Leona in a Yellow Dress by the River
At the bus station the Latinos were denied entry. They were blind drunk. The woman behind the counter shouted at them in English: they would have to return tomorrow. Ron Belew, with his arms folded across his chest, watched their departure, relieved that he would not have to ride with them all the way to Georgia. Seated beside Ron was a young girl who was perhaps sixteen years of age, and Ron had been thinking for some time, perhaps the entirety of the ten minutes preceding the eviction of the Latinos, of what he might say to her to start a conversation. To sit side by side in silence was a grim prospect when his heart was bursting for his own departure, and he yearned for another soul with whom to share his joy at leaving Moth Mound, North Carolina behind. At last, while watching the Latinos shuffle away from the door, he had it: a conversation starter, and although he was aware that it cast him in a particular kind of bad light, he still said, “I almost got a DUI once. I wasn’t drunk. I mean, ‘driving while black,’ you know. There was some Mexicans at the station just like these guys—drunk, rowdy. I used to get drunk like this—in the morning. In college. I’m not an alcoholic.”
The girl nodded and removed a book from her bag.
Ron sighed and leaned farther back. He sat at the end of a row of uncomfortable plastic chairs that were colored blue like the sky, or blue like feeling good and getting on your way into a bright blue future. Where he’d come from bore too much the color of disappointment, of sadness, and he wanted that blue, that airy calm within the secret stillness of the chairs, to fill him up and carry him away. He looked again at the girl who was now hunched over her book, its cover hidden by her knees, her elbows tucked into her sides. She was white, the only white girl in the place. There was also a white man talking loudly into a phone. He was foreign, with a strange nasal accent, and he had no luggage; he was waiting for someone. The girl, however—her canvas bag was tucked between her feet; she waited for the Greyhound. Ron decided that she would not have been pretty if she hadn’t been so young, just as he might have been handsome if he hadn’t been so poor. As it was, his frame was too small for his polyester suit, which had been cut for a man of a greater girth and bought at a discount. The girl wore poor clothes as well—her short denim skirt and the outline of her pink brassiere beneath a lilac patterned blouse recalled double-wide trailers, frenzied dogs, and half-drunk cans of beers into which cigarettes have been extinguished. However, her smooth skin, bland half-bored expression, and straight white teeth suggested affluence. Her nose looked like it had once been broken and her eyes were dopey, brown, and thickly outlined in black. Altogether she conveyed an incongruence that Ron found unappealing. He shifted in his chair and glanced down at the open book that rested on her knees. He squinted and brought into focus the words “softly” and “turgid” before they finally dissolved into an gray haze. He would not reach into his bag for his glasses. Instead, he asked her, “What’re you reading?”
“It’s for class,” she said.
“Yep.” She nodded and grinned a little at the book.
“I bet it is,” he said and winked, but she did not catch it, and if she did, it didn’t register. After another moment had passed, he said, “Good for you. School’s important. You just keep up with all that reading.” He chuckled. He wondered briefly whether she thought he looked homeless and if that would account for her failure to engage in a little friendly conversation, when it occurred to him that until he got to Savannah, he was homeless. Early that morning he had packed what he could into a black canvas duffel bag that rested on the tile floor in front of his feet. With this bag he waited for the 9:50, his ticket one way.
When Ron Belew thought of misfortune, as he often did, he assumed that when things get really bad one evacuates oneself—like being cut out of a film. Life cuts to black. The story picks up with ones friends weeping in a morgue or hospital corridor. He had known some people who had gotten shot, and when he thought of them, as he often did, he could not imagine that they were actually present in their bodies at the moment the bullet pierced them. Rather, they must have evacuated existence just before. For example, Mrs. Womble, a friend of his mother’s, had rented a room to a sex offender from Maryland. They had some kind of altercation—maybe over money. He raised a gun. She raised her hand to shield her face; the bullet went through both. Cut to her car on fire. Cut to her obituary clipped from the Moth Mound Chronicle by Ron’s mother.
Ron was surprised, then, when everything did not cut to black as the bus came up upon some blunt, screaming force that propelled him into the aisle. Nor did it cut to black as Ron grasped and clung to the nearest armrest while the bus careened across the highway and into the median. It occurred to him after a moment, when the bus had become inert and quiet, that his palm was cut, although not very deeply, and he was bleeding, so he was alive, so of course everything had not cut to black. He stood up. The light in the bus was dusky, the air heavy with whispers. Another man who had been knocked into the aisle righted himself and removed a cell phone from his trouser pocket. At the front, the portly, uniformed driver cursed and shouted up the aisle, “Are y’all alright? Anybody hurt?”
“Naw,” they all said. Not really. Not badly. Just shaken up real good. The cries of a child came from the rear, followed by a harsh, “Hush.” The driver opened the door and exited. Ron followed.
Across the highway a green Volkswagen had warped the guardrail and come to rest several yards further up. The driver of that vehicle stood beside it on the phone. The tall timothy grass in the median, the evening sun’s reddening descent, the slate colored highway extending north and south from where Ron stood taking in the bus’s damaged right flank, and the soft fat bumble bees in the clover all struck Ron as incredibly sinister. The Volkswagen’s driver hung up his phone and wailed.
“Can I get into my bag?” Ron asked the driver.
The bus driver assented and opened the luggage compartment. Ron found his bag near the back. When he emerged and looked for the bus driver to ask the time, he saw that he had gone to the other side of the highway, where he stood with clenched fists, shouting at the other driver. Ron shouldered his bag, crossed the road, passed the two men arguing by the dented Volkswagen, and kept walking. He walked southwards over the flat land, just off the highway, just in the pines where the soil was firm, before it fell away into the swamp. After a few minutes he realized the duffel bag he carried was not his own—it was nicer than his. This one had a leather luggage tag attached to its canvas handles and it belonged to a Lee Brown. Ron Belew kept walking.
When he had walked about a mile he noticed that he was being followed. There was little traffic at that time of day and in the silent intervals between the passing of the cars he could hear footsteps, short hushed footsteps, in the pine straw behind him. He looked back over his shoulder and recognized the young girl from the station coming up on him fast with her bag slung over her shoulder and her crooked nose down. Her hair was as long and as dark as the trees. The western light fell gold and pink across her face and there were fireflies coming up all around her. He wanted to freeze her in that moment.
“This ain’t your bag, is it?” he shouted back to her. “Are you Lee Brown?”
“No,” she said. “I’m Leona Bixby. I’ve got my bag.” She hefted it forward to show him and said, “Isn’t Lee a boy’s name?”
“I don’t know.” He held out the bag he carried and thumped it with the back of his hand. “I don’t know whose this is.”
“Why do you have it, then?”
“I thought it was mine.”
She had almost passed him. She moved fast on her short little legs, and he thought it was cute, the way she scurried through the woods. “Where’re you going?” he said.
“To the next exit.” She was beside him now. They walked side by side.
“You got plans up there or something?”
She shrugged her shoulders and drew the strap of her bag nearer to her neck. “I don’t know. I’ll get my boyfriend to come out and meet me.” And with that she passed him and moved away into the gloom.
The next exit was three miles up from where the bus had wrecked. Ron walked it in fifty-five minutes. He had no place to go, so he took his time. He whistled and swaggered and smoked a Camel menthol that he found in the bag’s side pocket. He tore a strip of fabric from his white undershirt and bound his hand. As he approached the off-ramp he saw under the streetlights the girl from the bus now walking slowly, as if in her sleep. As he walked nearer, she appeared to halt and he wondered whether it was the gaunt light that deceived him, or if she had indeed ceased to move. Finally, he saw that she had stopped beside a telephone pole.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “You lost?”
She turned to look at him. Her eye makeup had run down her cheeks, which shone in the lamplight with soot-colored tears. She said, “I left my phone on the bus. It must have fallen out of my bag when…” She scrunched up her face. Her lower lip quivered.
She was young, for sure, much younger than college. She gave him a headache. “How old are you?” he said. “And why on earth didn’t you call your people before you took off up the highway?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. I feel like an idiot. Anyway, whatever, I’m twenty.”
“Well you don’t look twenty. And Leona Bixby—that’s your name, right—look, bawling on the roadside ain’t acting twenty.”
“Well, I am.”
Every place was closed except for a Waffle House and a twenty-four hour 7-Eleven service station. As they walked past the 7-Eleven on their way to find a payphone, she asked if he would buy her a beer. “I’ll give you my bra,” she said. “If you buy me a forty.”
“I don’t want your bra,” he said.
“I traded my bra for a hotdog once. Those guys wanted my bra.”
“How much did that bra cost you?”
“I don’t know, ten bucks for that one maybe.”
“And how much is a hotdog?” he said. “Like, two?”
“I didn’t have any cash,” she said. “I was hungry. Come on, man, please just buy me a beer. It won’t be like you’re really buying it. I’ll give you money for it.”
“Leona Bixby, if you really are in college, you need to look into one of those logic classes. Look, I don’t want your bra, and I don’t want to buy you a beer. Now drop it.”
She jumped into his path and threw up her arms. “Aw, come on, man. Today’s been fucking brutal.”
Ron sighed. “You don’t know what brutal is. Today wasn’t brutal. Today was inconvenient.”
If she blushed, it was washed out by the gas station’s bald fluorescence. She said, “Okay. Okay. But, I would really, really appreciate it if you would please just buy me a beer. I mean, really. Please.”
He did not respond. Leona snuffled and wiped her nose and her eyes for the duration of the walk. When they reached the payphone on the far side of the Waffle House’s dark parking lot he said, “Look. I’m gonna call my sister. If you don’t have another way out of here, we can give you a ride and get you situated in Savannah. After I call her, I’m going to go sit in there and have something to eat. You might want to do the same. Afterwards, I will consider buying you a beer, but you have got to promise me you will keep your mouth shut about it because I don’t need some legal action brought against me for buying underage girls alcohol. I got enough shit to deal with.”
Leona brightened and said, “Yes, yes! I’ll keep it to myself, I swear. I would really appreciate it. I would be so grateful for a ride, too. Thank you so much for being so nice.”
“Alright,” Ron said. He lifted the receiver, dropped two quarters into the coin slot, and dialed his sister’s number. Her son answered. “Mom’s at work,” he said. “Dad’s at a conference.”
Ron would have to wait until morning for a ride. He explained the situation to Leona. “My sister’s a junior doctor. She works in the ER. Her husband is out of town. Right now, we are stranded.”
“Well,” she said, chewing her lip. “Okay then.”
At the diner they sat at the counter so that they wouldn’t have to face each other, and they watched the pock-marked pigtailed waitress drift between the soda fountain and the grill. Ron wore a silver bracelet on his left wrist and turned it round and round while they waited for their food; he’d ordered hash-browns all the way, and she’d ordered raisin toast, eggs, and grits. In the bathroom, he’d cleaned up his hand and wrapped it with toilet paper. Leona looked at it and asked if he was okay. She had corrected her makeup and in the sallow light of the diner her skin took on an orange cast. She told him about school and how she still hadn’t picked a major. She said that she worked at Snoot’s department store at the mall in Moth Mound and she hated that it ate up all of her spare time. She told him that she had asked for the weekend off so that she could visit her boyfriend, who was in college in Savannah.
Ron told Leona that he’d quit his job at a call center. He did not specify which one. (It was Duke Power.) He told her that he’d sold everything he had, including his car, to make even with his bills, and that he was moving down to live with his sister while he sorted everything out. Which was the truth, in a sense, though not all of it.
“It’s not so bad,” he said. “I didn’t want to work at the call center—I have a masters in Communication. But, you get sucked into those things because you’ve got no time, less money, and too many obligations.” He squinted at the waffle irons and considered the obligations he no longer had. “Savannah will be good,” he concluded. “I can be myself there. I can use my degree.” He did not tell her about his daughter, his divorce, or his ex-husband. About that brutality. And how he was no longer welcome in his home.
Beside him Leona was shredding a paper napkin into an ashtray and staring away out the window. She turned back to face him, and again looked at his hand. “Why didn’t you stay by the bus?” she said.
Ron tapped his chin with his index finger. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really couldn’t tell you other than I got antsy. I’d rather move toward something than wait.”
She made a small noise that indicated her correspondent desire. As they ate, Leona wondered aloud whether the bus was still wrecked, and if it was too late to go back for her phone. She decided that it probably was. She turned and looked out the window for a minute, and he turned and looked out the window as well, for he had finished eating and did not know what to say. He was stranded. The light from the streetlamps was orange and filled with insects. He regretted that she was so young.
“What’ll you do tonight?” he said. “Do you have another way to get to Savannah?”
“I don’t know.” She took a meager bite of egg and Ron thought he had never seen anyone eat so slowly. She chewed, swallowed, and said, “What are you going to do? Do you have another way to get to Savannah?”
“No,” he said. “I guess I have to wait.”
“I can’t call my parents,” she said. “I don’t really want to hitch a ride. I guess I could get a motel room?”
Leona asked the waitress whether there was a motel nearby. Ron felt the waitress’s eyes fall upon him and he said, “It’s just for her. We’re not together. We were on a bus. It wrecked. We’re stranded.”
“Right,” said the pock-marked waitress slowly. She told them they would find a motel down the road a ways, on the other side of the highway overpass. Ron thanked her and paid his bill and told Leona he would meet her outside.
He smoked another cigarette while he waited for her to finish eating and to pay. He had quit smoking five years prior, at the age of twenty-six. Leona exited the Waffle House and asked Ron for a cigarette. He handed her one from the pack. “I’m going to that motel,” she said. “Do you want to share a room?”
Ron looked at Leona, her heavy makeup, her sheer blouse, her short legs, her shorter skirt. She looks like an underage prostitute, he thought. The waitress stared blankly at them from the other side of the empty restaurant’s large windows. “I don’t know about sharing a room,” he said. “We should think about getting a move on, though.”
As Ron walked with Leona towards the motel, she asked again if he would buy her a beer. He said, yes, he would, but he’d see that she got a room first. “I don’t want to be rolling up to some country-fried motel with a case of beer and some young thing. It would look bad.”
“Fair enough,” said Leona. “We really should share a room, though. I mean, it would be a lot cheaper.”
They stopped in the motel’s inadequately lighted parking lot and Leona sat down on a curb beside an old sedan. She parted her knees and looked up at him. She asked again whether he’d share a room. Ron looked towards the office. The motel was undergoing renovations—a heap of gravel and crumbling concrete took up a parking space near the office’s door. It had been renamed as well. It had been renamed as well, and a new vinyl sign was licked over the old plastic one such that, illuminated from behind, both epithets were visible. Ron said, “You’re persistent. You don’t know anything about me—it’s weird to share a motel room with a stranger. Or, are you trying to play me?”
“No,” she said. She leaned over her bare knees and hugged them. “You seem pretty decent to me.”
“Ted Bundy seemed pretty decent.”
Leona perked up. “Do you like to watch crime shows?”
Ron crossed his arms. “No.”
“Neither do I.” Leona slumped down again over her knees. Ron could see only one of her eyes—the other was hidden by her hair. “I wish you’d stay with me,” she said. “I’ve never stayed in a motel room alone at night and this place is totally creeping me out. Please.”
Ron studied the parking lot—four cars altogether, one tabby cat skulking near the gutter, one flickering streetlamp by the road, not another human in sight, but for Leona in a miniskirt on the curb, acting manipulative as hell, and pleading with him to stay. “Alright,” he said. “You book the room. I’ll meet you by the ice machine.”
When she returned from the office, she handed Ron a key. “I’ve always secretly wanted to stay someplace like this,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like just to leave your life and get started up someplace new, someplace like this, right off the highway.”
Ron laughed at the bitter irony of that sentiment and followed her into the room. He tossed Lee Brown’s bag down and said, “That is not at all what you said. You just said you were so scared. Indeed, this girl could not stay here alone on account of her scaredness.”
Leona dumped her bag on a wooden captain’s chair in the corner by the window.
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. Just because it creeps me out doesn’t mean I’m not also secretly attracted to it. I might get to like it here. I don’t know.”
“You wouldn’t like it,” he said. “It would be like being poor.”
Leona flopped down on the bed. “How would you know?” She bounced slightly, rolled over onto her stomach, and propped her chin up with her hands.
“How do I know you wouldn’t like being poor? Well, for one thing, you look like you’ve got nothing better to do than look beautiful, and you’ve got the time to spend on it.” Ron had not meant to say that.
She grinned. “You think I’m beautiful.”
Ron moved her bag out of the captain’s chair and placed it on the Formica side table. He took a seat and said, “No, like I said, you’ve got the time to spend on it, and you wouldn’t want to lose that, which you would if you were poor. The time and money it takes to look good.” He almost said something else, but he stopped himself in time. He looked at her reflection in the mirror above the dresser. She lolled on the bed, a bright glowing writhing soft thing on the faded comforter. His stomach turned as he realized she had awoken within him a dream of romance. She kicked her legs up and crossed them at the ankles. Her calves looked as smooth as butter. He saw in her a vision of cookout days and clear lake water, of terrycloth summer dresses, and the torpid nights of his girlhood. He wondered did she smell like sun-warm asphalt and the night wind breathing through the window screen? Did she taste like cherry flavored tobacco? Did she feel like drying off in the shade? Leona rolled over on the bed, sat up, and yawned.
“Do you still want that beer?” he asked.