Garson's body clock was cuckoo. He had taken the
night shift as a favor to Petrino, and now his breakfast was
his supper, his supper was his breakfast, and he hadn't
tasted either in two weeks. When he wasn't constipated, he
had diarrhea. On the day shift he had glanced at the
magazines laying around the canteen during his breaks; on
nights he had been trooping downstairs to the street with
the other smokers for a Marlboro, going from two cigarettes
to almost half a pack a day and leaving his throat like an
emery board. Enough was enough. As his bus lurched past
block after block of shuttered stores and overflowing
garbage cans, Garson promised himself to go in early in the
afternoon to tell Petrino he wanted to be switched back to
days. What good was a little more money if he couldn't even
spend it on a night game?
The hummer in the single seat behind him was another
reason to get back to days. Only three other passengers on
the bus, but the hummer had passed up all the empty seats
stretching to the back to camp down right behind him to
send his idea of a song directly into his ear. Garson guessed
it was supposed to be something from the jukebox in the
saloon the skel had just closed. He didn't know who
depressed him most: the hummer, the fat Russian woman
nodding off after another night of aerosoling empty offices,
or the old Chinaman sitting alone in the back so he could
have room for all his plastic shopping bags. The woman had
been on his bus every night, the other two could have been.
He wondered if he depressed them the way they depressed
Garson knew he wasn't blameless. Petrino would have never
even brought up the night shift if he had some kind of life
after sundown besides the tube. He wasn't married like
Luther and Robby. He didn't have a posse of kids like Willie.
He didn't go to night school like the Rostow kid. And to say
the least, he didn't strut around like Caputo boasting about
his latest one-night stand. In Petrino's place, he would have
landed on Jerry Garson for the night shift, too. The night
wouldn't miss him. He had stopped being missed since Janet
had walked off to marry her insurance salesman. Whiskers?
Who knew what cats missed besides their food? Sometimes
he had a satellite picture of himself as a small red dot in the
city that one day just blinked off with nobody on earth or in
outer space any the wiser.
The bus pulled over for a pickup—the first stop it hadn't
passed since the skel had gotten on. A young preppy with
gold buttons on his black sports jacket climbed on. A taxi
guy from his look. For sure, he didn't look used to riding
buses, doling out the change into the fare box only after
studying every coin twice. The pit bull of a driver Garson
hadn't seen before kept the doors open while the kid did his
counting. Garson let out a loud groan for the driver to get
moving. No reaction; the doors stayed open. “You're still a
dime short,” the pit bull growled. “Fare is right there on the
The preppy was rattled as he went into his jacket pockets.
“I've got it somewhere. You can go.”
“Oh, you're telling me my job? Exact fare, fella.”
The skel stopped his humming. Garson smelled trouble too,
and didn't need it. He agreed with the driver about the kid,
but that wasn't getting him home. He dug into his own
pockets to put an end to the bullshit. He didn't know why the
preppy couldn't have counted his change before getting on
and he didn't know why the driver couldn't go to war with
somebody else on another bus on another route, but he
knew he wanted to hit a pillow. Too bad he had only three
pennies of change in his pockets and the fare box didn't take
pennies. To make it worse, the kid had seen his move and
was now standing over him, a dollar bill flapping out of his
hand, hope on his face. “Sorry,” Garson had to say to him,
dropping his eyes before he saw the disappointment. “Can't
help you out.”
“Ain't got all night, fella!”
The driver was getting on Garson's nerves. “Can't we move
while he's looking? The city won't go bankrupt.”
“Another precinct heard from! So you give him the dime,
“You are a stupid man.” The thought was Garson's, but the
words came from the cleaning lady who was awake and
already combing through the bottom of her beaded bag for
change. The preppy turned awkwardly to her, the dollar still
limp in his hand, a smile frozen on his lips. The driver
watched through his rearview mirror.
“Do you believe this?” the skel said. “We could be in fuckin'
Canada by now!”
The woman held out her hand to get a better look at what
she had come up with. It was only a nickel and two pennies.
“This is all I have,” she said in her thick accent. “He takes it.
It is more than nothing.”
The kid knew better, but he didn't want to leave the
woman's pudgy hand hanging. He took the useless seven
cents with the hand already holding the useless dollar.
Garson liked him for making the woman feel useful. What he
didn't like was the driver yanking up his protective bar and
lifting himself out of his seat for a better look at what was
going on behind him. “All right, fella. What's it gonna be? We
can't stand here all night.”
Garson was astonished. He had been on buses that had been
stalled, he had given coins to passengers who had been
short, and he had come across testy drivers, but he had
never run into all three together.
“Don't ask me,” the skel snapped to the preppy's look. “I get
on a bus, I get on with the right change. It happens to be
“Maybe you just want me to call the Transit Police,” the
“You can take the whole dollar.”
“Yeah, right. I stick it in my pocket and you accuse me of
ripping you off. Just get off, will you?”
“But there's no place to get change at this hour down here!”
“Take it up with the stores. These people want to get home.”
The kid's last hope—gone as soon as he had thought of it—
was the Chinaman dozing in the back. Maybe the old man
was really dozing, maybe he just didn't want to be involved.
“All right, driver,” the kid said, his voice harder. “But I want
your number. All this for three lousy cents?”
“The box says a dime.”
“Plus this nickel.”
“Okay, you're five cents short. Once you put it in.”
“Why should I? You already owe me what I put in there.”
Garson didn't like the way the kid was already conceding
everything. It was a quitter's attitude. And sure enough, the
driver whipped around to the fare box and pressed a lever
that released the coins that had been on hold. He couldn't
catch them fast enough. He acted like money suddenly
wasn't important “Take it,” he said, thrusting the coins at
the preppy. “You get your money back and we get our ride
Garson didn't like the way everything was moving so fast.
Worse, it all seemed to be moving to the wrong places.
“So take your money,” the driver demanded again.
Garson read the calculation in the kid's eyes: He would have
his money back, but for what? There wouldn't be another
bus for an hour, and cabs stayed clear of the neighborhood.
The money wasn't important to one of them, and it was
useless to the other. Both of them might have been from
another planet. “This guy makes a complaint,” he had to tell
the driver, “I'm going to back him up.”
The runt gave him another snake-like look. “Free country.”
“Well, I won't back him up,” the skel called from his new
seat. “The law's the law. You don't have the right fare, you
don't ride. Simple.”
Garson didn't know why the driver looked happy with that
vote. The skel would be in the wind as soon as he got where
he was going and the driver would never see him again at
any hearing. The same for the old lady and the Chinaman. It
would just be him and the preppy against the bastard, and
two against one was two against one everywhere, game
over. He just wished the preppy didn't start acting all
official, taking out a notepad and writing down the driver's
“Got it?” the driver taunted. “Good. Now take your money
and get off.”
Garson blamed his tiredness and the hour for being so slow.
He had been sitting in a front row seat the whole time, had
heard every word, but only now did it hit him that the
preppy was really going to be kicked off, sent back out to
where he could only run across muggers and other night
crawlers. “That's enough,” he said, towering over the driver
when he stood. “Close those goddamn doors.”
“It's okay . . . .”
“No, it's not okay,” he cut off the kid. “You started this
because the last time you rode a bus, it probably cost a
buck. But no more. I want to get home.”
The preppy turned white. The cleaning lady at his elbow
looked worried too. She hadn't meant for her seven cents to
complicate things. But now that he was on his feet, Garson
was committed, he couldn't just sit down again. And just to
be sure they all understood that, he glanced back at the
skel, who immediately shot his eyes outside as if there was
something interesting to see in the bus shelter.
“You can get off, too, fella.”
Garson was caught off guard. He had expected the driver to
fold, to scramble back behind the wheel. Instead, the pit bull
clenched his face up like a third fist. Garson didn't think that
was funny, but a weird impulse came over him to laugh
anyway. He hadn't hit anybody in a long time, not since Joe
Conlin in high school. Did he even remember how? For sure,
he didn't want to be hit back. That would hurt.
“You hear me? You and your friend both.”
The driver was only half Garson's size in height, but he was
built mean across the shoulders and chest. It would hurt a
lot if he didn't clock the guy with the first punch. And then
what? Who would drive the bus? They would be in the same
stalled place they were now, plus he would be arrested and
sued by the driver. He hadn't added that much more money
to his salary by working nights.
“It's okay,” the preppy said again. “I'll wait for the next one.”
The last thing Garson needed was sympathy. “And if you run
into another jerk?”
The preppy gave him a stupid smile, as if they understood
each other on some deep level. “There can't be more than
one of these guys working at night.”
“All right, that's it!” the driver said, taking a cellphone out of
his shirt pocket. “I'm calling the cops.”
Garson had a picture of both the driver and the phone
breaking in pieces on the floor. But then, as the runt started
punching out a number, he got a grip. If there was any
trouble, who would feed Whiskers? And what would Petrino
and the others say at the plant? “I'm getting off here,” he
told both of them. “You can use my fare for him.”
As Garson moved toward the door, he was surprised he
hadn't thought of his solution before things had gotten out of
hand. But even as he was getting the added satisfaction of
jostling past the driver, the runt wanted more. “You get off,
that's your choice. That don't get your friend here paid.”
Garson had never run into so much stupidity—not at the
plant, not with Janet, not with Joe Conlin ages ago. And the
preppy and the old lady looked as amazed as he was. “I'm
getting everybody off the hook here,” he heard himself say,
knowing it didn't need saying. “Or you looking for a fight just
to have a fight?”
The runt rocked on his heavy shoes, not at all bothered by
the accusation. “It's not up to me to tell fares where to get
off. You want to get off here, you get off. But that has
nothing to do with other passengers.”
“You do that, pal, and I'll take your number, too.”
Garson followed the driver's alarm back to the skel, who
was now leaning forward from his seat, anger in his eyes, no
more interest in the bus shelter.
“The guy's being reasonable. Now get this fuckin' bus
Garson was close enough to the driver to see the reddening
around his ears even in the bus's dim lighting. The runt
knew the kid and the woman were waiting for his answer,
too. “That's not the way it's done,” he sputtered.
“Then call the cops and we'll explain it to them,” the skel
The driver remembered the phone in his hand. He tried to
put it back into his shirt pocket without making it look like a
“And I think you owe him that money in your hand.”
The driver swallowed hard. He was out of objections. Garson
hadn't counted on the change handed to him.
“You don't have to do this,” the kid said again.
Garson heard through the earnest tone: the preppy was
saying thanks for his idiotic solution and goodbye, get going
in the same breath. He was tempted to change his mind and
let the driver kick the phony off. But he knew it was too late,
that he was already committed to being the one to get off.
He couldn't just sit down again, not after getting even the
skel over to his side. “It's okay. I don't live so far away.”
Garson was already at the stairwell when the kid grabbed
his sleeve again. “Then this is yours, too,” he said, showing
him the woman's seven cents.
Garson knew he didn't need the woman's nod to accept the
money, but he felt better when she motioned it was okay.
He didn't linger. The driver was already back behind the
wheel and waiting for him to step down to close the doors
behind him. At least from a money standpoint, he told
himself, he was only out three cents.
Garson stood in the shelter as the bus pulled away. The kid
was taking the seat where he had been, the skel was
shaking his head, and he couldn't see what the cleaning
woman was doing. What he was surprised to see was the
Chinaman staring back at him through the rear window. The
guy didn't look like he had been sleeping at all, but only
baffled about what had just happened.
Garson started home. He had exaggerated about how close
he lived, but the weather wasn't bad. It occurred to him as
he walked along past a shuttered pizza stand that with the
woman's seven cents and his own three pennies he actually
had the exact fare. He had never understood why the fare
boxes didn't accept pennies. So much trouble would have
been avoided if they did.
Donald Dewey has published 40 books of fiction and nonfiction
for such houses as Little, Brown; HarperCollins, and St. Martin's
Press, as well as scores of magazine stories. His latest books are
the novel Green Triangles and the biography Buccaneer: James
Stuart Blackton and the Birth of American Movies.
by Donald Dewey