SmokeLong Quarterly

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Bus Driver

Story by Alex Higley (Read author interview) December 20, 2011

art by Slade Kaufman

When the bus pulled up, we knew what we were about to hear and so all of us, the whole team in our reservation unis, started chanting, “Stole your dog boys.” There were only three rides. We made each four times to form our season. Over to Rocky Boy, down to Flathead or into Munger to play the white squad. The Munger team was held back, and brawny. Munger was just on the other side of the reservation line and we could have walked to their gym, a long walk. We took the bus.

I sat the bench. Hated to practice, played no defense and felt like an out-of-step chorus girl unless I was shooting. The traits I lacked are now the ones I most admire in players I watch on the late night replays. As if the will to stop the ball might reflect something of the man himself.

Two to a seat, all of us, and defeated, thousand-yard stare Coach sitting behind, the whole team not taking up four rows on the bus. The driver would watch us in the big rectangular rear view and preach. Tell us the story we’d heard before of stealing our reservation dog on a bender as a boy. “I was up from Butte and I’d have taken anything, but the first thing was dog. And I’m here now, driving you, to go win a basketball game. Yes I feel bad. I stole your dog and let him die.”

It’s like the Bible. Who believes those stories, right? What Earth have people walked to literally believe those stories? I’m asking.

Throw those stories away. Or tell me you could. Tell me that there could just as easily be nine hundred different stories. That there already are. Tell me you don’t know.

Maybe it’s: What Earth have I walked to put me on the 19th floor of a building, among buildings, home from a job where in one way I am seen for what I am: A man who spends a hell of a lot of his time alone. If I were asked, I’ve long planned to respond, “Where I’m from it’s much quieter, I’m trying to remember, if I can, what that was like.”

The dog lie covered the real questions: How did he have a bus? Did he rent it? We knew he wasn’t paid. What reason did he give his people for driving Indians to basketball games? Did he have anyone to give a reason to? He never stayed for the games. Maybe a glance into the yellow gym as we formed our layup lines. I pictured him returning to a small kitchen and eating a sandwich. I also pictured him quiet, silent, in his real life, as if he had to store himself to preach to us on the bus.

But now I am remembering what he did. I remember him opening his flannel shirt to reveal a tattoo over his heart, the outline of Montana with “Joe” written in the middle. Said he had awoken with it once, and it drove him from San Francisco to our country. This was following a Super Bowl. He was from California. There had been other stories of his cause for taking us to games, he tried out many—that his mother had left and married a Blackfoot chief, that he loved us, the cosmos, straight quotes from Astral Weeks, that we were retribution for harm caused to waitresses and woman managers of all types named Brenda or Susan or Beth-Ann. Maybe he had been told once that our jerseys were Munger’s hand-me-downs with the letters stripped off.

And now that I am thinking—there was no chanting. Just a hum in my teeth, preemptive electricity, because I knew we’d lose and that I’d have no say in the outcome, but also that I was about to be seen by this man, and fully, wonderfully, lied to. If I had been allowed to know how much this stranger wanted me to be OK, wanted all of us to be OK, if I could have taken it in and held it burning, I would have never wasted my time getting on that bus or any bus ever again. I would have wasted nothing.

About the Author

Alex Higley lives in Chicago.

About the Artist

Slade Kaufman graduated from The School at the Art Institute of Chicago and currently lives in San Diego.

This story appeared in Issue Thirty-Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Four

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