The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

The Number 6   —an excerpt

Built in 1940, the Number Six was the only TD-5401 model ever made by the Yellow Coach Company, which tended to limit its bus lengths to the twenty-five to thirty-five foot range, at least until General Motors gobbled up Yellow Coach in 1943 and changed the designs.  Of the five busses servicing the whole of Summit County, the Number Six was the largest at forty-one and a half feet long and ninety-six inches wide.  It was a two-toned beauty, silver with a wide blue band beneath the windows that swooped up in the back like the wings of a jay. The Number Six had a low, powerful growl that came from a Detroit Diesel 6-71 inline six-cylinder engine.  Fully loaded, at a speed of between twenty and thirty miles per hour, particularly on an incline like on the Nightingale Boulevard loop around the museum, you could hear the Number Six coming two and a half blocks away.  All of Summit County knew the voice of the Number Six.  Harlan knew it had served Detroit and then Chicago before coming all the way over to Summit County, although he had no idea of just how anyone, including Mr. Janicek in particular, comes to acquire something like a bus.

It was entirely appropriate for the Number Six, as the longest bus in the fleet, to serve Route No. 6, which was the longest route serviced by the Summit County Bussing Company, stretching from the borders of Deer County to the West, Fulton County to the North, and within six miles of the Clement County line to the South. Harlan had come to think of the route as kind of like a long-legged spider with stretches of empty road threading between the unending miles of dusty, sun-baked, silo-dotted crop land toward the center of the county, gathering people along the way, one and two at a time; then in past the slaughterhouse and the grazing fields and the dairy farms where the air was thick and musty with livestock and where he picked up the fares three and four at a time; and then across the Cleatchee River and in through the outer neighborhoods and the school grounds where the cars were clean and the people waited on neatly sidewalked street corners in groups of five or six and where ladies wore dresses and the men wore their hats and ties; and, finally, looping into the city itself—the small body of the spider—where, over the course of four stops, the Number Six Bus disgorged most of its load and headed back out along another spindly leg toward a different neighboring county.

He stopped at the corner of Macomb and Nellis and four people climbed on and paid the fare and found their way to their seats.  He knew all of them and none of them.  That is, Harlan saw each of them almost every day, and he greeted them like friends with a hearty good morning or a genial nod of his head, and they each in their own way returned the greeting, but he knew none of their names, nor anything about them.  To pass the time as he drove, Harlan liked to single out people in his rear view mirror and imagine things about their lives like why they were going into the city and how they earned their money and what they liked to do in the evenings and what they wanted most that they didn’t have.

The third person of the four at Macomb and Nellis was a young and lovely woman who was usually dressed, in Harlan’s opinion, too old for her age.  Her hair was up and she wore a dress with a knitted shawl about her shoulders that was surely too warm for the day that was coming. She smiled and said good morning as she paid the fare and Harlan smiled back and said good day and told her that she looked lovely. She smiled with her sweet kind of sadness and moved past him to her seat half-way back near the window.  Harlan could see the men on the bus watching her, tipping their hats and nodding their heads as they always did as she passed them. 

Harlan had long since decided that this woman was a nurse who worked out at the hospital and who changed into a bright white uniform with white stockings and a white hat when she got to work and that her job was looking after people who were so sick they often never got better and died. That accounted for the sadness, he thought.  She wore a ring on her wedding finger, but she did not seem to Harlan to be a happily married woman.  He could not decide whether she was married to someone who did not love her – which Harlan found difficult to imagine given her attractiveness and sweetness of disposition – or whether she was widowed.  He decided that she was widowed and that her husband had been killed in the war and he felt sorry for her.  Sometimes Harlan worried that she might mistake his friendly greeting or his compliments as an invitation of the same kind offered by the other men on the bus with their looks and their hat tipping.  It was certainly not an invitation of any sort and he had never thought of her in that way.

The woman – his widowed nurse – always disembarked, appropriately enough, at the end of Nightingale Boulevard.  She did so again today with a soft smile and a timid wave as she stepped down onto the sunlit pavement and looked up the hill towards the museum. 

Harlan waited before closing the doors after her.  He stood up and craned his neck around the bus, looking for Christopher out of the windows on all sides.  When he spotted him on the run towards the corner, Harlan sat down again. He eyed the back of the bus in the rearview mirror and was pleased to see that no one was sitting in the last row in the seat that held his whiskey and his one hundred and twenty three dollar bills. People rarely sat that far back, and even when they did no one ever seemed to sense that there was anything other than yellow foam stuffed into the seat.  But it was always a relief just the same.

Christopher Dupree lived with his cousin in a house one and a half blocks from the Nightingale Boulevard stop and each morning he waited to come running until he saw the bus pass his front porch.  Harlan always stood up to see if he was coming and within seconds of standing, he could pick out Christopher rounding the giant pin oak a block behind the bus, his arms and legs moving with such a fluid, graceful rhythm that some days Harlan remained standing and pretended to still be searching for him as he watched him gliding up the street towards the bus. 

Christopher Dupree leapt in through the doors with his usual broad smile and pale, sky blue eyes breathing heavily through even rows of the whitest teeth Harlan had ever seen.  Harlan pretended to be concentrating on the widowed nurse who was still on the corner looking up the hill at the museum.

“Good mornin’ Harlan, ol’ boy!” said Christopher, clapping a hand around the back of Harlan’s neck.  “How you doin’ this glorious mornin’?”

“Mornin’ Christopher,” said Harlan rather flatly.

Christopher paid his fare and took his usual seat directly behind the driver.  Harlan glanced in his mirror in time to see some of the men he had picked up at Granger Meadows looking at Christopher and then looking at each other sideways and shaking their heads. 

They all knew about Christopher Dupree and so did Harlan, although Harlan pretended he didn’t know anything except where he was going next.

“Almost missed it this time,” said Harlan, closing the door and heading up the hill.

“I always make it, Harlan,” said Christopher in a playful way.  “You know I do.”

“Only because I wait for you.”

“You’re a good soul, Harlan Buck,” said Christopher.  “You truly are.  Thank you for your kindness.  I am much obliged.”

“Aww, now stop it,” said Harlan in a voice meant to suggest annoyance.  “You just try to be on time.  One of these days I’m just going to pull off without you and you’re just gonna have to hoof it to the prison.” 

Christopher Dupree always smelled clean, like he’d spent his morning soaking in a tub of alfalfa soap suds.  He had high apple cheeks and fine, shiny hair like Harlan’s, only it was darker and long enough that it took the wind when he ran.

“That’s too far, Harlan.  I’d die and the hawks’d swoop in and pick me clean on the road in a quick minute.  You know that.”

“Damn right it’s too far.  So be on time.”

“You’d never leave without me, Harlan.  You’re too good a soul.”

“You just be on time.”

“You can’t be cross with me today Harlan Buck.  Not today.”

Harlan looked at him in the mirror.  “Oh yeah?  Why’s that exactly?”

“‘Cause today is my birthday, that’s why.”

“Everyday is somebody’s birthday and everyday somebody walks to work.”

“You’re too good a soul.  You don’t fool me one little bit.”

Harlan drove up the hill that looped around the museum and headed back up Nightingale the way he had come.  He turned west on Montgomery from which he would pick up a different leg of the spidery Route No. 6 and head back out of town for the sparseness of the country roads that lead toward Fulton County where they still worked the quarry that his grandfather had worked when he was a boy.

Next, Harlan stopped on the corner of Clyde and Winslow across from the barber shop and right in front of Bubba Z’s Shoe Shine Stand with Bubba, who was so black he was darker than his best work and who looked all of one hundred and fifty years old, still hanging out his rags and doing his little shuffle and bidding people good morning.  Harlan opened the doors and emptied most of the Number Six onto the sidewalk.  Keeping their seats were Christopher Dupree and an older couple off on their weekly visit to kin living somewhere up near Black Hills.

The men in hats, who had looked at each other sideways when Christopher Dupree boarded, took another long look at him as they passed, tipped their hats to Harlan and stepped off the bus directly into the charms of Bubba Z who slipped as easily into his sing-song sales pitch as if it was a pair of loafers.