Saturday Morning Post #82: Between Zero and One (Part 2)

In Part 2 of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem. Well, low-tech for him at the time, but the only tech for most people otherwise.

“Piece of shit.”

Tyler banged the dashboard with both hands, then tried the keys again. The starter whirred and chuddered, but nothing happened. It was sounding a little upset itself now, warbling instead of surging. Tyler pulled the keys out of the ignition and sat there, thinking. The battery wasn’t dead, he knew there was gas in the tank, the car had started last time he’d driven it, which was… thirteen, fourteen months ago. He vaguely remembered his father telling him something once about having to start up idle cars every so often, but that had never made any sense. It was a machine, it wasn’t doing anything while it was sitting there, inert. No stress, no wear. You could let a computer sit for years and it would start up fine next time you plugged it in.

Tyler got out of the car, slammed the door and gave it a kick. Well, who needed a car, anyway? There was a bus stop a block away, and that bus went in the general direction he needed to go. All he had to do was go check the schedule…

“Fuck!” he stomped one foot on the porch as he remembered. Check schedule, online, not possible. Again, the phone book was useless. It had some elaborate map of the transit system, with colored lines and arrows and little number tags, but it was like trying to read a circuit diagram for a nuclear bomb. No, not that. Even a nuke must have the same basic set-up as any other bomb. Explosive shit, power source, two wires, a switch and a bang. This was more like trying to trace the intricate pathways through the heart of the world’s biggest supercomputer, and Tyler was the lone little electron who had to go from point A to point B down the shortest possible path.

Well, screw it. The colored line for the bus that ran by his house seemed to get close to where he wanted to go. How long could he possibly have to wait, anyway? He kicked the phone book aside, started for the door, stopped. He was forgetting something, but what?

Ah. Change. Riding a bus always did involve clunky pocketfuls of change, anxiously counted out and recounted and clutched in the hand when the rolling leviathan finally pulled into view and hissed to a stop. He thought about it a moment, then remembered the mayonnaise jar on top of the fridge. It was way in the back corner, dusty and grimy. He hadn’t needed to take anything out of it nor had anything to put into it for a long time. He grabbed the lid, tried to twist it and it wouldn’t budge. Great. Just fantastic. He could understand, maybe, a car being slow to start after a while, but this was a goddamn jar lid, the simplest machine of them all, the one invented by some ancient Greek guy. It was a screw, how the hell could it malfunction? Tyler tried a dish towel, tried to get a wrench around the thing. This was ridiculous. Nothing. What, did some evil change imp come by and krazy glue the thing shut in the night?

Tyler heaved the jar into the kitchen sink, where it shattered, spewing coins all over the porcelain, half of them chittering down into a sinkhole in the drain. At least the stopper was sitting there, but he’d deal with all that later. He picked through the metal bits, pulling out all the quarters he could easily see, avoiding the shards of glass, grabbing up some dimes and nickels for good measure. He counted it out in his hand. Five bucks, twenty-three cents. Good enough for a round trip. He dumped it all in his pocket, where it felt cold and heavy through the lining against his thigh, then headed out the door again into the blinding bright sunlight of this late summer afternoon.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later, he was still standing at the bus stop, anxiously stepping out into the street whenever traffic cleared to peer into the distance, looking for any sign of his impending ride. Every time he thought he saw it, he’d jump back, start counting out his change, not sure exactly how much he needed, only to see that he’d been fooled by a school bus or a big truck. Forty-five goddamn minutes, that couldn’t be right. What good was that kind of transit system? They should have had a bus going by here every ten minutes.

He glanced at the tiny Hispanic woman in the pale blue dress who was standing nearby, full shopping bags hanging from each hand, two young children flittering about her. She just stared at the ground, stoic and patient. Tyler popped out into the street again, looked. Nothing on the horizon.

Another ten minutes went by, another half-dozen traffic checks, and Tyler was fuming all over again. The Hispanic woman had finally glanced his way, noticed him looking, nodded her head and said, “Late, huh?”

“Damn right,” Tyler replied, peering up the street again. This all seemed to be designed to waste his time. Why did this world outside move so slowly? Almost an hour of doing nothing. Tyler debated going back home, trying the car again. Maybe he could get one of his friends to come over and… okay, no, bad idea, since his friends were all over the country, all over the world. Did he know anyone locally? Well, maybe, yeah, but… Tyler rolled his eyes, huffed, realizing he only had a long list of email addresses, no phone numbers. Wasn’t that just peachy‑keen?

Then he noticed the woman picking up her bags, gathering her children close. The bus was coming, halle-fucking-lujah. He dug a fistful of change out of his pocket, turned to the woman. “How much?” he asked.

“Yes,” she smiled and nodded back at him.

“No, I mean, how much is the bus?” he repeated, demonstrating with the change. Before she could answer, the bus steamed right past them. Tyler turned his head, saw that it was empty, a “Not in Service” sign winking at them on its flank.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed, turning like a sunflower to follow the departing traitor, change tumbling from his hand into the gutter. The woman pulled her children close, looking away as Tyler got down and started picking the stuff up. Naturally, it was now all wet and gunky. Oh joy.

Twenty minutes later, another bus finally arrived and pulled up to the stop. As Tyler waited for the woman and her kids to climb on, he looked up the street. There were two more buses on the way, right behind it, pulling toward the curb.

“People suck,” he said to himself as he climbed the stairs, asked the driver how much and counted the right amount out, dumping it into the fare box, then moving about two feet before realizing that this bus was SRO. But it was too late to change his mind. The doors shut and the bus lurched away.

Okay, so he’d have to stand here with all this sardinated humanity. At least he was on his way. Finally.

* * *

“End of the line, everybody off,” the driver announced. People started spewing out both doors, pushing past Tyler, who stood there, perplexed. They were at the subway station, a mile from where he’d gotten on, but that’s not what the map in the phonebook had said. He could have walked to where he wanted to go already, and halfway back home.

He turned to ask the driver how to get where he was going, but she was already gone, as were most of the passengers. He got off and found himself standing in some sort of home for wayward transit. There were eight buses parked in various spots around a semi-circle, people milling back and forth between them and the over-sized, overly festive entrance to the subway station. Now what? He knew the subway didn’t go where he wanted. What were they thinking when they built that damn thing? It was great if you wanted to go downtown, but who the hell ever wanted to go there? And a subway, in LA, which had taken decades to get off the ground and which was only a pale, lame replacement for the transit system the city had had decades ago. A subway in the land of sunshine and earthquakes. Brilliant.

He walked the semi-circle, looking at bus numbers, finally finding the familiar one. The driver was standing on the front bumper, washing the windows.

“Which way does this bus go?” he asked.

Without looking at him, the driver drawled, “East.”

“Thanks,” Tyler replied, heading for the steps.

“Not leaving for thirty minutes, though,” the driver continued, concentrating on some invisible flyspeck.

“What?” Tyler gawked, stepping back. “Is there an earlier bus?”

“That one,” the driver nodded as another bus pulled past them, lumbered for the driveway.

“Fuck!” Tyler shouted, running for the bus, pounding on the side. Amazingly, it stopped and he got on, had to count out the change all over again. At least this one was half-empty. He went to a seat in the back, flopped himself into it and it was a good half mile before he realized they were going the wrong way, back to where he’d started. He grabbed the bell cord, pulled it frantically, heaved himself to the center doors.

When the bus finally stopped, he was right back where he’d started, full circle. Just to add a proper twist to the finger the gods were giving him, another bus going the other way, destination sign announcing exactly where Tyler wanted to go, fumed past and vanished into the distance.

“Everything sucks,” Tyler said to himself as he stared at the bus, just wanting to cry.

* * *

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