J had written, “My father was a man.” The sentence was supposed to have an adjective, but he’d been searching for the right one for a while now. None fit between what J needed to say and felt he should say. He shut down and unplugged his laptop, carefully coiling the cord.
Outside the train window, the trees—rooted and consigned to a pace of movement and growth imperceptible to people’s fast moving brains—became streaks, smears, a cartoonist’s green rendering of speed. J knew that they would bend and whip in the train’s wake, then become still again until touched by wind. Picturesque at this distance and velocity, a town huddled around a bay; a cluster of boats floated in a harbour and presumably rocked to the sea’s rhythm, masts clanking. The train burst onto and off of a small bridge, the guh-guh-gung guh-guh-gung sound of each transition stopping and starting too fast to register in J’s ears, except as an echo.
J remembered long school bus rides down country roads, the power lines drooping between worn wooden poles, warm morning sun like a strobe light flashing on J’s eyelids as the bus sped past trees. For a year and a half, the driver had molested the girl whose home was at the beginning of the morning route and end of the afternoon route. J thought of her now, in his class because she’d been held back, but a year older than him at a time when that year seemed an impossible gulf. She seemed nearly grownup, except she carried with her a teddy bear, its fur matted by her persistent embraces, its eyes missing.
J’s father was the duty counsel assigned to the bus driver. The long hours he spent on the case were nothing new, nor were the long walks he would take as soon as J was tucked in, regardless of whether J was asleep or not. But it was during that case that J’s father started falling asleep in the chair near J’s bed. Maria, the nanny, seemed to think that it was important that J not see his father that way, slumped and drooling in the chair, so in the mornings she would rush J’s father out the door and J would pretend to sleep until Maria came back in to wake him.
Normally, while Maria was setting dinner on the table, J’s father would announce the results of his cases with a practiced neutrality that he thought made him more trustworthy, which probably had made him a more trustworthy lawyer. J knew that his father had not announced the results of the bus driver’s case, but somehow J found out. Who would have told him? The other children were oblivious. The school’s staff were troubled and tightlipped about it. Likely, J had overheard his father discussing the case with Maria at some point when they thought he wasn’t or couldn’t be listening.
Because of J’s father’s efforts to describe the precise, unusual and non-penetrative nature of the sex acts, the bus driver’s sentence was light. He was forced into psychiatric treatment in a correctional facility for a few years. The girl was sent to a counselor.
When the train arrived and opened its doors, J raced past the other people on the platform, hopped in the first cab and gave directions past the encroaching developments to his father’s place. The fare was high, and the driver asked too many questions.
There was a creek near J’s house where his maternal grandparents took him for picnics and to play. He would throw smooth rocks from one bank to the other, aiming for this or that stump or tree trunk or bird or butterfly. Eventually, he started walking there himself. If he walked upstream, around two bends, the creek became a whole different, private place.
One day, J was sitting on the banks of that creek, spinning a rock between his thumb and middle finger, when someone crashed out of the bush across the river. Gone was the hair set so that the lines of the comb’s strokes were visible throughout the day. Gone too was the polyester uniform with his first name embroidered above his heart and the bus company’s logo across the zipper from his name. The man’s angry eyebrows and muttering mouth still did violence to the other features on his face, a face J had primarily seen reflected in the large rectangular mirror through which the driver had watched the children on his bus.
J got up, put the rock into his pocket and, breaking ground through the dense undergrowth, followed the driver along the creek’s bank to the road leading up from a single lane bridge. Being careful to stay out of sight, J crossed the creek, soaking his canvas sneakers and the hem of his shorts.
The road cut through the creek’s deep valley, a wound that had never healed, a wound that left two bald and crumbling cliffs. To climb the slope without setting off a riot of falling stones and dry dirt, J had to go back along the bank and climb where there were trees By the time J reached the top, the driver was about to round a bend, so J, already out of breath, ran to catch up. At the end of the cliff—the road only about ten feet below the steep bluff, the driver already far off down the road—J jumped and slid down to the road’s gravel shoulder. The rest of his voyage, maybe half a kilometer, J walked in a crouch in a deep, muddy ditch.
The driver went up a winding dirt path at the end of which was a tiny, outdated, but neatly kept house. J stayed in that ditch, twisting and turning the rock from the riverbank over in his hands like if he could just find the right angle or grip on it, he would know what to do. The dark, moonless night fell and J’s feet started to suffer. When he had arrived home, Maria held him desperately tight. His father asked where he’d been.
“The driver is out. The bus driver.”
“How is he allowed to live here?”
J’s father smiled sadly.
“I thought, I thought things happened to people like that. In prison, I mean.”
“He had the very best treatment.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to me.”
“How do you live with yourself?”
“I am very good at what I do. I believe in what I do.”
J stood now in the hallway where that argument took place. “My father was a dutiful man,” he thought. He turned the rock in his pocket. “My father was a good man,” had been one of J’s earliest discards.
He looked in on his father’s bedroom. J hoped that the grand, severe furniture pleased his father, because as far as J knew, since J’s mother had died, only he and Maria, long since let go, had ever laid eyes on it. The old chair from J’s bedroom was the one piece out of keeping with the rest of the furniture.
J slept in the guest bedroom.
The next morning he completed his eulogy, writing, “My father was a dedicated man.” He felt that dedicated sounded more compassionate and human than dutiful. Less of a slight.
J went for a walk.
The river was as he’d left it. Smaller, maybe, but just as peaceful. The bridge was still a single lane, the cliffs beside the road still barren and steep. The bus driver’s house was still standing, still looking better maintained than it deserved. A sunflower bloomed, big and shameless, beside the front door. It was forty years since the trial and J figured the driver had died, but who else would have bothered to keep that sad little house in such fine shape? He stood on the road by the mailbox and tossed his rock up in the air. He’d had it for over thirty years. It remained mute.
It was almost a week after the funeral when J found the letters and Christmas cards. They were addressed to a PO Box. At first they were from the parents of the girl that the bus driver assaulted. “Thank you for your generous offer, but we cannot accept. Please find your money enclosed.”
“Thank you again, but we do not want your charity.”
“Please stop sending us money.”
Then a series of thank yous before the parents stopped sending them and instead it was the girl. Her first letters were simple thank yous. Then she told stories about various jobs she had worked and stories about how she used the money—to buy a used car or a winter wardrobe for her kids. There was a break up—she never used the word divorce—and then one partner after another. Eventually there were requests to meet him, to do something to thank him. They were never inappropriate or obviously suggestive, but there was the faintest whisper of innuendo.
J wrote her. He said who he was, who his father was and that his father had died. He gave the return address and his email. And as he prepared the house to sell, he waited for her reply.
They had an auction to get rid of his father’s things. J was sitting, watching it all disappear for more money than he ever thought it was worth, when he saw a woman touching his father’s headboard.
She looked over and approached him, smiling.
“Hi?” he said, maybe recognizing her now.
“J?” she asked.
“Yeah, hi.” It was her, the poor girl from the bus.
“This probably isn’t a good time.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “When’s a good time?”
“I’m sorry. About your father.”
“Ah,” J said. “People die.”
“I suppose.” She started to cry. “I’m sorry.”
He put a hand on her shoulder. Then, remembering what had happened to her when she was a girl, he withdrew his hand. She hugged him. Put her head on his chest.
“Want to go for a walk?”
“But,” she said, pinching her nose. “Sorry, sorry,” she waved her hand. “I don’t know why I’m—” she cried harder then. People stared.
“Let’s go for a walk,” J said. “Hold on.” J confirmed with the coordinator from the auction house that he was, indeed, not needed.
They walked to the river. J talked about his work with an engineering firm, work that had taken him all around the world and away from here. He talked about his divorce and his children. His youngest had just finished her first year at university. Both daughters were unable, for their own reasons, to make it to their grandfather’s funeral.
People called her Mandy, she told him. She talked about her children, one of them managing a stationary store, one of them back in a treatment facility. She lit a cigarette. She told him what some of their former classmates were doing.
They stood beside the river. J played with the stone in his pocket.
“This is lovely,” Mandy said.
“Thanks,” J said. “I mean, I’m glad you like it. This place was special to me. Is special to me.” He squinted up the hill then smiled at Mandy.
“For a long time I hated your father. There I was, though, taking his money.”
J thought it would be impolite to ask about amounts.
“He was just part of something bigger than him, that’s all.”
“We all are, though, aren’t we?”
“We are,” J agreed.
He had thought they would go on to the bus driver’s house, but he saw now that they wouldn’t, that they shouldn’t. When they got back, men from the auction house were labeling the larger items, things that had been sold and were too large for the vehicles the buyers had driven. Mandy held J’s hand. “It was very nice to see you. Thank you.”
“You know, we never guessed it was him.”
“We even guessed that it might be Mr. Garrett.” Mr. Garrett was the bus driver.
“Really?” It made J angry that they had thought that. “Hm.”
“Will you keep in touch?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure. Let’s. Let’s keep in touch.”
That night, J slept on a mattress he’d dragged up from the pile of unsold things in the basement. He didn’t dream.
In the morning, he got dressed and put the rock in his pocket. As he walked to the bus driver’s house, J wondered if he had missed some provision his father had made for Mandy in his Will. J thought back on all the financial information he’d sorted through. There certainly was enough money to keep sending Mandy something.
A Civic was parked outside the bus driver’s house. J crouched in that same ditch that he’d crouched in years before, stood in what felt like the same mud. Each time a car drove by, J crouched. A child spotted him out of the rear window of one passing vehicle. J wished he was privy to the conversation that happened afterwards, about the man standing in the ditch.
Eventually, a man and girl walked from the bus driver’s door to the Civic. The girl was young, maybe ten or eleven, and lovely in the way of a child. The man looked like a younger version of the bus driver, who stood, stooped and twisted at the threshold of his home. They waved to him before they got in the car. The girl said something that from the ditch sounded like, “Thank you Grandpa.” The bus driver blew a kiss.
The Civic pulled out of the driveway. J crouched with his face pressed against the plants clinging to the edge of the ditch until well after he heard the Civic’s engine disappear behind the bird cries, grasshopper trills and cicada buzz. J rubbed the rock in his pocket, asking it one last time for guidance.
Its answer was elegant and silent, the same answer it had been giving all along. It referred to the river whose banks J took it from, the river’s persistence and the river’s change over time, the river’s reworking of the materials that made up its bed and bank, the smoothing of rough edges, and the influence of those materials on the river. It referred also to the hours, the years, that J had spent in conversation with this small piece of earth and the way they had shaped, had changed, each other.
J left the old bus driver to himself, whoever that self had become.
Duncan, British Columbia, July 2015
Emoji sequence: Nye Marks, major contributor to The West Enders Vol. 1, Issues 1 and 2.
Story: Lee Sheppard