Beyond the Western
This morning D’Espirito “Dez” Carmine knew that one of his passengers was in trouble.
Dez shifted gears of the twelve-seat bus as he came out of Revere onto the highway north, his eyes, as ever, studying the dozen passengers on their way to work, determining a snarl, a scowl or grimace, as a straight-out giveaway. Oh, they were splendid facial characters, make-up aficionados, and the mostly imperturbable cast for his play-going. Each one of them he knew almost intimately, their habits, likes and dislikes, their temperaments; how they showed impatience or worry. The lip biters were evident and the knee tappers, the finger squeezers and the puckered, silent whistlers. Who slept around, who was prone to wander come of an evening after work, he knew. Evidence of it came from eye flight or hair disarrangement, an early exhaustion showing itself off or a head yet rolling in a kind of rhythm. “The morning body electric,” he heard a voice say in the back of his head.
Dez himself, for that matter, had no sense of guilt for his diurnal intrusions. None of the cast of characters would even have guessed that he long earlier had repositioned the rear-view mirror so he had a better view of all of them, including MaryGrace Poplucca and Troy Aquanders seated directly behind him in seat No.1 and opposite in seat No. 2 where sat Jose Negrada and Miriam Hosto. The four had been paired off for more than two years, as if their names were stitched on the seats. In his mind he had numbered the seats, behind him, left to right, 1 and 2, then 3 and 4, and finally 5 and 6. The full bench-like seat across the back end of the bus was reserved for coats, parcels, or whatever the day brought for them, coming and going. There were days that the rear seat looked like a flea market, strewn with toss-outs, collectibles, souvenirs of one sort or another, the makings of a special lunch or affair at noon hour or after work. All of them worked in the sausage plant in Peabody, lately moved from Revere, a forty-minute ride north.
This morning one of them was marked. He couldn’t see who it was. Not yet. Worse, he had no idea, not an inkling, of what was going on, what had transpired that caused whispers, asides, and accusations hanging in the air. Eavesdroppers, he subsequently believed, have their own bit of rue, the added weight of knowing half way measures, no full story. For brief seconds he was aware of a small sense of guilt about the replacement of the mirror, what had driven him to do it, yet came with that doubt an appreciation of his passengers; he truly liked them. His wards they were for a piece of the day, two pieces, the coming and the going.
Every morning and evening Dez thought he was on Broadway, front and center with the best seat in the house. The passengers were part of the play that Dez sat in on, every day since he had been hired. They had, some of them, glamorous morning faces, or faces marked so heavy with character and chance that life was here visible in his mirror, every damn angle of it. Once, early on the job, he thought of keeping a journal, about his day and the traffic, about his passengers, but that had gone by the boards as quickly as it had come. Now and then he’d reflect on it as laziness, but managed to also push lack of time into the reason column. The scenes were too much for him not to enjoy, to mark, to measure upon, the daily minute gestures in which to find development.
At the very moment Jose’s hand was in Miriam’s lap, Miriam in her favorite blue jeans, skin-borne and worn ass-tight, splendidly crotched, at the stop waiting for him so marvelously prominent. Jose’s hand was a motionless weight exacting certain demands on the pretty brunette, high forehead of pale skin, almost purple lipstick, her eyes closed, and her mouth slightly ajar in a silent salute to an inner feeling, a girl who smiled continually when not at work. Dez had seen that development from the day she had first pushed Jose’s hand away from her thigh, a distinct and noticeable act whose energy receded each day. And Dez determined it to be the ultimate seduction by seating arrangement. Jose, it proved out, was relentless and Dez figured he knew the night of their copulation, when, in the morning, Miriam leaned forward, looking up the street eagerly as they approached Jose’s apartment building. The sight of him brought her flashing into Dez’s mirror, the eyes dark and pleasant and reaching, the way only certain people can broadcast, Dez thought, still liking Miriam no matter the submission. Miriam, he also believed, would not really take a second look at him if it weren’t for the mirror. At least he knew that part of the argument.
Now, 5 a.m. daylight falling in the windows of the bus, late April, coffee steaming at his left hand, eyes straight out on the road, Dez said, “Hey, Jose, what do you think of them Sox last night?” He said it as much to Miriam as to Jose, and felt her stir in place, the body language coming to him from off-stage at the corner of the eye, the far extent of vision.
She was in that early beauty stage so evident in young love, that lift of eye and chin, that mouth so resolutely at memory. The morning Red Sox interruption had brought her out of a mild reverie and Dez hoped fervently that she was not the one in trouble. From the first morning he had liked her, smiling widely, innocent in a warm sense, calling him Mr. D’Espirito as she climbed aboard the bus.
“My neighbor in the next apartment says your Aunt Lucy is her friend and told her you got this job. My name’s Miriam.” Her hand, so recently from bed, from touching herself in morning wash or arousal, was hot and comfortable in his hand. A whole lifetime of dreams she carried in her handshake. Dez had taken to her immediately. That face he would remember forever, the perfect beauty of it, the knowing something and not telling all that shone in her eyes, the art of possibility.
With a slight twist of his wrist, and alert to rotary traffic, he avoided a pothole in the road. Consciously seeking approval, he looked up and she alone of the twelve passengers smiled back at him, an honest and warm reply that seemed to say how well he had handled that maneuver. In a particularly severe move her hair had been pinned back and showed off elegantly small ears and a soft glow riding freely on the mounds of her cheeks. Her mouth, Dez thought, was almost pursed, and made her attractive enough to catch his breath. A small prayer crossed his mind, hoping she wasn’t the one this day to be called on the carpet, placed on the coals. Life can get so sufferably fucked up, he whispered to himself, knowing his lips broadcast themselves in the mirror.
The irrepressible Jose, still at conquest, left his hand at attention in her lap. Dez wished the bus was an old regular stickshift so he could shift gears, jam the torque of them. He felt like slamming the whole entity into high speed. Her lips in the mirror were red and puffy.
MaryGrace Poplucca and Troy Aquanders sat directly behind Dez, the two of them usually stiff and formal in their loving, giving little notice of what they were at in their lives, except for the whispers each managed through stiff lips, set chins. She was dark as evening allows itself, clean and brittle as
china, always on the edge of being discovered. Troy, in most cases, imitated her; he had become what he loved, and Dez had seen that evolution. Once Troy talked up a storm, about anything and everything, his words and arguments rampant on the air, and now he voiced little about the world around him; no politics, no sports, no restaurant reports or gripes. Nada. He whispered his being to MaryGrace, succumbed, Dez thought, pussy-whipped. Turn in your green card, feller, your time is done. Get rid of your license ID ‘cause you ain’t the same guy in the picture you was. Dez almost giggled looking in the mirror.
Behind them, in #3 and #4 were the butchers, Harry Kashem and Nate Goodbind, and Nellie McCurry and Penny Angulis, wrappers, widows, whiners. Both Harry and Nate, early drawn together by some instinct for survival, had served time for small crimes, penny ante stuff they would say. They gambled at the beginning and end of day, scratched lottery tickets getting on the bus in the morning, got off at least a full block before their across-street apartments to buy more tickets, even in inclement weather. Neither snow nor rain nor gloom at the end of the day kept them from their appointed rounds. Nobody knew when they scratched a winner, and could only tell the next day when all accounting had been accomplished. In this whole world they trusted no one, including each other. Nellie and Penny, on the other hand, let it all hang out about where they stood on matters, and could say it all and easy and nearly in one breath. “Work sucks. Life sucks. This bus sucks.” “D’ja see that jerk yesterday passing out those forms, like he thinks his crap don’t smell.”
#5 and #6 were mysterious pairs to some extent. Not because they were most distant in the mirror, and therefore exhibited to Dez less clearly who and what they were, but they dressed in dark clothes, wore sun glasses regardless of the weather, set hats atop their heads not in a rakish manner but one that drew little attention. At times Dez thought them to be fading from his view, diminishing, merging with one another. Max Galatin and Drew Montroy were cutters and stuffers and gave to #5 a sense of inertia. Dez believed that if the small bus caught fire, they’d be the last two out; not by choice but by a pure lethargy. Neither one, he thought, drew enough oxygen for the whole day.
The last pair, in #6, two packers, energetic, continually moving as if their jobs moved away from the line with them at the end of the day, was a married couple, Dorothy and Henry Pelican. They
worked to send their children to school, and with two doctors to their credit and one lawyer, all high on the pay scale and distant from home, they were on their last child who had sworn to be an astronaut. Daily they dreamed him into space, “into the company of the creatures who surely wait out there for us, not wanting to come here where everything is so foul, so messed up, so unjust where life calls out its every demand, forces all issues to completion.”
Dez looked them all over in a scanning and optional study and heard again the words he heard on the other side of the garage wall, just the day before. “I don’t know how it was done, but one of them on the bus did it. That’s how they got it out of here. And we’ve got to find it before it falls into hands not favoring us.”
Jose, intent on his ministrations, did not respond immediately to the Red Sox opener from Dez. Sort of absentmindedly he was roused from where he found himself to say, “If they hit into any more double plays to kill a good inning, Dez, they oughtta let us in for nothing, not that I’d go then anyway for what they get for parking. That’s eight or nine games in a row, and all at home, they drop with a tying or winning run in scoring position in late innings. They need a lefty; they need some speed.”
A voice popped in from the back of the bus: “They need a life! Face it, them guys don’t care if they win or lose, they got so much cash coming in. They’s frigging playboys, ever one of them. Don’t waste no time going there or watching them ‘cause they squeeze your balls ever time.
Harry Kashem was holding up another losing scratch ticket, waving it over his head. “They’s no better than this. Losers. Someone getting fat on the little guys like us. Where you think the money goes from the lottery? It’s cut up and divied right under the golden dome, bet on it.”
“Why do you keep playing, Harry? You won something last year. Was that crooked?” Dorothy Pelican’s long angular face was sour this morning, Dez noted, her eyes depressed, her mouth slack. Dez looked immediately to make sure the first aid kit was still strapped to the corner of the dashboard. Jeez, he thought, she sure doesn’t look like she’ll get another kid all the way through school. Lightening the weight of his foot on the gas pedal, he wondered how he’d handle things when that moment came, for any of them. She was the one who missed the most work, but was also one of the original workers in the plant, a long-time employee. She had the inalienable rights,
whatever they were. Yet, when she didn’t go to work, no one would sit with her husband, as if the space would be violated or a disease would be loitering in place. To a person they were deathly frightened of germs or bacteria of any sort, and of salmonella in particular. The true scourge.
Well, he argued with himself, they’re not the ones gonna get their asses whipped for something besides the education of their kids. Not the Pelicans. They put every last affordable penny in their last son’s lap. Damn, it wouldn’t be them, he hoped. Again, he looked and thought, by bent it’d be Harry or Nate Goodbind. It goes with the territory, he heard himself say as a northbound Greyhound bus roared beside them, the draft almost sucking in the little transportation brother. What goes in the joint comes out of the joint. Dez’s hands on the wheel, bouncing a bit in the wake of the big bus, felt relaxed as Miriam smiled in the mirror at him. Dez felt warm all over his body, and he pictured her that very morning stepping from the shower wet and warm and eager. Her eyes looked like Oreo cookies, big goddamn Oreo cookies looking right down to his toes. He swore he could taste her. The Greyhound bus was nearly out of sight. Miriam, he swore again softly to himself, could probably read him right through the damn mirror. Why the hell did he ever move it?
“Don’t you hate them smart-ass bastards, Dez, that sneak up on you like they want to kiss you and then dump crap on you? Don’t you hate them bastards?” Harry was pointing to the big Greyhound bus moving rapidly off in the distance, square back end getting smaller, the whoosh of its passing still hanging an echo about them, as if the air had not yet returned to its place. Dez jammed his foot down on the minibus’ accelerator, felt a shift of weight and balance, and looked at Miriam looking back at him, reading him again. I’m supposed to do the reading, he uttered behind his lips, and let a dim smile hang in place. The fast-disappearing Greyhound had him thinking that perhaps just behind him, on the road north, bound for work, someone was looking at the ass-end of his little bus passing through, receding, wondering where the day would bring it.