The Evaluation of Mr. Owen Niebyl
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Julie C. Day has published over two dozen stories in magazines such as the Cream City Review, New Haven Review, and A cappella Zoo. Her first collection Uncommon Miracles is forthcoming from PS Publishing.
NAME: Niebyl, Owen
POSITION: Bus Driver
SCHOOL(S) SERVED: San Dieguito Union High School District
Performance is to be rated either as “At Standard” or conversely “Below Standard” with supporting statements for each “Below Standard” rating, for who wouldn’t justly demand an explanation for being rated “Below Standard”? “Below Standard” is to be represented by the number zero (0), “At Standard” by the number one (1). If you find yourself frustrated by the limited scope of the evaluation, please feel free to utilize the infinite space between zero (0) and one (1). Unless a criterion is rated as “Below Standard” it is understood to be “At Standard,” in the long tradition of silence upholding the status quo.
The PRINCIPAL of the school to which the driver reports is the primary evaluator. The PRINCIPAL should be demarcated by the number of pens in his breast pocket. They should protrude proudly, like a neatly tied bushel of wheat. The PRINCIPAL may also receive input from the TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR and/or the MECHANIC. The TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR is to be holding a clipboard at all times. If at any moment he is seen without a clipboard, he is to be stripped of both title & cloth, taken to the middle of the woods, and forced to wander naked and directionless. There are no set regulations for the MECHANIC, who is overpaid, misunderstood, and in all ways exempt, due in part to the mastery of a physical trade in the digital age.
CATEGORY A — BUS and BUS-LIKE OPERATIONS
Driver is exercising care. I do not know if I could qualify this as “the greatest care of all times,” because measuring “care” is much more difficult than measuring “time.” I can say there is something comforting in watching the hand-over-hand turning of the wheel, then his soft release, as it readjusts through his slack fingers, making a soft whoosh sound, not unlike that of falling sand. Driver is operating at a safe speed. No intermittent stops are being made. We are adhering to the schedule and moving in a legal fashion. Driver’s seat belt, while worn properly, clinches his body, the shoulder strap dividing his chest diagonally, giving him uneven cartoonish breasts. He is made to look like a balloon animal. A man of that shape could never be PRINCIPAL. His shirt doesn’t even have pockets. Where does he keep his pen? A chewed No. 2 behind the ear? What a mess. Driver is loading at the regularly designated points. We are being conducted in accordance within State Regulations. At all stops, the bus stoplights and stop-arms are being deployed, flaring out from the side of the vehicle like gills. We do not cross railroad tracks, but I get the sense he is the type of man to hold his breath while passing. I further infer he is the type of man who, at a party, would end up holding back the hair of a vomiting blonde. These are not bad traits. The driver keeps the bus still while the incoming students smear their noses, hack their phlegm, and find their seat, where they continue to secrete noise. They stick to everything like they’ve been dipped in yolk. He doesn’t flinch. Seen it all before. He allows nothing to be placed on the bus whereby passage to aisles, entrance, or emergency exit might be obstructed. In a gruff exhaust pipe of a voice, he reminds us to KEEP YOUR MEAT IN THE SEAT. Seems to know all the kids by name, route, and deficiency. Calls ‘em out: Weeper, Ice Cream Star, Wet-Cough, Chess League, Tattle Tim, Shut-up Alice, the Big Prude, Scabs, Lefty, Danny Hands, Little Try-Hard, and the Pale Inhaler. Could never keep ‘em straight myself. Driver allows no posters, stickers, or advertising material of any kind to be applied in or on the bus. I know, because in a test of supervision, I began Scotch-taping up some flyers. Without missing the speed limit change from 25 mph in the school zone to 10 mph on school grounds, he hollered back LEAVE IT CLEANER THAN YOU FOUND IT. Momentarily forgetting it was I that was monitoring him, I felt the pink shame of being scolded by my father, half-expecting him to continue OR I’LL TURN THIS GODDAMN CAR AROUND! A strange sweat flooded my body, but I showed it who’s boss by acting like nothing was wrong, because my body is not the boss of me, and neither is my father and especially not that bloated driver up front. I am. I am calling the shots. I am making the marks with the Montblac StarWalker Ballpoint Pen, Midnight Black, floating emblem in transparent cap, and ruthenium-plated clip for easy grab-and-go accessibility. I am the PRINCIPAL.
A note from the MECHANIC: I lost a leg, got a metal prosthetic, literally a lead foot, and still drive with more grace than this caveman, helling us about like this. Has no respect for the makeup, the upkeep, the up-and-up? I turn to the PRINCIPAL, say can you believe this club foot? Feel like we’re highwaying-to-hell here. But he’s too fixated on click-clacking his pen to respond. I rustproofed, rainproofed, and proofread the user manual twice over. Doesn’t matter. You can’t humanproof a machine. He is the rot in my undercarriage. Driver is pumping the brake like a sewing pedal. Driver is moving the steering wheel before the car is in motion, shredding the tire’s tread with indifference. Driver is karate-chopping the turn signal. Worse still, he is whistling over its soothing, metronomic sound: the tick-tack-tick march of the indicator. In this, he has stolen the natural music of things in motion. As we say in the biz, Ah, see? That’s your problem right there. A machine is only as good as its operator. My opinion? He isn’t fit to fuck a forklift. See you in hell.
A note from the TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR: according to my clipboard we
1. are 3 min behind schedule
2. due to forces outside of our control, including, but not limited to
2c. act of God
3. the act of God was rather small, yet even a small “miracle of misfortune” can dismantle an itinerary
4. the driver is taking the delay in stride
5. the PRINCIPAL is not
6. the MECHANIC is not
7. there is not a place on this form for my feelings, so they will not be included here
8. the children either do not mind, or do not notice
9. despite popular opinion, children are not endlessly resilient
10. I hope you never have to experience the point at which a child’s resilience breaks
11. that is a limit I would never wish upon anyone
12. the act of god was a clean up crew
13. that is to say, a matter of d-e-a-t-h
14. road kill
15. so perhaps not an act of God, but an act of
15c. bad timing
16. a child asks "what are they shoveling?"
17. another goes "it’s not even snowing so why?"
18. driver says "they’re on a treasure hunt."
19. the bus stirs with excitement
20. a child asks "where is it buried?"
21. driver says "under the red X, of course."
22. a child says "that doesn’t look like an X to me."
23. but then the driver launches into THE WHEELS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND and the children either forget or choose to forget as we go
23a. round and round
23b. round and round
23c. all through the town
CATEGORY B — REPORTS & REPORTING
We have been counted and pre-inspected. We are following the prescribed procedures as outlined in the HANDBOOK FOR SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS, a document I personally helped draft, as is my responsibility as TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR. The trick to technical writing is choking out the pulse. Even in the most bone-dry documents, say instructions for how to stake a tent, you might find yourself getting carried away by a stray association or poetic diversion. (e.g., lay out the body of the tent, use dead man anchors, yank the parachute chord, etc.) This is nonessential fat that does nothing but clot up the flow of clean information. Readers are little Frankensteins—they long to animate everything. If you’re trying to see your reflection in an object, you’re not seeing the object. After multiple drafts, I can proudly say there is nothing human in the HANDBOOK FOR SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS. We are not colliding. We are not breaking down. We are running an exit drill in accordance with local policy. I see the driver eyeing the emergency exit drill folder. What a showman. If he thinks that impersonating a panic is gonna get him higher scores, he’s got a prayer. Oh, look at the children form a single file line, oh, look at us mock disaster, oh ho. We all know how it would shake down for real. The bully in denim swinging elbows. The weak, cowering behind their calculators. Every barf bag full. There is no point in simulating chaos, because chaos only answers to muscle memory. It’s there or it’s not. You can’t study your way out of a mad scramble. Like being PRINCIPAL. Not everybody fits on the lifeboat. Not everybody gets to go home with the prom queen. The driver reaches for the intercom, and before he can mutter a single word about the drill, I bolt down the aisle, shoving Chess League out of the way, and knocking a PB&J out of Weeper’s hands, which of course, causes him to cry. Say what you will, but I was out the door before the driver could finish saying IN AN ORDERLY FASHION. I made the lifeboat just like I made it with Rita Papadopoulos in the back of her black Jetta, her leg on the headrest, her prom crown somewhere under the seat. And where do you suppose the driver was on prom night, hmm? Licking his palms beneath the bleachers? Tuning the skin flute? Inside the bus, I see him making his way down the aisle, dismissing rows of students alternatively until he’s emptied the thing. Everyone leaves, except the MECHANIC. Ignoring the pleas of the driver, he says you know the deal, pal. Captains go down with the ship. If you’re a woman, go join the children. If you’re a captain, drown here with me.
A note from the MECHANIC: the driver is yellow. A yellow man with a yellow bus. He tried to evacuate me. He tried to orderly fashion me. My heart is a hot tire. What does he know about an object in flames? About combustible material? Susceptible fuel? Nothing. Hazardous waste? Double nothing. Kill the engine, pump the brakes. And what of storms? If you can’t find an embankment behind which to hide, you must learn to be the depression in the ground. Above all, I am tired. Through and through, I am tired. Picture an empty toolbox. You see the placement of each item in the shape of its absence. Here is the hammer’s outline. I know it goes here because what’s here now is an anti-hammer. Looking at this driver — his pudge, his putty — he holds no real form. There is no space for him to fill.
CATEGORY C — RAPPORT & RAPPORTING
This is the stick-and-carrot portion. Set the rules and expectations. Encourage them, sure, dangle the sugar cube. But do so with the ritualistic malice of a man fishing for sport. As PRINCIPAL, I get this question all the time: HOW CAN I WORK WELL WITH STUDENTS BUT STILL MAINTAIN AN IN-CHARGE ATTITUDE? The problem is, if you’re asking, you’ll never know. I’ve said it before. A child is a crisis, crisis feeds on instinct, you can’t exploit what isn’t there, like you can’t fuck on an empty stomach. As a man in education, I can attest that it’s impossible to teach anybody anything. Look at the driver please and cooperate. He is dressed for the job he has. But when he goes home at night and undresses in front of the bathroom mirror, does he do so with confidence, or with the tentative wince of someone undressing, say, a wound? Where are the role models? I’ve surrounded myself with administrative backwash. We had to leave the TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR behind in the exit drill, due to incompetence. Little Try-Hard has found his clipboard, and has continued taking minutes. I don’t believe anyone has noticed the difference. The MECHANIC is too moody and enigmatic to be useful. Any bump or swerve in the road visibly pains him, as if the bus were made from his rib and in his likeness. What good are the children? Each day I see their masks of innocence wilt a little more, their parents’ ugly features lurking beneath. Driver is following written and oral directions. Driver is being friendly. At a particularly long red light, he makes a funny face in the rearview mirror. Responding in kind, all the children contort themselves, doing their best impressions of monsters. They are convincing.
CATEGORY D — VEHICLE MAINTENANCE
I’ve got him now. He was idling along, baiting the bare minimum. But I’ve got him. While the driver awaited his turn in the round-about, Scabs took a permanent marker from his backpack and began writing something on the window. Graffiti, a clear infraction. Scabs, you beautiful vandal. Driver can dust and un-dust the dash all he wants. Damage to school property is a biggie. More importantly, it’s an objective, measurable violation from an outside source. This has nothing to do with me. This is a matter of negligence. You can tell a lot about a man from how he receives bad news. In the case of the TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR, upon learning he would be walking home for misplacing equipment vital to his job performance, his face nearly burnt out. As the bus pulled away from the parking lot, I could see the glare of his eyes welling up and pumped my pen. Something about the way the sun was shining made them appear separate from the rest of his body, like someone pin-pricked two holes in the cardboard cutout of his image, and held it up to a floodlight. Needless to say, he did not take it well. I didn’t expect any better from that shape of man. (If you could shake his hand, you’d know all you need to know.) Meanwhile, the bus blissfully glides along. Scabs caps his pen. The children raise their arms as we take the speed bump, saying WHOA in exaggerated rise-and-fall, roller coaster voices. The driver smiles. He has no idea what’s coming ‘round the bend.
A note from Little Try-Hard, interim TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR:
1. we stop for snack time
2. which is my favorite
3. everyone is happy
4. even Weeper! who is sharing pudding with the Pale Inhaler
5. but P.I’s got asthma
6. and dairy makes him phlegmy and he can’t breathe good
7. so I eat the pudding, which is chocolate
8. which is my favorite
9. all of a sudden the PRINCIPAL stomps up to the driver
10. I know he is angry because he is using a "tone"
11. the PRINCIPAL says "someone defaced the bus"
12. which means he did bad on the test and doesn’t get to be our driver
13. even though we like this driver because he
13a. sings songs
13b. drives fast over the speed bumps
13c. doesn’t smell like pea soup (which is what the old driver smelled like)
14. the driver looks sad
15. I know he is sad because he looks like this :(
16. he asks "who did it?"
17. everyone gets quiet
18. he asks again
19. the silence gets real loud, which I know doesn’t make any sense
20. then out of nowhere, Tattle Tim yells out
20b. Scabs did it!
20c. Scabs wrote on the bus!
21. which is classic Tim
22. driver asks "is it true?"
23. Scabs nods and looks like when we catch the dog eating people-food
24. driver says "read it"
26. driver says "read what you wrote"
27. "I don’t wanna"
28. "I’m not asking again"
29. Scabs takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and says "the PRINCIPAL is an assface’"
30. everyone cracks up
31. we laugh so hard that
31a. Weeper starts crying
31b. the P.I. needs his inhaler
31c. even the MECHANIC smiles (which we’ve never seen before)
32. I don’t know how to describe what the PRINCIPAL looks like
33. he takes a lot of notes
34. and even though he’s trying to look very busy, he sort of looks like he lost a game
35. a game that no one else was invited to, where he made all the rules, and he’s the best
36. but he still lost
CATEGORY E — MISCELLANY
The bus returns to the lot. We have known and abided by state and local board of education regulations. Using adequate notification, and with proper diligence, our heads are level and our judgment sound. The children file out. Little Try-Hard hands in his clipboard, gives me the puppy-dog eyes and asks “Did I do good?” and I say “Doesn’t matter. Notes is just something I have the TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR do so I don’t have to speak to him. It all goes into an unmarked banker’s box. When we mail out diplomas, we shred them for packing material.” The kid deflates. Feeling guilty, I reach into my pocket and find an old receipt for MONTBLANC REFILLS, ROLLERBALL, FINE POINT, BLACK, PACK OF 2. I say “If you’re ever called into my office, consider this a get-out-of-jail-free card,” and he trots off beaming. Scabs is the last child to leave. Inching down the aisle, he’s picking at the cuts on his knees, forearms, and elbows. I want to discipline him, but his mad scratching has reopened all his wounds, turning him into a nervous ball of pus and blood. He issues a glistening apology. “Jesus kid, it’s fine. Go to the nurse and don’t touch anything on the way there.” On the way out, the MECHANIC reaches across the driver’s lap and says Don’t get too excited, I’m just popping the hood. He exits, disappearing into the engine, and we’re alone. Superior and subordinate, two men at the end of an examination.
— You did a fine job. A great and careful job, but I have to fail you, and you must know this, as well. If you feel the need to cry, you may do so now, free of judgment. Do you wish to use this opportunity? Yes. I think that’s a wise choice as there are very few openings to cry in front of another man without having your masculinity interrogated. I think I have waited my whole life for a man to offer me the opportunity I have given you now, but having never been given the chance, I fear it’s been too long and I wouldn’t be able to perform if the occasion arose. At least certainly not at the level you are now, sniveling there like a little girl. If I can offer any comfort, it’s this. Losing a job is a lot like losing love. The scary part is not that you lost some unique, irreplaceable thing. It’s knowing that there are hundreds, if not thousands of other things that would make you equally happy, maybe even more so, but nobody is there to tell you if you’re making the right decision, and in your chest you must carry each choice, and within that the weight of all the other choices. Personally, I am not burdened by this weight because there is no eventuality in which I am not the PRINCIPAL. It ended like this because it could end no other way. Do you understand? Yes —
A note from the MECHANIC:
fig. a — This is how I remember the engine block. It may not look like this exactly. She’s been throttled through hell. That’s what kills me. People driving like they know what they’re doing. It’s all memorization. The foot goes here, the hand goes there, 10 & 2, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 65 on the highway. Beneath the hood? All invisible abstraction. I try to teach ‘em, but I’m no teacher. What, stand in front of the kids, say THIS IS THE GASKET, blink, pause to scratch my ass, then ask WHAT IS THIS (?) and pause again for the raising of hands, kids dislocating their shoulders just to be called on, and I’d say YES YOU and he’d say THE GASKET (?) then we’d all clap our goddamn hands raw. Makes me queasy. There are few occasions in life when you must raise your hand before speaking, and none of them are good. I wish I could take their little hands in mine and run them over the mechanism. That’s how you learn. This is the engine, feel its crazy heat. Here is the (+) and the (—). Dipstick their fingers into the antifreeze, the coolant, the oil. Look, the flush machine is just as embarrassing and self-regulating as the human body. Labor, parts, waste, waste-parts—most of life is waste-labor. Push their ears right down to the metal and teach them, like doctors, to develop a sound-library of sick noises. Irregular whirring? Metal-to-metal slap? Repetitive screeching? Hiss, leak, churn. But they don’t want me doing that anymore, shoving children’s hands into the engine. So I say FINE HAVE IT YOUR WAY but all this red tape is weakening our youth. I’d take a nine-fingered kid who could drain/fill a transmission over a ten-fingered softie any day.
A note from the JUNIOR TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR: I lost my clipboard during the emergency exit drill so I was
1. stripped of title & cloth
2. taken to the middle of the woods
3. forced to walk naked and directionless
4. "naked and directionless" being an industry term for having
4a. no outlet
4b. no signal
4c. no phone
5. it wasn’t so bad
6. there’s nothing wild about the modern world
7. it gave me time to think
8. for instance, the stops on 6th and 8th could be consolidated to one stop on 7th Avenue, a maneuver that would save at least 3 minutes
9. taking back time is no slight thing
10. not as difficult as taking care
11. held my breath over the train tracks
12. outran the outskirts
13. when I finally returned, someone had taken a label maker and changed the title of my
13a. office door
13b. business cards
13c. name plate
14. someone demoted me to JUNIOR
15. "someone" being the PRINCIPAL
16. he is the inventor of this prank
17. that if you’re caught underperforming, your redemption should be desperate and overblown like reality television
18. he says things like
18a. forgiveness comes at tenfold the grievance
18b. the interview never really ends
18c. that salmon shirt is a bit faggy
19. I think I’d like to fuck him
20. not from desire
21. but because it would be the quickest way to eviscerate his ego
22. and saving time is no slight thing
CATEGORY F — SCORES & SCORING
Excluding the score of 1,000,000 awarded by Little Try-Hard, who was acting as interim TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR and thus ineligible to vote, Mr. Owen Niebyl, aforementioned “driver,” “bus driver,” and “the driver,” accrued a grand total of 4.21 out of a possible 10.00 points, otherwise known as a “gentleman’s F.” Consequently, it is the opinion of the administration, under banner of due process, equal opportunity, and all other manners of milquetoast stipulation, that Mr. Niebyl is hereby deemed “Below Standard.” We wish him luck as he greets the future unhampered by preference, prejudice, or barriers of personal bias.
Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. His work has most recently been featured in Cosmonauts Avenue, Heavy Feather Review, and No Tokens. He lives in Oakland and online at chrisames.net.