Claudette’s Kitchen was packed with the usual morning coffee crowd when Ken and Barbara and Nancy and the kids stepped inside. The room was filled with a faint aroma of fresh-brewed Folgers and lively chatter. Every face turned and stared at the newcomers and a sudden hush swallowed the room. Claudette burst from behind the counter and nearly toppled Nancy with a lurching hug. And with that the reunion was officially on.
Ken and Barbara and the kids stepped back as cheers erupted and the swarm of celebrants leaped from their seats and encircled Nancy. People hailed and peeped and pawed at her and she blushed and glowed in all the fuss.
That’s when Buster Mack walked in. Or better put, when he squeezed in. The doorway was barely wide enough to frame him.
Buster was a huge man with a chest as big as a burning barrel. He was pasty-faced with flappy jowls and beefy forearms and hands the size of frying pans. His dusty-looking gray chin stubble put him somewhere in his late-60’s. Like an overloaded freight train, Buster swayed from side to side when he lumbered in, and the jubilation in the air instantly evaporated at the sight of him.
“Where’s the preacher?” he growled with gravel in his voice.
Chloe ducked instinctively behind her mother’s leg. Ken collided with her as he vied for the same spot.
Twenty sets of eyes fixed on Ken. Buster followed their trajectory. Sucking and wheezing, he shuffled toward Ken and halted only after his overhung belly had firmly bumped against him. Pulling a soiled kerchief from his back pocket, Buster dabbed his sweaty forehead. His hair was dimly red and mostly gray, his globular nose webbed with tiny blue veins and riddled with rosacea. He eyed Ken darkly.
“Let’s go!” he barked, thumbing toward the doorway.
Ken anxiously scanned the premises looking for Harley Phipps. He caught Harley nodding reassuringly at him. He remembered him saying on the phone it was miraculous that a job had even come up in Elk Creek. Ken looked at him with baffled eyes, as if to say, “And this is your miracle?” He was thinking it would take a bigger miracle to survive Harley’s miracle.
Ken had the look of a man under arrest. Sliding away with Buster, he paused and turned toward Barbara and the kids. She stood frozen, hiding the children behind her. Ken glanced downward, tensely studying the black and white checkered floor tiles and looking pathetically acquiescent. Buster nudged and belly-bumped him to the hole he’d come in through.
Outside in the gravel parking lot, Ken trudged beside Buster to a rumpled green Ford pickup truck that was parked and idling. Markings on the vehicle read: Elk Creek School District.
“Get in!” Buster snapped. Ken lifted a stiff leg and reluctantly pulled himself into the cab.
The truck dipped and rocked when Buster plopped himself down on the driver’s seat. “Let me see yer CDL!” he demanded without looking at Ken.
“What’s a CDL?” Ken inquired.
“Yah don’t know what a CDL is?” Buster fumed, still looking straight ahead. “How in heck yah think yer gonna drive a school bus without a CDL?”
Ken couldn’t answer.
Buster roiled in his seat like he’d been shot. “Dadgum that blasted Harley!” he blurted, slamming the palm of his hand on the dashboard. “I knowed it!” He flung the driver’s door open, tumbled out and stomped toward the café entrance. But just before opening the door he halted, did an about-face and clomped back to the pickup. The truck shook violently when he threw himself inside and slammed the door shut.
Buster’s face flushed red and furious like a bull’s snout. Glowering, he threw the gearshift into drive and the truck pitched forward. He whirled the rig onto the empty highway, wheels screeching, and zoomed off without uttering a word to Ken.
Ken had no idea what was going on or where they were going. But wherever they were heading, he was sure he didn’t want to go there with Buster.
“Can’t hire yah without a CDL,” Buster muttered.
Ken was afraid to repeat the same stupid question about what’s a CDL, so he kept his silence.
Buster rolled his eyes and puffed his cheeks, hissing through clenched teeth. “He’s pulled this on me before. I shoulda seen it coming.”
“Done what?” Ken pried. He had a sick feeling that this had something to do with him.
Buster exploded. “Dumped a no-good driver on me! That’s what he done! All them Phipps are thatta way! They think they own this town! They don’t have no mill no more. They don’t have no more moo-lah, but they still think what they says goes round here.”
Buster drove on for half a mile or more, hissing and breathing heavily. He turned off the highway and pulled onto a gravel yard surrounded by Cyclone fencing. Four old flat-nosed yellow school buses were parked on the lot, shining brightly alongside a drab gray Quonset hut.
“Why are we here?” Ken asked, stumped.
“This is where I’m gonna learn yah to drive school bus,” Buster replied brusquely.
“But you told me…,” Ken objected.
“Never mind what I told yah!” Buster interrupted.
“This wasn’t my idea!” Ken continued. “It was Harley’s idea.”
Buster leered at Ken. “That’s why I’m gonna learn yah how to drive a blasted bus!” he hollered. “Cuz Harley don’t think I can! He don’t think I can learn yah howta drive a dern bus. Don’t yah see? He thinks we’re both dumb as two flat rocks. And I’m gonna prove him wrong. Agin!”
Buster fastened his jaw and gritted his teeth. “Like I says, I done it before, so I kin do it agin.”
Glaring at Ken through slanted eyes, Buster sized him up like a barroom brawler stares down a challenger before throwing a punch. “I got less than a month to whup you into shape,” he seethed. “An’ I’m gonna do it!”
Ken reeled at the thrust of Buster’s threat. His mind scrambled to find a fast way out. “But I can’t even drive a stick-shift!” he bayed.
Buster let out a rolling belly laugh and Ken felt himself wilting inside. “Harley done give me a mama’s boy!” Buster blurted. “But don’t fret, son. It ain’t that hard, and I can learn yah.”
“Thanks anyway,” Ken said, shaking his head. “I think you’d better find somebody else.”
“No way, no how!” Buster barked. “Harley picked hisself a fight with me and I’m gonna finish it! He’s the one that stuck you in the middle o’ all this, not me. So don’ go balin’ on me, preacher.”
Buster held out his big paw for Ken to shake. “I can make a champeen bus driver outta you, boy. Shoot, you shoulda seen them other fool preachers Harley sent me. Take Preacher Joe. Fine feller, but nuthin’ but a nitwit when it came to drivin.’ That dope nearly knocked down the barn backin’ in the bus. But I figerred if I can learn him to drive, I kin learn a chimpanzee. I kin make a champeen outta an ol’ chimpanzee!”
Buster chuckled at his clever elocution.
“I won that one on ol’ Harley,” he continued. “Preacher Joe made a fancy driver after all. Ol’ Harley’s still tryin’ ta git me back fer that one.”
Ken looked woefully at Buster’s outstretched hand. “I don’t want any part of this,” he said.
“Whatcha skeered of?” Buster gibed.
“I’m not going to be the rope in your tug-of-war with Harley,” Ken replied tensely. “You’re trying to use me to prove him wrong.”
Buster dropped his hand and slit his eyes, sizing Ken up for another jab.
“Okay,” he said, “go ahead and quit fore yah git started. See what other jobs yah kin find roun’ here. Nuthin’. That’s what yer gonna find. Then yah won’t hafta worry ‘bout provin’ nobody right but yerself. How ya gonna do that without no work? The way I see it, yah got yer own provin’ to do. Yah gotta prove yerself to yerself and nobody else. I heard yah say it, yah don’t know howta drive a bus.”
Buster’s eyes hardened and his jaw stiffened. He stopped wheezing. “Yah wanna learn er dontchyah?”
Ken could feel himself caving in. He loathed his ineptness in manly arts like driving. He felt himself shriveling inside, as he did when his dad was swearing at him after he had hit the brakes too hard and when Fritzy had ignored him all weekend after his backing-up fiasco.
“Harley can’t learn yah no-how,” Buster continued. “Only me, that’s who can learn yah. But yah gotta rassle them alligators that’s in yer head, boy. Them critters is meaner than any ol bus’ll do yah. An’ I can’t help yah with them. Ya gotta rassle ‘m down yerself.”
Ken ran through his mind how Harley had claimed that this job was a miracle, something on the order of the Red Sea parting. But it now felt like Pharaoh’s army was barreling down on him.
Buster watched him squirm. “What’s holdin’ yah back, preacher?”
“I don’t know,” Ken tottered. “Proving Harley wrong is no way to prove myself. I don’t feel good about it.”
“Then let Harley prove his own self right!” Buster snapped. “Don’t mean yah hafta be wrong so he can be right, neither.”
Buster sat behind the wheel sucking through his teeth, looking straight at Ken through squinted eyes.
“What do you have against Harley?” Ken prodded.
“What he got agin me?” Buster countered. “He started it, not me.”
“And you think he’s dumping me on you?” Ken asked.
Buster narrowed his eyes again at Ken. “Well, look what kinda driver he gimme.”
Ken conceded by saying nothing.
“Yah wanna stay thatta way or yah want me to learn yah?” Buster was smelling blood.
Ken sat staring through the windshield. “I want to drive,” he said, surrendering.
“Prove it, prove it ta yerself, preacher,” Buster pressed.
“All right,” Ken felt himself crumbling inside. “When can we get started?”
Buster’s eyes rounded and brightened like shiny red apples. “I got some papers in the office fer yah ta fill out. Come on.”
The truck teetered as Buster swung his husky frame out of the cab. He plodded to the building and unlocked the door. Inside his unkempt office, Buster yanked open a drawer in a standing file cabinet and rifled through its innards until he found what he was looking for. “Here yah go, take this and fill er out,” he rasped. “But don’t waste my time doin’ it now. Fust I gotta show yah what yer gonna be drivin’.”
Ken glanced at the form in his hands and read its heading: Commercial Driver License Application.
A winning grin stretched across Buster’s doughy face. “Ask me agin what is a CDL an I’m gonna revoke it before yah even git it!” he cackled.
Ken followed Buster outside to the parking lot. Four buses were parked side-by-side. Each one looked worn but tidy. A chrome crown emblem dotted the nose of each one, and the backs of the buses sloped roundly like the backside of a bald man’s head.
Pausing in front of the row of buses, Buster’s eyes caressed his cadre. Ken had never paid attention to the lines on a school bus, but something about those buses caused him to pause and appreciate their good looks. They had a shape all of their own, like a VW Beetle is classic in form. They looked downright venerable for school buses. And they were obviously in good repair. Each had a set of headlights rimmed with gleaming chrome frames that looked like happy, eager eyes. Even while parked, they looked animated, like big shiny yellow caterpillars on wheels. They were likable-looking machines.
“Yah know what them is?” Buster asked, still gazing on his gems.
Ken checked himself from stating the obvious. “Something special, I can see that much.”
“Them’s a piece a history, that’s what!” Buster blustered. He glared at Ken, defying him to contradict his claim. It was a stance he was apparently ready to fight against the whole world to defend.
“Them’s Crowns!” he went on. “Yah can’t hardly find ‘em no more, and I got me four ‘n ‘em. Best dern buses ever made on earth. That dang-fool GE outfit went ‘n bought up the whole shebang an’ then went ‘n quit makin’ ‘em anymore cuz they wasn’t sellin’ cheap like all that tinny trash that’s runnin’ round out there these days.”
Buster widened his eyes and whistled like a teenage boy ogling over a pretty girl. “Them Crowns is some gussy ol’ gals,” he hooted. “But ain’t it a shame, they’re just acrushin’ ‘em fer steel anymore. Makes me madderna wet hen jis thinkin’ bout it. An’ there’s nuthin’ I can do bout it, sep I take good care a the ones I got.”
Buster pointed at the bus on their far left. “That’s what yah’ll be arunnin,” he announced. “Mabel-four, what’s she’s called.” A numeral 4 was painted in black on both sides of the bus’s front façade.
“She’s got a good ol’ Detroit diesel in ‘er an’ a ten-speed tranny,” Buster continued without looking at Ken. “A '86 model, the newest one of my lot, an’ she’s the easiest one on you greenhorn drivers. She’ll be nice to yah, even if yah ain’t nice yahself.”
“Ten speeds!” Ken gasped. To his ears, ten speeds sound like ten lashes.
“That skeer yah?” Buster chortled. “Shoot! Just let ol’ Buster learn yah what yah don’t know how. I kin learn a ape howta run one of them ol’ babes. Just yah wait. I’m gonna do yah like a man, boy. Bout time yah growed up, anyhow.”
Buster spun around and bumped Ken with his belly. “Let’s take er fer a spin,” he bellowed.
Climbing aboard the bus, Ken noted the size of the steering wheel, about as big around as a hula-hoop. Buster plopped onto the driver’s seat, his vast girth rubbing against the wheel. Ken sat behind Buster, leaning over his shoulder.
“Okay, yah ready ta lissen?” Buster asked, turning the key. But he didn’t crank the motor.
“Yes, I’m ready,” Ken said.
“Listen to that,” Buster directed. “Whattayah hear?”
“Nothing,” Ken said, confused.
“Good,” Buster responded. “That’s what yer sposed ta hear fore yah fire up a diesel. Hear that? Nothin'. That’s cuz yah gotta wait fer the glow plugs to heat up. Yah gotta turn the key an’ watch the ‘wait ta start light’ on the dash go off. Wait ten seconds or so fer it to go off an’ then crank ‘er on up.”
This made no sense to Ken.
Buster twisted in his seat and tilted his head toward Ken. “That’s yer first lesson in drivin’ a bus.”
“I don’t understand,” Ken replied. “Listening to nothing is my first lesson?”
Buster tossed his hands up in feigned exasperation. “How yah gonna hear when I tell yah sumthin’ if yah can’t even lissen ta nuthin’?”
Ken held his tongue. Buster’s line of reasoning was way out of his range.
“Best thing fer yah ta know fore yah go drivin’ a Crown is nuthin,” Buster continued. “That’s why I told yah, jis sit n’ lissen ta nuthin’ fore yah go crankin’ the motor up. Yah can’t know that yah don’t know nuthin’ unless yah know howta listen ta nuthin’. I seen some of them smarty drivers come in here athinkin’ they know’d it all an’ they jis sit their skinny rears behind the wheel of this ol’ beauty with all that razzle-dazzle an’ they wind up baffled by their own bull. What they don’t know is they don’t know nuthin’. If they’d jis sit n’ listen ta nuthin’, then I’d learn ‘em sumthin’.”
Ken kept his silence, but he felt a peculiar dawning that Buster’s strange logic somehow made sense. The “wait to start” light went off on the dashboard and Buster noted it.
“See here,” he pointed. “The light don’t go off till yah done listened ta nuthin’.
Buster turned the key and the motor started clacking and whizzing, winding into a high-pitched drone. “Good thing yah don’t know nuthin’ bout drivin’ a bus! If yah done told me yah know’d howta drive, I’da told yah ta fergit everthin’ yah think yah knows. Then we’d have to start all over till yah know'd yah don’t know nuthin’. Yah got yerself a good jump on some of ‘em I’ve seen come aroun' here, but there’s sumthin’ else yah gotta stop knowin’."
“What’s that?” Ken shouted above the motor’s noise.
“Lemme ask yah another question,” Buster hollered. He didn’t wait for Ken’s response. “Can yah drive one a these?”
“No,” Ken assented.
“That’s what else yah gotta stop knowin’!” Buster barked. “If yah don’t know nuthin, yah don’t know if yah can or yah can’t, neither. I didn’t ask yah if yah ever drove one a these. I asked yah if yah can. But yah already got yer mind made up yah can’t. How’m I gonna learn yah how when yer mind’s made up yah can’t? How d’yah know yah can’t when yah ain’t even tried it?”
Ken’s head was spinning. “Are you saying I can, even if I haven’t?”
“No, I’m sayin’ sumthin’ in yer head’s sayin’ yah can’t, even fore yah tried it!” Buster barked back. “What I’m tryin’ ta tell yah is stop lissenin’ to yerself an’ start lissenin’ ta nuthin’ so I can learn yah sumthin’.”
Ken gave up trying to follow Buster’s philosophy of driver education. He was simply swallowing it whole, chunks and all.
“Are yah lissnin’ ta nuthin’ inside yer head yet?” Buster asked, seriously.
“Then put this idea in yer nuthin’ an’ give it a home there!” Buster insisted. He stared at Ken with hardboiled, bulging eyes. “They’s sumthin’ bigger’ ‘bout bus drivin’ than jis drivin’ bus.”
Buster studied Ken’s face to see how this impending revelation was registering with him. He was wearing a picture-perfect know-nothing look that won Buster’s confidence.
“Here’s how yah gotta look at it,” Buster went on. “Yah ain’t gonna jis be drivin’ bus round here; yer gonna be takin’ kids ta school and back home agin. It’s more’n runnin’ a machine. It’s helpin’ them kids git smart so they kin git a better life. That’s what them show-offs don’t never git. But it’s what yah gotta git fore yah ever turn this here key. When that gits all lit up like a lightnin’ bug in yer head, that’s when I’ll learn yah howta drive bus.”
Buster pushed in the clutch twice and worked the gearshift with a quick flick of his wrist. “We’re headin’ out on yer run,” he hollered above the whining motor. “Fust yah gotta see where yer goin’ fore I show yah how to git there adrivin’ this old Crown.”