Halloween arrived. It was a school day, so I would be driving the bus, and I decided to do it up big time. I rented an unzipped open-front jumpsuit (not just open-throat; this bad boy unzipped down to the navel) from a costume shop. Wig, sideburns, gold-frame sunglasses. Elvis, baby! The jumpsuit chafed my nipples mightily. Damn you, rayon! The wig itched my scalp so god-awfully you’d think it was lined with fibre-glass insulation. And of course the bus needed its own costume. I spent the night before the big day gussying it up with orange and black crepe-paper streamers.
When I reached the bus the next morning, a spider’s web was strung between the driver’s side window and the mirror. This had been the case most mornings for the past few weeks. I had no clue where the spider was. I knocked the web down with the broom during my inspection—I felt bad, but the wind would tear it apart as I drove anyway.
“Elvis!” My first student of the day, Jake, said when I showed up at his house. “I thought you died.”
“Whaa-hah, oh-ho, yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah,” I crooned in my best/worst Elvis voice. “Everyone thinks ole Elvis P died on a toilet. Not true, buddy-roo. Elvis was selling home insurance in Reno. Now I’m driving a bus-a-reeno.”
“What’s that on your head?”
“Ma hair!” I said, mock-affronted.
“Looks like a dead skunk.”
“What are you going as, man? It’s Halloween.”
Jake smiled. “I’m going as ‘Guy in Wheelchair.’ It’s totally method. Or meta. Or possibly both.”
We picked up Vincent, who hadn’t bothered to dress up either. High-schoolers! Not a drop of Halloween spirit. The wig’s coarse lining was making my skull sweat; it really did feel like I had a dead skunk strapped to my head.
“Aaaahm Elvis!” I said. “But in your bus driver’s body. Y’see, when I died—”
“I thought you didn’t die,” Jake cut in. “You were selling insurance.”
“Don’t interrupt Elvis!” I thundered. “Now when I died, I made sure Colonel Tom Parker saved my brain in a pickle jar. Like Hitler’s brain, yeah?”
“Nobody saved Hitler’s braaaain,” said Vincent.
“What’s with the interruptions? Now last night ole Colonel Tom bonked your bus driver on his fat head, took his useless little pea brain out and put my robust Memphian brain in.”
Vincent said, “Your brain in a pickle jar? What a cheapskaaate.”
“Cheesecake?” I said hopefully.
At the next stop we picked up Oliver. Jake asked him what costume he was wearing.
“Whoa, nelly!” I said. “Elvis don’t want no bloodsuckers on thissee here bus.”
“I’m a vampire, too,” said Jake.
“You can’t be!” Oliver said. “You can’t even walk.”
“Who says vampires have to walk?” Jake challenged. “They can float.”
“Neither of you are vampires. That’s physically impoooosible,” said Vincent.
“Sure I am!” Oliver said cheerily. “I sucked that kid bone-dry.”
“What kid are you talking about?” Jake asked, already chuckling.
“His blood tasted like cherries,” Oliver said cryptically, then settled into silence before erupting with: “And at night I turn into an electric guitar!”
“You mean,” Jake said, laughter beginning to overtake him, “instead of a bat?”
“Yeah! I turn into an electric guitar and float outside my friend’s window.”
The bus erupted in laughter. As it washed over him, Oliver’s features fixed themselves into an expression of supreme satisfaction.
“Yeah,” he said with studied nonchalance, “I knew you guys would get a kick out of that one. If I were a vampire I’d hardly kill anyone.”
“That’s noble of you,” I said, my laughter subsiding.
“But if I was a werewolf I guess I’d eat everyone on this bus.”
When I picked up Gavin, he tentatively raised my gold-rimmed sunglasses to make sure it was just his wacky ole driver. He covered his eyes with his hand as if to say: I am SO embarrassed for you.
After making my drop-offs, I radioed dispatch. The reply came back: There’s an elementary route that needs to be covered. Late bell. You interested?
I’d covered the odd substitute route and, while they could be hit or miss, a little extra money was always welcome. I agreed to do it.
The dispatcher sounded shocked. “Well, okay then.”
I soon discovered this was a rookie move. I had no idea that a ton of veteran special needs drivers begged off their routes on Halloween day. They came down with every minor complication under the sun: twenty-four-hour flus and food poisoning and temporary blindness and hysterical pregnancy—anything, anything at all to avoid those dreaded Halloween runs.
What could be so bad about Halloween? I wondered. It’s the second-best holiday of the year, just behind Christmas. Kids love Halloween.
The answer was a painful lesson.
My first pickup on the sub route was a skeleton—or rather, a nine-year-old boy in a black leotard adorned with phosphorescent skeleton bones. He was joined at the next stop by a boy with the creepy face of an old man, courtesy of the latex mask he was wearing. A pair of princesses boarded after that. Their dresses were made out of flimsy material that resembled mosquito netting; moments after getting on one of them got her skirt trapped in the seat belt and it tore a few inches. This was a mind-melting catastrophe for the little princess.
“My dress!” she wailed wretchedly. “Stupid seat! My dresssss!”
“It’s okay, you’ll be fine.” I had precious little experience calming princesses; she flipped her hand at me dismissively and said, “What do you know?”
While the princesses attended to this fashion disaster I drove to a nearby subdivision to pick up—surprise!— another princess. This one’s name was Madison. The route report said she had asthma and ADHD; this struck me as a heartbreaking combination, the equivalent of a racehorse with a heart murmur. As she clambered aboard, it twigged: I knew Madison. Not personally, but by reputation. My heart jolted. Could it be—the Madison? Mythical creature of lore? Madison had acquired fabled status amongst the bus drivers on the southern end of the city. Legend had it that her energy levels were depthless; it was rumoured that in the event of a power outage you could simply ask Madison to hop on a treadmill wired to the electric grid and give her a Snickers bar; she would generate enough electricity to power ten city blocks.
“She’s a little hyper today,” her mother told me with a forced smile.
We drove on. Madison sat quietly—suspiciously so—with her hands folded. She was like that little fellow in a chop-socky movie standing motionless to one side while the fight raged around him: you just knew he was going to leap into action before long, and when he did things were bound to get gruesome.
The final rider was a boy who hadn’t dressed up as any- thing. This earned him the round derision of the skeleton, Dorian Gray, and the trio of princesses.
“He’s nothing,” said the princess with the ripped dress. “He’s boooooring.”
“That’s not very nice,” I said in defence of the poor boy.
The princess merely shrugged, gripping the edge of her seat and bouncing madly. Madison took this moment to break her silence, going off like a miniature Vesuvius.
“Bloo-bloo-BLOO!” she sang at a lung-rupturing pitch. “BA-ba-DA-DAAAA, DOO-DOOD-A-LOOOOT-DOOOT- DOOT-Ah-DOOOOOOO!”
I asked her royal highness to pipe down. The Princess was not amused, nor did she stop. In fact, Madison got the other kids to join in. My ears were ringing by the time my rolling madhouse reached the school’s parking lot. The kids boiled out of the doors and began tear-assing around the playground.
I killed a few hours and returned to pick them up just before noon. Six or seven buses lined the curb. Heather, a driver I knew a little, came over to shoot the breeze. Heather and I both picked up kids at the high school. Three weeks ago she’d been in an accident at a traffic bottleneck. She’d slammed her bus into a pickup truck. Thankfully no kids had been on board.
“I got suspended,” she told me with a desultory smirk. “Two weeks.”
I already knew this but played dumb. “Suspended?”
“Yeah. Get this: I tested positive for THC. Can you believe it?”
Tetrahydrocannabinol. The primary psychoactive catalyst in the cannabis plant. As a matter of fact, yeah, I could believe it. Heather was clearly a pothead. Her clothes smelled aggressively of the devil’s weed. Heather was such a colossal pot- head that her urine probably had roach and stem floating in it. Such a pothead that if you were to position an extremely sensitive microphone beside said urine, it would likely emit the faint but unmistakable strains of “No Woman, No Cry.”
All of which was fine. I had my own vices. But there was Heather copping bafflement to a positive test on a substance she inhaled only slightly less regularly than oxygen. It bothered me to have to play along, registering surprise at the completely logical/accurate test result.
“I’ve been eating a lot of poppy seeds,” she said. “Muffins, bagels. That must be it.”
Wouldn’t that result in a positive test for opiates? Most pot- fanciers I knew were straightforward and even strident about their use. I could get behind that. So you smoke enough weed to reanimate Bob Marley—fine, own it. I’m almost certain that Heather’s fondness for the sticky-icky hadn’t been the cause of the accident, but as I recall, it was her second smash- up of the year. She probably shouldn’t have been on the road.
“That must be it, Heather,” I said nonetheless. “All those muffins.”
I didn’t hang out with many of the other drivers. The only one I talked to regularly was Audrey. She and I picked up at the middle school every afternoon; we’d get there twenty minutes early and chew the fat. Audrey was seventy. She’d been driving a bus forty-odd years. Her husband was sick; he stayed at home, resting in an oxygen tent. Audrey knitted a lot. The Kleenex box on her bus sat on a knitted doily. Her bus smelled of cinnamon; if anything, mine smelled slightly of boy’s BO. Audrey’s kids adored her. Two of her grandchildren had autism and rode a special needs bus. Audrey had never been in a bus accident. She was not a self-deluding pothead. I liked Audrey a whole lot.
Heather wasn’t the norm. Neither was Audrey. They sat at opposing poles of the spectrum; the rest of us existed somewhere in the middle. But there were more Audreys than Heathers, thank goodness.
When the bell rang I said goodbye to Heather and returned to my bus. The school doors burst open. Gaggles of witches and superheroes, pirates and fairies, and a metric ton of princesses swarmed the playground. They fled across the grass slipping on their capes, tiaras knocked askew, magic wands crunched under the frantic trampling of feet. One boy dressed as Batman fell; I watched several of his classmates run over his back, squashing him into the muck. But instead of bleating the boy was smiling as if pleased with his self-sacrifice—I’m just like Batman! he may have been thinking. Go, good citizens of Gotham, flee to safety across the broad bridge of my back! May your boots remain forever unmuddied!
To my dismay I realized the children had been sent on their way with bags of candy. As they filed onto the bus I was further disheartened to note that most of the bags were empty, filled with shed wrappers. What kind of vile social experiment were the teachers administering here? They may as well have sent the kids out with a stick of dynamite in either hand, their hair lit on fire to ignite the wicks. I pictured the teachers in their lounge, chortling merrily.
TEACHER 1: I said, Go ahead kids—eat it all! Every bite of sugary goodness. Hoover it down your gullets! What do I care? You’re the bus driver’s problem now.
TEACHER 2: Oh Phyllis, you’re perfectly awful!
TEACHER 1: Ah, screw the bus driver. He’s a sub. A scab. I’ll never set eyes on him again. He can go to the devil for all I care.
(Teachers lift their coffee mugs in a toast.)
TEACHERS: Screw the bus drivers!
A second scene flashed through my mind: the driver of the route I was covering sitting on a La-Z-Boy, nursing whatever bunko affliction he’d begged off with—Uncontrollable Flatulence Disorder or Exploding Head Syndrome, who knew—cracking a beer in front of the TV and cackling.
I beheld a bus packed with sugar-tweakers. It was as bleak a hellscape as I’d ever seen. These were the same kids who had ridden with me scant hours ago, but their costumes were now in various stages of disintegration: grass-stained and ripped and pulled out of shape, the sleeves rucked up so they could “Breathe—ohmygodohmyGOD it’s so HOT!” They were all blue- or red-tongued from the sweets they’d eaten. Gobs of multicoloured goo were glued to the edges of their mouths. They had that over-sugared look, sticky- fingered and untamed.
And then there was the hyperactive asthmatic princess, the mythical Madison … Her hands and mouth were dyed with crystalized orange residue. Her dress was shredded to ribbons, as if she’d gotten into a scrape with a honey badger—and won.
Simply getting the kids belted in was an ordeal to inspire any number of debilitating neuroses. As soon as I had got a few kids battened down and turned my back to help the others, the first batch popped their belts and began to bop around shrieking, insisting they switch seats. I ended up tightening their seat belts to allow limited mobility—all except Madison, who seemed intent on tearing her shoulders out of joint to get free. She strained against her belt and arched her neck with such insistence that I was convinced her skeleton wished to flee her skin.
The urge to radio dispatch was powerful. “Mayday, mayday! I’ve got a busload of kids whacked out of their trees on Halloween candy! We’re coming in hot! Check that—we’re going down in flames!”
But by now I knew that if I did so, all I’d get was a knowing chuckle from dispatch, followed by: “Yeah, that’s pretty standard. Go with God, new fish.”
Feeling helpless, I settled on the seldom effective “Escalating Hey” technique.
“Hey guys, okay, okay, let’s settle down … hey now, settle down … hey! Hey! HEEEEY!”
Somehow—divine intercession, perhaps?—we managed to get on the road. Within a minute I began to hear the omin- ous crinkle of candy wrappers.
“No candy!” I pleaded. “Wait until you’re home. Candy tastes ten times better when you’re at home. This is a scientific fact!”
We must have pulled over a dozen times so I could rebuckle seat belts, let the kids switch seats, prise candy out of tightly clenched fists and issue increasingly confounded warnings.
“I am warning you, so help me God.”
“God helps those who help themselves,” said the kid who hadn’t dressed in a costume—a good comeback, I had to admit.
The entire bus was bug-eyed and weird. The kids licked their lips compulsively, often bursting into wild laughter. What had the teachers been feeding these kids? Cotton candy drenched in maple syrup? Hi-C and Sour Patch Kids, the grade-school equivalent of an eight ball?
“Can I eat a pudding?” Madison asked innocently.
“No pudding!” I barked. “We hit a bump and you’ll be wearing it.”
“Bloo-blap-blooey!” she pouted. “But I never got to eat it all day.”
“Get used to it. Life’s full of disappointments.”
“Do you like being a HandiBus driver?” she asked.
“You guys would rather it was a candy bus, I bet,” I said inanely.
“Candy bus!” Madison said, latching onto the idea. “That means you’d be a candy driver. That means we’d have to eat your smelly big toe! Eeww! Do you have a wife, mister bus driver?”
“I know somebody you could date.”
I had to smile. “Is that right?”
“Her name is Jen,” Madison said, ticking Jen’s qualities off on her fingers. “One, she’s pretty. Two, she’s smart. Three, she’s my homeschool teacher. Four, she’s pretty. Five, she has two sons. Five again, she is single.”
Something went psssht! The pressurized hiss of a soda can opening? To my misfortune, I ignored that sound—leading to “The Great Red Bull Halloween Freakout.”
Now I am not claiming that Red Bull is an instrument of the devil. In the right hands it is a fine and worthy product. Among its devotees are a great many cramming college students, long haul truckers, and reluctant parachutists. But the combination of Red Bull, elementary-school children, and an enclosed moving space encourages ghastly results.
Soon an empty silver-and-red can rolled lazily down the aisle, coming to rest against my seat. Oh God. Mother of GOD. I could not have been any more terrified had it been a live grenade. I rapidly churned through the Five Stages of Grief.
Denial: This is not happening! This can’t be happening!
Anger: Who gave that to them? Who gives that stuff to kids?
Bargaining: Please, bus gods, be merciful to your humble servant.
Depression: Oh God! Why did I accept this route? I’m doomed.
Acceptance: Buck up and roll with it, buttercup.
I pulled over in time to see one of the princesses chugging the dregs of a second can. The kids had been passing them around secretly. Twelve prepubescent eyes quivered in twelve sockets, peering intently at me.
“Uh-oh spaghetti-ooooo,” Madison said, ooh so softly.
The panicky voice of an army drill sergeant began to shriek in my head.
Go, dogface! Go, go, go! Hightail it! Now, before they hit full caffeination and tear you limb from limb!
I pulled back onto the road in a desperate frame of mind. The kids bopped and wriggled in their seats with such force I was sure they’d tear the floor bolts out. To hell with using the engine—I could harness them to the bumper, put the bus in neutral, and let them pull it like a dogsled. Madison could probably do it all on her own, setting a Guinness World Record.
My charges began to sing: a devilish, lowing howl. There weren’t many words to be parsed out of the noise; I was certain all six of them were singing different songs. They threw themselves around as the caffeine blitzed through their red- hot neural clusters.
I laughed. What else could I do? I laughed and sang my own tune—a song my old instructor Don had written.
“If you want to be rich, be rich! Hahahaha-hoHO! If you want to dream then dream with all your might!”
You could call it a hellish journey, and for stretches it certainly was. But as we drove through the darkening day, through suburbs in readiness for Halloween—houses with jack-o’-lanterns burning on stoops and garbage-bag ghosts suspended from tree boughs—with the kids singing in their tattered costumes, I began to feel there was also a thimbleful of pure joy to be wrung out of the experience.
I dropped the kids off one by one. They charged off the bus hollering like banshees, spinning in whirligigging dervishes or dancing jag-legged jigs on the sidewalk. The looks their folks gave me were more forgiving than angry.
Madison was the last drop-off. At her stop she held a pair of mittens out to me. It took me a moment to register that she wanted me to help put them on.
“Hold your hands out, Madison,” I said tiredly, tugging them over her orange-stained fingers. “Stay still and stop wriggling, for Pete’s sake.”
“Will you drive us tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s the weekend, Madison.”
She stepped off the bus. Her princess costume was rucked up, showing a slice of bare skin up her back. I saw a scar there and was reminded that most of the children I drove had suffered in some way. An insult, is the medical term. A critical insult to the body or mind, sometimes both. You can try to forget that, I realized, but this job had a way of reminding you.
Madison stopped. She was looking at something. She pointed one mittened hand. “It’s a spider.”
She was right. A small black spider sat on the bus’s side mirror. The same one, I guessed, that had been building the webs I’d torn down every morning the past few weeks. It must have been living in the housing behind the mirror, coming out at night to string its web.
“Its home is behind the mirror,” I told her.
She frowned. “A spider shouldn’t live there. It should live in a tree.”
I wasn’t sure that a tree was a spider’s proper element but I was too exhausted to argue. Madison reached for it. She was too short.
“Give me a lift.”
The spider couldn’t be poisonous, could it? It was a common everyday spider. I’d seen others just like it. I held the princess under the armpits and lifted her up. She tried to pluck the spider off the mirror but it skittered away and she ended up knocking it off the glass. It rappelled to the ground on an invisible gossamer skein. I lowered Madison. She knelt and fussed with the spider until it climbed onto her mitten.
“Yay! We’re friends.”
She went over to the tree in her front yard and put the spider on the trunk. She waved at me and sat on her front steps and took off the mittens I’d just put on. She pulled her pudding cup out of her backpack and tore the top off. She ate it daintily with a plastic spoon, gazing at the tree. There was something ineffably … beautiful, I guess, and sweet and a little melancholic about a ten-year-old hyperactive asthmatic girl in a shredded princess costume eating banana pudding on the steps of a cookie-cutter suburban home, watching her new friend the spider. Huh.
Madison’s mother opened the door. Madison waved at me again, spoon clutched in her hand. I waved to her, to her mother, and headed home. I was dog-tired—the result of mental fatigue more than heavy lifting. I parked the bus and jammed the “anti-theft pin”—the steel bolt attached to a loop of steel cable, très high-tech—into the emergency door, locking it. I armed the motion-sensor alarm and secured the wheelchair door with a padlock.
The sky was ashy as I walked across the field towards home. Early stars pricked the sky. Children’s giddy voices floated over the rooftops as they made their way from house to house. A father guided a pair of youthful vampires in matching red snowpants down the sidewalk. Cold-blooded as vamps could be, evidently their fathers still made them bundle up for trick-or-treating.
A word came to me: normal. It had been a gloriously normal day. I’d woken up. Driven the bus. Got those kids home safely. Small achievements, sure, but no less tangible for that. As normal a day as might transpire for anyone my age. I’d been useful. It had been a while since I’d felt vitally so.
Simple tasks, I told myself. Complete them as best you’re able. Repeat day after day. Before long, you’re normal.
Excerpted from Craig Davidson’s Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077.