I’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it is the source of the expression “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” I heard this expression at office meetings, where it was presented as some sort of encouragement to teamwork. The mind wandered, as it does, especially at office meetings, and I speculated on when this expression might be used literally. I doodled a few paragraphs, and a couple of years later stretched that into a flash fiction story. Over the last year I revised it several times, still in ignorance of the original usage of the expression. Now that I know the expression is from a 1968 story of hippies, drug use and travelling by bus, they way I have used it seems appropriate, if coincidental. Comments appreciated.
It was Friday, but Al was driving the bus. Al always drove the second run of Ottawa suburban route twenty-one, Monday through Thursday, departing Walnut street at six-thirty in the morning. Once every month or two he would drive Friday. Usually those days he would say “Overtime, sir Jim. I’m eating meat tonight!” Today he said “Morning, sir Jim.”
Al always called me sir Jim. He started that when I mentioned I had an English degree. I had tried calling him sir Al, since he had a Science degree, but he pointed out that he wore a name tag that said “Al,” and he would prefer I call him that.
“Morning Al. How is it today?”
“Well, sir Jim, I’m keeping it between the lines, and the AC is working. Life is good.”
Al greeted every regular passenger by name and welcomed new riders. He told jokes, and occasionally played tour guide, identifying points of interest along the route. The house fire caused by the jealous ex that only killed him, we believed. The house that used to be a brothel was doubted. No one believed that Fidel Castro used to secretly visit a duplex on Chestnut avenue.
Elaine got on at the last stop before the bus turned into an express and took the highway downtown. I knew her name because of Al greeting her.
“Morning, my darling Elaine.”
“Don’t you be calling me Grandpa.”
“Don’t call me darling.”
“Touché.” Elaine sat in her usual seat, beside Ms. Wilson, near the front.
“Are we ready to hit the highway, folks?”
“Yes, we are,” replied those of us who always replied. Elaine and Ms. Wilson stayed silent.
“What do you say we go right instead of left, and hit the beach?”
Several of us cheered the suggestion, as always. Then Al turned right. As we picked up speed, heading east, a murmur of conversation grew. Elaine spoke up, above the highway noise.
“Al, you’re going the wrong way.”
“No, my darling, we’re heading for the coast. You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
Ms. Wilson said, “Turn around. I’m going to be late for work.”
“Well I asked, and I thought everyone wanted to go, but if not, I’ll stop at the next exit and let off the folks what don’t care for adventure.”
At the next exit, Al pulled up in front of a gas station and opened the doors. Most of the passengers got out, talking on their phones. Elaine got up, walked to the door, then turned to Al. “Are you really going to the coast?”
“Yes,” said Al. He opened a panel of electronics behind the driver’s seat and pulled out several wires. Then he connected a wire between something in the panel and his phone. “This is my last run, and I’m making it count. We’ll be at the ocean tonight.” Elaine went back to her seat.
I stayed in my seat, along with eight or nine others. Al merged the bus onto the highway and started playing music – Mozart’s Magic Flute. I phoned in sick, then shut off my phone. It was only a temp job anyway.
Driving cross country is only an adventure in hindsight. Through Ontario and Quebec, we drove flat freeways, and I dozed as we crawled through the end of Montreal’s rush hour. Lunch was a fast-food outlet near an off ramp. Joe and Dinah shared fries. They did not get back on the bus. Later in the afternoon, we stole gas from a transit garage in Rivière-du-Loup. Al spun a yarn about an inter-city charter of transit officials and a reciprocal supply agreement. After that the road was more interesting. Elaine came to sit beside me. She worked in a call centre, and told me her last boyfriend thought her strawberry lip gloss was immature.
We stopped for dinner at a diner somewhere in New Brunswick. Charlie and the waitress struck up a conversation, and he stayed when we left. We were no longer on main roads.
There were long shadows in front of the bus when the ocean came into view. Al drove to an isolated provincial park beach. It was not as hot as it had been earlier in the day, but we all stripped down to our underwear and ran into the water. The salty water was cold, but I ducked my head under, so I was completely immersed. So did Al. So did Elaine.
Police arrived while we were in the water. Two cars, two officers, no flashing lights or sirens. They waited on the beach. “I’ll talk to them,” said Al. We gathered around him in knee-deep water, starting to shiver. The sun was setting. “There are blankets in the grey bag on the bus. Gather driftwood for a fire. Enough for tonight and the morning.”
Al exchanged a few words with the officers. One of them returned to her cruiser and pulled out two coolers. She brought them over to us, one at a time. “You folks okay?” We nodded, said we were fine. “Have a good night, then.” She returned to her partner, they both shook Al’s hand, and left.
We sat around the bonfire, eating lobster rolls and drinking wine. The moon rose, the sun faded, the stars multiplied. Elaine and I shared a blanket. In the middle of the night we ran into the water again.
Al was dead in the morning. He had a paper in his hand, explaining, and telling us what to do. We took turns reading Robert Herrick’s “His Charge To Julia At His Death.” My line was “As love shall help thee, when thou do’st go hence.”
The police officers from the night before came back, along with a hearse for Al and a heavy-duty tow truck for the bus. The officers would not answer any questions, but they gave us the train tickets for Ottawa, and drove us to the station, as Al said they would.
Monday morning, the new bus driver did not look up when I boarded. When Elaine boarded, she waved at Ms. Wilson, then came to sit beside me.
“The beach was nice,” she said.
“Your lip gloss was nice,” I said.
“Want to go again sometime?”
Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2019 All Rights Reserved.