Bus Riders

By Russell H. Krauss

Brenda Macintosh watched the fat man lumbering down the aisle, hands grasping the overhead railings, head turning this way and that, looking for a vacant seat. He stopped short abreast of her. His hips were so wide that they nearly made contact with her face.

Great, she thought. How long was he going to stand there? Why didn't he take one of those empty seats toward the back of the bus?

But he didn't budge from his post. The bus lurched forward and away from the curb. Once the bus entered the traffic lane, the man turned suddenly, so his protruding,
massive rear end brushed across her face. Brenda recoiled, stifling a gag. She slid across to the window seat to avoid further contact. She turned to look out the window, but all she could see was the reflection of his rear end in the glass. What a ride this was turning out to be.

"Excuse me," a grinding, mechanical voice interjected. "But is that seat taken?"

Brenda turned her head. The man faced her now, looked down at her, tiny eyes implanted deep in a jowly face featuring a bulbous nose and funny, tubular ears. Beads of sweat dripped from a giant Brillo-pad of steel-gray hair. His thick lips curled in a parody of a smile. He wore a rumpled brown suit, a sweat-stained white shirt and a dirty, wrinkled necktie with the knot pulled down several inches.

"This?" Brenda asked, pointing to the empty seat, hoping the man had spoken to someone else.

The man nodded. Sweat droplets sprayed his suit jacket, jettisoned by the movement of his massive head.

God, think of something, she told herself, but she could say only, "Um, no, it's not taken." How could he possibly squeeze into that small space?

"Thank you kindly," the man said in a voice that sounded like it came from a radio. He lowered himself, somehow squeezing into the seat, gasping for breath and groaning as he did so. Brenda mashed herself up against the side of the bus to avoid touching the man, but his huge hips and thighs pressed against hers as he plumped down on the seat with an "oomph!"

"Ah, that's better," he said.

Jesus, Brenda thought. How long would she have to put up with this? Maybe she should yank the cord and get off here. What would he think, though? Oh, for Chrissakes, what difference did it make what he thought?

The man suddenly jerked forward, then pulled a grimy handkerchief out of an inside suit pocket and mopped his sweaty brow, drops of moisture flying off in all directions.

"Too hot," the man said. "Makes you perspire."

Brenda smelled his sweat and caked on grime that saturated the air around her, and she wondered how long she could stand it. She suppressed another gag.

"I need to make a phone call," he said, not looking at Brenda, but staring straight ahead at the back of the next seat. "It'll only be a minute."

Brenda nodded absently. Why was he telling her this?

He shifted and moved his arms about, slapping at his chest and thighs until he said "Ah hah! Here it is." A cell phone materialized in his fat hand. Brenda watched, fascinated, as the man targeted a sequence of buttons with a sausage-like index finger.

"Maggie, put me through to Mr. Yelir, please," the man said after a moment.

Brenda couldn't help but eavesdrop. In spite of her discomfort, she found something intoxicating, magnetic, about the man. She couldn't understand it.

"Mr. Yelir," the man said after a pause. "I'll need a description, of course. We'll find her. Don't worry. You can count on us."

Another pause.

"Hold it, Mr. Yelir. I'm not in my office. Just a second while I find something to write with." He grunted and poked about, patting and smacking his pockets. "Ah. Here we
are," he wheezed. "Yep ... okay ... okay ... about five-feet-six, medium build, short blonde hair, okay ... twenties ... gotcha ... okay."

Brenda stared at his blubbery fingers as he jotted down the description with one hand while holding the cell phone against his funny ear with the other. But something was wrong with those hands. Too many fingers? Puzzled, she started to count, when she felt his gaze on her face, actually felt it, like a heat lamp, and she turned her head to look at him. Something was wrong, too, with his —

"You're not Nora Finley, are you?" he asked, his eyes boring right through her.

She shook her head, bewildered. "Er, no," she said, wondering why he'd ask her such a question. But then she realized she pretty much matched the description he'd repeated. She felt suddenly dizzy, in the glare of those probing eyes, the pupils that seemed to spin around, while his question, his voice, reverberated inside her skull. She worried that she might become ill. "No, no I'm not," she repeated weakly, hoping he'd turn away.

"Got it," he said, only he was no longer looking at her, but talking into his phone. "Yes. We've got another operative working on this case, like a tag-team match." He turned toward Brenda once more and moved his head up and down, appraising her. "Yes, yes, and pretty too, you say. Right."

Brenda shook her head. What was going on? The man on the other end — Mr. Yelir — wanted this man, the fat man, to find a Nora Finley who matched her description? And did he suspect that she was that woman? But she'd told him that she wasn't. Should she tell him again? She felt uneasy, unnerved. Something was wrong here.