The NYC Midnight Short Story competition is rolling again. So far I have a perfect record of being eliminated from this event in the first round, and I see no reason that this time should prove to be any different. This year’s contest seems to have produced a record number of entries with 218 heats in round 1 of about 35 contestants in each. So the odds of winning such a thing are very long indeed. Coming absolutely dead last would be difficult too. But I’m capable of it.
Anyway, this time around I was assigned Romance/Downtown/A bus driver (no more than 2500 words). Downtown is not a term that is used in Australia, really, so I had no idea where to go with that. And not much idea of where to go with the other prompts, either (but it is exactly 2500 words) …..
It was late December when she stepped onto the bus at Fleming Avenue. She was a foreigner, I could tell in an instant, but there was something more about her which grabbed my attention. A bus driver quickly learns to read a face and I have been a bus driver for 40 years. I understand these things better than most.
It was not just that she was a foreigner but rather that she was foreign. She didn’t fit. That is not to say that she was uncomfortable within the surroundings, for she moved with a graceful air of confidence, but rather that the surroundings seemed somehow uncomfortable with her. Something tingled in the air from the moment she came aboard.
She climbed the steps, brushing the snow from her grey woollen coat, and spoke without attempting to catch my eye, “Downtown?” There was gravel in her voice, and I knew at once that she was Russian. She would not have looked out of place in a Bond movie. A Soviet spy. An assassin. I imagined her name to be Anastasia or Anika. Or Khristina.
I nodded and she made her way to an empty seat beside the window, four rows behind me. I caught a glimpse of a black stockinged leg beneath her coat as she sat.
I imagined then that she was on her way to one of those exclusive city lingerie stores where one might, if no one was watching, steal a glimpse of mysterious black lace and the suggestive white porcelain skin of the perfect mannequin beneath.
Ruth would never wear anything like that.
But one cannot help imagining.
And it is not difficult to imagine a dark smoky bar somewhere on the seedy side of the city where the door opens just for a second and out of the fog a tall Russian woman in a grey overcoat is momentarily silhouetted beneath the streetlights. All eyes turn to her. She pays attention to none of them but instead walks directly to your table and stands beside you.
“Downtown?” she whispers in your ear. It is a code word.
“And to pastures green beyond,” you reply, as previously arranged.
She smiles and motions to a waiter. “Make me a drink,” she says, “make it anything, but make it strong.” And then she sits and observes you carefully, “So, you’re the driver,” she continues, in her gravely accent, “what can you drive?”
“I can drive anything,” you reply.
She leans back in her chair and her coat creeps up her dark stockinged leg, “Anything?”
You pause, just for a second, purely for effect. “Anything,” you repeat.
Her drink has arrived now, and she empties the glass in one hit. She stands and brushes against your shoulder as she places it on the table, “Well,” she murmurs, “I like you already. Pick me up at the Hilton in an hour.”
And she steps back into the night.
At the Ludlum Road stop I collected a mother and two children. The younger of the two kids stopped and stared at me. “Are you the driver?” he asked. His mother pushed him gently towards a seat.
“Sit down Bobby,” she told him, “and stop asking silly questions.”
Most kids don’t bother with silly questions. They don’t even look out of the window, choosing instead to find another world on a computer screen, as though they don’t really want to be a part of this one.
Ruth never wanted to have children. “Why would I?” she always demanded when I suggested it. I had no answer for that.
But when we crossed over the river and a Lamborghini passed us, I was pleased to see the kids excitedly pointing to it. Who doesn’t like a sports car, after all?
I bought an old convertible once, way back when Ruth and I were first dating. I put the roof down and picked her up one warm Saturday night to take her dancing. “I’m not getting in that!” she informed me, “It will ruin my hair.”
You find yourself at the entrance to the Hilton and she is standing there on the steps. A doorman ushers her towards you and opens the door. She presses a $50 note into his hand, and when he closes the door behind her it is as though you are both suddenly enclosed in a space capsule.
Moments later the Ferrari is growling and dodging its way through the traffic like a beast on the hunt. She sits calmly visible in the rear vision mirror applying her lipstick. “Tell me George,” she suddenly knows your name, “have you ever married?” and then, without waiting for an answer, “or ever wanted to?”
“Not yet,” you reply, answering both questions.
“My dream. My little secret. Children running through the house … when all this ….,” she pauses, drawing a circle in the air with her lipstick, “is over.”
“When will that be?”
“Not in this lifetime. It is just a dream.”
As we drove along by the park, she wiped the condensation from the window with her gloved hand and gazed out at the trees which towered elegant and defiant above the fallen snow. The grey houses of millionaires overlooking it stood cold and vacant, their owners having escaped the weather to ski in the Swiss Alps or bask on a sun-drenched West Indies beach. These were the sort of homes within which a Soviet assassin might reside. With a butler and a maid and a huge bed in which she would sleep sweetly alone between occasional secret lovers, rising every morning at 11AM to drink vodka and nibble on biscuits with caviar and sour crème.
In one of these very houses, I recalled, sometime back in the 80’s, a senior Israeli diplomat was found dead, his throat cut from ear to ear, his blood all over the carpet.
We stop in front of an imposing three storey building and she takes the knife from her purse and slips it beneath her garter belt, revealing a flash of flawless skin. “This won’t take long,” she says, opening the door, “keep the engine running.”
She returns within ten minutes. “An annoying little man,” she reports, matter-of-factly.
There is barely a trace of blood on her hands, but she removes her gloves anyway, and casts them out the window. “I’m thirsty, George, let’s have another drink, you and me. Take me somewhere dirty.”
We were going past the old fire station on Riley Crescent when the man in the black suit hailed me down. He was short and nondescript. He looked like an accountant. He strode very deliberately to a seat on the opposite side to the Russian woman and three rows behind her, as though he had pre-booked it. He gave her not even a glance but instead stared rigidly straight ahead. It seemed to me that his disinterest was deliberate, and entirely calculated.
A driver meets all sorts of people on his daily run and is required to treat them all as equals. But I took, for some reason, an instant dislike to this one.
Next, we are in some dark strip-joint down by the docks. Sad girls in various stages of undress swing from steel poles and try to smile. The music is deafening, and a dwindling crowd express a collective drunken boredom that comes only when the decision to go home has become too difficult. Khristina, alone, seems to be amused. “Look at what a woman can do, George, that men can only dream of.” But her interest is fleeting and soon she draws your attention to another patron. He is sitting alone in his black suit and is virtually motionless. If not for the fact that his eyes are open, you might assume him to be asleep.
“Karlov,” she informs you.
“FSB,” she corrects you, “CIA, MSS, SSA, Mossad …. whatever …the names are interchangeable. His allegiances are fluid. He follows the money, for money is his only ally.”
“But he is following you?”
“Watching me. And you. Covering our tracks. He is on our side. For now. He was there earlier tonight. You did not notice?”
You had not.
And then we are on our feet and walking to his table. He lifts his eyes only when she leans over to speak into his ear. “Do you come here often, Comrade?” she whispers, “I didn’t think that little girls were really your thing.”
He smiles and looks her in the eye. “I come here to share the warmth.”
By the time we reached Charteris Drive the snow was falling again and a young couple burst through the door as though they had jumped off a cliff. “Wow! Its cold out there,” the boy said to the girl. She took his hand, and they walked all the way to the back of the bus where they leant against each other and kissed.
I’m touched by public displays of affection, though I do not engage in them, myself.
When I first proposed to Ruth I got down on my knees before her in Denny’s, after we had finished our burgers and were waiting for dessert. “Stop being stupid, George,” she scolded, “you’re embarrassing me.”
I’ve been embarrassing her, I suppose, ever since.
Now Karlov is looking you up and down and addressing her again, “So who’s the pretty boy, Khristina?”
“Oh, how very rude of me! This is George, my driver. Probably not your type. But he’s definitely my type.”
Then she suddenly takes your hand and leads you away. “I’m not thirsty anymore. I’m tired. Take me home.” She kisses you gently on the cheek.
“Be careful Khristina. You are beginning to get clumsy.” Karlov calls out behind her.
There is a little house on Buchan Parade, which I pass every day on my run, where Louise Roberts used to live with her parents. The family moved interstate in the late 70’s and Louise ended up marrying a car salesman, but I still find myself peeking through the window as I pass, hoping, I suppose, to revisit the memory. Louise had freckles and short brown hair and was a little overweight but, in her own way, quite attractive, and I took her out three or four times towards the end of high school, before I met Ruth. I suppose, in my innocence, I fell a little bit in love with her.
I met her again at a reunion many years later and told her as much. “How was I to know, George?” she laughed, “you never even tried to touch my tits.”
When the phone rings at 9AM you know it is her, but you deliberately leave it ringing for a few moments before answering. “Hello?” you say, as if fielding a call from a stranger.
“George,” she whispers back. “I’m awake. How beautiful the snow looks this morning. Why did you not ask to sleep with me last night?”
You falter for a moment, looking for the trick in the question. “It’s not the sort of thing a gentleman asks.”
“Isn’t it? I had thought the opposite. And anyway, I had never mistaken you for a gentleman.”
You have slept with many beautiful women, of course, but few have been this direct.
“Dinner tonight, then?” you suggest and recognise just a hint of adolescent nervousness in your voice.
“Oh, George. Don’t let your life slip away. This can’t wait until dinner. Room 428. Ten minutes.” The phone goes dead.
Just after we passed over the river, I noticed that one of the kids had become suddenly agitated. “Tell him to stop! Tell him to stop!”
“He can only stop at the bus stop, so you’ll just have to wait, Jimmy” his mother told him.
“But, mommy, I can’t wait. I’m busting!”
There was a gas station I knew in the next block and I pulled into it. “This is my bus and I’ll stop it wherever I want,” I announced, loud enough so that everyone could hear. “restrooms out the back. Take your time, Jimmy.”
I’m sure I detected a smile on the Russian woman’s lips. I think she was impressed by my command of the situation.
The day passes like a long, wet dream and somewhere there within it you fall asleep and when you awaken the sun is setting again. You are reminded of an old Leonard Cohen song about a different hotel in a different city.
You remember her whispering to you, “I might be falling in love with you a little bit.” And then you realise she is no longer laying with you but, unashamedly naked, dodging between half empty room service trays and champagne bottles, stuffing clothes into a bag.
“Get up, George,” she half-screams, “we have to move. Karlov has sold us out. They are coming to get us.”
“So much worse than that. Drive me to the airport.”
Ruth and I don’t argue often, anymore. I don’t think either of us could be bothered. But when we do, she ceremoniously packs a bag and marches out. “I’m going to stay with friends,” she tells me every time. But she doesn’t have any friends.
She is normally back in less than an hour and nothing more is said.
The drive is spent in silence. Again, she is in the back seat applying her lipstick, but now her hands are trembling. Approaching the terminal, you see the crowded lines of holiday makers snaking into the building, bound for destinations far and wide, escaping the cold.
“Where are you going, beautiful?” you ask, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
“The airport,” she says unnecessarily.
A minute passes before she speaks again. “And then I will become someone else. As should you.”
You turn and, for the last time, she looks at you with affection, “You don’t want to be a driver forever, do you?”
The car has barely stopped when she opens the door herself and walks away, without looking back, and vanishes into the crowd.
At the downtown stop, she rose from her seat and adjusted her coat. She walked slowly down the aisle and when she passed, I whispered to her, as though it was a secret, “downtown”.
She turned and looked at me, slightly bemused, before smiling. She was the most beautiful creature on the planet.
“Thank you,” she said, and then she stepped onto the pavement and turned left down the street.
The man in the black suit stepped out behind her and turned right.
I watched her for as long as I could, but eventually she dissolved into the human river of the city and was gone.
Another new year was approaching, and I had no real dreams around which to plan. But I resolved, at that moment, not to go straight home after work, but instead to find myself a smoky bar somewhere and buy myself a drink.