|This Week’s Theme: Flip a coin. Heads, and your characters hates Valentines Day, Tails, and they love it. Now come up with the reason your character feels the way they do.|
I had no idea how little of Interstate 40 my three paperbacks would occupy. At our last stop, a dusty cafe with unbroken windows and unstained porcelain coffee cups, the driver told me we were still only halfway to Albuquerque. Another six hours or thereabouts. "Greyhound Gus" didn't want to stay at the Desert Bluffs Cafe and Gas Stop any longer than I did. He removed his hat and wiped his sweaty, balding head with a spotted handkerchief every few minutes, but he refused to remove his company coat.
The other eight passengers all ate something because where we came from it was lunchtime, but the desert heat had baked away my appetite. I only wanted to keep moving, to get as far away from Jimmy as quickly as I could. I spent most of my time at these stops gazing east along the interstate, looking for the wobbly shimmer of Jimmy's Chevy emerging from the horizon. He wouldn't follow. As long as I didn't call asking him for money, he wouldn't try to follow.
A poor little girl was fairly wilting in her yellow sun dress, but her brother had acquired a set of plastic army men at the last stop and had yet to conclude the war that had raged for over a hundred miles and now had encroached into the sand-swept serenity of the Desert Bluffs. Their father leaned on the pay phone in the parking lot sucking on a cigarette, his blue shirt soaked to the seams. His wife watched through the window with the same look of patient annoyance I'd perfected in waiting for Jimmy when he stepped outside to call one of his "business associates." For the past two years, the business associate's name was Margaret, and he'd been paying her rent in Tulsa. He thought I didn't know.
The young man with the brown eyes leaned over a pump off to the side. He'd taken off his black tee shirt and was bent over, slamming the handle of the pump down so water gushed over his head and down his muscled back. He'd sat down across from me out of Tulsa and introduced himself to me as "Dan--Danny--Dan" and then with jittery fingers shook a cigarette out of a pack to offer me. I said nothing, shook my head no, and looked back at my book. I read my book the next hundred miles, knowing he sat and stared at my breasts in profile. Why shouldn't he, after all? There wasn't anything worth looking at out his window. And he couldn't possibly know how they looked under my shirt, what with being forty years old and having nursed three babies.
I glanced up the road again, expecting the shimmer of a Chevy to pierce the horizon. But it didn't. And with a deep breath I told myself--again--that I was free now, that the sensation of a ring on my finger was not from gold any more but just a depression left from years of relentless pressure. Dan Danny Dan stood up from the fountain, and my gaze traced the rivulets that coursed down his smooth skin and slipped inside the waistband of his jeans. For a moment I imagined my fingers following them.
I looked away, at the ancient cash register on the counter with its one-dollar placard stuck up and bent. At the newspaper spread behind black-soled cowboy boots where the cafe's owner sat with his feet on a table. The newspaper, some local edition, ran a front page story of the Valentine's Day dance tonight down at the Lazy M Ranch. I looked down at my own table, where a quarter and a dime rested next to my empty coffee cup.
Jimmy wouldn't follow, would not try to stop me if I asked for a divorce. But Dan Danny Dan was barely older than my first son. How could I even think about it? But we had five hours, maybe more, before he'd leave the bus in Albuquerque and I'd keep on to Los Angeles. I was a free woman, I reminded myself.
My fingers stretched out, reaching first for the cup but detouring to the quarter. The eagle on its back was spoiled by a black spot. I rubbed it off with my thumb as I noticed the children's mother sitting rigid, holding back tears as she stared out the window at her husband, still on the phone, now turned away from us.
What the hell. I flipped the quarter into the air and caught it, turning it onto the back of my hand but keeping it covered. Heads I do, tails I don't. My heart pounded and my stomach churned from too much coffee and not enough food. Dan Danny Dan stepped onto the bus, and I watched his silhouette glide the length of the bus to the very back. As the round, dusty blue figure of Greyhound Gus the bus driver stepped up next to me, I realized I hadn't breathed in nearly a minute.
"Ready to leave, ma'am, whenever we're all on board."
I smiled up at him, feeling my own sweat running down the empty space between my spine and the clasp of my bra. "Thank you, Gus. I'll be right there."
"Your hand all right?" He stared down at my hands on the table, the right still clasped over the left with the quarter tucked safely out of sight between.
"Oh, yes, thank you."
He looked concerned a moment, then shrugged and turned away. "I'll wait for you, but we still have a ways to go." I could feel the cafe owner's eyes pointed at my profile as I watched Gus waddle across the half melted parking lot and puff his way up the steps. The family bustled themselves up the steps behind him, the father crushing out his cigarette before disappearing inside as well.
"Well?" The scratchy drawl of the cafe owner broke into my silence. He looked mostly Indian, and I wondered if we're actually on a reservation.
"Well, what?" I answered.
"Heads or tails?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," I snapped, sliding the quarter off my hand without looking at it and bolting up out of the chair. He just grinned and scratched the side of his nose with his thumb.
"Have a good trip, miss." He lifted his newspaper again and disappeared behind it.
As I stepped away from the table, my eyes caught site of the quarter, no longer with its eagle side up. I paused in mid stride and then continued, trying to swallow that dry lump that just appeared in my throat. I was a free woman after all, and Jimmy wasn't going to follow. And Dan Danny Dan would be out of my life in five ours, maybe a little more, when he got off in Albuquerque and I carried on to Los Angeles.
I climbed the steps of the grumbling bus, the door closing with a creak behind me. I continued right on past my sweater and three paperbacks in the seat midway back, and I grasped my way to the last row as the bus lurched forward. Dan Danny Dan was staring out the window, and without a word I sat down next to him and slid my hand behind his back, feeling the wet shirt still cool from the deep well at the cafe.
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