The Line at the Bus Station

Submitted into Contest #2 in response to: Write a story about someone trying to escape their situation.... view prompt

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With mounting disgust Ernie eyed the printout of “In the Fog on Mount Tam.” The spark that had taken him eighteen lines into the poem the night before, and then died, had not been rekindled, as the continuation clearly showed. He opened “The Infinite Island,” started soon after Cathy, Eric and Annie in arm, had told him with ingratiating directness to be gone. He had laid it aside as woundedness and confusion suppressed invention. No magic, no thread, certainly no rope could he find by which to climb back into that one. He closed it dejectedly, barely resisting the temptation to delete it. It had been the same with the short story, “Aboard the Beagle”: he had battled it all of the day before, the climax to a week of indecisive skirmishes. The whole morning had gone this way. Everything he read online—poetry, fiction, criticism, political rants, even writing advice—especially writing advice!—deepened the pit instead of making it shallower, much less lifting him out. He was thrashing in the Mayan drowning pool, the thought seized him—a sacrifice to the writing gods.

Acting not in response to wisdom he had often encountered, but rather out of blind panic, he flung aside his laptop, desperate for the open air. He did not shut the computer down before he rose from the couch. He did not lock the door on his way out. Out to where? He wandered the manicured streets and parks of his neighborhood in dazed misery. A lawn sprinkler drenched the front of his shorts and flip-flopped feet. Ernie plodded on, heedless as a tree stump. A tricycle abandoned on the sidewalk seemed to dodge him as much as he did it. Gardeners and car washers, mothers with infants and toddlers—all were like ghosts to him.

He was brought round when he caught his flip-flop on a hose and went sprawling. Picking himself up from the lawn he had been lucky enough to land on, he realized he was famished. He felt his back pocket. Good. Let’s see—closer to downtown now than to the apartment. Starbucks, I guess. A corner of his mind added, If that doesn’t help, maybe I’ll take in the zoom view from the top of the Mercantile Tower.

As he approached J Street, it occurred to him to save a few steps by cutting through the Greyhound station. Halfway through to the J Street doors, he spotted the Herald, sloppily folded but apparently complete, lying on the floor near a waste can. Distraction beckoned. Some pulp fiction for a change. Maybe a crossword.

The smell from the nearby bench reached him first. Brother! Something like JW Red Label mixed with b.o. under Old Spice cologne.

“‘Hark, the Herald Tribune sings!’ … Tom Lehrer, ya know.” The voice conformed to the odor. Guttural and inarticulate, it was what you might expect from the end of a bar along about a quarter to two, except for its charming melodiousness.

“Oh, right!” Ernie smiled involuntarily. It had taken him a moment to make the connection between his find and the words of the wino’s song.

“Ya know Tom Lehrer, huh?”

“Yeah … some of his songs. ‘New Math’ … I’m drawing a blank on the ‘Herald Tribune,’ though.”

    “That’s o.k.—just an aside. Y’re forgiven. He was a great poet, ya know … well as a mathma … mathmatician. You write poetry?”

“Well,” said Ernie, taking the bench space his interlocutor had redistributed himself in order to provide, “if you’d asked me last night I might have said so. Today, I couldn’t compose a shopping list.” Maybe if I’d had some Red Label to follow the Jack Daniels I finished off …

“Writer’s block, huh. If memory serves, he’s th’older brother of Robert Bloch. Cousin of Ernst Bloch … or was it Ernest Bloch? Anyway, good ol’ Writer’s, heh, heh—he outlasts ‘em all.”

In spite of himself, and his nose, Ernie was taken by his acting host’s apparent cultural appreciation, scattered though it might be, his attempt at humor, a bit lame though it was. “Ernest,” he introduced himself. Formality was his habit in first encounters. He sought a disarming touch. “Another one, but not a Bloch.”

“Ernest? How important! Jus’ like I was sayin.’ Gabe.” He extended a hand, which Ernie took hesitantly. “Say, Ernie—Ernie’s ‘ceptable t’you, ain’t it—let’s hear a line or two.”

Ernie tried to hide his consternation. “O.k., let’s see …

           Her silken skin slides               

           under my fingers like                 

           an oil slick as   

they near the …”   

Gabe waited politely, but Ernie declined to continue. “See what ya mean. It’s all on the surface.”

 “Ha, ha.” Gabe’s company was starting to wear on Ernie. He was irked, though he wouldn’t admit it, by this sot’s glibness, especially when he was drunk as a skunk turning blue. “Do you write poetry yourself, by any chance?”

Gabe scratched his ear and vainly felt his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes. “Methinks I am a poet uninspired. Umm …,” he sighed heavily.

           “He sought with zeal the hallowed writers’ corner,

His pen the tool by which he meant to walk.

           But to the glee of each an’ every mourner … scorner,  

He only got as far as writer’s block.”

Ernie was aghast. Gabe obviously knew a bit. Still, how could lines, doggerel or not, be spouted so spontaneously? “Wait a minute! Did you just make that up, or is it memorized?”

“Oh, memorized, I admit.” (Why on earth? Ernie wondered.) “Jus’ what came ta mind. Fits the moment, though, I’d say.” He smiled sheepishly at Ernie. “You could use some shorin’ up. C’mon, I’ll buy you a magic potion, un Elisir della poesia!” Gabe was about to rise, but paused, blinking. “But maybe German would be better.” Solemnly, and woefully out of tune, he began la-la-ing the opening of the Tristan Prelude. He broke off. “Oh, wait … no dough … tell ya what—you buy me one.” He flicked a fly from his wrist. It lazed up to his shoulder.

“Sorry, pal—no can do,” Ernie fibbed. His failure to recognize the allusions to Donizetti and Wagner, wrapped up in an invitation to drink with a total stranger, already soused, left him edgy and more anxious to get away. “Well, I’d better get going if I’m gonna get anything done today. Gotta stop at Starbucks and get myself charged up.” How’s that for brilliant invention? he pummeled himself.

“Charged up?! At Strawbugs? Keep it. Gimme Bucky’s Starlight. Not much on food, but mush better drinks. An’ it stays open later. The better wi’ which to maintain the holy trinity.”

“The Holy Trinity?”

“Sure—Me, Myself, an’ I—in the ‘pinion of most of humanity.” A punctuating belch drew glances from nearby travelers as Gabe shielded his eyes from the sudden glare. The sun having burned through the cloud layer, light flooded through the station’s J Street windows, leaped off the tile paving, and lent a hint of life to the dingy walls. “Wow!” said Gabe, recovering. “Look at how that shadow slices across th’ floor there. Amazin’!” 

Ernie was startled into agreement. “Like something Hopper might have painted.” He assumed Gabe’s familiarity with the artist and his style. “Only it would have been at night, with a street lamp, and almost nobody around. It’s the streetlight that’s magic. Helps you measure the distances.” Gabe caught the sigh Ernie’s features expressed.

While Ernie mused, Gabe’s gaze wandered about the gritty surroundings, coming to rest on a young couple at the ticket counter. He tapped Ernie on the shoulder to direct his attention. “Helluva cute kid there!” Gabe’s cry of admiration startled many nearby. The mother turned toward the bench. In his father’s arms, the little boy stared straight at Ernie.            

Ernie was stung badly. Eric! He recovered quickly. This would have been his son at the time of the separation. Eric had turned five—hard to believe!—back in April. Anguish and confusion washed over Ernie’s face.

At this untoward moment, Gabe burst into song again. “It’s very queer: our love’s in disarray …” Ernie tried to tell him to can it, but Gabe slipped into the bridge. “The spouses will grumble, young lovers will fumble, they’re only made o’ clay …”

Is this guy a total asshole or just an arrogant buffoon? Ernie wondered. “What in hell makes you the model lover?” he challenged Gabe. “Not to mention Mr. Know-it-all when it comes to human relations? Where’s Ms. Special in your life? Any kids to look up to you?”

“Don’t take it so personal! Was a general observation. Plenty of exceptions. Can’t think what brought those words ta mind, really.” He studied Ernie, who was still wrought. “Y’re a good guy. Must have plenty o’ friends. Ya got lots o’ character an’ feeling. I can tell y’re a writer, actu’lly. The way ya talk about Harper … Hopper. Was Hopper, wasn’t it? Who d’ya like?”

Though doubtful of Gabe’s sincerity, Ernie was slightly mollified. Anyway, he reasoned forgivingly, the s.o.b. doesn’t know my situation. “You mean for writers? I tend to read topically. Lately I’ve been plowing through sea stories.”


“Yeah, and Lord Jim, Ship of Fools, Das Boot (in translation), A High Wind in Jamaica, lots of others.” He couldn’t explain why, but Ernie somehow took it for granted that Gabe would be familiar with all these. “Next I was thinking of ‘Sea surface full of clouds.’” And why does any of this matter to you? He couldn’t imagine.

“New one to me. Go back as far as Melville?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.”

“Know Hopkins’s ‘Wretch of the Deutschlan’? No? Give it a try.

“Say, b’fore ya go ya better hear th’ story o’ my life—isn’t that th’ way it’s s’posed ta go?—put some life in yer stories, maybe. Ya need some sh— … I mean grist … fer yer scribblings.” He fixed Ernie with a mock serious stare. “Bet I can make you think, Ah so … I vill use you!” For a moment he took on the accents of a megalomaniacal old-world artist, then relaxed, satisfied with his performance. “(‘He holds ‘im with ‘is glittering eye,’ ha, ha.) I was born … I’ll skip that part. When I was forty, I … nah, skip that part, too. Hey, did ya ever read a book, Forty Seasons YM … Forty Seasons YMC … No, tha’s not it. Anyway, ‘s great. Guy doesn’ fool ‘round. Hits on the truth.” Gabe’s expression became slightly more composed; he made a conscious effort toward the declamatory. “‘The truth shall make you odd.’ O’Flannery, that was … maybe.” Gabe’s whole body sagged, exhausted by his stentorian strain.

Ernie didn’t recognize the quote, or the source, but it sounded biblical—except for that odd word “odd.” Time to split. Another conscious decision—the fourth of the day? They’re piling up!

As Ernie rose to leave, Gabe, who had lapsed into a meditative stupor, lurched back to life. “Here’s a riddle. How many lightbulbs does it take ta change an athe … an atheist? ‘ts like a knock-knock joke where I make you start.” By the time Gabe finished speaking, Ernie was already three strides away.

He left the bus station where he had entered, headed in the direction of his apartment. Starbucks had slipped from his mind as quickly as it had entered it. Ernie’s sense of destination, in fact, was only slightly more real than it had been earlier as he fled the field of battle. Now, though, his panic had drained off, yielding to replays of the morning’s strange encounter. Most of all he recalled the sudden burst of sunlight.

Back at the bus station, Gabe rose heavily, then ever so effortlessly.                                                                                                      

August 10, 2019 20:53

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1 comment

Julian Woodruff
20:56 Aug 10, 2019

Sorry, indentation is not what I intended. I'm no good at using these submission devices.


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