I should have guessed who was driving, when the bus was late.
There are two bus routes through Steubenville to the library and Wal Mart, each serviced by two drivers who are reasonably reliable. When one driver can’t make it, a woman I’ll call Betsy is called in to sub. Betsy is a pleasant elderly woman with a thick Appalachian accent– not a harsh Ohio Valley bray but a real Appalachian accent. She remembers every passenger’s name. She brings tootsie rolls for the children, and she likes to tell stories. In a civilized society she’d be sitting on a rocking chair on a front porch overlooking the mountains, regaling local children with candy and stories, but this is not a civilized society. This is the United States, and the United States does not revere pleasant elderly women with thick Appalachian accents. The United States reveres money. Betsy has no money, so when she retired from driving semi trucks, she got a part-time job at Rural King and a full-time job as the substitute bus driver.
She is the worst driver imaginable.
She is invariably between ten and forty minutes late. For a bus that’s supposed to service the whole city and come every thirty minutes, that’s more than a nuisance. People who work across town will walk an hour to avoid taking the bus, because it’s more reliable.
She rarely sees cars or trucks driving into the intersection until she has to slam on the brake to avoid a catastrophe– and when she slams on the brakes, as I know from bitter experience, grocery bags and library books go flying. Once, Rose went flying and landed in the wheelchair-access zone.
“Is she okay?” Betsy asked me reproachfully as I pulled my shrieking daughter back into her seat. “I told you to hang on tight.”
I am told that, once, a person in a wheelchair went flying, but I didn’t witness that myself.
This time, it was a dark and overcast winter afternoon. I didn’t see Betsy’s smiling face until she’d already opened the door and greeted Rose by name; I had no time to decide we didn’t need a Library and Aldi trip that day. Next thing I knew, we were on the bus.
We got to the library without incident.
By the time we finished our errands, it was dark.
Betsy was twenty minutes late on the very last bus. She chattered on her way through the parking lot and back onto the highway.
“Does Rose like computers? I don’t understand computers. Someday, though, the internet is gonna be in every home, like flushables. Now, where I grew up, indoor toilets were new. We called ’em “flushables.” Only a couple of people had flushables. Rest of us had outhouses– two holes, always with a smaller hole for the little ones so they didn’t fall in.”
I had no idea if Betsy was pulling my leg. I tried to hold on to all my Aldi bags at once.
“We all used ’em– why dontcha get out of the WAY?” she bellowed, as the city bus veered round a corner and nearly flattened a mini van. “We all used outhouses. They were normal. Only the rich folks had flushables. Nowdays, they won’t even let you have a house without one. But it used to be normal– why dontcha watch where you’re GOIN’?”
We were in the bottleneck at the entrance to the Wal Mart parking lot– Wal Mart is the last stop on both bus routes, the place anyone who needs a bus on this side of town congregates. Betsy snarled imprecations at a very small car; I could just make out the terrified driver, squinting at the headlights. He inched around the bus so narrowly, I was sure he’d scrape the paint right off.
“People don’t watch where they’re goin’,” Betsy declaimed. “Nobody watches where they’re goin’ anymore. Jump right out at ya. I hate driving in the dark. It’s not the dark, you know– it’s what’s in the dark.”
I am often transported by snippets of accidental poetry like that; it’s one of the great pleasures of being a people watcher. People say fascinating, beautiful things, spitting out sublime verses by accident. Tonight, however, Betsy’s offhand poetry only made me shudder.
It’s not the dark, you know– it’s what’s in the dark.
Maybe so, but what’s in the dark? The same things that are in the light. But in the dark, you can’t see them. You shuffle forward blind, arms outstretched, and when something jumps out at you, you can touch it. Maybe it’ll touch you. Maybe it’ll bite you and that will be the end, but maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll run your fingers along its face and get to know its features. Then, when the light comes back and use your eyes again, you’ll know that thing, better than if you’d kept it at a distance using your eyes.
It’s not the dark, you know– it’s what’s in the dark. What’s in the dark is terrible– but not because of the thing itself. Because of the dark. Yet, in the dark, you get to know what you’d never think to try to find out otherwise.
This is the sort of meditation my mind was crafting, as fed up passengers boarded the bus. They were grumbling about Betsy and how she ought to be fired.
She won’t be, of course. Somehow, people in Steubenville never get fired for incompetence.
I gripped Rosie as the bus lurched forward, along the drive that borders a steep cliff. I wondered if the concrete barrier would be enough to stop us if Betsy drove straight into it.
It’s not the dark, you know– it’s what’s in the dark. You might not see the pit your enemy dug until you’re in it, and then you have to climb out. But as you climb, you learn about your enemy– how he digs, how he forms the walls of his traps, how he covers them and keeps them hidden, what he likes to leave for you at the bottom. And when they light comes back, you’ll know the enemy better. That is the inestimable value of the dark. Without the dark, you wouldn’t know The Enemy.
Street lights swept past in a blur. I held onto Rose and our grocery bags; my hands were stiff claws by the time we got back to LaBelle. My husband texted twice, wondering where we were, but I couldn’t text back without dropping the bags. And I knew that if I dropped the bags, that would be the exact moment that Betsy slammed on the break and sent food and library books flying through the windshield.
He was waiting when I got to the stop. He carried the groceries home as I escorted Rosie– watch your feet, cross at the corner, look out for broken sidewalks, walk on the well-lit side of the street. One learns to watch out for such things, when they depend on walking and buses in LaBelle. I made a mental addition to the running list I’ve got, for what to do if I ever get rich. Buy the Friendship Room anything they ask for. Donation-operated laundromat near the low-income high rise. Pay off the arrears of everyone facing water shutoff this month. Pay for Betsy’s retirement to a nice house in the mountains, with a rocker and a front porch. Go and visit her in safety, so I can hear about flushables and outhouses without risking my life. Pay to have the sidewalks fixed. One learns what the poor’s real needs are, when they themselves have to learn to do without.
It’s not the dark, you know– it’s what’s in the dark.
(image via Pixabay)