Delia Quigley Goes for a Ride by Margaret Kelliher

Delia Quigley hugged her bundle of magazines and stepped onto the Red 92. 

“Good evening, Stanley.” She flashed her bus pass and took a seat. 

“Right back at ya, Delia.”

The bus lurched forward. Outside, the golden setting sun glinted off corporate building windows.

“Rough day?” Stanley caught Delia’s eye in the rearview mirror.

“It’s the last day. I won’t be working for Mills Cleaning Services anymore. Officially retired.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Nothing to feel sorry for.” Delia rubbed her swollen ankles. 

“I’ll miss you. This was a nice thing we had.” Stanley chuckled.

“I’ll miss you too.”

Delia had worked for Mills for over two decades. Stanley had been the morning and evening bus driver on her route for much of that time. Every day, Delia had worked hard scrubbing restrooms, emptying trash bins, and cleaning out microwaves that smelled like burnt popcorn and Hot Pockets. Even on the worst of days, she looked forward to riding Stanley’s bus.

Delia admired the glossy covers of the old magazines she had saved from the recycling bin. She couldn’t throw them away before first cutting out the inspirational text on the front covers for her collection. This stack had some good ones: Live For Joy, Fix Your Luck, Make Room For Love, Adventure Lies Ahead! She loved the evenings spent arranging her magazine cut-outs on her bulletin board. Then she would read the corresponding articles before bed. She kept some of the best ones, remedies for the loneliness that sometimes hollowed out her insides.

The bus wheezed to a halt at Delia’s stop.

“Thank you, Stanley.” Delia descended the steps.

“You’ll ride my bus again, promise? Even if it’s just to Wal-Mart?”

“Sure.” Delia waved good-bye to her old friend.

That evening, Delia carefully cut out her favorite aphorisms. When she looked at the wall, she noticed her bulletin board had barely any space for the new additions. Yet she didn’t want to throw any old ones out. Exhausted, she left her new cutouts on the kitchen table. She would get to them tomorrow. 

The next morning, Delia was already up when the sky brightened with the rising sun. She mulled over the words on her table while finishing her oatmeal. 

Adventure Lies Ahead! caught her eye. 

As long as she had ridden Stanley’s bus, she never once took it past her workplace. She hardly knew what lay beyond that building. Today was the day to find out

“Back already?” Stanley’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“Good morning, Stanley. Didn’t you say this bus goes to Wal-Mart?”

“Sure does.”

“I’m going there. How long does it take you to do one lap, Stanley?”

“About an hour.”

“So in an hour, you’ll be back for me?”

“That’s right.”

They stopped at her old workplace, but this time Delia didn’t get off. When they pulled away from the curb, Delia straightened, seeing this part of the route for the first time. Delia couldn’t help but imagine. Where were all the people at the gas station off to? Which was the oldest grave in that cemetery? How many babies had been born just this morning at the hospital?

“I’ll be seeing you!” Delia said and waved to Stanley when they stopped at Wal-Mart. 

Live for joy. She knew where to go.

In the toy section, she marveled at the complex construction sets. Long ago, her chapped hands worked those bricks together alongside another pair of small, chubby fingers. She smiled at the memory.  

Excitement buzzed inside her when she spotted a row of bicycles. She grabbed one and rode up and down the aisles until she got to the action figures. Her mouth gaped open.

Who knew they made life-size Storm Troopers?

“Charge!” Delia cried out after arranging the figures in a battle formation. “He got you!” She knocked over one of the dolls. 

Delia ducked out of the aisle just as a young man in a blue apron turned the corner. She got on her bike and rode it all the way to the produce section. She sped by the fresh greens, her outstretched hand catching some of the spray from the misters.

“Tootles!” She called to the dumbfounded greeter on her way out, after leaning her borrowed ride against the banana stand.

Outside, she checked her watch. She still had half an hour. Where to next? She scanned the strip mall and found the perfect place. 

“A pet store!”

Inside, she admired the sherbet-colored parakeets and plump, burrowing hamsters. But she stopped short when she turned down the reptile aisle. 

“Fix your luck,” Delia whispered. A cart stacked full of trapped mice in plastic containers sat in the aisle. The perforated lids were labeled, “For Feeding Purposes Only.” Delia looked around. She and the cashier were the only two people in the store.

Delia curled her hands around the handle of the cart and took a few tentative steps towards the end of the aisle. She could see the cashier’s back, her hair spilling over her face, thumb scrolling on her phone. Delia spied the automatic door. Could she make it?

She took a deep breath. Her fists tightened and she hurtled the cart towards the door.

“Hey!” The cashier bolted towards Delia. 

But Delia was already outside, sprinting towards the end of the strip mall. She lost her grip on the cart and it tipped over, spilling the containers. Mice skittered in every direction.

Stanley’s bus approached the stop. Delia ran towards it.

“Go, Stanley!” Delia threw herself into her seat.

Stanley stepped on the gas. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Delia burst into a fit of giggles. “Where to next?”

“The city park.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

At the park, Delia stood on a path flanked by maple trees that led to a glittering pond. A wide, arching bridge crossed the narrowest part of the waters, beyond which lay a playground.

“Race you across the bridge, mom!” 

Delia’s feet shuffled reflexively, animated by a memory from decades ago. A boy ran by with his mother. Delia ambled down the path after them. From the bridge, she could see the mother pushing the boy on the swings at the playground.

The sound of sniffles distracted Delia.

“What’s the matter?” Delia approached a crying young woman.

The girl looked at Delia, then tucked her chin to her chest. “My boyfriend’s a jerk.”

“Mmm.” Delia was at a loss for words. She pictured her bulletin board. 

“Disappointment is tough. But you shouldn’t let the little things get you down. Compromise and communicate.” She searched her mental image of the board for anything else helpful.

“We were supposed to have a picnic today for my birthday, but he just texted me that he got called into work.”

“Maybe you can get together for your birthday after he’s done.” Make room for love, Delia thought. 

“He probably won’t talk to me again.”

“Life is short, forgive and forget,” Delia recited one of her favorite cover lines.

The girl thanked Delia and walked away.

Delia stood alone on the bridge for a long while.

“Do you live alone, Stanley?” Delia asked when she was back on the bus.

“No, I don’t. My wife’s at home every day now. She’s not been working since her emphysema got worse. Most days, it’s just the two of us. I see the grandkids some weekends, though.”

“That sounds nice.”

“It is. Sometimes, we’ll grill on the back porch while the grandkids play in the yard. Those days are my favorite.”

Delia stared out her window at the people on the sidewalk, some walking hand in hand, some talking on their phones. A few had earbuds pressed into their ears to drown out the city noise.

“I live alone, but I have a grown son.”

“Does he come by to visit you?”

Delia shook her head. “We got into a fight. I don’t remember what it was about. We haven’t spoken for years.”

The bus rolled along, its brakes exhaling noisily at every stoplight. 

“Loneliness isn’t good for anyone, Delia,” Stanley said.

Delia’s shoulders ached, for once not from bending over a mop bucket. She could feel the weight of Stanley’s words resting on them.

“You’re right.”

“You should call him. The sooner the better. Chances are, he’s forgotten, too.”

The bus growled to a stop.

“Congratulations. You made it to the end of my route.” Stanley grinned.

“Is this the train station?”

“Sure is. Trains coming in, trains going out. Anywhere you want to go, you start here.”

“And you?”

“I drive the same route in reverse. Stay on my bus and I’ll get you back home.”

Delia settled back to her seat. “Adventure lies ahead.”

“It sure does.”

Delia took one last glance at the station. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, Stanley. But tonight, I have a phone call to make.” 

Margaret Kelliher lives on the south side of Chicago with her husband, four children, and a cockapoo who thinks she is a big dog. Urban folklore embroiders many of her childhood memories; sometimes, a stray thread comes loose and weaves its way into her stories. Margaret attended the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign where she graduated with degrees in English Literature and Psychology. She holds a Master of Arts Degree in English Literature from The Ohio State University. She currently teaches composition at a nearby community college.