Megan Fahey

School Bus Songs

�The pure contralto sings in the organ loft.�
--Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

The congregation stirs. The cantor�s voice is harsh and far away and sad as their fondest memories. They are moved and converted. An hour slips away.
  When it comes to classical performance music, this type of contralto can�t be taught, which isn�t to say that one can�t be taught to sing. Why, singing is only the result of a series of firing neuromuscular synapses which merge the actions of the larynx with those of the diaphragm in order to produce sound. But that doesn�t forecast the quality of the sound or determine that it will fall upon soft ears. No, what makes the pure contralto so good--and so pure--are the innate traits. Those that aren�t taught, but passed down through DNA from one mother to another and another and so on. The timbre, the warmth, all those subjective things. One doesn�t learn laryngeal shape. The finest faculty at Juilliard can�t resize the body�s resonators. And a singer can never escape her past.
  This poor contralto�s name is Clara Butts, who comes from a long line of Clara Buttses who were all famous and beautiful with big strong voices, proud and deep, but none of them ever had their hearts broken like this one because on weekdays, this Clara Butts drives a school bus, and damn it, it�s not 1927 anymore. Children are mean. Their cruelness cuts here fiercely, and when she lectures that they shouldn�t antagonize her so, for didn�t they know she had been borne of royalty, they laugh all the more, calling her �Lady Butts,� and so on.
  And where are the parents, she thinks, and why aren�t these children corrected?
  The parents of the boy next door--the one who sits forever in the front of the bus, in the single seat--don�t stop to say hello when they return with bags of groceries and she is waiting, on the porch, to be social. She�s decided if it�s the father who speaks first, she�ll tell him the story of Marion Stevenson Butts Jr., a professional football player whom she had seen once at Foxboro Stadium on a day trip and whose hand she had grazed reaching for the same salted pretzel at family reunion. If it�s the mother, she�ll drop the name of Alfred Mosher Butts, inventor of Scrabble and related by marriage to her own mother. The mother of the boy across the street is a schoolteacher, and Clara thinks she might take that with some interest. But they barely make eye contact on their way in the house, and in the brief moment they do, their paper bags ruffle under their fingers in tight anxiety, and their feet fall a little faster.
  She notices, though, that when she steps onto the widow�s walk at the old family house to practice �Deep River� for service on Sunday, the neighbors next door sit outside in collapsible folding chairs, such as the ones they take to watch their boy play baseball, and they listen to her croon, and they furrow their brows, and they wonder if it�s she who�s drawing the storm clouds closer to the bay or vice versa.
  Her voice doesn�t quit when the rain begins, but rather increases in volume, rebellious and robust against the storm. Each drop is a challenge; each plunk against her skin is a child�s rotten musings. They crash against her soul and roll off, a tiny watery army against the large Clara Butts, whose voice will be her salvation.
  When the fire department arrives in the rowboat to skirr the neighbors to safety, it�s the boy who cries, �Save the bus driver!� It�s a pity she doesn�t hear him. Him, she would tell about James Butts, American track and field Olympian who triple-jumped his way to the silver medal in �76, but she�s submerged in a B flat that lasts for days.
  On Sunday, the church is drowned and empty.
  On Monday, when the water recedes, and the bus drives through the streets caked with grime, lined with ruined basement junk, there�s someone new behind the big wheel. And no one knows the difference.

MEGAN FAHEY is a second-year MFA student at West Virginia University where she works as the Fiction Editor for the Cheat River Review. In addition to having some short plays produced, her fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Allegory E-Zine, and Fabula Argentea and is forthcoming in The Milo Review and Black Denim Lit.

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