The First Voice This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

August 9, 2012
That you’ve left your life in pursuit of adventure. That you know the cliché of adventure can’t describe what you’ve embarked on. That you stand in your front yard waiting for the bus to come, its dark wheels rolling into the soft grass. That you board the bus with other travelers. That none of them are going to the same place you are. That your backpack weighs heavy on your shoulders but you refuse to put it down for fear of losing momentum. That the few quarters you brought won’t pay the bus fare. That the small paperclip beside you seems to have an inscription. That you are imagining things. That the blue vinyl sticks to you as the bus rattles on. That other passengers are too busy to notice you unzipping and rezipping anything you can find out of nervous anticipation. That the bus stops to unload at midnight. That you refuse to get off. That the driver seems to have no objection to letting you stay so long as you don’t fiddle with anything. That the bump between the seats cradles a single restless vertebrae. That darkness paints the bus. That in the morning no one reboards except the driver. That the sun doesn’t come up until you’re in the middle of the desert. That the bus is swelteringly hot. All of these are things you know when the bus comes to a halt in the desert and you find yourself alone with only the bus driver, loads of dry dirt, and the bus, still shut, heating as you wait. The heat comes, it seems, from the back of the bus and the front and the sides and through the windows. It comes all around in iridescent waves that rise from the floor of the bus. You consider the idea of climbing through the roof, but the latch of the emergency exit seems to be emitting heat as well. You think you would be much happier outside the bus than in it, but the bus driver refuses to open the door.

You sit back in your seat, wishing to leave but unable. The seats sweat a little bit and you walk around to create your own breeze. You talk to the bus driver. You stop talking with the bus driver because you don’t know why he won’t let you leave the bus. He sits at the wheel and looks out at the road, at a little map in his hands that will be of no help, you know, if he won’t open the doors or fix the bus. You tighten the straps of your backpack with your thumbs through the holes in the pull strings. You sit down. You stand up. You sit. You stand. You sit. You stand. The driver beckons you forward. You ignore him.

At this point, you’re sure he looks familiar. The road swings by in the city on the way away from your house. The bus driver, you mean, looks very familiar and you’re sure you’ve seen him somewhere. You place him at a restaurant, maybe, some years ago. He brought you food and talked with you for a while. You ate while he explained the importance of walking on the proper side of the street because you never know how cars are going to drive and wouldn’t it be tragic if you were walking on the wrong side of the street and a fast car decided that would be a perfect time to cut into the bike lane because who would be there anyhow and the driver would have already seen anyone walking the right way anyway. Except you would have been walking the wrong way and wouldn’t that be a tragedy? And he got up and left, went back to the kitchen to make more food for another person, and probably to create another story.

The bus gurgles trying to start back up. The driver turns the key slowly and he seems not to notice you burning in the back, your face turning a bright red. He begins to talk with the same slow voice you heard in the dark restaurant. His cadence wafts through the vents in your apartment on nights when you return from work too tired to do anything but lay down on the couch and fall into a stupor. The cushions sway beneath you like an old hammock you remember from your childhood, and he talks slowly but he isn’t talking to you. Just his voice is familiar. Just the strangeness of it. Just the way it makes something catch in your throat. Just the way you stop to listen even though he is so clearly not talking to you.

Just the voice of the man at the grocery store on aisle two while you’re on aisle three, when he talks to his child about the differences between this bread and that and which she would like today. Just the way that voice carries through the store as if he’s positive everyone wants to hear that the importance of bread is entirely universal. Just the way you can see him blowing on a wish flower in the middle of a pasture on a summer day with that little girl. Just the way his voice booms with a lesson about bread makes you listen.

And now you’re sure he’s also the voice of an announcer at the circus from years ago. He told you all about the elephant parading around its unnatural habitat and drew your attention to the sauntering lions under the lights of the big top and you know that his voice didn’t fit the circumstance perfectly and you altered it in your mind, but it was most definitely this man still. The way he spoke his words was just like the announcer. You know that when you got up to leave the circus his voice was guiding you out.

The sweaty vinyl under your legs catches a few hairs and the bus driver tells you that something is coming but the something was another word that you didn’t decipher. You recognize the warning in his voice, but it’s too calm to elicit a strong reaction and you sink. And rise, and sink, and rise. You dab your forehead, but sweat pours out faster after you do. You look at the driver. He isn’t hot. He stops trying to turn the key long enough to look at you sweating and smile.

His lips curl into a smile on a billboard on the highway as you turn off at the exit to go to the dry cleaner. He looks wise but maybe a bit too persuasive, you think, to be sincere in his convictions to sell you that used car with under 50,000 miles. The car in the background, you think, had most definitely driven more than 50,000 miles and probably has seen an accident or two and probably wouldn’t be worth buying. You walk inside the drycleaner and the man is there again, not with used cars but with your clean shirts. You pay him and begin to leave, getting as far as the door and jingling the bells just a little before he begins to speak. He advises in terse words the dangers of leaving your dress shirts unworn and you frown a little at his assumption of your laziness, which is not entirely true but not entirely false either. You walk out the door, encountering an accident in the street. The man from the drycleaner comes out, telling you that you’re lucky he talked just a moment too long because that could have been you. You aren’t so sure, shaken as an ambulance pulls up, carts a man away, and leaves as quickly as it came. The time between the man’s initial congratulations and his rushed goodbye is long but it doesn’t feel that way. He saunters back into the shop like nothing happened, mumbling about life being fickle and people being quite mortal much to their own discontent.

The bus driver has started pacing and you wonder why he wont just open the door to let the both of you out and on your way but he doesn’t seem restless. You ask him what he is doing. He looks at you but doesn’t answer, opting to increase his stride and move more quickly through the aisle. He reaches the back of the bus, turns around quickly, strides forward, back, forward. He passes you many times and you watch, unable to avert your mind from the repetition or your eyes from his easy dance. His step is so stable and sure, not even an air of question and you feel admiration in some respect for his steadfast, unwavering conviction. He settles sometime later. You try to place that gait because you know you’ve seen it before.

He walks down the street in front of you when you are young. He delivers the mail. His walk though, you notice, is more assured and strong than any other men. He is a new mailman, and you’ve already started to miss the old one because he would bring you little candies and treats and the mail always arrived at the same time, and you could greet him. The new mail carrier shows up later than usual and you look at him, glarlingly almost. He smiles at you, undeterred by your obvious distaste and continues to deliver letters. He comes every day, not at the same time, but when you most feel like leaving after waiting. Without fail, he shows up just as you begin to feel the grass with your feet, gathering will to move. He smiles, but says nothing else, giving you permission to like him but never outright giving you a reason.

Now the bus has come to a full boil and you hope that something will begin to melt the doors down and allow you two to escape. He comes over and sits down next to you, his body heat radiating cold in the swelter of the bus. He has decided to speak with you for the first time in days and you feel grateful for companionship, despite feeling that he has become antagonistic in his pacing and refusal to open the door. Maybe, you think, he’s forgotten that he can open the latch. You realize you’re hot and tired and perhaps a little bit confused with the situation. It doesn’t matter much though if you are or aren’t, and the bus driver doesn’t seem to care because he starts talking and doesn’t stop for a long time. His words become almost a chant inside your head and you feel yourself becoming warmer but more comfortable in the warmth the longer he talks. His words smear on the seats of the bus, riding the gloss of the vinyl over and over and over, pooling on seats and on the floor in a clutter of words and phrases and smooth enunciations.
Soon, his hands fall into his lap, gracefully folded and hoping for your words in return. It seems he is looking for thanks for his companionship or else recognition of his soliloquy or perhaps even just a head nod, acknowledging his presence.
You can give none of these because the heat has trapped you in a calm and sweet state but a state nonetheless. You appreciated his words but you cannot show it in your actions. You feel desperate, thinking that if you were able to relay your thanks, he would open the door and you would be free to leave and recover outside the heat of the bus. You think that maybe you have ensured your own suffering and will be forced to endure it until you can come out of the trance and give him the thanks he thinks he needs. He pats your leg, seeing you struggle and you feel, at once, that he is not trying to keep you trapped but wants to show you how to survive in the heat of the bus. He walks to the front and beckons for you.
You gather the last of you strength, leaving you backpack on the seat, and stumble forward through the chairs, placing hands on the sides of each, like monkey bars at the playground when you were young, where, come to think of it, you saw the bus driver too. He helped you the first time you crossed, standing beside you as you swung ungracefully between the rungs. You reach the front of the bus and he squeezes your hand, something that hasn’t happened to you in a long time. Maybe years ago when your first love grasped your hand for a final touch before parting, or maybe when your mother wanted to warn you not to cross the street until the through traffic had entirely stopped, of the child you cared for so long ago, little hands loving of maturity. Any of these would have been similar, but none of them quite as strong. He squeezed your hand and pushed the lever to open the door. The bus flooded with light from outside, windows no longer serving as a barrier between you and the sweltering sun. Cold air didn’t rush in. There wasn’t any real relief. You walked outside and the bus driver touched your hand one last time, waiting on the stairs, unwilling to leave his post. You walked away, turning back only to see his eyes following you out into the desert, reminiscent of eyes you’d seen a very, very long time ago, perhaps the first you’d ever known.

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