No one was quite sure who A. Shagin had bribed to be allowed to charge less than the city norm for his bus route. But somehow he’d managed it, and an inhabitant of Severorechiya could travel anywhere along Leninsky Prospekt for just eleven rubles, fifty kopecks, fully fifty kopecks less than any other bus line in the city. The hassle to the conductor, A. Shagin’s wife Lyudmila, of making fifty kopecks change, however, was such that the bus operated instead on an intricate system of coupons. Each rider, upon entering the bus, received a small slip of paper with an official stamp on it, and for each ride paid the usual twelve rubles and also received a scribbled signature from L. Shagina on their coupon, to indicate they had paid fifty kopecks more than the required fare. When they reached a total of twenty-three signatures, or the equivalent of eleven rubles, fifty kopecks, the passenger could ride for free. No one ever asked L. Shagina about the cost of the coupons, the pens she used to sign them, or for a comparison of the hassle of signing coupons and counting signatures with the hassle of making fifty kopecks change. Regardless of any of this, Bus № 53 was the most popular bus line in the whole city, and it was almost always packed full.
And with the years, L. Shagina’s dexterity at signing coupons increased, along with her husband, A. Shagin’s agility at avoiding Soviet taxis, expensive black SUVs, and pedestrians. And the popularity of their route presumably brought them great wealth. And the passengers stared placidly into space as they were sandwiched against each other, the thought of an extra 50 kopecks in their pocket meandering blandly through their minds just enough to distract them from the thin, sour smell of forty-seven bodies packed into their winter furs and onto the overheated bus.
But one day, L. Shagina had had enough. It was a warm May day, early in Spring, shortly after her fiftieth birthday. Bus № 53 was just as overheated as it had been since October, and the passengers just as heavily dressed. The smell wafted slowly out the slightly cracked open windows. Traffic was at a rush hour standstill on Uritsky Street. All the taxis and Ladas and sleek black SUVs shifted this way and that as the apparent ideal position changed, in constant motion, like flies around a dead dog, but like the dog, they never went anywhere. The traffic light at the intersection ahead blinked languidly from green to yellow to red to green to no avail. The bus lurched back and forth in place, and did not move forward. The passengers sweat mildly in silence.
As the traffic light blinked to green again for what seemed like the fourth, or perhaps the fifth, time, L. Shagina finally decided to take matters into her own hands.
“Turn down this side street,” she ordered. “We’ll be standing here til 5 pm.”
A. Shagin obediently shimmied the bus around a Renault with a shattered rear windshield and suddenly, they were free, turning, skimming a curb, sailing for a few glorious meters to where the traffic began on Leningrad Prospekt, which ran parallel to Leninsky.
The passengers began to sweat more loudly.
L. Shagina, kopecks jingling in her fanny pack, expletives almost unheard uttering from her sweat-dappled lips, wriggled her way down the central aisle of Bus № 53, punching open the emergency exits in the ceiling, letting in thin threads of May air.
“Devushka!” scolded a middle-aged woman in a mulberry-colored felt hat. “Some of us were to get off at the music school!” L. Shagina discreetly ignored her.
The bus was stopped again, but cars up ahead could be seen to be making forward progress.
“Wait until Belomorskaya to turn,” ordered L. Shagina. A. Shagin, her dutiful husband, answered his ringing cell phone.
“Devushka!” came another call from the midst of the bus. The thinly penciled left eyebrow of L. Shagina went up half a centimeter. “Devushka, this young man will be late for his appointment on Uritsky Street!”
“Let him off here,” came the command from L. Shagina. Her husband opened the bus’s front door and the young man in question extracted himself from the mass of the other passengers and skipped down onto the pavement, to make his way back to Sharapov Street.
The crawling pace of Bus № 53 along Leningrad Prospekt, as compared with the total standstill on Sharapov was enough to keep the passengers silent for a few more minutes. The woman in the mulberry hat, however, was not satisfied. “Devushka! You have no right to change your route like that. Some of us were to get off at the music school!” The woman’s neighbors shifted in uncomfortable agreement.
A. Shagin turned left on Belomorskaya Street.
“Turn left and go back to the music school!” grumbled the woman in the mulberry hat. L. Shagina, with the practice of years, ignored the thin line of sweat running down the side of her face and watched the traffic through the sun-drenched windshield.
At Leninsky Prospekt, they turned right and stopped at the central bus station across the street from the River Port. A significant detachment of passengers disembarked, including the woman in the mulberry hat, too cranky even to invoke an evil eye on L. Shagina and her god-forsaken bus.
The increased airspace inside the bus, combined with the relative freedom gained by avoiding the bridge traffic on Uritsky put L. Shagina in a carefree mood. She wriggled back to the back of the bus to drop a sign over the posted route that read “To Train Station.” The rest of the passengers fell into a slightly more tense passivity, and A. Shagin raced through the rest of the route, discharging his passengers one by one. L. Shagina’s fierce glare and her sign refused new passengers from boarding. Finally, at the last stop before the train station, a muddy and untended park, the last passengers tumbled out—three hooligans in black leather jackets who had grinned and snickered throughout the whole incident, open beer bottles poorly concealed between their knees.
“Home,” L. Shagina said to the empty bus. A. Shagin answered his phone.
“Yeah? … Yeah, I just got free. … Yeah, I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”
The next week, L. Shagina finalized the sale of Bus № 53 to a newer, bigger bus company. In the following months, determined passengers who followed the scribbled instructions posted on telephone poles throughout the city could find her on Tuesdays or Fridays at the central bus station from 2 pm to 7 pm to be reimbursed for the balance on their now defunct coupons.
A. Shagin took up work as a taxi driver, and L. Shagina took up sitting at the window of their second-story apartment on Uritsky Street, slowly smoking cheap cigarettes and watching the traffic below. Occasionally she walked into town to meet her friends or to go shopping, but for the most part, she just smoked.