Eula Shook, a love story by Grant Jerkins
It was a plain, polished granite slab that sat flush to the freshly wrenched red Georgia earth. On the left:
OCT 1, 1939—SEPT 29, 2013
And to the right:
APRIL 8, 1942—
Eula found that dash worrisome. If they’d just left off the dash, then maybe it would set right with her.
The funeral director had called it a companion marker. To be purchased “pre-need.” Although, for Hubert, two days dead by then, it was really more of a now-need.
The death man had dark eyes. Eula had never met a blue-eyed funeral director. Not once.
He had said, as though reading from a catalogue, “A companion marker reflects the bond between a man and wife, so that the two will be remembered as a couple for as long as history is kept.”
And although she was not typically prone to flights of fancy, this made Eula imagine an apocalyptic future in which hardscrabble survivors might find her and Hubie’s tombstone and know that they had been made one in the eyes of God.
Still, it was morbid to see your name on a granite slab, and it wasn’t until the sable-eyed, sable-suited death merchant mentioned the cost savings of purchasing pre-need—her date of death would be added later for “a nominal fee”—that she agreed to it. With their son, Jerry, dead and buried in the Marietta National Cemetery, there would be no family left behind to be burdened with final costs. Still. It was best to save money where you could. And Eula found herself wanting to please the death seller. She had always been drawn to men with eyes of murk.
Now, two weeks after the funeral, the temporary marker had been taken up, and this permanent one (for as long as history is kept) had been put down. Eula looked at her own grave. It still didn’t set right. She looked again at her husband’s born and died dates. Hubert always did love fall the best. And he damn near held on till his birthday. Eula and Betty had both decided that’s what he was doing. Holding on until October first. But he didn’t make it. No. The throat cancer took him. The Good Lord called him home.
But that wasn’t true. That was just what they told everybody. That God had sent for him. That The Good Lord blessed us and took Hubie home. But Hubie took his own self home.
He’d been lingering for some time. The Hospice nurse had told Eula and Betty that it happens like that sometimes. They linger. It was hard on the family mostly. The Hospice nurse was the one that put it in Eula’s head that maybe Hubert was aiming to check out on his birthday. She’d seen it before. She’d seen them hold on until their wedding anniversary, or their child’s graduation, or until their favorite show was playing on TV. Andy Griffith’s on. I can let go. That nurse was full of similar observations.
All he was, was a morphine-addicted skeleton. Monster-movie sutures draped from ear to ear to ear like a necklace. As though a slow-witted child had tried to carve a jack-o-lantern and put the mouth six inches too low.
The cancer had spread into his brain and who knew where all else. And Eula had prayed to Jesus Christ every night not to let him linger, to take him. She prayed that He would be merciful and take Hubie now. Right that minute. Don’t make him wait. It was a shameful way to live. Soaking in his own waste. Playing in it. Smearing his feces all over himself. He’d been a proud—not vain—man who took care in his appearance, kept his hair oiled and his shirt tucked even if he’d spent all day tending the hogs. So she prayed.
He got to where he got real active at night. Restless. He would sleep and dream his Dilaudid dreams by day, but at night he was up and talking and running the top sheet through his fingers like a nervous little girl playing with her petticoat. Talking. Plain talking. Maybe not as clear as a bell, but lucid. Vibrating what was left of his vocal cords. And just a talking. The information-laden nurse said Hubie was sundowning. Where they perk up and come to life at night. She’d seen it before. (Eula figured if Hubie clucked like a Rhode Island Red and laid an egg, this woman would say she’d seen it before).
The nurse said sundowning usually lasted two or three days, then they passed. Well good, Eula thought. She sat up with Hubie and talked with him the same way they had talked as teenagers. Easy. They talked easy. He told her about the time Homer Smith fell into the scalding vat at the slaughterhouse. Boiled him alive. How he could still hear the man-screams sometimes. And he told Eula about the time J.T. Thompson had his legs severed in the industrial meat grinder at Douglas Meat Packing Plant. How he was pretty sure old J.T.’s legs ended up in a batch of liver cheese and shipped across the country. Hubie wouldn’t eat baloney, or hot dogs, or Vienna sausages, or any processed meats. He’d seen too much.
He told her about how pretty his mama was, and how he thought she was an angel like the color plates in their family Bible. That his father was a mean son of a bitch. That he caught three ten-pound bass out of Turner’s pond, and Mr. Turner chased him off his land firing rock salt at him. How he had his eye on that Eula Graybeal. Pretty little thing.
He talked to her like they were friends. Hubert and Eula had not been friends in a very long time. They’d been husband and wife.
The sundowning came and went and Hubie held on.
The man was stubborn. Eula kept her eye on the calendar. He never celebrated his birthday when he was fully alive and healthy, so why he would be shooting for it now was beyond her reckoning.
Then, at 10:30 in the morning on September 29th, Hubert came down the stairs and walked in on Eula in the kitchen. She was just sitting at the table having a cup of decaffeinated Nescafe. No need in brewing a whole pot when it was just her drinking it. He scared Eula when he walked in. She had not heard him approaching, because Hubie only weighed eighty-five pounds, so his weight had not been sufficient to make the floor joists squeak. And, in any regard, Hubert Shook had not been out of bed in three weeks. His walking days were behind him. Or so she thought. That’s what the helpful Hospice nurse had said. But there he stood. Like something that ought not be alive.
He did not speak to her, but held her eyes with his. It made Eula feel like she’d been caught doing something wrong. Something nasty. She was too surprised to speak. And as they looked at each other across the kitchen, something came out of Hubert’s nose. It was black as tar and as thick as a man’s finger. To Eula, it looked darkly alive. Like a parasite that had been living inside Hubie and was ready to get out while the getting was good. Of course it was the cancer. His body so used up and stove in that even the cancer was fleeing it. And she could see the torment in Hubie’s eyes. Pain that no narcotic could ever numb.
And he lurched to the cabinet drawer directly under the Amana Radarange. The drawer where they kept the gun. A .22 caliber revolver had been in that drawer as long as Eula could remember. Since before she even knew there was even such a thing as microwave ovens. Hubert kept it handy there because he liked to sit on the front porch and pick off squirrels that were bad to get into the bird feeders, and the raccoons that would tip over the garbage cans at night.
Hubert raised the bore to his temple and put a bullet into his brain. While Eula watched. It was loud. But the funny thing was that the mess wasn’t nearly as bad as Eula would have thought. The TV shows made it look like brains and blood and bone fragments would spray across everything and spackle the ceiling too. But it wasn’t that bad. Probably because the gun watn’t but a itty bitty .22.
She called Betty first. Betty was Eula’s best friend and her bus monitor too. Betty had sat with Eula in the hospital when the breast cancer took Eula’s sister, Mary Alice. Cancer was bad.
Betty told Eula to hang up the phone and call 911. So that’s what she did. She told the dispatcher there wasn’t a number on the mailbox, but just look for the house with a yellow school bus parked in the front yard. Under the black walnut tree.
In the ten minutes she had to herself before either the ambulance or Betty would get there, Eula sat in the kitchen with Hubie and finished her coffee. She told him she was sorry he was dead, but she was glad he was gone. Glad he was out of his pain. But she was also glad he was dead because she had been ready to have leave of him. She thought saying that out loud would relieve her of the burden of guilt she had been carrying, but it didn’t. There was no feeling of the lancing of a wound. No release. So she went on. She told him that she’d been tired of him. Sick of him. And she was sure the feeling had been mutual. And that was okay. She forgave him. And she asked him to forgive her too.
Still, she didn’t feel any better. Something was wrong inside her.
After that, she prayed in silence for Hubie’s soul. It was just a gesture, because Eula was pretty sure suicides went to hell.
And now, two weeks later, she nodded her final approval of the grave marker. Although she did not approve. Not at all.
She kept eyeing that blank spot after the dash.
The death man smiled at Eula and held her in his eyes of murk.
The call from the doctor’s office had been like a mean joke.
The day had started off good, though. When she went outside early that morning to warm up the bus, the air was perfumed from the black walnut tree—sweet and tangy, like something boiled in a cast iron pot at the county fair. The boughs were heavy with the ripe green fruit. An overnight rain storm had sent many of them to the ground. They were the size of crabapples, and split open under Eula’s shoes, spewing out black, spore-like flesh. She brushed them from where they had collected in the wiper well of her bus. It was a wonder the squirrels hadn’t got to them and carried them off. Maybe with their executioner having turned the gun on himself, they would feel more comfortable and come get these that were littering the yard.
She’d run her morning route. It had been a good run. Uneventful. The morning runs were usually smooth. The children were still groggy from getting up early, and they had crusty sleep in the corners of their eyes. The inside of the bus was cozy warm and smelled like instant oatmeal and Sugar Frosted Flakes and Log Cabin syrup. It was still dark outside. The morning runs generally went smooth.
She got back home around 10:30 and had a cup of Nescafe at the kitchen table like she always did. After that, she went to the living room couch and lay down to take a little nap. She put a dish towel over the cushion so the hairspray from her hair wouldn’t stain the fabric. She was just drifting off when the phone rang. Probably a telemarketer. They were so bad anymore it made you afraid to answer your own phone. She was aware of caller ID and cordless phones and cell phones and all of that, but Eula still used the hard-wired rotary phone that had been in the house even longer than Hubie’s .22. She sat up, lifted the receiver, and spoke a suspicious hello into the mouthpiece.
It was the doctor’s office.
They weren’t supposed to give you that kind of news over the phone. Even Eula knew that they were supposed to tell you that you needed to come in and review your test results with Dr. Parker. Maybe they figured Eula was so old that the news of her imminent death wouldn’t be as disturbing to her as it would be to a young person. A young person with their whole life in front of them might become depressed or do something crazy.
But no, the nurse said that the ovarian cancer had reached her liver. Stage four. And she would need to make an appointment with Dr. Parker to discuss treatment options and would you like me to connect you to the scheduling desk?
Eula said she would call back later. She sat on the couch and imagined a finger-thick cord of black cancer worming its way out of her woman parts. She could not let that happen. She prayed that wasn’t what The Lord had in store for her.
Why was there so much cancer in the world today? What are we doing to make this disease so common? It was like the world itself had cancer. The eating kind.
Eula never did get her nap in that day. She paced a lot. Walking from one end of the house to the other, like a cancer worm was tracking her. She pulled out the family photo album. There was Hubert, just a shoat, crew cut, his teeth not yet stained from the plug of Beech Nut he always kept in his lower jaw. There was Hubert and his brother Reid pouring the concrete foundation for this house. Hubert had built this house himself. The plumbing, the carpentry, the wiring, brickwork, roofing. All of it. The man was talented. Hubert was dead now, but his house still stood.
And there was Jerry. Their son. He was dead now too. There was Jerry in the front yard on his Big Wheel. The black walnut tree was a lot smaller back then and there was still grass in the yard. She remembered Jerry rode that Big Wheel until the black plastic wheels just disintegrated. As a Cub Scout. As a football player. With his prom date. Pretty girl. Eula couldn’t remember her name now. She’d come to the funeral, though. There he was with the harsh shorn head of a new recruit. He looked so young and strong like life was just busting out of him. Dead.
And there was Eula herself. She had been pretty in her way. Dainty, almost frail. A world away from the solid thing she was now. As the harried mother of a newborn. As the mother of a toddler, lines starting to set in around her eyes. Jerry was a handful. There she was reading nursery rhymes to Jerry. This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. There she was, stouter, after the news about Jerry. The lines set in permanently now. The life gone from her eyes. This is the maiden, all forlorn.
She was dead now, too.
Eula cried some. She didn’t care nothing about dying. But she thought of herself lying in bed, digging BM out of her own rectum and smearing it in her hair, and the hospice nurse smiling and saying “that’s the way they do sometimes. I’ve seen it before.”
She thought of the death man, the twinkle in his sooty eyes as he used a hammer and chisel to fill in that awful blank space after the dash.
A little bit after noon, she put the album away and went to the kitchen. To the cabinet that held the microwave. That sat above the drawer. That stored the gun. That held the bullet. That finished Hubie. This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. And in the bottom of that cabinet, Eula found the corn liquor that Hubert kept stored there. It was in a wide mouth Ball jar. Home made. He kept it filled from a jug in the basement. He made it down there. Kept a still. Eula had seen it. He had bags of corn meal and cans of yeast. Bags of sugar and malt. This is the malt that lay in the house that Hubie built. She stayed away from all that. He only made it once, maybe twice a year. It was a wonder he never went blind.
Eula unscrewed the metal ring and pried off the lid. She brought her nose down to the jar and sniffed. Her head rocked back. She brought the jar to her lips and tasted it. It was like dipping your tongue in lye. It was like her mouth was telling her every way it knew how not to subject it to that poison.
She forced it down. Medicine. This is the rat that ate the malt. It helped. The fire in her mouth became a fire in her throat that became a fire in her chest that became a fire in her stomach that radiated through her whole body. This is the liquor that burned the mouth that seared the esophagus that bore the cancer that ate the body that Hubie built.
Eula shuddered against the cold fire. She wanted more and decided to take the liquor on a spoon. She used a good solid stainless steel spoon that was bigger than a table spoon. It was her favorite spoon. She used it to dip and eat ice cream. It was probably silly to have a favorite spoon.
She got the photo album out again, taking spoonfuls of moonshine as she browsed. It didn’t hurt as much this time. She started wishing for a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked since 1976 when she was pregnant with Jerry. Kent Golden Lights. That’s what she smoked and wanted now.
After a while, she took the spoon out of the canning jar and laid it on a crochet doily on the coffee table. She sipped from the jar. She felt okay. Happy, even.
When Eula looked up at the clock, it was 2:30. She had to be at the school by 2:45 for her three o’clock run.
When she left her house (the house that Hubie built) she left the door unlocked, and in her purse she carried something that belonged to Hubie, and in her womb she carried something that belonged to her alone.
Eula made it to Joe Frank Harris Intermediate School on time and pulled into her empty slot in the loading zone. Usually, the drivers slid into their slanted spaces and opened up their doors and driver’s windows so they could talk and gossip. But today, Eula kept her Wayne International sealed tight. She just stared straight ahead and never even made eye contact with her fellow drivers.
At three o’clock, when first-grader Nathan Tattnall tapped at the loading door, Eula Shook reached forward and lifted the thumb clasp
That released the handle
That opened the door
That let in the students
That trusted the widowed driver
That bore a dark secret in the womb
That was numbed with the moonshine
The was stored in the cabinet
That held the microwave
That sat above the drawer
That stored the revolver
That held the bullet
That brought down the house that Hubie built.
Russell Roxburry, Wanda Lumpkin, and Mandy Slade were the last ones on the bus. They were fifth graders, ten years old. The third and fourth graders loaded earlier. Nathan Tattnall, seven, seated in the first seat to the driver’s right, leaned across the aisle and tugged at Eula’s sleeve.
“Miss Eula, are you sad?”
“Nathan, no sweetie, I ain’t sad. Why would you say that?”
“Cause you cryin’.”
Eula looked up to the oblong overhead mirror and was surprised to see her face wet, eyes red. She didn’t feel sad though.
Eula reached over and pulled the Wayne’s manual jack-knife handle. The folding door closed with a loud mechanical squeak. The bus was old. Sturdy, but old. Eula pulled forward out of her slot and into the exit lane, as she had ten thousand times before. Today she clipped the protruding corner of the loading zone sidewalk, rolled a rear tire over it. The bus shook and rocked the students left and right. It was fairly common for the drivers to clip this concrete corner that stuck out too far. Eula herself never had.
She waved to the officer on traffic duty just as she always did, and pulled the twenty-foot Wayne International onto Highway 41. The Wayne took the turn too wide and spent too long in the oncoming lane. Eula maneuvered the steering wheel hand-over-hand to get the bus back in the correct lane before it hit the white Volvo that headed the line of stopped traffic. She over-corrected and the bus ended up going onto the soft shoulder and into the shallow roadside drainage ditch. One of the first-grade girls (Belinda Edwards, who was high-strung anyway) screamed, but Eula maneuvered the Wayne cleanly out of the culvert and back onto Northbound 41.
The bus was quiet for a Friday afternoon. All the children were watching Eula. She had never so much as taken them over a pothole before, so they wanted to see what she would do next.
What she did next was to angle her arm down to her big brown pocketbook and reach herself out the greatly depreciated Ball jar
The bus was so quiet that everybody could plainly hear the metal-on-glass of Eula unscrewing the top off the jar. She held the open container out to Nathan, but he shook his head and launched into a snotty crying spell. Eula had always found the boy to be a little effeminate. Sissy. But she tried not to judge a child so young. Still, it was plain. No telling what kind of man he might grow up to be. What kind of house he would build. What would ultimately bring that house down.
Eula took a good long swallow of the corn liquor. It still burned, but she didn’t mind it as much now. It lit up her whole face with warmth. She replaced the lid, securing it with the aluminum ring, and as she reached the jar back down to her purse, the Wayne International sailed through a four-way stop without slowing down even one little bit.
It was so quiet. Eula was tempted to turn on the radio, but she didn’t approve of popular music for little kids like that. It used to be songs had innuendo and double meanings, but now they just come right out and say shake your boombah and put it in my face. She would like to play Christian music for them, but she got reported for that one time.
Mandy Slade’s was the first stop. The only stop on Stockmar Road. Eula engaged the flashing yellow caution lights, glided to a stop in front of the Slade’s redbrick ranch style house, and extended the lighted stop sign. (Cars are supposed to stop—if they safely can—when the yellow cautions start flashing. Lots of people didn’t know or didn’t care and would speed up to get past the bus so they wouldn’t get stuck waiting. Eula could understand this and tried not to let it bother her. But she kept a notepad close by to write down the tag number of any vehicle that passed her once the stop sign swung out).
Eula waited for Mandy to gather her backpack and stride to the front. Eula opened the glass curtain door and waved to Mrs. Slade who was standing at the end of the driveway. The real young kids had to have someone waiting on them or Eula couldn’t let them off. Margie Slade waved back, and Eula wondered if the woman knew how bad that Clorox dye job was ruining her hair. She looked like a scarecrow.
Eula lumbered the Wayne back into motion. In the side mirror, she spied Mrs. Slade running behind the bus, her face pinched red, her lifeless hair scattering in bleachy wisps. The woman was waving her down. These people. These people were always wanting something.
Eula sighed and stopped the bus. She opened the door and waited. Mrs. Slade climbed up to the second step and looked back at the scared, quiet children. Then she looked at Eula, her face painted with grave concern.
“Eula, are you all right?”
“Hey, Margie. I’m fine. Why?”
Eula blinked at her. She was having trouble following.
“Why, is because you just took out my mailbox.”
Eula blinked several more times. “I did? Are you sure? Maybe the mailman. Or teenagers.”
“It wasn’t teenagers. Look, it’s right there in the middle of the road. You dragged it twenty feet.”
“Well, my Lord.”
There was a moment of silence. Perhaps for the fallen mailbox.
Margie scanned the seats again and asked, “Where’s Betty?”
“Margie, I believe your mailbox was already down before I got here.”
“No, ma’am. No. I saw you snag it on the bumper. Snapped it off at the base.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
“Eula, I want you to do something for me. I want you to breathe in my face.”
“Breathe in your face?”
“I will not.”
“Just blow in my face.”
“Margie, you’ve lost your mind. You’re not allowed on this bus. Get off.”
“Not until you blow in my face.”
“No, ma’am. Get off. You’re breaking the law.”
“I will not get off this bus until you breathe in my face.”
Eula saw the woman meant it, so she reached out and shoved Margie Slade backwards. Hard. The woman fell back a step, pinwheeled, was still falling, and one of her hands caught the vertical steel pole. Before Margie could completely right herself, Eula pulled the jack knife door handle, and the folding mechanism caught Mrs. Slade, pinning her half on and half off the bus. Eula put the Wayne in motion, built up some speed, then swerved the bus back and forth across Stockmar Road, trying to shake Margie off like a booger stuck on her finger. It worked. Margie took a tumble. Rolled into some blackberry bushes like she was Br’er Rabbit.
The kids were coming out of their awe now, whimpering. Low grade terror. It couldn’t be helped.
Once the Wayne International was back on 41, Eula took another swallow from the shine jar. To settle her nerves. She turned on to Cheatham Hill and into the Legacy Isle subdivision. Three of the kids were supposed to get off here. She saw the mothers waiting, but before the bus came to a complete stop, Eula took her foot off the brake and stabbed the gas pedal. These buses had more get up and go than most people would think. She just couldn’t let these children off with them crying and snotting.
In the side view, Eula could see the perplexed parents, their heads bobbing, fingers pointing. She turned on the radio. Full on gospel.
She heard kids calling out Miss Eula! and what’s wrong? And please stop please. She flew right on past their stops. She couldn’t hear them. She had other things on her mind. Eula was drunk.
She turned around in her seat, wanting to see the faces of the children without the filter of the mirror. As she did, the bus drifted across 41 and off the opposite shoulder. The Wayne slid down into a young stand of loblolly pine. The limbs slapped the bus thwap thwap thwap thwap thwap like a playing card on bicycle spokes. Eula thought Wheeeee! Some of the passenger windows were open, and the tender green limbs sprung through and were immediately snapped off due to the bus’s high speed. Boughs of clean young pine were flying through the Wayne International’s interior. The fresh sap released through the violent amputation filled the bus with a sharp clean scent that was somewhere between turpentine and Christmas.
The children were outright screaming now. Some of them hysterical. Something was bad wrong with the world today. They were running up and down the aisle. Pandemonium. Russell Roxbury had his hands to his head, elbows poked out, in a cartoonish image of consternation. It was downright comical.
Eula righted the bus back onto the two-lane and told them to hush up. She didn’t usually snap at the children like that, but they were really being babies today. This was fun and they didn’t even know it. Their parents kept them so keyed up and high strung. This was really just an adventure.
Eula got the bus rolling smooth down 41. It felt good. Music was on the radio. A choir singing At the End of the Road, talking about how sweet relief from all care will be waiting for me there when I come to the end of the road. Eula reckoned that was where this trip was going to end, at the end of the road. She felt good. The music sounded good. She loved driving the bus. She had been on this road a long long time. It had been a long life. She had seen a lot of things change. Change. Change could be hard. Children with pink hair and black fingernails, baby girls in makeup and bare stomachs, pants that sat on their pubic bone—these were just children.
She saw that they had their little cell phones out now. Calling people and taking pictures. Children with little Dick Tracy gadgets. Their little phones and games and movie cameras all of it hooked up to the outer space thing. They were calling their parents. They were taking movies of her. Although Eula didn’t know the word “upload” she knew that’s what they were doing. Taking movies of her and putting them up there in outer space for everybody to see. She had seen these videos on the news. That story about the poor bus monitor with them nasty mouthed children poking her rolls of fat and filming her until she cried. Eula wasn’t going to cry. She was smarter than she let on. She knew damn well the outer space thing was called the Internet; it just suited her mind to play the old lady sometimes. And she knew all their nasty words too. The F word. All of them. She just chose not to wallow in such.
In the side mirror, she saw a Chevrolet Equinox fall in behind the bus. It was Margie Slade, her scarecrow hair flying in the breeze. Margie was on her cell phone too. Eula could see bleeding scratches on the woman’s face and forehead. From the blackberry briars. Then a Cobb County sheriff pulled alongside Mrs. Slade. He waved her off then hit his lights and siren. But Margie stayed right alongside him. She was mad, probably.
Eula’s gaze fell to the Georgia state flag decal mounted in the lower corner of the windshield. The old one with the rebel emblem. All the buses had it at one time. Then they changed the flag. Said it was racist. Eula got a letter in the mail from the superintendent of Cobb County schools. Said remove the flag decal. But she refused. She was proud of her heritage. She didn’t hate. She wasn’t a racist. Didn’t believe the flag was racist. Didn’t believe that no more than the man in the moon. She voted for Governor Sonny Perdue because he said he would bring the flag back. But he didn’t. Sonny lied.
The South was disappearing. Hell, it was gone. It was up there in outer space with everything else. And when she was dead, they could forget about laying her in the dirt with Hubie, they could just shoot her out there in space too. It used to be people were proud to be from the South, and now they acted like they was ashamed of it.
The Sheriff’s cruiser was angling up in front of her, trying to slow her down, cut her off, stop her. Lights going off like blue flashbulbs, siren giving her a headache and drowning out her gospel. But she just swerved around him, like he was nothing. And she could see there were more parents back there, joining the chase, lining up in their white SUV’s. They loved those SUV’s. Loved ‘em as much as they loved their cell phones.
It was all just too much. Too much of everything. Eula stopped the bus. Stopped right in the middle of Northbound Highway 41, and took a last pull off the liquor jar. It was empty now. Thank you, Hubie. She wasn’t stopped but just a minute, but that was long enough for things to start sliding away from her. Russell Roxbury and Wanda Lumpkin got the rear emergency exit open and jumped on out. Most all the fourth and fifth graders followed them out. Not Nathan Tattnall, though. Him and all the other real young ones stayed on the bus. They trusted Miss Eula.
She could see parents popping out of their shiny vehicles and scooping up their kids. And she could see the sheriff’s deputy sidling up the bus on the driver’s side. He had on his brown and tan uniform and his ranger hat. Eula could see he was being real cautious like she was dangerous or something. He was edging along the side of the bus, his fingers playing over the grip of his service pistol.
Eula leaned out the window and threw the Ball jar at him. It hit him right in the face. She saw his hands go up to cover himself and some blood was there too. She called him a motherfucker and took off.
The ramp for the interstate was right up ahead. I-75. She wanted to feel some wind in her hair. Maybe cruise on down to Atlanta. Look for the gold dome and go shake the hand of the man who ousted Sonny Perdue. Or maybe hit him in the eye. He wasn’t going to bring back her flag either. And then she realized that she never gave a damn about that flag anyway. It was just something to go on about. None of it mattered. Nathan Tattnall was weeping. A steady stream. Like a little girl. Eula didn’t understand why there was so much anger in her. There was the ramp to the interstate. The bus flattened two metal signs that said WRONG WAY and DO NOT ENTER in red capital letters.
It was fun dodging the oncoming cars. She did it for a long time. At first she thought it was them moving in the wrong direction, after a while she realized they were moving forward and she was moving backward. It was probably dangerous, but she could handle it. She thought about white SUV’s and cell phones and dirty words and text messages and satellites in outer space and her little bus moving the wrong way, against all of it. She thought of children dressed up like harlots and thugs and she wondered if kids today would ever know the simple pleasures of childhood, like Hansel and Gretel and Mother Goose and nursery rhymes. Then she saw that an eighteen-wheeler loaded with gasoline (actually nine thousand gallons of isobutane, the driver would later tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) was bearing down on her. She thought of the fireball that would result if she maintained her collision course. They’d probably be able to see it from out there in space. But the rig driver saw her and hit his brakes. The tanker jackknifed. It went into an oblong skid that covered four lanes of the interstate. Eula thought of a joke the kids liked to tell each other. The punchline was crispy critters. She kept her eyes open. The tanker continued its skid, turning. It slid right on past the bus like pistons packed in grease sliding next to each other. It was that close. It kept on sliding and went off the interstate and into a stand of crape myrtles.
She could see there were several sheriff’s deputies back there now, sirens screaming at her. A little trail of white SUV’s. And looked like a news van from one of the Atlanta stations. Eula was going to make the news. They would ask her what were you thinking? That’s what they would want to know. She had no idea what her answer would be.
Eula gradually noticed that she wasn’t dodging oncoming traffic anymore, which was a disappointment because she really liked doing that. They must have shut down the interstate on her account. They could do that fast nowadays in this world where people blew up buildings and spread poison gas.
There was a helicopter up in the sky, thumping away, trying to get her attention. She wished she could tell them that she didn’t want to hurt anybody, that she had no poison to spread. And she saw that up ahead they had set up some kind of blockade all lit up and flashing big as Christmas morning. Police cars and ambulances, little armored tank things and what looked like a prison bus. All strewed across the blacktop like game pieces across a Monopoly board. Even Monopoly was different today with plastic credit cards instead of cash money.
Eula reckoned she would not be passing Go today. She was at the end of the road.
She didn’t know what to do next. She looked over to sissy boy Nathan, but he was curled up into a tight ball on his seat. Reminded Eula of a roly poly, protecting himself. The other little kids back there didn’t have any suggestions either. Jazmyn Hughes. Lakesha Moon. Jeff Cain. Gail Stevens. She loved them. They couldn’t help how their parents raised them.
Eula stopped the bus. Because she loved them. And this made her realize that she loved Hubert too. That she really did love him. This surprised her. And it made her realize that if she really did love him, then he probably really did love her too. He was the man, all tattered and torn, that kissed the maiden, all forlorn.
Eula could see nothing but emergency flashers ahead and behind her. She could hear nothing but sirens and radio crackle and the whomp-whomp-whomp of rotor blades. And she thought of the dark thing to which she would soon give birth.
She reached into her purse.
She looked at the children in the overhead mirror.
This will probably scar them for the rest of their lives.
But it can’t be helped. And it won’t be that messy. Not nearly as much mess as you would think.