My parole officer lined up this job for me in Florida where I knew some people. I muscled a blue shuttle bus through the housing areas of Patrick Air Force Base, rolling and shaking over drainage canals, making nineteen stops every hour, gunning it hard just to stop again. I picked up children in their terry-cloth robes and rubber slippers and inflatable rings, I dropped them off at the NCO and Officers’ Club pools. Even with all the windows open it’s about a hundred degrees inside. I’d get back to the base and peel away from the backrest, my biceps shaking, sweat beading the dragon on my forearm. I took maybe nine, ten minutes to get out of the heat, catch a smoke, and shoot the shit with Freddie or Darlene before doing it all again. If it weren’t for the kids, I’d have headed back to the Civil Service office and shoved those keys up someone’s highway.
My name is Donnie Symanski, but guys in the pen took to calling me Snake on account of my tattoo. It’s a dragon on my arm, and to me a dragon is an honorable thing, a fire-breathing beast with wings that guards the gold in those old stories. But people don’t look too close, and when they see it pisses you off to be called Snake they just keep saying it. Sometimes you got to hurt a man to convince him you’re not a Snake, even if it gets you time in solitary.
I can see how it fits, though. I grease my hair so it sits back smooth, and I’m kind of skinny – lean and strong, quick in my movements, wound tight and ready to strike. Women either want to touch me or run the other way.
Sally was a woman who saw right off the tattoo was a dragon. She’s someone I always had my eye on, but seems she was always with someone else. When I was in the pen, she wrote that she’d finally split with this redneck fellow I thought she had no business with in the first place. I spent my first week of freedom with her up in Tallahassee, and I thought I’d been gassed and gone to heaven. Sally has this reddish blonde hair to her waist, and sweet eyes that are green and gentle. She’s got a little padding behind her now, but I don’t mind. All that week we slept till noon and sat around her trailer till she’d have to go waitressing at Barney’s out on the interstate. Later I’d come by and she’d serve me barbecue and biscuits and potato salad and those jumbo-sized sweet teas. When I tried to pay, Barney’d make like he was insulted. He’d wink at Sally and say, “Donnie, you can return the favor by getting your feet back on the ground. That’s all I want from you.” In fact, he told me I could work for him if I kept my nose clean for a year.
After work, Sally and I’d pick up a six-pack and we’d lie in bed and I’d flip through the channels, Sally ribbing me about not sticking to one station. We’d talk and make love into the late hours, I’d wake all tucked up against her, comfortable. By the time I had to head down to Patrick and drive my bus, I was one love-struck fool, whistling in her kitchen, laughing at myself. I was beginning to think of Tallahassee as home. I saw myself getting married, moving in with Sally, working at Barney’s, and becoming the Daddy I never had to some children. For the last six years I’d listened to a steel door swing shut, lean against a concrete wall, and look out a mesh window at nothing.
After that week in heaven, Sally drove me to the station, and I had to keep looking out the side window so she couldn’t see my eyes. All my earthly belongings were stuffed in a duffel bag on her back seat. We got to the station, and I tossed the bag into a Trailways bus. Neither one of us was saying a word. Sally came over and we stood there with the bus engine roaring in our ears, giving each other little kisses, touching each other’s faces. I put my arms around that woman and for the life of me I couldn’t let go.
“Sally, what would you think of getting married?” I had to yell on account of the bus.
“What, you mean you and me?”
I knew she was pulling my leg but it struck me the wrong way.
“That’s a mighty big step for a man that’s just stepped out of prison. But you start working that job down there, take some time to get back on your feet. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Look here,” I said, stepping back. “My feet are right smack dab on the fucking ground. You see my feet on the ground?” I took her arm and jerked it. I held her head down there with my other hand so she could get a real good look.
“Donnie, my arm!”
A couple people looked over at us but I didn’t care.
All I could think was that I couldn’t back down, that I had to make my point. I was out of the pen, I had a job lined up. What else did she want?
I knew what I wanted. I wanted her.
When I let go she hurried off toward the car with her arms crossed. I stood there as she walked off, watching her sidestep a puddle, looking at her bare calves and white sneakers. I kicked myself all the way down to Patrick. I sat on the bus thinking, “Snake, you’re no dragon. You’re a god-forsaken fool.”
My Daddy worked in paper mills and factories in south Georgia, north Florida, Alabama – anything he could find. But trouble’d find him like a bitch in heat. We’d settle in and be happy for a while before Daddy started complaining about his foreman getting on his back about this or that. Before long Daddy’d come home and not say anything, just fall silent, and it was a matter of time before he exploded and come after us, and the only question was would anyone save us. Mama and I stayed with friends until Daddy’d find us and be real gentle again. He’d say there’s work down in Jacksonville, or wherever. Things were going to be different.
Regardless of what I’ve done, I don’t believe a man can get much lower than to raise his fist to a child. The psychologist at the pen used to ask me about my Daddy all the time. His name – the psychologist’s – was Richard Chambers, but we used to call him Dr. Dick on account of his head was totally bald. He’d sit back in his chair and press the pencil against his lips. The light would shine off his glasses so you couldn’t see his eyes. He tried to get me to understand what it is would make a man hit a child, and once you got used to the idea of a talking dick, you could almost follow what he was saying.
“Some men,” he said, meaning my Daddy, “aren’t ready to have children when they have them, and once they have them, they know they’ve lost their youth. They resent the responsibility and take it out on their kids.”
I tried to follow him, but when I thought about my Daddy I got angry and couldn’t think straight. “My Daddy had a demon in him, Dr. Chambers. That’s all. There’s no other way to explain it.”
You see, there’s not much that I love in this world, but those kids were the saving grace of my job. When I saw a kid hop up on my bus all bright-eyed to be going somewhere, it took my mind off the heat and the ache in my arms and the sweat soaking through my shirt. I felt like there was hope in this life. It told me that I was different from the guys in the pen. They’d as soon kick a child as talk nice to him.
One time Dr. Dick said, “Donnie, when you can see your father as not terribly different from you or me, you’ll be a better man than he was, more of a dragon than a snake.” He smiled off the side of his mouth the way educated people do.
Dr. Dick was a clever man, I’ll grant you. But when he talked about my Daddy and me in the same breath? I wanted to back him up against a wall. I was the opposite of my Daddy in every respect.
When I drove these pink-skinned kids around the base, they came up to the front and asked me about the route and how many stops I made. They told me about jumping off the high dive at the pool. They asked me about my tattoo and put their little fingers on it. I’d flex my muscle and roar and they’d jump back in their seats laughing. Nothing but horsing around, but it was fun. I felt like I was one of them, especially when this girl named Samantha was on the bus. There were about twelve kids I knew real well. Nights on the phone I’d tell Sally about Sean bringing a white mouse on the bus, or Richie spilling his Goobers so they rolled back and forth under the seats. Eventually she knew them as good as me.
“Sally, when you going to come down here, make a friendly visit? You can ride my bus, see how good I am with these kids.”
“It’s not that easy to get away from Barney’s, you know. There’s only me and Glenda.”
“I know that. But I know Barney’d understand. Why don’t you ask him?”
She took a minute. “It’s not that.”
“Well, what is it then?”
“You scare me, Snake.”
“Who, me? I’m just your garden variety criminal, Sally. You know I’d never hurt you.”
“Are you kidding? I still can’t move my arm up all the way. It sure as hell doesn’t make my job any easier, either.”
At first, I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about. It had completely slipped my mind.
I wanted to tell her to forget about that, to tell her that wasn’t me. I wanted another chance. I thought of a hundred things to tell her, but all I could say was, “It’d be nice to see you again, that’s all.”
I first saw Samantha when she and her Daddy hopped on at the Test Range. She had these droopy blue eyes all innocent looking. Her skinny little girl arms and legs were sticking out from a yellow dress, her sneakers about the size of my thumb. I’d have killed a man would lay a hand on a child like that.
“Where you going to, little lady?” I asked. Her Daddy looked me over. He had these insignia on his uniform that made him look important, and the face to go with it, too.
“I’m going home,” Samantha said.
“Home it is, then.”
So I took off out of the parking lot and proceeded to have a regular conversation with her. Her Daddy busied himself with some papers, content to let us talk. I dropped them off in the officers’ housing area.
A couple days later I spot her waiting for the bus, standing there alone at the sidewalk. I pull over and swing the doors open. “Well there you are! I missed you yesterday.”
She made a little girl grin and grabbed the handrail and pulled herself up with these giant steps. She swung into the seat behind me.
“Where you going to?” I asked.
“Nowhere. Just riding.”
“That’s alright by me.”
About every other day over the next couple weeks I’d ask where she was going, and she said the same thing. We splashed through thunderstorms that lasted all of fifteen minutes. I told her about how they called me Snake and let her put her finger on my tattoo. I told her about how I couldn’t hold a real job because I’d done time in prison. You can tell that to kids, they don’t know enough to judge you for your sins. She leaned forward and listened to every word I said.
“Why did you have to go to prison?” she asked.
Two or three kids in the back weren’t paying us any mind.
“I committed some crimes. Armed robbery, for starters.”
I could see her little forehead wrinkle up in the mirror. “Armed? You used your arms?”
“No, hon, ‘armed’ means I had a gun. I used a gun.”
“Wow!” Her eyes lit up, and I had to tell her it was a bad thing to do and that I shouldn’t have done it.
Samantha listened hard and then she did a funny thing. She laughed. God knows it wasn’t a mean laugh. It was one of those innocent things kids do that you don’t expect and makes you love them. She laughed like I’d just told her about a man with two heads.
But it felt like a jab to the gut. I could talk and laugh with Samantha and these other kids, but we were in two different worlds. It made me long for Sally.
When we finished that first run, I cut the engine and started for the door, and Samantha started up too.
“Can I come?”
I was all set to tell her no, that this was a place only grownups could go to. But I couldn’t lie to her.
So I grabbed her under the armpits and lifted her off the bus. I must’ve been a sight, the ex-con with this little blonde angel beside me, when I walked into the canteen. There was grease on the counters and cigarette smoke in the air that you didn’t really notice till you brought a kid inside.
“Darlene, I’d like you to meet my good buddy Samantha.”
Darlene is Sally’s cousin, the woman that fixed me up with this job. She came out from behind the counter wiping her hands on her apron and knelt down in front of Samantha.
“Oh, what a cute little girl!”
Samantha wouldn’t look her in the eye, she just kind of smiled.
“You know what, Samantha?” Darlene said. “I have some onion rings back here just waiting for someone to eat them. And I have some orange soda. Would you like that?”
Samantha said she would.
I pulled out a cigarette and sat down to watch Darlene fuss all over Samantha. Darlene and Freddie’d been married about two years but he said he wasn’t ready to have kids. Freddie must’ve heard us talking ‘cause he come out of the back.
“What’s she doing in here?”
“This is my girlfriend, Freddie, she’s small for her age. What do you care what she’s doing here?”
Freddie just gave me a look and went out back again.
I proceeded to read a cycle magazine, and I didn’t pay much mind to the girls until I noticed a church-like silence in the room.
“McCrory? As in Gene McCrory, the base commander?” Darlene looked over at me.
Samantha nodded and sipped on her straw.
My whole setup with the Civil Service office was above board, but one word from a man like that and I’m sunk, regardless of the rules. So I tried to back away, not talk to her as much, but Samantha would say, “Donnie, tell me about that time you smacked that man’s head in the prison yard.”
“Ah, hon, I told you that story already.”
“I know, but I want to hear it again. Tell me how you kicked him in the face.”
So against my better judgment I’d go through the whole story, slow at first, but then I got into it. By the time I finished I was flying high, and we’d be just like two kids talking again. Only later I’d start thinking about who her Daddy was.
Then I was lying in bed one Friday night, smoking too much and not sleeping, thinking of Sally. Nothing new there. So I called her up and it was pure joy to hear her voice coming through the phone. We talked for nearly two hours, with long stretches of silence where I was happy just knowing she was on the other end. Finally I asked her real nice if she couldn’t find a way to get down here.
“Well, I got to work this weekend. But if you could come up here –“
That was all I needed. It was music to my ears, tonic for my soul. You could have shot me right then and I’d have died a happy man.
I hopped the last Trailways and didn’t catch more than ten minutes of sleep the whole way up. Eight hours later Sally picked me up at the station and I gave her a bear hug.
“You getting a beer gut there, girl?”
“No, Snake,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
I was standing there by her car with the door open, and for what I believed was the happiest moment in my life I couldn’t think of a thing to say. She crossed her arms and looked past me over my shoulder. I reached out to her, real gentle, and pulled her toward me. It took her awhile before she reached around me, and even then she was making little fists.
By the time we got back to her place, some of the shock was gone.
“Snake, say something. What are you thinking?”
I was thinking that the whole picture was in focus, everything taking its rightful place.
“I’ll make a good father, Sally. You just wait. And a good husband too.” I started in on how I could move up there and go to work for Barney.
Sally looked out the window while I talked. She nodded her head up and down but wouldn’t look at me. “You think you got me now, don’t you, Snake? You think ‘cause I’m pregnant that I’m just going to jump in your arms and be happy to have a man around, is that it? Well I got news for you. You’re mistaken. This baby doesn’t change a thing.”
Sally was huffing and puffing as she talked. So I tried to tell her to calm down, which was the wrong thing to do. Don’t ever tell a woman to calm down. It generally has the opposite effect.
I’m behind the wheel Monday morning with hardly a wink of sleep all weekend, steering my blue bus again through base housing. Only they’d replaced my usual bus with a larger bus that had air conditioning – one they used to haul the young officers over to Orlando for training. I didn’t have to muscle this new bus as much, but it took extra wide turns. Cars were pulling over into the grass to make way. My third run I clipped the side mirror of an old man’s VW and had to pull into the commissary lot. Turned out he was a retired officer. He proceeded to give me an earful, the kids watching out the windows.
As I drove, I kept running through my mind things I could tell Sally to get her to trust me, but nothing would stick. It was out of my hands. By late afternoon I was dozing off, my head felt like water. Then I’d remember that I was bringing a child into this world – I was a father! – and I’d bolt upright again. I tried to picture what it would be like to be in those shoes, and all I could think of was my Daddy coming in from work, the screen door slapping behind him, hearing his work boots scuff the floor below, and I’d lift the window and climb out on the roof. Then I tried to imagine that these kids behind me were mine. Would I let them get up and crawl all over the seats like that? And what about Samantha’s Daddy? What’s he doing letting a little girl like that out on her own? My stomach got tighter and tighter the more I thought about things.
I was dead, I tell you. I was counting the number of rounds I had left – four, then three, then two.
That’s when Samantha popped onto the bus.
She sat down across the aisle and a couple seats back, smoothing out her skirt and just smiling. She was a sight for sore eyes, but I could have cared less.
“Where were you yesterday?” she asked.
“I was up visiting my girlfriend.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend. What’s her name?”
I finished the round and stepped off the bus, heading to the canteen. I wanted to fall into a chair and snooze.
“Donnie, wait up!” She tugged at my pants leg.
I shook her off and didn’t look back. I felt bad, but I just had to be alone.
I dragged myself into the canteen, sat down, and set my head on my arms like I was in grade school. I felt this little hand patting my arm, soft, then shoving harder.
“Donnie? . . . Donnie! . . . Snake!”
What happened next I remember only partly, but Freddie filled me in. I remember pushing Darlene when she ran over, and Freddie grabbing my shoulders saying easy boy easy. Here’s what I don’t remember: Pushing that child away from me. I shoved her hard and pulled up from my chair, ready to do God knows what.
There’s a song my Mama used to sing, not even a song really, more of a refrain. “The something something blood of the Lamb.” I can hear her voice – soft, high, and sweet – as if calling from the grave, singing like I’m still a little boy crying in her arms and she could stop the hurt. I hear the voice, but for the life of me I can’t recall what she was singing. “The something something blood of the Lamb.” No, it’s not quite there.
Sally had her baby – a boy, but she didn’t name it Donnie, she named it Jason. That was a couple months ago, and I still haven’t seen it.
The prison psychologist here looks a lot less like a dick than Dr. Chambers. He asks me the same questions about my Daddy, tries to make me aware of my anger, get me to let it out with words instead of fists. When I wrote this to Sally it would start to make sense. At first I was trying to show her I was making progress, getting my feet on the ground. Anything to keep her interested. But she doesn’t come down here, so I try to make sense of things for myself.
Sally heard what happened from Darlene, and she wasn’t surprised. Samantha got by with some minor scrapes and bruises, as they say, but it was enough to put me away. Samantha, bless her heart, was telling Darlene it was okay, I couldn’t help it. When I heard that I just dropped my head into my hands. I’d like to have hugged that child and never let go.
I saw Samantha in a dream last night. She was on my bus, but she wasn’t just riding. She was with her Daddy. There wasn’t anyone else on the bus. The pools had closed for the winter, so it was mostly grownups riding this bus, and precious few of those. The two of them just sat in the middle of the bus. Her Daddy was tall, with steel-gray hair. He had a hard-jawed look like it didn’t matter he was in his civilian clothes, he was still in charge.
I pulled into some place I’d never been before and came to a stop. I swung the doors open and sat there, my hands on the wheel, looking up in the mirror.
The Daddy stepped back and let Sam walk out in front of him. He put his hand out but he wasn’t really pushing her. The bus sat idling. I could feel the vibrations in the seat. When Sam got to the front I looked over but she just grabbed the rail and stepped off the bus like she never knew me, like she was just her Daddy’s child. Her Daddy stepped down after her and turned around.
I stiffened up, ready for anything.
Despite a scar up under his chin, and crow’s feet, the man had an almost tender look on his face. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something then thought the better, like it wouldn’t matter one way or the other. He patted the dashboard and stepped down.
Now there’s just me sitting alone in this big blue bus, hearing the familiar hum of the engine, feeling it rumbling in my seat. I slide the doors shut, lean against the armrest, and look out the windshield.