Issue #16 |

The Bus Driver

There were thirty-two of us that first day, standing in a sloppy circle as Miss Lindskoog spoke of cubby holes and taking turns, none of us doubting that we would soon become friends. We were children after all. Children like other children. Over the next thirteen years, Jane and I became—and remained—best friends, unlikely best friends, our friendship determined less by shared interests than by proximity, which is how it is in small towns. In 1983, we graduated, Jane barely receiving her diploma, while I finished at the top of our class, a predilection for academics just one of many traits we did not share. Among the few traits we did share was a love of animals, yet within weeks of graduation, Jane began working full-time at the chicken factory outside of town.

I do not want to overstate the degree to which I—back then—might have been troubled by her job, by what some would call her cruelty or hypocrisy, criticism more reflective of the world I inhabit now, a world in which people have the luxury of dwelling on such things. To be fair, I probably viewed the nature of her job in terms of us—as the first step in our growing apart. The next step came with my departure for college that fall, albeit to a state school just two hours away, where the other students felt familiar because we came from the same farming communities and small towns and because we were the ones who left. The group I found myself drawn to was wild, though I was not. I was the quiet one who sat just outside the craziness, watching the others dance, drunk and high, drawn to them not because I sensed some similar wildness inside myself but because I was curious to know what people looked like when they set inhibitions aside. Until then, I had known only inhibition.

Jane and I did not see each other again until the spring of my senior year, when I spent a long weekend at my parents’ house. Something—simple guilt perhaps—had returned me there, to this place that I no longer considered home, dropped off on a Thursday evening by a friend on his way to the Twin Cities. Two nights later, Saturday, I found myself desperate to go out, trapped by a former life that was suddenly too close at hand, present in the way that my mother expected my assistance with dinner while my brothers sat idly on the sofa waiting to eat, in the way that my parents had greeted me, my father asking from the recliner as he lowered his newspaper an inch or two, “Is that Clare?,” my mother answering from the kitchen, “It’s Clare”—each, from a distance and with a cursory nod of their heads, welcoming me home.

Or maybe I fled that night out of simple boredom, ran from the sight of my family huddled around some detective show, my mother asking constant questions about the most basic plot points, my father predictably absent. He took no pleasure in family time. I later found him in the basement, planting seedling cups. My father kept a large garden that, like the universe, expanded just a bit more each year and provided steady justification for his not spending time with us. When I appeared before him that night, requesting his car keys so that I might drive into town to the municipal liquor store—half package sales, half dive bar—my father looked up from his trays of dirt and shook his head no. He disapproved of the liquor store and did not want people to see his car there, but when I promised that I would park in front of his hardware store one street over and walk up the alley to the muni, he reached into his pocket with his muddy fingers and produced the key, for when it came down to it, my father cared most about being left alone. In this way, we were alike.

I had never been inside the liquor store, and when I opened the door that night, I stood for a moment embracing the unknown. The front room, where I entered, consisted of the bar, one pool table, and a jukebox, in front of which, punching in selections, stood Jane. I had received periodic updates on her from my parents, though they reported only on what had gone wrong in her life, a considerable list. I hoped that there were also things that had gone right, but had no way of knowing, for we had not kept in touch those three-and-a-half years. In the beginning, I tried. My first fall away, I sent three letters. All went unanswered. Perhaps the act of penning a letter felt too much like being back in school, like homework, or maybe she had simply recognized the futility of our friendship sooner than I.

“Howdy,” she said when I approached her, and I said hello back.

She was dressed oddly—oddly for Minnesota, that is, oddly for our town—in a cowboy hat and boots, a shirt with snap buttons that strained at her stomach. It was the first time I had seen her carry weight. We did not hug. She did not ask about college—what I was studying, whether I liked it, what I planned to do with what I was learning. I did not expect her to.

“I’ve got kids,” she said straight off, her Minnesota accent undercut by something vaguely Texan. “I’m at the chicken factory. Still.”

There had always been something childlike about Jane, but that night I could see that she was an adult, someone who snapped necks and paid bills, snapped necks in order to pay bills.

“I heard you’d become a mother,” I said.

As soon as I said it, it sounded wrong, this talk of becoming a mother, as if motherhood were something she had aspired to, when the reality was this: she’d gotten pregnant, twice, and as a result had two girls under the age of three, who, according to my parents, her parents were raising. I wondered, but did not ask, who the fathers were.

Did I feel superior to her as we stood that night regarding each other from our divergent lives? I do recall thinking as I looked at her—twenty-one years old with two children and a mundane job—that only I had a future, for the whole point of the future was that it was unknown, and everything about her life seemed already determined. I recall thinking, too, what a relief my life seemed by contrast. Was I wrong to acknowledge wanting none of that for myself?

She went back to punching numbers into the jukebox, and a song began, something country, which was all she’d ever listened to. “I recognize this song,” I said. In truth, it sounded to me like every other country song. “Who is it again?”

She snorted. “Conway Twitty,” she said, and I nodded solemnly as if to say, “Ah, yes, Conway Twitty.”

“So,” she said. “I’ve got quarters on the table.”

It took me a moment to understand that she meant the pool table, that she was inviting me to play. “Sure,” I said. “Okay.”

“I’ll gut you like a chicken,” she said, still in that strange Texas-Minnesota accent. There was something in her tone, but when I turned to look at her, she laughed.

“I’m not great at pool,” I said.

“So you don’t want to play?” She sounded neither disappointed nor relieved.

“I’m just warning you,” I said, though really, I was filling the silence. The Jane I knew had talked incessantly, but the one before me, this new Jane with two children and a softening waist, did not speak at all, not as she corralled the balls and assessed the cues for warping, nor as she chalked the one that met with her approval, an action that called attention to her hands, which looked strong and capable and like the hands of someone twice our age.

“How’s your father?” I asked.

 

To read this story in its entirety, please purchase a copy of our spring 2023 issue or subscribe to the magazine.

Lori Ostlund’s novel, After the Parade, was a Barnes & Noble Discover pick and a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Ferro-Grumley Award. Her story collection, The Bigness of the World, won the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund …

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