Mr. Johnny tightened the wrist strap of his worn, brown leather driving gloves. He’d been driving a school bus in a Maryland suburb for five years, a nostalgic yellow 35-footer with slippery soot-gray vinyl seats and a wicked set of shocks that tossed the kids like popping corn down the ruts of 3rd Avenue. He appreciated the bus’ importance on the road. When he stopped along his route, he triggered flashing yellow lights and extended the miniature stop sign. It was state law to stop when a school bus stopped. He’d peek in the rearview mirror at the line of frustrated cars commanded to wait. He shrugged at the ones caught behind him on his route, inching down neighborhood streets.
His route began early and now at 6:45 a.m., he tapped his fingers on the black steering wheel, careful of the bus’ six big wheels to avoid splashing the kids waiting at the stop. School was almost canceled when snow was forecast the night before. The kids’ sour faces made him chuckle as they clomped with heavy boots up the steps.
Kids here are too soft, he thought. An inch of snow in Chicago was normal for May. He once drove the Chicago-St. Louis Greyhound route. That bus was a machine of grace and comfort. Shame when it went from two runs a day to one, making him redundant. Still, he knew these suburban roads were slick and not all drivers had his experience.
“Hey, Charles, turn that frown upside down,” he said as the boy headed for an open seat.
Charlie shook his head. “I expected a snow day.”
“Morning Mr. Johnny,” Beth, a talkative second grader said. “You don’t have any fingers on your gloves. Are you cold?”
Mr. Johnny played an imaginary piano scale in the air. “Nope, these keep my fingers warm and have a good grip. Perfect for a snowy day.”
The sixth grade twins, Kylie and Rylie, stood on the sidewalk beside the bus steps, their fluorescent orange “Safety Patrol” sashes stretched across their puffy coats. Rylie was the bossy one, fussing at the little ones to pick up their dropped mittens and lunch boxes.
“Thank you ladies,” he said as they climbed the stairs. They politely removed their backpacks and took their seats, one behind him with the younger kids, the other in the back with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.
“Everyone get your feet out of my row now, and put away those crayons and pencils. Don’t want any projectiles,” he said.
As the bus headed toward 3rd Avenue and their school, the kids began their cheer.
“Bump it, bump it, bump it!”
A muffler-rattling pothole lay waiting like a trap. Mr. Johnny honked the horn, took the corner down Belleview over the pothole lifting the lightweight children an inch off the seats. The kids squealed, their voices animated.
As Mr. Johnny eased the bus to a stop in front of the school, the laughing kids shuffled with their boots and backpacks, jostling for space in the narrow aisle.
“Mr. Johnny,” Charlie said, “D’you think it’ll snow tonight? I have a history project due tomorrow.”
“I haven’t heard about snow, but it’s cold enough. Maybe plan to finish that project just to be safe.”
With the sound of the first morning attendance bell, Mr. Johnny parked the empty bus on the far side of the drop-off lot and smiled at the late stranglers rushing out of the cold into the school. He sat and waited for the morning traffic to end.
At 8:45, Ms. Fran the crossing guard banged on his door, he opened the accordion and she climbed inside, her orange reflective jacket flapping in the sleety wind.
“I’m heading to the depot. Are you still racing?”
The transportation depot also served as a bus driver training facility. Drivers practiced wide turns, parking, and three-point turns in a one-mile loop with simulated stops. Between morning and afternoon routes, it became a clandestine drag race track as cheese wagon drivers filled their empty hours for a little sport.
“I’ve been training for six weeks. The course is in my muscle memory.”
“What about the snow?”
Mr. Johnny laughed. “It’s an advantage. You coming to watch?”
“I’ve twenty bucks on you.” She blew him a kiss and climbed down the stairs.
Mr. Johnny drove to the depot,a government-services industrial lot shared with county trash, fire and rescue vehicles. He scanned the thirty identical yellow school buses parked in long, angular spots. The three at the top hemmed the racecourse, but they also concealed the track from the main road. Unless someone drove to the depot, no one would see the race.
Tire treads embedded in the slushy snow criss-crossed through the parking lot. He checked his watch, cracked his knuckles, and pulled behind the air filling station stop line and waited.
Today, he was racing Mr. Bruno, a high school route driver with bowling ball-sized biceps and a crooked smile that he accessorized with a toothpick. He boasted about earning his CDL when he turned seventeen and made his name on long-haul beer runs for Budweiser. Mr. Johnny hated his smug stories. Anyone could pound a few energy shots and zombie-drive across the country. Driving with the lives of passengers is what separated the braggarts from the masters. Mr. Johnny had won five of his last six races, only losing last month to Ms. Janice. She was a former mail truck driver, the big corporate trucks, and had mad skills the likes of which he had never seen.
Mr. Bruno pulled beside Mr. Johnny, opened the accordion door and flicked his chewed toothpick at him. Were bossy Rylie here, she’d write him up for littering.
The door closed and Bruno flipped his wiper blades. The whack, whack, whack signaled he was ready.
Mr. Johnny clenched his fists, suppressing his urge for some vehicular sign language. He smashed his fist on the horn, the staccato pop his reply. From around the corner, the short special needs bus pulled ahead and parked. Ms. Eunice put on her flashing lights and extended her stop sign. Eunice would give three beeps from her horn, retract the sign, and they would race.
Beep, the engines revved. Beep, Mr. Johnny tightened his gloved grip on the wheel. Beep, twelve tires spun in a slow flurry of slurry, the finest in yellow educational transportation. And they were off. Mr. Bruno took the lead on the first turn, the slush causing his wheels to spin, but he recovered before he fishtailed. Mr. Johnny’s tank was almost empty, providing him a weight advantage, and he had been working with the facility’s mechanic on optimum tire pressure. Then there was the snow. Temperatures on the black asphalt were cold. Icy patches glinted in the sun. Mr. Johnny pushed the accelerator and the bus heaved ahead. At the .5 mile marker, he leaned into the corner, two wheels leaving the ground, the finish line in sight.
Mr. Bruno’s front tire clipped the back of Mr. Johnny’s back tire, the vibration of rubber on rubber shook open the bus’ side emergency exit window. Mr. Johnny gripped the wheel, his forearms straining with fatigue to tame the 15,000 lb. yellow behemoth.
“C’mon girl, a little more power.”
He exhaled, leaned into the steering wheel and the accelerator to control the skid.
In his huge side mirror, he saw Mr. Bruno’s bus tripping over a concrete parking curb. The yellow behemoth landed with a crash on its side, sliding in slow motion into the row of the thirty diagonally parked buses. A domino of disaster.
Mr. Johnny skidded to a stop and ran, along with the spectators, to rescue Mr. Bruno. This was the difference between hauling beer and handing people. You had to respect your cargo and your limits.
That night, a school system announcement pinged across the community’s phones.
“Icy conditions at the bus depot parking lot caused a driving hazard. Multiple buses damaged. Driver escaped unharmed. School canceled tomorrow.”
Sharon J. Wishnow is a writer from Northern Virginia. She is excited to publish this latest piece in The Museum of Americana. She is a board member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and represented by Ann Leslie at Dystel, Goderich, and Bourette. Connect online at www.sharonwishnow.com and Twitter @sjwishnow