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“The Bus” by Shirley Jackson

Published: October 27, 2010

Originally published March 27, 1965

Miss Harper was going home, although the night was wet and nasty. Miss Harper disliked traveling at any time, and she particularly disliked traveling on this dirty small bus, which was her only way of getting home; she had frequently complained to the bus company about their service, because it seemed that no matter where she wanted to go, they had no respectable bus to carry her. Getting away from home was bad enough, Miss Harper was fond of pointing out to the bus company, but getting home seemed very close to impossible. Tonight Miss Harper had no choice: If she did not go home by this particular bus, she could not go for another day. Annoyed, tired, depressed, she tapped irritably on the counter of the little tobacco store which served also as the bus station. Sir, she was thinking, beginning her letter of complaint, Although I am an elderly lady of modest circumstances and must curtail my fondness for travel, let me point out that your bus service falls far below…

Outside, the bus stirred noisily, clearly not anxious to be moving; Miss Harper thought she could already hear the weary sound of its springs sinking out of shape. I just can’t make this trip again. Miss Harper thought; even seeing Stephanie isn’t worth it; they really go out of their way to make you uncomfortable. “Can I get my ticket, please?” she said sharply. and the old man at the other end of the counter put down his paper and gave her a look of hatred.

Miss Harper ordered her ticket, deploring her own cross voice, and the old man slapped it down on the counter in front of her and said, “You got three minutes before the bus leaves.”

He’d love to tell me I missed it, Miss Harper thought, and made a point of counting her change. The rain was beating down, and Miss Harper hurried the few exposed steps to the door of the bus. The driver was slow in opening the door, and as Miss Harper climbed in she was thinking: Sir, I shall never travel with your company again. Your ticket salesmen are ugly, your drivers are surly, your vehicles indescribably filthy…

There were already several people sitting in the bus, and Miss Harper wondered where they could possibly be going; were there really this many small towns served only by this bus? Were there really other people who would endure this kind of trip to get somewhere, even home? I’m very out of sorts, Miss Harper thought, very out of sorts; it’s too strenuous a visit for a woman of my age; I need to get home. She thought of a hot bath and a cup of tea and her own bed, and sighed. No one offered to help her put her suitcase on the rack, and she glanced over her shoulder at the driver sitting with his back turned and thought: He’d probably rather put me off the bus than help me; and then, perceiving her own ill nature, she smiled. The bus company might write a letter of complaint about me, she told herself, and felt better. She had providentially taken a sleeping pill before leaving for the bus station, hoping to sleep through as much of the trip as possible, and at last, sitting near the back, she promised herself that it would not be unbearably long before she had a bath and a cup of tea, and tried to compose the bus company’s response to her letter of complaint. Madam, a lady of your experience and advanced age ought surely to be aware of the problems confronting a poor but honest little company which wants only…

She was aware that the bus had started, because she was rocked and bounced in her seat, and the feeling of rattling and throbbing beneath the soles of her shoes stayed with her even when, at last, she slept. She lay back uneasily, her head resting on the seat back, moving with the motion of the bus, and around her other people slept, or spoke softly, or stared blankly out the windows at the passing lights and the rain.

Sometime during her sleep Miss Harper was jostled by someone moving into the seat behind her; her head was pushed and her hat disarranged. For a minute, bewildered by sleep, she clutched at her hat, and then said vaguely. “Who?” “Go back to sleep,” a young voice said, and giggled. ”I’m just running away from home, that’s all.”

Miss Harper was not awake, but she opened her eyes a little and looked up to the ceiling of the bus. “That’s wrong,” she said as clearly as she could. “That’s wrong. Go back.”

There was another giggle. “Too late,” the voice said. “Go back to sleep.”

Miss Harper did. She slept uncomfortably and awkwardly, her mouth a little open. Sometime, perhaps an hour later, her head was jostled again and the voice said, “I think I’m going to get off here. ‘Bye, now.”

“You’ll be sorry,” Miss Harper said, asleep. “Go back.” Then, still later, tile bus driver was shaking her. “Look, lady,” he was saying. “I’m not an alarm clock. Wake up and get off the bus.”

“What?” Miss Harper stirred. opened her eyes, felt for her pocketbook.

“I’m not an alarm clock,” the driver said. His voice was harsh and tired. ”I’m not an alarm clock. Get off the bus. ”

“What?” said Miss Harper. again. “This is as far as you go. You got a ticket to here. You’ve arrived. And I am not an alarm clock waking up people to tell them when it’s time to get off; you got here, lady, and it’s not part of my job to carry you off the bus. I’m not— ”

“I intend to report you,” Miss Harper said, awake. She felt for her pocketbook and found it in her lap, moved her feet, straightened her hat. She was stiff, and moving was difficult.

“Report me. But from somewhere else. I got a bus to run. Now will you please get off so I can go on my way?” His voice was loud, and Miss Harper was sickeningly aware of faces turned toward her from along the bus — grins, amused comments. The driver turned and stamped off down the bus to his seat, saying, “She thinks I’m an alarm clock,” and Miss Harper, without assistance and moving clumsily, took down her suitcase and struggled with it down the aisle. The suitcase banged against seats, and she knew that people were staring at her; she was terribly afraid that she might stumble and fall.

“I’II certainly report you,” she said to the driver, who shrugged.

“Come on, lady,” he said. “It’s the middle of the night and I got a bus to run. ”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Miss Harper said wildly, wanting to cry.

“Lady,” the driver said with elaborate patience, “please get off my bus.”

The door was open, and Miss Harper eased herself and her suitcase onto the steep step. “She thinks everyone’s an alarm clock, got to see she gets off the bus,” the driver said behind her, and Miss Harper stepped onto the ground. Suitcase, pocketbook, gloves, hat — she had them all. She had barely taken stock when the bus started with a jerk, almost throwing her backward, and Miss Harper, for the first time in her life, wanted to run and shake her fist at someone. I’ll report him, she thought; I’ll see that he loses his job. And then she realized that she was in the wrong place.

Standing quite still in the rain and the darkness, Miss Harper became aware that she was not at the bus corner of her town, where the bus should have left her. She was on an empty crossroads in the rain. There were no stores, no lights, no taxis, no people. There was nothing, in fact, but a wet dirt road under her feet and a signpost where two roads came together. Don’t panic, Miss Harper told herself, almost whispering, don’t panic; it’s all right, it’s all right, you’ll see that it’s all right, don’t be frightened.

She took a few steps in the direction the bus had gone, but it was out of sight, and when Miss Harper called falteringly, “Come back” and “Help,” there was no answer to the shocking sound of her own voice except the steady drive of the rain. I sound old, she thought, but I will not panic. She turned in a circle, her suitcase in her hand, and told herself: Don’t panic, it’s all right.

There was no shelter in sight, but the signpost said RICKET’S LANDING. So that’s where I am. Miss Harper thought; I’ve come to Ricket’s Landing and I don’t like it here. She set her suitcase down next to the signpost and tried to see down the road; perhaps there might be a house, or even some kind of barn or shed, where she could get out of the rain. She was crying a little, and lost and hopeless, saying. Please, won’t someone come?, when she saw headlights far off down the road and realized that someone was really coming to help her. She ran to the middle of the road and stood waving, her gloves wet and her pocketbook draggled. “Here,” she called. “here I am. Please come and help me.”

Through the sound of the rain she could hear the motor, and then the headlights caught her and, suddenly embarrassed, she put her pocketbook in front of her face. The lights belonged to a small truck, and it came to an abrupt stop beside her and the window near her was rolled down and a man’s voice said furiously, “You want to get killed? You trying to get killed or something? What you doing in the middle of the road, trying to get killed?” The young man turned and spoke to the driver. “It’s some dame. Running out in the road like that.”

“Please,” Miss Harper said, as he seemed about to close the window again, “please help me. The bus put me off here when it wasn’t my stop and I’m lost.”

“Lost?” The young man laughed richly. “First I ever heard anyone getting lost in Ricket’s Landing. Mostly they have trouble finding it.” He laughed again, and the driver, leaning forward over the steering wheel to look curiously at Miss Harper, laughed too. Miss Harper put on a willing smile, and said, “Can you take me somewhere? Perhaps a bus station?”

“No bus station.” The young man shook his head profoundly. “Bus comes through here every night, stops if he’s got any passengers.”

“Well,” Miss Harper said, her voice rising in spite of herself; she was suddenly afraid of antagonizing these young men; perhaps they might even leave her here, in the wet and dark. “Please,” she said, “can I get in with you, out of the rain?”

The two young men looked at each other. “Take her down to the old lady’s,” one of them said. “She’s pretty wet to get in the truck,” the other one said.

“Please,” Miss Harper said. “I’ll be glad to pay you what I can.”

“We’ll take you to the old lady,” the driver said. “Come on, move over,” he said to the other young man.

“Wait — my suitcase.” Miss Harper ran back to the signpost, no longer caring how she must look, stumbling about in the rain, and brought her suitcase over to the truck.

“That’s awful wet,” the young man said. He opened the door and took the suitcase from Miss Harper. “I’ll just throw it in the back,” he said, and turned and tossed the suitcase into the back of the truck. Miss Harper heard the sodden thud of its landing, and wondered what things would look like when she unpacked. My bottle of cologne, she thought despairingly. “Get in,” the young man said, and, “My God, you’re wet.”

Miss Harper had never climbed up into a truck before, and her skirt was tight and her gloves were slippery from the rain. Without help from the young man, she put one knee on the high step and somehow hoisted herself in. This cannot be happening to me, she thought clearly. The young man pulled away fastidiously as Miss Harper slid onto the seat next to him.

“You are pretty wet,” the driver said, leaning over the wheel to look around at Miss Harper. “Why were you out in the rain like that?”

“The bus driver.” Miss Harper began to peel off her gloves; somehow she had to make an attempt to dry herself. “He told me it was my stop.”

“That would be Johnny Talbot,” the driver said to the other young man. “He drives that bus.”

“Well, I’m going to report him,” Miss Harper said. There was a little silence in the truck, and then the driver said, “Johnny’s a good guy. He means all right.”

“He’s a bad bus driver,” Miss Harper said sharply.

The truck did not move. “You don’t want to report old Johnny,” the driver said.

“I most certainly —” Miss Harper began, and then stopped. Where am I? she thought. What is happening to me? “No,” she said at last, “I won’t report old Johnny.”

The driver started the truck, and they moved slowly down the road, through the mud and the rain. The windshield wipers swept back and forth hypnotically, there was a narrow line of light ahead from their headlights, and Miss Harper thought, What is happening to me?

“We’re going down to the old lady’s,” the driver said. “She’ll know what to do.”

“What old lady?” Miss Harper did not dare to move. even to turn her head. “Is there any kind of a bus station? Or even a taxi?”

“You could,” the driver said consideringly, “you could wait and catch that same bus tomorrow night when it goes through. Johnny’ll be driving her.”

“I just want to get home as soon as possible,” Miss Harper said. The truck seat was dreadfully uncomfortable, she felt clammy and sticky and chilled through, and home seemed so far away that perhaps it did not exist at all.

“Just down the road a mile or so.” the driver said reassuringly,

“I’ve never heard of Ricket’s Landing,” Miss Harper said. “I can’t imagine how he came to put me off there.”

“Maybe somebody else was supposed to get off there and he thought it was you by mistake.” This deduction seemed to tax the young man’s mind to the utmost, because he said, “See, someone else might’ve been supposed to get off instead of you.”

“Then he’s still on the bus,” said the driver, and they were both silent, appalled.

Ahead of them a light flickered, showing dimly through the rain, and the driver pointed and said, “There, that’s where we’re going.” As they came closer, Miss Harper was aware of a growing dismay. The light belonged to what seemed to be a roadhouse, and Miss Harper had never been inside a roadhouse in her life. The house itself was only a dim shape looming in the darkness, and the light over the side door illuminated a sign, hanging crooked, which read

BEER
BAR & GRILL

“Is there anywhere else I could go?” Miss Harper asked timidly, clutching her pocketbook. “I’m not at all sure, you know, that I ought —”

“Not many people here tonight,” the driver said, turning the truck into the driveway and pulling up in the parking lot, which had once, Miss Harper was sad to see, been a garden. “The rain, probably.”

Peering through the window and the rain, Miss Harper felt, suddenly, a warm stir of recognition, of welcome. It’s the house, she thought; why, of course, the house is lovely. It had clearly been an old mansion once, solidly and handsomely built, with the balance and style that belonged to a good house of an older time. “Why?” Miss Harper asked, wanting to know why such a good house should have a light tacked on over the side door, and a sign hanging crooked but saying Beer Bar & Grill. “Why?” asked Miss Harper, but the driver said, “This is where you wanted to go. . . . Get her suitcase,” he told the other young man.

“In here?” asked Miss Harper, feeling a kind of indignation on behalf of the fine old house. “Into this saloon?” Why, I used to live in a house like this, she thought; what are they doing to our old houses?

The driver laughed. “You’ll be safe,” he said.

Carrying her suitcase and her pocketbook, Miss Harper followed the two young men to the lighted door and passed under the crooked sign. Shameful, she thought; they haven’t even bothered to take care of the place; it needs paint and tightening all around and probably a new roof. And then the driver said, “Come on, come on,” and pushed open the heavy door.

“I used to live in a house like this,” Miss Harper said, and the young men laughed.

“I bet you did,” one of them said, and Miss Harper stopped in the doorway, staring, and realized how strange she must have sounded. Where there had certainly once been comfortable rooms, high-ceilinged and square, with tall doors and polished floors, there was now one large dirty room, with a counter running along one side and half a dozen battered tables; there was a jukebox in a corner, and torn linoleum on the floor. “Oh, no,” Miss Harper said. The room smelled unpleasant, and the rain slapped against the bare windows.

Sitting around the tables and standing around the jukebox were perhaps a dozen young people, resembling the two who had brought Miss Harper here, all looking oddly alike, all talking and laughing flatly. Miss Harper leaned back against the door; for a minute she thought they were laughing about her. She was wet and disheartened. and these noisy people did not belong at all in the old house. Then the driver turned and gestured to her. “Come and meet the old lady,” he said; and then, to the room at large: “Look, we brought company,”

“Please,” Miss Harper said, but no one had given her more than a glance. She followed the two young men across to the counter; her suitcase bumped against her legs and she thought: I must not fall down.

“Belle, Belle,” the driver said, “look at the stray cat we found.”

An enormous woman swung around in her seat at the end of the counter and looked at Miss Harper. Looking up and down, looking at the suitcase and Miss Harper’s wet hat and wet shoes, looking at Miss Harper’s pocketbook and gloves squeezed in her hand, the woman seemed hardly to move her eyes. It was almost as though she absorbed Miss Harper; without any particular effort. “Hell you say,” the woman said at last. Her voice was surprisingly soft. “Hell you say. ”

“She’s wet,” the second young man said. The two young men stood one on either side of Miss Harper, presenting her. “Please,” Miss Harper said; here was a woman, at least — someone who might understand and sympathize, ” please, they put me off my bus at the wrong stop and I can’t seem to find my way home. Please.”

“Hell you say,” the woman said, and laughed, a gentle laugh. “She sure is wet,” she said.

“Please,” Miss Harper said.

“You’ll take care of her?” the driver asked. He turned and smiled down at Miss Harper, obviously waiting, and, remembering, Miss Harper fumbled in her pocketbook for her wallet. How much? she was wondering, not wanting to ask; it was such a short ride, but if they hadn’t come I might have gotten pneumonia, and paid all those doctor bills; I have caught cold, she thought with great clarity, and she took two five-dollar bills from her wallet. They can’t argue over five dollars each, she thought, and sneezed. The two young men and the large woman were watching her with great interest, and all of them saw that after Miss Harper took out the two five-dollar bills there were a single and two tens left in the wallet. The money was not wet. I suppose I should be grateful for that, Miss Harper thought, moving slowly. She handed a five-dollar bill to each young man and felt that they glanced at each other over her head.

“Thanks,” the driver said. I could have gotten away with a dollar each, Miss Harper thought. “Thanks,” the driver said again, and the other young man said, “Say, thanks.”

“Thank you,” Miss Harper said formally.

“I’ll put you up for the night,” the woman said. “You can sleep here. Go tomorrow.” She looked Miss Harper up and down again. “Dry off a little,” she said.

“Is there anywhere else?” Then, afraid that this might seem ungracious, Miss Harper said, “I mean, is there any way of going on tonight? I don’t want to impose.”

“We got rooms for rent.” The woman half turned back to the counter. “Cost you ten for the night.”

She’s leaving me bus fare home, Miss Harper thought; I suppose I should be grateful. ”I’d better, I guess,” she said, taking out her wallet again. “I mean, thank you.”

The woman accepted the bill. “Upstairs,” she said. “Take your choice. No one’s around.” She glanced sideways at Miss Harper. “I’ll see you get a cup of coffee in the morning.”

“Thank you.” Miss Harper knew where the staircase would be, and she turned and, carrying her suitcase and her pocketbook, went to what had once been the front hall, and there was the staircase, so lovely in its proportions that she caught her breath. She turned back and saw the large woman staring at her, and said, “I used to live in a house like this. Built about the same time, I guess. One of those good old houses that were made to stand forever, and where people —”

“Hell you say,” the woman said, and turned back to the counter.

The young people scattered around the big room were talking; in one corner a group surrounded the two who had brought Miss Harper, and now and then they laughed. Miss Harper was touched with a little sadness now, looking at them, so at home in the big, ugly room which had once been so beautiful. It would be nice, she thought, to speak to these young people, perhaps even become their friend, talk and laugh with them; perhaps they might like to know that this spot where they came together had been a lady’s drawing room. Hesitating a little, Miss Harper wondered if she might call “Good night” or “Thank you” again, or even “God bless you all.” Then, since no one looked at her, she started up the stairs. Halfway, there was a landing with a stained-glass window, and Miss Harper stopped, holding her breath. When she had been a child the stained-glass window on the stair landing in her house had caught the sunlight and scattered it on the stairs in a hundred colors. Fairyland colors, Miss Harper thought. remembering; I wonder why we don’t live in these houses now. I’m lonely. Miss Harper thought, and then she thought: But I must get ‘out of these wet clothes; I really am catching cold.

Without thinking, she turned at the top of the stairs and went to the front room on the left; that had always been her room. The door was open and she glanced in; this was clearly a bedroom for rent, and it was ugly and drab and cheap. Miss Harper turned on the light and stood in the doorway, saddened by the peeling wallpaper and the sagging floor. What have they done to the house? she thought; how can I sleep here tonight?

At last she moved to cross the room and set her suitcase on the bed. I must get dry, she told herself; I must make the best of things. The bed was correctly placed, between the two front windows, but the mattress was stiff and lumpy, and Miss Harper was frightened at the sour smell and the creaking springs. I will not think about such things, Miss Harper thought; this might be the room where I slept as a girl. The windows were almost right — two across the front, two at the side — and the door was placed correctly. How they did build these old places to a square-cut pattern, Miss Harper thought; how they did put them together; there must be a thousand houses all over the country built exactly like this. The closet, however, was on the wrong side. Some oddness of construction had set the closet to Miss Harper’s right as she sat on the bed, when it ought really to have been on her left; when she was a girl the big closet had been her playhouse and her hiding place, but it had been on the left.

The bathroom was wrong, too, but that was less important. Miss Harper had thought wistfully of a hot tub before bed, but a glance at the bathtub discouraged her; she could wait until she got home. She washed her face and hands, and the warm water comforted her. She was further comforted to find that her bottle of cologne had not broken in her suitcase and that nothing inside had got wet. At least she could sleep in a dry nightgown, although in a cold bed.

She shivered once in the cold sheets, remembering a child’s bed. She lay in the darkness with her eyes open, wondering where she was and how she had got here: first the bus and then the truck; and now she lay in the darkness, and no one knew where she was or what was to become of her. She had only her suitcase, and a little money in her pocketbook. She was very tired, and she thought that perhaps the sleeping pill she had taken much earlier had still not quite worn off; perhaps the sleeping pill had been affecting all her actions, since she had been following docilely, wherever she was taken. In the morning, she told herself sleepily, I’ll show them I can make decisions for myself.

The jukebox noise downstairs faded softly into a distant melody. My mother is singing in the drawing room, Miss Harper thought, and the company is sitting on the stiff little chairs, listening; my father is playing the piano. She could not quite distinguish the song, but it was one she had heard her mother sing many times. I could creep out to the top of the stairs and listen, she thought, and then she became aware that there was a rustling in the closet, but the closet was on the wrong side, on the right instead of the left. It is more a rattling than a rustling, Miss Harper thought, wanting to listen to her mother singing; it is as though something wooden were being shaken around. Shall I get out of bed and quiet it so I can hear the singing? Am I too warm and comfortable; am I too sleepy?

The closet was on the wrong side, but the rattling continued, just loud enough to be irritating, and at last, knowing she would never sleep until it stopped, Miss Harper swung her legs over the side of the bed and, sleepily, padded barefoot over to the closet door.

“What are you doing in there?” she asked aloud, and opened the door. There was just enough light for her to see that it was a wooden snake, head lifted, stirring and rattling itself against the other toys. Miss Harper laughed. “It’s my snake,” she said aloud, “it’s my old snake, and it’s come alive.” In the back of the closet she could see her old toy clown, bright and cheerful, and as she watched, enchanted, the toy clown flopped languidly forward and back, coming alive. Then Miss Harper saw the big beautiful doll sitting on a small chair, the doll with long golden curls and wide blue eyes and a stiff organdy party dress. As Miss Harper held out her hands in joy, the doll opened her eyes and stood up.

“Rosabelle,” Miss Harper cried out, “Rosabelle, it’s me.”

The doll turned, looking widely at her, smile painted on. The red lips opened and the doll quacked, outrageously, a flat, slapping voice coming out of that fair mouth. “Go away, old lady,” the doll said. ” go away, old lady, go away.”

Miss Harper backed away, staring. She slammed the closet door and leaned against it. Behind her, the doll’s voice went on and on. Crying out, Miss Harper turned and fled. “Mommy,” she screamed “Mommy, Mommy. ”

Screaming, she fled, past the bed, out the door, to the staircase. “Mommy,” she cried, and fell, going down and down into darkness, turning, trying to catch onto something solid and real, crying.

“Look, lady,” the bus driver said. “I’m not an alarm clock. Wake up and get off the bus.”

“You’ll be sorry,” Miss Harper said distinctly.

“Wake up,” he said, “wake up and get off the bus.”

“I intend to report you,” Miss Harper said. Pocketbook, gloves, hat, suitcase.

”I’ll certainly report you,” she said, almost crying.

“This is as far as you go,” the driver said.

The bus lurched, moved, and Miss Harper almost stumbled in the driving rain, her suitcase at her feet, under the sign reading RICKET’S LANDING.

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  • Bob McKenna

    Possibly not germane but I am looking for the author of short stories published in the Post that featured a German farmer named Heinrich Von Schnobble and were written with comments by the main character in broken English and garbled Pennsylvania Dutch. —– Read these as a child and greatly enjoyed puzzeling through things like “oinken porkers” und der like.

  • UnKnown

    The story was a sucess and I liked it

  • Katherine

    This was an amazing story and movie that was made. Thank you.

  • Dick Bloom

    Thanks for Shirley Jackson’s “The Bus”, which like the Wodehouse story elsewhere in this issue is an allusion in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Elaine Harper is the name of the woman Mortimer Brewster marries at the beginning of the film and, presumably, also the play, which I haven’t read in forty years and don’t remember as distinct from the film. “Arsenic and Old Lace”–its initials, by the way, are AOL– was written in 1939 by the American Joseph Kesselring and opened on Broadway in January, 1941. (Just FYI, arsenic is element #33 in the Periodic Table of the Elements. As for the phrase “you can’t go home again”, that is the title of one of American author Thomas Wolfe’s best known novels.) The story also reminds me of two other films, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”. The toys in the closet that provide E.T. camouflage in the eponymous film may also allude to “The Bus”.

  • Ron

    Thanks. Perfect for Halloween.