Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1055538-Bus-Stop
by Dave
Rated: ASR · Short Story · Contest Entry · #1055538
A twist of fate at the end of the line...
My burdened soul needed a change, as it always does when I find myself bound by unbearable despair. I walked past the alleys with their graffiti, rubbish and the acrid smell of pollution, across the parking lot littered with cigarette butts and empty drink cans and in the entrance to the bus terminal. Through the greasy milieu of burgers and fries cooking at the luncheonette, I went to the ticket counter and asked the woman, “When does the next bus leave?”

Reaching for the clipboard with the schedules hanging on the wall behind her, she asked, “Where to, Sir?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

She said, “Forty-five minutes,” and I bought the ticket.

The bus was almost full. I went to an empty seat towards the rear, preferring not to share space with strangers. They always want to chat, ask rude questions, or discuss things about which I have no interest whatsoever. “What do you think about God and the President?” Who cares? Seated across the aisle was a skinny girl with frizzy blond hair. She was wearing a tacky red vinyl jacket and a Mets cap askew on her head strung out on who knows what, staring off into space with vacant eyes and grinning at some chimerical vision of an obscure utopia only she could see. We all have our own ways of trying to escape the modern plague of depression. Many times I have gathered the means to take my life, only to be thwarted by the absolute finality of the act, or, if not, the thought of coming back as a horsefly feeding on a cow pie in some pasture. I prefer to sit on the bus feeling the motion gliding along like the rivers into the sea, looking out the window at the world floating by like a big-screen TV, and going with the rhythm in the now of Greyhound.

When the bus reached its destination, I thought this would be just a momentary interlude in my journey. The other passengers poured off the bus squinting and sucking on their low-tar butts, some dragging or being dragged by impatient, squalling children to the rest rooms. I pulled up the collar of my coat against the chill as I stepped down from the bus. A light mist was in the air, and night was falling. I sat down on a bench to contemplate the next leg of my journey. The bus went “huff” as it departed the terminal, and I turned my head away to avoid the cloud of poisonous exhaust fumes it emitted.

When I turned back, a form was emerging from the mist. As it came closer, the features of a man appeared. His tattered clothing and haggard face gave the semblance of deprivation. His wispy white hair fluttered in a slight breeze as he sat down on the bench beside me. The stench of stagnation permeated the atmosphere. His penetrating eyes looked me up and down. Finally, his eyes found mine, and there was a glimmer of recognition. The mass of wrinkles that was his face moved to speak in a raspy whisper, “You miss her, don’t you?”

“How did you know?”

“Your eyes can’t hide the presence of death in your haunted heart.”

I shivered inwardly, for I knew he had searched my soul and discovered my morbid obsession. Noting his unkempt appearance, deathly pallor, and sour disposition, I asked, “Where do you live?”

He lifted his arm, pointed a gnarled finger to the east, and said, “My home and my family’s home for generations was there, before the soulless scavengers took it over and replaced it with creeping concrete and paved the rest so the rich folks could park their fancy cars. You will find me here after dark, if fate wishes.” With that he stood up and walked away, his ethereal form disappearing into the mist.

I looked in the direction he had pointed but could see nothing because of the mist. Weary from a long day, I looked around for a place to spend the night. A couple of blocks away I saw the blue and white sign for the “DRE MLAND M TEL” with a red “VAC NCY” sign blinking beneath it. I got a room, but I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts of the old man kept me tossing and turning all night.

In the morning, after a breakfast of stale doughnuts and tepid coffee from the vending machine, I returned to the place of our meeting and, again, looked to the east. The weather had cleared, so I could see now, across the freeway and beyond the frontage road, the sparkling new Oak View Condominiums with a very spacious parking lot.

Something stirred my spirit to check out the old man’s story. I went to the county courthouse to check the property records. The present owner had acquired the last parcel of the property for the condominiums at public auction after the previous owner, a man named Jack Taggart, failed to pay the taxes on the property. The records confirmed that the parcel had been in the Taggart family name for over a hundred years prior to the foreclosure. Jack Taggart had acquired the property upon the death of his father forty years ago. There was also documentation of his birth seventy-five years ago, his marriage to Miss Sarah Ann Mosley fifty years ago, and her death five years ago, but there was no record of his death.

Later that afternoon, after grabbing a burger for lunch, my strange attraction to this man led me to the library to search the newspaper archives. With the assistance of a very helpful clerk at the reference desk, I found Mrs. Taggart’s Obituary Notice, which noted that she had passed away after a long illness and her husband, Jack, was the only surviving relative. I could find nothing regarding Mr. Taggart’s death. I did find an article several years previous declaring Jack Taggart, a retired school bus driver, as the recipient of the paper’s Good Neighbor Award for his off-duty volunteer work with children, and there was a picture of a man with a twinkle in his eye and a broad smile upon his face amid a group of admiring children. That certainly was a far cry from the sullen soul I had encountered the previous day. A couple of years later there was an article with the headline: “DEVELOPMENT PROJECT STALLED; LOCAL MAN REFUSES TO SELL.” Mr. Taggart wanted to retain the family property regardless of the price being offered. Then, about three years ago, an article in the Police Blotter column of the paper stated that Mr. Jack Taggart had been reported missing by friends who hadn’t seen him in over a week. A call to the police station confirmed that Mr. Taggart had never been found, and the case was still open.

That night I returned to the bus stop after dark. I paced the streets for blocks around the terminal looking for the old man. My mysterious fascination kept growing stronger. Finally, tired of walking, I sat down on the same bench we had both occupied the night before. Suddenly the stagnant stench of death engulfed me, and a raspy voice behind me uttered, “You know?”

I turned and saw the vagrant apparition standing there with the glimmer of knowledge in his eyes. I asked, “Are you Jack Taggart?”

He said, “You need to look in Lake Hiawatha. That place was paradise once but is no more.” Then he turned, walked around the corner of the terminal building, and was gone.

I went into the bus terminal and asked the old lady behind the ticket counter, “Do you know where Lake Hiawatha is?”

“Was, Deary. Was. Used to be over yonder, but they drained it to put in those condominiums. Used to be a real nice place to go picnicking, too. Nothing left now but a little swamp area behind the condominium property.”

The next day I hiked down to the freeway overpass and went across and then down the frontage road toward the condominium property. Before I got to the condominiums, I turned off into a wooded area. Not too far back, I came upon the crumbled pavement of an old road overrun with high weeds. I followed the road along until I came to a dilapidated old garage with a rusty tin roof and the doors barely hanging from their rusty hinges. Inside the garage I could see the corroded shell of an old school bus. I picked my way through the bushes and carefully pushed the garage door aside. The rusty frame of the bus creaked as I stepped up, and I heard rustling sounds inside. Looking inside I saw a multitude of rats and snakes scurrying for cover. In one of the seats there appeared to be a pile of some kind of rubble. Stepping carefully to avoid falling through the rotting floor, I went closer to see what it was. There were bones heaped amongst tattered remnants of clothing, and there was a skull.

I went back to the bus station and called the police from the pay phone in the waiting room. A forensic team came to investigate my grisly discovery. They examined the scene and took pictures from various angles. While they were bagging the bones to be taken back to the lab, they discovered a bullet still in the skull.

My eerie fascination for this man now held me like a magnet. Realizing this investigation would take a while and motel living would soon deplete my limited resources, I asked the old lady at the bus terminal if she knew where I could find an affordable apartment for rent and, possibly, a job. She replied, “Well, Deary, my daughter Eileen is the leasing manager for the Creekside Apartments. They have apartments that rent for reasonable rates, and we could use a competent maintenance man here at the terminal.”

She called her daughter to arrange a small one bedroom apartment, and I filled out an application for a job at the bus terminal. When I handed her the application, she asked for some identification as a formality. She gave me a quizzical look when I handed her my driver’s license. The image of a clean cut young man with a military buzz cut on the license didn’t match the scruffy fellow with curly blond locks flowing over his ears and down his neck and a four day growth of beard on his chin who was now standing in front of her. She explained my duties and hours and gave me directions to the Creekside Apartments.

I walked up Mohawk Avenue past the Dreamland Motel and turned right on Maple Street. After a three-block commercial zone the street turned residential with colonial style homes and manicured lawns with colorful gardens. I took a left on Azalea Drive and found the Creekside Apartments two blocks down. When I opened the door to the office, I encountered a perky young lady with strawberry blond hair tied in a ponytail and said, “Hi. I’m looking for Eileen. The lady at the bus terminal said you had an apartment available.”

“You found her, friend,” she said cheerfully. She reached for some forms in the desk and asked, “How long will you be staying?”

“I’m not sure.” I paid her for a week in advance, and she gave me the key for apartment 6A. The apartment was furnished modestly but comfortably, and I slept soundly for the first time in weeks.

In the morning, I stopped at the Lost Dog Cafe for breakfast on the way to work. While I was sitting at the counter eating my breakfast burrito and hot coffee and reading the local newspaper with the headline “HUMAN REMAINS FOUND,” Eileen came in and sat on the stool next to mine to order a cup of coffee. She asked, “What brings you to our humble little town?”

“I was just passing through when I encountered a bit of a glitch.”

Over the next few weeks, the police lab positively identified the remains from dental records as those of Mr. Jack Taggart, formerly of 325 Paradise Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ. Ballistics testing matched the bullet found with his skeleton to a gun used in another murder. The owner of the weapon, one Angelo Thibodeau, a hit man for the mob, had been convicted of that crime and was sitting on death row.

During that period, I was becoming better acquainted with Eileen. She was a friendly woman in her late twenties with smiling eyes and a soft, gentle voice. Occasionally she would come by to see if there was anything I needed, and we would chat for a spell. A couple of times she invited me to her place for a home-cooked meal. One night she asked, “Do you have any family?”

“My parents are in upstate New York. My wife was killed in a motorcycle accident three years ago, and I’ve been kind of drifting in a fog ever since.”

She stood up, put her hand on my shoulder giving it a gentle squeeze and said, “I baked apple pie for dessert. Do you want some ice cream with it?”

As the investigation into Jack Taggart’s death continued, a forensics accounting expert linked Mr. Thibodeau, the mob hit man, to a Mr. Joseph Balzarano, a suspected mob boss and partner in the management firm that owned the Oak View Condominium property. In return for a commutation of his death sentence to life in prison, Mr. Thibodeau agreed to testify against his former boss.

As the trial slowly progressed through many delays, my dinners with Eileen became more frequent. She and this town were beginning to grow on me. Finally, in spite of the mob attorney’s stalling tactics, Mr. Balzerano was convicted and sentenced to death.

The next day, as I was mopping the floor of the waiting room at the bus terminal, the pay phone on the wall rang. On a whim, I picked up the receiver and said, “Hello.”

A raspy voice that I recognized whispered, “Matthew?”

Still awed by the spooky connection we had, I replied, “Yeah.”

He said, “Thank you, my friend. You have finally arrived at the corner of walk and don't walk, but still a little south of Resolution. I wish you well on the rest of your journey.” Then he hung up.

That evening, I took Eileen out to dinner and asked her to marry me.

© Copyright 2006 Dave (drschneider at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
Writing.Com, its affiliates and syndicates have been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work.
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1055538-Bus-Stop