By Karen Brode
Hazel stood in the tall grass and weeds on the side of the highway. Her suitcase was at her feet. The rest of the people who had been on the Greyhound bus were with her. She guessed there were about 20 people in all. She looked as far as she could down the access road one way and then the other way. There was no roadside cafe, no pay telephone, nothing.
She wished that she could call her son, Kenneth, in Houston. He was waiting for her to call him from the bus station so he could pick her up. She would feel better if she could tell him what had happened. But even if she could’ve called him, she wouldn’t have known where she was. She hadn’t paid any attention to the road signs since she wasn’t driving.
She had always driven the Old Flivver to Houston to visit Kenneth and his family. The Old Flivver was what she called her car. It had gotten her to Houston many times, but she had heard a knocking last week, and she was afraid it might break down on the way to Houston. And then what would she do? She didn’t trust anybody outside of General Jones, her mechanic at the Ford house in Denison. He always took good care of the Old Flivver and never made her feel silly for not knowing what a carburetor did. If her car broke down on the road, she would be at the mercy of some unknown mechanic to fix whatever it was and then he’d probably overcharge her. It was this thought that prompted her to buy a bus ticket.
The truth was, Hazel had never really adjusted to not having her husband Albert to take care of things like this. Life had been so much simpler when he was around. She could just tell him she needed to go to the grocery store and he would drive her there. He usually sat in the car with his paperback book while she shopped. He never complained about it much either.
She still thought of him everyday, even though it had been over twenty years since he died. Most mornings she had to stop herself from getting two coffee cups from the cupboard. No one told her that the emptiness and sadness would go on and on, even years later. Back when he died, she managed to get through the funeral and the ensuing hugs of sympathy. She had struggled, but had even managed to pull it together enough for their youngest child, Karen.
These days were hard in a different way. The urgent grieving had softened, but there were moments that caught her by surprise. She missed his companionship. And she had no one else in the house to keep her from thinking about these things. Sometimes when she looked in the mirror, not only did she see her 62-year-old reflection staring back at her, but she saw Albert, too. He would be standing behind her, saying, “I can’t believe my girl has grey hair.”
It was bad enough being alone in the house. Hazel did not like to be alone on a long trip. When Karen was younger, Hazel felt better just having another person with her. Now her youngest child was married and had her own little child to take care of. Hazel grew tired of all the adjustments she had to make to each set of changes in her life. She had no husband to help her, and her middle child, John, had never been a help to her. She tried to think well of John because she loved him dearly. He could make her laugh on her worst day. But he wasn’t dependable or reliable. She hardly ever asked him to do anything for her. It was just better that way.
Her oldest, Kenneth, was no angel, but he represented a part of her life that had made her so happy. He had been her first baby, the apple of his grandmother Hawk’s eyes, the only baby in the family for so long. He was the fruit of their young love, and even now when he was around, she took on a certain glow. She could look at him and be transported back to that time of her life. She and Albert were as poor as Job’s turkey back in those days. But now, when she thought of those days it seemed that they were the happiest of her life.
Her oldest son was so much like her husband. Kenneth worked very hard and took pride in his work. She never had to worry about him.
She looked around at the other passengers from the bus and shuddered a little with worry for herself right then. Everyone was in various stages of anger and disbelief. Most of them complained about the situation to the other people who stood next to them. Two men standing over by a fence talked angrily about what this was costing them.
Hazel overheard one of them say, “If I lose my account because of this, I’m gonna sue the pants off these people.”
Things had gone all right up to this point. But then the bus driver got on his microphone and announced that the engine was overheating. He had been instructed to stop and let another bus come to pick up the passengers. He kept his head down as the passengers filed past him to disembark. No one was happy about it.
Hazel was glad there were some other women around, but when she looked closer at them, she saw they had a hardened look about them. Cigarettes hung out of their mouths and, for all Hazel knew, they might have just gotten out of prison that morning.
She cleared her throat, straightened her back, and stood as close as possible to her suitcase. Her purse had been hanging from her right hand when she first got off the bus, but soon she shifted it in front of her, so she could hold onto it with both hands.
The idea of prisons and prisoners brought to mind the recent news she had seen on television about two convicts who had broken out of prison in McAlester, Oklahoma. This made Hazel very mad because it seemed to her that prisoners broke out of that prison on a regular basis. She didn’t understand how it could happen over and over. It was clear that someone wasn’t doing their job.
After she saw that, she got on the phone with Kenneth and told him that she was scared those convicts would come to her house.
“Mom,” he said. She remembered his voice had such exasperation in it. Why did he always get so exasperated by her concerns? “Your house is almost 100 miles from McAlester. What are the odds they’ll go anywhere near your house?”
“But they could,” she said. “Why not?”
He sighed, or so she thought she had heard him sigh. It bothered her that he wasn’t as concerned about this as she was.
“Look, Mom, you’ve got houses on all sides of you. The criminals would be stupid to come to your house.”
She wasn’t convinced.
In fact, she wasn’t convinced that the other people in those houses around her weren’t criminals themselves. When her children were younger, that neighborhood had been a nice area. Now, though, lots of the older people were dying and leaving their houses to young rabble-rousers. These people rode motorcycles and stayed up all night listening to loud music and no telling what all else they did that she didn’t even know about. She didn’t even feel safe to sit out in her yard anymore.
Albert had built the house for them when they were young. It was just what she wanted, although she had really wanted the house to be wider across in the front. Her husband had explained that the lot they bought did not permit that, so she shrugged it off. She knew everything couldn’t be her way. At least she got a new house. It had the most beautiful hardwood floors, which she kept shiny in those early years.
Albert had often told people that they lived out on Dago Hill. Hazel didn’t think he should say that, but in the beginning, most of the neighbors had been Italian. The supper smells emanating from their kitchens were so enticing and all the neighbors were so friendly. Hazel recalled Mrs. Siragusa, the old woman across the street. Her casseroles were to die for and, on occasion, she brought one over to share. Her English wasn’t that good, but her intentions were.
She would knock on the door, and say, “Missy Hawkie, casserole from Italy!”
It smelled so good and filled the house with hearty aromas. In the next day or two, Hazel would reciprocate by making a chess pie or a peach cobbler for Mrs. Siragusa.
These were the ways of neighbors back in those days. People depended on each other. If one person ran out of sugar in the middle of a recipe they would send one of their children to a neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. Hazel knew all the families who lived up and down the street and even around the block. She remembered with fondness how much fun it had been to invite all the neighbor ladies to a Stanley party in the afternoons. The Stanley representative almost always arrived late, but always had something so wonderful for everyone to ooh and ahh over. At her last Stanley party, she and all of her neighbors bought a Nifty-Jifty Bottle Cap Opener. She still had hers somewhere.
They had Stanley parties and Avon parties, and everyone dressed up a bit for them with heels and pearls. It gave them an afternoon together to discuss their flowerbeds and children. None of them talked about what was really going on in their lives. It was more fun to pretend to be television housewives whose worst problem was how to remove soap scum from their bathtubs.
Hazel enjoyed the company of the other women on those afternoons. She often showed them what sort of sewing project she was working on. She made all of Karen’s dresses and most of John’s shirts.
Hazel wasn’t sure how long it was before the new bus arrived. She looked up and down the access road a hundred times to see if it was coming. The sun beat down on her head until it hurt. She desperately wanted to take an aspirin, but she had nothing with which to swallow it.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the new bus pulled up. Everyone cheered. All the anger and talk of lawsuits sputtered out and turned into relaxed conversation. Even so, Hazel kept a polite distance.
Kenneth was already at the bus station when her bus got there. He was the first person she saw. The bus company must’ve called to tell him that there would be a delay. She’d had to fill out a form at the Denison bus station saying who should be contacted in case of emergency. She never knew what to put on those questionnaires. Finally, she decided it might be good to put Kenneth’s name in that place since she was going to his house.
She looked out her bus window and saw his worried confusion and giggled. He was such a worrier. She thought about John then, too, and couldn’t get over how different her sons were.
She stepped off the bus and the smell of diesel fuel and smoke filled her lungs. It was the smell of despair to her. She didn’t like being in the bus loading area. Her headache worsened at the smell.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Kenneth came running to her.
She nodded and said she was fine, but she rubbed her head a little and squinted from the headache.
“Let’s get your suitcases and then we’ll head home. Helen has a good supper cooking, and you can rest or do whatever you want.” Kenneth always tried to make the best of things.
Once they got to his house, Kenneth said, “Go on in the house and get cool, Mom. I’ll get the bags.”
She had forgotten about their faulty septic system but remembered just as her left shoe got buried in the sopping yard. She stifled a groan. There wasn’t anything she could do about it, so she’d rather not complain.
Wincing with each step, she waded as quickly as she could across the backyard into the utility room. She sighed looking at her sopping shoes. They would probably never be quite the same color they had been. She trying to figure out what she should do with her shoes when her daughter-in-law, Helen, opened the door and gave Hazel a big bear hug.
“The bus company called us,” she said in alarm. “What on earth happened?”
“We had to stand out in the hot sun for what seemed like hours. I think I have a migraine.”
Helen took her shoes and put them on top of the dryer. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Come on in and get yourself something to eat.”
“I hope you haven’t gone to a lot of trouble cooking,” said Hazel, taking note of Helen’s weight gain. “I don’t think I could eat a thing.” On the trip, Hazel had worn a conservative black and white plaid dress that was belted, showing off her slim figure. She had attributed her relatively good health to keeping her weight down. She did have high blood pressure, but she said that was because of the worry John had put her through.
Helen, on the other hand, might have hard times ahead of her, thought Hazel. She had long dispensed with belts and waistlines. Her fashion leaned more toward Expandomatic stretch pants and long tops.
Plus, thought Hazel, she has her own version of John to deal with.
Terry was Kenneth and Helen’s 12-year-old son. From all counts, he should have been John’s son. They were cut from the same cloth. It broke Kenneth’s spirit to have such a worrying child. And, whenever he came up in conversation, it was sure to hurt Helen’s feelings and cause a rift between the two parents. Hazel didn’t want to get anything like that started, so she didn’t ask about him right away.
Instead, she took a wet washcloth into Kenneth and Helen’s bedroom and lied down. She must’ve fallen asleep hard because when she woke, it was dark outside.
Hazel turned on the hall light. It illuminated part of Terry’s bedroom. She noticed he was asleep in his bed.
At least, he’s still alive, thought Hazel.
She watched him sleep from the hallway and was glad she didn’t have to make conversation with him. She never quite knew what to say to him. She remembered when he was younger, she would tell him she was going to count his ribs. It always resulted in Terry screaming and giggling. But now, she didn’t even know how to talk to him.
She went into the den where Kenneth was asleep in his recliner. The television was tuned to the news where they were talking about a massive manhunt in Grayson County, where she lived.
“The convicts escaped from McAlester penitentiary yesterday and apparently made their way to Lake Texoma, where they have robbed a sporting goods store and killed the owners. They are still at large and are currently being hunted in northeast Denison.”
Hazel’s heart quickened. “Kenneth, Kenneth, wake up! Look at this!”
“What is it?” he said. His voice was muddied with sleep.
Hazel pointed to the screen. “Look!”
“Sheriff’s Reserve Deputies were using every means necessary to capture the fugitives.” The camera swooped past the deputies riding on horseback, across a row of houses down a street.
“That’s my neighborhood!” said Hazel. Then she stood up and nearly fainted. There, on national television was her house—at the center of a manhunt for two dangerous criminals.
“Oh my word!” she cried. “There’s my house, Kenneth! Do you see that?” She fell back onto the couch. “You didn’t believe me when I said I thought they were coming to my house, but look! That’s exactly where they went!”
There was nothing for Kenneth to say.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.