By Jenny Wu
Filing past the wheel of the day’s last bus, huddled in engine fumes, brown smog, cigarette smoke and incense, the people of this region travel in a somber mood. They circulate a wet cough. They smell burnt rubber when nothing is burning. And though I cannot pinpoint the origin of this somberness, I know it charges the atmosphere with potential for a ruse. The passengers bring their own food to eat onboard, several meals’ worth in thin plastic bags, sautéed vegetables dripping grease from these bags. Meats and steamed buns. They are in my care until I release them—into the cesspool of taxicab drivers barking for addresses, wrenching women by their elbows off my bus.
Not only my care, but that of the stewardess—I don’t know what else to call her—who takes pleasure in admonishing indecent behavior, as when passengers put their feet up on the windows. She takes pleasure in being resented, and this constitutes her appeal—besides that, she has a great figure. Now it is her obligation to put blankets on the sleeping passengers. Sleeping right after dinner! How easy it’d be to pull the wool over their eyes. I could kidnap them—where would I go? The evening landscape is masked in small rain, a sun-shower. We’ve finally escaped the city. I see the road’s glow, the green and mythic mountains, the ponds with a thousand white ducks palpating on their penumbras!
The stewardess approaches the wheel. “How far are we?” She hikes up her skirt to show me her thigh. “We could get away with anything—they’re asleep.” I kiss her hand. “Aren’t we the mother and father of this bus?”
Around midnight thieves start rummaging through people’s pockets. I never see these thieves, but I know they’re up to their tricks. The passengers all, I presume, travel by night for a reason. Why is a man wearing name-brand clothes taking a bus? Still, I cannot dream up a trick of my own to play on them, though they complain enough that I drive like a maniac, that I have an evil accent. The bus, I’ve explained, lurches on its own. The brakes are bad. The engine is bad. It’s true I never acquired a license for driving a bus, that I’d gotten this job by pulling what little string I have—ah, they’re too naive, or too world-weary, to sniff the suspicious air around them. I, too, could fall asleep, and they would know nothing, sense nothing, as we plunged into the night in each other’s laps.
But I crack my window and greet the frigid outdoors. The superstitious peasants of this region are said to lay their dead in the sun until their flesh decays. The families of the dead are said to wash the bones by hand before burying them in graves that are exhumed annually thereafter, for a ritual rewashing. If a family falls ill from this process, it is said to be a sign that they failed to clean the bones thoroughly.
At dawn, with an hour left in our journey and an empty tank, I stall the bus at a gas station. I’ve always liked the smell of gasoline, especially in the cold. “You!” someone shouts from within. “You can’t do that with your engine on!” Wise guy. I pretend not to hear him and go about my business—I’ve done this a million times—and I retake the helm, lurch out of the station. Nothing happened, see? But the man who shouted out the window continues to watch me in the mirror, as the others slowly wake and yawn and blink.