Augie released the radio, and the woman shuffled a few steps back, muttering words he couldn’t hear. Everyone else on the bus pretended not to have noticed the scene, a familiar phenomenon on public transportation, one that Mayo used to describe to others as “injustice in daily operation.”
“It’s amazing what we choose not to see,” he’d say whenever he drove Augie through the crumbling neighborhoods surrounding old Tiger Stadium.
Remember the writing adage about Chekhov’s Gun? In this story, available online, Hedges doesn’t just show a gun on the wall in the first act: he gives us a close-up tour of the whole armory. The result is a story all about tension.
Bus drivers face a difficult challenge. Which passenger is going to cause trouble? Which one has a knife, or a gun? Is that one just eccentric, or dangerously psychotic? All that, and drive safely, too. It’s not an easy job, and I say that as someone who rides a lot of busses. Sure, I get annoyed when a driver’s too busy working up his Catskills routine to notice the stop cord’s been pulled, but I’m also grateful when one reminds me it’s my stop, or pulls over at a clear spot between snowbanks. Some drivers see themselves as helpers. Some put on a uniform and assume a merciless dictatorship.
Augie, like most, is somewhere in between those two extremes. He’s just doing his job, a job his father did before him, a job he’s learned, not just from the bus company, but from his Dad, known as Mayo:
Every year since he’d been a driver, he’d had to attend daylong “sensitivity” workshops, been forced to sit through role-playing games in which a variety of “challenging” passengers disrupted a route. He’d always thought the acting a waste of time. His real sensitivity training had come from Mayo. “Don’t drive around thinking you’re better than people,” his father had said, pulling Augie close to his face. “You think you’re smart. You better dig deep and find some respect.” He’d released Augie and sat back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “Augie,” he said, his face settling into a familiar impassive mask. “One day you’ll learn: when it’s dark, all sheep are black.”
Dad doesn’t drive busses any more; he’s in the hospital on this Christmas Eve, and he’s expected to leave feet first pretty soon. There’s a lot more baggage between him and Augie than would fit on a bus:
Augie understood this desire to avoid looking the devil in the face. For years after the crash, he’d not known how to talk to Mayo, how to understand the pain of a man whose momentary lapse had caused his wife’s death. When Mayo stood charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated, when he’d faced fourteen years in prison, Augie had been unable to look him in the eyes. His father had pleaded guilty, accepted eight months behind bars, asked for it, even, and, upon his release, moved into a tiny apartment in Warren, right down the street from a bus stop. Augie had let him suffer alone. And now, more than a dozen years later, his father, too, was going to die.
After the opening hospital visit, the story remains with Augie on his Detroit bus route, where he has to do a lot of risk and need assessment based on very little information. And where he chooses what injustice in daily operation he will, and will not, see.
The title is a definition of twilight, explained by Augie, that I’ve never heard before:
Here, surrounded by strangers, he cleared his throat, spoke as if reciting an answer in a long-ago science class. “Civil twilight. The last point in the day when the horizon can be defined. But it’ll be over soon,” he said, his voice lowering. “You can always count on darkness.”
This reminds me of a Jewish definition of sunset to mark the beginning or end of the Sabbath: when it’s no longer possible to tell a black thread from a white one. Augie isn’t Jewish; the definition he’s giving is the official one from the US Weather Service. But given the racial overtones of the story, and the implications of the term “civil,” it’s tempting to make the leap, whether it’s textually warranted or not.
As you read, you might want to remind yourself to relax your shoulders, your neck, unclench your fists, or you could end up with a lot of tight, tired muscles, as I did. It’s that kind of story, were threat lurks in every paragraph. Is this the sentence where it all blows up? Or the next one? I found it an uncomfortable read. I think that means, in this case, the writer did a terrific job.
Back to Chekhov’s Gun. The poem, that is, by Matt Rasmussen:
…When our hero sits
on the edge of his bed contemplating the pistol
on his nightstand, you have to believe he might
not use it.
Maybe the gun doesn’t need to be fired after all.