No one rides the 96 unless they’ve made some egregious errors in their life. The bus route that snakes through Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is journey through where dreams go to die.
Public transportation in other places is simply a swift, economical and earth-friendly choice made by people from all walks of life. Stockbrokers and janitors alike swipe Metro cards in New York City, college professors and short-order cooks ride NJ transit. Here it is different.
Here the passengers are scraps from the fringes of society; often illiterate, frequently intoxicated and almost always surly. When a cell phone rings, as even the lowest of the social strata possess them, the conversations are indicative of bad judgment.
“I have to go to court.”
“I need to speak to my probation officer.”
“I have to take a drug test.”
“That bastard didn’t pay me no child support.”
Olive Oil is the first friend I made on the 96. I’ve decided to call her that since she works at Olive Garden. Petite and clean, pretty in a plain, pale way, her waitress uniform always crisp, Olive Oil smokes Benson and Hedges, reads the papers and is well versed in political topics. Like me, she has an opinion on everything. One day pleasantries turned personal, and although I never share, I listened to why she was there.
She lost her license, of course. Not once, but three times. She spent a year in jail, and that, she claimed, is what finally got her sober. She did some drugs but it was mainly alcohol, since that was always cheaper. She lost her mother and father quite young, and apparently everyone she was ever close had died on her.
Captain Jack used to hit on me. Fortyish, tall with a mocha complexion and diminutive glasses, he told me his real name was Joaquin, like the actor Joaquin Phoenix, though you’d never see him on the 96 or any other bus.
I met him outside the library, waiting for the bus that leads from one end of nowhere to the next. Jack has tattoos on his biceps from when he was in the Navy, an anchor on one arm, a ship’s wheel on the other. He works two jobs, one at Sears and the other tending bar. He has a twenty- two-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter, what became of the woman who had them is anyone’s guess. He follows the news like me, like Olive Oil. Last summer he had remarkable theories on how the BP Oil spill could have been cleaned up more effectively. He laughed when I suggested he go down to the Gulf and advise the experts.
William “Archie” Archman worked at the multiplex in the Mall, which doesn’t really deserve to be called a mall since its only one story and has a dismal array of stores. Archie was almost twenty, a lanky blue-eyed young man with reddish hair like his comic strip namesake. Wholesome as a glass of milk, he didn’t smoke or swear, gave money to panhandlers and held doors open for me. He would ride his bike to catch the 96, strap it to front and then hope it didn’t get stolen while he spent a shift making popcorn and ripping tickets. At the end of last summer his thick crop of coppery hair was shorn to peach fuzz. He was joining the Army at the end of August, probably his best way out, his only way out, if he doesn’t become a casualty of Iraq or Afghanistan. I miss Archie. His presence was comforting, and he gave me hope.
The others don’t have names. They stagger on and off in a medicated trance, drunken stupor or drugged up high. Others are completely sober but wear masks of misery. A woman gets on at Wal-Mart with two-year-old twins and a four-year-old, and she’s also got a big one of fourteen she tells me. One day she was smiling, the kids giggling and eating gummy bears. The next day she’s slapping the four year old and saying “I shoulda never had you none!”
A sweet-faced but pudgy nineteen-year-old gets off at the community college. Her hair is long and silky chocolate brown, her eyes blue and feathered with long lashes. She was thin and pretty once, and she might still be if she didn’t already have a one-year-old. If she’s lucky she’ll graduate, if not she’ll be screaming the same things at her kid in a few years.
The women toting diaper bags and strollers are always alone. Deserted, not divorced, by men who made empty promises in the dark. On the bad days, Olive Oil and I remind ourselves we are grateful we’re not them. We are the only single women under 40 with all our teeth and no children.
I get off at the University, swing a scarf over my shoulder, buy a coffee, and smoke a cigarette. I dream about when I drove my new Buick, had a collection of credit cards and a modicum of self-respect. If I can endure the 96 for another semester, I will graduate and return, scarred but intact, to the world of people with a purpose.
No one rides the rides the 96 unless they’ve made some egregious errors in their life, including me. But I won’t tell you why I ended up here, because it’s none of your damn business.
Dara Cunningham is currently pursuing a BA in History and hopes to teach. Previously published work has appeared in online journals such as WritingRaw, LITSNACK, DiddleDog, and (Short) Fiction Collective. Originally from New Jersey, she now lives and writes in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page.