The Zen bus

It is dark in the city, warmed now after a day of icy winds. Laura and I have been to dinner in a wonderfully happy restaurant that serves huge bowls of fragrant noodles and lemon chai. The walls are red, the benches of white pine, the energy high and enfolding.

Reluctantly we leave, the thought of the desserts that we no longer eat and the caffeine we desperately crave nagging us as we step out into the night.

There’s a multitude of people in the dark, making their way past us on the uneven concrete. Occasional window displays light up a face; a whiff of alcohol washes over us as an obscure figure moves off.

There sits the bus — a coffee house in disguise.

A red, double-decker London bus, warmly lit from within. Stone tables in a dark courtyard; candles flicker as we pass. The brick pavement is scattered with drying red leaves that whisper to us as we awaken them from a not-quite-final sleep. Several orange pumpkins lean drunkenly into the wall opposite the bus.

The warmth and light beckon. Laura pushes open the door and peers inside; no one’s there. The dark encircles us as we stare inside the empty coffee bus. A cappuccino machine sits hulking on a counter.

I fall to a stone seat and dig for a cigarette while Laura explores the bus that’s posing as a coffee house.

“No one here,” she announces, almost gleefully. She sits down next to me.

It is odd, on a Saturday night in a city whose streets are filled with people, to see a bus open for business but closed to customers.

We watch the bus carefully. Laura is convinced that there is someone on the second level, furtively eating dinner. I, who cannot see, can’t argue yes or no. But still I argue no.

For entertainment, I have her read me the menu posted inside: Visions of Milky Way lattes, Ivory Chai, double shots of espresso dance in the winter air. It’s suddenly like being in a very pleasant hell — one where caffeine tantalizes, never to be reached.

People come and go, venturing inside and seating themselves at the back of the bus. They wait. We watch.

A party of five with a baby disappears into the maw.

“They were speaking Spanish,” Laura remarks, as if that were a magic incantation that could get us coffee.

It is not.

The party of five gets off the bus and disappears into the dark. Others straggle in and stay, having their own party, swigging water from bottles; waiting for coffee that never comes. Some return to the street, then turn back for a moment, staring hard at the illusion of the coffeeless bus.

The leaves scratch and dance against the brick; the candles flicker in the gentle breeze. It’s very dark except for the glowing interior of the coffee bus that serves no coffee.

Between puffs of my cigarette, I begin humming snatches from “The Magic Bus.” The atmosphere is deep and mystical.

Laura dances her fingertips against the stone table.

“Should we wait?” she asks.

I think before I speak.

“If I were a Zen master, I would tell you the lesson of this. But since I am not, you will have to figure it out yourself.”

Her fingers drum again.

“I really want coffee,” she says.

The leaves scratch restlessly against the brick, moving in time to Laura’s fingers. The bus is a mirage in the night. Behind the glass, the silent figures move like the water that moves in their bottles.

The pumpkins — they’re the customers who’ve waited too long past the witching hour!

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