Jennifer Bailey needs a passing grade in her History course. Senior citizen Mrs. Rice drags her along on a bus ride and helps her create a moment in history.
I wrote this story a few years ago. It’s a bit longer than my usual offering. I hope you enjoy it.
Chasing Freedom on a City Bus
Jennifer Bailey stumbled up to the entrance of the Sweet Meadow Assisted Living Residence. Late afternoon in early December in Southern California. Temps hung in the low 50s. Cloudy, cold, a chill wind blowing. Her ears did not register the whine of the gardeners’ leaf blowers. The only noise she heard sat deep inside her head. A hollow echo. Her History teacher standing over her desk. You failed your American History exam. She would need a miracle to finish her paper and pass the final in two weeks.
Before she opened the door, Jennifer stopped, pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket, and texted her friend Lindsay Beckwith. Two hours at the nursing home. Without service credits I fail History for sure. But I need to be writing my paper.
Lindsay replied right away. I feel your pain. Hang in.
As soon as Jennifer opened the front door Mrs. Hannah in Administration beamed. “Jennifer!”
Jennifer managed a weak smile.
“Jennifer, Mrs. Rice has requested you for this afternoon.”
Just kill me now.
“Please report to room sixty-two. Mrs. Rice is expecting you.”
Motor Mouth Rice. She never stopped talking. You only got a break when she went to the bathroom, which was usually every hour. No chance to sit and do some homework. She demanded you listen.
Jennifer dragged herself down the hall toward room sixty-two. Several residents gave her a big hello. “Will we see you later?”
Jennifer pointed to room sixty-two. One resident grinned, said, “Sorry, dear. Good luck.”
As she approached the room, she could hear Mrs. Rice’s voice. A drone like a thousand bees. Incessant.
“Why can’t I go back to my old house?”
“Tell them about the food… today’s lunch was indigestible.”
“The nurses ignore me.”
As Jennifer turned into the doorway, she spotted a man sitting next to Mrs. Rice, a pained look on his face.
“Jennifer!” Mrs. Rice called out. Before the word was out of her mouth, the man jumped up, waved to Mrs. Rice, and ran out the door.
“That was my brother,” Mrs. Rice said. “I would have introduced you if the wimp hadn’t run away.”
“Hi, Mrs. Rice,” Jennifer said.
“Glad you’re here, dearie.”
Mrs. Rice tossed aside the blanket covering her legs, pulled herself up out of her chair and stood wobbling on her cane.
“Did you bring your video camera today?”
“It’s in my locker at school.”
“What about that video function on your phone? Every kid has one, right?”
Mrs. Rice was a lot of things, but ignorant wasn’t one.
“I can do short videos with my iPhone.”
“Perfect. I need your help with a very important task today,” she said.
“Please get my sweater from the closet. The wool one with the purple flowers. I want to go out for a walk,” Mrs. Rice said. “A walk out back in the gardens.”
“Mrs. Rice, it’s chilly out today and you have trouble walking.”
“Never mind, child,” Mrs. Rice said. “I need to do this today.”
Before Jennifer could get the sweater, Mrs. Rice took her arm.
“Put that backpack of yours down and walk me to the bathroom.”
Ten minutes later Jennifer helped Mrs. Rice inch down the back steps of Sweet Meadow and out to the garden. A staff member called out as they walked. “Good to see you out and about, Mrs. Rice.”
The garden stretched down away from the main buildings. A pleasant place on most days. The nearing darkness made the cold wind feel like a hand pushing them along.
“Take me down there by the back fence,” Mrs. Rice said. “It’s pretty there.”
The two made their way along the path until they came to tall shrubs lining the back fence. Mrs. Rice looked around, saw that no one seemed to be watching, and pulled Jennifer behind the shrubs.
“Mrs. Rice, what are you doing?”
“There’s a hole in the fence back here,” Mrs. Rice said. “I’ve seen the gardeners cutting through here after work.”
“A hole? In the fence? Why? Where are we going?” Jennifer protested.
“Stop your whining, girl, and help me through.”
Jennifer held the old woman’s arm while she stooped and stepped sideways through a big gap in the chain link fence. Jennifer followed. Pedestrians passing on the sidewalk paid no attention to them.
“Do you know what today is?” Mrs. Rice asked.
“Tuesday,” Jennifer replied. “December first.”
“Yes, and do you know the significance of today?”
“Uh, it’s the day you escape from the nursing home?”
“Don’t be fresh, young lady.” Mrs. Rice paused as the two walked along the sidewalk behind Sweet Meadow. “Today is indeed December first. It’s the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955.”
Not history. Please, not today.
“Do you know who Rosa Parks is?” Mrs. Rice asked. Her eyes bored a hole in Jennifer’s.
“Uh, she was, like, part of the Civil Rights movement, I think.”
“Part of it?” Mrs. Rice said. “Jennifer, her action started the Civil Rights movement!”
The two continued along the sidewalk toward Ventura Blvd. and a bus stop.
“She refused to give up her seat on the bus and move to the rear,” Mrs. Rice said. “They arrested her. That prompted the Montgomery bus boycott by the black community.”
“Okay.” Jennifer eyed her surroundings.
“Every year on this date I ride a bus to honor her. My brother usually takes me. As you saw, he took the coward’s way out today.”
Mrs. Rice tugged Jennifer’s arm. “Let’s not miss the bus.”
“Is this a good idea?” Jennifer asked.
“You’re here to offer community service, are you not?”
Jennifer felt in her pocket for her iPhone. This escape was going to need an intervention. She slipped the phone out of her pocket and began keying in the phone number for Sweet Meadow.
Mrs. Rice spotted the movement. “Put that phone back in your pocket, Jennifer. When I want you to take video, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I want to see your hands at all times.”
This was not going well.
They got to Ventura Blvd. just as a bus pulled up. Good timing. For Mrs. Rice. Jennifer looked around, hoping someone from the nursing home was running after them. No luck.
Mrs. Rice whipped out a senior-fare bus pass. Jennifer scrambled to find exact change in her pocket.
Mrs. Rice teetered as she boarded the bus. The driver motioned her to a couple of seats near the front of the bus.
They sat. Mrs. Rice said, “Jennifer, I want you to take a video of me right now, with enough background so people can see I’m riding a bus.”
Jennifer pulled out her phone.
“Can you get audio on that thing?” Mrs. Rice asked.
Jennifer nodded. As she hit Record, Mrs. Rice began speaking. “Today is the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s famous bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama. I am honoring her memory by riding a bus today.”
Several passengers looked up, decided she was crazy, and looked away. One older woman across the aisle from Mrs. Rice smiled.
“Thank you for reminding me about the date,” the woman said.
“Does it mean something to you?” Mrs. Rice said.
Jennifer panned her phone to capture the woman.
“Indeed, it does.” The woman smiled. “My name is Barbara.”
“I’m Mary, and this is my friend Jennifer.”
Mary? Jennifer had never heard Mrs. Rice’s first name before. And my friend?
Barbara said, “I was a Freedom Rider. Mississippi, in 1961.”
Mrs. Rice nudged Jennifer. “Record this on your phone.”
“I’m getting it.”
“I admire your courage,” Mrs. Rice said to Barbara. “I almost did that, but I was too scared.”
“It had its frightening moments,” Barbara said.
“I wanted to spend a summer with the Freedom Riders,” Mrs. Rice said. “I thought voting rights were so important. I requested a registration form from Snick—.“
“What’s Snick?” Jennifer interrupted, as she panned back and forth between the two women.
“SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was a civil rights organization formed in the 1960s in the South.”
“When my registration papers came,” Mrs. Rice said, “I got as far as the part about waiving my rights in case of injury or death… I did something else that summer.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Barbara said. “It was a difficult experience. I lasted three weeks, and came home. After I left, one of my companions was hurt when their bus was burned. It was horrible.”
Jennifer interrupted, “Why did you do that?”
“I believed in equality. We are not a country unless we are all treated as equal.”
“Were you scared?”
“Terrified, at times.”
The bus driver’s voice squawked on the PA system. “Folks, there’s an accident up ahead. The street is closed. I have to divert up to Victory Blvd. to bypass it. It shouldn’t take us too long. Thank you for your patience.”
Barbara jumped up. “I need to get off here. I’ll be late.” She pulled the cord and headed for the door. “Thanks for our little talk.”
Jennifer turned off her phone’s recording. “We should head back, Mrs. Rice.”
“Nonsense, girl. A few more minutes won’t be a problem.”
The bus turned north with all the other traffic. Jennifer glanced at the time on her phone. At this rate she would never get to her paper.
The two sat quietly for a few minutes. The bus moved slowly along the detour, stuck in a lot of traffic. Jennifer noticed that Mrs. Rice began to wriggle in her seat.
“I think I will need a bathroom stop very soon,” she said.
The bus finally turned onto Victory Blvd. Mrs. Rice pulled the stop cord.
“Wait,” Jennifer said. “Where are we?”
“We just passed a fast food place. I can go there. Then we’ll get a bus back to the home.”
They exited the bus and trudged to the fast food restaurant. While Mrs. Rice was in the restroom, Jennifer texted Lindsay. Nightmare. Stuck in a fast food place on Victory Blvd. with a resident from the nursing home. Help. Do you have your car?
Lindsay answered: No car today. Sorry.
Jennifer whipped the phone back in her pocket as Mrs. Rice returned. “I need a snack.” She rooted around in her pockets, found a few singles, and bought fries for her and Jennifer. She insisted they sit to eat.
“Don’t even think about reaching for your phone,” she said to Jennifer. “We have plenty of time.”
“If they discover you missing,” Jennifer said, “I’ll never be allowed to do community service there again. And I’ll lose my extra credits. I need them.”
They picked at the fries. Outside, it was now full dark. Jennifer kept her eye on Mrs. Rice. So far she seemed okay.
“How are your grades?”
“I’m failing history.”
“Did you record our conversation on the bus?”
“You know, history is all about people. Not events or plans or movements. People.”
“So…” Mrs. Rice pointed a fry at Jennifer. “You can write a paper about your experience today. That should get you extra credit.”
“There’s not enough to work with.”
“Young lady, use your head. Research Rosa Parks. Research the Freedom Riders. And use today as anecdotes. Real people who were part of history. Well, Barbara anyway.”
“You were too scared to go?”
“Honestly, yes. I believed in rights for all, but I’m afraid it was not at the threat of injury or death.”
Jennifer’s phone chirped. She pulled it out. Glanced at the screen. A text from Lindsay.
“Who is it?” Mrs. Rice asked.
“My friend Lindsay.”
“You can reply.”
Jennifer texted back and forth with Lindsay for a few moments. She looked up intently at Mrs. Rice.
“It seems that Sweet Meadow is trying to locate us. They called Lindsay because they couldn’t find my number.”
“Oh dear. I guess we should be heading back.”
Jennifer peered out at the street. Traffic crawled along Victory Blvd.
“It’s going to take us forever to get a bus back home.”
Mrs. Rice laughed. “And I will surely have to pee again before we get home.”
Jennifer smiled. Okay, now what?
“I surrender. You better call the home. Let them figure it out.”
Jennifer made the call. Gave Mrs. Hannah in Administration their location. Told her the streets were tied up due to the accident. Mrs. Hannah said they would have a van get as close as the driver could. They’d bring a wheelchair for Mrs. Rice.
While Mrs. Rice went to the restroom again, Jennifer texted Lindsay with an update.
An hour later they had Mrs. Rice settled in her room. Jennifer grabbed her backpack and hurried for the door.
“Jennifer,” Mrs. Rice said. “We made history today.”
Mrs. Rice tucked her blanket around her legs. “Very minor, of course, but a moment of history. A bit of interaction between generations. I hope you enjoyed it.”
“And thank you for having the courage to go along with me. It meant a lot.”
Jennifer smiled and stepped out into the hall. Now for making history over my failing grade.
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