The Green Bus is writer Bailey White's 16th Thanksgiving story for NPR.
Bailey White's annual tradition of Thanksgiving Day stories continues this year with a tale of two modern-day hippies who get just a little too comfortable in the home of a woman who herself was once just like them.
There's nothing hotter than the parking lot of a north Florida Walmart Superstore in mid-August, but that's where they had been living for over a week when Alice found them and took them home with her — the man, the woman, and the snaggle-toothed Chihuahua dog. They'd been living in their broke down Volkswagen bus, with a Make Love Not War sticker on the front and a hand-lettered 'Need Repairs' sign strapped across the back. They had set up two folding aluminum chairs in the shade of a blue FEMA tarp.
They were modern hippies, hippies without a cause from the new millennium; but still it took Alice back — the wild hair, the woman's tie died skirt, the smells of patchouli and sweat, the man's lackadaisical gait.
"Them goddamned slouching hippies," Alice's father had called the hippies in 1967, when Alice had fallen in love with one of them. Roger, with the golden mustache and the dreamy eyes. When they had first moved in with their chickens and their hand plows her father had thought the hippies were some new kind of earnest fanner, and he gave them an old blue '41 Ford truck he had out back. He spent an afternoon replacing hoses and gaskets, got it running, and gave it to Roger. But the hippies wouldn't use Sevin dust and flea beetles got their eggplants, and slugs got the lettuces, and possums ate the chickens one by one, and besides, it was the summer of love.
"I gave him my truck, and he took my child!" Alice's father said.
The hippies loved that truck though, and they rode all over in it, hanging out the windows, piled up in the back — Alice too. It was before the days of seatbelts.
"She done took up with them," her father said.
One of the hippies with some carpentry skills built a little house on the back of the truck with a shingled roof and shuttered screen windows, with shelves that folded down from the sides to serve as tables by day and beds by night. In October they all piled in and drove to Washington to march on the Pentagon. They drove all day and all night, taking turns sleeping on the little shelf beds. Roger got beat up and the carpenter got tear gassed, and Alice heard Norman Mailer make his speech. Then they drove all day and all night back home, dirty and exhausted. They didn't stop at the house, but drove straight to Blue Hole Spring, left the hot truck ticking on the bank, and dropped one by one from the rope swing down into the clear, icy blue.
The truck never ran right after that. It gave its whole heart to the March on Washington. And the commune didn't last either, of course. Roger went to Vermont and joined up with Bernie Sanders and the Liberty Union Party. The carpenter who built the house on the back of the blue truck signed on with Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity. Alice read a startling book called The Population Bomb, and when she finished nursing school she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Africa distributing condoms. She got her first real job working at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston.
That was all so long ago now, but the new hippies stranded at the Walmart with their Volkswagen bus got Alice to thinking about those long ago days, the old blue truck, the sunlight dappling the eel grass in Blue Hole Spring, and the idea she had lost along the way: that things were bad, but people could make them better.
So all that was in her mind when she came out of Walmart with her groceries on a hot summer afternoon and went over to the green bus. "Do y'all need help?" Alice asked. "A cool shower, a homecooked meal, away from this hot asphalt?" She hadn't really meant to invite them to move in with her, but the next thing she knew the green bus was parked in her front yard, ticking and smoking just like the old blue truck had ticked and smoked after the March on Washington 40 years ago. The new young hippies, named Crystal and Jeremy, hauled grocery bags and plastic laundry hampers up onto her front porch, back and forth with their dirty bare feet.
Crystal had a way of carrying the little dog tight under one arm, mashed up against her bosom, and when she put him down he still retained that curvature. He sidled up to the corner of the sofa and cocked up a little leg. One side of his lip hung up on a protruding tooth, which gave him a perpetual snarl. His name was Doobie.
"Great porch!" Jeremy called from out back. "This is so cool," he said. "You're so nice! We'll just crash here a few days, just until we get money to get the bus fixed, then we'll be back on the road."
Crystal was fat in a comfortable way. She settled down on the sofa in a nest of string bags, draped a crimson and purple scarf across her lap, and began to string beads on a length of hemp twine. She had a series of overlapping rings in the edge of her ear and a gold bead in her lower lip. Out from the bodice of her sundress, a tattoo of a writhing warrior goddess emerged. But in spite of all that violence about her person, her face had a serene, meditative look, as if nothing could faze her. She called everybody Baby, even when addressing people a generation older than herself.
"The road is our home, Baby," she said.
Alice got out towels and wash rags, put sheets on the bed in the spare room, cleaned up after the little dog, and cooked supper. Jeremy came dripping out of the bathroom, his dreadlocks smelling like a wet dog. Crystal changed her clothes in the middle of the living room, raising both arms and languorously twirling herself into a diaphanous nightgown. The warrior goddess went all the way around her torso, encumbered with wings and weaponry, several of its limbs foreshortened by rolls of fat. Jeremy sat down in front of the television and changed the channels spasmodically.
"We're night people, Baby," Crystal said. She tucked her little fat feet under herself and settled into the sofa for a long nocturnal chat. She was from New Jersey, and she and the bus were in the middle of their fourth cross country trek. "We are interstate celebrities," she said. The bus was plastered with bumper stickers. Beads and peace signs dangled from the rear view mirror and little shrines decorated the dashboard.
"People love the bus," Crystal said. "They want to ask questions and take pictures. We get written up in papers." She had gotten the bus three years ago from an old boyfriend, just a plain old green VW bus. But the whole concept of the bus was hers, she said. It was a work in progress, and she was the artist. Jeremy was new, just along for the ride. "And whatever gets tossed his way, Baby," she said. She pulled out photographs — the bus in Arizona beside a saguaro cactus, the bus with a mountain background, the bus rolling down an endless highway, Doobie's head out the window. Closeup pictures showed the bumper stickers:
Happiness is a journey, not a place.
I don't believe in miracles, I depend on them.
What would Buddha do?
Make Love, not War.
Alice couldn't be a night person with her 12 hour shift at the hospital starting at 7:00 the next morning. She left Crystal stringing beads at midnight and tried to sleep. But there were bumping and thumping sounds, the smell of marijuana, cupboard doors opening and closing in the kitchen, eating, drinking, water running. Doobie's toenails clicked on the floor. At 3:00 in the morning one of them stood on the back steps and yipped like a coyote. Doors slammed, voices, moist and rhythmic sounds.
"Make Love not War" the bumper sticker said. "What would Buddha do?" What would Buddha do, Alice wondered as she lay in her bed and watched the dawn. Would Buddha ride up and down the interstate highway in a bus with a fuel leak, being photographed? Would Buddha sit up all night with his fat self on somebody else's sofa, stringing beads? What would Buddha think if he could see the old Elmslie place where she had lived with the hippies and raised chickens and thought she could save the world all those years ago? Come to find out, she couldn't even save the old Elmslie place. The Big Blue Hole was now a real estate development, ringed with houses and cluttered with boardwalks. It wasn't blue anymore either but a nasty green, slimy with algae bloom and rock snot. Where the old farmhouse had stood with its falling-off kitchen, the top of the hill had been bulldozed flat and a palace-like house with plastic Palladian windows looked out over a vast lawn mowed in herringbone stripes where the Elmslies had pastured their cows.
At daylight it was finally quiet in the house and Alice put on her scrubs and her crape soled shoes. She got a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. Doobie came out of the spare room and yapped at her feet, snarling and making vicious little feints at her insteps. He was not used to seeing such big white shoes. But the hippies, "night people," did not stir. Alice got in her car and carefully backed out around the green bus. Through the windshield Buddha sitting in an ashtray on the dashboard looked out at her with a mocking smile.
How far she had come from saving the world! Forty years ago she had been hopefully distributing condoms in desperately overpopulated third-world countries, and now here she was delivering babies to dull-eyed children whose grandmothers weren't thirty years old. "Instant babies," her friend Linda called them.
Her last patient that afternoon was a 15-year-old girl in for her first exam at almost full term. Her answer to every question was "not really."
"Have you made plans? Do you have a place ready for the baby? Do you have financial support? Do you have someone to help at home? Will the father of the baby be any help? Do you know the father of the baby?"
Then it was Wednesday afternoon, the beginning of her three days off. Her feet hurt. Buddha and Krishna and Jesus and all the rest of them have long since washed their hands of us, Alice thought.
When she got home the side doors of the bus were open and clothes, bedspreads, and blankets were belched out across the lawn and spread over bushes. Jeremy was arranging things on the edge of the porch — a broken plaster of paris statue of Adam and Eve was set up on the porch rail, the snake dangling out of a papier mache tree with just a few leaves, Eve's hand outstretched for the apple, and Adam broken off at the ankles, lying face down at her feet like a fallen warrior. In the bathroom, rayon shawls were draped over the towel bar, dripping pools of colored water from their fringes. Crystal had set up a kind of cottage industry in the living room. She had her magnifying glass set up at the sofa and spools of colored wire, skeins of feathers, balls of string and jars of beads, colored stones and glass spread out on the table. Finished necklaces hung in the window and Doobie was yapping furiously, scampering and pouncing on elusive colored spangles that danced across the floor.
"We've decided to have a yard sale," said Crystal, "to raise money for the bus." Alice called in an ad to the paper and the radio station: "Household items, some artwork, jewelry," she said. After supper she pulled out some things from the backs of cupboards and pantry shelves. She would sell her aunt's set of dishes from the 1950s, eight juice glasses with hand-painted flowers, a George Foreman grill. Crystal began gluing sticks and rocks together — "A rock or dried twig from almost every state in the Union," she said. Alice collected boxes and bags and a tin box for change. She wrote "yard sale, yard sale" on posterboard with a black marker. She called Frankie from Axelrod's Garage to come look at the bus.
By Saturday morning, the front porch looked like a gypsy carnival. The colorful beads hanging along the railing attracted attention from the street, but it wasn't really a hippie bead kind of town. Alice's aunt's Ballerina dishes went to a young couple with a baby in a stroller. An old lady with diabetes bought the George Foreman grill and the hand-painted glasses from Memphis. The woman next door bought the pretty blue and white ginger jar she had meant to make into a lamp someday.
Frankie from Axelrod's came by about noon and crawled around under the bus. After a half hour he called Alice over and stood wiping his hands on a greasy rag and glancing with distaste at the engine. It looked pitifully tiny under its little flap. Frankie listed things on his greasy fingers, way up past ten: "Rings, a main bearing, exhaust manifold, fuel pump, fan belt — looks like the oil hasn't been changed in 20,000 miles," he said. "Just to get it back on the road, you're looking $300, $350; but to be honest with you Alice?"
"Don't be honest with me, Frankie," said Alice.
By early afternoon it was too hot for a yard sale. They took down the signs and counted up the money — $250. "You keep it all," said Alice. "Take the bus to Axelrod's on Monday."
Monday was a nightmare at the hospital. Her co-worker Linda had to stay at home with a sick child, a toxemia patient had a seizure, and one of the doctors was tied up in surgery all morning. The little pregnant girl missed her appointment at 9:30 and showed up at 2:00 when Alice was busy with an emergency C-section, Alice made arrangements to see her at home after work, and fought traffic to get to the other side of town where the girl lived in a beat-up trailer with ragged tuna fish cans thrown under the steps. They looked like they had both been mangled with the same can opener.
She got home late, late. The bus looked different, lighter on its wheels, almost buoyed up. Good old Frankie, Alice thought. The house was empty and quiet. Only Doobie was in the living room, asleep on Crystal's nightgown he had scratched up into a little wad. Crystal and Jeremy came in after midnight, Jeremy with his dreadlocks tied up with a scarlet ribbon, Crystal resplendent in a purple and coral caftan. They looked elegant in a sloppy way. Crystal flopped down on the sofa.
"Man, that's a long walk!" she said, picking at a blister her flip flops had rubbed between her toes. She deftly unhooked her bra, extricated it from the armhole of the caftan, and draped it over the lamp. Light glowed through the translucent D cup.
"But the bus," said Alice. "I thought Axelrod —"
"Oh, Baby, we got stir crazy," said Crystal. "I'm not used to being cooped up in a house, so we walked down to the shopping center at the 331 intersection just so I could gaze west down I-10.
The highway is in my blood, Baby, it's calling me! And there was that fancy Italian restaurant! 'No shoes, no shirt, no service' it said on the door, but hey! We were wearing shoes!" She slapped her gold lame flip-flop against the fat sole of her foot.
"We had a great meal," said Jeremy.
"With the yard sale money? You spent your bus money?" said Alice.
"It's just money, Baby," said Crystal. "Easy come, easy go."
Under the dual influence of alcohol and complacency they slept soundly that night. The moon glowed on the roof of the bus. It was the yard sale, not Axelrod's Garage that had lightened its load, Alice realized. She thought about the little pregnant girl twirling a strand of hair around a finger. "Will it hurt?" she had asked. Linda felt like all the rocks in the United States had been piled on top of her.
From the beginning it was an unusual birth. The girl had come in early in the afternoon. By 6:00 she was fully dilated, but the amniotic sac had not ruptured. The contractions were regular and closely spaced, but the girl just lay there. "Push!" Alice said. "It will be over quicker if you push." Her shift ended, but she did not go home. At 10:00 when she checked the girl again, a bulge had formed in the sac, stretched so thin it was transparent. Peering in through that thin, clear membrane, Alice saw a little fist appear and open into a little hand, and then the baby's face floated into view. It was not at all like the first sight she usually had of a baby's face, all squashed and mashed and screwed up from pressure and discomfort. This little face had a wondering look. It seemed to gaze out into the light quizzically, and then retreat, as if to pause and consider. At last the sac ruptured, the water rushed out, and the baby was born all at once.
"Is it over?" the girl asked.
"Almost over now, Honey," said Alice. She delivered the placenta, dried the baby off, bundled it in a flannel blanket, and tucked it in at the mother's side. She said what she always said.
"You have a healthy baby girl." But the mother closed her eyes and turned her head away.
Car headlights at night show up flaws in lawn mowing, and when Alice pulled into her driveway she noticed a shaggy beard of grass around the bus where she had not been able to reach with the mower. There would be a dead rectangle of grass in the exact shape of a VW bus. She worked efficiently. On her way past the bus she opened both its double doors on the house side and starting with the yard sale leftovers on the porch, she began to load it up, from the back to the front. Adam and Eve went in first. Then the fringed scarves and damp underwear from the bathroom in plastic bags. She packed all the bead working supplies in a box. She did not try to be quiet, and Jeremy and Crystal came out of the spare room and stood dazed and mute. Jeremy was the first to catch on. He pulled on a T shirt and then his shoes, hopping on first one foot and then the other.
"I'm sorry," said Alice, scooping up Doobie. "I need the space."
"But the bus," said Crystal. "We have to get the bus fixed. It won't run."
"It will roll," said Alice. She shoved an armfull of quilts into the bus and quickly slammed the double doors before they swelled against it. Jeremy scampered into the passenger side and Crystal crawled into the driver's seat, still trying to say things. Alice dumped Doobie into Jeremy's lap and slammed the door. There was that good old Volkswagen snap.
"Put it in neutral!" she called out, and she got behind the bus and pushed. The yard was level, and it took some doing to get it shoved out of the dents the tires had mashed in the ground and over the raised edge of grass at the street, but there was a gentle slope down toward Miss Gatey's house, and soon it was rolling on its own. At the first intersection Alice heard a uunnhh uuhhnn sound, then a ragged catch and a roar. A belch of smoke drifted up Stegall Street, and the bus was gone.
Alice put her nightgown on, got into her bed, and thought about housecleaning. How she would scrub that spare room! She made a list in her mind of what all she would need: a new string mop, a bottle of Murphy's Oil Soap. She wouldn't need that big bed anymore. It was trash day; she would drag the mattress out to the curb. She didn't think about the past or the future. She just thought about that very morning, and how before the sun got on them she would polish the windows in the spare room with newspapers and ammonia.
Copyright © 2007 Bailey White.