I have just completed the short story, The Bus Ride by Sahar Sabati. It is a fairly straightforward narrative about a nurse who gets off work early and finds herself (the assumption here is that the nurse is female) on a city bus sitting across from a disheveled and smelly man. The nurse eventually imagines an entire Law & Order-type scenario from which the ragged, dirty man is running. The narrator begins her speculation by way of good character description.
He was carrying two bags. One was a red postman’s bag slung over his shoulder, the other was a black heavy-duty garbage bag he was half carrying, half dragging behind him. He put them both on the ground, propped his feet on them and leaned back in his seat.
The reader is intrigued by what the man might be carrying in these bags. The narrator describes the look of this middle-aged man before entertaining a host of possibilities as to why he is looking and behaving as he does.
The man, unaware of my musings, took a long sip out of the bottle. It looked like plain, clean water—why did it stink so much?
Once again, my imagination started to wander. Maybe the man had gone down on luck, and had spent the night hunting for meat to feed his family. Maybe he worked as a sewage-cleaner during the night. Maybe his washing machine didn’t work, and when his clothes reached a state of utmost dinginess, he finally gave up and is now going to his mother’s house to use hers, which would explain his state and the smell emanating from the bag.
This is the innocent rationale offered before the narrator takes off in her own self-described flight of fancy after seeing the blood on the man’s hands – blood that contrasts greatly with the shiny gold ring on his finger.
Horrific visions of my mutilated body danced before my eyes.
The nurse gets off the bus one stop later chiding herself for letting her imagination take things too far.
I rang the bell and was getting up to leave when the man looked at me and winked. It startled me. I tentatively smiled back. When he smiled, I felt utterly ridiculous. A man with such a nice smile couldn’t be a murderer. I got off and told myself that the extra walk would serve me as a lesson.
This short story ends in the fashion of O’Henry albeit lacking in cleverness. Having convinced herself of her foolishness, the narrator is shocked when she gets home and opens up the daily news paper.
Looking up at me was the man from the bus. Over his head was the title: “Man caught on tape killing wife and kids.” It seemed that I had been right, after all. I fearfully looked around. I had been right about the man’s past actions; had I guessed right about his future actions, including my possible demise? I hurried inside the house and closed the door firmly, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anytime soon.
Why does this story disturb me so? This story and follow-up questions was a homework assignment for my ten-year-old niece. Is our world not crazy enough that we need to continue to stoke the fear machine for simple reading pleasure? And is this what would make a young girl want to continue to investigate the beauty that can be created with words? I think not. When I was twelve-years-old it was A.M. Rosenthal’s New York Time’s story of Kitty Genovese, the Kew Gardens nurse who was stabbed and left to die as 39 people watched and listened to her early morning hour screams, that scared me beyond reason. This story has since been updated with corrections as to the number of actual onlookers and the coming and goings of the perpetrator who did return to the scene to eventually silence (kill) Genovese. But, in 1964, my take-a-way was that a woman could be beaten and killed by any man and the first assumption is that, in spite of the obvious physical assault, the commotion is simply a domestic dispute. This was the beginning of a female-victimizing world for me. A man had a right to beat his wife and no one has a right to “get involved.” That Kitty Genovese may have fared better had she simply screamed “FIRE!” rather than ‘I’ve been stabbed’ was not lost on my young mind. But again, I was 12 almost 13 years old. At 10, I had not been imprinted with the blood and guts of dismemberment. At 10, I was fearing wicked stepmothers and loving the little girl going to live with her grandfather in the Alps.
Could there have been other stories for my nieces 5th grade educators to choose from that would not make her fear disheveled men who happen to carry bags? Also, are there stories available that would not make her fear the male gender in general? The subtext here is my niece should fear for her life in the presence of men who don’t look a certain way. Yes, the world can be a vile and dangerous place for anyone. But I believe these are the lessons best taught by concerned parents who understand their child’s capacity to assimilate the contradictions inherent in human nature.
I suppose the story, The Bus Ride, has its place in the pantheon of homework assignments. But, for a ten-year-old girl whose father has completed numerous military tours in service to this country, this story should have no quarter. It is a cheap knock off of so-called television crime dramas that I can’t believe took more than two hours to write.
First, Gwen—your posts show up and I say “Ah—time to grab my cup of coffee in. The erudite Gwen has arrived!!
And, as always, you did not disappoint me. Why is it that the students in your niece’s class are not given truly wonderful literature to read? There are so many stories they could read that would lift their minds, imaginations, and souls. You are right in your analysis, of course. The short story in her assignment was true fear-inducing garbage. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.
Thank you for writing about this horrible story. My sixth grader was assigned this story along with questions. I think it is sick and disgusting that a school would have my child read such a graphic “mystery.” He had to answer questions like, “What do you think is in the bags?” and “What do you think the smell is?” I do not want my child reading a story like this let alone thinking of more sick details. We try to protect our children from the horrible things in this world and the school feeds them this garbage.
Marie, Having taught at the middle and high school levels for a combined 24 years I could see an argument (though a weak one) for this story maybe – maybe for 13 year olds who go through a period of morbid curiosity with death and such. And, even then it would pay (for the teacher) to know the audience – I had a 14 year old student once whose sister and husband set an older man on fire because he wouldn’t buy them liquor! This is not a story you want relatives of that child reading. It is better, as you imply to not read the story at all as it serves no educational purpose. As a parent you have the right to do just what my niece did – contact the teacher and politely ask for another reading assignment. The teacher, in my nieces case, understood and assigned another short story. Please consider that not all schools feed “garbage” to their students. Sometimes young teachers (again, as in my nieces case) need to be made aware of certain offensive material. Continue to protect your child against the horrible images of life that abound on television and in print. In our vast and beautiful world, there are certainly better images to plant in the minds of our young.
Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.
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I saw this blog, and could not agree more! My 10 yr. old daughter was assigned this short story last week. And I thought it was completely out of bounds. Framed as an “introduction to mysteries” lesson, I was shocked at the graphic detail. We don’t need impressionable kids reading about a guy who murders his wife and kids. I said so to the teacher and principal, too. I will be curious as to how they justify this material!
Monica — as you well know, there is a tremendous amount of youth literature in circulation. It is not that difficult to find a good short story for 5th grade anthologies. You might want to contact the publisher of the series. If I remember correctly my niece was given a photo-copied story. This story MIGHT be fair-game for high school but, as a former high school English teacher, I would not select it. Suggestion: try picking up a copy of The New Read-aloud-Handbook. There are literary suggestions in there for each grade/age group.
Good luck, gwen