The Bus Ride, 1973
Lourdes Dolores Follins
“We’re leavin’ Staten Island and movin’ down South.” Mommy stands in the doorway to my bedroom, watching me play hospital with my dolls as she tells me this. She usually looks tired when she gets home from her job as a nurse, but today she also looks sad. One of my favorite things about Mommy’s face are her eyes. Even when she’s serious, they shine and dance. But today, her eyes are still and the usually-brown skin under her eyes looks like she drew circles under them with a black crayon. I’ve never seen her look sad before, so I feel a little sad, too.
“I havta find another job,” she adds. I’m four years old and I don’t know what to do with my mother’s sadness and mine, so I go back to playing with my dolls, whispering to them as we figure out what to do.
* * *
I don’t know where “down South” is, but the next day Mommy brings a big brown box into my room and tells me to put all of my toys inside. Thinking we’re going to play a different kind of Hide-and-Go-Seek, I jump up and down excitedly in my yellow plaid skirt and white Mary Janes and throw my toys in the box. I’m small enough to climb into the box with my toys and am considering whether to do so.
“Stop jumpin’ up and down! This isn’t a game, Desdemona,” Mommy snaps. After coming over and fixing my Afro-puffs, she gives me the side-eye and straightens the blue kerchief on her hair. Mommy just got it pressed and curled at Miss Ruth’s Beauty Salon and the kerchief is to keep it from getting messed up. She’s wearing a red turtleneck sweater, blue hip-hugger jeans, and a pair of navy blue sneakers. Even though it’s cold outside, the smooth brown skin on Mommy’s face is shiny from sweat. It gets that way when she moves too fast.
My eyes widen and I stop jumping up and down. I tuck my head into my chest and slowly put my toys into the box, one by one. I don’t know if I’m ever going to see them again, so I kiss each one and whisper a goodbye. “Good-bye, Snoopy. Good-bye, Baby-Eats-A-Lot. Good-bye, Mr. Telephone. Good-bye, Minnie Mouse.”
* * *
A few days later, we’re on a big silver bus and I’m looking out the window. This bus isn’t like the city buses back home, where you pull a string that runs along the tops of the windows and rings a bell. When I ask where is the bell to let the bus driver know when we want to get off the bus, Mommy tells me that we don’t have to ring a bell because the driver knows where to let you off. I’m immediately impressed by his mind-reading skills.
“This is a Greyhound bus." Mommy says. "It has a bathroom on board and makes fewer stops."
“What’s a grey-hound?” I ask.
“It’s the name of the company,” she replies.
Sensing my next question, “It’s also a kind of dog. Remember the picture you saw on the outside of the bus?”
“Yesh,” I nod.
“That’s what a greyhound looks like. They’re skinny dogs that run very, very fast.” Mommy’s brown eyes get big as she describes how quickly the dogs run. I make my eyes big like hers as I imagine packs of silver dogs running in the street. Mommy smiles a bit and pats the back of my seat. “Now lie back. We’ve got a long way to go, so you better get some sleep. Hopefully, by the time you wake up, we’ll be there.”
I look up at Mommy’s face, checking her eyes. Mommy doesn’t usually smile this much, but she’s been smiling an awful lot lately. Just as I start to try to figure out why, my eyes close and I fall asleep.
* * *
When my eyes open again, it’s raining so hard that I can barely see the cars driving alongside us on the highway. Mommy is fast asleep, with her mouth wide open and her head turned away from me. No matter how hard I try, I can’t fall back asleep because I’m so excited. I’ve never been on a bus like this before and there are all kinds of interesting-looking people on it. There are lots of other Black people, some Spanish people, and a few white people.
Just as I fall asleep again, the person behind me starts kicking my seat. I turn towards Mommy, hoping to fall back asleep by putting my head in her lap, but she’s got her brown leather purse in her hands and there’s no lap to be found. I’m stuck sitting up and turning towards the window. But no matter how I turn, the person behind me keeps kicking my seat. I press my face against the window, trying to see what the person looks like. I wonder if I should ask them to stop. Maybe if they see that I’m a little girl, they’ll feel sorry for me. But my face is too big for me to squeeze flat against the window and get a good look at them. I turn around and get on my knees. But the back of the seat is too high for me to see the person’s face while I’m kneeling.
Mommy will probably yell at me, but I want to see this person, so I put my hands on the sides of my seat and pull myself up so that I am standing on my seat. I straighten my maroon jumper just like Mommy tells me to whenever I wear dresses and then, look up. All I see is a pale, old white man with stringy brown hair, yellow eyes and teeth, and red spots on his face. He smells funny and glares back at me. The man reminds me of the monsters in my fairy tales.
“Whatchu want, yuh lil’ pickaninny?” he growls as me. I don’t know what a pickaninny is, but his face looks mean, so I reach down and gently tap Mommy on her shoulder while staring at him.
“Could you stop kicking my seat, please?” I ask the man. I am almost whispering and added “please” because I could hear Mommy in my head, reminding me to say it. I am terrified of this man, but I want to go to sleep.
“Whut?” he barks at me.
I tap Mommy harder and she stirs a bit. I know she’s going to yell at me, but I grab her shoulder and whisper urgently, “Mommy! Mommy, wake up!” I keep an eye on the man just in case. For some reason, even though I trust most adults, I don’t trust him.
“Hmm?” Mommy says sleepily.
“Whut did you say to me?!” the ogre shouts at me. Mommy wakes up and grabs my left leg.
“What? What’s going on?”
“This man keeps kicking my seat," I whimper. "And he just yelled at me when I asked him to stop.” I just know that I’m going to get yelled at by her, too. Mommy hates when I wake her up, so I try not to unless I really need her help.
Somehow, Mommy understands what I’ve said and gets up out of her seat to face the man. I have never seen her move this quickly.
“Stop kicking her seat,” she demands. Mommy looks as angry as she does when I’m in trouble, so I know this man is in for it. She is calm, but her hands are on her hips. Mommy’s tan blouse is a bit wrinkled, but she still looks nice.
“Whut?” The man suddenly does not understand English.
“She asked you to stop kicking her seat, so stop kicking her seat.”
The man starts grumbling, but does not say anything else to my mother. He also stops kicking my seat.
I clamber back down into my seat before Mommy notices that I’ve been standing on it and Mommy calmly sits down. She smooths out the wrinkles in her brown corduroy skirt and pats her lap so that I can lay my head there. I obey and as soon as my face touches her skirt, I am asleep.
I do not wake up until we are “down South” in a place called Florence, South Carolina. A place where we are now going to live and try to call home.
Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer femme who comes from a long line of intrepid women and working-class strivers. She straddles the worlds of academic and creative nonfiction. When Lourdes Dolores isn’t writing, she’s working as a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people in New York City. This is her debut fiction publication.