"Are you starting today?"
She wondered what had blown her cover. Was it the white-knuckled hand-wringing? The nervous pulling at her poorly fitting uniform top? Her name badge in its perfect perpendicular position? She nodded and thought about offering a handshake, just for the practice, but opted for more shirt tugging instead.
"It isn't even my first job - just my first new job in a long time. I bet I look like a rookie." The other woman, maybe fifteen or twenty years older and wearing a uniform that looked much more worn though just as clean, nodded reassuringly to the blonder version of her younger self. The name Lalia was embroidered just below her left shoulder. "You'll be fine," she said. "Even if you stumble through the first day, tomorrow will be more comfortable. A couple of spaghetti stains on your apron will do wonders for feeling like you belong. Deep breaths when you need them; head tall like you know what you're doing, even when you don't. You'll be fine."
"Thank you," she murmured and shifted her attention out the window. The bus had pulled over to one of the stops at the farthest reach of its route. The bus driver called back over a rather crackly loudspeaker that there was a scheduled ten minute delay in their trip, and if anyone would like to hop out for a smoke they were welcome to join him. Two or three young guys from the front followed off the bus, and a girl from their party swung her legs up to the newly vacant seat beside her, hugged her knees and nestled into a light doze like a bird. Her breathing visibly slowed in a matter of seconds; peace in the midst of chaos.
"I hope you planned ahead a bit better than I did," the older lady piped up, as though the five-minute lull in conversation was nothing more than a pause for breath. "I forgot about the stop here by this old school. I usually catch it on the return, but I was worried about it filling up with kids going off to class, so I jumped on before. By the time I realized this bus doesn't even go up to the college, I was already aboard. But just think! If I'd waited, maybe I wouldn't have talked with you! Everything happens for a reason, I say. I do always say that."
The young woman looked down at the phone in her hand and checked the time. She tisked her tongue quietly, without opening her mouth and without looking up. The older woman was chattering like a wind-up toy that used the last few movements of its mechanical momentum to turn its own key and begin again.
"Be glad that the buses are so quiet right now. I used to work the really early morning shift; I'd be up at three and to work by five, coffees in hand. The girls and I used to take turns getting it, but eventually the task fell to me because I was the only one who didn't need it to get it with a smile! But some people are just morning people I guess. Believe it or not, those crack-of-dawn runs are some of the busiest of the day!"
"Don't work mornings anymore?" She asked in a tone barely inflective enough to confirm that a question existed at all. She wasn't really paying attention.
"No, not since my son left for school. Working in the mornings was great when he was little - gave us the afternoons together and we both hit the hay early. Then suddenly he wasn't little anymore! Got tall, like his father was, and popular in the same fashion. When he went off to school he got wrapped up in the typical college scene, staying up all hours like an owl. When he did come home, his body couldn't adjust and I ended up never seeing him at all. Since it's just the two of us, that didn't fly for long. I figured it would be a lot easier to change my life than his, so I took an afternoon shift and now, when he's home and not out drinking with friends, we stay up and talk. Unfortunately, he comes home less and less. There's a girl, you see."
Activity at the front of the bus drew everyone's attention. The guys who had gone for a smoke returned to their seats, except for the boy who seemed to be with her; he had tried to, but his seat had legs all over it and moving them proved a war. The sleeping beauty who had so peacefully drifted off minutes before jolted and snapped forward at him like a viper when he dropped one of her feet back to the floor. She shouted at him, he yelled back - not for long, but snake fights rarely take much time, once the venom is loosed. The viper had suffered the bite of a larger predator. As she stormed to the back of the bus her lightning and thunder melted into the poisoned rain of embarrassment and hurt. She curled up again, once a position of rest now an armoured shell.
Lalia sighed. The boys at the front of the bus laughed and punched each other's arms and sat down just as the driver returned to continue the route. Had he witnessed the scene he would have likely stepped in. One more reason not to smoke.
"I worry about this with my son," she said sadly. "He is so much like his father. My Rod never could see the pain he caused and I'm afraid it's a trait that Sam learned to mimic as a child. It's been a while since Rod's gone, but so much of his influence still lingers. If Sam was closer, if he brought this girl of his around a little more, then maybe I could remind him to be gentle. He tries though. At least he tries." She looked back at the girl tucked into the corner, shoulders shaking from more than the rough road beneath them.
"It was nice to meet you today, hun, but I think that I might be on this bus for her, not for you. Will you excuse me?" With a smile, Lalia took up a seat beside the girl and spoke in whispered, caressing tones. Although she didn't move, her breathing gradually evened and she opened her eyes. Lalia put one hand on the girl's calf and gave it a pat. The girl's tears returned, but they were different -- no longer laced with anger, all toxins gone.
The bus climbed a hill and passed a Macs Milk store. Her stop was coming up, just on the other side of the highway, and in a few minutes she would be waiting on tables and talking about which special she would recommend to the complete strangers who sought her advice. She signalled her request with the yellow cord and looked back at Lalia who had the girl laughing now, cheer and tear blended and smeared with the make-up on both of their faces. Maybe that was the real difference between their uniforms. Hers, un-wrinkled and crisp was prepared for presentation and performance, as was her attitude... but Lalia's, with softened edges and smoothed creases resembled a nurse's scrub, even with the cropped black apron of the food industry. She didn't just wait on her strangers -- she cared over them.
As the bus slowed down across from Kelsey's, Lalia took a little piece of paper from her pocket and pressed in gently into the girl's palm. Then she stood, gave the girl a maternal kiss on the top of her head and returned to the doors.
"Fancy that," she said, rubbing mascara from under her eyes. "The same stop all along." Thanking the bus driver, she hopped off and headed toward the crosswalk. Part of Lalia's story flashed into mind; she said that her son had patterned his life after his father's from childhood. She didn't have a mom to mimic... maybe this loving, chattering lady would do. "Thank you," she called to the driver who tipped his hat and closed the door as she ran to catch up to her newest acquaintance. And the bus rattled off again.