Temper, Temper

🕔Jan 29, 2009

The bus sighed up to the stop in a cloud of dust. Outside, Ian watched the lone disembarking passenger maneuver his heavy backpack out the door. Another shmuck of a deckhand, he thought, hoping to make his fortune.
He shifted from foot to foot as the dust settled over his sweat-dampened face and arms. Leaning over, Ian swung his duffel over his shoulder and grabbed the plastic bags he’d tied his food fish up in. The driver watched him drop his coins into the box, then hopped out of his seat. “Make yourself comfortable,” he grinned, gesturing at the empty bus. “I’m gonna grab a coffee.”
He picked a two-seat bench halfway down the bus. The duffel he kicked and stomped until it squashed mostly under the seat. Dropping the fish bag on the aisle seat he flung himself over it, slid his butt over to the wall and let his legs sprawl across the seat.
Crossing his arms over his chest he took dismal notice of the unattractiveness of his fisherman’s tan: hands white to above the wrists. Not that it would matter a damn: he wasn’t exactly God’s gift to women. He flipped his phone out and started to punch up Elena’s number before he caught himself with a muttered curse. He wasn’t, he thought, going to make an absolute fool of himself. He knew Elena was never far from her phone and he knew she always checked the caller before answering. Therefore, if she hadn’t answered his last five calls, she not only wasn’t likely to answer this one, she was giving him a clear message that he’d been replaced. He slammed the phone into his pocket, re-crossed his arms, and stared out the window.
The driver thudded up the stairs, coffee mug in hand, and gave Ian a quick nod before accelerating onto the road. The thin line of alders separating the rural highway from the docks began scudding by.
This was no way to end a trip, Ian thought. Stupid skipper really owed him a ride home in the air-conditioned comfort of his truck. But the guy had whined and sniveled about how far it was, how much time it would take him to get into and across the city and then back out again, how tired he was. Ian, being a nice guy, had figured it wasn’t worth pushing him. And this was what nice got you: standing waiting for the bus for ages in the late August heat and humping all your smelly gear home on a public bus. Even though he had on his clean go-to-town T-shirt and jeans, and even though he’d showered at the camp, Ian knew that he reeked of fish and diesel and sweat.
The bus driver was making up the time he’d taken to get his coffee. The bus accelerated past the rows of refrigerated trucks near the dock, settling into a vibrating hum as the fields, mostly corn and potatoes, melted into a green blur outside the window. As they neared the city, the large fields gave way to smaller hobby farms, expensive houses surrounded by manicured lawns and tidy barns. The bus slowed and swung into the first of the suburban subdivisions, jerking to a stop. Ian admired the five teenaged girls, their midriffs showing above low-riding jeans as they clambered on. The girls dropped their money in; then, as one, they made as wide a circle around him as the confines of the bus allowed, stealing glances at him from under mascaraed eyes. Thought he was some kinda scumbag, Ian realized, listening to the whispered sniffs and giggles. He considered leering at them but decided he was too tired to bother.
The bus pulled out with a lurch before the girls were seated, eliciting screams from behind him. Back on the main road, the bus settled into its mesmerizing rumble. Ian rolled his shoulders trying to ease their tired ache. Nothing was going right. It stunk to be stuck taking the bus into the city. He hated that Elena had dumped him, even though he’d known she would.
Classes would start at the university next week, but he just didn’t feel ready to hit the books. He rubbed at his eyes; God he was tired! If they’d averaged four hours’ sleep a night this last trip, he’d be surprised. And it had been rough sleep. They’d run into gale after gale. And little in the way of fish.
The bus pulled off in front of a gated community to let three white-haired men in khaki pants and polo shirts get on. Ian wondered if their wives had taken the car, leaving the guys to get into the city on the bus. As it pulled away with a roar, the men glanced over at Ian and staggered into the front seats.
Ian shut his eyes as the bus swung around a corner directly into the afternoon sun. It began to pick up speed, but then hesitated and stopped abruptly. He sat up. The passengers were all looking out the window. He levered himself off the seat a bit to see an older woman, frowning, hurrying toward the door. He flopped back down, picking at a few random fish scales on his jeans. Even when he was sure he’d washed a pair of jeans several times, he’d still find a scale stuck somewhere.
The new passenger took a second to catch her breath at the foot of the stairs. The driver tapped his fingers on the wheel while she climbed aboard and flashed her pass at him, giving him a glare that made him stare straight out the window.
Ian watched, glad it wasn’t him catching trouble. The woman turned towards the back; Ian slouched further into the seat and closed his eyes. The woman banged against his seat as she staggered against a lurch of the bus. He opened his eyes in time to catch her look of disapproval. He did not need any further aggravation; he shut his eyes tight and considered making snoring sounds. Please, just let her just go away.
“Excuse me?”
Her voice held a sharp, ‘listen to me’ edge, like a teacher giving someone heck. Was she talking to him? He didn’t want to open his eyes to find out.
“I said, Excuse Me!” The voice persisted. “Young man, Wake Up!”
Ian sighed in defeat and opened his eyes. The glare she’d pinned on the bus driver was now focused on him.
“Your bag.”
“Pardon?” He blinked in confusion.
“Your bag, on the seat.” Her arm stretched out, gold bracelet dangling, hand high with index finger pointing at the bag of fish beside him.
Ian looked at the offending bag, then back at her. He pushed himself a little more upright.
“Yeah? What about it?”
“It’s leaking, young man. On the seat!”
He stared at her. In his mind he ran through how carefully he’d bagged those fish to make sure they wouldn’t leak. If they were leaking fish slime… He sighed, leaning forward to check. The bags were still tightly knotted at the top; the only moisture was some condensation from the ice he’d thrown in to keep the fish cold. Water droplets had run off the bag and made a tiny pool on the seat. He shook his head and flicked most of the water onto the floor.
“Just a little water.” He sighed again and slumped back in the seat.
He watched as she leaned over to inspect the seat. Like she was a policeman or something.
“Someone else will be sitting there when you get off.” Her voice gained volume.
He frowned at her, crossed his arms over his chest. What did she think he was, some kind of idiot? A little water never hurt anyone on a summer’s day. And besides, he’d brush it off when he left. What’s it to her? She wasn’t sitting in it.
“Are you listening to me?” she asked, her volume now at a level he would consider using with someone who was hard of hearing.
He nodded shortly and glanced around. Everyone was listening, waiting to see what would happen. His eyes caught one of the polo shirts two seats forward staring at him. What was with this woman? He did not need the aggravation. He just wanted to be left alone, go home, empty the hot water tank on his sore body and get some sleep. He did not want to fight with some idiot lady who thought she was mother superior to the world.
“You need to wipe it up.”
The self-righteous edge in her voice grated. He felt his face tighten and his breath shorten. Every muscle in his body tensed as he straightened up. All other conversations died. He could hear his blood pounding anger under his forehead; felt he could barely control his rage at the unfairness of her attack.
He leaned forward into her.
“Why?” The bus seemed to have turned into a silent cocoon; the road noise rushing by outside insulated them in their own capsule.
“Why?” This time he was shouting. “What is your problem?” He felt the words spit out of his mouth like pellets. “You want it wiped up? Gimme your scarf!”
The woman was wearing a splashy floral silk scarf tied artistically around her neck. Ian leaned further towards her and waved his hand imperiously. Peripherally he caught the worried glance of the driver in the wide rear-view mirror above the aisle, the eyes of the polo shirts shifting nervously between him and the woman.
She drew herself up and back, her mouth open slightly. Her hand clutched the silk scarf draped around her neck. Her face froze, then reddened as they stared each other down.
“Hemlock Street! Transfer to the Express, Fifth Street B Train, western points. Downtown!” The driver shouted the words, watching them in the mirror. He jerked the bus to an abrupt stop that forced Ian to use his outstretched hand to brace himself. The bus doors whooshed open, breaking the vacuum inside.
The woman grabbed her leather purse and stood. The polo shirts cleared their throats and nervously tugged at their pants as they shuffled off. The teenage girls giggled loudly as they clattered down the stairs.
She glared at him one more time. He glared back.
A grin slid up his face as she broke eye contact, glancing away and sidling past him to stomp down the stairs. He’d rattled her; she might think twice about gratuitously bossing someone around next time.
The driver caught his eye and shook his head warningly, rolling his eyes at the same time. Ian smiled and watched the woman on the sidewalk. She wiped a hand nervously over her face and, using her sleeve to pat at her eyes, clutched her purse strap with white knuckles. One of the polo-shirted men leaned towards her and said something. She nodded hesitantly then they both glanced back at the bus. He patted her shoulder. She wiped her eyes again.
Ian pretended not to notice her as the bus pulled back into traffic and she was left behind. Wrapped his arms protectively around his heart. Felt his euphoria weep out, a sour rinse rising in his throat.

The Terrace Writers Guild announces the winners of its 2008 creative writing contest

First Place: Temper, Temper, by Barbara Cameron of Courtney, BC. Barbara will receive $250 from UNBC and paid publication in Northword Magazine.

Second Place: Click, by Valerie Laub of Smithers, BC. Valerie will receive $200 from the Terrace Writers’ Guild.

Third Place: Ice Heart, by Angela Dorsey of Sooke, BC. Angela will receive $150 from Marion Olson of Re/Max.

Honorable Mention: We’ve Got Plans, by Catherine Hart of Terrace, BC. Catherine will receive $75 from Saz Communications.

In the words of the judges: The strengths of the four top stories lay in their ability to communicate emotional truths and provoke unique questions. All had believable characters and intriguing themes of relationship, but Temper, Temper stood out. Through a skilful combination of character, setting and plot development the author transforms a tale of ordinary people and events into a heart-thumping ride—one that lingers in the mind long after the story is over.
The Terrace Writers’ Guild thanks the other sponsors of the contest: Northword Magazine, UNBC, SAZ Communications, and Marion Olson of Re/Max.
The judges this year were Al Lehmann, Dina von Hahn, and Sarah Zimmerman.