SECRETS

People, as they say, have all kinds of skeletons.  On any given day you could be standing in a checkout line at Wal Mart shootin’ the shit with some old guy in front of you and be totally oblivious to the fact that he’s kept souvenirs in jars of formaldehyde since the war.  You just can’t ever tell whose got all their marbles, you know?

For example, me and my husband have a nice little house now with a rose garden in the back and two cocker spaniels, but things weren’t always this great.  My parents, God rest ‘em, didn’t care much for people outside the family (and, to be perfectly honest, there were a few inside the family they didn’t like much either), so they lived as far out of town as they could get.  Dad was a builder, and he was gone an awful lot, so Mom usually got stuck with the five of us: DJ was the oldest and the best brother that ever walked; I came next, the spitting image of my mother; then came two more girls, Patty and Rachel; and finally Pete (my mother used to say she’d saved the best for last).

The ride to school took nearly an hour, and we had to be ready and at the bus stop before six.  Until June of my fifth grade year, the sound of an approaching school bus was a comfort.  It was before Petie started kindergarten, and the four of us would walk down the gravel road through the trees chucking rocks at one another or something like that to keep our minds off the usually foul weather.  There were some mornings that were pleasant, like right after a cold snap when there wasn’t any rain to block the smells of the moss and the ferns and the pinecones.  Mostly, though, it was a cold, wet, and dark walk to the county road.

Dad eventually built us a shed with a light in it to stand in when it rained or snowed, but before that we would just stand there pretending not to huddle against each other while we waited for the sound of the bus.  There was a steep dip about a half mile from our mailbox, and that was where the unmistakable rumble and clank started.  I’ve heard men talk about how engines purr like kittens, but if that old Blue Bird had ever purred it certainly was long before it landed on our route.  We’d hear the engine struggle up to the top of the steep rise, then fade off as it neared the bottom, only to grind and spurt and drag itself back up to the next rise.  We knew exactly when the driver shifted gears because we’d seen him do it hundreds of times, and when we heard the grinding from third to second and then back to third again, we’d all turn our heads to watch the bug-spattered grill appear from around the corner.  It wasn’t much to look at, but the promise of being inside where it was warm made that bus a welcome sight.

Old Man Weaver would always give me a big smile in the morning as he leaned over to push on the silver handle that opened the door, and I could never understand why such a small thing could piss DJ off so much.  He used to tell me, “You watch that old faggot, Les, ‘cuz there’s something that ain’t right with him.”  (DJ used the word “faggot” as often as most people used the word “hello.”  He never meant harm by it, I think he just liked the sound.)  I really didn’t know what he meant until the first time the old man touched me.  It was only on the shoulder, but his hand felt cold and heavy, and I was reminded of that old black and white movie where the coffin lid opens and the vampire’s white, creepy hand slips slowly out to grab some poor girl’s arm.  Old Man Weaver’s hand felt a lot like that.

It was a rare occasion for me to be the only Anderson kid on the bus, but it did happen now and then.  More rare, though—in fact, it’s only happened once—was the day I ended up being the only kid on the bus.  There were two more stops on the route past ours, but for whatever reason the other kids didn’t ride home that day.  After Tyler Snot-grass (okay, Snodgrass) hopped off, only Weaver and me were left.  He shut the door once Tyler was safely on the ground, then turned around and invited me to sit further up front.  I hollered back that I was fine in the middle.  Weaver put the bus in gear, and we lurched forward along the final two miles to home.

Rumors that Old Man Weaver made it a habit to pull off the road to take a piss were rampant, so I couldn’t help but giggle when I first felt the bus roll to a stop about a mile from my mailbox.  When you’re eleven years old, anyone—especially some old bus driver—taking a piss alongside the road was funny.  He didn’t step out, though, like I expected.  Instead, he turned toward the rear of the bus and walked along the aisle between the seats, then stopped to stand and glare at me.

“Are you doing alright back here, Leslie?” he asked, and I replied that I was okay.  He then asked me one of the most dumbass questions I’ve ever heard an adult ask a kid: “You know, Leslie,” he said, “I was passin’ the time in these woods the other day when I noticed a strange kind of fire-colored fern.  If I showed it to you, do you think you might know what it could be?”

I’ll never forget those words as long as I live.  At the time, I didn’t ponder much on why some old guy would think I could name any species of fern, let alone some rare, fiery-looking one.  It’s unfortunate, though, that the only thing more dumbass than his question was the fact that I really thought I could maybe give him the answer.  We hadn’t gotten more than twenty or so feet into the woods, though, when Weaver made his move.  “Sweetheart,” he said, “before we get there, do you think you could help me with something?  It’ll only take a minute.”

Now, I’d been called Sweetheart before by all kinds of adults, but there was just something about the way Weaver said it that gave me the chills, and I got that old black and white movie feeling again.  He reached out to take my hand, but I stepped back a bit.  He said again that he would only take just a minute, and he promised it wouldn’t hurt me.  I stood there wondering what on earth he could possibly be talking about when I noticed he was grabbing at his crotch.

“If you would do this one little thing for me,” he said, unzipping his fly, “then we’ll walk over there just around those trees and I’ll show you the fiery fern.”

Weaver reached in and pulled his wrinkly old crank through the opening in his zipper, and my eyes got big as hubcaps.  I thought he was gonna take a piss after all—and right there in front of me!—but, instead, he snatched my hand and pulled me toward him.  He asked me to touch him, but even as I said No! I could tell from the look in his eyes that it wasn’t a request.  The old man had somethin’ on his mind, and it wouldn’t have mattered two squats whether or not he had my okay.  When he put his free hand behind my neck and tried to guide my face to his crotch, my memory shot me an image of something I’d seen in one of DJ’s girlie magazines he was always hiding.  I decided quickly I’d sooner rot in hell than stick that bastard’s dick in my mouth, so I kicked him as hard as I could in the shin and struggled to break free.

Things moved real fast after that.  He had a death grip on my left arm, and his other hand held tight to the hair just above my neck.  I remember beating on his arm and chest with my free hand yelling “Let go of me you faggoty old man!” over and over while he tried to keep distance between his shins and my foot.  We carried on like that until he let go of my hair and tried to grab my other arm.  He had me for a second, too, but when his arm was close to my mouth I bit him ‘til my teeth pierced his skin.  He let go wailing, and I turned and ran as fast as I could back toward the bus and home, but after only a few steps my shoe caught on a fallen branch and I fell.  With Weaver only inches behind me, I reached for a stick lying on the forest floor.

I couldn’t remember then, and still can’t remember now, whether I had read it in an encyclopedia or whether DJ had told me during one of our midnight bullshit sessions, but I’d heard that when a person got attacked by a shark (or maybe it was a bear), the only way you could really save yourself was by stabbing the beast in the eye.  With the combination of Weaver’s yanking me up off the ground so hard and fast and the angle that my arm flew up toward him at, the fist that held that stick must have had twice the strength by the time the sharp end slammed into Old Man Weaver’s eye.

He screamed real loud and his hands flew up to his face.  I didn’t stay around to see him fall, but I heard his body hit the ground behind me.  When I flew away from there that last time, I didn’t trip once, and I never, ever turned around to see if he was following me again.  DJ was out cuttin’ fire wood when he saw me running toward the back door of the house, and he grabbed my arm before I had a chance to run inside.  “What the hell are you runnin’ from?” he asked, “and since when do you come home through the woods?”

I told DJ what had happened, and he told me to sit in the shed and wait for him while he went to check on Old Man Weaver.  He came walking back shortly afterward carrying my school bag and looking pale and out of breath.  “I think he’s dead, Les,” DJ told me, “and we’d better come up with a story to keep you from going to prison.”

Before ten o’clock that night, the entire town had heard about the old school bus driver who had pulled over to take a leak and accidentally killed himself by falling on a decayed log.  All that next week people came up to me asking if I’d seen him, but I always answered just like DJ told me: “No,” I’d say, “I just sat there on the bus waiting, and when he didn’t come back after a while, I walked home.  My brother, DJ, found him after I told him what happened.”

As I got older, I wondered a lot about what could have really happened to me if I’d told the truth.  I know now I wouldn’t have gone to prison, being only eleven, but I bet people would have treated me different.  I wonder, too, about what would have happened if DJ hadn’t thought to go back to the bus, which is how he found my bag, or if the police could have lifted my fingerprints off the stick in Weaver’s eye or if anyone had noticed my footprints at the scene.  Whenever I’d try to talk to DJ about it, he’d tell me to just shut up and remember that “the old faggot had it comin’ to him.”  Maybe DJ was right, and maybe that’s why I got away with it.  Karma, as they say, can be a bitch.

I’m only telling you this so that you’ll be on your toes the next time you start to judge a person by the way they look.  Now, I’m not sayin’ all skeletons are bad, and certainly not every bad skeleton has a bad person holding it in, but just because someone’s dressed right doesn’t make them clean, you know?  Give ‘em all the benefit of the doubt, I say, and base your opinions on character not clothes.  But beware, too, that not everyone is who they seem to be.  Sometimes, in the real world, friendly bus drivers are the wrong kind of friendly.

And sometimes little girls carry sharp sticks.

October 20, 2002

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