The train, a legacy from the recent Olympic Games, got me within a few miles of my Sunday morning destination. I made the last leg of the journey on a zoo transfer. The shuttle arrived, its exterior fixed up to look like a classic safari vehicle with a painted pride of lions basking on the side.
I passed the day observing the zoo patrons more than the exhibits. The people and the surroundings all served to remind me of my alien status. America is Canada’s snub-nosed angry cousin. It’s especially raw down here in the South, different than northern towns like Grand Forks and Fargo. Those small cities seemed more like Swift Current or Saskatoon – vaguely familiar country towns. Atlanta became the place where my Canadian assumptions concerning Southern social norms were debunked.
The pine forest encircling the parking lot where I waited for the bus back to the train station reflected this sense of strangeness. Invading kudzu vines cloaked the trees in leafy green velvet, and exotic insects echoed in the clearing, creaking, “Katy did, Katy did.” I didn’t know what kind of a bug made that noise but I did know there were none of them in Northern Manitoba where I grew up. I was sure some of my co-workers back in Winnipeg would know; they had come to these equipment shows in Atlanta many times. This was my first.
When the shuttle arrived, it was the same one as before but with a new driver, a heavyset woman with tired eyes under long lashes. She double-checked the date on my MARTA pass as I boarded, flicking a curious look at me when I thanked her.
I found a window seat and settled in. At the first bus stop, we braked to pick up a woman wearing a bright yellow dress, pushing a baby stroller. Two small children followed her as if in tow. I heard the driver mutter something but could not make out what she said.
As the door opened to admit these new passengers, the bus driver shouted at the woman. Once again, I couldn’t understand what she said, but her eyes flashed with anger and her tone was certainly hostile. I felt the crawling insecurity of a stranger in a strange land.
The yellow dress woman’s face registered complete shock, and then I could see a kind of understanding grow in her eyes. All conversation stopped. The occupants included an older man and woman─seniors with a young boy who I took to be their grandson, a young couple with a boy about four years old, and an elderly woman clutching a small wire shopping caddy. And me.
The woman straightened her back and instructed her children to lift the front of the baby stroller up the bus steps. With some difficulty, they hoisted the carriage.
I hopped over to help. The mother smiled her appreciation to me, albeit with some uncertainty, as I sat back down. Then she returned her attention to the browbeating she received from the bus driver. Her demeanor changed. Eyes narrowed. She regarded the driver frigidly and shoved coins into the receptacle, then leaned down and said something in a snarling Southern accent. The children froze by her side.
After a sputtering rebuttal from the driver, the new passenger stood back and said in a haughty tone, “No… you need the Lord!”
At this, our driver drew a great breath, as did I. Deliberate as a chess master, she slid the gearshift into Park and engaged the upright handle of the emergency brake with a ratcheting staccato. After closing the accordion door, she looked squarely at me and said, “First off, I do not remember givin’ you a promotion to the rank of MARTA conductor, did I?” She held a single finger up at me, like a metronome, paused and filled with imminent movement. “Do not get involved where you got no business and do not leave your seat. It’s a safety violation. Sir.”
Confused by being drawn into their fire-fight, I felt exposed. My ears and neck went hot like a schoolboy called out in class. A second later the bus bucked forward.
Still mumbling to herself, the driver picked up the radio mic with a theatrical flourish. She put her gaze on the mirror, focusing on the yellow dress woman.
She lapsed into the sing-song, clipped lexicon of CB radio: “C’mon MARTA station. Claudette in fifty-five. Come back. Claudette in fifty-five here, over.”
The young mother settled herself and her children near me. She sat and glared at the driver in the mirror, watching the stocky woman speaking quietly into her radio microphone.
We drove on in relative calm although it was disconcerting to watch the driver. She sat hunched in her seat, her glaring attention on her adversary. She only glanced at the road when she had to. In time her attention fixed on the mother and didn’t come unstuck.
“I seen you,” the driver decreed in a loud voice, puzzling us all. The bus picked up speed on the winding residential street.
“Seen me what?” the yellow dress woman asked.
“You went to high school with my sister, Suzette. I seen you down there,” the driver said. “You were walking down there.” She poked a careless finger at distant downtown high-rises.
The grandfather stood up. “I do not care to listen to this private conversation anymore. The two of you make yourselves look like the most forlorn and wicked creatures on earth and we have heard enough!”
“Amen,” croaked the old lady with the shopping caddy.
The driver hit the gas, sending the grey-haired man thumping back down in his padded seat in the back row.
“Sit down, sir, or I may have to ask you to disembark the vehicle,” the driver shouted. The top-heavy bus squealed, now on two-wheels for all we knew, as it careened down the road.
In defiance, I too stood up. I grasped the chrome bar behind the driver to steady myself and begged for caution. “Please slow down. There are children on board.” It was my voice, but uncertain and quavering. Just be quiet! I chastised myself, feeling conspicuous once again.
My plea didn’t work. The driver held the pace and scoffed at me. “Don’t take it too far, mister. I won’t warn you again.”
My Walter Mitty thoughts of being the bold stranger who took matters into his own capable hands dissolved. I sat once more and the vinyl-clad seat wheezed in derision, mocking me.
The yellow dress woman quietly cried as the bus sped up. She shushed her children, and checked on her baby. The young lady seated behind her offered a tissue from a large handbag.
She dabbed at her kids’ wet cheeks. “I am not perfect and I’m first to admit it. But I swear the Lord wove these children in my womb, just like it says in the Psalms. They never had to want. I used to stroll down there on the Met, it’s true. But that’s behind me now.”
It had been a long speech for her and she shuddered with emotion, sniffing and coughing a bit. The bus slowed.
Rising now, her body swayed slightly. “I’m not proud, but I can’t take it back. This little one comes out of that time in my life and she is fine. I never seen a better baby for feeding or sleeping, so I know she’s healthy.”
It seemed like she wanted to say more but she stopped. I think we all imagined more as we looked at her, standing in front of us, grasping a dangling leather loop next to her head. We rode on in silence save for the hum of the air conditioner. Beneath us, a stone stuck in a tire tread clattered on the macadam. Like “Wheel of Fortune,” its clicking cadence now in retard.
“My name is Claudette,” the driver said after a long pause. “I had a Metro route a few years back, and I saw you sometimes around the Parkway. I knew who you were and what you were doing. I remembered you from school, see? So, when I saw you and your kids today, and you in that dress, I got pissed, you know” She paused, her eyes wide and searching in the mirror. “Like, I was scared y’all was goin’ down there today with them kids… workin’.”
The bus slowed to a roll and I heard children playing as we passed an outdoor public pool. For a second, I smelled chlorine.
“I’m Flora,” the yellow dress woman said. Then, seeming to surprise herself she added, “I’m long ago through with the Parkway.” Her son took her hand and she added, “I never did that; I never brought my kids along. Others might have, but I never. And besides,” Flora said, her voice strengthening, “don’t you know that those who did bring ’em – they never had no choice? Believe me.”
Claudette nodded and we continued on in silence for a minute or so.
Flora resumed her seat. “Listen, I’m sorry, everybody. Please forgive me.” She scanned the mirror, her eyelashes up and down, up and down, like the wings of a Painted Lady.
She nodded at Claudette in the mirror and then turned to stare at the older fellow who had spoken up. She let the weight of her gaze rest on him for a few extra beats, then lifted her chin a bit and turned her back.
“Okay. Now, Flora, you listen to me,” Claudette said. “I’m letting you off here ‘cuz I sent a security code – when I say the words fifty-five on the radio, that’s a secret code that means, ‘alarm’ and they are gonna have alerted the MARTA police. Cops’ll be waitin’ for us at the station.” She turned down the air conditioner fan. “I was gonna teach you a lesson, understand? I see now that you shouldn’t have to answer to them like you already answered to me, an’ I’m sorry for that. So, Flora, you and your kids get off here and catch a regular city bus. Should be one soon.” She swung a hand lever and the door folded open. “I’ll just tell ‘em at the station that I got mixed up or what not.”
With the shuttle parked, the driver stood up and turned to face us. She was built like a down lineman, hands on her hips, her polished nails in bright contrast to her navy-blue uniform pants. “Everybody good with that?” Tear streaks marred her rouged cheeks.
No one disagreed. She nodded at the older gentleman in the back. “We good?”
He stared at her, tilted his head and placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder and answered her in a low voice. “We’re good.”
“Alright, man!” she pointed a bedazzled nail at me. “You able to help Miss Flora get them kids all in order down there on the sidewalk?”
I rose immediately, glad at the chance for redemption.
“That’s fine,” she said. “And for you being so Christian, I won’t report your earlier misbehaviour, distracting the driver an’ all. Alright with you?”
I was about to speak when from behind me came a startling noise. The young father had stamped his shoe on the floor of the bus.
“No. That’s not how this ends.” He looked back at his wife. Their young son sat on the woman’s lap. The little boy’s red, wet face reminded me of how terrifying all this must be for him: the adults shouting and the bus swerving down the road, now his father in a rage.
“Stay on the bus please, Miss.” He gestured at Flora. Then he half-turned to the passengers. “I think we should all make a complaint against this bus driver. She’s irresponsible and I don’t think she should be driving a van with children in it. Or driving at all for that matter. She risked our damn lives.”
Then he jabbed his finger at me. “You were right to tell her to slow down.”
I didn’t like the hard look the driver shot at me. We had suffered enough with this issue. No sooner had a truce been called than he broke it.
“Jason, please.” His wife grabbed the back of his shirt.
“Leave us out of it,” the tall grandfather rumbled from the back of the bus.
Flora rolled her eyes.
The driver spun around in a rage to get back into her seat. In that same moment the young man lunged by her to grab the keys from the ignition.
“Not again.” He huffed. “You won’t put us in danger again.” He butted against her in his haste, knocking her off balance.
She staggered and stumbled down the steps. She fell on her back and struck her head on the sidewalk. Sprawled half in the open doorway, halfway outside, her eyes were shut and I wasn’t sure if she was conscious.
The children wailed and the older woman behind me screeched, “Stop it, stop it!”
Flora peered down at Claudette, then back at me. “Use the radio. Call for help.” She checked her children then took one step towards the door. As she did, two gunshots sounded.
The windshield exploded. It sprayed kernel-corn pieces of glass. A third shot tore a blooded hole in the young father’s shirt sleeve. He screamed.
The air reeked of gunpowder. Strangely familiar to me, it was like firecrackers.
“Fucker,” Claudette screamed from the sidewalk. Her raised arm stood straight out, aiming a silver handgun at Jason. “You don’t knock me down. Thas assault. You don’t tell me nothin’. I run this bus. It’s a safe bus.”
Holding his wounded arm and wriggling down in the driver seat, Jason tried to hide behind Flora who lay slumped across the transmission hump in the centre of the dash. Head down, eyes closed, Flora did not move.
I could just see the fallen bus driver. Beyond her, a man watered his lawn. He threw down the hose and ran stiff-legged to his front door, water flowing down the white driveway, darkening it like spilled oil.
“Bastard. Goddamn bastard gonna take my keys, gonna jack my bus.” Spittle caked on Claudette’s lips and her MARTA hat lay on the concrete behind her. “He tried to kill me, he tried to kill me,” she bellowed from the curb, squirming to hike herself up as she kept the nickel-plated gun pointed in Jason’s direction. One of her pants pockets was turned inside out and her neck glistened from a dripping gash on the back of her head. She strained to see Jason behind Flora’s inert body.
I crouched, terrified and motionless. Bound, incapable of movement, my thoughts plodded. I did not breathe. Jason’s wife stepped by me fast and sure. I saw the glint of something in her hand. She shot three times in rapid succession. The blasts were deafening in the tight compartment. The fabric of Claudette’s starched shirt jumped as the slugs slammed into her chest. A second later dark red florets showed like port wine on a white tablecloth.
The scene in front of me might as well have swung around like it was filmed with a hand-held camera. A sense of vertigo overcame me. I felt like I was slipping backwards and down a deep hole, falling away beneath the chaos. My mouth went dry. I could taste the acrid gunpowder tang in my throat.
Beneath the clamour of the children, my ears rang from the shots. I realized that I was clenching the leg of my bench seat so tightly that my wrist ached. I released my grip, rubbing feeling back into my palm.
The young woman adjusted something on her gun and put it back in her purse. The click of her handbag closure, sharp as a finger snap, brought me out of my trance. She held up her cell phone, flipped open the mouthpiece, and dialled. Her hand trembled as she waited for the call to be answered. Her son stood against her, his small arms ringing her thigh.
“Nine-one-one? I want to report an incident on Hill Street Southeast. Yes, near the pool, not far from the zoo. We need an ambulance. There are three gunshot victims, one fatality, or maybe two. One assailant. Yes, I think she’s dead. Just a second,” she held her free hand over the phone. “Jason, it’s over now. We’re going to be alright.”
Afterwards, I sat in the night heat, resting on the bumper of an EMS van. I inhaled a Marlboro that a police officer had given me. Hadn’t smoked in years. American tobacco, smells like a cigar.
With residual guilt, I cupped the cigarette in my hand to hide it, thinking oddly of a long-ago hockey trip to Warroad in Minnesota.
The police detective, a man named Granger, came back with more questions. He wore a crumpled suit and a matter of fact attitude. Squad car lights flashed and “Do Not Cross” police tape encircled us. It felt like we were on a cop show soundstage, running our lines.
“So, you mind if I review, once more?” he asked, palms up like a set of scales.
“Suppose so,” I said. Insects chirped, a droning, constant background chorus coming from dark concealment in the surrounding forest.
“The driver, she gets knocked down the steps by the man, Jason Drury, and then…” the detective reached in his jacket for a pen and paused, allowing me to complete his sentence.
“A lot happened at once and then there were shots. I kind of blanked out.”
“Okay, no problem. So, then the driver, Claudette, she’s down on the sidewalk yelling and then what?”
“The guy, his name is Jason, right? He’s flattened out in the driver’s seat, trying to hide behind poor Miss Flora,”
“The woman in the yellow dress?”
I nodded, exhausted. I had gone through this several times. My gut clenched as I recalled the tall woman falling forward, limp. “Yeah. Say, listen, sir,” I said slowly. “I can’t think straight anymore, and we’ve covered this plenty, right?” It’s this heat – so muggy. I’m built for the cold.
He flipped shut his spiral bound notebook. “Sure, you’ve been helpful.” He clicked his pen.
“Thanks. But, one question. I’ve just been wondering,” I said. “The guns were both legal?”
“They each had legal carry and conceal permits, yes,” he said. “Y’all from England, right?”
“Canada, actually,” I corrected him. “We have guns too, eh, but not so many handguns. I’d never heard a pistol, you know, shoot, before tonight.” God, it was loud.
“That right? Canada? Okay.” He clicked again and made a note.
My ears still hurt from the gunshots. The Detective paused, drawing himself up and rolling his shoulders. “Yeah, those two guns were legal. And, between you and me, I doubt Mrs. Drury will be charged. She did it all by the book, protecting her family.”
I took a last hot drag. I thought of her making the 9-1-1 call, tending to her husband and calmly settling her son in the aftermath. By the book.
“You know, that older fellow on the bus?” Detective Granger said. “He had a handgun too. A Glock in a holster under his cardigan. Also legal. But, maybe this is a good thing. He forgot to load it. He had it unloaded because his grandchild was with them for the weekend.”
The detective shrugged. He pointed at his car. “I can give you a ride. You ready?”
I stood unsteady from the tobacco. In my mind, I saw the grandfather drawing his pistol. Click. Click. The horrible realization. I could see it as a reel of film and then imagined the result.
The detective gave me a grim little look. I noticed grey hairs in his eyebrows, deep creases at the corners of his eyes and sweat on his forehead. “Yeah, tonight was not great,” he said. “Odd too. Two female shooters.” He looked at me, pocketing his notebook. “And tonight we had one female deceased, maybe two – I sure hope Miss Flora makes it. Bullets don’t see gender or race or nationality. That much I’ve learned. Bullets don’t know right and wrong.” Granger patted his hip, finding his keys.
We walked, his leather soles slapping on the pavement, breaking the evening silence as if to signal the end of the event. The insects grew louder as we left the scene.
“Katy did, Katy didn’t,” Granger said, mimicking the amplified refrain from the Georgia woods – a hung jury arguing this or some older unknown crime.
Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin. His writing has appeared in a variety of English language literary journals in Canada, the UK, and the US. Details at his website, Mitchellaneous.com
Mitch is currently at work on a novel set in the noireal forest. He’s also stubbing his bare pedal digits on a screenplay adaptation for a trilogy of his about three fishermen’s lives on the Pacific coast, 1955-1976.