A paper cup spins slowly in the break room microwave. Maurice watches. The caffeine can’t come soon enough. His head hurts and his vision is blurry at the edges. Insomnia.
The microwave dings and Maurice grabs his coffee. He takes his first sip and Sherrie trudges into the break room.
“Morning,” she says. “How’s Jenny? Her shop still open?”
He tells her it is, but he isn’t sure for how much longer. The pandemic’s hitting small businesses hard. His wife’s already applying for government assistance. She won’t get much.
“Well, you keep your chin up, Mo.”
Sherrie plods out to the garage and Maurice checks the employee mail cabinet. There’s nothing important. He still has ten minutes before he needs to go to his bus so he leans against the wall and sips his coffee.
Mike Palmer walks into the break room and Maurice suddenly wishes he’d left for the garage early. Mike’s high on the seniority list. Ostie de colon, Maurice thinks. Idiot.
“Mo,” Mike bellows. “Just the man I need to see. You’re off Thursday, ya? Can you work my evening piece?”
Maurice cracks his knuckles. The Leafs are playing the Habs Thursday and those are the only Montreal games broadcast locally.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, bud.” Mike elbows Maurice in the ribs. “I’ve got a date lined up.”
“I’ll put the paperwork in. Thanks, pal.”
Mike heads for the garage and Maurice takes out his phone to note the extra piece. There’s an email; a response to the ad he’s posted for his hockey card collection.
I’ll give you $350- Peter W.
Maurice rolls his eyes. The cards are listed for $500 and are worth double that. There’s a Gretzky rookie card, and a 1994 reprint of an old Rocket Richard. Richard is Maurice’s favorite player. What can he do? The worsening pandemic has Maurice and Jenny strapped for cash.
We can work with that. When can you pick them up?
Maurice goes to the garage and locates his bus. 8416. It’s one of the Excalibur models. These buses don’t have adjustable pedals and his long legs cramp whenever he drives them. Other drivers have filed paperwork to get medically exempt from the old Excaliburs. Maurice doesn’t want to be a bother.
He climbs into the driver’s seat and starts the engine. Maurice uses each of the allotted ten minutes to circle check the bus. He even checks the license plate stickers. When he gets back in the driver’s seat the electronic scheduling system is beeping and he pulls out of the garage.
The sun is only starting to come up but traffic is heavy on the main streets. There are a dozen people waiting at the first stop. One person is in a wheelchair and Maurice has to use the ramp. The last passenger is an elderly gentleman. Maurice waits for him to sit before letting off the brakes.
He misses the green light. Maurice drums his fingers on the wheel. Finally, the light changes. The first few stops are busy and the bus is nearly full when he reaches King and Brook. The red light on the screen above him is flashing. He’s six minutes down. Maurice grinds his teeth.
There’s a man dressed in baggy old clothes at the next stop. His hair is ratty and he has a bushy beard. He’s wobbling on his feet. Maurice stops the bus and the bearded man gets on. He smells of liquor and stale tobacco. The man stares vacantly and searches the pockets of his jeans. He coughs sharply and doesn’t cover his mouth. Maurice wishes he’d brought a mask. The bearded man drops three quarters and a nickel in the farebox.
“Thank you,” Maurice says.
The bearded man grunts and moves to the closest seat. In the passenger mirror, Maurice watches the bearded man lean against the window. Maybe he will fall asleep. Maurice continues driving. Through the rural area linking two of the region’s municipalities he speeds up to 80.
There’s wet coughing behind him. Maurice glares at the bearded man in the rearview. He imagines germs floating in the stale air of the bus. The morning is freezing but Maurice slides open the driver’s window anyway.
The bearded man becomes more alert. He’s jerking his head around and staring at the other passengers. He starts mumbling between coughs. Maurice hears a vulgar swear word. Then another. Some of the other passengers stare.
Maurice grips the hard rubber of the wheel tightly.
“Excuse me, sir,” Maurice says.
The disheveled man looks up. “Yeah?”
“Would you mind watching the language please?”
The man grunts and mutters an apology.
“Dégoûtant,” Maurice murmurs. Disgusting.
Two young girls wearing catholic school uniforms get on at the next stop. They smile at Maurice and take the only available seats across from the homeless man. Maurice appreciates their smiles.
The bearded man stares at the girls. He looks hungry; like he wants to devour their young bodies. He’s mumbling again and the girls start to look uneasy. Maurice clenches his jaw.
The scraggly man rubs his lap and smirks. “You want to have a seat here?”
Maurice slams the brakes. Everyone jerks in their seats and the bus comes to an abrupt stop. He yanks the parking brake and throws the doors open.
“Decriss,” he shouts. “Off the bus. Now.”
The man laughs. “Me?”
Maurice feels his cheeks burning. “Ya, you. Off.”
“I ain’t gotta listen to you.”
Maurice feels intoxicated; like he’s floating outside his body. “This bus isn’t going anywhere until you’re off.” The high school girls are staring at the floor. “Don’t make me call the police.”
The man throws his hands up in the air. “Fine. Bastard.”
Maurice bites his tongue. The bearded man stands and stomps towards the doors. He stops. His face is hardening. There’s spittle in the corners of his mouth.
“Off,” Maurice says.
“You and your bus can go to hell.”
The bearded man snorts and clears his throat. He arcs his head back and Maurice tenses. There’s a wet sound and a glob of mucus flies through the air and hits Maurice on the cheek.
Maurice loses control. His hand balls into a fist and jets out from his side. His knuckles connect with the bearded man’s mouth. There’s a sharp crack and the passenger’s head jerks back violently. His eyes are wide. His lip is bleeding.
Maurice heaves. “Leave, now.”
The bearded man steps off the bus and staggers down the shoulder. Maurice is left with a bus full of passengers and sludge sliding down his cheek. He’s trembling and he wipes at the spit with his sleeve.
Burning pain shoots through his hand. The skin is turning purple and the reality of what he’s done hits him. He reaches for the radio.
“Control, I need medical assistance.”
* * *
Maurice walks out of emerge at the hospital. He’s broken his right hand in three places and has a plaster cast. The mobile supervisor waiting for him is Tom. Maurice knows him well.
“Thanks for picking me up,” Maurice says.
Tom puts the car in drive. “You broke it?”
“Yeah, three spots.”
“This isn’t good.”
“It doesn’t hurt too bad right now. They gave me painkillers.”
Tom shakes his head. “I mean this situation. They’re going to come down on you.”
“What should I do?
“Not much you can do. I would take whatever they give you.”
“Like time off?”
Tom shrugs. “I don’t know. You assaulted a passenger, Mo.”
“I can’t afford any time off.”
“I’m just saying I wouldn’t try to fight it. You fight, then it’s a bigger issue. Maybe the public gets ahold of it. Then they terminate you.”
Maurice lets his head fall on the glass of the passenger window.
A phone call comes the next day and Maurice takes it at the kitchen table with Jenny. It’s one of the managers, Brian Morton. Maurice has been given 3 months suspension without pay.
“I’m sorry Mo,” Brian says before hanging up. “It’s an ugly situation.”
Jenny chews her fingernails.
“Well,” she says. “You’re not losing your job.” She starts pacing around the table. “I just don’t know how we’re going to make it through.”
“I’m sorry. I lost it.”
“I know,” she says. “Maybe I can start doing piano lessons again.”
Maurice’s stomach knots. Jenny hasn’t even considered that he might fight management’s decision.
“I probably would have done the same thing,” she says.
She was right. How many others would have snapped in the same situation?
“This is crap,” Maurice growls. “I get punished. And that dickhead gets to keep on living like nothing happened.”
“We’ll survive,” she says.
Maurice doesn’t feel better. He sees himself wringing the passenger’s neck. But then, it isn’t the bearded man’s fault he’s being suspended.
Maurice snaps his head from side to side. “I’m not taking this.”
“You have to, Mo.”
Maurice thinks of his hockey cards. He thinks of Rocket Richard and the fiery determination in his eyes. The Rocket never backed down from a fight.
“You said it yourself, Jenny. You would have done the same thing.”
“I was trying to make you feel better.”
Maurice stares at his cast. “I need them to feel like they were there.”
Maurice picks up his phone and calls management back. “Brian, I want a meeting.”
On Thursday morning at 9:00 Maurice walks into Boardroom #2 wearing a suit and tie. Jenny has put gel in his hair and he’s wearing cologne. Brian Morton is one of the three manager’s waiting for him.
Maurice has never seen the other two. One is a middle-aged Asian woman in a black pant suit. The other is a young man with a hair line that’s already receding. Big wigs. All three have manilla file folders in front of them. There’s a TV on a rolling cart behind them.
Maurice sits across from them in a worn blue seat and wonders how many others have sat in the same spot. He lays his hands on the cheap high-pressure-laminate finish of the table. His palms are sweating.
Brian folds his hands on the table. “This is Gerald Wimbol and Becca Pierce,” he says. “Maurice, before we begin, you understand that re-opening this discussion means our decision can be revaluated as well?”
“Yes,” Ms. Pierce cautions. “And I must say that we feel we were fair in our initial decision.”
Brian picks up a pen. “Let’s go over the events then, perhaps you can offer any facts that we haven’t considered.”
“Right,” Wimbol begins. “6:52 AM, passenger in question boards your bus. You have approximately 35 other passengers. He rides for a few minutes. You stated that the passenger started to make you uncomfortable?”
“Yes. He was swearing and being disrespectful.”
Wimbol continues, “Two high school girls get on. He makes an inappropriate comment. You proceed to stop the bus and ask the passenger to leave. He spat at you-”
“On me,” Maurice corrects. “He spat on me.”
“Right. At which point, you assaulted the passenger.”
“Are we missing anything?” Brian asks eventually.
Maurice lowers his head.
“Mr. Beldeau,” Pierce says. “I can appreciate that this was an uncomfortable situation.”
Maurice doubts she’s ever been spat on.
“But we have to consider how this looks to the public. 35 people witnessed this. I don’t see how we have any choice but to discipline heavily.”
Maurice is sweating. His mouth feels dry. Then, he remembers the TV.
He points to the screen. “You have the footage?”
“We do,” Wimbol says.
“Let’s watch it.”
“We already have the facts, Mr. Beldeau,” Pierce states.
“It’s not about facts,” Maurice says. His voice is sharper than he intends. “Sorry.” He looks directly at Brian. Brian was a driver for eight years. “I want you to try and put yourselves in my shoes.”
The managers exchange glances.
Brian agrees and pulls up the video on the monitor.
The tape clearly shows a wad of mucus landing on Maurice’s cheek. Maurice watches himself hit the passenger. Brian stops the tape.
Maurice is trembling. He locks eyes with Brian. “You tell me, tell me you would have done different.” Maurice looks at Wimbol and then Pierce. “Twelve years I’ve been here. No accidents, no complaints. Just one as-” Maurice stops himself.
Wimbol is staring at the floor. Pierce looks hesitant.
“Mr. Beldeau,” she says. “Once again, I can appreciate the intensity of the situation. However, your reaction was grossly inappropriate. I can’t accept the implication that yours was a normal response.”
Maurice grumbles, “Yeah well, these aren’t normal times.” He pauses. “I’m just asking that you reconsider.”
Brian nods and exchanges looks with the other two managers again.
“Maurice, if you wouldn’t mind stepping outside for a minute.”
Maurice walks out of the board room and sits in a padded chair in the hallway. The office door closes behind him and the voices inside the room are muffled. He’s biting his lip and drumming his fingers on his thigh. After a long moment, Brian steps out. Maurice stands.
“Sorry for the wait,” Brian says.
“I’m not making any promises,” Brian tells him. “But we’re going to reevaluate our response.” He lowers his voice. “I’m going to push for a lesser suspension, maybe even just a letter of conduct.”
Maurice feels a weight lift from his chest. He doesn’t know what else to do so he shakes Brian’s hand.
“Thank you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”
“Sure,” Brian says. “You try and stay positive, Mo.”
Maurice leaves the building. His steps are light as he crosses the parking lot. He’s almost at his car when his phone vibrates in his suit pocket. It’s Peter W. writing back about the hockey card collection.
Sorry for the delay. Can I pick them up tonight?
Maurice thinks of the intensity in Rocket Richard’s eyes. He smiles.
I’ve decided to hold on to them. You can keep your $350.
Tyler Koke is an author and musician from Toronto, Canada. He has a degree in History from Trent University. Through his experiences as a travelling musician and his many day jobs, he has gained a unique perspective into people. He attempts to explore humanity and emotion in his works.
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