1024 Words

The Sign on the Bus

M. Stanley Bubien

I still can't remember exactly what the sign said, it seemed strangely innocent as I dropped my fare into the change collector, pausing to skim it briefly as the coins rang through. Still, a curious itch lingered at the back of my neck as I considered those words, bumping my way toward the back of the bus.

"Is this seat taken," I said, politely indicating the empty spot in case the elderly gentleman didn't understand English.

"Oh. No, no," he replied in a relaxed tone. "It's quite available. Please, join me."

Thanking him, I slid my backpack off and dropped onto the cushion, resting the pack lightly on my lap. "You don't have an accent," I stated. "Are you an American?"

He chuckled slightly. "I'm sorry, no. But I did attend University there a, ahem, few years back." And his hand passed over a patch of grey hair pasted neatly to his mostly-bald head.

I smiled. Seems like nice old guy, I thought, watching him sink into his seat and sway carelessly from side-to-side as the bus roared through the city. Gazing out the window, I sought landmarks to indicate our progress.

"Your first time visiting Jerusalem?"

"What?" I asked. The map I had absent-mindedly removed from my pack crinkled as deceleration forced me forward. I clutched it and admitted, "Uh, yes."

He raised an eyebrow.

I hesitated, but shrugged inwardly and continued, "I'm studying archeology, and I'm here to see some of the ancient, uh, sites."

"Ah. Interesting, interesting. Which religious monuments are you planning to visit?"

Damn! This was the very question I wanted to avoid, but I'd led him right to it! My advisor himself had, appropriately, advised me that my travel and research plans might become a point of contention with a few of the people I could run across.

"There are," he had rumbled from behind his desk prior to my leaving the states, "a smattering of fanatics and extremists on one side of God or the other, none of whom you would desire to offend."

"I read the newspapers," was the reply I chose to emphasize my lack of ignorance.

And yet oh so ignorantly I had drawn my companion to confront me, and in scant minutes! He remained silent, head bent slightly, arms still crossed---but waiting for reply with the wide-eyed curiosity of a child.

Surely this was the least threatening of people. Surely this was not one of those my advisor warned me against, and surely not one those I'd so often read about or seen on TV. More a grandfather than a zealot.


I swallowed and opened my mouth to speak, though not knowing what would come out, just as the bus doors swished open. A group of high-school aged students climbed aboard noisily, tossing their coins into the collector and passing beneath that sign without acknowledging---or even noticing in the least---its existence.

In all honesty, I changed the subject not as deception, but because that funny feeling at the back of my spine returned just then.

"You know, I was wondering," I blurted. "That sign: 'Report any unusual objects to the driver.' What does it mean? Do a lot of people forget stuff under seats or something?"

"Mm." my companion grinned briefly but shook his head. "No, not exactly. It is for protection. For safety. From time to time, bombs have been known to appear on busses such as this one."

My face blanched, and though the itch fled, my stomach began to turn slightly sour.

"I understand your consternation. You Americans need not worry about such things. Here, it's a mere precaution, however unfortunate it may sound."

"But..." I stammered, pulling my pack against my stomach. "But... I mean I knew things were bad. But... but I had no idea!"

"As I said, a simple precaution." He patted me on the shoulder lightly, "I ride this route everyday, and I've managed to remain in one piece."

I rolled my eyes. "You know, the newspapers talk about this---"

"Pah!" my companion spat.

"Excuse me?" I blinked at his sudden and uncharacteristic outburst.

"Newspapers," he echoed. "Of course you've read about such things. A bomb explodes, and the cameras appear in a swarm. A flag is burned, and there is always a video. A man fires upon a crowd, and reporters talk and talk for weeks. But is there nothing, is there not a whole life living between the headlines?"

I indicated the bus sign. "Are you saying it's not true?"

He sighed, rubbing his palm across the bridge of his nose. "Oh, it is true. These things happen. Yes. Yes. They make such warnings necessary."

With a sniff, he pointed at me, index finger twitching as he spoke. "But where are your newsmen now? And where were they yesterday? Not riding this bus, I assure you."

"But nothing happened yesterday." I told him, feeling my face return to normal with my ability to recognize the obvious.

And my statement certainly affected my companion as well. His expression softened, and he broke into a beaming grin. "Oh, no," he answered. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one single thing."

"Well," I began uneasily. From his tone, I could tell that he was either being facetious or he missed my point. "Certainly people rode the bus as usual. But what I meant was, nothing newsworthy happened yesterday."

Leaning toward me, he lowered his voice, "Exactly!"

He patted me again, crossed his arms and leaned back into his seat. "Don't worry, young man," he assured me, "I doubt anything will happen today either."

I opened my mouth to respond as before, but thought better of it when I noticed his eyes had closed.

Riding the rest of the way in silence, I sought some measure of comfort in his words. But as my stop approached, his voice slowly faded and slurred in my memory while one thing remained constant, immutable, unchanging. I glanced up, and there it was, as it would be tonight after all the passengers disembarked, and tomorrow when others boarded again afresh: that sign at the front of the bus.

Copyright ©1998 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.

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November, 1998
Issue #31

1024 Words