A Night Ride on the Denver RTD
My latest business trip landed me in Denver. I could have hired a cab to drive me from the airport to my hotel downtown, but the local public transit system had a bus going that way so I hopped in. The bus was about half full. It was one of those large buses, like a Greyhound bus. Comfy seats and the driver stowed my luggage in a huge compartment. I wandered down the aisle, being careful not to swat anyone with my backpack, unlike the fellow ahead of me who apologized to a few people before holding his backpack over his head as he made his way to his seat.
In the very back of the bus sat a black man about my age.
I spent maybe a fraction of a moment too long looking at him.
He smirked, saying, “It’s OK if I choose to sit back here.”
“Well, umm, yeah, of course, yeah,” I articulated eruditely.
I sat two rows ahead of him, but not on purpose.
As the bus moved out and on its way downtown, I flicked on an overhead light so I could continue reading the book I had started on the flight.
“Whatcha reading?” the black man said.
“Game of Thrones,” I said.
“Wanna spoiler?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “I love them spoilers.”
“Everybody dies,” he said.
“Everybody?” I said.
“Every single one of ‘em,” he said. “Don’t get too attached to any character, ’cause he or she is gonna get it.”
There was a snorting sound ahead of me, and a young woman’s voice said, “Hey, c’mon, that’s not true.”
“Name someone who doesn’t die,” the black man said.
The young woman rattled off a series of names, to which he replied, “Dead. Almost dead. Goner. Dead. Will be dead soon. Dead. Dead. Might as well be dead. A character from a different book. Dead. No longer alive. Deceased. Probably undead.”
“That was a lot of characters,” I said. “You have a good memory.”
“It’s a knack,” she said. “Plus I read the Thrones books like a thousand times.”
“Think I’ll come back to Game of Thrones a little later,” I said.
“Whatcha gonna read next,” the black man said.
“Don’t tell him!” a young man’s voice cried out in the night.
“Ummm, let’s see,” I said as I did some electronic thumbing through my Kindle. (I prefer paper, but I also like to travel light, so don’t give me any lip about having an e-reader. I’m still reading, for crying out loud, so save your sanctimony for something worthy of slobbering righteousness. Unless you don’t mind e-readers, then what the heck, la la la, let’s move on.) “How about….oh, OK, here we are. Ender’s Game.”
The black man let out a hootiful laugh that made the young woman giggle and the young man say, “oh oh”.
“Ready for another spoiler?” the black man said.
“Why not?” I said.
There was a dull quiet in the rear third of the bus as a few riders and I waited for the black man, who introduced himself as Henry, lounging on the bench-sized back seat, to offer up his spoiler to the book Ender’s Game.
“Well, you know,” Henry started.
“Please, I beg of you,” a young male rider said. “I haven’t read the book or seen the movie…..yet. But I want to.”
“Cover your ears,” Henry said.
“Do you have to do this?” the young man said.
“No, I don’t have to, but I want to.”
“Right, for me,” Henry said. “I like for me to have fun.”
I decided it was time to make a move. I handed Henry a small notebook and a pen.
“Here,” I said. “Write the spoiler in the notebook and I’ll read it.”
“Thank you so much,” the young man said.
Henry took the notebook and pen. There was some scribbling, a page was turned, followed by more scribbling, after which Henry returned the items to me.
Outside a dog howled. Dogs seem to have this way of howling just at the right time.
“It looks like Ender is playing a video war game,” I read aloud. “But in reality –”
“What are you doing?” the young man shouted.
“Reading the spoiler,” I said.
“WHY???” he shouted. Some shushing could be heard.
“It’s fun,” I said. I read the spoiler as the black man laughed and the young man whimpered.
“That takes care of that book,” I said. “Let’s see what I could read next.” I flipped through the contents of my Kindle. “Ah, this looks like a good one — The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.”
“Oh, there’s a classic murder mystery,” Henry said. “A real page turner. I can spoil it for you.”
“You’ve read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?” I said.
“Certainly,” Henry said. “Does that surprise you?”
“Kind of,” I said.
“Now wait just a minute,” an elderly lady three seats ahead of me said in a voice anyone would recognize as the stern aunt no one dares cross. “I’m on page two hundred and four of that book. You shall not spoil it for me. You shall not.”
“Wanna bet?” Henry said.
The elderly woman glared toward the back of the bus. Her ocular missile glanced off a couple of seat backs and kicked off a sign proclaiming the virtues of a strong antacid tablet before striking Henry full in the chest. She then rose to her full five-foot-one height and strode purposefully forward.
“Not a word, you rapscallion,” she said, and she meant it to sting.
Henry let loose with a low, sinister chuckle.
“Ah, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Henry oozed.
“I’m warning you,” the elderly woman said through clenched false teeth.
“The ending is most surprising,” Henry said.
“You’re really gonna go through with this?” I said to Henry.
“Oh, I really am,” Henry said with gleeful menace. “The murderer is –”
And then, in a miraculous instant, a few things happened:
– the bus ground to a screeching halt
– the driver announced the stop in a high-pitched wail that roared through the bus in a tsunami of sound waves
– the elderly woman bounded off the bus like the ballerina she had been sixty years ago.
Thus, the only person who heard Henry say, “The murder is the narrator”, was me. I noticed, from a corner of the giant rectangular mirror over his seat, the briefest hint of a smile slip across the driver’s face as he guided the bus effortlessly back into traffic.
“Well,” I said, “no need to read that book.”
It may have been my tone. It may have been the time of day. It may have been a building disdain for Henry the Spoiler of Books with Surprise Endings. It may have been something entirely different. But, whatever it was, a numbing silence crept through the bus.
And the silence was noticed.
“It’s quiet,” a stringy man wearing a floppy gray-green overcoat, a dusty fedora, and a cool aspect said with an accent right out of the lowest half-block of the lower east side of Queens.
“Too quiet,” his seatmate said, a gangly specimen sporting a porkpie hat the perfect size for a person with a half-size smaller head, the gnawed remains of a cheap cigar he’d puffed on hours ago resting tentatively on his curiously protruding lower lip, just below a mustache a Pekingese pup with little sense of style would wear to a costume party.
During the silence on the bus, I handed Henry my Kindle and said, “Here, you pick a book for me to read.” I showed him how to view the book titles.
The man in the fedora and the man in the porkpie hat sat by, watching and listening.
“Takes me back,” Fedora Hat said.
“The Calais Caper?” Porkpie Hat said.
“None other,” Fedora Hat said.
“Those were the days,” Porkpie Hat said.
Henry scrolled through my Kindle, humming and umming and scratching his chin as he went.
“Gotta lotta books in here,” Henry said.
“Yup,” I said.
“Count of Monte Cristo,” Henry said. “Now there’s a guy who suffered, but got his revenge.”
“He sure did,” I said.
“So you read it already?”
Fedora Hat and Porkpie Hat nodded and turned their gazes aside, pensively. Outside, another dog howled in the restless night. Inside, a phone rang.
“Call?” Fedora Hat said.
“It’s her,” Porkpie Hat said. “I’d better take this. Yeah, it’s me. Nope. Easy kid, easy. Yeah, sure. Take a breath. Got it covered. Slow down. Yeah. Deep breaths. Thatta girl. Yeah. Gotcha. Be there in 30–35 minutes.”
“What’s up?” FH said.
“Cat,” PH said.
“Tree?” FH said.
“Worse,” PH said.
Henry suddenly sat straight up, nearly smacking his head on the bag rack above his seat. Fedora and Porkpie took note, eyebrows raised.
“Hey, the story I’ve been looking for!” Henry said. “Mind if I read for a bit? I’ve been meaning to read this story for a long time and it slips my mind and I look for it and I forget again and now here it is.”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s the title?”
Henry tipped the Kindle down and over so I could make out the screen. I saw the title of the story Henry was about to read. I looked at Fedora and Porkpie and smiled and shook my head ‘yes’. They tipped their hats.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” FH said.
“Kismet?” PH said.
“Bingo,” FH said.
“How sweet it is,” PH said.
“Couldn’t be sweeter,” FH said.
“Like that story, do you Henry?” I said as the bus barreled through the mean streets of East Denver.
“One of the best I’ve ever read,” Henry said. “I’ve been looking forward to reading it for years.” He clicked to the next page on my Kindle. “Oh, no. Oh, my. That’s just sad.” Henry read on.
Fedora Hat took note.
“Hey, you,” Fedora Hat said to Henry. Henry looked up.
“Me?” Henry said as he jabbed his chest with a gnarled index finger.
“I’m not talking to a female sheep,” FH said.
“Good,” Henry said. “Not many of them on board tonight.” Porkpie Hat chortled sardonically.
“Book?” FH said
“Short story, actually,” Henry said.
“It has a surprise ending,” I said. “Bit of a twist.”
“He’s reading ‘Gift of the Magi’”, PH said to FH.
“Can’t be,” FH said.
“Way too obvious.”
I looked at Henry as he clicked to a new page, eyes focused hard. Outside a monkey screamed, a llama squalled, and an ibex chuffed as the bus passed the Denver Zoo.
“Want me to spoil the story for you?” I said to Henry. His glare splashed over the Kindle screen.
“No, sir!” Henry said. “Don’t you dare!”
“Just having some fun,” I said.
“Turnabout,” FH said.
“Fair play,” PH said.
“You set me up!” Henry said. “All the books and stories in this consarned thing have surprise endings! Every single one of them!”
“Huh,” I said.
“Ironic?” FH said.
“Maybe,” PH said.
Henry clicked to the next page, read for a moment, and then stopped. He turned to level a scathing gaze in my general direction.
“She dies, doesn’t she?” Henry said. The bus driver, the young girl, the young man, Fedora Hat, and Porkpie Hat all turned their attention to Henry and me. “I might as well spoil the story for myself, just let me know when I’m getting close.”
“Hey, wait,” the bus driver said. “Is he reading –“
“The short story by –“ the young man said.
“Oh, come on,” the young girl said. “He can’t be reading –“
“The Necklace,” Fedora Hat said.
“de Maupassant,” Porkpie Hat said.
“Heck of a guy.”
Henry pulled the cord to request a stop. He dropped the Kindle on my lap and made his way briskly toward the front of the bus, where he was met by Fedora Hat and Porkpie Hat, who blocked the aisle.
“Going somewhere?” FH said
“OUTTA MY WAY!” Henry boomed. Outside, a kitten purred, but no one in the bus could hear it through Henry’s protestations.
“The Necklace,” PH said. Henry stared at him, hands gripping seat backs as if he planned to rip the seats off their supports.
“Good story,” the young man sitting two seats from me said.
“Too bad about Mathilde,” the bus driver said.
“That necklace she borrowed from Madame Forestier?” the young girl sitting across the aisle from me said.
“Oh no,” Henry moaned.
“Oh yes,” FH said.
“Imitation gems,” PH said.
“She bought a real necklace –“ the young man said.
“To replace the imitation necklace she borrowed and lost,” the bus driver said.
“Oh no, please,” Henry said. “But she forfeited all she owned, went deeply into debt to buy that replacement necklace. She’s destitute. Does she find out the one she lost had imitation jewels?”
“We’re not saying,” the young girl said. “You’ll have to read the rest of the story.”
The bus pulled casually to a stop. Fedora Hat and Porkpie Hat stepped aside. Henry departed, shoulders slumped. Two stops later, at Market Street and 17th, the crew who spoiled Henry’s reading of The Necklace, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, left the bus — the young man, the young girl, Fedora Hat, Porkpie Hat, and me.
We all thanked the bus driver for an enjoyable and eventful ride. Porkpie Hat slipped the driver a fiver.
“Tip?” FH said.
“Services rendered,” PH said.
“Classy,” FH said to PH.
“How about you?” PH said to FH. “Too chintzy to cough up some scratch for the man?”
I stood at the bus stop, considering my options and drinking in the sights of the city at night. A dog howled. Why not, I thought. A second dog yowled. Nailed it, I thought.