A Bus Named Hope
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Cyrus Ledbetter and I have a legal office in Savannah, Georgia where I have lived and worked for the past twenty-five years. Over the course of time, I have done quite well for myself. My briefs are plentiful and, by and large, I tend to win the day for my clients. Actually, I have a reputation for this that exceeds the boundaries of our beautiful city. In recent years, I have devoted more of my time to assisting local politicians in their hunt for electoral glory although I, myself, am not inclined to be partisan one way or t’other.
You might say I am somewhere near the pinnacle of my profession yet, although I am still a hard-working man, I fear my days of high ambition are behind me, more or less. Nowadays my tendency is to just relax and enjoy the fruits of my labours; to listen to the breezes outside of my house by the water and to watch the boats there transiting the coastal channel, making their way either north or south, given the time of year. I am content to spend my days in such a way and have no need for worry or stress, either personal or financial. But it was not always thus.
I was born in the town of Hope, some twenty miles inside the state border on the Chattahoochee River and something like three hundred miles from where I now reside. Hope hasn’t changed much, even to this day. It is a small town with small town dreams and small town thinking. That I ever escaped it at all seems somewhat of a miracle to me now. Many didn’t. There is only one road into town and the daily bus that goes there finds itself back where it had started that very morning.
Nothing much changes in a town like Hope despite the passage of time and I’m sure that if I went back there, which of course I will never do, I would find the same folk staring out the same windows and the same young men lollygagging round the bar and pool hall on a Saturday night.
In the summer of 1953, I was a boy of sixteen and although I enjoyed my days like any other boy of that age, even then I knew I would not stay. But if there was any reason that I might have had to think otherwise it would have been the presence there of the woman who was the object of my boyhood dreams. That woman was Blaze Briquette.
I was not alone in my dreams of her for every young man in the county probably had dreams of her. That dreaming would not advance to any formal kind of courtship however as Blaze had what was known in those times as a ‘reputation’. Blaze also had a strange medical condition which didn’t affect her great beauty at all and perhaps even enhanced it to some degree. That her brilliant red hair was her most commanding feature was something of an irony as Blaze Briquette was completely bald.
Not just bald in the sense of having no head hair but not a single follicle grew on her entire body. She was born that way and when it became apparent that no hair would ever protrude through that porcelain skin of hers, her mother bought Blaze her first wig at the age of nine. That her body was completely hairless could only be confirmed by the say-so of nearby relatives and doctors and many of us suspected that it was just a cruel lie; that there surely must be something else wrong with her. It was not until that summer that I found out differently. That the story was, in fact, true.
Now Georgia has always been a hot state in the summer but this particular year it was beyond measure. It was hot to the point of danger and people, particularly the old, were getting ill on account of it. There was no escaping it as modern air-conditioning had yet to become universal and certainly had not made its way to this backwater. Therefore, we suffered.
It happened that my best friend, Augie Tremaine, and I and one or two others knew of a swimming hole some five miles out of town and lying on a piece of land connected to the Briquette farm. In all honesty, though, to call the Briquette place a farm was to stretch truth for it had fallen into what could only be generously called ‘disrepair’.
Stanley Briquette, the husband of Blaze and owner of the property, had been forced to move into the dilapidated old house upon it after he had squandered a larger fortune left to him by his disappointed father. The family fortune had all but disappeared by the time Stanley was thirty and had been spent mostly on gambling, drink and whores. Being forced into near bankruptcy, Stanley had been happy to sell the old plantation, so lovingly maintained over the years by his family, to pay off his debts. He had then taken up residence in his current dwelling, which was the only building left on the only land he had remaining to his name.
Now it was some twenty-five years later and Stanley Briquette was pretty much a broken man. The only light in his life, you might say, was Blaze, his wife, who was some twenty years younger than he. In one of the rare moments of clarity that Stanley had in those days of wine and roses, he had courted and then married the needful Blaze Oppenheimer who was desperate to wed and, with any luck, escape the town. How Stanley had misled her and what he had offered up as a lure remains a mystery to this day. Whatever it was had worked, however, and now Blaze and Stanley lived out their doleful existence on the Briquette farm.
Early, at the beginning of the heat wave, Augie and I took our bicycles and rode the five miles out to the swimming hole. It was a deep pond with a huge willow tree that almost covered it with its canopy and because it was spring-fed from deep underground, was always cool, no matter what the ambient temperature. And when done swimming, you could lie back and relax and remain cool under the sweeping boughs of this great old tree. Of course, riding back to town on our bikes meant instantly reheating but that didn’t seem to deter us. This day the pond was not going to bring us any relief, however, as before we could enter the water we saw Blaze Briquette crossing the field with a towel under her arm. She was apparently going to take advantage of the cool waters herself.
Hiding ourselves and our bikes in the scrub we watched, almost unable to breathe, as Blaze approached the water hole. She was moving slowly through the heat and even with the sublime pond beckoning her, she removed her clothing without hurry, folding and placing each item on the towel which she had spread out on the ground.
It was as she removed the last of her clothing that we realized that the old story was true. She had not one hair on her entire body. The last thing she removed was the bright auburn wig which she placed carefully on top of the clothing. She stood there forever, it seemed to us. Her skin was like snow and seemed almost translucent in the midday sun. She had long thin limbs and small delicate hands that seemed to angle out from her body. Her torso was also quite thin and although not voluptuous by any measure, she was well-proportioned for such a woman.
But nothing on her body was quite as mesmerizing as her neck. It was phenomenally long and were it one millimeter longer would have made her look ridiculous, almost freakish. But as it was it was perfect. It was as if some god had turned a swan into a woman. And then plucked her.
Blaze slipped into the water and cooled herself off, pouring cupped handfuls of water over her beautiful hairless head for what seemed like an eternity to Augie and I crouched not twenty feet away. Then she got out, dried and dressed herself, replaced her wig and made her way back across the field. When she finally disappeared from sight around the corner of the house I awoke from my trance and turned to Augie. Neither of us had spoken a word for over half an hour. Augie’s face looked like he had been hit with a board. Then we both started laughing.
“That, Augustus, was incredible!” I said, rolling onto my back.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” Augie replied. “Do you think she saw us?”
“Nah,” I said, “she wouldn’t have done all that if she’d seen us.”
“I don’t know,” Augie replied, “maybe she just might have. You know what they say about her.”
“Ah, you don’t know nothing about it, Augie Tremaine,” I snapped at him. Augie just stared at me. How dare he malign the object of my deepest love? For that was what it was. As deep a love as I had ever known in my young life. And it had been at first sight, too. Well, sort of. I had seen her in town a couple of times but never like today. I knew I had to see her again.
“C’mon,” I whispered, hardly able to give voice to my own craving. “Let’s go over to the house and get another look.”
“What are you talking about?” Augie said. “They’ll see us!”
“No they won’t. I know a way.” And with that we jumped up and grabbed our bicycles and sped, as only young boys on bikes can do, up the road towards the house. There was a long, unused irrigation ditch that led from the road, up past the side of the house and into the fallowed fields that started just past the barn. We laid our bikes down and on all fours we crept along the ditch towards the house. There was an old, crumbling well situated about forty feet from the front porch. We squirreled our way along the ditch with this well as our goal.
The house was probably quite respectable once; built from fine, red brick with strong, oak gables and pillars. Only time and neglect had brought it to its current state. The porch roof gave only partial coverage to the space underneath and the rail was worn and in places the balusters were missing or broken. There was a large, rattan chair on the porch and off to the other end, a beaten, swinging couch, the cover of which was torn and stained. Even with no one sitting in it and very little breeze about, it still seemed to emote a plaintive creak every now and then.
The old barn stood behind the house, a fading memory of the once thriving farm it had over-looked. It was huge, actually, much larger than the house by a factor of at least ten to one for it had once housed an entire herd of fine Jersey cattle. Now there were only one or two cows for milk and half a dozen scrawny chickens that scratched around just outside it, running back and forth inside to escape the devastating sun.
The land behind the barn stretched in both directions for about a mile and was dry and untended. An ancient broken-down tractor sat in the middle of it all. Nothing grew and the parched earth was covered with the desiccated stalks and husks of the corn crop that had flourished there at one time. Even the gophers and ground-hogs had abandoned this wasteland and in the wind-break trees on the western edge of the property there were no birds nor, in fact, even any leaves. That the willow by the pond still thrived was a tribute to that oasis in the middle of this agricultural desert.
We crawled as close to the house as we dared and took cover low and behind the well-head.
“I don’t know how long I’m gonna last here, Cyrus,” Augie whispered, “It’s so hot!”
“I know, I know,” I replied. “We’ll just stick here for a bit and see if she don’t show at the upstairs window there.” I pointed up to the only window in the place that had a curtain on it; a flower print curtain that pushed out through the open frame, caught by the breeze that was obviously being fed through the house in an attempt to keep the place cool for sleeping. Augie was about to say something else when the screen door onto the porch creaked open and Stanley Briquette appeared.
Stanley was in his late fifties and heavy-set. He was stooped and held himself propped up with a gnarled stick cane. He had on dirty, cream-colored pants and brown leather shoes that had no laces. He sort of slid them along the boards of the porch as he walked so they wouldn’t come off. The suspenders of his pants were askew with one strap dangling down his leg and the other slung over a hairy shoulder that showed through the sweat-sodden material of his faded, white silk shirt. He wore a broad straw hat and his long, unkempt white hair flowed from beneath its brim, hanging in shaggy folds around his ears. He had what looked like four days growth of dark beard, streaked with grey, and as he limped forward on what appeared to be a gimpy leg, he muttered out loud.
“My, but it sure enough is powerful hot today!” He stopped and mopped his brow with a soiled handkerchief dragged out from his trouser pocket. “Powerful hot.”
He slumped down into the big rattan chair in a heap. I thought he might go right through the frayed, matted seat but it held somehow.
“I can’t remember it ever being this hot before,” he continued, as though speaking to someone who was actually there. “Powerful hot.”
He gasped and winced in pain and his hand shot to his thigh and he massaged it slowly.
“Muh leg hurts so much. S’all swollen up. The damn heat has made muh leg into a sausage. Swelled right up into a damn sausage leg! Hell that hurts!”
He leaned forward and peered out onto what was left of the lawn.
“It’s so hot you could cook an egg on that grass, and that’s a fact. You could take an egg and fry it out there on the grass.” He looked down at this leg. “You could have fried egg and sausage leg, you surely could,” he chortled and snorted at his own joke. “Egg ’n sausage leg…” He began to cough through his dry laugh and slumped back into his chair. “Sho is powerful hot, all right,” he wheezed out.
He turned his head towards the house. “Blaze! Blaze honey!” he called out. “Blaze, make me up a mint julep, will ya? I’ve got a powerful thirst!”
A cool, slow voice floated out from inside the house. A lazy, bored voice that had totally given up on actually trying to communicate anything meaningful.
“What’s that you say, Stanley?” Blaze called back.
“Come out here, will ya?” Stanley said.
“I’m right here, Stanley,” came the wispy voice, “I can hear ya just fine.”
“I said come out here on ta poach. Out here where I can see ya” Stanley demanded. “Why don’t ya make me up one of them mint juleps of yours, huh? You know the kind I like. That kind you used to make when ya loved me once?”
From where we lay, we could hear her slow, tired footsteps coming down the hall. Then we could see a long, white arm with a tiny, white flower of a hand appear behind the screen. The door pushed open and Blaze Briquette, the new love of my life, appeared on the porch. She had changed out of her clothes from before and now had on a pinkish print dress with small red flowers that was cinched at the waist with a yellow, cloth belt. She was barefoot and her small white feet seemed to glisten as she stepped out on to the wooden deck. The locks of her fiery red wig cascaded down over her bare shoulders.
“I’m not in the mood to be making you juleps today, Stanley,” she said, not looking at him but staring out across the field as she leaned against one of the poorly painted pillars.
Stanley watched her, unable to understand what he had been thinking when he took up with this faded piece of southern, white trash. Still, she was a devastatingly beautiful piece, and that was a fact. “Where was you earlier?” he asked.
“I was out playing in the fields, Stanley. Out in the cornfields. Remember the fields?”
Stanley looked away. “I remember the fields,” he said, bitterly.
“The fields that had corn in them? Remember those, Stanley? It’s just all dead weeds now.”
“Dead weeds, yup. Them’s the worst kind, the dead ones. I guess… I dunno, I’m no farmer.” Stanley studied her, casting his eye up and down her strong, young body.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off her either as we laid there in the long grass; still and silent like two pieces of wood. I had forgotten totally about Augie. In fact, when I looked over at him, I realized he had fallen asleep. Good, I thought, I can watch her a bit longer without fear of interruption.
“You’re a striking figure of a woman, Blaze,” Stanley said in a low, hot voice.
“You think one side of me is more striking than t’other, Stanley?” Blaze replied, slowly running a hand down her dress to straighten it out.
“Yeah, probably,” Stanley said, “I dunno. Where was you earlier, Blaze? I called but you didn’t answer.”
“I told you, I went for a walk. Then I had a swim. I went for a swim down to the pond.”
“Look,” Stanley pleaded, “You know I want you to make me one of them mint juleps that I like. Why don’t ya just do that for me, Blaze honey?”
Blaze flung herself away from the post and over to the other end of the veranda. She hoisted one leg up and sat, side-saddle, on the porch rail, clinging to the post.
“Cain’t make you no mint julep, Stanley. Cain’t make it ’cause there’s no ice, ’cause the ice-box is broken!”
“I told ya, I cain’t fix the ice box on account of muh sausage leg!” Stanley protested.
“It’s always your leg, ain’t it? Always something! Always your leg,” Blaze trailed off.
“T’ain’t always muh leg…” Stanely said weakly.
“Sometimes it’s muh neck.”
Blaze looked at him scornfully. “Last week it was your neck. How is it now?”
“Caint do this,” Stanley said, trying to turn his head, “it still hurts.” He looked up at her. At the faint, mocking smile on her full lips. “I don’t know why I every married a cheap tart like you anyway,” he muttered.
Blaze stood up off the railing and faced him, her hands on her hips. “Yeah, you know now that is a good question. Why did you marry me, Stanley?” she demanded.
“I guess the price was right, honey,” Stanley threw back at her. “I know you,” he shouted, “I know you! You just wanna go into town, don’t ya? You wanna go and live in the town where all the men in their fancy yellah pants go, don’t ya? Don’t ya?!”
“Well, to be honest, I’d never thought of that, Stanley. But yeah, I guess some men in some fancy pants might be nice. Be real nice to have a real man around here for once. Not just a pathetic, short-dick has-been!” I couldn’t believe the things she was saying to him; couldn’t believe he just sat there and took it.
“You wanna go and live in Hope,” Stanley repeated, miserable and quiet now.
“Yeah, I’d like to go and live in Hope,” Blaze continued, happy to hurt Stanley as much as she could. I cheered her on, silently, from my hiding place. “I’d be dancing with all the young boys,” she said, dreamily, staring off into space. “I can see them right now. They’re like a vision, Stanley. All lined up…”
As she continued on, I rode the dream with her. There we were at the dance hall on the edge of town. A whole squadron of young men lined up along the bar, all wanting to dance with Blaze Briquette. But she chose me. Chose me because I understood what she needed. I understood her because I had seen her that day at the pond.
All three of us were yanked back out of this fantasy by the abrasive sounding of a bus horn.
“Hey,” said Stanley, looking up. “Hey, is that the bus stopping down at the end of the drive there?”
Blaze threw herself to the railing. There was a bus. It was the bright blue, sleek-looking Crown Flyer with the word HOPE scrolled on the front. It was the Hope bus, all right.
“It is! The bus is stopping right at the end of the drive! Why is the bus stopping here, Stanley?”
I strained my neck around the well, trying to get a look at the bus. There was only one bus, as I mentioned before. It left Hope at six in the morning and returned in the afternoon having completed its run to the capital and back.
As we watched, the bus door hissed open and after a second a man stepped down.
“Look at that, Blaze. There’s someone getting off,” Stanley said, amazed.
“Well, at least there’s someone getting off around here,” Blaze said, sitting back against the rail.
The man was young, maybe late twenties or so and was wearing faded jeans and cowboy boots. He had on a denim shirt, too, that was undone down to all but the last couple of buttons. He had dark hair, pasted back from his temples and he had a tooth-pick hanging from his mouth. Under one arm he had a brown leather jacket and he turned and looked back up into the bus. He said something I couldn’t make out and then a black suitcase came hurtling down towards him. He caught it with a grunt as the bus door swung closed. Then the bus moved off, kicking up gravel as it left the shoulder and roared down the dusty road. The man put the bag down and watched the bus leave. It looked like he swore something out loud and spat after it. Then he turned and looked back down the road from where the bus had come. He paused for a moment. It seemed like he was trying to make up his mind about something. Then he spotted the house and started slowly up the drive.
I woke Augie up. We had to be ready to take off in case the man saw us lying there. Augie came to and together we laid with our heads on our hands and watched.
“He’s coming up the driveway!” Stanley said.
“That’s what I’d be doing,” Blaze whispered. “I’d be coming right up that driveway.”
The man walked up the walk and stopped just short of the steps. Blaze spoke first.
“Howdy, stranger,” she said.
The man looked at her and then at Stanley.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he said.
“I ain’t no woman,” Stanley said, quickly. “What are you looking at me for? She’s the woman.”
“Can’t you tell?” Blaze interjected.
“No, ma’am,” said the stranger. “I guess I was sweating so much the sweat got in my eyes.”
“Sure it did,” said Stanley, “it’s powerful hot, all right. What are you doing here, stranger?”
“No, you ain’t. Passing through woulda meant staying on the bus.”
“Like the man says,” the stranger said, ‘it’s powerful hot today. I was wonderin’ if I could get something to cool me down, ma’am.”
“I think I need something to cool me down, too,” Blaze said, breathlessly.
“There ain’t no cool drinks to be had, mister. The ice box is broken,” Stanley said.
“Yeah, on account of his leg,” Blaze said.
Stanley shot her a glance. “I didn’t break the ice-box with muh leg!”
There was a slight pause until the stranger interjected. “I sure could do with a mint julep, ma’am.”
“Well, now, we was just about to make us up some mint juleps, weren’t we Stanley?” Blaze gushed.
“For gawd’s sake…” Stanley began.
“I’ll be right back,” Blaze said and started into the house. She slowed down her exit the moment she realized she was rushing in an undignified manner. The screen door slammed shut behind her.
“Come up here on the poach, stranger. Set a spell.” Stanley said.
The stranger mounted the steps and stood with his back against the foremost pillar. His muscles flexed as he put down his case and his strong arms shone in the waning sun.
“You’re a young buck now, ain’t ya boy?” said Stanley, sizing up the stranger.
“That’s right,” said the stranger after a short pause while he looked out over the property.
“What’s your name?” Stanley asked.
“Raphael,” said the stranger. He pronounced it ‘Raff – eye – el’.
Stanley looked him up and down again. “What’s the ‘I’ stand for?” he asked, finally. The stranger didn’t reply. Stanley went on. “Where ya comin’ from?”
The stranger turned and looked at him. “Somewhere… everywhere…nowhere,” he said.
“Where ya headed?” Stanley said.
“Nowhere… everywhere… somewhere,” he replied.
Stanley thought about this for a second. “So, you’re going home then?”
Raphael looked at Stanley and then down to the floor. “Look, mister,” he said, “I need some work. People say I’m real good with my hands.”
Stanley stared up at the tall man. “Yeah? Can you bring a dead cow back to life?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Raphael, without blinking an eye. “I can.”
“Good,” said Stanley, “’cause there’s a lot of dead cows in the barn.”
This jawing over employment was beginning to bore me and Augie. Where was Blaze? If she didn’t come back soon, we’d have to leave, but I vowed to return as soon as possible. Maybe when Stanley went into town for supplies or something. Then the door swung open and Blaze came out carrying a tray with some drinks on it. She put the tray down on small table and picked up a tall glass full of julep, ice and a big sprig of mint. She came close to Raphael and handed it to him slowly.
“Here ya go, sir,” she said.
Raphael looked deeply into her eyes. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
A moment passed before Stanley struck his cane against the railing with a whack. “Give me my drink!” he shouted. Blaze handed him what looked like some sort of mug. Stanley took a sip from it.
“Jesus!” he complained, loudly. “It’s hot chocolate! Who’d give a man hot chocolate on a day like this?”
“Well, it’s in your favourite clown mug,” Blaze said, not taking her eyes off the stranger.
“Yer husband was just saying I might have some work here,” Raphael said. “By the way, my name is Raphael.”
“Raphael,” Blaze repeated, slowly. “Why that’s a beautiful name.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“My name is Blaze.”
“Of course it is,” Raphael said.
“Told Raphael here there might be one of two things he could do. Says he’s good with his hands,” Stanley interjected.
“About time we had someone good with something round here,” Blaze said.
Blaze and Raphael stared deeply at each other. I could feel my face flush as I began to understand what was transpiring up on the porch. I almost jumped up. Augie must have felt my tension because he put a hand on my shoulder, pushing me down against the hot grass. Stanley must have sensed what was happening too, because he suddenly got to his feet but then, in an overly dramatic fashion, fell to the floor. Neither Blaze nor Raphael flinched a muscle.
“I’m pretty good at renovatin’,” Raphael said. “Maybe I’ll start up in the bedroom.”
“That’d be a good place to start,” Blaze said, her voice heavy with desire.
“Hey! Look at me! I fell down!” Stanley said from his prone position on the porch. “What’s the matter with you people?” Using his cane, Stanley struggled back to his feet. “I’m going inside and get me muh own julep” he muttered and exited into the house slamming the door behind him. The two left on the porch continued their dance.
“This is the best mint julep I ever did done taste in my life, Blaze.”
“You ever did done taste?”
“That’s right,” said Raphael, “and I’ve done tasting it right now.” He tossed the glass out into the yard. It rolled and smashed against the well. Augie and I felt bits and pieces puncture the air around us. Raphael moved closer to Blaze. They were only inches apart.
“It’s so powerful hot,” Blaze said, averting her eyes.
“It sure is powerful hot, ma’am,” Raphael said, “Am I sweatin’? I do tend to sweat on days such as this.”
“Well, there is a little sweat rolling down your cheek there. Let me get it for you.” She reached up and using her finger, wiped the bead of sweat from Raphael’s face. She moaned slightly while doing so.
“Why, ma’am,” said Raphael, “you got a little bit of sweat, too. Right here on your neck. Let me dab it off for you. It’s right here.” Raphael ran his finger down her cheek. “And here...” His finger traced the outline of her jaw. “And here…” He moved his hand slowly, dragging the finger ever so slowly down her neck to the beginning of her dress. “…and here.” I thought I was going to explode.
Blaze could barely speak and she trembled as she said, “I’ve got the longest neck in this county.”
It seemed as though the world had gone silent. There was no motion and the very air itself was thick and dead as the two stood face to face. Raphael bent down, bringing his face to hers and was just about to kiss her when the door was flung open and Stanley came back out onto the porch.
“Couldn’t find no more julep meat…” Stanley came to halt as he realized what was going on. “Hey!” he shouted, powerless to break the tension.
Raphael broke away and came over to Stanley. “Look mister, we was just… we just got carried away. I really need this work bad. It’ll never happen again.”
“Well, maybe it’ll happen again,” said Blaze. “It’s really up to me.”
Raphael seized his opportunity. “Let’s just forget it, huh? It’s water under the bridge, right? Where do I bunk mister?”
Stanley was also glad of the diversion but he wasn’t thinking straight at all. “Well, you can sleep upstairs with my wife. I’ll sleep in the barn.” Then he realized what he had just said. “No, wait, that’s wrong!” he shouted out.
“You can’t go back on your word now, Stanley,” Blaze said. “A gentleman never goes back on his word!”
“But…” Stanley began, then, “Oh ta hell with it. What’s the use? I’ll just pack a bag and get over to the barn.”
Stanley turned and went back, once more, into the house. The moment the door closed Raphael and Blaze again threw themselves into each other’s arms.
“Well, ma’am. It’s just you and me now. I love you Blaze Briquette!”
“And I love you, Raphael…” Blaze thought it over, “… Stranger.”
Raphael grasped her to him, their bodies clinging to each other like it was approaching the end of the world. His hands moved up and he ran his fingers through her hair as he stared into her frightened eyes.
“We can conquer the world!” he said as he continued to fondle her hair. “Do whatever we want to. Go wherever we want. Why, we can…”
Raphael stopped suddenly and looked down. He couldn’t understand what had happened but somehow he was holding Blaze’s hair in his hands. He looked back up at her. At her shining, pale head. He noticed for the first time that she had no eyebrows. Blaze grabbed the hair piece back from Raphael.
“Well, look at that,” she stuttered, panicky. “My hair came off! Guess ’cause it’s so powerful hot!” She slapped the wayward wig awkwardly back onto her head. “That’s better. Now where were we?” she said and tried to put her arms around him again.
“What?” Raphael said, a strange, gurgling catch in his throat. “Um, I just remembered something. It’s about your husband.” He pushed Blaze away from him. “It’s not because your hair came off or nothing. Your husband… he, um, loves you. Yeah, that’s it. Anyhow, I gotta go!”
“What?!” Blaze shouted. “You’re just going to leave?”
“Gotta,” said the stranger. “Here. Here’s something to remember me by.” He reached into his shirt and with a forceful tug, removed a handful of his chest hair and handed it over to Blaze.
“Your chest hair,” said Blaze, wiping at a tear that had started to form in her eye. “I’ll cherish it forever.” She folded it neatly into the pocket on her dress.
Raphael turned away and putting a hand over his mouth, made a loud honking sound. “Oh-oh,” he said, “there’s my bus! I’d better get going!” He made a couple of more honking noises before leaping off the porch.
“That’s just you going honk, honk!” Blaze protested.
Raphael was running down the drive now, totally forgetting his suitcase.
“There’s only one bus a day and you got off it half an hour ago!” she shouted.
“I’ll always love you, Blaze Briquette!” he called back over his shoulder.
Blaze and Augie and I watched Raphael as he ran off down the dirt road towards Hope. As his figure grew smaller and smaller in the distance we could hear his bus honks repeating every so often. Blaze started to cry and again I had the feeling I should go up to her. But, of course, it was impossible. Stanley reappeared on the porch.
“I couldn’t reach my bag on account of it was up too high. So I just threw up in the closet and came back down. Say, where’s Raphael?”
“He got on the bus and just took off,” Blaze said, quietly.
“Yeah? Oh, well. Gone off on that bus has he?” Stanley sat back down on the chair.
“Yeah, gone all right,” Blaze said, peering off into the distance. “Gone off on that bus named Hope.”
It was getting dusky now so Augie and I crawled on our stomachs back to the road and to our bicycles. We didn’t say anything to each other, just rode our bikes slowly back into town. The air was cooling down now as the day wrapped itself away and the long ride home was pleasant and all the way I thought about Blaze and Stanley and the stranger.
Stanley didn’t live much longer after that, maybe four or five years. I think his leg killed him in the end. Least that’s what everybody said. Soon as I came of age I went off to school in the big city and earned my law degree and set up my practice here in Savannah. Never did go back to Hope.
Well actually, I did return once, to put up an employment notice at the post office there. I was looking for a new secretary and I thought I might as well give someone from my old home town the opportunity. God knows, they didn’t get many. Nobody responded though, at least not for a quite a while. Then one day, about a month later, I received a letter of application and hired the person right off.
So if you ever have cause to visit my office in the event of some pressing legal necessity or t’other, enter quietly and before you speak, take a moment to look at the receptionist. She’s older now, of course, but still pleasing to the eye. And she still sports a wig of blazing, red hair.