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My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is obsessed with school buses. There’s a bus stop right on our corner that provides a full morning of excitement. More buses pass our house on their way to pick up “kids go big school.” We must cross paths with at least ten more on the way to daycare. Each time a bus passes out of view, my sweet baby demands, “More bus, Mama!” She thinks I control the world.

Of course, it’s developmentally appropriate for her to have this unshakable faith in me. I love her so much for her trust and optimism. But because I am so acutely aware that I do not control the world, it’s also occasionally painful.

My obsession with control started early. When I was five years old, my parents separated, and my mother and I moved away. I had been pretty happy in my small town Catholic school. I knew most of the kids before I started kindergarten, and my cousins were at the same school. My teacher was warm and friendly. My new school was a different story all together. I wasn’t used to city life where I didn’t already know everyone. It was mid-year, and all the kids had established friendships that didn’t include me. Then there was the teacher. Oh, the teacher.

I was familiar with nuns, but this one was different. Sr.Mary wore a down-to-the-floor black habit with the full head covering. Only her face showed. This type of habit was long out of fashion in the 1970’s, but she was a throw-back in more ways than one. I was scared to death of her. Her teaching style was far more authoritarian than I’d experienced previously, and I could tell that she really didn’t like me. When she broke the class into group activities, she’d take me and one other child aside.

I didn’t understand why we were singled out, but eventually it became clear, if not the reason, at least the purpose. At first, I was mere witness to the torture of my little companion. Sr. Mary had a full litany for poor Tasha. Her parents were divorced and, according to Sr. Mary, Tasha’s mother had abandoned the family. Somehow in this twisted old nun’s mind, Tasha’s parents’ divorce and the fact that they were African-American were irredeemable sins. The nun claimed all “negroes” go to hell when they die. The fact that Tasha wore braces on her “crippled” legs was punishment from god for both being African-American and having divorced parents. Tasha’s father was a member of the city’s professional football team. Each time he left town, which was a lot during football season, Sr. Mary would tell Tasha that her father wasn’t coming back just like her mother hadn’t. She was destined to become an orphan.

Eventually, Sr. Mary set upon me. She told me that, while I was at school, my mother and father would have a terrible fight, they would stab one another, and I would become an orphan. Just like with Tasha, this insane nun had figured out my greatest fears and then went about convincing me that they were a destiny over which I had absolutely no control.

Tasha and I never exchanged any words about our shared torture, just knowing glances when we were called aside. We shared a common shame. Each afternoon as the other children played with blocks or dolls while they waited for their parents to pick them up, Tasha and I sat paralyzed in fear, waiting to see if her father and my mother would arrive or if the day Sr. Mary predicted had finally come and we were orphans.

School became a nightmare. I had horrible dreams about blood, my parents’ death, being all alone, and Sr. Mary. Around the time that my parents decided to reconcile, my mother found out what the malevolent Sr. Mary had been doing and withdrew me from the school. But Sr. Mary had one last prediction. She said my parents wouldn’t stay together and that we would all go to hell. She was right about the first part.

I remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief to be away from that psychotic, but I also felt guilty for leaving Tasha. Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt. In some way, I also felt isolated to be separated from Tasha. After all, we were both on the same road to orphan-dom.

The next school year was first grade, a full day of school with bus transportation. Each morning’s goodbye with my parents at the bus stop was like then end of a World War II epic film. I just knew that this would be the last time that I would see them alive and that when the bus dropped me off in the afternoon, they would be dead in a giant pool of intermingling blood. I would be an orphan.  

Sr. Mary was gone, but my paralyzing fear was not. I symbolically transferred it from her to the school bus. After all, the bus and the school where it delivered me were the only two places I was ever apart from both of my parents. Since my child brain was convinced that I could somehow keep my parents from killing each other, the school bus was taking me away and thus creating the opportunity for Sr. Mary’s prediction to be realized.

I screamed and sobbed at the bus stop. The bus driver offered to let me sit right next to her. My mother bribed and threatened to get me on that damn bus. Didn’t she understand that I was trying to save her life?

One of Sr. Mary’s forewarnings came true. My parents’ reconciliation didn’t last, and they divorced when I was seven. My mother and I moved to a neighborhood where I walked to school, and my school bus phobia subsided. But my white-knuckle grip on everything else I could conceive of controlling did not. I became hyper-vigilant about my surroundings and pathologically organized with my toys and books. As an adolescent, I developed an eating disorder. 

Adulthood and therapy smoothed out a lot of those rough edges, and I evolved into a run-of-the-mill control freak. Through my twenties and most of my thirties, I went about doing quirky things like alphabetizing my spice rack. I found that my obsession with control and order was also a great asset. After all, that was the aspect of my personality that made me good at my job.

Then I got a rude awakening. Four years ago, while living in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina blew my fantasy of control out of the water. Puns intended. I had moments of panic and despair and railed in anger at god. It was hard, but eventually I rallied on, feeling a bit free to relinquish my compulsion for control.

Parenthood mellowed me more. When waiting to adopt a child from Africa, you either go with the flow or go crazy. And parenting an infant who has been orphaned requires the patience and flexibility of the Buddha. I was feeling the groove, that is until the recent “economic downturn.”

It’s difficult to be a single parent and self-employed while facing economic uncertainty. I think I’m doing a good job of keeping my priorities straight and my fears at bay, but I have my moments. There aren’t a whole lot of nuns in full regalia roaming the streets, so my old symbol of panic—the school bus—sometimes flips the switch. You know, the bus I’m supposed to welcome. The one I’m supposed to materialize.

I didn’t realize that my daughter can see my face in the rearview mirror from her car seat behind me, but she can. One morning, as a bus turned a corner and rambled up a hill, she said, “More bus, Mama!” I gave my usual reply of, “Let’s look for more.” A moment later, she spied one and exclaimed, “Look, Mama, bus!” Then she sweetly added, “No more sad Mama.” 

And so it goes. It took me a while to see how the past connects to my present and how an everyday experience can have a hidden meaning waiting to be confronted. I am raising the child Sr. Mary predicted Tasha would become. My daughter relishes the sight of the very symbol of my worst childhood fear. Each day, I have the choice to fall back into old patterns of panic and control or release and relish my child’s bright-eyed enthusiasm. 

Let’s look for more!

You must always consider the following—

Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

It’s your duty, friends and brethren, to contort even the measliest of facts. Don’t tell the truth—conceal it. But, absolutely, amp it up if you can. And for crissakes make us laugh or make us cry. That’s not asking too much.

I figured I’d give it a whack. I took to it seriously. Too seriously? Perhaps. But history is serious business. And when I look at the photograph my heart flutters. It is, hands down, my favorite photograph ever. It’s also a somewhat uninteresting photo. Just two boys standing in a front yard in 1985. Arriving at this conclusion, my heart settles into a deep state of languor. Galaxies of dust awakened from adulthood inertia swirl about looking to settle again.

The photograph arouses memories: watching Telemundo and chomping on warm tortillas…Mr. Lechner’s stinky pigeon coop…the burned-out shack filled with saucy Polaroids and unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards…games of Butts-Up against the church wall…Atari at the alcoholic’s house…the phantom Klansman that stood before my bed every night for weeks, robbing me of sleep…the failed repossession of my General Lee Big Wheel from the Mexicans on Helgessen Street that ended violently.

All of these memories are barely stories, hardly tellable. They’re sentimental soundbites, if anything.

Backstory can be interesting: I spent my youngest years in a small two-bedroom house in an unincorporated neighborhood on the outskirts of Palatine, a suburb nested on the northwestern edge of Chicagoland. Our house stood amongst homes of varying design and color, of all shapes and sizes, and no two alike; individuality by design was paramount in this neighborhood.

No two families were exactly alike, either. I can recall truckers and stock brokers, illegal immigrants and Vietnam vets, all living on the same stretch of asphalt.

My neighborhood sat kiddie-corner to a sprawling forest preserve. Forest preserves are the only access most suburbans have to wilderness. But, by and large, most stick to the bike trails that encircle the preserve, well-distanced from the sticks, casting the woodland an ambient backdrop.

But I grew up on Woodland Road, and Woodland Road was in the sticks. It did not suggest any of the tidy vinyl-streaked uniformity that one expects of a suburb proper.

This photograph was taken by my mother. It shows me and my childhood best friend caught doing whatever boys did in 1985. We’re both blond, ruddy-faced, and grubby, distinguishable only by height (I’m the shorter one). That kid and I did everything together. Where I ended and he began was simply a matter of physics.

We’re standing beside an odd V-shaped tree, a sort of Siamese pine. The lawn is plush and overrun, in desperate need of mowing. But no one nagged you about it. The driveway running alongside us looks like an accident, spilled gravel, and there’s construction debris piled up at the foot of it. Behind my best friend and me looms a towering wall of leafy green. This looks nothing like suburbia. This looks like Louisiana.

Of course, now everything’s changed. That great wood land across from my first house has since been leveled and supplanted with a bunch of ugly vinyl castles. Last I visited, baby trees had been planted on the front yards of these new homes, ensuring a partially shady future for what was once my unincorporated Eden. Even my house had been leveled.

The first story I ever knew:

I was riding the bus home from school one day. The bus turned onto Woodland Road and lumbered past my house, as usual. As the bus passed my house, heading toward my bus stop, the back end took a hop, propelling every kid into midair. We’d run over something. One of the sixth graders sitting in the back seat, nearest the emergency exit, pressed his sweaty finger to the window and called my name. Everyone looked out the back window and let out a collective gasp.

Patsy. My puppy. She was dead.

She lay in the road curled in a ball. It looked like she was asleep on the warm asphalt.

And that bitch of a bus driver had done it.

We had just gotten Patsy. The bus driver pulled up to the intersection of Helgessen Street and Woodland Road and let me off. I didn’t drop my bag and run screaming like kids do on TV. I didn’t abandon my backpack and sprint up to Patsy and drop to my knees, tiny fists clenched, and scream, “Why, God, why!” Instead, I ambled down Woodland Road toward my house, humiliated. Patsy wasn’t dying. She was dead.

The sun burned high and hard. My mother placed Patsy in a cardboard box and weaved the flaps shut and set the box beside our driveway.

It was a long afternoon. Neighborhood kids came by, one by one, ordered by parents to express condolences—but really to see a dead dog. I undid the flaps and opened the box and showed them Patsy, balled up tight, her eyes clamped shut, white teeth locked in one final gnarl, flies banking in on her. Early bird gets the worm.

Then we lamented. My neighborhood comrades told me they couldn’t believe what the bus driver did to Patsy. We turned our bus driver into a wicked succubus. Medusa. The Wicked Witch of the Northwest ‘Burbs.

I played the good guy for a while.

The Tragic Tale of Patsy Versus the School Bus. My first story. My only complete memory of Woodland Road.

If I wasn’t on that school bus there would be no story.

And the photograph, that’s life before story. An artifact of innocence, a snapshot of two dumb little kids getting dirty, exploring the woods, at war. Woodland Road is and never will be a street of dreams. It’s just a strip of asphalt that’s still there, even though my house, my friend, those woods, and my dog are not.

Childhood is but a dream.

I got onto the hood of our car and stared up at the milky stars. Eric’s yellow school bus was parked right behind us. Desert shrubs looked eerie in the moonlight. Olaf grabbed a blanket and walked off into the desert while I found myself dreaming about the past and the walking stick in the trunk and the mysterious man we had stumbled upon in the middle of the Ohio woods many days before.

Then I listened for snakes. I remembered what my parents had told me about the time they broke down in their old Volkswagen Beetle in the desert in the 1960s. My mother saw dozens of rattlesnakes when she took my sister for a pee by some shrubs. The way I remember my pop telling the story, there were snakes in the road, snakes winding past shrubs, snakes tangled, slithering, everywhere. It was like one of those classic old desert-set 1950s horror movies.

That story had given me an irrational fear of the desert. I figured the snakes would come and get me even if I were locked in a car. Now I lay back on the warm hood, smiling nervously, because I knew I couldn’t do what Olaf was doing. He wasn’t afraid. He’d come from Norway on an adventure to drive his son, Eric, from South Dakota to Arizona in a big yellow school bus. Eric was an air ambulance pilot. He flew medicine onto Indian reservations.

It had been a long trip across some of America: the green Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois; and into the South—Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas; and then into the Southwest—New Mexico and Arizona. We were dirty and alive. I looked forward to Eric’s shower. We had slept in the car for seven days now, save the one night in Eric’s bus. And we had grown oddly used to it. We had become ragged Americans, odd travelers staring into the burnt open face of our land. It was still a sonnenreise. I thought, in zigzag fashion, about the things we had seen and about all the places full of bushy trees and green grass and tall red brick buildings, and the many cluttered downtowns. How the St. Louis Arch had seemed stuck to the earth like a giant magnet near the Mississippi River’s edge. I thought about Jordan running up to the steely arch, hugging it and wanting to take the elevator to the top; and about wandering along the Missouri streets and staring at a decrepit fountain spewing blue-dyed water; about driving our dirty car through Indianapolis, where we had felt small and our car had looked tiny against the monstrous skyscrapers, the churches and malls; and then tearing through the countrysides and Oklahoma—passing countless cicada-filled trees, buzzing in the darkness. How our headlights had failed at a gas station and three UPS workers fumbled with wires under the hood before finding the right ones to twist together. And then on to Oklahoma City and thinking about all the people madly connected to the bombing; and then back to Missouri and the bathroom off the freeway with a sign inside reading “No Niggers Allowed” in handwriting that matched a sign by the front counter where a quiet white man stood and took our money; and near Amarillo where we spent the night parked at a motel and my girlfriend and I did it because we felt lonely and tired and had nothing else to do while Jordan slept; and in Texas where we ate at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, mountains of pancakes with syrup, and stared out the windows into the green countryside, rain clouds rumbling; and in New Mexico and all that happened in Santa Rosa: the Blue Hole oasis, Olaf cooking hot dogs at Park Lake, our car dying as the rain fell against the scorched earth.

Back in the desert, I was shaken awake. Eric’s face hung above mine looking bluer than ever. It’s the starlight, I thought. His normally strong face looked frail in the faint glow and his eyes were cold like two black holes in the heavens. I got up. Already Eric had moved away and disappeared into his bus. And Olaf, back from the desert and amazingly alive, was waiting for me to rejoin the caravan.

I climbed into the car, where my girlfriend lay, asleep. I started the motor, and it shook her awake. “You okay?” she asked, her voice cracking. I said yes and pulled out to follow the demon red lights of the bus.

After a while, the fatigue set in and the white lines blurred together and didn’t seem so broken, but were instead almost snake-like, as if an albino serpent had uncoiled itself across the vast desert expanse. Its head was just around the next turn. Then those Ohio woods again rushed back into my mind. I saw myself with Jordan and my girlfriend as we went searching for Buttermilk Falls. I saw us rounding a corner and finding the man there. He was leaning on a log, carving a head into a staff. He looked like a killer, the way he sat there silently with his knife. He handed over the carved stick and mumbled a few words. Jordan held onto it like a shaman child. His face was filled with what appeared to be instant wisdom.


(Jordan Belardes at left holds the old man walking stick. Circa 1996)

Back in the desert again. Five in the morning. The road. The lines. The mountains just outside of Flagstaff. Huge green meadows, some rung with high wooden fences. Pine trees and valley peaks rising on either side, cradling our entry.

Eric was at the wheel of the bus, exhausted. He swerved out onto the shoulder as the first dim haze of day broke along the horizon. Dirt flew up in a cloud as he wheeled back onto the highway and nearly sideswiped a pick-up truck in passing. I felt lucky to be behind him. I hit the brakes and flashed my lights, hoping Eric would see me. Finally, after many minutes of tired swerving, he managed to steady himself, bringing the bus back between the broken serpent lines and finding an equilibrium.

“Oh good,” my girlfriend said, “he’s awake now.”

As awake as the sun that was lifting its head above the bright Arizona morning.