Inbound Number 6
By Don Hucks, Nov 27, 2008

We had just passed Union, heading north on Fifth, when the old boy began his ascent, loaded with gear, straddling the chasm from the curb to the bus. It took seven or eight minutes and the help of three young Himalayan gentlemen who happened to be passing by, arguing over a map, on their way to the sights. He thanked them, gasping for air, and they assured him it was nothing, the pleasure was theirs, no trouble really, and that, just by the way, they weren’t Himalayan gentlemen at all; they were graduate students on vacation from Fairbanks, and one of them was a woman.

We were all growing a little impatient and wished he would stop thanking them already, and apologizing for having pre-judged them, so we could be on our way. We shifted a little in our seats, and we sighed.

He asked the driver, “What’s the fare today?”

“A hundred and seventy,” the driver told him.



“American?” he hiccupped, and his eyebrows climbed halfway up his forehead to get a better look.

“Born and raised,” the driver assured him, placing a hand over his heart in such a way that the tip of his first finger just touched the flag pin fastened to his shirt.

“Well said, well said. So what would that come to in pennies?”

“Seventeen thousand, give or take.”

The old boy loosened the clasp and let the burlap bag fall from its harness and crash to the floor. A thud and a ching. He untied the rope around the top of the bag and removed the rubber bands, dialed off the combination lock and peeled back the velcro. He reached in and took a handful of pennies and started dropping them, one by one, into the slot. Clink. Clink. Clink. He gave the driver a smile and asked if his okra had come in yet.

We all looked up from our assorted reading materials to exchange glances with our neighbors. The farsighted among us, and the farsighted with astigmatism, lowered our chins so we could exchange glances over the tops of our glasses.

“Oughta be ready to eat by the end of the month,” the driver replied into the big overhead mirror. He preferred talking into the mirror. Even when you were standing right beside him. Even sitting still, he liked to keep an eye on the road. A true professional, we all agreed.

“Bugs ain’t got it yet?”

“No. I put out ladybugs. Carnivores, you know. Vicious little monsters. Ruthless. Bloodthirsty. Even spiders are scared of them. Won’t go near them. Even tarantulas. Even those big, ugly, hairy ones. Scorpions, too. Course the ladybugs would never eat them. Arachnids, that is. They only eat proper insects. But even the octopedals are terrified by the mere sight of those beasts.”

“What about caterpillars?”

“Caterpillars are scared of them, too.”

Clink. Clink. Clink.

“The caterpillars got my tomatoes. Didn’t leave a single leaf. They left the cauliflower. And the black-eyed peas. But they got every last tomato plant I had.”

“That’s a shame,” the driver commiserated. “Spiteful little nasties.”

“Guess I’ll have to wait ‘til next year.”

We all sighed and muttered “mmm-hmm” and nodded, as if to say “we know the feeling.” Those of us lucky enough to have reached the bottom of a page just then, ruffled it as we turned to the next—noisily announcing our disdain.

“You ever grow an upside-down tomato?” the driver continued.

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s just the same as a plain tomato, only you grow it upside-down. You have to grow it in a barrel. You just put a hole in the bottom of the barrel and fill it with soil. Then you push the seed up through the hole, you know, from underneath. After a while it grows right down through the hole. Of course, you have to hang the barrel.”

“I see. That’s interesting. What’s it like?”

“Same as a regular tomato, only upside-down. Can’t taste the difference.”

The old boy reached into the bag for another handful. “I’m sorry to keep everyone waiting so long,” he told the driver. “But seventeen thousand is an awful lot of pennies. Supposing I could get a penny into the slot every second, that would take what? How long would that take?”

We all looked up from our reading again and, under our breath, we filled in the blank with satirical quips like “a hundred years” and “until Jesus comes back” and “until the Earth is roasted to a cinder and plummets, full bore, into the sun.”

“About seventeen thousand seconds, give or take,” the driver replied, grinning at the mirror, and we all laughed and shook our heads, and some us repeated what the driver had said, to our neighbors who hadn’t heard. Then we all laughed again, and we nodded and smiled. We liked the driver. Respected him, too.

“So what would that come to in hours?”

“Forty days and forty nights,” somebody shouted from the back of the bus, and we grinned appreciatively, our fingertips nimbly stroking our chins.

“Of course, the trouble is, I could never maintain that rate, not for any considerable length of time. Not with my arthritis and the carpel tunnel. Not to mention the callus I would get on my thumb from counting out all those pennies.

“Still, I do feel bad about holding up the bus. I could have sworn that, just last week, the fare was only a hundred and seventy pennies.”

“Fares are up,” the driver explained. “On account of the produce markets. New fares kicked in about a quarter-hour ago, just this side of Church Street.”

“I knew I should have walked that extra block. But it’s uphill the whole way, and what with having to lug around this big sack of pennies....”

He leaned over and whispered something into the driver’s ear, cupping his hand between their two faces.

“Uh huh. Uh huh. Alright. Okay,” the driver replied, his head cocked to the side, still eyeing the mirror. Then he unfastened his seatbelt and killed the engine, stepped out from behind the wheel and turned to face us. “As an expression of his gratitude for your patience, the gentleman would like to treat everyone on board to a free one-ride pass.”

We were aghast. This was really too much. We protested that it didn’t make any sense. That we were already running late for work. That it would take all day to count all those pennies, and so on.

The driver held up his hands. “I understand your frustration,” he assured us, in his calm voice, smiling sympathetically, as the old boy continued feeding the coin box behind him. “But I think it’s better if you just go along with him. Trying to argue will only make the whole thing take longer. He’s adamant about making amends. I really don’t think he can be dissuaded. And besides, it really is quite a generous gesture on his part, if you think about it.

“Now the good news is, I can give him the group rate on the passes, and that will speed up the whole process quite a bit.” He told us there had been a mix-up at the transit office, and the fare hike hadn’t gone through for the group rates. He said it was a loophole. A Catch-55, he called it. “That’s like a Catch-22,” he told us, “but upside-down, so it comes out in your favor instead of against you.” He asked for our cooperation. “The more everybody’s willing to just go with the flow, the more quickly we can get through this and the sooner we can be on our way.”

He was right, of course, and we knew it. He was wise, and he was just.

We all sighed and shook our heads in slow arcs and slumped a little farther into our seats. Those of us with glasses took them off and pinched the bridges of our noses.

“Now, if everyone will please exit the bus and form a single line on the sidewalk, I can begin issuing tickets and re-admitting all of you, one by one.”

There was no point in complaining. We filed into the aisle and off the bus. We lined up at the door and waited as the old boy dropped pennies into the slot. Every hundred and seventy clinks, the driver would print a ticket and hand it to the old boy, who would give it to the next person in line, with a sincere and magnanimous grin.

We took our free passes and inserted them into the ticket slot and went back to our seats. None of us said a word. Now and then, we glanced at our watches and frowned.

By the time we were all seated again and the old boy was done counting his own fare and the driver started the engine and guided the bus away from the curb, it was a quarter of one, Wednesday afternoon. We were two and a half days late for work. There would be no point in catching our transfer routes. No use showing up now and trying to explain. We were past the point of apologies. We were all surely unemployed.

We rode the three blocks to the transit mall in silence. Then we all got off the bus and stood around for several seconds, without knowing what exactly to do. Somebody asked if we were hungry. We all said yes, that we were starving, in fact, and we decided to go for lunch. Somebody knew of a great barbecue joint just past the arcade. We hurried down the transit mall, through the empty cans and big styrofoam cups and cigarette butts and hot dog wrappers and plastic cigar tips and wadded up newsprint and bottle caps and chewing gum foils and brown paper bags. We rounded the corner and headed down the hill.

On the way, we talked about how awful our jobs had been. How they had sucked the life out of us. About what jackasses our former bosses were. How under-appreciated we had been from the get-go. How it would be nice to make a fresh start. How losing those jobs was the best thing that could have happened to us. How serendipitous the entire fiasco had been.

At the restaurant, the greeter asked how many we were, and somebody said, “A whole busload,” and we laughed. Then we said we weren’t sure exactly but it must be forty or so, fifty at the most.

The greeter seemed a little annoyed and said it would be a while before she could put together a table that big. But we asked if we could be seated in pairs, instead, and she seemed somewhat relieved. She sat the first few pairs, and the rest of us waited, standing quietly in the aisles, staring blankly over the heads of the seated, avoiding eye contact, and making ourselves skinny, pressed up against the tables, whenever one of the servers had to navigate the crowd.

After lunch, we decided that, having nowhere to be, we should stroll over to the river and relax a while on the boardwalk. It was a nice day, not too hot, very pleasant really, for this time of year.

We watched an attractive young couple guide a canoe down the river, and it gave us an idea. Someone knew where there was a warehouse with a big stack of wooden pallets in back. We walked over to Third and carried the pallets on our backs all the way back to the river. We tied them together, with our neckties and belts, into a huge raft which we launched onto the water, and we all clambered aboard. We dubbed her the S.S. Number 6, in honor of our route. We waved to a gaggle of tourists who cheered us on from shore.

We had passed the stadium and drifted under the two bridges when the raft capsized and we all fell into the water. We had to swim back and, as best we could tell, no one was lost, although we couldn’t really be sure. Once we were firmly on the grass, we laughed our asses off and hugged one another and told each other we were the luckiest bunch of lunatics on earth.

Then we realized it would be dark in a few hours, and we should make preparations. We divided ourselves into hunters and gatherers on the basis of a complex, but efficient, multi-player serial version of rock-paper-scissors which we devised ad hoc. Afterward, the hunters went down to the water and used their socks to catch fish. The gatherers gathered wood and edible berries and nuts, plus several jugs of very cheap red wine and a yellow parachute that was tangled around the upper part of a big sycamore. We negotiated the parachute into a vast tent. Then we built a bonfire and roasted the fish. We sat in a circle and ate and passed around the jugs.

About the time the jugs were making their third or fourth circuit, the bus driver appeared. We raised a toast in his honor, as he walked up close to the fire. Then he told us the Number 6 route had been cancelled, pending an official investigation into certain alleged improbabilities “related to numbers of pennies per unit volume, and intervals of time required to deposit them through a slot of a given size.” He said he was sure there had been no violation of relativity, “either general or specific,” but the whole thing was out of his hands. “At this point, it’s all up to the suits,” he said. We invited him to join us, but he declined, saying he was thinking about going back to finish his MFA.

“See, there are two kinds of MFAs,” he told us. “There’s the kind that spend their time at the park, drinking jugged wine with bums, and then there’s the decent, respectable kind.” He intended to be the latter and had only stopped by, to notify us, as a courtesy. He assured us it was nothing personal and that he meant no offense.

We told him we took no offense, and that we had always thought he was an asshole, anyway, and had only invited him to be polite and that, consequently, we were relieved that he had declined.

He told us to go off and fuck ourselves, and then he left.

We went back to the fish and the jugged wine. We laughed and told stories about ourselves and our lives, and about the times we just barely made the bus, and about the times we just missed the bus, and about the time we chased the bus eleven blocks in the rain before catching it at a red light, and about the time we all nearly drowned on that crazy raft, and how the Number 6 was the greatest bus route in town, and how the 7:19 was the greatest run on the route, and how there would never be another like it ever again. “Some days, there wasn’t even a single readily identifiable psychotic onboard,” we boasted. We confided in ourselves how glad we were not be stuck out here by the river with, say, the folks on the Number 15 or the 25. “And don’t even try talking to us about the Number 12.” We all swore that no matter what routes we ended up riding, when we had new jobs and new schedules, we would never forget our friends from the Number 6.

Then we made up a song, called “Ode to the Number 6,” with everyone adding a line as we went around the circle. When the composition was complete, it had seventeen verses, and we sang it over and over, as a three part round. It was a beautiful song, catchy as hell, and we must have sung it for an hour and a half.

When we had finished with the fish, and the wine was all gone, we walked down First and up Broadway to get tattoos. We all got tattoos that read 6 or Number 6 or #6@ 7:19 and the like.

By then, it was late, and our drunkenness had drifted past euphoria, and we were all very tired. So we went back to the river and climbed into the big yellow tent and curled up on the grass and, almost instantly, we fell asleep. We all dreamed about buses and nearly drowning and bonfires and tattoos.

In the morning, nobody said a word. We collected the empty bottles and put them in the recycling bin. We dismantled the tent and returned the parachute to the tree. We swept up the fish bones and put them in the trash. When that was finished and there was nothing left to do, we smiled sadly and shifted from foot to foot, looking at one another’s shoes and fidgeting in our pockets with our cell phones and our keys.

Then we all turned into sandpipers and scampered across the boardwalk, fluttered over the railing, and floated above the river, past the stadium and under both bridges, heading southeast toward the sea. All of us, that is, except one. I walked in silence to the corner of Union and First, where I stood beside the bench and waited for the bus.

Don Hucks’s fiction has appeared in The Pedestal, Pindeldyboz, Ghoti, Bartleby Snopes, The Battered Suitcase, and Why Vandalism?.