Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Alma always knew the difference when people said "Excuse me," but meant "Excuse you." She could tell when people were tapping their feet to music or just shaking their legs and if they were frowning or their mouths were shaped that way. She knew that people lived a thousand secret lives and thought a million strange things, but everyone shied away when a pigeon came at his head and most of them pretended they didn’t.

She liked to look in the rear view mirror at people not watching one another on the bus, especially the wakeful ones without books or newspapers or headphones who studied their own reflections in the window glass and moved their eyes like lizards in the sun.

Alma was married and had three children, but she didn't know anyone as well as she knew the people at the bus stop. She told her husband once about the different smells on different bus lines and he smiled and asked her to take out the trash. The children were too old now to come along on her rides--they were in school learning about the American Revolution and how to find the area under a curve. Ever since the youngest turned ten Alma lost at every game of Trivial Pursuit and no longer had to shape her mouth into a big O and make impressed noises when they got all A's on their report cards.

The other bus drivers said they sometimes listened to headphones, even though they weren't supposed to, and usually stared straight ahead at the road, even when opening and closing the doors. But Alma tried to talk to the folks who came on and sat nearest to the front--she would ask about their bags of fried barbecue chicken and the boxes they were taking to the post office. She talked to a woman once for an hour and a half as she rode the full length of the number four route, holding a sleeping baby on her lap. The child had the kind of mouth that looked like an upside down bow, with the upper lip jutting out as she sucked on the lower one. The woman held her tight across the chest and steadied a stroller with her foot and didn't seem to notice that the baby had soiled herself near the beginning of the ride.

Alma's favorite days were the ones when the display on the front of the bus was broken, and she had to stop at every stop and tell the people who leaned in which route she was on. People would gather around and she would yell out the numbers and the route name and they would board or wander slowly off, and then another group would cluster near the door. Her second-favorite days were when she drove a new route for the first time, and she could ask someone who boarded early to sit up near the front and help her out. These days that happened less often, since Alma had driven most of the routes in her sector at least a few times, but now she thought about pretending she hadn't, just to strike up a conversation with a young woman in a colorful scarf or a middle aged man in a suit.

When she went home at night and settled into bed, Alma could hear the people talking and the tinny noise of their cell phone ring tones. She closed her eyes and let the sound drown out her husband's snoring as she tumbled into sleep.

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