My son Bennett pulls only the toy vehicles that have doors that open from the rack at the grocery store because he needs one that his little man will fit. He pushes them around the house, over the granite countertops in the kitchen, the Oriental rug by the fireplace in the keeping room, across the wooden floors in the den and over the grand piano. They are chasing each other, having wrecks and having confrontations, and it reminds me of my own Matchbox collection that is probably on someone’s shelf in an antique store. I wished I would’ve kept them and passed them to Bennett—would’ve saved me money.
When we get home, Bennett says the little man won’t fit in the truck and he needs to go back to the grocery store and get a different one. “Not today,” I said. “Next time we go, we’ll exchange it.”
“The little man said today,” Bennett fired back.
“I don’t care what the little man said.” Bennett stomps up the wooden stairs to his room, and I remember the alcoholic I admitted to the detox unit at the hospital several years ago who’d seen a little man.
The sheriff’s department had brought him to the hospital, and I’d processed his admissions paperwork. Because he was to be admitted to the detox unit, we’d been required to get him to voluntarily commit himself. He was young, just a few days past his nineteenth, shoulder length blonde hair, tanned. He could’ve passed for healthy. His family had called the sheriff after he’d shot up the house, chasing a little man.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“Damned little man kept pointing at me, laughing.”
“So, you decided to shoot him?”
“Damned right. I’d a killed that son of a bitch if they hadn’t called the law.”
“You do realize you are having withdrawals from alcohol and probably hallucinating.”
He pointed; his hand trembled. “I ain’t hallucinating. I’ll admit I been drinking too much. Been making it myself for months. I won’t tell them where either, but that little man, he’s real!”
“Okay, did the little man say anything else to you?”
“Nah, just laughing. I’m going to blow that mother fucker to hell when I get out of here.”
“I just need you to sign. The sooner you sign, and get back to the unit, the sooner they can let you out so you can take care of your business.”
His signature had been shakey, too, like an elderly person with Parkinson’s. It was good he would get treatment, dry out, but unless he made a different choice, I suspected he’d be back, like most of them.
“Bennett” I yelled up the stairs.
“Does your little man laugh at you?”
“No sir, daddy. You know I am just pretending, right?”
“Get your shoes and we’ll go back to the grocery, so you can get another car for your little man.”
After my road rage swelled and I passed the slow moving Chevy truck, I noticed the flashing yellow lights a quarter of a mile ahead on Hollywood, where dreams aren’t born, but end in the city cemetery. I slowed and probably caused the Chevy driver to laugh at my impatience. Made me think of karma.
I stopped behind a long line of vehicles and watched kids of all shapes and sizes saunter and bored. They didn’t rush or seem to care about the line of cars, folks rushing to get to their jobs.
It had been thirty years since I’d ridden a school bus, and I felt sure Mr. Williams, a crotchety and humped mass of a man with thin lips, horn-rimmed glasses, and a faded green tattoo on his forearm, was long dead. The only time he spoke was when kids were out of line—mostly, the football and basketball players, the river rats (a group of poor kids mean as snakes who should have been sent off to prison in elementary school since it seemed to be in their DNA), and the ranch boys (mostly mean boys given up or abandoned by their families or sent to the ranch by the courts). When his voice boomed, “Cut it out”, there was silence and conformity. He didn’t have to say any more. I don’t think I ever heard of anyone cross or challenge him. I imagined he’d body slammed a defensive tackle from the quad-A football team in the past, and the information had been passed down from one class to the next.
Once both feet were planted on the first step, Mr. Williams slammed the folding door and stomped the gas pedal to the floor, the bus lunging forward rollicking along, the newest border stumbling down the aisle grabbing metal poles to maintain balance and find a seat. In the winter, some would let down their windows to play “Freeze Out,” not so much a game since there were no winners, only losers. Usually, the bus came around sun-up, so most of us were so sleepy, we didn’t pay attention to the other stops or our peers’ homes. We were old poor. Anyone middle class or higher either went to a private school or their mothers shuttled them in new cars that was content for our dreams.
I mostly kept to myself and stared out the window at pine thickets, day dreaming of a different life, of what I might do when I finally got a car and didn’t have to ride the bus, of imagining the heavy chested high school girl across the aisle naked, her breasts bobbing up and down like buoys in a bay. I turned my thoughts to old Ms. Stein from Geometry and Algebra. A quick vision of her was enough for any teenage boy to kill a bulge in his Levi’s. Closing my eyes, I dozed, and only when Mr. Williams slammed on the brakes to turn into the school’s long driveway did I wake up to people all over the bus pointing and laughing at me. Even the ranch boys and river rats were pointing and laughing. I first glanced to my crotch to make sure nothing had escaped or was standing at attention, and when the girl in front of me handed me her compact mirror, I finally got it.
My eye-lashes were longer than usual and my slightly arched eyebrows had become more triangular. Lipstick was more of an “O” above my lips and below on the chin making me a twin for Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live. Even my high cheekbones were highlighted with rouge. I looked like a clown or a kid in drag, and when the bus jolted to a stop in the parking lot with all the other yellow ones, I made a dash to the bathroom to wash my face, knowing I would get a demerit for tardiness.
While no one ever confessed, and they all laughed again in the afternoon when we all reloaded for the long ride home, I learned to always stay alert on the bus. I don’t recall now how many tricks were played during the year, but I expect there were a lot. Even though he never laughed or said anything, I imagined Mr. Williams had a sense of humor and told his family about it around the supper table. He couldn’t have expressed it to us. If he had opened that door, he would’ve lost control.
*All work is the property of the author and is distributed with their permission
Niles Reddick’s collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities was a finalist for an Eppie award, his novel Lead Me Home was a national finalist for a ForeWord Award, a finalist in the Georgia Author of the Year award in the fiction category, and a nominee for an IPPY award. His work has appeared in many journals & anthologies. He works for the University of Memphis at Lambuth in Jackson, Tennessee. His new novel, Drifting too far from the Shore, is forthcoming in 2016. His website is http://www.nilesreddick.com