by David E. Oprava
It’s winter, and it’s simple cold. The steam from the cattle barn across the road wanders into the pre-dawn. Cows are having their udders sucked, and he almost hears the sound of the pneumatic pump: thuck-thuck, thuck-thuck. The headlights of the school bus are craning up at the clear sky on the opposite hill, and he waits patiently in the dark for it to arrive. Beside him is a metal pole with the reflective badge his stepfather put up last fall. It says, See me. I am a kid waiting in the snowdrift that the plough threw up. See me. Please don’t kill me. But at this time of day no cars are coming or going, just the bus with its kid-height wheels crunching up the road over the semi-cured ice. It will make serrated grooves in the half-frozen slush; it always does. He likes the look the tread leaves–like a tattoo that goes for miles.
In his wool hand a Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox packed by his barely awake mom swings idly. A sandwich and an apple, nothing nice like cookies or chips. He’ll have to beg at lunch. He hates being healthy.
The trick of distance is playing with him as the bus looks closer than it is; working its way up the hill takes longer than it should. Space is so relative. Stamping time and shivering under the weak willow trees planted last summer, now coated in ice, he worries they might snap. He shakes his body, warning the frost to stay away, still waiting, breathing the clean of the cold wet in plumes.
The headlights gleam and light up the moisture of his breath shining silver against the dark blue of the ether. He smiles at the eight-year-old simplicity of it all. No one to see him smile at that special cold that only happens every once in awhile, the kind of cold that you want to hold onto in your chest. No wood smoke or hint of exhaust in the air, only the crisp everything that he can’t see but keeps near, as if it were his, only his. Once on the bus, the fat farmer’s kid will put gum in his hair. The youngest of the scary family of eight who live down the road in their dilapidated trailer will steal the baseball cap his Dad bought him. In his own pre-pubescent world, he will daydream about making time stand still so he can quietly hold the hand of Patty, a high school girl and the only one kind enough to talk to the chubby kid nobody else wants to know. As the clocks stop and people freeze, he works his way to the back of the bus and sits close to her, admiring her made-up skin and hair-sprayed perm. She’s wearing a pink turtleneck that shows off her boobs. Not knowing what to do with them but wishing he did, he stares. In his daydream, she stares right back.
The ride will take an hour, and in that time the traumas of adolescence will be agonized, then survived. But before that ride unfurls in its predictable mantra of everyday in the early eighties when things were just as complicated, but different, he’s still standing on the side of the road, waiting. It’s winter, and it’s simple cold.