Tuesday, October 14, 2008

From the Heartland: Life Lessons from a Small Town Mayor.....

The Old Woman's Tale
by Spooner Jenkins

I decided to take the opportunity of the few days off made necessary by the need to clear the Mayor's office of badger carcasses to do some hard thinking about the current state of affairs. This country is a mess. Just yesterday Agnes and I sat on the front porch for our lunch. It was 55 degrees here in Belvidere, 2006 Top American City and home to 98 of the nicest folk in all of Southern Nebraska, as we watched some local kids rolling doobies and discussed global warming. Now I typically don't approve of drug use because it doesn't support the American farmer but they said they grew it themselves. It sure was cool out. Chilly even. Take that NASA and The Weather Channel!

These days kids don't have any purpose. Not in Belvidere though. There's nothing like the fear of being torn to ribbons by a roving band of mutant opposable thumbed turkeys to set a boy straight. Other than widespread indoctrination against people different from them perhaps. But then again that also just boils down to fear. Fear is good. Fear is the chum that provides sustenance for our insatiable desire to control our environment, whether it is what people should be allowed to believe, or not to believe; what we do behind closed doors, and who we do it with; or who is allowed to reap the bountiful harvest that democracy and George W. Bush have provided us.

We ended our evening talk, and finished up our roast beef and spiced rum turnips. I took one long pause to take the beauty of this fair city in. There were no homicidal turkeys or irregular sheep in sight, and the incessant din of the last of the Autumn weevils as they devoured the few remaining shreds of plant life was a cacophony of delight. A small latino boy ate ice cream next to a rusty old jungle gym, and an old man licked mustard from the corner of his mouth before heading back towards the bus station located just down the street from our house.

There is just one bus that services the town of Belvidere and it's never late. Some of the folks around town say it is haunted but rarely do they agree on just who or what the ghostly spectre is that walks up and down the path between the seats, always stopping at the thick white line placed just prior to the driver's seat. I've always had a thing for ghost stories and I suddenly decided that it was time to see for myself if this one was true.

The bus pulled up at a quarter past one and unloaded a motley assortment of passengers. A thin boy of about 7 or 8 jumped off the bus from the top step, biting his lower lip as he landed. He screamed in a mix of suprise and pain. I couldn't help but laugh at him and I immediately felt ashamed for doing so. A woman older than me by many years, maybe in her 90's, was helped off by two young men in baseball uniforms. One had a limp and a streak of blood trailing down his pants which originated at a large tear in the fabric just above his right knee.

"Did you at least win the game son?", I asked.

"What game?", the boy muttered as he ran off, the elderly woman now safely sitting on a nearby bench.

A few more folks, one of which was obviously drunk, exited the bus and headed their own seperate ways. Perhaps to their home or a local pub. I can't say for sure. Finally a beautiful young woman in a Dairy Queen uniform stepped down onto the curb from the lower step. I thought of Agnes immediately. Not because Agnes was a very a beautiful woman mind you, or young, but because the eyes were the same and the fact that Agnes had always dreamed of opening a Dairy Queen. A young man, equally attractive but missing an ear, ran up as if to embrace her. She pushed his arms down and looked nervously around. I couldn't make out the exact words as they walked towards Grimp's Hotel, but I know the look of an angry woman when I see one.

As the crowd dispersed I noticed the old woman again, still sitting quietly on her bench. After placing the remains of my lunch in a large metal bin I joined her.

"How's turnips?", I asked. "How's Turnips" being a common greeting in Southern Nebraska. Historians and etymologists have argued over the origin of the phrase with estimates ranging from the early 18th century to June of 2007.

"Turnips up, turnips down.", she replied as is the custom.

"More up than down I hope.", I said with a hearty laugh. She smiled, taking out a cigarette from her plain brown leather purse.

"Oh I don't smoke 'em so put your eyes back in your head holes!", the woman spat before placing a single unfiltered Pall Mall in her mouth. She began to chew vigorously.

"So what do you know about that bus? She really haunted?" I inquired.

"Yes. That bus is haunted. I'll tell you about it if you got the time. You got the time young fella?"

I nodded my consent.

"Cigarette young man?", the old woman asked through her tobacco spittle moistened lips.

The thought of making a meal out of her offering of a bent Pall Mall made my stomach turn but I was intrigued at her offer to relate the tale of the town's haunted mass transit vehicle and I didn't want to offend her simple country sensibilities. I fought back a vigorous gag as I placed the cigarette in my mouth and began to chew. My entire body recoiled from the experience and I gave in to the overwhelming urge to vomit.

"Don't worry, happens to everyone their first time son. It'll pass.", she explained as she placed a wrinkled and swollen jointed hand on my shoulder.

"Why.....would you.......do......that!", I exclaimed, each burst of speech quickly interrupted by waves of nausea and belly cramps.

"Why does the snake shed its skin? Why do bees make honey? Why do my canned beats grow fur if I let 'em set too long with the top off the jar?", she cackled, revealing her one shiny brown tooth.

She must have noticed the shift of my gaze from the ground to her isolated incisor because her smile widened with pride as she exclaimed, "That's my eatin tooth!" I couldn't help but chuckle at her lust for the experiences life provides. I wondered if I would find such joy in the years to come. My newfound vigor began to subside as I pondered my old age.

I believe that she sensed the drop in my spirits. Perhaps to cheer me up she began to spin the tale of Fairbury's haunted bus. Time stopped for us as she told her story, breaking every once in a while to place a fresh Pall Mall into her mouth. Once she paused for several seconds, seeming not to breath. I thought that perhaps this was in order so that she might remember her place in the telling but I worried that she might have died. She smiled and reassured me that she had only needed a moment to let some demons out the back door.

The old woman was 11 when the Fairbury bus first began to make its run in 1927. It was much shinier back then, and had a good deal more vim as it carried passengers around town. The townfolk appreciated it for its cleanliness and for its convenience, and it was packed from sun up to sun down. That was until the first death.

By the time that the Fairbury bus had completed its first six months, nine people had died in or under it. Their deaths were sensless and unexplainable tragedies:

1. Tank Ragland Sr. was crushed to death by the hood while investigating a strange noise seemingly coming from the engine. A thorough investigation by the town mechanic found no reason for the prop to have given way. Tank was an experienced mechanic himself and would have certainly engaged it.

2. Steve Delacroix was decapitated by the bus while waiting to cross a city street. The right side panel stop sign activated as the bus drove by, catching Steve's head at 50 miles per hour. It rolled down to McTaggart's Ice Cream Parlor and settled in some nearby bushes. According to bus driver Dell Watts there is absolutely no explanation for how the sign extended as it required several turns of a crank which only the driver has access to.

3. Fergie Nixon was crushed to death by the bus as she attempted to retrieve a quarter that had rolled beneath it. The engine has been turned off and driver Dell Watts was on break taking a nap in one of the seats. He claims that the bus lurched forward and then backward several times before settling. The parking break was engaged.

4. Meacus Banner, town mechanic, died of carbon monoxide poisoning while taking a nap inside the bus which was parked inside his closed garage. An experienced mechanic such as Meacus would not have slept inside an idling vehicle parked in a closed garage.

5. Dirk Harris, City Comptroller, was killed while crossing a city street. Driver Dell Watts was unable to stop the bus. A thorough investigation found no defect in the break line or other reason for why the bus not only couldn't be stopped but also continued to accelerate into Comptroller Harris.

6, 7, 8, 9. Siblings Susan, Rod, Siggy, and Lewis Latimer, known around town as the Latimer Bunch, died while taking the bus to a rehearsal for an upcoming church play. Driver Dell Watts became worried when he no longer heard their voices and found their lifeless bodies when he stopped the bus to check on the children. Medical professionals were unable to discover a cause of death.

After the death of the Latimer Bunch, the town bus was decomissioned but once again called into service during World War Two when the replacement bus was confiscated by the army and made into artillery shells. By this time many had forgotten, or refused to remember, the grissly deaths involving the old bus and to this day no further unexplained tragedies have occured.

Many townspeople claim to feel a ghostly presence while riding on the bus. There are many reports of unexplained screams, temperature changes, and even the occasional sighting of shadowy figures either within or near the bus at night. But the many years that have passed since those tragic events in 1927 have led most folks to deny that they ever really existed. Now the bus has become a tourist attraction and a source of only mild interest to the citizens of Fairbury.

The old woman finished her story, and her last Pall Mall, just as the sun was beginning to disappear behind the horizon.

"Well that's my last cigarette, and that is my story young man. I only ask that you take to heart the events that befell this town. I'm the only one left who was there and who experienced the terror. And I'm not long for this world. Sometimes I feel as if the world has left me behind already. Not everything in life has a reason or an explanation. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And nobody wants to be forgotten."

With that I left the old woman on her bench and headed back towards my car. A few minutes later I realized that I had forgotten to ask her name. I returned to the bench, the bus about which we had spent the better part of seven hours discussing having returned, only to find her perch empty. The driver, whose last name was Watts according to the cursive stitching on the left breast pocket of his uniform, was leaning against the side of the vehicle. The glow of his cigarette stood out in the failing light of the evening.

I inquired about the old woman but was met only with a blank stare.

"I saw you sittin on that bench as I pulled up and you weren't talkin to no old woman. I think you been out in the sun to long today pops.", he shared.

I wished him a good evening and headed back towards my car. It was late and I was starving. I lamented the fact that Agnes would be again be staying overnight in Strang to attend a pupil's piano recital. It is remarkable how many young boys and girls are interested in piano lessons in Strang, and how many recitals they have in that strange town. Before my thoughts could begin to wander, I heard a man's voice calling after me.

"Sir! Wait up!", the young bus driver shouted.

He approached, out of breath and sweating profusely.

"It was Susan....Susan Latimer. I found this on the bench and I just couldn't help myself so I read it. I must have just missed her or something I guess. I don't recognize the name anyhow and I pretty much know everybody 'round this shitsplat town. Here, take it."

He handed me a small folded piece of paper and ran back to his idling bus. I lifted up one half of the note and quickly read the brief message.

"Nobody wants to be forgotten.

Susan Latimer"

That night, as I struggled to find sleep, I thought of something the old woman told me. Not everything in life has a reason or an explanation. I thought long and hard about that and promised to myself that I wouldn't forget.


Perky Skeptic said...

I really like this. It's funny and touching and generally full of awesome. :)

Zoo Knudsen said...

Mayor Jenkins is certainly a man of many talents. Did you hear that Agnes just had a daughter? It's true.