What They Told Me
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 4, "Tower of Babel: A Special Report on the Nuclear Industry." Find more from that issue here.
Shopping bags hung like bracelets from her wrists. The driver unlaced them and leaned them at his feet. “You know this bus don’t stop at Douglasville,” he said.
“Stops out on the highway, but it doesn’t go in any more.” He punched her ticket. “Well, it’s not supposed to.”
“Yeah? Well, I knew when I caught it over the other night that it wasn’t going to stop in town. They told me that much when I called. Had to get me a patrol car to flag it down.”
“Did, huh,” he said and thrust her elbow up the long first step. “Where to?”
“Oh, up front,” she said. “I like to see where I’m going.”
She sank into the closest seat but stood again to shed her suit coat. While the driver stacked her packages above, she shook the jacket once and folded it, smooth lining out. “Yeah. My boss’s brother-in-law is a deputy sheriff and he flagged the express for me, since it wasn’t my fault I was late leaving work and all.” She remained, straightening the ruffled cuffs of her blouse, until the driver was satisfied that the luggage guards were infallibly secure.
“Now, of course,” she continued as he turned to the controls, “someone just might be out on the highway waiting for me.”
“Might.” He threw the bus into gear.
“And then, they might not. . .”
He paused before shifting to a position where he knew he would meet her eyes in the mirror. “I reckon,” he said, “we’ll have to take care of that when the time comes, won’t we now?”
A latecomer had rushed up to the door; it opened with a sigh. “This the express to Atlanta?”
“Atlanta and then some. But you’ll have to put that bag on with you. We’re late leaving now.”
The bus nosed from the fluorescent glare of the station and gained the hills around Huntsville in silence. Most of the passengers had slept through the stop. The latecomer moved to the rear whence occasional whiffs of his cigarette issued until he too slept. When the expressway was open again, the woman spoke. “I’m a bad one for sitting up front. Always want to know where I’m going.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“Nah,” she said.
“You go this way often?” The driver tapped on the steering wheel. “Don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“No,” she said. “You haven’t seen me. I’d ’a remembered. I go this way every weekend, only I try to take the earlier bus.”
“The local.” He grinned into the mirror but she was not looking.
“Gets me there at a decent hour,” she said.
“Takes you into town.”
“I’m from Huntsville,” she said. “I mean my folks. That’s where I’ve been. I live in Atlanta.”
“Well, Douglasville,” she amended. “Douglasville’s part of Atlanta as I see it.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And people have heard of Atlanta. You know what I mean?”
“I’m from Atlanta too.”
“See?” She smiled hopefully into the mirror, but the driver was busy passing a tractor trailer. She relaxed back into her seat. “Yeah. If it weren’t for my boyfriend in Huntsville, if I had me a boyfriend in Atlanta, now that’s where I’d like to spend my weekends.”
“Like Atlanta, huh?”
“I’d like to like Atlanta,” she said.
“It’s all right, I guess.”
“Uh oh,” she said.
“I mean, I don’t get out that much.”
“Watch it,” she said. “You’re beginning to sound married,” she said.
“If you don’t like Atlanta, I say you’re married,” she said.
“Shows that bad, huh?”
“What’d I tell you!” She leaned forward. “You’d never believe, this boyfriend. I knew him in high school. Twenty years ago. We were sweethearts for six weeks or so, I can’t remember, maybe it was junior high, I wasn’t much interested then. Now isn’t that funny?”
“’Spect that gets kinda hard, doesn’t it?”
“Traveling every weekend,” he said.
“Now you’re teasing!”
“You mean my doing it five times a week,” he said. “I get paid for it. But every weekend. From Atlanta to Huntsville and back for free. I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m not much good on Mondays,” she said. “But you know, when you’ve got you a boyfriend. . .”
“He don’t like Atlanta?”
“How would he know? He keeps promising to come. But he can’t leave his mother alone with the farm. So it’s easier for me to do the traveling.”
“Milk cows,” she explained. “But sometimes I do get tired.”
“And you expect me to believe this has been going on for 20 years?”
“Ha,” she said.
The driver grinned into the mirror. “Well, I didn’t think so,” he said.
“Twenty years! Oh, brother, you can make a girl laugh. I’ve only been divorced since Easter. Oh law. You must have thought I was . . . oh, law. Had the same boyfriend for 20 —”
“Well, no, I didn’t think so,” he said.
“No!” She patted her hair and straightened her ruffled cuffs. “It’s husbands I’ve had for almost 20. My second, the one that ended last April, that one was 15, almost 16 years. First one didn’t last a year.”
The driver tapped on the wheel.
“Yep. One and 15. That’s me.”
“First one didn’t work at all, huh?” he said.
“Way it goes sometimes,” he said. “These days especially.”
“Second didn’t either for that matter.”
“Guess not,” he said.
“Though I was the last to know. Like they say. I don’t know . . . me and my daughter just come home from church one night and he had up and sold the house.”
“Yep.” She reached for her jacket and shook it out.
“He must not have had good sense.”
“Tommy? Oh, I don’t know. You find out you never really knew a man until he up and leaves you after 15 years.” She draped the coat across her chest, pulling its collar up to her chin. “Up and sold the house. And was gone. I never knew what, except that he didn’t love me anymore. I mean, I knew that.”
“Yeah, I guess.” The driver dipped out of the mirror.
“I saw her,” she said.
He played with the tachometer.
“I saw her five or six times. She wasn’t much to look at. Now I mean that. First few times I saw her I didn’t say a thing. I thought maybe she just wasn’t fixed up. She’d ride over with him to see the kids. Sit in the car. Has that sort of stringy brown hair.” One hand shot up to pat at her pouffed cut. “And I saw her.”
“Wasn’t much to look at, huh?”
“I saw her and thought, well, you never can tell.”
“You have kids then,” he said.
“You can’t never tell what a man’s gonna want.”
“I have two. Kids,” he said.
“I said I have two. You?”
“Me? Yeah. You can’t never tell.”
“I have me a daughter 12,” he said. “And whooey, gonna have to watch that one.”
“Yessir, gonna have to watch that one. My daughter.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said.
He leaned close up to the mirror. “Yours not like that yet?”
“My daughter? I don’t reckon she likes men much.”
“Come home from her G. A. Coronation. She’s at the highest step. A Queen. In G. A.’s.” She stopped. “Listen at me,” she said. “G. A.’s is a sort of girls’ club they have down at the church — Girls’ Auxiliary.”
“Don’t tell me. I’m Baptist too, I know all about Queens. What is it, ‘Faith, hope and purity?’”
“Came home one night from church and her old man had up and sold the house. Nah, I don’t have to watch her.”
“Then you can be glad for one thing.”
“Darn right,” he said. “It’s about to worry my old lady to death.”
“Sure,” he said. “She’s got to have something to worry about. You know women.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“I mean,” he paused, “now that it’s too late to be worrying about me.”
“Come again,” she said.
“It’s true,” he said.
“A good-looking man like you. Hmmph! I wouldn’t stop worrying,” she said.
“Nope?” he grinned.
“It’s never too late for a good-looking man like you.”
“Aw, now, celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary last month, don’t you think I ought to keep her?”
“Well, I can tell you right now I wouldn’t stop worrying.”
“And after all, I mean, 25 years. I mean, she’s all right.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said.
“She’s a fine girl.”
“That’s real sweet,” she said.
“You’d like her.”
“Well,” she said.
Her sigh was so prolonged that his hand slipped automatically to check the lever of his hydraulic door. “Yep,” he said, the silver of his wedding band clicking with its vibrations. “Guess I’ll have to keep her,” he said.
The town ahead promised interruption, the cartons he would set off for the hospital, a cigarette and the cup of old coffee he would share with the station master, perhaps a passenger to take another of the seats up front.
“Law, law,” she said. “Here we are at Gadsden and me talking your ear off when I ought to be getting my beauty sleep.”
“Good company,” he said and watched her tuck her feet up and rearrange her jacket across her knees. “All of us need good company.” She didn’t open her eyes but smiled and raised one palm to cushion her cheek against the seat.
The city was suspended from a mile of mercury lights. Arc lamps bowed before them like heliotrope losing sun. The windows clasped then fled each ray. He stopped at an intersection. She sat up.
“Twenty-five years?” She was fixed by his mirror in a diamond of light.
“I guess I was lucky then.”
“Sure,” he said.
“Since he was going to leave me like he did, I’m glad I wasn’t getting old.”
“Sure thing,” he said.
“I don’t feel old.”
“Nah,” he said.
“Not at all,” she said.
“Don’t look it either,” he said and pulled on toward home.
Bonna Whitten-Stovall is a Mississippi writer now living in Brooklyn, New York. (1981)