Bus Trips and Brothers
We must lean on each other because our burdens pull us too
After breakfast that Saturday Toni
and Thomas walked to the downtown circle. Thomas figured that getting out into
the sunlight and seeing old friends would help him forget about The Face. The
downtown circle was throwback quaint. The center of town was a park that formed
a large circle. A street ran completely around it
and on the opposite side from the park were small shops shoulder to shoulder.
In the center of the park was a gazebo.
It was a hot day and by the time
they reached the park Thomas was thirsty. They went over to a water fountain
but it had sand in the bottom and looked like it was whacked too many times
with a stick.
“Is this water safe?” asked Thomas
as he pressed in the button. A flaccid stream barely rose above the nozzle.
“Unless a hog died in the supply
pond within the last two days then, yes, it is safe,” Toni said with reassuring
With his finger still on the button
he looked over at her with his mouth open trying to read her face. Seeing
nothing that would cause him to run, he turned back and stared intently at the
water for a few seconds. He might have been looking for pig hairs but having seen
none he went ahead and drank although very carefully. The water was cold and he
could not detect any strange tastes or odors so he gulped down several
Toni furrowed her brows and gazed
intently at him. This rather unnerved him. Finally she said, “OK, you didn’t
die. I guess the water was good this time.”
Was there a mass die off sometime this last year?”
She chuckled and led him to a
picnic bench. It was surrounded by flowers that almost glowed like a cat’s eyes
in a lamp. A hummingbird flitted from one to the next.
Toni was watching it intently. “You
know, I think that hummingbirds and bumblebees must really be the same thing.
When it wakes up in the morning it decides whether to put on feathers or fuzz.”
Thomas turned from the hummingbird
to Toni. “That was, um, rather poetic.”
“Thank you,” answered Toni with a
smile. “I have my moments rare as they might be. So how did your bus trip go? Usually
it’s pretty uneventful.”
“I wish that it was that
“Uh, oh,” Toni responded, “What
happened? You’re sitting here in front of me in on piece—as far as I can
tell—so it couldn’t have been too terrible.”
“Well, for the first half of the
trip I sat next to a woman who always needed to be connected. I think that she
was afraid that if she wasn’t on her cell phone every second that her head
would collapse like a deflating balloon and then fall into the hollow husk of
her body. She was constantly on her cell describing in throbbing minutiae every
detail of the trip.”
Then in a mock shrill voice he
proclaimed, “We’re passing another hamburger joint. Gee, I can’t believe how
many of them are out there. How many hamburgers can people eat? I didn’t know
that this country had that many cows. Now the bus is slowing down. I wonder if
we got cut off by some farmer driving his pokey tractor with enough hay bales
to feed every cow in Texas
for a year. I bet that stuff itches. And bugs! I bet they’re loaded with them.
I itch just thinking about it.”
Returning to his normal voice, “I
just wanted to shout, ‘What are you, announcing the World Series? Do you need
to report and analyze every monotonous event? This is a bus trip across
nowhere. It is not the Yankees versus the Dodgers.’ But I knew that she would
merely pause and stare at me like I had just grown rat’s ears. Then she would
spend the next half-hour describing the ‘nut job’ sitting next to her to the
human microphone on the other end. Most of the time I merely sat in perturbed
silence. And what really annoyed me was that she had the window seat even
though she never looked out. Did I mention the word ‘throbbing’? Because that
is what my head was doing most of the time.
He again assumed the voice, “Oh,
we’re slowing down again.” Then he reverted back to his voice, “What could be
her possible conjecture this time? Did we plow through a flock of penquins like an arctic icebreaker? Perhaps an oil tanker
jackknifed and the bus driver doesn’t want to hydroplane the next 200 miles on
the oil slick. It would be such a relief if she finally came up with a logical
and sane explanation for once. Oh wait, it’s coming.”
Back to the voice, “I can’t believe how many times we slow down. If we go any
slower we’re going to wind up where we started. I wonder what it is this time?” Back to normal, “Wait, wait, it’s
coming. I was like a hungry dog waiting for a bone. Here it comes.” Back to the
voice, “I bet he’s gawking at some young girls in a convertible. I tell you, for these guys that’s the only excitement they get all day.”
Back to normal, “It’s the leering
reason again. As though this turbo-charged bus with its
overhead cam overtook a carload of pretties in a Mustang. After hours of
this kind of dialogue I understood what the phrase ‘throw yourself under the
bus’ meant. She seemed to have an endless supply of phone batteries. From the
looks of it she obviously saved money on clothes and luggage. Actually, I think
that her well-worn, tattered luggage was stock filled with nothing but more
batteries. She was a Zen master at being able to breathe through her nose and
talk at the same time because she never came up for air.
“She eventually got off in one of
those small, one-diner towns. It probably used to be much bigger but those who
didn’t want to go deaf left. I think that every corner had a sign ‘Caution,
deaf child.’ She could talk until the Mona Lisa’s ears melted onto the floor.”
Toni was clearly more amused by
Thomas’ trials than he was. “So what about the rest of the
trip? Was the second half any better?”
“Part of it I was by myself. I
think that was God’s was of balancing the ledger although I still think that He
owes me. I actually got to sleep some although it was only in five-minute
nuggets: fall asleep, hit a bump, fall asleep, hit a
“That is certainly a moment to
cherish. But now you’re here and it is a lot better.”
Thomas thought about last night but
did not want to give anything away. “Yea, a whole lot better.”
“What about the rest of the trip?
You said, ‘part of it’ you were by yourself. Did someone else sit next to you?”
“Well, that was another thing
altogether something unto itself.”
“Huh? Was that grammatically
correct? Was that even English?”
Thomas ignored her and kept going.
“We pulled into a bus station with the waiting room modeled after the more
dreary parts of Ellis Island. It had a small
café that only the dead eat at because they’re the only ones the food can’t
harm. This gentleman gets on and asks if he can sit next to me. He was fairly
well-dressed (of course the competition of the rest of the crowd was deficient)
and seemed normal and intelligent.”
“‘Seemed’ is a give-away.”
“Anyway, not long after he sat down
I heard him mumbling. I thought, ‘not another cell phone sucker who’s going to
haunt me the whole rest of the trip with his vapid, guess-where-I-am drool.’
But then I peered over and both of his hands were on his lap and I didn’t see
anything in his ears. This was not a good indication. I considered the
possibilities and, at my optimistic best, still felt queasy. I didn’t want to
get his attention so I looked at him from the very edges of my eyes. He was
just staring ahead with a slight intensity that only added to my concern. A few
minutes later he muttered again. I was prepared this time and I listened
closely. ‘If you mess up again the maestro will be very unhappy.’ This was
unnerving. I was perhaps hoping for ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.’ Was he
talking to someone in his head? Was he talking to himself? Or was he talking to
me? Not good. No prize behind any of those doors was worth taking home. This
was not reassuring. I positioned my face right at the seat in front of me and
with one eye I tried to survey the scenery and with the other I guarded my
life. ‘If you mess up again the maestro will be very unhappy.’ This recycled
every five minutes.”
Toni commented, “Obviously he
didn’t kill you because you’re here now. In fact, you’re not even marked so he
must have been harmless.”
“Well, other than the emotional
Apocalypse that I went through then, yes, I’d agree with that. Once I actually
dozed off—against all of my survival instincts. When I awoke I turned my head
quickly and he was staring at me. I froze, he smiled and turned away.”
“Maybe he was looking at the
“No, it was dark out and besides, there
was no scenery on the side of my face. He got off the stop before here. As he
left he nodded and smiled at me.”
“Oh, that’s nice. You became
friends in the end.” Toni was being quite facetious.
“But it was weird.”
“Why?” she asked more seriously.
“It was like a knowing smile. Like
he knew something and I didn’t.”
“Well, you’re here now and safe
among friends. We’ve got you surrounded and covered.” She smiled.
That reassured Thomas more than
Toni would have expected, but then she did not know about the night before.
“So how is Carl?” asked Thomas.
“Last year he seemed to be getting a bit rough around the edges.”
“Well, whatever was on the edges
worked its way down deeper. He’s really been a grief
this year. Mom is quite worried about him. She tries to talk to him but it’s
like he put corks in his ears.”
“What about you? Will he listen to
She twisted her face. “Oh yea, like that will ever happen.”
“When is he going to turn 18?”
“That happened a few months ago. We
both expected him to bolt on that day but to our surprise he’s still here. Of
course we’re glad that he is. Mom’s hoping that by keeping him
nearby she’ll be able to bring him back to our side.”
“Our side? You make him sound like
“Sometimes I wonder. Right after
father, umm, left five years ago he just completely buried his emotions.”
“Sort of like Pompeii?”
“He’s just gotten worse and worse.”
“Like how?” asked Thomas.
“You wouldn’t see any around much
because we keep finding them and hiding them, but he’s been laying out traps to
catch small animals. Most of them were pretty crude and wouldn’t have caught a
squirrel on a suicide mission but that’s not the point.”
“Why is he trying to catch
“To do things to
them. I don’t even want to know what he has in mind, but I’m sure that
it is horrible.”
“Has he ever caught any?” Thomas
was very much hoping for a negative answer.
“Not that we know of, but I doubt
it. I think that we would have found something—remains or whatever—lying around
if he had. Besides I’m sure that he would have not been able to restrain
himself from making Mom and I squirm by telling us what he had done and perhaps
displaying a trophy. We would have shut him up immediately but he would have
told us enough to make us both sick.”
“When did he start this?”
“About a year
“What else has he been doing (as
though that’s not enough)?”
“He’s has a great fascination with
fires. That’s been going on for a while but it seems that he has higher goals
than he used to. Right after Dad… left he would make large crisscrossed piles
of lumber. Then he would put plastic soldiers on all different levels and then
set fire to the bottom. He seemed to take a little too much glee in watching
their tiny faces melt and then tumble into the flames where they would sizzle
and crackle. I don’t know, it just seemed perverse to
“I remember when I was young.”
Thomas was speaking quicker and more excitedly. “I brought a piece of plywood
into the basement and built two cities out of cardboard. Each city was on
opposing ends with a no-man’s land in the middle. I made square houses and
large town halls and laid them out with streets and everything. Then I rolled
paper into balls and stuck them onto the ends of toothpicks. I made two piles;
one for each city. Ultimately I was going to light the balls on fire and lob
them back and forth from one city to the other. Whichever city wasn’t
completely burned to the ground was the winner.” He looked a little wistfully.
“Unfortunately my parents found out about it before I could do it. I had to
dismantle the whole thing.” He seemed to have the regret of one who will never
know what could have been. After a few seconds of silence he looked up at Toni
expecting either an impressed “that was quite a project” or a consoling “gee,
it’s too bad that they caught on when they did.” Instead, she was staring at
him with a “are you some kind of idiot?” look. His face lost all emotion. He
looked somewhere off to the left out of the corner of his eyes.
“Well, I was a lot younger then,”
he said slowly and unconvincingly. “Anyway, you said that Carl has been setting
higher goals. What has he been doing lately?”
Trying to pretend Thomas’ medieval
war lust was never mentioned Toni went on. “A few months back an old abandoned
shed burned down. Everyone knows that it was Carl but no one could prove it. He
denied it but the smirk rather belied his sincerity. Another time a partially
built house suffered some damage. We all know that it was Carl but it’s not
like we have fingerprints or anything. My mother who loves burning candles now has
them all hidden up in the attic.”
“No point tempting a fat man with a
box of donuts, I guess,” added Thomas still feeling a bit beaten. “Is there
anything else? Should I read anything into the fact that he wasn’t at
Toni shifted slightly back and
forth and said, “Well, yes. I’m sure that he wasn’t there because he knew that
you were going to be there. I hope you don’t feel bad. I mean, you shouldn’t
take it personally or anything. I know that sounds kind-of stupid but he
wouldn’t have been there no matter who was coming.”
“So where was he? Was he out with
friends or something?”
“Friends?” said Toni incredulously.
“He doesn’t have any real friends.”
Growing up he used to have lots of buddies that he would hang out with. What
“He got more and more aggressive.
First it was just intimidation. Then he started pushing and slapping.
Eventually if someone didn’t do what he wanted he would pick a fight with him.
Who wants to hang around someone like that?”
“So what does he do with himself?”
“Sometimes he hangs out with some
group that calls themselves ‘Misfit Among Freaks.’ I’m
sure you don’t need a powerful imagination to figure out what they’re like. But
we don’t really know where he goes. He’s either out somewhere, we don’t know where,
or he’s up in his room with the door shut. It’s really breaking Mom’s heart.
She doesn’t know what to do. He won’t listen to anyone. He always has a
sarcastic or flippant answer. He thinks that he is always right and everyone
else hasn’t a clue.”
“Maybe I can talk to him.”
“Good luck,” Toni replied without
the slightest indication of hopefulness.
Both sat and watched a squirrel dash, stop, sit up, dash, stop, sit up.
“Hey look,” proclaimed Thomas,
“here comes the gang.”
Coming within sight was a group of
Toni’s friends that Thomas always hung out with each summer. When they saw
Thomas they waved enthusiastically and walked a little faster to greet them.
Before they reached the table Thomas and Toni got up and closed the distance in
a couple of eager strides.
“Great to see you again, Thomas,”
“Yea, has it been a whole year
already?” asked Danielle.
Russell looked over at Sarah, “Did
you know that Thomas was in town already?”
She replied, “I talked to him
yesterday at the church picnic.” Then she knit her eyebrows and looked at
Russell and his sister, “Now that I think about it, I don’t remember seeing
either of you there. What happened?”
Russell tightened his jaw and
started to get agitated but then saw that Danielle was watching him so he stopped,
but his voice could not hide his grave disappointment. “Mom somehow heard that
a lot of people were sick and didn’t want us to be exposed. So she kept us home
Danielle alleged more dogmatically,
“The real reason is that Mom was afraid of what people would say about her so
she made up the sickness excuse.”
“How do you know that?” Russell was
rather indignant in his question.
“Oh come now, Russell, this is Mom
that we’re talking about. When we do go to church she spends more time fretting
about what people will think about her dress.”
“Yea, well, she’s still
our Mom, you know. We don’t have to wave our, umm, dirty laundry in front of
“Come on and join us.” Thomas
wanted to break up this contention, “we’re just sitting here chatting about the
Everyone sat down.
Sarah spoke first, “So what were
you guys talking about?”
Thomas answered, “Carl.”
Russell seemed quite interested.
“Have you talked to him yet?”
“No, I’ve only heard noises out in
the hall at night as if light and people need to be avoided at every turn,”
“Carl has always been a night
person,” responded Toni defensively.
“Along with a number of other
creatures that are either stepped on or run from,” said Russell.
“Now you’re simply being mean,” interjected
Toni with a slight flash of anger; after all, Carl was still her brother.
Russell’s meek reply.
Toni continued, “He’s changed
since, you know, what happened to Dad.” She stared at the table top for a
couple of seconds before looking up again. “But he’s been getting worse. Lately
he’s been getting more and more obsessed with the whole theme of death and
“See I wasn’t being mean.”
Toni strongly responded, “But when
I see him I don’t think about stepping on him.”
Russell responded, “Well, I don’t
think about stepping on him either.” And then leaning towards
Thomas he whispered, “He’s too big.”
“I heard that.” Toni gave him a
Thomas said, “To keep you two from
bickering like an old married couple,” – Russell and Toni put on an exaggerated
look of mortification – “What is this obsession with death and termination? And
what is the difference anyway?”
Toni started, “Ever since dad,” –
she paused – “left, Carl’s become more consumed with the idea that things
disappear and never come back and that stability stands right up there with
flying pigs as a hope that you can count on.”
Sarah spoke up, “He really freaked
when he read an article about how the sun will burn out in 13 billion years and
that it loses four million tons every second. When we hung out once last summer
we went exploring in the woods we found a new valley of sorts and all he would
talk about was how one day every living thing would be gone and this would be
nothing more than frozen solid ground. There would no trees, no water, no
birds—just blank, gray rock. He would stand there not admiring the beauty that
is there now but picturing the deadness that it might become. It really creeped me out. That
might have been the last time that we did anything together. I mean, who wants
to stand around and talk about death?”
Russell added, “That was until he
found out a few months after that that the sun wouldn’t just flicker and die
out like a candle but will instead probably first expand until it has engulfed
the Earth and then will contract into a cold, dead ball. Now he saw everything
as first charred and then frozen. Not unlike my mother’s cooking I might add.
But somehow this scenario was even more frightening and disturbing. I don’t
know why. It seems like gone is gone.”
“Maybe it was because the sun
flaring up first is an active and, I guess, more sudden destruction,” remarked
“Like dying in your sleep versus
being hit by a train,” added Russell.
“He told me that when he looked at
people he would see them in their coffins rather than what they are standing
there and have ahead of them in life,” Sarah continued.
“Death and termination,” said
“Rather than life and potential,”
Toni cut in, “Another thing that he
was a bit obsessed with (if you can only be a bit obsessed with something) is
“I can believe that,” remarked
Thomas. “I can imagine his room being covered with posters of carnage and monstrosities.
Probably lots of demons ripping the heads off of hopeless
“No, not that way,” said Toni. “Actually, kind-of the opposite. He would avoid photos of
things like spiders or scorpions as though if he touched them they would pull
out from the page and run up his arm and bite him in the face. I would watch
him reading his school biology book and when he can to a picture like that he
would get all nervous and quickly turn the page.”
“Well, that one is different,” said
Russell remarked, “I’m surprised
that he even comes out of his room. I mean, what would he do if he encountered
a real spider?”
“Well, being stuck in the same
house with us all of the time is probably even more horrible to him than
becoming a briquette by the sun or being bitten by something venomous. How much
more scary can you get than mom and I?” said Toni with no hint of humor.
“I guess, to him, rolling around on
a nest of cottonmouths might even be more appealing,” said Thomas with a wry
Toni jumped in, “All right already.
Let’s change the subject. Being compared unfavorably to bugs and snakes just
isn’t building up my self-esteem.”
Russell said, “Actually we have to
get going. We’re on our way to watch a game. The Wildcats are playing. This is
one of the few seasons that they are giving us something to cheer about.”
“They’ve almost won 25% of their
games,” Sarah added with a false sense of pride.
“Still,” Russell responded, “it’s
an improvement. Twenty-five percent of actual wins is better than 100% of moral
victories. Would you two like to join us?”
“It sounds like fun but maybe next
time,” answered Thomas.
At that Russell and Sarah got up.
“We’ll see you later. You’ll have
to tell us about your bus trip,” Sarah said with a wink, “I mean, is there
anything more boring?”
Thomas and Toni just looked at each
other as the other three disappeared down the sidewalk.
“I’m still a bit thirsty. You want
to go get a soda?” asked Thomas.
Thomas put his hand on the edge of
the bench to get up.
“Ouch!” He jerked his finger up to
“What happened?” Toni asked.
Thomas took his finger out of this
mouth and looked carefully at it. “There was a splinter in the wood and it
poked into my finger.”
“Let me look at it.”
Thomas held up his finger. There
was a faint bit of red.
“There’s hardly anything there at
all,” proclaimed Toni.
“What do you mean? My finger is
throbbing in anguish. I’m surprised that I haven’t fainted from the blood
loss.” Thomas sucked on his finger some more.
“Oh, please. Save your theatrics
“Getting sympathy from you is like
trying to rise a river by throwing pebbles into the
Toni merely rolled her eyes and
“Pity me,” answered Thomas meekly.
Toni got up with a sigh and walked
away from the table. Thomas looked at her leaving, then back down at his
finger, and finally jumped up and hurriedly caught up with her. By then he had
forgotten about his finger.
They crossed over the street and
into the small food store.
“If you grab some soda, I’ll get
the chips,” offered Thomas.
“Chips too?” said Toni with a bit
of a smile. “OK, but don’t get too big of a bag.”
Toni went straight to the back of
the store while Thomas wandered down a couple of aisles. Deciding that he did
not want to waste all day finding the chips section he went over to someone
stocking a shelf. “Where are potato chips?”
The clerk held up one finger to
tell Thomas to wait. There was no one else in the store so this seemed strange
but then the clerk stepped around the box on the floor and silently signaled to
Thomas to follow him. Thomas obediently tucked in behind him and followed him
to the fourth aisle, which the clerk turned into and then, halfway down,
stopped, and motioned to the chip area like a game show host. Thomas thanked
the clerk who smiled and headed back to his aisle. Thomas spied his favorite—sour
cream/green onion chip—and grabbed the biggest bag. Back at the counter Toni
was waiting for him. They paid and thanked the clerk who was now working the
register and who nodded appreciatively.
Once they were outside of the store
Thomas said, “Is the clerk able to speak? He is either really shy or he can’t
“Oh, he can talk alright,” said
Toni. “He just doesn’t anymore.”
“He doesn’t talk anymore?” Thomas
was incredulous. “Why doesn’t he talk? Does he have some disease?”
“Tim, that’s his name, has always
had a really bad way of thinking about himself. All the time that he was
growing up both of his parents would always put him down. He could never do
anything right in their eyes. He was too clumsy for sports they told him, too
ugly to ever get married, and too stupid to ever make it in the world. Even
when he would do well they would tell him that he could have done better. He
really is a pretty good kid but they did nothing but beat him down.”
“Why did they do that?”
they are insecure jerks. Not every idiot in this world happens to be a
teenager, you know. Anyway, he came to believe that nothing about him was any
good. One day, about a month ago, he heard himself on a tape recorder and
thought that he sounded really awful.”
“True, but he took it further than
most would since he already had such a lousy view of himself. He thought that
his voice was grating and annoying and only irritated people. He figured that
nobody ever said anything to him about it only because they were being polite,
but he was sure that people were saying to each other behind his back, ‘Boy, I
can’t stand it when Tim talks. It really gets on my nerves.’ This was never
true but he was convinced that it was so he decided to spare everyone the
anguish and stop speaking altogether. Supposedly the last thing that he ever
said was, ‘I’m being erased.’ A couple of times I tried to tell him that it
just wasn’t so and that no one ever said anything about his voice, but he said
that I was just being kind.”
“Wait a minute, if he stopped talking
then how did he tell you that you were just being kind?” Thomas thought that he
had indisputable proof that she was just telling a tall-tale. Tim probably only
had laryngitis that day or something reasonable like that.
“He wrote it down. When I told him
that he was not perceiving things correctly he turned
over the pad by the register and wrote, ‘You’re just being kind.’ So see, I’m
not making this up as I go along, it’s true.”
“It’s rather sad. Hopefully
sometime soon he’ll realize that the problem isn’t with his voice but with his
parents’ attitude and snap out of it.”
Of course, a big part of the problem is his own
attitude and perception. People will affect us only as we allow them to. Tim
needs to find his good points—of which there are many—and focus on them rather
than sinking into his perceived weaknesses.” Toni looked at Thomas and smiled,
“Maybe you can make Tim your second project—after Carl, of course.” Thomas