Chicken Bus
August 1981

“Chicken Bus,” New Era, Aug. 1981, 12

Chicken Bus

First-Place Fiction

Elder Kevin O’Neal stood by the bus’s cement loading dock and carefully watched his first companion. The office elders had jokingly called Elder Pete Everritt an old-timer who’d been here too long, and Elder O’Neal had begun to believe it. A few minutes earlier, Elder Everritt had winced when Kevin hadn’t wanted to sit down, saying that the few benches at the bus station were dusty and too full of people. But even though he looked displeased, Elder Everritt hadn’t said anything; instead he sat on Kevin’s suitcase and combed his blond, sun-bleached hair with his fingers. Kevin’s hair and complexion were darker than Elder Everritt’s, so maybe he wouldn’t burn as easily in the Central American sun. Kevin went back to studying his discussion book, glancing from the Spanish words to the English ones he’d written off to one side.

A shoeshine boy, his hands blackened by shoe polish, was tugging at Elder O’Neal’s clean pants trying to sell him a shine. Kevin shook his head no, pointing to his already polished shoes. The frustrated kid asked, “What time is it, mister?” Kevin looked at his watch, but the boy ran off laughing. Then a man took him by the arm and began speaking in rapid Spanish, pointing to a bus. Kevin shook himself loose, and blue eyes stared at brown incomprehensibly. The man gave up and ran over to another group of people.

“What did he want, elder?” asked Kevin.

“He thought you wanted to go to Santiago de María and wanted you to go in his bus.”

“But we’re going to Usu … Usu …”

“Unsulután,” Elder Everritt finished. “But he didn’t know that. You didn’t say nada.

“But I can’t speak Spanish.”

“You can if you try. I’ve heard you.”

“Elder,” Kevin asked, changing the subject, “what are we waiting for?”

“A bus to the pueblo.

“But two have already left.”

“Yeah, but a lot of gente were trying to get on them,” Elder Everritt said. “We’ll wait for one that’s not so crowded.”

“But we could have gotten on one of the others with a little pushing.”

“Elder, we don’t push.”

“Why not? Everybody else here does,” Elder O’Neal said.

“Elder, if you push a guy aside to get on before him, three weeks later the elders’ll knock on his puerta and he’ll slam it in their faces. Besides, we’ve got to stay outside long enough to make sure they put your suitcase on the bus.”

“Okay, whatever you say.” Kevin went back to studying his discussion book. The Missionary Training Center had been a bit easier for him than for most, so he had many of the lessons memorized. Instead of studying, he began to remember how he’d gotten into such a place.

He could remember the day well. It was May 1975. He was 18 years old, and it was just a few days before graduation. His friends and he had planned a party to celebrate. As his car was in the shop, he’d asked his dad if he could borrow his car.

“What kind of party is it going to be, Kevin?” his dad had asked.

“Oh, you know, a party,” he’d stalled.

“There’s going to be beer there, isn’t there?”

“Ah, yeah, I guess so.”

“You can’t go,” his dad said firmly.

“If I can’t use your car, I’ll go with Doug. He can squeeze two more into his.”

“You didn’t hear me,” his dad said softly, but firmly. “I said you can’t go.” Kevin couldn’t believe his ears. He decided to try another approach. “Gee, dad, you never let me do anything I want.”

“I don’t?” his dad said with mock surprise. “I asked you not to grow your hair long. Right away you grew it long. But I didn’t stop you. I asked you not to hang around with those long-haired hoods. Right away you made friends with them. But again, I didn’t stop you. I have always let you make the decision, hoping you would make the right one.”

“Then why can’t I decide this time?” Kevin asked angrily.

“Okay, you can,” his dad said, struggling to keep his cool. “The choice is yours. The party or your home.”


“If you go to that party, then don’t bother to come home. If you won’t respect me as your father, then I won’t treat you as my son. So go out that door now or go to your room. The choice is all yours!”

Kevin stared at him in disbelief. He wanted to walk out the door in defiance. But he knew his father never lied. If he left, he couldn’t come back. He had no money; his car was going to cost him more than he already had. He really had no choice but to stay. “Okay,” he said at last. “You win; I’m staying. But just wait until I get enough money. Then I’ll leave for good.”

“Kevin,” his dad said, “I love you. I’m doing this for your own good. You don’t know what kind of party you’re going to.”

“I hate you.”

Kevin’s dad finally lost his cool. “Then go to your room.”

“Let’s go, elder.” Elder Everritt had tapped him on the shoulder. Kevin looked up to see a blue bus backing into the “Usulután” stall. Elder Everritt motioned to the baggage man who was riding the ladder bolted to the bus’s back. The short, brown man jumped down, threw the suitcase over his shoulder, and scrambled back up the ladder. He secured the suitcase to the bus’s top luggage rack.

“Tie it down good,” Elder Everritt yelled in Spanish. It was a request rather than a command. The baggage man nodded in agreement. Then the two elders walked around to the side door. “When the cobrador asks you for your money,” Elder Everritt said, “tell him that I’m paying or have paid for you. You can pay me back later.”

“¡Subanse, subanse!” the bus driver yelled at them.

“What does he want?” Elder O’Neal asked. He’d never heard that word before.

“He wants us to get on the bus.”

They were the last two on the bus, and with luck there were two seats left. One was by a middle-aged Latin. His suit suggested a businessman. But Elder O’Neal stared at the man’s obvious mismatch of green pants and a blue striped jacket. The other seat, much farther back, was by a teenage girl in her school uniform, a wrinkled, white blouse and a green and red plaid skirt.

“I’ll take that one,” Elder Everritt said, pointing to the seat by the businessman. “You take the other one, elder. And remember, arm’s length.” Elder O’Neal stared at him for a moment and then started down the aisle, wending his way through the obstacle course of sacks, boxes, and chickens.

Kevin sat down beside the girl who watched him until their eyes met. Then blushing, she quickly turned away to stare out the window. The seat in front of them was so close that it didn’t leave room for Kevin’s legs. So he sat with his feet out in the aisle.

Kevin looked around. The bus was similar to the ones he’d ridden in grade school. But even though this one was much newer, it looked older, dirtier, and more worn out than those he’d ridden. It was shorter too. The seats were more suited to Latin legs than North American legs.

The passengers carried their belongings on their laps or stored them under their seats. One peasant woman held a cat on her lap. A farmer type had a small pig squirming under his seat. Three chickens, their feet tied together, were in the aisle beside him. “I guess that’s why they call these ‘chicken buses,’” Kevin thought.

The chicken bus was moving now, and he watched Elder Everritt who was already talking to the man beside him. Kevin opened his discussion book and began to study. The ticket taker interrupted him.

“¿Pasaje?” he asked. Kevin pointed at Elder Everritt. “El ya pagar por mí,” he said, forgetting to conjugate the verb. The man glanced back and then continued down the aisle. Kevin couldn’t study. He stared down the aisle.

The next day it had been all over the school. Kevin’s friend Doug had been fooling around and had slipped some drugs into the beer. He had hoped to liven things up. Kevin had never drunk beer before, but he had planned to that night. Still, he’d never wanted to mess around with drugs. Even users knew better than to mix drugs and beer. Doug had tried to fly his Mustang through a telephone pole. Three kids were dead, and another girl was in the hospital with brain damage.

“Dad saved your stupid life,” he said to himself. “If he’d let you go to that party, you’d be checking in upstairs. Or maybe you’d be lucky and be bouncing off the rubber walls at the funny farm. How did dad get those feelings?” Kevin was sure his dad had had a premonition of what was going to happen. But how had he gotten those feelings? Then one night, while trying to get up the courage to ask how, Kevin stumbled onto his parents praying. Then he knew.

It had taken him a week to get up the courage to say he was sorry. But three despair-filled funerals smashed at the wall he’d built up between him and his father. He had done it. The next day they went to the barber shop together. His hair came off easily.

It was harder to change his life. But his father was always there to help him. Three months later, when his father asked him to set a mission as a goal, he couldn’t refuse. But it took him two years to get ready. He worked a year to get the money. Then he spent a year at Ricks College. The small school gave him a needed change in atmosphere. He was pleasantly surprised when he received straight A’s for the first time in years. And the two Spanish classes were more useful than he had ever imagined.

Two weeks after he got home, he was in the Missionary Training Center. Two months after that he was on his way to a country he had hardly even heard of before—El Salvador.

What is your name?” The girl next to him had touched him on the shoulder.

“What?” he asked, not sure if he should look at her.

What is your name?” she asked again.

She spoke with a strong Spanish accent. He smiled.

“No,” he said in English, “you have to accent the next to last word. Like this. What is your name?”

“A-lane,” she said answering him. He didn’t understand until she wrote Helen with her finger on the back of the seat in front of them. “What is your name?” she asked once again.

“Kevin O’Neal, Elder Kevin O’Neal,” he said correcting himself. “How’d you get an English name like Helen?” he asked her.

She stared back at him with the same look he’d given the man at the bus station. He realized that, like the shoeshine boy, she only knew one phrase in English.

“Speak to the Latins in their own language,” his Missionary Training Center teacher had said. “You can’t imagine how much they love it when a North American takes the time and effort to learn their language.”

“Okay,” Kevin thought. “I’ll try speaking to her in Spanish.” The girl had already turned to look out the window when he tapped on her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said in Spanish. “I speak a little bit of Spanish.” The girl turned back to him with a smile. Kevin quickly turned to see if Elder Everritt was watching. But Elder Everritt was busy talking to two women in front of him. One was a middle-aged woman who could be the businessman’s wife. The other was much older, with steel-gray hair and deep wrinkles in her dark brown face. If Elder Everritt was talking to those women, it should be okay to talk to the girl. “How did you get an English name like Helen?” he asked in his best Spanish.

“Oh, my name isn’t Helen,” she said pronouncing Helen wrong again. “It’s Elena. That’s Spanish for Helen, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. Her Spanish was spoken at a normal rate, which seemed rapid to him, hard to understand.

“What’s your name again?” Elena asked. “I didn’t understand you when you spoke in English.” Seeing his difficulty in understanding, she had slowed down, pronouncing each word more clearly.

“Elder Kevin O’Neal,” he said answering her question.

“Aldare, that’s a funny name.”

“It’s not a name. It’s a …” He couldn’t think of the word so he said, “My name is Kevin, really.”

“Kaybeen. I like your name. Do you like mine?”

He wasn’t sure if he should answer that. “Yes,” he said out of habit.

“What are you doing in my country?”

“I don’t know,” he said, amazed at his inability to say anything intelligent. Elena looked at him puzzled.

“Why don’t you know? I don’t understand.”

“Really, I’m a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he said, repeating the line he’d memorized at the Missionary Training Center. “He is my companion,” he said pointing at Elder Everritt who was busy talking to the businessman again.

“That’s neat,” she said. “What do missionaries do?”

He didn’t know how to answer that.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to answer, she asked, “Do you like my country?”

“No,” he said and was sorry.

“Why not?” Elena asked with a frown.

“It is so … it is very …” How do you say strange in Spanish? he asked himself. “It is very different,” he said at last.

“What’s so different about it?” Elena asked.

Kevin knew he’d never be able to explain that. “I don’t know,” he said staring down the aisle. Elder Everritt turned around and waved. He was mouthing something, but O’Neal didn’t understand. Elder Everritt pointed at the businessman and then at Kevin. Kevin shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know what Elder Everritt wanted. Elder Everritt gave up and turned back to the businessman.

“I’ll bet your father sent you,” Elena said staring at the businessman. “To get rid of you. All fathers are alike. Mine doesn’t like me.”

“That’s not true,” Kevin said.

“How do you know? You don’t know my father.”

“I know my father.”

“What’s your father like?” Elena asked.

“He saved my life once.”

“How? Did he do a brave thing?”

“Yes,” Kevin said. “He did a brave thing. He told me I couldn’t go to a party.”

Elena was confused. “But that’s mean,” she said. “Tell me how he saved your life.”

“Let me tell you something else first,” Kevin said. “He asked me not to have certain friends, not to say profane words, not to rebel, not to do this or that. Is that like your father?”

“Yes,” Elena said. “He’s very mean to me.”

“He told me not to go to a party with my friends. He said he loved me, but I didn’t believe him. And I hated him.”

“You were right to hate him,” Elena said. “That was very mean.”

“No, I was wrong. Very wrong,” Kevin said strongly. “He really did love me.”

“I don’t understand,” Elena said. “He didn’t let you go to a party. How is that love?”

“At the party somebody put … put something in the drink. What do you call it?”

“¿Alcohol?” she asked.

“No, that was the drink,” he said feeling ashamed.

“¿Veneno?” she asked.

He didn’t understand that word, so he said, “No, it makes you crazy.” Then in English he said, “Drugs.”

“Oh, drogas,” Elena said starting to understand.

“Three of my friends died in a car,” he told her. “If my father had let me go, I would be dead also. Now do you understand how I know he loves me?”

“Yes,” Elena said. “He let you hate him in order to save you.”

“If my father asks me not to do certain things because he loves me, then why do you think your father asks you not to do them?” Kevin was amazed; the words were coming much more easily now. It was as if he were speaking in his own language.

“Maybe because he loves me,” Elena said answering his question. “Are you really sure?”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Kevin said. “And at the same time, tell him you love him.”

The bus stopped. It had reached its destination and was backing into its stall. The passengers began to stand up and get off the bus. Elena stood up and slid past him.

“I don’t know if what you say will work,” she said, “but I’ll try it anyway.” She smiled at him. “You know? Now I know what you missionaries are doing in my country.” Then she was gone.

As Elena left, Kevin said to himself, “So do I now. So do I.”

Kevin was the last one off the bus. It was hot, dusty, and dirty in this new town. But he didn’t notice. He sat down on a bench next to an old woman selling mangos. Elder Everritt came running over to sit down next to him.

“Elder,” he said, “wait until I tell you about this golden contact I’ve found. De puro oro.

“Yeah, what happened?” Kevin asked.

“Two years, two years I’ve been waiting for a contact like this.”

“So tell me about it.”

“I was talking to that señor about the Book of Mormon. But it was all ‘ho-hum’ stuff to him. So I gave him a copy to read while I talked to his wife and mother. The señoras like the family home evening approach sometimes, so I tried that one out on them. And do you know what that señor did?”

“No, what?”

“He put the book down and started listening. Man, he was interested. It seems he was having troubles with his daughter and this was just what he wanted. I gave him the lección on the family home evening. But that wasn’t enough for him. So I gave him the first discussion and parts of the next three. And he knew it was true. Man, he knew it! He asked me for our address and the church’s address and our phone number and everything. I would’ve given him the baptismal challenge if we hadn’t been on a noisy chicken bus.”

“That’s really great,” Kevin said.

“I hope,” Elder Everritt said, “that you made a good impression on his daughter.”

“His daughter?” Kevin asked. “I’ve been in this country two days. How do I know his daughter?”

“Don’t try and fool me,” Elder Everritt said. “I saw you back there talking to her. You must have gotten to know her pretty well in two hours.”

“You mean …” Kevin stopped. He smiled. Then he grinned. Elder Everritt understood and was grinning too. Then they laughed together.

Illustrated by Michael Christensen