Told a lie today about my very own mother so what, from here, is sacred? The objective was to speak with someone who performs a job that I couldn’t imagine myself doing and depict them in 1,000 words performing the job, etc. My mother drives a school bus, a special needs school bus. I could do the job, I think, which constitutes the primary and fundamental lie I’m telling upon which the others converge and build.
The story’s a short one:
Aboard my little school bus ride a half-dozen special needs children. Daily I swing through and wait as their parents hustle them up the bus stairs and wait more as they shuffle to their seats. The first stop on my route is Kathleen, a fourth grader. Often it’s her father, a stumpy day laborer, who brings her out to the road.
Should she walk a little faster than he does he governs her, squeezing her paw until she falls back into step with him. He’ll wear denim overalls and muddy boots, balancing a plastic coffee cup in the other hand. I’ll smile and wave good morning, and he’ll raise his glass. One time Kathleen had a yellow bruise on her forehead.
Kathleen likes bluegrass and so do I, so the disc I pop in that early in the morning will have some Union Station, some Bill Monroe, and others for the bumpy ride. This county is where millions of years ago the glaciers finally stopped and melted, so my route undulates all through the rural eastern half. Kathleen and I chug up hills and brake around hairpin turns below which the earth falls away for eighty, maybe a hundred feet sometimes. We see crowded forests, their ravines, and the empty pastures surrounding them before we pull up to Harold’s place.
A blue double-wide with moldy cream skirting tucked into a clearing next to the road. The old Ford is gone off the lot and I know I’ll have to honk for him. Harold won’t come out of the house unless I let him know I’m here. The screen door swings open and out pops Harold, fat with thick, unkempt hair. He kicks through the gravel lot and mom steps out on the gray wooden landing, an infant in-arm and a little blonde one at her hip. She may be pregnant again, but it’s hard to tell. She doesn’t smile or wave when she sees me.
Harold’s the jolliest kid I’ve ever seen. He’ll squeeze through the bus door, catching his lunchbox strap on the handle or he’ll trip over his feet and fall up the steps. None of it fazes him, though. He’ll pick up like nothing happened and plop down in the back, oblivious. As the ride wears on, he’ll sometimes laugh out loud at something he saw through the window, or not.
Nine years now I’ve been running one route or another, and this is my second school corporation. A year more and my first PERF check will be direct-deposited into my savings account. That’s the golden egg for state employees: Pension! They pay it as long as you live, the fruit of a decade given over to public service. Some people turn in their keys when the day comes, but I won’t, at least not yet.
In the overhead mirror I see Kathleen’s crown pop up as we roll over potholes, and Harold’s just bopping along, engrossed. Up through a corridor of overhanging trees, and we’re almost at tiny Michael’s house. He was my youngest passenger, only a first grader. I miss him because he used to sit directly behind me. I insisted that he stay close so that I could keep him from some of the older kids who might find cause to pick on him. One day four months ago (during autumn) he was wearing a green t-shirt which revealed, as he climbed my steps, his battered pair of stick arms.
Disbelief defined me then. I couldn’t understand how someone could beat a six-year old black-and-blue and if they did why they’d let him leave the house advertising the evidence. He sat behind me, asking question after question, like kids do: What books are you sitting on? Why are you sitting on phone books? What’s in that big mug? What color is your hair? He’d ask, and I’d tell, my mind racing behind simple explanations. The bruises faded, but were back the next week so I told my boss. A few days later I received a call at home telling me that I wouldn’t have to stop at Michael’s house anymore. The state had moved him to his dad’s place across the county, and another driver would be picking him up.
We passed the quiet gray split-level. There weren’t any toys in the yard. Next stop: Avery.
He’s loud and threatens the younger kids. He bit me once and got suspended from riding for a week, as if that would turn him docile. He’s waiting for me. You’re late again, he says as I open the door. Sorry, Avery, I reply, stowing my pride. I’m two minutes early. He stalks down the aisle and sits down across from Harold in the very back. He meets my eyes in the overhead mirror, and I look down to the road. We trundle on.
The radio’s crackling “Old Rock Candy Mountain” and I’ve got plenty of Diet Coke for the trip back home from school. I think of Ozzy, our german shepherd, who will be looking forward to his second morning walk. Automatically I stop at Jennifer’s house, and then Amy’s. They sit together a seat behind and across the aisle from little Michael, immediately pulling dolls from their backpacks. Whole soap operas play out between them during our sunrises together. I hear Amy plead “Maria” in her soap voice and I look to the dashboard, where I’ve stuck a small oval pendant: Our Lady of the Highway. None of these kids know it, but weekly I pray for them and their families over unfinished rosaries at my vanity in my log cabin bedroom. In the worst cases, it makes sense that someone ought to watch over them when everyone else has fallen away.
Finally we head back toward town and pick up Thomas and Alisha Burroughs. They’re the last ones on and the first ones off in the afternoon. Alisha’s older, and guides Thomas to the seat in front of Harold. That puts Avery in the back corner by himself, and the others along the passenger side save Michael, who’s far enough away from Avery that sitting opposite him isn’t necessary. As the children file off the bus and toward the school, I watch Avery shoulder past the others and march ahead of them. I touch my rosary and pray against his loneliness.
Well. I should tell you: this is a veritable garden of fabrications. She does drive a bus. Those are not the names of her riders. There’s a bully, but not guilty of the crime. I know nothing of the other children. I didn’t speak with her. I have no idea what’s on the bus dashboard. I’m pretty sure my mom doesn’t pray against anyone’s loneliness.
So what, you might be asking yourself. Who cares? Fiction is fiction, right? Yes, unless you’re supposed to be writing nonfiction.
Something is going on in my mind. I am only capable of lying to my professors and my peers, submitting outside the mode. They want fiction; I give them 90% truth, and vice-versa. I think…that I am very immature. I don’t know. I feel squeezed on both sized by rules I don’t respect. Childish rebellion. That’ll probably stop the moment I lose the luxury of an audience. /sigh
Last.fm has been good to me lately, btw. Been playing the Philip Glass station. HIGHLY recommended.