A tree house, a fort, a shack — for a kid growing up in rural America in the early 1960s, just about any old lean-to would do. Just so long as you had a place where you could have some privacy, put some space between yourself and the world of homework and chores and, if you were really lucky, imagine yourself living the kind of swashbuckling adventures you saw played out on a big screen on Saturday afternoons at popcorn-littered movie emporiums with names like the Arabian, the Strand or the Ritz.
I was luckier than most. I had the Bus Body.
The Bus Body wasn’t actually mine. It was Frankie Mixon’s. I just got free use of it because he was my nearest neighbor and my best friend.
Frankie’s daddy made his living driving a rolling store. In the South back then, there were still country folks who didn’t have the spare time or the transportation to get into town to pick up a loaf of Sunbeam bread or a gallon of kerosene whenever they had the need or felt the urge. So, there were men like Ethridge Mixon who were like circuit-riding grocers. His customers knew what day he’d be driving their route. They would tie a scarf or a bright-colored rag around the mailbox pole if they wanted anything. He would stop and honk his horn, and somebody would come running down a long, dusty drive, climb up the steps into the rolling store, shop, and shoot the breeze. Mr. Mixon would have everything on his racks from sugar and flour to pipe tobacco and fishing line. If you were cash short, he might barter you corn meal and laundry powder for some tomatoes or okra or a live chicken.
Mr. Mixon by then was making his daily rounds in a sort of oversized delivery truck. But in a scraggly pasture out behind the Mixons’ L-shaped, white, clapboard house sat the shell of an old city bus, solitary and unshaded, motor-less, and wheel-less on a throne of concrete blocks. Mr. Mixon had bought it cheap when it was decommissioned a decade earlier. The prospects for his business looked boundless then, and he had hoped to have something like a full-sized grocery store on wheels. But the money he needed to retool it never quite piled up. Little by little, he had cannibalized the bus of his dreams for parts. Now it just sat baking in the south Mississippi sun among the cedar weed and the golden rod, its empty headlight sockets staring wide-eyed across a collapsed barbed wire fence and a gravel road into a thicket of scrub pines and china berry trees. Somewhere along the way, it had come to be known to the Mixons and us neighbors simply as the Bus Body, as if it were a dear, departed relative.
To us 12-year-olds, there was no sad sense of what might have been. The Bus Body was a beautiful, magical thing. Bright red with white trim when it was new, it had been bleached by summer heat and humidity to a hazy, pale peach. It looked like a giant Dreamsicle. It was long and sleek and rounded on the ends, with a row of windows down each side and a two-paneled folding door that the driver opens with a hand crank next to his seat. There were only two or three passenger seats left in it, but most all of the windows still went up and down.
The Bus Body never left the pasture, but it took us everywhere. It was our Army tank when we played Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back, our stage coach when we were Roy Rogers or Randolph Scott. Roll out a garden hose from back of the Mixons’ house and it instantly transformed into a fire truck. It was our B-52 bomber when we were good little Cold Warriors, protecting American airspace from the Communist threat. It was our submarine when we acted out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fighting monster whales and giant squids, throwing pine-sapling harpoons at the Mixons’ bulbous, white butane tank.
For a while we used the Bus Body to play Hatari, inspired by a John Wayne movie about wildlife wranglers in Africa — the one that had a hit song in it, “Baby Elephant Walk,” that sounded like it was played on a circus calliope. When we played Hatari, Frankie and I would climb out one of the windows and up on top of the Bus Body with a length of clothesline rope. We would pay my little brother, Tim, and whatever neighborhood kids we could round up a nickel apiece to be zebras or gazelles or rhinoceros — running in place alongside the Bus Body — so we could lasso them and pack them off to zoos around the world, just like the Duke and his buddies did.
The day that sticks out most in my memory, the day we more or less outgrew the Bus Body, we were playing Flash Gordon. It wasn’t the first time we had made like space cowboys, imagining the Bus Body was a sleek and speedy rocket ship. We had done other, bigger productions where we had other neighborhood kids as guest stars, including Pam Street as Flash’s gal Friday, Dale Arden, and Thomas Larry Hutto, because he already had a mustache, as Ming the Merciless. But this particular time, it was just me and Frankie.
It was early still, no more than 9 o’clock that summer morning. The Bus Body was still cool from the night air. We were just getting started, counting down to blast-off, when we got into an argument. I wanted to be Flash for a change.
Frankie always got to be Flash, which, in retrospect, makes perfect sense. He was brawny and freckled and blond and even had curly hair like Buster Crabbe, the actor who played Flash in an old cliffhanger serial we had seen at the movie theater in Laurel. I was an adolescent egghead with skinny arms and legs and pale Irish skin. I was better suited to the role of Dr. Zarkoff.
But I was determined to be Flash, and Frankie and I got to tussling and wrestling. By some rare stroke of luck, I got him off balance and pushed him out the door. While he was on the ground, I grabbed hold of the crank and shut the front door. Then I ran up and down the interior pushing up all the open windows so there wasn’t enough of a crack for him to crawl in.
I was feeling right proud of myself when I sat down in the tattered brown leather driver’s seat and took the Bus Body’s big wheel. “Set a course for the planet Mongo,” I shouted out to my imaginary crew. Frankie beat on the Bus Body’s entry door and called me names. I just made a big show out of getting more comfortable.
Next time I looked over, Frankie had disappeared. I got quiet and listened hard. I wondered what he was plotting. He was a crafty one, that Frankie.
Then I heard him scream. “Help!” he shouted. “Help!”
He sounded as if he were about to cry, which was highly unusual for Frankie.
“Aw, quit it,” I said. “You’re not fooling me.”
I heard him sounding muffled saying, “Help me, Noel, please. My head’s stuck.”
He sounded so pitiful that, against my better judgment, I opened the door and walked around to the front on the Bus Body. There was Frankie’s headless form. All I could see of him was his torso and legs. His head disappeared into the empty right headlight socket of the Bus Body. His knees were on the front bumper. He was balanced there as though he was in one of those stocks the Puritans used to shame sinners. I could not help but laugh.
Frankie was not amused in the least. “It ain’t funny, Noel,” he half barked, half cried. “It hurts, dammit. Get me out of here.”
The smirk vanished from my lips when I looked closer. There were traces of red on the neck of Frankie’s T-shirt. I caught my breath up short. I was no stranger to blood. I had once run into a five-strand barbed-wire fence at full gallop while playing Kick the Can. And besides, Frankie was my blood brother. We had sliced ourselves on the backs of our right hands with our pocket knives and pressed the bleeding wounds together when we were 10. But this was different. I told him to hold real still. I carefully peeled back the neck of his shirt and saw the ragged, oozing scrapes on the skin just below his ears.
“Be still,” I said firmly.
I carefully worked a couple of my fingers into the empty headlight socket and felt sharp metal edges on the inside of the circle. I realized then what had had happened. There was a time a couple of summers back when Frankie had been skinny enough to crawl through the headlight socket, through a space over the wheel well and into the interior of the Bus Body. But he had grown. In his haste to get at me, he had pushed his head in and quickly recognized that the rest of his body had gotten too big. He got stuck when he tried to pull his head out. It was like an animal trap, where the teeth grab you if you try to pull out of it.
“No-ullll, get me out of this thing!” Frankie bellowed, his voice echoing inside the wheel well. He was crying now. Not only was his head in the hole, now the edge of the bumper was digging into his bare knees.
I looked around. Who could I call for help? Who was close by? Mr. Mixon was off driving a grocery route. Frankie’s mama had gone to her sister’s house to see the new baby. Mrs. Hunter across the road was practically an invalid.
I spun around two or three times like a dog chasing his tail. I wrung my hands. “Think, Noel, think,” I instructed myself out loud. I took a deep breath. I said, “Frankie, I’m gonna run to my house and see if I can get my mama.”
Frankie groaned. “That’s too far,” he said.
I did, in fact, live about a quarter mile down the road, but I didn’t know what else to do. “Frankie, there ain’t nobody else. I’m gonna go. You just hang on.”
“It hurts,” he whimpered.
I pulled of my T-shirt — my prized Lone Ranger and Tonto T-shirt — and worked it over the jagged lower edge of the headlight socket, just under his throat.
“Does that help?” I said.
“Some,” he said. “But the bumper’s ’bout to kill my knees.”
I looked around. There was nothing on the Mixon’s back porch that I could see. Nothing on their clothes line. I looked down. I decided it was no time for modesty. I slipped out of my cutoff jeans and worked them in between his kneecaps and the bumper.
“OK, now, I’m going to run as fast as I can,” I said. “You just try not to move.” And off I went, sprinting down the gravel road to my house wearing nothing but dirty black Keds and a pair of faded plaid boxer shorts.
I was suddenly aware of how hot it had gotten as I ran. The sun was almost directly overhead, merciless in a cloudless blue sky, and the morning dew now steamed off the grass and gravel. I ran up our long driveway and into the back yard, gasping for breath, dust stuck to my sweaty skin.
“Mama? Mama?” I called. When she didn’t answer, I started to spin again, panicking. “Mama! Mama!”
“What’s the matter, honey?” I heard her call out. I saw her walking back from the clothes line with an empty basket in her hand.
“Mama!” I said. “Frankie’s got his head stuck in the Bus Body.”
She didn’t acknowledge this at first. She looked at me sternly when she got closer. “Noel Wesley Holston! Where are your pants, young man?”
I told her they were back at the Mixons’ house, back at the Bus Body. And I did my best to explain where Frankie’s head was and how it got there and why he couldn’t get it out. I grabbed her hand and tried to lead her down the driveway.
“Lord a-mighty,” she said. “That boy’s gonna decapitate himself.” But instead of running back with me, she determinedly walked to the shed next to the feed barn where daddy kept his tools. In a couple of minutes, she emerged carrying a pair of work gloves, pliers and a mean-looking set of metal pinchers that daddy used to cut fence wire. Together we trotted back to the Mixons’ place, me in my under shorts, she in an old house dress and black canvas shoes as slim as ballet slippers.
When we rounded the corner of the Mixons’ house, we could see Frankie’s shoulders, his rear end and his legs protruding from the front of the Bus Body. His T-shirt was wet with sweat and stained pink at top. His knees were on the bumper, but his hands were by his side instead of braced against the front of the Bus Body.
As we got closer, Mama called his name: “Frankie!”
He wiggled one hand. Up inside the Bus Body, sounding as though he were inside a barrel, Frankie was sobbing. Mama told him to be real still, she was going to get him loose.
“Move your neck over to the side,” she said firmly. “To the right, Frankie, to the right. More. Okay, good. Now be still.” She told him she knew it hurt, so just go ahead and holler if he had to. She had to make some space to slip the metal cutters in.
Little by little, she tore into the jagged sheet metal around the socket, cutting this way and that and then bending the edges in with the pliers to enlarge the hole. Finally she had made enough room for him to slip his head out very carefully. Even then some of the inside edges pulled his hair and made him go, “Ow, ow, ow.”
Mama inspected the cuts around Frankie’s neck, and then she had him take us into his house. Times being what they were then, it wasn’t locked. We went through the back door and into a kitchen smelling of the morning’s bacon and skillet cornbread. At the sink, Mama cleaned Frankie’s cuts with Octagon soap. Then she went to the bathroom and got mercurochrome from the medicine cabinet. When she was done painting his cuts and scratches, Frankie looked like he was wearing a lacy red necklace.
Mama asked him where his mother was, and then, when he told her, asked if he knew his Aunt Coot’s number. When she went to use the phone in the front hall, Frankie shot me a look half beseeching, half rattlesnake cold.
“You better not tell anybody I cried,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
I looked him in the eye, trying my best of match his stare. “What’s it worth to you?” I said.
He made a fist with his freckled right hand. He held it up in front of my face. He glared at me silently.
I was startled to hear myself laugh. “You beat me up, I’ll tell for sure,” I said.
Frankie thought it over. Slowly he lowered his hand. “All right,” he said. “You can be Flash next time.”
“Next three times,” I said.
“Two,” he countered.
“Three,” I said, sticking to my guns.
“Deal,” he said.
“Deal,” I said.
I spit on the palm of my right hand. Frankie spit on his. We reached out, gripped tight, and shook on it.