Authors: Sue Stauffacher
My story takes a decidedly dangerous turn on the morning of our visit to Happy Cattle Dairy Farm. Needless to say, I always position myself just in back of the bus driver to take advantage of the extra protection offered by the plastic barrier located behind her head. Originally intended to shield the bus driver from spitballs, it might hold the weight of my body in a minor impact situation.
Sitting up front also allows extra protection from the criminal activities of the Pelican View Basketball Team. Our teacher, Ms. Rita Linski, always sits in the first seat on the passenger side of Bus Number 987. This way, she can talk to the bus driver about her favorite subject: her collection of cereal box premiums, charms, and toys dating back to 1947.
Normally this would be a problem for me. I do not like to see the bus driver distracted in any way. On long bus rides, Ms. Linski even swings her knees into the aisle so that the bus driver can hear her stories better. While I do not recommend this posture—it is clearly in violation of the Pelican View School District's code of conduct—I'm willing to overlook the safety infraction, as this puts Ms. Linski in full view of any criminal activities that might involve me and the Pelican View Basketball Team.
Everything was going along as planned. Or so I thought. I
boarded the bus dead last in order to avoid being stepped on by members of the basketball team. Ms. Linski was supposed to follow directly, but something was detaining her. She seemed to be holding a very long conference with Mr. Putman, our school principal. Between them was someone else, someone rough and wild and unsanitary-looking. This someone else boarded the bus just behind Ms. Linski.
“Marvin, if you please, our agreement,” Ms. Linski shouted to the back of the bus, shielding with her body the someone I was attempting to get a better look at.
Marvin Howerton was the captain of the basketball team. Ms. Linski was always making agreements with him. Basically, she insisted that he not get into trouble by messing up kids who were not on the basketball team, setting off fire alarms, or shaking up her six-packs of diet bubble gum soda. He agreed to whatever she said.
When will Ms. Linski learn? Marvin has a very short memory.
She followed Marvin with her eyes until he settled himself nearer the front. I lost all feeling in my fingers and my toes. I was now directly in his line of fire.
“Franklin, I would appreciate it if you would be Sarah's partner at the farm. She's just arrived at Pelican View, and we want to make her feel welcome.” Sarah pressed around Ms. Linski to get a look at me. She put her hands on her hips and glanced back over her shoulder.
“You're joking,” she said.
“I'll overlook that comment for your sake, Miss Kervick. Franklin, this is Sarah Kervick.”
I'm sure my mouth just hung open. I'd never seen a finer host for parasites than the girl staring back at me. In less than thirty seconds, she would be sitting close enough for her fleas to change their address.
“Franklin, remember your manners.”
“Yes, Ms. Linski,” I said automatically. “Don't bother, kid,” said Sarah Kervick, flopping down on the seat as far away from me as the metal armrest would allow.
For this, I was truly thankful.
I tried not to stare at her. I felt frozen. Honest to Pete, my limbs would not move. I needed at least seven minutes to think through how I could protect myself from the thousands of germs that farm animals produce as well as the thousands that were already hovering around her.
I did have on my Gore-Tex jacket, the one that wicked perspiration away from my skin while shielding me from the bitter winds. This would provide some protection for my torso. I had hoped to bring a pair of the disposable sanitary gloves my grandparents had given me for my birthday, but my mother thought they would attract too much attention.
“You're gonna look like a white Michael Jackson,” she said. “Only people with that kind of money can afford to be so weird.”
This is the kind of love and support I get in my home environment.
On the bright side, Sarah Kervick's body would make it more difficult for Marvin to shoot projectiles at me.
She was not wearing a jacket at all, only a thin cardigan that had begun unraveling at the bottom. Underneath, she wore a
cotton dress that ended above her bony knees. I noticed, too, that she had a wart on her knee.
But the most surprising thing about Sarah Kervick was her hair. It was all matted and messed up like she never combed it. Big, long pieces of dirty blond hair so tangled together it looked like there was a throw pillow crocheted onto the back of her head.
The bus lurched to a start. I covered my nose to keep from inhaling the diesel fumes.
“So you get any new cereal toys?” the bus driver asked predictably. Her name was Princess, and her driving record was far from clean. My intestines began arranging themselves into a bunny knot.
“It's funny you should mention it,” began Ms. Linski. “Last night I was surfing eBay when I saw a Dick Tracy decoder ring from 1952.”
“I remember Dick Tracy. He's the one with the big chin.”
“Still in the cellophane,” Ms. Linski said joyously.
“Hey, look, Donuthead has a new girlfriend,” Marvin said.
I had a small impulse to jump out of my seat, point at Marvin, and say, “Look, everyone, it can speak.” But since this would be putting my health in jeopardy, I kept quiet.
Sarah Kervick shot a look at me. “Donuthead? Is that you?”
“Why'd he call you that?”
“Possibly because Donuthead is my name. It's very convenient for Marvin that I have a name that is also an insult,” I answered her, keeping my voice low. “As a rule, he is not very creative.”
“So whaddya do when he talks trash to you?”
“What do I do? Well, in a situation like this I would try to do as little as possible. It's important not to respond. That could escalate the tensions.”
“You take his crap is what you're sayin'. Is that what you're sayin'?”
Sarah's voice had gotten both deeper and louder. Ms. Linski glanced over at us, but she did not stop talking.
“Yes, that is correct. I take it.”
She folded her shoulders in toward herself and hunched down in her seat.
“Some kinda partner I get. I got some kinda luck,” she muttered to herself.
It occurred to me that I might say the same thing about myself.
“So is this your first date, Donuthead? You takin' her to a cow farm?”
Sarah Kervick turned to face Marvin. “I give you one warning, kid.”
“One warning for what? You think you and Donuthead can keep your love a secret?”
Then it happened. I can't give a very clear picture because I think I lost consciousness. I mean, my life passed before my eyes. There I was at five trying on the first bulletproof vest I'd begged my mother for when the lurching bus caused my head to crash into Princess's plastic protective shield.
Sarah Kervick had leapt over the armrest and smashed her fist into Marvin Howerton's nose. Blood was everywhere. Ms. Linski was screaming. Pandemonium broke loose.
Princess pulled over to the side of the road and tossed Ms. Linski a rag to press against Marvin's bloody face. Sarah had retreated to her seat, her arms folded across her chest. I saw with horror that she had Marvin's blood on the back of her fist and she didn't even seem to notice or care. Just moments ago, that very same blood was traveling around somewhere inside Marvin Howerton's nose.
“She broke it, Ms. Linski,” Marvin howled. “She broke my nose.”
Only it sounded more like “She bok by dobe” because Marvin's face was all folded up inside the oily rag.
“Now, Marvin, lean your head back,” said Ms. Linski. “Sarah Kervick, is this the kind of girl you are?” she asked, shooting a look over her shoulder at Sarah. For the first time it seemed to dawn on our teacher that, probably, yes, girls who looked like Sarah Kervick were capable of committing bodily harm.
“I don't take crap from anybody,” Sarah Kervick replied. “We might as well get that straight right now.”
Needless to say, I did not escort Sarah Kervick around Happy Cattle Dairy Farm.
She remained on the bus while I was forced to slog through the melting snow and cow pies on my own, since everyone else had already been paired off. I was so preoccupied by thoughts of what had happened that I let a cow lick my palm!
When I asked about the facilities so I could wash my hands, Ms. Linski pointed to one of those mobile metal waste containment units, otherwise known as a Porta-John. I held my hand away from the rest of my body until we were back at school. I
had quite a cramp by the time we reached Pelican View Elementary.
The bus was strangely quiet on the way back. Ms. Linski sat with her lips pressed together. Sarah Kervick leaned forward in her seat, staring at a piece of petrified gum on the floor of the bus. Marvin, who was beginning to bruise beneath both eyes, moaned a little now and then and shot threatening looks at me!
What had I done but try
to escalate tensions?
Then it occurred to me that Sarah Kervick had punched Marvin in the nose, at least partly, on my account. I got a strange feeling then. No one had ever stuck up for Franklin Delano Donuthead before.
Not that I blamed them. I would never attempt to come between a bully and his victim. To do so would put me at a disproportionately high risk of injuring my cranio-facial muscles.
In fact, it is a strong evolutionary trait to want to avoid people like Marvin Howerton. Take those nature programs on TV—the ones where the lioness goes off to find dinner—and you'll know what I mean. She slinks along, tracking a herd of innocent gazelles who are just minding their own business on the Serengeti Plain. Crouching, she finds a victim: a baby or a weakling or maybe just a highly intelligent yet slightly handicapped gazelle. And off she goes.
What do this poor gazelle's lifelong companions do? Do they rally the troops? Do they shout “Safety in numbers!” and smother that lioness before she can harm one of their own? Of course they don't. They run just as fast as they can away from the scene of the crime, not even pausing to nod a fond farewell.
After all, they don't want to be dessert. And that's the way it is at school.
I looked up and down the rows of kids jiggling in their bus seats, searching for one person who might brave a darkened corner of the playground to save my life from Marvin Howerton. Not one came to mind. They'd run, just like the gazelles.
That's nature for you.
Sarah Kervick stole a look at me just as Princess hopped the curb as she turned into Pelican View Elementary School.
“What's the matter, kid? How come your arm's stickin' out like that?”
“A cow licked my palm.” “You're joking, right?”
I nodded my head soberly. “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” I said.
“That's what Frankin Delano Roosevelt said when he took office during the Depression.”
Sarah Kervick laughed, revealing a couple of brown teeth. “
That where you get your information? Dead presidents?”
At least it was a real laugh and not one of those hee-hee girl giggles that means a girl's really making fun of you. I believe she actually thought I was funny.
It was also a laugh that could not come out of any sane person who saw the trouble that lay ahead.
“Marvin, Sarah, come with me. The rest of you may return to class and start your journals.”
I was first off the bus after Marvin and Sarah, and I watched
them as long as I could. She went first. I wanted, somehow, to tell her never, ever offer your back to Marvin Howerton. But she didn't seem to care.
I was so busy thinking about all this that I walked right by the boys' bathroom and straight to class. That meant I'd be forced to infect my pencil with mad cow germs until Ms. Linski gave me a hall pass. How long could they possibly live in the arid environment of a number 2B pencil?
To calm myself, I began to hum the tune to the “Happy Birthday” song, an exercise I repeated three times while lathering whenever I washed my hands. Just as I reached my last “to you,” however, my thoughts bounced back to bony old Sarah Kervick.
Had that girl ever been introduced to a comb? What kind of a mother would let her child leave the house in such a condition? Was she really laughing at what I said? Or was she just laughing at me?
Was this what Gloria had in mind when she told me to think more about girls?
Two days later, I sat at the kitchen table eating my bowl of Bran Buds and editing my mother's grocery list, which she had tried to conceal under yesterday's newspaper. I had already crossed off some questionable choices as well as added a few items of my own when she arrived on the scene and rudely grabbed the paper away from me.
“How'd you get ahold of that?” she asked, attaching her Cable Country name badge between the second and third buttons on her blouse. My mother lays cable for a company whose motto is “Get wired!”
“For your information, Franklin, millions of people eat these things every day. What could possibly be wrong with … jellybeans?”
“The connection between artificial dyes and children's behavior is currently being studied by public health officials.”
“So don't eat any. Hot dogs? Oreos?”
“Nitrates and hydrogenated vegetable oil. Do you really want to feed your only son, the one you hope to care for you in old age, a diet full of known cancer-causing agents?”
“Let me think about that one,” she said, putting the list on the counter and scooping handfuls of beans into the coffee grinder.
“Pepper spray? You mean the kind …” She perused the rest of the list, folded it, and put it into her pocket.
“Mace? Funeral plots? Franklin?”
“I think it's only right that you should know,” I told her, my eyelids twitching. “Things are really heating up at school.”
“All this because you got licked by a cow?”
No, the cow contamination incident was the furthest thing from my mind. For you see, something far stranger and more perilous happened the day after our visit to Happy Cattle Dairy Farm.