For most people each day brings a new chance, a new beginning, even the ability to provide some type of redemption from the day prior. For Dina Gastino a new day means opening House of Cupcakes and trying to figure out what flavor to put in the front case so the kids can guilt their parents into buying three instead of two. For Professor Brad Peverly it means trying to stimulate a lecture hall holding 150 Princeton first year students to look at him instead of their tablets, phones, or inside their eyelids. For Walker Duson, it means doing his own routine check of New Jersey Transit bus 6752 and starting his route from East Broad Street in Trenton to Witherspoon & Nassau in Princeton and back again, eight times.
Days can be so fascinating for those who take the time to look at who they met, what they did or did not accomplish, or even all the subtle mood changes. But most people are carried through their days by the invisible force of time that never seems to want to overindulge. Time forces us to rush, to speak quickly, to only text three words when more are needed. Dina, Professor Peverly, and Walker have come to see time as the great enemy. For Dina, eight hours in the retail side of House of Cupcakes is only the beginning. The baking, the catering, the Princeton Farm Market, all help to lose her to a whirlwind of time. Brad Peverly has one hour thirty minutes to lecture about American History in McCosh Hall. Maximizing that time takes him hours , even days to construct, making his focus less about the history of the United States from 1775-1860, and more about coming up with witty Jon Stewart like humor to keep Princeton students awake. Walker’s past 17 years with New Jersey Transit has been nothing but time. Making sure his bus leaves Trenton at 7:45 a.m. and arriving in Princeton at 8:50 a.m. is his obsession, as it was his father’s when Jon Duson worked for Greyhound. His grandfather’s wrist watch is his love and a traffic jam is his nightmare. The tunnel of time that consumes Walker earned him Central Jersey Driver of the Year 2011. But for two years he never saw the new grocery store or the new restaurant in Lawrence as he drove past both every single day.
* * * * *
“Now here’s your bus fare and an extra $6 for something to eat. I wish I could give you more, but I just can’t.”
“Yes Ms. D I know. I understand.”
“You got your book bag, map and pens?”
“Alright then. Now, don’t you get in no trouble. OK Rodney here’s the bus now. Just get on and don’t talk to no one. It will take you to a real nice town. Look at me boy! You know when to come back, right?”
“Yes Ms. D. 4:00.”
“That’s p.m. right Rodney?”
“Yes Ms. D, PM. I’ll look at my watch and when it lines up with the four and twelve I’ll find the bus stop. I can do it Ms. D.”
Ms. D watched her sister’s first born walk on the bus. She thought if Loretta could only see how grown Rodney had become even with his problems. She’d be so proud. Atlanta was a long way from Princeton, but Rodney had a gift that could take him anywhere.
This was Rodney Carter’s big day. Riding a new route to a special place Ms. D told him about. Walker’s bus pulled up right on time, Rodney paid the $2.65 one way fare and took his seat opposite Walker right near the door. He saw what Walker saw but Rodney was not driving. Rodney looked at Walker as he drove and then the road. He watched Walker check his watch over and over. Rodney did the same with his watch. This morning Walker had a co-pilot he did not know.
* * * * *
Professor Peverly was new to Princeton University, but not to teaching. He taught at Duke, Michigan State, and Boston University before deciding to accept Princeton’s offer. He loved the history of the Revolutionary War and New Jersey had so much to offer. Being only a short drive from Trenton, Monmouth, Morristown, and New York City was truly heaven. But after one year he had seen none of it. Time was devoted to on campus research for his next book, meetings with anxiety ridden undergraduates, and meetings with department chairs and soccer with his kids on weekends.
The other factor that was distressing Peverly was the lack of any interest his students showed in class. As he lectured about Hugh Mercer’s tactics at Princeton, he thought to himself, I know what they’re thinking. Yeah, we won, Independence. I’ll find the app for that. It bothered him. Yes, he saw this at all the schools he taught, but the trend in not understanding or caring about America’s revolution was worsening.
“Now, the victories at Trenton and Princeton began to solidify American optimism.” What can I say to get their attention? Should I be funny or just let them leave? Peverly hesitated when he saw a young man in the last row of the hall. The man had a notebook, pencil and was writing. This cannot be, thought Peverly. Where is the laptop, the tablet, the eReader? This kid is taking notes with a pencil and yellow note pad.
Peverly stiffened up. He felt strong, like the first time he took command of a class at Duke in 1996. He could only focus on the young man in the back. The kid was actually writing. Peverly hoped the words were about his lecture. I can’t believe this. This has to be nuts. The kid is probably just drawing. He’s an art major here for a requirement. I’ll test him. Peverly started getting real deep into British Army battle formations. No one in the class, except the young man in the back, next to the exit, took notes.
The class ended. Peverly wanted to meet this young man, this nuanced student who brought a #2 pencil to class. As all the students in front stood up, turned on their phones and began texting without hiding, the young man was gone.
* * * * *
It was 3:30 p.m. at the House of Cupcakes on Witherspoon Street. In a matter of ten minutes, the line pushed the front door permanently open. It was like Sunday brunch at PJ’s on Nassau except the anticipation of downing a double fudge peanut butter was causing anxiety on this early April afternoon.
Dina was hustling as usual. What can I get you? In a box? Take the money, give the prize and on to the next.
“Hi, what can I get for you?”
Rodney simply stood in front of the case with the different designs, colors, and shapes. He was smiling, but saying nothing. His eyes glued to the front row of cookie dough cupcakes. Dina saw the line building by the half minute and as Jorge was out today, it was just her at the register.
“I know they’re gorgeous, what can I get you?”
Rodney wanted to buy three but was not sure he had enough money as Ms. D only gave him $6. He did not notice the deep breaths of waiting customers, the pained looks of adults looking at their smartphone clocks. He just cared about buying three cupcakes. But Rodney knew he had difficulty counting. He was not flustered but he really wanted three. He slowly reached his hand into his pocket and took out all the money Ms. D gave him.
Dina was a tireless businesswoman who worked long hours and grew impatient quickly because she knew people would just leave if the line slowed. And it now had, to a dead stop. But she stopped herself from raising her voice, from pushing Rodney to choose quickly. She saw something in his gentle manners. She saw his smile as he handed her everything he had.
“I, I would like three, but, but, I, I, don’t know if I have enough. Can you help?”
Dina could not have cared if the line stretched to the library three blocks west. She did something at 3:40 p.m. she had not done all day; smiled for real. The money was not enough. She knew that. He was short $1.50. But who cared. It was her store.
“I sure can, sweetie. Yep, you are good. Now tell me what you want.” Rodney collected his bag. Dina knew a cupcake was a simple, little pleasure. They would not solve the deficit or stop crime. But to Rodney that simple pleasure was a treasure fit for a king. As Ms. D instructed him, he thanked Dina and left. Dina did not hear the next order shouted at her by a bald guy in a suit. She watched Rodney leave and considered today a success.
* * * * *
The New Jersey Transit 606 pulled up right on time at 4 p.m. at Nassau & Witherspoon with Walker behind the wheel checking his watch. Rodney was a block away and began to run towards the bus. Rodney was stopped at the intersection by the kiosk. The bus was going to leave. Rodney waved to Walker to wait. Rodney finally got the walk sign and ran across Nassau. The bus began to very slowly pull out. Rodney got up to the door and banged on it. Usually Walker would ignore people who did that as they were late. But he stopped this time.
He opened the door, gave Rodney a nasty look and motioned him in. As Rodney was trying to find his bus fare he realized he did not have his bag of cupcakes.
“Please sir, please, please wait. I dropped my bag.”
“Look, I got to be in Trenton on time. I have to go.“
Rodney looked to his left and saw the bag on the curb at the rear of the bus.
The two looked at each other for what felt an hour to Walker.
“Ah, get the dang bag.”
“Thank you sir.”
Rodney got back on the bus, took his seat next to Walker and looked out the fishbowl like windshield as if he were at the movies.
Rodney smiled the entire ride back to Trenton. This was his first real trip since Georgia Social Services placed him with his aunt in New Jersey after his mother died from a drug overdose. In Atlanta he rode nearly every route of the city bus line. Every day of his 19 years has been an uphill climb. The learning disabilities that forced Georgia and eventually New Jersey to send him a monthly check was and will be a state’s way of saying, we don’t know what to do, but we hope this helps.
The bus pulled up at the 300 block of East Broad Street. The door opened and Walker looked straight ahead. He looked until a beautiful cupcake was offered to him.
“Thank you sir. I’ll see you soon.”
Rodney jumped off the step and ran to Ms. D.
“I got you a cupcake Ms. D.”
“Well, thank you baby. Is that last one for you?’
No, ma’am, it’s for a nice teacher at a school I went to today.”
The 606 pulled away and drove back to the yard. But for the first time in years, Walker Dunson deviated from his routine. He pulled over and ate his cupcake.
Jason Blum is a six-year resident of Monmouth Junction who loves movies, good television, and reading all types of genres. He has taken three writing courses in New York City and would love to publish a short story collection someday. Currently, he spends his days finding great ideas from everyday life.