The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God
The Story About a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God
This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for people who were late. Not for anyone. Not for repressed high school kids who’d run alongside the bus and stare at it longingly, and certainly not for high-strung people in windbreakers who’d bang on the door as if they were actually on time and it was the driver who was out of line, and not even for little old ladies with brown paper bags full of groceries who struggled to flag him down with trembling hands. And it wasn’t because he was mean that he didn’t open the door, because this driver didn’t have a mean bone in his body; it was a matter of ideology. The driver’s ideology said that if, say, the delay that was caused by opening the door for someone who came late was just under thirty seconds, and if not opening the door meant that this person would wind up losing fifteen minutes of his life, it would still be more fair to society, because the thirty seconds would be lost by every single passenger on the bus. And if there were, say, sixty people on the bus who hadn’t done anything wrong, and had all arrived at the bus stop on time, then together they’d be losing half an hour, which is double fifteen minutes. This was the only reason why he’d never open the door. He knew that the passengers hadn’t the slightest idea what his reason was, and that the people running after the bus and signaling him to stop had no idea either. He also knew that most of them thought he was just an SOB, and that personally it would have been much, much easier for him to let them on and receive their smiles and thanks.
Except that when it came to choosing between smiles and thanks on the one hand, and the good of society on the other, this driver knew what it had to be.
The person who should have suffered the most from the driver’s ideology was named Eddie, but unlike the other people in this story, he wouldn’t even try to run for the bus, that’s how lazy and wasted he was. Now, Eddie was Assistant Cook at a restaurant called The Steakaway, which was the best pun that the stupid owner of the place could come up with. The food there was nothing to write home about, but Eddie himself was a really nice guy—so nice that sometimes, when something he made didn’t come out too great, he’d serve it to the table himself and apologize. It was during one of these apologies that he met Happiness, or at least a shot at Happiness, in the form of a girl who was so sweet that she tried to finish the entire portion of roast beef that he brought her, just so he wouldn’t feel bad. And this girl didn’t want to tell him her name or give him her phone number, but she was sweet enough to agree to meet him the next day at five at a spot they decided on together—at the Dolphinarium, to be exact.
Now, Eddie had this condition—one that had already caused him to miss out on all sorts of things in life. It wasn’t one of those conditions where your adenoids get all swollen or anything like that, but still, it had already caused him a lot of damage. This sickness always made him oversleep by ten minutes, and no alarm clock did any good. That was why he was invariably late for work at The Steakaway—that, and our bus driver, the one who always chose the good of society over positive reinforcements on the individual level. Except that this time, since Happiness was at stake, Eddie decided to beat the condition, and instead of taking an afternoon nap, he stayed awake and watched television. Just to be on the safe side, he even lined up not one, but three alarm clocks, and ordered a wake-up call to boot. But this sickness was incurable, and Eddie fell asleep like a baby, watching the Kiddie Channel. He woke up in a sweat to the screeching of a trillion million alarm clocks—ten minutes too late, rushed out of the house without stopping to change, and ran toward the bus stop. He barely remembered how to run anymore, and his feet fumbled a bit every time they left the sidewalk. The last time he ran was before he discovered that he could cut gym class, which was about in the sixth grade, except that unlike in those gym classes, this time he ran like crazy, because now he had something to lose, and all the pains in his chest and his Lucky Strike wheezing weren’t going to get in the way of his Pursuit of Happiness. Nothing was going to get in his way except our bus driver, who had just closed the door, and was beginning to pull away. The driver saw Eddie in the rear-view mirror, but as we’ve already explained, he had an ideology—a well-reasoned ideology that, more than anything, relied on a love of justice and on simple arithmetic. Except that Eddie didn’t care about the driver’s arithmetic. For the first time in his life, he really wanted to get somewhere on time. And that’s why he went right on chasing the bus, even though he didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, Eddie’s luck turned, but only halfway: one hundred yards past the bus stop there was a traffic light. And, just a second before the bus reached it, the traffic light turned red. Eddie managed to catch up with the bus and to drag himself all the way to the driver’s door. He didn’t even bang on the glass, he was so weak. He just looked at the driver with moist eyes, and fell to his knees, panting and wheezing. And this reminded the driver of something—something from out of the past, from a time even before he wanted to become a bus driver, when he still wanted to become God. It was kind of a sad memory because the driver didn’t become God in the end, but it was a happy one too, because he became a bus driver, which was his second choice. And suddenly the driver remembered how he’d once promised himself that if he became God in the end, he’d be merciful and kind, and would listen to all His creatures. So when he saw Eddie from way up in his driver’s seat, kneeling on the asphalt, he simply couldn’t go through with it, and in spite of all his ideology and his simple arithmetic, he opened the door, and Eddie got on—and didn’t even say thank you, he was so out of breath.
The best thing would be to stop reading here, because even though Eddie did get to the Dolphinarium on time, Happiness couldn’t come, because Happiness already had a boyfriend. It’s just that she was so sweet that she couldn’t bring herself to tell Eddie, so she preferred to stand him up. Eddie waited for her, on the bench they’d agreed on, for almost two hours. While he sat there he kept thinking all sorts of depressing thoughts about life, and while he was at it he watched the sunset, which was a pretty good one, and thought about how charley-horsed he was going to be later on. On his way back, when he was really desperate to get home, he saw his bus in the distance, pulling in at the bus stop and letting off passengers, and he knew that even if he’d had the strength to run, he’d never catch up with it anyway. So he just kept on walking slowly, feeling about a million tired muscles with every step, and when he finally reached the bus stop, he saw that the bus was still there, waiting for him. And even though the passengers were shouting and grumbling to get a move on, the driver waited for Eddie, and he didn’t touch the accelerator till Eddie was seated. And when they started moving, he looked in the rear-view mirror and gave Eddie a sad wink, which somehow made the whole thing almost bearable.
About six months ago, in this armpit town outside Austin, Texas, Mickey Goodman of Tel Aviv killed a seventy-year-old minister and his wife. Goodman shot them in their sleep at point-blank range. To this day nobody knows how he got into the apartment, but he must have had a key. The whole story sounds too far out. I mean, how does a guy with no record, an Israeli paratrooper, just get up one morning and put a slug into the heads of two people he’s never even met, in some armpit town in Texas—and someone called Goodman no less. The night they announced it on the news, I didn’t even know, because I was with Alma at the movies. Later, in bed, we were really getting into it when suddenly she started crying. I stopped right away, ’cause I thought I was hurting her, but she said I should go on, and that her crying was a good sign actually.
The prosecution said Goodman had been paid thirty thousand for the murder and that the whole thing had to do with some local feud over an inheritance. Fifty years ago the fact that the minister and his wife were black would only have helped him, but nowadays it’s the other way around. The fact that the old man was a minister also worked against him. His attorney announced that after the trial, if Goodman was found guilty, he’d ask to serve out his sentence back home in Israel, because with all the blacks in US prisons, his life wouldn’t be worth a used teabag. The prosecution, on the other hand, claimed that Goodman would be dead much sooner anyway. Texas is one of the few states where they still have capital punishment. I haven’t had any contact with Goodman for ten years now, but back in high school he used to be my best friend. I’d spend all my time with him and with Dafne, his girlfriend back in junior high. Once we got into the army, we lost touch. I’m no good at keeping tabs on people. Alma’s great at it, though. Her best friends are people she’s known since kindergarten. I kind of envy her for that.
The trial lasted three months. Loads of time considering that everyone was convinced Goodman did it. I told my dad that something about the whole story just didn’t make sense to me. I mean, we knew Mickey. He’d spent a lot of time at our house. And my father said: “You never know what goes on in people’s heads.” My mother said she always knew he was riding for a fall. He had that sick-dog look in his eyes. She said it made her shudder to think that this murderer had eaten out of her dishes, had sat down to the table with us. I thought back to the last time we’d met. It was at Dafne’s funeral. She’d been sick, and died. We were fresh out of the army. I came to the funeral, and he made me leave. He was so open-and-shut in the way he told me to beat it that I didn’t even ask why. That was about six years ago, but I still remember the hateful look in his eyes. We haven’t spoken since.
Every day when I got home from work, I’d look for a report about the trial on CNN. Once every few days, they’d give an update. Sometimes, when they showed his picture, I’d miss him a lot. It was always the same one, this old passport photo—his hair parted, like some kid at a Memorial Day ceremony. Alma was pretty excited that I’d known him. It was on her mind all the time. A few weeks ago she asked me what was the worst thing I’d done in my whole life. I told her how after Sarah Gross’s mother drowned, Mickey and I wrote this graffiti on the wall of her house: Your mother goes down. Alma thought that was a pretty awful thing to do, and that Goodman didn’t exactly come across as a nice guy in that story either. The worst thing Alma ever did was while she was in the army. Her commander, who was fat and repulsive, kept trying to ball her, and she hated him, especially because he was married and his wife was pregnant at the time. “Get the picture?” She took a drag on her cigarette. “His wife carrying his baby around inside her, and all he wants the whole time is to fuck other women.” Her commander was totally hung up on her, so she made the most of it and told him she’d agree to do it with him, but only if he paid a bundle, a thousand shekels, which looked like a lot to her back then. “I didn’t care about the money.” She cringed as she recalled. “I just wanted to humiliate him. To make him feel like no woman would have him unless he paid. If there’s one thing I hate it’s men who cheat.” Her commander arrived with a thousand shekels in an envelope, except he was so excited that he couldn’t get it up. But Alma wouldn’t give him his money back, which made the humiliation twice as bad. She told me his money disgusted her so much that she buried it in some savings plan, and to this very day she won’t go near it.
The ending of the trial came as a surprise, for me at least, and Goodman got the death sentence. The Japanese announcer on CNN said the prisoner had cried quietly when he heard the verdict. My mother said he had it coming, and my father said the same thing he always says: “You never know what goes on in people’s heads.” The second I heard about the sentence, I knew I had to fly over there and visit him before they killed him. We used to be best friends once, after all. It was kind of strange, but everyone except my mother understood. My older brother, Ari, asked me to smuggle in a laptop on my way back from America, and said that if worst came to worst I could just leave it in customs and go.
In Texas I went straight from the airport to Mickey’s prison. I’d set it up before I left. They gave me half an hour. When I went in to meet him, he was sitting on a chair. His hands and legs were tied up. The guards said they had to tie him up because he kept going wild, but he seemed perfectly calm to me. I think that they were just saying it, that they just got their kicks from coming down on him. I sat facing him. Everything seemed so ordinary. The first thing he said to me was “Sorry.” He said he felt bad about what happened at Dafne’s funeral. “I was just plain mean to you,” he said. “Shouldn’t have done that.” I told him it was ancient history. “It must have been bugging me for a long time, and suddenly, with her death and all, it just came out. It wasn’t because you were sleeping with her behind my back, I swear to you. It’s just because you broke her heart.” I told him to cut the crap, but I couldn’t make my voice not tremble. “Forget it,” he said. “She told me, and I forgave you long ago. The whole business at the funeral—take it from me, I was acting like a jerk.” I asked him about the murder, but he didn’t want to talk about it, so we talked about other things. After twenty minutes, the guard said the half hour was up.
They used to execute people by electrocution, and when they’d throw the switch, the lights in the whole area would flicker for a few seconds, and everyone would stop what they were doing, just like when there’s a special newsflash. I thought about it, how I’d sit in my hotel room and the lights would go dim, but it didn’t happen. Nowadays they use a lethal injection, so nobody can even tell when it’s happening. They said it would be on the hour. I looked at the second hand, and when it reached twelve, I told myself: “He must be dead now.” The truth is that I was the one who wrote the graffiti on Sarah’s wall. Mickey had just watched. I think he was even kind of against it. And now he was probably not alive anymore.
On the return flight, the seat next to me was taken by this fat guy. His seat was a little broken but the attendants couldn’t move him to a different one because the flight was full. His name was Pelleg, and he told me he’d just gotten out of the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and he was returning from a special course where they train people for senior executive positions in hi-tech.
I looked at him leaning back, with his eyes closed, struggling to find a comfortable position in his broken seat, when suddenly it came to me that maybe this guy could have been Alma’s commander in the army. Her commander was fat too. I could picture him waiting for her in some stinking hotel room, his sweaty hands counting up the thousand shekels. Thinking about the lay that was to happen, about his wife, about the baby. Trying to give himself some excuse, why it’s really OK after all.
I looked at him squirming in his seat beside me. His eyes were shut the whole time, but he wasn’t asleep. Then he gave a kind of groan, for no reason. Maybe he was remembering it too. I dunno, suddenly I felt sorry for the guy.
Hole in the Wall
On Bernadotte Avenue, right next to the Central Bus Station, there’s a hole in the wall. There used to be an ATM there once, but it broke or something, or else nobody ever used it, so the people from the bank came in a pickup and took it, and never brought it back.
Somebody once told Udi that if you scream a wish into this hole it comes true, but Udi didn’t really buy that. The truth is that once, on his way home from the movies, he screamed into the hole in the wall that he wanted Dafne Rimalt to fall in love with him, and nothing happened. And once, when he was feeling really lonely, he screamed into the hole in the wall that he wanted to have an angel for a friend, and an angel really did show up right after that, but he was never much of a friend, and he’d always disappear just when Udi really needed him. This angel was skinny and all stooped and he wore a trench coat the whole time to hide his wings. People in the street were sure he was a hunchback. Sometimes, when there were just the two of them, he’d take the coat off. Once he even let Udi touch the feathers on his wings. But when there was anyone else in the room, he always kept it on. Klein’s kids asked him once what he had under his coat, and he said it was a backpack full of books that didn’t belong to him and that he didn’t want them to get wet. Actually, he lied all the time. He told Udi such stories you could die: about places in heaven, about people who when they go to bed at night leave the keys in the ignition, about cats who aren’t afraid of anything and don’t even know the meaning of scat. The stories he made up were something else, and to top it all, he’d cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die.
Udi was nuts about him and always tried hard to believe him. Even lent him some money a couple of times when he was hard up. As for the angel, he didn’t do a thing to help Udi. He just talked and talked and talked, rambling off his harebrained stories. In the six years he knew him, Udi never saw him so much as rinse a glass.
When Udi was in basic training, and really needed someone to talk to, the angel suddenly disappeared on him for two solid months. Then he came back with an unshaven don’t-ask-what-happened face. So Udi didn’t ask, and on Saturday they sat around on the roof in their underpants just taking in the sun and feeling low. Udi looked at the other rooftops with the cable hookups and the solar heaters and the sky. It occurred to him suddenly that in all their years together he’d never once seen the angel fly.