Who Takes the Bus in LA by Marc Eichen

Who Takes the Bus in LA | Marc Eichen

Hey, you want pizza?

I brought you pizza so we could share. What did you used to say? – something about food and love? But I didn’t overthink it. Picked the pepperoni and mushroom, from the place you like up on East Chavez. Yah, that one, near the King Taco.

You sure? ‘Caus I’m not havin’ it later, in front of the TV. Trying to get healthy.

It’s nice up here, no? You can see across the freeways. Downtown. All the way to the mountains when it’s clear. Did you ever want to go to the mountains? I forget.

You can see the hood. You remember, when you couldn’t get anything to eat after eight or the latest nine? Or when everything was closed with rolled down riot gates like it was Beirut. You couldn’t get anything at all? Well, that is so not today. It is a such different place. I mean, of course, it’s the same place, really. King Taco is still there and the Pasteleria on Wabash. And down East First, there’s still the giant Food4Less, the one where you got caught stealing a supersize bag of chips.

I can’ believe you put the bag under your sweater. You thinkin’ like what? And then we got hysterical when that checkout boy smacked it and must have broken most of the chips into tiny pieces and then, when you yelled at him, he threatened to call the cops and kicked us out. Not that we believed him, or thought the cops, even the rental cops, would ever come.

And then, when we were outside and Johnny D, one of the dudes from the WF, the one with the skull hand tat came over and, yeah, asked if you wanted him to smack that guy. I saw him on the bus. Can you believe it? And you didn’t know what to say, you were laughing so hard because of the broken chips, because he came over, because you thought he would do it if you asked. Maybe because you had just figured out you could get him to do anything if you asked.

That place, the Food4Less is still there, but word is, it’s going too. Replaced by something else, Kroegers or Whole something. Or maybe a shopping plaza with a Starbucks and a Target. The Food4Less’ got the biggest lot in the neighborhood. The lot where those guys stand, like your uncle or whoever he is, in the morning and hope some whitey would cruise in their Tesla and give them a day’s work cleanin’ the pool or somethin’. Fat chance. Or late at night when boys in their hoodies sell shit to those whities snaking by in their same Teslas?

Yeah, well. That’s how it goes, you know? You sure you don’t want this slice? You can pick off the mushrooms. I won’t get mad.

You remember when I got the job at Metro? It was just another cleaning job and you didn’t have much to say about it. But after I applied to be an operator there was something about me driving that you didn’t like. You would ask me, “why do you want to do that?” As if driving was a step down from cleaning the buses. Or maybe we were both cleaning so that made it Ok or equal. I used to tell you, I’m not pushing the buses and besides I did all the numbers and I’m going to make one fifty more an hour and there’s a differential too if I work nights. You said what good is that extra one fifty an hour? You think that’s going to get us a house in The Valley? And what if you have to drive the car all the way to a depot in Culver? You’re going to spend that much time and money on gas.

It really made me mad, that you wouldn’t listen to me. I kept telling you to just look at the numbers and you were yelling that the numbers didn’t mean shit. We had a big fight about it. I said you were always keeping me down, seeing all the bad stuff that could happen. And you said I never listened to how you felt. I said, you never want to leave. You never want to get out. Even on your day off, what do we do? We get stoned. We watch Manana para Siempre or Property Brothers on HDTV. How many times can we watch that shit? Why don’t you want to get out, do something else besides clean rooms at the Marriott and detail cars at Al’s Auto Spa? And you said, that’s a lie. You said I was never satisfied with what I had. Never. I do get out, you said. Al’s is almost in Wellington Heights. And I said, Wow, the suburbs. And then you came over and I thought you were going to throw something or smack me but we had make-up sex the way I like it. And then you said, isn’t this enough. Where do you want to go? And I said, nowhere. One hundred percent nowhere.

But you knew it wasn’t enough and so did I.

That next week you came home with a catalog from LATTC. I said, what the hell is this? And you said, See, I can do stuff. I can plan.

Where did you get this?

At Al’s.

No, you didn’t.

Did so. Hector has been talkin’ to me about how he’s taking courses. ‘motive and diesel courses. He gave it to me. We could both take one.

And I started to say how the hell are we gonna pay for this?

Don’t stop before you start, you said. I looked and Metro will pay half for you. And maybe I’ll just sit-in the first semester and see how it goes.

You were right. That’s how we started taking classes at night. Remember the weekend before we went. We were both so scared we were going to mess up, not get in, or do the wrong thing. And I switched my schedule so we could register and came home and you were all dressed up in that black dress, like you were going out. And I didn’t tell you but I was so proud of you. You had our GED stuff folded up in a crinkly brown envelope. You looked so smart.

And when the counselor asked if we had graduated from high school, you took them out like the conquering hero, like HERE WE ARE and she said, “No, no, honey. We don’t need those. What’s your social? If you graduated here in LA, I can just look you up.”

We had a deal that semester. We would both take something, you know, practical, like something that could get us better jobs and then we could take something that we wanted, something fun. But that very first semester I think I took intro psych and you took music, remember? ‘Cause that was all that was open.

I never told you, but you looked so happy anytime you had your earbuds in, listening to music for your class. I would ask you, what’s so great about that music? That opera? I know I gave you a hard time about it, because I thought it took you someplace else, someplace you went without me. But it was still so great to see how happy it made you. Walking down the street or doing the dishes in your torn cut-offs and tee-shirt, you looked so beautiful.

You were right about all the gas and stuff. Right about a bunch of things. Right about how I never listened to you.

I was taking the Dodge your mom unloaded on us. Oh yes she did! I was driving out to Culver to pick up the bus and do the 108 route back to town. And one of the other drivers asked me if I had ever been to Venice and I thought at first she was talking about the Venice, like in Italy with the canals, but she laughed and said, “No, our Venice. Venice Beach. Check it out.”

You got laid off from the Marriott, but you were still working at Al’s. You were coughing just a little. You had taken a COVID test and they were going to text you about it but they just didn’t. We got up early on a Wednesday when we were both off. You said, you know we can take the bus. Like that was our joke because I got on free. So we did and took the masks you still had from the Marriott. When we got to Venice, the end of the line, we walked out past the homeless dudes with the vans permanently parked on Main, out past the concrete on Speedway and Ocean Front, out to the shore.

There was a guy in a torn down army jacket with a big dog on a leash. You remember? He kept looking around in that over-the-shoulder, half-scared way. You said he looked like an ex-con or some kind of white banger. He was talking to the dog and then he unhooked the collar and began to throw a Frisbee into the waves so the dog could run and swim and bring the Frisbee back, over and over. After, they went to this pipe near the skate park to rinse off. The dog sat and kept giving his paw and let this guy dry him off with an old towel he took out of his backpack.

You held my hand and told me you were wrong because they both looked so happy to be there, so happy they were making each other happy. That was as close to an apology as I ever heard you say.

It felt like that to me too, but I didn’t tell you. I never told you enough. You were right about that too.

What is it, I thought, about the beach that makes everyone happy? Maybe not just happy, but free? Is it the flat and white and warm between your toes, even in winter? Is it the memory of your parents when they took you on a good day and bought you anything you wanted from Mr. Softee? Is it looking out into the forever or the sound of the waves that makes the roar of the planes and the 405 and the stuff they said to you at Al’s dim till it’s nothing?

After a while of walking and watching the skateboarders and the kids with their dads we bought some gum and went to the Library Alehouse and had eggs. We shared a beer and weren’t wearing masks. The waitress, who was wearing one, gave us the hairy eyeball.

You got a text on your phone. It said you were positive and you should quarantine at home. You showed it to me and I said well I guess this means I’m positive too. And you said maybe we should put on our masks so we did. And the waitress came over with our check and made some comment that she was glad we got the message. I thought why the fuck are you glad about that. And then I realized, when I looked at you and you were already thinking we should go, that she meant some message from her eyeballing us.

And we took the bus all the way home and I was feeling so bad because I knew we should have taken the car. The ride that seemed so short on the way to the beach felt like we were driving in slow motion up some endless hill.

We got out and came back to the apartment. And you put on your pajamas and your robe and got into bed and just sat there because there wasn’t any difference from that morning and yet it felt like there was a ten-thousand percent difference. Like we were being bombed and strafed by some silent air force. I said, I guess I’ll sleep on the couch. So I did and made coffee, like the day before and the day before that. And I figured, maybe this is the worst of it.

You were fine, just fine for a few days. You said maybe it’s no worse than a cold and then you got a fever. I went to the drugstore and got some flu stuff to make a drink so you could sleep. And that helped a little, I guess. And then a couple of nights later, after I came home from my shift, it must have been two or three, I heard you coughing in the bathroom and you came out and told me you couldn’t breathe.

We put on some sweats and took the pirate taxi to the ER and a nurse asked if you had been tested. You said yes. He asked for your Social and looked you up. He was all gowned up and took your temperature and asked about me and took my temperature.

He told me I should go home and they were going to put you in observation. I started yelling that there was nothing to observe, that they needed to cure you, like now. And he told me, in a way that was like he had said this before maybe 110 times just that day, to go home and quarantine or he would call security.

You had forgotten your phone so there was no way I could contact you. But I told you I would come tomorrow morning, before work, and drop off the phone. And we didn’t kiss or hug because…because why? Because we didn’t feel that way. Because I was coming back tomorrow? Because you weren’t supposed to?

They just put one of those plastic colored bands, an orange one, around your wrist and one around your ankle and you walked through the doors that said, ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE, VIRAL POSITIVE. LOCKED FACILITY.

The next day, when I got to the hospital, there was a security guy there and I said I have a phone for my friend. And he looked you up. He held open a plastic folder, told me not to touch it and I dropped your phone, the charger and rest of the chewing gum we bought at the beach. He sealed it, wrote your name on it with some numbers and said it would get to you. And I just stood there, like something else was supposed to happen. Like he was going to call you on the phone and you were going to come running down and we were going to hug and chat.

He said, “Is there something else?”

I just looked at him. Something else for what? Something else to do? There was nothing else to do. That was the point.

You know we aren’t suppose to take our phones with us during our shift at Metro. You could get fired for even having it in a locker at the depot. But they didn’t have enough people driving as it was so things were loosening up.

I got a text, later, while I was driving out on Washington. It was late and the bus was pretty empty so at the light, the long one at Sepulveda, I took the phone out and saw it was from you and my heart was, like, pounding. Hey baby. Pretty crazy in here. But doing OK. Should come home soon. Later.

The next day they had put in Plexi to protect the operators, or so they said.

And then there was nothing.

I couldn’t go see you and I didn’t hear nothing. I sat behind that Plexi that was supposed to protect me. But protect me from what? I didn’t want to be protected. I didn’t want anything. Or at least the thing I wanted most I couldn’t have.

And a week later your mom called and I wasn’t even home and she left a message, all screaming and crying, that you were dead and they had the funeral. And then she hung up.

And when I tried to call her and talk to her she said it was God’s way of punishing us – for who we were, for where we lived. And that it was my fault ‘cause I got it from somebody on the Metro.

And I kept calling her back and she kept hanging up. Until finally she told me where you were buried. And that she never wanted to see my face. Never.

I didn’t take any days off, so no one at Metro even knew. I still had to pay the rent and the gas bill. But really I just kept workin’ because it was all I had. One night after the other.

That night, yeah, it was no different from any other night. I took the bus out from the stall at the Plaza and already a half dozen of them were waiting. Willies. And I let them on, some of them even paying, most not. Why give them a hard time. It’s not like they are getting over, for God sakes, they have nothing, I thought, just like me. They don’t even have each other.

And then, right before I’m pulling out, Johnny D gets on with some girl who, I don’t know, looked like she was maybe fifteen. He pretends not to know me and they sit in the back and I can see they are smoking and all over each other and I’m thinking they are going out to West LA, to some club.

I pick up a few more at Union Station and one of those guys gets on and his shopping cart is spilling over with crap and he’s eating a bagel and it’s all over his face and he’s got this radio playing. But what am I going to say, right?

And he sits in the handicapped place with his cart in front of him. He’s got, like earphones, but his radio is on loud and everyone can hear it all over the bus.

That time of night is never really busy. We’re rolling down West Pico and some old Anglo couple gets on and tries to pay with a Tap card but it doesn’t work. Who knows why.

And Johnny D starts beefing with me from the back of the bus, yellin’, “How come you let them through? How come we got to pay and you let them through? You’re all the same,” he says, “looking out for each other.”

I just let it go, because I figured he would cool himself out. He’s just showing off for this babe.

Things are OK for a while and then Johnny starts in with the guy with the shopping cart. “I don’t want to hear that fuckin’ noise. Use your fuckin’ ‘phones. None of us have to hear shit like that.”

And this guy is not saying anything. He’s enjoying the music and then I realize maybe he can’t hear anything. Maybe he doesn’t even know he’s got music on.

We get to the last stop and I yell into the mike that doesn’t work and then I turn around, “This is the end of the line. Santa Monica.” And all the Willies get up slowly. Why get off the bus into the rain? I have to say it again, at least twice. But finally Johnny D and his girlfriend are the last to get up. And they push their way out of the back door.
I look at my watch, the one you got me with the green plastic band, and I’ve got five or six before I have to turn it around and go back to the Transit Plaza and Division Thirteen. I see Johnny walking up the sidewalk like he has someplace to go. And the guy with the cart is crossing up at the corner under the freeway. And Johnny is yelling at him.

And I don’t know, I just start to get mad. I can hear the trucks grinding to a stop above, on the freeway bridge at the very end of the 10, like every night. And I’m going home to a dark apartment and an empty cold bed and that’s what it’s going to be like every night. And fucking Johnny D is hassling this guy, like I’ll bet he does every night. Like what the hell? Why are you hassling this guy? What has he ever done to you? He’s just some guy with a cart and a bagel. Some guy who maybe wants to get some sleep under the freeway.

The bagel guy is crossing up at the corner and Johnny is walking up there. My foot hits the gas to the floor and all of a sudden it’s raining and I don’t know what I’m doing and Johnny is in the road and he doesn’t see me coming except for the last minute when I can see him put his arm up in the headlights. And I slam on the brakes at the last second and the bus grinds to a stop in front of him, not five inches from his arm in front of his face and up against the concrete, the side wall of the freeway bridge. And the babe is screaming and Johnny D is yellin’ at me, callin’ me a stupid dyke, telling me he’s coming after me. And I’m yellin’ back at him, “You ass, you stupid fuck, I saved your ass. You could’ve been a bug on the side of the damn freeway bridge.”

I throw the bus into reverse and I’m about to drive off, like it was nothing and then the cops come and I think oh shit, I’m going to lose my damn job. I’m going to be detailing cars at Al’s for seven bucks an hour.

I’m so lost in my own head, I don’t even remember anything. I know one of the cops, a guy in a suit, gave me his card and the night rep from the union called me and told me to take some administrative leave and there would be a hearing.

You know how those things go. The hearing is set in a couple of weeks. And I’m worrying, if I should buy a dress or what. Me in a dress? When was the last time that happened? So I go with the uniform. The night before, I get out the ironing board, just like you would and get one of those operas you used to listen to and just iron it slow and nice. And I make sure I have my One Year service pin with the gold bus over my name tag, like you would have told me to do.

Either they save you or they fry you. And in this case, when the hearing came up the union said the bus was defective and the road was wet. And twenty minutes later, after the woman from Metro and the women from the union talked to the judge, they told me to go home and I would be able to come back to work the next week. They told me that would be the end of it.

But it never is.

Every night I get the bus and I look for that guy with the bagel. I look for Johnny D. and the babe. But they’re never there. And every night I come to the end of the line and my heart starts pounding and I wait for something else to happen — but it never does. And then every night I come home and I lay down in our bed and close my eyes and instead of you, I get the bagel guy and Johnny D yelling at me, cursing me, asking me who do I think I am and if I think I’m God or something. Every fucking night.

I call the number on the card. And speak to some guy who says we should meet. So after my shift I go over to the police station over in Santa Monica. It takes them an hour to find the file but then the detective, the one from under the freeway bridge, brings me over to his desk. There is a picture of some kids and a bunch of paper under an old phone that looked like it was broken.

And I tell him, I just wanted to keep Johnny D out of my head so you could be there. And he comes in close and said, “You see this file? It says…” and he looks in the file. “It says it was an incident, not even a crime.” He closes the file and taps the desk with it. “Happens every night. So how about we keep it that way?”

“I guess —“ I say to him, not really knowing what that would do.

“But I still want to hear, ‘cause that’s really what it’s about.”

I nod.

“Let me get us some coffee, because you know I’ve got all night.” And then he rocks back in his chair and just waits.

And I start to cry. Right there at his gray steel desk with the busted phone. And he gives me a tissue out of a pop-up box with pink happy flowers, like the ones we never bought and I start to laugh. And he said, “So why don’t you just tell me. Saying it out loud might do it. Kind of magic like that.”

And I tell him I don’t believe in magic.

And he says, “Yah, well. Me neither. But you gotta believe in something. And I believe in this.”

He gets up for the coffee and even pours me a cup in a fat diner mug with a green ring. He brings over three sugar packets and I tell him no, trying to be more healthy. And he says, “yeah, me too.”

So then I tell him everything. Everything about us, about that time on the beach in Venice, about you and Johnny D and the chips at the Food4Less, about that night on the bus. I didn’t tell him about how you liked opera when you did the dishes or how you tasted like lemon meringue when I kissed you after a shower. Some things I keep just for me, forever.

And I ask him, “You really think this helps?”

And he says, “Yeah.” I dump one of the sugars in my coffee and he takes one. “It’s about the story. And how you tell it.”

So I’m comin’ up here just to tell you too. I might not be able to explain all the shit that’s happened. But no matter what, we’ll talk and look at the hood and the freeway and the clouds as they come in over the ocean and the mountains. And I’ll bring pizza ‘cause, like you used to say, I remember now, love is food.

About the Author:

Marc Eichen has a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University. From 2015 through 2022 he was a Visiting Faculty member at the State University of Zanzibar. His fiction focuses on life in Zanzibar and in red-state America. He has had stories published in Still Points Arts Quarterly, The Adirondack Review and West Trade Review and reprinted in Toyon. He is the winner of the Richard Cortez Day Prize in fiction. A book of short stories in Swahili and English will be published in Nairobi Kenya in 2023. He is represented by Kristen Carey at Blue Hen.