The Wheels on the Bus

The bus wheeled into the Yamazaki IC stop at 17:29 on the dot, exactly on time. Sagramore slung his backpack over his shoulder, and climbed the steps onto a mostly deserted vehicle. Sleeping forms dotted the interior cabin. After grabbing a little stub from the ticket machine, he made his way to one of the window seats in the middle of the bus, on the left side. His lower body was sore from a weekend of rafting in Shikoku, and sitting down felt pretty good. The earbuds went in, the downbeat trip hop turned on, and his eyes closed shut. The bus ride to Osaka would be about 2 hours. It was time to relax.

  His eyes snapped open as the bus eased to a halt at some random station somewhere on the edge of nowhere. He noticed the seat directly in front of him was now occupied, as were several others behind and around him. Sagramore must have slept through a few stops. He looked out the window. 3 or 4 people waited outside for the door the open. One of them was an elderly man, his back hunched in that typical Japanese way by years of farmwork, low calcium intake, and who knows what else. As the new arrivals loaded themselves into the bus, Sagramore noticed that one of them, a large man in height and girth, seemed to be mentally and physically disabled. He made his way up the aisle using one hand as support on the headrests, and eventually chose the aisle seat in the pair right in front of our dear hero.

The chair creaked as the big man dropped himself into it. The woman in the window seat, who had been sleeping, jerked awake with the jolt of the impact. She noticed her new neighbor, and scootched over closer to the window. After some careful rearrangements, she tried to go back to sleep. Sagramore had no trouble imagining her annoyance. He noticed the mentally disabled man awkwardly wave towards the window. The old man was still outside, waving back to the new passenger. He must have been the big guy’s grandfather or uncle. The relationship added a whole new dimension to the handicapped man’s being Sagramore hadn’t bothered to entertain. He had a family, loved ones, maybe even friends. Who knew why or how often he undertook the commute from Osaka to this tucked away corner of inner Japan? Even so, Sagramore’s thoughts couldn’t help but be tainted by a substantial coat of pity. Riding a bus alone was probably the upper limit of the man’s capabilities.

As the bus shook into forward motion, Sagramore tried to derail his melancholic train of thought by opening his book. He was nearing the end of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which had hovered somewhere around adequate for almost 600 pages. The critics had tricked him again! Though nearing the climax, the novel was currently mired in some double plus boring shit, and Sagramore found it hard to concentrate. The seat in front and to the left of our dear hero shook almost violently. He looked up from his kindle, to see the big man looking around inquisitively towards the back of the bus. His eyes scanned from right to left, and then back again repeatedly. The woman to his left seemed hell-bent on pretending to sleep and not let her shit be bothered by anything. After a few more seconds, the handicapped guy rose and transferred himself to another seat across the aisle and behind Sagramore. He could barely make it out with his peripheral vision. It looked like there was another girl sitting near the window, but Sagramore couldn’t see enough to interpret the reaction to her new neighbor. That was weird. He turned his attention back to the novel.

The bus parked near the outer rim of the Sakai service area at 17:55. The driver informed the passengers they had 10 minutes to hit the restrooms and/or shops in the monotone delivery of someone who had no wish to be doing what he was currently doing. Sagramore took the chance to piddle and buy a can of coffee. He paid with a 10,000 yen bill, since the buses never had change for large denominations, and he didn’t want to take any chances. On his way out he noticed a large flat screen TV with traffic info for the Kansai region displayed. It looked like serious congestion. Dammit! Back on the bus, the driver informed the passengers the traffic conditions were severe, and they would like reach Shin-Osaka station significantly behind schedule, which in Japanese can mean anything from 10 minutes to forever.

The driver hadn’t lied. Sagramore sighed in exasperation as the bus trudged along the doldrums of the Chugoku expressway at speeds so low the speedometer couldn’t display them. He had put his book away earlier, but decided to just power through the boredom and finish it. Fast Forward: he finished it. Sagramore re-read the last 2 pages to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, but no, the climax and resolution had just been that uninspired. He tossed his kindle back into his bag in disgust. The screen at the front of the bus lit up: they would soon be arriving at Takarazuka IC. Sagramore had been there before; they put on a transvestite broadway-ish show at a huge theater that was incredibly popular.  It was also a hot spring town. All the details were immaterial, of course, but boredom was wrecking our poor boy. It was currently 20:48; the bus was supposed to have arrived at Shin-Osaka at 19:22.

Two passengers alighted, including the woman sitting in front of Sagramore, but no one else got on the bus. Before the driver could close the doors, a girl rushed by Sagramore, and ran up to the driver. Our beloved hero raised an appreciative eyebrow; she was actually very pretty. How had he not noticed her before? He’d need to retune his radar. The woman and the driver shared a whispered conversation. He couldn’t make out much of it, but he heard “something wrong” and then “The big guy over there.” The woman pointed back towards the seats behind Sagramore and to his left. He didn’t turn around, but he knew she was talking about the handicapped guy. The conversation carried on in hushed tones, but with mounting dread Sagramore realized he knew what they were discussing. The woman looked panicked, afraid. Sagramore felt an abyss of undeterminable depth open in his stomach. He was fairly sure his soul had dropped down into it.

The girl made her way back down the aisle, and sat down in the recently vacated seat in front of our knight errant, who was really starting to feel errant. The driver pulled out of the stop, but halted the bus once again a few minutes later in sight of the expressway toll gates. He rose, and without using the microphone informed the passengers there had been an “incident” on board; he asked for patience. He made his way to where the girl was seated, and flipped open an old-looking cell phone with the JR logo stickered onto the back. Sagramore could hear the muffled and staticky voice coming from the headset; it was the police. The driver spoke into the phone in a low voice, but the word “chikan” wafted through the atmosphere. It is a multi-purpose word, and its exact meaning is pretty malleable, but it always deals with one topic: sexual molestation.

Sagramore leaned back into his seat stunned. He’d heard stories about perverts and sexual predators on public transportation all the time; it was a scarily common occurrence in Japan, especially in Tokyo’s crowded trains. Chikan warning posters and PSA campaigns were ubiquitous. However, he’d never come across it first-hand. The driver snapped the phone shut, and walked back into the bus past Sagramore. He didn’t turn around, but he heard him talk to the handicapped man in a terse tone, using very informal/disrespectful language. The driver then walked back to the front, apologized once again, and sat back down in his seat. The bus lay silent as cars and other buses streamed past, headed for the crowded highways into Osaka. Sagramore could hear the woman in front of him sniffle and blow her nose.

About 10 minutes later the police arrived. They spoke to the driver, and then asked the girl to step out of the bus. As she spoke to two officers, a third came onto the bus, and escorted the mentally handicapped man off the vehicle. He fumbled through his wallet for coins, and paid the fare. He seemed completely confused by the situation, but our disillusioned hero was quite a ways past trustful assumptions. The police led the culprit out past Sagramore’s field of vision. He looked out the window to the girl, surrounded by the police. He couldn’t hear their conversation at all, but he could see their movements. She used animated gestures as she spoke, and her eyes darted around her audience erratically. The girl had the look of a cornered animal. The police officers looked down at her with cold attitudes bordering on patronizing. Sagramore turned his gaze to the empty can of coffee in the cupholder in front of him. The brand was Aromax. He felt sick but couldn’t exactly figure out why.

The driver got back on the bus, and walked forward a few feet. He asked if anyone had noticed anything suspicious regarding “Chikan,” and if they would mind speaking to the police. Three men behind Sagramore raised their hands. They made their way off the bus, and wrote down statements on clipboards provided to them by the police. Three adult men had seen “it” happen; and hadn’t done anything to prevent the deed. Sagramore leaned back into his seat again, stunned. His mind roiled.

Our dear hero was ashamed to admit he had entertained the thought that the girl had overreacted to something not intended to be molestation. After all, the culprit was mentally handicapped. Did he even possess the capacity for…that? However, the three witnesses lent weight to her accusation. And the big guy had looked around pretty suspiciously. He had definitely chosen the specific seat for a reason. Sagramore had fallen into that trap, the trap of rationalizing an act that deserved no rationalization, the idea that somehow the meaning behind an act can alter the impact felt upon the victim. The important thing to keep in mind is that there was a victim. He shifted his gaze back to the window. She was still talking to the police, and nervously fidgeting with her cellphone. His thoughts turned back to the three men who had done nothing.

As Sagramore’s musings darkened into blame, he reminded himself he hadn’t done anything, either. During that long, traffic-filled ride, he could have turned over to his right at any time. Just a quick glance might have been enough to reveal what had happened. Then, of course, Sagramore would have stopped the man, and saved the damsel. It was his chivalrous duty. He thought about how exactly he would have done it, as well. First, of course, Sagramore would have chastised the guy. Next, he would have had the girl stand up and move to his row. After sitting her down near the window, Sagramore would have alerted the bus driver to the unsavory events, and suggested to contact the police. Finally, he would sit on the aisle seat next to the victim, blocking her from the rest of the bus until the police arrived.

And then Sagramore realized how inane his recent train of thought had been. If “wishes” were en vogue, the winner should definitely have been “I wish it hadn’t happened at all.” The hero routine would have helped nothing but Sagramore’s own self esteem. The net result would still a sexually assaulted young woman. He chastised himself for indulging in some fatuous, misogynist hero complex. The fact was Sagramore was upset with himself. Injustice had taken place 6 feet away from him, and he had been too engrossed in his shitty sci-fi novel to notice a rape. His mind obsessed over non-factors because it didn’t want to deal with the real problem at hand. At 26 years of age, at a point where he thought he understood some quantum of how the universe worked, Sagramore realized he lived in a world where mentally handicapped people raped women while others did nothing or didn’t even bother to notice.

The girl got back on the bus, and led a policeman holding two cameras to the seat where she had been molested. In a morbid quest to synthesize evidence, the policeman had her sit back down where the rape had happened, and took several pictures of the scene. The policeman smiled and bowed as he did so, as if he were scanning groceries at a cash register. . Sagramore stared wide-eyed. He girl and the policemen got back off the bus. It looked like more questioning ensued. Several other passengers went outside to smoke. No one spoke.

The clock at the front of the bus read 21:27. The girl got back on the bus, and sat down in front of Sagramore again. The driver apologized once more, made no mention of the bus fare being waved due to the delay, and then took the wheel. The highway was still crowded, but Sagramore didn’t really care anymore. He didn’t bother listening to music or reading another book. He looked at the back of the seat in front of him. Through the gap between the chairs he could make out the girl’s bag and skirts. He thought about ways could make things right, how he could fix the situation. Our knight errant was sure there must be something that could be done. Sagramore wondered if he should approach her. Maybe offering support or condolenc—he closed his eyes and shook his head. As much as he tried to ignore that train of thought, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have done something to stop what had happened. He had failed somehow, in some way. Sagramore heard the girl shuffle around to stifle tears. Through the gap in the seats Sagramore spied her periodically reach into her bag for more tissues as the bus inched closer to Osaka. He looked down at the empty can of coffee hanging in the cupholder. It only contained 36 calories.

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