Cut! Cut! There it is! But the bounce pass is late, and what was to be a layup is headed the other direction. Goddammit, would it kill—Corner! Carly! Corner! With no crowd everything is audible, and you learn how much shouting the game requires, the constant impatient communication of two five-girl units, the shouting that she’s yelling over, the roaring industrial ventilation of fans above the empty bleachers, the punctuated squeak of rubber on hardwood, the hollow clopping rhythm of the slow dribble that ends as Carly finds Hannah in the corner, finally, and the steel-reverb clunk of Hannah, now with Madison’s hand in her face, missing the shot, the grunt of an offensive rebound, Brittany boxing out like welcoming a foreign dignitary to the basket, nothing literally nothing is more aggravating than an offensive rebound, and she lets out an eighty-decibel spasm of not even profanity because profanity requires words, and amid the sounds of a near-empty gymnasium that for a lifetime the women these girls are becoming will hear when they close their eyes and think of high school basketball, Carly holds up two fingers and resets the offense.
Heather calls a stop. She strides onto the court, sideline shadow turned to hardwood reflection, and stands tall on the block-letter midcourt logo. The brick wall she faces is covered in white and green championship banners—track field tennis volleyball football basketball. These girls are the only team she’s got, and with the departure of 6’2” center Destiny Howe to the Maryland Lady Terrapins, the prospect of repeating as state champions is with each practice more outlandish. Streaming past her to the locker room in their fern-green jerseys, numbers stitched on in white, they offer smiles and high-fives, all except Madison. Does she divert herself, does she find an excuse? Does she run down the last free-rolling Spalding to place back with the others? Does she run ahead to the water fountain? Not Madison. Doing only the favor of being last, where her teammates might not notice, she comes right by, staring level like her coach does not exist, like she herself does not exist.
Hey Maddie, hell of a recovery on Hannah.
When the locker room door clicks shut and entombs behind it the enveloping cloud of laughing gossiping pubescent noise, Heather is left alone with the wall fans. She recovers that last basketball from its resting place in the corner by janitorial mop and bucket, and before placing it with the others she feels the dimples and her fingers find the grooves and she dribbles to the near-side charity stripe. Foul in the act, says the PA nineteen years ago—two shots. She dribbles once. Her right foot points to the nail at the center of the free throw line. Eyes on the front of the rim. Bend knees, rise, and release. Through the back of the net, never in doubt. There is no applause. She has shut it out in a triumph of concentration. Her teammates do not turn to her for low-fives. Occasion has surpassed tradition, the moment has overwhelmed habit. She recovers her own ball, breaking rhythm if not illusion. In one blowout road win her junior year, she took her final free throws with her back to the basket, one for two; unlike the cliché the boos did not rain down on her but instead bubbled up from below, noxious, a rumbling averse to disrespectful victory, stirred by an act of joy. She is back at the line. Eyes on the front of the rim. Bend knees, rise, and release. The ball kisses the rim, rolls generously—and off, no good. There will be no overtime. Which doesn’t matter, since in a state championship game that some Gen-X athletes and their parents may remember, the star senior made them both.
They fouled Heather! That was all her coach could say before overtime. The idiots. They fouled Heather. She went at the basket, and they fouled her.
Before the first player is out of the shower, the ball is on the rack and Heather is gone. The new gym is a freestanding structure of barn-like rafters, detached from the school itself, and the double doors open straight onto the long rows of Lot 3. Two hours after the final bell the Carolina sun hangs low and bright and angles off a smattering of cars, SUVs, a pickup truck. They shimmer in the late-afternoon light, front hoods lacquered in the sun, her Japanese compact a glinting oasis on the edge of vision. At times she thinks most of civilization is parking lots.
She feels that the diagonal spaces of Lot 3 are better suited to a shopping mall than a high school. At acute angles to these fresh lines, you can see the vestigial paint of the old perpendicular hashmarked rows, door to door, bumper to bumper. Pulling through was easier then. That might be the quintessentially American act: exalting in good luck and killing the engine already positioned to leave. Kids learn from watching, not only the strategies of life but the patterns—traffic flow, the 3:15 pickup line, the rhythms of access and egress. At her Corolla she opens the driver-side door by inserting her key, a gesture suddenly antiquated, confession of a teacher’s salary. The air in the car is stale and warm.
She drives. Up the road on the right, near the elementary school, is another parking lot, the black pitch unpainted. The school buses sit yellow and dormant, parked consecutively and curving gradually, reminding her of handwriting across an unruled page. Heather puts on her blinker and pulls in among the behemoths, most with engine compartments nosing out, front grilles, fenders, others flat-faced and huge-featured with double-tall windshields like touring buses, all these of various generations with fold-out red stop signs and silver screw plates that say Collins or Blue Bird or Thomas Built, wheel housings that arch, lift, cover, confine, built on chassis stripped or cowled, words Heather can pronounce but can’t define, echoing out of some background argot of trucks and machines, bodies of gargantuan metal on titanic vulcanized tires and groaning brakes, the combustion of diesel into grinding motion and the rolling forward of such weight and power—listen to one, watch it, as it climbs a suburban hill—a machine that carries, transports, and conveys instead of crushing, pulverizing, and killing.
Why does a five-ton school bus look so much like a ten-ton school bus? It’s the first five tons you notice. Do you ever Google school bus fatalities? Heather does. As with the royal carriages of previous centuries, your child, your pet, runs into the street at the wrong moment, and the state makes restitution out of a chart. When a school bus crushed the seventy-two-year-old pelvis of Eliza Hampton, thirty kids were aboard to witness it. Sovereign immunity attached, and damages to her family were capped at fifty thousand dollars. But when a school bus sent Leonard Lewis off his motorcycle and headfirst into a telephone pole, it had already dropped off the last kid: the family got seven million dollars. It seems parachronistic, somehow strange in the twenty-first century, to be negotiating the boundaries of sovereign responsibility. When a school bus goes wrong, the casket is closed. Side-to-side visibility is a challenge, backing up an act of faith. A New Jersey woman never thought to push the brake on her poodle’s retractable leash when the dog lunged toward the growling approach of the monster. Attending to the pulped roadkill that had until ten words ago been her friend and companion, she pepper-sprayed the driver when he came to help. The Times of Trenton, and by extension Heather in her time of blankness, relished these details. Look beneath routine, look beneath the mechanization, and confront the unthinkable. Pogo was murdered by a school bus.
Heather approaches a boarding door and sees herself comically large like funhouse mirrors. She works her fingers between the rubber seals. The door holds fast.
The next bus has a folding door, and when she pushes, it jackknifes open. Stepping onto a decommissioned bus teaches you about every bus you’ve boarded before: the driver waiting, the engine running, the steps humming beneath your feet. This bus is dumb, made all the more pathetic as a grown woman climbs aboard. She walks to the back, running her hands along the overhead bag racks. The bus she used to ride had metal bag rails just like these. She and the other sixth graders would hoist the first and second graders up two at a time and pay them in vending-machine Butterfingers and Reese’s to crawl the length of the bus: only on the highway, of course, when the driver needed to concentrate. The past is distant, pliable—anything coherent might be true.
Last fall, when the principal praised her for the team’s success, Heather told him: I just drive the bus. What a thing to say. A job that families are raised on, turned deprecation, self-effacement. As if no one looks down on high school teachers, on girls’ basketball coaches.
The currency of self-loathing is everything you’ve ever said.
Sitting on fake leather, Heather feels the emaciated mass-produced seat, the metal frame underneath it, the wispy gray clouds it’s stuffed with. No adult could survive this seat, could make this commute without knees locking, vertebrae fusing. This seat is a space of noisy disorderly climbing clinging childhood. This seat is where Heather will do it—seeping into the fake leather, sluicing down the hard plastic channels of the center aisle. Police tape on school buses. Grimacing detectives, shaking their heads. I’ve never seen one like it: there’s a eulogy. Twenty years on the force, and… Heather can see it, can ideate it, that’s what they call it, ideation. What Heather isn’t sure of is the meaning of the girl, the relationship between the girl and sawing yourself into pieces like a pulsing breathing sticky spongy wet pull-apart model in anatomy class, why the very thought of the girl sets her insides spinning, twisting, aching, falling. The thought is already the knife. The thought of the girl’s moody jet-black hair, the girl’s shaded eyes, the girl’s skin a pallid canvas awaiting the piercings and inkings of legal adulthood, out of character the girl’s plump pink lips, violating the look, pretty despite herself, her upper lip rounded like fairy tale hills. The lower at least is sulking, pouting, full of complaint. The girl’s feet, pigeon-toed ever so slightly as she sets for a jump shot. The bus is empty. The windows with the sliding locks are closed. The air is still. She can hear them saying to him, in a disused school bus hardly a minute from her school, and as he listens, he knows it’s his fault, and she can see the girl sitting on the bleachers in a group of friends, eyes shaded, reaction zero, but the girl knows it’s her fault too. Guilt runs like blood.
Shit. What day is it? She answers her ringing cell phone.
Yeah, I forgot, OK? Jesus. I’ll be right over. The Xbox? Sure. They can bring the Xbox.
She hates him for it, but the alternative is buying them a machine of her own. If she doesn’t yield to their addiction, the looks in their eyes when it is time to come over will be more than she can bear. A final intolerable capstone on the world’s renunciation. These two, her curly-haired nine and eleven-year-old carjackers, running backs, zombie hunters, mashing endlessly the opal buttons, these are the two who must never reject her. When the machine gets turned off each night, her younger son bounces with adrenaline as if he can’t conceive of anything more wondrous than what he has just witnessed. You know the worst part about GTA, Mom?
Presumably it’s not gunning down retirees to take a joy ride in the same Corolla his mother owns.
No, honey, what’s that?
You need a mod to drive the school buses and we can’t make it work! he yells with a smile, his tone and expression too excited, too happy, unmodulated by disappointment. Nine years into existence and seven years into language, his circuitry is simple, flooded by current positive or negative; he is only learning to shade one into another.
And you want school buses, she replies. They connect the game to your life?
We steal bus-buses, he says irrelevantly. We got the sawed-off. You hide it like you’re gonna pay, and BAM! He dances around, hands at mid-height, pulling the trigger on a shotgun only he can see. Recoil is minimal.
Hey dummy, says his older brother.
Oh wow, says his mother.
Daddy showed us how.
Of course he did. If only she’d had a tape recorder running: please state your name, your age, and who taught you to hijack city buses. But honestly she prefers the stalemate. She loves the little cunts, but she knows she’s too fucked up to have human lives in her constant keeping day and night. Not only the danger to them of a lost, forgetful mother who has times of blankness, not only the carelessness, the impulsiveness, the indiscretion, the negligence when what’s needed is watchfulness against all the world’s knives and ovens and windows and assorted creeps, but the danger to her as well: there would be no passing hours in an out-of-service school bus, there would be no bringing someone back to an empty home at four in the afternoon, hands on bodies, clutching, inseparable, and there would be that subterranean sensation of dirt walls closing in, the concave shape and shrinking space, the carbon-filled air, of responsibility, the sepulchral weight of obligation pressing down. Her shit-for-brains ex might have them watching R movies and hijacking buses, but at least he keeps them alive and delivers them to school on time.
Heather stands, steadying herself on the back of the next seat forward. She walks the center aisle in a daze, like a priest or shaman pulled from meditative rite, ordered by smoke alarm away from the hot stones and incense. Earth to Heather, as her father used to say, squawking like a walkie-talkie. The folding door is open. She holds the handrail and steps down.
There are now two cars parked among the buses: next to her gray Corolla, an aquamarine Mini Cooper. A woman in jeans and a dark sweater sits on the hood, which slopes downward beneath her. Heather heads for her own unlocked car.
I didn’t know anyone would be here, says the other woman.
Oh, says Heather.
You were on that bus? Can we go on the buses?
They’re out of service.
I know that, says the woman. I saw your car, but I figured whoever catches me here is also here. She laughs. They remind me of childhood.
Oh, says Heather.
Do they remind you of childhood?
I prefer not to think about my childhood, says Heather.
Have we met somewhere before? You aren’t a nurse, are you? At the Baptist hospital? My husband was sick. There were so many wonderful nurses.
I don’t think we have, says Heather. She lowers herself into the driver’s seat and reaches for the door.
Bye now, says the woman.
Heather drives slowly down the line of buses. Something about the woman bothers her. The false chirpiness—or is it real? That too would bother her. With one hand on the steering wheel, the other pinches her cellphone until it turns off. The little bastards don’t know the difference. They can play their games at dad’s house.
No one tells you the worst part, but Heather has figured it out: the worst part about the ex, the worst part about the girl, the worst part about the blankness, the worst part about the ideation: the worst part is how pedestrian it is. All this, and none of it notable. To be ordinary even in your problems.
Heather executes a tight U-turn. Again she passes the buses, and again they are inscrutable, betraying none of the horrors of organized education.
The woman is where she left her. Heather rolls down the window.
Do you want to go somewhere for a beer?
Not if you’re going to tell me about your childhood. The woman laughs, tilting her head to indicate the bus Heather came from. It’s not that I’m lonely.
Jesus, says Heather. Me either.
She glances at the bus, its folding door still open. Deep in twilight, it won’t be yellow much longer.
The woman slides off her engine hood. I’ll follow, she says.