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The Bus to 9th and Waldo

by Larry Strattner

In the dark and below freezing morning I duck into my bus-stop kiosk a little early. A man and woman are already waiting. They appear exotic, yet fair-skinned and blue-eyed with aquiline noses and regal bearing. She is beautiful as a ballerina, her hair pulled back into a bun accentuating her large almond-shaped eyes and prominent cheekbones. He is handsome. Both wear long overcoats; neither a hat. They are obviously not together

I picture myself speaking to the woman: she would be sitting with me in a nice restaurant, a real catch for a business guy like me. A career asset. She does not care to begin our relationship She ignores me and the other man, as well, and the bus stop, the weather and the early morning cold. Though she and the gentleman may be from the same neighborhood, he pays her no attention. Icy would seem to describe their shared personality trait.

* * *

The bus arrives. At the curb it throbs less than the old diesel. The run-up of oil prices spurred new efficient additions to the fleet to serve the uptick in local bus patronage. The old busses were dirty and smelly. They provided an unappetizing ride concluding with a snifter of diesel fumes.

Either the bus is ten minutes early or I did not set my watch accurately after daylight savings. I own a collection of fine timepieces and alternate them to complement business or casual wardrobe. Some are mechanical like my Rolex and require a winder to keep them going. Rolex always disagrees with atomic clocks. My watch-freak friend George says, “You want to look sharp? Buy a Rolex. You want to tell time? Buy a Seiko.”

The bus doors slide open without the familiar hiss. I defer to my kiosk-mates and we board. The driver is also new, perhaps trained to pilot this new vehicle. My frequent-rider card swipes through the reader. One sleeping passenger sits in the dim interior. Ceiling lights are dimmed, allowing a snooze for those with longer rides.

The driver closes the door and we roll on our way. The bus is well beyond older buses in comfort. The interior design is fluid; no sharp corners. Wide seats are accommodating. None of those infernal side benches where people cram together as individuals to then become clumped in a miserable group.

We stop three times picking up two or three passengers each time. Do they all work at the same enterprise downtown? All appear to be of the same ethnic group as the two folks at my stop. Is a new restaurant opening to supplement our Chinese, Hmong or Italian?

When I take a later bus I am often joined by all the people who work at the Chinese restaurant on Seventh. Predictably the restaurant is called the Hong Kong Buffet. People here pronounce buffet the way you describe what the wind does to you. Sometimes locals criticize the Chinese for not learning English more quickly. I often think to myself of the critics, “When are you going to learn English?”

Many in my town are illiterate in their first language. Of course I say nothing.

This is obviously not my regular bus. I would remember these folks had I seen them before. I wonder where they work and what they do. Restaurant? Manufacturer? Service Provider? We travel a dark stretch of road behind the old cement plant during the final run downtown. The next stop is mine, the first downtown. I doze.

Awakening to the driver’s voice on the speaker I hear, “...through the Low Latitude Stream and then on to the Virgo Cluster Dwarf Galaxies after a brief rest stop. No transfer will be necessary.”

“Wait a second...” I start to say. “What about 9th and Waldo?” The interior of the bus seems to shimmer and coalesce. There is a pressure of massive acceleration, almost as if we are departing the gravitational field of Earth.

This bus ride is more discombobulating than normal. I am dizzy for its duration. My usual habit is to fall asleep. If I don’t I work on some uncomplicated business problem or try to resolve one of the day’s easier decisions. None of these alternatives work for me today. The ride is wavy, erratic. I think about strange colors and their weird affinity with a structure appearing in my mind as a section of honeycomb waiting to be enjoyed.

I tend to be grumpy in the morning. Not today. Awash with positive feelings, what a chef would call an infusion, positive vibrations subsume me. Even my big toes are feeling proactive. I’m thinking I’d better get to my computer pretty damn quick. Get to work while I still have this ambition to better reconfigure some of my recent ideas. I can’t remember feeling this ambitious.

Right on time the driver announces, “Ninth and Waldo.” I am the only debarking passenger. Unlike the old driver, this driver has stopped directly in front of my office door. The actual bus stop kiosk is thirty yards further down. I think, now this is courteous! I get off smiling and go inside.

* * *

“Mr. Newmann?” says a receptionist I do not recognize. Her eyes resemble those of the ballerina-type on the bus. She appears startled.

“Yes. Mr. Steven Newmann! In living color!” I say with a flourish.

“Oops,” she rejoins.

“What do you mean ‘Oops’? You asked me if I was me and I agreed I am. What’s ‘Oops’ about that?”

“Well...” She stammers a bit. “We didn’t... expect you this soon.”

“What do you mean this soon? I’m on time.”

I walk briskly into my office, thinking. I don’t know where they get these people. You’d think they would give temporaries an employee list. She must be from the same country as the others on this morning’s bus. A totally new place for her. New language. New everything. I’m going to find out where they’re coming from. Maybe initiate some community action to break them in, for Heaven’s sake.

I sit down. My office door is open. A man knocks on the jamb.

“Yes?” I say. “Come in. No need to be shy. I don’t believe we’ve met. You would be...?”

“I am Mr. Wiggenstien. Good morning. This is rather unfortunate but not irredeemable.”

“This is the second variation I’ve collected on ‘Oops’ this morning,” I say. “Only a couple more and I’ll have a suite.”

Mr. Wiggenstien smiles and holds the palms of his hands out to me. “I’m sorry. Ms. Pascal didn’t quite know what to say when you came in. Let me explain. You boarded the incorrect bus this morning.”

“As I suspected,” I say. “What’s the difference? I’m here now.”

“Not exactly,” says Mr. Wiggenstien. “You are in a Molgen construct at the inner edge of what we call Baarr. You know Baarr as the M104 Galaxy. The construct is assembled from molecular and genetic marker elements collected from your world to duplicate your environment. Our research found yours to be a worthy social concept, provided certain subtle modifications are performed.”

“That’s why everyone on the bus appeared to be from the same place!”

“In your argot, Mr. Newmann, Bingo! We are all individuals constructed with the biologic and psychologic markers chosen from some of your more attractive features. For safety we decided on a one-race environment and avoid potential misunderstandings, suspicions and discrimination consistently arising within excessive diversity. The have/have-not intelligence quotient and physical skills factors will keep us busy enough.”

“Who... the hell... are you?” I finally stammer, not even able to assimilate the conversation, let alone start to make sense.

“You could think of us as a cloud of adaptive matter bound by energy and gas. We did well enough in our original form. However, we were getting bored with ourselves. We set out to find a model we could duplicate to add some challenge and randomness to our activity. We chose yours. We are in the process of duplicating you down to the last quark. Had you not gotten on the wrong bus, no one would know.

“Our intentions are not hostile. Some of the physiology and psychology we found it expedient to alter should help you. We minimized aggression and negative attitude. We maximized compatibility factors. We are not omniscient, nor perfect. Some miscues may occur during the process. This seems to be one.

“We can arrange for you to perceive this event as a dream you forget entirely. A second choice for our bus would be that the proto-designers have it deposit you at the door of your office upon the return trip. In your time continuum this will have never transpired.”

I’m thinking, Whoa, whoa, whoa. “No doubt your activity has a lot of merit. What I’m hearing is, I have two choices. I can go back and forget or I can stay and leave my other life behind?”

“True. We would have to consider the situation before a decision to allow you to stay.”

“But I might be able to stay?

“Possibly. I would say there is a good chance.”

“Has everything in my town having to do with me been duplicated?”

Mr. Wiggenstien checks a device on his wrist. “Yes,” he says. “Along with positive changes, your neighborhood, home, wife, family are complete. Also, as you can see here, your place of work.”

“And this model or configuration you’ve been describing? You are successful in your estimation?”

“Quite successful. You are the only recent glitch. I suspect your card swiped successfully on the bus because so much of you and your life is already in place here. Were you from New York City, there would be less chance of an anomaly at this moment.”

“Good. Well then, here’s my preference,” I say. “Let me go home to my house here, check out the wife and the house. Inspect the neighborhood. Eat dinner and then bed down with the spouse. See if she has this same upbeat factor you already plugged in to me. If all goes to my liking I’ll get back to you with a decision. How’s that sound?”

Mr. Wiggenstien is smiling a small smile. “I suppose, reasonable. This conversation and its progression show why we chose you for a model. We applaud your flexibility and your likeness to us in your ability to adapt.”

* * *

“My office, please, Ms. Pascal,” requested her intercom.

“Yes sir?”

“Please wrap this carefully,” Wiggenstien indicated a small black cube on his desk. “Send it to Fort Detrick Laboratories, attention Dr. Dexter Ansorge.” The cube appeared to be marble, its polished black surface shot through with delicate streaks of white.

Ms. Pascal picked up the cube. “And Mr. Newmann?”

“He is gone,” said Wiggenstien. “You are holding his amalgam; the combination of his characteristics. Perhaps we will bring him back if Dr. Ansorge can remove Mr. Newmann’s selfish and greedy markers. I neglected to tell Mr. Newmann we had been working on those, along with the more comprehensively dangerous traits.

“Honestly! The human ‘It’s all about me’ trait is so pervasive. All those white streaks in the amalgam block are Mr. Newmann’s self-interest markers. Dr. Ansorge will have to get a handle on this. This one trait alone could compromise the core goals of the project. Look at all those white streaks. I don’t know why no one made one of these amalgams before.”

“Immediately, sir,” said Ms. Pascal, smartly carrying the cube of Mr. Newmann out of Wiggenstien’s office. She turned right in the hall, heels clicking, heading for the mail room.

Copyright © 2011 by Larry Strattner

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