Leona in a Yellow Dress by the River
He returned after half an hour with two forties of Miller High Life, a toothbrush, mouthwash and a box of band-aids, one of which he had already used to dress his hand. She had taken a shower and was sitting in sweat shorts and a white t-shirt on the bed reading. Her long wet hair was limp around her face. She looked up at him and said, “The water here smells like blood.”
“We’re near the coast.”
“This room is gross. I turned on the fan in the bathroom and it blew dust onto me, and there are all these weird like holes and stains on the sheets. I don’t think they’ve been washed.”
Ron grinned. “I told you that you wouldn’t like it.” He handed her a forty from the bag and dropped the rest beside her. Lee Brown’s duffel bag lay open on the dresser. “Aw hell, Leona,” he said. He removed a crumpled pair of slacks, folded them and placed them on the dresser. “Why’d you do that? It’s not yours to go through.”
“It’s not yours either.” She dog-eared a corner of a page and set the book down on the bedside table. “Weren’t you curious?”
“I was going to return it.”
He was not going to return it. He decided this when he saw how much finer the clothes were than his own, and how nearer his size. He pulled a dress shirt out from the bag and laid it down smooth over the bed. He unbuttoned and removed his own shirt and slipped into the new one, realizing too late that the outline of his sports bra was visible through his undershirt. He turned well away from Leona and hastily buttoned up.
Leona said, “That looks good on you. Are you gonna keep it?”
He frowned. “It’s a good shirt.”
Ron hefted the black canvas duffel bag onto the bed.. Leona opened one of the beers, handed him the other, and together they sifted through Lee Brown’s belongings. They found another pack of cigarettes, a safety razor, an empty packet of headache powder, a bar of orange Dial soap in a plastic sandwich bag, a Sax Rohmer novel, good quality boxer shorts, wool trousers, finely knit trouser socks, a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, a tube of Sensodyne—also wrapped in plastic, and a bottle of Zolpidem, which Leona proclaimed was typically prescribed for insomnia, but customarily abused by certain individuals at her university. She leaned over him to root deeper into the bag. He felt hideously close to her. He could smell the beer on her, and the lingering odor of cheap motel soap. She discovered an inexpensive digital camera folded up in a pair of white athletic socks. Its memory card was blank. They took turns taking pictures of each other doing funny things and drinking beer. They talked about Lee Brown’s rather dated taste in books, his sleep disorder, and whether he ever used shaving cream. After several minutes of banter, Leona got up off the bed and sat down again on Ron’s lap. He put his hand against her back, and she leaned in and kissed him softly on the neck. He exhaled and closed his eyes. “What are you doing?” he said.
“Just what I want.”
“What about your boyfriend?”
“Please stop, Leona.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I don’t know. No. I just said I don’t.” He removed her from his knee and stood up. His palms, he realized, were damp; he had been clenching his fists. “If you don’t have a boyfriend, you mind telling me why you’re going to Savannah?” He wiped his palms against his trousers. He felt lightheaded. “I’ll tell you what I think. You’re a big old liar. You’re sixteen, seventeen maybe, you’ve fought with your parents, and now you’re gonna go meet some internet weirdo. Well, Leona, that’s fine—you do what you want, but leave me out of it. I’m a good person. I don’t do drugs. I pay my dues. I just want a free life.”
She stared over at the window. “I’m not sixteen,” she said. “I really am twenty. I really am in school. I’ll be a junior this fall.” She stood up, pulled her wallet out of her bag, and tossed it to him.
Ron examined her driver’s license and student ID. “Then why do you have to lie about where you’re going?”
“I don’t know,” she said as she sat back down on the bed. “I just didn’t want to tell you. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“So, what—you give me the runaround, trying to give me your bra, telling me you got a boyfriend, then turning around and trying to start something, like it’s okay to make me feel like an asshole. With you looking so young, too. You want to make me into something as awful as yourself? What are you? Even at twenty—look. I’m thirty-one. That’s a lot, Leona, I’ve been through a lot. I don’t need any weirdness. I don’t need your drama. Do you understand?” He took one of the plastic cups beside the ice bucket and went to the bathroom to fill it with water.
When he returned Leona sneered and said, “If I’d known you had your own bra, I wouldn’t have offered you mine.”
Ron drank all of the water in his glass and threw it into the plastic trashcan by the TV. “That,” he said, “Is a pretty mean-spirited thing to say.”
“Well, it’s the truth!”
Ron snorted. “Now you’re telling the truth? What the fuck. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Leona curled up on the bed, on top of the sheets.
Ron said, “Tell me why you’re going to Savannah.”
“It’s not anything,” she said. “There’s a writer I like who lives there. Thomasina Flares. My friend Chelsea lives there too, and we’re going to try to find her house.”
“Is that what book you were reading? That romance you got that’s so obviously not at all for any class at any college?”
“Yeah,” she said.
Ron sat down on the bed beside Leona and leaned back against the headboard. “So, why lie? Why lie about all that—the book, the boyfriend. Everything. It’s not that bad. It’s all pretty normal.”
“You lie,” she said.
“I am not going to respond to that,” he said.
Leona took the camera from where Ron had set it down earlier on the nightstand. She pointed it at him, but did not depress the shutter release.
“Let me see that,” he said, and took it from her. She leaned back against the pillows and stuck her tongue out at him. He took her picture. She reached over and snatched the camera away from him to study her bright image on the little screen. When he thought back to the diner he realized she had been watching her dark reflection in the window almost the entire time. He told her he needed to get to sleep. She said she didn’t mind sharing the bed. She said, “Unless you think it’s weird. Or, if it isn’t weird, we could also cuddle, if you want.”
Ron said, “No, I don’t want to ’cuddle.’ We can try to share the bed.” But, when he tried to sleep beside her, he felt his heart turn inside of him. His entire being howled at the nearness of this girl, and it was like the keening of some distant beast, some immeasurable monster that roiled within him in a forgotten space between longing and anger. He got up after a while and slept on the carpet with his head propped up on the duffel bag and a bath towel pulled over him for a little bit of warmth.
Ron’s sister arrived at ten the next morning and packed them both up in her car, which was new but cheap, and drove them the remaining hour into town. Ron sat in the passenger seat and watched his sister watch Leona through the rear view mirror. Leona had put on headphones and was looking at the long trees and the empty sky through the shadow of her reflection.
“She goes to school in Moth Mound,” Ron said. “She came down to find a writer she likes.”
“Is that so?” said his sister. “College kids must get a lot of free time these days. Must be nice.” The radio had been tuned to the news, but she turned it down. “Your ex-husband called me yesterday. He called you Rhonda. I told him that was insensitive.”
“How do you get into giving tours downtown?” Ron said. “Do you know anyone who does that?”
“You need to call him back. I did give him a piece of my mind, though.”
“Andrea,” Ron said. “I’m through with all of that. I don’t want to talk about it. Not in front of company.”
Ron’s sister cast an eye at the rear-view mirror. “Company?” She clucked her tongue and turned the radio back on. “No, I understand, but I don’t think she’s listening.”
They dropped Leona off in front of an old apartment building that looked as though it had just emerged from fifty years spent underwater. She said her friend Chelsea lived there. Ron’s sister, Andrea, told Leona to watch out, and to avoid walking alone after dark if at all possible; a student had been murdered recently in a nearby square. Leona said, “I’ll be careful. Thank you so, so much for the ride. I really mean it. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you both so much.”
Andrea lived in an extremely clean house in a suburban housing community just outside of town. She introduced Ron to various things in her kitchen that he might want to eat, and went to bed for the remainder of the day. Ron made himself a turkey sandwich and napped on the living room couch until Andrea’s son returned home from school, at which point they watched Japanese cartoons together. After dinner that evening Ron hand-washed the pots and pans while his sister sat with a glass of white wine at the kitchen table. She said, “I’m glad you came, but do you really think things are going to be that much better down here?”
“Yes, Andrea, I do.”
“Is that because of that girl last night?” She looked at him pointedly. “Cause when I talked to you last week, you weren’t so optimistic. You gonna see her again?”
Ron removed his hands from the dishwater in the sink. The rubber gloves he wore dripped water onto the linoleum. “For god’s sake, no. That girl was crazy. I’m just glad to be out of Moth Mound. That place was like a grave.”
“I can’t believe she just sat there in the car with her headphones on for the entire ride. That’s just plain rude.”
“I told you she’s crazy,” Ron said. He removed a saucepan from the sink and pulled a sponge over it. “She’s not a good person. She’s a liar.”
“Is that so?”
“Lord, yes. She had some story about a made-up boyfriend. She told me she was reading a trashy novel for a class—she dresses like trash, too, but you can tell she’s not cause her skin is too good. And the worst thing was—I was attracted to her anyway. And you can tell so hard—that girl is a fucking heartbreak. She’s got no love in her for anybody but herself.”
Andrea swirled the wine about in her glass. “She’s a cute girl. Y’all were in an unusual situation. Maybe cut her some slack?”
Ron shook his head. “And you were just saying how rude she was! No way. She’s a crazy bitch.”
The next day Ron got up, although he did not want to, and he returned Lee Brown’s bag to the Greyhound station on account of the Zolpidem. He kept a pair of trousers and the shirt he’d tried on. He explained to a greasy, overly made-up woman at the counter that there had been a mix-up after the accident. She apologized for the inconvenience, but told him that they did not have his bag—perhaps it had been stolen or accidentally claimed by someone else. Ron said, “Oh, just forget about it. I don’t really need it.”
“You can leave your number.” she said. “We’ll call if it turns up.”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks.”
In the afternoon it stormed briefly. After the rain, he took the city bus downtown. It was Saturday and he would look for work after the weekend. He walked down the old streets. The sun was in his eyes. He had borrowed a gray polo shirt from his sister’s husband, which he wore over an undershirt and they clung to him in the heat. The light moved in strange ways through the Spanish moss. Shadows whispered over the pavement, and the moss in turn wavered in the saline breeze like trees’ long beards. Ron found his way back to the house where they’d left Leona the day before, but it was dark and quiet. No one was home, and the streets in that part of town were all empty. He walked back by a long green strip of parkland, and meandered through shaded squares and bright commercial streets until he reached the riverfront, where he bought a Pina Colada and went to stand by the water. Across the river he could see the Hilton, and there were a few ships passing. Ron turned and looked inland, towards the shopfronts that lined the water. He was watching an overfed white family of four waddle out of The Captain’s Crabs, when he saw standing a short distance away, an attractive young girl in a yellow dress holding an ice cream cone. There was something wrong with her face, he thought, it looked kind of busted. “Hey,” he said. “Hey!”
The family stopped and the matron glared at him.
Careful not to upset his Pina Colada, he held his cup out away from his body as he sprinted a few yards to meet up with the girl. He was certain now that it was Leona, and he called out to her again, this time by name. She grinned and walked towards him.
“Where’s your friend?” he said.
“She doesn’t like it down here. She thinks its trashy.” The ice cream cone was melting over her knuckles. She slipped her tongue over her hand and then the cone.
“Did you find Thomasina Flares?”
Leona sighed. “No, we think she must be out of town. We probably should have checked online before I came down, but, hey, I like Savannah. I’m not complaining.”
They turned and walked back down to the wall that bordered the river’s edge. As Ron leaned against the railing, a soft breeze came down over the water and washed over them. To the west a bridge spanned the river, and in the white light the long arching of its cables suggested a sail with nothing but the blue sky behind it, and the clear wind.
“What would you have done if you met her?” Ron asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. She’d finished her cone and wadded up a napkin in her hand. “It’s kind of stupid, but I guess I’d tell her, ‘Thanks for all the romance!’” She stuck out her tongue.
Ron laughed and inside him something broke open—something lighthearted and carefree that had previously lain dormant. Leona Bixby stood beside him in her yellow dress with a napkin wadded up in her hand, looking for a trashcan. A red and blue ship was gliding over the water as simply as a paper boat despite its mass. And in his heart, he was behemoth. For once, he didn’t care whether or not things got easier. For once, it was fine that in life things tended to get worse, right up until the final cut when one disappeared out of existence. He was himself, the sun was bright,and there was Leona Bixby, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and throwing her napkin into the river with more force than was probably required. He took her hand in his, and she held it.