When Rose was sixteen years old and five months pregnant, she won a beauty pageant in South Texas, based on her fine walk up a runway in a sweet navy-blue bathing suit. This was shortly before the war. She had been a skinny, knee-scratching kid only the summer earlier, but her pregnancy had just delivered her this sudden prize of a body. It was as though life was gestating in her thighs and ass and breasts, not in her belly. It might have seemed that she was carrying all the soft weights of motherhood spread evenly and perfectly across her whole frame. Those parts of herself that she could not quite pack into the blue bathing suit spilled over it exactly enough to emotionally disturb several of the judges and spectators. She was an uncontested champion beauty.
Rose’s father, too, saw the pin-up shape that his daughter had taken, and, five months too late, he started worrying about the maintenance of her graces. Soon after the pageant, her condition became obvious. Her father sent her to a facility in Oklahoma, where she stayed until she experienced four days of labor and the delivery of a stillborn son. Rose could not actually have any more children after that, but the lovely figure was hers to keep, and she ended up eventually married, once again on the basis of a fine walk in a bathing suit.
But she didn’t meet her husband until the war was over. In the meantime, she stayed in Oklahoma. She had developed a bit of a taste for certain types of tall, smiling local men in dark hats. Also, she had developed a taste for certain types of churchgoing men and also for left-handed men, and for servicemen, fishermen, postmen, assemblymen, firemen, highwaymen, elevator repairmen, and the Mexican busboys at the restaurant where she worked (who reverently called her La Rubia—the Blond—as if she were a notorious bandit or a cardsharp).
She married her husband because she loved him best. He was kind to waitresses and dogs, and was not in any way curious about her famous tastes. He was a big man himself, with a rump like the rump of a huge animal—muscled and hairy. He dialed telephones with pencil stubs because his fingers didn’t fit the rotary holes. He smoked cigarettes that looked like shreds of toothpicks against the size of his mouth. He couldn’t fall asleep without feeling Rose’s bottom pressed up warm against his belly. He held her as if she were a puppy. In the years after they got a television, they would watch evening game shows together on the couch, and he would genuinely applaud the contestants who had won cars and boats. He was happy for them. He would clap for them with his big arms stretched out stiffly, the way a trained seal claps.
They moved to Minnesota, eventually. Rose’s husband bought a musky flock of sheep and a small, tight house. She was married to him for forty-three years, and then he died of a heart attack. He was quite a bit older than she was, and he had lived a long time. Rose thought that he had passed the kind of life after which you should say, “Yes! That was a good one!” Her mourning was appreciative and fond.
When he was gone, the sheep became too much work, and she sold them off, a few at a time. And when the sheep were all gone—spread across several states as pets, yarn, dog food, and mint-jellied chops—Rose became the driver of the local kindergarten school bus. She was damn near seventy years old.
Rose was no longer easy with names, but her eyes were good, and she was a careful driver, as she always had been. They gave her an excellent route of kindergartners. First, she would pick up the bus itself, at the station behind the gravel pits, over the double paths of the train tracks. Then she would pick up the neighbor boy, who lived by the gas station near Rose’s own house. Then she’d pick up the crying boy. Then she’d pick up the girl whose mother always dressed her in corduroy vests, then the boy who looked like Orson Welles, then the disgusted girl, then the humming boy, then the girl with all the Band-Aids. At the bridge by the Band-Aid girl’s house, she would cross the river to the hill road. There, she’d pick up the black girl, the grateful-looking boy, the shoving boy, the other black girl, and the out-of-breath girl. Last stop was the absent boy.
Thirteen passengers. Twelve, if you didn’t count the absent boy, as Rose tended not to.
But on the particular morning that makes this story, the neighbor boy, the crying boy, and the corduroy vest girl were all absent. Rose thought, Flu? She kept on driving and found the Orson Welles boy and the disgusted girl and the humming boy absent also, and she wondered, Chicken pox? After the bridge passed with no girl on it, and the whole hill road passed with no children near it, she thought, with some humiliation, Could today be Sunday? She recalled, then, having seen no other bus drivers at the gravel pit station, nor any other school bus crossing the double paths of the railroad tracks. She had not, in fact, noticed any other cars on the roads at all. Not that these were fast highways, but they were certainly driven roads. They were always used roads. And Rose thought lightly, Armageddon?
But she rode her route out to the end. It was a fine choice that she did, too, because there was someone at the bottom of the absent boy’s driveway, after all. Two people, in fact, waiting for her. She stopped the bus, demonstrated the proper and legal flashing lights, cranked the door open, and let them in. They were two very old men, one short, one tall. It took them some trouble to get up the stairs.
“A ride for you gentlemen today?” she asked.
They sat in the seat just behind her own.
“It smells clean and decent in here, thank God,” one of them said.
“I use a tub and tile cleaner,” Rose answered. “Weekly.”
The taller man said, “My sweet Rosie. You look terrific.”
As a matter of fact, she did. She wore a hat and white gloves to work every day, as if she were driving those school children to church or to some important picnic.
“You could be a first lady,” the tall one went on. “You could have married a president.”
She looked at him in the wide, easy reflection of her rearview mirror, and then gave a pretty little expression of surprise and recognition. She looked at the shorter man and made the expression again. And this is who they were: Tate Palinkus and Dane Ladd. Tate was the man who had knocked her up back in South Texas before the war. Dane had been an orderly whom she had often kissed and fondled during her recovery from childbirth, at the Oklahoma Institution for Unwed Mothers. Which was also before the war.
“Won’t I be damned?” she said. “I sure never thought I’d see either of you two again. And right here in Minnesota. How nice.”
Dane said, “Ain’t this Tate Palinkus nothing but a Christless old bastard? He’s just been telling me about getting you pregnant.”
Tate said, “Rose. I did not know that you were pregnant at the time. I did not even hear about that until many years later, when I came around asking for you. That’s the truth, Rose.”
“Tate Palinkus,” she said. “You big bugger.”
Dane said, “Foolin’ around on a fifteen-year-old girl. I guess that’s about the worst thing I ever heard of.”
“Dane Ladd,” Rose smiled. “You big stinker.”
“She was a hell of a pretty girl,” Tate said, and Dane said, “You barely have to remind me of that.”
Rose shifted her bus and turned it around.
She said, “You two have surprised my face just about off my body.”
“Don’t lose that sweet face,” Dane said. “Don’t lose that sweet body.”
They drove on. And, as it turned out, there was someone waiting at the end of the out-of-breath girl’s driveway, leaning on the mailbox. Another very old man. Rose stopped and let him on.
“Precious,” he called her, and he touched the brim of his hat. He was Jack Lance-Hainey, a deacon of the Presbyterian church. He had once run an Oklahoma senatorial campaign. He used to take Rose out for picnics during the 1940s, with baskets full of his wife’s real china and real silver. He had taught Rose how to climb on top of a man during sex, and how to pick up phones in hotel rooms and say, “This is Mrs. Lance-Hainey. Might you send me up a bottle of tonic for my terrible, terrible headache?”
Jack sat in the seat across the aisle from the other men, and set his hat beside him.
“Mr. Ladd.” He nodded. “It’s a beautiful morning.”
“It is,” Dane agreed. “What a fine country we live in.”
“It is a fine country,” Jack Lance-Hainey said, and he added, “And good morning to you, Tate Palinkus, you fertile and lecherous old son of a snake.”
“I did not know she was pregnant at the time, Jack,” Tate explained. “Not until years later. I would have happily married her.”
And Rose said, under her breath, “Well, well, well . . . That is news, Mr. Palinkus.”
Now she rode her abandoned bus route backward, and found it fully packed with all her old lovers. She picked up every single one of them. At the house of the black girl, she picked up her Mississippi cousin Carl, who she had once met on an aunt’s bed during a Thanksgiving gathering. By the shoving boy’s mailbox, she found a small crowd of old men, waiting together. They were all of her postmen, out of uniform. They had all once driven airy trucks and kept stacks of extra canvas bags in the back for her to lie down on. She couldn’t remember their names, but the other men on the bus seemed to know them well, and they greeted one another with professional politeness.
At the other black girl’s house, she picked up two elderly veterans, who she remembered as enlisted men, their young scalps pink and shaved, their big ears tempting handles for tugging and guiding. The veterans sat behind Lane and Tate and talked about the economy. One of them was missing an arm and one was missing a leg. The armless one punched Tate with his good arm suddenly and said, “You’re just a lousy, no-good, knock-’em-up-and-leave-’em old prick, aren’t you?”
“He claims he didn’t know that she was pregnant,” Jack Lance-Hainey said, and the postmen all laughed in disbelief.
“I did not know she was pregnant at the time,” Tate said patiently. “Not until years later.”
“My God,” Rose said, “I barely knew it myself.”
“That baby got you that nice figure,” Tate offered, and a shared murmur of endorsement at this thought passed throughout the bus.
At the grateful girl’s house, she picked up a man so fat he had to introduce himself. He was her sister’s first husband, he said, and Rose said, “Coach! You troublemaker!” He had been an elevator mechanic, who used to meet Rose in the shop at night to teach her how to trick-shuffle a deck of cards and how to kiss with her eyes open.
“Those steps are lethal,” he said, red-faced from the climb, and the one-legged veteran said, “Who you tellin’, Coach?”
At the Band-Aid girl’s house, she picked up the bartenders from three states who she had fallen for, and at the humming boy’s house, she picked up a highway patrolman she’d spent a night with in Oklahoma City, back when they were both young. He was with a shrimp fisherman and a man who used to drive fire engines. They let him on the bus first, because they thought he had rank.
“Ma’am,” the highway patrolman called her, and smiled wide. Then he called Tate Palinkus a bad egg, a bad seed, a lowlife, a ruffian, and a dirt bag for getting her pregnant, back when she was just a kid who didn’t know a worthless son of a bitch from a fruit bowl.
There was an Arizona circuit court judge waiting for her at the end of the disgusted girl’s driveway, and he sat down, with Jack Lance-Hainey, in front of the bus. He told Rose she still looked good enough to crawl up under his robe any day of the week.
She said, “Your Honor, we are old people now.”
He said, “You’re a daisy, Rose.”
She found Hank Spellman kicking rocks around the road in front of the Orson Welles boy’s house. He got on the bus, and the other men cheered, “Hank!” as if they were truly pleased to see him. Hank once sold and installed furnaces, and he had always been a popular man. He used to dance with Rose in her cellar, keeping time by tapping his hand on her hip. He used to slide his hands over her as they danced. He used to take big handfuls of her bottom and whisper to her, “If I’m ever missing and you need to find me, you can start looking for me right here on this ass.”
Where the girl who always wore a corduroy vest usually waited for the bus, there was a tall old man in a dark hat. He had once been Rose’s dentist. He’d had an indoor swimming pool and a maid, who would bring them towels and cocktails all night without comment. He had to use a cane to get on the bus, and his glasses were as thick as slices of bread. He told Rose that she was beautiful and that her figure was still a wonder.
Rose said, “Thank you very much. I’ve been lucky with my looks. The women in my family tend to age in one of two ways. Most of them either look like they smoked too many cigarettes or like they ate too many doughnuts.”
“You look like you kissed too many boys,” the elevator mechanic said.
“You could have been a first lady,” Lane said again, and Tate said thoughtfully, “You were my lady first.”
There were four former Mexican busboys standing by the picket fence of the crying boy’s house. They were old now, and identical, each one of them in a pressed white suit with handsome white hair and a white mustache.
“La Rubia,” they called her in turn. Their English was no better than it had ever been, but the armless veteran had fought Fascists in Spain, and he translated quite well.
This was the most crowded that her bus had ever been. It was not a very large bus. It was just for kindergartners, and, to be honest, it was just for the morning class of kindergartners. Naturally, the bus company had given Rose an excellent route, but it was not such a strenuous one. She was generally finished by noon. She was damn near seventy, of course, and although she was certainly not a weak woman, not a senile woman, she did get tired. So they had given her only those thirteen children so close to her own house. She was doing a wonderful job, a truly excellent job. Everyone agreed. She was a careful and polite driver. One of the better ones.
She rode her whole route backward that day, with all of the old men lovers on her kindergarten bus with her. She drove all the way without seeing one of her children and without passing another car. She had decided, with some shame, that it might very well be Sunday. She had never made such a mistake before, and would not consider mentioning it to her old lovers, or they might think she was getting dim. So she rode the whole route right back to the very first stop, which was the house of the neighbor boy, who lived by the gas station near her own home. There was an old man waiting there, too, and he was a rather large man. He was actually her husband. The old men lovers on the bus, who seemed to know each other so beautifully, did not know Rose’s husband at all. They were quiet and respectful as he got on the bus, and Rose cranked the door shut behind him and said, “Gentlemen? I’d like you to meet my husband.”
And the look on her husband’s face was the look of a man at a welcome surprise party. He leaned down to kiss her on the forehead, and he was the first of the men who had touched her that day. He said, “My sweet little puppy of a Rose.” She kissed his cheek, which was musky, sheepy, and familiar.
She drove on. He stepped down the aisle of the bus, which rocked like a boat, and he was the guest of honor. The old men lovers introduced themselves, and after each introduction, Rose’s husband said, “Ah, yes, of course, how nice to meet you,” keeping his left hand on his heart in wonder and pleasure. She watched, in the wide, easy reflection of her rearview mirror, as they patted his back and grinned. The veterans saluted him, and the highway patrolman saluted him, and Jack Lance-Hainey kissed his hand. Tate Palinkus apologized for getting Rose pregnant when she was just a South Texas kid, and the white-haired Mexican busboys struggled with their English greetings. The circuit court judge said that he did not mind speaking for everyone by saying how simply delighted he was to congratulate Rose and her husband on their long and honest marriage.
Rose kept driving. Soon, she was at the double paths of railroad tracks that came right before the gravel pit bus station. Her little bus fit exactly between those two sets of tracks, and she stopped in the narrow space because she noticed that trains were coming in both directions. Her husband and her old men lovers pulled down the windows of the bus and leaned out like kindergartners, watching. The trains were painted bright like wooden children’s toys, and stenciled on the sides of each boxcar in block letters were the freight contents: APPLES, BLANKETS, CANDY, DIAMONDS, EXPLOSIVES, FABRIC, GRAVY, HAIRCUTS—a continuing, alphabetical account of all a life’s ingredients.
They watched this for a long time. But those boxcars were moving slowly, and repeating themselves in new, foreign alphabets. So the old men lovers became bored, finally, and pulled up the windows of Rose’s bus for some quietness. They rested and waited, stuck as they were between those two lazy trains. And Rose, who had been up early that morning, took the key out of the ignition, took off her hat and gloves, and went to sleep. The old men lovers talked about her husband among themselves, fascinated. They whispered low to each other, but she could hear some pieces of words. “Hush,” she kept hearing them say, and “shh” and “she” and “and.” And, murmured together, those pieces of words made a sound just like the whole word “husband.” That’s the word she was hearing, in any case, as she dozed on the bus, with all of her old men together and behind her and so pleased just to see her again.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Pilgrims by Elizabeth Gilbert. Copyright ⓒ Elizabeth Gilbert, 1997, 2007.