Miss Martha

by Nicole Simonsen

That one girl with the sick sister, she always pauses when she gets to the top steps of my bus. Always says "hello, how are you?" She even knows my name, calls me Miss Martha. None of the other kids even look at me. I could be a ghost driver. The only time they see me is when I glare at them through the rear view mirror, and all they can see are my mean eyes. You've got the meanest eyes I ever saw, a boy told me once, just before he skipped off the bus. I remember I studied my eyes then. I think he meant my eyebrows. They are dark and tip up into sharp points. When I was younger, I tried to soften them by picking the hairs, but the result was worse, sort of uneven and flat like a deflated balloon.

The girl checks her options. She doesn't know where to sit to avoid her tormentor, a short, pimply middle school boy. Today he shoves her backpack. She stumbles forward and hits her hand on the dash.

"Hey! No shoving!" I yell. My voice is like my eyebrows, sharper than I intend. "Go take a seat 'fore these ruffians go crazy."

She sits down a few seats behind me right in my line of sight. The ruffian , Pablo, – I know his name because "stop it, Pablo!" is a near constant refrain on the bus – sits a few rows behind her. She glances over her shoulder and considers moving, I can tell, but the seats are filling fast. Two cheerleaders – also sisters – sit in the next aisle up a row. The girl takes out a fat novel. This one, from the looks of it, is about ogres. Ogres, dragons, warlocks, she likes magical things. She's always reading a book or got a pen in her hand. Maybe she'll go to college one day. I never did have the opportunity, and if I'm going to be honest here, not the inclination. I just don't find books all that interesting, less it's on gardening. I got a book about the hanging gardens of Babylon with paintings of what it might have looked like. Paradise on earth, I tell you. I'd like to recreate a small corner of the hanging gardens in my own little yard, a nook where I could sit and be at peace. I told my husband and he just shook his head. "There you go again," he said.

There I go again, turning down Peabody Lane. I have driven this route for so many years, I could do it in my sleep. People always say that but I actually mean it because some days when I park the bus and get my purse out from under my seat and turn in the key at the station, I realize I have no real memory of the drive, the stop signs, the stop lights, how long I waited here or there. Some part of my brain I don't know about followed all the traffic laws, but me, myself? I was somewhere else.

Now, here's my favorite part of the drive, the old section of town, and here's where the girl always puts her book down to look at the fancy Victorians. Fairytale houses, I call them. They must be full of lace and crystal goblets. They are the houses of ballerinas and enchanted children who dress for dinner and play the piano for entertainment. I drive slow here so she can get a good look.

After the Victorians is when most of the city kids depart and the rest of us head out towards Elmira, population 188, where there's a little country elementary school. I pick up a handful of kids, including the girl's sister. This is the longest part of my drive, even though I only have about ten to twelve kids because they all live on little farms and ranches spread miles past Elmira. The girl and her sister are the last ones to get dropped off. Sometimes it takes me a good hour before I pull up outside their graveled driveway.

Today Pablo has decided to annoy the cheerleaders. They take one look at his pockmarked face and laugh. Undeterred, he asks them something. The younger one rolls her eyes at him. That younger one, she's creative with her hair. She's got it up in a curly ponytail with a toy lobster perched off to the side. She takes out a mirror and adjusts it so that the lobster's claws dangle over one side. Who would think to put a lobster in their hair? Kids! She's even got dangly lobster earrings and red shoes to match.

Pablo must have said something about her lobster because she touches it, then shrugs. "I got this in San Francisco," she says. "You know, the city." She turns her back to him and rummages through her purse until she finds a tube of lip gloss. She smears it on. "Want some?" she says to Pablo and laughs.

We stop at the elementary school and Pablo moves to the back of the bus again to sulk. Here is where the girl's sister gets on. She's the one with the body brace. It's got a bar that arcs up over her chest like a reverse spine, and a round metal collar that bolts in the back. Makes it hard for her to turn her head. The bottom half of her torso is encased in some sort of plastic. Don't know how the poor thing can get around in that brace. She wears a crocheted beanie with a delicate pattern of sea shells. It musta took time. You can tell the person who made it must really love this girl. She's got the clearest skin and big doe eyes. Something about her reminds me of Joan of Arc, or what I imagine Joan of Arc might have looked like at ten years old.

Just when the doors close and I shift into gear, Pablo runs up the aisle and dives into the seat directly behind them. We pull out of the parking lot and pass the road their house is on, but I can't turn yet and drop them off – I have to follow the route my supervisor gave me. Sometimes I wish I could, just to give them a break. But I am a person who follows the rules.

Through the rear view mirror, I watch Pablo pull the girl's hair. Not a big clump of it, just individual strands. Pluck. Pluck. She scratches her head. He plucks a third.

"Stop it, Pablo," she says.

"Spaghetti head," he says. "Your hair is like spaghetti."

"That makes no sense."

"Yes, it does. See?" He holds up three limp blond hairs.

She shakes her head and turns back around.

I try not to interfere. Kids gotta learn to deal with difficult people, gotta let 'em work it out. That's what I always said to my Mary. Why I never intervened on her behalf. It's a difficult world and you gotta learn to make it on your own. And now my Mary, she lives in Los Angeles and takes classes in psychology. One day she calls me up and says that we never "bonded properly" and she needs to work on herself so she won't be calling me for a while. My eyeballs started to sting when she said that. My throat got so tight and sore I could hardly swallow for days, weeks. Even now, two years later. Called her a couple times, but all I got was her answering machine. Once, I tried to leave a message, tried to say "Hello, Mary! It's your ma. Been thinkin' about you." Except that there was something wrong with the connection. My own voice echoed back at me through the static like a message from the beyond. I hung up, my heart pounding. It reminded me of a time when a letter I sent to a childhood friend came back with the word "DECEASED" stamped on the front. For a few seconds I thought it meant me. I got this strange dizzying feeling. I opened the letter and there was my own handwriting. Deceased! I thought. I am dead.

I think about that from time to time. Maybe I am a ghost.

"Hey," Pablo says loud enough to get the attention of the cheerleaders – and mine. Good thing, too, because I almost forgot to stop at the railroad tracks. I open the doors and listen for a train though anyone can see that no train is coming. Rules, again. "I've been wondering something for a while. Why does your sister always wear that cap?" He turns to Little Joan of Arc. "Are you bald underneath?"

She touches her head and looks to her sister for help.

"Leave my sister alone." The girl's face is flushed.

"Leave my sister alone," he mocks.

"Just ignore him," the girl says and goes back to her book.

"No really, is she bald? What happened to her hair?"

When neither girl answers, Pablo reaches over and plucks the cap right off the little one's head. Beneath it, there is a dusting of short brown hair and beneath that a long red scar. It starts at her forehead and arcs over her right ear. Reminds me of a road sheared into a mountain.

"Whoa," he says. "How'd she get that?"

Joan of Arc claps her hands to her head. "My hat!"

The cheerleaders turn around and stare. Miss Lobster covers her mouth; her fingernails are red, too.

The girl gets up and grabs the hat back. She puts it on her sister's head, but her hands are shaking and she can't quite position it so the scar is hidden again.

"She had brain surgery."

Pablo raises his eyebrows and whistles.  "Why? Because of those seizures. My uncle had one at Thanksgiving. He just dropped to the floor and started flopping around." Pablo is talking to the whole bus now. Even the kids in the back are listening. "There was a piece of turkey stuck between his teeth. My grandma started screaming, then my other uncle grabbed a wallet and shoved it in his mouth. And when it was all over and we took the wallet out, there were teeth marks! My uncle was so mad! Hey! They ever shove a wallet in your mouth?"

Little Joan of Arc fixes the cap so the scar is hidden again.

"Course not," says her sister.

I come to an abrupt stop to let the kids in the back off. They take their sweet time. One of them drops his backpack and everything spills out. I am hoping this interruption will shut Pablo up, but he doesn't even wait until the doors close.

"So why does she have seizures? My uncle got that one cuz he's a drug addict and sometimes he gets the shakes." Pablo twitches spasmodically.

The girls say nothing.

"You a drug addict?" he asks, laughing again.

I consider telling Pablo to move it, but then Joan of Arc surprised me.

"It's because of my tumor," she says.

"A tumor!" Pablo says. "Did they take it out? What'd it look like?"

She frowns and looks down at her hands. "I don't know."

Her sister puts her arm over her shoulder and draws her close. "Ignore him. We don't hear you," she says, turning another page.

Pablo reaches over the seat and pokes the little one in the shoulder. "Hey, I heard about this lady who had a tumor with teeth and hair in it."

Suddenly her sister jumps up and spins around. "They couldn't get it out, okay? And it didn't have teeth. That's just so gross. God!  Why don't you go sit somewhere else?"

And then I can't help it. I slam on the brakes. Everyone falls forward. I glare at Pablo with my mean eyes. And Pablo, he actually turns redder than his pimply face already is. I am relieved when he slides across the aisle into another seat.

I knew about the seizures, but the tumor is news to me. So far, I only ever saw her have small seizures. She'd get a far away look in her eyes, might turn her head from side to side and lean into her sister, who would put her arm around her, and whisper, "You're okay. You're okay." The girl's eyes would blink real fast, her mouth would twist into a grimace like she was having visions of something frightening.

That reminds me. The real Joan of Arc had visions. I saw a TV show about her once, how some scientists claim God never whispered in her ear. They say there is a scientific explanation for her direct line to God in neurochemistry. Schizophrenia, they say, or epilepsy. It's all about the wiring. Those scientists! They would diagnose everyone from history if they could. But what I want to know is does anyone really understand the blood and guts mysteries of our brains? Some people just might be tapped into God in a way that the rest of us can't understand. Maybe God comes to you in a lightning bolt. Who's to say?

My Mary would have a strong opinion on this matter. If I call her I might ask her about it. At home I have a notebook and in it I have written down topics of conversation in case she calls, case I get nervous and don't know what to say. I can just open my notebook and there, over the last couple of years, are all the things I have wondered about. It begins with The Seven Wonders of the World. If you could go back in time and see only one, which would you pick? Number 2, if you had to make a list of the new seven wonders, what would be on it? Number 3, Can someone be a ghost and not know it?

"Hey," Miss Lobster shouts. "Aren't you going to stop?"

I slam on the breaks and everyone lurches forward.  The cheerleaders swing their purses over their shoulders and walk down the aisle without a word for anyone or a backwards glance.  Cheerleaders were like that when I was a girl, too. Must be part of their training.

Pablo settles down into an agitated silence. He moves to three different seats before it's his turn to get off. He can't resist plucking another hair from the girl as he leaves. In the front yard is a rusty jalopy up on cinderblocks. Two dirty-faced children are playing inside it. They peer out from where the back window should be, then duck down. As usual, his mother is smoking a cigarette on the porch and does not say hello to him. I always try to remember this when he's acting up; the bus ride is probably the best part of his day.

Now it's just the three of us. We pass the old cemetery, leave Elmira behind. Two more stop signs to go. Course these are country roads and two stops is longer than you would think.

I want to say something to the girls. They are both so quiet, and the older one, she's put her book down and is staring out the window like she could bore holes through the glass. Sometimes Mary would get like that too, silent and sulky. "Mary, Mary, quite contrary," I'd sing as a joke. But she'd stare off and there'd be no reaching her. I'd kinda like to tell that to Mary, tell her, you were no picnic either, my dear. I wrote that topic in my notebook once and then I crossed it off.

I know this will never happen, but sometimes I wish I could invite the girls over for the afternoon. They could sit on my porch and we could play "Go Fish" or "Old Maid" or whatever they wanted. They might tell me about their day and I would ask pertinent questions. I can see their house up ahead. It is at the end of a long, gravel driveway, with fig trees on one side and a small creek on the other.

"Hey," I say. "You ever swim in that creek?"

The girls seem startled to hear my voice and it's the little one who answers. "Eww. No way. The water is dirty. We aren't allowed to go near it."

"Too bad," I say. "I thought it might be nice in the summer."

"I'm scared of the spiders."

"You're scared of everything," says her sister.

"Am not."

But the older one is laughing and says, "Yes, you are." She turns to me. "She wouldn't get in the shower last night until I killed a daddy longlegs." She pokes her sister in the arm. Her sister pokes back, then they laugh. Their laughter is sweet and innocent and if you heard it you would not think that anything in their lives had ever been amiss.

I might like to call Mary today. I might ask her a simple question. Something like Mary, do you know anything about Joan of Arc? Or I have a question about brain chemistry, and it might surprise, and maybe even please her to learn that her mother thinks about these things. It may force her to reconsider what she knows about me.

The girls gather their books and bags and step carefully to the front.  The little one holds on to the railing on her way down. At the bottom, she turns and waves. The older one looks up at me and says, "Goodbye, Miss Martha. See you tomorrow."

She sees me.

"Goodbye, girls," I say. The doors wheeze shut and I am alone again.

BIO: Nicole Simonsen's work has appeared in Talking Writing, Brain, Child, and SmokeLong Quarterly.  She is an English teacher at an urban, public high school in Sacramento, CA, and lives nearby with her husband and children.