Willow Stokes couldnít remember why she had moved to the house on Locust Street, except that maybe it was because she herself had the name of a tree. Of course, there were neither locusts nor willows around, and she wouldnít have known which was which anyway. Her secret vision of herself as a lover of nature, however, was her only deviance from a spinsterish existence in her small-windowed, airless abode. No one knew of her wild side, of the fact that she tiptoed outside at ten every Friday night to scatter birdseed beneath the single scrawny tree in her yard, but then, no one knew her as anything other than Miss Stokes, either.
That was fine with Miss Stokes. She pursed her lips in disapproval of the familiar nature young people seemed to display to each other these days, of their slovenly appearance as they slouched down the street past her door. She covered her ears when their cars thumped and squealed by in the evenings, her old Lincoln Town Car collecting mouse droppings in the garage as she sat ramrod straight in her Louis XV wingback armchair. Her slippered feet barely grazed the floor.
Oh, she didnít mind seeing a person now and then, as long as they kept their visits short. The leaks in the old pedestal sink meant she had seen a plumber three times this winter, his ungrammatical "We got us a problem here!" grating on her nerves. She was perfectly polite to the latest sullen-eyed boy that delivered her groceries (tapioca pudding, yogurt, lima beans), even though his garlicky breath set her head to reeling and compelled her to go wash her hands as soon as the door shut him out.
Most days, Miss Stokes spent alone, perusing books on music history, ancient Greece or other scholarly interests. On a morning in late May, she adjusted her skirt at her Victorian schoolhouse desk in preparation for a day of exploration through The Iliad Revisited, a dusty tome of questionable origin, but intriguing because of its length. She was beginning to scratch her spidery notes regarding a particularly interesting passage when she felt rather than heard a low, throbbing rumble.
Thunder? she wondered, alarmed. No, it couldnít be, it wasnít nearly the right time of year for that. She remembered with reassurance that her windows were shut, as always, and no threatening objects from outside could get in easily, not even dust. But there it was again, audible now, a trembling, bone-cracking crescendo that penetrated her tight little refuge and made her eyelids quiver.
To keep her wits about her, Miss Stokes knew she had to identify the sound, although this meant climbing off her chair, always a big event for such a tiny, brittle person, and traveling across the room to the solitary window that viewed the street. She made it, eventually, lifted a small corner of the heavy pleated curtain and peered out. And saw, through a dense blue cloud not twenty feet from her own front door, what looked to her like a giant patchwork quilt hanging on its side. Squares of color, surrounding other shapes and colors, were pieced together into a long rectangle in the middle of the street. She gasped, astonished, and nearly decided right then to go lie down under her own quilt and calm her nerves.
Miss Stokes didnít, though; what she did instead was adjust her bifocals and bravely look again. And what she saw this time was still an extraordinary sight, although a much more ordinary object. It was a bus, belching oily fumes from several places in its nether region, until suddenly the noise stopped and the blue cloud meandered off down the street. She now could see that it was quite a monstrosity of a bus, extending from one side of her view to the other and occupying almost the entire width of Locust Street. It looked like the result of a rear-end collision between perhaps ten large vans of different colors, all in different states of disrepair. Except for the first vehicle, each one had had its front end cut off and had been attached to the one preceding it. The two at the back end were glossy blue and green, but the colors faded and reddened with rust the farther toward the front she looked. Several sections had metal patches tacked on to them, and these were spray-painted in garish colors. Miss Stokes peered closer, so her nose fogged the window, and realized the patch she was currently staring at held a rough representation of a woman, neon-green and very naked. She was sprawled on what looked like a rock surrounded by hot pink blobs. Pigs, perhaps? But what the pink shapes were Miss Stokes did not determine, since she had jumped back in horror and tucked the curtain tight against the window sill.
"Oh my," she whispered, trying to catch her breath. Still blinded by the view, she held her hands out in front of her and groped her way to her bedroom at the far end of the house. She was too distraught for even contemplations of The Iliad to have a calming effect.
Miss Stokes heard no more rumblings on that late-May morning. A few odd crashes and squeals did ensue, but she was able to ignore these by spending the remainder of the day in bed, with earplugs in place and only the feeble sound of her own heart for company.