by Diane Payne
Southern fiction special: "Hey, I know you ain't
sleeping," she said, nudging Roy. "Everybody gotsa
story to tell, now it's your turn. Ain't every day you
ride a bus and have a listener sittin right next to ya." Read
this wonderful story by Diane Payne. Beautiful slice of
Looking out the window, Shlanda knew her money would be running out and she'd have to get off the bus. Years ago Shlanda lived in McLaurin, but she hadn't been back to Mississippi in sixty years.
"Nothing looks the same no more," Shlanda told her seat mate who pretended to be sleeping, but that didn't stop her from talking. "When I was twelve, we packed up the truck and drove to Chicago searching for a better life. You ever know a better life? I know you ain't sleeping, so talk to me. You ever know a better life?"
"No, not that I can remember," Roy mumbled. "But I'm still hoping."
"Hoping ain't always a bad thing, but it can be if you're not careful. When I was seventeen, I got married and we moved to Nebraska and bought a small farm. Neither of us liked the city. But when farming went bad and we owed too much money, Earl hung himself in our barn."
"Sorry to hear that. Times have been tough on everyone, but I gotta construction job waiting for me in Florida. Want a swig?"
"That does help soothe the soul." Shlanda smiled.
"Gonna quit when I get to Florida. Reason I keep getting fired. I'm gonna join AA again."
"Mind if I have another swig?" she asked, reaching toward the bottle.
"Here, you can have it. Might as well get off the bus sober."
"Sure you don't mind?"
"You're doing me a favor, lady. Take it and don't offer me no more."
Shlanda looked at the bottle, happy to see it was still half full. Something to keep her warm tonight.
"You visiting old relatives?"
"I hope so. Don't know who's still there. Gotta be more family left there than in Chicago."
"Lotsa people don't understand how families disappear, but it happens." Roy sighed.
"You too young to lose family."
"Ain't as young as you think."
"You can't be forty."
"That's right, but I've been roaming so long, figured it's best I let my family think I'm one of those dead homeless men found on the railroad tracks in Tucson."
"You should't let your mama and daddy think you dead when you alive. I've been trying to find my family for two years. Wonder if we still got forty acres and a mule." Shlanda laughed, taking one more swig, knowing she shouldn't because she'd need it more that night. "This sure goes down smooth. Hey, I know you ain't sleeping," she said, nudging Roy. "Everybody gotsa story to tell, now it's your turn. Ain't every day you ride a bus and have a listener sittin right next to ya."
Roy just shook his head and pulled his baseball cap over his eyes. "How old you think I am?"
"Too old to be traveling alone."
"Never too old for that. I always wanted to go to Hawaii but it never happened."
"Where are your kids?"
"Guess the good Lord wasn't so good. We tried, but they didn't happen. We had cows instead. You got kids?"
"Three. Ain't seen 'em in ten years."
"Never too late."
"Sometimes it is," Roy said, reaching for the bottle.
"We're on a journey. We shouldn't be getting all sad thinking about the past. We got a new future ahead of us. You got a job and I'm goin home. I have a strong feeling my sisters will be there waiting for me. Don't know how we ever lost touch with each other. Didn't even call to tell them about Earl. Nobody liked him anyway. Earl was twenty-two years older than me. Never really thought about how much older he was until I found him in the barn. That day he looked tired and old."
Shlanda grabbed the bottle back, and made a little toast. "To the future. Least we got one." She passed it back to Roy for a drink but made sure she kept the bottle in her lap.
"My ride's just about over. Ain't never been in Monticello. Sounds French. Maybe I'll find a good loaf of bread."
"Why you getting off there?"
"Ran out of money. Time to walk."
"You're walking to Mississippi?"
"If I have to."
"Why don't you use my ticket and I'll hitch from Monticello?"
"You a goodhearted man. I'll be fine. People are kinder to old ladies than to young men."
"Probably not in Arkansas. Not sure how safe it is for either of us to get off the bus."
"The South has changed."
"Not enough. How much you need to get home?"
"Damn. I ain't got that much, but I can get it."
"Don't be stealing for me."
"I don't steal. Ain't right."
Roy dug through his duffle bag until he found an envelope. He wrote: "Old lady needs twenty-eight dollars to get ticket home." Then he tapped the man in front of him and passed the note.
"I ain't never begged before," Shalanda whispered.
"And you ain't begging now."
Shlanda looked out the window, embarrassed to see who gave and who didn't.
"Hey," Roy said, tapping Shlanda on the shoulder, "Everybody has a story. How 'bout telling yours?"
While the envelope passed through the bus, Shlanda remembered when times were good, when her family shucked peas on the porch, and her pawpaw smoked his pipe telling story after story. Shlanda told Pawpaw's stories surrounded by a peaceful silence, and passengers remembered their own stories while digging out spare change to stuff in the envelope.
Reach Arkansas writer Diane Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Payne teaches writing at the University of Arkansas-Monticello
and has a novel coming out from Red Hen Press.
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