The “Culture War” Is Really Humans Vs. Culture

Make America Angry Again! It seems like everyday now, there’s some TV show or public event aimed at upsetting the president, followed by a Trump Tweet that fires everyone else up. Everywhere you look, you see angry racists, angry anti-fascists, angry feminists, angry football players, and angry celebrities screaming, waving their arms, and killing each other with cars over something Trump said or something Trump did.


Come on people. Look at this guy. Does he really deserve this level of validation?

Now, I realize that the issues that have Americans so enraged these days aren’t entirely the president’s fault. These are old fires being stoked, but we’re not going to douse by throwing tantrums or going out of one’s way to piss people off.


Yeah, I’m talking to you, interchangeable NFL protesters. Now, I don’t care about the National Anthem or all this disrespecting the flag one way or the other. To me, those as symbols, and I leave symbols to the same people that George Carlin does. The way I see it, you’re just exercising a right that this great country is based on. I’m proud to live in a place where you needn’t worry about getting lynched, stoned, or even fired for your actions. Whether I agree with you or not, however, I still think you could find a better venue to share your viewpoint.

Let’s be honest: Monday Night Football is not the place for you to speak your minds. In fact, you’re not hired to speak at all: you are modern-day gladiators, paid to beat the shit out of each other in an arena for the pacification of the public. That’s all you are, and that’s all anyone cares about. As for me, I don’t care one whit. If you want ruin your careers and damage the reputation of the company you work for, then go right ahead. Maybe it’ll get Americans to stop thinking about football and start thinking about real issues. I just think you’d do better to speak at a college, publish an essay, or even write a letter to the editor, for crying out loud. You’ll have a smaller audience than when you’re on your precious tee-vee, but at least you’ll know that the people you do reach will actually give a shit.

It’s the egotism that bothers me more than anything. What kind of self-absorbed douche gets on a soapbox in the middle of work? If some dude at my office decided to interrupt every workday with a political message, the rest of us would throw our staplers at him. And don’t give me that shit about free speech. The First Amendment only protects you legally. It doesn’t mean that your friends, family, employers, or sponsors will like what you have to say. There are consequences for saying the wrong thing, so suck it up, buttercup.


Then you’ve got the people who love to say that the president has emboldened racism and hate groups. Once again, I think those people are giving Trump a little too much credit. These organizations have existed, and will continue to exist, for years and years. You can’t blame Trump, a professional narcissist, for these violent rallies that are going on. Have we forgotten that the president works for the citizenry, and not the other way around? We hired him. Trump became president because we voted for him, not because he reached into his bag of racists and Russians and pulled them all out to vote. He is a reflection of us. Cruelty and ignorance are All-American home goodies, baked at three-hundred and fifty degrees for over two-hundred years.

Why do we keep blaming the president for all our problems anyway? He wields no real power. Sure, he puts his name on the bills, but his position only exists for one purpose: to provide “good feelin’s.”

Let’s be honest again: for all his impressive oratory skill, what did Barack Obama really change? I mean, really, as in the quality of our daily lives? Any changes in my life during his presidency were brought on by my own efforts. He certainly didn’t turn the country into some femi-homo-disarmed-Euro-paradise like conservatives feared. All he did was send warm, liberal fuzzies through the television while business, war, and politics went on as usual. In 2017, we just exchanged one talking head for another, one that says what the other side likes to hear. And still, nothing is changing. Do you have more money in your pocket than you did before Trump became president? Do you feel better protected from terrorists and scumbags? Is the nation a warmer, happier place than it was last year? Nah, but at least you have your alpha-male role model shouting down those pussy libtard snowflakes, and that’s all these people need.


Therein lies the trouble we face: mindless tribalism, or as the magazines are calling it, the “culture war.” People are trading their individuality for groupthink and entering into twisted crusades against each other. You can’t say it’s only happening on one side, either, or else you wouldn’t see the childish clashes we’re getting. Those militant morons out there chanting and whining don’t care about making life better for anyone, they just want to feel morally superior to those they disagree with, by shouting them down and belittling them. When they vote, they don’t consider which candidate will improve the nation, but the one that will run their enemies out on a rail and silence them for good.

Now here’s the truth: if that’s the way you think when you vote, then you’re admitting that you don’t want a president, you want a king. That makes you a defector from democracy, and a supporter of despotism. You are precisely what Benjamin Franklin warned us about, and precisely what the Revolutionary War was fought to tear us from. In a democracy, everyone gets to speak, and in a society as diverse as ours, a tug of war must exist in perpetuity.


So what’s the answer? I don’t know how to calm these nutballs we see on TV every night, but I do see the difference between them and the regular people that surround me in real life.

The fact is that regular people don’t get so worked up over these things. They’re too busy trying to survive. They have households to manage, families to raise, budgets to balance, jobs to attend to. They stay informed of policy and vote, but they don’t allow their identities to be so wrapped up in gang mentality that they want to kill the opposition. They are decent, reasonable folk who want to live in peace, not to create trouble where it needn’t exist.

It’s time we started taking responsibility for ourselves. We have to stop surrendering to the waves of manufactured consensus, and start owning up to our actions. Terence McKenna once said that “Culture is not your friend.” It aims to control you, to categorize you, to paint you as something you might not want to be. In fuming over the latest stupid tweet Trump made, you are playing straight into culture’s hands. Focus on your life, your reality, your people, your God. Consider how to improve your world practically, and don’t let anyone else, especially some nimrod on television, tell you how you should do it.

Top Cartoons: Snoopy Come Home

There have been over forty animated Peanuts TV specials, and five feature films. There’s a timeless quality to these tales of precocious youngsters. Their lives, activities, pains, and pleasures — baseball games, flying kites, pulling pranks, fitting in — have rarely deviated from what children deal with even today. Snoopy Come Home maintains the themes of the comic, but it pushes them farther than they ever went before.

This is the second animated Peanuts feature, written by Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez. As the title says, the focus is on Charlie Brown’s independent, imaginative, attention-loving beagle, but instead of playing vulture or chasing the Red Baron, he gets trapped at the peak of what amounts to a symbolic love triangle.

snoopy title.jpg

There are tensions in the Peanuts neighborhood. Snoopy’s been spending too much time away from home, fighting with the Van Pelt kids, and standing up his play dates. NO DOGS ALLOWED signs are cropping up at his favorite haunts, and even that round-headed kid is pounding him with lectures. It seems as though he just doesn’t belong anymore.


So when a letter from a mysterious girl named Lila arrives, which spurs Snoopy on an impromptu road trip, everyone feels responsible.

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It turns out that Lila is Snoopy’s original owner, who, for some reason, had to give up her puppy when her family moved. She returned him to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where Charlie Brown’s parents later discovered him.


Now Lila is sick with an unnamed, but  serious disease, and misses her pup terribly. Snoopy and his bud Woodstock try to use mass transit to reach her, but NO DOGS ALLOWED signs stymie them, so they have to make the trip through unfamiliar towns and wilderness on foot. They travel a mighty long distance together, bonding, joking, and generally dealing with the rustic life. On one occasion, however, their adventure, and their lives, are put in serious jeopardy.


Having gone without human companionship, Snoopy is pleased to spot Clara, a gal playing in the sand outside her house. He runs up and greets her, but she seizes him, kidnaps him, and attempts to forcibly adopt him.

Clara is more or less a relative of Tiny Toons’s Elmyra, with no awareness or empathy for an animal’s feelings. She gives Snoopy a flea bath, repeatedly dunking him underwater. She ties a hefty rope around his neck and yanks him around. She dresses him in hideous clothes for a tea party. Then, when she spills her tea on him, she blames Snoopy, and gives him a spanking.

It must be noted that Linda Ercoli, the voice actress for Clara, is amazing. At only thirteen years old, she gives Clara an impressive range of emotions, from giddiness to rage, and she’s always  horrifying. She even sings a very complicated patter song with aplomb and perfect rhythm.

After a crazy and intense chase, our wayward heroes make their escape, perhaps having learned something about dealing with strangers.

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is haggard with worry. His friends reach out and provide advice to help him accept that Snoopy is likely gone for good, but nothing works.


When Snoopy finally reaches his old friend, he has to make a tremendous decision. Lila feels so much better with her doggy around that she begs him to come back to her. It is here that Melendez’s direction best demonstrates its wisdom. Melendez understood that Snoopy’s comic strip thought-bubbles wouldn’t work in a film, so he instructed  his animators to pour their efforts into the pup’s physical expression. He may be a simple-looking cartoon character, but the agony Snoopy displays at Lila’s request is truly heartbreaking.


What follows is a series of shockingly painful scenes, restrained only with a stingy sprinkle of humor. There are tearful, even maudlin, partings, and a haunting portrait of real depression as Charlie Brown is unable to eat or sleep in the absence of his dear friend. The sequence plays to a wistful lament called “It Changes,” which, while written with innocent and childlike language, will likely never be understood by any but the most scarred of children.

Speaking of music, one will notice that Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano themes are missing from this film. You won’t even hear the iconic “Linus and Lucy” anywhere in it. The score is by Richard and Robert Sherman, who also worked on Disney’s The Jungle Book and Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web. Their work here swerves from pleasant and dark, just like the film itself.


Mercifully, two wonderful payoffs await, and the film closes with enough joy to conquer the preceding misery.

Snoopy Come Home baffled most critics, and even Roger Ebert described it as “schizoid.” I agree that it vacillates from one emotional extreme to the other, but I don’t know if that damages the film in any way. Peanuts has always been tinged with anxiety, and I believe that’s part of its endearing nature. I don’t believe it would continue to be printed in today’s comics if Schulz hadn’t dared to mix his own insecurities and doubts into the minds of his cute little characters. I think this movie is quite an achievement, even if it would never play well with today’s audiences, who expect shiny computer animation instead of the exquisite hand-drawn work shown here.

Twelve Answered Prayers

Day Twelve, The Letter-Writing Campaign: I’d like to preface this post by warning that it might sound crazy to you. It sounds a little crazy to me, too, but I insist that it is absolutely true.

I was an atheist for most of my life, but I wasn’t one of those arrogant, fedora-wearing pricks who take joy in deconstructing people’s beliefs. No, I was just a man who, having learned of the atrocities, iniquities, and warped values of humanity, decided that there couldn’t possibly be a God. The lives we lead are completely out of balance: we work ourselves to death or coma-like states, we ignore the suffering of others, and we spend our earnings to emulate and worship those who exploit us. I could reach no other conclusion but this: there is no plan here. Nobody really knows what he’s doing. Life is a meaningless parade of lunacies. We are cosmic accidents, burning our precious lives away on a Mobius strip in the unforgiving dark of space.

That’s what I used to believe. That changed this summer. I was kneeling over the edge of bathtub filled with hot water, holding the edge of a chef knife to my wrist, when I realized that I couldn’t afford to think this way anymore.

It started with a comedian. Doesn’t it always? I listened to the audiobook Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black. In particular, I listened to the chapter titled The Psychic. I had never believed in psychics before. I figured they were all charlatans out to make a buck off of the bereaved, but something about Black’s story touched me. If he could be made to believe that something could be watching us, the evidence must have been overwhelming. Perhaps there was a way I could find proof of that sort.

According to Black, the psychic Michael Bodine explained that he no real “superpowers,” as it were; he simply could see and talk to people that most of us couldn’t. These people, called guides, or angels, or whatever name you like best, were the ones who brought him knowledge of the future, or possible futures. Bodine was just a messenger.

I did some research on these “guides.” Different psychics have different ideas about what they actually are, and I suspect that none of them really know for sure. What they agree on, however, is that they are intelligent, helpful beings who can be communicated with.

So how do you communicate with one? Again, the methods differ depending on who you ask. Some say you can just talk aloud to them. Others say you can have a mental conversation with them if you meditate and clear your mind properly. Still others recommend writing letters to them, leaving them out for them to read.

I kind of liked this last idea, so when my long dark night came, I got out a sheet of paper and a pen, and wrote. I wrote a brief but desperate plea for help, to whoever might have been watching. I didn’t care who it was, if it was God, or my guardian angel, or whatever. I closed with, “I am open to you now,” and I stuck the finished letter to my bulletin board.

Not long after, things started to change. I kept on going, leaving letters out everyday, to “whoever might be watching.” I wrote about the worries and problems I had, and one by one, they were solved, often within a day or two of my writing.

I got in touch with my counselor, whom I hadn’t seen in months, and she offered to continue my therapy at a reduced rate.

My physician agreed to help me get on state disability while I worked my problems out.

I reconnected with an ex-girlfriend with whom I shared a long relationship and a hostile breakup. We were able to reconcile after years without contact.

I had to leave my apartment before my lease was up, and my landlord warned me that she hadn’t had any interested renters in months. Still, I couldn’t afford to stay there. I figured if I had to ruin my credit, that’s the way it had to be. I moved out, and less than week later, my apartment was taken. I was even able to get my deposit back.

Daylight crept back into my life. The biggest question remained, however. I needed to know what my path was. After years of decisions that continually brought me to the brink of suicide, I had to recognize what I wanted for myself. What is my dream? We all know the answer to this question, but we make mistakes, we make excuses, we make compromises, and years later, our dreams are buried so far beneath the layers of stupid bullshit that we can barely remember them.

I did remember mine, but I never believed I was good enough to make it come true. It was always there, though, that desire to make my own cartoons. I wanted to be like Jim Henson and share my characters, my stories, my imagination, with the world. I just never had the confidence. I always considered my artwork to be pretty weak and crude compared to what some of the kids are doing with Photoshop and Illustrator these days. I never believed I could measure up, so I pushed my old dream into a closet and locked it away. Still, the other paths weren’t working. I wrote a long letter asking for guidance to the one that was right.

That’s when I got the request to make a commission, and I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I was good enough.

I know how this all sounds. I know. I could be subconsciously pouring effort into solving these problems, and then giving credit to something supernatural. It’s a possibility, but the resolution of these troubles always seemed to involve something outside my control. Perhaps this was just a series of crazy coincidences, but all in my favor?

No, it seems, or rather, it feels like communication is happening. Carlos Castaneda said that to find your true path, you have to stop listening to your thoughts, and start listening to the world around you. Only then will the answers will reveal themselves. I have much to learn, but this part seems to be true. I still don’t know what God is, exactly, but I’m pretty sure He, or She, or It, wants me to succeed, to say and do what I feel is right, and most of all, be the person I was born to be.

I believe that profound growth isn’t possible without some pain and tribulation. All the challenges I faced this year were for a purpose. I think I needed to recognize and accept that there is indeed a force greater than ourselves, one that is actually involved in our lives. My misery, and the miseries that I described in my past eleven entries, did not happen because this force allowed them, they happened because we rejected it. I don’t completely understand its nature, but I can no longer deny its existence.

Knowing this gives me some peace, and I hope that 2015 will see a personal renaissance in not just myself, but in all of the people who’ve undergone significant trouble this year. I can’t change the problems in the world, but I can change my views on them. The hope, the reality, the truth, is in how we look at things. Everything in the world has its place, and every event has its meaning, even if we can’t discern them from the TV news. I refuse to accept the falsehoods from the glass boxes as true and then use them to make myself feel bad. Instead, I will find the truth within myself, where God put it at the very beginning. I came to the edge of death, but I didn’t fall. I am alive. I am here, and even though I nearly lost everything, I can still see, hear, and feel the precious miracles that surround me everyday.

I’ve got a chance to change, and I will not be the man I was. I’ll begin again, I’ll rebuild my life. I will live to know that I’ve fulfilled my life. I’ll begin today, throw away the past, and the future I build will be something that will last. I will take the time I have left to live, and I will give it all that I have left to give. I will live my days for my fellow men, and I’ll live in praise of that moment when I was able to begin again. I will start anew, I will make amends. I will make quite certain that the story ends on a note of hope, on a strong Amen, and I’ll thank the world and remember when I was able to begin again.

God, whatever it is, showed belief in me by answering my call. I don’t know why, but I will use this chance to find out. Likewise, God gave you the power to make this holiday, this world, this life, as shitty or as lovely as you want it. Why would you want it to be bad?

The world is indeed lovely, and full of possibilities. Choose the good ones. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, make it a Merry Christmas.

Inkvite is Still the Best Place for Writers

In an earlier post, I was too hard on the app Inkvite for the aims and goals of some of its users. I don’t think I was clear enough in my meaning, and I want to apologize.

Inkvite is still the best app for creative writing you can find. There’s no contest.

My issue is that I’m a crotchety old thirty-something who didn’t grow up with internet communities like YouTube and Facebook, and I never placed any value on likes and followers and subscribers. This Gen-Y/Millennial crowd, whatever you want to call them, has grown up in a different world, and that’s not really anyone’s fault.

I love Inkvite, and I want it to succeed and flourish among real writers. I just believe that true creative skill, and the confidence that fuels the all-important ACT of writing, doesn’t come from contests and votes and followers. All of that can blow away in a twinkling. When I need to write, but I have no keyboards or paper to write on, I get a stick and scribble in the dirt. I don’t care that no one will see it; the urge is just there.

I’m not sure that the children of the Attention Age, the age of Cranked-out Content, know what that means. Or maybe I’m being myopic. Perhaps I’m only witnessing the creative world as it turns through another cycle of millions.

I wonder about Cervantes, a man who wrote masterpieces and then died without a penny. Did he fret that his plays weren’t successful, that his family was falling apart, and that lords called him the worst poet alive? Or did he ignore all that and just keep writing? Would most of the users of Inkvite ignore all that and just keep writing?

Whether they would or not, I love Inkvite, and I know there are plenty of others who love it too. May it continue to find success.

Travis is Fired Excerpt

Hello again. What follows is an excerpt from another short story I’m writing. Hope you enjoy.


Travis Is Fired

by Daniel Rocha

One: That Gorgeous Day in May

Before his mind cracked like a china cup, Travis Finn was the morning-est morning person you ever knew. I daresay that some you would have found him insufferable. Where most of us might groan and wince at the piercing buzz of an alarm clock, Travis always leaped out of bed like a Thompson’s gazelle. Upon landing he immediately set a course for the bathroom. No delays for the man. He never sat on the side of the bed to yawn or stretch. He never rubbed his eyes and pondered his daily plan. There was grooming to do; who could wait?

Travis had a tiny studio over on Richards Road, and when he showered, the place became a hot box of heavy mist and happy humming. He often sang a lengthy aria that continued after the water went off. He always arranged his toiletries in a ring around his bathroom sink, placed in their order of usage. The sequence went: toothbrush with Colgate Total, case of floss, bottle of Listerine, can of Barbasol, Mach-3 shaver, Skin Bracer aftershave, tube of Clearasil acne medication, bottle of facial moisturizer, a hefty hairbrush, and a tall can of hairspray. Travis wore his blonde hair in a neat flat top, but it was naturally wavy and he needed the spray to keep it from settling as the hours passed.

He set up his coffee maker to brew on a timer, and he always managed to step out of the bathroom just as the carafe was topped off. The mix of odors that seeped from his windows every morning was peculiar and strong, but never unpleasant. When you walked by apartment forty-five at seven in the morning, you smelled readiness. Travis’s landlord, a pillar of a woman with severely bunned hair, liked to say that it was the smell of a man on the move.

Today was May twenty-fourth, the Friday before the extended Memorial Day weekend. Most anyone would have been in high spirits today, and Travis was especially cheerful. You see, Travis had the enviable distinction of being a man who was truly in love with his job. It didn’t matter where the job was, or whose orders he followed. If there was work to be done, Travis was happy to do it. He derived pleasure from the very notion of belonging to a company, of knowing that his hands were necessary parts in a grand engine. Whenever he sent an email or filed a document, he liked to think about the myriad ways that he’d changed the day.

“That’s my handwriting on that file folder,” went his thoughts. “Many others will see it over the next few years. They won’t know who made that folder, but it wouldn’t have been there without me. At least, not in the same way.” He kept these thoughts close throughout each day, and they brightened his already luminous spirit.

At seven-thirty on this gorgeous day in May, Travis stepped out of his apartment looking fine and chipper in his crisp tan shirt and freshly ironed black slacks. The slacks were complemented with a snug black vest. His office’s dress code didn’t require him to wear a tie, but he often wore one anyway. Today it was a tasteful, copper number in a half-windsor knot that he tucked into his vest. He locked up, patted his pockets, and set off for the bus stop at the corner. He whistled like a robin as he strolled along, and those who saw him assumed he was on his way to a wedding or a formal rather than some drab, gray cubicle.

The bus arrived on the corner of Richards and Mabel, big and lumbering and loud. And late. The doors hissed open, and Travis was faced with his antithesis: the surly, bent body of the bus driver.

She was behind on her route, and she gave Travis an impatient glare. The sweet, gleaming smile he responded with only infuriated her. “Well, hurry up then,” she called.

She had little reason to be cheery this morning. Her six-year-old daughter, aiming for the container of milk, accidentally knocked over a jug of Kool-Aid and spilled sugary sweetwater over everything in the fridge. She discovered a nail in her front passenger side tire after she arrived at the depot parking lot, and her boyfriend texted her to say he was working late and couldn’t make their date for the night. One might expect the upcoming holiday to liven her attitude, but since her current work schedule required her to drive on weekends, while giving her Mondays and Wednesdays off, it was sadly meaningless.

Of course, Travis didn’t know any of this, and he boarded the bus with a jaunty hop. “A lovely day, isn’t it?” he said to the driver.

The driver only grunted back. The last thing she wanted to deal with right now was a friendly passenger. She would welcome a hostile one at this point, as it would provide an excuse to release her burgeoning anger. As things stood now, though, she felt alone in her hatred of the world, and that only made her hate things more. She drummed her fingers on the wheel while she waited for Travis to deposit his fare.

“I’ll be needing a transfer today, madam,” he said.

“You ain’t getting no transfer ‘til you pay,” she answered.

Travis laughed. “Oh, you are certainly right about that,” he said, and he dug in his right pants pocket for his five quarters. He found most of them. He had three, four, and then five of them in his hand, but the sixth one seemed to be hiding. He scrunched his brow and said, “Huh.”

The driver raised her eyebrows. “Don’t you tell me don’t have it, because you’re holding me up,” she said.

Travis held up a finger. “Never fear, madam. I know it’s in here somewhere.” Self-consciousness set in, and a bead of sweat rolled down his temple. He scratched around in his pocket ferociously. “I know I put it all in here.”

The driver knew that if she didn’t yell at this guy a little, the pressure inside her chest would kill her, so she loosened the valve a bit. “Look, I can’t wait for you,” she burst out. “Just go sit down and come pay when you’ve got it. God damn.” She closed the bus door and immediately hit the gas, throwing Travis off balance.

Unfortunately, Travis had removed his hand from his pocket and was holding his fare when the bus lurched ahead. He managed to close his grip around five of the quarters, but that elusive sixth one popped out from it like a desperate fish from a boat. Travis gasped through his teeth and chased the wayward coin as it rolled down the aisle.

He followed the quarter to the rear of the bus before it veered left and vanished behind the skinny legs of an elderly man. Without thinking, Travis knelt and stuck his face beneath the man’s seat.

“Whoa! Look out down there,” the man said. “You lose something, buddy?”

Travis squinted into the dusty darkness of the bus floor, but the coin had vanished like smoke. Feeling self-conscious again, Travis blinked and shuffled back into the aisle on his hands and knees. He peeked over his right shoulder to find that the eyes of the route’s ridership were fixed on him. He felt face heat up, and he knew that keeping quiet would only make it worse. “I’m afraid I lost a quarter down here,” Travis said to the old man. “You didn’t happen to see it, did you?”

The man started a reply when the bus struck a pothole, jolting its lighter passengers a few inches above their seats. The vehicle’s frame juddered and the suspension squeaked. Travis’s right arm slipped out from under him, and he rolled onto his back.

The man leaned down and took Travis’s arm in hand. He helped Travis from the floor and into the seat beside him. “Here, you’d better take it easy for the moment,” he said. “The way this driver’s going, you’ll need to wait ‘til she comes to a stop before you go poking around down there.”

“Yes, maybe you’re right,” said Travis. He checked himself over and grimaced at the brown streaks of dirt on his vest and slacks. He tried to brush them off, but they only faded some. He sighed and returned his attention to the man. “Thank you for that. Travis Finn, pleased to know you.” He offered his hand and a smile.

The old man received the pleasantry and gave a smile of his own. His tan face wrinkled in a way that was pleasant to behold. His clean-shaven face and white, close-cropped hair gave him a wise, gentle look, and Travis had the fleeting fancy that the man was visiting from his mountaintop monastery to study the Americans for a while. “Bill Stepanski,” he said. “Quite a morning you’re having, huh?”

“To say the least!” said Travis. The old man laughed. He had tobacco-stained teeth that reminded Travis of his grandfather. “I can’t keep a hold on things today.”

“We all have days like that, I think,” said Bill.

“I’m probably just over-excited. My thoughts are all over the place.”

“How’s that? You have big plans this weekend?”

“Just seeing family. My father’s having a barbecue at his house.”

Bill smiled. “How wonderful.”

“Yeah. Some of my uncles will be visiting from Nevada. I haven’t seen them since Christmas. It’ll be nice.”

Bill closed and made a long, slow nod. “My daughter lives in Sparks. She’s a good gal. I won’t be seeing her this weekend, though, sadly.”

“Oh, how come?”

“She’s working through most of it. She gets Monday off, but not Saturday or Sunday. She said she’d like to come by anyway, but I told her it wouldn’t be worth the trip just to stick around for a couple of hours.”

“Yeah, I can understand that,” Travis said. Somehow, he felt comfortable with Mr. Stepanski, and he was grateful to at last speak with someone on his morning commute. He’d been using this route for almost a year, and while he’d come to recognize most of his fellow riders, none of them had showed any interest in conversation. He’d thrown out icebreakers to people he found interesting, but he’d gotten no responses. No verbal ones, anyway. Some of them had smiled in polite acknowledgment before turning away, but most had avoided eye contact altogether. To meet somebody who actually talked to him, especially in light of his misadventure with the coin, eased Travis’s nerves. As he spoke with Bill, he felt revitalized, and in the space of a minute his embarrassment was forgotten.

Then he felt the bus slow down on a busy part of Cotton Road, a stretch where there was no stop. Travis and Bill halted their conversation and looked out the window in tandem.

“Is someone waving the bus down?” asked Travis.

“I don’t see anyone out there,” said Bill.

The bus pulled over and stopped. Travis scanned the faces of the other passengers but found them just as puzzled as his own. The doors didn’t open. Travis wondered if there was something wrong with the engine.

Then he heard a loud clomping sound coming down the aisle. It was the driver. She was marching with a purpose, and staring right at him. She stopped at Travis’s seat and leaned into his face.

“You think this bus is free?” she shouted. Her voice filled his ears, and her deep black eyes were fierce and frightening. Travis thought she was ready to kill someone. So stunned was he that he could only produce a confused grunt.

“I said, do you think this bus is free?” The driver turned and pointed to the fare listings posted near the front ceiling of the bus. “Look up there. How much does that say it costs to ride the bus? How much?”

“A dollar twenty-five,” muttered Travis. “Fifty with a transfer.”

“Yeah, and that means it’s not free, okay?”

Travis nodded. “Okay.”

“And you think you can go hide back here and get away without paying?”

The situation came together for Travis then, and his shock gave way to amusement. This woman had actually stopped the bus because she thought he was weaseling out on a buck-fifty. The triviality! The pettiness! That anyone could accuse him of such a thing was ludicrous. Travis couldn’t help chuckling as he prepared to explain himself, but the driver didn’t give him the chance.

She mocked his laughter then, and Travis’s amusement stepped aside. Behind it was a pulsing globe of umbrage. He felt something he’d never felt before: the sizzling hot desire to strike this woman across the face. Before his vision, his right hand was lashing at the woman’s right cheek. He felt his lip curl and his eyes narrow. He could feel and hear the clap of his palm against her skin. He saw her squeezing, angry eyes break open and behold him with pain and disbelief, and Travis felt very, very pleased.

Then the veil withdrew, and the real world showed itself again. The driver was still lecturing and berating. He hadn’t hit her; he’d only sunk into a very believable daydream. He gathered his thoughts like a scattered deck of cards and came up with a new approach, one more civil than what his imagination had conjured.

“Excuse me,” he said, using the placatory tone he applied when dealing with angry customers at work, “but you asked me to sit down until I could gather my fare together. I dropped one of my quarters before I get a seat, and I was just looking for it.”

“Yeah, looked like you were on a regular treasure hunt,” said the driver, and she gestured to Mr. Stepanski, who was frowning at his folded hands on his lap.

Travis sharpened his voice. “I was talking with this gentleman while I waited for you to slow down. The way you’ve been driving today, I didn’t think it was a very good idea to go crawling around on the floor.”

The driver backed away a step in mock guilt. “So it’s my fault then? I’m supposed to apologize?”

“No, I’m just saying that if you’d just been patient and let me get my quarter, you’d have your fare and you wouldn’t have to –”

“You don’t get to tell me how to drive my bus, little man. And you definitely don’t get to tell me to be patient.”

A battery of answers in Travis’s head adjusted their aims, prepared to strike back in a volley, but Travis called them back. Instead he calmly drew a small spiral notebook from the fob pocket of his shirt. This was his Current Events Journal, or “CJ” for short, and as his father had advised him years ago, Travis was never without it. “Keep track of weird things that happen,” he’d said. “So you’ll know exactly what to say if someone questions you later.”

Travis pulled the pen from the binding loops and flipped to an empty page. He scratched down “5/24: ANGRY DRIVER.” Then he said, “All right, and what is your name, madam?”

“My name’s not important,” the driver said.

“I see. Now is that ‘Knot’ with a ‘K,’ or…?”

Bill interceded here. His voice was strong and authoritative, but his palms were raised in peace. “Okay, okay, obviously this isn’t getting any of us where we want to go. Now ma’am, I know you need your fare, but this young man lost his quarter under the seat. I was the one who told him to wait until you slowed down a bit so he wouldn’t fall over looking for it. I don’t know where the quarter went, but I’ll gladly give you one of mine so we can put this all behind us. How’s that sound to you?”

The driver leaned back with a smirk. “All’s I know is he needs to pay up.”

Travis was mortified, though, and he stared at Bill with his mouth agape. “Mr. Stepanski, I couldn’t accept that. Please don’t inconvenience yourself for my sake.”

Bill laughed. “It’s just a quarter, and we can’t just sit and wait while you settle things with this lady. Here.” He fished in his pants pocket and pulled out a nickel and two dimes. “There you go,” he said, “that ought to take care of it.”

Travis leaned in on Bill with a confidential air. “Seriously, Mr. Stepanski,” he said, “I think there are greater issues than just this fare that need ironing out. This woman is accusing me of something ridiculous and making a scene of it in front of everybody. Who knows how many other people she’s humiliated? I think she should be reported to her superiors and taken off the route for a while.”

“Don’t you talk to him about me!” the driver shouted. “You got something to say about me, you say it to me!”

Bill took Travis’s hand and dropped the nickel and dimes into it. “Just pay it and let it go,” he said, and that grandfatherly smile reappeared.

Travis bit his lip. He still had more to say on the subject. Then he realized that the old man was on his side, and his idea was likely the wiser one.

He turned to the driver and held out his handful of change. “No, don’t give it to me,” the driver said. “You know where to take it.” She extended a hand to the front of the bus.

The whole bus watched as Travis stood up to pay for his ride. Embarrassment bubbled inside him. As he walked up the aisle, he felt something odd happening below his left eye. It felt like some imaginary string was tugging at the lower lid, making it twitch.

He approached the farebox and opened his hand over the slot. The coins clattered and rang as they rolled into the city’s coffers. The driver stepped around him and settled her behind onto her seat. She tore a small slip of paper from a pad on her belt and shoved it in Travis’s face.

“There’s your transfer,” she said. Travis took it and returned to his seat without a word.

“Well,” said Bill, “she was certainly strident about that, wasn’t she?” But Travis didn’t feel like talking anymore. His eyes found the glimmer of a coin that had somehow rolled into the aisle, and stayed on it, thoughtlessly.

Meanwhile, as the driver pressed the clutch, hit the ignition, and brought the monster to a thrum, she did something she hadn’t done in weeks.

She started humming.