Robbie Thomas was the star of Swim Team. And he was known to have a Little Black Book. This was an idea as unattainable to me as, perhaps, the moon.
We were riding the bus to a swim meet one afternoon when he winked at me and said, “Watch and learn my young friend.” He sashayed to the front of the bus where the girls sat. They were listening to Aretha Franklin singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T on a transistor radio and he plunked down across from the new girl, Kate.
“Hey Kate,” he said, “I wondered if you would help me finish a poem I’m writing?”
She looked at him and rolled her eyes, but said, “OK, go for it.”
He took out his Little Black Book and read, “There once was a girl named Kate, whose friends said she just couldn’t wait, So I had a quick look and didn’t see her name in my book, So now I’m asking her out on a…. I’m just trying to think of what that last word might be?”
She blushed and smacked him on the head with a hairbrush that she was fiddling with. And then she took out a pen and wrote her phone number in his book! It was shameless and awesome, and frankly, I watched, but I didn’t learn a thing.
That particular day, we were going to a multi-county meet on the other side of the White Mountains and, as we drove over the pass, it started to snow, which wasn’t unusual. Descending on the west side, the snow just kept going and so did we. We are snow people.
By the time the meet was over and we got back on our bus, the snow was slashing through the darkening sky like shattered glass. I made a smart-aleck crack like, “It’s cold as a witch’s tit.” And somebody else said, “No, it’s as cold as your mama when I threw her out of bed for eating crackers.” The repartee went downhill from there until Coach came aboard and we knew enough to shut our traps.
The bus started out into the storm, wheels and gears grinding and whining against the ice and the gusting winds. Once the heat came up and darkness surrounded us, small dim reading lights came on above each seat. Wrapped in the growing warmth and the cocoon of dim light, I watched as the driving snow pelted against the outside of the window.
Soon I had nodded off, but I was shortly awakened as the bus slowed and stopped, then lurched forward again and stopped once more. Outside the window, in the eerie light of the maelstrom, I could see the bleary outline of another bus that looked to be off the road and leaning precariously.
There was urgent conversation at the front of our bus and suddenly, with a great rush of cold air and a tremendous whooshing sound, the door swung open and then shut again. I watched as Coach, hunched against the screaming storm, fought his way to the ghostly bus. He banged on the door which quickly opened and took him in, like an alien spaceship vacuuming up an earthling. And then a few minutes later, it spit him out, back into the blizzard. He struggled back to our bus and, safely inside, announced, “That’s the Carlisle team. They went off the road and they’re not gonna get out anytime soon, so we’re taking them on our bus. Everybody push over, while I go back and get them moving. Please, folks, move your stuff to overhead or under your seats and make room.”
It took some time for them to emerge from their stricken bus and when they did, it was in military order. They each kept a hand on the shoulder of the person ahead of them, and they inched forward like some giant multi-headed centipede, worming through the ferocious white whirlwind. When they got to our bus, the door opened and they poured in along with great gusts of cold air and shouts of relief.
I made space at my seat and without fanfare one of the rescued team members, bundled in a blue down jacket, hat, gloves, and lugging a big backpack dropped down beside me and said, “Well, I guess my grandma was right when she said, ‘you don’t know half how lucky you are until half your luck runs out’.”
She pulled off her hood and hat and gloves and looked me in the eye, “Right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess. What happened to you guys?”
“I dunno, really. We were going along fine as you please, you know, pretty slow on account of the storm. And then the bus just started slipping sideways and there’s a big bang and we started to tip. Like in a movie, like it all went in slow motion. I was sure we were gonna just roll right over. But it tipped and tipped and then stopped. Everybody was screaming. Like. Shit. Like we were all going to die.” She looked quizzically at me and took a deep breath. Tears came to her eyes. “It was really, really scary.”
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Yeah. I guess. Now.” She shivered and hugged herself, “brrrrr. Dang. They had to shut the bus off ‘cause of carbon monoxide. And it just got colder and colder.” She looked past me into a shadowy place.
“Here, switch with me,” I half stood and made room for her to slide over, “It’s warmer here, see the heat vent’s there. It’s really warm there.”
She slid over and I took the aisle seat.
“Thanks. Ooooh, that feels so good. Oh my god!” She pulled off her coat and let the warm air flood around her. “Oh my god, I thought we were gonna just sit there and slowly freeze up like ice cubes in a tray. They’d have to chip us out of our seats with ice picks.”
She blew on her hands. “Feel,” she said and held her hands out. I took one as if to shake, but she grabbed both my hands in hers and squeezed, “See? Cold huh? You thought I was kidding?”
“Oh my god, they’re like icicles,” I rubbed her hands in mine, and then I let go as I looked in her eyes and I realized just how beautiful she was, how her eyes shined in the dim light, a summer night carnival of dancing neon, the glow when a winter bonfire burns low, a midnight meteor shower. Her smile grabbed hold of time’s steady flow, making each moment stop and take a slow deep breath.
“What’s your name,” she asked. “Were you in the meet?”
“Umm, Yeah. Henry. I usually swim relay. But I’m really not that strong a swimmer. They just needed a ninth grader.” Damn me, I thought…she’s probably a sophomore. “What do you swim?”
“Butterfly. Breast stroke. I swam a relay lap this afternoon.”
I’d been on swim team long enough that “breast stroke” had pretty much lost its innuendo, but when this beautiful girl with magic eyes and an avalanche of red hair said it, I thanked the Great God Zeus for the darkness we were in so she wouldn’t see me blush like a five-alarm sunburn.
Once the bus got under way again, the chatter of voices dulled to a hum, barely distinguishable over the rumble of the engine and the roar of the storm. Anna, as I learned, lived in the next county, with her mom. We talked about our families, our pets, our favorite subjects in school, and swimming, of course. An observer might have thought we were best friends from way back. The harder the wind roared on the other side of the window glass, the more we huddled together.
Little did we know what storms awaited us, how rarely rescue would show up just in time, or for how long and how deeply we would treasure these hours of shelter, aboard this bus, amidst this storm.
Anna leaned back and sighed, “If someone gave you a bunch of money just, you know, out of the blue, what would you do with it?”
“Ha! Let’s see.” I gazed upward for inspiration, “I think I’d buy a jet and fly around the world. I’d stop at all the cool places.” I paused to consider, “Paris, Kenya, Antarctica. How ‘bout you?”
“Well, I’d probably buy my mom’s house so we wouldn’t have to pay rent.” She paused for a bit, “But I’d have some fun too. You could go camping with us and we’d get horses and ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”
“Or even better, since we’d both be rich, we could put our money together and….”
“Start a rock band. Travel the world. Have people to do our hair and take care of our food and stuff. We’d have a driver, wouldn’t we?......James….James,” she pretended, “We’re going out. Bring the car around, would you ol’ chap!”
We laughed and we played like that while the storm raged and raged. Around us there were others, but their voices and their faces faded behind the veil of our companionship. We were helpless in the dim light, in the gravity of our intimacy.
But time calls its debts without mercy, and later that night the bus pulled under a covered portico at Anna’s school. The roar of the wind dimmed and the lights on the bus came up, commanding us to be like we were before. We looked at each other in the harsh light, desperate to go back out into the storm, but utterly unable, at that time, to grab the steering wheels of our lives. Anna leaned over to the kids in front of us and grabbed some play money they were using for a card game. Ignoring their cries of outrage, she sat back down, and pulled out a Little Black Book, exactly like Robbie’s, except hers had a soft fabric cover and was full of poetry and autographs and quotes. With a marker, she wrote something on the play money, then flipped through her Little Black Book until she found the right page, wrote some more, ripped the page out and folded the two together and pushed them into the palm of my hand.
I just didn’t know what to say. The bright lights had stripped our peace away. I could see that the parting was to be sudden and unkind. I stepped back so Anna could get out. She gathered her coat and hat and gloves and her backpack. I was thinking, she’s even more beautiful in the bright light.
“Call me.” She motioned to the paper she had put in my hand and she kissed me right smack on the lips and started down the aisle, waving a hand behind her for only me to see. I stuttered a feeble good-bye as she disappeared down the aisle.
Once she was gone, I opened the papers. She had doctored the monopoly twenty to make it say $20,000 and the sheet she had torn from her Little Black Book said, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen - MacBeth.” Beneath she had written her phone number. I felt, at once, a gale of complete sorrow amidst a blizzard of utter joy. It is perhaps the fullest I have ever felt in my life.
As we pulled away, it made me smile to see Anna, outside the bus, hugging her mom and then waving her arms about, telling her tale.
Down the road a bit, and having re-taken my regular posture, back to the window, feet in the aisle, I heard Robbie calling my name, “Henry! Hey.”
I looked over the top of the seats.
“Hey Henry, whoa, man, she was a hottie. Didja ask her for her phone number?”
I laughed a quick laugh, “Nope, didn’t have the nerve,” and I sat back to enjoy the rest of the ride.