Driving a Bus

By Judith Goode

S-2webeveral of us are gathered outside the chapel on the side of the church where we hold the A.A. meetings. The sun is hazy and hot. Unaccountably, we smoke cigarettes. A little heat never deters us hardcore smokers. I feel unkempt, I haven’t shaved in two days, and my hands are perennially stained earth color from the work I do. I don’t know why Elizabeth puts up with me. She’s always nicely dressed in jeans and a clean shirt, and she wears makeup that causes her eyes, which are huge in her narrow face, to look even larger. Elizabeth is the woman I live with. She believes in me, even though I only have three months sober. She says she has me in her back pocket and she walks with God. When I told her about the dream I had she said, Maybe it’s time for you to reach out to people beyond our family. I said, It’s hard for me to do this, considering that I have four children and I’ve been out of work for five months. The children are mine and Elizabeth helps me care for them. But we’ve been eating food from the food pantry for too long.

In the dream I was running. No, it was more like flying. It must have been back in the days when I was a long distance runner, while I was still a student and didn’t have a family to support. I’m one of those educated types who chose to work in the building trades. I like working with my hands better than working with my mind. Or, to be truthful, my life as a drinker didn’t leave much time or energy for advanced study to qualify me for one of the professions. I settled for being a builder, not from the business end but from the ground up. The foundation through the roofing, usually with a crew I’ve assembled from among my circle of friends and workers. To my credit, I’m a master carpenter. I also have—or rather I had—a knack for finding projects. People came to me with plans for houses they wanted built and I did the work. Or architects came to me, or business owners. One way or another, I always had work. The recession put a swift end to that.

In the dream, I was running through gardens and along beaches. I was running like a cheetah, which my second youngest son tells me is the fastest animal alive. Then I was walking through an endless house built like an above-ground tunnel with windows. Each group of rooms was an environment in which people sat and drank coffee together, talking about ideas. Then someone told me that jobs were available to drive buses. My father, who was never around when I was growing up, surfaced, and noodled with the director of the bus company to get me a job. But I don’t have a chauffer’s license, I said. It doesn’t matter, my father said, they just need people to drive buses. I got the job.

Elizabeth is very sure of things but in a nice way. You can’t not like her or, in my case, love her. She always speaks her mind. She said that being responsible for a bus load of people was a big deal. I should share at meetings, she said. Sharing is a way of giving back. People might have questions and you just might give them answers in what you say. I can’t feed my family, I said, so what answers could I possibly have? You never know what God will put in your mind, she said. I’m better at doing, I said. Then drive the bus and see what happens, she said.

It made me think of the time a few weeks ago when the guy, Al, who gives me a ride to the meeting at noon said he would take a woman in the meeting to her car, which was at the shop. I went along because I didn’t have anything better to do. When we got to the shop, we learned that the woman’s old Saab was finished. The wiring was shot. It’s a death trap, they told us. We helped the woman clear some things out of the car, including a snow shovel, windshield cleaner, the registration, her cushion, and a bag of stuff belonging to her daughter. The woman was crying and had a hard time deciding what to take and what to leave. She said that the car had been her sister’s. It had Georgetown University stickers on the windows, some of which read, “Retired.” The woman herself, Jenna, is a pretty older gal who always says something of value at meetings. Someone in the meeting told me that her daughter suddenly cut her off and she’s looked sad since then. That may have been why she cried so easily. You never know what’ll set someone off. But we gave her hugs and Al said, God has a plan for you, although you may not know what it is yet. She thanked us, all three of us standing in the parking lot saying goodbye to the old Saab.

I told Elizabeth about it again after the dream. Well, you helped one person. Now it’s time to help a bus load, she said. I thought about Jenna, who now comes up to me at every meeting and reaches out her arms to me. I have to bend down to hug her she’s so little. She always asks me how I’m doing but in a kind way, not an off-hand How ya doin’ way like most people. She listens to my answer, which is usually, Not so great, and thinks about it. Then she says something thoughtful, like, Sobriety can mean hard times for a while but you’re good at what you do so something will come your way. And that makes me feel better. Elizabeth said that when I missed a meeting because one of the children was sick, Jenna asked her about me. Is he okay? she said. She was concerned. That helped, too.

I’ve been thinking about the dream. In it, I was running toward the job as a bus driver. And I was high, not from drinking or drugs, but from the running itself. I can still feel the wet grass under my feet and the hard sand of the beach at low tide. Grass and beach are two things that I love. I always make sure that my client hires a landscaper for when the house is finished. I want to see lawn and gardens outside my houses. I also want to think of the interior as inviting to people who want to sit around and talk ideas. That’s what I miss from college. Our seminars were inspiring. I used to go for a run down to the river after classes were over for the day, around four o’clock so that I would be at the river’s edge when the redwing blackbirds were flocking. While I ran, I thought about the ideas that had come up in the seminar, whether they were Nietzsche or Proust, it didn’t matter. Then when I got to the river I would sit on the bank and listen to the calls of the redwings and the beating sound of their wings, multiplied by hundreds. That was their feeding hour. It was my hour of reflection.

My hours of reflection now are pretty much self-seeking and self-pitying. It’s a sorry state of affairs when someone who’s used to supporting his family with work he likes is sitting on his hands. I do what I can around the house but I can’t make repairs because I don’t have the cash for supplies. At night, my family patiently eats hot dogs, or mac and cheese out of a box. That’s what we get from the food pantry—and the occasional overripe peaches or pears someone donates. At least we have fresh vegetables from my garden. Elizabeth likes the hair products or lipstick that show up on the food pantry shelf. She chats with the food pantry ladies about cosmetics and hairdos. Sometimes she gets onto nittier subjects like what to do about teeth that need work. I don’t like to think about my children’s teeth so I usually take the bags of stuff and wait in the car while that’s going on. While I’m waiting, I sometimes think about Jenna because she reminds me of my mother. I have a soft spot for my mother. She’s small like Jenna and she listens. I call her regularly to tell her how we are. Same old, same old, I say. Like Jenna, Mom has something thoughtful to say. Remember, she says, you designed and built your own house. Now that’s something to be proud of.

I spent four seasons before I ever drew up the plans, charting the progress of the sun on the hill where the building site was to be. I wanted to place the windows and the greenhouse room according to where the sun would be at each time of year. That was during my period of controlled drinking so I had a relatively clear head. I have some skill at drafting and my plans wowed the city planner who sat on the board when my project came up for review. I was pleased. But I was mainly happy that I could design a house that would be economical and environmentally sound—and suit my family. That was when my wife was still in the picture. She got weary of living with a drinker who dabbled in drugs, however, and the marriage was over when the children were still little. Unfortunately for her, she had her own problems with mental illness and had to be hospitalized. I got custody of the children as a result. Brown hair and brown eyes is how I think of my wife. She’s nothing like Elizabeth. She has a hefty build and a no-nonsense, rationalist way about her. Lucky or not, our respective nonsense didn’t mix well. Eve is living with her mother now and she sees the children every other weekend and for two weeks in the summer.

They go to Shelter Island in the summer, Eve and her mother and the children. That’s part of the custody agreement, that Eve’s mother be there to supervise Eve with the children. I don’t much care for Eve’s mother, who’s controlling and opinionated, but she’s a good grandmother and I appreciate that. Poor Eve will probably never be quite right. But I can’t think about that nowadays, it’s too sad. Sad is bad for me right now. I have to keep my spirits up. Or, your spirit, as Elizabeth says. By that she means my conscious contact with God, something I’m never sure about. I don’t understand how people like Elizabeth can believe without doubt in their God. That I have faith, if not belief, is all that I’m thankful for. At least I’m teachable, as we say in A.A.

This afternoon I went down to the stream with my little guy and his brother. The dragonflies were skimming the surface and the stream was full from all the rain we’ve had this summer. We went into the cold water and played around. Then we sat on a rock, the little guy in my lap with his wet trunks dripping down my leg, and the older boy beside us on the grass. There’d been rain showers around lunch time and the air had cooled off. I felt calm and reflective, almost the way I used to in college, sitting on the bank of the river listening to the redwings. They have a distinctive call. Today I’m listening to a wood thrush or maybe a hermit thrush. I have trouble telling them apart but they both speak to me of deep woods, green and secretive. “…a green thought in a green shade.” That’s a line from a poem by Andrew Marvell. I’m there now in spirit, feeling close to my boys and ready for what comes, which is mainly more reflection. My boys, five and eight, respectively, are already knowledgeable about plants and trees and wildlife. One day the older one, Nick, spotted a scarlet tanager sitting still as could be in a tree in the woods down the hill from our house. We got Elizabeth and we all had a good look at the bird, which didn’t stir. Moments like that mean a lot to me, and to all of us.

Today, Elizabeth and the older ones, both girls, are off at a friend’s house. Elizabeth works the three to eleven shift as a nurse so she’ll be bringing the girls back soon. She has a rhythm to her day, set by her job. I miss that, the early morning drive through mist or snow or rain to a building site. Hanging with the guys I work with, doing the work, which might be hauling heavy materials or the fine-tuned finishing when a house is built, insulated, sheet-rocked, and painted, outside and inside. Then we’re doing the trim and the baseboards, watching it all take shape in its final form. In my last house, the client chose the most delicate shades, light shades, just a hint of peach or green, for the walls. It was a pleasure painting and looking at the effect of light on the walls. She was a nice client, too, which isn’t always the case. Many of our clients were gay couples and they had unfailingly good taste—not necessarily my taste but good taste, although they could be persnickety. I miss my work.

Still, I like being home with the children. It’s a different kind of life. Stay-at-home dad and house husband, although I admit that cleaning up sometimes gets away from me. My oldest is fifteen and she picks up the slack. But right now I’m savoring this moment with my boys. The air is still, so still I wonder if another storm is brewing. If so, we’ll have to leave the stream. But until then, we’re here. I’m here with them and myself. The sun is showing over a bank of clouds, making an interesting effect of dark and light. The light of the sun hits the stream and you can see the shadows of the deeper water, the shape of smooth, flat rocks in the shallow water. My older son is skipping stones on the surface. He’s become adept at this game. My little guy is comfortable on my lap and getting sleepy. He’ll take a nap when Elizabeth and the girls get home.

Elizabeth’s schedule was seven to three when I was working so we all had an early morning, Elizabeth leaving when it was barely daylight in the winter months. I would help the older ones with breakfast and hair braiding and all the preparations for school. My little guy slept the latest and sometimes had to be carried into the car to go to daycare. I enjoyed making breakfast, with the help of one or more of them. How did we manage to have so many children? I sometimes wonder. But I’m glad of it now. I like family life, hard as it is now. What I mean is, the family is not hard, it’s the maintaining of them on one salary when we’re used to two. I used to be the cook of the family. I made good dinners because I can cook. I almost chose to be a chef and seriously considered going to The Culinary Institute here in New York State. But I realized that my temperament wasn’t suited to the stress of being an executive chef. It’s sad not having the ingredients for good dinners, although Elizabeth is working. A nurse’s salary doesn’t cut it when there are six mouths to feed, especially since Elizabeth’s hours have been reduced several times in the last few months. We manage. Occasionally we shop for fresh fruit in season, and I make braised chard from the garden and fruit compote. Those are special dinners.

The reflection off the water is mysterious in the light cast by the sun with the clouds beneath it. My older boy says he can see rainbows off the water. But I see something else, something strange and hard to describe. It’s the shape of a woman’s head and arms, the arms reaching toward me. I think I must be dreaming a daytime dream. But no, I see this, I really do. I think in my temporary madness that it must be the serene face of the Virgin Mary. You’re full of it, I say to myself and I look again. It is, sweet Mary with forgiveness throughout her whole being. She looks at me and I look back. We’ve met for an instant and then she’s gone. My oldest asks me what I’m staring at and I say, I’m not sure. I can’t explain to him that I’ve just seen a vision on our stream. But I will remember this as a real dream, a wide open eyes dream, the kind that comes to you when your heart is ready.

What did she want to tell me that I might not have heard in the sound of the water and the woods? With the thrush singing and the children talking, what were her words to me? I’m not sure I can tell this even to Elizabeth, to whom I tell everything. It’s a Did I or didn’t I? dance, like my whole relationship with God and the Trinity. Do I or don’t I? I like this mystery. It means that more will be revealed to me if I hold fast to my faith, as I call it. I don’t even like to use the word, faith. I think again about my nighttime dream and why my father was the one to point me toward a job. Was it his way of finally being a dad to me? His lack in my life made me defensive. Elizabeth says I even have a defensive way of walking, throwing my shoulders around with each step. My dad was never was more than a shadow presence during his lifetime so is he now speaking to me in the language of the dead? I reserve my cynicism and take it as a gift: my father got me a job as a driver of many on a bus. I worried in the dream about maneuvering and parking, but remembered that you don’t park a bus, you just start it and stop it until it’s time to drive it back to the bus garage, where parking is diagonal. I have a practical mind, even in my dreams. I take one more look at the surface of the stream but it is as always, just a stream, with no visions of the Virgin Mary rising from it. My little guy is wiggling on my lap and the older boy is tired of skipping stones onto the water. There’s Elizabeth’s car on the dirt road to our house. It’s time to go up.

Now comes the mad rush to get ready. Elizabeth is not methodical like me: she leaves things for the last minute. She’s in our closet looking for a clean uniform and stockings. Our oldest is on her cell and the others are in various stages of finding something with which to occupy themselves. I could suggest tasks to be done around the house but I’m busy packing Elizabeth’s dinner. Packing meals is one of our economies, even though I don’t have much to pack other than egg salad sandwiches. Elizabeth is fine with that. She’s not a fussy eater. She’s not a fussy person.

I imagine talking to her while she gets ready, following her from the closet to the bathroom to the bedroom again and telling her about the Virgin Mary on the surface of the stream. I decide that this is counterintuitive. She’ll be in a hurry because she should be in the car by now so I go outside and turn her car around for her, leaving it running. Somehow she always gets done on time, and is in the car and driving to work just when she should be. Elizabeth is good for me. Her effectiveness balances my lapses into entropy and my penchant for reflection balances her tendency to shoot from the hip. The bustle in the house quiets down and we all settle into our activities for the afternoon. Mine is to get my youngest onto his bed for his nap and help my thirteen-year-old with her homework. She’s a math whiz but struggles with English so we work together on this part of her assignment, sitting at the dining room table, which I make a mental note to clear off and wipe clean when we’re done. Then my oldest wants to know if she can have a friend over for dinner so I say yes, which gets me thinking about how I can make our spaghetti with sauce from a jar more interesting, the answer for which fails to come to me. The afternoon goes on until a severe thunder storm blows up with a straight down squall. I’m glad to think of Elizabeth safe at work and us all in the house. We get the windows closed in time, ratcheting in the casement handles, which all work well because the windows were installed properly at the start. I appreciate my house again, remembering what my mother said to me about being proud of the house I built with my own hands.

It’s not until twilight that I get a chance to think again about the Virgin Mary on the stream. The storm cleared quickly and we all went out to see if there was a rainbow. There was, a double rainbow visible from the top of the trees to the end of the lawn. We all cheered and marveled at the sight. The air still smelled of ozone mixed with the smell of wet grass, like the grass in my dream. My youngest stares sleepily at the rainbow from my shoulder, where he buried his head when the storm wakened him from his nap. I think about Mary and mercy, which she represents, and the fact of us all out together in the fresh evening, looking at the rainbow. In my mind I chart the colors of the rainbow and think of the spectrum they represent. I think about color, which seems to have been lacking from my life up till now and the magnificence of the rainbow in the sky. I think about the sky and its vastness, and all that exists beyond what we can see. I feel a spaciousness around us, even on our property, which is large but finite. I think of what we are to each other as we live on this property and in this house. I look at my vegetable garden and think about the food it yields to us in our straitened circumstances. I imagine branching out to chickens and maybe even a goat, and what they in turn would yield to us. Basil and oregano, that’s what I’ll add to the spaghetti sauce. And by mid-summer we’ll have the volume of tomatoes we need to make our own spaghetti sauce. Then I’m back in my dream and running through the garden and over the stone walls, down to the beach and the ocean, and back up to the house and my father, who’s gotten me a job as a bus driver.

My oldest daughter asks me if she should put the pot on for the spaghetti to boil and I tell her yes, and what does she think about getting some chicks so we could have eggs from the hens? Chicks, could we have chicks? Really? My eight-year-old says and I answer, maybe yes, maybe we could. We all pick pole beans and, the basil and oregano, and little cherry tomatoes for the salad, all red and ripe. We fill two colanders and go back into the house to cook. The munificence of nature I think, and nurture, of course, because a vegetable garden needs work and care. The kitchen gets steamy from the boiling water and we open the windows. A fresh clean breeze blows in.

Elizabeth calls on her break to see how things are going, and to tell us that her evening is busy but good. Elizabeth always calls on her break. I think about how she looks in her nurse’s uniform, big-boned but thin, a little too thin since she got sober, I tell her. She asks me if I’ve called my sponsor yet today and I tell her that I will when the children are in bed. Oh, and her egg salad sandwiches were great, she says. She always tells me the dinner I’ve packed for her is great. It could be cardboard and still she would tell me it was great. It cheers me to imagine her opening her wrapped sandwiches and thinking of me.

We sit down to dinner and my thirteen-year-old asks me if we should say grace. That’s new: we’ve never said grace before. Sure, I say, why not? We say the Lord’s prayer and I remember the Virgin Mary. Vision or not, she’s here with us as we eat.

___

Judith Goode was born and raised in New York City. She attended the High School of Music and Art, with a major in music. She went on to Bard College, where she majored in Languages and Literature. Her short story, “Tattoo,” was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Calliope.


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