Literary as hell.

Riding The Red-White Caterpillar by Penelope Hawtrey

Park and Ride and I. January 26th. Ottawa. This is how we meet.

I park my car and then grab my overstuffed knapsack that rests on the seat beside me that holds various snacks and workout clothes. I turn and reach behind me, and blindly grapple to locate my brown leather purse that I flung on the floor of the backseat. My second bag weighs more than any Army Cadet has ever had to carry during a march.

“Ah! There you are!” I say to no one in particular. Locating both bags, I push my car door open as white snow whips against my face feeling like hundreds of pin pricks against my cheeks. The snow enters my Honda civic and dances around inside. With that, I stick my foot out. And that’s where we meet.

Snowbank and I; SNOWBANK 1, ME 0.

Snow worms wiggle between my hiking boot and ankle and then, smoothly shimmy their way down to my heel. When my feet hit the pavement, the cold ice crunches against my sock and bottom of my boot until it is pulverized into a puddle. And now, I have a puddle at the bottom of my boot.

My toes were numb before – but now a secondary level of pain is introduced and they ache all over again. My lips are in the emoticon of a thin line. I feel my jaw lock as I inadvertently grind my back teeth together causing pain to ricochet to my temples. With the throbbing pain in my head, all I think is – Right, I will soon have no molars left if I keep it up.  After all, that’s what my dentist Dr. Mendez said at my last visit.  

I have arrived at the shelter, and in spite of my ever-shrinking molars, I still can’t stop myself from fuming. My mind shrieks: Blasted winter! Will we ever see spring again?  

An unconscious sigh crosses my lips. It is audible. Several other waiting passengers turn in my direction.

They were all thinking it too.

It is Monday, frigidly cold, with -35 degree Celsius temperatures and snow. Snow should not be a possibility at these temperatures. And yet, snowing it is.

The keeners arrived early and are gathered in the shelter with the warmth of orange-lit heating lamps that hang above them providing some relief from the frigid temperatures.  (I know because on occasion, I have been blessed with the warmth.) The overflow group, myself included, stand outside. I wiggle my toes to keep the circulation moving convinced my baby toe will be lost thanks to a snowy, cold, Monday morning, stepped-out-of-the-car and-now-have-a-puddle-in-my-boot. My toes no longer hurt – the numbness has made a comeback.  

I hate Mondays.

Finally, a red-white bus pushes through the parking lot as it slowly creeps towards the bus shelter.

It is my bus! Baby toe be saved! I want to break out into song of Singing In The Snow.  

Red and white with black wheels, the bus reminds me of a caterpillar inching along the icy, snow-covered road.  The snow and ice groan under the weight of the bus like old men groan in these temperatures. Of course, it’s not just old men – we all groan. The passengers and I shuffle forward like penguins in Antarctica with hopefulness as the bus approaches. I anticipate the oven-warmth that will be blasted on us once the driver swings the doors open. It will be a sweltering beach party!

Except – the bus doesn’t stop. The red-white caterpillar picks up speed as it approaches us. More evidence he will not be stopping: the operator refuses to make eye contact with me and the other waiting penguins as he creeps slowly forward in our direction. Our heads swivel in perfectly-timed-penguin-synchronized-unison as the bus passes.

Stop! Stop! I scream in my mind as my molars crash against each other.  

As the bus passes me, I notice half the windows are covered in brown snow, salt and dirt – making it difficult to see the passengers inside. (Ok, so the bus is less red-white and more red-beige this time of year.) But, with only half the window covered in winter debris, I am offered a partial glimpse of the riders of this bus.  And, they look like swinging monkeys as they hang from straps as they brace against the lurching forward, backward, side to side, or sudden stops of the caterpillar.     

The trapped monkeys look like criminals charging forward to their prisons. Blank faces and dim eyes stare blankly through the beige coloured windows as they strain to hang on. For the monkeys seated, they stare down at their little gadgets entertaining themselves before the work day begins; other monkeys, read newspapers.  

These prisoners aren’t bound by ankle bracelets and handcuffs: rather they are shackled by business suits, lunch bags and security passes. Not one of the swinging monkeys looks happy.  And, the unhappy monkey bus is full. But, at least they are warm monkeys.

Another sigh passes over my lips.

Twenty minutes later, another red-white caterpillar approaches; frozen penguins standing at the bus stop shuffle forward and finally enter the heated caterpillar. The penguins inch slowly up the stairs of the bus.  We are warmed in the cramped prison quarters. The air is stifling because of the heat and the combination of after shave, perfume, and sweat makes it difficult to breathe. There is no tropical Caribbean breeze on this bus. We transition from penguins, to swinging monkeys.

On our bus though, I notice we are not all monkeys. There is a red-haired woman with pale complexion, brown eyes, and wears a white winter jacket. I notice the woman is curvy and physically fit with broad shoulders and her face is chiseled.  White-Coat woman is seated in the middle of the bus. I am the monkey in front of her, and I brace myself with the black leather strap provided. When the operator of the caterpillar slams on the brakes it causes me and the other monkeys to fly forward. Bags swing forward crashing into fellow monkeys followed swiftly by echoes of “sorry”.

I watch as Ms. White Coat attempts a conversation with a girl; hair is ebony, deep brown eyes, dressed in complete black clothing and wears a studded nose ring. They are complete opposites and the oddity of two people juxtaposed so conveniently side by side intrigues me.

So I eavesdrop.  

The girl was plugged into her iPod and reading a story with death in the title on her phone.  I know – because I peeked over at her phone.

I overhear Ms. White Coat ask the girl, “Excuse me, do you know what bus stop I need to get off at to get to Lyon Street?”  

Lines of snakes criss-cross Goth Girl’s young face and forehead, and her lips go downward to form a frowny emoticon as she blinks at Ms. White Coat. But after a second, she obligingly pulls up a map on her phone and works to answer the question as best as she can.

Once Ms. White Coat has the answer, she smiles warmly at Goth Girl and asks if the girl is in school.  Goth Girl announces she goes to the University of Ottawa and majors in History and Theory of Art. Ms. White Coat asks a few more questions, and I too, now know Goth Girl paints. Goth Girl blushes shyly mentioning some of her artwork is being sold in a few small stores. Ms. White Coat beams at her and asks, “Which stores? I wanted to purchase some new pieces for my home and cottage.”

Ms. White Coat is warm and friendly; she talks about how she was a swimmer in her younger years with hopes of the Olympics but it never worked out. But now with an extra layer of chub, there is a good chance she will sink to the bottom of the lake at her cottage when summer returns.   

She raises her eyebrows and says, “But you know, its winter insulation?”

Nose-ring girl giggles at the joke as a light pink hue penetrates her face easing some of the darkness that encircles her.

I am surprised by the combination of sweetness and shyness in Goth Girl. I always thought people who dressed like she does were more outgoing.  

A former manager once said to me, you know what ass-u-me stands for, right? That will teach me.

Ms. White Coat continues, “Well, I might as well keep working on the insulation.”

With that, Ms. White Coat reaches in to her environmentally-friendly, green plastic bag and pulls out Oreo cookies. She breaks the seal unlocking the smell of chocolate-vanilla sweetness. The smell rises and drifts along the bus. Ms. White Coat offers an Oreo cookie to Goth Girl who smiles and accepts.

My tummy ROARS. No matter how hard I clench my stomach muscles in the hopes of suppressing the sound, it gets louder.

Cursed tummy has betrayed me!

Ms. White Coat smiles in front of me and says, “Cookie, dear?”

“No, thank you.” I say in a cool tone.  

“Really?” She says. “Don’t like Oreos? I have Fudgeeos if you prefer?”  

“No, I’m fine.” I say.

Liar, my tummy shouts!  As if my stomach were saying you are NOT in charge here! It shouts to Ms. White Coat – COOKIES PLEASE!!!

Ms. White Coat’s eyebrows raise in unison, indicating she’s aware of the ongoing rumbling.   

I smile at her and in a nonchalant manner say, “Well, maybe just one.”

She turns to the guy next to her and says, “Cookie?”

He happily accepts. Ms. White Coat passes the bag down to everyone else and unloads multiple bags of cookies. Most people accept a cookie happily, with only a few people rejecting the notion of sugary sweetness as a way to start the day.  

Our 97 Monkey Bus has transitioned in a few minutes, and dare I say it, I think it is because of Ms. White Coat. One conversation and a few cookies, and most commuters have disconnected from iPads, iPods and phones; newspapers have been stowed away in bags.

We are chatting and laughing as our red-white caterpillar pushes forward in the white-brown icy snow towards our 9-to-5 jobs. But, we are happy to be on this journey as we savour our morning sugar bomb.

The 97 that we are on is not the monkey bus. We’re the happy-to-sit-beside-you, glad-to-talk-with-you-and-get-to-know-you, wish-we-could-stay-later-bus.  

As I arrive at my destination, I push the bus doors open stepping into another waiting snow bank.

With so much snow they’ve run out of places to put it! I reason with myself as I attempt to defend the City. Snow worms have returned. They inch their way between my boot and ankle as they wiggle their way down until clumpy packed snow gathers at my heel. With each foot strike, the snow is crushed and becomes a puddle at the bottom of my boot. The toes that began to dry – are soaked once more.


Penelope Hawtrey was published in Potluck Magazine and The Commonline Journal in the last two years and has self-published three short of  stories and a short story collection titled, 1500 Words or Less. She is currently working on several writing projects one of which includes a blog titled Pushing Boundaries that can be found at the following link:

1 Comment

  1. Sc

    I felt like I was there! Well written, amusing story with a twist of happy humanity.

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