Care

Karin Lin-Greenberg

You’re a bus driver now. And tonight is Halloween, which means drunk college students riding the bus to and from parties. Eventually someone will make a mess—vomit, vampire makeup smeared on a window, a can of soda sloshed onto the floor—and it’s your job to clean it up, even though you’ve written numerous lengthy letters to the Transit Authority regarding the fact that you’re a bus driver, not a maid, and someone should be hired to clean the buses.

On Fourth Street, Frankenstein steps up with his too-large black platform shoes and trips on the third step. His hand flails for the handrail and reaches it just in time. He leaves a smudge of green body paint on the silver handrail.

At the next stop two nurses climb onto the bus and you hope the second one, the one with the flat-ironed hair and scrubs with pink bunnies on them, doesn’t recognize you. She was there the second and third time you went to the emergency room to get your stomach pumped; she was the one who’d gently inserted the tube down your throat, administered the saline solution, and told you it was going to be OK as you waited for the fluid to clear. You remember that her name is Connie. She flashes her bus pass and walks by quickly and doesn’t look at you at all.

The nurses are dressed in scrubs, but they have only small purses with them, and their hair and make-up is done, so they are not going to work, but to a Halloween party, dressed as nurses. Although this nurse has seen your humiliation, twice, her lack of imagination somehow makes you feel better about things.

On Eighth Street, four college-aged guys step onto the bus through the back door. They are wearing straw hats, overalls with no shirts underneath, and bandanas tied around their necks. Passengers are supposed to enter through the front door and exit through the back. The last boy who gets on the bus, who has curly red hair poking out of the sides of his hat, carries a baby pot-bellied pig onto the bus. He’s arrogant about it, doesn’t even try to hide it, and you immediately dislike him.

“You can’t get on the bus through the back door,” you tell them. You don’t want to turn around because you don’t want the nurse to see you, so you say it facing forward.

“What?” shouts one of the boys, whose thick head is shaped like a potato.

You look in the mirror. Connie is talking to her friend. This is a college town. You’re sure she’s seen her share of alcohol poisonings. It’s been over a year since you last saw her. She’s probably seen thousands of patients since then. You turn around.

“We’re already on the bus. Do you want us to get off and then get back on through the front door?” says the smallest of the boys, the only one without muscular arms. Why is he with the others? In another situation, you might guess that he’s the designated driver, but tonight you’re everyone’s designated driver. His question seems earnest, and you wonder whether he’s kind or just dumb.

“Come up here and show me your passes,” you say. They walk up and they each flash their college I.D., which gets them free rides on the bus. “You can’t have an animal on the bus,” you say. They’re not allowed, and besides, you don’t like animals anymore.

“It’s a seeing-eye pig,” says the redhead.

“It’s part of our costume,” says the little one.

“Are you guys supposed to be strippers?” you say, although you know they are not.

“Uh, farmers,” the potato-headed one says, pointing to the red bandana tied around his neck, as if this is some sort of well-known symbol for farmers.

“What are you supposed to be?” the redhead says. “Like, a bus driver?” One of the boys, whose pointy-nosed face reminds you of a ferret, laughs a hard, wheezy laugh. His head is too small for his over-muscled body.

“Miss?” says a thin older woman wearing a laminated name tag around her neck. “Could we please go? I’m going to be late.” She’s probably a night shift worker, maybe a janitor on her way to clean some building at night. She, like you, is one of the invisibles, one of the people who keeps things running right. You don’t want her to be late.

You close the bus doors, and the shirtless farmers and their pig walk to the back of the bus. Two of the boys have tattoos on their upper arms: Potato Head has Chinese characters, and Ferret Face has some sort of tribal band circling his bicep. The tattoos don’t make them look exotic or interesting; they make them look even more like ordinary white boys.

The four boys take up the entire back row of the bus and the redhead puts the pig down. It’s not on a leash. When you pull up to the next stop, you turn around and see it totter and fall and struggle to right itself. It keeps sliding toward the front of the bus. Passengers in costumes are reaching out to touch it, and it’s squealing and unhappy.

“Get your pig under control!” you say, and the boy with the thin arms drags the pig to the rear of the bus. The pig squeals the whole way. “Shut up, Piggy,” shouts Potato Head, and you wonder if these boys have been too lazy to even name the pig. The skinny-armed boy picks up the pig and settles it in his lap. He pets it like it’s a cat and the other boys laugh at him. For a while, things are quiet on the bus, and you round the corner toward downtown, and the passengers empty out of the bus. First the nurses leave and then Frankenstein and then a handful of girls who smell like cigarettes and are wearing tight black dresses and cat ears. Finally, the woman with the nametag disappears into an office building. Soon, it’s just you and the four boys and the pig, and you drive toward the west end of the university.

Ferret Face opens a bag of chocolate chip cookies, shoves a few into his mouth, and tosses one down the aisle. The pig scrambles for the cookie and falls once again. The boys laugh hard, and they start throwing more cookies, and the pig chases after them, falling and squealing and rolling onto its back. This is not normal behavior for a pig. You suspect this pig is drunk, fed cheap alcohol. Obviously, the boys find the drunken pig amusing. You know that pigs will eat just about anything, but they should not ever be given cookies. There is special food that is made for pigs. It comes in pellets that look like dog food. Pigs can also eat vegetables. They should not eat too much starch.

You know these things because two years ago you were in veterinary school. You were good at what you did; you were going to be a surgeon for small animals. You’d always had steady hands, and when you were young your mother said you’d either be a surgeon or a painter. You were never good at art and always liked animals more than people, so veterinary school made sense. But then the stress of school got to you and then you began to drink and then after the trips to the emergency room there was the breakup after he’d called you irresponsible and childish and then there was more drinking.

On weekends you volunteered at the shelter; you neutered and spayed cats for free. You were flunking out of school, but you were helping animals, so you weren’t a total failure. You knew you should have stopped when your hands started shaking, but you’d performed these surgeries so many times that you could do it with shaky hands.

Then there was the white cat. Her abdomen had been shaved and she was ready for you. Your head was pounding and you couldn’t focus your eyes. You made the incision through the skin and abdominal muscles, and the line your scalpel made was crooked, but you kept going. You’d meant to remove just the ovaries and uterus, but you slipped and the scalpel plunged into her stomach. There was no reasonable way to save her. Since she was already anesthetized, you opened her chest cavity, injected the sodium pentobarbital intercardially. The next day, you dropped out of school. In the two years since, you haven’t trusted yourself to touch an animal, not even a quick pat when a dog runs up to you in the park. You thought you were dangerous, poison to animals.

And now? Steady hands are not required to pick them up, take them there, pick them up, take them back. You have stopped drinking because you are not stupid. You cannot risk the lives of an entire bus of passengers. You can mess up your own life, but you draw the line at the lives of others. One thing you can be proud of: you’ve never driven drunk. You have no tolerance for people who hurt others.

“Get off the bus,” you say. “And leave the pig.”

“My dad’s a lawyer,” says the redhead. “He’ll sue you. Do you know how much we paid for this pig? You can’t just take it.”

“My dad’s an animal rights attorney. He’ll get you for what you did to this pig,” you say. This is not true—your father owns a sporting goods store—but it makes the redhead’s skin blanch paler than it already is.

This is what you don’t tell him: the pig will be OK. Animals that live outdoors sometimes get drunk. They eat fruit that has fallen off of trees and fermented on the ground. Many deer have gotten drunk off of cherries and apples and then wobbled around for a few hours. But they survive.

“Get off the bus,” you say again, forcing your voice to be as firm as you can make it, and to your surprise, all four boys storm off. Only the littlest one turns to look back. The rest march toward a dorm that is decorated on the outside with clusters of orange and black balloons.

Once they are gone, the pig sidles up to you, leans hard into your leg, and you feel its warm body through the fabric of your pants. You turn the bus around, but you’re not going to finish your route. You will take care of the pig tonight, make sure it’s OK, give it water, make sure it safely sleeps off the alcohol. You’ll make it a bed with old towels folded into a large cardboard box. In the morning, you will go buy it food. This is your pig now.

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