Issue 9: Transients

Lawrence F. Farrar
It was Jackie. I knew her right away. Should I speak to her or not?  I couldn’t decide. Maybe she wouldn’t recognize me. I’d taken a seat at the end of the counter, and so far she hadn’t looked my way. She was busy waiting on a couple who’d just come in on a bus from Bakersfield and couldn’t make up their minds on whether it would be the meat loaf or the ham steak.
How many years had it been?  Maybe twenty. She’d dropped out of school at fifteen or sixteen. That would make her about thirty-five. Pale, thin, and hollow-cheeked, she looked older than that–or maybe just more tired. Plain as the faded apron she had on, she hadn’t exactly been a beauty queen to begin with, and time hadn’t done anything for her. Twenty years.
Jackie Pittman swore more than any girl I ever knew. She did it matter of factly, like it was a natural way of talking. Everybody agreed she carried a chip on her shoulder, and the swearing escalated whenever she got ticked off. Her sandpapery voice added an extra layer of coarseness. When she swore, the guys would laugh, the girls would giggle, and the teachers would turn red with anger or embarrassment.
People said it was because she came from such a trashy family. They declared she got her swearing from her old man. Charley Pittman, a mean-spirited roughneck to begin with, drank Old Crow whiskey like it was going out of style. His drinking made him even nastier. He drove a garbage truck, and people along his route would hear him banging the empty cans and yelling and cursing when he made his pickups. Anybody having anything to do with him came away convinced he couldn’t string ten words together without half of them being cuss words.
Still, to look at her, you wouldn’t have thought Jackie would talk that way. Undersized and underfed, she was just a slip of a thing, with frizzy, dishwater blonde hair that rarely had a comb run through it. Her face didn’t usually reveal much in the way of expression, especially her brown eyes. You could look into them as deeply as you wanted. But, there didn’t seem to be anything going on there. So it was hard to figure out what she was thinking.
Jackie suppressed her inner feelings, I suppose; but I’m sure she had them. She tried to avoid people as much as they tried to avoid her, and she’d retreat into corners and out-of-the-way places. But, when people provoked her, the anger flashed up. She’d come out fast and hard-charging, like a bantamweight on the attack. Pow!  The swearing would just spew out.
Jackie’s father and his hard faced wife had a pack of children, spilling out of a ramshackle house down by Al Bruckner’s gravel pit. It seemed like the sheriff made runs over to their place all the time. Whenever Charley Pittman didn’t like something one of the kids did, he’d take a strap to him–or her. When the yelling and screaming got to be too much, the neighbors would call the sheriff.
As best I can remember, Jackie didn’t have any friends at school. I think in those days, the girls all wore skirts and short sleeve sweaters and tied scarves around their necks. And they’d put on a lot of lipstick. Jackie never used makeup, and she showed up at school–on the days she came–in faded print dresses, like ones your old maid aunt would wear.
She used up a lot of time staring out the window. You couldn’t tell if she was watching something or just filling her mind up with dreams. Maybe she wasn’t thinking about anything. Who knows?
Nobody felt sorry for her. Nobody showed an iota of concern about the red welts on her arms, or the blue-green crescents under her eyes. Nobody wanted anything to do with her.
The teachers didn’t like her because she didn’t pay attention to what they said, and, when they called her on it, she sassed them. They put her down as much as the kids. She couldn’t read very well, and it seemed like they made her read out loud just to humiliate her. It never varied–whether it was Ivanhoe, Kidnapped, or Silas Marner. She’d struggle, they’d coach her, then she’d struggle some more. Mrs. Brett, the English teacher, would peer over her glasses and ask mocking questions. Cat got your tongue, Jackie?  Are you with us today, Jackie?  So Jackie would blow up and start swearing at them. Then they’d drag her to the principal’s office. The principal agreed with them that she was sullen and foul-mouthed, a real troublemaker.
I guess besides Miss Courtney, our civics teacher, and me, nobody showed her any consideration at all. Miss Courtney told me once that Jackie might act tough but it was just an act. Actually, she said, Jackie was a vulnerable and troubled girl, and people ought to take that into account. Miss Courtney was the only one I ever heard say anything like that.
Jackie and I had gone to the same grade school. So I’d say hello to her in the hall (she usually didn’t answer), and sometimes I talked to her in the lunch room. I’d see her sitting there, not looking at anybody and waiting for the bell to ring.
The only thing I remember her saying was, “When I get out of this goddamn school, I wish I could be a secretary–or maybe a veterinarian’s assistant. But, I guess I’m not smart enough.”
“You’re plenty smart enough,” I said. “Like Miss Courtney says, you can be anything you want.”  But, I didn’t believe it–at least not about Jackie.
I took a lot of razzing from my buddies. They claimed I was “a pal of Jackie Foul Mouth.”  They said they couldn’t understand why, but they had their suspicions. A real hilarious bunch. So I started avoiding her myself.
Not long after that, halfway through eleventh grade, Jackie bagged it. We heard she lifted some money from her old man’s wallet and just took off. Good riddance—that’s what everybody said. Nobody wondered what had become of her. And, I have to admit, that included me.
It was Jackie for sure—right there in the Los Angeles bus terminal. Trying not to let her spot me looking her way, I studied the plastic covered menu. Something goopy—who knows what—stuck to my fingers. It felt like jam—or maybe syrup. I did the best I could to clean my hands with a napkin, but shreds of paper clung to my fingers.
“What’ll it be?”  The thickset cook loomed over the counter waiting for my reply. He looked as grease-spattered as the stove behind him. Dagwood’s comic strip nemesis had come to life.
“Just coffee. No, I’ll have a piece of that apple pie, too.”  At least the two flies were capering on the outside of the plastic cover.
The cook grunted and went off to draw a mug of coffee.
Jackie was taking an order from a man wearing a cheap blue suit and sporting a tie featuring a hula girl. I surveilled them like I was a spy. Because the customer sat at a table near the counter, I could hear him.
“You serving breakfast?”  He fixed his best hotshot leer on her.
“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
“I think I’ll have the shepherd’s special. You know. A piece of ewe.”
Jackie’s eyes burned holes right through him. “You want to order or not?”
Meantime, the cook pushed the pie across the counter and delivered my coffee.
“You been staring at my waitress?”
“No. No. For a minute I thought she reminded me of somebody. That’s all.”
“Can’t imagine she’d remind you of anybody you’d know.”  He glanced in Jackie’s direction. “She’s nobody.”
He wandered off to tend some sizzling sausages that had started to burn. For a while, all you could smell was oily, sausage flavored smoke, leavened with whiffs of French toast.
Was I that obvious?  Would she know me after all these years?  Not likely.
I sat there considering what to do. I really had nothing to say to her. After all, we’d barely known each other. We had little in common then, probably even less now. The cook had it right. She wasn’t anybody who mattered.
“More coffee?”  The cook put both hands on the counter. “You want more coffee?”
“Why not?  My bus doesn’t leave for another fifteen minutes.”
Like an involuntary juggler, Jackie struggled under the weight of a tray of dishes she’d just cleared. I wondered if she would make it across the room. The dishes clattered as she half-dropped the tray on the counter. The commotion pulled heads around and earned her a dirty look from the cook.
What could I say to her?  How you been?  What kind of life do you have?
She moved around a table just vacated by a woman I’d watched snub out a cigarette in her hash browns. Jackie scooped up the coins the woman left and slipped them into her apron pocket. From where I sat, it looked like twenty or thirty cents—no more.
She’d probably just be embarrassed if I spoke to her. We might be survivors from the same shipwreck, but we’d obviously washed up on different shores.
“Where you headed?”  The young guy on the stool next to me waited for an answer.
“What?  Oh. San Francisco.”
“Man, you looked like you were into some heavy thought just now.”
“Sorry.”  I ignored him. The next time I looked up he’d gone, replaced by a shabby old fellow I suspected didn’t have the fare to pay for the pie he had his eyes on. I slid a dollar over to him. He palmed it without looking at me.
“Thanks, mister.”
I tried to be less conspicuous in my surveillance. A soldier pushed back his chair, hoisted his duffle bag, and headed for the cashier. Jackie searched around for a tip as she collected his dishes. She came up empty-handed.
I polished off my pie and perched there at the counter sipping the too-hot coffee. Jackie had seated herself in a corner booth. Another waitress scurried around covering her tables. Jackie must have been taking her break. She took small sips of water from a glass and stared out the window. God. She was bone thin. Everything about her looked dilapidated–rundown.
I paid up. My bus would leave in a few minutes. Our lives had barely touched in the first place. It would be easier and less complicated to just to get on the bus and go.
Then I realized she was looking directly at me. She hesitated, clawed back her tangled hair with both hands, and slid out of the booth. She marched straight over to where I stood at the counter.
“I’m Jackie. Jackie Pittman. Remember?”  It seemed more a plea for confirmation than a question. “I saw you looking at me when you came in.”
“Yes, but . . .”
“You were the boy with that old Chevrolet. Peter Hamilton.”  I heard the same scratchy voice.
“That’s right. I wasn’t sure that it was . . .”
What did she think of me—an overweight, balding guy in a discount sport coat?
“I always hoped you’d ask me to go for a ride. Like you did with those other girls. But you never did.”
“I wasn’t sure it was you, or I’d have spoken sooner.”
“It’s okay. You were one of the nice ones. You never put on airs.”
“Oh, I’m not sure . . .”
“I don’t have too many good memories. So it’s kind of special, seeing you here.”  She delivered a little smile; it seemed wistful. I guess when you’re not doing well any drink of water tastes good.
“It’s been a lot of years. I haven’t been back home myself for a long time,” I said.
“What are you?  I mean what do you do?”  She seemed at once eager and hesitant.
“Insurance. Got my own agency.”
“I bet you’re married.”
“Yep. Wife and two teen-age girls.”
“That’s real good. Looks like things turned out okay for you.”
“Yes.” I could think of nothing to say. I had no stack of recollections to work through, no nostalgic reminiscences to share.
For a moment a thick silence came between us.
Then I said, “You’re looking just like you did in school.”  I expect it came across as the unfelt compliment it was.
But, for a moment, just for a moment, a sweet look of happiness hovered over her face, and then vanished. “Don’t I wish,” she said. “But, I’m getting by okay.”  She lowered her eyes and twisted her apron in front of her with both hands.
“Was. Not now. He ran off on me.”
“I thought you might be a secretary.”
“I tried it once. I guess I’m better at waitressing.”  Along with a little shake of the head, she gave me another smile, a smile that said that’s the way it goes.
Another silence fell between us.
“Well, I’d better get going. Don’t want to miss my bus.”
She looked as if she wanted to speak. But, she simply nodded.
“Small world, I guess,” I said.
“Yeah. Well, have a good trip.”
“Thanks. Maybe we’ll run into each other again some time.”
In a few minutes I’d be gone and forgotten, like last week’s blue plate special. I turned toward the door that led out to where the buses loaded and unloaded, came and went. When I did, she suddenly seized my hand in her own two hands and held on with a kind of desperate intensity, like she didn’t want me to leave. “If you ever see any of the people I knew, tell them . . . tell them . . .”
No longer impassive, her eyes implored me—but to say what?  To do what?
“You were one of the nice ones. . . I’m glad we knew each other.”  She gripped my hand a little longer, then wheeled and walked back to the corner booth.
The sunlight glittered off the smeared window of the cafe, and I had to squint. But, as the bus rolled out of the terminal, I could just make her out, hands cupped around her eyes and pressed to the glass looking in my direction. I doubt if she could see me. She waved anyway.
I suppose I should have waved back.
Minnesota resident Lawrence F. Farrar is a former Foreign Service officer with postings in Japan (multiple tours), Germany, Norway, and Washington, DC. Short term assignments took him to more than 30 countries. He also lived in Japan as a graduate student and as a naval officer. His stories have appeared in nearly 50 lit magazines.