J.E. McCafferty is the author of four books of fiction. Her work has received awards such as The Drue Heinz prize, two Pushcarts, and an NEA. She teaches in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon and for Madwomen In the Attic.
Young Lolly had a case of echolalia—though neither Gram nor Lolly knew the term back then nor knew it was a condition, an ailment of sorts.
When Lolly was small, and looked acutely vulnerable in her blue glasses, most people didn’t mind when she repeated things she heard, even as this puzzled them. “Can I take your order?” the waitress at King’s Family Restaurant said. “Can I take your order?” Lolly said, smiling, when she was three—the smile because the taste of those words was so pleasurable—and the waitress also smiled, a little confused, like countless other people before her.
But then, when she was five, she asked a man in Burger King if he liked being bald—echoing a man she’d recently heard on a television commercial for Rogaine. She had no idea the man might be offended, of course. He’d stared down at Lolly and told her you’d better learn some manners or you’re going to have a very hard life, young lady.
“She’s sorry,” her grandmother told the man, and ushered Lolly quickly into a booth near the back corner.
“Don’t be upset, Lolly. That man was mighty sensitive or maybe he was having a bad day. But he shouldn’t have talked to you that way. He’s what we call a horse’s ass, but honey, the world is just a big ole’ stable for horses’ asses, so learn to shut your trap,” Gram said, dividing the onion rings. “If he had any sense, he’d be proud to be bald,” she added, and those were the words that would come back to Lolly through the years, every time she saw a bald man.
. . .
Once a woman whose words Lolly had echoed several times at a bus stop, “and that was not a pepperoni pizza!” looked at Gram and tapped her head and asked if Lolly was all right upstairs. Gram bristled and ignored the woman, and held Lolly on her lap even though she was eight and too big for that. This was the last year her echolalia made itself known to the world. And nothing was wrong upstairs with her Lolly. Lolly’s mother had some problems in that area, but Lolly was the apple that fell far from the tree.
Gram raised Lolly and they felt lucky, most of the time, the two of them like sisters, sleeping in high twin beds, talking into the night, Gram working for the IRS all day in a cubicle, a job for which she was grateful because she wanted to get purgatory over with.
Then Lolly went to college and lived in a dorm, but still came home every Sunday night to eat spaghetti (and sometimes pineapple upside down cake) with Gram down in Lawrenceville, there in the shadow of St. Augustine’s church, usually a Franciscan monk in a brown robe visible if you looked out the window and down into the garden, or the street. Often a monk swept the back steps of the rectory, or paused by a window; they were part of the landscape, part of the meaning of home.
Lolly depended on the Sunday ritual to feel that life was manageable. Gram was the person who loved to listen to Lolly’s reports about life—RALs, Gram called them.
But one Monday morning, even before she got out of bed and tried to wake Gram, Lolly knew that Gram had died. She kept her eyes shut and prayed that she was only imagining it, but she knew. Even though Gram was only sixty-six. Even though she’d only last night had some shoulder pain and congestion. She had still managed to make a good spaghetti dinner along with playing Hearts afterwards. Lolly stayed motionless in her bed, willing Gram to be alive, knowing all the while that her spirit had flown like a hungry bird, straight out the window.
. . .
And now Gram was five weeks and two days dead, and Lolly just could not believe she wouldn’t see her again. It just did not seem possible that Gram could be gone.
She wanted to drop out of school, but Gram had made her promise never to do that. “Study hard! Be like Jane if that’s your bag!” Jane as in Jane Goodall, whose books Lolly had been reading since she was seven. Lolly still loved animals and Jane, but she no longer knew what her bag was, now that Gram was gone. She felt something had exploded inside of her and hot pieces were still slowly falling. Susannah from the dorm was trying to help Lolly, and dropped her off at Whole Foods, saying, “Expand your horizons, pretend you’re someone else.” When Lolly walked into the store she heard Gram’s voice saying, “What a racket.”
. . .
Who’s that on your arm?
Lolly didn’t ask the tall checker of groceries this question regarding his remarkable tattoo.
Not yet. She only asked him in her head. She peered at the woman who looked through the windshield of a yellow bus on the tall checker’s upper arm and took a deep breath as she lifted the items of her cart onto the black belt. The woman looked like Gram. Was this some kind of cosmic joke or bad dream? This too she only asked in her head.
Susannah from the dorm had said, “Think of yourself as a different person, and you will become a different person. Shop someplace new, wear clothes you wouldn’t normally wear, eat food you wouldn’t normally eat, and stop holing up with your monkey books. Also, maybe hook up with someone, like, hello, Lolly, you do have a body.”
Susannah was a natural life coach, she’d explained when they first met in biology lab. “I can’t help it, helping people is what I do.” She’d given Lolly many unsolicited pep talks and two makeovers in the past year, the last one quite dramatic, cutting off Lolly’s long brown hair, arching her eyebrows, giving her lessons on something she called “The Alexander Technique.” Nice makeovers, but they didn’t last.
“God, Lolly, ever hear of maintenance?”
Then Lolly would get a pep talk about that.
But now—now that Lolly was barely functioning—Susannah was in full-blown life coach mode. “What’s your bliss, Lolly?” she’d accosted her out on the street three weeks ago.
“What turns you on? What’s your thing? Chimps? Bonobos?”
Susannah clapped her hands. “So start planning a trip to the jungle! There’s my tip for the day.” She hurried away in her puffy coat.
Susannah was from the upper class. Lolly had noticed these people were often planning trips and believed it was simple to do so.
“Oh my God, just get a grant!” Susannah would tell her later.
Lolly had three times heard her say, “You could so totally get a grant!” to other people, too.
Why Susannah had picked her out was a mystery, but it was pretty good timing, because Susannah with her big bold personality—exactly that kind of person Lolly would have barricaded herself from in the past—was a good distraction. As Lolly stood in Whole Foods, Susannah’s voice from earlier resounded inside of her. “Get some good organic shit. It matters, Lolly. They’re slowly poisoning us with chemicals. Don’t think that isn’t part of the reason you feel this fucked up.”
. . .
The checker had his arms crossed now, and was talking to another checker, while Lolly stepped back and glanced through a meditation magazine.
She would ask the checker about his tattoo, all in good time.
The checker himself wore a piece of black leather studded with glued-on ruby and emerald jewels around his neck. He had the kind of buck teeth where his lips stayed slightly parted, like Lolly’s cousin Freddie who’d moved to California.
She touched the counter with one hand, suddenly aware that “Purple Rain” was playing in the background. Prince was dead, too. The checker watched her pick up a tin of mints, then put it back.
“Prince fan?” he said.
“I like Prince okay,” she said. The store was mostly empty, and nobody was behind her struggling not to ram their cart impatiently into her cart. The checker had blue highlights in his hair like flames, and his eyes studied her face.
“Are we having a good day?” he said. She tried to weigh the sarcasm in his voice against the kindness in his eyes. She glanced to the right, where snow flurries whirled above the parking lot.
“This snow is pretty much bullshit,” she finally said.
“Ah, seriously,” he said. “Fuck this April snow!”
Lolly liked this, and inwardly repeated it to herself. “So, who’s that on your arm?” she said. “She’s really impressive. As is her bus.”
The middle-aged tattoo-woman with Gram’s spirit wore horn-rimmed glasses and looked out through the windshield of the yellow bus on the checker’s pale arm. At one moment, she seemed to wink. The lines in her face looked wise. The green eyes held a sense of purpose that battled a sense of the absurd, and the more she looked at them, the more alive they seemed.
“Is she someone you know? Like a relative?”
“Just my bus driver when I was a kid.”
The bright yellow school bus had almost as much life as the driver herself; you could practically hear the motor running. In Lolly’s mind the driver spoke to her as the checker began ringing up her food. Step onto the bus, dear, she said, while the checker made small talk regarding Desperate Wolves, a band he’d gone to see. Lolly, cast back to childhood now, did not ask any questions to further this conversation about Desperate Wolves. Now the checker was looking underneath the counter for something, and Lolly climbed aboard the bus, took her seat in the last row, and closed her eyes. Jesus, she whispered in some far corner of her brain. Take me to Gram. Make death unreal. The yellow bus rumbled down the road. Gram on one of her rare days off was out by the mailbox in her polyester pants and blouse, ready to greet Lolly who stepped down off the bus, onto the narrow street in the sun, and up onto the sidewalk.
“How was jail?” Gram said, as she always did.
“You know. Bad,” came Lolly’s ritual reply. But Lolly would have stories to tell her, later. She brought home stories the way a cat brings home birds. Lolly could turn whatever happened into a polished gem to bring home to Gram, so they could laugh.
“If you can’t laugh in this world, you might as well go shoot yourself in the head,” Gram always said.
She’d laughed hard at Lolly’s story about asking the nun who taught Seven Paths to Holiness in ninth grade whether Adam and Eve had been married; the whole class has exploded into a laugh-riot. Kat McTeague said, “Who would’ve married them, an ape?” and Lolly shot back, “Yeah, an ape,” then displayed her considerable knowledge of apes while the other girls slapped their desks again and again, in some kind of manic mixture of protest and appreciation. They didn’t hate her, but she was somehow too odd to befriend. They called her The Goodall.
The checker had to get more cash in his register; a red-haired girl appeared and helped him, and now she stood telling him a story about someone who “is a good example of a royal jag-off.”
Gram handed over a candy bar as the bus pulled away. They stopped at the park and Lolly took a swing on the swingset before heading home to sit on the shadowy steps in front of St. Augustine’s, and one of the monks passed by in his brown robes, smiling, and Gram called him back to give him an Almond Joy, and he’d said, “Super!”
All these simple things—how had she taken any of it for granted? She’d never once expressed her thanks to Gram. Except to say things like, “Good spaghetti, as usual.”
. . .
The checker said, “You all right? You look a little—woozy, or maybe—”
“Yes, I’m fine, you?” Lolly straightened up, arranged her items for the checker, sucking in her breath, straightening her glasses.
“You look seriously spaced out. Are you high?” This last part he stage-whispered with a smile.
“Not anymore. I’m unemployed, though.” She’d lost her job at the bakery the week after the funeral—when she’d unconsciously eaten a slice of a special order wedding cake. The boss said, when she tried to explain, “We all lose grandmothers, Lolly.”
“Better to be high than unemployed,” said the checker. He had some kind of accent. Midwest?
She considered the meaning of what he said. Was it better to be high than unemployed? Weren’t these two separate categories?
“Got any bagging experience?” said the checker. “You could fill out an application. Why don’t you talk to the manager?”
“Is the bus driver, is she really a real person? Is she still alive? Driving her bus somewhere?”
“Can’t say. She was my bus driver when I was a kid.”
Lolly smiled. “Most people don’t have their childhood bus driver tattooed on their arm.”
“Correct,” said the checker.
Another customer was in line now. The checker finished ringing up Lolly’s odd assortment of groceries—the tins of fish, the pecans, the soy sauce, the potatoes—all things she normally wouldn’t buy. She was doing a good job of buying things as if she were not the same Lolly, quite purposefully. “Discomfort food,” Susannah called it. “You need to knock yourself into a whole other zone.”
. . .
She lurked in the store until the checker left his station.
“Are you on break now or something?”
The checker’s eyes grew wide as if she was a brand new presence, and she wondered if he’d already forgotten her.
“I’m off now,” he said. Then smiled down upon her.
“Short day, I guess,” she said. Her palms were wet, she noticed.
“You kidding? I’ve been here since five in the morning. I need a foot massage. You don’t happen to be a reflexologist?”
“Not that I know of,” Lolly said.
He laughed at this. “You’d probably know if you were.”
“I was thinking of your tattoo and maybe you could tell me about the bus driver.”
“I could buy you some Ethiopian food because I inherited $10,000,” she said.
. . .
They walked down the sidewalk, snow settling on Lolly’s head and on the checker’s black knit hat, him with hands pushed into the pockets of a tan corduroy jacket, her own hands in gloves. “Louis!” the checker shouted to someone up ahead. “Yo, Louis!”
A young man, presumably Louis, turned on his heel and started walking toward him. He had a white face and dark curly hair under a stocking cap, the kind worn by the seven dwarves. He was dressed in black, except for brown boots, and he had a gold hoop in his ear. He resembled a pirate, actually, and stood right next to Lolly, looking down on her. “Your glasses are fogged up, kitten.” She took them off and cleaned them with her coat sleeve. Kitten?
“You two want to come to a party tonight?” He said this looking right at Lolly.
“Not me,” the checker said. “Got plans.”
“How about your friend here? You wanna come?”
Lolly was still working on her glasses.
“It’s on Penn and 40th. Purple place. Just come. A magic fairy whispered in my ear and told me to invite the next girl I saw wearing red sneakers. And so? And so?” He fluttered his eyelashes, leaning close to her, as if waiting for her to whisper in his ear.
“Maybe I’ll come,” she said.
“Maybe! Maybe, she says!” He’d sprung back like she’d touched him with an electric prod. “Bring your friends, too. Five bucks at the door. We’ll be going all night.”
. . .
They walked on.
This was the first time Lolly had asked another human being to accompany her somewhere in many years. Usually she waited to be asked and then agreed to go along. Later, when she tried to remember the last time, she had to go all the way back to third grade when she’d invited Carla Keys to go to the playground with Gram and herself late one summer afternoon. “Why, I’d love to, darling!” Carla Keys said—a fascinating seven-year-old whose mother allowed her to pretend she was a middle-aged woman. Carla Keys had worn high heels to the playground that day, and Gram had enjoyed her with wide-eyed interest.
They went to Ritter’s diner so he could get a hot turkey sandwich, fries, and a chocolate milkshake. “My parents took me here when I graduated from grade school,” he said, as they walked into the place.
They ordered quickly; she played with the juke while he looked at his phone. She wondered if it would be too rude to ask him to take off his coat and sweater so she could see the great tattoo again, and decided that yes, it would be too rude.
Lolly watched him suck his food up like a vacuum cleaner while she dipped fries in vinegar. She would have liked to describe this to Gram. A wave of grief that was more like homesickness shot through her body and became seasickness. She downed a glass of water.
“You all right?”
“You gonna pass out?”
“I don’t think so. So about your bus driver.”
. . .
First he told Lolly about a bus driver who was not the bus driver on his arm. A woman who’d asked him, “So did ya see stars?” when he complained someone had bashed his head against the metal part of the window. He’d never heard of that expression—he was just a little kid—so he said no. And this bus driver said, “Come back and see me when ya see stars.”
“Was she fired?”
James laughed and said, “Hell no.”
That first bus driver, he continued, had confused him because she wore a cross around her neck, and because James grew up Pentecostal in a pretty good church, and his father was the pastor, and even wore a box over his head when they did the whole speaking in tongues thing, James had carried around this idea that Christians would always be helpful—”
“Why did your father wear a box over his head?”
“Humility,” James said. “When the real grace poured in, and they were all speaking in tongues, my father always felt he was unworthy to be seen by God.”
“Okay,” Lolly said. She’d never heard of such a thing. The pastor with the box over his head may as well have appeared at the edge of the table.
“I think the first driver, Mrs. Cook, probably looked at a person such as myself and wanted to see me destroyed.”
The bus driver tattooed on his arm was named Mary Gladys, and she was a saint. She pulled the bus over to the side of the road one afternoon and got up out of her seat, and turned around. “She had this power, this presence—as you can see by looking at her—so when she walked down the aisle everyone shut the hell up and just watched her. She was headed to the back—the last four seats on either side were called the TC, for torture chamber. That day it wasn’t even bad. The morons were just spitting spitballs through straws into my hair. I didn’t actually care. I had a whole wig of these spitballs in my hair, but I didn’t give them the satisfaction of noticing. These were the same assholes who one day got off the bus and followed me down Craft Street and beat me up on the side of that insurance company that used to be there. They got me on the ground and shook me so my head kept pounding against the dirt, and I finally passed out. They all ran, and for all they knew, I was dead. Spitballs were nothing. But Mary Gladys didn’t know any of this. It was only her fourth day. All she saw that day was those fools blowing spitballs into my hair. Give me the goddamned straws, she said. They gave them over. Then she just stood there in the aisle, staring down at them. She didn’t say another word. She just stared at them one by one, and shook her head. Then turned and walked back to her seat. That’s all she did. And their career of torturing me came to a sudden halt.”
. . .
She gave him a bud of pot out behind the diner, the snow still falling. “Can I tell you something?” James said, before parting.
“You should get some counseling. You seem kind of lost.”
She looked down. “Uh—maybe.”
“I don’t know if you saw your dog get run over, but that’s what I keep imagining when I look at your face, no offense.”
“I don’t have a dog. Just going through—”
“I know how it goes,” James said.
And they shook hands.
. . .
She took the bus to the purple house that night, paid her five dollars, and stepped into the party where a band played loud enough that nobody had to talk. Outside the April snow fell heavily; Lolly watched it through the living room window, trying to understand what the singer was screaming. The kid who’d invited her was nowhere to be found. And then he was, over in a corner, but draped around a girl. Lolly went to the kitchen, where she picked up a plastic cup filled with wine and downed it. Then she did the same with a plastic cup of beer. A kid with long red curls—unclear whether this was a boy or girl—kissed the top of Lolly’s head. “You want some ecstasy?”
“No. I want to go home.”
“That’s cool,” said the kid with an offended expression. “Don’t have to be a bitch about it.”
“You’re a doll,” Lolly said. Gram always said to kill them with kindness.
Outside, walking down the white sidewalk, the moon low and white as bone in the sky, Lolly called Susannah. “Oh my god, I’m gonna pass right the fuck out! You’re calling me? This is a huge step for you, Lolly!”
Lolly believed that Susannah was crazy. But she had a lot of friends and Lolly had only one, a girl named Layla who’d gone to Vietnam to volunteer in an orphanage.
“So what can I do you for?” Susannah said.
Lolly said, “Oh, nothing. I guess I’m just avoiding going home.”
Susannah said, “We all are, Lolly, we all are.” Which made absolutely no sense, like so much of what Susannah said.
“You know what you should really do?” Susannah said. “Try out for something completely not you, like cheerleading. I mean think about it. Think about how much you’d grow if you could slip into one of those uniforms and shake your booty.”
Gram would not believe this story, even if she were alive to hear it later tonight. Lolly said she had to go—and it was true her phone was dying—and walked three miles down to Lawrenceville, where Gram’s apartment had been mostly emptied by Gram’s sister from Baltimore so that the landlord could get it ready for the next people. But Lolly still had the key.
. . .
“Lolly!” Gram called from her high twin bed in the other room. “Come on in here and tell me about your day. Tell me about that kid with the tattoo, will ya?”
Lolly fixed herself a cup of tea, then sat down on a lone kitchen chair. The table was gone, but on the counter was Gram’s old Baking’s Believing book. The book seemed to hum. She knew perfectly well Gram was not in the other room. She took off her wet red sneakers. Her feet were still frozen. Out the window, snow continued to fall at a sharp diagonal.
“I’m waiting,” Gram sang. “I’d like to hear about Saint Bus Driver.”
“Well, you’ll have to wait for a long time, Gram, because I’m not coming in there. I’m going to sit here in this chair and watch it snow. Okay? So you might as well keep your trap shut.”
Gram didn’t answer. Good.
Lolly waited a while. Sat in the dark, said Psalm 23. Then walked slowly into the other room, where the beds were gone. She would have liked to lie down on the high twin bed of her childhood one more time. She remembered once when she pulled the sheet over her head in sixth grade, Gram had said, “Don’t be such a corpse.” Lolly had been shaken up that day. She’d been caught in the rain in Bloomfield. She’d asked a man driving a black car, who she thought looked both like their neighbor Mr. Hall and the father on Full House, if he could give her a ride home. “Can I have a ride, Mr. Hall?” she’d asked him, knowing it was not Mr. Hall but somehow imagining calling him Mr. Hall could turn him into Mr. Hall.
She got into his car and he didn’t molest her, or even touch her, until the end when he grabbed her wrist and held on tight enough to leave a bruise and made her say thank you for the lecture he’d given her about all the things strangers might do to her. What a fool she was, getting in the car with a stranger, he said. Even a six-year-old knows better than that. She’d told Gram the story. “Excuse me while I go throw up,” Gram said. And then, “He better hope you never run into him when I’m with you. I’ll break his goddamn kneecaps.”
That was the angriest she’d ever seen Gram. The memory was strangely comforting.
Lolly curled up on the floor where her bed had been, using her coat for a pillow, and as she fell toward sleep, just as she entered the thin border between dreams and waking consciousness, Gram said from the other side of the room, “A pastor with a box on his head is just what the doctor ordered. Wouldn’t you say?”
Lolly’s eyes shot open. She sat up and for a moment saw Gram’s bed with the small pillow she’d needlepointed ten years ago. I’d Give Up Chocolate, But I’m No Quitter, the pillow said.
“Did I tell you he wore the box on his head because he thought he was unworthy of being seen by God?”
“No, you didn’t mention that,” Gram said. “It makes me like the man.”
“Well, go ahead and like him, but you’re dead. And actually?” Lolly stood up and left the bedroom. She stood at the sink in the kitchen, running a glass of water, heat rising in her face. “Actually? That makes me very, very angry.”
“So go walk in the snow again! Maybe Saint Bus Driver will find you. Ha ha ha. Then you can tell me all about it.”
Gram’s laughter filled the room, like a creature banging into walls.
“You’re not funny.”
“Honey, I am,” she finally said. And then the laughter was gone.
Lolly yanked up the kitchen window, ran her hand on the snow that covered the ledge. Down below, a monk was in the yard behind the rectory, smoking a cigarette. She watched the ember lengthen in the darkness. His long robe looked black, not brown in this light. Maybe one day she would be a monk. She could shave her head and pass as a boy and join them, and spend the rest of her life trying to believe in God.
She left the window. April snow was actually beautiful, and people died, and what you had to do was make choices. You didn’t act like a zombie, and eat discomfort food, and let Susannah the lifecoach commandeer you. You didn’t hang out in a mostly empty apartment like this and spend the night on the floor hallucinating. You put your coat on and opened the door that led to the fire escape, and you walked down the steps, taking it slowly, holding on to the frozen rail, until you found yourself back on the earth.