I Met a Man

SouthernFiction

words: Marla Cantrell

A Greyhound bus stopped right in front of me, and the first passenger out was a man wearing a Fedora, and he tipped his hat at me. I looked at him but didn’t smile.

What Blondie has seen in Olivia, from the day her granddaughter was born, is a light that seeps from her skin, that whips across her face when she’s laughing, that radiates when Olivia’s deep in thought. Blondie understands that she alone sees this. She tried to explain it to her sister, Molene, once when they were having dinner at Cracker Barrel, the two of them eating off the children’s menu—they had both been on diets (again)—but Molene had taken a child-sized bite of her child-sized burger, and had said, “You used to say Jelly Bean glowed, Blondie. And Jelly Bean was just a regular old hound dog, and Olivia is just a regular old girl, no lighter or brighter than the rest of us.”

 

Blondie had said, “Oh, Mo. Don’t say that,” and her sister had shrugged suddenly, the way she had a thousand other times, dismissing Blondie with that one sharp movement. When Blondie had left the restaurant, she’d stopped at Braum’s and ordered a hot fudge sundae and a root beer float.

 

Blondie is thinking about that conversation as she drives to pick up Olivia. The girl is sixteen years old, so close to adulthood it makes Blondie’s heart buckle. They are going to Eureka Springs, just the two of them. Blondie saved up for it, nickel by nickel from her job at the dog shelter, and then her income tax return came back, all twelve-hundred dollars of it, and she let out a whoop as she opened the check by her mailbox in front of her house on Prospect Avenue.

 

When Blondie honks, Olivia comes out the back door of her blue house, her overnight bag slung over her shoulder, her long brown hair lifting as she runs toward the car. Olivia is jiggy with light, and Blondie raises her hand above her brow to block the shine of her.

 

When Olivia tells a story, she always starts toward the middle. “So, you know about Kevin,” she says, and Blondie nods her head yes even though she doesn’t remember ever hearing his name before. “Well he’s in trouble because Mr. Miller turned on him, you know? Just got all up in his face last Tuesday over absolutely nothing, in my opinion, and what could Kevin do? What could Kevin do but get right back at him? But he didn’t punch Mr. Miller or anything, just told him to back off, which is what I would have done, just so you know, and anyway, Kevin might get kicked out of his AP classes, which would be awful since I’m in love with him and I sit beside him in AP World History. I just keep thinking there must be something I can do.”

 

Blondie hasn’t a clue what AP is, but she doesn’t let on.  And she doesn’t know what to say to Olivia, who’s already smarter than she is. She feels the tension grow in her shoulders, in her neck, and then says, “I feel like God’s own fool about half the time, honey, so I don’t know if I can help. But I do know that sassing a teacher is not the right thing to do. Sometimes you got to respect the office even when you don’t respect the politician holding it.”

 

Olivia frowns and Blondie wishes she could take every word back. She doesn’t like disagreeing with her granddaughter, who seems to her a thing made of gossamer and spun sugar, so ethereal she appears out of place here in the hills of Arkansas, like a movie star dropped unexpectedly behind the counter at Mickey D’s.

 

“I think you’re mixing your metaphors, Gigi,” she says. “Teachers aren’t elected. Nobody would elect Mr. Miller to anything.”

 

Blondie is thinking of Donald Trump, who started out as a joke and now has the White House in his sights. She is not a Republican, the only one in her family who is not. At Sunday dinners, they ask her what the liberals think. She tells them every time, “I’ll ask the first one I see.” Her sister Molene usually says, “Let me get you a mirror.”

 

Blondie drives the rambling roads to Eureka, through cities that give way to small towns, that give way to miles where there is breathing room between houses, long stretches where the eye roams from green grass to green hills to blue sky with clouds that look like bearded old men lounging.

 

It is weeks past Easter, but there’s a fat concrete bunny, five feet tall, in one of the yards they pass. It is standing upright, wearing pink shorts and an orange polka-dot shirt. It is smiling the way clowns do, as if it might rip you in two if it got the chance. The bunny has been here for all long as Blondie can remember, for fifty years at least, and she realizes today that someone must be repainting the thing, over and over, since the colors are always bright. She wonders why. After a minute, she says, “I have no idea why anybody does any dang thing. No idea at all.”

 

And instead of Olivia asking what she’s talking about, the girl says, “Neither do I.”

 

The old Impala shimmies as it climbs the final hill into Eureka Springs. They check into their room—Blondie has splurged this time, buying tickets to see a magic show, booking a suite at the Crescent. She likes all that dark wood, all that velvet furniture, the balconies that overlook the glory of the city. When she leaves in two days, her income tax money will be gone, all those nickels and dimes she saved gone. “That’s all right,” she says, and Olivia looks up from her Smartphone, from its small screen that connects her to, well, everything, and says, “It’s more than all right.”

 

After dinner, they drive the few blocks to town. Blondie maneuvers the Impala into a tight space, parallel parking, something she’s proud she can do. She and Olivia get out, start walking up the steep streets. Blondie’s knees hurt, so she keeps stopping, as if she’s overcome by the view: a Victorian house with a good porch, a man with red hair that is a waterfall across his shoulders, the daffodils and tulips that seem to be blooming everywhere.

 

When she was the age Olivia is now, she met a man. That’s the way every one of her stories start, she thinks. I met a man. He’d stepped off the bus and tipped his hat. Olivia felt singled out by that move, sanctified, chosen. “Men don’t wear hats like they used to,” Blondie says, and Olivia stops texting long enough to say, “Kevin wears a driving cap,” and Blondie smiles before she says, “It’s not the same thing.”

 

The man’s name was Cade. He was a dozen years older than Blondie. He had a dimple that showed when he smiled. He had storm clouds that formed in his gray eyes when he got mad. He didn’t believe in much, he told her, but he believed she was the one who would change his luck.

 

Cade’s luck did not change, no matter what Blondie did. She remembers the back of his coat when he hopped another bus, this one to Culver City, California, two months later. There was a tear along the seam of that overcoat. There was a stain along the hem. He kept his hat on as he turned to look at her one last time.

 

“Gigi!” Olivia says, suddenly. “Hello!” And Blondie realizes her granddaughter’s been watching. “Are you OK?” she asks, and Blondie reaches out to touch Olivia’s silky hair.

 

“Fell into a rabbit hole,” Blondie says. “I seem to do that more and more these days.”

 

“Tell me where you were,” Olivia says, and then taps her temple with one slender finger. “I mean, up there, in your head.”

 

And Blondie says, “I was in Fort Smith, down on Garrison Avenue in front of Hunt’s Department Store, and I was wearing a purple dress with a neat waist, and my hair was pinned up. I was your age, but I looked twenty, or at least eighteen.” Blondie smiles then. “I had on black heels, and I had a pack of cigarettes in my purse that I’d never opened and never would.

 

“A Greyhound bus stopped right in front of me, and the first passenger out was a man wearing a Fedora, and he tipped his hat at me. I looked at him but didn’t smile. I was practicing being what my friends called sultry, and I think that’s what made him come over to me. Smiles he got every day, I suspect. But I was something else.”

 

A trolley comes by just as Blondie is saying this, and the driver blows the whistle, but Olivia waves him on. “And then what happened?” she asks.

 

Blondie considers candy-coating the whole thing but then she decides to tell the truth. “We started seeing each other all the time, and I started missing school to do it. He was staying at a hotel downtown, and I’d meet him in the lobby. We ended up in a bar once, me drinking for the first time, me getting sick from it for the first time.

 

“I would have married him if he’d have asked me too. But he didn’t want marriage. He’d already gotten what he wanted,” Blondie says, and then waits for this to register. Olivia’s skin is darker than Blondie’s—she always looks as if she’s come from a day at the beach—but still Blondie can see her blush.

 

“Gigi!” she says.

 

“It was so long ago; I can’t even remember the name of the bar we went to. But, sometimes, when I’m working at the shelter, when there’s a dog that can’t be calmed down, I remember how I felt when that Greyhound bus pulled away with Cade on it. I know how those unlucky dogs feel, afraid and alone and maybe a little bit mad they ended up where they did.”

 

Blondie and Olivia have made it to Basin Spring Park by then, the downtown treasure with a bandstand, with benches where a least a dozen people are sitting. Blondie plops down, her legs and heart equally tired, and watches as three teenage boys stare openly at Olivia. The sight makes her want to shoo them away. The sight of them makes her feel every one of her sixty-seven years.

 

Olivia sits beside Blondie. She is twisting her long hair into a braid, something she does, Blondie knows, when she’s nervous. “I don’t know why I told you all that,” she says, and Olivia reaches over and touches Blondie’s hand.

 

“You told me because you and me are alike,” Olivia says.

 

“Do you really love Kevin?” Blondie asks, and Olivia says, “I’m afraid I do.”

 

Blondie sighs. Love is a crapshoot at best, but Olivia doesn’t know it yet. The girl is shimmering beside her, her light a thing of wonder. Blondie reaches out to catch some of it, to put it in her pocketbook to keep forever. But light is not a thing you can capture. Blondie should know this by now, but still she tries, over and over again, and the sun sets low in the sky, and all the lovely flowers turn to silhouettes.

 

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