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Blue Kansas Sky
an extract from the novella
by Michael Bishop

Sonny Peacock measured the goodness of each day by the amount of blue in the sky. Total cloudlessness--smooth blue bellyskin from horizon to horizon--meant adventure, a win in tetherball, a smile from Maggie Vy Medders, a helterskelter romp with some mutt in Buffalo Bill Park, a precarious trek around the rails of Van Luna's bandbox. Partly cloudy meant partly happy, and deep overcast--an irongrey tent over the yellow prairie--meant scoldings at home, Fs in spelling, the straying of Maggie Vy's gaze, mystery meat for lunch, stomach cramps, the unshakable glums.

Today Sonny crawled over his pillow, tweezered one Venetian blind, glimpsed robin's-egg blue.

Okay! he thought.

Even before his mother Jenniel came in to coax him up for some toast and wheatmeal, he had dressed and sauntered into the galleylike kitchen, where sunlight spilled like buttermilk over their dinette set.

Straight home from school, Jenniel said. You can watch Flash Gordon and the Mousketeers.

It's pretty out, Sonny said. Craig and me may want to take our BBguns to the dump and bust some bottles.

Listen to me, Sonny: straight home.

Sonny ate a spoonful of stiffening cereal. But why?

Jenniel worked in personnel at McConnell Air Force Base southeast of Wichita, twenty to thirty minutes away depending on traffic. Sometimes she didn't get home until six or sixthirty. Sonny could pedal a slew of miles and dent a mound of tincans between school's last bell and his mother's eventual homecoming.

Rory Peacock just got out of prison, said Jenniel, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. She seemed primed to expand on this news, but stopped. Stopping--staying stopped--required her to clamp her lips and to clutch her own shoulders.

You think he'd come here?

Yeah. Yeah I do.

Sonny said, Then wouldn't it be better if I was somewhere else till you got home?

Jenniel unfolded, glided up behind him, propped her chin on his collarbone. Course it would. I'm not thinking. It's hard to think with Rory getting out and things at work so crazy all of a sudden.

He wouldn't hurt us. I'm your second dad he told me once.

Once he maybe believed it. I don't know how he is now and mostly don't care to find out.

Sky's blue, Sonny said. Real blue.

Jenniel pulled back and regarded him as if he'd just said Ike himself had given him a national citation: Smartest Twelve Year Old in Kansas. Then she telephoned Mrs. Whited to ask if Sonny could stay at her place after school the rest of this week and a few days into next. Mrs. Whited agreed. Jenniel shrugged on her tweed jacket and hurried out to her '56 Nash Rambler, a snazzy charcoal-and-pink twotone, for her daily drive up Rock Road to McConnell.

Sonny washed dishes. After locking the house, he bestrode his battered Schwinn and raced like an Italian cyclist toward Van Luna Elementary. As he pedaled, the sky behind the town's grain elevator graded from robin's-egg to luminous Dutch-china blue.

Directly overhead the tiny silver cross of a B-47 laid down wispy contrails: clouds of no real substance or clout. Peace is our profession! shouted Sonny, waving at the unreachable pilot.

In an aisle seat at the bus's center hulked a curlyheaded giant in leather boots, denim pants, a sheepskin vest. The matronly woman beside him leaned away, like a highschool girl on her first date to a drive-in. Their bus, meanwhile, cruised east on Highway 50 past the wheatfields and cattlepastures of the tamed Great Plains: a motorized schooner running its course counter to that of the pioneers.

This is some dull crowd, said the curlyheaded man.

The matronly woman grimaced, but in agreement rather than disgust, peering out her window at the wheat flaming green and torchlike in the late April gusts. Her mangy foxstole wrapped her throat like a muffler. Tugging on it, she hunched her neck to set the stole more securely.

Dull dull dull, said the man.

The woman kept her eyes on the hurtling wheat.

Makes no sense, said the man. Open road. Beautiful day. No cuffs on our wrists or legs. But we git, well, this crabby glumness.

Mmmhmmm, said the woman.

Abruptly the curlyheaded man stood up, filling the middle of the bus like a pillar. Okay, everbody, he said. Whaddaya say we sing?

Siddown back there, said the driver, showing a no-nonsense scowl in the rearview.

Row Row Row Your Boat, said the curlyheaded man, still standing. We can do it in rounds. He hummed, as if to locate the song's proper pitch, then raised his hands like a symphony conductor and sang: Row row row your boat, Gently down the stream....

The driver said, Mister, I tolya to siddown.

Merrily merrily merrily merrily, Life is but a dream, sang the curlyheaded man, conducting no one but himself. Then he said, It aint mister. Name's Peacock. Rory Peacock. Rory H. Peacock.

Well, Mr. Peacock-- began the driver.

Rory said, Everbody over to my side'll start it out. The rest of you'll come in when we hit Gently down the stream. He repeated his pitchpipe hum and began again. No one bothered to join him, but Rory finished the stanza. Then he said, Boy is this some chickenshit crowd.

The driver hit the bus's brakes, twice. Passengers jolted forward and back, forward and back. Rory, despite a grip on the headrest in front of him, staggered and fell to one knee. Three women gasped, one squawked brightly, a young child began to wail.

I don't cotton to rulebreakers, said the driver. And I don't put up with nobody usin scuribous language, Mr. Peacock, you savvy?

I don't like brakers period, said Rory, pulling himself upright again. And what you just did cain't be legal neither, you sorry snot.

The driver tapped the brakes a third time. Rory sprawled face forward down the aisle. An insectfaced young man with a blond pompadour and a pack of cigarettes in his Tshirt sleeve jumped on Rory, struggled to twist his huge arm into the small of his back.

Rory raised his butt and flipped the kid over his head toward the driver, then got up, placed a foot on the kid's rear end, and shoved him on a collapsing stagger to the dashboard, where he hung like a cat-o'-nine-tails victim, now cursing, now wailing. Cries of alarm and outrage reached the decibel level of marching piccolos and tubas.

How is it yall cain't sing but you can bitch n moan wi the best of em? Rory stared balefully around. Lord but you're a gloomy crew.

This time the driver stopped the bus dead. The rustling of wheat made itself audible over the wind, through the ticking bulkheads. A farmer in a pickup passed them going west. The expression on his face reminded Rory of the sewer guy's on The Honeymooners after an argument with Kramden. Likewise, the expression of the driver's face in the rearview reminded him of old Ralph's after a run-in with the sewer guy. This comparison made perfect sense: Kramden and the fellow up front both drove buses, didn't they?

Get out, the driver said. I won't have a nutzo on board with decent paying customers. I mean it, off! He opened the accordion-pleated door beside him.

Rory stood crucified between two seats with cowering human beings in them: decent paying customers. He glanced back. The long rearseat had no occupant at all; neither did the three or four paired seats in front of it. Rory grabbed his duffel by its draws and pointed one thick finger at the driver's mirrored features.

I may not be decent but I damn sure paid, he said. Dibs on that spot back there till we git to Van Luna. He retreated down the aisle and sprawled across the seat beside the narrow lavatory. Don't try to throw me off fore we're there, he said. You do, I'll have to crunch you.

No one said a word.

Eventually the driver levered the frontdoor shut and drove them off again.

No one ventured into that part of the bus to which Rory had laid claim, not even to use the toilet. He began to hum, then to sing.

Take me out to the ballgame, he crooned. Take me out to the crowd....

Rory opened his duffel and removed from it a canary-yellow ballcap. In his massive hands it looked like a baby's cap; he could've worn it on his head no better than he could've worn a thimble. It did fit his knee though, and so he wore it on one knee, with its bill pointing down and its soft felty yellowness imparting a weird glow to his vest and shirt, to his wide chest and face.

© Michael Bishop 1999, 2000. All rights reserved.

The complete version of this novella appears in Michael Bishop's collection Blue Kansas (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000)

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