Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Richmond, Virginia and still live there. My momma was from Franklin County and grew up on bootleg money. My daddy’s from Johnson City, Tennessee. When it’s warm I try to jump in the James River once a day. As a kid, before I left the house, Momma would lick her palm and paste down my hair, “A lick and a promise,” she’d say and shoo me out of the door.
Sometimes Oliver would massage the veiny brown vinyl covering the bus seats to wash away the failures of his day. He liked the coughing and groaning of the engine, the metallic yelps and scrapes of the gears shifting. And Pappy, the wrinkly old bus driver, with his greasy pompadour and the countriest voice Oliver had ever heard, always smiled at him.
“Hey, Ollie,” Pappy said as the boy passed, Oliver admiring for a second or two Pappy’s radio and the knobs and dials that seemed to keep the bus moving.
Sometimes he would pull a pencil from his knapsack and add to graphite layers of graffiti on the dimpled metallic sheet that backed the seat in front of him. He liked to draw vampire monsters and sad men with giant Afros. One of the drawings in his favorite seat, not his work, was a giant penis, no testicles, connected to a faceless man. Oliver was confused by the scale of it, the penis, and eventually drew wings on it, turning it into dragon-snake. Oliver laughed each time he saw the converted sketch.
Oliver had friends at school but none of them rode the bus. His mother could have dropped him off and picked him up each day, she didn’t work, but he had been riding the bus since kindergarten. He didn’t like or dislike the bus; riding it was simply part of his reality, like taking the trash out after dark, his endless freckles, or the cold tension that hovered over the dinner table each night as his parents looked around the room at everything but each other.
Sitting in his seat, he liked to listen to the older boys, 8th and 9th graders, shout above the engine noises. Their curses and taunts were like songs to Oliver and were flavored with comedy and romance and sometimes violence. “Eat my shit, suck it asshole, come here faggoty-ass.” And then sadistic laughter, and the older girls’ fake disgust, and Oliver not knowing what most of their words meant, but listening anyway to the rise and fall of their lyrics.
The jokes too about sex, something he knew was between older kids, maybe his parents, another thing he didn’t understand. He had looked at his brother’s magazines, the ones hidden under Nicholas’ old sweaters, and on the wrinkled pages, men and women without clothes, making angry faces, fighting, hurting each other it seemed. Those images didn’t line-up with the hallway romances he saw at school. The upper-schoolers holding hands, kissing behind the gym, sometimes on the bus in the back, soft words and closed-lidded smiling. Maybe Oliver could ask his brother when he came home from college.
Today, Oliver leaned heavily into his seat, watching clouds, the tops of trees, as the bus drove away from the school. He had struggled through another reading quiz in the last period of the day. He could still feel Mrs. Todd’s delicate hand on his shoulder, see her disappointed eyes as she checked his answers. “Keep trying, Oliver.”
He did try, but the words, when he labored to read them, swirled on the paper and then flew past him. He would catch a phrase or two, form an idea, but then a kid’s sneeze or the squeak of a sneaker on the waxed tile floor would pull his eyes from the page. The questions at the end of the passage made little sense to him, so he guessed.
It would be better when he got home. Oliver would lie to his mother about his homework and his reading failures, and he would play Asteroids on his Atari and sneak a few Girl Scout cookies hidden under his bed. Oliver remembered his new drawings and smiled. He was trying to recreate the opening scenes from Star Wars, frame by frame. His R2 was pretty good, but his C-3PO needed work. He had started Leia, and the hair looked decent, but he couldn’t get her eyes right. Oliver had dreamed about the princess two nights in a row.
And he could watch Adam-12 at 4:30 and lose himself in the emergencies on the screen, the car crashes and fires, and it seemed to Oliver that everyone got saved.
“Hey, cutie.” Michelle Young’s face rose over the seat in front of him like a billboard model. On her knees, she stared at him. Her teeth were so white and straight, her brown hair long, shiny, catching the light from the windows. “How’s 6th grade?”
“Ok,” he said, trying not to look into her eyes, or she would know the truth that seeing her each bus ride was better than the one video he game he had or his new drawings.
“Cool coat.” She traced the letter on his brother’s letterman’s jacket with her perfect pointer finger. Nicolas had given it to him when he went to college. His mother said it looked ridiculous, swallowing his stringy eleven-year-old body. But Oliver wore it anyway, keeping his brother close, his smell, Brut deodorant and Camel cigarettes. Oliver’s skin buzzed with pride when the older kids and a few coaches asked him, “You gonna play b-ball like your big brother?” Nicholas had been a star on the basketball team. Oliver would nod “yes” to the questions, but he hadn’t figured out the game, so many moves, a hand pushing the ball into the floor or the pavement, catching it again, running at the same time, throwing the ball into the air, too much, too many things at the same time. Maybe he could practice in the driveway tonight. His father would watch him, standing just inside the open garage door, smoking. “Nice shot” he would say, staring robotically at the hoop but not at Oliver.
Michelle Young reached over the seat and unbuttoned the second button of his white oxford.
“Looks cooler now, Ollie, not so stuffy.” Oliver couldn’t breathe.
“Breaking any hearts these days?” Michelle’s friend, Dorothy, snickered beside her. They were two grades ahead of him.
He was frozen but finally lifted his gaze to hers, green gems flecked with tiny golden specs, sparkling, floating.
“No. None of them are as pretty as you.”
Her eyes widened and she took a breath, and laughed finally, on her cheeks the slightest flush of red.
“Whoa.” She smiled. “What a flirt!” She winked at him and slid back down into her seat, whispering something to Dorothy.
Oliver looked out of the window ahead at the slight curve of Huguenot Road. The red brake lights flickering off and on told him there was a traffic jam. He didn’t really care. His comment to Michelle Young was a hit. Something his brother might have said. When his brother was home, Oliver sometimes sat outside of his door and listened to Nicholas talk on the phone, always to girls. He couldn’t make out most of his brother’s words, just his smooth, low voice, floating behind the door, selling something to female speakers on the other end. Different calls, different girls, same voice. Nicholas would sometimes catch Oliver listening, sitting on the cold floor in the hall.
“Learning anything, little bro?” And he would poke Oliver in the ticklish skin above his clavicle.
There were now light blue lights flashing ahead, dulled by moving through the windows of fifty cars. The lights were from a cop pulled off on the shoulder to the right. The seat on the other side of the aisle was empty and Oliver scooted to it. Now he could see an ambulance ahead, orange lights spinning. A wreck. Oliver imagined the dents, twisted metal, smoking engine parts. The officers, too, pistols in holders, holding radios. Emergency attendants, medical boxes, stretchers.
The kids in the front stopped chattering. Oliver could see Pappy’s face in the mirror, twisted with concern. “Everybody okay?” he said.
Maybe Oliver would get to see them use the jaws of life free some nice lady from a crumpled Datsun or Mercedes. His dad drove one of those, a Mercedes, and when he dreamed of crashes, his father’s car was the one he saw. “These are still made of steel, Oliver,” his father once said, driving him to the pool.
The bus was moving painfully slow. Pappy pulling it in and out of gear, the bus lurching only a few yards at a time. He could finally see the ambulance, the doors closed, two men in white jumpsuits sitting on the bumper, both smoking. Cops standing there too, talking in mysterious codes Oliver imagined.
The bus moved again and Oliver saw something strange to the right, near the weeds, a lumpy low mound of snow. But it was April he reasoned, and a stream of glass leading to the mound, broken glass, shredded rubber. Now a bigger piece of metal, a tire? Oliver pushed into the window, it was a moped, or a small dirt-bike, crumpled, a broken pretzel.
“Shit,” he said. No one moved or spoke to answer him, their faces, their eyes watching.
Not snow, no, a sheet, covering something, red smears, circles, and peeking from under the edge, tennis shoes, black Chucks, like his, like his brother’s, sitting straight up, pointing up into the blue, alone.
A cop waved them past, not looking into their eyes, his gaze below the bus windows, another cop holding the shoulder of a crying woman in front of a car, her windshield cracked, spider-webbed.
“Dude, fucking ate it!” Vern Fleming, the lone 10th grader said excitedly but sympathetic.
Oliver slid back to his seat, his head spinning with the sheet and the shoes, and what the sheet was covering. He thought he might throw up, the vibrating bus now attacking his stomach. He closed his eyes. He wanted nothing now but to be in his room on his bed, shooting spinning space rocks. Or seeing his parents hug in the kitchen, like they used to, their smoldering cigarettes held at arm’s distance, listening to Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By.” His brother, home and safe, in the room next to Oliver’s, or even better, a few years ago, smelling his brother’s warm, shirtless back, clean-sweat, soap, after being pulled out of his piss-soaked bed, crying, but his brother whispering, half-asleep, “I did it too, get in, just don’t piss in my bed” and his brother’s sleepy laugh, pulling the shared sheet over Oliver, thinking Nicholas could save him from anything and then softly falling asleep.