The Bus Stops Here

dean-grandpa-storeHolding a partially lit Pall Mall in one hand and the steering wheel of a mud-splattered school bus in the other, Mr. Rucker narrowly navigated “dead-man’s curve,” barreling down the long straight-away towards us at full throttle.  As the bus grew closer—Mr. Rucker slamming on the brakes at the very last second—the deafening screech of hard-worn brake pads filled the air.  The bus came to a halt only fifteen feet past where we were standing.  This was a considerable improvement over his earlier attempts that week.  Rumor had it that when Mr. Rucker suffered a pretty bad head injury early on in Vietnam, the Army sent him home.  After a long year of searching for work, he eventually landed a job driving a school bus; the minimum job requirements for bus drivers in Carter County, Kentucky, weren’t perfectly clear at that time.

McKinney’s Trailer Park was the last bus stop on the way to Prichard Elementary School, and the first stop on the return trip home in the afternoon. At that time, Prichard Elementary was used to educate kids from the first grade through the eighth.  “Come on! Let’s go!” Mr. Rucker shouted out the open door, while we sprinted to catch up with the bus.  As we collectively crammed into the narrow opening of that ragged, yellow monstrosity, Mr. Rucker barked at us again, “Hurry up!”  It was no secret that Mr. Rucker kept his countenance fixated towards the mud-smeared windshield in order to avoid showering us with whiskey-soaked breath.  When half of us had managed to board the bus, the stark clap of air brakes releasing was a sign that the bus would be rolling forward immediately—Mr. Rucker apparently unconcerned that many of us still were hanging halfway out the door.  Each and every school morning, there we were, clinging to the bus handrail and each other for dear life, like forsaken soldiers desperately trying to catch the last chopper out of Nam.  Mr. Rucker would be staring straight ahead and shifting into a higher gear—the gas pedal planted firmly on the floorboard.  Mr. Rucker, completely apathetic to our plight, would howl, “Gooooooood mooooooornin’, ladies!” as he slammed the bus door shut behind us. The familiar tang of smoke and Jack Daniels christened our day’s journey.

But that year, a social Darwinistic-style bus boarding was the least of our worries.  Big Billy, who just moved into the trailer park that summer, hated my guts.  And the feeling was mutual: that fat, obscene bastard was the bane of my existence.  Also, he never missed an opportunity to terrorize all the kids in the trailer park and on the school bus.  Big Billy was almost fourteen years old, and I had just turned twelve.  My best friend, Sam, was my age, but the other kids weren’t even ten.  Julie was only eight, and she wore a metal knee brace.  The little girl with the speech impediment, the one who wore an oversized red raincoat year-round was barely nine.  But no one was immune to Big Billy’s wrath: stomach-kicks, slaps, choke-holds, Indian sunburns, ear-twisting, hair-pulling, pinching—and this was before we got onto the bus, a situation that many would refer to as a captive audience.  Getting off the bus was a similar experience, what I now would describe as running the gauntlet.  Big Billy always would sit close to the front.  While others were exiting, he would wait to get off last so he could bestow his fury upon whoever piqued his fancy. His simultaneous verbal abuse and name calling was merely orchestrated background music to this daily scene of carnage.  Everyone got his or her fair share of bullying, even little Julie, but that fat bastard hated me the most.  I would try to fight back, but I was no match for his size.  We tried ganging up on him, ignoring him, and pleading with him but nothing worked.  But with me, there was something else that stuck in his craw.

My grandmother owned the trailer park where all the kids at the bus stop lived, there on old Route 60.  My mother, affectionately called “Hootie,” worked there running the small general store, managing the trailer park, and occasionally pumping gas.  My mother and I lived with my grandmother in a two-story house on the property.  I pitched in during the summertime, mowing grass and hoeing the garden.  To Big Billy, I was a direct descendent of the ruling class—the trailer-park-owning Appalachian aristocracy.  I was the Machiavellian prince and the trailer park was my principality.  My grandmother and mother kept the place running after my grandfather died, but collecting rent on used single-wide trailers, tending to an occasional gas customer, and selling a few bottled sodas didn’t generate even enough income to finance a three-day out-of-county vacation package to a sorghum festival.  But Big Billy, whose worldview only extended to the far corners of his parent’s single-wide trailer, didn’t see it that way.

To compound the problem, Billy’s parents were consistently late on their rent.  My mother, a physically strong, devoutly religious woman, often resorted to a face-to-face encounter with Big Billy’s parents to motivate them to pay the rent.  No one in the trailer park had telephone service.  So, preceded by a sheriff’s-department-style knock on Billy’s parents’ thin trailer door, one could audibly witness—even from a great distance—my mother’s divine gift of interweaving Old Testament scripture from Leviticus and Revelation with profanity so vile it would make a sailor blush—a talent so effortlessly woven into her linguistic fabric it beamed of divine inspiration.  The rent money would always miraculously appear, like cash into a late-night tent revival bucket.  But for me, the next day at the bus stop was always hell-on-earth.

I decided to devise a plan to stop Big Billy, and I couldn’t think of a better place to plot my revenge than in the back seat of a school bus careening towards doom.  Every day, Sam and I sat together in the very back seat; he was my best friend.  Sam got bullied on the bus and at school because students thought he was gay.  Some people assumed Sam was gay because he wore a French beret to school, matched his scarf with his jacket, and was slightly effeminate.  I initially thought Sam was gay because he stole fashion magazines from IGA’s magazine rack by stuffing them into his double-breasted reefer coat.  Oh, and he also kept a journal—a personal diary.  But I really knew Sam was gay because he told me.

Sam and I were best friends because we kept each other’s secrets.  One day, Sam challenged me to trade a deep secret with him.

“You tell me one of your secrets and I’ll tell you one of mine,” he said anxiously.  I told Sam I didn’t believe in God because the thought an invisible, bearded old sky-man in a bathrobe watching our every move was sort of creepy.  Also, my mother’s prayers to this god seemed to go completely unanswered.  I told Sam that every morning I had been secretly praying to a box of Cap’n Crunch just to tempt the religious waters, and so far, nothing had changed for the worse.  Sam seemed completely unfazed by my theological confession.  He just turned to me that day and said, “I’m gay.”

“I already knew that,” I said, finger-nudging a recent bruise on my right forearm, courtesy of Big Billy.

“I thought…well…never mind,” Sam muttered halfway to himself.  Then he just went back to writing in his journal.

“I’ve got to do something about that fat fucker,” I said to Sam under my breath.

“Why don’t you tell your mom?” Sam quipped as he jotted down a few more words in his diary.

Why don’t you tell your mom? I repeated to myself; shaking my head.  Well, only if it were that easy.  What Sam didn’t know is that I already had tried that tactic at the beginning of the summer.  My mother loved me more than anything, but she seemed to overcompensate for the missing Y-chromosome aspect of single-mother child rearing.  She worried that, without a father figure in my life, I would grow up like a sissy.  I remember my mother’s lecture like it was yesterday: “You have to learn to take up for yourself or you’ll always get bullied.  You could ask the Lord for guidance, or you could hit the guy in the nose as hard as you can with your fist.  It’s your problem…I can’t do it for you.”

Praise the Lord, I said to myself sarcastically.  I wasn’t sure if her “can’t do it for you” part referred to the hitting or the praying—but it didn’t really matter.  My dream of watching my mother verbally demoralize that fat bastard with an onslaught of Biblical profanity in front of everyone vanished before my very eyes.  Now, I guess it was up to Sam, the Cap’n, and me.

I didn’t tell Sam about my plan until the beginning of the bus ride home because I thought he might be against using violence to solve our dilemma, but I had everything planned out in advance.  Kentucky is a big tobacco-growing state.  My grandmother kept several tobacco sticks in the shed to prop up the tomato plants every year.  The tobacco stick is an essential tool for harvesting and storing tobacco.  The length of most tobacco sticks is about four feet, and they are cut from extremely strong hardwood.  The night before, I located a particularly well-balanced stick and used Scotch tape to discretely secure that piece of weather hardwood to a brown metal pole that stuck out of the ground next to the gas pumps.  The pole was just a few feet from the bus stop.  I tested the tape to make sure it would easily break away from the metal pole.  Now, all I needed was a plan for Sam to distract Big Billy long enough for me to grab the stick and hit my mark.

The next day, riding home from school, everything looked as if it was falling into place. Big Billy was busy in the second seat from the front, choking the nine-year-old girl with the speech impediment.  I heard Mr. Rucker mechanically mumble, “You kids settle down now,”—smoke from a freshly lit Pall Mall accenting each syllable—the plurality of his statement inferring that we were all somehow equal and willing participants in this systematic torture.

Sam looked over a paper he had gotten back from his English class.  The paper sported a huge red “A+” scrawled across the front of it. I noticed Sam’s handwriting was not unlike that on a poster of the Preamble to the Constitution hanging up in our Civics class.

“Hey,” I said, elbowing him out of his moment, “I need you to distract Big Billy for me as soon as we step off the bus.”

“Okay, no problem,” Sam said, turning his paper to the second page.

“No, I’m serious.  I really need you to do something to get his attention.  I’m going to give that camo-wearing, mouth-breathing hillbilly a taste of his own medicine.”

“I got it,” Sam said annoyingly.

Sam turned his attention back to his paper, and a slight smile came over his face, as he savored his teacher’s encouraging comments written in red across the entire back of his paper. That’s the moment I realized Sam wasn’t the least bit scared of Big Billy, or anyone for that matter.  More than likely, Sam had been through hell his whole life—an eternity, really—compared to my one short, miserable summer.  He probably wore matching scarves just to rub the local redneck’s bigotry back into their own faces.  Sam slipped into momentary reverie, staring out the bus window, as if he was contemplating a fitting metaphor to describe the foretold reckoning.  Looking back, for Sam, each day was just another opportunity to write something interesting in his journal.  Fine, I thought, maybe he’ll write me a nice obituary, because my heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to explode.

The screech of metal-on-metal air brakes pierced the animated atmosphere sooner than I had anticipated. Billy released the nine year-old girl in anticipation of a new crop of victims filing down the aisle. Sam jumped up, tossed his matching scarf over his shoulder, and marched towards the front of the bus.  I tried to follow right behind him, but little Julie with the metal knee brace got in between us.  Julie fumbled with her books for a moment, which seemed like forever, while Sam pressed towards the front of the bus.  As Sam tried to pass—not one to miss an opportunity—Big Billy stuck his big fat foot out to trip him, but Sam over-stepped the foil.  I never did ask Sam what he said to Billy in that moment, but whatever it was, I now understand what Sam meant by “I got it.” Billy, who usually waited in his seat in order to torment everyone coming down the line, immediately jumped up in a rage and tailed Sam off the bus.  Hoping she would thank me later, I shoved little Julie down into the next available seat, as I scrambled for the front of the bus.

I caught up just in time to hear Big Billy holler “goddamn faggot” in a Southern drawl so deep the phrase was nearly indiscernible.  Billy shoved Sam from the top bus step down onto the hard gravel parking lot.  Sam broke his fall with his hands, the sharp gravel digging deep into his palms.  I quickly snatched the tobacco stick from the pole while Big Billy made his way towards Sam.  Billy planted his knee in the middle of Sam’s back and grabbed the back of his hair.  And there it was before me: the moment I had waited for all summer.  The side of Billy’s fat, white face was shining against the afternoon sun like a beacon of opportunity, the side of his face perfectly poised in an optimum striking position, the position professional baseball players often refer to as “the power zone.”  This is when the world around me seemed to grind to a vivid, slow motion crawl.  I sized up the tobacco stick with both hands, twisting my wrists to find the ultimate grip.  The sky seemed to darken as a flock of blackbirds flew from the distant trees.  An omen from the Cap’n, I thought.  I leaned in forward with my left foot, keeping my elbow low, twisting my torso as I began my swing; keeping my eyes trained on the white, fleshy section of this fat fucker’s face.  I could faintly hear the warm summer wind whipping past the worn edges of the tobacco stick as it picked up speed—speed summoned from every fiber of my being. In mid-swing, just for an instant, visible from corner of my eye, I saw the faces of the damned poking out through the school bus windows, and for the first time ever, a full frontal profile of Mr. Rucker, as he stepped onto the bus’s bottom step to witness the retribution.

In the few final moments, I thought Billy was going to attempt another Appalachian soaked utterance at Sam, but his efforts were futile.  With a summer’s worth of torment finding its tipping point, the sound of time-hardened hickory making full contact with human flesh reverberated throughout the county’s hills and valleys. During the follow-through, with my eyes still focused on my target, the vibrations traveling up the tobacco stick into my hands signaled what players call that out-of-the-park feeling. Disturbing screams of agony, the kind only heard in R-rated horror films and war movies, immediately drowned the subsequent echoes as Billy fell limp on his side.  The sound of air brakes releasing snapped me out of my slow motion dream-state.  I could hear the crowd roar from windows of the departing school bus.  Sam pulled himself up from the ground, dusted the gravel from his bleeding hands, and hurried to gather up his papers scattered about the scene.  Billy was balled up into a fetal position next to the gas pumps, trying to suppress his whimpers.  I could see from the red welt already beginning to form on the side of Billy’s face that I had hit my mark. Sam and I just walked away, not saying a word on the way home, as the bloodstains on Sam’s hands permeated the note written on the back of his English paper.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. There was no way to call Sam and check on him either.  I went to bed early with the all-too-familiar sounds of the Vietnam war echoing in the background, as my mother and grandmother watched the evening newscast. I never said a word to my mother about what happened because I wasn’t really sure how she would take it.  That wasn’t just a punch in the nose.  I just lay awake that night imagining what tomorrow would bring.  Maybe Billy told his parents and they would come after me, beating on our door at any minute like the sheriff’s department.  Maybe I just pissed Billy off so much that he would just kill me the next morning.  Maybe he would try to sneak into my house that very evening and strangle me with one of his old dirty socks while I was sleeping.  Maybe Billy would injure me so badly that the National Guard would have to come and transport me out in one of those big Army Helicopters—loading the dead and dying onto stretchers, like on the news.  Shit!  What have I done? I thought to myself.  I was terrified.  I was beginning to wonder if I had done the right thing—becoming part of the problem and not the solution.

I must have gotten a little sleep because the sound of my morning alarm shot through me like a bolt of lightning.  I quickly showered, got dressed, and ran down stairs.  My mother was busy frying eggs and sausage, and I poured myself a big bowl of Cap’n Crunch, but I couldn’t eat. With breakfast on the table, my mother said grace while I sort of bowed my head.  While she was praying, I wondered if I should write a quasi-suicide note, just to explain my side of the story.  But that was probably best left to Sam.  She closed her prayer with an “amen.”  “Don’t miss the bus,” my mother said, as I placed my bowl and spoon in the sink.  I left the Cap’n on the table, and reluctantly made my way out the door towards my impending doom.

Sam was leaning nonchalantly against the gas pump when I got there.  Within minutes, little Julie, the speech-impediment girl, and a couple of other park-dwellers showed up.  But Big Billy was nowhere in sight.  We heard the sound of a roaring bus engine up the road, and once again, we watched Mr. Rucker narrowly make “dead-man’s curve.”  The brake screeching started a good two hundred yards out.  About that time, Big Billy suddenly emerged from behind the shed where I had tossed the tobacco stick the day before.  My stomach tightened into a knot.  Everyone turned towards Billy to see what was about to transpire, and I glanced around to get one last look of what it was like being alive.  Then, there was nothing.  Billy stood about ten feet from us, toeing the gravel with one foot and fumbling his hands around his pants pockets.  It began to look like Billy had a change of heart.  With his camo-hat pulled down over his eyes and his head hung low, he walked up to the back of the line and waited his turn to board the bus like everyone else.

The next thing I knew, the bus door flew open and we got on.  “Come on Side Stick, let’s go!” roared Mr. Rucker at Big Billy, as he laughed and closed the door behind him.

And just like that, life was normal again.  Big Billy sat quietly on the front passenger seat, his pride injured almost as badly as the side of his face.  Sam and I still hadn’t said a word to each other.  We didn’t have to.  As Sam scribbled away in his diary, I watched his emotions swing wildly from ill-concealed laughter to serious thought, while the bus’s atmosphere soon returned to the sound of innocent laughter. It wasn’t long before we arrived at school. Big Billy got off first.  Everyone exited the bus without incident, and Sam rushed to discuss another writing assignment with his English teacher.  I sat there for a minute just to take it all in.  As I left, Mr. Rucker quipped, “I’ll see you ladies this afternoon.”

I stepped off and the bus door closed behind me; the smell of cheep cologne, whiskey, and cigarette smoke dissipated into the fall Kentucky breeze.  The town church bells marked the top of the morning hour, as another busload of impressionable young minds pulled up behind me.  I wondered what Sam wrote in his journal about the events that took place over that last few days.  Suddenly, I got this sick feeling deep in my stomach; I thought to myself, Is this the way we have to make it through life—solving our problems with the violent end of a tobacco stick? Surely there’s a better way.