by Tom Darin Liskey

I got my first real job in the fourth grade.

I’d earned some pocket money before that, like working in the school cafeteria, but nothing ever steady. The lunch lady would pick different kids each week to help her wipe down tables and fold up them up for storage next to the bleachers in the gym after lunch. I did that one week, and she slipped me an envelope with $2.75 after we finished. It felt good folding the envelope and tucking it into my front jeans pocket. I walked down the sun-speckled linoleum hallway to my class with my chest puffed out like some miniature Diamond Jim Brady.

But I didn’t know what steady money was until the year Elvis died, and my mom’s already shaky marriage to her deadbeat husband came apart at the seams. Everyone knew it was bound to happen anyway. Well, maybe everyone except for my mom. My stepdad was a loudmouth drunk who hitched his wagon to every crazy get-rich scheme that came his way.

One time he drove down to Georgia for a truckload of what turned out to be half-rotten cantaloupes. He was convinced that he’d make a mint because he read in one of my mom’s ladies’ magazine that melons were popular for people on diets. But by the time he got back to Missouri, after stopping off at every bar he could find, the cantaloupes were festering with maggots.

After that he tried to start a chicken farm. But he was lazy even when he was sober. The birds nearly starved to death before he sold them off at a loss. His most ambitious scheme almost landed him in court. He faked a back injury right after he joined the Teamsters. He was banking on an easy pension from the union until a lawyer from St Louis threatened to take him to trial.

We were living near Bear Lake at the time, just across from a big quarry, when my mom finally kicked his sorry ass to the curb. The house was near the highway, but it was still a pretty rural of the county back then. I had to catch the school bus about a quarter mile down the road from our house. The bus stop was at the edge of a long driveway and a one-story house draped by heavy oak branches. A widow woman had lived there before she died the year before.

One morning, while waiting for the bus, I saw a tall man with a young girl at his side emerge from the house. He walked with a bow-legged gait. The morning was cold as a well digger’s bunghole. A raw wind came in from the east across the Mississippi River. But the man was bareheaded, clad only in a windbreaker open at the front. His hands were shoved into his pockets, and he leaned over when he talked to the little girl.

He smiled and extended his hand when he reached me. It was the first time an adult had ever offered to shake my hand. He wore a Western-style shirt under the open jacket, and his cowboy boots looked new. Up close, I could see he was already losing his hair. The girl wore a knit hat, and most of her face was covered up with an orange scarf. She had Down syndrome. I could tell that because of her eyes. She was nervous around me. I guess she didn’t like talking to strangers. I couldn’t blame her. The kids at school were hell on anyone in Special Ed.

I think the man’s name was Jim, and he called his daughter Peggy. He told me he was a short-haul trucker, and that he needed someone to keep an eye on his daughter until the bus arrived. He said he’d pay me fifty cents a day to do that.

‘All you need to do is make sure she gets on.’

He said the bus company had a special seat for her, right behind the driver, a pretty nice lady named Joan. I’d heard the bus driver talk about her two boys in high school. Our bus was for kids in elementary and junior high.

He pointed to the road where a big truck came speeding around the bend. It was headed to the quarry.

‘Those yahoos don’t pay attention half the time, and I don’t want her wandering off.’

The man’s daughter wore mittens. I tried to make eye contact with her and say something, like I’d seen adults do with kids, but she grabbed her dad’s hand and scooted back again.

‘You think your father will mind if you help me out? I can ask him if you want?’ he asked.

‘He’s dead.’

‘Hmm…your mom?’

That’s when I lied to the man, because I was thinking about those two shiny 25-cent pieces he’d offered me.

‘She likes it when I work.’

Maybe that was true, but in all reality my mom was a wreck because she saw cancer eat up my dad, and then, the man she married after that drank up her paycheck and stepped out with other women while she cleaned motel rooms next to the highway. He was gone, but the divorce still cost her, and she was not making enough to keep a roof over our heads much longer.

‘Well, that’s settled,’ he said. ‘And you don’t have to worry about the afternoons. I’ll pick her up from school.’

The girl’s dad paid me every morning. He’d walk down the long driveway with his daughter next to him and slide the two quarters into my hand. Before he left, he’d check to see if her coat was buttoned tight, and make sure the scarf was bound properly around her face.

In the short time they lived there, I never caught sight of the girl’s momma, and I’m not even sure she lived with them.

I’d try to talk to her the first few mornings, but she’d back up a few inches anytime I said something. I guess she was still scared of me. That was fine with me. She was pretty easy to deal with anyway. She’d follow me on the bus, just like her daddy told her to do, and take her seat behind the bus driver.

It was easy money, and no one knew I was getting paid for watching her. Not even my mom. It didn’t take long for the older kids at the back of the bus to start making fun of her once they realized she was in Special Ed. One kid in particular, a red-head boy repeating seventh grade, held court back there. His family lived in a trailer near the dirt racetrack by the highway, and he was bigger than everyone else. I’d heard that he got in trouble at school for smoking and mouthing off to teachers.

He liked to pick on younger kids on the bus. He’d randomly choose someone and make jokes about them on the ride to school. One morning the girl became his target.

Him and the other boys in the back seat started making jokes about her and what she and the other kids did in Special Ed. They’d roll in their seats, holding their bellies while they laughed.

When Mrs. Joan finally got whiff of what the boys were doing, she yelled at them over her shoulder to stop. You could tell she was upset at what they were saying, but the boys ignored her and kept on lobbing insults at the girl.

Mrs. Joan slowed down and pulled the bus over to the side of the road and threw it in park. She rose and straddled the aisle, threatening to call the school’s principal on the bus radio if they didn’t shut up. But the boys only taunted the girl even more. They sounded like a pack of hyenas when the laughed.

I felt bad for the girl, but I didn’t say anything. I just stared straight ahead, acting like it wasn’t my business. But I felt ashamed when I heard the girl sobbing. Her shoulders trembled and she buried her face in her hands.

I stood up. I don’t know why I did, but I did. And I was scared. My voice sounded squeaky when I yelled at them, ‘Just leave her alone.’ At first, I wasn’t sure the boys heard me over their own crowing, but they must have because they started howling and pointing at me.

‘Aw…look at Prince Charming,’ the red headed boy said to his friends. ‘Maybe he’s in love?’

‘Just shut up.’

‘Boo hoo. You gonna cry too? Just like your little girlfriend?’

I don’t remember what I said after that, but something broke in me that day. Like a storm-swollen river breaching a levy. I yelled at those kids at the back of the bus from the top of my lungs. So loud my throat and lungs hurt. The bus driver was still behind me by then, and she tried to pull me away from the melee, but I shrugged her hands off my shoulders.

The older red-headed kid looked at me dumbfounded because I kept my eyes on him during the rant. I probably looked a crazy person. He slumped back in the seat and crossed his arms. He pouted and stared out the window.

‘Chill dude. We’re only kidding. Take it easy, okay?’

With that the taunting stopped. The bus driver finally got me to sit down. I laid my head against the window and bawled the rest of the trip to school. I had hot tears and snot running all down my face.

Mrs. Joan went back to her seat. She fired up the bus’s engine and took us to school. Everyone was quiet by then. I can’t remember anyone saying a word on the rest of the ride. Maybe my yelling and crying freaked them out.

I really don’t know why I yelled at the red-headed kid the way I did. I wasn’t trying to be a hero or anything.

Maybe I lost it because my dad died on us and my mom was a wreck after her divorce from my stepdad. When she wasn’t working, my mom would lie in bed with the curtains drawn. Our phone was constantly ringing with creditors wanting their money. We were one late payment away from being on the street.

When everyone else got off at the school, the bus driver came back and sat next to me. She held my hand until I was okay enough to go inside.

The next day at the bus stop the girl came up with her father.

I don’t think she had said anything to him about what had happened on the bus, because he smiled like he did every day and slipped me the two coins. When we got on the bus, no one made fun of her. Everyone was pretty quiet, in fact. Even the butt wads at the back of the bus ignored us.

I sat down behind her, like I did every day of the week, but this time she stood up from her seat and came back to me. She didn’t say a word to me when she sat down. But I could tell by her eyes she was smiling.

It went on like this for a couple of weeks until one day her dad didn’t bring her to the bus stop. At first, I thought she might have been sick. Then a week passed, and I didn’t see either one of them.

I went to their house one night after supper. The windows were dark, and the carport was empty, except for the crushed beer cans. I guess the High School kids had found a new place to party. The bay window curtains were open in the living room. I could barely see scattered clothes and trash on the floor, and a broken chest of drawers in the corner. They were gone.

The rest of the winter was tough on me and my mom. The motel cut her hours because of the bad weather, and she started cleaning other people’s home to make up for that lost income.

Worst of all I really missed the girl. It was not so much about the money. It’s just that I started to like talking to her, even though she never said a word back. She stopped flinching when I got close to her, like when I showed her a new pack of baseball cards. She nodded at them and giggled. I guess talking to her made me feel less lonely.

April was our last month near Bear Lake.

When I got home one afternoon after school, my mom was inside packing up. I was surprised to see her because she was supposed to be at the motel. She had the windows open because the weather was so nice. She handed me a couple of boxes that she’d picked up from the grocery store.

‘Pack up. We’re turning over a new leaf. I found us a better place in town.’

We gathered what we could, filling up the trunk and back seat of her Ford LTD.

My mom, being the person that she was, swept the floors and cleaned the bathrooms with bleach.

But we ended up leaving a lot of stuff in the house. I don’t know if it was because we could not afford a mover, or that she was ashamed of asking for help. I think mainly it was because the furniture and a lot of our belongings reminded her of my stepdad.

When we stepped out of the house with our last box of stuff, a deputy sheriff was waiting outside. He was standing next to his police cruiser smoking a cigarette. My mom walked over to him and handed him the keys. She signed a paper, and he nailed a notice on the door. He nodded at her when she climbed into the car. I could see him get on his police radio and call something in. I guess it was about us. Then we pulled out of the driveway. That was pretty much it.

The weird thing was that my mom didn’t seem sad about what was going on. She turned on the radio. Her favorite Country and Western station crackled to life. A Dolly Parton song she really liked was playing. She twisted the volume dial higher, and started humming to the song, tapping the wheel with her fingers.

We drove past Jim and Peggy’s house. The grass had grown a lot taller over the past few weeks. My mom must have noticed me looking at the house.

‘I wonder whatever happened to them? They just up and disappeared.’

‘Kind of like us.’

My mom laughed so hard that she had to wipe tears away from the corner of her eyes with the back of her hand. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I just blurted it out.

‘That’s right buddy boy. Just a couple of rolling stones.’

I looked in the side-view mirror before the reflection of house blinked out of sight. There was a part of me that was aching something terrible for the girl and her dad to come running out of the house and hale us down. But I knew that would never happen. They were gone. Just as simple as that.

When we made it past a bend in the road, I looked at my mom. I was going to ask her about our new place, but I realized she was crying instead of laughing now.

Tom Darin Liskey was born in Missouri but spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Red Truck Review, Deep South, Driftwood Press, Biostories, Spelk, Heartwood among others. His narrative and documentary photography has been published in The Museum of Americana, The Blue Mountain Review, Cowboy Jamboree and Midwestern Gothic, among others. He lives in Texas.