Dixon was blocks outside his usual stomping grounds, riding his bike across streets he'd only recently been allowed to cross at all, when he saw the old man bent over in the big vacant lot, holding something yellow.
It was only for a moment; the lot was fenced in chain link, but with slats of green metal woven diagonally into the links. Only the padlocked gates and a few random stretches of fence were free of obstructions.
Dixon coasted past the opening where he'd seen the old man, then turned around. The heavy rumbling of the playing cards clamped to his front forks subsided to a quiet clatter against the spokes. He rode closer, and stood his bike up against a fence post near the gap in the slats.
The old man was hobbling across the uneven field in a more-or-less straight line, stopping at intervals to take something out of the box held firmly in the crook of one arm and press it firmly into the ground. Something yellow.
The chain link rattled as Dixon grabbed it for support. The man looked up but did not speak, or stop his slow progress across the field. His dark, lined face was unfamilar. It bore a faint smile, but Dixon did not think it was for him.
The old man stopped again and pulled another yellow something from the cardboard box. It was a pencil, an ordinary, golden-yellow wooden pencil, with a bright pink eraser on the end held on by a metal ferrule. The box was full of them. Pencils.
The old man stooped and used his gnarled black thumb to press the pencil straight into the earth. He pushed until nothing showed but the bright pink eraser, and maybe a hint of the metal band at its base. Then he straightened and moved on, leaving a generous amount of space - several feet at least - before stooping to plant another golden rod.
When he got to the fence at one side of the field he turned, shuffled about a fifth of the way towards the back of the lot, and moved back the other way, still planting. Dixon curled his fingers through the fence and watched him, until he got to the very back of the lot. There was a gate there, open.
His box empty, the man vanished through the gate, closing it after him. He did not return.
The regular rows of planted pencils were nearly invisible in the rough ground of the vacant lot. One of them was almost close enough for Dixon to reach through and... touch. He pulled it out of the earth. Just an ordinary pencil, unsharpened, a little dirty. He put it into his shirt pocket and rode home.
In his own back yard, looking around first for sisters and parents, Dixon pushed the pencil into the dirt next to the fence, where there was little chance that a lawnmower would find it. Just in case.
For the next few days Dixon rode by the lot, but nothing seemed to change, and the man never returned. Then a couple of days of rain kept him indoors. Summer camp, a family vacation, and then he got the flu... and by the time he was back on his bike again, the mystery of the vacant lot had slipped his mind.
So the days were hot and lazy, deep in summer, before he happened to ride by the lot again. When he did, he nearly flipped over the handlebars grabbing his brakes. The lot was no longer vacant. Huge, humped shapes, the exact color of the old man's pencils, stood in rows, cramming the lot from side to side. Towards the edges of the lot where the old man's planting had been more crowded, the shapes were smaller. Towards the middle, they were long and high, towering over their neighbors. Shiny, and yellow. It was a school bus farm.
As soon as Dixon could tear himself away, he rode back to his house and rushed into the back yard. The pencil he'd planted was still there. Still a pencil.
He rode by the bus farm every day after that, but could not detect much change, throughout that long, hot August. The buses, plump and yellow, shimmered in the heat, their windows glimmering and black. He couldn't get closer - the gates were padlocked closed on their metal rollers, and while the lot was as far as he could tell entirely unattended, he could not bring himself to trespass, to invade it, by simply climbing over the fence.
Then, one sultry August afternoon, the lot was empty again - or almost empty, anyway. The harvest had taken all the bright, shiny buses away. Soon, Dixon realized, they would be painted with black words and numbers, the names of districts and special schools. Soon they would appear again, out on the streets for all to see, with no one even curious about where so many bright yellow vehicles could have come from.
Only one bus remained, right in the middle of the lot. It might have been there all the time, surrounded by its healthier cousins - the weeds around it were tall enough. It looked rusty and forlorn, a bloated shell collapsed in on itself in the weeds like a forgotten summer squash.
Dixon rode by the lot every morning now on his way to middle school, watching the abandoned bus sink slowly further into the weeds. One day, on his way to school a little earlier than normal, he saw a bent old man scurry from the back of the bus to the back of the field, carrying a cardboard box.
He didn't stop.
May 25 - August 24, 2005
©2005 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated August 27, 2005.