By T. Lindfield, USA
Millington, TN 1991
The moon had waned, and Heather—no longer having tables to busy or bus—rolled silverware. For her, it was the prime of the night. Ruby’s Buffet, a town gem tucked off the only main road in Millington, TN, was closing, the last table of customers sitting over cold coffee and cheap cakes.
Heather’s sidekick, Christy, rolled slowly, arthritis knobbing her fingers; her dyed brown hair was piled in a messy bun. She was the oldest server there, hefty, with a bad leg. Heather was a young girl, but already lines creased her face. She rolled in sync with Christy, loving to hear Christy talk in her raspy voice.
“So, you gonna take that bus up there and tell Stewart, are ya?” Christy asked in big breaths, as if talking itself were a chore.
Heather patted her pocket filled with money saved. “Yep.”
“Does Stewart know it—that you’re coming?”
“Not yet, but we’ve been talking about every night. He’s still at his aunt Connie’s house. Oh, I really would have given anything for you to see how pretty that house was…built like a big cabin. Remember me tellin’ you?”
“You said it sat on about ten acres.”
“Ten or so.”
Christy grinned. “Well, you sure went on about the last time you went up, so I imagine it will be as good as that.”
Shame silenced Heather. She hadn’t told Christy what really happened the last time she went. But there it was—the truth smacking her in the face.
Heather had spent four days in Hattiesburg on the cusp of spring, mostly going back and forth to Walmart with Connie, Stewart’s aunt, buying flowers—marigolds—to plant.
The first night she was there, Stewart hadn’t bothered coming home at all. He had picked her up earlier that day from the bus station—while on his lunch break—dropping her off saying, “Connie will look after you until tonight,” with his usual twisted grin.
The second night and he still hadn’t come home. Heather was sitting quietly in the room Connie had set up for her, when she overheard Connie from the living room telling Stewart, “You’d better get your sorry ass here after work and see ‘dis poor thing that’s been sittin’ here waitin’ on you—for what? Only the Devil knows.”
Heather, holding one of the bed pillows in her lap, fixed her eyes on its floral pattern. She heard Connie slam the phone into its receiver.
Stewart didn’t make it home until the wee hours of her last day there; Heather felt her heart drop when he opened the door to the room. He sat beside her on the bed, taking her trembling body in his hands. She would later tell Christy that they had made love for hours, and that it was magical, but really it was done and over before she blinked good.
She fell asleep with her head resting on his chest, taking in the smell of his sweat, but awoke to a breakfast cooking—and he was already gone.
Stumbling into the kitchen, she saw Connie cooking eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, and gravy. “He just left… you hungry?”
Clyde, Connie’s husband, tip-toed into the kitchen. He was dressed like a cowboy, down to dusty leather boots. He scanned the room like a church mouse.
“Right here, Clyde,” Connie said, annoyed, handing him a cup of hot coffee.
Heather watched the steam rise off the top, turning into a line as he carried it away.
“I guess we’ll get the last of those marigolds in the garden today?” Connie asked, looking over at Heather.
Heather sat down, head down, sliding her hands in between long legs. “Sounds good, ma’am.”
Stewart didn’t return that night to take her to the bus; it was Connie who dropped her off. As Heather was getting on the bus, Connie called out to her, “You’re a sweet girl. Leave Stewart alone. He’s a sociopath. He’ll never do right by any woman.”
Heather paused. “What’s a sociopath?”
“He ain’t got any real feelings. It’s all about him. Look, he’s been that way since he was a kid. Look how he treated you. He knew you were coming. He could’ve taken you about, out to eat, but what’d he do? Let you sit there for four days like a damned ole fool.”
Heather stood stunned until the bus driver honked the horn. “You gettin’ on or not, miss?”
Heather sat down on a full bus next to the kindest-looking person she could find—an older woman from India. The woman talked about her religion. Heather couldn’t make much sense of what the woman was saying, but listened. The woman had just lost her sister to cancer, but believed that people never died. She believed everyone was born again and again.
The woman was convinced that she had once been a powerful landowning man, but because she did not give enough supplementations to the Gods, she was reborn a poor Indian woman living in America. She did something right to be born in America, she said, then chuckled, “But to come back a woman, I must’ve really done something terrible.”
She asked Heather who she had been in her past life. Heather shrugged her shoulders. “I believe in Jesus, so I guess I don’t get a second go-around.”
As they moved through the silence of Mississippi back to Memphis, Tennessee, dusk came. The woman fell asleep with her hands clutching a box of graham crackers with the look of a cherub—chubby cheeks and all. Heather stared outside, mesmerized by the purples and pinks streaking across the sky. The colors soon gave in to darkness and there wasn’t much left to see. Heather hung on the few houses left—some with lights on—wondering who lived there and what the people were doing inside. She thought about what the woman had said about past lives, thinking she must’ve done something wrong in her last life too.
The last customers were gone, and Heather ventured into the manager’s office, like a new deer, checking the calendar. Her name was written in black ink with a red swipe across it, denoting that she would be off for the next several days.
Ruby, the manager, nearly bulldozed her down walking in the office. Her face was contorted in perpetual anger. “What’d a want?”
“Just checking the schedule.”
“You’re off, what’s to check? I ain’t paying you to stare at paper,” she screeched, hands on thick hips as Heather darted out of the room.
Christy called Heather from the employee bathroom, asking if she were ready for the drive to Memphis—to the Greyhound station—to catch the night bus back to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
“I am,” Heather called, pulling her bag of clothes out of the breakroom. She swung it on her back like a kit of potatoes. Christy met her in the employee hall, with the stance of a quarterback.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Christy interrogated with one eyebrow up.
“Stewart is gonna be head over heels when he sees me.”
Christy clapped her hands, “Okay, then, let’s go.”
The station was crowded with people and stench. Despite the night, the heat outside was unbearable and spilled into the air-conditioned station like cotton.
“Rich people don’t take buses,” Heather heard a woman waiting in line at the ticket counter saying.
“They fly planes or sleep on train cars or pack up their new station wagons for easy street,” the lady went on.
It was only her second time taking the bus, but it felt so routine: stand in line, pay for a ticket, check in luggage, and wait. The clerk, annoyed, pointed her to line B.
Shuffling to the line, an older black man, short with glasses, bumped her with his cane. He could barely see but kept going, talking as he went, “I’m sorry, sir, very sorry.”
She could tell he was looking for someone. Later, she would see him on the bus, sitting next to an older woman plump in a purple dress, their hands clasped together, and Heather knew it was her he had been looking for.
The bus was dead empty and would stay that way until they made it to Jackson, Mississippi. Heather hoped she would not have to give up what all Greyhound bus patrons pray for—two seats to oneself—as people shuffled on the bus in what appeared to be a mass exodus from Jackson. She pretended to sleep so no one could ask her, “Can I sit here?”
The question never came. Instead, a middle-aged white man slumped in the seat next to her, with eyes wide. She pretended to wake up. He was overweight and that weight spilled into her seat. She moved as close to the window as possible, uncomfortable.
“Where ya’ headed?” he asked, throwing his hair back, clasping it into a ponytail. Customary bus talk.
“Yeah, I’m headed somewhere else. Somewhere I can hide,” he said.
“Hide?” Heather asked, clutching her purse tighter.
“You gotta wire?”
“Nawh, I can tell you’re harmless,” he said, dead serious.
“I got some Xanax,” she said, without thinking.
Heather opened her purse, taking out two Xanax, giving herself one and the man one. Hyde, a new server at Ruby’s, had given them to her when she had told him about the trip.
He had said, “Take these and sleep through it. Don’t wanna be awake for no Greyhound shit.”
“Who are you?” the man yelled, throwing the pill down, jerking up from the seat.
He sat down next to a man a few seats up. Heather could hear him telling the man that there was a girl in the back trying to poison people with pharmaceuticals. She looked at the pill in her hand, now afraid to take it. She dropped it to the bottom of her purse.
The bus driver—an older white woman—called out to the back, “Folks, you best be behavin’ back there, now.”
Heather held her head down, rubbing one finger over a mood ring she had been wearing for three years, watching it turn black, which meant fear. The ring had been given to her from an older woman who ran a psychic shop.
The bus rolled into a hot, soggy Hattiesburg – Mississippi at the crack of dawn. A small gas station attached to a small diner served as the town’s bus station. Patrons waiting for the bus huddled under umbrellas and the roof ledge of the gas station to avoid the rain soon to return. A little girl stomped her feet in one of the puddles, glimmering with the colors of gasoline in it. Heather watched as the old man, cane in hand, got off first with his wife—or someone who she assumed was his wife—in tow. An even older woman, in what looked like a Sunday dress, holding a black umbrella, greeted them both with a real smile.
Heather watched them beaming and laughing from her table as she ate a hot biscuit with jelly, wondering what they were talking about. She then turned to watch the rain fall relentlessly on the payphone outside. She needed to call a cab for a ride to the closest motel. Once there and settled, she could call Stewart.
Her heart fluttered at the thought of telling him she was pregnant. Stewart had always talked about wanting a baby, and how she’d make a great mother. Before he left Millington nearly a year ago—and her—they had tried for a baby.
After a few months of trying, he had turned to her one night. “I guess I just can’t have kids.”
“Maybe, it’s me,” she had said back.
“No, honey, you ain’t the only one. I’ve tried knockin’ up every girl I’ve ever been with. I want a baby. Lots of ‘em.”
Heather had laid in bed that night, biting her nails, and praying to Jesus—begging for a fertile womb.
The cabbie pulled up, and Heather ran outside, ducking the rain.
“Haven’t ever seen it rain like this. You?” The cabbie asked, raising folds of skin on her forehead.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Climate Change,” she said, lighting a cigarette.
Heather looked out the window, not knowing what the woman meant.
“Nearest motel, right?”
“So whatcha’ here for?”
“I’m here to see a friend. A good friend.” Heather pulled her purse to her chest.
The woman, late 30’s, dressed in army fatigue, grinned. “A man?”
Heather blushed. “Yes.”
“Why ain’t this man picking you up, instead of me?” The cabbie asked, eyeing Heather from the mirror.
“Well, he doesn’t know I’m here. It’s a surprise.”
“Look, how old are you, anyhow?”
“Some men are pigs. You know, I shouldn’t say that and insult the pig. Many men are what people think pigs are.”
Heather looked out the window, her hands clasped around her purse. “It’s really raining hard,” Heather said, not wanting the woman to feel ignored.
“Global Warming, darling. These storms are just gonna get way worse, you know?”
“You bet your bottom dollar they are. This whole planet is fucked.” The woman slammed one of her hands on the dashboard. “Agriculture, that’s when it all started. That’s when humanity took a road they never should’ve taken.”
“Agriculture?” Heather asked.
“Yep. That’s where it all went to shit.”
Heather looked out the window again and remained silent until the cabbie turned into a small motel. It had a green roof and at the entrance two large pots with dying marigolds in them; too much rain had rotted their roots.
“Closest motel, Marigold Inn. Decent place, really. Bathtubs, even. Six bucks and ninety cents for the ride.”
Heather handed crumpled money over from her pink owl purse. “Thank you.”
“Hey look, don’t let that sociopath push you around,” the cabbie said, putting the money in a small pink purse shaped like an owl.
Heather walked away, stunned. There was that word again.
She had heard it before on TV, about serial killers, but Stewart had never killed anyone.
Inside, she felt like a new woman, taking wet clothes off, sliding into a steamy tub of water. She had neatly packed her makeup bag to include a bath ball. She got a set of them from her stepmother for Christmas last year. This was the last one. She loved watching them fizz and foam, making the water smell like lavender. She used her hands to skim the oils from the top of the water, and over her belly. Her stomach, just a few months ago, flat as a board now had a small pudge.
She loved it.
She crawled out of the bath and into the creaky bed. It smelled of a mixture of mold, and cheap perfume. A clock next to the bed read 8:02 A.M. She would sleep for a few hours and then call him, she thought. She knew he worked until late afternoons on most days. Holding the small roundness of her belly, she thought of his face lighting up when she told him, and with this, she dozed into the kind of sleep that peace brings.
Suddenly, a rapid knock came at the door, jolting her awake. She jumped up, heart racing. She ran to lock the door.
“How did I forget to lock the door?” She looked from the peephole to see an empty parking lot and a Popeye’s restaurant across the way. The heavy rain had finally stopped, but the hot wind was going berserk, and she watched it kick up debris, tossing it around violently. It was the weather, the world’s deteriorating weather, knocking at her door, refusing to be ignored.
She turned back to the clock. Her chest tightened. She took the yellow phone in her hand.
“Clay’s AC, how can we help, ya?”
She recognized the voice. It was Carol, Clay’s wife. Stewart had talked a blue streak about her, said she used to be a police officer, but quit her job to answer the phone for the shop after her lupus got bad.
“Is Stewart there?”
“He’s at lunch, baby.”
“Okay, can you tell him to please call The Marigold Inn, Room #122 when he gets back?”
Heather paced the room in hasty breaths. She got dressed, putting on a pink skirt, and a white top. It was the only outfit she owned other than a pair of jeans, an old High School T-Shirt, and her work uniforms. She stared at the clock and then the phone and back to the clock that ticked time in a lazy stroll.
“Clay’s AC, how can we help, ya’?” Carol answered.
“Hi. Is Stewart there?”
“Honey, he’s gone for the day.”
“Uhm…did you give—”
The phone clicked. She called Connie. No answer. She called his best friend, who said he hadn’t seen Stewart in a week. She called Connie again. No answer. It was now past nine o’clock before the phone rang.
She answered on the first ring. “Hello? Stewart?” Heather gasped.
“It’s Connie. I saw this number on my call back—who’s this?”
“Connie, it’s me, Heather. Is Stewart around?”
“Don’t tell me you’re in Hattiesburg?”
Heather felt a lump in her throat. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Damn, girl. Why?” Connie whined in pity. “Does Stewart know this?”
“Yes…he told me to come. Do you know where’s he at? I’m at the Marigold Inn.”
“You know he comes and goes. If I see him, you know I’ll tell him.”
“Look out for yourself, O.K?”
The phone clicked, and Heather pulled the Gideon’s Bible out of the little drawer next to the bed. She wrote on the front page, Where’s Stewart? On the back she wrote, Heather Montley three times. Montley was Stewart’s last name.
Sleep came in intervals, moments of slumber ripped by more elusive knocks at the door. Giving up, too afraid to sleep, she sat up in bed. Her eyes, heavy and worn, hung on the flimsy door and its pathetic lock. She cried softly, repeating Stewart’s name. She had called him almost every other day from home, and could reach him, and now, he was like a ghost. The unfairness of it gnawed her insides.
She held onto the hope that he would be at work tomorrow. “Payday. He’ll show up for payday,” she muttered to herself.
An oriental man wearing wide rimmed glasses honked his horn outside her room.
Heather patted her pocket for the motel key. “Must be my ride.”
She was taking a chance, using her food money for the ride to Clay’s and back.
The small man did not speak except to say, “You have arrived,” as they pulled into the lot. A sign reading, Clay’s Air Conditioning, written in blue block letters, hung over an old building.
“Please wait for me,” she told the cabbie, who nodded.
Carol smiled as Heather walked inside, a bell clanking on the door. Carol wore a too-tight red dress, and a bleached blonde wig. She remained seated in a dingy wood- paneled room—at a neat but cluttered desk. An owl clock hooted from the wall by slinging it’s neck out.
Heather felt her hands break a sweat. “I’m Heather…Stewart’s friend. I really hate to be a bother, but I really need to see him.”
The phone rang, and Carol, who looked nothing like Heather had imagined, put one finger in the air, politely. A door to the warehouse opened, and a young man walked in, dressed in blue coveralls. He handed Carol a piece of paper before turning back to the warehouse.
Carol hung up the phone. “Hey Mike.”
Mike turned around on his heels, putting two hands up, imitating a gun duel. “What’s up?”
Carol smiled at the antics. Heather stood stiffly.
“Do you know what’s going on with Stewart?”
Mike looked at Heather, then back to Carol. “He’s…Man, I don’t know. He was supposed to come in today, but I haven’t seen him.”
“I know that, Mike,” Carol said, annoyed. “But why, what’s going on with him?”
“You’d have to ask your husband. I think the guy should be fired. If any of us pulled the shit he was pulling—half-ass showing up, we’d be fired.”
Carol crossed her arms in front of her, tapping long red nails on her arms. “I’ll take care of it.”
Mike stood until Carol waved him back to work.
“I don’t know where he’s at, sweetheart. I’m sorry.”
Heather sighed deeply, trying to hold back tears. “Thank you.”
The cabbie honked and Heather pushed and held the door open with her back. Carol stood up quickly, hustling to the doorway to yell at the cabbie. “Hey, give us a damn minute, will ya?”
“That cab’s gonna leave me. I gotta go.”
The phone rang again. Carol walked over and picked it up, then slammed it down without a word. “Do you want me to pass him a message? I can do that.”
Heather looked down, shifting her eyes between Carol and the cabbie. The cabbie honked again. “Tell him he has a baby coming.”
Heather walked outside, climbing in the cab. Carol followed behind her, lighting a cigarette; to Heather she resembled Marilyn Monroe–if Monroe had been given the time to age.
Carol called out, with one hand on her hip. “He got me too.”
Heather rolled down the window as the cabbie drove off, wanting to ask what she meant, but Carol grew smaller, blowing smoke rings.
Lying on the motel bed, Heather felt her stomach gnawing with acute hunger. It was late afternoon, and her hope of seeing Stewart hung only by cheap threads. Stomach growling and nervy, her mind took to flights of fantasy, imagining Stewart knocking on the door with a bucket of chicken from Popeye’s. She imagined them eating and laughing; her earlier fantasies of lovemaking had evolved into eating.
By midnight, her hunger was so intense that she felt dizzy. She tore the room up looking for anything to eat, finding only a few packets of sugar next to a packet of coffee, and one coffee mug. She blended hot water with the sugar, drinking it.
She called Connie one more time, just to see if he’d answer, but Clyde answered, “Now, who in the tarnation is callin’ in the middle of the night?”
Heather hung up without a whisper, lying back on the bed. Tears rolled from her cheeks, streaking makeup carefully applied from earlier that day.
“Just like last time” she said, monotone, staring at the ceiling fan, covered in inches of dust. “Like last time. No, worse: at least last time, you showed up for a few hours,” she said, gritting her teeth.
The same cabbie who had picked her up from the station sat outside.
“Headed back home already?” The cabbie asked, as Heather crawled in the car, dizzy and disorientated.
“Hey, you okay? You look paler than a sheet.”
“No, you ain’t. What’s wrong with you? You need to go to the hospital?”
“No. No. I’m just so hungry. I’m pregnant and just really hungry. I haven’t eaten in a while.”
“What? Honey, why haven’t you eaten anything?” Look, never mind. Here, let’s go to this Popeye’s, and get you some breakfast. You like Popeye’s?”
“I only have a few dollars and I need it to get to the station.”
“Put your money up,” she said, jerking the cab around to the drive-thru window of Popeye’s. She asked what Heather wanted, ordered it upsized, adding an apple turnover.
“Eat it up, baby girl. All of it. You’re feeding two,” the cabbie said, handing Heather the food.
Heather ate as hot tears came.
The cabbie reached around, dotting her eyes with a napkin. “That bastard told you to get an abortion, didn’t he?”
Heather, full sobs now, talked with her mouth full. “He never even came to see me. Just ducked and dodged my calls.”
“Oh, honey, you’ve just been sittin’ alone at that damn motel starvin’ haven’t you? Well, let’s get you back on that bus and home. And then get yourself in college. How old are you again, anyways?”
“What would you like to do? A teacher? A vet? What?”
Heather looked out the window. No one had really asked her this question. She knew what she wanted to be but had been too afraid to tell anyone. She used to tell people when she was younger, but they’d just laugh. She even told Stewart once. He had said, “Yeah, okay. Baby, that’ll be the day.”
Heather sipped the last of her orange juice, hearing bubbles in the straw. “I always wanted to be a librarian—I just love the smell of new books, and old ones too.”
The cabbie smiled. “You’d make a great librarian! You’re young. Get a grant. A Pell grant from your local university and sign up for classes—after the baby is born, of course—if you keep the baby. You don’t have to keep the baby, you know? Look, there’s nothing stopping you, darling…well except for climate change, but hey, it’ll be at least twenty years before it gets real bad. Okay?”
At the bus station, the cabbie told her, “I wish you luck. All the luck the universe can afford to offer.”
Heather turned back. “Thank you. Thank you so much…for the food and everything.” The Cabbie waved, with a smile showing good teeth, and it was then that Heather noticed a small mood ring on the woman’s left pinky finger; same as the one she wore.
“Oh,” she said, looking down to her own hand to take note of it. It was there, now a deep green, which meant Peace. When she looked up, she noticed the cabbie looked a lot like her—only older.
“Oh,” she said again, moving her hand to her mouth, about to speak, but the cabbie drove off, leaving Heather standing with her mouth shaped like a cheerio.
On the bus, Heather sat in the window seat. Outside giant storm clouds were colliding in a sinister gray across the sky. “More rain?” Heather whispered when a girl about her age sat next to her. Heather took in the girl’s deep-set eyes. “Hey, what’s global warming?”
The girl shrugged her shoulders and said, “I dunno,” before putting headphones in her ear. Heather looked down at her hands, clasped. She opened them, laying them flat on her knees, making her mind to go to the library when she got home.
I can find the answers myself, she knew.