Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Wheels on the Bus

“Would you please start off by telling us your name, age, where you live, and what you do for a living.”

Sure. I’m Benny Parker. I’m 63. I live in a double-wide off County Road 1207, and I’m a school bus driver.

“Thank you, Mr. Parker. And how long have you been driving school buses?”

Shoot, going on 40 years I guess. I started off as a mechanic and saw driving a school bus as way to make some extra cash.

“Go on.”

Well, I was born and raised right here in Franklin County, didn’t feel a need to go to college so I learned to be a mechanic. I met Sally, my wife, when she brought her old ’62 Dodge Dart in for an oil change. It was in pretty good condition, maybe could have used a paint job and new tires, but other than that it just needed the oil change. I can’t exactly remember what Sally was wearing, but she also caught my eye. Six months later, we got married.

Before long, the boys came along; Stanley in ’76 and then Cooper in ’78. Money was tight, Sally worked as a bank cashier, and I decided if I drove a bus, I could take the boys to school, bring them home in the afternoon, and make some cash on the side. I’ve been driving ever since.

You know, bus driving isn’t exactly how people make it out to be. It’s not all yelling at kids to sit down, breaking up fights and catching them smoking in the back or having sex. I mean, sometimes it is, but not all the time. A good driver can get those kids to do what he wants them to do just by raising an eyebrow.

I will say my first route was hell, and I almost quit. It was too crowded, it was too loud, and those kids knew I was a rookie. One high school girl, Angie I think her name was, got on the bus one afternoon, went to the back of the bus, and yelled out, “I don’t give a fuck.” I didn’t know what she wasn’t giving a fuck about, but I told her to come sit in the front. She acted like she hadn’t done a thing wrong. The school kicked her off the bus the next day and I haven’t seen her since.

Her younger brother, Alex, I saw every day. A 6th grade bully, a cheater, and a liar.  Had trouble with him from day one. I hear he’s in jail now, and his sister’s a hooker. There were some other doozies on that bus, but those two outshined them all. Luckily, the next year I was assigned to Bus No. 6, and I’ve been driving it ever since

The route is actually the prettiest one in the district. At least I think so. I ride through 43.7 miles of farmland and woods, over creeks, over dales and dusty trails, and I even go through a working cow pasture. Sometimes the cows get up and move. Sometimes they don’t. I get to see deer, hogs, wolves, coyotes, and one time I think I even saw a bald eagle.

One year I gave names to each section of the route: From the school I go eight miles south through the Eye of the Needle, turn right at the Purley Gates, take the Shortcut through the Spooky Woods and head over to the Goat Farm. From there I drive through the Cow Pasture, past the Prettiest House on the Hill, through the Rabbit’s Den, turn right at The Tree in the Middle of the Road, and drive carefully past Blind Man’s Alley. Take a left and through the White Fences, up and over Dead Man’s Rollercoaster, take two lefts and right to Pelican Bay, past the Swimming Pool to Jurassic Park, then back to the school.

There was a point I thought I could drive this route until the day I retired, but since my Sally died in 2000 – from cancer – it’s just become more and more monotonous. Same route, same kids, every day, twice a day, five days a week, around and around in circles, driving mile after mile and always ending up at the same place.

I guess that’s what made me do it.

“Yes. But before we get to that, can you tell us anything about Hazel Goodwin?”

Witch Hazel? Unfortunately that old biddy has been our neighbor for close to 20 years. Complains every morning about my grass not being mowed. Complains every evening my goats are too loud. She drinks too much beer, cusses at the television, and when my boys were still at home, she’d yell at them just for being boys.

Now, you’re not going to believe me, but I swear this is true. Hazel always wore some kind of cloth, or turban, wrapped around her head. And she always had a walking cane in her hand. One day she was yelling at Buster, her black and white spotted dog, and I saw her swing that stick over that dog, and the next day Buster was a black and white spotted cat. Honest, no lie. Since then I’ve called her The Witch of Pelican Bay.

“When was the last time you saw Ms. Goodwin?”

I don’t know. A week or two?

“Ok. So tell us what happened on the morning of May 23 of this year.”

Well, to be honest, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Around and around that old route, not going anywhere, just like the rest of my life. Sally was long dead, my boys had families of their own, and I had never been to Alaska.

So on that morning, I packed everything I would need for a long trip and put it in the front seats of the bus. Sleeping bag, clothes, propone stove, an ice chest full of food. The students who’d usually sit in the front two seats, I told them to just sit back a ways. I told them I was going on a field trip.

The route that morning was just the same as every morning, I picked up those kids, took them to school, and dropped them off at the front door. But instead of heading to the bus barn, I drove straight to the bank and emptied out my account. I figured if I was frugal, slept in the bus and ate light, I’d have just enough money to get me to Fairbanks.

“But things didn’t go as planned, did they.”

Well, at first they did. I had a full tank, a smile on my face, and I was heading to the great unknown. Guys like me, we just don’t do spontaneous things like this, especially when it involves stealing a school bus. I figured by the time they found out I was missing, I’d be halfway through New Mexico, and hasta la vista, baby.

But then little Katherine Sanchez tapped me on the shoulder and scared the shit out of me. She’d fallen asleep and had never gotten off the bus at the school. So that was the end of my adventure.

I could tell she’d been crying, and she said she needed to pee, so I found a Dairy Queen, set her up with some food, and then we headed back. Poor thing was scared to death and kept asking for her mommy. I kept telling her everything was going to be all right.

I had no idea how I was going to explain where I’d been, or why Katherine was on the bus. I figured I’d lose my job, but I was ok with that. The state troopers met me at the county line, and well, that’s why I’m here.

“You know what the parents think.”

Yes, but I wouldn’t have hurt that child for the world. I was just frustrated with my life, wanted to have one more adventure before it was too late, and I really screwed things up, didn’t I?

“Yes, a bit, but we believe you. We don’t think you’d harm that little girl. On the other hand, we found Ms. Goodwin’s remains buried in a shallow grave on the back of her property. Just over the fence from yours. Her cat was sitting on the spot.”

You don’t say? Well I’ll be.

“We’re starting to think that maybe you got tired of hearing her complain, day in, day out. Maybe you held a grudge because she was mean to your boys. Maybe you weren’t heading off to Alaska for an adventure; you were heading out of town because you killed her, buried her, and thought you could get away with it. Mr. Parker, is there anything you’d like to tell us?”

Damn, I knew I should’ve killed that cat.

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