abby lived on the side of highway 41 in an abandoned yellow school bus. It was nestled into a dirt turn-out big enough for two busses, but Gabby’s was the only one. Amy’s life was already a mess when her ten year old ’76 Volvo broke down expectedly just east of Gabby’s turn-out. In a panic she did the right thing and took her foot off the accelerator, put the car in neutral, and allowed it to coast the rest of the way down hill into the half circle of dirt.
Gabby wasn’t expecting company, but he was never unexpecting of company either. His life was used to passers by waving and honking, yelling out their car windows “Hey Gabby!” as they sped up the hill that led down the steep slope to the small mountain town of Oakhurst. A stopping ground for folks on their way to Yosemite. The Gateway to Yosemite, the town proclaimed. The other gateway was a bit further north, Mariposa. The two communities fought for the title, but only Oakhurst had Gabby.
He walked with a stutter, as if a stutter could be found in steps. His hips were bad from his days of riding bulls and irritated broncos. The rodeo circuit from his youth left him feeling a need to be free in the late 60’s when the flower-child movement finally hit the San Joaquin Valley. So Gabby up and left his leather chaps for a more leisurely life of wild animal friends and the bright yellow bee of his bus.
Amy’s car kind of wheezed. If cars were capable of wheezing and men were capable of stutter-walking. She opened her car door. It creaked a loud warning. Gabby already knew she was there, of course, which is why he was around the side of his bus by the time Amy had unlatched her hood and had it propped open with the rod peering inside at a cavity of metal, rubber hoses and streaming steam. Like the dirty rotten teeth of a stray dog or a baby left too many nights with a milk bottle for comfort instead of a mother’s arms.
She didn’t think of that metaphor. Or if she did it reminded her of why she was driving away from Oakhurst, the town where Ted lived and their baby didn’t.
She could smell Gabby from where she stood with her head shaded by the hood of a car that reeked of oil and exhaust. She nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I need help old man.”
“Not a particularly friendly comment. I’m Gabby.” He smiled, gaping holes where teeth may have been. His nose had been broken from so many falls, his arm was twisted like it had joints where others didn’t. His fingers weren’t right. She counted them in her head. He was missing something. Thumbs. Common for cowboys whose spines had been broken and thumbs wrenched off by the leather straps they clung to for one, two, ten, fifteen seconds an earning.
Amy took his hand. It was dry and warm. Clean, unexpectedly. Hers wasn’t much smaller than his own, and it was already blackened with grease. He was shorter than her by a good four inches. She couldn’t tell if it was stoop, age, or just plain short.
“I don’t know anything about cars.”
“They’re not much easier to know than women.”
Amy rolled her eyes. It was just what she didn’t need. Another man yelling at her about how emotional she was. How irresponsible and pathetically insecure she was. Couldn’t she just deal with the decision? he’d said. It was reasonable. They weren’t ready for a family. Hell, he didn’t even have a fucking job right now. I’ve got a job, she’d said. He laughed. She hated it when he laughed at her. She spit at him. Then he threw a beer bottle at her. Ted, not Gabby. It was her fresh memory. Couldn’t really be called memory yet, because it had happened so recently she could still see Ted’s nostrils flair.
“Been driving drunk?” Gabby said. He sniffed at her shirt. His eyes narrowing. “Hard going round these bends when you’re drunk. I know. Seen a ton of accidents just up there on that rise where your car gave out.”
“I haven’t been drinking. It’s none of your damn business anyways old man. If you’re not gonna help I’ll just set off down the road. Shit. It’s all I need another fucker telling me what to do.”
The both of them went silent.
Gabby made a kind of smacking noise sucking at his empty cavernous mouth. It was a habit he’d picked up with his tongue. Never could get used to the absence of teeth. His thumbs were easier. He cleared his throat politely. He knew how to calm an animal down with short quick soothing sounds. Horses especially responded to him. When he’d climb up into the pen where they were snorting and ready to kill he’d give them a few clicks of his mouth and settle softly onto their sweating backs, their balls tied up hard under their girth to make them buck even harder. His last year riding he’d lost most of his teeth and his thumbs and his back had been broken in at least seven places. His ribs had been broken, a couple of them removed or pieces floating around somewhere in his own girth. So he knew what pain was and knew what if felt like to have your testicles feel like they were ripped off. The horses responded the best that last rodeo season. Each horse a retirement ticket—letting him take home purses of ten thousand and more. All of which he tucked away in his footlocker, hiding it here and there, under clothes or under the lining.
Amy didn’t know about any of it. She had just seen the old man coming to and from Oakhurst and Fresno. The drive between the two towns was long and Gabby’s old yellow bus was a permanent marker that she was almost back to Ted or almost away from him. She never considered the man who leaned often times against his bus waving at passersby with a smile.
“You’re a mad little thing, aren’t you?” Gabby said. He looked at Amy directly.
She turned red. He’d no right to call her anything. He’d no right interfering in her damn business. A nosy old fuck, she thought. Where did he get off? She wanted to yell at him.
Her car let out a terrible howl. Like the wind had been knocked out of it and it was just now feeling the pain.
“What the fuck was that?” Amy jumped back. She’d never paid much attention to the car. It was a hand-me-down from Ted’s brother who lived in Fresno. He’d felt sorry for his no good brother for what he’d said was the last time. Ted had thanked him apologetically and Amy hated him for his weakness. He was always going somewhere for luck. Someone else for money or hope. She was tired of feeling sorry for him. Tired of being all things to him. Mothering a grown man who only wanted her to lie in bed with him and not have his children. Who didn’t want to commit to her but needed her just the same. Every time, every fucking time, she thought, I try to leave he pulls me back.
So she took it out on Gabby. The man with the bad body and terrible stench.
“We need to let this thing rest. It’s a dying animal and wants its privacy. Maybe if we come back to it in a half hour or so it’ll feel a bit better.”
As if on cue the car sputtered.
Amy turned abruptly but didn’t know where to go. She was stuck on a dirt path that just circled back around to the highway. Wherever she went she’d end up on the road.
Gabby knew better than to coax her. He began to walk away towards the back side of his bus. It was parked sideways. From highway 41 drivers could only see one side, not the other. Not many folks stopped long enough for Gabby to invite them to the other side of his bus. He heard her footfalls and smelled the dirt she kicked up. He figured she was throwing some kind of fit. Like a horse balking at a river bank.
Eventually she’d not like the dust anymore and follow him.
His bus house was set up cozy for him. The windows on the highway side were all covered with cardboard to serve as both protection from the hot summer sun and privacy. The cardboard also served as a display wall for taping up his own water color paintings. The subjects were memories and what lived with or around him.
Just outside was his camp stove and fire pit. There were logs cut into stools and a table made of warped plywood. There was a bench and two plastic white chairs turned gray from exposure and wear. One of the chairs had a cushion on it and was placed in front of the fire pit.
There were two ice chests with broken handles filled with clean water and a small pump that needed to be hand cranked. One ice chest was used for dishes the other for washing. He changed the water every other day from a stream nearby. On top of his bus was a solar panel used to recharge his radio and light batteries.
It was officially the Southern Sierra range. The hill behind his bus was thick with ponderosa pine, azalea, and dogwood. There were boulders big as cars and small as dogs. It was a strange mix of parking lot and wilderness. He ate what he caught and grew. Or what the kindness of strangers and Oakhurst residents brought him.
Pies, mainly. He loved a good pecan pie. It turned out that just that morning Maggie, a widow who’d tried many times to hook him, had brought him two fresh pecan pies. He cut two slices and waited in his cushioned plastic chair for Amy to come to her senses.
Women were always trying to clean him up. In the twenty years since he’d lived in his bus he’d had three relationships. All three were castaways. Women that men had discarded. He didn’t believe in left-over people. Never had. So he took them in and gave them missing things. His good four fingers from each hand laced between their own, his rough unshaven lips against their necks, his touch up their spine and settling on their waist. These women needed a man’s touch and he knew where to touch them. It was natural for him. Women.
Amy stuck her head around the edge of his bus. Her hair was mussed up and her face was smeared with tears and dirt. Amy would not be added to the three. She was a child.
Amy looked around her. Gabby smiled at her and she cringed at his toothless gaps. It was disgusting. On the table were two plates of pie. She was hungry.
“That for me?”
“I suppose if you’d care to have a sit and enjoy a piece of pie, I’d like the company. Why don’t you bring them on over here and sit by the fire.”
It wasn’t a cool day but not too warm neither. It was late spring. She could hear water running naturally near the hillside. The snow run off was still pretty steady. She handed Gabby one plate and took the other and sat on the other plastic chair. It looked dirty, but she figured she was already dirty so it didn’t matter. She laughed out loud. Gabby looked at her.
“You’re a funny old man. That’s for sure. How do you live up here without any house? I mean, don’t the sheriff come and tell you to leave? I know you’ve been here a long time. I’ve seen you here.”
“Most people have. Kind of hard to miss a big yellow school bus.” Gabby ate his pie and watched the fire crackle. Amy now understood what most of his smell was from. It was smoke in his clothes. Day and night smoke. Stale smoke. Smoke from a month ago fires when there was snow falling or last week when it rained hard. Smoke that had soaked into his clothes and turned everything, even the back of the bright yellow bus, dirt brown. She hated smoke. It got in her eyes and stung her nose and throat. She hated it when Ted smoked in their trailer. She understood how smoke lingered and infested everything. Her hair, her brush, her glass cups, her dish rags, her milk. It made her already sensitive stomach turn.
The doctor had told her that for a week or two after the procedure she’d experience menstrual-like symptoms. She’d feel crampy and have loose bowl movements. She might even be queasy. She was. All the things the damn doctor said came true. Even the pamphlet the psych nurse gave her was coming true. Remorse, regret, guilt, shame. Things that would linger, the pamphlet read, sometimes for months or years. There were phone numbers of contact groups, support groups where she could complain with other stupid women who’d been with stupid men and been taken advantage of. One woman in the waiting room had been impatient. She’d snapped at the nurse to hurry it along, it wasn’t like it was her first, she’d said, and Amy felt guilt for even being there.
The pie had tasted good, but now it tasted like salt.
She set the plate behind her on the plywood table top.
“If you don’t mind, I’ve grown accustomed to not wasting anything. If you’re through, I’ll finish that for you.”
Gabby wasn’t shy about his need for frugality. He didn’t often get something as good as homemade pie and this child didn’t look very contagious. Can’t catch broken hearts and dead dreams.
She nodded and he retrieved the plate almost licking it clean with the edge of his fork. It was good pie. Maggie always made good pie. She made rhubarb and macadamia nut and mince meat and raisin and then the fresh fruit, apple, blueberry, chinaberry, and blackberry. The last she made best in a cobbler served up with a dollop of her fresh cream whipped to a light consistency. If she brought the whipped cream she always stayed for a piece because she brought it in one of her mother’s white porcelain bowls. Both the cream and the bowl were a sight of almost decadence to Gabby.
Amy still seemed out of sorts. The buttery sugary pie hadn’t soothed her ill manners. Gabby determined that she’d just not had enough, but it was too late for that, his gullet was full.
A mosquito landed on his arm and he swatted at it. Amy flinched, as if he were striking at her.
“What’s that for?” he said.
“That. That, you know, what you did just now with your head and mouth. You acted like I was striking you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is ridiculous. I’m going out to the road.”
Amy acted like she was getting up to leave. She put her hands on the arms of the chair and pushed a bit. What did she want here? She thought. Gabby thought the same thing. He snorted a bit. She was a rude child, but he knew she was more hurt than rude. She was tender inside. Crusty on the outside and soft and vulnerable on the inside.
“I’m sorry for being curt with you dear. Just relax a bit. Let the fire strike a rhythm in your ears. You can hear it talking if you just listen.”
She took her hands off the arms of the chair. She didn’t want to leave. Not really. She didn’t know what she’d do out there on the road. She could hike back up the hill and down the other side to return once again to Ted, but she didn’t want that. Today was a new start. She’d told herself those words that morning when she packed the Volvo with her records and high school yearbooks and letters from pen pals from summer camp that she kept in a shoe box. She’d packed up her two photo albums and taken out the pictures of Ted and left them on the table. He’d been out earning a few dollars by cutting down some trees with a friend.
She’d done what he’d asked of her. And it was too much. Nothing of him was alive in her anymore. He was dead.
The trick, she thought, was to learn a new way of seeing. Live alone, she’d heard somewhere. Live alone and don’t need anyone.
Gabby put a stick in the fire and held it there until the tip flamed up. He lifted it a bit and watched the flame lap and grow, and then he stuck the stick back into the coals and snubbed it out. He kept doing it, like a game. Amy grew quiet in her mind and let the fire speak.
He’d been right. There was a kind of voice. A crackly soothing sound, more like a song. And the melody lines were the orange and blue that came forward. It was a different kind of fire, she noticed, there was no smoke.
Gabby wanted to paint her. She was a pretty thing with ruddy brown hair that didn’t stay contained in her barrette. Her eyes were brown and deep, large almonds, and her nose was elegant too, nice nostrils.
“Would you mind if I painted you?” he said.
Amy was relaxed. She shook her head but did not want to speak.
He settled himself in his chair again with a piece of wood as an easel and an old egg carton as a palate. He dipped a cup into one of the ice chests and took his favorite brush from its drying place from under the body of the bus on top of a tire. It was a snub nosed bus from the 60’s. It had Central Union painted in bold on the side.
While he painted, Gabby talked. It was his way of concentrating. Whether he was painting a fallen tree, a bird on a stump, a squirrel eating acorns, or a snow storm, he talked. Usually there was no one to hear his words, just the hydrogen and oxygen mingling like friends over the earth. That was a divorce that would never happen, Gabby thought. Never will the marriage of air disintegrate. At least he hoped not. Too many children would be devastated by that destruction.
His bus was a different kind of marriage. The chassis and the body. He knew it was rusting out. Rust was the affair, the disease, the love that ate away at the metal.
“I’m 67 years old today. How about that? You didn’t know you showed up on my birthday. And since it’s my birthday I’m going to give myself a birthday present and tell you a story. I don’t often have folks to talk with for an extended period of time. Not like I have a telephone or such. I do have my radio, of that I’m grateful. And I’m not so far removed from Oakhurst that I don’t walk up over that hill and mingle with the residents at the diner and the gas station once or twice a month. But I usually don’t go over the hill unless it’s bath day. The women at the diner like me to be a bit cleaned up to serve me at the counter. I don’t blame them. There was a time when I was overly concerned about my looks. I had a lot of women when I was a cowboy. Something about the rodeo infects women’s heads with romance. Horses, I think, are the real cause of romance. Put a good looking man on a horse and women have no control over themselves!” Gabby laughed and had to lift his brush from the paper.
Amy liked his laugh. It was unexpectedly high pitched. Almost like a grandma’s laugh. He was sincere, she could see that. She felt safe here with Gabby on the back side of his school bus where no passing motorists could see.
But the Volvo was in plain sight. What if Ted went down the hill and saw her parked here at Gabby’s bus? She had to remind herself that his job that day had taken him up near Sugar Pine. He wouldn’t be coming over the hill towards the valley until at least tomorrow.
She relaxed again and brushed hair away from her face. She turned her head. Gabby cleared his throat at her movement and she remembered that he was painting her. The old man was painting her, she thought. She wasn’t the odd looking one, he was. She’d never been painted seriously. Once at the fair a boyfriend in high school had their portraits done by a cartoon artist. He’d made her head really big and her body tiny. Her nose and lips were unproportionately large and her breasts and waist looked unnatural like a Barbie doll. It didn’t resemble her in the least. He’d paid a lot of money for the picture and when they broke up she ripped it in half in front of him.
“I hate men.” She just said it. Matter of fact.
“I can tell,” Gabby said. “I can tell you’re not too happy with men right now. Where’s your family? Your daddy?”
“I don’t think so. I think you’re not telling it true.” Gabby sensed she was lying. Not so much lying, he knew, as just not telling the truth. In his 67 years he’d learned that trick again and again. He knew how to tell a woman she was beautiful and how to tell a man he was smart. He knew that to say the right things sometimes didn’t mean to always be honest.
“That’s what I feel like. They didn’t like me coming up here. Said I should stay in school and finish out my senior year. I told them to go to hell and that Ted loved me. Ha. That’s a lie, isn’t it? You can tell that’s a lie too, can’t you old man?”
“My name’s Gabby, told you that. It’s rude of you to call me otherwise. And yes, men can lie. I know it. Done it myself.” Gabby kept painting. It was not his usual habit to have someone else do the talking but it didn’t seem to interfere with his creativity so he let her continue.
“I’m sorry. Gabby. It’s just that I’m stuck here. What’s down in the valley isn’t much of anything more than what’s up here. What use is it to have a diploma when something as natural as a baby seems so complicated?” She put her head in her hands and cried at her own word. Baby. Her baby. She was the weak one, she knew. Not Ted. It was her baby and she’d let him make up her mind for her.
“No man can get inside your head, honey. Unless you let them. That’s true for anyone. Man or woman. No one can get into your head, unless you open up your heart and let their words in. Now lift your head up again and hold still. I’m almost done, then you can cry all you like.”
She let her head be controlled by Gabby’s words. It cleared it to hold it steady and upright. Let her tears slide back down her throat and get digested by her powerful acids in her stomach.
Let them dry up and become stones to throw into a river. Gabby’s river. She listened to the sounds of the fire and the distant stream. She remembered the snow packed up high on the tops of the mountains, up above Sugar Pine where Ted was chopping down trees. She thought of the snow melting and running down the mountain trying to find a way down to the valley where it could puddle for a while and get soaked back into the earth. Or where it could find a larger stream, a river, and run and run with the other molecules to make it to the sea. The great ocean of water that churned the clouds and seeped like an upside-down cake back up into the atmosphere only to come down again as snow the next year on top of someone else’s mountains. She decided to be like that water. She would run down and find her own river to take her somewhere new. Even though the somewhere new would just be with the same old human species, the same old men and old women working like music notes to make the day go.
Gabby turned his portrait around and showed her.
Her head was tilted upwards, her chin like a small round stone, her eyes like puddles of chocolate milk, her hair flying out from the sides of her head. Behind her head was the bus. The bright yellow bus with such a sparkle that she had to turn her head and look for herself. Sure enough, there was the sun peeking out from behind a white cloud sparkling like smile.
“It’s good. It’s real good.”
“Can you keep it?” Amy said. “I’d like it stay here with you. Then I’ll know where I am.”
Gabby loved this child. She would make it. He’d held her leather straps just loosely enough and clicked his tongue just long enough to soothe her wild fear.
They walked back around the bus to take another look at the beast that had needed a rest. The Volvo’s engine turned over with ease.
In the past three years my fiction has appeared in numerous journals including Southern Humanties Review, South Dakota Review, Quiddity: International Literary Journal, and Harpur Palate to name a few. I hold an MFA in Creative Writing and instruct college and high school English. I am the mom of two energetic and smart guys who are fun to be around. http://erinlynncook.com.