BY NANCY KAY CLARK
Nancy Kay Clark is the editor of CommuterLit.com and is a long-time magazine writer and editor. Copyright rests with the author.
MARY ANN FOOTE WAS DOWN TO HER PURPLE PANTIES. She and Carol McCormick were playing strip poker at the back of the school bus. Clara, who got off at the same stop as Mary Ann, wondered how long the game would go on. The bus was just turning down their street from Labelle Boulevard. She better hurry up and get dressed.
There were all these boys leaning over the seats or standing in the aisle, stretching around each other to look at Mary Ann. Carol, who had been wearing all her jewelry, was down to her last ring — but still had her clothes on. Mary Ann was giggling like crazy, trying to hold her cards in one hand and a tie-dye t-shirt across her chest with the other. The bus hit a pothole, sending everyone lurching. Carol rescued the deck from sliding off the vinyl seat.
“Mare, how many cards do you want?” Carol asked.
“Four,” said Mary Ann and the boys laughed, thinking that Mary Ann’s cards must suck and she would lose the hand. “What’s wild again?”
“One-eyed Jacks.” They laughed even harder. Clara didn’t get the joke. Was there a joke?
More and more kids, except for the really little ones in the front, crowded around the back now, watching, waiting to see those panties come off.
Clara was sitting beside Mary Ann on the back seat — with her nose out the window. The bus stank — Greg Belanger had thrown up in the aisle that morning. It had been cleaned up, but that smell lingered.
Carol was taking her time dealing out the four cards. The bus stopped. Squeaky doors opened and in slow motion, a handful of kids gathered up their bags and left and the bus jerked forward again. Two more stops to go. Carol gave herself three cards.
Clara was watching Mary Ann. It was June and warm and this golden afternoon sun came through the windows and hit Mary Ann’s face just so and traveled down her bare shoulder and arm and landed on her knee. It made her tanned skin glow and her dark hair, which she wore in short spikes, reddish. She tilted her chin up to bask in the sun’s heat. And Clara saw that she wore around her neck a slim gold chain with a cross on it and wondered why she hadn’t removed that rather than her shirt.
Billy Burns stretched his neck way out over the seat to spy on Mary Ann’s cards.
“Fuck off Billy!” Mary Ann said, poking him with her elbow. Her hand was jostled and she lost grip on her shirt — the material slipped. The whole bus erupted. “Oh my God!” Mary Ann screamed and scooped her shirt back up, but it was too late. Everyone had seen her boobs. Not that there was much to see — she wasn’t like Josée Thibault, who already had giant boobs in Grade 5. Carol was laughing so hard, snot was coming out of her nose and she dropped her cards. The bus stopped. A few more kids got out.
Carol was down on her knees, picking up her cards amid blackened gobs of old gum and squished paper bag lunches.
“Oh come on,” said Billy. “Stop stalling.”
“You’re such a pig, Billy. Why don’t you take your pants off?” Carol asked.
Then Mary Ann let out this laugh. She had this great laugh — half snort, half shriek — that you could hear from across the hall. It pissed off all the teachers at school, but it always made Clara smile. Mary Ann eyed Billy and said: “Oh yeah, please pull your pants down, Billy, cause we all want to see your Spiderman undies, or are you wearing the Scooby-Do ones today?”
The bus erupted again and you could tell that everyone believed Mary Ann about Billy’s underwear. Mary Ann always knew about such things — there was never any question. Billy’s face turned red and he shut up after that. Clara reached for her bag under the seat.
Carol put her cards down. “Full House.” Three Fives and two Nines. “Come on, Mare, what do you got?”
With another lurch, the bus stopped, but no one moved — everyone was looking at Mary Ann, who sat there, smiling. Clara was stuck in the window seat and couldn’t get past, so she half-sat-half-stood, clutching her backpack to her chest, watching, like everyone else. Mary Ann shrugged as if in defeat and went to put down her cards.
“Come on kids! I haven’t got all day!” shouted the bus driver. Then he blasted his horn.
And that did it. Grumbling, kids scrambled back to their seats. Carol looked out the window and — as if for the first time — saw where the bus was. “Oh shit!” She threw Mary Ann’s bag at her. Mary Ann dropped her cards.
The two friends, screaming, gathered up all the clothes and stuff and Mary Ann tumbled off the bus. Clara followed her, squeezing past Carol, who was almost peeing herself. The bus left, with the kids still inside it, hanging out the windows still watching Mary Ann.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow …” The asphalt on the road was hot under Mary Ann’s bare feet and there were pebbles too. She tiptoed to the side of the road and stood on the cool grass of Mrs. Cameron’s front lawn. Clara watched from the road.
“She’s looking at you,” Clara said, meaning Mrs. Cameron, who was standing at her front window. That old lady spent her whole life at her window.
Mary Ann arched her back and stretched out her arms to put on her t-shirt. “Who gives a shit! Where’re my shoes?”
“I have them.” Clara had picked them up off the floor of the bus, where they had been dropped in the rush. She walked over to Mary Ann and chucked the runners on the grass.
“Thanks,” Mary Ann said, without looking, as she pulled on her jeans. “Fuckin’ old bat,” she said, and gave Mrs. Cameron the finger.
“Fuckin’ old bat,” Clara repeated, but not out loud. She looked at Mary Ann’s golden face — the swath of metallic blue shadow above her black-rimmed eyes, the maroon gloss on her lips. “I saw your cards. Would’ja really have …?”
Mary Ann shrugged and said nothing. For a moment the two stood together on the lawn in defiance of Mrs. Cameron. In her head, Clara raced through a thousand things to say, but didn’t say any of them. Then Mary Ann squished her feet into her runners, picked up her backpack, slouched it over a shoulder, threw out a “See ya!” and walked away, hips swaying, down the centre of the street, leaving Clara behind to watch.