A circuitous line of travelers waited to board the bus they would all rather not ride. They sprawled across the blacktop and filled the maze of stainless steel rails, which cued the amorphous mass of impatient bodies smack up against the exterior of the building. The smudged rows of plate glass doors that led from the lobby took on the milky aspect of the flat clouds they mirrored. And Dana, quite oblivious to her surroundings, who was standing at the crowd's intended destination-the door to the bus, waved another person in front of her.
An elderly, pugface woman acknowledged Dana's kindness and grunted forward like a congested Pekingnese. From the woman's wizened mouth, scrolls of bluish steam took leave and wove loosely the wide slashes of grey clouds and yellowing beams of winter light. Another person stepped forward from the impatient horde, and, yet again, Dana stepped courteously to the side. "No, no. You go ahead," she said in a near skittish voice. She semaphored the same via bent elbows to the next person who came along. By which time, yet another person from the line, a man, had already ascended the short flight of steps and was making short work of the aisle that laid before him.
Dana's body contorted, arching over the weight of the bag. She precariously balanced it on one raised knee while, in the interim, pairs of legs streamed past her topsy-turvy: threadbare socks spilling over the front of clear plastic sandals; a pair of once white, now dingy Chuck Taylor's; squashed shoe backs crushed into compliance by thick crusty heels; a cheap pair of fire red pumps. She continued to dig through the side compartment of her bag, her fingers searching by touch alone for the rectangular fold of a specific piece of paper. She wondered how she could have misplaced something she had taken so much care to set aside. It had not even been a full hour ago. Yet, once found, the feel of the ticket in her hand melded with the dissipating heat of a November dusk to remind her of the Sunday mornings of her youth, those hours that she had spent exploring her mama's handbag during church. How queer, she thought, to think of such things now. But the feeling took ahold of her, and there she was, back in A.M.E., fighting against one long bout of drowsiness. She would sit for hours, rapt, decoding supermarket receipts and torn gum wrappers-piecemeal clues to her mother's always composed countenance. Often she wondered, staring at the austere face expunged of fervency, carefully powdered and poised, precisely what lay behind the always even voice-sophistic wisdom, ready with advice, waiting somewhere, always just beyond the edge of her peripheral view.
I can just hear Mama now, Dana thought, musing how her mama, Mary, had, for as long as she could recall, always put important items, quartered neatly, between the folds of a lace kerchief bound with elastics. Dana had located her ticket arranged in the same fashion, only bound with a lilac sateen ribbon instead. Dana held it securely in her talcumed palm, hesitating a moment as she drew back to her a breath that had nearly escaped. She excused herself, in a tone nearing suppliance, to the next passenger in line, and with three lithe steps was on the bus. She couldn't help thinking, Mary's brainwashing has rubbed off on me but good.
Once aboard, she stood upon the grooved top step, looking over the cylindrical inside rail that served as an intangible partition between the driver and the group en masse. She scanned her ticket, eyes darting, but the printed slip did not offer any assistance in her attempts to determine which seat was hers. The driver cast an indifferent eye her way. "Keep it a-goin," he said in a voice that sounded as if it was from some remote location hidden within the terminal, not, in actuality, there beside her.
Dana walked, just like her mama-toe-heel, toe-heel-as if on a balance beam, down the aisle, her eyes skimming the stew of faces for an empty seat. Occasionally jarred into a seat back or tripping over stray baggage, she strode as best she could with clipped steps. She followed the rubber tread, her eyes slanting vertically like wooden shutters, up and down again, from the broguings of her heeled spectators to the expressionless faces before her. Each pardon me let loose like a chronic sneeze she could not control. Onwards she went, concentrating, learning the rhythm of when to raise her step over some ill-placed two-suiter and when to shift the meager flank of her hips deftly either to the right or left. She stopped. And much to her chagrin, she could go no farther. Having reached the bowels of the vehicle, she hastily evaluated the only unoccupied seat, the one across from the lavatory, at the very rear of the bus, knowing it would have to suffice. She slipped her dark burnished arms free of the full-length coat, nodded in the direction of the open seat, and questioned the woman sitting in front of her.
"Do you mind?"
"No," the woman answered with two yes nods of her head. "You can sit down here-or anywhere else you like." Seeing that Dana hadn't moved, and being at a lost as to why, the woman said, "Go 'head, sit down. Guess I don't mind having a bit of company."
The woman caught a length of her stringy hair before flicking the ends over one shoulder to rest upon her back. Several strands defected, taking to the air before finding refuge on the headrest of the adjoining seat.
Dana's eyes shifted upon some mental tilt cord, watching the unctuous strands, noting the sleeping, dimple-kneed child splayed across this woman's lap. Copious doubts seized her. Dana began to question the feasibility of this undertaking-never mind that she wanted-needed to see her family. Her neck craned left and her gaze flew over the rows of seats that she had passed. Perhaps, just perhaps, she had overlooked a vacancy, next to someone-anyone else.
The mother took no note of Dana's actions and made her own unconscious production of lifting her worn vinyl handbag (shoulder strap tied in a knot to hold it together) up and over the child slumped against her bosom before shoving the bulk safely between herself and the window. The child, dressed in overall shorts, slept clutching a dingy white blanket with a couple of neatly scorched holes burned near the center. The woman looked down, swaying, rocking her child while tugging the corners of the blanket higher upon his shoulder in a vain attempt to shield him from the drafts of cold air and exhaust spewing in from the vents above.
"Sorry. This is the only open seat," she said and for good measure backed her apology with a sugary smile. "I thought they were assigned." Dana made a vague gesture toward the seat. "I asked the agent at the counter, the terminal, for a seat, up front, behind the driver, the door. He didn't say any…Well, I'm sorry to trouble you. I guess I purchased my ticket too late. But luckily, here's a seat next to you. That is, if you don't mind me, mind sharing with me." Her mouth closed attempting to dam the swell of words.
The mother flashed a polite but uninterested show of teeth, not dissimilar from a smile. "Sit down. Better sit before the driver says something to you. Got to be your first time riding."
Dana shook her head, "Yes, I'm going home to surprise Mama." Dana drew in a short breath, surprised that she had offered this unknown White woman the sound of a word so intimate.Mama, she thought, stopping herself from mouthing the word aloud. "Anyway. All the flights and trains were all booked or the fares too high on reason of it being so near Thanksgiving. And I couldn't risk flying standby." Her voice sounded fraught with desperation.
Without struggling, she let the thoughts wash over her. She mused silently how this would have been her first holiday away from home-if she could have stood it. If being the operative word. She hadn't been able to. She wasn't like those cosmopolitan friends of hers, New South transplants with no real people to speak of, who could go without seeing their parents for months on end. "My friends in Montgomery don't know anything about holidays," she said, unsure if she was saying this statement for the first time or yet again. "Choosing to eat Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant with each other," she continued, "not a relative, play cousin or otherwise, to speak of within a hundred miles. Whoever heard of such a thing."
"Just imagine," the mother said.
In one seamless gesture, the woman raised both eyebrows and pulled her mouth into a taut but sloping line, all of which resumed their original shapes in the very next moment.
As Dana rambled on between perfectly spaced breaths of air, the woman examined Dana's too thin nose, her perfect teeth, her pink gums while interjecting mindless phrases at appropriate intervals during Dana's pauses. Looking up into the Black girl's mouth made the woman suddenly aware of her own cartoonish overbite, the tooth in need of a crown she could not afford, not to mention the braces she still dreamed of having-one day. Self-absorbed, she glided her tongue over her own teeth and with a caviling eye, the woman sat evaluating the cut of Dana's blouse as if commenting to herself that it was obviously better than the Charlie's Angel brand she laid-away piece by piece, which, she had come to notice, never seemed to last through her son's morning feeding; her eyes dipped still lower, inspecting the quality of the shoes and the belt, noting with reluctant appreciation that they matched perfectly and were unmarred before saying, "Well?"
"You should hurry up. Sit down if you intend to. This here, it ain't Amtrak." And Dana did as the woman said. She sat. "No need to go wearing on the driver's nerves. Hand me that bag over there," the woman continued, then added, "would you?" as an afterthought. Dana handed the bag to the grabby woman, and to make the exchange an even one, the mother heaved her child into Dana's lap as if Dana was the child's new wet nurse. "Everything goes better if the driver don't get all worked up early in the trip. Where you getting off at? Atlanta?"
Dana looked with widening eyes, first at the mother, then at the leathery child in her lap, and in astonishment back again at the woman who was literally tying her limp, dishwater-colored hair into a knot. Intent on discovering the illusion behind the sleight of hand trick that had left her with more baggage than she had boarded with, Dana studied the woman's easy movements. Having finally situated herself, the mother reached a hand towards the child's head, Dana breathed a sigh of relief, but instead of taking the child, the mother only smoothed a few of the child's stray strawberry hairs back into place. "Now where did you say you were getting off at. Atlanta." The bus pitched forward, gears shifting amid its mechanistic groans.
Dana's tissue thin eyelids blinked insensibly. "No. No," she managed. "In Charlotte," she answered before looking downward, trying, once more, to comprehend the unangelic rabble of arms and legs in her lap. Dana's eyes sought out the mother's shaitan ones, but the mother didn't acknowledge, didn't explain. In less time than it had taken for the doors to suction and seal, Dana shut her eyes, fainthearted. She opened them to look out the window, beyond the woman obstructing her view, at the yellow divider lines stitching together like the interminable flow of a brackish stream. She grappled to sew together the selvage edge of some fleeing thought, one which seemed determined to elude her. A vague uneasiness grew like panic as the image made itself clear: being sold South, downriver.
Finally, "Quite the healthy one, isn't he?" took form upon her sweatbeaded lips. However, she was unsure whether it had taken moments or minutes to fashion this next statement together. She looked askance at the mother who had yet to take any discernible notice of the child who laid in her lap, but her gaze gravitated lower, to her blouse, as she felt drool soak through from her camisole to the hot skin beneath. Without a sound, she became pissed, understandably pissed with herself, pissed for not having enough nerve to say anything more, pissed for possessing neither the grit nor the gumption to say the things her mama, a lady by anyone's standards, would have said. Dana prodded the child's head with a brusque shoulder and shifted her thighs, so the weight and rigid soles of the child's orthopedic shoes rested upon the seat instead of the scant meat of her leg.
Then it was the mother's turn, her attentions free, to dig through the totality of her belongings: a pink plastic diaper bag and a shoe box of cold, fried chicken and lardladened biscuit draped in waxed paper, probably from the day prior's Sunday dinner. The woman pulled out a bottle. Dana noticed that the liquid was too thin to be juice. Sugared-up Kool-Aid, she thought, damn, this is exactly what I need. Some hyped up brat with hard shoes sitting in my lap.
The mother handed the bottle to Dana. "Don't want to wake Lem by moving him again. Looks so peaceful. No need to disturb him."
Dana sat, gazing ahead at the undecipherable, textile weave of the fabric before her. She sat contorted with sharp knees pressed into the seat ahead, but as she turned to cuss out the woman, the mother took a pewter St. Christopher pendant from the hollow between her freckled breasts. She kissed it gently, and placed it back again. "Never take life for granted," the woman said. Dana goaded herself through the quick changes, a series of slow blinks; her eyes glazed and groped, trying to make anger look like calm. She took the bottle with a loath hand, and pressed the plastic nipple to the child's parted lips. Deathly still, she.
The two women sat quietly, each looking out of the same window. During the slow hours that followed, they took turns rummaging through the contents of their bags, adding futile layers of clothing to their limbs and switching Lem back and forth between tired laps. In defense against numbness, their heads nodded in and out of a cold-induced sleep. Somewhere in the three-hour stretch between Montgomery and Atlanta, the child, Lem, back, yet again, in Dana's stiffening arms, sucked the last thinning steams of green liquid from his second bottle. The drysucking sound of air woke Dana, and she freed an arm by jostling the child's rolling head, carefully, from one shoulder to the other. This shift revealed a drying splotch of drool on her blouse. She couldn't help but wonder whether or not the drycleaner would be able to remove the watermark from the silk. Well aware of the answer, her bowed lips pursed. And she reached her arm beneath her leg to remove a corner of the child's coarse woolen blanket before she readjusted the coat upon which she had been sitting, all the while cutting her eyes at the soundly sleeping mother.
The woman's shallow breaths had condensed making a hoarish design of crystals on the windowpane. The burnt glow of highway lights pulsed from posts on high, reflecting a dim glow through the frangible crystals of frost. Each passing headlight illuminated it, the pattern ever changing with each new rush of breath. So friable an arrangement that it could be destroyed by a careless gesture, the slightest change in temperature. Dana watched the slumbering woman attempt to rest her head, alternating between episodes of slobbering and nodding. Her receding chin plunged repeatedly against a shoulder caught unaware. Her cheek brushed against the glass, the square of glass now a makeshift pillow, all the once-glimmering beauty now effaced.
Dana sat, brimming full of ill wishes, and thought, I hope we hit a pothole.
"We ain't side of beef," came from midway up the bus. "If a person took a mind to, they could do something about the heat." "It ain't like you got to pay for it out of your pocket or nothin."
Chuckling cascaded in waves, cresting against the roof, as sound surged from the front to the back of the bus, coursing down upon the few remaining passengers who had been fortunate enough to hold on to sleep. Now astir, a continuous procession of passengers headed for the rear of the bus to use the bathroom. The drunks stumbled, the cola and tea drinkers pranced. And each time the door swung wide admitting a new occupant, it clacked against the armrest of Dana's aisle seat. It didn't take long for her to figure out the timing, how soon she must hold her breath and for how long. The three seconds after her seat was jolted, then five seconds more.
The bus had come to life. Conversations leapt up over seat backs, across aisles, before plummeting down like stones. A man with grizzled sideburns talked passionately about his winnings at the dog track to precious young thing who took out a pair of headphones and indiscreetly notched up the volume while yessing him into oblivion. Two men in quilted flannel heckled the driver. The subject? The lack of heat, what else. There was no movie. These two were the free entertainment, in Technicolor, stereophonic sound. Just ahead, in the distance, a rising dome of light like an ephemeral globe of hope emerged from the night. Inside the vehicle, a cacophony rife with discord rose and crashed off the steeled aluminum walls. The bus pulled off an exit ramp, a detour lined with orange pylons, bright punctures to the cityscape; and the stark lights from buildings and signs radiated like stars upward into obscurity; and the bus lurched around a corner, pulling to a stop in front of the terminal. The flickering darkness was parted by sudden light. The sleeping mother waked.
"I just need to make a quick call," the woman said as she stepped deft legs high over Dana's lap, crushing the child's head against Dana's chest. Rushing, as other slower travelers gathered their belongings from overhead racks, the woman reached the rubber tread of the walkway. She patted the pockets of her jeans, found them empty, but did not bother to check her purse. "You got some change?" Not waiting for Dana's answer, the woman held out her palm, exposing deep grooves forming a haphazard and ashen M like lace gloves over pink calluses. "Haven't been able to reach anyone to let him know we're comin."
Dana labored beneath the weight of the child, bucking him forward, so she could reach her purse with an unobstructed arm. She offered the woman all she found. By way of explanation, the mother volunteered, "My boy's had a touch of cold. Not sick bad though." She dropped the coins in her shirt pocket and reached back across Dana to snatch up her purse. "We was up nearly all night. He won't be woke no time soon. Though you wouldn't believe it with the way the boy was running 'round buck wild all morning." Hurriedly, she shoved her way toward the front exit. As she neared the door she paused, hastily gathered the wool, and leaned far across the railing to call back, "What's your name again?"
"Be back in just a sec, okay?" And the woman stepped off the bus, her eyes already searching for a phone. The yarn of credulity having long since unraveled, Dana resignedly maneuvered the shivering child into the empty window seat and draped her coat across his concave shoulders. Crossing her legs and pulling up straight, she tried to ignore her beyond urgent bladder another ten minutes. People filed off, new ones climbed aboard. But the child who "shouldn't be woke anytime soon" began to strain long phlegmy coughs, his stomach visibly contracting inwards and his frail chest heaving outward to accommodate the violence racking his young body. He awoke with a start.
"Mama?" The wavering question accompanied tears collecting in the corner of his eyes. His three-year-old whine, sputtering like a cold motor, revved up to speed. "Where's Mama?
"Your mama went to make a phone call…Lem. She'll be right back."
"Where's my mama?"
Dana's eyes, the right one now beset by an infrequent tic, regarded the bevy of now empty seats farther up the aisle before glancing back down at the sullen child. She could not leave him alone. Disoriented, Lem's eyes first focused on his immediate surroundings and then lingered, as he cocked his head, intent on the hand that forked like a branch between them.
"Mama be back soon-later," he said, as if well accustomed to assuaging his own fears.
The child followed the lines, connecting joints as if they were dots, wrist to elbow to shoulder, up her body, and came to gaze with saucer eyes upon her face. He shrank away, pulling on his blanket and huddling toward the moisture-streaked window.
Her bladder demanded relief. "Will you be okay while I go to the bathroom?" Lem tucked his chin down neatly. She tried again. "It's right across the aisle," she said and pointed to the ill-lit lettering of the lavatory sign. The effort seemed useless. Her patience waned. She looked across the aisle for a trustworthy face. "Excuse me, Miss, would you mind watching him for a moment while I go to the rest room? I won't be long."
The woman lifted her head up from skimming her magazine, stared at the oddly matched pair, and offered a hesitant yes from beneath a disapproving brow. Dana's lips screwed tight, realizing that this woman assumed them to be mother and child. Black mother, white child. Dana could already see the prune lips plainly working the details. She imagined the old woman relating her sally among the urbanites to her old biddy friends from the ladies' auxiliary later on that week: "Mattie, I tell you, she was the bluest-blackest cullud girl I'd ever seen. But the child, so pale, white as stoned linen. I just thank God everyday that that city stuff ain't taken hold around here." But realizing that she was staring, and that the Black girl had taken a notion to stare back, Dana watched the old woman sink safely back behind the slick pages.
Dana managed to say "I'll be right back" to the child who seemed to ignore her presence between fits of coughing and shivering. She reached across the width of the seat to tuck the blanket higher around his shoulders. But the child pulled away. He drew back. "Nigger."
It sounded as if he had been unsure of how to use it properly. The artless word had dropped limp from his lavender mouth. Dana stared at the boy, eyes tensed, her hands, suddenly heavy, straining, burning as they clasped tight to avoid the reflex. Her eyes caught the old woman's across the aisle. As if suddenly enthralled by a processed cheese recipe, the old woman averted her gaze, determined to peruse the maze of copy. Both of the women were equally surprised that people still actually used that word at all-well, in mixed company anyway. So Dana forced herself, cajoled herself, to think. Think. How would it look assaulting a three-year-old boy, a three-year-old White boy she did not know, would not ever see again? And she fought to understand this impetus, this need to ingratiate oneself. Blame the parent, not the child, she told herself, as she remembered all the careful admonishments that were-at heart-all interchangeable:Never react around them, they'll say you're violent…It'll prove their point. And although everything she knew said, slap him. Everything she'd been taught said, don't.
Dana forced herself to leave the seat. She got up, went to the bathroom. She knew, even as she went through the motions of closing the door, sliding the bolt; she knew she no longer had to go. Still, she forced herself. Just as she used to when she had begged and begged and begged-risking a pop on the leg-for her mama to take her during the old folks choir. She pulled three rough strips of paper from the roll and lined the toilet seat with absolutely no intention of lowering her backside to the assemblage. Lifting her nose toward the air vent for a respite from the foulness, she inhaled short icy breaths, holding each one, and repeating the routine when her chest ached. Her eyes began to water as she managed another quick breath. She took a brown drying cloth, and with it pressed down on the lever to release a gush of water into the rusting basin. She decided against the mushy, dirt-lined bar of Ivory and removed another drying cloth to turn off the faucet. Then discarded it as well. She took yet another, finally, to dry her freshly chapped hands.
As she opened the lavatory door, Dana's ears attuned to the sound of heaving. A too familiar phlegm-congested heaving. She peered over the back of the seat to witness Lem spewing pale green vomit laced with lime-colored threads. She reached for and snatched up her coat much too late. Lem was leaning over the edge of the seat, and the spate had coursed down upon the floor before splashing upward again. Dana spun, blocked a passenger's entrance into the restroom, and grabbed a stack of paper towels. This is it, she thought, her body seemingly moving of its own accord. She studied the child's mouth and stepped forward. The bus began to move. First inching, then with a lurch. Dana heard banging, hollow and insistent, in the distance, and as she furiously swiped the towels across the child's face, the sound of his cries scalded her. The mother had returned, had leapt breathlessly through the opening doors, walking, steadily making her way toward the commotion.
"Your child's sick." Dana had said what was apparent to all. She thrust the soiled towels at the woman. An impregnable lag-replete with silent accusations. The woman hesitated, transfixed, unsure, while examining the child as if Dana's care had ruined him for life. The unfamiliar women stood facing one another at last, unable to impart the simplest of civilities.
The word yuck came sailing from two rows ahead as vomit rolled forward wetting shod feet. "Damn," one of the hecklers said, drawling the word into two trailing syllables. "What's that?" said the other, "Omigod, Curtis, I done told you to keep your legs shut." He paused like a comedian making sure held rapt the attention of the crowd. "If your bent on only changing your drawers oncet a month, you're gonna hafta do something, douche maybe, to cover over that smell." Groans of disgust and crude laughter erupted. Dana rolled her eyes, her mouth agape. But quickly snapped her mouth tight. Dana looked down at the floor and back at the woman, nearly unable to check herself.
The woman lifted and placed an agile foot in the aisle seat, reached over, lifted the bawling child into her arms, and made one last fleet step into her own seat to deposit them both down safely before propping her feet on the seat in front of hers. "What are we going to do?"
Dana stared at the woman and child with the only expression she could manage. Struck quite dumb, she said to herself, What we?
"What we?" came from her lips, not from disbelief but out of sheer lack. And as sure as she had mouthed the words, she knew their truth. Thus, she situated her mind to accept the quiet hating such a decision demands. Dana grabbed her leather bag with one deft hand and pinched the collar of her coat with the other, careful to hold the foulness out and away from her body. She goose-stepped in lanky strides up the entirety of the aisle to reach the driver.
"I need to get off at the next exit."
"The next stop?"
"No, the next exit that has a hotel."
The bus driver screwed his neck around to look into the eyes of the Black woman standing over him, the gaunt eyes holding court over a bony body. He didn't bother with the calculations he normally used: nouveau riche, piss poor, heroin chic. There were simply too many possibilities. He muttered, "Okey dope," as he'd driven this route for years, and this woman's request, though not unusual, was no skin off his back.
Dampness drew a brooding veil about the room. Wood and glass glistened with a sheen of light. Dana saw these things. The soles of her feet told her body the reality of stone tiles and nubby carpet as she made her way from bath to bed. Having settled into her room for the night, all excuses gone, she would call home. She picked up the receiver. A tired urgency moved the pads of her fingers by rote. Her tongue dropped down in preparation of speech. She noticed that just as light has texture, apprehension has taste.
"Hello. Landen residence, Mrs. Landen speaking."
"Mama," she said and adjusted the towel in a semblance of decorum. She sat upon the edge of the bed, the quilt bunched beneath her. Carefully, she began again. "Mama," she repeated.
"Dana. Hey, my darlin, how are you?"
Steam hung in the air. Her shoulders drooped. She drew the warm vapor like a blanket to her lungs. For once, she was not even preoccupied with sweating out her hair.
"I need you to come get me tomorrow." A rivulet streaked from her cowlick, making its way toward her ear. She lifted a halfhearted shoulder to wipe it away. Mary patiently awaited her daughter's words. "I'm in some place called Sewanee. If you're too busy with the goings on tomorrow, maybe Brother can." Dana looked sideways, found her lamplit reflection in the dresser mirror and stared back at the figure in awe. She took a vial of oil from the cosmetic bag on the nightstand, uncorked it and dabbed two droplets, each, in turn, to the papery flesh, a pittance that could not smooth away the experience.
"I told Papa you would be here. That you couldn't stay away. Papa, our girl's coming…Sewanee? Where's that, darlin? And what, pray tell, are you doing there?"
Dana sighed, rooted for the words with which to approach her mother, but could not find any that would not belie the hardfeelings she had chosen, just today, to cling to. Thoughts she could not even coddle into a lopsided breath. She shouldered the unbearable history, and in doing so found an idiom to hint at what Mary would surely already know. "You absolutely would not believe."