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Sam Vaknin

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On the Bus to Town
By Sam Vaknin
Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004
Last edited: Friday, July 02, 2004
This short story is rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Sam Vaknin
· Nedís Short Life
· Sexsomnia
· Fugue
· The Galatea of Cotard
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           >> View all 32
The announcer warns of imminent terrorist attacks on public transport. It recommends to err on the side of caution and to exhaustively inspect fellow commuters.

Written by Sam Vaknin


I must catch the city-bound bus. I have to change at the Central Station and travel a short distance, just a few more minutes, to jail. The prison walls, to the left, will shimmer muddy yellow, barbwire fence enclosing empty watchtowers, the drizzle-induced swamp a collage of virile footsteps. I am afraid to cross its ambiguous solidity, the shallow-looking depths. After that I have to purge my tattered sneakers with branches and stones wrenched out of the mucky soil around our barracks. 

But there is still way to go.

I mount the bus and sit near a disheveled, unshaven man. His abraded pair of horn-rimmed glasses is adjoined to his prominent nose with a brown adhesive. He reeks of stale sweat and keeps pondering the clouded surface of his crumbling watch. His pinkie sports a rectangular, engraved ring of golden imitation.

The bus exudes the steamy vapors of a mobile rain forest. People cram into the passages, dragging nylon-roped shopping bags, shrieking children, and their own perspiring carcasses, their armpits and groins stark dark discolorations.

All spots are taken. Their occupants press claret noses onto the grimy windows and rhythmically wipe the condensation. They explicitly ignore the crowd and the censuring, expectant stares of older passengers. As the interminable road unwinds, they restlessly realign their bodies, attuned to seats and neighbors.

Our driver deftly skirts the terminal's piers and ramps. Between two rows of houses shrouded in grimy washing, he hastens towards the freeway. He turns the radio volume up and speakers inundate us with tunes from the Levant. Some travelers squirm but no one asks to turn it down. It is the hourly news edition soon. Thoughts wander, gaze introspectively inverted, necks stretch to glimpse the passing views.

The broadcast screeches to a sickening but familiar halt. Faint cries, the Doppler wail of sirens, air surgically hacked by chopper rotor blades, the voices of authorities grating with shock and panic. The disembodied speech of spluttering witnesses. On site reporters at a loss for words record mere moans and keens. An orgy of smoking flesh.

The breaking news has cast us all in molds of frozen dread and grief. Here burly finger poking nose, there basket petrified in midair haul, my neighbor absentmindedly rotates his hefty ring.

The announcer warns of imminent terrorist attacks on public transport. It recommends to err on the side of caution and to exhaustively inspect fellow commuters. Trust no one -  exhorts a representative of the law - be on alert, examine suspect objects, call on your driver if in doubt. Pay heed to dubious characters and odd behaviors.

Our bus is trapped in a honking row of cars, under a seething sun. The baking asphalt mirrors. I am anxious not to be delayed. The wardens warned us: "Never be late. Make no excuses. Even if God himself comes down - be back on time." Latecomers lose all privileges and are removed to maximum security in Beersheba.

I debate the fine points with myself: is mass slaughter ample reason for being tardy or merely an excuse? No force is more majeure that prison guards. I smile at that and the tension plexus slackens.

A febrile thought:

Jailers are ultra right-wing and rabid nationalists. Terrorism must never be allowed to interfere with the mundane, they say. And I rehearse in hopeful genuflection: "You mustn't send a Jewish prisoner to an Arab-infested prison. After all, I was held up by Arab assassins who slaughtered Jews!"

The legalistic side (they are big on it in penal institutions):

How can I prove my whereabouts (on this bus) throughout the carnage? Think alibi. The inmate always shows that he has complied, the warden equally assumes he is being conned, but even he must prove it. A stalking game with predators and prey, but ever shifting roles.

I rise, prying my neighbor loose from contemplation. He eyes me, wicked. I pass a soiled boot above his clustered knees and place it gingerly between two bursting bags. Mustachioed women wipe milky exudation from upper lips with blotted synthetic handkerchiefs. They address me in a foreign, gravelling, language. They use elephantine, venous, legs to push aside their luggage - a gesture of goodwill more than a decongesting measure.

I feel the clammy, throbbing breathing of another on my trousers. Thrusting my other leg, I straddle the passage, two Herculean pillars, a sea of Mediterranean groceries between my calves. Toe by heel, I get nearer to the stuporous driver, a human ripple in my wake.

"I am a prisoner" - I inform his beefy neck.

His muscles tense but he does not respond or turn to scrutinize me.

"I am an inmate" - I repeat - "Can you please confirm by writing in this diary (I point at a grey notepad I am holding) that I was on your bus at this hour? I have no pen." - I add.

He casts a sideways glance at me, monitoring the hopeless traffic jam from the corner of a bloodshot eye.

(Emphatically):

"So, you are a prisoner? What could you have you done?" (,you chalky, myopic, intellectual).

Right behind him, a woman past her prime, face coated, breasts nestled in a pointed bra. The driver cannot keep his eyes off them. She, on her part, seems to be fixated on his tensile musculature. They both start at the sound of my voice:

"Banks".

"Banks!" - the driver mirthfully slaps his bulging thighs and the woman chuckles throatily, lips peeled to reveal pink-tainted teeth. "Come over here, I'll sign it."

In one untrammeled motion, he removes a hirsute hand from the oversized steering wheel, takes hold of my jotter, and opens it. Off goes his second hand. He scribbles laboriously, tongue perched on fleshy lips, ending with a flourishing signature.

People are murmuring throughout the bus. My answer is equivocal. It could imply armed robbery - or fraud - or counterfeit. I may be violent. The innocent looking are the really dangerous. I may even be an Arab, impossible to tell them apart nowadays.

A web of mutters spins from crimson lips to hairy ears, from crumb-strewn mouths to avid auricles. I return to my seat, retracing my erstwhile progress, facing the hydra. With the pad in my back pocket, I am calmer. Que serra, serra.

At the edge of my awareness a shrill, self-righteous female voice:

"Get out now, or I am calling the police."

I open my eyes, trying to pinpoint the mayhem. Somewhat behind me, the altercation draws closer, a portly woman pushing aside strap-holding passengers. She is preceded by a far younger female scrambling, expression hunted, to flee the bully.

She passes me by, her coarse contours defaced by agony, wheezing through luscious lips, one hand supporting heavy bust, the other clutching a sheaf of papers densely written in calligraphic Arabic.

"Driver" - the mob exclaims - "There is an Arab on board!"

"Go down! I am not sharing a bus with a terrorist!" - a woman screams and then another: "Maybe she is dangerous? Did you frisk her when she boarded?"

The driver negotiates the dense circulation, maneuvering among a fleet of barely visible compacts. The noise distracts him. Without braking, he turns around and enquires: "What is it? What's the matter?"

"There's an Arab woman here." - one volunteers to edify him - "She is aboard the bus and may have explosives strapped around her waist". "Get her off this vehicle, she may be lethal!" - another advises.

"I am not forcing anybody down who has paid the ticket!" - snaps the driver and reverts to the hazy windshield.

A stunned silence. They thought the driver was one of them, he doesn't appear to be a peacenik. Someone latches on to the frontal paned partition and expostulates. "It's not reasonable, your decision. Today, you never know. Even their women are into killing, I saw it with my own eyes in Lebanon. They explode themselves like nothing, not a problem ..."

The woman who spotted the ostensible terrorist now badgers the driver:

"Give me your details. I am going to have a chat with your supervisors. You can forget about this cozy job of yours!"

The Arab stands mute, vigilantly monitoring the commotion. A passenger tilts and hisses in her ear: "Child murderer." She recoils from the gathering nightmare and bellows, addressing the jam-packed bus:

"I am a nurse. I tend to the sick and frail all day long, both ours and yours. Every day there's a flood of casualties. Our injured. Our corpses. Your injured. Your corpses. Children, women, shreds, all full of blood ..." - She pauses - "Why do you treat me this way?"

Her Hebrew is rocky but sufficient to provoke a heated debate with supporters and detractors.

"What do you want with this woman? She is just an innocent commuter! Look at yourselves! You should be ashamed!"

Others are genuinely scared. I can see it on their faces, the white-knuckled way they cling to the metal railings opposite their seats, the evasive looks, the stooping shoulders, eyes buried in the filthy flooring.

She may well be a terrorist, who knows?

It is too late to smother this burgeoning conflagration. My neighbor exchanges heavy-accented verbal blows with someone behind us. Women accuse each other of hypocrisy and barbarism.

The driver, pretending to ignore us, head slanted, listens in and steals appreciative glances at his voluptuous fawner. To garner his further admiration, she plunges into the dispute, a brimstone diva with words of fire.

Some passengers begin to push the Arab and shove her with innocuous gestures of their sweaty palms. They endeavor to avoid her startled gaze. She tries again:

"What kind of people are you? I am a medical nurse, I am telling you. So what if I am Arab, is it automatic proof that I am a terrorist?"

My neighbor suddenly addresses me:

"You've got nothing to say?"

"To my mind, if she were a terrorist, she would have blown us all to kingdom come by now."

I let the impact of this sane reminder settle.

"This bus is bursting. The driver skipped a few stations on the way." - I remind them - "She is smack amidst us. She has no bags. She could have detonated herself and demolished us by now."

My neighbor slaps his thighs with furry hands, a sign of pleasure. I am on his side. Some voices crow, encouraging me to proceed: "Let him continue, go on."

But I have got nothing more to add and I grow silent.

The Arab scrutinizes me doubtfully, not sure if she understood correctly. Do I suspect her of being a terrorist or don't I?

"And who might you be to tell us off, if I may?" - scoffs the woman who started it all. Her voice is screaming hoarse, her face aflame with stripes of lipstick smeared and make up oozing. Three golden bracelets clang the rhythm of her scornful question.

"He is a prisoner" - announces the driver's would-be floozy. She eyes both me and her desired conquest triumphantly. The driver studies her in his overhead mirror, then gives a haunted look. Control is lost. He knows it.

"An inmate" - shrieks the agitator for all the bus to hear - "The perfect couple! A felon and an Arab! Perhaps you are an Arab too?"

"I am not an Arab" - I respond calmly - "They are too well mannered for the likes of me and you."

She blows up:

"Son of a bitch, maniac, look who's talking!" - She leans towards me and scratches my face with broken, patchily varnished nails - "A prisoner piece of shit and whoring stench of an Arab stink up this bus!"

My neighbor half rises from our common seat, grabs her extended arm and affixes it firmly behind her back. She screams to her dumbfounded audience: "They are together in it, this entire group, and they are a menace. Driver, stop this instant, I want the police, now!"

I do not react. It was foolish of me to have partaken in this tiff in the first place. Prisoners involved in incidents of public unrest end up spending a week or more in the nearest squalid detention center, away from the relative safety of the penitentiary. Anything can happen in these infernos of perspiring, drug-addicted flesh, those killing fields of hemorrhaging syringes, those purgatories of squeals and whimpers and shaking of the bars, draped tight in sooty air.

I spent a month in these conditions and was about to return, I feel convinced.

The driver brakes the bus, rises, and gestures to the Arab helplessly. She tries to extricate herself by moving towards his cubicle. Some women mesh their hands, trapping her flapping arms, flailing about, her cheeks lattices of translucent rivulets. Her fear is audible in shallow exhalations.

But her captors persevere. They clench her scarf and the trimmings of her coat and twist them around the Arab's breathless neck.

The driver disembarks through the pneumatically susurrating doors. He walks the gravel path adjacent to the highway, desperately trying to wave down a passing car. Someone finally stops and they have a hushed exchange through a barricaded window. The hatchback cruises away.

The driver hesitates, his eyes glued to the receding vehicle. He contemplates the hostile bus with dread and climbs aboard. He sinks into his seat and sighs.

A patrol car arrives a few minutes later and disgorges two policemen. One elderly, stout and stilted, his face a venous spasm. He keeps feeling the worn butt of his undersized revolver. The other cop does the talking. He is lithe, a youth in camouflage, penumbral moustache, anorectic, sinewy hands, his eyes an adulterated cyan. He swells his chest and draws back his bony shoulders, attempting to conceal his meagerness.

"What's going on here?" - his voice a shocking bass. We are silenced by the contrast.

The instigator of the turmoil clears a path and fingers his oversized tunic as she volunteers:

"She is a terrorist and he is a convict and they were both planning to blow this bus up."

"Twaddle!" - roars my neighbor - "She is a hysterical, psychotic, panicky woman! Look what she did to his face!" - he points at me - "And that one, over there," - he singles the Arab out with a nail-bitten pinkie - "her only sin is that she is an Arab, a nurse or something, a fellow traveler, paid her ticket like all of us." The driver nods his assent.

"I am telling you ..." - the stirrer yelps but the officer is terse:

"Continue behaving like this, lady, and it is you I will arrest for disturbing the peace..."

"Another mock cop" - she slurs, but her voice is hushed and hesitant.

"Perhaps even insulting a police officer on duty?" - the policeman hints and she is pacified, retreating, crablike, eyes downcast, towards her shopping.

"Who is the prisoner?" - the veteran cop enquires, his paw atop his gun, caressing it incessantly. I raise my hand.

"You are coming with us. The rest continue to your destinations. You too!" - he addresses the Arab, his civility offensively overstated.

"I want no problems here!" - he warns - "It's Friday, the Sabbath is upon us. Go home in peace. The police has more important things to do than to resolve your petty squabbles!"

Extracted from my window seat, their fingers viselike under both armpits, they half drag me across my neighbor's knees, strewing all over him the contents of the plastic bag in which I keep my wallet and the weekend papers. It hurts.

We alight and the young one taps the folding exit doors. The bus drones its way into the snaring traffic jam. I watch its back as it recedes. The coppers place a pair of shiny handcuffs on my wrists and shackle my ankles too. I stumble towards the waiting squad car. They unlock the rear and gesture me to enter. They push me from behind and bolt the door. The gory rays of a setting sun dissect the murk inside.

I see the officers' backs and necks as they occupy the front seats beyond the meshed partition. One of them half turns and spits a snarl:

"My partner loves you, Arabs."

Only then, my eyes having adjusted, I notice the others in the stifling cabin I inhabit. They rattle their manacles and smile at me wolfishly, a toothy apparition.

"Where are you from, handsome?" - one asks and moves to flank me. His mitt is motionless on my knee.

He has an Arab accent.

Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.

Web Site: The Suffering of Being Kafka  


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