“You can’t sit there!”
Alma was awakened by the raspy voice of a skinny, fortyish woman with overly bleached hair and too much makeup. She was addressing a chubby young girl with stringy hair and blemishes who looked to be eleven to thirteen years old.
“Mama stop!”, whined the girl back at her Mother.
The Mother, whose fingers were stained yellow from cigarette smoke kept jerking her eyes back and forth between Alma and the chubby girl. Alma, who had grown up in the ultimate melting pot of diversity couldn’t understand what the problem was. Was this woman making a fuss about the window seat? At the front of the bus, the driver, a weathered guy with cowboy boots, a string tie and a Trailways logo on his wrinkled shirt, made his way to the center of the bus as he checked tickets.
“What’s the problem?”, he said with his best customer service gruffness.
“I don’t want my daughter sitting next to HER”, said the woman, tilting her head toward Alma.
“Well honey, she got two choices. She can sit in her assigned seat or she can get off the bus and lose her ticket price. The company don’t give refunds just because you don’t like who’s sitting next to you.
The woman, who was ready to tell the driver what he could do with his ticket, turned to him and immediately shut her mouth as she realized that he was a guy she might like to date, or maybe he was
a guy she had dated. Her attitude morphed from mean-spirited wretch to a perverse impression of a sweet young thing.
“Now honey”, she said to her daughter, affecting her best country western drawl, “you just slide on into that seat. Everything will be just dandy.”
The daughter rolled her eyes, slumped into the seat next to Alma, pulled out her ear buds and evaporated into her IPhone.
The girl turned out to be Shelby. She had just turned twelve and was on her way to “visit” her grandmother.
She told Alma, “Every time Mama finds somebody new she wants to screw, she sends me to Grandma’s. I miss school and my friends and Grandma makes me do all her housework. Then she mimics her Mother’s voice.
“Honey, don’t you want Mama to find a new Daddy for you?”
“Yeah Mama”, she says sarcastically, “Just tell the new Daddy to keep his hands off me.”
Alma was not perceptive enough to understand everything that Shelby was feeling, but she did sense that the girl needed to be consoled. Alma reached over to pat the girl on her knee and Shelby grabbed her hand and held it while she sank back into her music. The young white girl from rural Southern Ohio and the black girl from Brooklyn rode on to Indianapolis holding hands through the night. Alma didn’t mind. She missed her Mama too.
Shelby and Alma rode together to St. Louis where Shelby was met by an older scruffy woman wearing men’s clothes and smoking an unfiltered Camel. Shelby clearly didn’t want to go with the woman, but she reluctantly began to follow her into the terminal. At the last minute, she turned and ran back to Alma and give her a big hug. Alma, who was looking around for the bathrooms, seemed perplexed by this show of emotion. She returned the hug and told Shelby, “Text me so I know you’re ok.” Alma kind of liked the idea that someone would miss her.
Carrie, a thin blind woman in her early thirties, joined Alma in St. Louis. She was an adjunct professor, spoke four languages and was on her way to Kansas City to be the keynote speaker at an Eastern European language conference. She talked enough for both and didn’t seem concerned that Alma was barely responsive. Alma, whose chief sensory stimulation in the past had been sex, didn’t have a clue what Carrie was going on about, but she appreciated the fact that Carrie was skinny and didn’t overflow into her seat.
The inter-city bus ride in the relative luxury of the Trailways Golden Eagle ended in Kansas City and Alma faced a three-hour wait for her next bus alone. Before allowing the passengers to depart, the driver announced that, “If you like barbeque, Arthur Bryant’s is the place to go and it’s walking distance from the terminal.” Barbeque sounded like heaven to Alma who had been dining on Snickers bars and Little Debbie Snack Cakes since she had eaten the chicken salad sandwiches and celery and carrot sticks her Mother had packed for her. Several passengers invited her to go along to Arthur Bryant’s with them but she declined. She was afraid of getting lost.
Alma ordered a corndog, onion rings and a Pepsi at the dingy snack bar in the bus terminal. There were no tables only high stools and a narrow counter running along one wall. She ate alone and tried to think about what to do when she reached Ft. Riley. She had a bus ticket for Junction City which the ticket agent told her was close to the fort. She wasn’t sure how she would get to the fort or what she should do once she arrived there. The one thing she knew for sure is that she wanted to turn around and go back home.
When the Heartland Trailways bus wheezed into the terminal, Alma boarded it with a mixture of relief and anxiety. The bus was dusty on the outside and shabby on the inside with worn seats and
a stale odor of unwashed bodies. She asked the driver how to find her seat and he told her,
“Sit wherever you want, we don’t have a full load.”
He told her the trip would take three hours because they had several stops before Junction City. Alma slid into a seat, leaned her head against the window and cried herself to sleep. She woke up when the half-full bus started moving. She noticed that there were several soldiers sitting in adjacent seats. Alma asked one of the soldiers, a young black man wearing a crisp uniform, how to get to Ft. Riley from Junction City. He told her there was shuttle bus that ran hourly. The soldier overlooked Alma’s plain face and admired her body. “You joining the Army honey?”, he asked with a grin.
Alma shook her head. “My boyfriend is there.”
“He know you coming”, the soldier asked as he tried to assess her situation. Alma shook her head.
The soldier grinned again and said, “You bringing him a surprise, aren’t you?”
Alma shook her head again. “He knows about the baby, but he wouldn’t do anything about it.
“Tell you what honey, I’m going back to camp too. You ride with me on the shuttle bus and I’ll take you over to the Visitor Information Center. When you get there, you tell them that you in a family way and you must talk to your boyfriend. They take care of things for you. The Army likes to keep their men honorable, you know what I mean?”
Alma sighed in relief. She wished this nice soldier could be the father of her baby instead of Leroi.
When the Trailways bus arrived in Junction City, Alma had just enough time to pee and run to catch the shuttle to Ft. Riley. Jared, the young soldier, sat next to her and he had a calming effect. He told her that he grew up in Raytown, MO, not far from Kansas City. He was good with mechanical things and planned to go to Longview Community College and study automotive mechanics. At the last minute, he decided he wanted more for himself, so he joined the Army so he could save up money to go to a four-year college and study engineering after his enlistment was up. Alma realized as Jared talked that he reminded her of her brother. JR always did the same thing for her; take care of her and help her find her way.
Jared walked with Alma over to the Visitor Information Center and told the clerk that Alma needed to find someone. Before he left her, Jared gave Alma his phone number so she could text him
if she needed anything. Alma hugged him and tried not to cry. Jared hugged her back with real affection.
“Just like I tell my little sister, be strong things are going to be ok”
Alma waited more than an hour while they tried to locate Leroi. Finally, he showed up grimy from being out in field training. Alma could hardly keep down her excitement. He had put on
weight; all of it muscle and now he looked like a man and not a punk kid from Brooklyn. He looked at her, his face filled with disgust. “Damn, what you doing here girl?”
© Copyright 2017 Hadleigh Dreams. All rights reserved.
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