Bus Fare – No. 326

Everyone seated in the hall held a shared breath.

“And the last number is….”

Dale swept out his hand and Helen beamed.  With a forced wink to the crowd of faces staring up at the stage, she stopped the tumbler, opened the grated door, and plunged her hand into the pile of marked ping-pong balls.  She fetched one and raised the small orb aloft.

Drawing out the moment like Dale had taught her, she lowered her hand and turned the ball until she faced the stamped letter and number.

“B12,” she said, loud enough for her voice to bounce off the far wall.

She ignored Dale’s umpteenth glare of the round and placed the ping-pong in the rack with the rest on display atop the folding table covered in a red and white checkered table cloth.

“B…12 everyone,” said Dale.  He turned toward the crowd and repeated himself into the microphone, his tenor regaining its salesman’s slick.

Murmurs rippled between the arches flanking one side of the hall and the opened doorways whose curved tops allow in the ocean breezes tinged with salt and a steamy night.

“Do we have a winner?”  Dale switched the microphone into his other hand.  “Anyone?”

Helen laced her fingers behind her back and hoped for the best, hoped someone might suddenly find B12 and make a line of five chips in a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal formation.

No one did.

“Well…,” said Dale.  “Perhaps we’ll have better luck in round five.”

Folded chairs groaned as folks sagged into the back rests, and metal legs scraped on the brick-lined floor of the old factory when others stood.  They tossed cardboard chips onto the cardboard squares arranged before them in rigid rows, disorganized clumps, or fanned layouts.  Some dumped their chips into the baskets, but most left the mess behind, gathered their spouse and their children, and began a collective exit from the straight-lined tables.

“We’ll start the next round in five minutes,” said Dale.  “Five minutes for another chance at our main prize.”

He waved an arm at the bookcase they’d erected on stage, the beach pails and plastic shovels joining carnival-sized plush teddy bears and a cellophane wrapped crate bulging with jarred jams, boxed crackers, and a narrow-necked bottle of wine.

Despite the reminder and his vibrant blue sleeve flashing with its scaly sequins, the exodus failed to slow.  Dale dropped his arm and Helen winced when he flicked off the microphone.  He pivoted on a polished loafer, and rounded the table.  Keeping her eyes downcast, Helen began retrieving the impotent ping-pongs.

“What,” said Dale, “do you think you’re doing?”

“My job,” she said, tossing a handful of balls into the tumbler.

“You’re job is to assist me in making this work.”  Dale snatched her wrist when she reached for G26.  “And you’re not helping.”

Helen pursed her lips together and glared up at him.  “I pull the numbers.  I read the numbers.  I look cute doing it.  What more do you want me to do?”

Dale pulled her close, so close she could smell the cheddar cheese of the chili dog he’d had for dinner.

“I want you to read the right numbers.”

“I’m not going to cheat,” whispered Helen.

“It’s not cheating,” whispered Dale, “it’s tipping the odds.  If these dupes don’t think there’s a chance to win, they’re going to stop coming.  They stop coming, they don’t pay, they don’t pay we don’t eat.”

“I don’t care,” said Helen.  She ripped her arm out from his manicured grasp and cleared the rest of the balls from the table.  “I’m not going to manipulate the results.  They take their risks in playing and they deserve a fair shot.  It’s a game of chance, of luck.”

“Not for me,” said Dale.  He set the microphone onto the table.  “And if that’s not how you’re willing to play, then I don’t think this is for you either.”

Staring at him, Helen forgot the latch on the tumbler.  The globe caught her when she staggered under the weight of his insinuation.

“You’re…you’re firing me?”

“I’m letting you go, yes.”

“Because I won’t twist this into some preordained victory?”

“You’re assistance,” said Dale, blatantly avoiding the question, “is no longer required.”

Helen slammed the lock down on the cage.  “I expect to get paid for this week.”

“I’ll have it ready.  Just get dressed and go.”  Dale started storming off, stage right.  “You’ve got four minutes.”

Helen watched him descend the stairs and then cut along the main wall.  He turned the corner leading to the restroom, his blue jacket dulled in the shadows.

“Jerk,” she whispered.

Spinning from the tumbler, she pushed between the crimson curtains dividing the stage’s apron from the back.  The boxes waiting to carry the prizes away sat stacked on the dolly beside the chair draped with her backpack and rumpled tank top and shorts.

Stepping out of the toe-cramping stilettos, she pulled the shorts on under the short skirt of her calico dress, cursing Dale with every tug.  Unclasping the costume’s snaps, she wiggled her arms out and retained a modicum of decency while yanking on her tank top and stripping out of the blue and white plaid.  She left the dress pooled on the ground and slipped on her sandals.  Slinging her backpack over one shoulder, Helen marched with a floor smacking stride to the proscenium and through the curtain once again.

Dale waited at the foot of the stairs, perusing the next round of inquisitive players making their way to the tables.

“Here,” he said, and shoved an envelope into her hands.  “Now get going.”

“Happy to,” said Helen.

Ripping her pay from his grasp, she blew past him and under the first doorway open to the outside.  Although sweltering, the air felt fresher compared to the stuffiness within the hall.

Breathing in the smell of the ocean she had once longed to see, Helen dashed through the throng and across the street to the promenade overlooking the water.  She found the railing and leaned onto the barricade, the envelope still clutched tight.  Opening the tab, she counted the twenties and then stuffed her pay into her backpack’s pouch amid the dirty clothes and empty wallet within.

With a sigh, she subtracted an eventual breakfast and the bus fare from her earnings.  Her stomach grumbled.

Better to be out of here and hungry, she reflected, then stuck for another night and well fed.

Slipping her arms through her backpack’s straps, she cast her gaze out to sea.  The water slapped the stony grains with a calming rhythm, one countering the boisterous crowds meandering along the sidewalk at her back, or the lurch of cars and beeps of impatient horns.  Looking left and right, she spied happy clusters of teenagers, some only a few years younger than herself, enjoying a night on the town.  They nudged one another, teasing and flirting beneath the blinking lights of gaming halls and ice cream parlors.  Parent’s harangued trains of unruly children racing from one window’s display to the next, pointing at the prizes and the sweets offered for those willing to play or with money to burn.  An elderly couple sat on a bench closer by, the lady people-watching while the man gestured during a winding ramble about what the coastal strip had become.

Helen sighed and turned away from the lot.  Looking up into the dotted sky, she found a bright star and wished herself away from the charade and to someplace where being honest didn’t get you fired.  She wondered where that might be, and if Dale’s money might get her there.  A pessimistic beast inside of her smirked at the innocent notion like it had when she’d first runaway believing adventure and a better life waited on the open road.

Then, from the hall, someone cried “Bingo” and finished driving in her despondency.

Shaking her head at the cash Dale would reap from that single word of advertising, Helen stuffed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and started strolling down the promenade.  She kept her gait slow, knowing she had a few hours to kill before the bus station opened and the first departure to anywhere other than where she’d already been or worse, where she’d started from, left for the day.