dip. Bev took care of the napkins. Liz and Peggie covered cups and soda pop with enough left to add in an 8-ounce package of sour chewies. We all covered Terry, whose funds had run low. Me, I used my balance for something sweet, chocolate kisses, my boy’s favorite. I bought them in his honor, told the girls it was his treat. They all laughed and this made me feel good. Well better.

Ripping the plastic bag open, Stella set the chips out for all to take. “Don’t let the dip drop,” she cautioned. “Treat it like a silky golden thread. Priceless.” We all laughed. Then the guard reminded us not to drop any crumbs. Rec time was on the line. We didn’t laugh at that. We unfolded our napkins and spread them quickly, making sure to prevent any messes. Liz blew me silent kisses as she unwrapped the silver tin from her chocolate. Everything almost felt like everything. Almost.

The guard stood in the corner and quietly watched the television. A robust dark brew perked in the coffee maker on his nearby desk. The timing was perfect. The local school was playing an arch-rival and rec hours began just as the 1st quarter was ending. My boy would be there, and I’d get to see him play.

We all watched while busily slurping cola and munching on chips. My senses were laser-focused on the screen. The stadium was packed. A sold-out crowd, for sure. I was hoping to see my boy, but the camera was focusing on the fans, a sea of black and green. The other girls were hooting and hollering, but I continued to scan the crowd. Then my eyes zeroed in on a splash of red. A woman, who looked familiar, was making her way up the right side aisle.

The aluminum steps looked unsteady, but she climbed on and upwards. Probably gravitating towards the source of the voice on the loud-speaker. I too would have wanted a seat near the top, to rest my back against the concrete wall. How do these people, fans of some sort, sit on backless benches with gaping holes on all sides?

My eyes continued to track her. Dressed in a red windbreaker and blue denim, she carried a grey tote in her right hand, while her left hand formed a tight fist around something, something small, a dollar bill, or maybe some coins.

Finally, she sat and settled. Carefully. In my place, my old seat. She placed the gray tote at her feet. I silently pleaded with her not to. The openings are too wide, I whispered. Please sit still. Don’t want any accidents. Definitely don’t want any interruptions to the game.

Next, she draped a sweatshirt, the kind with a school logo, across her lap. She must have pulled it from the tote. I saw myself in her. I’d sit in the same place in the stadium, no matter what. Everyone knew where to find me. “How you doing, Ms. Thompson”, the kids would holler as they passed. “Just fine, and you?”, I’d always reply. I always loved the routine of game day. Always wore the school colors, too. My soft red fleece pullover, a half zip. My boy’s initials on the right chest pocket. Kept my notebook, a tiny 3 by 5 spiral with hundreds of baby butterflies on the plastic cover, in my left jeans pocket. I used it to capture notes to share with my boy later that night. We had our routine. He’d come home and hit the showers. I’d hit the kitchen. Warm up one of his favorites. Either noodles and sauce, chicken soup, or banana bread. Sometimes all three, if I had enough time. My stomach growled as I thought about it. My eyes felt heavy, too. I turned and grabbed another chip. Thank goodness for these five ladies.

I can’t look back now. I promised myself, and my boy, that I wouldn’t get upset. Gonna enjoy game day. Happy to have the aluminum chairs if I couldn’t have the aluminum stadium bench.. Then the camera panned to the field. A finely adorned pep band played tunes in unison as the crowd erupted. A brown leather laced ball soared through the night sky, under the overhead lights’ glare

Damn, I wanted to be there something terrible. My eyes started to well, but I shook my head right, then left quickly. Breathe in, count to 10, exhale. I recovered quickly. Four weeks in county jail means you learn how to fast. And there was no way I was going to mess up my chance to watch the game. Or get out on time.

And then it happened. Static, a low growl from the television, and then darkness. The screen blinked and the game disappeared. The girls started hollering, but it wouldn’t help. That time I didn’t even try to stop the tears.

Jen Schneider is an educator, attorney, and writer. Her work appears in The Coil, The Write Launch, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Popular Culture Studies Journal, unstamatic, Zingara Poetry Review, 42 Stories Anthology (forthcoming), Voices on the Move (forthcoming), One Sentence Stories, and other literary and scholarly journals.
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