Bus Number Four
In August of 1965, my mother took me to the Baatan Memorial Elementary school in Port Clinton, Ohio. Mothers and their children marched into the gymnasium, and dutifully stood in a long, snaking registration line. When it was our turn, a middle-aged lady with stiff, Mamie Eisenhower bangs sat behind a folding table and studied an index card with my credentials. She squinted at my birthdate while I admired the gleaming wood floors and avoided the stare of a menacing, towheaded boy behind us. The administrator shook her head and declared, “She’ll still be four years old. Too young. Doesn’t make the cut-off date.”
My mother stiffened, her slim fingers digging into my shoulder. “You have to take her,” she said in quiet panic. “You have to.”
The administrator leaned forward and inspected me while I pretended to adjust a strap on my black Buster Browns. I could smell her talcum powder and Jean Naté. She raised her brows, excused herself, and walked over to a man dressed in a black suit and tie. They whispered and the woman glanced at us several times, concern lining her face. My mother let go of my shoulder and placed her hand on her heart, like she was saying the pledge of allegiance. I could hear her taking long, deep breaths. I stood, motionless, because I knew that made her feel better.
In the long run, I think the school officials decided leaving me at home with the hyperventilating woman was riskier than throwing me in with a bunch of five and six-year-olds. The administrator smoothed her lilac linen skirt with her hands, and returned to the table with an irritated expression. She took out a pen and silently signed the index card. She handed it to my mother and jerked her thumb in the direction of a sign that read “Vaccinations”.
A few weeks later, I woke up in my plaid jumper and white blouse with the Peter Pan collar. I was so excited about my new school clothes, I had insisted on sleeping in them. My mother warned me that everything would be wrinkled in the morning and she was right. I had to take everything off, and she ran a light iron over the cotton shirt while I ate breakfast. My father left for work as a Port Clinton News Herald journalist early, so I had the table to myself.
On the way out, I grabbed my Snoopy lunch pail and said good-bye to Swordfishy. Our rented Lake Erie home came with a huge blue swordfish mounted above the living room fireplace. Swordfishy was a silent observer of my hours watching Bewitched, dancing to A Taste of Honey, and dreaming I was the whipped cream dress lady on the Tijuana Brass album cover.
My mother and I walked to the highway and my hair blew around my face as the cars blew past. The northeastern Ohio humidity grabbed a few strands and pasted them to my moist cheeks. A few other parents from the neighborhood showed up and greeted us, waiting with their children on the side of the road. My mother looked around, anxiety in her large green eyes. She produced a rolled piece of white paper from her purse and proceeded to attach it to my new jumper with a straight pin. The paper had a huge #4 scrawled on it with black magic marker.
“This is the number of your bus. Bus number four. Make sure you get on the right one,” my mother said firmly and walked away, smoothing her dark, Jackie O bouffant hairdo. She was off to disappear into what mothers with problems disappeared into all day. The other parents stood in silence while I watched her slim, retreating figure. The bus pulled up. It looked like a huge yellow monster, the hinged door yawning open to swallow me in one screeching move. One of the fathers helped me up the steps, cupping my armpits and swinging me upwards until my feet hit the black rubber flooring. The bus driver was an impatient middle aged woman with dyed red hair. Her facial features seemed furiously disjointed. My head bowed, I ran down the aisle, and followed the shoes until there were no shoes, finally slipping into a green vinyl seat.
One of the other neighborhood mothers, Mrs. Mercurio, picked me up from the school bus. She was a harried Italian Catholic and had a gaggle of kids. I strolled along with all six of them, enjoying their near-wildness, until they left me at the walkway leading to my house. The front door was unlocked and I went inside to say hello to Swordfishy and my mother.
The living room was dim and Swordfishy stared at me with his big black eye. The house was silent. I wanted a snack, but the kitchen was also dark and empty. I left my lunch pail on the counter and went from room to room. I finally saw the door to the master bathroom was ajar. I tentatively pushed the door open and found my mother, freshly showered, in a pink terry cloth robe. She was sitting at her gleaming white vanity table, organizing makeup in little flower-print cosmetic bags. Without looking up, she asked me what I had learned my first day of kindergarten. I closed the toilet lid and climbed on top, standing so I could reach the steam-covered bathroom mirror. I wrote FUK on the slippery surface with my index finger.
“Is that what you learned in kindergarten?” my mother asked, incredulous.
“No,” I said, sitting back down on the toilet lid. “I learned that on the way home. On the number four bus.”
“Honey,” she said, shaking her head disapprovingly. She got up and wiped the writing off the mirror with her palm. “If you’re going to go to school, you should learn how to spell.” And with her finger she wrote FUCK, further down on the mirror where the steam remained.
Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady and a writer living in Los Angeles. Currently, her husband is on the pandemic front lines and her son is in quarantine.
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