The bus rattled its rattling way along, and John’s discomfort grew with each passing second. The reasons were legion: the kids were growing rowdier by the minute, and there were still several hours of bus ride to go; the seat was missing a spring or something and no matter how he shifted it caused a pain somewhere in his body; and the perfectly nice and perfectly old-fashioned lady in the seat next to him was the kind of overplump that infringed on others’ private space, but they were both too polite for the subject to be discussed. In a healthy, whole world, John thought, she wouldn’t be this overweight, and even if she were it wouldn’t bother me as much as it does that she is one and a quarter seats wide, and even if it did i would have no problem telling her, but even if i did have a problem i would do it anyway because she would accept it gracefully as loving criticism, because that’s how i would mean it. But none of these things were true, were positive, were yes. All of it was no, no, no. So much is broken, he thought, and as if noticing that for the first time his mind gasped a little gasp, so much that we cannot fix or make right, but must simply endure.
John looked around the bus then, almost as if looking for an escape. He was having a minor panic attack. He had never done anything like this before, and he was beginning to regret volunteering now that it was too late to turn back. Five days with forty-one teenagers and a few adults with whom he had spoken maybe twice before? He thought back to the genesis of this idea now, and his vision was less clear than it had been at the time. He remembered hearing about the trip two Sundays ago at church, the annual youth mission trip. The trip was somewhat spontaneous this year; generally it was planned many months in advance, but because the need was so pressing the youth and the youth minister had decided to travel to Bastrop, Texas, on the heels of all the fires that had devastated the town recently. There was no time to lose, so the trip was planned as quickly as could be done without sacrificing logistic practicality. The response was overwhelming. Usually about twenty to twenty-five kids would commit to these summer trips, but the cause had brought an overwhelming turnout from area youth, almost twice as many as they had ever had before. Once so many kids had committed, the church was up against a wall of sorts: by law they were required to have a given amount of adult chaperones per child along on the trip, otherwise they would have to turn kids away.
John had sat in one of the pews in the back of the church that Sunday, and though he was there every week, and though there was a need for something every week, this time he burned to help. He could not now say why, but as the pastor called for more volunteers from the pulpit, the feeling to comply had been almost compulsory, almost automatic. His arm had shot up, his legs had straightened and raised his seated body to standing, and his mouth had cried out almost before his mind had processed what he was doing. His body knew first what his heart would feel moments later: so much broken in the world, and for once people, kids even, are trying to do something good to help, and if he did not volunteer to aid them in that endeavor then he was a coward and a villain and what right did he have to be calling himself Christian in the first place. He could not sit idly by as kids who wanted to pass out food and help build houses for victims of the wildfires were turned away: such an act would be bold and rebellious and cruel, he knew, especially when all it would cost him would be a few days of comfort. His comfort was not the issue, he could clearly see that day; not when there were those to whom he could bring even greater levels of comfort than what he would be sacrificing.
But now that the deed was done, now that he was locked in a rectangular road bullet loaded with gunpowder teens, hurtling to what felt like doom, the warm feelings had worn off, leaving only the fear: what was he doing here? Would he know what to say if the kids were in danger? Would he be of any use if some delicate pubescent feather needed advice or discipline? Would he damage fragile psyches if he provided it ignorantly, or close their hearts like dying flowers if he chose not to? What if a construction emergency happened? What if one of the kids in his care was injured, or worse, killed? The responsibility, now that he was addressing it, was starting to eat at him; eat at him like tiny fish eat at corpses, nibbles at a time, unnoticed nibbles nipping pieces of him away, tiny hardly known pieces that after due time, become all of him.
This pensiveness, this topical thoughtcloud: this was the real problem gnawing into John’s body, even though he didn’t realize it. It had very little to do with his physical comfort. He felt, and would say to others if they were to ask, that he was very excited and joyful and grateful to be doing something good for others, and none of this would be exactly untrue, because these elements were present in him as well. But the notion was also now beginning to form in his mind that the rankness, the stench of the slowly rotting world was the thing that was causing him emotional rollarounds, as if his heart was sleeping on a pebble. Even if he were sitting next to someone slim and pleasant and sweet on the nostrils, even if all the teenagers in the bus were asleep, or quietly reading, even if the road were paved well and the driver expertly skilled and the seat were made of cotton candy, John would still be shifting, shifting, shifting endlessly in his seat. He would not have been comfortable, he would not have been quite right even if everything around him had been stellar, shimmering, stalwart.
He did not know all this yet, but soon, so soon, he would.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Author’s note: Who knows how long it will be, or what it will resemble when it is done, or if it will even come to anything but thoughts and dust, but here lies a beginning. It is something that might be either grand beyond measure, or utterly nonsensical rubbish, but most likely it will land somewhere in the vast doldrums of in-between. I pridefully hope for the first of these, of course…
Enjoy it for what it is, whatever that is. More to come soon.