by Ken Keegan
Music was in the air tonight. The few students left on campus before the Thanksgiving four day weekend seemed to be in no hurry to leave. The regular campus shuttle buses were running until midnight and one of the bus drivers, Danny, was listening to music and driving the West Core route that took him to the hidden recesses of this beautiful university. His passengers, so far, had been pretty quiet and most were just sitting back and enjoying the ride and the "classic rock" music. A few even sang along with the tunes they recognized. One of Danny's favorite things to do was to create mixes on a CD that the students would enjoy and tonight his eclectic musical choices had seemed to resonate with his passengers. This made Danny smile. After all, this was their parents' music and Danny was constantly amazed at the musical knowledge that these students possessed. The Beatles were a universal love and spanned all ethnic groups and economic backgrounds. The students, as Danny discovered, enjoyed a lot of the same artists that he did. A Beach Boys song would usually be included in the mix as well as some Hendrix, The Who, The Rolling Stones and even some comedy tossed in. The lighthearted and facetious school mascot song was always a hit.
When Danny pulled into the West Remote parking lot a few minutes before his scheduled departure time, he decided that this was a good opportunity to change discs. After opening the door and putting the bus in park, he unzipped his CD carrier case and his eyes came to rest on one he had titled "Magic Bus". It seemed to be the right one for tonight's atmosphere. It began with some cheesy unearthly sound effects and then the voice of a noted FM disc jockey in the 1970's in New York began her offbeat, "twilight zone" style monologue about space and time, inviting listeners to "come fly with me, Allison Steele, the Nightbird".
Danny closed the doors and checked his mirrors before his flight with "the Nightbird" could begin. He apparently had not noticed a passenger get on as he thought he saw a figure in the back but when he turned the lights on, no one was there. Shadows playing tricks on his eyes or just some haunting spirits having a little fun with a tired driver, Danny thought as he laughed to himself. An old Moody Blues song, "Go Now", was the first song and Danny complied with the suggestion. As he slowly drove through the two-lane parking lot, he thought about the conversation with Patti Bowler, a fellow driver, that they had during their dinner break.
It had been mostly about their new schedules but Patti had said some strange things about Eric, her husband. He had been talking about his recent dream and how he believed that the dead spoke to us in dreams or when we were very relaxed.
Patti liked to listen to the strange call-in shows at night that spoke about spirits and UFO's and conspiracies and dreams. Danny always asked her what the guest was selling and reminded her that most of these guys were fakes and just out to make a buck.
Patti was just curious by nature and Danny was a New York cynic. They got along well despite these differences and now Patti was all freaked out because Eric was getting his guilt dreams again. They had started a relationship while being involved with other people and Eric was dreaming about his old friend who had died less than a year ago. The recently departed friend was singing songs to him while he slept.
Patti said he enjoyed it while sleeping but when he awoke the guilt would set in. Patti said he was the guy she was with when she met her husband. Patti said that he had been hurt at first but they had stayed good friends. She never had dreams like that and just hoped that Eric wouldn't fall back into his old bad habits with drugs like before.
Danny knew Eric and reassured Patti that her husband was a good strong man and knew what he had. Patti had smiled at Danny then and told him that aliens were arriving next week anyway, so she wasn't going to worry about it anymore.
Danny laughed and asked her when and where was this going to happen.
She said the guest could only say that it would be in Southern California on November twenty ninth in the afternoon.
Danny agreed that this was pretty specific information and would wait until next Thursday before he would make fun of her.
She said she appreciated that.
"Hey, P.B.," Danny said nodding to the window, "Pretty quiet out there tonight, huh?"
Patti turned around to look out the window.
"Yeah, pretty much, but I did get that class change rush at the beginning of the shift. How about you?" she said finishing off her coffee and tossing the empty, crushed cup over Danny's shoulder and into the garbage can behind him.
Danny smiled and applauded her shot, giving her a gentle high five as he nodded.
"Yeah, but that's pretty much it. I'll bet I don't reach one hundred and fifty passengers for the whole night."
"... Especially if the fog rolls in like they're predicting. It's going to be like Halloween all over again," Patti said as she stood up to put on her coat to get back to work. She was referring to the thick fog on that bewitching night about four weeks ago. Visibility had been down to about twenty five feet in front of the buses and deer sightings were frequently being broadcast over the bus drivers' bandwidth. No deer were hit that night which was a minor miracle. No students, either.
Danny took his time as the fog thickened, his foot often poised over the brake in case something or someone suddenly appeared out of the mist. He passed Oakes and College Eight and turned up towards Porter where he followed the winding, desolate road behind Kresge and past the Trailer Park and North Remote lot. He made the left towards Science Hill, flicked his left blinker at a passing Metro bus and also at P.B. as she passed him going the opposite way. As he drove past the protest site of the tree sitters, he beeped his horn three times as a show of support for the environmentalists who were trying to prevent a one hundred and twenty acre massacre of redwood trees for corporate development research buildings. Danny thought he should get more involved in the near future. They were taking a stand to keep the campus beautiful and Danny admired their grit and integrity. Hopefully, the Regents will listen to these voices and keep the values and vision of the university founders intact. He heard the group singing songs and thought they were on the right track. All you need is love, baby!
Danny drove into the Quarry Plaza bus area with time enough to smoke half a cigarette and then he was on his way again. Danny left right on time and passed the Classroom Unit One stop just after eleven and headed towards McHenry Library. A voice from the back of the bus startled him out of his revelry. My sweet lord, is this guy trying to give me a heart attack, he thought? Danny looked in the mirror. He could barely see a hooded figure in the dark.
"Sorry to scare you, man. Just wanted to let you know that I'll be on the bus until the West Remote parking lot," the voice said. Danny noticed a slight accent. Irish? English? He wasn't sure but either way, it had a sweet, lilting tone and a friendly feel to it. Danny smiled as he looked in the mirror as a Monty Python song ended. McHenry Library was closed and no one was at the bus stop. The voice commented on the recent song.
"Funny stuff," he said. "I like them."
"So, you know Monty Python?" Danny asked the young stranger. Most students didn't or thought they were silly.
"Very silly people are usually the smartest and kindest folks, I think," he said reading my mind. "I know the group well." He then got serious. "My father was a bus driver and me and my friends used to ride around on buses working on our songs. Do you like driving buses?" he asked Danny. "It seems like it can get boring."
Danny paused to think about it. No one ever asked him that question.
"I don't think I would enjoy it driving in a city but here I just like driving around the campus, listening to the music, enjoying the deer and the scenery and talking to students like you," Danny replied. "Are you a musician or is the guitar just for looking cool?"
The laughter from the back of the bus was free and easy. It was like a sparkle of light on this dim night.
"A little from column A...and a little from column B," he chortled. "It's definitely a good way to meet girls!"
." Are you a musician?" Danny asked him.
"I play a little guitar," the passenger said with a smile in his voice. "How about you?"
Danny laughed. "Oh, yeah," he said grinning, "I play the radio and a mean Ipod!"
The bus made the left at Kerr Hall and headed toward the Arts section of the campus. Performing Arts, Baskin Arts, Media Arts and through the parking lot to the music center.
"Well, you do it quite well and you do have a knack for putting songs together on a CD. You are doing a good thing educating the students about musical language without all the school pressure of grades and competition." The hooded figure paused momentarily. "I recognize this Dylan song," the passenger continued, "but who's covering it?"
Danny smiled at the eyes in the mirror. "That's the Box Tops singing 'I Shall be Released' a song Dylan's group, The Band, used to play all the time. I like to mix things up sometimes. I like to experiment with new stuff. Y'know what I mean?"
"Absolutely," he answered, "I think once you stop looking, you start dying. Besides, everything is transitory". He closed his eyes and languished in the music playing. Danny saw he already had laugh lines at the corner of his eyes and wondered if he was a re-entry student who were usually older than the norm. "I like Dylan," his passenger said, returning to the music that was playing, "he turned a lot of people on to new ways of thinking and he has the courage to do the right thing, the new thing, without worrying about the popularity of it all."
The song was ending and there was a comfortable silence. Danny almost expected his passenger to move up closer to talk easier but the figure remained huddled in the back of the bus.
"Do you have any classes here?" Danny asked him as they passed the music building.
"Nah," he said, "but sometimes I play along with the students when they're playing near here."
"A little collaboration, huh?" Danny said, smiling. "I love it when musicians just start jamming. It's just really cool to listen and watch as they take little chaotic sounds and mold it into some kind of harmony and common beat and move along to an unknown end together."
There was no response and an Elvis Costello song started but began to skip. Danny liked "Sleep of the Just" but rather than figure out what quirky thing was happening with his CD player, he went on to the next song. It was the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".
The fog had gotten thicker and Danny drove carefully and slowly toward the next stop. He passed the opulent residence of the Chancellor's house and headed toward the main road. He waited at the stop sign, looked both ways and slowly made a left towards the Porter/College Eight stop.
"I love this song," the voice from the back of the bus said. Danny looked in the mirror and saw his passenger reaching for the guitar case. "Do you mind if I play along with it?" the hooded figure said as he began to tune the guitar.
"I'd love to hear you play," Danny said with enthusiasm, "Live music beats recorded tunes easily! Do you want me to lower the volume?"
"Nah, it's fine. I'll just play along."
Danny caught the image in his mirror of bushy eyebrows above gentle eyes in the brief light of the passing bus stop. They were approaching the Family Student Housing stop when Danny glimpsed some movement out of the corner of his eye. To the left, forms of deer began to emerge from the fog heading into the path of the bus and Danny slowed to a stop to let them pass. The big buck paused at the curb to sniff at an errant tennis ball that lay in the street which gave time for the mother deer and two fawns to cross. The mother deer stopped right in front of the bus, silhouetted in the bus's headlights and stared at Danny as the two fawns scampered past her to safety.
Danny stuck his head out the window.
"It's all right, momma, all the kiddies are safe. You can go now."
The deer looked at the human in the big white machine and turned her head to the ares where she had just come from. Danny quickly got on the radio when he saw the lights from another bus heading up on the other side.
"DH to all drivers on the west side... there are deer in the road between Oakes and Porter...be alert!" he said into the handheld microphone.
The voice in the back continued to sing softly along with the song and rose suddenly as the approaching headlights outlined the form of another fawn emerging from the fog starting to stroll into the oncoming bus's path. The lights immediately stopped moving and the fawn crossed safely between the mother deer and the bus. The mother deer seemed to look at Danny before continuing across the road. He thought that was pretty neat. A silent thanks. The car behind the bus beeped its horn impatiently and, without missng a beat, his passenger gave that driver the one fingered salute. Danny appreciated the gesture.
"Good heads up, DH!" Patti's voice crackled over the radio. "I never would have seen that little one!"
"Divine intervention, PB! I can't take credit."
"Copy that. The cop behind you doesn't seem to appreciate your heroism, though. He's really glaring at you for something! Did you cut him off or what?" his counterpart said as he passed her giving her a nose salute.
"Ask me later, PB. Only one more loop to go!"
"Copy that. See you at base."
Danny paused to make an exaggerated stop at the Oakes intersection stop sign to make sure the cop couldn't find an excuse to ticket him and, pretty much to just irk the cop in that lovely passive-aggressive manner Danny had. In his side mirror he could see the face of the cop and recognized him as one of the cops who had beaten some of the students with batons at the protest. Danny recognized him because his face stood out because he seemed to enjoy striking the unarmed students. Danny rolled very slowly toward the West Remote parking lot entrance and turned in to the lot with extreme caution. The cop, he saw was seething with rage and practically gunned his engine when he could pass the bus. Danny hoped that Mother Nature was calling urgently to the cop to relieve himself. That would have been perfect karma in an instant
The song was ending and Danny watched the figure put his guitar away.
"West Remote Parking, dude," Danny announced as he arrived at the stop. The driver put the bus in park, checked the time and flicked the switch to open the door. As the lights came on he reached for his cup of coffee and began to tell the rider to watch his head getting out and turned to get a look at his passenger in the light.
The bus was empty.
No one was there. Danny saw a folded up sweatshirt on the back seat. He got out the driver's door, his stomach doing flip flops and a chill running down his spine, and got on through the passenger door and headed to the back of the bus. The seat cushion was still indented with the imprint of a recently seated person but it soon returned to its original form. He could smell a faint aroma of patchouli and sweat and cannabis in the air. When he looked down again, he noticed something sticking out from between the seats. He pulled out a ticket stub and a guitar pick. He nodded to himself. "Magic Bus", for sure, he thought and picked up the sweatshirt. He brought it up front and placed it on the floor next to his seat. After getting back in the driver's seat, he began the last loop of the night. That really was something, Danny thought to himself as the Traveling Wilburys' song came on as he drove out of the parking lot and back up the hill. The fog seemed to be lifting and Danny could see the full moon begin to reappear in the cool night sky.
Danny came home to a darkened house except for the porch light and a dimly lit kitchen. He put his bag down on the table and quietly opened the bedroom door where his wife lay sleeping serenely. He moved softly to her and kissed her gently. She stirred and turned towards him, smiling.
"How was work, sweetie?" she whispered as she reached up for a hug.
"Good," she said as she turned over and went back to sleep.
Before Danny started his unwinding process, he went and checked on his three boys. Paul and Richie were sleeping in their bunkbeds and Johnny was sound asleep in his own bed. He smiled and thought that maybe their new haircuts weren't that bad. He ruffled Johnny's moptop hair softly and wished them all golden slumbers silently.
In the computer room, he sat down with his reheated decaf coffee and checked for new email. He sat there fingering the guitar pick with the initials "GH" scratched into it and Googled the date of the concert ticket stub and nodded to himself when the results of the "August 1971 MSG concerts" came on screen. He felt the insignia on his new sweatshirt and the stitched letters of "Dark Horse" and then saw an IM appear on his computer screen.
"Hope you enjoyed the music," it said. It disappeared quickly but the message had the messenger listed simply as "G".
Most amazing, though, was the fact that Danny had no IM service.
He then reached for his flute and blew a few notes. It sounded a lot like "One Fine Day" and Danny thought that it sure had been one. He put down the flute, shut off the computer and downed the last bit of coffee. He shut off the light and went to his bedroom.
A few minutes later, muffled laughter and pleasurable grunts could be heard coming from the room.
© 2008 Ken Keegan
E-mail: Ken Keegan
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