Buses Boarding ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted a different version of this story earlier, using a different title.)
Mrs. Schuble and her daughter Boothie went into the bus station. It was crowded for a Saturday afternoon, with nearly all the seats taken, but Boothie spotted a space on a bench where they both might sit together and steered Mrs. Schuble toward it.
“What is this place?” Mrs. Schuble asked as they sat down. “Why are we here?”
“It’s the bus station, mother. You know perfectly well.”
At eighty-one, Mrs. Schuble couldn’t always remember things that happened five minutes ago, but her memory of events of sixty years ago was nearly faultless.
“I’ll go and buy your ticket, mother. Don’t budge an inch. Don’t get up.”
“Where is it we’re going?” Mrs. Schuble asked. “I don’t remember.”
“I’m not going anywhere. You’re going to visit your nephew Heaton and his wife Beatrice at their farm in Arkansas.”
“Wait right here. Don’t get up for any reason. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Mrs. Schuble wasn’t used to being alone in crowds. She eyed the people nearest her with suspicion, but when she realized that nobody was even looking at her, she relaxed and began to enjoy herself a little. She had always liked watching people.
In a few minutes Boothie came back. “My goodness, they’re busy today!” she said. “All those people buying tickets!”
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” Mrs. Schuble said.
“I said I was going to buy your ticket. Don’t you remember?”
“Am I going to St. Louis?”
“Not this time, mother. You’re going to Arkansas to visit Heaton and his wife Beatrice on their farm.”
“We used to go to St. Louis for Christmas shopping.”
“Not this time, mother. You’re going south. To Arkansas. You’ll be there in about three hours.”
“Why aren’t you coming with me?”
“Now, mother, we’ve been all through this at least a dozen times. Heaton and Beatrice don’t want me. They want you. You’re going for a lovely visit. I talked to Beatrice on the phone last night. They have a lovely room all ready for you. You’ll be so cozy there and you’ll just have the best time you’ve had in a long time!”
“What if I don’t want to go?”
“It’s too late to back out now! You’ve been planning this trip for months.”
“I know but I don’t want to go on the bus by myself. I’m scared.”
“What’s there to be scared of? You’ve ridden the bus many, many times before.”
“I don’t want to go. I’m not going.”
“You can’t back out now, mother! Heaton and Beatrice are expecting you. They’ve made plans for your visit.”
“Find a pay phone. I’ll call and tell them something came up at the last minute and I’m not coming.”
“But that’s not true, mother! You don’t want to lie to Heaton and Beatrice, do you? They’d be heartbroken.”
“Oh, what do I care?”
“Why didn’t you say a month ago or a week ago that you didn’t want to go? Why did you have to wait until just minutes before your bus leaves?”
“Oh, all right! I know you want to get rid of me for reasons of your own. I can tell by the look in your eye.”
“You’re going to have a lovely time, I just know it!”
“I expect to be perfectly miserable.”
“Well, here’s your ticket, already bought and paid for. Hold it in your hand and don’t lose it. All you have to do is wait for your bus to be announced to Claiborne, Arkansas, and when you hear it, pick up your suitcase and go over there to those blue doors where the sign says Buses Boarding. If you get confused, just ask anybody for help. Can you remember all that?”
“Yes, my dear, I think I can remember! I haven’t completely lost all my marbles.”
“Heaton and Beatrice will be there to take you off the bus.”
“How will I know them?”
“You don’t have to worry about it. They’ll know you. Now, your bus leaves in about twenty minutes, so if you need to use the restroom, there’s still plenty of time.”
“I know that!”
“You get on the bus here and you get off the bus there. That’s all you have to remember. That’s simple enough, isn’t it?”
“It might be simple, if I wanted to do it!”
“I’d wait here with you for your bus, but I have an appointment downtown and I’m already late.”
“I know you can’t wait to get away from me!”
Boothie sighed, gave Mrs. Schuble a peck on the cheek and then she was gone.
Mrs. Schuble was nervous and didn’t know what to do with herself. She fussed with her ticket and then with her purse and then with her suitcase. She moved the suitcase from the left side, to the right, and then back again. She finally held the suitcase between her feet. She may be old but she wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to give anybody a chance to rob her.
The people around her were noisy and seemed more so with every passing second, grating on her nerves. They spoke loudly to make themselves heard above the din and sometimes one of them screamed or laughed like a crazed hyena. How was a person supposed to think?
She became aware for the first time of the voice on the loudspeaker. It was a male voice with a grating nasal quality. She heard only every third of fourth word. She thought at first that it wasn’t even English, but, if it wasn’t English, what could it be? Had she suddenly been transported to a foreign country? If she couldn’t understand what was being said, how was she supposed to know when it was time for her bus to leave?
Every time the voice squawked over the loudspeaker, Mrs. Schuble emitted one short, sharp scream like a little bark and leaned forward in her chair, but the sad truth was, no matter how hard she tried, she was not able to understand one word of what was being said.
How long had she been sitting there waiting, anyway? It seemed like a long time. Shouldn’t her bus be ready to leave by now? Why did she ever agree to go on such a trip anyway, alone, and without anybody to help her if anything went wrong?
She had never been much for crying, not even for effect, but now, not knowing what else to do, she let loose her tears. She covered her face with her handkerchief and sobbed with the pitifulness of the situation. She was in trouble and she didn’t know what to do.
It wasn’t long until someone came to her rescue. She felt someone touch her on the arm and saw a large woman with a painted-on face inches from her own.
“My goodness, honey!” the large woman said. “Are you alone? You’re not sick, are you?”
“No, I’m not sick,” Mrs. Schuble gasped. “I think I’ve missed my bus, that’s all.”
“Well, it’s nothing to cry over. You can catch the next one.”
“My daughter is going to be very mad at me for not doing what I was supposed to do.”
“Do you have your ticket? Let me see what it says.”
The large woman took the ticket and squinted at it and then looked up at the clock on the wall. “You’ve got just about five minutes to catch your bus, honey, but you need to go right now!”
“Oh, Lord! I forgot what it was I was supposed to do!”
“Well, come on then, honey! We’ll help you find your bus! Careful now, but hurry! You don’t want to fall down, now, do you?”
With the large woman was a young girl of about twelve. She stood behind the large woman and eyed Mrs. Schuble with bug-eyed curiosity.
“This is my daughter Chiclet,” the large woman said. “She’s kind of shy until she gets to know you.”
Chiclet looked at Mrs. Schuble without expression and stuck two fingers into her mouth as if she had a troublesome tooth.
The large woman took hold of Mrs. Schuble’s arm as if to help her to stand.
“Just a minute!” Mrs. Schuble said. “Before I go to the bus, I need to use the ladies’ toilet.”
“You’ll have to hurry! Do you want me to come along and help you?”
“No, I can manage, if you’ll just stay here and keep an eye on my suitcase until I get back.”
“I’d be glad to, honey!”
“It has my lucky hundred-dollar bill in it, my Bible, my clothes, my magnifying glass that I need for small print, and some important papers I’m taking to my nephew.”
“Two minutes, honey! That’s about all the time you’ve got left!”
She didn’t like hurrying, but she was happy now that she had somebody to help her. She was in the ladies’ toilet for no more than a minute, not even taking time to wash her hands, but when she came out the large woman with the painted-on face and the young girl were gone.
Mrs. Schuble turned all the way around, thinking they were there—they had to be there!—but she just wasn’t seeing them. Where could they have gone? Did something happen while she was in the toilet? Was it some kind of a trick? How can somebody be there and then not be there?
It was plain as day. That horrible woman with the painted-on face and that ugly little girl had stolen her suitcase with her lucky hundred-dollar bill in it, her Bible, her clothes, her magnifying glass, and the important papers that she was taking to give to Heaton.
If she thought she was in trouble before, now she really was in trouble! Her trip that she had planned for so long was ruined. She had lost her money, clothes, Bible and everything, and probably stood no chance of ever getting them back. She should have known better than to undertake such a long trip on her own at her age. Life teaches some bitter lessons sometimes! From now on she would just stay at home.
Finding it difficult to believe that somebody would just flat-out steal from her that way, she walked all over the bus station looking for the large woman and the girl. She looked at every face in the place, but logically (she told herself), if they had taken her things, why would they still be there?
If they weren’t still in the bus station, that means they had left. She would go walk the streets to find them if she had to. They had no right taking advantage of a poor old woman like her and they ought to be behind bars before they had a chance to do it to somebody else.
She went outside to the sidewalk in front of the bus station and stood there. She looked first in one direction and then in the other. She didn’t recognize anything; nothing looked familiar. It might as well have been a foreign country.
To the left the middle-distance looked murky and dark, while to the right it seemed to glimmer with something like hope, so she began walking to the right. Maybe she would come across someone who had seen the large woman and the little girl. She would find someone who would take pity on an old woman and lend a helping hand. There were always good people, but sometimes they were not so easy to find.
It was street of old brick buildings, some of them abandoned. There was a dry cleaner, a package store, a hair salon, a coin-operated laundry, a tavern, but no people in sight. She would keep walking as long as it took, even though she was very tired, until she got her suitcase back. She was, and always had been, very determined.
She passed a number of sinister-looking alleyways, some of them dark or with a foul smell. From one of these alleyways a bum emerged. He wore a filthy overcoat and a knit cap on his head. She walked faster to get away from him, but he was young and had no trouble keeping up. She felt him behind her, dangerously close, and when she had no other choice but to turn and look at him, he smiled with surprisingly white teeth.
“I see you walking by,” he said. “I think you look like lady in need of help.”
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Just get away! I’m looking for someone.”
“Who you looking for?”
“A woman who stole my suitcase in the bus station. I mean to get it back.”
“She stole from you?”
“Yes, my money, my clothes, everything!”
“I help you find her. Get suitcase back.”
“No, thank you! I don’t any help from you!”
“Give me a dollar?”
“I don’t have a dollar! My money was stolen. I just told you.”
“You look kind of old to find robbers. I come along and help you.”
“Go on now! Get away from me! I’ll scream for help!”
“Scream for help! Hah-hah-hah! That’s a good one!”
She was relieved that in another half-block the bum dropped out of sight and was no longer following her.
A little farther along, she came to a hotel with a lobby where people were moving around inside. Maybe one of them would be able to tell her something about the woman and the little girl.
She approached the desk clerk timidly. He was a short bald man with suspenders and glasses.
“Yes?” he asked, pushing up his glasses.
“I’m looking for someone,” she said. “A big woman with a made-up face and drawn-on eyebrows and a young girl of about twelve or so.”
He smiled and then laughed as if he couldn’t help himself. “Do you know the woman’s name?”
“No, I don’t know her name, but the girl’s name is Chiclet. I remember that very clearly. How could I forget?”
“That would be Miss Georgette and Little Chiclet. Miss Georgette is not a woman. He’s a man. Chiclet isn’t a little girl. She’s about thirty-five years old.”
“You know them?”
“Yes, indeed, I do! They’re stopping right here in this very hotel.”
“What did you want with them? Let me guess! You met them at the bus station and they took your suitcase!”
“Why, yes! How did you know?”
“They pretend they want to help you and when you begin to trust them they rob you. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“They took my suitcase with all my money in it, my Bible, my clothes and everything else. Everything I own! And, on top of that, they’ve made me miss my bus!”
“I could perhaps try to get Miss Georgette on the phone for you, but I’m not sure she’s in.”
“Oh, could you?”
“Well, I can try, but it’s going to cost you.”
“What? How much?”
“Fifty dollars. I think that’s fair, don’t you, for the return of stolen property?”
“I don’t have fifty dollars! I don’t have any money at all! My money was in my suitcase!”
“Don’t you have any jewelry? A ring, maybe.”
“No, I don’t have anything!”
“Well, I’m sorry I can’t help you, then. You don’t get something for nothing. Not in this hotel.”
“If that woman is staying here…”
“She’s not a woman. She’s a man.”
“Well, if she’s staying here, can’t you just tell me what room she’s in and I could go speak to her? I won’t press charges if she’ll just return my property.”
“I can’t give you her room number. That would be against hotel regulations. Our guests don’t like that. I could lose my job.”
“Maybe if I could just…”
“I’m sorry, madam! I can’t help you! Why don’t you just go back to the bus station and file a complaint?”
“Might I use your telephone?”
“I’m sorry. The phone is just for our guests. You have a great day now!”
She began crying then, for the second time that day. She was so tired she wasn’t sure she could take another step. She needed a drink of water or just a place to sit down and rest her feet. Why did the world have to be such a hard place?
She went back out to the sidewalk again and began walking in what she thought was the direction of the bus station, but after a couple of blocks she realized she was lost. Nothing looked the same. She couldn’t remember where the bus station was; she wasn’t even sure she’d know it if she saw it again.
Walking on, she believed she might just fall down and die right there in that filthy neighborhood, and she didn’t even have any identification. An unknown, nameless old woman. Dead wandering the streets alone. Looking for what she had lost.
She was thinking about how furious Boothie was going to be at the turn the day had taken, when someone stepped out of a recess between buildings and startled her. It was the bum from before with the knit cap and the filthy overcoat.
“Hello again,” he said.
“Please leave me alone,” she said. “I’ve already told you I don’t have any money.”
“Look for suitcase?”
“It was stolen. I mean to get it back.”
“Woman with big eyebrows took it at bus station. Only, she not a woman. She try to fool you.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know woman. I know where she is. Only she not a woman.”
“Where is she, then?”
“I take you. Only five dollars.”
“What? You expect me to pay you?”
“For you, a special price. Only five dollars.”
“I told you before I don’t have any money. My money was stolen. I don’t even have a coin to operate a pay phone.”
“I take you any place you want to go. Only five dollars!”
“Take me? How? Do you have a car?”
“Car? Hell, no! I ain’t got a car!”
“I’m not going to stand here all day talking nonsense with you. Just leave me alone!”
She tried to get away from the bum, but he walked up beside her and took hold of her arm.
“I help you,” he said.
“It has been an awful day!” she sobbed.
“You nice lady,” he said. “I wish you was my mother.”
She stumbled then and nearly fell. He put his arm around her shoulder and steadied her.
“If you help me get my suitcase back, I’ll make it worth your while.”
“I think I know where woman with big eyebrows is. Get suitcase back.”
“Can you take me there?”
“Sure. Take you any place you want to go.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder, smelling his smell that was really not so bad after a while.
“I’m so tired,” she said. “I need to rest.”
“I know good place,” he said. “To rest. Not too much farther. Just a little bit more. Almost there. Woman with big eyebrows is there.”
“You’re the only person all day who has shown me any kindness,” she said. “I wish I had met you sooner.”
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp