Hazel by David Huddle
212 pages – Tupelo Press
Ms. Hicks ordinarily said good morning to each of her children as they stepped up onto her bus, and they wished her good morning as well. Some returned her greeting with enthusiasm, some murmured shyly, and a few grunted and moved past her with their minds on other matters. Benny Sutphin made no reply and pretended she didn’t exist.
Hazel had stopped composing letters she wouldn’t send to Dr. Norsworthy, but she couldn’t stop wishing he could know about her job as a school bus driver. She wished she could talk with him about Rachel and Benny—a silly notion, she thought, because even though he’d been her academic advisor, she’d never discussed her personal life with him.
Benny’s ignoring her and her good mornings brought her to the revelation that she knew nothing whatsoever about Dr. Norsworthy’s life beyond his office and his classroom. He never invited that kind of interest, her mind instantly reminded her. He was a professional. He’d have been embarrassed if I’d asked about his wife. If he had one.
It was like her, she thought, to get herself worked up over something that existed only in her mind. Maybe Rachel had a thought about her every now and then, and Benny couldn’t help hearing her pleasant greeting every school morning, but Dr. Norsworthy probably wouldn’t remember her if she stood right in front of him and reminded him of her name.
But her mind, her relentlessly yammering, hand-wringing brain, wouldn’t allow her to throw herself in a ditch of self-pity. You greet each of these children every morning—even the hostile one—and you dispatch a generous thought to every one of them. For some of them yours are very likely the only pleasant looks they will receive all day.
Dr. Norsworthy was of less and less help in her thinking. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was too heroic and too lofty to advise her on how to deal with ten-year old heathens. Thomas Merton had washed dishes and scrubbed floors, but he’d had a goal in mind, a vocation to which he aspired. What did Hazel Hicks have beyond a job driving a school bus?
One particular December morning Ms. Hicks noticed changes all around her. A light snow had fallen, the chill in the air was more like winter than like fall, and the trees had a hunkered-down look. Her bus had to make an extra chug before the engine started, and Hazel herself felt unusually alert for no reason she could figure out.
Rachel and Nick were rosy-cheeked and full of chatter about the puppy they hoped to get as a Christmas present. The Dunford kids were quarreling among themselves, and Buntsy Williams was whistling the first three bars of “Rudolph” over and over, so that Hazel had to ask him to stop. Pruney Copenhaver gave Hazel a look of desperate sadness.
Frank Hoback’s face seemed to want to convey something to Hazel, but when Benny Sutphin climbed the steps staring straight at her, she wasn’t ready for what she saw. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and the flesh around it was visibly bruised. She thought she knew exactly what his outraged face meant to tell her. Look what happened to me!
“Oh, Benny,” she murmured—and knew instantly that her pitying tone was wrong. He made a sound that was the human version of a wolf snarling and turned away. In the mirror she watched him heading for the back of the bus. She was pretty sure he was looking straight at each kid in turn as he passed by them, just daring them to say a word to him.
She considered turning the bus around and delivering all the children back to their homes. But she started the bus moving and thought hard about Benny. She moaned softly. Then she almost laughed aloud imagining her trio of great minds, Norsworthy, Bonhoeffer, and Merton, trying to advise her on what she should do about the boy.
The children spoke so quietly among themselves that the bus seemed to be sounding a minor chord. When she parked it and opened the door, the kids were eager to be free. Benny was the last to walk up the aisle. She raised her hand to let him know she wanted to speak to him. When she said his name, he slashed her arm with a pocketknife.
Hazel hadn’t decided what she was going to say to Benny, and Benny probably hadn’t decided what he was going to do until the instant he did it. The boy moved past her quickly and when his feet hit the asphalt surface of the parking lot, he started running—in the opposite direction of school. Hazel watched him and held her arm tightly.
When she couldn’t see him any more, she looked down to see how seriously he’d injured her. Blood was showing on her jacket, which meant it had seeped through her blouse and sweater. Her arm ached, so she knew the cut was deep and she’d have to go for stitches. She looked up and saw Rachel and Pruney staring up at her through the open door.
“Are you okay?” Rachel’s face was pale. “Not so much,” Hazel told her. “Will you girls step back up here a minute and help me?” As they moved up the steps, Ms. Hicks asked Pruney if she might use her scarf. “I’ll buy you a new one,” she said. Of the two girls, Pruney seemed calmest, and so Hazel asked her to wind the scarf around the arm.
While Pruney did the winding—with surprising steadiness—Rachel averted her eyes. “What happened?” she asked. Hazel wanted to pat her friend on the shoulder and tell her everything was going to be fine. What she did say was, “You don’t want to know, sweetheart.” She asked the girls not to tell anyone what they had seen or that she was hurt.
“I want you to go to Mr. Hoofnagle’s office and tell him to meet me at the emergency room,” she told them. They nodded with such trusting faces that Hazel thought she might start weeping. “Only Mr. Hoofnagle. Don’t tell anybody else anything,” she said. “Cross your hearts and hope to die?” All three crossed their hearts, Hazel with her left hand.
Driving the empty bus to the hospital, Hazel pondered the heart-crossing ritual. Didn’t the vow require an obvious lie? Who would ever hope to die and mean it? She drove with her left hand on the steering wheel and her right hand in her lap. She was grateful for the bus’s automatic transmission because she didn’t have to change gears.
Hazel thought she got off easy—twenty stitches, a tetanus shot, and a couple of hours in the emergency room. Best of all was the young doctor who didn’t press her for details. He asked her what had happened, of course, and when she told him she didn’t want to say, he nodded. “Boyfriend, huh?” he said. Hazel shrugged and tried to look ashamed.
When Pete Hoofnagle stepped through the curtain and sat down beside her, she had to stifle her weeping impulse. He touched the hand of her injured arm, but he kept quiet. They had almost no privacy in the little curtained off area. It took Hazel a while to speak, and she didn’t even try to tell him how grateful she was that he’d arrived.
To tell the story, she had to whisper with him leaning close. He made soft noises in his chest and visibly flinched when she told him how hard Benny’s knife had struck her arm. “You’re the only person beside Benny and me who knows what happened,” she said. “I need you to promise you won’t tell anybody else.” He blinked at her.
They were interrupted by the nurse giving Hazel her prescriptions, the instructions for caring for the wound, and the card with her follow-up appointment. On the way out to her bus, Pete walked closely beside her, and he followed her up the steps. She took the driver’s seat, and he sat shotgun, as he had during her training runs.
He cleared his throat. “I think you should report the incident and press charges,” he said. These were the first words he’d spoken to her. Hazel told him she knew that’s what he’d think. Pete gave her what he probably intended to be a grin and said, “I know you’re not likely to take my advice.” She watched him doing his best to read her face.
Hazel thought it was peculiar she knew Pete as well as she did. He’d probably spoken no more than a hundred words to her altogether. Then she realized that when they were sitting on this bus, each of them understood the other very well. She knew he felt duty bound to try to persuade her to do what he very well knew she was not going to do.