“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
-Honore de Balzac
George was in charge of the bus that nobody ever rode. Each day he would wake, put on his bus driving uniform, a drab brown ensemble with yellow accents, eat a bowl full of Cheerios and guzzle a cup of coffee before heading out to another unsatisfying day of work.
The bus George was in charge of began in the bustling downtown restaurant district. The actual route, however, meandered along the outskirts of town, where nothing really existed anymore. George’s bus route was originally designed for transporting people living on the edge of town to and from their jobs in the city. Nowadays, most people lived in the city, so George’s bus route was becoming useless. George didn’t lose his job though. He had been driving this route for more than 30 years and his boss would never fire him, a sort of unofficial tenure. They were trying to change George’s route but that paperwork alone would take months, and they were apprehensive about disrupting the status quo. So George drove this desolate route each day, excluding the weekends, from 8:30- 4 P.M.
Silence enveloped George each day. The whirs and hums of the motor and the squeaks from the brakes were the only conversation he eavesdropped on. Originally the old man enjoyed the silence. He looked at it as a time to reflect on life, as well as a moment to step back from reality, which was always moving faster than George could keep up with. But after months of dead air he began to long for the murmur of conversation, no matter how banal it might have been.
A small portable radio brought from home was a small comfort to George, who liked listening to the morning DJs on the radio show yammer on about everything and nothing, but this did not satisfy his longing for human interaction.
Each day when the bus stopped in front of a group of waiting passengers, George eagerly hoped one would be waiting for his bus. But they always gave him a cordial smile and shook their heads, as if they already knew the disappointment they were causing the poor bus driver with no passengers.
George began talking to himself to fill the empty hours. He would create background stories for the people he passed on the street, giving them names and hobbies. There was Martha, who waited for the bus on the corner of 5th every morning. George imagined that she worked as a secretary at one of the tall buildings downtown, but spent her nights belting out Pat Benatar on the stage of the karaoke bar just down the street from her one-bedroom apartment. Although George had quite an imagination he could never confirm those suspicions because Martha never got on his bus. She and George had never said one word to each other and he would never know if he was right or not about her singing chops.
One day, with only the sounds of squeaky windshield wipers to break the overbearing silence, George picked up a passenger. He almost didn’t stop the bus, his bus and body used to whizzing past the waiting people. But this woman, an elderly woman with a red raincoat and matching red umbrella, flagged George down. When he pulled up beside her and opened the door, George’s mouth was wide open. He thought he might have been hallucinating, but the woman was real.
She smiled as she got on, put $1.25 into the ticket machine at the front of the bus, and walked to the very back of the bus, choosing a seat next to the window. She set her umbrella in the seat next to her, purposefully, as if to protect against any unwanted company. George wanted to tell her that she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone trying to sit next to her, but she looked too peaceful to disturb. The woman took out a book and began to read, and George continued to drive in silence, occasionally checking his rearview mirror, still in awe about his new passenger.
He wanted to talk to her. He thirsted for human interaction. The woman did not feel the same, George concluded, based on her seat choice and the way she completely immersed herself in her book. The bus kept moving, and George stayed quiet. He didn’t want to overwhelm the sole passenger with his desperation for conversation. He knew if he were to open his mouth and begin talking, the words wouldn’t stop coming.
She got off at the second to last stop, on a road that led to a large white farmhouse. The paint was peeling, and there was a large hole in the floor of the wraparound porch. It looked unloved and forgotten, and George had always assumed it was abandoned. But when the woman got off, she opened her umbrella to protect herself from the spring showers and began to walk directly toward the house.
George’s shift was almost over. The rest of the drive felt different. Although George was alone again, the presences of the mysterious woman permeated the air, making the bus feel full.
He mentioned nothing to his wife as they ate their TV dinners and watched “Wheel of Fortune”. He didn’t want to keep secrets from her, but he didn’t think Mabel would understand the importance of it. She often did not understand what he was trying to say, and he had become weary of trying to explain himself. She would just comment something like, “Well isn’t that the point of buses? For people to ride?” before returning to guessing the puzzle on the screen before any of the contestants could. Their matching recliners had imprints of their bodies from the countless hours spent relaxing in them. But George did not find this relaxing, like Mabel did. Each time he saw the imprints it reminded him of how static they had become. George stayed as silent sitting next to Mabel as his new passenger had during the bus ride. The silence between the couple was only broken when the said their goodnights, turning away from each other in bed to drift into sleep.
The next morning was filled with anticipation. George ran his fingers through his thinning white hair as thoughts of the passenger ran through his mind. He couldn’t figure out why this silent figure made him feel less alone, but he knew that anything was better than another day full of loneliness.
When the woman flagged the bus down, George anticipated this stop, mostly because it was the only one he knew he would make. She was wearing a black coat today, but still carried the red umbrella. She gave George a small smile as she paid her fare, then started to make her way to the back of the bus. The smile was slight, but its impact was hefty. She was almost halfway down the aisle when George called to her.
“Why don’t you sit a little closer m’am? I don’t think anyone else will be getting on anytime soon, and I promise I don’t bite,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
The woman paused for a moment, mentally weighing her options. She turned around and shuffled back to the front, giving George the same smile she did when she got on the bus, but didn’t say anything. She picked a seat across from where George was stationed, and reached for her book.
Cautious glances revealed the woman to be about George’s age, with long curly salt and pepper hair. She had red glasses with a jeweled chain attached to them, wearing them like a necklace when they weren’t in use. Although she was now physically closer, George still felt a sort of distance from her. She was enveloped in her book, and he didn’t want to disrupt this, although he desperately wanted to talk to someone, since his days brimmed with a constant quiet.
After 15 minutes of silence, George decided to break it with a dull comment about the weather.
“It sure has been raining a lot the past few days!” he said, faux enthusiasm oozing through every word. George immediately wished he had said something else, but it had been many months since he had made small talk. The only person he talked to was Mabel, and they hardly spoke anymore except when they fought over the Jeopardy answer. He knew his attempt had failed when all she responded with was a nod and a glance out the window to the rainy street. This was George’s cue to leave her alone for the rest of the bus ride.
When she got off near the farmhouse, the bus was empty again, and stayed empty until she returned the next day, this time in a blue coat. The woman did not move towards the back this time, but instead sat in the seat across from George.
They exchanged brief smiles, and George decided against conversation based on yesterday’s failure. Instead, he turned on the portable radio. He loved the oldies station, the songs bringing him back to days without commitment to work or women, when he filled his days with what he wanted to do. Oh, how he longed to turn time and return to those days when he wasn’t so alone. It seemed like a different person had lived those days, like George’s life was split into two distinct parts.
The station was having an all Beatles hour, and when they started to play “Eleanor Rigby” the woman perked up. She had been slowly dozing off, her head becoming weighted down with sleep, but as soon as her ears heard the haunting orchestral music she came alive again. Quickly rummaging through her purse, she pulled out a tattered blue notebook and black pen. She scribbled something down, and held the piece of paper up so George could read it, tapping on it with the pen to grab his attention. George waited for the next stop light and quickly turned his body towards the woman to read what she had written. The paper said “I LOVE THIS SONG, TURN IT UP PLEASE?”, written in perfectly shaped capital letters.
He cranked the volume up until both him and the woman were immersed in the lonely, lovely lyrics of the song. She seemed to be put into a sort of trance, closing her eyes and swaying back and forth in time to the music.
When it finished the woman opened her bright green eyes and wrote “THANK YOU” on the paper, handing it to George as she exited the bus. Their hands brushed and George was immediately filled with warmth. The warmth stayed with him for the rest of the day and into the night, even when he sat next to Mabel. Tonight was “Jeopardy”, and the only conversation between the two was when there was a disagreement about an answer. Mabel was almost always right, and George resented her for that, among other things. 40 years was a long time to build up resentment, and that feeling was starting to overpower the love he had left for Mabel.
“May, why would someone write down what they want to say instead of just saying it?” He asked during a commercial break.
“I don’t know Georgie. People sometimes need more time to process their thoughts, and writing gives you time to decide what needs to be said, and what is better left unshared. Now quiet down, they’re almost to final Jeopardy!”
This was Mabel. She would say something illuminating, which made George love her again, and then she would ruin it. George sighed, and kept quiet the rest of the night. The silence seeped into George’s heart and broke it a little more. He missed talking to Mabel for hours on end, their bodies and fingers intertwined as they laid in bed. He longed for this again, but after 40 years he wondered if maybe they had used all that compassion up. That night in bed he reached out for Mabel’s hand before he fell asleep, but it wasn’t there. She had them tucked into her chest, curled up as far away from George as she could be on their king size bed. George shifted his hand back to his side of the bed and fell asleep, dreaming of the mysterious woman.
Today it was an orange coat, making it impossible to miss her. He eagerly awaited the time when she would reach into her bag and pull out that notebook. When she finally did, she wrote a question for which George had no answer. “WHY DO THEY MAKE YOU DRIVE A BUS THAT NO ONE RIDES?” it said. This time George was the one without words. He only shrugged and looked forward, trying to hide the shame plastered on his face. He was ashamed to have such a dispensable job. It made him feel like he was worthless. After a moment, George pushed those feelings deep within and responded.
“At least I have one passenger now”, he said, giving her a nod to let her know he was referring to her (as if she didn’t already know). She replied “GLAD I’M PUTTING IT TO GOOD USE”, which made George tingle from head to toe. The feeling stuck around long after she had gotten off the bus, leaving him to figure out all the emotions swirling around his head.
George and the woman continued their small interactions for weeks. Sometimes he would initiate by asking a question, which she would respond to on paper. Other times she would come prepared, with a song request or comment already written in her unchanging handwriting. George told her about Mabel, but left out the part about not loving her anymore. He told about how he went to school to become a teacher, but had to take the bus driving job when Mabel found out about her heart problem and the medical bills became too steep. She mostly just listened, which was what she was good at, but responded occasionally with a sarcastic or sometimes enlightening comment. They reminded George of what Mabel used to say, before life wore away the soft parts of her soul.
The woman revealed that her name was Winnie, that she was a widow and that she was taking care of her dying brother who lived in the dilapidated farmhouse at the end of the road. She was quick at writing down was she wanted to say from years of silent communication. She told George she had tried to learn sign language, but her hands never could move fast enough to keep up with her thoughts. For some reason writing could though, at least for most of the time.
On the fourth week she revealed how she lost her voice. “TONSILLITIS SURGERY GONE WRONG, TOOK OUT THE VOCAL CHORDS INSTEAD OF THE TONSILS” she wrote. George knew this was another one of her dry jokes. Many of Winnie’s jokes left George unsure if he should laugh or not, which always made Winnie’s smile even bigger.
The day Winnie forgot her notebook on the bus, Mabel had a heart attack. She spent a week in the hospital, and George never left her side. During the nights he would wrap himself in the thin hospital blankets a sympathetic nurse slipped him, scooting his chair close to Mabel’s bed. On the third night, she reached out for his hand. He gave it to her, and they spent the night intertwined again. The physical closeness reminded George of the times they had spent during the first years of their marriage, when every night spent in bed next to each other felt like a little slice of heaven. Mabel would snuggle up as close as possible to him. She always rested her head in the same place on his chest, saying the dip where her forehead landed must have been made for her since it fit so perfectly. They would talk and laugh and kiss for hours before finally falling asleep, still wrapped up in each other’s arms.
After a week, George knew Mabel was feeling better because she didn’t reach for his hand again.
“Shouldn’t have been too hard to get work off, right George? It’s not like they missed you” She said, the words dripping with malice as they drove home. She was trying to hurt him, covering up the weakness she had revealed by reaching for his hand earlier. George didn’t respond, and they didn’t speak again for the whole ride home.
While Mabel watched “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” back in the perceived comfort of their home , George flipped through the journal. It was all written in those symmetrical letters, except for when Winnie’s thoughts were coming too fast and her perfect handwriting became nearly impossible to decipher. These passages were the most interesting. Winnie kept a detailed account of her daily life. She included details that others wouldn’t notice; like how George tapped his foot along to the music, or how he ran his hands through his hair when traffic got bad. She wrote about her dying brother, how this familiar person was slowly morphing into a stranger. “SICKNESS DOES THIS TO PEOPLE,” she observed. “IT TURNS LAMBS INTO LIONS, AND THEN SLAUGHTERS THEM UNTIL THERE IS NOTHING LEFT BUT A PILE OF DUST, A PERSON COMPLETELY CHANGED FROM THE PERSON THEY ONCE WERE.” This entry was spotted with her tears George thought. It was the last entry in the journal.
George felt like an intruder, but he also felt like he now knew her like no one else. She was so raw and open in these entries, and it made him love her.
The journal sat in Winnie’s seat, so she would see it right away when she got on the bus. George pulled up to Winnie’s stop, anticipating what color she would wear today. Green maybe? Purple? He hadn’t seen a yellow coat on her yet, maybe today was the day. But she wasn’t there. He waited at the stop for a few minutes, hoping that she was just running a few minutes late, hoping to see her running down the block to catch him. Hoping. But she didn’t come.
The rest of the day was filled with a loud silence. Winnie never actually broke that silence with her voice, but just her presence shattered it to pieces, making it hard for George to remember how it felt without her. Her absence swiftly filled the bus again. . He tried to ignore it, tried to fill it with the sounds of his radio. It didn’t work. He still felt alone, as if he were slowly fading from reality, becoming like the pile of dust Winnie wrote about.
“Someone’s quiet tonight,” Mabel remarked, watching George push his potatoes around his plate aimlessly. He hadn’t eaten one bite or said one word as they sat in front of the glowing screen. He hadn’t tried to answer one question, which Mabel was secretly thankful for. She wanted to answer them all. It gave her a sense of purpose, which she had trouble finding the older she became. He couldn’t tell her. He was falling in love with this wordless woman, but also would always love Mabel because of all the years they had shared together.
Instead of admitting what was actually on his mind, George made up a lie about running over a squirrel.
Mabel responded, “There’s too many of them in this goddamn town anyway. You did the neighborhood a favor.” They didn’t speak again until they wished each other goodnight, falling asleep and away from each other in their king-size bed. Even though their faces were turned away, George spotted Mabel wipe away the kiss he placed on her forehead before they turned off the lights.
Thoughts of Winnie filled George’s mind, preventing him from sleeping. He was still baffled that they had formed such a strong connection with so few words. He wanted more of her, but wasn’t sure how to get it. He finally fell asleep as the sun was rising, Mabel’s snores serving as the sole reminder that he shared the bed.
She didn’t ride the bus again. He only had the notebook from her, and it wasn’t enough. George deduced that her brother had probably died, so Winnie didn’t have to take the bus anymore. He hoped she wasn’t hurting too badly, that the death could serve as a sort of closure for her. He knew this was bullshit, but it helped him feel a little better.
George read the journal each day, wishing for her back on his bus so she could break the silence that filled the bus and seeped into his body, slowly, like a cold drizzle on a windy day.
It had been two weeks of silence when George’s bus route changed. A fellow driver had retired and George’s boss thought he would appreciate the new route. The new route traveled exclusively around downtown, and within five minutes of driving the entire front was packed with people. It eventually got so filled that people were standing in the aisles, too close to the strangers next to them.
George stopped playing the radio since he wasn’t able to hear the music over the din of people’s’ conversations. The bus was filled with noise, but George’s mind was still silent and static. He ached for the insubstantial noises Winnie’s pen made as she scribbled notes, or the way her face lit up when the radio played one of her favorite songs. He yearned for the glances she gave him as she watched him read her notes. Her laugh permeated through his memories and into reality, as he envisioned her silent giggle, mouth wide open though no sound escaped. It was beautiful. He had never experienced anything more joyful.
George listened to the other passengers laugh but it didn’t break his internal silence. Only Winnie could, in her wordless sort of way. Her silence was louder than the bus filled with people. The filled bus gave George the same feeling as when he was a child, looking out on the ocean during summer trips to the coast. He would think about all the life living below the surface, and the sheer vastness of it felt so immense that is made George feel like the loneliest boy in the world.
The days dragged on, and George grew more and more desperate for a glance of Winnie in one of her raincoats, or the sight of her green eyes. One morning George started to meander off of his new route. The passengers all looked at each other with confusion, some muttering under their breaths that perhaps such an old man shouldn’t be in charge of a bus. But others noticed the look of determination in the driver’s eyes. He had not forgotten the route. George drove to the outskirts of town, ignoring the shouts of anger from the riders who would now be late for work. He drove until he reached a run down farmhouse that stood at the end of a dusty road.
George pulled the bus to the side of the road, opened the doors, and walked to the front stairs of the house. The passengers all stared at him out of their windows. No one knew what was going on, and some reached for their phones to call the cops or perhaps a nearby old folks home to report a rogue tenant who had taken over a city bus.
He left the notebook on the first step, with a piece of paper stuck inside of it. Printed on it was a schedule of his new bus route, with a note at the bottom that read, “Just in case you were wondering where I went. Hope to see you there.” The bus driver slowly walked back to the crowded bus, silently hoping that Winnie would somehow find the journal.