Face, Meet Sidewalk

A bad day at work

Posted on: August 29, 2011

Longest shift ever. It was the night that the clocks went back, and even the overtime for the extra hour didn’t make it worth it. Alvin flicked on the “out of service” sign and signaled to pull the bus out into sparse traffic for the trip back to the depot. It was always such a relief to be free of the nuisance of passengers. This was the best part of the shift.

It was a quiet night, the chill edging towards the season’s first frost. In daylight, the matte grey sky had been only slightly lighter than it was now, in the dead of night. As his watch beeped three a.m., Alvin even thought he might have seen a flake or two of snow.

He’d had only a handful of riders for the last few hours. The last ones, a small group of raucous, probably drunk teenagers had gotten off a few stops ago, much to Alvin’s relief. You never knew how those groups would go. He actually considered blowing by them, hoping they would think he hadn’t seen them, but since the last complaint, he knew he had to be more careful. He made a mental note to check the back seats for graffiti before he got back to the depot. Something smelled a little off too, an undercurrent of urine that cut through the familiar reek of diesel exhaust and body odor. He hoped those jokers hadn’t pissed in the back seat. He didn’t need that hassle again.

Alvin yawned as he pulled up to a red light a few blocks from the depot. There were no cars in sight, and he thought about running the light. A minute sooner to the depot was a minute sooner he’d be in his bed. But conscience got the better of him and he slapped himself awake. With at least a full minute to check the bus for garbage and lost items before the light changed, he threw it into Park. He got up from his seat and headed toward the rear, knowing the effort of getting up and walking the length of the bus length would also help.

He dragged his body, heavy with fatigue, slowly to the back, closing windows, checking seats and floor for garbage and damage, up one side and down the other. As he got to the back, he turned, and saw with a start a man sitting in the seat immediately behind his own. He’d missed him on his way to the back – must have been turned the other way. The man’s eyes were closed and he leaned up against the barrier that separated the driver from the passengers. He was fairly well dressed, a briefcase resting on his lap. There was no mirror that allowed Alvin to see that angle from the driver’s seat, so he hadn’t even noticed him sitting there. Shit. A sleeper. What next?

“Hey, buddy,” Alvin called as he approached. “Wake up. You’re at the end of the line.”

The man didn’t move. Not wanting to scare the piss out of the guy and have him wake up swinging, Alvin approached him tentatively.

Alvin reached the man and tapped him on the shoulder. “Wake up!” he said a little louder. This time he moved, but in a really strange way, like his whole body was carved from a solid piece of wood. His eyes did not open. The man was obviously the source of the urine smell too, overlaid with hints of something sickly sweet that made Alvin think of spoiled meat. His heart pounded in alarm. Something was very, very wrong.

“Mister?” Alvin asked again, realization beginning to dawn. The passenger was unnaturally pale, almost bluish, and still. Alvin forced himself to touch the man’s hand. It was cold and stiff. If hadn’t been looking, Alvin might have sworn he was touching the skin of a pumpkin.

Alvin felt his gorge rise and fought back bile.

The man was dead. Without the faintest idea where to place his fingers, Alvin decided not to bother checking for a pulse. He knew with certainty even before he’d touched the man’s hand. No one was that pale. The man’s skin was almost transparent, a colour and temperature that made Alvin think of raw pizza dough.

What the hell? Now what? Granted it had been a few years, but he didn’t remember covering dead bodies during his training.

The traffic light was about to change. Thank God he was only a half-mile from the depot. Steve, the shift supervisor was there. Useless as he generally was, at least he’d have the procedure manual.

Alvin breathed through his mouth and fought to get the nausea under control, feeling like something was breathing down his neck. His flesh crawled with the knowledge that his bus had suddenly become the biggest hearse ever. He floored it back to the depot, realizing only as he heard a sickening thud behind him that driving the bus like an Indy Car was probably not the best idea.

He screeched into the station, parked haphazardly in the middle of the driveway, and threw open the door. He wasn’t even down the steps and out into the cold night air before his dinner made a spectacular reappearance on the concrete. Steve emerged from the office rubbing his eyes. When he saw Alvin hunched over, panting, he chuckled.

“Dude, how many times I gotta tell you, quit drinkin’ on the job!” he bellowed, laughing at Alvin’s expense.

Alvin heaved again and looked up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Screw off, man. I gotta stiff on my bus!” His brain refused to provide him with any other term.

“What?” Steve asked, still grinning stupidly under the orange lamps of the nearly abandoned parking lot. How this guy got to be supervisor was anyone’s guess.

“There. Is. A. Dead. Guy. On. My. Bus.” Alvin replied slowly, hoping Steve could grasp the concept.

“Holy shit!” Steve said as his vacant face registered understanding. Alvin, unable to trust his voice or his stomach, only nodded an invitation at the bus, as if to dare Steve to prove him wrong, but Steve shook his head.

“No way, man!” He held up his hands as if to ward off a zombie intent on eating what little was contained by his skull.

“We’d better call the cops or something,” Alvin said, suddenly feeling like he, oddly enough, might be the one who was most in control of his faculties here. Despite the vomit splattered all over the place.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Steve asked, eyeing the open door of the bus warily.

“He’s stiff and cold,” Alvin replied. “And I think he fell over when I floored it to get back here.”

“Jesus,” Steve said, looking suddenly paler than the dead guy.

“Come on. We’d better tell someone,” Alvin said. To Alvin’s satisfaction, Steve looked as if he might throw up too.

“Are you just going to leave him there?” Steve asked.

Alvin blinked at him. “Well I’m not going to haul him in to the office for a chat, if that’s what you had in mind,” he replied.

Alvin walked into the office, but its proximity to the garage and the oily diesel smell of a dozen silent buses made him gag again. He turned around and walked back out. The fresh night air helped. When he had regained some measure of control, he pulled out his cell phone. Steve was 100 yards away, eyeing the bus warily, as if wondering if he was being punked.

Alvin found himself thinking about how long the man had been dead. He didn’t even remember him getting on. How long had he driven around with a dead guy sitting right behind him? How many people had passed by without even realizing it, too wrapped up in their own lives to notice a man in the process of dying? He found himself absurdly choked up at the thought that maybe the man had died with no one sitting beside him. Somehow, that idea made the whole thing even worse. Alvin wondered if anyone was worried about him yet. He was suddenly struck by irrational, almost crushing fear that someone would make him, Alvin, tell the guy’s wife he was dead. For a long moment, he was paralyzed by the prospect, and when reason restored itself, he could think of no worse job than having to tell peoples’ loved ones they were dead. For possibly the first time, he was indescribably grateful to be a bus driver.

His hands shook uncontrollably and he almost dropped the phone. He rubbed his face with his free hand, and the image of the dead man appeared as if it had been painted on the insides of his eyelids. Alvin wondered if he would ever be able to sleep soundly again. It felt like a million years before he heard the 911 operator pick up, but by then his voice had returned. His knees gave out and he sank to the ground with the relief of knowing he was about to hand this gruesome responsibility over to someone, anyone.

“Hello,” he said shakily, then uttered words he’d never thought he’d hear himself say. “I’d like to report a dead body.”

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