August 8, 2011

I never missed the bus as long as Daryl,
our own Jimi Hendrix,
drove.  He’d beep for me, the diesel
idling outside my house while I
painted on my jeans and zipped my
boots—always, always late.

By the time I got on the bus, Daryl had
picked up David, who looked like John Lennon,
and who later blasted his father
away with a shotgun; Amy, my best friend, who took no
shit from anyone, but disappeared by age 19;
Paul, with one brown eye
and one green eye, who went to prison for four years
after nearly killing a man in a bar over a woman;
Cynthia, large-bellied with the first
of two children she had before age 17;
and Scott, part Cherokee,
with high cheekbones and black eyes,
who flew a two-seater plane into the ocean
while high on cocaine. He escaped,
a girl did not.

“Thank you, Daryl,” I’d say each morning
to this high school senior turned bus driver.
“No problem, Baby.”  And off we’d go—
through the neighborhood, by the cotton mill
smelling of vinegar, and up Summit
Avenue, to the junior high where friends
dispersed and walked,
invisible, through light green corridors
and rows of lockers,
past the black kids, some poorer
even than us, past the rich
kids, the Irvies, who ran the school
and whose parents owned us all.
In the back of the classrooms, I sat,
quiet and bookish behind black eyeliner,
longing for the bus ride home,
Daryl’s daily physics lesson:

at the top
of the hill on Summit, going 45 miles
per hour—
our hood heading
for the concrete base of an overpass,
Daryl timed it just right—
he’d turn the wheel to the left, leave his seat,
run to the back of the bus, slap
the emergency door, sprint
to the driver’s seat and grab the wheel—
all before the bus slammed head
first into concrete.  We’d cheer Daryl,
our daredevil Hendrix.  He’d smile
at me in the rearview
mirror, run his hand through his afro, say,
“Speed, angle, incline. Physics, Baby.”
We would have felt cheated if he didn’t
perform his feat.  How else would we
know we wanted our lives?

One afternoon the Irvies’ bus broke down. 
They piled into our bus and Daryl
did not disappoint.  He set the wheel—perfect. 
He rose from his seat, ran the center aisle,
pounded the emergency
door and sprinted back to the wheel,
which he turned gracefully,
another seamless performance.
“Speed, angle, incline. Physics, Baby.”

By 5 p.m. lawyers called the school board,
bankers screamed at the principal, doctors called
the superintendent. 

Next morning, 7:15, no beep, no Daryl.  I, busy
painting on jeans and zipping boots,
missed the bus.  A middle-aged woman
drove us home.  It was over.

I saw a raven in a wire cage once
at a bird sanctuary in Vermont.  Snow
lay beneath my feet and clung to branches
where the raven perched.  The black bird
pushed its wings against the wire
cage, wanting a touch, a stroke. 
“An unnatural desire for a bird
of prey,” the guide said.  Raised
by humans illegally and on an insufficient
diet, it couldn’t fly, would never lift its
hollow bird bones high
over mountain tops.
Humans, I thought in disgust.  The guide
pointed out, “The raven may want you to
touch it, but don’t.  He could, and just might,
rip your hand apart.”  I wanted to stroke
him, take the chance, especially after I read
that ravens have been
known to roll down snow-covered
hills, just for fun.

Bodies in motion stay in motion.
They are here with me still, at the top
of the hill.  David, whose regret is miles
longer than his 20-year sentence; Amy,
who kept me, but not herself, away
from boys and a stepfather;
Paul, who Cynthia told me
was “Mean as a snake now”; Scott,
whose sadness knows great ocean depths.

“Wait,” I say to them.  “Stay a little longer,”
when they visit my memory.  But they travel
fast, 45 miles an hour, and are gone, down
the hill, around the bend,
out of reach.

The next time it snows in Vermont,
I will go back
in the darkness, reach for that raven
in his cage, stroke his great dark wing,
drive him to the summit of a snow-
covered mountain and watch him
roll down the hill, finally flying
in the only way he can.

Jayne Thompson