Short Story – Collecting Lives
This week’s short story was written to be presented as part of The Encyclopedia Show at Die Laughing. The theme of the show was public transportation.
The format for The Encyclopedia Show allows performers to present anything that connects to the theme. Because I’ve been writing a lot of fiction, I decided to write a story about a bus driver
It’s a much more bittersweet story that I typically write and it is more of a character study than anything else. But hey – it’s about public transportation! Sort of.
For being written in a state of sleep deprivation at 8:00 in the morning, I feel like it turned out well. As always, feel free to read, comment, and share!
Bob missed driving a bus.
The driving itself was fine. The other drivers told him it could get tedious following the same route dozens of times every week. That might be true for them but Bob never noticed the route.
Bob noticed the people. The uniqueness of the people fascinated him. Some of them took the same route at the same time every day. Others would enter his world only once.
There were business commuters who wouldn’t look up from their paper even as they were boarding, mothers with three kids and no car bringing their groceries home, old women whose faces would light up when he spoke to them because their husbands were long gone and their kids never called, teenagers using a bus to give them a sense of independence from their parents, young couples who weren’t afraid to hold hands in public, older couples who settled next to each other with a comfortable familiarity and so many more.
Each of them had a story. And Bob would try to figure out each one. He would smile as they boarded the bus and ask each of them about their day. It wasn’t the generic “how are you” that most people used as a default greeting. It was an invitation to share.
Most of them didn’t. But every day, at least a few of them would smile back and respond. Some would even sit down in the seat near him and they would talk. An old woman would tell him about her husband who just passed away. A college student would talk about their teacher or the classmate they had a crush on or an assignment they found particularly interesting. A father would talk about his children’s favorite book.
Bob would keep his eyes on the road and listen. He always asked questions and listened to the answers. And he cataloged each one of those conversations. He remembered every one.
If no-one chose to speak to him, he would steal glances in the mirror when he was at stoplights. He was an expert at filling in the blanks of people’s lives by looking at what they were wearing, who they were talking to, and what they were doing. Their stories might have been a little harder to learn but they were no less interesting.
When he got home at night, Helen would greet him warmly with a kiss and, after telling him about her day at work, she would ask him the same question. “So, who did you meet today?”
He would tell her the lives he had collected that day. She would listen to him as he had listened to them and she would tell him how wonderful they all sounded. And she meant it.
Then they would turn on the TV and watch Letterman and she would lean over and rest her head on his shoulder.
For thirty years, he had driven the bus and told Helen the stories of the lives he was collecting.
When the cancer took Helen, it had been quick. Only two months. Even in the last week of hospice, when she was on so much pain medication she might be lucid for only a few minutes each day, she would ask him to tell her about the lives of others. He would tell her stories she had heard before. Her favorites.
And then she was gone.
He went back to work because he still wanted to collect stories but now there was no-one to listen to them. They were locked in a vault in his head, a precious cargo that no-one wanted.
Sometimes, a passenger would ask him about himself and he would tell them about someone else. He would fill their minds with a life from his collection and they would leave his bus with a deeper understanding of someone else traveling the path of being.
But Bob longed to be able to share his stories with everyone and eventually, the inability to share his collection made him wish to stop collecting.
When the train came on line, they were looking for veteran drivers. The pay was better and the vehicles were easier to drive.
For Bob, the real attraction was the fact he would no longer be so close to the people. He would look at them though a video camera and while he could still learn their stories, he had lost the intimate connection of sharing the same personal space.
He didn’t look them in the eyes and greet them. An electronic voice announced the stops so he didn’t have to. The entirety of his job was making sure the train didn’t crash into some idiot making a left turn in front of him because being there sooner was more important to someone than being alive.
His days were still filled with a longing to share his collection of lives. Even as those lives gathered dust, though, at least he wasn’t collecting any new ones.
The boredom was becoming tedious. He was starting to feel some of the cynicism he found so unattractive in his co-workers.
This wasn’t what Helen wanted. She told him to be happy. To keep collecting. To keep telling his stories to someone.
So he began to break the rules.
Every train had a microphone for the driver. It was, they clearly told him, intended only for use in the case of emergencies.
He convinced himself this was an emergency. He was in danger of breaking a promise he made to his dying wife.
One day, he recalled a man who boarded his bus and shouted about aliens in an invisible ship hovering just about the IDS center. The man bothered the other passengers but Bob calmed him by asking him to sit at the front with him so he could hear the entire story.
And he did learn about the aliens that he knew weren’t there. He also learned about a young man who couldn’t hold down a job because he either needed to work through the hallucinations or work through the haze created by the meds. He learned about a boy who had been obsessed with space and with alien civilizations to the point where the man he became could see the aliens and he preferred their existence to medically induced reality.
So Bob picked up his microphone and as they passed the IDS center, he told his passengers how the IDS had been designed as not only an office building but as a radio telescope meant to send signals to alien civilizations. Someday, he told them, first contact might be made when a ship from another planet docked at the specially designed starport on the roof.
His passengers looked up from their cell phones for a moment. Most just shrugged and went back to their Twitter feed or Angry Birds. A few, though, seemed genuinely interested. They didn’t believe him but that was fine. He wasn’t trying to convince them of something that wasn’t true. He just wanted to share a life they would never understand.
On another day, the train passed a park and he remembered a little girl telling him how there were fairies in the park that she could see at night. She described their little, phosphorescent homes that were hidden in the flower beds and the way they gathered pollen from the flowers and used it to brew sleep dust for human children. She showed him a bottle with glitter and insisted it was sleep dust. Her mother told him she’d bought it at the State Fair.
Bob picked up his microphone and told his passengers that the original settlers of the city had put a park in this location because they believed that fairies lived there and disturbing a fairy town was considered to be bad luck.
The more stories he told, the less his passengers looked at their cell phones. He was careful to tell just a few stories on each trip, lest they would get bored and complain.
His boss sent out a generic letter reminding drivers they weren’t to use the microphone except in the case of an emergency but no-one asked him to stop.
He told them about the rainbow mural that was located near where Irish immigrants insisted a leprechaun had hidden a pot of gold. He told them of an alley where an early murder had given rise to legends of a vampire. He told them of a tree that many believed had once been a lumberjack.
All of this tales came from the lives he had collected. Yet they were all uniquely his own.
He began to love his job again.
One night, the train was empty as it moved past the park. Bob looked and thought about ways he could improve his story about the fairies.
“We don’t appreciate your pointing out where we live,” came a small voice.
Without even knowing where to look, Bob exclaimed “No-one is allowed up here except the driver.”
“Oh, we know,” said the unseen speaker, “but we felt we needed to ask you this favor.”
Bob looked down at his feet and saw a tiny woman with dragonfly wings hovering near the throttle. Even in the brightness of the LEDs that illuminated the cab, you could see a faint glow emanating from her body.
“Fairy. Yes. And I live in those flower beds over there. Most humans never notice us. Usually just the children. It’s harder if you keep telling them where to look.”
“I…I’m sorry,” stammered Bob,”I…just wanted to tell a story. I thought it wasn’t true.”
“Why would you think that?”
Bob told the fairy about his collection of lives. He told her about Helen and the bus and the train and he even began to tell the fairy about a few of the lives he’d collected while driving the train. Even though he believed he wasn’t.
The fairy listened wordlessly as the train moved through the darkness, turned around and finally grew closer to the park that was her home.
“Well,” she said, “would it be alright if you didn’t tell them about our village? The aliens and the leprechaun and the vampire don’t seem to mind when you tell people about them but it makes us uncomfortable.”
Bob nodded and apologized.
Tentatively, the fairy spoke again. “Can I ask one more favor?”
“What is it?
“If I came back, would you tell me about more of your collection?”
Bob felt himself about to cry. The first really good cry he’d had since Helen passed away. He simply nodded.
“Good,” the fairy said. Before she flitted away she asked, “would it be all right if I brought friends?”
He nodded again.
For a moment, Bob entertained the thought the exchange had been entirely in his imagination. But then, it occurred to him that it didn’t matter.