I stepped off of the bus in downtown Morton, ready to get this over with.
It wasn’t much of a town. There was a gas station, a bank, a couple of tumbledown stores, a few city government buildings, and this Greyhound bus station. Even though it was two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, there didn’t seem to be much going on. A few cars and pick-up trucks moved slowly down the main drag as if they were just too tired to be bothered to get in much of a hurry. A few folks walked along the sidewalks, but didn’t seem to have anywhere in particular to go. But I did. And I wanted to get it over with quickly.
I picked up my bag that the driver had just sat onto the asphalt from the compartment underneath the bus. I tipped him a quarter, though I don’t think they’re really supposed to get tips. I went on inside the bus station. It was cool inside, a welcome relief from the sweltering hell outside. A Chrysler air conditioning unit hummed in the window, explaining the strange sensation of coolness. Too bad every building in the world didn’t have one of those things humming away in them. Maybe it would keep the world from ever going insane again.
I walked over to the lunch counter and sat on one of the stools covered in red Naugahyde with gold flecks in it. I set my fedora on the empty stool beside me and looked up at the menu board and tried to decide what I wanted. And also what I could afford with the three dollars I had left to my name.
“Howdy, mister,” said the buxom woman behind the counter. I glanced at her name badge. Veronica. She was mid-30s, plump, and had a pretty face. She’d be prettier if she’d smile. But maybe working behind the lunch counter at a Greyhound bus station kinda knocks the smile off a person. Lots of things in this world can knock the smile off a person. She had every right to not smile. “Can I get you something?”
I gazed into her pretty green eyes for just a moment. “Sure thing, Doll. I’ll have a ham on rye,” I said, starting to fumble in the pocket of my jacket. “Mind if I smoke?”
She looked at me a minute before turning to make my sandwich. “It’s a free country, I guess,” she said.
“I reckon so,” I said, lighting up and blowing the smoke away from her and out into the bus station. It was empty. There wouldn’t be another bus showing up until tomorrow.
“You back from the war?” she asked, making my sandwich.
I watched her hands making my sandwich. I forgot how long it’d been since I’d seen a woman’s hands doing anything except helping a doctor dig around the insides of some poor schmuck that got himself shot. But I shook myself out of my daze and looked away.
“Does it show?” I asked.
She looked up at me, still making the sandwich. “Well,” she said. “You ain’t 90 and you ain’t 19 and you ain’t dead … so I figured you were in the war.”
I blew out another puff of smoke away from her and grinned. “Yeah, I reckon that’s a pretty sure thing.”
“That and your A-2 jacket.”
I looked down, then back up at her. “Yeah. That’s a dead giveaway.” I probably shouldn’t have worn it.
“You a fly boy?”
I looked down at my hands that were playing with the chrome lighter I’d lit my cigarette with.
“Not a pilot, if that’s what you were hopin’.”
“I wasn’t hopin’ for anything. I was just askin’.”
“Navigator,” I said, feeling bad I’d spoke so short to her.
“In the Pacific?”
“I was at Dawes Hill in England.”
“So, you flew B-17s.”
“Yeah.” I clicked the lid of my lighter open and closed a few more times.
She sat my sandwich in front of me on a heavy stoneware plate. There were some greasy potato chips piled up beside it and a pickle. She was staring at me and I was feeling uncomfortable.
“That’s what my husband flew. He was a tail gunner.”
I looked up at her. How long had it been since I saw a woman’s eyes? What is it about a woman’s eyes that can look right into your soul … lay you bare … make you tell your tales? Tales you’re not ready to tell.
“Is that a fact?” I asked, looking away.
“Yeah,” she said. I popped a potato chip in my mouth and chewed slowly.
“He make it back?” I asked. Why would I ask something like that?
“No.” She didn’t seem upset about it. She’d had a while to get all the cryin’ out.
“A lot of ‘em didn’t,” I said finally. I picked up my sandwich.
“But you did.”
I took a bite of sandwich and chewed it while I considered her. Then I shrugged a little.
“Maybe,” I said.
She allowed me to eat in silence for a bit while she busied herself behind the counter, doing things that didn’t really need doing. Cleaning up. Polishing. Sweeping.
“You want a Coke, Mister?” she asked, tucking a stray wisp of auburn hair behind her ear. “On the house.”
“I won’t be beholden’ to anybody,” I said.
“You ain’t beholdin’. It’s just a Coke. It’s only a nickel.”
I reached in my pocket and put a silver dollar on the counter. It was enough to cover the sandwich and the Coke. And her a tip. “I’ll take the Coke,” I said. “But I’ll pay for it.”
She just grinned and popped the top off a Coke she got out of the ice box.
I finished my meal. I drank the Coke. I finished another cigarette. I watched her as she stayed busy behind the counter. It’s a damn shame. But if I can sit in the cockpit of a B-17 while German Messerschmitts ventilated our poor dumb asses, I could do this.
I fumbled in the pocket of my A-2 again and pulled out a silver cigarette case and laid it on the counter. Her eyes widened … and immediately got all glassy. Damn it! I couldn’t handle a woman’s tears.
“Where did you get that?” she asked, her voice trembling and breaking.
“Jake give it to me,” I said simply. My voice was rough. But I couldn’t help it.
“He made me promise … if I ever made it back to the states … I was to give you this.” I slid it closer to her, but she didn’t take it.
She just stared at it, more scared that curious.
“When did he give it to you?”
“Oh … 9 or 10 months ago. I was laid up in the hospital with German shrapnel in my leg and gut from our last mission together. We made it back to base somehow. But the Air Force, in its infinite mercy, sent him out on another raid. So, he gave it to me as I lay there in the hospital … half out of my mind with pain and morphine. He made me promise I’d give it to you. And I said, Aw Jake! Don’t be a dumbass. You keep that. You’ll be home before me.’ But …” My voice trailed off.
“What’s in it,” she asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I never opened it.”
She made no move to pick up the cigarette case. Her face was a wreck with mascara and tears and anguish.
I stood up.
“I’ll be on my way, ma’am,” I said, picking up my bag.
“No … don’t,” she said. “Don’t go.”
I considered her a minute. I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I had just enough money to stay a night at the motel the bus passed on the way into town. But I couldn’t stay here. Seeing the woman that Jake talked so much about while we lay in our bunks every night trying not to think about the series of suicide missions the Air Force was sending us on way too often for us to beat the odds, seeing that she looked just like he described her, seeing that she wasn’t ever going to be the same because her husband, my friend, was spread over some damned field in Germany … I couldn’t stay. I had no right to be here. This should be Jake’s reunion with his wife, not my introduction to her. That should’ve been me laying there in the field, surrounded by burning B-17. I had no right to be here. It was only my morphine-induced promise that made me come here. But I didn’t belong here. Or anywhere.
“I can’t stay, ma’am,” I said, picking up my hat and putting it back on.
I left the bus station, trying not to listen to her sobbing. I started walking east. It was about two miles back to the hotel. Maybe I’d stop when I got there. Or maybe I’d just keep on walking.
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