EXACT FARE | JAKE WADDELL
It wasn’t until the number 38 was pulling up that Stanley realized with dread that the smallest bill he had was a five. Frantically, he plunged his hands into his pockets, searching for any loose change, or (please, god) a couple forgotten singles. Old transfers, lint, receipts - he hurriedly tossed these into a trash can and then massaged his temples, considering his options. With a sigh, he began to size up his fellow commuters, half hoping and half fearing that one of them would make eye contact. Most of the faces were familiar; he had been making this trip with them for the better part of four years, but they were all nameless. He couldn’t even recall having ever heard of any of their voices. No eyes met his as he scanned the crowd. Most were cast down. Some, it was clear, were purposely avoiding him. Shame flared up within him; he felt like a pan-handler preparing to accost someone. This is ridiculous, he thought, as he tried to erase any signs of desperation on his face. Be cool, natural, he thought, but this only made him feel more pathetic. It seemed silly not to just ask someone to break the five, but somehow it seemed even more absurd to do just that. Instead, he resigned himself to paying five dollars for a two dollar trip and took his place in line.
Having resolved this internal conflict, Stanley’s mind settled back into a state of hazy numbness. He shuffled forward as dictated by the rhythm of the line. His mind wandered, thoughts coming and going unbidden. Slowly, an incredibly pleasant, almost dreamlike sensation settled over him, accompanied by the faint smell of sandalwood or cinnamon or... his chest tightened then, with the sudden realization that she must be standing behind him. He resisted the urge to turn around. There was something almost hateful about that smell, the way it so quickly reduced him to something vulnerable, childlike. When he reached the front of the line, a strange impulse took him. He put the five in the machine and told the driver, "For me, and whoever's next."
Without looking back, Stanley made his way down the aisle to a window seat. Only then, did he dare to sneak a glance. She was still at the front of the bus, fumbling with her purse. There must have been a misunderstanding, and she was still attempting to pay. Perhaps he should intervene, explain that he had to pay with a five, and made a spur of the moment decision to just pay it forward. He could say something witty, and then suggest that now she owed him a cup of coffee. That seemed charming. He mustered his courage, but before he could move, he saw a very small, old, odd-looking man making his way toward him. The man had very thin, greasy, jet black hair that he kept smearing back as he walked. His rheumy eyes were locked on Stanley, his brow furrowed. He was very thin and wore a very old and frayed grey suit. His shirt was stained and yellowed around the collar. Stanley was utterly repulsed by this pitiful man. Avoiding his gaze, Stanley looked toward the front of the bus in time to see the woman paying her fare. The old man stood next to Stanley now, his mouth moving as if he wanted to say something, but was unable to. There was something beyond gratitude in his eyes; he looked as if he could at any moment burst into tears. He sat down next to Stanley, his mouth still moving, searching for words, but saying nothing. At last, the old man turned and buried his face in his hands. The bus lurched into motion. Every few minutes, the old man would turn to Stanley, his eyes pleading with Stanley, struggling to express something that he simply could not. Filled with disgust, Stanley turned away from the man, leaned his head against the window, closed his eyes, and tried to fall asleep.