He had idiot written all over his face. He smelled bad too, like he’d been swimming with crawdads in a sewer. Mama made me promise not to make fun of his poorly brushed teeth or the way he came to school sprouting hair in all directions. But Mama never had to sit by him on a bus either. She never had to learn how an idiot can make a fool out of you.
Maybe it was the excitement of the field trip or the way the bus jolted as we boys split the air with a chorus of our favorite anthem, “Thunder Road.” Maybe Danny thought the revenuers in the song were actually after him. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t hold it a second longer.
At first the warmth was pleasing, the way sleep feels just before someone rouses you up for school, or when a window fan blows over your face and you can barely keep your eyes open. Only when you realize that whatever it is that’s causing you to be warm is also wet, do you begin to get suspicious.
We’d almost reached the part in the song where the bootlegger was “roarin’ out of Harlan” and “revvin’ up his mill” when I discovered I was sitting in a puddle for which existed only one possible explanation.
Arching half out of the seat, I saw my hand rise and slap Danny in one fluid motion. His face registered the shock instantly, surprising me. He was slower gargling up the single syllable that would call attention to us.
In the time it took for him to say it, I was able to unleash a flurry of blows atop his head. I could swear the spots I was pounding were hollow. He lifted his arms in defense, eyes blinking, lips bubbling with saliva that quickly gathered in little reservoirs at the corners of his mouth. From the back of the bus came the inevitable monkey chant.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Danny tried to cover up, but I would locate an opening and deliver a strategic thump, my teeth clinched in the fury that attends justifiable homicide. I would have killed him too if Old Miss Sweet’s rusty hand hadn’t clamped to my ear, giving it a vicious tug.
“So you want to fight?” she challenged. “I’ll give you a fight.”
She was clutching Danny’s hair like a clump of crabgrass. Finally she succeeded in separating us.
“My stars and garters! I can’t believe you’ve done this. And to think we have guests on the bus.”
She was referring to the parent chaperones, a hapless group of mothers who attended every field trip and knew only one recipe for brownies.
“You don’t understand,” I sputtered. “He wet on me.”
I’d be careful not to say pee. Saying pee could get you in serious trouble. It was one of the ironies of fourth grade that you could get in more trouble for saying pee than for actually peeing on somebody. I never quite figured that one out. I think it had something to do with the girls. Presumably they stopped knowing what pee meant and even stopped peeing by fourth grade. By junior high school they even stopped sweating. They perspired briskly.
Old Miss Sweet’s face softened, the prune lines around her mouth relaxing in an expression of mute hesitation. Her eyes were almost sympathetic. It was clear she didn’t know what to say. Forty-three years of teaching ten-year-olds came to her rescue. Faced with the prospect of admitting the truth, Old Miss Sweet opted for the sweetly idiotic.
“That’s no excuse for starting a fight,” she gently scolded.
I couldn’t have been more shocked than if she’d said Superman was a communist or Japan made fine and durable goods.
“Just let Danny Laemon pee on you and see how you like it!” I blurted.
Now I’d done it. I said pee. I really had. And there’d be hell to pay. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t visit the playground for the rest of the year. That’s what had happened to Ronnie Thatcher. We’d been asked to recite a poem and Ronnie had recited his, but not before explaining how it could be sung to the tune of “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean.” Ronnie’s version went like this:
My brother lies over the ocean.
My sister lies over the sea.
My father lies over my mother.
And that’s how they created me.
Miss Sweet had said “My stars and garters!” that time too. Then she’d sent Ronnie to the office with a recommendation for him to be paddled and kept after school and a note to be sent home to his grandmother who was his legal guardian. Now, I anticipated, all that would happen to me. I could see from the blood in Old Miss Sweet’s eyes there was no other possibility. Fortunately one of the mothers came to my aid.
“Here,” she offered. “This towel should help.”
Where she came up with a towel I couldn’t say. It was just mother magic, I suppose. Miss Sweet was obliged to thank her and stop thinking about how I’d wanted Danny to pee on Miss Sweet too.
“Maybe the boys can just sit on the towel,” the mother suggested.
I had no intention of sitting by Danny ever again. I hadn’t wanted to sit by him in the first place. Who did? I’d earlier plopped down farther in the back with some friends of mine, including Terry Crutcher. Terry was the coolest boy in the fourth grade, and we called him T. C. for Top Cat. It was Terry who’d introduced us to cigarettes, and we were looking forward to reaching the top of Lookout Mountain where a famous battle had taken place and where we would engage in some diversionary tactics of our own, escaping mothers and teachers while enjoying some smokes in the high dense weeds on the crest of the mountain. Later, under cover of camouflage, we’d even pee into the Tennessee River hundreds of feet below.
But Terry and my friends were splitting their sides now with laughter. A quick hot glance showed their smug little hands clapping, their faces crumbling at my discomfort. Only inches away, Danny Laemon was rocking back and forth in the seat, his plastic grin intact and victorious. My eyes narrowed in slits of the most intense hatred I’d ever felt for anybody.
Miss Sweet ordered us into the aisle. Already the seat of my pants had soaked up a considerable portion of the flow. Twisting my head over my shoulder, I stared at my backside. I might as well have sat in a puddle. Just behind me a little red-haired girl with a constellation of freckles turned to her seat mate and said, “Ooh! He’s got Danny Laemon’s pee all over him.”
So much for fourth grade girls being unfamiliar with the concept. Besides, as I pointed out, it wasn’t my fault I had to sit by Danny Laemon. At the last minute Old Miss Sweet had invoked seating by alphabetical order. Because my last name started with L too – the only thing Danny and I shared – I’d been forced to change seats. Now look what had happened.
As Old Miss Sweet and the helpful mother discreetly dried off the seat, I cut my eyes over at Danny whose tongue had slipped through his half-parted lips and was licking the tip of his nose. I mouthed a threat to him. “I’ll kill you,” I said, without saying it. It didn’t matter that my mother had told me to observe the golden rule when it came to Danny. In five minutes’ time I’d suffered indignities my mother wouldn’t be forced to endure in a lifetime. The towel disappeared into one of the ubiquitous bags mothers carried on such occasions.
“Now sit down and no more fighting,” ordered Miss Sweet.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
“No way!” I protested. “I’m not sitting by that – retard.”
My classmates jeered and tittered in approval.
“That’s enough!” roared Old Miss Sweet. “What would your mother say?”
I didn’t care. I honestly didn’t. In fact, I would derive delicious pleasure in showing my mother my soaked backside and especially in explaining how the golden rule didn’t apply to idiots like Danny Laemon. That’s because, unlike the rest of us, they didn’t understand rules at all.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m not sitting by him. I’ll sit in the floor first. I wanted to sit by my friends anyway.”
Miss Sweet had her back to the mothers, strategically poised so only I could hear what she was saying.
“You ought to be ashamed,” she whispered, rebuking me in tones I expected to hear only in Sunday school.
“Well, I’m not,” I answered defiantly. “I’m not one bit. I didn’t want to sit by him a little while ago, and I don’t want to sit by him now.”
Old Miss Sweet’s face settled into an ageless expression, one I had difficulty reading. Maybe she was reflecting on the futility of all her efforts to civilize generations of small savages. That was a problem teaching for years in the same community. You got to see the fruits of your labors first hand. Even my mother had been taught by Old Miss Sweet, though Miss Sweet was forever assuring me my mother had been a good girl, earning nothing but A’s, even in conduct. It was a legacy I could have lived without.
Miss Sweet wagged her head in disgust, turning in the aisle to face a portrait of surreal children’s faces, all twisted with pleasure at the opposition I was showing to Miss Sweet’s unreasonable adherence to the golden rule. No wonder she and my mother had gotten along so well.
“All right, then,” announced Miss Sweet. “Since Travis Love” – she’d said both my names – a sure sign of trouble – “doesn’t want to sit in his assigned seat, I’m going to ask for a volunteer. Who is willing to sit by Travis even though his trousers are soaked?”
It was a brilliant flanking maneuver. The results were predictable. Little girls pinched their noses while the boys hooted in mock aversion, one or two pretending to escape through the windows.
“Let me repeat myself,” said Miss Sweet. “Is there anyone who’ll volunteer to share a seat with Travis Love? Please raise your hand.”
Even the mothers betrayed me, covering their mouths and wiping away tell-tale signs of laughter before letting their hands drop back in their laps.
I thought about saying something they’d remember for years to come. But before I could, all their little jaws snapped open and began rattling with machine-gun laughter. That’s when I realized they weren’t laughing at me but at whatever was behind me. What was behind me was Danny Laemon tongue fished back in his mouth, arm lifted high over his head. He was volunteering to sit beside me.
“That’s very kind of you, Danny,” crooned Miss Sweet. “It’s not everybody who wants to sit by Travis now that his trousers are soaked.”
“Traitors,” I thought. “Traitors, everyone.”
There on the spot I made a mental photograph of where they were sitting. One day I’d work for the FBI and track them down one by one. They wouldn’t know why they were being arrested and tortured. It would be a surprise.
“You can choose to sit by Danny or by me,” Miss Sweet announced. “Which will it be?”
That was no choice. Didn’t she understand that? Either way, I got to sit by the source of my enduring misery.
“I’ll sit in the floor.”
“State law doesn’t permit that,” responded Miss Sweet. “Danny or me. That’s your choice.”
“Fine,” I snapped, throwing myself back onto the weather-resistant leather seat I’d earlier occupied.
“And keep your hands to yourself,” she ordered.
“As if I’d touch that – hawg.”
“Enough!” she snapped.
It wasn’t over. She could count on it. I’d get even if it took years. Danny Laemon and Miss Sweet would suffer unspeakable fates. But for now I just wanted to forget what had happened. I wanted everybody else to forget too. Soon we’d pass through the entrance to Point Park where doves rested on the arms of a stone sentry standing there. I was sure I was just as brave and stoical as he was – maybe more so. He’d only been shot at by Yankees – not peed on by Danny Laemon. Besides, I consoled myself, Terry and the guys would welcome me back to the fold once I produced the matches needed to fire up the Marlboros Terry managed to conceal on his person with the aplomb of a Houdini.
On arriving we spilled out of the bus, acting anything like the young ladies and gentlemen we’d been instructed to be. The plan was to move in orderly fashion from one monument to the next, reading dedications and historical information provided for “The Battle Above the Clouds.” Actually, it had been more of a skirmish but the local historical society had made it something more dramatic we could all be proud of as descendants of those snuff munching veterans of the Late Unpleasantness. As with the best laid battle strategies, the plan to keep our attention riveted on the historically significant quickly dissolved. Both Miss Sweet and the mothers retreated to some benches on the edge of the battlefield. Old Miss Sweet’s eyes were failing and the mothers would soon be preoccupied. Our fun could begin.
My friends were following Terry Crutcher in tandem down to the farthest edge of the park. We’d gotten separated due to the unfortunate seating arrangement I’d been forced to endure earlier. Now I was running across open field to catch up. They spotted me and were pointing. With only a hundred yards or so separating us, they responded as if to an alarm, their legs churning into a stampede that led them down a steep declivity and out of sight.
I slowed to a trot. Where were they going? Hadn’t they seen me? I owned the matches. Suddenly it hit me with the percussive force of a slap they might be avoiding me. No, I said reassuringly, they wouldn’t do that. We were buddies. I was even captain of our Gray-Y football team, the reason being I knew my left from my right on a consistent basis. Probably they’d just found a spot where the smoke couldn’t be detected. I ran to catch up.
Sensing something uncertain, even a little dangerous, the instant I reached the high weeds, I paused, sniffing the air cautiously like an animal. Without warning my friends leaped out of the foliage, bombarding me with persimmons. The assault was furious. Two splattered my shirt even before I could figure out what my so-called buddies were throwing.
“Heifers!” I shouted, not bothering with gender distinctions.
A second volley drove me back a yard or two in retreat. From the opposite direction, another of the small fruits connected, this one exploding on the bare flesh of my forearm. Pulpy amber juice dribbled down my elbow. I was caught in their crossfire. Several more persimmons whizzed by my head, barely missing. Despite my efforts to close ranks by huddling low to the ground, I was a conspicuous target. There was only one thing to do. Fight back.
Persimmons lay on the ground around me. They squished through my fingers as I scooped them up, firing back. It was like heaving the stringy innards of a pumpkin. Suddenly I knew how Lee and Longstreet had felt, or even Brackston Bragg, worse general in either army.
Vacillating between self-pity and rage, I spewed forth invective chosen to reinforce features of a lineage I was sure existed.
“Your mothers are collies. That’s why you’re all sons of bitches.”
At least I’d win the verbal volley. There was something in that.
A little Titan named David Lauer rose out of the weeds, empty-handed. His face wore a fractured grin.
“Why don’t you let Danny Laemon pee on you some more,” he suggested.
I clutched at dirt, kudzu, poison ivy, and persimmon guts – anything that would spread the arc of fallout needed to connect with my enemies.
“Oh, no!” shouted David Lauer in alarm. Others began clamoring too.
For a second or two I was confused. Even I knew I was impotent in my rage. Why were they running away from me? The answer was just behind me, mounting an assault with crab apples stuffed in the kangaroo pouch he’d made from his sweatshirt. It was Danny Laemon, charging from the rear, his attack fierce, spastic. The sight almost vanquished me. The last thing I needed was Danny fighting my battles for me. His nostrils flared. The omnipresent tongue found the tip of his nose in the very pose of determination. Danny would help me even if I didn’t want him to.
“Oh, Lord!” I said in a wild half-prayer.
But it was too late. Danny had come to my rescue, scattering my one-time friends in all directions. There was nothing for me to do but cuss him good and stalk off. His face blinked, stunned.
At lunch I found myself sitting alone on a fallen log. In the distance girls switched and shared the contents of sack lunches prepared by the uninspired mothers. Each of us had been forced to fork over twenty-five cents to cover the cost of one peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of potato chips (mostly air), and a Dixie cup of warm lemonade.
The boys sat backed against a giant white oak a hundred yards off, wolfing down lunch and snickering at what could only be the spectacle I offered. Old Miss Sweet was helping Danny Laemon with his lunch and drink, finding him a spot at a picnic table between two mothers. They were helping him unwrap his sandwich. The sight almost gagged me because I knew Danny was anything but helpless. He just put on a good act. That was all.
Maybe it was the glint of sunshine or the precise angle of reflection, but I suddenly noticed Danny’s shoes stuffed on his feet under the picnic table. They shone as never before for the simple reason he’d never worn them before. I knew, because my mother had bought them for him, swearing me to secrecy after Old Miss Sweet had telephoned, asking if my mother would contribute toward buying Danny a new pair of shoes. For whatever reason my mother had bought Danny’s footwear outright.
“But why?” I protested. “He’s got shoes.”
He had shoes all right, but the soles flapped when he walked and were worn so thin he could have stepped on a penny and felt Lincoln’s whiskers.
“Because no child should have to be without a decent pair of shoes,” my mother had said.
Maybe not. But Danny Laemon didn’t have to own a pair of shoes exactly like mine either. My mother had bought him a pair of Buster Brown penny loafers like mine!
The boys were forming a circle in the center of the battlefield, preparing for a game of tag. As I approached the backs of my classmates, I could hear Terry Crutcher declaring bases and asking who wanted to be it first.
“Let Danny be it,” I said from the back. “He’s got new shoes. They’ll help him run fast.”
Everyone glanced at Danny’s feet. If possible, his grin widened.
“Hey,” said David Lauer, noticing what I’d counted on him to notice. “Danny’s shoes are just like Travis’.”
“Not exactly,” I rushed to add. “mine have dimes. See.”
I pointed to the pair of Roosevelt dimes slotted in my loafers.
“Danny would have to have dimes in his shoes to be exactly like mine.”
I winked at those assembled.
“Hey, I’ve got two dimes Danny can have,” said Terry Crutcher, willing to enter my conspiracy.
“Then Danny, why don’t you sit here on the ground so we can put some dimes in your shoes,” I urged.
Danny obeyed at once, dropping to the ground and waiting for us to insert the precious coins in the slots of his loafers.
“You’ll need to stick your feet up,” I said.
The instant Danny lifted his feet, I snatched one loafer off his foot. Terry whisked off the other. We started playing keep away with Danny’s shoes.
“Go out for a pass!” I shouted to three of my teammates who zigzagged as I sailed Danny’s shoe over his charging head. He spun, heading in the direction of a loafer, his grin gone, a wild animal-eyed look of fear replacing it. There were just too many of us and he was confused about which shoe to chase. Soon he was panting and grunting after the only pair of new shoes he’d ever owned. Tears streamed down his face and he was licking the salt corners of his mouth with his infamous reptilian tongue.
Then something happened I’d never seen before. In the past Danny had always been a willing victim, ready to play along with our taunts and tortures of him. Now he paused in sock-footed stride, chest pounding visibly through his faded T-shirt, and gazed round at us as if seeing us all for the first time. The shock was too much for him. There was nothing left for him to do but let his chin drop to his chest and his eyes squeezed shut as a great strangling sob rose from his throat. He collapsed onto the ground.
Any other time I would have let loose with a victorious yip. But there was something different about this time, something that made my feet move by themselves toward a spot on the battlefield where Danny sat, hands covering his face, sobbing.
“Hey, Danny, we didn’t mean anything,” I lied. “Give him his shoes,” I ordered my two pass receivers.
I wanted to make it up to him. I wanted to say it was just a joke and he could even have the dimes if he wanted them. I would have said that too if Old Miss Sweet hadn’t yanked my collar hard enough to make my eyes bulge.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she screeched, whirling me around and clutching my arm with her bony fingers.
It took an instant for my mouth to start working but Old Miss Sweet never let me finish whatever feeble defense I tried to muster. One of the helpful mothers was helping Danny put his shoes back on. Until the loafers were safely back on his feet, the look of fear never left Danny’s face. Then his features relaxed, his eyes surrendering to an aura of serenity I’d never seen on his face. That’s when I knew that heaven was owning a pair of shoes that were yours and no one else’s.
However, my vision of Danny and the beatific didn’t last long. Old Miss Sweet had dragged me to a thick edge of the woods, backing me against a tree whose bark I couldn’t identify despite my proximity to it.
“What did you think you were doing?” she started.
I wanted to explain but her rage was overwhelming. She was just waiting to crucify whatever pipsqueak excuse I offered.
“Don’t you think I saw?” she demanded. “Don’t you think I have eyes?”
She’d caught me in the midst of so many contradictions, so many unidentifiable feelings, I couldn’t say a word. The only option I had was to stand there letting my eyes fill up with tears whose source I couldn’t identify but only despise.
“Don’t you think I have eyes too?” I finally blurted, recalling Danny and all I’d just witnessed back on the battlefield.
Old Miss Sweet’s hand released me at once. Her face searched me hard as I stood at attention before her, determined not to let my lip quiver in the wake of my eyes’ betrayal of me. Old Miss Sweet exhaled deeply. Then she lifted her hands to my shoulders.
“Travis, I know you’re a good boy and that deep down you’ve got a good heart.”
How did she know that? I didn’t know it myself. How could she?
“That’s why I’m going to tell you something no one else knows.”
Why would she tell me something no one else knew? Why would she do that?
“You see, Travis” – here Old Miss Sweet’s ordinarily cloudy eyes became pools of the deepest, most intense blue I’d ever seen – “Danny’s got problems no one knows about. His daddy left when he was little and his mama’s got a disease called cancer and can’t work right now. Do you know what cancer is, Travis?”
I shivered at the word. It was 1964. Everyone knew what cancer was.
“That’s why I called your mother, Travis. She’s the milk of kindness and I knew she would help.”
Old Miss Sweet smiled at something or someone beyond my remembrance. With a gesture of tenderness I would never have expected of her, Miss Sweet lifted her hand and brushed it against my cheek.
“You’ve got your mother’s eyes, you know,” she said.
I had to glance off. Otherwise my body would fail to listen to anything I told it to do. After a long spell of silence, I asked the question whose answer I had to know.
“Will Danny’s mother be all right?”
Miss Sweet shook her head, gazing off too, now.
“I don’t know, Travis. I honestly don’t.”
“What will happen to Danny then?” I queried, sensing I was invading territory whose mysteries might haunt me forever.
“He might have to go to an institution. I can’t say. But, Travis, Danny needs a friend. That’s why I arranged the seating on the bus the way I did. That’s why I seated him beside you. I honestly thought – think – you’re the best man for the job. Travis, I’m sorry Danny did what he did to you on the bus. I just didn’t know what else to do. Can you forgive me, Travis? Can you forgive Danny and be a friend to him?”
I knew even then Old Miss Sweet was giving me a second chance few people ever got. She was holding out a glimmer of hope for the kind of person I might become in several eons of consistent practice and habitual application of virtues I didn’t know yet. Still, it was a start, and I was grateful for the opportunity to do battle another day. Especially since this day was fading.
Back on the bus, there was only one seat left. I took it despite the snickering of Terry and my friends in the back. No longer would I be waylaid by a rear guard assault. I knew my duty now and would do it. Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed on sitting was the odor baked into Danny’s clothes. Then I remembered: It was the same odor baked into my own clothes. Danny was rocking gently back and forth. It was a motion calculated to drive me crazy. I reached for his arm and stopped him. With my free hand, I eased two dimes from my trousers’ pocket.
“Here. Put these in your shoes,” I said.
We rolled toward home, sun having set, darkness causing faces on the bus to grow more indistinct with each mile. Soon even voices began to quieten. Children dozed. So it was with Danny whose new shoes sported dimes like my own. Outside stars blinked and I could swear I heard the echo of my mother’s words reminding me that God loved idiots too.
It was a good thing. There were two of us on the bus that night – one sleeping, one wide awake. Only when Danny drooped over against me did I consider propping him up with a sharp elbow to the ribs. But what good would that do? And how much harm would it cause to let him lean on me for what was a short distance anyway? Those were the questions I continued to ponder until my eyes blinked with the heaviness of approaching sleep as unavoidably sweet as the sound of Danny breathing.
** Image Source: pixabay – provided to pixabay by Kenny