A Short Story
James Robert Smith
When I was in the tenth grade I rode the school bus for a great portion of each of my days. I tell people that we lived far out in the woods, but no one I tell realizes what I mean. When I tell them that our driveway was exactly one mile long, that our nearest neighbor was two and one half miles from our front door, that the nearest paved road was three miles away, that the nearest phone was five miles distant—they don’t seem to understand, or believe me. After all, this was the mid-1970s, and such things just weren’t, at that time.
But it was true.
My mother would get me up for school at five in the morning and I would eat breakfast and brush my teeth and get dressed and take my mom’s car to the end of the drive and wait for the bus, which would arrive at six a.m. Then would begin the long drive to school: two and one half hours. The return trip would be made in reverse order at 3 p.m. when the school bell rang. I was the first student to be picked up every morning, and the last to be let off. I also tell people that I spent five hours of each of my days on a yellow, diesel-belching school bus, but they don’t seem to grasp that concept, either. Or they think I’m lying.
I made friends on that bus. Got into a few fights. Ignored the smaller kids and mingled with the older ones. Occasionally, I would notice that someone who normally rode the bus every day would not show up one morning. Smart kids, dumb kids, kids with potential, and kids who were lost causes. It didn’t matter. They’d just not show up on the bus one morning, or the next, or the next, or the next. Eventually I would ask someone what was going on. “Where’s Joe?” Or, “Where’s Ken?” Or “What happened to Brenda?”
And I would get a plain stare from the kid I’d asked and they’d say, “Joe turned sixteen.” Or “Ken was sixteen yesterday.” Or “Brenda’s 16th birthday came this week.”
And I would stare and wait for the rest of the story. Finally, I would say it. “So? Why isn’t Joe/Ken/Brenda here?”
And the person I was talking to would exclaim with no small amount of exasperation, “Joe/Ken/Brenda turned sixteen!” As if I were some kind of idiot who could not be made to understand.
Indeed, I did not grasp it, at first. And finally I understood. Most of these mountain kids were required by law to attend school up until their sixteenth birthday. And few of them intended to continue attending school past that date. And so, Joe and Ken and Brenda would vanish from the bus and from the halls at school and their faces would not be seen again except, sometimes, in the pages of the yearbook if the school pictures were taken before their sixteenth birthday arrived.
One day, I looked up from my daydreaming or my notebooks or my reading (I can’t recall which) as the bus came to a stop where it had not stopped before. Noting this atypical halting of the rocking of the machine atop the stony mountain roads, I watched a tall, brown-headed, lean, absolutely gorgeous young woman climb aboard, clutching her notebook to her very adequate bosom. Her hair was long and straight and hung down to the middle of her back and shone in the morning sun that was just rising above the tops of the September trees. She sat down near the front and the bus lurched, engine grumbling.
I leaned forward and nudged Allegra Priest, watching my index finger vanish to the first knuckle in the white stretch fabric that covered her fleshy upper arm. “Who’s that?” I asked her.
“Oh. That’s Rona. Her daddy just moved back to the county. They been livin in Texas for five years and they come back home now. He’s a trucker. Has his own rig and everythang,” she added, not interested in the least in the tall, pretty girl who was sitting with her back to us.
“Rona What? What’s her last name?”
Allegra rolled her eyes in her pudgy, moon face. “Grindstaff. Rona Grindstaff.” She accentuated the sound and I noticed that the new girl had heard her family name mentioned and she almost turned and I was ready to duck so that she wouldn’t see immediately that I was asking about her. But Rona remained face front and I needn’t have worried. We rode on to school and I hoped that I’d share at least two or three classes with her.
But, amazingly, although my school had only one hundred and eight students in the tenth grade, we didn’t have single common class.
Days followed upon the heels of each fading autumn sun. The trees went from green to brilliant hues of gold and yellow and red and orange to brown to bare and gray in the coming winter winds. I slowly inched my way up the bus, seat by seat, until I crowded out the smaller kids who gathered around Rona. It took me a week of sitting behind her, watching the back of her head, the curve of her shoulders, the glinting of light upon her hair, the smell of her blowing toward me and causing me no end of sexual frustration.
I ignored all of the other girls on the bus, much to the anger of some of them. I largely ignored my male friends there, too, much to the amusement of some of them and the confusion of the rest. For most of the ride back home I just sat and either stared or stole lingering looks at Ms. Grindstaff.
Finally, finally, after weeks of riding with her and watching her and hearing her and smelling her, I spoke to her.
“Hey,” I said.
She turned, looked at me, smiled, melted my heart and caused a flock of butterflies to take flight in my stomach, and she said, “Hey.”
Even then, even then I realized that I waited too long to continue and that I was making my emotional state plain and obvious not only to her, but to everyone on the bus who was watching or listening. Finally, I began to talk to her. As I recall, I asked her about two teachers we shared, but in different periods of the day, and I had my leg up, my foot in the door and out of my mouth. In a few minutes we were chatting, stumblingly, both of us uncomfortable with the forced conversation. I knew I had blown it.
She spent the next couple of weeks mainly ignoring me.
One day came and I had reached a point where I rarely even thought of Rona Grindstaff. Even though she rode the bus each day. Even though I heard her each day. Even though I caught whiffs of her perfume, her hair spray, her sweat. I was able to ignore her on a conscious level and didn’t long for her and didn’t pine for her and didn’t feel my heart sink at the way she ignored me.
No, not much.
And it was on that day, sitting, actually reading with my face down in the pages of a book that I heard the seat beside me creak with someone’s weight and felt another’s thigh pressed warmly against my own. I looked up and my nose knew who it was before my eyes did, and I say that not out of some caustic anger, but because still, now, today, thirty years later I can smell her and what they say about pheromones certainly must be true. Whatever it was about her; whether it was her face, her eyes, her lips, her chin, her hair, her body, her legs, her hands, her smile, her complexion, the way she dressed or the soap she used or the way she held herself or everything in combination; whatever it was about her, she closed all the circuits and pressed all the buttons and just plain made every nerve stand on end for me.
And I used to wonder that if she made me react just so, then certainly I must have even something akin to such a reaction for her. At least I wondered and hoped.
So. Out of the blue, she’s sitting there beside me, her leg against mine. I look up, and she’s looking back at me, our eyes staring into one another’s. “Why don’t you get off at my stop?” she asks.
“What?” I say.
“You can get off here. With me,” she says. “Don’t your friend Tommy Allaway live near here? You can call him and he can drive you over to your place later.” She had seen Tommy and me riding his cut down junker, his ‘stump jumper’ he called it. A piece-of-shit body with a running V-8 gas-guzzler in it.
“Yeah,” I stammer. “Tommy lives about three miles back down Log Ground Road,” I say. “You really want me to get off with you?”
“Yeah,” she says, her eyes smiling. “We can talk.”
I look down the road and the bus is slowing down and I can see the last curve before her house comes into view. “Your family at home? I can meet your parents,” I say.
“My daddy is off to St. Louis haulin pork sausage,” she says, smiling again.
“Just you and your momma, then?”
“My momma always goes on long trips with Daddy,” she informs me. “It’s just me at the house. And you, if you get off here,” she adds.
And I don’t even think about it. I don’t give it a second thought. I don’t think about my parents wondering why I’m not going to be driving my mom’s car down the gravel drive at precisely 5:15 pm or how they’re going to react, wondering where I could be. All I do is smile back at Rona and say, “Yeah. Sure. We can talk.”
Then the bus makes the wide turn and Rona leans into me and I can feel the warmth of her pressing against my leg and I can smell her so vividly, even now. The bus bounces once, twice on big rocks and Rona lets herself loll against me; I feel the softness of her breasts pressing against my shoulder. “Woo!” she says.
The bus stops and she stands up and I stand up and she climbs down the steps to the dusty-rocky road and I follow her down. All of the kids are watching us. All of the little kids who are accustomed to me accompanying them all along the way are staring in confusion at this suddenly major change in the routine of things. The older kids, too, are staring at us as Rona pads to the road, her jeans clinging tight to her thighs as I follow her down. I turn to Toby, the bus driver, and say, “I’m going to get off here today.” He looks at me and pulls the lever and the door squeaks shut as the engine roars leaving me standing there in the dust. As that dust clears I look at the retreating bus and see every window filled with a face watching me as I turn to chase Rona up the long drive to her house. She’s already halfway up the slope where her father’s house is perched on the top of the high hill. “Are you coming?” she asks, smiling still.
“Yeah,” I say, and trot to catch up. As I arrive, she is holding the back door. I look down and see the tracks made by her father’s enormous truck, and I can see where it sits often in between jobs pulling freight from one far place to another. There are great, wide tracks in the red dust and a huge, black spot where oil and other things drain out of that monster engine that he owns.
We go inside, and I’m surprised how clean the house is. The kitchen is very nice and she tosses her books on a Formica-topped bar with stools tucked neatly underneath. “Want a Coke? Or some tea?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll take some tea.” And I put my own books on the counter beside hers and touch one stool. “Okay if I sit here?” I ask.
“Sure.” She’s got the refrigerator door open and is bringing out a glass pitcher full of amber tea that I can already taste. Rona pours the tea into a tall glass for me, opens the freezer and I hear the clink of ice in the drink as she hands it to me. “I’m gonna drink a Coke,” she tells me, opening a glass bottle of it and drawing it down as she turns the bottom up, standing beside me at the bar.
I drink and smack my lips, looking around at the kitchen. I can see through the dining room and into the den and a hallway leading into other rooms, a color console television sitting on brown shag carpet in the fading afternoon sun. Turning, I look back at Rona and she’s staring at me with an expression I can’t figure, something I’ve never seen, and I frown. She puts the Coke bottle down on the countertop and puts her arms around my neck and her lips right on my ear and whispers to me.
“Want to have some fun?” she asks.
“Fun? What kind of fun?” I say it, dumb and stupid and virginal.
“You ever have a blowjob?”
The pit of my stomach opens up and my brain falls through it. “Nuh-no,” I say, honest about sex for the first time in my life because for the first time in my life the prospect of having sex seems suddenly imminent, and I am scared to death.
Before I can say anything else or do anything else Rona is standing in front of me and she’s unbuckling my belt and has that done and my zipper is down and her hand is inside my briefs and she has my penis. “I’ve been lookin’ at you for weeks,” she says. “You’re cute.” And before she says another word she’s on her knees and has her mouth around me.
I gasp, and my knees go a little weak, but everything else is working. I look down and she looks up, stops for a second and smiles at me. Before I know it, I come and she continues to suck for a while, then laughs and stands up, my penis now flaccid, drooping down toward my underwear.
“Now you do me,” she says, pulling down her pants and lying back on the carpet.
I kneel between her legs, look at her and wonder, and before I can think about it too much she grabs the top of my head and shoves my face to her crotch. I start doing what I think I should do and she’s soon telling me how it’s done. Breathing deep, I smell her; and I taste her, and I don’t find it unpleasant and soon I’m aroused again as she moans and squeaks and from time to time raises her hips or presses down on the back of my skull. In a bit, she moans, loud, tells me that she’s coming and arches her back and rubs her clitoris hard with her right palm.
Crawling up toward her face, I slowly peel my jeans off and, boldly, say, “Let’s screw,” as I’m looking down at her heavy-lidded eyes.
She rolls away, pushing my face. “Call Tommy. Tell him to come get you,” she says. “Use the phone in the den.” And before I can say anything she’s standing, wearing only her blue shirt and walking briskly toward the back of the house. “I’ll see you on the bus tomorrow,” she says, closing a door behind her. The last thing I see is her pale white ass.
Goddamn, I think. But I pull up my pants and go to the phone and dial Tommy’s number. His mom answers the phone and I ask for her son. In a second or two I hear my best pal’s voice. “What’s up,” he asks. “Where you callin’ from?” He knows we don’t have a phone at my house.
“I’m over at Rona Grindstaff’s house. Can you give me a ride home? Drive me there in the old stump jumper? I’ll pay for gas,” I add.
Tommy knows there’s a story there, so he agrees. I hang up, knowing he’ll be there very soon. Going to the kitchen sink, I turn on the tap and wash my hands with liquid dish detergent and then rub some on my face and lather up and rinse it off and use a dishtowel to dry. Going to the back door through which Rona and I had entered, I call out as I leave. “See you tomorrow, Rona,” I yell. Then I walk through that door and out into the yard where those enormous tire tracks and that huge dark stain look up at me. In minutes I hear the unmuffled roar of the approaching stump jumper and Tommy speeds into view, barreling down the steep hill and leaving a granite dust marker in his wake.
I hop into the car, no side doors to bother with, only the rickety seat that makes a rusty ratcheting sound as my weight settles into it. With a yelp Tommy slams the pedal down and away we roar, Tommy palming two one-dollar bills that I’ve pressed into his hand. “What was you doin’ at Rona Grindstaff’s house?”
I look at Tommy; see his gap-toothed smile, his blonde hair packed tight to his skull like wool. “She blew me,” I say.
And the car brakes and I go into the dash, but not hard, since I’d almost expected that reaction. The granite dust overtakes us and settles on us, since the car has no roof, either. “No,” Tommy says.
“Yes,” I tell him.
He puts his right foot back on the gas and we pull out of the dust cloud and he spins the car around so we don’t have to take a paved road where he might get pulled by the local cops who sometimes cruise that stretch of highway. We’re going to my house via the back roads and, glancing at my watch, I figure I might actually get back before my normal bus arrival anyway.
“What else? You have real sex with her?” The woods slip past, red oaks and post oaks, and then the pines as we enter the Rome-Kraft Paper Company lands that line the dirt roads.
“Naw. She didn’t want to,” I say.
“She just gave you a blow job?”
“Yeah.” I pause. “And I ate her out.”
“Yeah. I kind o’ liked it,” I admit.
We ride in silence like that for a while, and I wonder what Tommy’s thinking and worry that he’s jealous, since I know he’s never been laid and maybe he’s pissed off because I got lucky before he did, even though he already has his drivers license (one of the few who didn’t quit school at sixteen). We’re tearing around a steep curve in the road, getting close to the long driveway that leads up and down the mountain to my house and he slows down a little.
“Did she swallow?”
I think for a second. “Yeah. I think so, yeah.”
“Goddamn,” he says. And then we’re at the place where I park my mom’s car and I climb out of his junker and walk over to the other auto.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I tell him.
“See ya,” he says, and soon he’s gone and I hear his beat jalopy rumbling like a phlegm-y old man down the long, piney hills and into the distance.
Slowly, thinking of Rona, of what we’d done, of the way she’d tasted and smelled, I get in my mom’s car and drive down and down that long drive to my parents’ house. All around me, the forest closes in, trees mainly naked and bare and gray, the air warm for this late in the Fall, the sound of the tires crunching gravel, munching away like teeth on something crisp.
I get home, just a little later than usual, and my mother asks me why.
“I stopped over near Tommy’s for a while. He gave me a ride home.”
“He did?” It’s my father, appearing from the back of the house. I’m not used to him being home all of the time, now that his business has failed and we’re living on his savings while he tries to figure out what to do next. I hear my folks talking sometimes, muttering in the dusk, and I know they’re down to about 20,000 dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot to me, and I know it’s not a lot by many standards.
“Yeah,” I say. “We came through the woods on his stump jumper. Up through Log Ground Road.”
“Why’d you do that?” he asks.
“I just wanted to hang out with Tommy for a while. We’re thinking of going rafting again,” I lie. And I know my father knows it’s a lie. Why I don’t just tell them I stopped to see a girl, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the sex. My dad’s looking at me funny, and I wonder if he can tell a woman just put her lips around my penis. I look at my mom, to see if she notices something different about me, but she’s doing a crossword puzzle and doesn’t seem interested in my at all.
“Okay,” my dad says.
“I might stop over there again. Tomorrow,” I say, hoping that it’s true.
My dad turns to go back to the dark part of the house where he can contemplate the money running out. “All right. Just as long as we know where you are.”
The next day, on the bus, I’m sitting there and dreaming, not looking at Rona, not wanting to push things. And then she’s there again, her thigh pressed against mine, and there’s the tickle of her lips on my right ear.
“Want to stop by again?”
I look at her and smile, knowing I have a silly grin on my face, but unable to help myself. “Yeah,” I say.
This time, I don’t even look back to see the score of kid-faces staring through the rock powder coating the bus windows as I follow Rona’s tight-jeaned ass up the driveway. This time, we don’t bother with tea or Cokes or opening the refrigerator. We just start pulling at clothes and unbuckling belts and drawing down zippers and exploring one another. And, again, she’s kneeling in front of me and when I’m spent she’s lying back on the carpet and pushing the back of my skull and forcing my face into her warm, pungent crotch.
This goes on for four days. Tommy’s getting pissed by Thursday, and I’m running out of gas money to hand off to him. I’d walk through the woods and over the ridges, but it’s too far. I’d be walking all night.
By Friday, I know I’ve used up all of my favors with Tommy, and he’s sick of hearing what I’ll tell him about the brief encounters every afternoon, and he has own responsibilities that the rides to my driveway are costing him. I know all of this, but I don’t know what to do because I can’t think of an alternative, and I don’t want it to stop.
On Friday, we are laying on the carpet. She’s sighed, a long, hissing orgasm. I’ve slowly crawled up toward her shoulders. My pants are down around my ankles and I’d fall over like an idiot if I tried to stand like that. She’s wearing nothing, having peeled off all of her clothes, and I’m looking at her totally naked for the first time. As I’m edging my way up, my eyes are on a dark, penny-sized mole on her left shoulder that I hadn’t known she’d had. It’s light brown and stands out on her soft, pale skin. What’s left of the afternoon sun plays over the fine hairs there.
For the first time, she doesn’t push me away, doesn’t press her fingers into my cheek and say, “Call Tommy”. She seems to be staring absently as I slide one arm under her neck and lay the other across her ribs and hold her gently. I can feel the slow rise and fall of her chest as she breathes. My heart aches.
“I love you,” I say to her.
She stares at the ceiling for a second while I wait. Then the corners of her mouth turn up, her lips part, her teeth, her straight, white teeth, are evident as her eyes squint in delight and she begins to laugh.
“You! You’re so stupid,” she says. She looks right at me. “You goofy little boy.” And then she pushes me away like before, and sits up, still laughing.
“But I do,” I tell her. “I love you.” I try to push her back down, but she’s having none of that and this time shoves me away.
We’re sitting there for a while, Rona completely naked and me too stupid to finish taking my clothes off, my underwear still hanging onto my ankle, and my socks. She’s sitting up, her elbows on her knees, her face in her hands, her hair hanging down, shining in the fading afternoon light, laughing, laughing, and this goes on for some seconds before I realize that she’s not laughing, she’s crying.
“Are you okay?” I ask her. “Did I do something wrong?”
“I hate men,” she tells me, her face still in her hands. Then she’s up and walking away from me, toward the back of the house. “You call Tommy, now. Call him and get him to pick you up.” She turns her head, just a little, just enough so that I can see her left cheekbone with the light playing on very tiny hairs on her skin. “Don’t come back here anymore.” After that, she padded quickly down the hallway and into her room, shutting the door behind her, softly.
I do as she told me, picking up the phone. Tommy answers it on the first ring.
“That you?” he says.
“Yeah. Me,” I tell him.
“Just come get me, man. I got gas money. Can you come on, or will I have to wait? I can start walkin’ toward your place.”
“Naw,” he says. “I’ll be right there. In a few.” Then he hangs up and I hang up and pull on my clothes. In less than two minutes I’ve cinched my belt and am out the door, down the drive, and walking up the gravel road to shorten the distance Tommy will have to drive to pick me up.
I hear the guttural motor roar of a big engine and at first assume that it’s my pal, but realize the sound’s too loud and the engine far too powerful. As I stride up the hill to meet Tommy, I see a huge Mack truck headed toward me, and I immediately realize that it’s Rona’s dad, home early from wherever it is he’d driven whatever he’d been hired to haul. Realizing how close a call I’d just had, glad that Rona had not answered my love call and allowed me to completely consummate our sexual relationship, I feel my gut go cold and wonder if her dad will notice me.
At first, I keep my head down, but as the huge truck draws near, I glance up, and find that, indeed, Mr. Grindstaff is at the wheel of that monster machine and he is glaring at me with not a little intensity. I’m not positive he can look at me and know that my dick has just been in his daughter’s mouth, but I’m pretty sure of it. Pretty damned sure. As the truck kicks into a low gear so that he can take the turn into his drive, I’m only too glad to know that the rise of land at the top of the hill helps me to vanish from his sight, and as soon as I know he can’t see me, I break into a run and race to meet up with Tommy’s cut-down jalopy, which seems to me to be a very slow moving and very distant piss-ant crawling in my direction.
“This is it,” Tommy tells me. “I can’t come a get you and take you home like this. Not even for gas money. My dad’s givin’ me hell about the past couple of days. Says you need to get your own goddamn car.”
I don’t look at him and just stare at the patched floorboard, feel the cold wind cutting my face, now and again peering back to see if a huge Mack truck is bearing down on us.
The next day, Rona is not on the bus. Nor the day after that. A week passes, with no Rona aboard the bus. Finally, I sit beside Allegra Priest. For a while we both just sit there, silent, the day just beginning, the sun tinting the bare treetops with light as the day creeps over the mountain ridges.
“Why ain’t Rona at school?” I ask her. “She didn’t turn sixteen, did she?” I add with something like humor.
“No. Anyway, she’s seventeen. She turned seventeen last year.”
I hadn’t known that. “Then where is she?”
“Her daddy went off on a long haul again. He took her with him.” The bus groans as it pulls up a steep hill toward the next farmhouse.
“What about her momma? The whole family go?”
“Rona ain’t got a mother,” Allegra informs me. “Her mother’s been dead for two years!” As if this is common knowledge and I should have known it.
And the weeks passed. As far as I know, the big Mack truck never returned to reside in the drive beside the Grindstaff house. All I know is that one day there was a cube van parked in front of the garage and men were moving boxes and furniture into it. I would have asked Allegra what was going on, but it was obvious. The following day, and for every day after that, the Grindsaff house was empty, sitting vacant as winter passed into spring and then summer was there.
I never saw her again. But of course I thought about her often. Over and over I would play the words in my mind, seventeen and still at school.