The Conductor

Photo by Redd F on Unsplash

The bus jerks me awake.

Or that’s what I tell myself. I still harbor a fragile little tendril of hope that I’m still sleeping, that this is only a dream.

Awake. Asleep. Is there a difference? Or some method for knowing which is which?

This bus is a train. Or is this train a bus?

The sky outside is a dismal gradient of blues, blacks, and grays. There’s no way to tell the time.

I peer over my seat and see some new faces and some missing faces that had almost grown familiar. They come, and they go. How that happens is a mystery that my mind is too terrified to examine.

People get on and off buses all the time, sure, but the memory of the last stop this bus made is very distant. That or I’m always sleeping when it stops, which hardly seems likely.

Occasionally, I venture back to the toilet. A flimsy handwritten sign stuck to the molded plastic door with a long, ragged piece of duct tape informs riders the facility is out-of-service.

But I desperately need to urinate. The pains from holding it are alarming.

I peek inside the door—it’s unlocked; it seems fine, but then I enter the space and close the door in case the driver sees me. I reach for the commode seat lid and try to open it, but then I see and then I remember. I’ve done this same set of actions thousands of times. The commode is a single piece of plastic, a prop. Which makes no sense. The same with the tiny little washbasin and faucet, the knobs don’t turn; the spigot is made from a springy foam. I push it to the left and it bends ninety degrees. I release it, and it slowly straightens back to its original shape.

Out of service. That’s a laugh. This facility has never been IN service.

I look in the mirror.

The face looking back at me isn’t one I recognize. It never is. I jerk my eyes from the image. A bottomless disgust fills me. I’ve lost my mind, or this is all a dream.

Oh yeah, the bathroom is how the new riders arrive and the old ones depart.

The return of this realization always jolts me out of the tiny bathroom. I have no desire to be in there when someone new shows up or someone departs. I hurry back to seat 2C.

When one memory returns, the others are not far behind. I take two steps to the driver, a hooded figure of indeterminate height, weight, and gender. Then I remember. The driver never responds to my pleas to stop so that we might use a restroom.

###


I settle myself in my seat, refasten the seatbelt, raise the sunshade, and study the dimly lit world on the other side of the window.

The gloomy terrain is a Lovecraftian landscape. Bruise-colored clouds stretch from horizon to horizon. I can’t tell if it’s day or night. Fields of dead or dying gray wheat stretch away from the roads as far as I can see. Occasionally we pass a little copse, but the trees look alien. Their branches twisted toward the dark gray skies above as if the trees were cursing the skies above, shaking knotted branch fists in impotent fury.

I pull the shade. I always pull the shade down. I shut my eyes and try to sleep.

###


The train jostles, and I’m awake again. The conductor is walking down the aisle, waving at someone behind me. The sight of the man fills me with dread and irrational hatred. His fiery red, bushy beard, his stupid wire-rimmed glasses.

But wait a minute. I was on a bus? I need help. Something is clearly wrong.

From the corner of my eye, I sense a bright red light on the right ahead of the train, a few yards from the rusted tracks.

I raise the shade.

Memories flood in, and I try not to read the sign. It’s always the same. Huge, red neon letters shout their warning.

Highway to Hell. Abandon all Hope.

But we are on a train. I look back to the aisle. The conductor is gone. The train is now a bus.

I hate the conductor; I’m glad to be back on the bus.

Remembered incidents flood back, thousands of them.

Each one is a variant of the other.

The conductor waves at a rider and then engages them in conversation.

CONDUCTOR: “I’m sorry, sir, but you’re on the wrong train. There was an error. You’re supposed to be on your way to the other place.”

RIDER: “Oh, thank goodness. This was feeling like a bad dream.”

They always respond the same way. Their face becomes an image of relief, then the waterworks. They break down crying. Their wailing wakes everyone trying to sleep on the bus-train.

The conductor consoles them with a comforting grandfatherly arm draped over one shoulder, walks them to the back of the train, opens the door, and hurls them out of the train.

I try to look away before seeing them splash in the lake of fire.

I’ve gotten better at that. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot cover my ears enough to not hear the screams. By the time I’m facing forward, the train is again a bus, but the pitiful cries are always there. They eventually grow quite faint, but they never go away totally. I can still hear the scream of each man, woman, and child the conductor has tossed from the train after first inflating them with relief and hope. The children’s screams are the worst.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

One day it will be me, the conductor signals. I hope I remember not to buy his bullshit. I want to shove him off the train. But I’m not a young man anymore, and he is an enormous, broad-shouldered figure in his impeccably tailored gray suit.

I settle back into my seat in 2C and close my eyes, hoping to dream of who I was before this bus-train.

No, no, no.

An image arises in my mind. I try to push it down, but it will not go away. The reflected face I saw earlier, in the fake commode, the image, there in the mirror. I want to push it down, forget it. At all costs, not face the fact that the man in the mirror wore a tailored gray suit, had a red, bushy beard, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. My hopes for refuge wither as a feeling of damnation settles in for my ride into eternity.

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