The night before I had started on a large novel by Haruki Murakami curiously titled 1Q84. Even in the light of the day I couldn’t let go the thought of Aomame, the beautiful, slender assassin who killed her victim by plunging a sharp syringe at the back of the neck at a moment of intimacy. So, at the last moment before boarding the bus, I placed the novel in my briefcase. Grave mistake. It was to prove my undoing.
There were quite a few colleagues on the shuttle bus. I would normally chat with them and exchange news of countries they were assigned to. But Murakami’s wizardry would not let me be normal. I quickly took a window seat at the back of the bus, opened the briefcase and took out 1Q84. In a moment I was immersed in the weird doings of Aomame and her strange associates. The bus, my colleagues, the Washington suburbs, in fact the whole bright universe on that radiant summer day vanished from my mind.
The disappearance must have been for a very long time. I don’t know what made me look up from the book, but when I did I noticed something strange. The bus was not going to the State Department in Washington, it was going in the opposite direction to Falls Church. It took me a minute or two to realize, to my discomfiture, that the bus had gone to the State Department, released all its passengers and was now traveling back. There was nobody in the bus, except me and the bus driver.
My first thought was that I had shamefully missed the first part of the briefing I was expected to attend. It was not a grievous loss, because there were ways of retrieving the information I had missed. My second thought was that I didn’t want to miss the latter part of the briefing. I had to find a way to be in the State Department quickly. I could drive or still take advantage of the shuttle service, if there was a second shuttle. Perhaps the driver could tell me if there was another shuttle. I looked at the driver at the front of the bus and knew instantly what had made me look up from the book finally.
The driver was driving the bus all right, but he was doing more. He was singing. Loud, full-throated singing, enough to wake up the dead. Clearly, he thought the bus was empty, as he could not see me in a corner on the last row. I sat stupefied at his musical enthusiasm. My knowledge of the opera is close to zero, but I realized he was singing a popular love song from Puccini’s La Bohème, where the poet Rodolfo is offering to warm the “la manina gelida,” cold little hand, of Mimi. He seemed more excited as he sang, and his voice rose another octave.
As I watched mesmerized, he produced a cigar from his pocket, lit it with the car lighter and puffed between the lines. I started getting a little concerned as he continued spiritedly with his song, all the time performing with his hand, which now held a lighted cigar. Deftly, he moved the cigar from one hand to the other, without pausing his hand gestures or the ditty.
We were nearing the hotel and the driver was reaching a crescendo with “stanza
la speranza!” when I got up from my seat and decided to approach the driver with my question about a second shuttle. As I approached the driver, I guess I became visible on the driver’s rear-view mirror, and the effect was more than dramatic. The driver was certain that he was alone and had been taking liberties with the rules about smoking and, possibly, singing. Seeing me suddenly appear out of nowhere, his singing stopped precipitously, the cigar fell from his hand, and he tilted aside with a groan, followed by a gurgling sound.
He looked terror-stricken and I quickly held him and asked if he was okay. He could barely nod. He had let go of the steering wheel and the bus stopped fortuitously after mounting the sidewalk. Fortunately, there was no vehicle behind us.
When, after seven minutes, the driver still seemed in no condition to drive the bus, it was my turn to do something illicit. Though I had no license to drive a commercial vehicle, I drove the bus slowly into the hotel parking lot.
Then I handed the key to the still-distraught driver and drove my rental car to the office.