The Right Bus | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Right Bus 

An excerpt from Ride, a novel by David Walton

David Walton is the author of two short story collections and the novel, Ride, which was first published by Carnegie Mellon University Press last year and is being published again next month by Penguin Books.

For years, like the protagonist of
Ride, David Walton worked to train developmentally disabled people to ride Port Authority buses in and around Pittsburgh. This, an excerpt from some of the latter chapters of that novel, is of course a work of fiction, and its details draw both from things that no longer exist or that never did. As Walton explains now, it is "a tale of two cities, Pittsburgh as it is and Pittsburgh as it is imagined. It combines images over a number of years in Pittsburgh, such as the subway building, and old Azen's Furs where the Wood Street subway station is now."

Walton lives in Edgewood and teaches literature and fiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

He could have been the first black chief justice of the Supreme Court, Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public School System, The Reverend Doctor Elliott Madison Meade. It was probably with something like this in mind that his mother had named him, and the disappointment of any possible chance of that, the likely reason behind her reportedly vehement rejection of him now.

"Elliott cried all day Sunday after his mother called," Tessa told him last week, "but we can't let him go home on weekends anymore because he just comes back abused."

He had a measurable IQ of 25 according to the sheets in the case binder Janine from the main office had let him look at, the day she brought him out here to meet Nora and Elliott.

"Apraxia" was the word the supervisor at the workshop wrote out on a sheet of green notepaper he still carried in his wallet, but hadn't felt compelled to look up in any dictionary. He was convinced that with Elliott intuition alone would bring the surest results.

He was meticulously but not obsessively neat, always left the building in the mornings in clothes that were freshly laundered -- making it plain how bleakly few of them there were. He never pestered for money, wouldn't ask for something even if he saw others were having it, always said thank you first whenever offered anything -- although his consumption of it then could be astonishingly quick and complete. Ray had learned to pull the stems out of the apples he sometimes carried in his bag before he gave Elliott one. Elliott would devour everything, core, seeds, even the dried blossom tips on the bottom.

He had an enormous wart on the inside of his elbow, but never fussed with it; he was in himself as in all things around him sweetly oblivious to all imperfection. In the mornings now Ray arrived with a thermos of hot coffee, and after Paula and Hugh had left he cleared the coffee table and got a mug from the shelf above the sink.

"Elliott, you want some coffee with me while we go over our bus signs?" Ray had managed to get one of the route cards the drivers propped in the windshields of each of their buses, "Here, you want me to pour you a cup?"

"You mine?"

"No, no, I wouldn't mind, I'd be pleased to share with you. Why don't you see if Tessa has the signs?"

Tessa overacted her role of finding and handing over the signs stashed underneath the table, but Elliott didn't seem to notice. He spread the signs across the table while Ray unscrewed the cap from the thermos and poured himself some coffee, then poured some into Elliott's mug. Elliott pondered one then the other sign, and after a meditative snap or two of his fingers would trace out a curve or a line.

"That's the 1, both of our buses have the 1, see here it is again, here it is again over here. This is the Jumonville bus, 11A, this is our home bus, this is what we walk down to the bottom of the hill to get, this is the bus that brings us back here again tonight. Here, this one's the work bus. This is the 41A West Versailles. This one goes out to the workshop, and brings us back downtown in the afternoon."

Ray had him trace out each number and letter; he knew he had his attention only for as long as he had coffee in his hand. Elliott took three or four well-mannered sips, between which he gave the signs his solemn scrutiny -- then put down the mug in two or three long swallows.

"They shot that naked lady on the telebission las night," he told Ray.

On the way down the hill Ray tried to get him to say where he lived, "Jumonville. Jumonville. What's the name of this town, where you live, Elliott?"


"Pittsburgh, right, but what part of Pittsburgh?"

"Sow Side," apparently that was where his mother lived.

"Jumonville," Ray told him -- named after a French envoy locally massacred in the 1760s, which however should have made it Jumonvilleville.

"Jawville," was as near as Elliott could come, though Ray got him to say it three times before they reached the construction crossing.

"Hey, they're doing a pretty good job on this."

"Pretty good job," Ray agreed, and in fact they were nearing completion, the sidewalks were going in this week. The traffic lights were shrouded in burlap, but on the next corner Ray could see a set working already.

"You know, we're probably going to need to start crossing in the lines." He showed Elliott how to cross first to one, then to the other corner -- by which time Elliott had crossed the diagonal and was halfway down the hill. But Ray, free of Morris, could keep up to him now, right behind him when he got to the alleyway, to say:

"You know, these cars aren't watching coming through here, you gotta watch for them -- "

Elliott was already across.

But it did seem that he looked, too. Ray had to keep reminding himself to hold back, not try to be influencing him every second, start giving him a little more leeway.

If no one was in front of the auto parts store, Ray might be able to chalk the bus number on the sidewalk, and get Elliott to look at it, or maybe say "Jawville" one more time. But the black girl with her armload of binders and the earnest white guy in his blue slicker were deep in conversation at the bus stop sign, and Ray eased over next to one of the display windows and affected to doze, while Elliott stood close to the curb smiling in every direction except the one the bus would come.

A black man had parked his van just past the bus stop sign and was walking back toward the diner. Elliott gave him a palm up and a big, "Hey, there, buddy, whatdaya say," which got no response.

When the bus came in sight, Ray strolled over and remarked, "Is that our bus? Look up across the top for the name, it should say 11A, 11A Jumonville bus, is that one the Jumonville bus?"

"Comin now," Elliott nodded, and headed for the door without a second's thought.

Ray was right behind him, able to check him dropping his quarter in and showing his pass, able inconspicuously to pat his shoulder and say, "Very good, Elliott, that was very good, you're doin' good today."

Except now he had to remind him not to sit down next to the lone woman in a seat halfway back when there were a dozen other seats still vacant. Ray let him go all the way back, settling in himself just behind the center door to read a series in his New York Reviews on the governing of Shanghai in the 1930s. Every so often he glanced back at Elliott, who sat straight up taking it all in with a big grin. He was most alert, most focused at this hour, with half the bus slumbering around him, most nearly attuned it seemed to the tempo of this time of day.

In town he set off immediately in his marching gait, very much like a small boy on an important errand. His palm out, hailing and hi-buddying this one and that, and getting a remarkable number of nods and replies, from people no doubt used to seeing and being greeted by him every day, but also from a number of dowdy white women of uncertain age and declension, acquaintances Ray imagined from different stages of his institutional history, standing calmly at the bus stops as it seemed they must have for centuries.

"Who's that?" Ray would ask him, "Where do you know that person from?" and Elliott would grin and shake his head and sort-of nod.

He crossed streets with his hand out, joining whoever was crossing whether they had the light or not, in this city where crosswalks and traffic signals were universally ignored.

Arms swinging, step firm, head high, he glided through the somnolent morning traffic as much at ease as he probably was anywhere, any time of the day.

Coming back downtown from the workshop that afternoon, Ray asked Elliott if he'd like to come along to Horne's while he did some shopping.

"You mine?" Elliott said.

"No, not at all. I'd be pleased to have your company."

They rode the escalators up to the seventh floor, where Ray priced some kitchen towels he might get his mother for Christmas, then down to the third floor where he sent Elliott in to use the restroom.

They got down to the sidewalk outside Horne's at ten to four, after Hugh and Paula and the two weird sisters and everybody else Elliott was used to seeing had gotten on a bus and was already gone.

There was an 11A loading as they came out the revolving doors, but Elliott paid it no mind, and it was soon gone.

"You know what bus we're looking for," Ray reminded him. "The 11A, One-One-A, the Jumonville bus. Now, if you're not sure you can say to the driver, ‘Hey, buddy, this the Jumonville bus?'"

Elliott gave him a definitive nod: You bet!

Five minutes later an 11C Northview pulled in, and most of the people waiting started toward the doors.

"Is this our bus?" Ray asked as Elliott started moving, too.

Elliott gave him another definite nod: You bet!

Ray followed him aboard.

He was relieved, as he went through the schedules after they sat down, to find out the 11C only took 40 minutes to make its complete round and get back to Horne's, whereas the 11B took that long just reaching the end of its line, and then had a 17-minute layover before it started back. They rode out to Clairsport on the route of the 11A, and there two-thirds of the passengers got off. At the railroad overpass where the 11A swung down onto the river road and eventually onto Bright's Island, this bus swung a left up the hill, a slow climb through two or three blocks of established shops, past a big gray stone church, a sharp left turn at an enormous fire hall where at least two dozen men were lined up on folding chairs out front. Elliott smiled on, unperturbed.

After a long climb, the bus made another sharp left up one last, abbreviated, impossibly steep block, and onto a cobblestone street that ran along a small hilltop park. There it stopped, idled, and the driver got up and stretched. Ahead, at the end of the park, extended a commanding view of the opposing slopes and several bends of the Allegheny, finally explaining for Ray the reason why this southbound bus was called the Northview. The last few blocks, all the original passengers had gotten off and a new set begun boarding, shift workers headed downtown, a couple of women in cocktail waitress dresses.

Right after the bus stopped, another bus pulled in behind them and their driver gathered his clipboard, bag, seat cushion, pads of transfers, even the route signs from the windshield.

"Avah good day, everyone," he waved to no one in particular, and strolled back to confer with the driver from the other bus, who ambled forth to meet him halfway.

Ray and Elliott were seated on the long aisle seat facing a white-stone school with a matching wall that spread the long width of the block. "Gee, I don't remember seeing that school before on any of our buses. All of this look familiar to you, Elliott?" Ray asked him.

Elliott looked around. It did and it didn't. Ray found an apple in his bag and rubbed it against his pants leg until he saw Elliott watching.

"You want an apple, Elliott?"

"You mine?"

"Be sure and polish it good before you eat it."

Elliott wiped it obligingly a couple times on his pants leg, then took an enormous bite, and in less than half a minute had downed it, core, seeds, brown spots, brown tips, everything but the stem Ray had remembered to twist off before handing it to him.

The driver from the other bus came aboard, looked around at everything but the people, situated his air cushion, his bag, the rearview mirror. Three more passengers walked up and got on. The driver eased into gear, and with elaborate caution eased out into the street empty of traffic, and over the crest of the hill. For two blocks they had a stupendous view of the north Allegheny slopes and a long stretch down the Ohio, then swung right and came down a different angle of the hill from the way the bus had come up, passing through streets Ray had never seen or knew existed before, neighborhoods as isolated and inconceivable as Carpathian villages.

The bus connected with the West End Circle from the other side, made the turn onto the river road, passed the warehouses and the Duquesne Incline, and made the swing up onto the Fort Pitt Bridge.

"Say, Elliott, is this the way we're supposed to be going? Didn't we come this way already today? Elliott, are you sure you got us on the right bus?"

Elliott looked around, didn't seem to see there was anything wrong, but kept looking anyway. Ray went back to his newspaper. They got their two seconds' view of the Three Rivers Stadium and Point Fountain, then dipped down inside the construction fences, and made the turn in front of Horne's.

"Is this where we're supposed to be? Elliott, you didn't get us on the wrong bus, now, did you?"

Elliott was out of his seat now, looking all around.

"Elliott. You got us on the wrong bus. See, what happened," they stepped down onto the sidewalk in front of Horne's, "look here, you have to look for your bus name before you get on, see up here, come up here and look at the name on this bus."

"Aw, man!"

"You see what happens when you get on a wrong bus, you don't get where you want to go, you end up right back where you started from."

"Aw, man!"

Elliott stalked into the alcove for the revolving doors and took a stance with his arms folded. After a minute Ray went over and told him, "Elliott, you're the only one who's going to get us home tonight and that's by finding your right bus. It's the 11A bus, Elliott, the Jumonville bus, you want me to write it down on the sidewalk so you can see it?"

Elliott moved farther back into the alcove.

Ray went down the sidewalk past where the last people were standing and turned the other direction. After a few minutes he went back and told Elliott, "I can wait all night, Elliott, I'll ride whatever bus you get on. But the only way you're going to get us home tonight is by picking out your right bus. Here, you want me to write it out for you?"

Elliott wouldn't even look at him.

Ray went back to where he'd been standing. An 11A, then another 11C, then an 11B pulled in, filled, pulled out again. After the 11B left Ray strolled back by him again. It was almost dark now.

"Any of those look like your bus, Elliott?" Elliott slid his fingertip down the corners of his mouth, something he did when he wanted to appear debonair. "There're all different buses, Elliott, but only one will take us home. That's the 11A, the 11A, the Jumonville bus. Jumonville bus. Here, you know what an A looks like, Elliott, here, let me show you."

He led him over to the curb, took out a piece of blue chalk, and drew an A on the sidewalk, "It's an A bus, the A bus, all our buses are A buses, can you remember that?"

He traced over the A again carefully, and Elliott bent over and studied it diligently for a few seconds. "One-One-A. One-One-A. The Jumonville bus. That's the bus takes us home."

An 11A appeared at the mouth of the construction fence, the light changed, it came across the intersection.

"What about this bus, Elliott? Is this one ours?"

Elliott nodded, and headed for the door.

"Be sure, now. You get us on the wrong bus again, we're gonna be lost. Are you sure this is our right bus?"

Elliott nodded Sure Enough, and went ahead and got on.

He headed straight for the back, and Ray took a seat nearer the front, got a magazine out of his bag. It wasn't entirely clear what he'd accomplished by all of this. It was dark now, though not much past 5:30. Occasionally he would steal a glance back at Elliott, who would immediately swing his head the other direction.

When they came to the Interstate and started making the curve onto the bridge to Jumonville, Ray checked to see if he'd remembered to get out his bus pass and quarter, which he had, shaking the plastic carrier end for end until the quarter dropped out, getting up and sitting back down three or four times while he worked out which end it would drop out. Opposite Ray and right behind the driver's seat sat a young blind woman with a chesty, yellow-white dog in full harness, panting with the over-drilled docility of his calling.

Two blocks before their stop, Elliott stood up and started for the front of the bus. Ray stayed with his magazine, surreptitiously slipping his bus pass and quarter out of his pocket.

Elliott made it as far as Ray, maybe two steps farther, then spotted the dog and froze.

"Oh, Elliott," Ray said right away, "you don't have to be afraid of this dog, this dog won't hurt you."

Elliott started backing away. "Elliott, that dog's not going to hurt you." Four or five people squeezed by him getting to the front. "Elliott, step around him, he won't hurt you." Ray traced his hand over the route he could take, passing his fingers back and forth in front of the dog's mouth to show Elliott he wouldn't snap.

"Elliott, come on. We have to get off here."

The easiest way would have been to go up and pay his quarter and ask the driver to let him out the center door, which he had practically backed up to anyway. But Ray didn't immediately think of that. And what if something like this happened while he was on his own? He would have to learn how to handle it himself.

Eventually, three blocks past their stop, Elliott edged back up past the dog, placating it with many tentative advances and hasty pull-backs of his hand, until he got close enough to pat the dog on the head. "Is your dog a nice dog? Does your dog bite?" he said to the blind girl, who remained oblivious to any of this, as did the dog, who turned his head and looked at Elliott momentarily, then went back to his panting.

As soon as they were off the bus Elliott set off across the street, stepped out in front of the bus, his hand out to the traffic on the way, and headed straight up the hill.

Ray came along after. It was past 6:00 now, completely dark. Almost three months, and he'd taught him to show a bus pass. And half the time he didn't really remember to do that.

He was nowhere in sight when Ray reached the building. He had to ring the staff apartment and was buzzed in by Margaret's pultaceous son, Robert, who worked weekdays now, too. Elliott was nowhere in sight.

"How's it goin?" Robert was in the kitchen unloading what looked like sixty grocery bags of toilet paper and paper towels.

"Oh, pretty good, not bad," Ray stopped to sign the clipboard by the door. "Elliott get into his own apartment?"

Robert grunted, yes.

"He use his own key, or somebody have to leave him in?"

Robert shrugged, half turned his head: Beats me.

It did seem, though, that he recognized his other bus, the 41A West Versailles. Ray started in the mornings taking him around the corner from the Frederick, up to Liberty Avenue where they were usually the only ones waiting. Forty or fifty different buses came by this spot, detoured by the subway trenching down to Penn Avenue. One of the first mornings he and Elliott waited there, one of the older buses that still had a scroll above the windshield stopped for the light, and the driver leaned up to crank the roll, and that caught Elliott's eye.

"That's where they show the names on those buses," Ray told him, "up above the window there, that says where he's going," and it seemed Elliott understood that.

"Our bus, the work bus, is an A bus too, just like our other bus, that takes us home. This bus takes us out to the workshop is the Four-One-A, Forty-One-A, you want me to write it out for you? Look for the A, just like our home bus, Four-One-A. Look for the A. See, look at that bus, is that one ours?"

"Hey, preddy expensive razors," Elliott wheeled around to the Norelco window behind them. The first day they came up here he pointed into the window and asked, "Hey, preddy nice razors, how much razors like that cost?"

"Oh, maybe seventy-five, a hundred dollars," Ray told him. "Expensive razors."

So every day now he said, "Preddy expensive razors."

It had gotten cold overnight, the first really biting autumn morning. It wasn't raining exactly but the air bore a misty fineness that the wind whipped into tiny slaps at the face. Step by step he and Elliott had backed into the alcove of the razor shop.

"You keep an eye out for that bus, now," Ray reminded him, "we don't want it going by and leave us standing here and have to wait for the next one."

A couple of times Elliott walked to the curb and stood gazing up the street, then came back and joined Ray in the doorway, both of them with arms folded.

Opposite them, in the triangle where Azen's Furs used to stand, a Pittsburgh landmark for more than 80 years as the TV ads used to say, its triangular skeleton was being preserved for the midtown subway station, second of the three stops in the city's impressive 1.2-mile system. The girders were draped with sheets of opaque plastic, behind which figures could be seen sawing and unreeling spools of cable, rigid and pudgy like embryos of some new man form stirring inside the technological womb.

Elliott was shivering all over, head scrunched down inside his shoulders, arms stiff and fists pushed into the crooks of his elbows. He was wearing just a flannel shirt, no undershirt, a thin nylon jacket, the same yellow ball cap Ray had seen him wearing all fall. "You have that knit cap I gave you last week?" the twin of the toggle cap Ray was wearing these damp mornings. "You ever wear that hat I gave you?"

Got it! Elliott nodded affirmatively.

"You ought to be wearing something warmer these cold mornings, Elliott, you have any warmer jacket than that? What about gloves? You have gloves to wear?"

Elliott nodded, Gottem all.

Ray spotted the 41A down the street, two or three other buses still ahead of it. He said, nodding to the one just coming by, "What about this bus, Elliott, this one ours? Remember, we don't want to miss our bus."

Elliott shook his head, shook his head at the next one and the one after that. Then as their bus came along, Ray not saying anything now, careful not to stir a muscle, Elliott headed right away for the curb, raised his arm the way Ray had shown him to do, more a salute than flagging him down. The bus stopped, the doors opened, and Ray followed him aboard.

"Hiya, buddy," Elliott held up his bus pass for the driver to see, "Howreya doin?"

The driver nodded noncommittally.

"Good morning," Ray got on beaming, "morning, good morning."

"Did you know this was your right bus?" he said when Elliott did it again the next morning, and again Wednesday morning. "Did you know this one was your bus?"

Elliott nodded, Sure did.

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