Buses, trains and planes find their way into much of my fiction. I used to edit the material out, fearing an overused metaphor, but recently I’ve caught on to the ready made tension of strangers occupying a small space. Our skin perhaps crawls at the sensation of someone else’s body heat on the seat we’re currently using, the flesh that jiggles under the too short tee shirt when your average joe lifts his arm to hold onto the handrail. Best, maybe, the woman shouting into her cellphone at her daughter: “You use my fucking car when I was in lockup? Where were you? I got to take the bus. You don’t know what I’m going to do to your ass when I get home. You don’t know. I can’t say because I got this kid sitting next to me. But you don’t know what I’m going to do to you.” (That kid was my son, who expressed his gratitude for chores for a full day after hearing that.) Oh yes, public transportation is a beautiful petri dish for fiction.
Last month, I lost myself in the sheet music of Elliott Smith and snapped to reality in the loud back and forth of five men just out of county lockup. They sat in that intentional way of intimidation, close and on either side of me, shouting across to each other--so when one tried over and over to get my attention, I made like I was from Finland and ignored him. He persisted, and when I looked up, he didn’t smile but leaned forward, asked about the sheet music. I’d never met a hip hop artist, and even if I did, I don’t know what I would tell him about Elliott Smith. Folk-mood/grunge? It’s complicated. It’s also complicated to explain that I’m not a musician, I’m a writer trying to learn the why of rhythm.
It wasn’t the easiest exchange, and I won’t say that I climbed down the ladder of social privilege to connect with someone who only shared a route number with me, but I couldn’t let the short conversation go. The last time I met such persistence, I was fifteen years younger and a man, grotesque with expectation, was trying to pick me up in Rome. But this young man wasn’t like that, he was curious about my music, and when I left, he made no effort to detract me, only thanked me.
I’ve been having issues with this fictional pimp in my novel. He’s not obvious, he’s a church boy, older than he looks, and his mother adores him. He doesn’t get on the bus and sit to intimidate, nor is he verbose. He blends. He’s Milton’s cherub, the very devil with the ascending charm of a beautiful boy. When I sat down to write a particular scene, I found myself on the bus again, younger than I was in Rome, with sheet music. My dad waited for me at a downtown bus stop. The boy sitting across the seat from me is trying to get my attention. He seems nice enough, but I don’t look up. He persists. We’re the only ones on the bus and I’m a good girl, a polite girl. I don’t like to ignore people. But I know that I should ignore this boy. I know that he is not what he seems. But I don’t see that side of him. My dad does as he puts his arm around my shoulders and walks me away from the bus. My dad sees his smile hidden behind his hand. Later we argue and I win him over. Tomorrow, I ride the bus again.
I hope that the hip hop artist would forgive me for turning him into a pimp, but I don’t think he will ever know. It isn’t him on the page. It’s the blend of Roman memory and Seattle experience. It’s the concept of evil hiding so perfectly in good intentions. It’s just another bus ride.
Karin's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, Summerset Review, Platt Valley Review, Revolution House among others. She is currently working on a novel and lives in Seattle with her husband and son.