Twice daily, I lumbered down the dusty dirt roads of small-town Arkansas on school bus number eight. Once in the morning, when the bus driver occupied his passengers with top-40 radio fare like Tina Turner, Madonna, and Foreigner. Once in the afternoon, when he begged us (for the love of all that was holy) to sit down and shut our yap-traps.
It was a nightmare for me, really. Shy and naive, I sat in the middle of the bus, always by the window, always pressing into the glass in the hopes of disappearing. The older kids sat in the back and raucously sang "Like a Virgin" (which I supposed to be about a dove-like bird), tried on their new favorite cuss words, or attempted to introduce helpless elementary children to magazine photographs snaked from under their daddies' beds. Looking back it's funny; in those days, I thought high-schoolers were so "adult." They terrified me.
There was one girl who was different. She was trying on woman, practicing to be a lady. A senior, she usually assumed her position near the back of the bus among the porn hounds and paper-wad tossers. Tallish, at least when compared to my eight year-old frame, she was tan-skinned and emerald-eyed. She was slender but womanly, and had soft, kind features. She was my line of demarcation, the first woman I ever reckoned as flutter-inducingly beautiful.
Some mornings, when her usual space in the back was taken, she'd ask whether I'd share my bench seat. I was an obliging kid, so I'd press further into the glass and make room for her while my skin tingled at the thought of our shoulders brushing should we come upon a particular rough patch of dirt-road or a particularly deep pothole. On some afternoons she'd sit with me too, and sometimes she'd coax me into a bit small talk about arithmetic, or my reading level, or my favorite Saturday morning cartoon. Over time, this happened more frequently, and I eventually reckoned her my grown-up friend.
Her bus stop was before mine, and she'd exit at an old clapboard shack with rusty cars and hogs in the front yard. Sometimes, her mama was hanging clothes on the line that stretched from two rusty poles, and the girl would run headlong into a big, country hug. I suppose I knew she was poor, but at eight, the thought never crossed my mind. Anyway, there are some things money can't buy, and I suppose she had all of those things.
Some time before summer break, though, it came about that the old hounds in the back of the bus took to lowering their windows and calling her "trash," or "red-neck." As the days moved on, they began cat-calling her, or cussing her, or yelling remarks otherwise not fit for publication. She endured these remarks for the last two weeks of her high school career, and never seemed to be bothered or concerned with them. But she was my friend, and I knew the comments hurt.
To this day, I've never quite grasped why the boys derided such a kind and beautiful girl. I was too young then to really stick up for her, so instead my hatred for them calcified quietly. And their offenses remain with me, still.
There are petty boys of all ages who live by crude instinct, who are bent on the theft or destruction of simple beauty. But some beauty goes on forever, remains unstained by the memories of more hopeful men. At least, I hope.
*Photograph by J Jackson Photography, via Creative Commons.