On the Number 17 bus, serving downtown Seattle, widower Jimmy Carter (not the former U.S. president) crashes headlong into the Almighty...
Jimmy is lost without his wife. He measures his days as the time After Ruthie. It's now the year A. R. 4. When God starts speaking to him on the 17, Jim reluctantly agrees to serve, uncertain if he’s gone off the deep end or if God—Who can do most things on His own—is really so desperate as to need Jimmy to lend a hand.
When love blossoms, hurting people are restored, and lives are saved—and lost, Jimmy discovers he's linked to God in a most profound way.
The voices began on St. Swithin’s Day in the year AR 4.
The Number 17 lurched away from the bus stop, its aging tranny by now reduced to slipping gears and metal filings, and Doomsday Man knocked his head against the window and cursed.
Doomie, our nickname for him, got on the bus in typical fashion by crossing himself and declaring in reedy falsetto, “We’re all gonna die!” He shuffled past Bill, the driver, paused at the printed warning sticker affixed to the hard plastic cowling that afforded Bill scant protection from whatever hell boarded the bus that day, and ran a thin, stained finger along the words.
“‘Don’t touch the driver. Any act of violence against a bus driver is a felony.’”
Doomie’s pale lips silently mumbled the words same as every day. The old ladies with canes and the kid in the wheelchair wanting by could just wait.
Twice through the text and Doomie took an empty seat on the right side of the bus, setting a small cardboard box on the floor at his feet.
The box, from brown paper wrapping to binding string to the way Doomie positioned it to the right of his feet each time, screamed “suspicious package.” If you found it unattended, you would report this box.
The transit police said it was not a crime to possess such a box, provided that it wasn’t wired to blow everyone to kingdom come, nor was it a criminal act to position it just so at one’s feet. Those same police were never around when Doomie, package under arm, crossed himself and declared our grim fate. Following a couple of complaints, they did take Doomie in for an “informational interview” and to X-ray the box. Its contents were judged benign, as was Doomie.
I repeat: the transit police did not ride with Doomie every day.
As noted, it was July 15, St. Swithin’s Day. That overcast morning, I had taken community transit thirty miles north to the town of Everett, home of the Boeing assembly plant. Downtown Seattle doesn’t have an inexpensive chain store that carries everything, but Everett does, so I used theirs.
I was after cheap cologne. It had been four years since my wife Ruthie passed on—After Ruthie, year four; hence the AR 4—and my natural thriftiness ran unchecked. Have you seen the price of cologne? At the chain store I was rewarded with a quart of body spray for half the price of the real foo-foo. Compared to the other smells of the 17 and its passengers, I was pleased to have marinated in a cloud of Striker 100 before the cashier could wish me a nice day.
I transferred to the 17 Metro at Third and Bell.
Bill recoiled the instant he got a whiff of me. “Whoa, Jim,” came the cigarette growl, “ya smell like a cheap date.”
“And you’d know?”
Old Bill married younger, but he and Roxanne were coming up on their twelfth anniversary. To me, never having met her, she was as elusive as the mysterious Mrs. Colombo, but to hear him tell it, she was Queen of the Nile.
He harrumphed at me, adjusted the seatbelt around the hip spread of twenty years in the saddle, checked the side-view mirror, and winked. “Plato said, ‘Treat your wife like a million bucks and you’ll never eat cold soup.’”
I rolled my eyes, settling into our familiar routine. “He did not say that.”
“Who did then?”
He didn’t laugh so much as bark.
“So, Bill, how is your bride?”
His eyes softened, knowing how much I missed Ruthie. “She’s in Arkansas. Another cousin, an eight-pounder this time.”
“Who-whee, that’s a keeper. Roxie sure is close to her relatives. Isn’t this her third or fourth trip out there this year?”
Bill checked the rearview mirror to make sure all his passengers were seated before he pulled into the light afternoon traffic. Then he eyed me to see what I might be implying. My arched eyebrow must have given it away. He snorted. “Her family’s a fertile bunch, I’ll give ya that. But I got no worries that she’s got something on the side. Have you seen those hill boys? Every other tooth missing.”
I ignored the don’t touch sticker and slapped him on the shoulder. Sue me.
A couple of weeks after Doomsday first started riding the bus every day, I asked Bill if he was afraid of guys like that. “You know, unstable.”
Bill shook his head. “I’d take a busload of Doomies. He pretty much keeps to himself, one of the more predictable ones. Every day, same thing. Crosses himself. Says we’re all gonna die. Reads the warning sticker. Sits in the same place. Carries the same box.”
Bill was too trusting. He was also Operator of the Year two years running. You didn’t win that honor by looking down on people. Bill’s philosophy said his passengers were his special charge and as long as they were on his bus, they were equals. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, you respected your bus mates. Off the bus, duke it out if you must. On board Bill’s Number 17, the Golden Rule was solid gold.
Doomie wore the same colorless, shabby clothes. Colorless in every way, that is, except for the socks. They were wine-red and appeared clean. One day he came with two new pair of wine-red socks pinned between the twine and the “suspicious” box. Each pair was still attached to its store cardboard and the little black plastic display hook.
Give him the cologne.
Twelve streets form the heart of Seattle’s downtown business district. On this saint’s day, I’d been mindlessly staring out the window, reciting the wry mnemonic taught me as a kid:
“Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, and Pine. JCMSUP—Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.”
We’d be bussing the streets in reverse order, north to south, but I’d learned them from my mother the way a lot of people had, south to north.
Give him the cologne.
It was more an impression than an audible voice. That it injected itself with such force into my wandering thoughts startled me enough to sit up and glance at Doomie sitting across the aisle from me. He sat there, head pressed against the back of the seat in front of him, as lost in his world as I’d been in mine.
This sort of thing, if it happened at all, would far more likely happen to Ruthie were she alive. Hunch, feminine intuition, psychic prescience, call it what you want, it was her baby. Like that time she told a disgruntled me to drive six lanes out of our way, but closer to a theatre venue so crowded that even the motorcycles were double-parked. There, in that sixth lane over, was the perfect parking spot—no disability restrictions, no risk of dings from neighboring car doors, no alcohol-fueled idiot to steal it. Simply a spacious, beautiful, uncontested parking spot close by a side exit that allowed us to escape the madness five minutes after closing curtain.
Give him the cologne.
Ruthie believed the truth would set you free. I was more inclined to insist it pass a polygraph first. I clutched the chain-store bag to my chest as if it were about to be snatched from me by an unseen hand. Had I been a loner long enough to hear voices, to receive “impressions” from the beyond? Shoot. I turned around.
Rainbow Man, pastel-colored hair, no musical device in sight, bopped to the beat in his head. Guitar Man, instrument case slung on his back, crunched ramen noodles straight from the package. Shy Stella covered her eyes and sank deeper into the seat. Roscoe waved. Virgil nodded. A smart-suited woman in gray glared.
“Third and Pine.” Bill called the next stop, the last in the mnemonic. “Macy’s. Nordstrom. Westlake Center. Seattle Monorail. Pike Place Market.” The bus snorted to the curb and we lost Roscoe and the woman in gray. We gained Alfred Dreamstone, the Chief, and Tai Chi Lady, who sat, kicked out of black slip-on oxfords, stuck her legs and feet into the aisle, and flexed them, all the while massaging her temples as if still engaged in some ancient purification ritual.
We lurched back into traffic and while the exits and entrances had momentarily diverted me, they had not distracted the thought. Give him the cologne.
I was not interested in divine directives, nor was I into crazy. Low profile, keep your head down, make no waves—that was me in the second half of my life.
Buses were breeding grounds for grand and not-so-grand illusions. Many could operate that far more convincingly than me.
My days were more profitably spent as Fade into the Woodwork Guy. Maybe it was the residual effects of the pasta coma I’d purchased at the far end of the chain-store parking lot. The Spaghetti Palace had a “Meatball Express” that was seasoned to perfection by Mama Giuseppe.
“What are you lookin’ at, jerk face?”
Without realizing, I had let my eyes wander to Doomie and left them there. His socks matched the bloodshot of his eyes and the rising flush of his neck.
I rose, crossed the aisle, and plunked down beside him before I lost the nerve.
My heartbeat trip-hammered quick, air precious hard to come by.
“I got you something.” I reached into the bag and handed him the bottle of Striker 100. My mouth kept moving but no further words came. Then they did and I wished they hadn’t. “Not that you smell or anything, because you don’t.” Like one of those movies where time stops and everything around goes into slow motion, I unfolded to my feet and braced for death.
Doomie’s eyes glistened, the thumb of his right hand caressing the plastic bottle as if stroking a cat. His neck returned to normal, the high tide of tension flowing swiftly from the shore.
He returned a sardonic grin. “I got no cash.”
“None needed. It’s a gift.”
The disdain slid away, replaced by flickers of doubt and acceptance and something else. Gratitude? He squeezed the handle, first tentative, then with the strength of a cow-milker. Chin to neck, he glistened with Striker 100.
“Third and University,” Bill announced over the scratchy loudspeaker. “US Post Office, Benaroya Hall.”
People flowed around and past me, bent on their appointed rounds.
Shy Stella moved up the aisle, eyes furtive as field mice.
I turned sideways so that she could pass, unsure of what I should do next.
Stella stopped, button nose twitching. She tipped forward on sandaled feet into the air space above the seat until Doomie was forced to look at her.
It was the first time I’d seen her make eye contact with anyone. Then she made eye contact with me and smiled.
Her eyes were baby-rabbit brown.
She looked again at Doomie. “You smell nice.”
With stunning swiftness, he became pliable as the proverbial putty, transformed at once from alienated bomber boy to love-struck adolescent. He scooted over to make room for Stella and shoved his precious box to a forgotten location beneath the seat.
Did they have a history?
“Wasn’t that your stop?” Stella asked with fragile uncertainty.
“Wasn’t it yours?” Doomie’s words were no less uncertain.
As quickly as Doomie yielded to domestication, Stella found her groove. “Want to walk around Chinatown with me?”
“I like your socks.”
“Thanks. Red’s my favorite.”
“Mine too. I saw you at the market. You were juggling Walla Walla sweet onions and English cucumbers. You’re good.”
“Gets me a little coin. I’m Greg Littleton.”
“How’d you know?”
“I’m Stella Richards. I’m clairvoyant.” She giggled.
Was Shy Stella actually flirting with him?
It was a few seconds before I realized that Doomie had spoken to me. “I said thanks, man.” He pulled the bell and stood, the suspicious package held beneath one arm.
“Sure, yeah, you bet. I’m Jim.”
Awkwardly, I jabbed a hand in his direction.
He slapped it sideways in a street high-five. “I know.”
“How’d you know?”
Doomie looked at Stella. “Stella and me, we’re what you call clairvoyant.”
I left them at Third and Main, the last stop in the Ride Free Zone. Before she got off, Stella whispered in my ear, “I’ve been praying for weeks that he’d pay attention to me. Thanks!”
They headed off in the direction of the warren of ethnic restaurants and stores known as the International District, and me to my volunteer job at Kids Safari, a nonprofit collector of clothing for disadvantaged children.
“Well, Ruthie,” I said, sorting shirts and pants to size when I got to work. “That was something.”
Coincidence, that’s all. In thirty years of marriage, my sweet Ruthie and her big heart were bound to rub off on me. Voices! Yeah, right. This was easily explained. After all, I wasn’t without compassion.
A clear-cut case of paying it forward. Call it a random act of kindness. It worked this time, although Doomie could as easily have told me to get out of his face and mind my own business.
I was relieved. Glad for Doomie and Stella, I guess. You had to see the transformation to believe she was safe with him. But more glad for me, really. Glad that it was no wacky visitation from beyond after all, certainly not the voice of God. They could give my spot at the Rubber Room Inn to someone else who heard voices from the TV telling them to set fires or rob banks. I was safe, an ordinary joe who read the signs and connected the dots that helped two painfully shy people find a little common ground. No big deal.
The City on the Bus. It’s what I call the misfit irregulars who use transit to do the few errands required of their threadbare existence, but mostly to have something to do, somewhere to go, a few other misfits to gossip with. It helps pass the time, gives their lives a little meaning. It is a rolling community afforded some dignity by tax dollars and a metropolitan transit authority that believes in providing a way to get around even for the least of these.
It helps give my life meaning.
I’m glad I learned Doomie’s real name. Maybe something would come of it and two of the most unlikely candidates on the 17 would, in street parlance, “hook up” for time and eternity.
Ruthie had made a romantic out of me.
Nope, I did not want or need voices.
A couple of things still nagged at me. What made me, no Marine commando, get out of that seat and speak to Greg Littleton, alias Doomsday? Why had Stella, the mousiest girl on the planet, made a beeline for Dangerous Doomie, the “we’re all gonna die” guy?
Bill saw it all happen in his rearview mirror and once I was back in my seat gave me a “what the blazes?” stare.
Truth be told, there was no way that on my own I’d shell out ten bucks plus tax for cologne I traveled sixty miles and two hours roundtrip to purchase and then on some whim hand it over to a red-sock-wearing, freaky guy who was on everybody’s watchlist. Nope. No way. Nothing good ever happened to people who heard voices. It was the meatballs talking. Chalk the whole thing up to a freaky St. Swithin’s Day. The good bishop of Winchester rolled over in his grave and we felt the bump.
Of course, had I known then what was coming down the street straight for me, I might have come to a very different conclusion.
Question 1: Does a Christian ever "retire" from service to God?
Answer 1: Scripture tells of people of God teceiivng "assignments" at a very old age. Think Abraham, Noah, Moses, Daniel.
Question 2: Does God limit the ways in which he communicates with his people?
Answer 2: No. Among other things, He used a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a donkey, and a voice from heaven to give messages to his people.
Question 3: Does God ever take no for an answer?
Answer 3: The Lord works with His people and helps them mature so that their wills align with His.
Question 4: Does God treat people impartially?
Answer 4: He does. His common grace falls on all (think rain, oxygen, sunlight), the poor and the wealthy, the famous and the obscure, men, women and children. He chooses whom He will to do His will. Think shepherd boy David, King Darius, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Question 5: James Carter is a widower. Does his singleness and sorrow for her loss make him unfit for service to God?
Answer 5: We must distinguish between God using us anytime in our lives and our propensity to disqualify ourselves from service because we are "too old, too grief-stricken, too unskilled, or we have done our time in ministry." Here am I, Lord, send me ought to be our posture until we draw our last breath.
Question 6: What wise counsel does James Carter seek from others?
Answer 6: James has a handful of people who continue to speak into his life -- people at the gospel mission, the owner of the antiques/collectibles store, his deceased wife, Ruthie, his friend Greta, even children at Kids Safari. He bounces circumstances and challenges in life off of them for their perspective.
Question 7: Why does James Carter identify with the colorful people who ride the #17 bus?
Answer 7: They are interesting, insightful, open to a fault, and have no airs. They are his community of "real people."
Question 8: Does James Carter fall in love with Greta or is she just a good friend?
Answer 8: James misses his wife, Ruthie, and Greata gives him the female perspective and the touch of grace and gentleness he so misses. Like most men, he wants to be appreciated by the fairer sex.
Question 9: How does James grow from the experiences in the story.
Answer 9 James learns that God wants a relationship with him and that the Hound of Heaven will pursue those he loves. We are unable to hide from the fierce passion of the Almighty.
Question 10: Is the James at the end of the story changed from the James at the beginning?
Answer 10: Yes, he has learned to listen for God's voice and the importance of stepping up to whatever God has in store for His own.