The Myth of Pat
The school bus trundled down the frozen street, a giant orange box on wheels. It lurched to the curb, sliding to a halt.
Snow and ice covered everything.
As I stuck my tongue to my zipper, my brother, Matt, shoved me. We huddled in the cold in puffy snowsuits twice our size that zipped from our legs to our chins, wooly scarves covering our hoods and faces, leaving slits for our eyes.
“Get ready,” he said, taking a deep breath. A veteran of the long journey, Matt knew what lay ahead.
The doors screeched open and a wave of heat blasted me in the face. Matt trudged up the steps. I followed.
Pat, the bus driver, sat atop her frayed seat—she had heavy bags under her eyes, wiry hair, and a frayed demeanor. She picked us up at 8:17 a.m. and dropped us off at a time of her choosing. If we were even a few seconds late, Pat was speeding off to her next stop.
“Good morning, boys,” she said as she maneuvered the iron lever that opened and closed the door. “Sit down. I have places to be and people to see.”
Those places were the houses on her tightly packed bus-route; those people were between the ages of five and thirteen.
Matt and I kept our heads down as we boarded and walked past Pat; we never sat together. We may have been brothers, but we severed our relationship once we set foot on the bus. As a Grade 4 I sat in the middle of the bus, an advance from when I was a Kindergartener in the front. With every year I gained confidence as I moved rows back. Every kid followed the same rules. Matt disappeared into a seat one row from the back because he was in Grade 7. We wouldn’t see each other until the end of the day.
I clumped along toward my designated spot, sliding onto the tattered bench.
The tops of kids’ heads peaked and poked over the backs of their seats. Only a few bleary-eyed kids sat on the bus in the wee hours of the morning, everyone staring out the metal-framed windows—breaths thawing the glass, eventually crystalizing into frost again.
I rubbed my eyes, trying to shake the early morning sleepiness. Next I unwrapped my scarf and unzipped my snowsuit, peeling both off. After removing my winter boots, I stripped down to my t-shirt and jeans and socks, piling everything on the floor under my seat.
The trip before me seemed interminable. I rested my head against the seat in front of me; I closed my eyes and hoped the ride would be over when I opened them. But Pat lurched the bus around a corner, catapulted me into the sidewall, and snapped me out of my stupor. A Kindergartener stepped onto the bus in a bulging purple snowsuit and with an hour left on the road, things looked grim.
I turned my attention to the ice-covered window, scratching a hole through the frost with my fingers to uncover the outside world zipping by, cars and delivery trucks hurtling by in a chaotic, snowy blur.
I made designs on the frozen window panes as I scraped at the ice, collecting snow shavings in ever-lengthening coils, letting them melt in my hand. The frosted windows made a fine canvas. I carved my name. I etched rudimentary faces. I I left my mark for the day.
The bus careened around a cul-de-sac, forcing me against my window.
As I regained my bearings, a few more kids sauntered onto the bus. Things got noisier, and Pat’s furrowed face in the rearview mirror—which stretched from one corner of the front of the bus to the other—made it clear the noise would not stand.
“Sit down, Jennifer!”
The girl threw herself into an open seat. Once inside the bus, there were rules. Pat’s rules: No talking. No touching. No questions. No fun.
Pat had enforcement methods. Her steering wheel flung us around in our seats. A pump or two of her brakes thumped us around the bus. And, oh, she could scream.
“Stop fidgeting, Dennis!”
A tiny unsuspecting Grade 1, who I presumed was Dennis, collapsed into his seat.
“Eyes to the front!”
“Stop smudging the windows!”
At this early hour, the critical mass of kids necessary to ignore Pat’s dictates had yet to be reached. Pat had the upper hand, but time was on our side, and I’m pretty sure Pat understood.
I pulled a library book from my backpack to pass the time: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I had been obsessed with Egyptians ever since my dad took me to a King Tut exhibit, and now I was onto the Greeks. I had read about major gods like Zeus and Hera, and I had made it through the minor gods like Prometheus and Pandora. Now I was on the mortal descendants of Zeus. I read how Sisyphus had tricked Hades and was punished to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down.
I looked up and saw Pat staring back at me from her mirror, as the bus rattled through the streets.
Pat kept us on our toes. I swear she felt joy as she swerved this way and that, watching our tiny bodies slam around like pinballs. She pitched us over a snowbank, almost launching me into the ceiling, leaving me to scrape myself off the floor.
The bus rolled to a stop. And this particular stop was reliable as the moment on every bus ride when I joined Pat in my own personal Sisyphean effort to survive……Bambi.
This stop was where two sisters, Shiloh and Bambi, traipsed onto the bus. Shiloh and Bambi. Bambi and Shiloh. Each was weirder than the other.
Shiloh was in Grade 8 and had platinum blonde hair. Heavy makeup caked her face, giving her the complexion of a racoon. She dressed black-on black-on-black: black jeans, black jacket, and a revolving closet of black band-tour shirts.
Bambi, was a year older than me. She dressed in fluorescent anything. She had crimped hair and chubby cheeks. Though her sister dressed all in black, I had to deal with Bambi’s darkness every day she sat down. In a tightly choreographed motion, she pulled down her hot pink stirrup-pants and her underwear and she mooned me. Her bare butt hung in the aisle.
I ignored her.
Then something even more bizarre happened.
“Poke it,” Bambi whispered.
I stared at the seat in front of me, hoping she’d go away, wanting it all to end. From experience, I knew she wouldn’t stop until I touched her bum. I looked on with a curious disgust. I closed my eyes and flicked her butt cheek with the outstretched tip of my index finger.
Bambi hiked her pants back up, smiled, and disappeared into her seat—the whole scene to be repeated the next day.
Pat jammed the breaks again and slid the bus to a stop, rag-dolling me into the back of the seat. I collapsed in a heap. I pulled myself up, shook my head a few times, watching another throng of kids slog onto the bus.
A larger-than-normal group embarked on the intimidating walk to their seats, climbing the social ladder with every step. Brutal mockery pelted them as they marched by. They were easy targets. Kids with lisps. Kids with rat tails. Kids with bucked teeth. Kids with lisps and rat tails and bucked teeth. One of those kids was David, my comrade for the rest of the journey.
David had a buzz-cut and enormous teeth. We had been through a lot together on the bus and it had bonded us together like war-united soldiers.
“Hey, David,” I said.
“Hey, man.” He scooched beside me and sat down, chucking his backpack on the floor.
“Bambi did it again,” I said.
“Ugh,” he moaned. “She’s the worst.”
David understood Bambi better than most because his sister, Kathy, was her best friend. David told me how Bambi once pinned him down and licked him then she sat on his face.
Before I could fill David in on the bus ride, Neil—a kid a couple grades older than us—leaned over the back of our seat, without a trace of irony, “You guys want to see me take out my eyeball?”
We deferred to Neil because he was older and, naturally, we believed everything he said. He pressed his fingers into his eyes, and writhed about, launching his body this way and that, moaning the whole while. Then Neil ducked behind his seat and re-emerged with his eyelids flipped inside out like the inside of his head was open.
David and I exchanged glances. Neil smiled and popped his eyelids back into their normal positions. Then he said, “That’s right, losers,” and he kicked the back of our seat and disappeared.
The tipping point in who was in control of this rolling carnival always came when a Grade 3 named Kurt got on the bus.
Pat seemed alarmed. The bus got moving again, windows started rattling, seats started shaking, and children started bouncing. Pat usually managed us with a few gruff commands while leering from her giant mirror, but now she turned around and looked at us face-to-face.
Pat made a valiant attempt at restoring order:
“Eyes to the front!”
“Stop smudging the windows!”
This time to no avail. No one listened. No one cared. Even Kindergarteners and Grade 1s gazed through her like she didn’t exist.
Pat resigned herself to giving us the stink-eye from that gargantuan rearview mirror. We knew she couldn’t keep tabs on us and the road at the same time. She still had deadlines: people to pick-up and people to drop off. Her hands were tied to that immense steering wheel. Because she could no longer enforce the rules, there were no rules. We nicknamed her Fat Pat and made sure she knew it, too. We were not nice.
Watching the chaos unfold, Pat stared through her mirror with exasperated eyes. Empathy came over witnessing her endure this absurd mess.
We ran riot. Kids swapped seats. Some screamed where they sat. Others flailed wildly. A few cowered in corners underneath their backpacks. I hung half my body out the window, yelling nonsense into the icy streets.
Due to the anarchy and lack of a rule of law, mafia and black-market tendencies filled the void. Everyone traded everything. Two scratch-and-sniff-stickers might get a Battle Beast. Two Battle Beasts might get a Transformer—depending on how rare the Battle Beasts. Woven bracelets could be traded for hockey cards but only for so long. One could never have enough hockey cards, but three or four woven bracelets were enough for a lifetime—one for each wrist and maybe an ankle.
But all at once, the bedlam came at Claire’s stop; everything halted when she glided down the aisle, wading through the mayhem.
Claire had feathery brown hair and always wore a yellow rain slicker, even in the cold. She didn’t pay attention to stickers. She didn’t care about Transformers or screaming out the windows at strangers. Claire was in Grade 6 and she had a different kind of power.
Claire owned a boom box.
Silver and black. It had a double tape deck. It had Dolby sound. It had sweet tunes. And Claire must have been rich, because what she shouldered always had batteries.
Claire’s portable stereo gave her spellbinding power that calmed the masses. The bus was a den of vipers, but she was a snake-charmer.
Even Pat wasn’t immune to Claire’s boom box; it gave her time to compose herself and recuperate for the rest of the journey.
“Good morning, Claire.” Pat never forgot to welcome Claire onto the bus.
As Claire floated down the aisle, kids stopped what they were doing, moving out of her way in anticipation. She was beautiful. And when she pressed down on the spring-loaded analog play button, she set the world aflame.
Michael Jackson. Ah-Ha. Madonna. Cindy Lauper. Tears for Fears. Huey Lewis and the News. I could go on.
Melodies emanated from Claire’s metallic music box and embedded themselves into our brains. We sang Weird Al Yankovic’s entire body of work in perfect harmony. We hit all the right falsettos in Bobby McFerrin’s, Don’t Worry Be Happy.
To Pat’s dismay, Claire’s music pacified the bus for only so long. Inevitably thumping the brakes to avoid catastrophe in the streets, Pat would bring our merrymaking to an end. Slamming against the back of the seat jarred us so we couldn’t help but forget about Claire’s device Had the school bus had seatbelts, we wouldn’t have skipped a beat, but the lone safety feature was a tuna-can-sized medical kit bolted next to Pat’s mirror. We fell back into old habits, yelling, screaming, fidgeting, squirming and everything all at once.
The chaos ended when Pat rolled up to the school, plowing into the curb, shifting her gearshift into neutral. Kids looked out their frosted windows, wiping them with their filthy hands to see the school with their own eyes. I looked out my own. What had just transpired on the bus had come to an end.
With a broken voice Pat said: “E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y…o-f-f…t-h-e…b-u-s.” She enunciated her words, like she meant each and every one of them. In that moment, I sensed she wanted nothing more. She looked through her mammoth mirror—her reddened eyes filled with half rage, half relief.
We gathered our knapsacks, lunch-pails, books, snowsuits, and other odds and ends and filed off the bus. Piles of wrappers, half-eaten apples, forgotten boots, discarded clothing, and crumbs of every kind left in our wake.
“Thanks, Pat,” I said as I made my way off the bus. Thanking her was the least I could do. I had survived another day. Eventually, I wouldn’t have to ride the bus anymore. It would be over for me. But not for Pat.
“You’re welcome,” she said. I was surprised when she smiled back at me.
I staggered off the school bus, back into the cold, lumbering towards the school. But I always stopped to watch stragglers make their way off the bus. When the last kid hopped off, “Fat Pat” sat alone with a glazed look in her eyes.
In that moment, I don’t know if Pat had accepted her fate or overcome it. She drove that bus every day for years and years, and tomorrow she’d do it all over again. I could tell those minutes of rest between her journey were important. As she stared at her steering wheel, she seemed conscious of her condition; when it appeared all hope had been lost, Pat simply pulled her lever towards herself with a smirk on her face, slamming the doors shut, venturing back into the ice and snow, as if she had some other bus route to attend to.
As she drove away, strangely, all seemed well.
That being said, it was hard to imagine Pat happy.
But I was wrong.
My father retired not too long ago after teaching for 37 years; my mother, my brother, and I dutifully accompanied Dad to a long boring, impersonal ceremony where about a hundred other teachers were all retiring, too
After a mediocre meal, my mother motioned me to join her in a conversation.
I walked over and said, “Hello,” to a short gray-haired woman with a lined face that spoke of a life well-lived. Dressed in her best, she was small next to my mother. I stared at her for a long moment, trying to register the face. I had seen it somewhere before.
“Do you remember me?” the woman said. “Because I sure remember you.”
It took a while, but dawned on me when I looked her in the eyes. I had seen those eyes through a gigantic mirror every day on my bus ride to and from school. Those eyes were no longer exasperated, but it was for sure Pat, her face beaming with light and joy, nothing like the demoralized bus driver I’d once known.
“You’re Pat,” I said. I gulped as I replayed those indeterminable bus rides and what a jackass I’d been.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths sprang to mind. But since I’d read that book, I’d also come across these thoughts on Sisyphus.
“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor…The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”Albert Camus
Pat had been damned to her bus route. She had toiled and suffered. She had been sentenced to drive a bus full of unruly and ungrateful kids to school—myself included—only to have them pile back on for the long trip home, joining her on an everlasting trek through the streets. That bus was her boulder. Surely, the gods had crushed her.
“That’s right,” she said. “I’m Pat Dubois.”
She smiled. Then she leaned in and gave me a big hug—a tender hug.
“I’ll always remember driving that bus,” said Pat. “Those were good times. You kids were so great. So nice. You were the best part of my day.”
“Right,” I said, no knowing what to say. “Sure.”
Pat retired her bus driver’s license in favor of becoming a teacher; apparently, she was a good one. She taught a long and distinguished career.
She was a good bus-driver, too.
Pat’s rebellion against her circumstances reminded me of Camus’ conclusion:
“One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well…The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I’d read these words and understood them in the abstract. But now they were standing right in front of me.
Nothing about Pat’s bus crushed her. As I realized she had conquered the bus boulder, I considered that I had as well.
We were happy.
We decided to let the boulder roll, and move on.
Brad Gibault lives and works in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He busies himself with his wonderful wife, his three daughters, reading, writing, soccer, skateboarding, and puttering in the garden. He teaches high school Philosophy, History, and English. He writes about his childhood and loves exploring memories. His work has appeared in 3Elements Review.