The school bus is old. The windows are cracked. Rust has broken out like acne on the chipped yellow paint. Intricate webs of silver duct tape fail to conceal the rips and cracks in the old vinyl seats.
The bus chugs along Mill Road. The rattles are almost deafening. As Mr. Tiani downshifts for the bridge the kids get a blast of the stink from the river below.
Holding their noses, the kids leap out of their seats. It takes only a second or two to slam all the windows shut. It has to be the all-time worst smell in the world. Rotten eggs, septic tanks, and the reptile house at the Cleveland Zoo all rolled into one putrid odor. None of the kids bother to look at the sickly yellow water below. Nor do they glance a few hundred yards up the river at the mill that is transforming a thousand gallons of clean water into poison every sixty seconds and layering the river with thick oily foam.
(The local environmental groups have tried to clean up the river forever. They've even sued the mill owners. The mill owners have sued them right back. Half the people in town work at the mill. No matter which way the court rules, it's going to be a big mess.)
A boy sits by himself, ignoring the rattles and the smell. Scrunched down in his seat with his knees pressed up against the back of the seat in front of him, he stares off into space.
His face is round, his eyes are wide set and friendly. Though no one ever says anything pro or con about his nose, the boy has recently decided that it's too big for his face. He likes his hair, though. It is black and hangs over his forehead, almost touching the thin metal frames of his glasses. He's overdue for a haircut.
The boy's name is George Honiker. He's twelve years old, and next month he's going to finish sixth grade at Bob Hope Middle. (The star grew up in Cleveland, but there's no proof he ever set foot in East Siena. It's kind of pathetic, but that's East Siena for you.) Today George is wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt, which is too warm for this time of year. He likes it buttoned all the way to the top, which makes it even warmer. The jeans are old. So are the sneakers. His big toe is coming through on the right sneaker.
(The shirt is too small for him too, but it's his favorite shirt. He got it for Christmas last year from his dad. His dad has been in the Florida Panhandle working on a ranch where they grow fat-free ostriches, so he doesn't know how much George has grown this year.)
The little smile on George's face turns into a grin. He scrounges around in his shirt pocket for a pencil. It's hardly two inches long, but if he wedges it between his thumb and the palm of his hand, he can get a decent grip on the thing.
He flips open the spiral notebook on his lap. It's his doodle pad. In big, thick lines he starts to draw pistons. Around the pistons he draws an engine. Around the engine he starts to draw the GTO he saw at the car show in Cleveland the month before.
The bus slows.
"Versailles Trailer Park!" Mr. Tiani shouts.
The brakes are noisier than the rattles. They don't stop screeching till the bus comes to a complete stop. George still doesn't hear them. He is too busy deciding if his GTO should have whitewalls or not.
He feels someone behind him poking him in the shoulder. It's hardly more than a tap, but it startles him. He turns abruptly. Fern Dachroeden is hovering over him, one hand in the air, looking like she's about to strike again.
"Hey, what was that for?" George complains. "I didn't do anything to you!"
"You live at the trailer park, don't you?" Fern Dachroeden asks.
"So what if I do?" he says. "You think it gives you the right to hit me?"
(Even if she is a public nuisance, George has to admit she's pretty enough in a girly-girl way. She even wears a little velvet headband with flowers embroidered on it.)
"Hit you?" Fern exclaims indignantly.
"You need to learn to keep your hands to yourself," George declares.
"I poked you, is all, you brat," she announces stiffly. "And that was just because you wouldn't listen when I tried to tell you it's your stop."
"My stop?" George asks incredulously.
"You're home, George!"
George looks out the window. There is no missing the massive gates at the entrance to the Versailles Trailer Park. "Oh, no!" George mumbles under his breath. As he springs out of his seat the spiral pad slips off his lap and into the aisle. He stoops to retrieve it, but Fern is too quick for him.
"Give it back!" George demands.
"Oh, George!" Fern teases, hugging the pad. "Can't I keep it? Please? Pretty please?"
As George makes one last futile grab for the doodle pad he sees Rennie Whitfield, a row behind Fern, jumping out of his seat. He's the richest kid in Miss Lemon's sixth grade. Blond hair in a preppy cut, big square face. Big square teeth, too. His shirt is the right size and he wears khakis.
"Give it back, Fern!" Rennie shouts.
"I just want to see what George is drawing!" Fern giggles as she sticks the pad into her book bag.
"But it's not yours!" Rennie protests, grabbing her bag.
George spots Mr. Tiani rampaging down the aisle. He's scary even when he's sitting in the driver's seat, but more so now as he plants one major (hairy) paw on Rennie's shoulder and the other (equally hairy) paw on the book bag.
"No picking on the girls, you guys," Mr. Tiani warns. "Not on my bus."
"But she stole George's pad!" Rennie protests. "She hit him too!"
"Oh, Mr. Tiani" -- Fern pouts so prettily that George could hurl right on the spot -- "make them stop picking on me!"
Mr. Tiani hands the book bag back to Fern. "Don't you worry, honey," he tells Fern. "Those boys ought to be ashamed."
George knows a hopeless cause when he sees it. He scowls. "Oh, keep the doodle pad if you like it so much."
Eyes on the corrugated rubber floor, he runs down the aisle and jumps off the bus.
(Well, it's home while George's father is in Florida. George's mom's been dead almost six years now, so he has no place to stay except with his sister and her husband, Karl, at the Versailles Trailer Park.)
It took a couple of months before George got used to living in a trailer. No matter if he lives there a hundred years, though, he'll never get used to the gates that lead into the park. Everyone in town makes fun of them. It's no wonder. They are almost fifteen feet high and their black vertical bars are capped with gold arrowheads. But the gates are plywood, not iron. They'd collapse if you tried to close them.
As parks go, this one isn't so big. Only thirty trailers are there now, plus concrete slabs with electric and water hookups (that means sewage, too) for five or six more. All the trailers are arranged in two rings around a humongous cement fountain. The splashing makes such a racket the residents took up a petition to get Mrs. Artoonian to turn it off.
(That will happen the year Hades freezes over. Mrs. Artoonian spent half her husband's life insurance on the fountain, and she means to get her money's worth. If Mrs. Artoonian had spent the money on some trees instead, the place might look halfway decent, George thinks.)
George follows the rest of the kids up the dirt road into the park. Some of their families are here for good. They've taken the wheels off the trailer, put down patio stones with a corrugated plastic awning over them. Some stay only a month or two. They move into regular houses or just another trailer park. George used to try to guess just by looks who was going in which direction, but he got it wrong so much of the time, he doesn't bother anymore. You never know.
George sees Lizard Artoonian up ahead. Her mom owns the park, so that makes her permanent. She's the shortest kid in sixth grade, and she's got pale skin and fine, curly hair that is so blond it might as well be white. Her eyeballs bulge out a little. It's probably her thyroid condition, but that's how Lizzie got to be Lizard. If she minds, she doesn't show it.
Sometimes when Lizard isn't looking, George draws doodles of her. Even if her hair and her skin and her eyes were normal, she'd still look weird. She always wears giant-size blue denim overalls and T-shirts she tie-dyes herself, plus lots and lots of thick plastic hoops around each wrist. Today they're all green. Tomorrow they'll be red or yellow or blue. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame baseball cap she wears is permanent. For all George knows, Lizard sleeps with it on.
She's spotted something in the weeds at the side of the road. She scoops up a dented can that once contained Diet Dr Pepper. George doesn't know how she saw it. The grass is almost two feet tall.
"You going to get Fern Dachroeden, George?"
"Probably not," George says, sighing. "She didn't hit me all that hard, you know."
"She stole your doodle pad."
"It's just a dumb doodle pad. I got plenty more back in the trailer."
"Fern sure got Whitfield steamed," Lizard says. "Why would he want to do you any favors? It's not like you're friends or anything."
"Beats me," George laughs. "You wouldn't catch me jumping out of my seat if Fern stole his doodle pad."
"Or his ten-speed," Lizard adds. "Or one of his forty-six cashmere sweaters. Or his private jet."
"He doesn't have a private jet!" George protests.
"How do you know?"
"He's a kid," George says.
Lizard shrugs. "You want to go over to the recycling?" she asks.
George shakes his head. "Tammy's off soda. She says it's bad for her digestion on account of her getting so pregnant."
Lizard shrugs again. Clearly she has very little patience for people who don't drink soda. "What are you going to do for money if you don't redeem some cans?"
"I'm getting money from my dad."
"The check that you were supposed to get last week?"
"You know how the mail is," George explains.
But Lizard isn't listening. She's found another empty. Classic Coke. She's got to have radar for empties, George figures.
Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Roos