Red Carnation ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Skive Magazine, Issue 12, September 2009.)
After buying the bus ticket, Grace directed the ticket agent’s attention over her right shoulder to the old lady in the blue dress and the black straw hat sitting next to the window.
“You see her?” Grace asked.
“What about her?” the ticket agent asked wearily.
“She’s my mother. This ticket I just bought is for her.”
“She doesn’t hear very well and isn’t always aware of what’s going on around her. Would you be so kind as to make sure she gets on the bus to Shirleyville in about thirty minutes?”
“I suppose I could do that,” the man said, “although it isn’t what I’m here for.”
“You’re too kind!”
She carried the ticket over to where her mother was sitting and sat down beside her.
“Now, mother,” she said, “here’s your ticket. When you get on the bus, give it to the driver.”
The old lady took the ticket from her and looked at it and put it on the seat to her left.
“Now, don’t forget your suitcase,” Grace said. “It’s here on the floor by your feet. It has your medicine in it and your glasses and your Bible and all your money. When you go to get on the bus, make sure you take your suitcase with you.”
“Take what?” the old lady asked.
“Your suitcase, mother! It’s very important that you take it with you and not leave it behind!”
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, dear. I’m just reminding you is all.”
“Do you have a rope?”
“So I could tie the suitcase to my leg so I don’t forget it.”
“I think you’re making a joke, aren’t you?”
“A joke about what?”
“Now, the bus ride will take about two and a half hours. Don’t get off the bus until it gets to Shirleyville. Cora and Zeno will be waiting there to meet you.”
“I don’t remember what they look like.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll know you.”
“Pfft-pfft-pfft!” A fly was buzzing around the old lady’s mouth, attracted to the sweet scent of her lilac perfume, and she was trying to blow it away.
“I’m going to leave you here, mother,” Grace said, “and I’m going to trust that you’ll get on the right bus at the right time. Just listen for your bus to be announced.”
“I know that,” the old lady said. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
“Tell Cora and Zeno I said hello.”
“They’ll be so happy to hear that.”
They gave each other a prolonged stare and then Grace was gone, her heels tapping smartly across the tile floor as she left.
The old lady sat there and, having nothing else to do, watched the people come and go. A midget couple came in to buy a bus ticket and the ticket agent had to lean far over the counter just to see just them. A blind man came in with a mean-looking German shepherd seeing-eye dog and sat down and lit a cigarette and flipped the burnt match into an ashtray five feet away, while the German shepherd lay down on the floor at his feet and yawned and went to sleep. A fat woman came in with three bedraggled children and made them sit down in a row while she went into the ladies’ room.
A girl of about twenty in a red dress came in with a bunch of red carnations in her hand and began trying to sell the flowers one by one for twenty-five cents apiece. (She had just stolen the carnations from a supermarket down the street.) She had a face like a rodent, with beady eyes and a small, cruel-looking mouth. She was wearing white socks that went almost to her knees and men’s wingtip dress shoes.
She went to each person in turn trying to sell a flower. The midget man bought one (he was the only one) and presented it to his three-foot-tall female companion with a flourish. The ticket agent saw the girl and told her she wasn’t allowed to do any selling of any kind in the bus station but she pretended not to hear.
When the girl saw the old lady sitting by herself next to the wall, she went over to her with the intention of trying to sell her a flower but when she saw the old lady’s sad eyes she gave her one of the flowers instead. The old lady smiled and took the flower and held it in her lap.
The girl wasn’t able to sell any more of the flowers, but she hung around for a while longer anyway. She sat down next to the blind man and began talking to him as though they were old friends, holding the flowers to her stomach like a wedding bouquet.
The old lady began to wonder how long she was going to have to wait until her bus came. It seemed she had already been waiting an awfully long time and there was no end in sight to the waiting. She craned her neck to look out the window to see if she could see her bus, but she wouldn’t have known which bus was hers even if she had seen it. She put her head back against the wall and shut her eyes.
She must have gone to sleep for a minute, or maybe longer, and when she awoke she was surprised she was holding a red carnation in her hand, but then she remembered how came to have it. She saw then that the girl who gave her the flower—and also the blind man and his dog—were gone. She yawned and looked over at the clock on the wall. Time seemed to be standing still.
She had the feeling that something was not as it should be. Maybe her bus was late and wouldn’t be there at all. Maybe she had been asleep when it came and had missed it. Maybe she forgot what she was doing there and where she was supposed to be going in the first place.
Her legs were cramped from sitting so long so she stood up. That’s when she realized that something that had been sitting on the floor next to her feet was gone. What was it? Oh, yes, it was a little brown suitcase. Her suitcase! She was supposed to remember to pick it up and take it with her when she went to get on her bus. And now it was gone. What had happened to it?
She didn’t know what to do. She put her hand to her mouth and looked around to see if anybody might be able to tell her what had happened that she had failed to see, but all the people who were there earlier were now gone. She looked over to where the ticket agent sat behind his little window, but he was gone too.
Leaving her ticket on the seat beside her, she walked shakily toward the door and opened it and went out into the glare and heat of the street. She stopped just outside the door on the sidewalk and looked first one way and then the other. She thought she might be able to see the young girl in the red dress who had given her the red carnation. If she could only find her everything would be all right again.
She began walking quite fast in a westerly direction. She believed she could see a little scrap of red in the far-off distance. She would keep going for as long as her legs carried her, for as long as it took. She wanted an answer, even if she wasn’t at all certain what the question had been.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp