Posted by Jew from Jersey
5 January 2023
Our driver Robbie was an overweight slob. Everything about him said he was phony and cheap, prettied up at the last minute to look presentable, but in the laziest way, so that it was all too obvious how little thought or effort had actually been invested. He was the kind of guy who would suddenly smile when he realized someone was looking at him as if to say “See, I’m smiling.” He had been recommended by an old friend of the family who recalled many happy childhood trips a long time ago, when Robbie was much younger. “He takes some getting used to,” the friend had said thinking back, “But he works cheap and he’s usually available.”
Robbie arrived late. The sun was already heating up the summertime air and everyone was getting antsy from waiting around. The kids were getting into fights and some had already dirtied their clothes. “Sorry, folks,” he said good-naturedly, as if this kind of thing was normal for him, “Coil’s been acting up on me lately. Had to push-start her.” His hair was unkempt and his dirty shirt (and his belly) was hanging out of his pants, but he looked more hungover than like someone who had just push-started a bus.
The bus itself did look like a bus that might give you engine trouble at any turn. It had probably been an old school bus. The name of the school district had been scratched off, but nothing had been printed over it. Various half-torn bumper stickers adorned the back and sides. “I fished Salmon River” was one of the only ones that was still legible. Robbie informed us we would have to climb up through the emergency door in the back. Apparently the front door opening mechanism was jammed.
As we gave each other a hand climbing up into the emergency door, some people were alarmed to see signs reading “white” and “colored.” Robbie laughed somewhat self-consciously but assured us everything was alright. Apparently, the signs had been put there by a previous owner.
The bus lurched into gear and we were actually off. The brakes squeaked, the seats were uncomfortable, and there was a funny smell. Some of the windows were open and couldn’t be shut while others were shut and couldn’t be opened. A sign reminded us to tip the driver. After a while we were engaging in conversation amongst ourselves and forget about Robbie. Some of the children had fallen asleep. Our reveries came to a sudden end with the sound of screeching of brakes and the crumpling of metal. The bus had crashed into something. The next thing we were aware of was the smell of smoke and burnt rubber. Then came the sound of yelling. A woman was shouting outside, cursing Robbie out. He yelled back at her, “Yeah, why don’t you watch where you’re driving, ya dumb broad.” Then he looked back at us and smiled again, sheepishly. A crowd was gathering, examining the wrecked vehicle in our wake. Then Robbie started the engine and sped off so abruptly that pedestrians were jumping out of the way.
“Hey, this is supposed to be a fun trip. Let’s have a song,” said Robbie as we were motoring along again and he began in a creaky but not completely unpleasant singing voice to vocalize an old country standard. At first no one sang with him, but he kept on melodizing, undeterred. Soon a few people joined in and the tune filled the cabin enough to drown out conversation.
By this time the sun was beginning to set in the sky. We began to wonder why we hadn’t yet reached our destination. The road did not look familiar. Someone questioned whether Robbie knew where he was going. “Just a short-cut,” he shot back swiftly, “Too much traffic on the interstate nowadays.” It was getting dark. The bus drove on, faster and faster. Children began to cry. Robbie tried to start up another song, but no one was in the mood. Some people demanded he stop. But where? We couldn’t even see where we were in the darkness. We could feel the road beneath us getting bumpier. Were we even driving on a paved surface?
When the bus turned over in the ditch, Robbie tried to pretend as if we had reached some kind of destination, but no one was listening to him anymore.
The next year we decided to go with The Agency. Everybody was talking about them, especially about how efficient and safe they were. Their advertising was everywhere: TV, the internet, even text messages sent to you on your phone designed to look like personal contacts. Our bus was waiting in the parking lot before we even got there. But where was the driver? There didn’t seem to be anybody around.
As soon as we approached, however, we were stopped by clean-cut looking young men and women in clean, soft, and colorful clothing. In friendly and engaging tones, they informed us we would have to wait for the driver and could not get any closer to the bus until he arrived. They were somehow always standing in a configuration so as to block our access, never once breaking eye contact with us or losing their perfect smiles.
While we waited, they asked us questions. Some of us were told we would have to travel on a different bus and were led away. We were just starting to ponder how odd this was when the driver arrived. He had a perfect haircut and weaved a joke into everything he said. He shook hands all around and seemed to know everyone. We all liked him very much. He was a real people person. We noted the perfect crease in his pants leg.
Then it was time to board. The door opened automatically and we filed in and took our seats. Because half of our group would be travelling separately, the bus was half-empty. But not for long. Another group of passengers we had never seen before filed in not a minute after us and took the remaining seats. A video played on the in-board screens explaining where the emergency exits, fire extinguisher, and first aid kit was. The bus was even equipped with a defibrillator! We felt very safe.
The young people in the colorful clothing walked up and down the aisle to make sure we were all wearing our seatbelts, and we were off. People happily exclaimed how much better everything was compared to last year. “Of course it is,” the young people in the colorful clothing said, “We’re The Agency.” And everyone laughed good-naturedly. The sun was shining and a sense of good will and hope infused the air.
We hadn’t noticed when we had come in, but there was a steel wall that separated the passenger cabin from the front of the bus. It must have come down or something after we boarded. It was a shame, since we had liked the driver and could no longer see him or see out of the windshield. But we could still see out of the side windows.
Someone pointed out that there seemed to be a lot of armored cars on the road, but the young people in the colorful clothing immediately informed him he was mistaken. Then several armored cars passed us. Two more followed along on either side and travelled with us for a while before slowly falling behind. After a short silence, the young people in the colorful clothing said that the armored cars were with The Agency. It was for our own safety.
Then the young people in the colorful clothing told us it was time for some in-board entertainment. Steel window-shades came down automatically over the windows and a movie began on the screens. I wanted to get up for a moment to stretch my legs, but as soon as I stirred one of the young people in colorful clothes asked what I was doing. When I told her, she said “That’s not necessary.” I felt hands pressing my arm back down onto the armrest. When I tried to lift my hand again, some kind of metal clasp was holding my arm in place. I tried to protest, but someone had placed some kind of cloth in my mouth that muffled my voice. “Just relax,” a voice said, “There’s nothing to worry about. Enjoy the movie. It’s very entertaining.”
The interior of the bus was very dark. Who was driving? Where were we going? I felt a needle pierce my arm. Soon I felt better. All I could see was the screen in front of me.