There is a pedophile farmer with one leg from my tiny hometown. He raped some kids his wife babysat. Now my dad shakes his hand in church. A tractor’s PTO gulped down this dude’s leg and years later he spat up retribution for his shitty life by ruining childhoods. His wife divorced him and he moved into a trailer near an overpass with the daughter of my high school bus driver. Everyone knew what he’d done but after release he stuck around and continues to get by, his half-man presence a reminder that sickness trickles through the body of every community.
Triple-Limb kept farming but also got a job wiping down the seats of elementary school buses. Most likely wishes the ammonia he sprays as solvent was instead piss collected from urinals bolted low to the ground. He could bottle it up and drink ‘er on down. One squirt for the seat. One squirt for the eager tongue. A friend once hypothesized that this man bends down on his only knee to sniff the bus seats before wiping. Seats I sat on for years as a child.
I grew up in the country, five miles from a town of three hundred where I went to school through eighth grade. Since both our parents worked early, my little sister and I rode the bus every morning and afternoon. For years it picked us up in our yard but with a change in drivers we had to walk to the end of the driveway. There we stood at the mailbox with kids from the only two houses nearby.
From one house came two cousins around my age whom I liked. I played with them most days and in the mornings could see their dogs go on sniff adventures as we waited for our ride to school. From the other house was a small kid with a bad bowl cut who sometimes threatened to break our noses when we aggravated him. Later in life he lost his virginity to a horrid girl in a car parked at those same mailboxes as drunk people cheered with his each and every pump.
Since we grew up in eastern North Dakota, a flat prairie with bitter cold winter winds, we often waited until the last second to head out. Our house is surrounded by woods and river, fifty yards back from the gravel road that guides us into town. The shelter belt of trees partially ends where our driveway does, exposing us to southerly and western winds. The bus generally showed up within a window of ten minutes, but ten minutes of exposure to wind chill was a lot to bare. Sometimes our dad would still be home and drive us to the mailbox to wait in his warm pickup for the bus to come. He’s always had an adherence to timeliness, imparting on us that you should never be late when others expect you. His message never really registered.
Left alone in the mornings with our parents at work, we often ended up distracted. I’d zone out to Bobby’s World and forget the bus was on its way. There were many times that my sister and I weren’t ready when it came. We’d still be getting dressed or eating toast when a horn echoed down the driveway and through our windows. That horn meant we were holding everyone up. That we’d lost track of time once again. And so we’d scream and run up the driveway with backpacks half slung around our shoulders, sucking in cold air that hurt gasping lungs. It was embarrassing to look up the bus steps at the annoyed driver as he opened the door and you walked through those dirty gates.
Even though I hated assigned seats in class, I almost always sat among the same few spots on the bus. Each seat held two or three and was covered in a canvas tarp with duct tape patches and holes you could drop pencils and pennies down. Dozens of conversations carried on across the aisle amidst the blares of country music hissing out from fuzzy speakers. Seat selection was the most important part of a ride and made bad music immaterial. I had to be near people I knew. Away from the driver as much as possible. Distant from the kids who over the years traded in Pogs, Yo-Yos, and Pokemon. I wanted to ride in the back so that in going across the bump on the overpass into town I’d shoot up as the rear shocks gave way. The goal was to exaggerate your jump so much that you’d bonk your head on the ceiling.
The back is also where the older kids made camp. They spit brown liquid into pop bottles and sometimes dropped schwag beers that rolled from row to row, an endless back and forth until someone snatched the pounder and tucked it away for lunchtime. They swore and carried more books than me. These were the high school boys. I thought of them as my neighbors even if they lived miles away. Most anyone in the countryside got included in this list. I had too much anxiety to stare directly at those doing all the illicit things I didn’t quite understand. But their ways were fascinating and so I never told my parents what I saw.
The older kids weren’t the scuzziest of the bus dwellers. I went through a string of drivers who were worse — barely employed men whose primary concern was the twenty they’d pocket every route. For the first few years of my education the school contracted out a bus service. Buddy was a driver for this company who kept a stack of Redbooks beside his seat. I don’t recall him ever introducing himself but somehow we all knew his name and understood him to be off. I never saw him paging through his magazines full of bra-clad women and he disappeared from my life before I would’ve been wanting to stare at them myself.
A Diet Coke swilling, wannabe Southerner, self-appointed town sheriff was our most memorable driver. He was a janitor from my school who was let go from the volunteer fire force for being too weird. He was later fired from his janitor job for the same reason. He’s become a scrapper. Drives around early mornings through my hometown’s streets, stopping to collect trash from the ends of driveways that will soon wind up on Craigslist.
When he was still picking up kids he was considered by all to be the worst. He wore aviators and if you put your legs in the aisle he’d inch the shades down his nose and stare at you in the rear-view until you sat the way he wanted you to. His rules were often seemingly only in place to make you more uncomfortable. It felt daring to throw your feet or bag in the aisle when he wasn’t looking and see how long you could get away with it. He always played country even when we begged for shitty rock. Picked us up way too early and then made the kids wait on board outside the school until more buses rolled in. If he was jacked enough on Diet Coke and Marlboro Lights he’d sing along to the music as we waited. This went on for years.
In middle school I was a backup forward on the basketball team and we took the bus to games in nearby towns. By this time most of the school’s drivers were teachers looking for a little extra income. They were pretty good to us and after a 70-18 loss would sometimes point our bus to the nearest Hardee’s where I’d try fit as many straws in my mouth as possible.
Most people who came along were friends and I often had more fun on the ride than I did on the court. In the dark recesses of the game bus we’d tell dirty jokes printed off internet sites. Shared candy and switched seats. Talked about the girl whose puke was rolling down the aisle as we spoke. Circulated rumors about someone getting a footjob from one of the cheerleaders who never sat with me no matter how much I wished for it to happen.
I got older and started going to high school in a bigger town of fifty thousand that was fifteen miles away. Rode with little kids from the countryside into my small town elementary. There I waited for the bus to the big town with others who didn’t have vehicles or friends with cars. I rode that bus for the first two years of high school and by the time I stopped there were few from my class still at it.
I wasn’t one of the beer drinking tenth graders from my youth but still maintained an awareness of how I was perceived by little kids on my bus. I wasn’t cool or particularly interesting to anyone but myself. I cursed a bit and could boot people from their spots but that was about it for my arsenal of teenage edginess. Still I internalized a vague sense of superiority over them, hoping they’d realize this simply from my being older and always having headphones in. As if no one’s conversation was worth my attention. In an era of life where I’d gone from a social middle schooler to a reserved fiftteen year old who knew few people, that bus ride gave my day a tiny sense of dignity.
It was embarrassing to wait outside my high school for the hometown bus. To not have a car or driver’s license when those around me did. I sometimes felt shitty for a moment when I saw them drive by as I waited in the cold. But the little kids didn’t know this. And so for a few minutes every afternoon I looked around at them with my music going, emanating out a bizarre and unearned sense of betterness. Everyone was too busy with their friends to notice.
The after school bus I rode most often from my elementary to home was a mini. It leaked in so much dust from the gravel roads that I often had a hard time breathing. People scratched their names or initials into the walls but I never laid claim. That bus didn’t possess me permanently and around the middle of the eleventh grade I found myself a ride.
My friend Tmack got a shitty, beat down car. The Lumina. We ripped off the L and swapped in a sticker bearing the letter Z. Rolled on bubbly tint. Unbolted a $5 chair and used its footrest as a spoiler. This was the car I made a hundred trips to school in. I sometimes still rode the bus to my elementary in the morning but from there was chauffeured around. Saw the other high school kids waiting and instantly thought of them as lesser even though I’d been in their position for years. I was so relieved to not be the last person from my class to find a new way to school. I started coming into my own as a person and it was nice to be released from the social stigma of riding that bus. My friends and I repaid Tmack’s generosity by lighting off fireworks in his car and annoying him to the point that he’d shut down and stop talking to us.
I eventually saved up enough money from my gas station job to get my own car and never rode the bus again.
I often hauled my sister along so she didn’t have to face the social stratification incurred from riding the bus. And because my parents told me to. I tried to be a kind driver and usually let her rest her feet in the half foot of garbage I used to decorate the floor. I mistreated my car and eventually it blew up but I still managed enough rides to finish out high school without getting back on the bus.
I didn’t graduate with high social standing but I was better off than where I began, even if I still didn’t have my own ride. Even though I still came home every night to my childhood room, often feeling less independent than I had years prior. It took a few more years of school and social struggles to largely get where I wanted to be. To feel evolved beyond the shy and inward creature I’d become in high school. That animal’s skin is now folded up neatly in the closet but I’ve yet to outgrow it so much that I couldn’t don it again.
It wasn’t until after college that I got on another bus. I had my own car now and drove it with care out to Washington to visit my sister who had picked up and moved on from North Dakota. From Olympia I rode the dog to Seattle for a music festival. Seated myself near a guy wearing a purple raccoon tail. I sat in silence, a fascinated observer of all the people who had to continue riding buses into adulthood.
It didn’t seem problematic for them as I knew this was a natural extension of city living. Cars just weren’t as meaningful to people who’ve always had a way to get around. I came to realize that riding the bus as an adult wasn’t an indicator of a disorganized life like it sometimes seemed to be back home. Despite accepting that it wasn’t so bad I haven’t been on an operable bus since.
The only time I’ll sit on buses now is when I’m in Portland. Someone with a grilled cheese food cart in a parking lot bought a decommissioned school bus. They turned it into a place where adults get to regress to childhood in grease soaked, half hour increments.
You get your food and sit on actual bus seats that face each other like booths with a table in between. The ceilings are lined with art and the tabletops with awkward school photos.
When I’m there I get to think about riding the bus as a kid and have a chance to relate those stories. To feel thankful I am able as an adult to transport myself around by car or foot and always on my own schedule. To know I can ricochet through this beautiful country while meeting kind folks whose stories I will enjoy. It also reminds me of my mother’s cousin, Doug, who lives on the outskirts of Portland.
Doug is a thirty or forty something dude who’s been to prison for climbing through a fourteen year old’s window at night to fuck her. He grew up in a trailer park colloquially known as Felony Flats and never left except for his times in jail. Drug addiction runs in his family as his mom was an addict who died around fifty. In the 70s her and the dude she was dating crashed a pickup into the back of a pharmacy and then spent months in the mountains dosing on the pills they’d liberated. Her life might’ve peaked right there even though she lived thirty years longer.
The last I heard of Doug he was living near Felony Flats in a broke down school bus with a one-armed girlfriend. Maybe he fucks her in the driver’s seat to remind her she’s ineligible to pilot the thing. A missing arm is generally inconducive for making left turns. And so a disruption in bilateral symmetry is a seemingly universal indicator that someone will indulge their personal sickness on a vehicle designed to help facilitate higher learning. Hacked up like the rest of us but without ever bothering to get it together or review their life again. Trapping themselves in conceptions of lust, human connection, and personal growth whose complexities are outmatched by even the simplest who choose to always struggle for betterment.
Doug’s inoperable bus home now holds a mission apart from furthering lives and education. It acts as a place to regress. Not a trip into childhood but instead a closed off world of infancy and dependence. A chamber from which you’ll never escape nor figure your shit out. Its seats slathered in meth, cum, and detached arms. So beware the bus dwelling reprobates. And keep your limbs in the aisle. They’re more comfortable there.