Squealer! 40 years later, will he be redeemed?
Redemption after 40 years
Author’s note: Nearly everything written these past two or three months has had some connection with COVID-19. While that may define the times, it doesn’t define us. I thought back a few weeks to when I referenced Bocaccio’s “Decameron,” that treasure trove of tales narrated by each of the ten refugees from the plague who’d taken to the hills above Florence to wait out the danger. Their stories didn’t allude to the pestilence, but were recounted for the pleasure and entertainment of all. In that spirit, extracted from the sprawling pages of a hopelessly long pseudo travel journal, is a vignette about remorse and redemption. The year is 2002, the setting is Salvador da Bahia, and the storyteller is one Teodoro, relating an account to the present writer (and a painter named Friedrich) what he’d heard from a bartender in Rio about a Brazilian immigrant to the States who, in 1957, employed as a school bus driver, took it upon himself to make an unscheduled detour to an amusement park in Anaheim.
“I mentioned earlier that I was going to tell you a little story,” Teodoro said, “and I’d like to conclude our thoughtful conversation on that note, if the two of you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Friedrich said. “We’ve got time; what’s it about?”
“Race relations.” He paused, and laughed. “Well, sort of. I heard it from a bartender down in Rio, who was telling it to a kid named Emeric who played guitar for a jazz combo in one of the beachfront hotels.
“Ricardo, the bartender, was serving drinks, an Antarctica for the kid, a gin and tonic for me. He mentioned that he had an uncle named Emílio Gusmão who moved to the United States in the middle 1950s, someplace around Los Angeles, and later was employed as a bus driver for an elementary school in Compton, although I don’t know where Compton is.” It’s near L.A., I told him, and not in a good area. “As I thought. Well, Emílio was twenty-six or twenty-seven back then, I believe this is 1957, and he’d met a girl named Sonia whom he wanted to impress. She worked at Disneyland, behind the counter somewhere, not an exciting job. But one day Emílio told her he’d like to bring some school children to the park, and could she arrange to let them in. Figuring that he’d okayed it through the school, she talked to her supervisor, who didn’t really have much authority either, but since he also wanted to impress Sonia he said he would see that everyone got coupon books once they’d arrived. In those days, I guess, you bought little ticket books, right?”
“That was a long time ago,” I said, “when each attraction required its own voucher. A-tickets, B-tickets…”
“It was a Tuesday morning, and Emílio had made several stops. All the kids were now in the bus, twenty-three total, and they’re only five minutes from school. But then Emílio pulls over to the side of the road, cuts the engine, stands up and turns around, and says he wants to take them to Disneyland. Is there anyone here who doesn’t want to go? Well, the kids are thrilled, but two of them actually do raise their hand, one of them a boy named Darnell.
“The other child then lowered her arm, and Darnell became the lone holdout. Emílio smiled: Sorry, young man, you’ve been overruled.
“Now, these are all colored kids, from poor families, and most of them had never been to Disneyland, which was in a white, middle class suburb rather far away, or so I gather. Anyway, the children are excited, but a couple of them are what you’d call apprehensive, having never been more than twenty miles from home. Darnell is sitting next to Carlotta, who nudges him and says, This will be fun, don’t be a crybaby, Darnell, but the boy isn’t convinced. However, since democracy has spoken, even among second graders from Compton, the bus makes a U-turn and heads for Anaheim. At one of the stoplights, Emílio checks his rearview mirror and notices how worried Darnell looks and so he calls him to the front of the bus. As soon as he gets there, Emílio plants a Mickey Mouse cap on the boy’s head. See, he says, I’ve already got this planned and everything’s paid for. The kids clap, Darnell returns to his seat, not so sure what to think at this point, and one hour later the bus pulls up outside the main entrance.”
“Back then,” I explained, “you could actually park pretty close and then walk right in. Nowadays you have to take a tram from some coded parking structure that’s almost a mile away.”
“Well, Emílio steps down from the bus, followed by the kids, and in a single line they march over to one of the side gates where Sonia and her supervisor, a blond kid named Bill, have been waiting. Bill looks a bit suspiciously at Emílio, who has a dark complexion and an accent to match, but since he also wants to impress Sonia he doesn’t say anything about the ‘Mexican’ and simply hands each child a coupon book. Y’all have a good time, he tells them, and stay out of trouble.”
“Bet he said that because they were black.”
“Now, unbeknownst to Bill or to Sonia or to anybody else at the park, Emílio never did notify anyone about his intention to drive the kids to Disneyland. In a word, then, he’d kidnapped them. And so, while they were blissfully running down Main Street to Fantasyland, officials at the school were contacting the police.
“One of the first attractions they lined up for was Mister Toad’s Wild Ride. That’s the one with the little motorcars from the early 1900s, which I’m told have or had such names as Cyril, Ratty, and Winky. After this they went on Peter Pan’s Flight and then the Storybook Land Canal Boats.”
“Also Weasel, Moley, MacBadger, and of course Mister Toad.”
“Right. Even though he’d spirited the kids away from Compton, Emílio was a conscientious young man who did his best to chaperon the boys and girls, trying to keep them close together, and ensuring that everyone was safe as well as happy. They already knew they’d have to head back to the bus at about 2:30 so that they could get home before anyone missed them.”
“Oh? As if they wouldn’t have been missed before 2:30?”
Teodoro paused in order to have one final cigarette, and Friedrich and I joined him. He blew out a cloud of smoke and resumed his tale.“I said this was about race relations, and here’s why. A group of black kids whooping and hollering and galloping across the moat from Sleeping Beauty’s Castle certainly raised a few eyebrows, and the better-dressed white families frowned as the youngsters darted by, now headed for Adventureland.” I smiled: “The middle class has always been alive and well at Disneyland!” “They got in line for the Jungle Cruise, and all of them—they had names like Flora, Leonard, Tonya and Joseph—had never been more excited in their lives. They were going to see lions and tigers, elephants and crocodiles! Soon they were stepping aboard one of the boats, the African Queen or something, but that’s when several policemen rushed over and grabbed Emílio, didn’t just grab him but shoved him pretty hard so he stumbled, tripped, and they handcuffed him face-down on the ground. One of the cops pointed to the kids already seated in the boat and said, Out, everybody out, let’s go!
“The children were confused, frightened even, but one of the girls, probably Carlotta, then pointed to Darnell and said, It’s him, he told on us. I saw him. The bus driver had been wearing a Mickey Mouse cap but it had been knocked off his head and stepped on. He turned and glared at Darnell, and everyone could see the hurt and disappointment in his eyes as he said, You ruined it, you ruined it for everyone; we were going to have a wonderful time and you had to ruin it for all of us. And then the policemen yanked him to his feet, gave him another hard shove, and that was the very last the kids saw of Emílio.”
“Mister Emílio’s Wild Ride,” I murmured, shaking my head. “That must have been traumatic for everyone. I’m guessing the bus driver did some serious jail time.”
“He didn’t,” said Teodoro. “But they wanted to send him back to Brazil, that’s for sure. Scared the crap out of him. In the end, he lost his job, fired that very same day of course, and Bill ended up with Sonia, at least for a few months. Eventually Emílio found work as a janitor at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.
“Forty-two, forty-three years go by. Emílio stayed there, pushing brooms, until he retired. He’d bought a little house out in someplace called South Gate, can’t imagine it being very fancy, married, had three kids, all grown up now and moved out, and was getting by on Social Security.”
“So what about this Darnell, that little whistle-blower; didn’t he ever realize what he’d done?”
“That’s what I’m getting to, Senhor,” Teodor replied, a bit testy I could see, for being interrupted.
“Darnell, now in his late forties, early fifties maybe, would think back to that day in 1957, and it haunted him because it remained unfinished, unresolved. Well, one day at the pharmacy he runs into Otis, a kid he’d been in school with, and through Otis he found himself in contact with Carlotta. He hadn’t seen her in years, but he telephoned her in Wilmington and asked if they could meet.
“It was four, five weeks later that a yellow bus, although not a school bus but one of those privately-owned, charter buses, pulls up in front of an unassuming little house on some quiet residential street, and several middle-aged men and women climb out. This time, Darnell’s in front, and walking just behind him are Carlotta, Flora, Leonard, Reginald, and several others from that day, over forty years earlier. Sixteen or seventeen of the original twenty-three. They march right on up to the porch and Darnell rings the doorbell.
“After what seems like a long time, the door opens, only a few inches, and a dark-complexioned, grey-haired man peers out at them, his eyes bulging when he sees all those colored folks on his porch and on the walkway leading up to his house. Ever have that many people on your porch at one time? Didn’t think so. Naturally, he doesn’t recognize even one face. From inside the house there’s a woman’s voice, Emílio? Emílio, what is it, what’s going on?—and there’s some anxiety in how the words are spoken.
“I don’t know, Clara, Emílio said, half-turning away from the door, I don’t know what these people want. He seemed a bit fearful himself. Up and down the street, curious neighbors were standing outside or peering through windows to see what was happening.
“Darnell stepped forward. Come on, Sir, we’re taking you to an amusement park. Emílio stared at him. Mister, you have the wrong house; I’m not going anywhere. Oh no, Darnell said, I don’t have the wrong house, and in fact we should have come for you a long, long time ago. He indicated the small crowd pressing close behind him. Well, hearing this, Emílio drew back. At that moment, Darnell holds out a Mickey Mouse cap. Then he says the words he’s been rehearsing for weeks: Sorry, old man, you’ve been overruled. Now put this on, and let’s get going.”
Teodoro folded his arms over his belly, and leaned back.
“So they found out where he lived, got everyone together, and took him to Disneyland?” I laughed. “I hope it turned out a whole lot better the second time around.”
Teodoro smiled. “It did. You can’t go back to the past, you know, but sometimes, sometimes if you’re really lucky, you can reach out and touch it.” ER
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