The black man settled into the aisle seat next to the white woman. “I believe you’re one of those Freedom Riders, ma’am, so you won’t mind me sitting next to you, will you?”
She turned from the window, smiled openly. “Freedom Riders? Is that what they’re calling us, young man?”
His grin was friendly, but more guarded than hers as he adjusted his suit coat for more comfort. “I believe that’s what you’re calling yourselves, ma’am. And the newspapers have picked up on it, too. Congratulations, the name’s pretty catchy.”
She blushed. “I suppose the organizers do think it’s catchy. You know how everything has to have a slogan these days.” She extended her right hand. “Helen Westergrin.”
He offered his hand, but his eyes betrayed as they cowered left and right. “George Goodall, ma’am. Pleased.”
The Greyhound driver checked his mirrors, saw nothing that troubled him, and steered the bus forward into history.
“So what is your destination, Mr. Goodall?”
He polished his glasses with a bright white handkerchief. “Well, I’m just trying to get to New Orleans, Miss Westergrin, same as you.”
She wondered what he meant by ‘trying.’ She clapped her purse on her lap. “Isn’t that delightful. I’m sure we’ll become fast friends along our journey. I’ve never been to New Orleans, you know, or any place in the deep South for that matter. I’m sure I’ll find it all very lovely. And what is bringing you to the Crescent City---if I’m not being too personal?”
“Not New Orleans, per se, ma’am. Belleville, just a bump in Saint James Parish. That’s where I was raised. I’m going home for a visit.”
“How nice. So you make your home here in Atlanta now?”
“No, ma’am. I’m a student at Howard University. I was able to bum a ride this far, and now I find myself here on a modern version of the Underground Railroad---only it’s heading in the wrong direction.”
She frowned tolerantly, then patted his hand. “A college man! Your parents must be so proud. Now, you must tell me all about Louisiana before we get there.”
He smiled. “Tell the truth, Miss Westergrin, I’m not all that certain I’ll be riding the whole way with y’all.”
He watched her eyes working, but her mouth was still.
“See, you and your bunch are riding straight into a punchbowl of trouble.” He shook his head. “My cup’s already got all the trouble it can hold and it don’t need one more drop.” He was both surprised and pleased at how quickly the poetry of southern speech crept back onto his collegiate tongue.
She patted his wrist again---this time reassuringly. “Yes, there may be some unpleasantness up ahead, but we are all sworn to non-violence. This is a peaceful demonstration of our right to desegregate our grand nation’s interstate transportation routes.”
He wondered how long it had taken her to memorize that speech.
“Besides, we have been trained in how to handle local rowdies.” She held her head high. “We won’t be the ones causing any trouble, I can promise you that.”
He stared past her at the flying countryside and wondered where it was going in such a hurry. “Trouble doesn’t care who starts it, ma’am. And it holds no truck for good intentions, neither.”
She folded her hands over her purse. “But we are in the right, Mr. Goodall. Coloreds deserve…”
He grinned in mock reproach. “We prefer to be called Negroes, ma’am.” His voice and expression were both mild.
Her hand went to her throat. “Oh, of course, sir. I meant no…”
He patted her hand. “None taken, Miss Westergrin. None taken.”
A black man in a white shirt and narrow tie trundled up the aisle from the front of the bus. He held onto an overhead rail to keep his balance. He nodded with open curiosity at the black stranger in the aisle seat, but spoke to the woman. “Everything okay, Helen? Enjoying the Georgia scenery?”
She nodded. “Everything is just fine, Jim. Georgia is lovely, but I haven’t seen a single peach orchard yet. This is the Peachtree State, don’t you know?”
The man called Jim smiled. “Keep watching, Helen, we have a lot of Georgia still in front of us.”
She indicated the man sitting next to her. “Jim, this is Mr. George Goodall. He’ll be traveling all the way to New Orleans with us.”
The two men shook hands in a careful kind of way---taking note, taking measure.
“James Farmer, Mr. Goodall. Glad to have you along.”
The seated man tilted his head. “I’m just along for the ride, Mr. Farmer. No more than that.”
The standing man nodded. “That was all I meant, sir.” He glanced at the woman. “Helen.” He shuffled further down the aisle.
The woman leaned close. “Mr. Farmer is the Executive Director of CORE, our sponsors on this trip.”
The man nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I know who he is.”
“You don’t approve of us, do you, Mr. Goodall?”
He smiled. “Ma’am, have you ever owned a mule?”
The woman touched her lips and laughed. It was a pleasant sound, a genuine sound. “A mule? Good heavens, what would I do with a mule in Fort Lee, New Jersey?”
The man’s face spread open and he chuckled easily. “Beats me. Plant cotton maybe?”
They both sputtered laughter. Easy, friendly laughter.
“Mr. Goodall, I believe you are pulling my leg.”
He recoiled with widened eyes. “No, ma’am, that ain’t tolerated in the great state of Georgia!”
She hesitated for a moment, then slapped his arm and they both laughed again.
They sat comfortably as Georgia streamed through the rearview mirror like yesterday’s newscast.
After a while, the woman stirred. “Mr. Goodall, why did you ask me about owning a mule?”
His eyes were closed. “My granddaddy had a mule once. Orneriest four legs God ever put on His green earth. Jim---that was the mule---wouldn’t pull a plow, wouldn’t allow nobody to ride him. Bite? You bet. And kick? Hoo-wee, I’m here to tell you ‘kick like a mule’ is no idle expression, ma’am.”
She waited for him to go on, but when he didn’t, she asked: “Well, if Jim wouldn’t work, and kicked… like a mule, why did your grandfather keep him?”
He opened his eyes, but didn’t look at her. “Granddaddy said, ‘Sometimes it’s better to have a mule you know will kick you every chance he gets, instead of worrying about a mule that plans to kick you, but won’t give you no warning.”
She glanced out the window, and then looked back. “Your granddaddy has an interesting philosophy.”
He closed his eyes again. “If you say so, ma’am. Jim Crow.”
“The mule’s full name. Jim Crow.”
The sway of the bus had almost put him to sleep.
“Come to think of it, Mr. Goodall, I did have a mule.”
He opened his eyes, looked at her and blinked. “In Fort Lee, New Jersey?”
She stared at her folded hands. “Mine was the two-legged kind.” She glanced at his face, then looked away. “He could kick pretty good, too.”
He cleared his throat, and readjusted himself in his seat. “Yes, ma’am, the two-legged kind. I’ve known a few.”
They were quiet for a time.
“Whatever happened to that ol’ mule of yours, if you don’t mind my asking?”
She answered quickly, like she knew he’d ask, like she wanted to tell. “Prison. He’s in prison.”
He tilted his head and nodded slowly. “Well, then,” he said, “I guess you kicked him back, didn’t you?”
She faced the window, but he sensed she was looking inside. “Eventually. It took a long time, though. I took a lot of kicks.” She turned and looked darts at him. “A body will only be kicked so many times.”
The tires hummed and Georgia scrub eventually turned into Alabama pine.
“You wouldn’t be telling this country boy stories now, would you?”
She smiled a different kind of smile. Shrugged. “There’s somebody’s truth in every story, don’t you think, young man?”
He studied her over his glasses and shook his head. “Um-hmmm.”
Trees turned into houses, schools, and shops.
“So, Fort Lee, New Jersey, ma’am? Is that the truth?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh please, Mr. Goodall. Would I lie about something as boring as that?”
The driver parked at the stop directly in front of the Main Street Luncheonette. He opened the door, and without a word to his passengers, walked off the bus.
The riders---Freedom and otherwise---filed out onto the sidewalk, rolling necks, stretching stiff joints. Many drifted into the ‘whites only’ diner. Another sign directed ‘coloreds’ down a side alley.
A small group---three blacks and three whites congregated in the sunshine. James Farmer opened the front door to the luncheonette and allowed the group file past.
Helen Westergrin turned just outside the doorway. “You coming, Mr. Goodall?”
The man puffed on a cigarette he’d just lit. He buttoned his suit coat. He glanced toward the alley, puffed again, tossed the smoke into the gutter, and followed the woman into the diner.
“There be mules in here, ma’am. There be mules.”
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Janis, the name sticks in my mind like an infected wound that won’t stop itching. I can’t tell if her incompetence at her job is a masked attempt to irritate me, or if she is truly as vapid as she seems. I know I should go home, eat one of the sad bricks of frozen food lining my freezer, and get some sleep; but the open sign of the hotel bar calls to me. The rain fades into the background as I pull into the parking lot. Today sucked. As I enter the bar I survey the scattered tables decorated with exhausted travelers intermingled with the hometown drunks who return to the same place every night. The hotel is close enough that the locals can stumble home if need be. If I remember correctly this bar makes a wicked rusty nail. They use big, solid rocks in the glass so it doesn’t water it down. My eye is caught by a woman at the bar. She turns and looks at me, her lips part slightly, but the hope in her eyes quickly fades when it’s apparent I am not who she is searching for. She turns back around and the screen on her phone lights up her face as she stares at it.
The smell of this place is the same as many others. It’s interchangeable with the thousands of identical hotels scattered around the country. The faces of the purveyors wear a familiar look, like that of people who cling to this place as their last hope of socialization. I robotically sit at a barstool, one over from the beautiful woman who is still looking at her phone.
Janis. Screw Janis, and screw tomorrow. If I break all my fingers I won’t be able to help her with every asinine little thing. Drumming my fingers over the plain wood bar, I order my drink. Janis, my job, this bar, I am basically sitting in a shallow grave waiting for the end, just like everyone else.
The sound of the rain grows louder as the door opens. The woman to my left turns again. Once again she is visibly disappointed. Her phone still in her hand she checks it for the time, for a text, or perhaps for some hope, I can only speculate. We are desperate, lonely creatures. I look at her more closely as I wait for my next drink. She is stunning, and a bit out of place. She has dark hair cut short exposing her long and graceful neck. She is wearing a dress that could be considered business attire but on her is quite elegant. It exposes her shoulders while the knee length skirt barely masks the shapely legs underneath. My second round of drinks is beer accompanied by a shot of whiskey. I down the shot immediately after the glass touches the wood.
The door opens again. The yearning in this elegant woman’s face is apparent. Same routine, she looks behind her, disappointed again, she looks at her phone, still nothing. I can’t help but think if I had my phone I would smash it. If I really had my druthers it would be right into Janis’ vapid face.
“So, Wednesday night in a hotel bar. What travels brought you here?” I smile and hope the sympathy in my voice isn’t too forced. I secretly hope she won’t answer.
“I’m meeting a friend.” She replies, pulling the barstool between us closer. Apparently she had been protecting it the whole time.
“Ah. Well I hope they show up soon.” I reply. I pull back into my thoughts as she returns to her phone. I’ve never had this beer before or even heard of it, but it’s actually really good. Kwak, it’s even fun to say. As twenty more minutes pass she turns to me.
“Would you rather spend one month rich and alone, or a year poor and in love?” She asks, I laugh.
“Interesting… Though I understand the premise of the question it is truly contingent on mood don’t you think? In my youth I would choose the year of poverty. However, as with my current despise for the human race exhibited by my adamant drinking alone; I would gladly take the wealth.” She looks at me quizzically. I smile as I swallow more beer. “Let me ask you something? Would you prefer to spend eternity waiting for a friend or a year of intimately living with an enemy?” Her face contorts into a look of contemplation. She was playing a hand with a question she thought she knew the outcome to. As I did not fairly answer her question she chooses not to give a paltry answer to mine.
“If my question was contingent yours is as well. I could say neither, because sometimes they are the same thing within one person, you are not experiencing them separately.” She smiled and I couldn’t help but match it. “What brings you to this place?” she asks.
“I had a difficult day, and going home wasn’t going to help.”I reply waving over the bartender, allowing the thoughts of Janis to once again take over. I feel my jaw clench as her face worms its way back into my focus.
“I know how that goes. I’ve been having a difficult month.” She waves,
“Oh, let me get this one.” She says to the bartender.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I insist.” She says.
“Thank you. So are you coming or going?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” her bright green eyes locked into mine.
“Well, we are at a hotel bar not far from the airport. You’re definitely not a regular here. So, staying or fleeing?”
“Leaving soon; I lived here for several years until recently…” The sound of the door causes her to turn again, but this time rather then looking at the phone clenched in her hand she turns back to me. “After living here for about six years I got to the point that nothing in my life was working. So I spent the better part of this year teaching English in Thailand.”
“Wow, that’s incredible. I’ve always considered doing something like that.” I say, as though I am not bound to my current existence by fear.
“I came to visit some old friends, now I feel that I’m meant to be elsewhere.”
“What are you planning on doing now?” I ask.
“I’m not sure. I’m waiting to see if I have been accepted into a study program in Dublin, but I think I’m headed to New York for a while.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Dublin.”
“Well if I’m accepted you’ll have to come visit.”
“I’d like that.” I say smiling at the thought of traveling to one of my dream cities.
“So what do you do?” she asks. I feel the soreness in my back molars resurfacing as the sound of Janis’ whiny requests echo through my memory.
“Let’s not talk about that.” I say.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject.” Her eyebrows meet in regret as her eyes show momentary remorse. She has a very expressive face. I take a big swig of my second rusty nail, feeling the cool burn drowning the things I was going to rage about.
“Change of subject.” she says, “If you could go anywhere, buy a ticket tonight and just go, where would it be?”
“There is this river that ran behind my grandparents’ house. I would go there many times throughout my childhood. It was a place I always felt happy. That’s where I would go. You?” I ask, reflecting on the joy of my youth.
“That is a good answer. I was going to say to Berlin to play lazer tag.” We laughed
“Well that’s a close second.” I reply.
The night seemed to fly by as we continue sharing more and more about ourselves, laughing, joking. The elusive guest she is waiting for becomes less of a distraction. Janis fades from my thoughts as the hours disappear behind the veil of our new found friendship. When the door opens, now she barely even looks. Her phone lay on the counter; she doesn’t touch it for at least an hour.
As the bartender announces last call we look up startled, her phone buzzes. She picks it up and looks at the screen. Her large green eyes begin to well with tears, but she blinks them back and asks for her check.
“Is everything ok?” I ask, now earnestly invested in her answer.
“Yes.” She says. “My friend isn’t coming.” Two tears escape her blink and as she wipes them away she looks at me. “I was waiting to see my ex before I left town again, but those things I was so desperate to say I suppose don’t need to be said...Thank you. I am honestly happy he didn’t show because meeting you was so much more important.”
She finishes gathering her things, frames my face in her hands and kisses me passionately. I feel the flow of our friendship in that moment. It is an honest true connection that we both needed. In that kiss I feel the vitality of hope and love. She pulls away smiling.
“You really have to come visit me.”
“I will.” I say with all the intention that what I am saying is true.
“Don’t forget me.” She says as she exits the bar.
I watch her run out to the street, her long legs almost dancing across the pavement. She attempts to wave down a cab, and I watch as speeding maroon SUV swerves into the wrong lane and slams into her.
The lights of the ambulances and the police cars look like macabre strobe lights at the crowded scene. There is no reviving her. When the car hit her, her body fell limp and blood exploded from her form. Her striking features are now covered in a thick layer as her brains lay spilled on the street. They attempt to cover her as fast as possible. As the bright white spotlight on one of the police cars hit’s my eye the sounds of the crowd disappear and I am laying on the large rock jutting out of the river behind my grandparents’ house. The sun dries my wet shoes and socks spread out next to me as I listen to the rushing of the river. My new friend would love it here.
The small cop before me snaps me back to reality as he attempts to take my statement. The other officers fan out to keep the drunks and pedestrians back from the scene. He asks me how I know the deceased. I don’t know how to explain it. I tell him how we met as I stare at the debris that piled after the SUV mowed her down, and crashed into the cab. I see it as puzzle pieces for the meaning in it all. I tell him how she was the beautiful beacon in a dark, sad bar. I tell him how we connected and how selfish I had been.
I finally make it home, though I don’t know how I got here. I stand at my front door staring at my keys. Images of her lying on the cold ground are on repeat in my brain. I just want to hold her. She was a treasure and I didn’t see her, really see her until I let go of my selfish bickering with a coworker. I was distracted when the only important thing in my day was sitting right in front of me. Each movement I make is mechanical; changing out of my work clothes, turning off the light, crawling in bed. Every action happens as though I am not the one doing them. Lying in bed, I realize she had been waiting for death, and it extended me the chance to meet her first.
copyright © 2014
Veronica Love is a Colorado native with an insatiable love of travel, adventure, and dancing in the rain.
The problem with falling in love with a writer is the constant self-doubt. Can I trust myself with my emotional thermometer or have I been seduced by a character in his new novel?
Is the man I seem to adore, the same man who belched after slopping up the gravy on his dinner plate? I seem to remember him taller. I absolutely know that Damien never passed gas. There was always a scent about him, an infusion of hard-earned sweat and fresh pine.
“Can you pass me the remote?”
Huh, I think. That’s an unfamiliar voice. The last time I saw him he was on a mountain ridge, silhouetted against the setting sun. I waved as he headed west, the mane of his white stallion fluttered in the evening breeze as I watched him disappear.
“Jesus, Mildred; are you deaf? Where’s the damn remote?”
It was worth it, I thought. One night with Damien and I’d never be the same. He dusted his fingers over my flesh, turning my skin into velvet.
“Get me a beer while you’re up.”
He never promised me a thing. He didn’t need to. His lips caressed my dreams and I surrendered. I would always be a part of that moment and he would live within me until eternity embraced my yesterdays, making every moment count, frozen in time.
“For God’s sake, Mildred; can you get your face out of that book and get me the damn beer.”
♦ After a thirty year career as a sales and marketing executive, Ingrid Thomson is a top-ranked author in a website writing community and a published short story author who is working on the final draft of her first novel.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
“It’s me, again. Just wanted to hear your voice….
“I got my hair cut yesterday. You’d like it. You can
see my face, now….
“Sean hates it. Doesn’t matter though--I thought
about what you said, and I ended it with him. You’re right--it was
never going to go anywhere….
“I’m thinking about getting a cat. Sean always hated
cats. Remember that lanky cat you brought home when I was five—Mrs.
Puff? Then you took her to get spayed, and we found out she was
really a ‘Mr. Puff.’ You said that name was horrible so we shortened
it to “Mister.” Loved that cat…. When he died, you made cinnamon
buns to cheer us up.
“I tried to make some the other day. I must have done
something wrong, though. Mine were kinda… flat. I dunno. Maybe I’ll try them again. Karen said she had your recipe, so I might check and see if I wrote it down wrong or something….
“Karen decided to go back to work. Did she tell you? She said now that the kids are all in school she doesn’t know what to do with herself all day. I guess I can’t blame her-- although I can’t imagine actually wanting to work, can you? I guess she gets that from Daddy….
“Oh, I went and saw him last weekend. He didn’t remember me, but he talked a lot about you. He said your hair smells like lavender and your eyes are like an angry ocean. He said that you both went for a walk down at the abandoned amusement park the day before, and he thinks he loves you.
“Funny, the things he remembers. But he always remembers you, Mama. He never forgets you.
My therapist says that the brain is funny that way—the things it holds onto. I guess some things just burn themselves so deep that you can never let them go. Not ever….
“Dr. Paulsen wants me to try, though—letting go. He says I need to stop calling you so much. Says it isn’t—healthy. Says that I need “closure”—whatever the hell that is.
“So if I don’t call tomorrow, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you, Mama—it doesn’t mean I’m forgetting you. I could never forget you.
“I just have to try to get better...and I am! I can make it across the room now without any help. The stupid leg still rubs me raw, but they made some adjustments to the prosthesis, and they think it’ll be better now.
“My face looks a lot better now, too. With make-up on, you can hardly see the scars.
“What a difference a year makes, huh?
“I can’t believe you’ve been gone a year, Mama.
“His trial will be starting next week—the driver. Did I tell you that it was his fifth DUI? Seriously. He destroyed the lives of five other families before ours.
“I promise to be at the courthouse everyday--for you, Mama. I am going to walk into that courtroom. No wheelchair! I don’t care if my leg hurts and my face is scarred. I am going to walk in there, look him in the eye, and show him what he did to us.
“Dr. Paulsen says I have to forgive him. Maybe I do… but not yet.
“My doctor likes the idea of my getting a cat--saidit’d be good for me to have something to care for, something to come home to…. I thought I would name her Sybil—after you.
“I better go, Mama…. I’m tired.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
T. Z. Wallace lives in Oklahoma, where she works on the mythical Great American Novel while juggling three kids, one husband, and a menagerie of cats. Her website is: http://terrizellerwallace.wordpress.com/