When the brakes failed, Claire did not panic. Later, describing the accident—which she was asked to do an ungodly number of times—she insisted on her level-headed, calm reaction. Cool under fire, grace under pressure, all that crap. No panic. She did everything as she had been taught in bus-driver school. She pumped the brake pedal all the way down, twice, three times. She shifted into third and then into second and got ready to shift further down. All the while muttering under her breath, first, reverse, like a prayer. Or a curse.
But then the idiot motorcyclist weaved into the HOV lane, right in front of the bus, not signaling, just darting from between rows of moving cars, hugely illegal. And at the same instant traffic swelled and slowed. With working brakes, it wouldn’t have been anything more than a normal commute.
With the motorcycle in the mix, everything happened at once: Claire flicked on her hazards and leaned on the horn, kept pumping on the brakes, wrestled the gear down into first, cranked the wheel hard to the left, repeating “Reverse, reverse.” But she couldn’t get the gear to go there.
“I can’t stop,” she said in a voice she didn’t recognize as her own, a high-pitched, “hysterical” voice, as passengers would describe it at the trial.
The man in the seat behind her stood up and said, “We’re gonna hit him.”
Not a crash so much as a crunch, a crunch that went on and on, through the motorcycle and into the concrete median. Claire was driving twenty tons of metal and motion and it pushed through the median into the on-coming lanes, into multiple cars. It was only when enough broken concrete and twisted metal jammed the wheels that the bus came to a creaking, smoking stop. Too late to save the motorcyclist, too late to save Claire from all that would unfold from this single, horrific event.
Not a “single event,” more like a singularity in one of those Sci-Fi movies her brother liked to watch. It was a cascading, downward spiral of events. Everything before the accident took on greater significance. Things like not getting pregnant despite her and Adam giving it their all. Her mother’s death. Even the shots of Tequila she’d had at midnight, six hours before her fatal morning shift began. Which, in isolation, would have been fine, or under the radar, in any case.
The end of her marriage was on the list, too. What time the previous evening had Adam walked out on her? She’d been stone-cold sober then. Nine-thirty? Ten-thirty? They’d been arguing. They always argued. But this time Adam stood up, stretched and yawned as though he might announce that he was off to bed, and said, “That’s it, Claire. I’m not sticking around for any more of your bullshit.”
Had it not been for the accident, they would have worked it out. They always had before.
The accident was at the core of everything else wrong in her life. And it was, as Claire kept insisting, not her fault.
The motorcyclist hadn’t even been killed, just paralyzed. Wasn’t that thanks to her?
When she had told her lawyer as much, he winced. “’Just paralyzed?’ For God’s sake, don’t say that out loud in court.” He sighed. He straightened his papers. He didn’t look at her. He was about Claire’s age, pushing forty, and he didn’t wear a wedding band, the sort of thing Claire always noticed, though he wasn’t the sort of man she found remotely interesting. Starched and humorless. “You need to show remorse for what you did.”
Claire could have climbed over the table and punched him in the face. “I didn’t do this.” Her jaw, so tightly clenched it was hard to spit the words out. “The brakes failed. They should make a movie about it. I’m like that guy who landed the jet on a river.”
He grimaced and said, “Except Sully, the pilot—” But instead of explaining further, he leaned back and waved a hand as though clearing the air of a fart. He sighed again, pushed back his chair, laid both palms flat on the table between them, and, for once, leveled a gaze at Claire. The expression on his face reminded her of her high school principal, that time she’d been caught with her shirt off in the janitor closet with Tim Kane.
“Claire,” the lawyer said. “I do understand your anger. This is all very unfortunate. But please remember your blood alcohol level was unacceptable.” He paused. “For a bus driver, it was unacceptable. Even so, if in the courtroom you can show compassion for this young man who has lost the use of his legs, that may prove to be some help. Or is compassion out of your reach?”
“The brakes failed,” Claire said. “It was a mechanical failure, as you know. As Metro knows. And he was reckless. He darted in front of a bus. How stupid is that? But does anyone ask him to accept any responsibility?”
The bus passenger who had stood up behind her, just before the crash, had testified on her behalf. Claire had done everything right and the motorcyclist had, indeed, been reckless. But this witness was a homeless vet, about a million years old, or 60, anyway. They’d cleaned him up, but he still looked pretty wild-eyed on the witness stand. “Weren’t you also injured?” the prosecution asked. “Hasn’t Metro taken care of your medical bills? Haven’t they found housing for you?” Yes, yes, and yes.
Her lawyer—also paid by the bus company—managed to keep Claire out of prison. Suspended sentence. Probation. Community service.
His main concern of course had been to reduce Metro’s liability.
“They threw me under the bus,” Claire was telling her brother, or his back. “Jack, Jack—I know you care. You have to, you’re all I’ve got. Under the bus. Don’t you see that?”
Jack was trying to leave for work, but he turned around and faced Claire. “They threw you under the bus?” He raised a finger to his chin, as if he were thinking. Except, his middle finger.
“How many times, Claire, how many times have I heard you say that? One hundred times? One million times?” He shrugged on his suit jacket and picked up his briefcase. “Holy Mother of God, Claire, give it a rest.”
But at the door, Jack turned around and regarded her for a long moment. “Claire,” he said. “Everyone knows. They threw you under the bus. Two. Years. Ago. Get over it.”
“How?” Claire said. Raising her arms. Raising her voice. “How do you get over something like that? It’s who I am now.”
His face went slack and he said, in what must have been an attempt at a sympathetic tone, “Do you know how close you are to being homeless? How far you are from being able to scrape together first, last, and a deposit to get your own place again?”
“If you and Cathy throw me out, I will be homeless.”
“Just stop acting like a victim,” he said. “Please.”
The therapist Claire had seen before her money got tight used to say the same thing.
“I’m not acting like a victim,” Claire said. “I am a victim. There’s a difference.”
Two years after, the accident continued to be oddly present to Claire. It was in her dreams, and in her waking hours, too, repeating in an endless loop. She couldn’t unhook from it.
She’d made a good income as a bus driver, and though she had a new job—working at a boutique at the local mall—the cut in her income was substantial. She’d had to sell her car to make her rent. And it had been such a sweet little car, a Volkswagen bug with daisies on the wheels, practically new. But with her driver’s license suspended, what good did a car do her? Later, there had not been enough money for a replacement, not unless she wanted to drive around in a piece of crap. And, no.
Finally, she had had to give up the apartment, too. By that time it was crystal clear her husband wouldn’t be moving back in. She had been sleeping on her brother’s couch for a few months now and both her brother’s wife and their couch were growing increasingly…grumpy. Claire had heard Cathy and Jack fighting the night before. Cathy: “I’m done, Jack, with your crazy sister. She’s as bad as your mother, or worse—at least your mother never lived with us. Do you hear me? I’m done.” Jack: “You’re preaching to the choir.”
Plus, there was her nephew, a toddler who thought waking Claire by nailing her in the eye with a hairbrush was an excellent way to provide everyone with entertainment. The kid had a sixth sense for hangovers.
Jack: “When do you not have a hangover?”
But Claire had every reason to drink—or so she told herself. The job at the mall was the third shit-job she’d had since the accident. Better than cleaning houses or waiting tables. Maybe. And don’t even ask what sort of men she had dated since Adam. “Dated,” being a relative term. Every bottom she hit was a false bottom. Could she fall any farther? Apparently so.
Once Jack left for work, Claire’s sister-in-law appeared. Cathy was on her way out of the apartment—breakfast with a friend, sans evil toddler. Claire was supposed to help out with babysitting and housework in lieu of rent, so she was a little surprised when her sister-in-law opened the door to a teenager wearing a tee shirt with “College Nannies” printed on it.
When Claire dared to say, “I can watch him,” Cathy gave her an icy look and said, “I don’t trust you to.”
Claire did not bother having her feelings hurt. She turned on The View, and began painting her toenails. But the College Nanny didn’t understand the concept of personal space. She and the toddler played patty-cake and peek-a-boo right there at the coffee table beside Claire’s propped-up ruby red toes. They sang that annoying song about the monkey and the weasel. They sang—such a poor choice—“The wheels of the bus go round and round.”
“Hey,” Claire said. “You can turn the TV to cartoons if you want.” She nodded at the remote.
“Oh, no screens,” gushed the College Nanny. “They’re against policy. We’re supposed to engage with the children.” She was weirdly cheerful.
Claire would have sold her soul for a room of her own. She gathered up her things and went into the bathroom. She got dressed. She brushed her hair and her teeth. She couldn’t find her floss, so she rifled through her brother’s drawer. Mint, waxed, her least favorite kind.
When her cell phone jingled (“Hey Jude,” The Beatles), she was pulling on her coat.
“My name is Harold Hapley,” a deep bass voice informed her. A radio-announcer voice, a voice Claire recognized as belonging to the husband of an old friend. No one else had that voice. Hapless—though she’d never called him that to his face.
“Is this the Claire Culhane who used to attend Colorado State?”
“Hap,” Claire said. “Why on earth are you calling me?”
“It’s Becca,” he said. “She suggested that I—” a long pause, a sound like a choked sob, and then—“Becca asked me to reach out to you.”
And goddamn if he didn’t break down and cry. What could be so bad in his life, that he would cry?
The facts behind the call were bleak—cancer, a dire prognosis, distraught elderly parents, general heightened misery. Becca and Hap had moved to the Seattle area a year earlier, and they didn’t know many people here. Doctors and chemo and protracted hospital stays seemed to have put finding a supportive network of friends pretty low on the priority list.
But it wasn’t a complete mystery to Claire that Becca would ask for her. They had been best friends all through their teenage years, even before that. They had been roommates in college, following Claire’s disastrous first roommate fiasco. Claire had introduced Hapless to Becca. And when Claire had dropped out of college, Becca had continued to treat Claire as an equal. She’d extended gracious invitations, for which Claire always found an excuse. They were Facebook friends, and on Claire’s birthday Becca never failed to unleash a flurry of balloons and well-wishes on her page.
“I can’t ask her mom and dad for any more help,” Hap told Claire. “They’re—sob—so broken.”
Claire left the apartment, her cell phone pressed to her ear, listening to Hap, waiting to be further enlightened as to what exactly it was that he wanted.
The College Nanny called after her, “Bye now, have fun!” She held the evil toddler up so he could wave, too, and chortle his toddlerish “bye-bye.”
“I’m kind of between spaces, right now,” Claire said. “Do you have guest room?”
“We have a whole basement, its own kitchen and everything. Could you really come?”
Had this invitation not been so appealing, would Claire have considered it? “I suck as a nurse,” she warned him.
But Hap assured her that there was no caregiving involved. “What she needs is a friend. We could both use a friend. Someone to, I don’t know, to just be here. Becca would have called you herself, but she’s having a bad day.”
“Don’t tell me, please,” Claire said, sure that it involved something unpleasant. Vomit maybe. Didn’t chemo cause nausea? Would she be expected to clean up vomit?
But the basement apartment was too good to be true. “I’ll have to get back to you,” Claire said. “I don’t want to make a snap decision.”
“I understand,” Hap said. “Believe me, I do.” He broke down again, and, really, if he was going to cry like that all the time, Claire didn’t know if she could stomach it.
At the bus stop that day, as fate would have it, her Vietnam veteran ally was waiting. He was homeless again, living in a tent near the 104 overpass, so Claire saw him on Community Transit every so often. He always greeted her, always broke into a big grin on seeing her. A few times, waiting for a late bus, they had talked.
As a driver, she had not had a lot of patience for homeless people. They got on the bus and rode all day, staying out of the rain. They smelled bad. Sometimes they acted out in weird or threatening ways. Of course some were invisible. The problem was pervasive. Still, Claire had considered them a colossal pain in her ass.
But she’d gotten to know this guy, Ralph. She appreciated that he had stood up for her at the trial.
“How ya doin’?” he asked when she sat down on the bench near him.
“Not so good,” she said. “My sister-in-law hates me.” She tossed him a wry smile. “Got any room in that tent?”
“Nah,” he said. “You don’t wanna go there.” He was missing some teeth and his words were slurred. She’d figured, back in the day, that he was an alcoholic. But now she knew it was just his sore mouth, full of abscesses and rot. He didn’t drink.
She shrugged. “Well, what do you do—it is what it is.”
“Do anythin’ you can,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope once you’re on it.”
He held out a pack of cigarettes. Claire had read somewhere that cigarettes dulled tooth pain. She supposed they dulled a lot of pains. She was only an occasional smoker, but to be friendly she took one and let him light it for her.
“You’re good, Claire,” he said. “You’re one of the good ‘uns.” The bus pulled up, and they both stood. Ralph tapped the coal from his cigarette and put it in his shirt pocket. Claire did the same, not because she wanted to smoke it later, but because she didn’t want him to think she’d waste his gift. In fact, the symbolism kind of got to her. He started to put a hand on her shoulder, then seemed to rethink this and pulled his hand back. “You’re like a cat,” he said. “You’ll always land on your feet.”
On the bus, Ralph sat down in the very first seat. That’s where the blast from the heater was strongest. Claire continued toward the back. Camaraderie would take her just so far in an enclosed space. Once she’d sat down, she took out her cell phone. She hadn’t saved Hap to her contacts, but she could find his number in the recent calls. She recognized it by the Colorado area code, and squinted a little, thinking, or deliberately not thinking. It wasn’t hard. An image of the motorcycle rider rose in her mind, not on the motorcycle but in his wheelchair, his gloved hands, his determined grimace as he maneuvered down the aisle of the courtroom.
It was the first time she’d thought of the bus accident since Hap called while she was still in the apartment. An entire hour had gone by. She hadn’t thought of it even when she stepped onto this bus.
It wasn’t change. But it was a little crack through which some light seeped. She tapped the number and waited for Hap to answer.
Bethany Reid’s Sparrow won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize, and her newest book of poems, Body My House, was published by Goldfish Press in 2018. Her stories, poetry, and essays have recently appeared in Kithe, One Art, Poetry East, Quartet, Passengers, Adelaide, Lunch Ticket, and Persimmon Tree. Bethany and her husband live in Edmonds, Washington, near their grown daughters. She blogs about writing and life at http://www.bethanyareid.com.