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Benjy Caplan

Little Victories, Big Canyons

Was there a worse fate than waiting for the bus? Kristin didn’t think so but in fairness, the circumstances of her life (no kids, on a diet) never really led her to think about infanticide or famine. The bus: how humiliating.

Kristin didn’t think she was too good for the bus. No, if anything, she thought the bus was too good for her. It was just that waiting for the bus could lead to humiliations like very few waits could. Humiliation was burrowed in a larval stage, waiting for her world to sit out in the desert heat just long enough before pupating and squirming to the surface. Humiliation was coming and it would probably get there before the stupid bus would.

You wait in the rain for the bus. The rain stops and you continue to wait. Just when you’ve about dried out, the bus arrives. Humiliatingly, the bus is filled with water and when the doors open it all spills out onto you. The bus driver and passengers laugh a hideous sucking laugh through their scuba tank mouthpieces.

Disaster was everywhere. She couldn’t stand at the bus stop without having hundreds of cars miss colliding with her by just a few feet. The bus shelter offered little protection; it was missing a wall and the glass walls that had stuck around bore frightening stains from things that used to be inside other things. These stains were on the inside of the of the glass walls, just like Kristin.

Bus service has been suspended due to a parade of all the people who have ever seen you with sweat stains or something stuck in your teeth. That morning there are salmon swimming up your armpit to spawn and half a poppyseed bagel is poking out from under your lip. The parade pauses in front of the bus stop and the nearest float is populated by all the people who made fun of you in high school, all perfectly preserved as they were.

The regulars. Every morning, Kristin saw the same people. She saw them more often than her family, than her doctor. This particular morning, there was one woman she had never seen before, this new woman dipping her neck into traffic, looking for the bus to peek back at her. She’d see only the perforated line of cars turning the road from empty into mulch in the time it took for the bus to get there. She spread her eyes wide and tried to make a connection with the others on the queue.

“Is this bus ever going to come?” she asked. The regulars chose not to answer, fearing that the bus would come no matter what they might say. Eventually, she would give up, this woman. Kristin knew that. There was always someone new who asked something foolish like this and in that way, the new woman was a regular, too.

The bus arrives and you see yourself in the driver’s seat, forcing you to question your existence in front of all your bus stop friends.

A mathematician, the rest she had forgotten. He got off after Kristin’s stop and sometimes she wanted to stay on to see where he went, almost certainly to the blank concrete building lurking defiantly atop one of the mesas in the distance, out past where the road disappeared into the sand. His eyes were beaten pink from years of calculations and retinal scans and when she stood behind him in the line, she noticed he always touched the outside of the bus next to the door as he got on, leaving a handprint in the peppery grime.

Edgar, whose name she knew from the badge on his shirt. He worked at the bad sandwich place at the strip mall across the street from the bus stop. The night shift. There were lettuce shreds under his fingernails like bits of killer’s skin under a victim’s. Edgar always slept standing on line and in two years of weekdays, Kristin had yet to see his eyes. This morning, he also wore a foam neck brace and two purple rings around those shut eyes.

Carol had two perfectly fine but otherwise irrelevant knees. Even so, she liked to claim that they could predict weather patterns. Skip Lafferty on Channel 3 consulted her knees without fail, or so it would seem to a person who watched his weather forecast and then made her way to the bus stop to hear what Carol’s knees had to say on the matter. But Carol liked to talk and the addition of her knees to the conversations about the weather gave her an edge.

And then there was Kristin, who was certain there was one thing possibly worse than waiting for the bus: the bus actually arriving.

The bus arrives and all the seats are taken by people wearing masks of your face. They are doing this not as a gesture of solidarity but because they have been riding around all day, saying factually inaccurate and embarrassing things on your behalf.

The bus arrived and Kristin allowed everyone to shuffle aboard before her. This was charitable and made her a good person, as well as allowed a peek back at a sidewalk empty of these people. Empty of her, too, but the sidewalks were always empty of her whenever she looked.

When she got on board, Kristin found herself face-to-mask with a group of people in masks. These weren’t familiar faces. These faces were not hers. Kristin hated looking at herself in the mirror but one of the nice things she could say about her face was that it was not covered in coarse, woolen hair with bare patches only around the eyes and mouth. The masks the passengers wore were designed for marauding and, at times, skiing but they were in the desert, about forty minutes from the Grand Canyon.

Kristin swiped her fare card and walked back the few rows towards her usual seat. Faces—faces without bodies—took the place of the bodies without faces that usually floated along with her on the way to work. They looked up at her as though she might know something, the secret handshake or whispered phrase that would empty the bus of the unfamiliar and steer it back into the faded blue groove on the route map above the front steps.

Her kitten heels stuck longingly to the rubber matting in the aisle and eight times her fingers touched down on the corner of a headrest, accounting her way back to her seat. It was taken. It was taken by the sniffling fat man from one of the earlier stops; prior to today, her awareness of him was limited to the way his indefatigably runny nose churned in harmony with the bus’s diesel engine, both somewhere behind her. Today, both nose and engine sputtered nervously.

So she took the next vacant aisle seat, four rows back on the wrong side of a bus to a job she hated, at the gunpoint of masked marauders. When she sat, she sat square on top of someone’s sopping mound of sandwich. A fresh wave breaking over the fat man’s cheeks clued her into whose sandwich it was.

“I know it feels like you are going to die but stay calm and it will pass.”

Kristin looked up too late from the mess on her ass to see who had spoken. The bus shifted into drive and pulled back into the current of traffic and she lorded high above sleeping infants and men in untied neckties until one of the marauders stepped forward (although he may have just been covering for footing lost when the bus shifted gears).

“I’m only going to say this once, so listen up: we’re holding you hostage and don’t mind killing you to get what we want.”

Kristin tried to not look at the men but couldn’t help noticing that their guns were slung over their shoulders on what looked to be the same kind of strap she had on the digital camera she’d bought for her own birthday two years earlier. Maybe a gun would have been a better purchase; they didn’t become obsolete after nine months.

There was silence and then the marauder joined his co-workers. They were identical except in height. They were floating lips and eyes. She tried to imagine what the rest of their faces looked like, swapping in ex-boyfriends, bosses, relatives but no one she knew had lips and eyes like these. As they conferred in Albanian (the accents indicating they were all from somewhere along the Kosovar border, not likely in the States for very long), Kristin switched the eyes and lips among them and the fit was perfect. She reassembled them without their knowledge, moving arms from one to the other, briefly experimenting with an arm in place of a head and then triumphantly replacing it, all without any of them knowing.

The bus pulled over at the last stop before the interstate and, as usual, the old beige woman got on board with her fare card in her teeth and her armload of coupon circulars. She wedged an umbrella under her chin, used the card, repositioned her items, and then took her seat as the bus left the curb again.

The same marauder (or most of him anyhow) stood firm with one hand on a pole until she was settled an paying attention.

“I’m only going to say this once, so listen up: we’re holding you hostage and don’t mind killing you to get what we want.”

Someone in the back, from earlier in the route, tisked but the Albanians didn’t hear it over their Albanian. They decided something in a huddle while the bus heaved up the ramp to the interstate.

“And now, we call your governor.”

The marauder was handed a dialed telephone by one of the other marauders. There was a wait of about twenty seconds, during which this shortest marauder exhibited his arsenal of sneers. A grinding sneer. A wild man sneer. Then a Nihilist sneer. A final sneer that reminded Kristin of her childhood. This guy wasn’t prolific but each sneer was a revelation. “The Vermeer of Sneers,” she thought she might tell him if it came up later.

“The governor, please.”

Then, a sneer that bubbled around his teeth like a mouthful of champagne.

“Hello, Governor. Drakar Baklakasha here from the Vermillion Crusade. …The paramilitary group?”

The small man pressed his lips together and stretched his jaw, popping it out of place.

“We have public bus number 352 under our control and will drive it over the edge of the Grand Canyon unless you meet our demands. So give us a—Oh!”

The tall one in the back had kicked the speaker’s ankle.

“Our demands are that you have our leader, Miklaka Dobrotar, released from your prison. So give us a call back at,” and here the marauder put his hand over the handset, whispered to the woman in the front row, and then repeated her telephone number, “or else. Okay? So, thanks. Bye.”

The Grand Canyon was decidedly off the bus route but, though it was only forty minutes from her home, Kristin had never been; from the conflicted murmur surrounding her, she could could tell she was not the only one with that story on the bus.

“And now,” the marauder said, “we wait.”

The short man at his side let loose a final sneer, one so complex that Kristin began to tremble. The teeth flipped around like the letters on a train station departure board and his lips spun like a pinwheel, at one moment taking the form of a mobius strip and then before she could fix on it, taking another shape. A whole series of shapes, though the only one she recognized was a rendition of her grandparents’ wedding photo.

Carol—she of the knees—raised her hand.

“No questions.”

Another kick from the tall one and he swayed.

“Fine. Questions. You,” he said, pointing at Carol with his gun.

Kristin could see Carol up a few rows, bending forward, doing something. She could have been kneading dough or massaging her niece, but from the unfurled bandage draped over her rolling shoulders like a prayer shawl, it was most likely that Carol was anxiously groping her swollen knee.

“Are you going to kill us?”

“I’m only going to say this once, so listen up: we’re holding you hostage and don’t mind killing you to get what we want.”

The tall one pushed forward, dismissing the speaker with a gloved hand. Like the others, he wore all black, even black buckles on his utility vest, belt, and boots. He was just like others except taller. Even his voice was taller, operating at a three-inch remove from the situation.

“Are we going to kill you?” the tall one repeated for the riders in the back. “It’s possible. But you have a greater chance of being hit by a bus than being killed by a marauder aboard a bus. And you haven’t been hit by a bus yet today, have you?”

A few heads turned towards Edgar’s neck brace but he was asleep. The mathematician raised his bony hand and the tall one nodded. Such leverage in a nod so tall.

“Comment. Surely, the probability of being hit by a bus decreases when aboard a bus and the probability of being killed by a marauder aboard a bus increases when aboard a bus with at least one marauder.”

The other two marauders looked at each other with concern but the tall one kept his gaze welded to the mathematician.

“Like I said,” he said, “possibly. Any other questions?”

There weren’t any other questions. There had been one. Two hands raised, one a comment. Kristin shifted in her seat and the sandwich oozed under her, wafting towards her nose. Egg salad for sure. It would stain. The damage was done and there was no advantage in making a scene, especially when everyone was waiting for anyone to do something or anything.

No one has sympathy for you when they’ve got a gun pointed at them, least of all the gunman. So she stayed as she was, thighs tense in a tentative squat; for all she knew, if they stayed on the bus long enough, from underneath her would hatch a couple of muddled and deformed chicks, just sufficiently deranged to really make something of themselves.

“Why are you hiding your faces?”

This was Kristin speaking for the first time that day. The words belonged to someone more jaded and awake than she. The tall marauder glared at the empty space where her raised hand should have been.

“I mean, you’ve disabled the video camera,” she said, pushing her chin at the sagging guts of the camera. “And you told the governor your name.”

She had not raised her hand but it is the marauder’s way to flaunt the rules (and to respect those who do the same) so the tall one answered the question anyhow.

“It’s not that we don’t want to be identified. You don’t get into this line of work unless you want some kind of recognition.”

An unfamiliar hand from an unknown bus stop went up. The marauder ignored the hand and its owner turned backwards for moral support. It was the new woman from Kristin’s bus stop.

“I’ll ask it for you,” the tall one said. “We wear them to differentiate ourselves from you. For our benefit, mostly, so we don’t feel close to you.”

“Shouldn’t you put all of us in masks then?” called someone from the back. A smoker. Probably black.

“Who wants to carry around that many masks?” This was the short one. His voice was whiny and thin; as is often the case, she respected him more with his mouth closed. “Besides, you only want to see our faces because we won’t showing them to you. If we were wearing wristbands, wouldn’t you be on about our wrists?”

He nodded in agreement with himself before lifting back a sleeve to reveal a rather unimpressive wrist. There was a sense of vague disappointment aboard the bus and Kristin regretted ever having said anything that had led to that moment. The bus beat on down the interstate, passing its usual exit and continuing on towards the Grand Canyon.

There was a man sitting next to her, hunched over by the weight of his evolutionarily improbable nose. He looked liked the sort of man whose voice got nasally when he said the word “needle” but still had chosen a profession or hobby that required him to say the word often. He looked like the sort of man who let other people sit on sandwiches.

“Hey,” he said, “we ought to do something.”

“Like what?”

“Fight back.”


“I don’t know. You’re the one on the aisle.”

Some woman behind them who smelled more like mayonnaise than Kristin’s ass did, leaned over their seats and asked, “Are you guys planning to fight back?”

“Quiet,” Kristin shuddered. “They’ll hear you.”

Indeed, they could hear them. The tall one descended to say, “Talk if you want to. We still have another fifteen minutes before we get to the Grand Canyon.”

Up at the front of the bus, the medium marauder was lightly shaking the telephone, hoping to free a ring stuck inside. Kristin could smell the woman behind her puckered smile.

“Talk about what you’d like,” the tall one said. He leaned in and his voice lived right next to Kristin’s ear. “Just know that if any of you try to fight back, we will shoot you.”

He placed the barrel of his machine gun onto Carol’s knee and fired a single bullet into it. The bullet went through the floor of the bus and a rush of highway air swooped in as Carol buckled and tipped over into the empty seat beside her. The bus erupted into hysteria and at once the riders joined together in a full octave’s twelve tones of terror and were linked for the briefest of moments by a chain of dangling snot.

The man next to her grabbed at Kristin’s thigh, forcing her deep into the sandwich.

“Oh my god! What are we going to do? If only I had my needles.”

Kristin didn’t say anything. A breath later, the commotion seemed to have been sucked out of the bus with the bullet and now there was just the occasional flicker: a cough, a sigh.

“I should explain: I’m an acupuncturist,” the man continued. “Amateur. I’m really an operations manager for a sewing machine company. Wheedle’s. That’s where I was headed on the bus. Wheedle’s. What line of work are you in?”

Kristin stretched her neck to try to get a glimpse of Carol’s knee and what exactly was going on inside of there. She was envious of the clenched, bleeding woman and the empty seat next to her. Gunshot wounds weren’t really a big deal; this was a problem that had been around for centuries. Back then they had stagecoaches. Now they have busses. Besides, gunshot wounds were especially not a big deal if you were about to be driven over a huge cliff. At least it gave you something else to think about other than one’s failures and how many people would really miss you.

Kristin leaned into her armrest and looked out the window across the aisle. She thought about all of the grains of sand out there in the desert and if she would be able, should someone gather them up for this purpose, be able to identify each one just by looking at it. Then she pretended to yawn and looked away when the person whose window she was looking through—someone she’d never seen before—looked back at her. Who were these people? The people from her bus stop would never have allowed the marauders on board.

What had it been like for the passengers waiting patiently alongside the marauders in single file? Most likely, Kristin would have had a feeling similar to the one she always had when everyone else in the line had an umbrella with them except her. Had it been her stop, Carol—she of the knees—would have made a comment about how the swelling in her knee was telling her there were potential hostages everywhere and only a fool wouldn’t have taken a gun with her on the way out of the house.

Several helicopters passed overhead, and then flew low and alongside the bus, rocking it side to side. The governor had not called back but other calls had been made: cars were pulled over to the shoulder and their passengers leaned against the doors with arms crossed. When the bus passed, many of them straightened up and waved. A few minutes later, they reached a trompe l’oeil event horizon of sorts: the point at which the Grand Canyon first becomes visible to a person aimed straight at it, when it goes from seeing nothing ahead of yourself to seeing more nothing than you knew there could ever be.

Here, where there is infinite space, one finds herself suddenly confronted with infinity plus one or perhaps negative infinity minus one. It’s enough to make a person lose all context of herself, to make a person feel she has no other recourse than to shout, “Hello!” or her name and hope to hear something back, even if what she hears is nothing but the same voice she hears in her head narrating every move of every day.

She shouts and she listens for evidence that the voice isn’t only in her head but exists somewhere else, but that still doesn’t make her feel any less alone. Nor do the crowds behind her, starring through her into the way the world drops away if you leave it alone for long enough. And she forgets that if she finds a hole large enough and waits long enough, eventually she’ll hear someone else’s voice aching back to her, shouting, “Hello!” from within. For now, all she hears is the laughter behind her becoming the laughter in front of her, and the laughter closing in from all around from all time. Laughs started millions of years ago in some soupy, rumbling primordial gut and just finally reaching their target now.

Kristin stood and pulled away from the tugs of the people around her. She pushed through the aisle, through the netting of fingers and frantic phone calls. The bus was really bearing down on the Canyon now but with each step along its length, she was moving faster. Speed. Motion. Steps towards something, anything.

The men at the front of the bus aimed their guns at her, routinely, but they did not fire. She came closer and then stopped. Their bullets were hurtling through space but they moved in the same direction she was moving and they moved at the same speed; as long as it stayed that way, she would be safe. She started towards the bullets again, still in their guns. She was gaining on the bullets. Faster than a bullet. Able to leap. The last of a dead species.

The tall one looked one way at the rapidly expanding nothingness and then another at Kristin. Another step. A look at nothingness. A look at Kristin. Step. Nothingness. Kristin. His mind calibrated a scale to the tare weight of being alive and then he considered the options. His eyes widened, his lips parted. Otherwise he did not move. When she got to the front of the bus, she put a hand—her own—on the shoulder of the driver. He lifted his heavy shoe from the accelerator pedal.

Sand scraped across the glass pane at the front of the bus as the helicopters swirled around them. Sand everywhere. So this is what it feels like to be a grain of sand. There was no sound but the scraping of the sand and the distant pleas of, “Hello! Hello?” coming from within the telephones in the riders’ hands. The bus rolled to stillness about fifty yards from the rim of the Canyon, coming to rest alongside several tour busses in the half-hour parking zone.

The bus sighed through its air brakes and took a deep breath when it opened the doors. Police officers, in all black with balaclavas pulled over their faces, crawling up the steps to yank at the dejected marauders. For a moment, as the marauders were pulled from the bus, the tall one’s mask was pulled up a bit and Kristin saw a chin that gave her no further understanding into the man.

In the confusion, one officer wrapped himself around Kristin, pulling her to the sticky floor of the bus before seeing that she was not a part of anything and just murmuring, “I ride the bus.” She looked for someone to look back at her and claimed again, “I ride the bus.”

The bus driver nodded to the police. That was when Kristin noticed for the first time that day that they did not have their usual driver. She wondered where he was and how he was handling all of this.

Kristin stepped out of the bus and was nearly knocked back in it by the cheers. People who had been at the Canyon’s edge anyhow, people who had followed the bus there. The clicking of the cameras sounded like the whole rim of the Canyon was about to give way. But it didn’t. It would take thousands of years for that to happen.

A man she assumed to be a reporter grabbed her by the collar and bellowed above the scything helicopters thumping overhead:

“Hey! What’s your name?”

“Hello,” she said.

“Say something!” someone said.

Kristin closed her eyes and replied, “In spite of it all, I really do love public transportation.”

“How does it feel to be a hero?” the man asked.

She started to think about it and he looked anxious, like she might not say what he wanted to hear. “Exactly like how you feel,” she was about to say when she felt two hands behind her grab her around the upper arm.

“Everybody! Look!”

It was the new woman from her bus stop. The new hands spun Kristin around, forcing her to look up a step into the woman’s eyes. The pupils grew and the mouth became wet.

“Look! She sat in a sandwich!”

“Ha ha ha!”

“Ho ho ho!”

“Har har har!”

“Eeeeeeeee! Hee hee hee, oh oh oh!”

Edgar, sweet and noble Edgar, pushed his way into the doorway, wincing as someone jostled his neck brace. The bruised rings around his eyes could have been from whatever necessitated the neck brace or they could have just as easily have been from the binoculars he’d pressed so hard while searching everywhere for Kristin. And now he’d found her. His eyes, at last: they were beautiful, two complete worlds in a universe she longed to know.

Tenderly, his artisan’s hands turned her around towards the crowd. He held her firmly until he knew she was steady and then he let her go. His voice: it must sound like a fog of vaporized creme fraiche.

Kristin took a deep breath. Her lungs expanded and that was enough to crack the dried film of desperation that had coated and shriveled her skin.

She closed her eyes again and heard every sound in the world. The loudest of them all was her own voice in her head:

“I know it feels like you are going to die but stay calm and it will pass.”

Edgar smacked her ass and licked his palm.

“Egg salad,” he announced to cheers and braying. “And the good stuff, too. There’s chives in that shit.”

And you know what? His voice sounded exactly like a fog of vaporized creme fraiche.

They all laughed and she wished hard to be back on the bus, speeding over the Grand Canyon, a few pebbles suspended under the rear wheels just before the bus tipped into its final plunge. They all laughed and she wished someone would put the whole world in a bus and drive it into the Grand Canyon. It could happen one day. Buses were much larger these days than in her childhood. But until then, she’d have to wait. It was only a matter of time until every last one of them would be dead. The trick was to outlast them.

©2012 by Benjy Caplan

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