An excerpt from
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
Blue Kansas Sky
by Michael Bishop
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Excerpt from "Blue Kansas Sky" © 1999 by Michael Bishop.
All rights reserved.