Friday, August 9, 2019

Put Your Money on Ted by J. D. Hager

Ted is starting a new job as a school bus driver - but does he know what he's getting himself in for? By J. D. Hager

McFarlan described the district's situation as desperate more than once. He used the word emergency. He said drastic times called for drastic measures, and mentioned something about circumventing the background check if needed. He spoke of a loophole that offered an emergency permit if working part time and taking classes on the weekend. McFarlan wanted Ted to start the next morning, if Ted thought he could handle it. For thirteen thirty-seven an hour, Ted thought he could handle just about anything. McFarlan then flogged Ted with the glory of the manual.

"Study it. Memorize it. Keep it with you at all times in case you forget what you've memorized. If you encounter any problems while driving your route, just refer to the manual." McFarlan gripped a rolled up copy of the manual between short sweaty fingers, waving it around as if swiping at mosquitoes. "You're inexperienced, but I like your enthusiasm. Reminds me of myself at your age. But I'll be honest with you, Todd."

"Ted," Ted corrected.

"Ted, of course. You've got to be ready for this. These kids can eat you alive. They smell weakness like blood in the water." McFarlan raised the manual above his head like he was about to club Ted in the noggin with it. "Use the manual. Follow the protocol. There's a contingency plan for almost any situation in here." McFarlan swatted Ted in the chest with the manual. "You can keep yourself out of trouble by following these rules. I can sense you're up to the challenge." Since Ted had yet to grab the manual, McFarlan repeated the chest swat with a little more gusto. "Take this."

Ted took the manual and unrolled it. The cover was missing. The loosely attached title page read Pennsylvania School Bus Driver's Manual - Pub 117 in big block letters.

"We have found ourselves in some dire straights this year. I'm sure I don't have to remind you how sue crazy everyone is these days. There are currently seven lawsuits pending against the school district." McFarlan turned around and walked over to his office window. He looked out over school busses and concrete bordered by a flimsy chain link fence. "Damned fools don't realize how little money the district has. It's that goddamned Reaganomics. Those penny-pinchers in Harrisburg cut the budget for just about everything so everything is falling apart. These buses," he said, pointing out the window at a long row of beat up buses. "These buses need some work." McFarlan turned and faced Ted again. "All I ask is that you study that manual and live by its rules."

Ted took the manual home and studied it. Ted noted the copyright date of 1976 as he flipped through the opening pages, only ten years out of date. The first aid kit was located beneath the drivers seat. The two-way radio kept the driver in constant contact with the district office. By page twelve, a page filled with diagrams of emergency exits and fire extinguisher locations, Ted was asleep on his sofa, the manual lain across his face to shield his eyes from the reading lamp that would be left on all night.

When Ted arrived at the north Philly district yard the following morning, another bus driver greeted him. "How you doing?" he asked. "The name is Ernie. You must be Todd."

"Ted," Ted said. He shook the hand Ernie offered.

"Okay, Ted, if you say so. McFarlan asked me to give you a quick tour. You know, show you around and take you to the bus you'll be driving. I need some more coffee, though. How about you?"

Ted stood with his hands dug deep into his jacket pockets. He didn't normally drink coffee at all, but he felt like a cup of coffee could provide a bit of warmth against the cold morning, not to mention psychological bolstering for the day ahead. Perhaps there were pastries. "Sure."

Ted followed Ernie to the rear of the yard, to a portable on blocks. The bottom step of four was missing. "Careful about that. They were supposed to fix these stairs last year, but I guess the funding keeps falling through." Ernie laughed at his own joke and stepped over the gap. "This is the driver break room. We call it the Trailer." Ernie opened the door and a burst of smoke poured out. Ted followed him inside.

Sitting around a long table in the center of the Trailer Ted saw four men and one woman, each with a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Additional butts smoldered in an ashtray in the center of the table. Nobody looked up. Ted stopped in the doorway, feeling out of place, afraid to dive into the cloud. Ernie walked to the far corner to a small kitchenette, with a sink, a microwave, a dinky refrigerator, a coffee maker gurgling sinister liquid into large pot. Ernie took two mugs out of a cupboard and poured coffee into each.

"I heard that McFarlan is going to take the fall. He's going to be the district's scapegoat."

"That's such bullshit."

"Well, just firing Morty wasn't going to satisfy the board members."

"They shouldn't be firing anybody. Christ, I'd like to see those board members drive a bus for one day. One fucking day. They should be giving us medals."

"There's cream and sugar over by the fridge," Ernie said, handing a steaming hot mug to Ted.

"I don't suppose there's any decaf," Ted said.

"Decaf?" Ernie asked as if he'd never heard of it before. He shook his head, looking offended.

Ted raised the coffee to his lips but it was still too hot to drink. He set it down on the table for a moment, placing his hands back into the pockets of his jacket.

One of the men sitting at the table rose and faced Ernie and Ted. "So, this is the fresh meat?"

"This is our new driver," Ernie corrected, "Ted, uh, what is your last name?"

"Ted Mullins."

"Ted Mullins. He's going to be driving Finletter."

"Well, shit," the man said, taking a few steps toward Ted and holding his hand out. "The name is Freddy Francis." Freddy Francis was a huge black man, seemingly just as wide as tall. Ted held his hand up and let it be engulfed by Freddy's enormous appendage.

"Nice to meet you," Ted said.

"Hmmm," Freddy said, turning to face the rest of the drivers sitting around the table. "He's got a nice firm hand shake. That's a good sign." Still holding Ted's hand, Freddy cocked his head to the side and looked into Ted's face. "But he's already got that scared look in his eyes. You scared, Ted?"

Ted shook his head. "Nah." He reached into his jacket with his free hand and pulled the rolled up Driver Procedures Manual out of his inside pocket. "I've been studying the manual."

"Oh, he's been studying the manual." Freddy let go of Ted's hand and crossed his enormous arms across his even more enormous chest, smiling at Ted like he'd just been hit with a heavy dose of morphine.

"That fucking manual," somebody at the table groaned.

"Good thing you brought that with you," the woman called out. "There's no more toilet paper in the bathroom."

"Alright you guys, cool it. Give the guy a break." Ernie slurped his coffee through his bushy mustache. "I swear, sometimes I think you guys are worse than the kids."

Ted picked up his coffee mug and raised it to his mouth, fending off the heat with few tiny blows and quick little baby sips.

As Freddy turned around, he spun quickly and lurched at Ted. "Boo!" Ted stumbled one step backwards, almost tripping over his own feet and spilling molten coffee down the front of his jacket.

"Man, the kid is a nervous wreck," Freddy said.

"Jesus H. Christ, where is your guys' civility? What ever happened to simple introductions and glad to meet yous?" Ernie asked, walking over to the kitchenette and retrieving a roll of paper towels for Ted. "It's the guy's first day. For Christ's sake." Ted rolled about twelve paper towels around his hand and tried to wipe the dark stain off the front of his jacket.

"I'm sorry about that," Freddy said. "Just testing your reflexes." Freddy turned around and went back to the table. "Alright, pony up." Freddy took his wallet out of his back pocket. He removed a five-dollar bill from its leathery folds. "I say the kid don't make it through the morning." Freddy slapped the five dollars down on the table.

Someone else slapped down some money. "I say Thursday."

"Six days, tops."

The woman sitting at the table got up and walked over to where Ted continued to wipe coffee off the front of his jacket. She placed a stubby cigarette in her mouth, holding it between her lips in order to free up a hand. He noticed a second cigarette in her other hand, much longer and also lit.

"Look, fellas, he's married," the woman said, pointing to the wedding band on Ted's finger. "That's a good sign. Nothing toughens a man up like a good woman." She smiled at Ted and gave him a wink. "Tell me, has it been long?"

"I'm a widower, actually," Ted said. All the conversation and noise stopped for a few seconds, leaving the room painfully silent except for the gurgle of the coffee maker. Almost everybody looked horrified, except for Ted. Ted was finally able to say the word widower without breaking down into hysterics. It had taken nearly a year of moping and therapy to reach this level of acceptance.

After a few moments, all the commotion of the trailer started up again. The woman took a step closer to Ted and held her hand out. "My name is Margaret, but they call me Marge." She grabbed Ted's hand and shook it once with great enthusiasm, releasing his hand with a downward thrust like she was trying to spike it into the floor. "I'm going to tell you something that I wish somebody'd told me on my first day." Marge removed the short cigarette from between her lips and then took a drag off the longer one, blowing a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling before continuing. "A school bus driver needs to use their guts in so many ways. You've got to have guts, but also use your gut if you know what I'm saying. Don't be afraid to follow your gut out there. When you're driving the bus you're driving the bus." Marge winked at Ted, and took another deep drag, this time from both cigarettes at once. "And forget about that stupid manual. You can't alway live by the regulations. That's all I'm going to say." Marge turned back to the table. She slapped her money down. "I say Ted lasts four days."

"Harry's already got Friday."

"Alright, next Wednesday then." Marge turned and winked at Ted. "Come on Ted, I know you can do it. Remember, have guts, but use your gut." She waved two fists triumphantly at him, a cigarette smoldering in the knuckles of each

Ernie gave Ted's jacket a yank from behind. "Forget these guys. Come on, I'll show you your bus." Ted followed Ernie out of the trailer and past the broken step. "Don't mind them. They've been driving school buses for too long. They're definitely worse than the kids."

Ted followed Ernie to the front of the bus yard. There were eight buses parked in a row, covered with splotches of graffiti and patches of rust. Ernie led Ted to the second to last bus in the row. The last bus was up on blocks, missing its front two tires. "This is good old number seventeen. She's pretty beat up, but she's a trooper. New drivers always get seventeen." Ted noticed that somebody had altered the words Philadelphia School District with spray paint, changing it to Killadelphia School Dickrick. Ernie reached into the folding doors and pried them open. Ted followed him onto the bus.

"Now the first thing you want to do is inspect the bus to make sure there was nothing left on the bus from the day before." Ernie walked down the aisle and looked back and forth into the seats. At the rear of the bus he bent over and grabbed something off the floor. He held up a D battery so Ted could see. "Things like this are not good. The kids tend to throw things they find on the floor. They throw things out the window. They throw things at each other. They will also throw things at the driver from time to time. I'm telling you, anything is a potentially deadly projectile in their hands. This," Ernie said, tossing the battery up and down in his hand for a second, "this could do some serious damage. Just imagine this thing hitting you in the back of the head while you're driving down the road."

Ted imagined it. He winced and clutched at the back of his head. He imagined himself crashing the bus through a guardrail on a curvy mountain road, plummeting a thousand feet and landing on a railroad track. "Ouch," he said.

"You could say that again," Ernie said.

"Ouch," Ted repeated.

Ernie walked back toward the front of the bus. "Alright, this looks clear. Why don't you take a seat there, Ted. Get a feel for the drivers seat."

Ted gripped the enormous steering wheel and slid into the seat. Something sharp poked into his spine. He reached back and decided it was the seat. It felt like there were daggers padding the backrest. He reached instinctively for the seatbelt.

"There's no seatbelts in any of these buses. Here's the key." Ernie held out a single key, attached to an I ♥ Philly key chain. Ted took the key even though he didn't want to. "McFarlan told me you had some experience driving a school bus. Where'd you drive?"

"Actually I never drove a school bus. I told McFarlan that because I really needed the job. I drove an airporter shuttle for a while. I was doing delivery for an ice cream company before this. They fired me because I didn't notice that the freezer on my truck was broken. Five thousand gallons of ice cream melted and they blamed me." Ted slid the key into the ignition and turned it one click.

"Well, I think you'll find driving a school bus a little more hectic than delivering ice cream. As we drivers like to say, it's not a job, it's an adventure."

"Freddy and those drivers in the Trailer, were they really making a pool to see how long I'll last?"

"Yes, but it's only because we've had such a high turnover rate recently. Last week we went through three new drivers. Freddy made a bunch of money because he never thinks anyone will make it, and last week nobody did. The pool is more of a joke than anything. Just some people trying to make light of bad situation."

"How long do you think I'll last?"

"I try to avoid such speculations," Ernie said. "I've seen more than a few drivers come and go, plenty of young fellows like yourself. You seem like you've got a good head on your shoulders. I think you'll do fine."

Ernie smiled at Ted in a patronizing manner, a gesture that convinced Ted doing fine was far beyond the realm of possibility.

"These busses are pretty old. There's not much to them. You got your turn signals on the right side of the steering column, and that knob is for the warning lights when you're picking up or dropping off the kids. That red lever opens the doors. That knob is your headlights, and there are the windshield wipers." Ted tested the performance of each accessory as Ernie listed them off. The wipers produced a regrettable sound as they scraped across the windshield. Then Ted noticed the hole, a tiny circle punched through the center of the windshield.

"Is that a... a bullet hole?" Ted asked. He reached forward with his index finger as if he were going to test its fit in the opening, but Ted was too terrified to actually touch it.

"That hole?" Ernie asked, as if he was unsure to which hole Ted referred. "Nah, I don't think so. Probably just a piece of flying gravel."

Ted leaned in closer for a better view. It was a perfect circle.

"These busses are standard automatics. You've got park, reverse, neutral, drive, low two and three. They're pretty easy to drive, unless the power steering goes out."

Ted nodded as he listened to Ernie, still staring at the hole in the windshield. Ted looked up toward the ceiling, where the manual had promised he would find a two-way radio keeping him in constant contact with the district office. There was a vacant spot and a couple dangling wires. He also discovered the absence of a first aid kit beneath the seat.

"The manual said there was a radio and a first aid kit," Ted said, pointing to the pair of wires hanging down next to the sun visor.

"Yeah?" Ernie asked. "I think that manual is slightly out of date. Any other questions?"

"What was Marge talking about? About having guts, but using my gut?"

"Who the hell knows? I hardly ever know what she's talking about. You want my advice? Never stop the bus."

"What about railroad crossings? I read in the manual..."

Ernie shushed Ted quiet before he could finish. "You stop to pick the kids up. You stop to let them off. You stop at red lights and railroad crossings. Any other stops and you're asking for trouble. The best thing is to try to stay invisible. Don't draw attention to yourself."

Ted sat in the drivers seat, his fingers wrapping tighter and tighter around the steering wheel. He stared at the hole in the windshield, amazed that a bullet could have made a hole so large.

"Poor Morty finally cracked last week. It all started when he stopped the bus," said Ernie, shaking his head. "After nearly twenty years as a driver. We all know it was self defense, but they're making Morty out to be some kind of monster. After that happened everybody's on edge. The kids, the parents, the drivers. There's been rumors about payback. The kid that Morty hurt has gang ties. Not that I would worry about that if I was you. You'll be driving a different route. Forget I mentioned it."

Right. Forget it. Forget the driver's pool, the graffiti on the outside of the bus, the missing radio, the bullet hole, the D battery in Ernie's pocket, the rumors of gang vengeance? Ted could feel it all collecting in his stomach, tightening into a enormous vortex of worry.

"I don't know." Ted gripped the steering wheel furiously, his knuckles white from the lack of blood flow. "They're just kids, right?" Ted thought of his two daughters.

"Sure, they're just kids. But they're more than kids. They're organized, and there's so many of them. Are you familiar with the concept of critical mass?"

"Critical mass?"

"All I'm saying is that ten or twenty kids is a lot different than sixty or seventy."

Ted tried to swallow the knot in his throat, but only succeeded in making a very loud noise.

"Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it. It's easy, really. It's instinctual, if you're a true bus driver. Maybe that's what Marge meant. Follow your instincts. Any other questions?"

"Nope, not that I can think of."

"Well then, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"What you said in the trailer. That's horrible. How'd your wife die?"

"She was murdered, stabbed for fifteen dollars and some change."

"Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick. That has got to be the saddest fucking thing I've ever..." Ernie's shoulders shrank away, as if somebody had pulled a plug and his body was deflating. He bit into his mustache. "I don't know what I'll do if I outlive my wife," Ernie said. "She's in the hospital right now." Ted's declaration upset Ernie way more than Ted, which gave Ted the urge to comfort Ernie.

Ted reached into his pocket and grabbed his wife's locket, the one he carried with him everywhere. He opened it, revealing the pictures of his twin daughters, and handed the locket to Ernie.

"It's okay, Ernie. We move on, you know. I've got these two beautiful girls. They're living with their grandma right now, in Philipsburg, but I'll get to be with them soon enough. They look just like their mother, so that every time I look at them I see her also. Aren't they beautiful?"

Ernie took the locket from Ted, and studied the image of the blond haired girls in the photos. Ernie looked especially hardened to Ted, like things of consequence shouldn't penetrate his leathery fa├žade, but Ernie seemed ready to cry.

"What are their names?"

"Jan and Jen. Janet and Jennifer."

"How old?"

"Eight and a half now, but five in those photos. Now that I have a job and can start saving some cash, I'll be back with them again in no time."

Ernie looked into the locket for a few more seconds before he snapped it shut and handed it back to Ted. Ernie's mustache trembled, and he wiped at his eyes with his forearm and noticed his watch. "Holy crap, look what time it is. It's nearly time to hit the road, and I still need to show you the route map. Come on. "

Ernie walked down the steps and exited, but Ted sat in the driver's seat for a moment longer, afraid to let go of the steering wheel.

Finally Ted composed himself enough to exit, and followed Ernie back across the yard to the trailer. The bus yard looked expansive and empty, and the sky had the same ominous, oily hue as the asphalt, like the entire universe was just a big empty parking lot. Ted could just barely make out the muted outline of sun through the clouds, but it felt weak, a fraction of its normal self, like someone gave the moon an emergency permit and asked it to fill in while taking classes on the weekend.

Ernie and Ted passed Freddy and a couple of other drivers, walking to their various busses. Freddy wished Ted luck. Another driver told Ted not to let the eighth graders push him around. Everybody was laughing, everyone except for Ted.

Ted followed Ernie over the broken step and into the trailer. Marge was the only one left inside. She had her eyes closed, and she sucked on a cigarette, relishing every nicotine-filled moment. She opened her eyes and looked at Ted, smiling through the smoke. "This is my little thing. I just like to really enjoy the last cigarette of the morning, honey." She took one more drag and then snubbed the butt out in the ashtray. "You just never know. This could be my last cigarette ever."

Ted wasn't sure whether that was supposed to be a sad thing. He reached for his wallet and removed his last five-dollar bill. "Can I buy into that pool?"

"Save your money," Marge said. "If you make it longer than the last pick, all the money goes to you. It must be fifty bucks."

"I know I wouldn't bet against you," Ernie added.

"What are you talking about?" Marge asked. "You picked two days." Then she stood up from the table and walked toward the door, obviously in no real hurry to get anywhere. She looked at Ted. "Just remember what I told you, honey," she said, and in a swirl of smoke, she was gone.

Ted noticed his half full mug of coffee on the table, forgotten from before. He was afraid to even touch it. He could feel the few sips he had taken earlier sitting in his stomach as heavy as dollops of mercury, and his jacket would probably sport an ugly brown reminder down the front of it for the remainder of its existence. But for some reason Ted grabbed the mug and slammed it back like he was training for a coffee-drinking contest.

Meanwhile Ernie opened a closet in the rear corner of the trailer and retrieved a four-foot by four-foot map of north Philly, nailed to a piece of plywood. He leaned it against a wall, revealing a complicated tangle of colored strings and pushpins weaving across its surface. It was simultaneously impressive and ridiculous.

"You'll be driving Finletter. That's this pinkish string right here. You start on West Mascher and then turn north on Champlost." As Ernie traced the route for Thomas K. Finletter School, grades K-8, located on the corner of Godfrey and Front, Ted felt more confident than ever. He had driven through that neighborhood before, though, at the time, it had not felt prudent to stop anywhere. He got a mental picture of each street and stop as Ernie called it out. Though things were moving fast, Ted couldn't help but feel as if everything was going to finally work out this time.

"Just so you know, I put my money into that pool before I met you," Ernie said. "I meant it when I said I wouldn't bet against you."

"Thanks," Ted said. "And Ernie, there's no point worrying about what you will do if your wife dies. Just celebrate every day you have her."

Ernie bit his mustache again, and sent Ted off with a thanks and a slap on the back, and the reassuring promise that Ted would do fine. This time Ted actually believed him. Ted would have guts and follow his gut. He wouldn't stop the bus or stop acting on his instincts. He would ignore the manual and wouldn't let the eighth graders push him around.

Ted crossed the parking lot and climbed into bus number seventeen, nestling into the dagger-padded seat. Then he reached up and touched the not-a-bullet-hole in the windshield. It was bigger than his index finger, so he extended his middle finger and placed it through the opening. The gesture felt symbolic of something, but Ted wasn't sure what. He then pulled out his wife's silver locket with his daughter's pictures inside and wove the chain through his fingers so the locket hung against the back of his hand. He opened it so the girls and he could see each other. He torqued the key in the ignition and the engine shuddered into action. Ted pulled the red lever to close the doors, shifted into drive, and smiled as he rolled number seventeen onto the streets of Philly.

That fifty bucks was as good as his.

4 comments:

  1. Entertaining story with a good build up. Fun worker characters. I bet Ted is gonna win. Hes already gone thru the worst. Ending is also kinda scary....

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  2. Very unique, very enjoyable. Ted's quiet resolve contrasts nicely with the colorful grit of his hazing colleagues. I feel like there's some mystery to him as well, above and beyond the tragedies revealed in the story.

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  3. A great read. Excellent dialogue, and pretty funny black humor. I could picture Todd, sorry, Ted, sitting in that bus.Good ending.

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  4. Thanks for the comments. Glad I'm not the only one entertained by this story. I often wonder if it is only funny to me. Cheers.

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