The Bus to Betelgeuse

Photo by Robert McFarlane

He disliked buses, their narrowness and heaviness, built with two skimpy rows of seats crammed against moving walls, the invasion of strangers’ bulk and breath so close to his space. The walls looked stationary but trundled through the mayhem of city streets while stale air blasted. Still, they were indispensable.

Cars weren’t much better, just smaller. Michael hadn’t owned one that had run more than a few months at best. Taxis were worse with tons of humans occupying the same places day in, day out, and being trapped with a driver who couldn’t bear to stop talking or wouldn’t answer one question decently. He’d relented and taken buses for three years now. And this one would be carrying him along with other restless or drowsy people for the next two hours, a marathon in his view. He didn’t know if he was up to it and stared ahead into the unspooling velvet of darkness, half-wondering if there was a stop where he could still jump off.

Elena had never understood Michael’s attitude about public transportation, but there were plenty of things she didn’t get yet.

“What’s the big deal? You’re picked up and moved from point A to point B for less than you’d pay for a crappy car’s maintenance and insurance or a parade of taxis. You can chat with neighbors or not. You can read or sleep. You don’t even have to pay attention to the driving. It’s perfect, really.”

Michael waited for the final word. She had one more often than not. He knew what this one was.

“Besides you’re an actor, you should be grateful for the chance to study human nature closer-up. You can even be anyone you want for the ride and no one will know the difference.”

“It’s mostly tolerable and does the job,” he said and kissed the top of her head. She came up to his shoulder but she always seemed taller–until she leaned close. He put his nose to the crown of her head: a minty-herbal scent. It was as much her signature as the sheen of long auburn hair or the pale dash under her chin, a reminder of a fall at two years old.

They’d been together long enough, three years now. Each morning she went off to her computer programmer job and he–if he got lucky and his agent called–showed up for a couple auditions and tried to impress. He was moderately well paid for acting the last twelve years, which said something. Commercials and the stage, a bit part in a couple of indies. The first had been his bread and butter but lately he’d been hired for fewer.

George, his agent said: “Frankly, being thirty-eight doesn’t help; each year you’ll be older, less handsome, it’ll get harder. What’s your back-up plan?–not too early to get that going.”

It shouldn’t have shocked him but it did. He didn’t look old according to Elena or those who did hire him. His resonant voice was in strong and elastic form. His looks were as useful as ever, good enough like his physique. But it all could be crumbling under his feet, he being the last to know. Michael had no “back-up plan.” He wasn’t counting on Elena, of course, it wasn’t her responsibility to uphold his financial health. Though she did, at times. He didn’t tell her much about his bank account; it was one of those topics he intended to continue to avoid.

So when the final paycheck from Tiptop Organic Jams and Jellies covered his portion of rent in their Chicago flat, with only five hundred left over, he started to sweat. Nothing else materialized the next three weeks. He had a little in savings but it wouldn’t be savings if he spent it all now. It was his rule to forget about it. Only a dire emergency could make him ransack that little nest. It wasn’t to that point. Yet.

Then his cousin called. A fill-in plan presented itself.

Leon was Michael’s only male cousin. He’d inherited four car dealerships his father had begun and built to sterling success. Then he managed to run them even more profitably after Uncle Craig dropped over from a heart attack. No one missed him –a loyal friend, a bulldog of a boss–nearly as much after Leon got hold of the business and upped their salaries.

Though they talked every three or four months or at least texted, the last time Michael had visited (with Elena) his bigger-than life cousin was at a New Year’s Eve party a year and a half back. It was held at the overly grand (“mammoth cracker jack of a house” Michael warned Elena, giant-sized to fit his cousin’s personality) in the ‘burbs. Three young ones and a Labrador running riot over expensive carpets and hardwood. Leon’s wife, Meadow, smiling as if her mouth was wired open. It was likely to show off the blinding white capped teeth. But Michael missed that crooked front one; there was something endearing about it all the years he had known and cared abut her. Everything was overdone, reflective of Leon’s fortune. Michael tended to feel as out of place as a beat up tan Ford truck in a showroom full of gleaming Aston Martins. It could have been much worse, this was his cousin, after all, nothing was big news. Elena went into social shock.

Leon–affable, expansive, hyper as ever–was too busy wheeling and dealing in the back so-called game room to talk more than a moment. The booze didn’t just flow. It had started to transfuse guests’ blood by eleven o’clock. Troublesome mischief percolated under the surface, you could see the looks, feel the air crackle with a hilarity that veered toward old insults or fresh complaints or ill-mannered desires. He wasn’t delicate of nature but Elena paled, the combination of such affluence and drama was too much. They left shortly after midnight though they’d been invited to stay overnight. He might have done so but she declined by abruptly leaving while he was trying to decide, coats on his arm. He felt he had little choice but to follow her. He was disappointed that his cousin’s life seemed drowning in ostentation. But it was his money, his choice.

“So, I’m thinking I could use you this summer, Bro,” Leon confided after they caught each other up the first five minutes.

Michael felt suspicion rise up as he poured an oily cup of late afternoon coffee. “Bro”–a blast from the past. He sank his teeth into a third chocolate chip cookie. He could hear Leon chewing gum, a habit since he’d quit smoking. His cousin had an obnoxious talent with gum since he was a kid. The more agitated, the more snapping and cracking. Leon once could  blow bubbles like nobody’s business.

“That right, Cuz? What’s up?” He took another small bite.

“Well, you know Amy and Ian are natural hams like you… but I can’t get them to go to the children’s acting school out here. They’re eight and ten, why wouldn’t they want to play make believe with other kids, learn the skills if they like it so much? They think it’ll be boring, of course. So I was thinking that you’d come out for the next few weeks, get them going so next fall they’d be primed, set to go to the after school program.” He paused for a breath. “You working now?”

Michael stopped chewing, crisp cookie turning to mush as he looked at the street scene below. A bus stop was at their corner and all day people clustered and broke apart, gathered then disappeared inside cranky city bus doors. He wished they’d move that stop so he could get some relief from it all when at home.

“I’m not a teacher, as you know, and certainly not of children. Never taught a kid one good thing on purpose, anyway. I’m just taking a break between jobs.”

Did his cousin really think he’d throw away summer opportunities trying to teach his kids acting–a little family fun?

“Aw, you can do anything you put your mind to, teaching kids is nothing. They look up to you, Michael, they point out your commercials every time like they were Oscar winning moments. They think you’re famous, friends find you impressive. If you taught them fundamentals, they’d be motivated as heck to learn more.”

“Nice. But unfair, Leon, to put me on the spot. Besides, ever think I’m out there, doing my best footwork every single day? Or do you think I get good jobs waiting around for the phone to ring, one solicitous summons after another for my rare talent?”

Leon laughed. “You and those words. Naw, of course not, but I’ll bet you have a spare couple of weeks, at least. I know you aren’t in any plays for now–Meadow keeps up with Chicago theater gossip, we donate money everywhere… We’d try between your jobs. Twice a day classes or one long one, a big performance at the end….we could have friends over, make an occasion of it, opening night sort of thing!” He covered the phone with a hand and spoke rapidly to someone in his office, then returned. “Think about it. I’m too busy to talk more but wanted to put it out there–”

“Where would I live, Leon? In your servant-supplied guesthouse? Or would Meadow deliver breakfast in bed with a blue-black rose in a crystal vase?” It came out sharper than expected. The imagined scenarios were weird and ridiculous and he was verging on rude. He was ready to say “thanks but no thanks” and just hang up, sit on the back balcony and while the time away until his agent called. “I take that back, really uncalled for.”

But Leon erupted into a chortling; likely whoever was there looked his way. It took a second for him to start again. “Michael, we have this house with seven spacious bedrooms and only four are occupied at the moment. Your own room, en suite. The one at the back facing the pool as you like it. Come on, man, what a deal. You can swim and tan and teach my kids how to make more drama and I’ll pay you a couple grand, okay?”

Michael’s eyes locked on the next bus coming to a halt. “What’s that?”

“More, then? I doubt you could top that right now.”

“Two weeks, huh? I might have to come back to the city for jobs, you never know.”

“Three weeks at minimum, okay, plus add a few days for rehearsals, right? We’ll revisit the money later.”

“I’ll think it over,” Michael said, considering his bank account, how it longed to tally greater numbers.

“You do that, Bro, talk soon,” he said cheerfully and rang off.

******

Elena came in and let the door bang shut, then dumped a bag of groceries on the kitchen chair. He told her what Leon had said.

“You’re not even close to him, Michael, you hated being out there last time. You talk on the phone, what–twice a year?”

“A lot more than that if you count texting, which we do. Hate is a very strong word, I found it discomfiting. You hated it. Anyway, I’m the poorer one in this flat. The fact is, I can use that money.”

“You don’t need money right now, I’m working, you’ll get more jobs. You always do.”

“That’s yours. I make my own. And it’s been a bit of a dry spell…I’m getting older, maybe that’s the slow down.”

“Oh, poosh-wah, you’re the perfect age.” She kissed him as he freed the carrots and potatoes from plastic bags. “So you’re going to the hinterlands to teach your niece and nephew– what? How to pretend more? Do they even have talent?”

“I don’t quite know. Amy sang pretty well even at five and has taken loads of dance. She’s ten now so odds are she has more going on. Ian may or may not, he’s been into skateboarding…It doesn’t matter. I can use this money so I should do it.”

She took a jug of milk from one hand and then an egg carton from another, appraising each as if she wasn’t sure what it was, then crammed them into the refrigerator with a  shake of her head. “Seriously? Odd idea, but it’s your family. And bank account.”

But Michael had decided. A couple of weeks in the suburbs might even do more good than harm. Maybe he’d re-think his career. He might even be a good teacher–a whole new option if needed. Then a cringe ran up back and neck, transforming into a furrowed brow. He didn’t even like kids much; he was awkward around them. He was an only child, himself. Even being around Amy, Ian and little Leon II, well, he never knew just what to say or do, though he loved them. They were family, after all. He repeated to himself four times, as if a mantra: two grand–that’s to start. But he felt less excited than before. He felt something else altogether, a hint of shame, a sense he was doing the wrong thing here, after all.

Michael was accepting money from his family to…what?…have a good time with and share his calling–that’s what acting was for him–with his niece and nephew.

What was wrong with him? And what was Leon thinking–first, asking him to do this but second, offering to pay him? Perhaps bribing him, if you wanted to call it like it was? What was he expecting of him? And then he considered. His father had died early from heart disease. He was not even sixty. Leon had just turned forty-one but maybe he, too, had felt the passage of time like a blemish upon the present.

And then it occurred to him that they both had careers that depended on selling. Cars or one’s own self, it was still a sales job so Leon was as much an actor as was he. It must run in the family.

******

It was getting dark, and a nighttime phantasmagoria of lights, moving and still, provided hypnotic relief as he settled in his seat. Michael had packed a bag in the morning, then attended an audition that went poorly at the Moda Nouveau Theatre. The play was stilted and ironic, not enough action or–dare he admit it–heart. The director was not one he’d have even enjoyed. It was work, but he wished he could find an old-fashioned meaty role.

He had met Elena for mediocre Italian before the bus left at eight-thirty. They’d talked about her coming out the next week-end, but they both knew she’d rather be at home or with friends than at his cousin’s. She’d only met him that one time and it had bombed. It was okay; he could always go back to the city to see her. The first night out he’d be staying at a good hotel to help ease him into Leon’s world. Elena’s generous treat, her way of trying to be more supportive, he guessed. But when they parted it was like she just floated away and he was left on his own for once. It didn’t feel bad.

When he had to embark, she had held on to his neck longer than usual, smoothed his forehead, hair. Kissed him twice, gently. He wondered if she was trying to tell him something but they had noting more to say. He’d call when he had something of import to hare.

The bus was nearly empty. Well, who else was going to head out to East Norwood this time of day on a Thursday night? What would be the point unless returning from an event? But despite the hard bench seat, he relaxed. His head filled, then emptied of miscellaneous things as miles ticked by and the road and country turned ebony. The visit might do him good or it might not but he couldn’t dispute right timing due to the need of monetary infusion. He suspected Leon would pay him more if the kids liked him, if it worked out well.

But as he watched dark shapes outside the window morph and recede he also saw Leon and himself racing down the big hill by his uncle’s older but big colonial house. The yard alone made every visit a joy, such private acreage. There were two rope swings hanging from tall trees and even a trapeze. A flower and kitchen garden that overtook a portion of land. A kidney-shaped pool in the back with a yellow canopy sheltering chairs and a round table. A fire pit where they roasted hot dogs and made S’mores.

Michael could make out the Big and Little Dipper without any trouble. His dad pointed out a few more constellations, including Cassiopeia and Orion–the last Michael’s favorite. Orion was a superior hunter whom he felt was a nighttime guardian, even a slayer of monsters. And there was Betelgeuse, the cool red star with the silly name. A supergiant star beaming from Orion’s shoulder. Michael longed to see that red star up close. He thought it a powerful amulet captive in the sky, it was so bright, the ninth brightest they could see with their eyes, his dad said. He secretly felt its light pulsed at him so he made his own small pulsing, open-and-closed-fingered motion back at it, like a lighthouse beam flashing on and off. If, that is, no one saw him. Once Leon did but said nothing, just waved at the star, then ran off into circles, yelling at nothing.

They had freedoms at that house, in that yard, that Michael didn’t experience any other place. The expansive space and open air were like a drug before he knew what that really was. Everything seemed more fascinating, intense. He and Leon were “thick as thieves” as his mother said laughing, getting into minor scrapes, mapping out escapades. His cousin followed his lead back then. Michael always had a story plotted, an adventure outlined. The summer visits at his cousin’s was shaped by happiness. Even when he broke his arm falling out of his own measly tree so was half-lame all summer–Leon showed him things he could still manage. Even when Leon got tonsillitis so was bedridden much of the summer. Michael told him stories until he fell sleep, face pressed against the damp pillow, drool slipping from his thin lips. Or he’d bring him a worm, a frog, a colorful rock or piece of moss for the terrarium in his vast blue bedroom, anything to make him smile weakly.

Even when Michael’s mother and father divorced the summer he was eleven, almost twelve. They still went, his father and himself, but it was different at first, painfully quiet. No one knew what to say. Michael headed to his usual room  to stare out the window at the sparkling pool. Then Leon burst through the door, yanked him right out of his gloom. They went swimming and diving for hours, skin like glowing. Later, they sought crickets’ hideouts. Pretended to hunt with the dogs and makeshift bows and arrows.

Leon didn’t have to ask Michael anything. He saw what the divorce was doing to him. So he was just there.

Nothing was hardly ever worse–maybe some hot headed fights he lost to him,  a few bad mishaps they still didn’t tattle on each other about but maybe should have–when he was with Leon, and usually things were much better. Back then, anyway.

Why and when had they left all that far behind? Money interceded. Ambitions of different sorts. They’d grown up, that’s all, and then time started to dribble away and then it somehow was on its way to running out, so many grains of sand piling up at the bottom of the hourglass. Pathetically small, those grains.

His phone rang and he, half-dozing, started; it was George, his agent. The bus was approaching its final stop so he let it go to voice mail. Michael grabbed his bag and got off the bus. The sudden cool of deepening night swept across his face. He breathed in as though starving for oxygen, walked at a brisk pace three blocks to the boutique hotel.

Before slipping into the big empty bed, he remembered to check his message.

“Michael, good news. You aced it! Interlake Transit Corp. wants you for their commercial. Maybe an employee training flick, as well. The one in Wisconsin, remember? They pay very well. Call me back tonight so I can get back to them bright and early.”

Michael dialed his number; it went to voice mail.

“George, really, the transit people?” He snickered to himself. “Sounds excellent! But not until I’m done with my family business. If they can’t wait a couple weeks, I’m not their man. Not even kidding.”

He turned out the light and stared at the ceiling awhile, wondering what lay ahead. He drifted off. And in the theater of sleep he saw Leon running along the creek behind his mammoth and overwrought house and he was trying to say something, his hand gesturing to hurry up, to follow him. He was calling with lighthearted urgency, shouting out Michael’s name, so Michael flew toward the creek to catch up with him. Rammed right into him so they tumbled into the shining dark creek, then rose drenched and howling like happy fools, like common kids, while Betelgeuse threw its distant but fiery brilliance–perhaps a signal—upon them.

8 thoughts on “The Bus to Betelgeuse

  1. outstanding, very nice, i loved your voice and the story captured me entirely. the first half especially i found particularly strong, well done 🙂 maybe a bit of editing needed in the second half to pull it a bit tighter and reduce the ‘evens’ and ‘justs’.

    what i’m not too sure about is the ending, specifically Michael’s nonchalant attitude when he learned of the offer; i was not convinced, based on his earlier state of mind, that he could be quite so confident that a.) the client will wait a month,or, b.) he will manage just fine if the opportunity is lost. just a thought — not sure that’s what you were looking for… but there it is.
    i look forward to reading more from you, thanks for posting.

  2. Your usual excellent characterisation, and ability to hold the reader, The agents’s call and Michael’s response – a great device. In the second line of para 9, did you mean ‘useful’ or is that a WP blip?

    1. Derrick, thanks for more encouragement–it helps spur me on. 🙂 But no, “useful” is correct! I revised that sentence a bit, though–changed the word “face” to “looks” so maybe that will read better. What do you think? (His looks are part of what he has to sell at auditions…)

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