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Getting On, fiction by Dan Carpenter

The jingle jangle mornings, I called them. They’re long gone now. So are we, Estelle and I and just about all the others. We weren’t youngsters back then, and the city-suburban bus was already near the end of its road right along with us. We could tell by the fewer and fewer buses, the fewer and fewer passengers, the whole feeling of a way of living that had gotten raggedy and slow and ready to be swept into a dustpan to make way for something brighter, something cleaner. Folks had cars. Old folks were in old folks’ homes. If you were too poor to get around on your own and didn’t have people to help you, you were just hanging on, far as transportation went. 

By 1975, a bus that would take you in and out of Indianapolis, to and from Greenfield and Shelbyville and New Palestine and the like, to visit or do your shopping or, like us, get to a job, was a relic, and looked it, and sounded it. Old castoff city buses, not like the nice smooth Greyhounds, with hard seats you slid around in and no springs far as a body could tell, bouncing up with every chuckhole on that pitiful worn-out US 40, brakes squealing like a pig at slaughter with every stop on that highway that started as a city street, and turned into a near-empty road now that the interstate was open two miles north. Up front with the driver, somehow making itself heard above it all, was the fare box with the little shiny set of tubes full of coins for making change. Like little bells, they’d sound off.

Rattle and squeak, thump and groan. And jingle jangle. That’s from a song we heard one day from this young fellow’s transistor radio. “In the jingle jangle morning . . .” I didn’t know one of those new tunes from the next; I hadn’t paid any attention to music since I’d danced with Roger to Norman Archibald and his All-Stars at the Indiana Roof as a bride. I couldn’t even remember the names of those songs. I was having a harder and harder time remembering that life at all. But here was a snatch that stayed in my head. “Jingle jangle morning, following you.” So catchy and yet so . . . sorrowful, it seemed like. A singer not letting himself just enjoy life. A song he made sure you couldn’t dance to, even if the rest of it was about dancing.

For who knows what reason, it came to be my little pep talk on the bad days, when I’d stand at that bus stop so tired from the day before I’d about have to lean against the pole to keep my knees from buckling under me. I always brought a big canvas bag of my own cleaning supplies because the lady of the house kind of expected it, and some mornings I’d have to rear back and heave it up the bus steps ahead of me. The drivers would just chuckle about it, but Estelle hated to see it, I could tell. She got on a few stops ahead of me and always patted the seat next to her as if to let me decide each day whose company I wanted to keep. When the driver and Estelle asked how I was, I might say “Fine & dandy” or “First rate, praise the Lord,” which they counted on. Or I might say “Another jingle jangle morning,” which could go either way. 

The drivers, then. Bill and Virgil were their names. They split the duties about even. When you got Bill, you heard lots of complaining about the sorry state of the world and its young people in particular, but you never felt like he was all that bothered by it. Just enjoyed hearing himself. He was old, close to our age, retired from Greyhound, soon to retire altogether. He’d pass the time trying to be funny. He’d say things like “And my wife wonders why I drink of a night!” That was meant as a comment on his passengers, I guess. Estelle and I never quite got the joke, and that made him smile all the more.

Virgil was a considerably younger man, maybe forty or so. He was slim, with short brown hair combed straight back, much different than Bill’s wild white mop. Virgil wore the grey uniform shirt tight to his shoulders, and his shoulders were about all we’d see in an hour’s ride. It made you feel kind of like nobody, but it was also a relief from the way Bill would constantly talk over his shoulder at us while the traffic, what little there was, rumbled by.

Virgil didn’t talk except to answer a direct question. Virgil kept his attention on the road, and Virgil whistled. Whistled and whistled, high and pretty near but not quite ear-piercing, no particular tune but just tweets leaping up and tweets swooping low like a bird letting loose with its own secret language. A lone bird, and content to be. Estelle asked Bill one morning why Virgil seemed so cheerful all the time. Bill laughed and threw back his head. “Virgil,” he said, “has got himself a red-headed gal like nobody’s business.” 

A second wife, it turned out. Younger. Bill very much enjoyed filling us in, we could tell. He took longer-than-usual looks at his audience, and finally shouted out, “Am I making you blush, ladies?” I assumed he meant that there’s but one reason a man is set to whistling at work with a new wife, and I wasn’t going to take the bait. 

“Now why would we be blushing, Bill?” I asked, my chin in the air. 

He just gave a big “Huh!” and returned to his steering wheel. I have to admit I couldn’t get visions of Virgil’s home life out of my head; but mostly, I felt myself filling up with the strongest feelings about Roger I could remember having in near twenty years. Since the funeral. I was not a young wife when that crane collapsed fifteen minutes before his shift was to have ended. I had been one. I had been the brown-haired girl that nobody noticed, the one who never understood how this handsome fellow, this man of moods, wanted her and only her.

We “met,” you might say, when we were kids. We grew up together. We talked all the time, pretty much like girls or guys do with each other, I had no idea he had any idea . . . Well, really, I didn’t even know what these feelings were that I had, and as far as I could tell he thought of me as his little sister. It was after high school, when we both were working at the A&P, that he finally asked me on a date. It wasn’t six months after that he went off to the war. We had done no more than kiss by then, but we both knew we would get married if he came back alive. 

He came back alive, and in one piece. In body, anyway. His mind wasn’t the same. He wasn’t so much changed as he was – deeper inside himself. It was always hard for him to find words, and after the things he saw over there, and tried to tell me about, it was like he made up his mind to live a normal life and be a husband to me in every way but that one thing he couldn’t manage, conversation. And I was sure going to be a wife to him. I prayed to Jesus to help me make our bed enough for a man’s happiness. It absolutely broke my heart we couldn’t have kids. The doctor said it was me, not Roger; but I know down deep he never resented me for it. To be honest, I think he was afraid of being a father anyway. Me, I cried from time to time for years by myself. But now, with another war, with this Vietnam, I give thanks I don’t have a son to give the bastards. 

For seven years, I sent this man off to work, sometimes with the words I waited for, sometimes with a kiss, always with all I asked for, the clear sight of him in my mind, dirty and beat and back home again. Then one afternoon, the phone rang at quarter to three. And he was gone. 

“It’s disgusting,” Estelle was saying, barely above a whisper.

I turned to her, my reverie over with. “Hm?”

“I just think that kind of talk has no place in polite company. Men are such little boys, such animals. Don’t you agree?”

The bus collided with a bump in the road, sending both of us a foot off our seats.

“They are . . . men,” I replied.

Estelle was widowed as well, recently so. She’d been a secretary all through her marriage and never learned to drive. With her husband no longer around to chauffeur her, and her two children grown and gone, she was determined to stay at her workplace, and so she was on the bus. She hated it. She’d been riding only a few months; I expected to see her for a few more, at most. 

“Well,” she said, “the men I have known would keep such thoughts to themselves, if they had them to begin with. My husband, like his father and my father, knew how to be a gentleman.”

This was not new to me, Estelle’s dislike for the chatter from Bill, the loose language between him and the young working men who rode from time to time. I tried to humor her, partly to make her feel less lonely in her nice cashmere coat, partly to keep her from thinking less of me in my grimy old parka.

“There are gentlemen in this world, for certain,” I said. “Maybe more than we realize.”

“It requires a good woman to know one,” she offered. 

“I guess so,” I said. But I found my mind wrestling with that one. I couldn’t remember ever thinking of Roger as a gentleman. It seemed like such a public, put-on thing. Nice clothes. Good grammar. Fingernails and knuckles that aren’t busted up from hauling and hammering out in the cold. 

Maybe I wasn’t a good woman if I never wanted for a gentleman. But here’s what I always knew of Roger – he was gentle. With me he was always gentle, even when he said so little, when he seemed far away.

Estelle was done with talking. She leaned her face to the window, taking in the sorry scene of rundown motels and trashy vacant lots and mobile homes with dead cars sitting in front. The bus vibrated to the point that conversation would have been too much trouble anyway, the coin containers up front ringing in our ears like tambourines. Soon we stopped, in front of Washington Park Cemetery, and a thickset man wearing a threadbare peacoat and work shoes crusted with mud made his exit, as usual. He never spoke, this fellow. He was about the only one, of those few we saw every day, whose name we didn’t know. 

“I never caught it either,” Bill said when I asked. “You know why he gets off here?”

A long pause.

“He digs graves.”

The look back over the shoulder again. 

“Honest work,” I said. Without thinking. Without feeling. 

Estelle kept her eyes on the passing view as she added: “Yes, Bill. And maybe he’s got one just for you.”

Bill was not about to get caught short so easy. He was, as my dad used to say, one of those people you just can’t insult.

“I reckon so,” he said. “I figure this will be home for the lot of us. Hey, maybe that’s why ol’ Virgil whistles when he goes by here. You reckon? No, no, got to be something else, right, ladies?”

“Can’t imagine what that might be,” I said. “Not for the life of me.”

He turned back to his windshield, laughing as if we’d just saved his morning.

“No hope for y’all,” he cried. “I done my best.”

“That you have,” I said. “You can tell your wife not to wonder.”

My stop was coming up. I grabbed for my bag with both hands and hoisted it onto my shoulder as I stood up and told Estelle to have a nice day. I staggered up the aisle while the bus was slowing down, and let those coins sing to me over the air brakes and whatever it was Bill was noising about. Such a piddling amount of money, I said to myself as I stepped down onto the gravel driveway to my customer’s fine big house, a long day’s work. Some morning, some morning not far off, is going to be the last.

public domain photo credit: Jack E. Boucher

Dan Carpenter is a freelance journalist, poet, fiction writer, essayist and blogger, residing in Indianapolis. He has published stories, poems, and essays in many journals and is the author of two books of poems and two of non-fiction.