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Afternoon Light

Amends
By Ryan Priest

Convict 330834 was released into the world as Jamal White, convicted sex offender. This was no rebirth. The man who had been Jamal had died five years before, upon his incarceration.

Inside of the razor-wire topped concrete walls, the shell, the hollowed-out, breathing, walking, eating shell, had begun to fill again with pain, hatred, fear, and routine. Finally, after a year or so of pressure cooking, a convict began to form. Only this new Jamal didn’t die on release. The defining characteristic of a con is a sort of indestructibility. Once created, there is no getting rid of him.

Most people think when the judge imposes a certain sentence on you, you serve it to the day and then are released. Nothing the government does is that cut and dry. There is a certain bureaucracy involved and you’re no longer even human. You’re stock, chattel that the different protocols each get their time with.

Jamal’s release after five years required his staying for four months in a halfway house with other ex-inmates. During the day, they were supposed to look for jobs, and some had to attend substance abuse meetings or classes. The conditions of Jamal’s parole required no such classes.

Within no time, he’d found a job in a warehouse, basically the only job an ex-con can get. More than half of the parolees never made it out of the halfway house. They’d disappear or break curfew, and it was back to the prison for them. Most were spending all of their free time looking for or doing drugs. They call it recidivism. Not Jamal White though.

He made his four months. With the money he had earned at the warehouse, he had managed to find a run down but dirt-cheap apartment complex. This newly acquired separation from the state did not come free.

“My name is Jamal White, I am a convicted sex offender. I am required to inform you that I am moving into the neighborhood.” Over and over again. He couldn’t stand to look his new neighbors in the eyes while giving them his spiel. Some spit at him, others threatened him, but nobody was too eager to engage physically with an admitted ex-convict.

He had done it all, everything required of him, and that first night in his own bed, in his own apartment, almost made it all worth it. That first free sleep without the threat of rape or some other form of brutality. A sleep with no predetermined time of waking. A sleep he didn’t even have to take if he didn’t want to. He could leave all of his lights on and play his music straight on until morning, and no eight-dollar-an-hour correction’s officer armed with only a club and a GED would come in to beat the routine back into him. He chose to sleep anyway though. He had a big day planned. After five years there was someone he needed to see again.

Jamal had been convicted of the aggravated rape of a then seventeen-year-old Heather Flannigan. Now, the very first morning of his new freedom, he spent watching the twenty-two-year-old version leaving her house on foot, headed to her job at the mall. Not that she really had to work. By the look of her two story, five-bedroom house, her family had enough money to support her for another forty years.

She didn’t look like she’d aged a day. Her hair was still long and filled with golden waves. She was still as delicately slim as he’d remembered her. The clothes were more grown up, but there could be no mistaking that it was the same girl underneath.

“Hello Heather.” Jamal said moving up behind her. She had already walked far enough away from the house to risk it.

The look on her face changed from one expecting to see a friend to that of someone who’s seen the devil incarnate. “It’s you.”

“I’m finally out.”

She stood locked in place, eyes as big as saucers.

“What do you want?” She asked in a voice that shook with every word. The last thing she had expected was to see his dark face staring at her at nine thirty in the morning.

“I want to know why you did it,” Jamal asked slowly. “Why did you say I raped you?”

“Look, I was a dumb kid. Sorry, but we all do stupid things.” She said with a cavalier shrug that mocked every moment he had spent in that hell.

“Why didn’t you come forward and admit it was a lie? You had five years.” Jamal asked through clenched teeth.

“My dad would have killed me,” she said, growing defensive toward this accusatory confrontation.

The two had only met one time before. Jamal’s friend had known Heather’s friend, and the four of them had met up and hung out one evening. Heather had been flirting with Jamal all night, so when it came time to leave, he gave her a ride home. She asked him to park the car, and they did it — nervous and clumsy, as teenagers do, but consensual nonetheless.

After they were finished, she’d even kissed him good night and gave assurances that she’d like to see him again. So, it came as a surprise when the police had shown up at his job with handcuffs and words like “rapist.”

He only ever saw her once more, and that was as she took the stand pointing a finger at him. He’d waited five years, replaying the incident in his head every night, questioning his own memory. He had been over the seduction, the sex, the kiss afterwards, carefully pausing on every detail for fear he may have behaved in some inappropriate way that he’d been unaware of. But no, five years and the same answer, an emphatic no, he’d never raped anyone.

“Why did you do it? I’d never done a thing to you.” It felt good to say it out loud for once, the truth.

“Look, my little brother saw us pull up at the house and he told my dad that I had been driven home by a n-, a black man. When I got in, my hair and makeup were all messed up and my bra was in my purse, so he knew something had gone on. What was I supposed to do?” Heather was getting noticeably annoyed. Who was he, some black ex-con, to be stopping her on the way to her work, bitching about stuff that had happened years ago?

“Well you’re not supposed to tell him that I raped you.”

“You don’t know my dad. He’d have killed me. My parents are old fashioned. They think whites should stick with whites and blacks with blacks. If I told him that I had had sex with some black guy, he’d have thrown me out on the street. I told him not to call the police, but he wouldn’t listen,” she explained indignantly.

“Rape is the most horrible crime you can ever be accused of.” Jamal was seething. “They raped me. They raped me and beat me every day in that prison. Even rapists hate rapists.”

“What do you want me to say? Sorry?” She began to continue her walk, and he unconsciously joined her, still swirling over all the things he should say. He’d imagined it a thousand times, and he had auditioned several phrases just for this one moment.

“You are a worthless, self-interested, lying, evil, entitled, dumb...” The words seemed cheap, immature. They were simply words, and words felt so cheap and immaterial. His words to the cops had meant nothing, the words at his trial had all been lies. The words in his pleas and screams had never once stopped an attacker or summoned help. Words simply didn’t matter. Jamal couldn’t believe they’d taken five years of his life on nothing but the word of such a fork-tongued suburban cretin. Skin tone mattered more than words.

His friends had all left him, believing her. His only living family, his mother, had been forced to leave the state to find work, so he hadn’t even seen her in three years. He was alone in the world now, with the low ceiling placed over the head of any ex-felon, and there was absolutely no justifiable reason as to why.

“You are just a nigger ex-convict, and if you bother me again, I’ll tell them you were trying to rape me and they’ll send you right back,” she said, empowering herself smugly. She was done hearing about how horrible a person she was from a near stranger. The way she saw it, that was just one thing she had done, and it was ages ago. She felt bad about it, sure, but so what? She had to get over it sometime. She wasn’t about to go live in a cave, forever chastising herself for it.

She stormed off to her retail job, but Jamal gave no chase. She hadn’t even gone to college. He’d often wondered how she had been spending her time. Apparently, after robbing him of his years, she’d squandered her own.

There was no surprise in him that she had been so callous and unaffected. He’d seen grown men who had stabbed their best friends in their sleep, and when asked why, they always had some proud, obnoxious, and absurd rationalization for it that always left the stabber as the real victim. He’d learned many things about the way people will treat one another, especially if they can get away with it. In his first year inside, he had learned what physical punishment the human body can endure. He’d learned about his own strengths and weaknesses while attempting to fend off murderers and rapists who had rationalized their attacks into some twisted form of heroism. “Get the rape-O!”

He’d learned even more in his remaining four years. Especially after his repeated assaults made the warden take pity on him and grant his request for permanent solitary confinement. Safe from the others, the guilty, he was free to read and study. He’d earned his bachelor’s degree with a major in philosophy and a minor in Russian literature.

Opportunities are everywhere for inmates to better educate themselves if the element of perpetual violence can be removed. Several degree programs exist ranging in grade levels from kindergarten through full correspondence collegiate courses, all to help the recidivism. Sadly though, most convicts with a degree just end up as smart warehouse workers.

No company on Earth wants an executive who’s done time. Banks don’t loan to felons either, so starting your own business is out too. He’d taken the government up on their free college, though. He had fallen in love with books in that cell with only sub-human guards and the sounds of other prisoners to keep him company.

He was expected at work in a few hours, and he’d go. He didn’t know how long he’d have to keep the job for. If he missed a day, they could and would send him back to prison.

Jamal White looked at his old and worn denim jacket. He had been arrested in it. He needed a new one. With his first day as a free man, he had bought himself new boots, the white shirt he was wearing, and the small cassette player that was currently taped underneath.

He felt for the buttons and turned it off. He wondered how much money five years of wrongful imprisonment amounted to in civil court. Jamal smiled. Yes, he would get to buy himself that new jacket, he’d clear his name, and finally, he’d knock on every one of those doors again and show them the proof that he was no rapist and never really had been. Then, and only then, would he really be free.

Removal at Seminole Mound
by Linda Trice​
*Series Editors' Fiction Pick

A young woman walked quietly through the forest that was unknown to her. In appearance, she seemed like any other female of her age. She wore a long sleeved tee-shirt depicting the logo of the college where she was a student of anthropology and folklore. Her face was summer tanned. What marked her as one on a quest to satisfy the Ancestor was her hair — long, thick braids held tight by leather strings and strips of blood red cloth.

She had always lived with and been raised by the grandmother who sent her on this spiritual journey. It was the custom among their African ancestors to give the first born child to the grandmother. That child would live with her grandmother and devote her life to caring for her. And thus it had been.

Grandmother told the young woman that an African ancestor, a high priest, escaped from enslavement in the Carolinas and came to Florida, where he was given sanctuary by the Seminole. He married into the fold and had children by his wife, who some called a shaman because of her knowledge of herbs and roots. Their children had children by others in the group, some African, some Seminole.

But Andrew Jackson, Wiley Thompson, Thomas Jessup and others demanded the Africans return to perpetual slavery. Their beloved children would be taken from them and sold. The Seminole were told to walk to reservations in Oklahoma and leave their lands for the whites. The United States government called it “Removal.”

The Seminole fought. Many died. The army kept the survivors away from the dead, so the bodies of some, such as the Ancestor and most of his children, were left on the ground to rot.
 
Thus, the quest of the young woman was to find Seminole Mound, the site of the massacre, and, once there, to set things right.
   
Her grandmother sent her on this spiritual journey with sacred herbs and knowledge of their chants. Grandmother made the journey when she was a young woman and planted Jimson weed on the sacred site. By the plant and its white trumpet-like flowers, the young woman would know she had arrived at the Seminole Mound.

The young woman was not bothered by the buzzing insects. Her knowledge of the swamps protected her from poisonous snakes, alligators, and other living forms which plague the Northerners who moved to Florida.

At last she came to the area, but as her grandmother had predicted, it was no longer uninhabited. A run down cabin sat on top of the small mound.

She waited until she was sure no one was around, performed her ceremony, then slipped back into the forest and went home. The deed was done.

~~~

Cassandra approached Wiley Jessup’s dilapidated house with trepidation. She tried to shake the feeling off. Locals said the mound was cursed and wouldn’t go near the place. They saw ghosts and strange lights at night. Scientists from the University said it was just swamp gas. She thought of the legend and just as quickly discounted it. That's why the artist had been able to buy the property so cheaply from her agency. After all, the area abounded with wild tales of the supernatural. The Swamp Ape was the regional version of Big Foot. Sensational media placed South Florida within the Bermuda Triangle and claimed the lost continent of Atlantis was off the coast.

Cassandra leaned against a nearly dead tree and appraised the property. Bleak. Dirt. Jimson weed was the only plant, and it was struggling to survive. Locals called it the Devil’s Trumpet because of the triangle shaped flowers. Wiley’s property was just a worthless piece of land. The only use it was good for was just what Wiley was putting it to— a retreat from the world;  he had surely done that.

Minutes later, she was sitting next to the painter in his living room. The burly man was dressed in his usual attire— torn denim shorts and a tee-shirt with the arms ripped off. His clothes were faded and splattered with paint.
 
"Really Wiley, I worry about you,” Cassandra said. “You have such artistic talent, but you're alone too much. You should get out more, be with people."

He ignored her. He was too busy admiring his newest work, a self‑portrait. Although he hadn't hung it yet, it was large enough for him to enjoy as it lay against the wall. "What do you think?"

"It captures your essence,” she said. “It's the real you, the bushy eyebrows, your rugged looks."

He nodded, agreeing with her.

"It's different from your other works, 'County Courthouse,’ ‘Baseball Training Camp.' Those are gritty, yet they capture the essence and culture of Beneva County, of much of South Florida in fact. They're realistic, earthy and so ... so you."

He smiled, looking at the painting, not at the woman.
   
She put her now empty beer can on the floor and stood. Obviously he just wanted someone to admire his latest work. "Got to go now," she said.

When she reached the door, she looked back at him. Cassandra was about to say something but realized that Wiley was still intently savoring his latest work.
   
She let herself out, got into her car and drove off. She had her own life to lead.

~~~

There was an opening that night. Wiley's agent strenuously urged him to attend. A Miami collector was interested in some of Wiley's more expensive works but refused to buy them until he had gotten to know the artist. Wine poured freely, as usual.
   
Afterwards the collector insisted that Wiley and the agent accompany him to The Quay for bourbon and jazz. The collector insisted upon buying “just one more round,” then another, and another.

As Wiley pulled into his isolated house a few minutes before midnight, he realized he'd forgotten to eat dinner. The wine and bourbon made him clutch his stomach.

Instead of going into the kitchen to get something to eat, he went to the self‑portrait. He studied it intently, his hands on his hips, his legs spread. Cassandra was right. It did capture his essence.

He looked past it to a portrait he'd painted of a former girlfriend, a dancer with a ballet troupe. It was unlike most of his work. He had done it in pale pinks and ivory, colors that reminded him of her soft gentleness.

The figure was intent on tying her pink slipper, but, gently and slowly, her head came up. She turned around, stared at Wiley, and stepped out of the painting. Standing quite still, now five feet tall, she moved into a corner and twirled round and around.

To the left of the ballerina, the "Riverview High School Band" began to play. A uniformed tuba player marched off the painting, followed by drummers, bagpipe players, and then the entire band. All two hundred and fifty of them marched with precise steps into the bedroom.

The surf in Wiley's "Siesta Key Beach" began to splash. Some of the bathers spread their blankets in front of Wiley's wall. High school girls started a volleyball game. 

Wiley stared, speechless, horrified, but the wine, bourbon and the late hour overtook him. He slumped down onto the blanket of the Siesta Key bathers and passed out.

In the corner, the ballerina still twirled.

~~~

Wiley woke in his bed. He didn't know how he got there. He didn't remember removing his clothes, but there they were, his shirt and best jeans, tangled in a heap on the floor near his good sandals.

He shook his head again, remembering last night. He stared at the painting in front of him. "The Bridge Players" silently inspected their cards. Next to it, another of his works showed diners at a seaside restaurant. The patrons were seated, their cigarettes and coffee cups poised in mid‑air. All the other paintings in the bedroom were as they should be, still. 

It must have been the wine, he thought as he showered and dressed. 

Not totally convinced that it had only been a bad dream, he inspected the paintings in the living room. The ballerina was still bending over her pink slipper. The band was in their state of blessed stillness. 

Wiley shook his head again. It had to have been the wine. From now on he was sticking strictly to beer.

~~~

Soon the house was filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the sounds of Wiley whistling as he began hanging his self‑portrait. An hour later, he made a sandwich with the last roll and whatever cold cuts he had left. 

He groaned. He'd have to go into town later. He hated the nosy townspeople, the friendly kids at the checkout. Too friendly. He came out here to paint, not to make friends.

~~~

There was another opening that night. It was so crowded that Wiley didn't get a chance to have more than two glasses of wine. They had no beer. His agent had insisted he come. His agent often had lousy ideas. This was one.

~~~

That night, Wiley approached his house with trepidation. As he stood in front of the door, he thought he heard music.
 
He smiled to himself. Of course. Probably some kids parked way back doing something they shouldn't in the back seat of a banged up old car. Music carried out here.

As soon as he entered the house, he got a can of cold beer. Savoring a swallow, he sat down on his sofa, put his feet up, and enjoyed his paintings.

When he went to get another beer, he patted his "Pickers in an Orange Grove" hanging outside the kitchen and caressed his "Circus Winter Headquarters" hanging on the opposite wall.

Then he heard a caressing female voice gently call his name.

His head jerked towards the window, then the television.

There was no one outside.

The television was blank.

He shook his head and took another sip of beer.

It was then that he heard the sound. Like a music box. Soft and tinkling.

He looked up. The ballerina was standing before him, smiling. She pirouetted towards a corner and twirled round and around.

The two hundred and fifty member Riverview High School Band played their instruments and marched through the room. The animals from "County Fair" began bleating and weaving through the musicians’ feet. The noise was deafening.

A man with an orange for a face came in from the bedroom. "Come," the man spoke. Mesmerized by the horror, and with an insatiable curiosity, Wiley followed the faceless man, the band, and the parade.

He watched, fascinated as the creatures and the people miniaturized and flowed into their respective frames.

Wiley wheeled around as the person who had led him at the end of the parade into the bedroom shrank and floated into a frame above the bed.

Then Wiley noticed another painting — his self‑portrait which he had just hung. As he stared, he felt an odd sensation. He was becoming smaller. He was soaring through the air, towards the self-portrait, the image of an artist with a white Devil’s Trumpet flower dangling from his hand. 
        
People still claim to see ghostly lights and hear plaintive cries. Researchers at the University just as adamantly discount it all as local superstition.

*** HISTORICAL NOTE: Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida led to the First Seminole War. The Removal Act was passed in 1830. Seminoles were forced to leave Florida and walk to Oklahoma. Wiley Thompson was in charge of the Removal. Thomas Jessup, the commander of all U.S. troops in Florida during the Second Seminole War said about the Seminole, "The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them." ***

Ride the Peter Pan 
by Allison Whittenberg​

There were times when it seemed like all the beauty was sucked out of my life. This was one of them. It was cold and damp, early spring, and I was Greyhounding from my old life to my new, from North to South. I was 24, master degreed, unwed, and pregnant.

All around me, I saw failure. As each passenger climbed aboard, emptiness filled the bus. I saw the unshaved and the unshowered. The angry and confused. Widows, retirees, practically invalids dragging their duffle bags. Beside me, a degenerate unwrapped his plastic-wrapped sandwiches. I stared out of the windows like a peeping Tom. Riding the bus meant never passing City Hall, never going by the nice restaurants or boutiques melting into friendly pedestrians strolling past. No businessman with wedding bands checking briefcases. No, I saw a squeegee man dirtying clean windshields.

I wish I’d taken the Peter Pan, a special line that showed escapist movies. I’d taken that before when I was only going as far as NYC. I saw a flick about moving an elephant cross-country. It wasn’t a box office smash, but for a bus ride it was perfect. Here, there wasn’t even a blank screen. I could go for another feature length; too bad that line doesn’t go down South.

A man with eyes like the sky was driving. He loudly talked to the passengers in the front couple of rows about how fake pro wrestling was. He asked the question, “How come every time they hit each other, they stomp their feet?”

Back in high school, I was Valedictorian. A decade later, long after pomp and circumstance was played, I found myself a loser. Just another confused minority waif riding public transportation, bouncing the back of her neck against a greasy headrest. 

My wish was for a miscarriage. I know that was a horrible thing to wish for.

I had used up all my distractions. I put on my headphones and heard only a staticky cassette tape. The magazines I brought, I had read too quickly. I had put away the novel I brought miles ago. I just couldn’t get into it. It was just words on a page. Now what?

There was a woman with chicken wings in her shirt pocket. Her fingers smudged the window.

I’m going to kill my baby. Strangle it with my large intestine, or with my hands like the Prom Mom. It was a fleeting thought. I blamed it on the bus. Some people get motion sickness; I get homicidal thoughts.

If only the Peter Pan would go way down to Georgia. Maybe I should have flown or rented a car. Truth is, I didn’t have the presence of mind to do either. I needed to let someone else do the driving. Let someone else make the stops and turns. I was so angry. Angry at rape, domestic violence, the porn industry, sexism, fascism, racism, ismisms. My life wasn’t supposed to go like this. I was the smart girl.

I should have watched my drink.

I should have reported it.

I should have taken the morning after pill.

I shouldn’t have been in denial.

RU486 could have stopped this from being compounded. How am I going to look at this product for the next 18 years? How? What am I going to do? Where am I going? I know where I’m going. Macon. But where am I going?

I’m going home. I don’t even have a job waiting for me. I had two grand saved; that’s all.

My legs are cramping from a rocky night when I try to turn this seat into a sofa. I snuggle in the best I can.

I have no other plans than to live with my mother. My mother is loving and nurturing, but not understanding. She couldn’t understand this; I couldn’t understand this.

A few rows behind me, that Lolita pop music was playing; someone else turned on a hip hop station and overpowered it. This all could have been understandable if I dressed like a naval-centric nymphet, but I didn’t. I never did. Even on that night, I had on my work clothes at the party, Navy skirt, light blue turtleneck. (When groping for cause and effect, fall on stereotypes.)

I thought I knew Warren. We had talked before about peace, public education, and reparations. My life was going so well. I was saving to buy a condo, something tasteful with modern furniture. It would look like the furniture storeroom at Ikea. Now look at me, boomeranging back to my same humble beginnings, to the gray borough I grew up in. I have lost control. My power is taken. My destiny. Couldn’t he at least have opened up a condom package and put it on?

The woman in front of me was babbling about how thick her son’s neck is. He was in the Navy, and the Navy wanted to kick him out because he’d gotten fat. They have been taping his waist and throat to find the density.

My rapist wasn’t big, but he did overpower me.

My rapist didn’t look like a rapist. He was tall, slender, a runner’s build, dark, bookish eyeglasses – kind of like me, only male... and a pervert.

I only had one glass of wine.

Date rapists aren’t any different from rapist-rapists. In a lot of ways, they are worse. They gain your confidence, then betray you. They Milli Vanilli their way into your life. They don’t carry a knife or a gun. Just a drug. And surprise.

I remember my stockings pulled down around my ankles so I couldn’t move my feet and run. The wheel of my mind takes in the way he braced my arms so that I couldn’t move my arms and clock him. The way he got inside my mind so even my voice didn’t work. Why didn’t I scream? I lived in an efficiency apartment on the third floor where the walls and ceilings were as thin as loose-leaf paper.

I worked in the politics of shame as a counselor at a women’s shelter where the politics of silence was busted every day. I should have come forward. Instead, I did what I urged others not to do, I swallowed it down… yet the projector kept whirring and clacking.

There was a woman on the bus with her hair so uncombed, she had dreads from the neglect. Her carry-on was a shopping bag full of pain. I was just like her. Up until the rape, my life had been so fine-tooth-combed. Pregnancy dictated to me that all my dreams were gone. Even my distant ones of going to Africa, eating raw cashews in Nairobi, tracing my roots…

The bus driver stopped just past Columbia. He told us to get a smoke or a coke. The previous day, I had thrown up twice. Today, I was hungry. I went to the restroom to wash up. The smell of joints hit me, as did the sight of women brushing their teeth and washing up. Not just bird baths. Not just splashing under the armpits, spritz to open the dry eyes. These women had their tops off and their pants down. They were buck-naked crowded by the drain.

I left the restroom and cleansed my hands with a moistened towelette I had stored in my carryall bag. I ducked into the terminal coffee shop and sat at the counter.

A waitress made her way over to me and grunted at me.

“Do you have any turkey?” I asked.

“No.”

“What do you have?” I asked.

“Burgers. What did you want? A club?”

“No. I wanted a Rachel.”

She looked at me blankly.

I explained. “It’s like a Ruben, but you use turkey.”

“We don’t have no turkey.”

“Do you have bacon?”

“Do you want a BLT?” she asked.

“No. Bacon cheeseburger.”

“We don’t have no cheese.”

I squinted. “No cheese? No bacon?”

“Nope. So what do you want?”

“An abortion.”

She gave me a blank stare.

“I’ll have a burger,” I swallowed hard and said hoarsely.

“You want fries with that?”

Soon, the moon-faced waitress slid the plate my way. The bun was cold, and the burger looked like an SOS scouring pad.

I just don’t get it; I had done everything I was supposed to do right down to only using my first initial on the mail and the phone book. How did I get raped?

Some fellow with a head full of shiny Liberace hair — every strand in place — sat next to me. I eyed him. He was a brown-skinned man, chubby; I don’t know why I thought Liberace. I should have thought Al Sharpton.

“How’s your burger?” he asked.

I said nothing.

“My name’s Brian.” He smiled. I noticed that he was missing a side tooth. “You know, you are exactly what I’m looking for.”

I thought for a moment; exactly what was I looking for? A life of fox furs, red sequin evening dresses? White candles in silver candlestick holders? The man kept smiling at me, showcasing his missing molar. I told myself to give up. Life is not going to be gallant.

He chewed his burger favoring one side. “What’s your name?”

“Ann.” I lied. It was really Arna. This is what I always did. I never give strangers too much information. Even in singles clubs, when asked for my phone number, I would give only the last digit. I’m always cautious, watchful.

“Ann. I like that. I like women like you. I like a woman whose breasts are where they’re supposed to be and have a nice, small waist like you have.”

I turned away from him and placed my napkin over my burger.

“I have a truck,” he said.

I put a five-dollar bill on the counter.

“You want to go for a ride in my truck?” he asked. He smelled oily and too close.

I stood up. “How old are you?”

“I’m 42, but I don’t want no has-beens. My daddy had kids up until he was 60…. I don’t date women over 21, 22.”

“You don’t.”

“Naw, I don’t want a has-been.”

“Do you have any kids?” I asked.

“I have grandkids,” he answered.

“You have grandkids.” I absorbed and repeated.

“Yeah, but that’s my daughter’s business.”

“What happened to your wife?” I asked.

“What wife? I’ve never been married – “ He leered. “ –Yet.”

I made a fist. “You’re a 42-year-old grandfather. Why don’t you date grandmothers?”

“I done told you, I don’t deal with no has-beens,” he told me. “Have you started your family yet?”

“By family, you mean a mother and a father and a child, right. If you mean that, the answer is no.” I made my voice icy as Massachusetts in December. I kept my cadence proper and dry.

“You know what I mean. You got any shorties?” he asked, still wearing a snaggle-toothed grin.

“The answer is no.”

I turned to leave. He reached for me.

“Get your goddamn hands off of me.”

The entire clientele craned their necks at me. An older woman next to the door looked over her glasses at me. The waitress cupped her hands over her face.

“I went to Smith!” I told them, then I gave Grandpa the finger.

I gathered my coat around me, clutched my bag, and walked toward the pay phone. I had promised I’d call my mother when I got close to home. I pulled out my card and pressed the digits. Ma answered on the first ring.

“How’s your trip going?” she asked.

“All right,” I answered. This was my biggest lie yet.

“It’s a cast of characters ain’t it?” she laughed. I loved her laugh. It was full, colorful, and Southern.

“How far are you along?” she asked.

“Right outside of Columbia.”

“How far are you along?” she asked again.

“I’m right in Sumter. Outside Columbia, I’ll be there in another two hours.”

“No, Arna, how far are you along?”

“You know? How could you know?”

“I just do. Something about the way you told me out of the blue you were moving back home. You love Boston.”

She didn’t sound angry or disappointed. She sounded psychic.

“Everything is going to be all right. You’re not around any smoke are you? They say that now. That ain’t good for the baby.”

“I’m only two months in, Ma,” I told her.

“It’s too bad you have to travel pregnant. You have morning sickness and jet lag.”

I smiled. It felt strange to smile. ”Ma, you can’t get that from a bus because you feel every mile.”

“Buses ain’t so bad anymore. Don’t they show movies?”

“Certain ones do. Greyhound has a spin off. Peter Pan. I’m just on the regular one.”

“Well, you’ll be home soon. We’ll all be there to pick you up.”

“I don’t have a job lined up.”

“You’re a mother now. That’s your job.”

“But I had a career.”

“You’ll find something down here. You’ve always been smart.”

“Ma, I let a dumb thing happen.”

“You’re the first one in the family to ever go to college, Arna. You’ll find something down here. We’ve got everything Boston’s got. Just a little less of it.”

I saw a mass of people heading toward the bus. “Ma, I have to go.”

“See you soon.”

The bus was just about to pull off as I climbed back aboard. The driver asked me if I knew The Rock.

I crossed my fingers and said, “We’re like this.”

There was a reshuffling of the seats, and I found my middle of the bus seat gone. I went to the back.

It’s always those honor student, 16-year-olds who don’t want to disappoint their parents who hemorrhage from grimy abortions. Ma took the news better than I thought.

My mother had emphatic ears. She didn’t wear makeup or nail polish. She had basic hobbies; she liked to sew and cook. She was lucky; she didn’t go out to the world to discover herself. She was married at 15. I was the exact middle child of seven. Maybe Macon wouldn’t be so bad. It’s not like I had a job on Wall Street. There are shelters in my hometown, or at least people in need of shelter.

A voluptuous, big-hipped woman sat next to me. She had swollen ankles. She was one of the nude women I saw in the restroom.

I guess I wasn’t put into this world to be pampered; I was put in this world to be squeezed between a window and foul-smelling misery.

Back home, kids ride their bikes and chase each other up and down the sidewalk. Just thinking of that made me feel warm enough to ignore the draft that was coming from the metal vent alongside the window.

I will not end this life.

If it’s a girl, I will cover her pigtails with red and purple plastic. If it’s a boy, I will teach him to be kind.

The bus started up, and I got a mild case of whiplash caused from my neck bouncing against the headrest.

There are times when it seems like all the beauty is sucked out.

This isn’t one of them.

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