Exoneration

The worst part was that he saw the skateboard kid. Assumed he would veer away. Any driver makes assumptions: The guy in the left-turn lane won’t turn right; the woman at the bus stop won’t step into the street; kids on the sidewalk will stay there. You can’t stop for every possible irrational behavior.

Howard prided himself on being an alert driver. Reflexes maybe slower than three decades ago, but the bus compensated. No hood to impede his view, the engine now in back. Power brakes stopped on a dime. Mirrors reflected every square inch outside and inside the bus. Idiot lights instead of dials and gauges, letting him concentrate on the road ahead.

Comfort helped, too. Wretched horsehair cushions used to send him home with an aching back; seats today were fine-tuned to height, tilt, even softness. And safety. Years ago, he’d been a prime target for robbery, a change dispenser on his belt, bills stowed in a zip-up sack. Money or tokens now went into a steel box bolted to the floor.

Nothing to distract him from careful driving.

His route ran past the high school into residential neighborhoods with green lawns and spring flowers. It was half past three. He picked up a few students and a teacher. There were kids walking together on both sides of the street. And the skateboarder.

Howard stopped to let a woman off – a regular, one of the grey-hairs who took the bus home from the library – and the kid swooshed up from behind, swerving around her so close that Howard heard the burr of wheels-on-sidewalk as she jumped back.

“You all right, ma’am?”

“Thank you, Howard. Took me by surprise, though.”

As he pulled away from the curb, the kid zipped toward a gaggle of girls walking ahead. The bus caught up as he skated up a driveway to do showoff stunts. Skinny kid, brush-cut hair dyed purple. Maybe a ninth-grader.

In the side mirror, Howard saw him tack around the girls and overtake the bus again, rolling ahead to swing up another wide macadam driveway. He turned at the top of the drive and started down, unmistakably skillful enough to pivot onto the sidewalk at the foot of the drive.

If anything, Howard told himself later, he gave too much attention to the kid, so had to look away briefly and check the traffic in front and in the mirrors. Very briefly. Two seconds.

The world record for skateboards is eighty miles an hour. He looked it up that night. Kids aren’t that fast, but they buy boards with names like Speed Demon. He did the math: At twenty miles an hour, 1,760 feet a minute. Sixty feet, the length of a driveway, in two seconds.

The kid didn’t pivot back onto the sidewalk.

Howard stopped so fast that a passenger standing for the next stop almost fell. But not fast enough to keep the kid from splatting on the front of the bus like a bug.

It crossed his mind that the wedge shape of today’s cars throws a deer up over the hood to land behind. Steam locomotives had cowcatchers to sweep obstacles aside. The flat front of a bus is like a billboard. Whump! A sound he would not forget.

It felt as though the bus had climbed a curb. He backed off a few feet, wrenched the door open and darted out, afraid what he would find but mad as hell, too. God-damned kid with a death wish, ruining a nice afternoon. Then he saw the body, and almost puked. The kid’s head was split open, purple hair already crimson, his body crumpled disjointedly under the bumper.

He ran back in, hearing the tremor in his own voice. “Is there a doctor on the bus?”

“I’m a nurse.” A woman hurried up the aisle. Howard slid into the driver’s seat to back up another two feet, and grabbed the radio mike. “There’s been an accident, George,” he told the dispatcher. “Bad. Send an ambulance. And another bus.” He put the flashers on.

Sirens wailed as he stepped out of his seat; someone must have called 9-1-1 from a cell phone. The ambulance and cruiser arrived together; the EMTs ran to the kid. Looking down through the windshield, he saw only their backs. Maybe they could bring him around. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as his first glimpse. Then he saw the nurse trying not to puke, too.

“Don’t move the bus, sir.” Young cop at the side window, not one he knew. As though I was going anywhere. The cop took cellphone photos, then got traffic cones from his trunk while the EMTs struggled to ease the broken body and smashed head onto their stretcher. A swarm of cops chalked the street, took more photos. One approached him, notepad in hand, with a cop’s strained formality. “You didn’t see him, sir?”

“Of course I saw him. I’m trained to be alert.”

“And you tried to stop?”

“I didn’t just try. This bus has power brakes. Ask the people on the bus.”

“But not fast enough?”

“Obviously not.” He heard the whump! again.

The replacement bus arrived; the cops interviewed passengers as they got off. The woman who’d been in the front seat: “I saw it, officer. I think the boy zipped into the street deliberately.” The nurse: “I was in back. The driver stopped so hard I almost hit the seat in front of me.” The man who’d been behind Howard, the high school teacher: “No one could have stopped faster or harder. Can’t imagine what the boy was thinking.”

Howard had gotten over gagging, but felt gut-punched. Both his sons had been this age once. Gerry the wild one. Not a skateboarder, but doing stupid things on the bike until he laid down the law. Teach kids not to kill themselves on bikes and they won’t kill themselves in cars a few years later. Parents nowadays are afraid or too lazy to discipline. Kids pay the price for the damned fathers’ failure to do their job.

The ambulance might as well have been a hearse, but they put the siren on anyway. They’d take the kid to the hospital so a doctor could say he was dead. Then to the coroner’s office. There would be an inquest. He climbed back into the empty bus.

“Don’t move it, Howie.” Charlie Smith, a sergeant, high school classmate. “We’ll need to talk with you some more. You could sit in the back to have a little privacy.”

“Just want to use the radio,” Howard said, stepping into his seat. “George,” he said into the mike, “could you call Gert and tell her I’ll be late?  Just say there’s been an accident. Do you have a supervisor on the way?”

Alan Peters arrived, a recent hire, young guy with an MBA. Mike Riley from the union with him, a pal from years back, used to drive a bus himself. They talked with the cops, then came to the back.

“I want you to stay home tomorrow,” Peters said. “Maybe a couple of days. We’ll call you.”

“Bullshit,” Mike said. “Anyone can see it wasn’t his fault.”

“No,” Peters said, “I don’t think so either. But you don’t want people to say a bus driver killed a kid and then got back behind the wheel as though nothing had happened.”

“Howard didn’t kill the kid,” Mike said, his voice rising. “The kid killed himself.”

“Sorry. You’re right,” Peters said. “But he killed himself on Howard’s bus.”

“I understand,” Howard said. He folded his hands together hard on his leg. “I guess I could use a day or two.”

“With full pay, of course. If you want to go away for a few days, just let us know your plans. If you’re harassed, we can get you a motel room out of town.”

The TV people arrived. Taking pictures, interviewing cops. Mike spotted a cameraman nearing the window, and told Howard to pull his visored cap down and turn into the aisle. Howard wished the passengers were still around to be interviewed. Thank God the crushed body was gone. “Can we talk to the driver?” a reporter called into the bus.

“Let me handle it,” Mike said. “I’ve got your back.” He and Peters went out. “Mr. Callahan is devastated,” he heard Mike say. “No one could have stopped . . . . Unblemished record, more than thirty years. . . . Family man, his heart is breaking for the boy’s family.”

He hadn’t thought about the family’s shock. Would the cops go to their door? Send a minister? Or phone them to come to the hospital? Or to the morgue. Imagine seeing your son on a morgue slab. Then: The wages of timid parenting.

“An exemplary driver,” he heard Peters tell the reporters. “We’ll make his record an open book. The impact was unavoidable. Look how far the skateboard went.”

Howard looked out the window. A detective had found it, apparently undamaged, under the shrubs by the front door of a house across the street. It must have been going like hell. The reporters gave up on talking with Howard, and went to take pictures of the skateboard.

It was another half-hour before Charlie Smith and the rest of the cops let him go. Another driver came to take the bus back to the garage. “I’ll take you home,” Mike said.

“Can we stop at Saint Mary’s?”

“Sure. Get in the car.”

They didn’t stay long. Mike knelt beside him in the humbling silence. Howard tried to pray for the boy’s soul. He prayed that by Sunday he would know what to say in the confessional. Father Peter would know it was him; everyone would know. He’d always been skeptical of the anonymity of the little booth, but comforted by the expiation. This was worse, though. Had he taken a life?  How to explain that to God? Father would give him penances and absolution. Absolution? Never mind that. Try exoneration. He had no sin to confess. He felt his anger at the kid’s inattentive parents rising, and stifled it. It was probably a sin to hold them in judgment. He lit a candle, and they went out into the cooling dusk.

“Thanks, Mike. Can you stay just a minute at the house? Help me tell Gert?”

“Sure. But she knows already.’

“You told her?”

“Had to, Howie. She was going to see it on the evening news.”

Of course. Everyone would see it. All his friends. His regulars. People who hadn’t been there and couldn’t imagine how a bus could hit a boy. People who would blame him.

Gert must have heard the car: She was waiting at the door to hug him while they both wept. A wife to be grateful for. She had the presence of mind to thank Mike and let him get home. She’d waited before putting the meat loaf in the oven, so it was still moist. Mashed potatoes, gravy. Comfort food. They ate in silence until she brought a fresh-baked apple pie.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know,” she said. “I watched the TV. Everyone said so. The police, too.” Howard had heard the passengers interviewed, but not the police. “A captain said it was a terrible accident,” Gert told him. “’It doesn’t seem anyone could have stopped in time,’ he said, ‘Subject to further investigation’.”

“He said what?”

“He talked about how far the skate thing went.”

“All the way across the street.”

“That’s what he said. ‘No reason at this time to think the driver will be found at fault,’ he said.”

Subject to further investigation. No reason at this time. “Mealy-mouthed cop!”

“Don’t get riled up, Howie.” Gert held his hand. “No ten o’clock news tonight. A hot bath, and bed. I’ve put out a sleeping pill. You need the rest. It will be on the morning news too.” A wise woman, his wife. Oblivion overtook him spooned up next to her.

He woke at the usual time, and Gert let him watch the news. By now the kid had a name. Roger Perkins. “A good friend,” classmates told reporters. “A good student,” the principal was quoted. Speak no ill of the dead, Howard thought; no one said even that he was a little wild. A makeshift shrine of flowers and candles had grown at the scene. Grief counselors were at the school. He was the oldest of three; the brother and sister weren’t going to school today. The parents were “unable to talk to reporters,” their minister said. They had put up black bunting around their door; the camera lingered on it.

It felt wrong, not going to work. He called George to suggest coming in, but no luck. “Just a day or two, Howie. Maybe after the funeral, the boss said. Not have people think we don’t care, y’know?  Not act as though nothing has happened, y’know?”

“They’re waiting for the police report, George.”

“All right, maybe that too.”

“They know goddamned well it wasn’t my fault. That nobody could have stopped in time. I’d just like the cops to say that straight out.”

“Howie, I can’t blame you. I’ll pass that along upstairs. Meantime, it’s a day off. Enjoy it. Take your wife for a drive or something. We’ll call you.”

While they were at dinner, Junior called from California. “Dad. There’s been an accident?”

“Yeah. How’d you hear?”

“Mom called. She said some kid killed himself under your bus.”

“That’s about right.”

“I’m sure you don’t want to talk much about it. I wouldn’t. But do you need help?”

Junior was a lawyer out there. What did he think, that his father needed a lawyer?  Howard hadn’t even thought about that.

“I can fly back, find somebody local that you can trust.”

“I hope it won’t come to that.”

“God, Dad, I hope so too. Just wanted you to know we’re thinking of you. Call if you need me. Helen sends love.”

Gerry called as he was finishing the pie. Gerry, whose bike Howard had taken away for a month to teach him not to do wheelies in the street. Now Howard himself had boys in seventh and ninth grades. “God, Dad, what kind of parents does the kid have? Did he have.”

“Thanks for calling, Gerry. Your kids use those things?”

“At a place near the school. I won’t let them on the streets. You can bet not after this.”

“Well, keep an eye on them. That’s what fathers are for, you know?”

“Absolutely. You were a terror. This makes me appreciate you.”

“Thank you.”

“You hang in there, Dad. It must be a strain. We’re thinking of you.”

After dinner they watched television. Gert found a couple of comedies that weren’t funny. The ten-o’clock news said the school would recess day after tomorrow so young Perkins’ classmates could attend the funeral service. Gert made him take another sleeping pill.

At breakfast, he decided he was going to the skateboard park.

“You sure you want to?”  The city had built the park a few years earlier, concrete ramps and valleys and hills. There had been pictures in the news.

“I’m trying to understand what was in his mind.”

“Let me finish the dishes. I’ll come too.”

“No. By myself. Thanks.”

“All right. But come home if its gets upsetting. Or if someone recognizes you.”

“They won’t. Mike only let the photographers get fuzzy pictures through the window.”

There were kids at the skateboard park. If there are still truant officers, this is where they should look. Where parents ought to look. But he’d come to watch, not to worry about their education. There was a bench with a view down a monstrous sewer pipe cut in half. Steps. He watched kids jump their boards up the steps and zoom down a ramp.

Every kid wore a helmet. Young Perkins should have worn a helmet. As if that would have been enough.

One of them came to the drinking fountain, loosening his chin strap.

“Hey, young feller. Got a minute?”

“Whatcha doin’, mister?”

“Just watching. My grandson got one for his birthday,” Howard lied, “and I was curious.” He watched the boy. No sign of recognition. “My name is . . . Charlie,” he said, putting out his hand.

“They call me Grunt.” The kid put his hand up in a fist, and Howard knew enough to rap knuckles.

“Grunt?”

“Because of the noise I make coming down.”

“You here often?”

“Every chance I get.”

“School days?” Where are your parents? Howard thought.

“Sometimes.  There’s one nearer my house, but it’s not as sick.”

“Sick?”

“You know, like cool. Bad.”

Sick must be good. “What makes this one sick?”

“The half-pipe. Like that.” They watched a kid roll up the side, then twist to go down and up the other side, where he made the tail of the board smack loudly on the concrete, propelling the board into the air. Like a ski jump.

“Does that have a name?” Howard asked.

“Who, him? That’s Danny.”

“No, I meant the trick. The move.”

“Oh. We call it an ollie. Off the back foot. If you pop it off the front it’s a nollie.” The kid popped into the air and came down the half-pipe backward. “That’s a fakie,” Grunt said.

“Looks dangerous.”

“Nah.”

“It’s all concrete,” Howard insisted. “No place soft to land.”

“You mean if you have to bail. We wear pads.” Grunt set the helmet down and laced his hands behind his neck to thrust cushioned elbows at Howard. He wore heavy knee pads, too.

“So you fall down a lot?”

“Not after you get good. Watch me.”

Putting his helmet back on, he made the skateboard jump up the steps, slide down and roll into the half-pipe, soaring into the air and twisting to come down sometimes forward, sometimes backward. Howard grudgingly admired him.

A new kid arrived. Began the fancy stuff Grunt was doing, but with no helmet.  No helmet! Howard walked to the car and drove home.

“How was it?” Gert called. The house smelled of chocolate cake.

He paused in the front hall to examine the plaque she had insisted on hanging there. Thirty-five years’ service. He ran a finger across the dusty top, then washed it at the kitchen sink. “Scary.” He described the concrete landscape. “It’s what I think they call extreme sport.”

“Like sky diving?”

“I guess. I’ve never had anyone sky-dive into my bus.”

She gave him a hug. He held her tight. “How about a slice of cake now?” she said. “Be careful. It’s just out of the oven.”

“Thank you. Mmm, good. Gert, the police ought to go to that skate park. They’d see. Anything happens to kids playing that hard is their own damned fault. And their parents’.”

“I’m sure that’s what the report will say.”

“I’ll bet the kid’s parents never went there.”

“Maybe not.”

Next morning, he told Gert over coffee that he was going to the funeral.

“What?”

“The funeral. It’s at ten.”

“Oh, Howie, you shouldn’t. Someone will recognize you.”

“I’m not going to wear my uniform.”

“It’s in a different church. You won’t know what to do.”

“I’ll sit or stand or kneel or open a hymnal when others do. I want to pray for him.”

“I’ll come with you.”

They dressed in Sunday black. He parked at the far end of the big lot. As they walked back, spring-green trees seemed to float out of ground fog into a leaden sky. “Gray day for a funeral,” he said.

“Going to be brighter, the weather lady said.” She took his arm.

The church was full of students, so they sat in back without attracting attention. It felt strange, not having a kneeling rail. The casket in front was closed. Even a good mortician couldn’t undo the damage the bus wheel had done. Howard tried not to think about that. He prayed for the boy’s soul, hoping God would hear even if he wasn’t on his knees.

The minister invited some of young Perkins’ classmates to speak, and they wept, saying what a good person he was. Even from the back, he could see the mother with a handkerchief to her face most of the time. When the father turned, Howard saw a brightness on his cheek, too.

So maybe they hadn’t been perfect parents. Who is? They must wish they’d never let him skateboard. Maybe wish they’d spent the time to see the risks he was taking. Gone to the skate park. He had to take out his own handkerchief. He thanked God that his boys had grown up sensible. He wished he were at Saint Mary’s where he had more confidence his prayers might be answered.

The service ended. They waited in the back pew until the church was almost empty. When they finally stood, Bill Saunders materialized. A friend since high school, a captain now, but in plainclothes, so Howard hadn’t noticed him. “You going to the graveside, Howie?”

“No,” Gert spoke before he could. “There won’t be so many people. We’d stand out.”

“That’s right,” Howard said.

“Step outside with me, then. There’s a side door.”

The fog had lifted; it had become a lovely day. The kind to reassure people that there is a God and a heaven. Most people were lined up to follow the hearse to the cemetery. At the back of the lot they were alone. “It’s about the investigation?”

“Howie, I knew it was no fault of yours. My guys found a classmate who’d seen him do it before. In front of a car. Thrill-seeking. Got away with it that time.”

“You mean into the street?”

“Exactly. The driver braked, same as you did, and young Perkins crossed in front of him with inches to spare. Scared the driver shitless. He wishes now he’d reported it, but wasn’t sure he could identify him. When he read about this, he knew it had been the Perkins kid.”

Risk-taking. Like at the skate park. “Your report will say that?”

“Of course.” Bill took a paper from his pocket. “We find that the bus driver is entirely blameless. The subject’s timing and judgment were impaired.”

“What’s that mean?”

“He was high. Speed, the coroner’s report says. Methamphetamine.”

“Oh, my.”

“So you’re exonerated, Howie.”

“That’s what he’s been waiting for,” Gert said. “Isn’t it, dear? Now we have it.”

“Did his parents know he was using the stuff?” Howard persisted.

“Apparently not. We haven’t told them yet.”

“Do you have to tell them?”

“Why not?”

“It will kill them. Does that have to go into the report, too?”

“Howie, it will button up the case. That it wasn’t your fault.”

“It will tell the whole world they weren’t paying enough attention.” He put his arm around Gert. “The fact that he’d done it before is enough. Maybe you could leave out the meth.”

“I don’t think so, Howard.”

“They’ve got a lot to deal with. Imagine how you’d feel.”

“I’ll consider it.”

“Thanks, Bill.”

The lot was empty now. “Turning out to be a good day,” Gert said as they got in the car.

“There is no good day to bury a son.”

“Of course not. I didn’t mean that.”

He thought about Gerry, doing wheelies in the middle of the street until caught at it. “We were lucky with our boys, you know.”

“You were a good father, Howie.”

“Some luck in that, too. Okay to stop at Saint Mary’s on the way home?”

“I had the same idea. Light a candle for the boy’s soul.”

“That too,” he said. “One for the boy. And another for his parents.”

-End-

First published in Aestas Review 2017

 

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One thought on “Exoneration

  • Exoneration is a sensitive story about the comfort one experiences with a loving spouse. The author must know this feeling firsthand.

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