The bus was going nowhere – again. Another problem with the engine, Ernest growled from his driver’s throne. Carrie went out the bus and over the parking lot for more water.
There was a McDonalds at the other end. Most of the others went out, too. But Carrie came back in again. It was like entering an oven. She tapped the air condition. It was as dead as the engine. The old woman – Anne – didn’t seem affected, though. Not yet.
“Sorry if it’s not too cold,” Carrie said and handed Anne her plastic bottle. “It looked as if the fridge in there wasn’t working properly.”
“Thank you, honey,” Anne said and drank.
“Damn,” Carrie muttered under her breath. “Jon’s not gonna think the world of me if I come late back to Yuma again. He’s drowning in work these days and first Emma had the flu and Michael – “
“The bus will probably be going again soon,” Anne says quietly. “I don’t think you will be too badly delayed. Was he very upset when you called?”
“No … in fact he sounded very calm about it. But that’s usually a sign … that he is biting on something.”
“He has a temper, your Jon? Some men do.”
“You know,” Carrie said, very still, as she sat down again “ – he is so controlled, at home – usually. But then there are these small eruptions … like he’s holding something back. God, it would be easier if I had a job … then the bargaining would be more equal, if you know what I mean?”
Anne nodded, while looking out the window. The carpark off the highway was almost empty. “It is important to feel equal,” she then said. “Even if you’re not. Hans and I used to fight a lot.”
“What did you fight about?”
Anne laughed her little dry laugh: “- Anything we could make up as an excuse! I think it was just that we weren’t very good friends, and didn’t like each other a lot.”
“But you were married … for how long?”
Carrie’s eyes widened. ‘I’m 32 … ‘ she was just about to say, but didn’t.
“It is a long story,” Anne continued calmly. “You have to remember it was … different back then.”
“How was it different … ?” Carrie asked, very quietly.
“We got married in 1943. I had received a letter that I would have to go work at a munitions factory near the front. If I were married, I could stay in Berlin and work instead. Hans was on leave from the Russian front, and had few illusions left. He could do me a favor, so we got married.”
Carrie suddenly felt a slight chill, although it was definitely getting hotter and hotter. On the freeway outside the parking lot thousands of cars moved in small jerks and bits along in endless lines under a blazing midday sun, getting closer to Los Angeles by the meter, not by the mile.
“ … But you stayed together for 29 years …” she managed to say.
“Yes,” Anne said, without emotion. “But you have to remember that when he returned – after a few years of imprisonment in USSR – I was extremely proud to be a young, married mother in Berlin in 1946. All my girlfriends were either widows or looking forward to spinsterhood. There weren’t many young men around …”
Carrie found herself smiling faintly, but quickly suppressed it.
Anne continued: “I think Hans liked it too. We had children; that took up our time. And after a few years we stopped arguing anyway. When the children were grown, we split up.”
Carrie looked out the window again: “I … just met Jon, while I was waiting tables. It was in Flagstaff – Arizona. He worked there for a while. But ‘it’ happened quickly, you know?
He … I think what I needed at the time was somebody to help me get away from the ‘munitions factory’, not waiting tables. It was hard but I had nothing against that. But my life felt like a bloody war zone until then and I needed stability. Does that make sense?”
“Absolutely,” Anne said, smiling a bit herself at the question. “I know how you felt. Going out one Friday determined to get married was one of the strangest things I ever did my self. But I felt I had to. I didn’t want to go east.”
Carrie still felt the chill: “But you had no choice. I could have waited – I should have waited until I knew what I wanted with my life, how to pick up the pieces. Maybe start something up myself, you know, like your laundry? But then, suddenly Emma was there, ready to ‘join the world’… it wasn’t really planned but I love her so much today, I don’t know how I could live with out her, my daughter!”
“I think that is why we stayed together,” Anne remarked. She was also looking out at the endless lines now. “ – Not for the kids, but because of the kids. And if you had waited, perhaps you would still be waiting?”
“Perhaps … In fact, more than likely. I never had much luck with men. And Jon is a good, good man. I’m sorry if I left another impression.”
“You didn’t – not at all. Only a good man can hold on to a good woman. Hans was a good man too. We just argued a lot.”
“Anne … I want to ask you – if you don’t mind … how did you figure out you would start your own? Was it like in Berlin – a necessity, or did you really want it I mean? Were you tired of working for someone else?”
Anne seemed to let her mind wander for a few a seconds, then she said with much firmness: “I think it was coming to America. I didn’t want to work to make someone else rich; it felt awkward. So after a few years, I went to the bank and got a loan. And started on my own. Never regretted that, I must say.”
Carrie nodded: “Dave – that’s my brother-in-law – he says I should start on my own, but I don’t know really what I should start. I want to, though. In some ways it seems like a short cut but maybe I am deluding myself. Not many ‘great jobs’ in Yuma for a college drop-out … ”
“No,” Anne said. “ – It is hard here, not much help from the state. What do you do well, other than that law business – which you said you wouldn’t want to start up on your own?”
“I, uh … not that’s silly.” Carrie shook her head.
“Don’t worry,” Anne chuckled. “ – It is just us girls here. Everyone else is over at that McDonalds.”
Carrie took a deep breath: “I … actually draw. Or did. I haven’t really touched a pen in 5 years or so … I was quite good at portraits though. But I mean, could I make a living of that? Who would?”
“I don’t know much about art,” Anne said pensively “ – but I know that there are some very rich – and some very poor – artists. And some times I don’t quite understand how it works. I should like to see one of your drawings, though.”
“ … Thanks,” Carrie said with sincerity. “I had a huge argument with Dave about it when we were in Philly for his birthday in March. He worked for years swiping floors, but he never gave up hope. He draws, too you know but much – much more pro. He got a job at some big company in NYC because he pestered them about it long enough. I don’t want to draw like that… entertainment, comics and stuff but I can’t help feeling that when I draw… No, I don’t know what I feel. More ‘myself’ I guess … crap, I’m rambling … ”
“No, no. I feel the same way with photographs. I would never want it to be my living.”
“You take photos -?”
“Yes. It started when I was young. That is why I am going to Salton City – to take pictures. When I could still drive, I used to go all over. Now, not so much – but this I really wanted to do.”
“Oh – what is there to photograph in Salton? I heard, well, excuse me. I didn’t hear the most flattering things about the place.”
“Yes,” Anne said. “But I like photographing … how you say … desolate? … places.”
“Wow … I mean, like ghost towns and stuff?”
“I think it comes from taking pictures in Europe after the war.”
“Oh wow… I should … I would like to see some of those. Even though they’re probably not very ‘nice’.”
“That’s where I taught myself, so I guess that is what my eye is best for.”
“Okay … wow.”
There was quiet for a while in the bus. Everyone else had indeed gone to the nearby McDonalds, while Ernest the driver walked around in little circles outside and barked in his cell phone at the people at the office who would not send him a replacement bus. It seemed like the whole world was against Ernest today.
“I only have very few photos left,” Anne then said. “Most got lost when I moved to the US.”
Carrie swallowed: “I have … some drawings left. In the attic. In fact, I found some just the week before we went to Philly. I don’t think I would’ve moped about it if I had not gone up to look for that … whatever it was. It certainly wasn’t my old box of drawings. But …” she let her my hand run through her hair for God knows what time.
“I can send you one in the mail,” Anne offered. It was a genuine offer. Carrie could hear that easily. But something about it made her feel sad.
“That would be so … nice,” she said. “I’ll give you my address — before I get off. But I was thinking… a friend … once said to me: ‘Your problem, Carrie, is that you hold yourself back – all the time.’ She was drunk but I knew she was right. She may be right. I just wish … I wish I knew why … ”
“Why she said it? Or why you hold your self back?”
“Why the last … but maybe sometimes there is no answer. Maybe it’s just the way we are – from the beginning. Sometimes a person is in a certain way and that can’t be changed. They just don’t … have it. The overview. I dunno … ”
“I don’t think you are holding your self back,” Anne said and sipped water from her plastic bottle. “We have had a nice conversation; you are very kind to a strange old lady. You love your husband and your kids. You dream of drawing. How is that holding back?”
“ … But that’s just … well, that’s just the way one should be. I mean – the way I want to be – to others. I want to give something good to others. even the small things. But … ”
“It seems you are,” Anne said and coughed a little. “At least you have made my trip better, and you have patiently listened to my stories of the old times. I remember how hard that is when you are young.” The cough turned into her little dry laugh again.
“Actually I think you got it backwards,” Carrie said wryly. “I had you listen to me all the time!”
“Maybe I don’t mind?” Anne said and began pulling herself up from her seat.
“I have to get some new handkerchiefs,” she said, arms shaking a bit while she supported herself on the handle of the bus seat. “I’m afraid they are in my bag in the compartment – probably in the bottom of it.”
“Let me – ”
Carrie had Anne sit down at the other seat across the aisle, then swung herself out from her own window-seat and wrenched open the compartment. She found the bag. It was small and made of black leather and had a very finely ornamented lock-clip in the middle. It looked silvery.
Anne got the bag and rummaged around in it until:
“Ach – I think I forgot extra handkerchiefs. I always forget those.”
“Should I go get some for you?” Carrie offered.
“When have you last bought paper handkerchiefs at McDonalds, dear?”
“I could get some, er, napkins.”
“It is all right. I’ll be fine.”
“But I – ”
Suddenly the front door opened and Ernest’s voice roared:
“–They are sending a replacement bus. You ladies might as well start gathering your stuff first. I’ll go in and get the others.”
He sounded without a doubt victorious. Sweat sprang in thick pearls from his fat face.
He grinned at Carrie and Anne and then closed the door.
Carrie breathed deeply again, as if mustering strength. Then she began jerking her own bag out from the compartment: “It must have been hard …” she said, without looking back at Anne “ – Harder than I can imagine – in your youth, I mean. But I’m grateful too… I guess I just need to get my head together. Maybe nothing is holding me back from anything. Except this damn rucksack!”
“A new bus! I think it is wonderful!” Anne quipped, with sincere delight. “Maybe the air condition will be working again in the new bus!”
“Yeah,” Carrie said and tore loose her bag. “ – The small things usually work … Now maybe we’ll finally come to our destination …”
Image credit: Thanks to mst7022 from Flickr. Creative Commons License.