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.