Tuesday, February 20, 2024
FlashFiction

Bus Stop

The school-bus yellow school bus rattled down Meeting House Road with twenty or so prep school students on board. They were escorted by a history teacher with red-orange hair at the wheel, and another teacher, this one with a galloping case of male pattern baldness, who sat amid ship in order to maintain discipline. The side of the bus announced, “Archmere Academy, Claymont, Delaware.”

I was a junior at this preparatory school for boys, total enrollment 144, in the fall of 1958. Earlier that afternoon, classes having been dismissed at their usual 3:15, I had stuffed my obligatory necktie into a pocket of my obligatory sport coat, and caught public transportation to Mount Pleasant Junior High School, five miles south of Archmere on the Philadelphia Pike.

At Mount Pleasant I leaned against the fence surrounding the tennis courts, as suavely as I imagined my idol, Tony Curtis, might do. Soon my girlfriend, Mallory, accompanied by two of her girlfriends, approached. Tall (5’5″ was tall for a young woman in those days) with long, wavy blond hair and pale blue eyes, she began to smile when she saw me holding up the fence.

Her ladies in waiting looked at me as if they were appraising a member of a police line up. They probably thought she needed protection from this prep school roue, two full years ahead of her in school and three short months from his driver’s license and all the teen-age debauchery that might entail.

The duennas looked much younger than Mallory. Nothing made a ninth-grade girl look more mature in the late ’50s than having to contend with the hyperventilating attention of a sex-crazed upper classman from a fancy school.

Following a sly, good-bye round of “Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do,” Mallory and I walked the quarter mile to her house, where I took up once again my assault on her virginity, a highly strategic endeavor that was thwarted by her quick reflexes and, occasionally, by the sounds of her two younger sisters giggling at the top of the basement stairs.

Time was of the essence, and it wasn’t on my side for sure.  An hour after I had shed my posh Harris tweed sport coat, I put it back on and walked down to the bus stop. Mallory often accompanied me, unless she had too much repair work to do on her hair, which is how I gauged my progress. 

“Just a dream, just a dream, all my plans and all my schemes,” #12 on the Billboard charts at the time, sung through the nose of Jimmy Clanton, was my internal soundtrack on the bus ride back to Archmere, where I matriculated to the 5:15 school bus that would deliver me to my home in Chester, nearly half an hour away.

Rides on the late school bus, driven by Harry O’Malley, the ginger-haired history teacher, were exercises in  chaos. The passengers were mostly bad actors, who couldn’t take the 3:30 bus because they had been in detention; kids fresh from football practice who hadn’t quite calmed down yet; some refugees from the library who served as spitball targets: and moi, a curly haired, would-be seducer of the young who had seen too many Tony Curtis movies.

That afternoon, as usual, a few guys in the back were sneaking a smoke. Someone in the middle section said loudly to his seat mate, “Harry up with that homework, I need to copy it.” Using Harry, Mr. O’Malley’s first name, in a sentence loudly was one of our amusements. Tormenting our smaller, more studious mates was another.

The Yankees were playing the Braves in the world series that afternoon. Across the aisle and one row of seats up from me,  Leo Tackett had his left ear pressed to one of the small transistor radios that were newly popular, ṭrying to catch the final score.

Leo’s concentration was such that when Danny Carroll, the slap head English teacher, who was sitting three rows up from Leo, stood, turned, and shouted at the delinquents in the back of the bus to stop making so much noise, Leo apparently didn’t hear him. Why else would Leo have said to the tinny voice in his radio, “Don’t you talk to me that way” just after the bus had gone silent? Did this mild-mannered, tractable young man have a death wish?

No one dared laugh. Mr. Carroll looked mad enough to spit–or to grow hair. No one dared laugh, that is, except me, for apparently I was the only kid who had seen that Leo was addressing his radio. Therefore, I laughed heartily. It was funny as shit.

“Knock it the hell off, Maggitti,” Mr. Carroll thundered.

At that, Harry O’Malley stopped the bus, solemnly swung  the lever that opened the bus door, and said, “Maggitti, get off the bus.”

Yes, Virginia, teachers really had that kind of power in 1958. They could toss your ass off the bus on a near deserted road an hour away from sunset and miles away from the safety of your home without fear of reprimand, much less of losing their jobs.

There I was, Gentle Reader, having been thrown under the bus without benefit of trial or jury, standing by the side of Meeting House Road with my right thumb out, pondering the unfairness of prep school justice, which punished the one who laughed, but never sought to learn who had said, “Don’t you talk to me that way” in the first place.

I had more pressing, less theoretical, concerns, however. My parents were part of the me-too generation that believed no bad deed at school should go unpunished at home. If I was too late getting home from school (the bus did have a head start on me by now), I could be grounded; and my father wouldn’t drive me to the weekly Saint Helena’s dance near Mt. Pleasant, where I met Mallory every Saturday night for extended bouts of the vertical dry humping that passed for dancing, except at Archmere dances where if your business got too close to her business, that troll Father Sliben would tap you on the shoulder. (For the record, I met Mallory at a St. Helena’s dance in the summer of 1958 when she asked me to dance on a lady’s choice and there were no priests in sight.)

My problem, then, as I turned my lonely eyes up Meeting House Road, was to get home no more than ten minutes later than I normally did. Any later than that and my parents would smell a rat, and the thumb screws would come out.

Fortunately I had better luck scoring a ride than I  had scoring at Mallory’s. The second car that passed pulled over, and I ran toward it like it was the ice cream truck. Simultaneously, I hatched a plan.

“Where you going, son?” the middle-aged driver asked.

“Just to the top of Meeting House Road, sir, where Highland Gardens is. Say, do you know who won the world series game?”

“The Braves in ten innings, 4-3.”

Highland Gardens, all 783 cheek-by-jowl, “ultra-modern” houses, had the distinction of being America’s largest, privately financed defense housing project. It also had the distinction of being home to my Aunt Rose and Uncle Innocenzo, who had come to this country from Italy in the early twentieth century. Aunt Rose was my mother’s older sister.

“Hi, Aunt Rose.”

“Philip.”

It was both a greeting and a question. (Nobody but family called mePhilipinstead ofPhil, except my father, who always called meboy.)

“Am I too late for dinner?”

“No. Do you want to come in? We’re having baked ziti. I was just about to put it in the oven.”

“Actually, Aunt Rose, I need a ride home from school.”

“What happened? Did you miss your bus?”

“No. I got kicked off the bus back on Meeting House Road.”

“Oh, Philip.” This said with more benign tolerance than disapproval. “Do you want to call home?”

“No! As long as I get home soon, my parents don’t have to know what happened. Do you think you could give me a ride?”

As much as my Aunt Rose would have liked to have fed me (that’s how we Italians roll), she called to her husband and told him to get the car keys. She probably would have pressed a portion of unbaked ziti on me to take home had she not been sworn to secrecy.

On the ride to Chester, I recounted for my aunt and uncle the afternoon’s events, leaving out the part about the grappling on Mallory’s couch. They left me off around the corner from my parents’ grocery store, which had living quarters attached.

As I was getting out of the car, my Aunt Rose pressed a $10 bill into my right hand.

“Thanks, Aunt Rose. You’re contributing to the delinquency of a minor, you know. “

“Oh, Philip,” she laughed as they drove away.

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