By Kristy Gherlone
It was early September in 1973 when Stevie stood in bare feet on the edge of her grandmother’s yard and watched the bus pull up and park.
The ground was chilly that time of year in Maine, but her feet had grown so tough and calloused over the summer, she hardly even noticed.
She went out to the street and circled the length of the bus. It might have been bright red at one time, but a layer of rust clung to the exterior. It made the whole thing look as if it had been painted with blood and set out in the sun to dry. She shook her head and sighed. The entrance doors screeched as they flapped open. Her mother poked her head out and grinned. “Hey, kiddo. Whaddya think?”
“Are we really going to live in that thing?” Stevie asked.
Before her mother could answer, the rear exit opened with a clanking boom and slammed against the side of the bus. It caught Stevie off guard, making her jump. The heel of her foot landed on a sharp stone. She cried out and hopped around, rubbing at it, as her father began to hurl vinyl and steel into the road.
“It’s going to be an adventure. You’ll see,” her mother hollered over the noise as she bounded down the steps.
“Why can’t we just stay with Grandma?”
“What?” her mother mouthed, pointing to her ear.
Stevie waited for a pause in the noise before asking again. “Why can’t we stay with Grandma?”
“She doesn’t have room. You know that. It’s bad enough that we’ve taken up her yard all summer with our tent. Besides, your father can make a lot more money on the road.” Finally noticing Stevie’s discomfort, she asked, “Where are your shoes?”
“I still don’t have any. Remember?”
“Oh. Well, we’ll get you some. Listen, I’ve gotta give your father a hand. We should be finished gutting it today. Going to be just like a regular house when we’re done.” She slapped the side for emphasis. Gold flecks shimmied the ground.
Stevie bent over and scooped up a handful. She took a plastic bag out of her pocket and sprinkled some inside. She tucked the bag back into her pocket.
“Will there be a bathroom?” she asked, as more parts of the bus clattered into the road.
Her mother raised her eyebrows in question. “What, Stevie? I can’t hear you.”
Stevie shook her head. “Never mind.” She wandered over to her grandmother’s lawn and sat.
She ripped out a handful of grass and flung it over her head. As she watched the stray pieces flutter and fall, she noticed something white. She snatched it from the air and examined it. A feather! She put it in her pocket.
She scowled at the bus. She couldn’t help wishing she was back home. But home, as she’d grown to think of it, never belonged to them. They’d only been renting the pretty little farm house on Merry Meeting Bay. Not even the furniture was theirs, but it was the longest they’d stayed anywhere.
Green rows of farmland swept wide on both sides, and the bay was right out front. There was even a treehouse in the back yard. It looked impossibly high when she’d first seen it. It was way out of reach for someone her age. She’d stood at the base and peered up at the tiny house in the branches. It seemed as though she’d never be big enough to climb up and see inside, but eventually, she was.
She and her mother used to take long, lazy walks down to the shore in the afternoons. A crooked cedar tree jutted out over the water, and Stevie used to climb up on it like a horse and sit there watching the ducks and geese take off and land. The air smelled of flowers, and of hay and boggy water. Sitting there with her mother in the scented air warmed her tummy. She was beginning to wonder if she would ever feel that way again.
Her father had been a carpenter. He made good money, but he hated the work. He wanted to be a singer in a band. Every weekend he’d hold practice at the house. Friday night, cars would pile into the driveway and spill out scruffy men carrying guitars and beer. They’d listen to loud music and try to copy the sounds they heard with their own instruments. Stevie’s nose stung from the acrid smoke wafting out of their skinny cigarettes. The smell made her dizzy and giddy. On Saturday mornings, she’d have to pick her way around half a dozen sleeping men to get to the kitchen. When her father was a carpenter they could afford to pay rent, but not anymore.
Stevie had come home from school in the spring to find the kitchen full of boxes.
“What’s going on?” she’d asked her mother.
“Your father’s quit his job. He’s going to play music full time. We can’t stay here anymore. We’ve been evicted. We have to be out by the end of today.”
“What?” Stevie cried.
“Take what you can carry. We’ll have to leave the rest behind.”
“Where are we going to go?” She couldn’t breathe.
“We’ll think of something. You know your father hates staying in one place too long, anyway. This is a good thing.” Her mother stopped packing and smiled with reassurance. “A really good thing. I promise.” She planted a kiss on Stevie’s forehead. “Go on, now. Git!” She swatted her with a spatula.
Stevie picked up a few empty boxes and climbed the narrow stairway to her room. She looked around, trying to decide what to take with her.
Her father peeked in. “Just the essentials. I need room for my equipment.”
“Well, what should I bring?”
“None of that junk, that’s for sure.” He pointed towards Barbie’s town house and a collection of stuffed animals. “Just pack some clothes and whatever else you absolutely need.”
“Dad! I can’t leave all my stuff behind!” She snatched a Teddy bear from the floor and hugged it to her chest.
“You’re just going to have to. Besides, you can’t go anywhere in life if you’ve got too much junk weighing you down. Keep things light, then you can hit the road whenever you want. Don’t ever ground yourself with material stuff.”
“But, Dad …”
“Nothing is permanent. Remember that.”
Stevie’s eyes filled with tears.
He turned away. “Leave it all here.” His shoulders were tight as he paused at the doorway. For a second, Stevie thought he might change his mind. “I mean it,” he said, and started down the stairs.
Stevie loved her father, but in that moment, she hated him, too. She hated him for quitting his job. She hated him for making them move. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t even sing all that well, and everyone knew it. People lied to him to make him feel better, and now it was going to ruin everything! She may have only been eight, but she knew that much.
She closed her eyes and prayed that roots would grow out of her feet. She envisioned them busting out of her skin, breaking through the floor, and snaking through the thick earth beneath the house.
Her mother hollered up the stairs. “Get a move on!”
She checked her feet and scowled when she didn’t see anything. She stuffed a few of her favorite things in the boxes and hid them under her clothes.
Later that afternoon, it felt as if she was leaving pieces of herself behind as they pulled away from the house for the last time. It made her feel sick and weak and hopeless as she watched the house get smaller and smaller in the rear window. Her stomach flipped when she thought about some strange kid playing with her toys.
They had to stay in a tent in her grandparents’ yard ever since. Stevie’s mom said it was just until they figured things out, but it had already been months.
Stevie’s mom got off the bus. She shook padding and dust out of her hair as she climbed down the steps.
Stevie stood and put her hands on her hips. “How am I supposed to go to school?” she asked.
“You’re not. I’m going to teach you. Isn’t that neat?”
“But you’re not a teacher.”
“So? That doesn’t mean anything. I wouldn’t worry about it. The stuff you’re going to learn can’t be taught in school.”
“You know, I could always …”
“You’re not staying here.” Her mother’s voice was firm.
“Fine.” Stevie ran to the tent and dove in.
Stevie’s father finished fixing the bus the day before the sky spit the first snowflake. She was allowed in for the first time. All of the original seats were gone, except for the driver’s. Towards the front, there was a small table and chairs, a battered love seat, and a pot-bellied stove. Out back, there was a walled-in room for her parents and a bunk for Stevie in the middle. In place of a bathroom was a plastic toilet that had to be emptied. A shower curtain enclosed the area, giving it a small measure of privacy.
“This is it?” she asked in surprise.
Her father whirled around. His eyes were full of disappointment. “What more do you need?”
Stevie got off the bus and ran over to her grandmother. “Don’t make me go. I don’t want to leave,” she whispered. She jumped up and wrapped her arms and legs around the woman.
Stevie’s grandmother unwound her and set her down. “You take care now,” she said, dismissing her with a kiss on the head. “Be wary of strangers,” she added, swatting her on the butt. Her eyes twinkled as she reached up to capture her son’s face. “I’m just so proud of you,” she beamed, squeezing his cheeks. “I’m proud of all of my kids, but you …” she pulled his face down to meet hers. “You are my star.” She kissed him on the nose. “Follow your dreams, Frankie. You’re going to be a big hit.”
Stevie’s father grinned.
“Corrine? You take care of my boy. Hear?”
Stevie’s mother cleared her throat. “Of course, Mother.”
She waved from the driveway as they pulled away from the curb.
The first night on the bus was cold and strange. They’d driven several hours before her father pulled down onto a dirt road and parked. The heat from the stove didn’t reach all the way to Stevie’s bed. Unfamiliar noises like wolves howling and a woman’s screams sneaked in through the windows. Stevie wrapped herself in a blanket, plodded down to the front, and fell asleep in front of the stove.
The next morning when she woke up, her neck was stiff and sore. She untangled herself from the blanket and peeked out the window. There was a police car parked next to their bus. She tip-toed to the back of the bus and woke her father.
“Break down?” the officer asked.
“Nope. No sir. We’re just fine.” He scratched his chest and yawned.
“This here is a private road. I’m going to have to ask you folks to leave. You can’t park out here like this.”
“Sorry. We’ll be on our way real soon.” He began to close the door.
“That kid in school?” the officer asked, nodding towards Stevie.
“That’s none of your damn business.”
“Well, actually it is.” He smiled at Stevie. “How old are you, honey?” he asked.
Stevie’s father pulled the door shut. He jumped into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
The officer pounded on the side of the bus. “It’s against the law! She needs to be in school.”
He put the gears in reverse and pressed the gas pedal to the floor. Stevie’s heart pounded as the tires kicked up rocks and dust. They flew out of the road backwards and sped away as soon as they reached the pavement.
As time went on, Stevie’s father got a better feel for where they could and couldn’t park in each of the towns they visited, but it wasn’t always foolproof.
They’d been on the road for a couple of months when they pulled into the driveway of an abandoned farm house. They’d stayed there a couple of times and no one had ever bothered them before.
Stevie liked to explore the half-fallen down barn on the property. She was doing just that when she noticed a man come out of the woods across the field and start walking towards her. She wasn’t scared until she saw that he had a shotgun slung over his shoulder. She froze.
“You got any parents around?” he asked. He lowered his arm, letting the strap fall. He caught the gun in his hands.
Stevie nodded, wide-eyed, and motioned towards the bus.
“Get ‘em,” he ordered.
Stevie’s feet flew. She bounded up the stairs out of breath. “Dad! There’s a man out there with a gun!” she cried. “He wants to talk to you.” She ran and hid behind her mother.
Stevie’s father shoved his feet into his shoes. “Stay here,” he said.
Stevie watched from the window as her dad got off the bus. “Can I help you?” she heard him ask. His voice was high-pitched and nervous.
“Yeah, you can help me. You can get the hell off my property. Goddamn squatters think you can just park anywhere you want. You have exactly five minutes, too, before I start shooting.”
“Sorry. We didn’t know anyone lived here,” Stevie’s father explained, holding up his hands in apology.
“Don’t matter if anyone does or doesn’t. It ain’t yours, is it? You’re probably the same damn folks that have been tearing up my road. It’ll take me all spring to right it again.” He held up the gun. “Now git and don’t ever come back. You hear me?”
“I’m sorry we invaded your space, man, but you got no call to point a gun at me,” Stevie’s father said.
“Don’t you tell me what I got the call to do on my own damn property. I could shoot you right now just for trespassing. I suggest you get back on that rattletrap of yours and get the hell out of my sight.”
Stevie’s father didn’t argue any further. He jumped back in and started the bus. “Hold on,” he said grumpily.
He gunned the engine and wrenched the gears into drive. Clots of mud flew up and splattered the windshield. Stevie dared a glance back as they pulled away. The man chased after them screaming words that were swallowed by the sound of the spinning tires.
When they got out to the pavement, he whipped the bus around and didn’t stop driving until they came to a shopping plaza. He drove to the end and parked.
“I’ve gotta look for work,” he said, shoving his feet into his scuffed cowboy boots. “Stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Bring back some food, okay?” Stevie’s mom called after him.
“Won’t be much,” he said. “Gotta get gas today, remember?”
Stevie looked out the window. Something captured by the wind skittered across the empty lot. She waited for her father to leave before getting out. She chased it around until it crashed into a guardrail and flapped against the cold metal. It almost took flight again, but she caught it just in time and held it up. It was a baseball card. She didn’t know much about baseball, but she shoved it into her back pocket anyway and got back onto the bus.
“What did you find out there, Stevie?” her mother asked as she poked at the fire.
“Nothing, really,” she said. She pulled it out of her pocket and gave it to her.
“Huh. The Giants … Willie Mays …” She turned it over in her hand. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about sports.” She passed it back to Stevie.
“Me either,” Stevie said. She went over to her bunk and rummaged around underneath. She pulled out the shoe box and opened the top.
“Stevie?” Her mother called.
“Are you happy?” Her voice was high and strange.
“I guess,” Stevie answered. She put the card inside and closed the lid. “Are you?” She held her breath.
“I guess,” her mother answered, not looking up.
“I miss school,” Stevie admitted.
“Yeah,” her mother said sadly. “I miss …” She didn’t finish the sentence. “I’ll try to get you some books soon, okay?”
“I’m going for a walk,” she said suddenly. Her eyes were moist.
“It’s cold out,” Stevie cautioned.
“Yeah.” She grabbed a sweater off from the chair and draped it over her shoulders. “I’ll be back,” she said.
Stevie went to the windows. Her mother’s shoulders shook as she hurried away. Stevie was sure it didn’t have anything to do with the temperature.
Stevie’s father didn’t have a lot of work lined up that winter. Sometimes he’d spend all day trying to find a bar that would let him sing for the night. He didn’t make a lot of money that way, but it would get them by for another day.
Sometimes when he did secure a gig, Stevie’s mom would go in and watch and leave her out in the bus alone. She’d stare up at the apartments that were lined against the street. Lamplight glowed through the windows, casting shadows that ghosted on the brick sidewalks as the people inside moved around.
She imagined herself inside. She could feel the soft carpet under her feet and the smell of dinner wafting from the kitchen. She could feel the heat from the furnace wrapping around her shoulders, enveloping her in a warm embrace.
One night in late February, Stevie’s father parked in front of a bar in Brunswick.
“We won’t be long. Short set tonight,” Stevie’s mom said. “Don’t open the door for strangers!”
“Oh, and put another log on in about an hour, will you?”
She started down the steps, but hesitated. “Stevie?”
“I love you, you know.”
“I know,” Stevie said. She poked at the fire.
“It won’t be like this forever.”
“Okay,” Stevie said, shrugging her shoulders.
“Okay,” Stevie said again, looking up.
Her mother smiled. “Okay,” she said with confidence and walked off the bus.
They hadn’t been gone long when someone came pounding on the door.
Stevie looked out. It was a police officer.
“This bus needs to be moved,” he shouted, spotting Stevie.
Stevie went and opened the door. “I’ll have to get my mom,” she said.
“You do that. Tell her there’s no parking here.”
Stevie got dressed and went in to find her mother. She batted the cigarette smoke away from her nose as she tried to make her way to the stage. Colorful lights zig-zagged from the ceiling, illuminating the darkened room for a few seconds at a time. It made her feel dizzy and like she was walking funny. She tripped and almost fell.
A woman sitting at one of the tables caught her arm and righted her. “Hey there, toots! Aren’t you just the cutest little thing?” she said. “Come sit next to me.” She patted the chair next to her and smiled through hot pink lips. Her fingernails looked like talons as she tapped on the seat, and her hair looked like the sun on fire. “Come on. I won’t hurt ya. I’m Patti.” She held out her hand. “But you can call me Mimi. Everyone does.” Her hearty laugh turned into a violent cough. “What’s a nice kid like you doing in a place like this?” she rasped after catching her breath.
Before Stevie could answer, a man stumbled and bumped into the table, spilling Mimi’s drink.
“You clod!” she yelled, jumping up. Watch where you’re going!” She grabbed a napkin and began sopping up the mess. “You owe me a drink!” She glared, but the man was already staggering away. She sat back down. “Well, never mind. Let me get you a drink, sugar.” She patted the seat again. “Hey, Earl?” she yelled. “Get this little lady a Shirley Temple, would ya? And get me a drink, too. Put it on my tab.”
Hesitantly, Stevie sat. She craned her neck around, trying to spot her mother, but didn’t see her anywhere. Sitting on the table in front of her was the smallest glass she’d ever seen. It had a picture of a lobster on it. She waited until Mimi wasn’t looking before stuffing it into the waistband of her pants. She pulled her shirt down to cover it.
“She can’t stay here, Mimi. Even you ought to know that,” the bartender said as he sauntered over.
Stevie stood back up. “I’m just looking for my mom. Have you seen her?”
“Who’s your mom, honey?” the woman asked.
Stevie didn’t know how to describe her. “Well, my father is the one on the guitar.”
Mimi’s mouth fell open. “Oh, sweetie! That’s your dad? He’s a looker! A real heart breaker.” She put her hand over her heart and swooned.
“Out,” the bartender said to Stevie.
“For God’s sake, let her stay. You want to see your daddy sing, don’t you baby?” she crooned, batting her eyes at the bartender.
“She can’t be in here, Mimi. Christ.” He grabbed Stevie’s arm. “Out,” he said, shoving her towards the door.
“Don’t worry, honey. I’ll find your momma and send her out.” Mimi winked. She slurped the last drop in her drink, stood up, and headed towards the stage.
The bartender pushed Stevie outside and shut the door. Stevie started for the bus, but there was a man standing near the back. He wasn’t facing her, but Stevie could see a golden arch of liquid coming from the front of his pants. It cascaded over the tire and splattered onto the road.
Stevie’s parents stumbled out together right then. “Don’t come back!” the bartender yelled. “More trouble than you’re worth with that hunk of junk parked out front and your damn kid. Goddamn gypsies,” he grumbled.
The next day Stevie’s father said, “I think we’ll head down to Florida. I’ve had it with this state. Besides, there’s a lot more clubs down there.”
“How will we afford the gas?” Stevie’s mom asked.
“I’ve been thinking about that. I say we head up north first and visit my sis. She’ll lend us some money and then we can be on our way. We should say goodbye to her anyway. Once we get down to Florida, I might not want to come back.”
“Am I a gypsy?” Stevie asked suddenly, thinking about what the bartender had said.
“Heavens, no.” Stevie’s mom laughed. “Well, maybe … by default, anyway,” she teased, ruffling Stevie’s hair. “Your father’s just full of wanderlust. He can’t help it.”
A week later they were on their way. Stevie had never been that far north before. It was late afternoon when they neared their destination. Stevie saw the town where her aunt lived up ahead in the distance. It looked as if it had erupted from the earth and spilled out all over a sea of wilderness.
“What’s that smell?” she cried as they got closer.
“This is a mill town,” her mother said, pointing out the window and towards the sky. “See those stacks over there? That’s part of it. Looks like they’re making clouds, doesn’t it?”
Stevie nodded. She watched as towering columns shot out fluffy white puffs and tossed them into the air. She laughed and held her nose. “It’s neat, but it smells like boiled eggs.”
“It does stink,” her mother agreed, holding her own nose, “but I suppose people get used to it after a while. Oh! Look over there!” she squealed, as they came to the top of a hill.
Stevie stood. Over the rise, she saw a mountain. It was jagged and tall, swallowing half the sky. It was a magical place.
They descended and paused at a traffic light.
“Almost there,” Stevie’s father said. “Sit down.”
Stevie sat back down, but kept looking out. There was a lot to see. She liked the way all of the houses seemed to be lined up in neat rows and how all of the people she saw were smiling. She liked that place. It looked like a good place to grow roots in.
“We’re here,” her father said. He pulled over and stopped the bus in front of a tall, green, shingled house.
He opened the doors and Stevie ran out. There was a dime sticking out of a snow bank on the sidewalk. She snatched it up and put it in her pocket. Right beside it, there was a Pepsi cap. She put that in her pocket, too.
“Hey, Sis.” Stevie’s father caught his sister in a welcoming embrace.
Just before the sun rose a few days later, Stevie’s father shook her shoulders, waking her up. “We need to get going,” he whispered.
“What?” Stevie asked, rubbing the sleep sand from her eyes.
“We have to go. I have a gig in Jacksonville on Friday.”
Her stomach filled with dread. She didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stay. She wanted to go to school and make friends. She wanted to sleep in a warm room and go to the bathroom in a place that would flush. She wanted to climb that mountain and look out over a town she could call her own.
“Hurry up,” her father said. He turned and tip-toed down the stairs.
She jumped up. Her heart pounded as she got down onto the floor and snatched the shoe box from underneath the bed. With a fluttery stomach, she went to find her father.
He was in the kitchen, rummaging through his sister’s purse. He looked around nervously before shoving a wad of bills into his pocket.
Stevie’s mom stood at the back door, looking out. She had a cup of coffee in her hand.
“We need to go!” he hissed, heading towards the door. He pushed Stevie’s mother out, but she didn’t move past the steps.
“I can’t leave!” Stevie blurted.
“What?” her father asked, surprised. He stopped moving and gaped.
“I can’t leave,” she repeated. Her voice was shaky but defiant. She sat down in one of her aunt’s kitchen chairs and opened the box.
“I don’t have time for this. We have to go now!” His eyes were daggers as he held the door.
“You’ll have to go without me.”
“What in the world is your problem?” he asked. He stormed back in and grabbed Stevie’s arm, trying to pull her along.
“I can’t leave because I have too much stuff!” she said. She emptied the shoe box onto the table. All of the things she had been collecting fell out. “You’re the one who said you couldn’t go anywhere if you had too much stuff. I think I have too much stuff.”
“Corrine?” he said, appealing to his wife.
Stevie’s mother came back into the house. Her face was strange. She took her pocket book off from her shoulder and spilled the contents onto the counter. “I think I do, too,” she said.
*This popular story, written by Kristy Gherlone, was originally published by Bedlam Magazine’s Loud Zoo on April 30, 2017. From there, it went on to appear in Fiction on the Web in December 2017
**No part of this story may be copied or reproduced without written consent from the author.