The funnest time we ever had on the bus was when the substitute bus driver was there for a whole week. We didn’t know him at all, and you know that thing where when just one thing’s different, you all of a sudden don’t know if you’re in the right place? I was getting on the bus that morning, and I was talking to Jeremy, and then I looked up and saw this grinning guy with a beard looking down from the bus driver’s seat. And I thought, No, this is wrong. Like I thought it was the wrong bus. Even though all that was different was this driver with the beard and the old-timey bus driver’s hat. But it was still my bus, and Jeremy shoved me from behind, and Cheryl Morrison, who always sits right up in front of the bus because she likes to act like she’s in charge called me a “lollygagger.” Like that even means anything.
The guy drove okay. He liked to tell the other cars that they needed to get out of his way or that they were changing lanes too much, but he didn’t yell. He just said it normal, and he kind of laughed like he thought everybody else was funny in a way that only he knew. And then he’d ask us questions. He could see the whole bus without looking back, because they had one of those gigantic rearview mirrors. And you’d look up when you heard his voice, and you could see him looking at you in that big mirror. He had really dark eyes, and you’d see them looking at you and you’d think you were in trouble. But instead he’d ask you something, and it was funny if it wasn’t you he was asking. Because, like, on that first day, he looked right at me about halfway to school and he asked me, “Hey, you like that little blondie girl sitting up front of you?” And I did, but I couldn’t just say it. And Tammy just looked out the window and pretended that something was going on out there while everybody looked at her or looked at me. And I’m pretty sure my face was really, really red for a while.
But the guy wasn’t mean or anything. At the end of the bus ride, he told us his name. Bill. Bill the Bus Driver. He was really into being a bus driver. Not like any other driver we ever had. And when he’d see other yellow school buses from any school at all, not just ours, he’s honk and wave to the driver over there. I don’t think a lot of those other drivers knew it was Bill, because not that many of them waved back. But Bill still acted like they were friends. “That Charlie!” he said. “He’s crazy! Like he don’t see me!”
He talked to us all more and more as the week went by. Sometmes just asked general stuff. About how we liked school or which teachers we liked or didn’t like. It was stuff that most grown-ups didn’t really ask, stuff that we all talked about, but just to other kids. Like my dad would ask how I liked school, and he really just wanted to hear that it was okay. But Bill the Bus Driver would make you give reasons, and then you’d realize that “okay” wasn’t even an answer. The first time Bill was asking about school, Matt Tate said school was “fine,” and Bill went, “Fine? Fine? What’s that mean? I know a girl who’s fine, but I don’t know no school’s that’s fine. What’s fine about it?” And Matt didn’t know, and none of us knew. So we had to get a different answer. Carol Schmidt was the first one who said it right: “It’s boring.”
“There you go!” yelled Bill. “That sounds like my school!” And everybody laughed, and after that we all thought Bill was the coolest. Later, Michael Williams told him about Miss Fletcher and how she hummed to herself and thought nobody heard her. And Robbie Gold did a great impression Principal Furneau, all hunched over with his hair in his eyes. It was just like him! Tammy totally surprised me, because usually she was so quiet, but she went, “And Mrs. Winthrop, she’s that lady in the attendance office, always, always, always says hi to everybody the exact same way: ‘GOOD day, and how are weeeee?’” And everybody busted out laughing, because that was exactly how she sounded.
After the first day, Bill showed up with a boombox in the bus. It was tied to the big metal thing where Bill grabbed a handle to open and close the doors. When we asked about the boombox, Bill said he needed it to get going in the morning. He said we could all use some “solid jams,” and we liked the way Bill nodded his head along with the beat. Pretty soon, we were doing it too. Between songs, the DJ kept yelling “You’re plugged into your ORIGINAL old-school party station!” It was great, and even the kids who usually just put in their headphones and stared out the window listened to Bill’s boombox instead of whatever they usually listened to. After that, we all looked forward to hearing the boombox when we got on the bus, and even though only a few of us knew any of those songs at first, we had a bunch of favorites by the next day. When we’d hear the thumping and drumming of something we liked, we’d say, “Woo!” and Bill would say, “Yeah, yeah!” and the whole bus would be into it.
On Wednesday, we were all about how cool Bill was. He didn’t always remember every part of the route, but then he’d ask us to help him out, and that was fun. We were good about it until that afternoon Michael Szmuda said, “Yeah, and turn right here!” even though we all knew that was wrong. So Bill turned, and a bunch of us started laughing and then he knew we’d tricked him. But he pretended that he didn’t care and just kept turning and turning and turning down different streets until nobody knew where we were. We said, “Hey, maybe this isn’t right.” But Bill acted like he knew just what he was doing, even though all he kept doing was taking turns on streets we’d never seen before.
After a while, I told Bill I thought we were really lost, and then he acted like he finally heard us. He looked really surprised, and then he said, “Guess I’m going to have to get some directions then,” and pulled the bus over in front of this little, little house on this street that didn’t even have any sidewalks. He jumped out and told Cheryl Morrison that she was in charge, which she totally loved, but that, no, she couldn’t take names, which she totally hated. And then he ran up to the little white house and went inside. A couple of times while he was gone, Cheryl Morrison tried to tell somebody she was taking their name, but we all knew she couldn’t, so whatever. It’s not like we were going to leave the bus, anyway, because nobody knew where we were at all.
And then Bill came back, and he had this big styrofoam ice chest, like the kind you get when you forget the one you have at home. He wouldn’t tell us what he had inside and just stuck it up by his seat. “Just give it a minute,” he said. “You got to learn some patience. I tell you, in this life there’s nothing you use more than your patience.” Andy Solchow asked if Bill knew where we were now, and he said, “Now, later, always. That was my house.”
It was weird how excited we all got when he said that. I guess because grown-ups didn’t usually just show you their houses and stuff. It was always mysterious, stuff about their lives. Like the time Jeremy and I saw our old math teacher at the mall and she was walking next to her husband and they both looked mad. We still remembered that sometimes, and it was still weird. So then everybody wanted to ask Bill about his house and if he had a wife and if he had kids and stuff. And some stuff Bill would answer and some stuff he kind of wouldn’t. He said, yeah, he had a lady but he didn’t see her anymore. He lived with his brother and his cousin, and one of them had some kids. But when we kept asking questions about where his wife went, he got quieter and quieter until he finally said it was time to open up that ice chest.
So Bill pulled over and got a bunch of Cokes out of the ice chest. They weren’t that cold, but they were cold enough, and we all got excited, because usually we weren’t even supposed to have drinks on the bus at all. Sammy Bitner wasn’t going to have one, and he looked really sad about it, but Bill found out that it was just because he was worried about keeping kosher. So they found that there was a little mark on the side that meant it was okay, and then everybody got their own can of Coke. And even when this one kid said they couldn’t have caffeine, Bill got out a can of Sprite and said that would be okay for him. It was so cool. And then Bill found his way back to where we’d turned off with no problem and we realized we were never lost at all.
On that Friday, a bunch of us were begging Bill to do something fun like that again, but he just kept shaking his head. He was smiling, though, so we knew that meant he might. He told us there were rules and that he was supposed to stick to his route. People checked up on that kind of stuff. But as we went along the route and we dropped off some of the kids, the rest of us kept saying, “But now there’s only this many of us, and now there’s only this many. Nobody’s going to tell.” We told Bill we should go drive off the route and get a Coke. We should go to the donut shop. We should get shakes at the drive-thru. We had enough money and everything.
So then Bill made a weird turn, and we got excited again. There were only twelve of us left on the bus, including me and Jeremy. And I was excited even more because Tammy was there, and I liked that we were both getting to have an adventure together. When she looked around to see where we were going, I looked at her and then she looked at me and she smiled, and that was pretty much the best day ever on the bus as far as I was concerned. Although then we bumped over some train tracks and Tammy kind of fell over in her seat and I had a really hard time not laughing, because I knew she’d be embarrassed and then not look at me for a while.
Bill pulled the bus up at a convenience store. He turned around and looked right at us, not in the mirror this time. “Okay, the bus leaves in five minutes exactly,” he said. “Let’s all run in there and get something good, then come back and I’ll take you home. Five minutes, I’m serious.” And we knew it, so we tried to be good. But it was so much more fun being at the store when we weren’t supposed to be that of course we were laughing and stuff, and it took longer than usual for us to calm down and pick out what we were going to buy. Bill kept hushing us, but that just made it funnier, and we kept laughing, then trying to stop, then laughing some more.
I know it took longer than five minutes, but Bill didn’t say anything. He put on “your ORIGINAL old-school party station!” and turned it up real loud, and there was this “Atomic Dog” song that started up. We loved that song, and we were really hyper with all the sodas and candy, so we were dancing around. We’d bought Bill a giant Mr. Goodbar, because we found out on Wednesday that’s what his last name was. He thought that was hilarious, and after he closed the bus doors and started driving, he just kept shaking his head every once in a while and saying, “You kids are a trip.”
At each of our stops, Bill turned halfway in his seat and said goodbye to each kid getting off. “Ashley Jenkins, you be good now.” Or “An honor to’ve met you, Michael Pallino.” Or “Cheryl Morrison, you let your sweet side show more and you’ll be just fine.” I don’t know if Cheryl Morrison liked that he said that, but later when I got to know her better she was a lot nicer than I expected. When we got to Jeremy and my stop, Bill told me, “You got to talk to that girl. Don’t just be staring at her. She’ll come around.” And I was so glad that Tammy had already gotten off two stops before so she didn’t hear.
It was sad, though, on Monday when the bus pulled up and our old driver was back. Not that she wasn’t okay, but she wasn’t Bill. No boombox, no talking to the whole bus, no drinks, no unscheduled stops. She was just polite, but sometimes had to get mad when someone was acting up or when we got too loud. We asked her about Bill, but she said she didn’t know him, that he was just filling in and she didn’t think he’d be back. We asked her if Bill was still working or if he’d gotten in trouble, and she said she tried her best not to know about such things and we’d be better off if we didn’t either. It was weird, and I felt kind of bad about it, and I turned around and saw Tammy looking sad too. I asked her what she thought about Bill being gone, and she wrinkled up her nose and said she thought it sucked.