"Miss Wendy"

Miss Wendy does not give the children pencils. At best, they would lose them, and at worst, they would snap them in half and leave them scattered on the bus floor like cigarette butts. She knows plenty of bus drivers, especially the young ones, who will give the children pencils or even worse, little bags of candy, on the first day of school. It’s a stupid idea, to give children candy then send them to school to sit for eight hours.

She begins to memorize next year’s bus route the same day the bus drivers receive an email outlining the stops and addresses. She calls her son, who is thirty-three and divorced, no kids, and he sighs. “I’ve walked you through this a thousand times.” Each year, usually around the middle of July, he guides her on how to log in to her email. Her face scrunched, she searches the hundreds of unread emails that litter her inbox and finally finds it: Bus Routes 2018/2019 School Year. She opens the attachment, scrolls through the children’s names and addresses, making mental notes about which kids she will be pleased to have on her bus and which she knows are trouble.

She works for Monterey Middle School. It is a strange place, an old building surrounded by farm fields and twenty minutes away from the highway, but close enough to downtown that it is still considered urban. The kids who attend the school mirror its strange location—some very rich, most poor, half the population white, and the other half a mixture of Hispanic and African-American. She pities the poor kids. So many of them enter the bus in the same clothes as the day before, reeking of smoke and the animal smell of body odor and soiled underwear. She always remembers to keep her face neutral as she bids these kids good morning.

When she first started working for Monterey Middle, her heart had soared as she pulled up to the sprawling old building. She signed her hiring papers in July twelve years ago, and she still remembers the sugar-scent of the cornfields that surrounded the school that day. The stifled, unairconditioned hallways of the empty school reminded her of growing up on a farm and trying to fall asleep on breezeless nights, sheets sticking to her skinny, sweaty legs.

School starts tomorrow, and she spends that evening looking over the list of addresses like one might read Bible verses before bed. She has already physically driven the route ten times. In twelve years, she has never missed a stop, not even her first year of driving. She doesn’t think many bus drivers can say the same. She sleeps soundly that night.

The next morning, she rises before the sun has a chance to lighten the gray street. She drinks coffee, reads the newspaper, and looks over her list. When it is quarter after six, she locks the front door, backs out of the driveway, tires crunching in the gravel, and takes one last peek at her house in the rearview mirror. Using the rearview mirror has become second-nature though she prefers the three-foot-wide mirror of a school bus.

Arriving to the depot, she pries open the doors to Bus 55. It rumbles to life, a throaty sound that has always pleased Miss Wendy. She usually pats the bus’s dashboard the same way she used to rub the sides of dairy cows. When she eases the bus onto the road, Miss Wendy becomes all business. First up, she thinks, is Shady Acres Trailer Park. She has a gaggle of kids to pick up, most of them usually stinky, but today they will be dressed in their new school clothes. She will make comments to them like, “Nice shoes, Peter,” or “Nifty backpack, there, Nevaeh.” And the kids will smile at Miss Wendy but whisper to each other about how ugly Miss Wendy looks in her high-water jeans and her plain white tennis shoes.

Today goes smoothly, and she is one of the first buses to pull into the school that morning. “Goodbye, Peter,” she says. “Goodbye, Jamie. Have a nice day, Marcus.” When the children are gone, she pulls the brake and does an immediate sweep, looking for wads of gum, wrappers, and broken pencils. Sometimes a kid leaves a backpack, which she will take firmly in her hand and march to the front office. She always insists on staying until the kid arrives. “You need to be more responsible. Anybody could have taken this. Take some pride in yourself,” she lectures them before handing the backpack over.

When the morning drop-off and the sweep are complete, she drives the bus straight back to her house and eats lunch. She has a few hours to herself, when she might read a book, or pull a few weeds in the garden, or finish a Sudoku puzzle. Around two, she drives the bus to Monterey Middle School and repeats the process in reverse order. “Good afternoon,” she says to the kids, or, “Don’t forget to do your homework.”

The teachers refer to the first month of the school year as the “honeymoon,” and the bus drivers feel the same. The children behave because they are afraid or because they just don’t know any better. After those first few weeks, though, the children pick up bad habits like birds pick up breadcrumbs. “If I see anyone chewing gum, they are sitting in the front with me for a week,” Miss Wendy says on the loudspeaker, making eye contact randomly with kids through the rearview mirror. When she asks Marcus to pick up a Pop-Tart wrapper, he says: “You ain’t my mama.” She finds the wrapper crumpled at the back of the bus on her morning sweep. By the sixth week of school, she has taken to screaming over her shoulder, “Quiet down or else ten minutes of silence!”

The first big problem of the school year doesn’t come until nearly Thanksgiving. She looks in her rearview mirror where she sees a smaller boy, Kennedy, headlocked by Marcus. Kennedy is swinging his arms wildly, narrowly missing Marcus’s face. Miss Wendy is surprised. Fighting is instinctive in boyhood: one boy puffs his chest out, the other steps forward and aligns his body, both begin to circle and spit until the dance falls to pieces with a punch. She hasn’t noticed them out of their seats or even speaking until she looks up, and suddenly they are.

She pulls to the side of the road and puts on the hazards. The kids who are half-asleep begin to poke their heads up to follow Miss Wendy’s big body to the back of the bus. “Boys, let go of each other now,” she says sternly. Marcus holds Kennedy tighter, who begins swinging his arms again. “Marcus,” she says calmly. “Marcus, let go of Kennedy’s head. Now.” He looks at her. Kennedy stops swinging his arms, and his body begins to sag a little. Miss Wendy takes a step forward, squares her shoulders, tries to make herself big. “Marcus, so help me God, if you do not let go of that boy.” She steps closer and reaches to pull Marcus’s arms away.

“Don’t fucking touch me, you old bitch,” Marcus spits, taking a step back and releasing Kennedy. The bus becomes still and silent.

Miss Wendy feels, for just a moment, oddly detached from the scene. In that moment of silence, her mind jumps back to when her son was in elementary school, how he had been smacked across the face by another boy, how he was hit so hard that his teeth had cut through his bottom lip, and he had to receive two stitches. When Miss Wendy approached the principal about it, he had shrugged. “A troubled boy,” he had said, and, “Single mother, no father figure,” as if that meant anything.

She feels her heart pick up speed, and the only thing she trusts herself to say is, “You’re riding in the front with me.” Her eyes are wide as she looks at Marcus. Without a word, he pushes past Miss Wendy and throws his body in a seat at the front.