Title: Bertram & Barney
**Author’s note: This is one of those stories that came out all at once, in one sitting, which means it’s no surprise that I like it so much. In my opinion, my best short stories are usually ones that my subconscious just spits out all at once. It is best to write while the fire is still hot. That is the goal of ALL of these exercise pieces, of course, but life doesn’t always allow such luxury. This time it did, thanks to Christmas Break, and I am glad of it.**
Bertram boarded the bus and placed his sack next to his right foot on the floor. He never withdrew his hand from it, even as he sat back, spine unrolling against the cold hard back of the seat. He groaned with relief. The driver’s eyes darted to the long mirror, back to the road. A man in the next row shifted.
Bertram reached into his shirt and produced a small spiral notebook. He placed this upon his lap and reached in again for a pen, balancing the small notebook on his knee. He still had not removed his hand from the sack at his feet and did not intend to. The man in the next row shifted again and cleared his throat. The driver’s eyes flitted up and back. Bertram realized he could never balance the notebook with one hand AND write in it. But he needed to record the morning’s findings before he forgot them.
“Partials only,” he muttered, lifting his right foot off the floor of the bus in anticipation of a bump he sensed was coming. The notebook teetered. He stabbed at it with the pen and pressed it against his leg. “Partials. Only. Remember, Bertram.” He was louder this time. He glanced around.
The Stop indicator dinged; the computer voice announced the upcoming stop. “Tates Creek and Malabu. Inbound. Be careful entering and exiting. Have a good day.”
The shifting man stood and walked toward the rear exit of the bus. He glared at Bertram and sneered at the bulging sack at his feet. Bertram tightened his grip. The man exited with a sniff of disgust and Bertram smiled. He knew better these days. They would have to try harder if they wanted to provoke him. He laughed softly. “Only partials today. What other explanation could there be?”
The driver’s eyes flitted. She steered the bus around a tight corner, pulling and pushing at the huge steering wheel like an ancient priestess guiding the sun across the sky. The bus sighed and growled and lurched. Bertram laughed a little louder and suddenly knew how to do it: he reached down and placed the mouth of his sack on the floor and carefully transferred his foot so it replaced his hand. Sack secured. He could use both hands to write. He smiled and wrote in block letters on the page: ONLY PARTIALS TODAY. He underlined PARTIALS, and then added another O N L Y. and underlined it three times. He wanted to be clear since he suspected lately they had been monitoring his reports while he slept. He would not be able to communicate the emphasis orally, so he needed to make it understood. He underlined PARTIAL and O N L Y one more time each. He sat back, exhausted and sleepy. Smiling.
“You smell funny,” a small voice said to his right. Bertram jumped and almost took his foot off the sack. A small child was sitting next to him, chewing gum and swinging his legs, first together, then one-at-a-time, then together again. Dread settled on Bertram’s heart. How close had he come to losing control of the sack? Too close. He gulped and croaked, “Excuse me?”
“My cat has feet, but she doesn’t wear shoes.”
Bertram looked around to see where the child’s parents were. But the bus was empty except for the two of them, a nodding old lady in the back, and the driver with the nervous eyes.
“Are you here to take my report?” Bertram whispered. He felt silly. He did not believe any such thing, but they had been much more unpredictable lately in how they communicated with him. Scanning his reports while he slept, for instance. He had turned it over in his mind for weeks and couldn’t figure out why they would need to do that rather than talk to him through a cop or a librarian at the downtown branch. Those seemed reliable enough conduits, but Bertram admitted to himself that they knew more than he did. It was a relief to know this, actually. Bertram ground the mouth of the bag beneath his foot and grinned. Secure.
“None.” He giggled at the simplicity of it all. He saw that aspect of it more and more every day. “Well, not none. Partials. But–” he turned in his seat to face the child and look him in the eye. “ONLY partials. So basically none. Simple!”
“I understand,” the boy said. He jumped up and skipped a couple of steps up the aisle toward the driver, then back toward Bertram.
“Please sit down,” the lady driver said, hugging and wrestling the steering wheel. Her flitting eyes were taught bubbles of suspicion.
The boy ignored her, skipping and skipping. Then he stopped, squared his feet, and hopped straight up, slapping a horizontal bar overhead.
“I can reach it now!” he yelled, and clapped. The driver’s bubble eyes darted and dipped. “Children have to remain seated,” she said.
“My mommy says that’s not actually in the rules!” the child yelled at the driver, suddenly sullen and angry, almost growling. He clenched his fists by his side.
“It’s in MY rules, I told her that,” the driver whined.
Bertram grabbed the notebook from his lap and held it up to the child’s face. He wanted to make sure the boy could not only scan it clearly, but that he understood it. It was important. He pointed at each letter. “O-N-L-Y P-A-R-T-I-A-L-S. That’s it. Last time they seemed to completely misunderstand my report. Straight partials. Tell them if they insist on scanning while I’m asleep, maybe they should at least –”
The boy sat down again. “I didn’t sit down because SHE told me to,” he said, smiling, chewing. “I just sat down ‘cause I wanted to. I wanted to smell you again. You smell like salty vegetables and old milk. I like you.” He put out his hand. “Pleased to meet ya. My name is Barney.”
Bertram reached out to take the boy’s hand. The lady driver sniffed and grunted. “‘Barney.’ You are a mess. That ain’t your name, boy.”
“Barney!” the boy said loudly, his hand waiting. Bertram reached out to take it.
“I wouldn’t shake his hand if I was you, mister,” the driver said. “That boy’s name ain’t Barney, it’s Jimmy, and he’s a little pickpocket. Not that you look like you’d have much to pick.”
“That wasn’t nice,” said a voice from the back. Bertram and the boy turned to look at the old lady, who was now standing and holding one of the support poles. “Sweety,” the old lady said to Bertram, “would you please pull the Stop cord for me? My shoulders just hurt and hurt anymore, and I’d just as soon leave ‘em be. I know you’re outdoors, but I’ve seen you around downtown and you ain’t a bad sort. No matter what SOME may think.” The bus driver snorted and chuckled at the front.
“The cord?” the old lady said, nodding above Bertram’s head. “The next stop is coming up soon. She knows I need off, but she won’t never stop ‘less somebody pulls the damned cord.”
“Hey! No bad words!” the boy yelled, pointing at the old woman.
Bertram felt dizzy and like he was made of glass. He didn’t know if he could reach the cord himself in his state, but even more to the point, he didn’t know if he SHOULD. Was this a trick?
“I spent the whole day canvassing, trust me,” he said. “I started down on Loudon, just like I promised. I know what I’m doing. Not a single thing but partials.” He began to weep quietly. For a moment he forgot about the sack.
“The cord please!” the woman pleaded. She too began to weep. “If I miss this stop, I have to ride all day!”
“He ain’t right in the head, my momma says,” the boy sang, then jumped up on the seat next to Bertram and put a hand on his shoulder. “Always carrying that sack of who-knows-what around. Momma said it ain’t never been washed, that’s for sure.” He hopped up and yanked down on the Stop cord, almost pulling it loose. He released it and it snapped up and popped the roof.
“Too hard!” the bus driver cried, and began to slow the bus. The recorded robot voice took over, reciting street names and platitudes.
“Thank you so much,” the old woman said to the boy as she shuffled past. “No thanks at all to YOU,” she said as she passed Bertram. “Bum,” she hissed.
“You’re mean!” the boy yelled at the old lady’s back. “I thought old ladies were supposed to be nice!”
“Look,” said Bertram. “I don’t want any trouble. I just want to get back to work. Tell ‘em. I don’t care which stop I get off, I can do the work anywhere.”
The bus stopped and sighed and dipped toward the curb to ease departure. The doors front and rear breathed open, but no one moved. Bertram looked from one to the other. The hazard signal clicked and ticked.
“I can do the work anywhere. You KNOW that. This isn’t necessary. Remember? You were going to trust me this time. I’ve been good. PLEASE.”
“Finally!” the boy laughed, diving to the floor and snatching at Bertram’s sack, which he had completely forgotten about for the time being. “I knew he would move his foot if I waited long enough!” the boy yodel-laughed, and quick as lightning was on his feet and headed toward the door with the sack. A Mountain Dew bottle slipped out the mouth of the bag and bounced hollowly three times before skittering past the old lady and on out the door.
“Litterbug!” the old lady yelled as the boy zipped past her with the sack. He gathered it to his chest so he didn’t spill anymore and moved his feet like only a young boy can. He disappeared into the crowd.