William T. O’Reilley was two years away from retirement. He had a plum job, at least that’s what the bus dispatcher, Stewie, told him every morning when he started his shift on the M2 at 6:30 a.m..
“You’ve got the plum one, that’s for sure, Billy. Right through Manhattan, yeah, right through the upper crust of it.”
“I don’t know about plums, Stewie.” Billy mopped his brow and stuffed his handkerchief in his back pocket. It was a tight fit; he had put on a few pounds since the funeral. “Never liked the heat. This week has been the worst, can’t wait to blast the air-conditioner on this baby.” He tapped the steering wheel of the bus.
“Yur good to go, pal, see you tomorrow. Stay out of trouble.” Stewie fiddled with the electronic pad, punched William T. O’Reilly’s number into the system, and the M2 rolled north.
Billy liked routines. He was a creature of habit and having his bus paced and monitored at each stop gave him a satisfaction that could be measured.
But it was on days like this, the hot ones, that some of the people getting into the bus annoyed him. He was doing his best, he thought. No one likes the heat. “Just doing the best I can,” he mumbled to the elderly lady who wanted the steps lowered faster than was possible at 4th Street. It made him think of his second wife, Heather, and the fight they had at Christmas.
“Just doing the best I can, honey.” That’s what he told her when she asked him to get a raise. “You don’t understand.”
“How’d you expect me to keep myself dressed nice,” she gave him a look and went into the kitchen. “I need a new pair of boots for the winter, Billy. Do you really think the ones I’ve had for three years—three years before we were married—are good enough,” she raised her voice so he could hear her.
“Nothing will ever be good enough for you,” he said.
“What’s that, I can’t hear you,” she said.
Billy sat on the couch and picked up the remote. He turned on the game and sighed.
“Football?” Heather shouted from the kitchen.
He heard his wife bang two pots on the stove. It almost gave him hope that they were going to have a real meal instead of take-out.
“What kind of soup do you want?” she said. “Chicken noodle or Beef and Barley?”
Irene, his first wife, was a good cook. She made real dinners that the family sat at the table and ate together.
“Chicken noodle.” Are you making anything else to go with that?” He called into the kitchen.
“Why don’t you get off the sofa and find out.”
Once there was a time he was content with everything and everyone. But, then, at sixty-three he wasn’t. William T. O’Reilley made three mistakes in his life: the first was to cheat on Irene with Heather.
He met Heather at his niece’s wedding; she was bubbly. Mistake number two was marring Heather who seemed to lose her fizz as soon as she had a ring on her finger. Mistake number three was ordering Chinese food the Sunday before Christmas.
The young woman who got on the bus at 10th street looked as though she hadn’t slept; her face had on yesterday’s makeup. Billy looked at her chipped nail polish as she dipped her metro pass into the kiosk. The bus was starting to fill up. No one wanted to sit in the back; the riders clustered around the front door waiting their turn: like rabbits ready to jump out the door when it opened.
Billy looked at the time on dashboard monitor, he was running three minutes ahead and he knew that there would be a message to hold the bus at 23rd street. He also knew that the passengers would get annoyed and start talking to him: asking him why he wasn’t moving.
“Gotta keep to the schedule and we’re ahead of it right now,” he said.
“Well that’s not my schedule, I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes.” A young man, holding his jacket and a New York Times, was leaning over the bar that separated the driver from the passengers.
“Back up.” Billy pointed to the sign that told passengers to stand behind the yellow line and not talk to the driver.
“Just getting your number off the dash,” the man said.
Two people got off the bus at the back door, and as they did a kid jumped in.
“Hey—you!” Billy yelled. The young man leaning into Billy’s face jumped back.
“You—in the back! I saw you jump the ride.” Billy was watching him in his rear-view mirror. “Get off. We’re not going anywhere until you get off.”
The other passengers started to mumble and the ones in the rear of the bus told the boy to leave. By the time he did, Billy was on schedule and the bus moved forward, heading toward 34th street.
On good days, Billy would take the time to call out the important landmarks of each stop. It was PR they told him at his last training seminar, helpful for the tourists, too. He was tempted to say something at his next stop, but the memory of the Christmas argument took over.
“Soup isn’t dinner, Heather. I work hard all day. I need a real meal when I come home.” Billy looked up as his wife approached with a tray holding two bowls of soup and a box of Ritz Crackers.
“There’s still some moo-shoo-pork left over,” she said.
She had lost the edge in her voice, maybe she was trying to make-up, Billy thought. But he knew better, it was more than likely she was about to ask for something he couldn’t give her.
“I’ll heat it up for you, honey.”
Billy changed the channel from the commercial to the news. Heather walked back into the kitchen and he could hear her putting the Chinese food in the microwave.
“I met someone interesting today.” She kept her eyes on the television when she returned and handed him the plate.
Billy sniffed the Chinese leftovers that were sitting in a pool of grease.
“You sure this stuff is OK to eat, it smells a little funny? Isn’t it from last Sunday?”
Heather ignored him and started eating. “Tastes OK to me. You’re so particular. Maybe you should be the one who cooks?”
“Well, I wouldn’t eat that if I …”
Heather interrupted him. “I went to the library to return my book. The woman behind the desk told me about a book club that meets on Wednesday afternoons. I thought I should try it out.”
Billy took a deep breath. “You know, if you were working, you could use all of your salary on new clothes. It wouldn’t bother me. I want you to be happy.”
“We’ve been through this a thousand times.” Heather raised her fork and began to jab the air with it. “I can’t possible work, not after what happened to me at my last job. I told you that before we got married. It was all right with you then that I didn’t work. Look how much you’ve changed in six months. You use to be so sweet and understanding.” She shoved more leftovers into her mouth.
“I’m the one who’s changed?” Billy turned and watched her put the last bit of Chinese food on a Ritz Cracker.
“Don’t raise your voice at me.” Heather started coughing. She pushed the tray away and started to twist her charm bracelets back and forth on her wrist.
“That act is not going to work anymore, you can’t have it both ways,” Billy said.
“What do you mean?” she sniffed.
“You can’t be helpless and try and push me around at the same time. That’s what I mean.”
“I should have never married you, you’re too old and set in your ways.” She left the sofa and went into the bedroom slamming the door behind her.
“34th Street, Empire State Building to the east and Morgan Library just one block north,” Billy sung out. He looked at his monitor, he was running right on schedule. Billy looked out the bus window and nodded to the stream of people crossing in front of him. Letting Heather eat the leftovers wasn’t a mistake.