Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
THE BUS TRIP
She sat in the middle of the huge Hagey Bus with a window view. She wanted to watch as much as she could without falling asleep. Her elderly father had driven her from their home in Parma, Ohio, to the tourist bus in downtown Cleveland. The bus driver, Stan, helped her on, as she had a pronounced limp. Polio. The epidemic was stopped after the Sabin and Salk vaccines had been discovered. How angry she’d been when the schools were flooded with entire families downing the sugar cube that held the Sabin inside. The poliomyelitis serum, with tiny wiggling half alive critters who longed to cripple and maim everyone, but were now thwarted for good. And, she, Gloria, was left with a limp. Under the pant leg on her left leg, she wore a hideous brace. She refused to date and only socialized with family members she didn’t even like.
In her bedroom with its light-green wallpaper and canopy bed with white ruffles on top, she spent hour upon hour reading. Novels mostly. Stendhal, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Hemingway, and her favorite Flannery O’Connor, dead at 39 from lupus.
“What’s the attraction to O’Connor?” asked cousin Millie over dinner one night.
“Her stories were very odd, just like I am. I feel almost normal when I read them.”
The Andrews family all lived together in a three story house on Norris Court. Gloria, refusing to work, was on disability, so she took it upon herself to make breakfast and lunch for the family while her mom had the honors of making dinner.
Gloria was a vegetarian, believing her leg might heal that way. Tonight they had broiled chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, buttered broccoli rabe, and home-made apple pie that Gloria had baked that morning.
As the bus bumped along, Gloria’s eyes were slowly closing. “The Prayers of Flannery O’Connor” shut itself on her lap. She awoke and pinched each cheek to stay awake. She was a pretty girl with dyed black hair, the same color it was when the tragedy struck. Her mouth, outlined with the reddest of lipsticks, had a downward look, as if someone’s hands had stretched it every night so that it refused to smile.
Did it matter? Gloria Andrews avoided mirrors.
Forty people sat in the bus. The buzz of their conversation ranged from quiet – did they all sleep in synch? – to loud, as if they remembered where they were going – and quite a few honking snores.
A tall woman stood up to stretch. She raised her arms above her head and heard her neck crack. “Ahhhh,” she said.
“Ma’am,” called Stan, the bus driver.
“I know, I know,” said the tall woman and sat down.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced Stan through his microphone, “regulations state there is no standing in the aisles of the bus unless you need to use the restroom.”
Stan wore a blue uniform and blue cap. His mutton chop whiskers decorated his face.
Two men sat together behind Gloria. They were having an animated discussion about film noirs.
“Was happy to get a couple of gals to our Film Noir Club at the Parma Library,” said Tony.
“Finally!” said Karl, an older man, who had a thick German accent, and loved nothing better than war films. “If my wife Kathe were alive, she’d be there. She shared my love of exciting battle scenes, bodies riddled with bullets, blood pouring through their shirts. And that also includes cowboy films.”
“Which we have yet to see,” said Tony.
“Last week’s film “The Intruder” with the young William Shatner was one of the best we’ve seen.”
“Did you notice his body language?” asked Karl.
“Yep,” said Tony. “A master.”
Gloria’s held was tilted to the side, so she could listen to them talk behind her. She had no idea she was unconsciously eavesdropping. Soon, though, she got bored. No one sat next to her, so she put her book on the empty seat, got up
slowly, and headed toward the rest room.
She kept her head down so she didn’t have to watch “the looks” as everyone watched her limp. Da-dump, Da-dump, Da-dump. When she entered the tiny restroom, she plopped on the seat with her clothes still on, just to give herself a rest.
The bus was going around a corner, apparently, and she cried out loud.
“You all right?” she heard a woman’s voice say.
“Fine,” shouted Gloria.
When she finished, she stood up to wash her hands and saw a woman’s face in the tiny mirror. The woman was pretty, if not beautiful. She had long straight black hair that fell below her shoulders. Her lips were outlined with enticing red lipstick.
Was that how she looked? Quite attractive, she thought, and then banished the thought from her mind.
She skip/hopped her way back to her seat.
With her head on her chest, she had a long deep sleep, with little snores that briefly woke her up.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stan announced. “We are five minutes from Andalusia Farms, Flannery O’Connor’s final home.” To Gloria, it sounded like a canned speech but she wanted to hear everything he said and slapped her cheeks to stay awake. She turned on the little fan over her head. The day was beautiful and the Georgia sunshine caressed her face.
Stan gave a brief history about Andalusia Farms, which he pronounced like an orchestra conductor: “AN-da-LUSIA FAAARMS.” Located outside Milledgeville, Georgia, the city has three colleges, local libraries and a high literacy rate.
The farmhouse itself used to be part of a slave plantation.
The passengers gasped.
“Well,” said Stan, “you’re forgetting this was the deep South, the place where the four little girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.”
The bus was silent. And then Gloria heard the German man behind her say, “I would’ve wrung each of their cowardly necks…slowly.”
The bus pulled into the vast estate. Most people stood up to have a good look at it. A woman in a green hat greeted the bus.
“You made it fifteen minutes sooner than scheduled,” she said.
“Traffic cooperated,” said Stan, as he stood up and helped her board the bus.
She came inside and he gave her forty tickets. She faced the passengers.
“Good afternoon,” she said, in a southern drawl that was difficult to understand.
“Flannery O’Connor welcomes you. If she were still alive – and how she loved life – she would be surprised that her final home, Andalusia Farms, has been made into a historic house. And that her collected short stories won the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction, eight years after her death.
“Make yourselves at home. Take the self-guided tour. Obey the signs. When they say, ‘Do not sit on chair’ – or ‘Do not touch books’ – we mean it. The sound of an unpleasant buzzer will go off. Miss O’Connor would laugh if she heard it.
“Otherwise sit where you like and touch what you like.”
She emphasized the best things to view were a large pond with floating wildlife surrounded by summer greenery, the glorious peacocks and peahens which were tame and did not bite unless someone scared or threatened them, and the entire house, especially her writing room.
“Enjoy yourselves! Take photos and come back again to see us, y’all.”
Stan thanked her and followed her out the bus. He stood outside and helped everyone off the bus. He parked in a large parking lot with a white sign with peacock feathers on it that read “For Buses Only.”
It was August, the hottest month of the year. A few white clouds like puffs of pipe smoke moved reluctantly across the sky. Hankies were pulled from pocketbooks and back pockets. Gloria took a good look at the two gentlemen behind her. Tony was wearing khaki shorts and a striped T-shirt. She wondered if he were married. The older German man looked like a movie star. Was it Clark Gable he reminded her of? He sure didn’t look his age.
The disembarked passengers were moaning about how hot it was.
What they soon learned was that the house contained no air-conditioning but was built to preserve heat in the cold months and stay cool in the hot months. Ceiling fans were in most of the rooms. In the dark of an evening, an occasional moth twirled round and round the fan blades, like a dog chasing its tail, she learned.
The group dispersed. The film noirs fellows found a marble bench under a tree whose leaves acted as an umbrella. A large pond glimmered in the distance. Clusters of people walked toward it, fanning themselves with Andalusia brochures or their caps or straw hats.
Gloria wore a long sky-blue dress that hid her brace. She was already in her mid-fifties and envied the numerous couples who had traveled together. “Oh, well,” she sighed. From her pocketbook she removed a Cleveland Indians cap. Folks from Parma were usually fans of the Indians or, upon occasion, of the Pittsburgh Pirates. She was faithful in her love for the Dominican Danny Salazar, who was named to the American League All-Star Team in 2016. She was attracted to him for the hardships he endured while coming up from hardscrabble Dominican Republic. As she walked about the estate, she looked up at the sky and down on the fertile ground that bore patches of red and yellow flowers whose names she didn’t know.
“Miss O’Connor,” she prayed. “Please help me. I would be forever grateful.”
She said this over and over like a mantra, sometimes the words slipping aloud from her lips. “Make this limp go away.”
She took off her cap, deep blue with a red peak and the famous goofy-looking Indian in the front. She fanned herself with it. Truth be told, she kept it on her bedside table, next to her glass of water and pile of books. Often before she went to bed, she would lift up the cap, outline the Indian with her fingers, and say, “I love you, Danny Salazar.”
“So, you’re an Indians fan,” said a woman catching up with her.
Gloria couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I’ve been watching the Indians forever,” said the white-haired woman in a shiny white pantsuit and sandals. “When I was younger, I’d listen to Jimmy Dudley, the radio announcer. You could see everything when that guy spoke.”
“Well, good for you,” said Gloria, realizing the words came out wrong.
“I mean, that’s really good, really great.”
Gloria quickly wove away toward that great big white house with all the stairs. Where was the handicap access? Probably around the back. She walked over to the right of the stairs, grabbed the railing, and praying to Flannery, ascended the stairs, sweat pouring down her face and bare arms.
Coolness surrounded her in the house. More stairs to Flannery’s writing room. She was panting and gasping by the time she entered and thought she might have a heart attack. She sank into a cushioned chair, clutching her heart. All she needed, she thought, were a few moments of meditation and prayer. With her hands steepled beneath her chin, she went into something akin to a trance, never hearing when a few other people entered the room.
She wandered the rest of the house, marveling that a great writer had once lived here. Maybe she, the limping Gloria, should give writing a try. She did have one talent. She played the zither. Often after dinner, when the family was sated with mother’s food, they’d gather in the living room, as Gloria played tunes on the zither.
“Do Amazing Grace” or “Oh Susannah,” they’d request. Her reverie was interrupted by Stan the bus driver. She glimpsed those crazy- looking muttonchops as he entered the dining room with its white linen table cloth embroidered with tiny flowers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Bus,” he said with his stentorian voice. “Say your goodbyes to Andalusia Farms, and prepare to get home to Parma around 10 in the morning tomorrow morning.
“Oh, no,” said a couple of women. They’d forgotten to visit the Gift Shop.
All right, he said, and everyone flocked inside, including Gloria, who bought a black shirt with a huge peacock on it.
Nearly everyone was asleep on the bus, which zoomed past a procession of lights: red traffic lights, yellow street lights, lit-up houses with bedroom lights still on, until finally it pulled into the parking lot of the Cleveland bus station.
The bus lights switched on.
People blinked their eyes and gathered their gear.
Gloria gave Stan a five-dollar tip. Her parents had told her to. She took a final glance at his mutton chops. She entered the bus station, sat on a bench, and looked for her father.
The old German chap came up to her.
“I admire you, young lady,” he said. “Not easy walking around like you do. You’re a real Helden, as we say in German.”
She stared at him.
“Might you give me your phone number?”
“Oh!” she said, surprised.
It took her a couple of minutes to remember it, but she recited it slowly, and wondered if he would call, and what she would think of him if they went out.