The Black Bus

Driver approached the main gates, hunched low against the cold clouds and the eerie onrush of music that crept out over the escarpments of the amphitheater, thin groping notes like the claws of wintry trees made of black sound. Colored lights, auroral, pulsed against the clouds in time to the music, reminding him of something older than memories of childhood Hell-dreams. He imagined his grandfather’s evangelical words driving down at him like a pelting brimstone hail, and thought how the old man would see the theater as a concession erected around the mouth of Hell, into which the damned were lured with music and screams which passage through the gates had transfigured into wild, seductive laughter. He pulled up his collar against the storm of invisible coals, and wished he could have stayed in the bus. But it had broken down completely, the prognosis was terrible, and he needed help.

He glanced back at the old bus, cold now in the mountain moonlight and the distant moth-battered glare of the stadium lights, far out at a corner of the lot among a dozen other buses not quite as full of memories, though equally lurid: paisleys, spirals, fractal swirls in luminous paints. An anachronism, a retrograde voyager, an affront to the new serious spirit of reform. Do drugs! — it seemed to tell all the little children who followed its progress on the back roads, delighting in its psychedelic colors. Run from home and join the circus! Following the Group was the same thing.

Turning back toward the gates, he saw another bus pulling in before the amphitheater, brakes squealing and then a gasping hiss of air as it stopped almost directly in his path. Gleaming black, with a long row of square windows all seemingly cut from warm yellow parchment. Its black surface was weirdly textured in diamond-shapes, oblique facets that turned light back on itself: like a stealth-bus, invisible to enemy detection. He walked around it cautiously, watching it over his shoulder, expecting the front door to open — anxious, in fact, to see the driver sitting up in the high seat at the top of the steps.

“Tickets,” said a voice, and he whirled to find himself in the shadow of the gate. A flashlight caught and held his hands in glare, making the hairs stand out like abrupt shards of spun glass, the blemishes suddenly malign. He jerked his hands out of the light and plunged them into his pocket as if to spare them such scrutiny, but actually searching for the plastic pass that had been his for longer than he could remember.

The torch, its bearer still unseen, waved him in, opening a path into the cement tunnel strewn with torn tickets, broken bottles, pools of piss with cigarette butts disintegrating in them. He hurried, but the beam deserted him. Laughter, and then a low growling that might have been nothing worse than some enormous old man clearing his throat. He walked around the sound of breathing, kicked a crushed can skittering, walked into a solid wall of stench and sound. He didn’t need to see the Group. Their music was everywhere. He brushed cobwebs from his face and stepped out into the amphitheater.

Bodies like an ocean, like a breaking wave of souls caught in mid-curl, rushed away beneath him to fill the vast pool of the theater, curving up and around, reaching to the sky on all sides, energized by the pulsing light. All of them dancing, swaying, caught in the trance of the music. From down here the clouds looked like a vaporous cover thrown over the theater. Looking up made him dizzy, his vision lined with a funnel of possessed faces staring down at him — past him, really, toward the stage. He shuddered and followed their eyes with his own, knowing that was where he could always find his charges.

The Group was so much smaller than its music. Tiny figures, although of jewel-like clarity even in the smoky distances of the theater, they bent above their instruments, hardly moving anything but arms and fingers. He had seen them often enough to know their eyes were closed, their mouths fixed in grave and urgent expressions. So they would remain until some shrieking inspiration bore its way through them, when their heads went back and their eyes bulged and words spirited from their throats in desperate harmonies. — But that was always later. This early on, the concert was a voyage in its infancy, almost plodding still. It was perhaps the only time he would be able to find his riders. Earlier, the place would have been a riot of people vying for position; later it would be a frenzy. Things were relatively subdued.

He found a stairway leading down into the sunken center of the arena; it was covered in bodies, worshipers who hardly acknowledged his presence, barely allowed him to pass. They resented his worming passage, thinking that he sought to put himself closer to the source of the music. If they had known how little he wished this, they would have laughed in disbelief. Often he was forced to halt and wait for a new path to open; and then he would feel himself trapped with the music, suffocating in it. People all around him, eyes rolled back, heads whipping from side to side, and himself deaf to it. Afraid they might recognize that he was not one of them.

Finally he pulled himself free of strangers, seeing faces he recognized just ahead, mere yards from the elevated heights of the stage. They were together there, packed close as if for protection, the eternal pilgrims. No doubt there were other such clusters scattered through the theater, but these were his own. Driver had grown fond of them, if not their music. The object of their devotions — the Group — meant nothing more to him than a steady job, travel, food, companionship. He could as easily have been driving a limousine or a schoolbus, or delivering parcels door to door — in which case, he would never have experienced the strangeness of such nights. The awareness of how close he had come to missing this particular life lessened his dread of the crowd. He felt almost at home here, through familiarity.

As he pushed his way toward Sonora — her blond hair streaming back, metal rivets threaded through the strands, long strips of gleaming tattooed scalp showing above the wildly colored scarves she wore — a fearful face thrust toward him. A skinny young man, bearded and pale, his hair tom into tatters, his eyes wide with horror. Screaming not with the music, which might have been appropriate later in the night, but in time to some sinister rhythm of his own making.

He collided with Driver, who would have fallen if not for the congestion of bodies holding him upright. “It’s happening again!” he howled, staring desperately into Driver’s eyes. “I can’t stop it — make it stop! I always forget!”

Driver flinched away from the apparition, anxious to avoid contact. The kid reached toward him, then drew back himself, his eyes already wandering. “No,” he muttered, and Driver knew he was in the depths of some drug-inspired nightmare. There were people in these crowds whose minds had cracked and would never heal. People who appeared only in this context, screaming prophesy, gripped by visions, having no relation to the outside world, the world of day. This one sank to his knees, forcing the heels of his hands up into his eye sockets, wrenching them violently as if pushing something in or jarring something loose. “No, this is the first time,” he said. Then he staggered upright again and stumbled on, chewed up in the mill of flesh. To Driver he was vaguely familiar; he had probably glimpsed him rushing through the crowds on his stoned jeremiad on other nights, during other shows.

By now Sonora had noticed Driver, and she pointed him out to the others, who drew him into their midst in a sheltered spot they had made of their bodies, a haven woven of flesh and bone. It was difficult to hear them in the din, for the music was building now, cresting toward some peak he did not wish to witness. But they made him welcome with looks and gestures and squeezes on his arms and shoulders. No doubt they thought he was becoming one of them, that the music had finally done its trick and lured him in. In a spirit of companionship, Sonora put her mouth to his ear and said, “Try this.”

She opened her palm under his eyes, and in it was a little foil pack. She opened that, and in among the silver creases he saw a thing like a stylized teardrop the color of blood, a three-dimensional paisley, gelatinous, specks of light sculling through it. She lifted it by the curled tail, like a tadpole, and laid it on his palm. He could sense what was in it, and instantly panicked, gripping the droplet as if to crush it.

“We all did it,” she reassured him. “It’s just coming on, we won’t be too far ahead of you.”

“No,” he said. And then, because it didn’t register, he screamed it.

She drew back slightly to show her amusement. “It’s not what you think,” she shouted. “This is new.”

He shook his head firmly. “The bus is dead. We need a decent mechanic — we need parts, and a ride to find them. We need help. Help!”

While he was shouting, Sonora peeled back the fingers of his hand one by one; he ignored her silly game until he had finished shouting, and then, because she was staring at his palm, he too looked down and saw the small reddish stain where the teardrop had been. Even as he looked, it squirmed away into his skin, drunk in as if the flesh were dry earth touched by rain.

At the sight, he began to forget his errand. He forgot where he was, who he was. “Why” became the real concern, but when he asked it of Sonora and the others — Chad and Parky, Selene and Yvette and Dietch — they stilled him with their hands and buffeted him into the dance, until he no longer questioned anything. He gave up his will, if he had ever had it.

It was merciful, for a time, to escape his dread and innate skepticism, his constant sense of something going wrong. But his anxiety did not end, exactly — only changed, uncurling like the tail-end of that paisley, and left him weaving through the gates again, this time one of a hushed line, holding hands in long chains like human molecules, everyone deserting the theater silently, the entire crowd speaking in whispers or not at all. Something vast slept behind them, and they departed quietly so as not to wake it.

The matter of the bus had already been discussed, he discovered, as with gestures Sonora indicated they were to board not their own defunct vehicle but the black bus that had pulled up by the amphitheater gate. Apparently there was room for them in it, and he went along, though he would not be the driver of this bus. And that was something of a relief, too. It had been so long since he’d been able to sit back and simply watch the changing roadside. He had always felt so responsible for everything. . . .

Inside was pleasant contrast to the inky, angular black exterior. Here it was all warmth and glow, soft pillows and cushions spread everywhere, low bunks overhead for sleeping, plenty of blankets for the cold nights of traveling. He slipped off his shoes and went on hands and knees onto the padded platform, crawling toward the back of the bus, the warm rumbling cave above the engine. In his own dilapidated vehicle, the engine had growled under the hood, always up in front of him. It was less efficient, but he missed it for a moment. Curled against a pillow, eyes shut, he dreamed a clear picture of the other bus as it had been, new and freshly painted, when he’d first hired on as its driver. Years ago, and thousands of miles behind him, that had been. He realized — had known all along, tonight, without admitting it till now — that it would never be fixed. The old bus was dead.

Now the passengers of the black bus, those who had invited them aboard some unknown time during the show (as if their plight had communicated itself osmotically), pulled down black shades, as though no spark of light could be permitted out. Sonora and Chad joined in the effort, but Driver was content not to move.

I wonder, he thought, since I’m apparently not the driver of this bus, I wonder if I get to keep my name.