Amanda Carmichael crouched behind a large trash bin next to a convenience store gas station combo somewhere, she thought, in Tennessee. Truth was, she’d been on the road for three days now and these places all started to look the same. The aromas around the trash bin made her want to retch, but there was nothing in her stomach to throw up. Hunger, fatigue and poverty kept her edgy.
She leaned against the brick wall, listening, until she heard the large rig she’d arrived in pull out of the parking lot onto the highway. The creep of a driver aimed some profanities her way, but, thanks to whatever gods may be, he didn’t come looking for her. Amanda sighed, slumped closer to the wall, and felt tears fill her eyes.
“Stop it,” she demanded, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. She had to get something to eat. She had to clean up. No time for tears. Amanda rose from her hiding place. With enormous effort to stay upright in her platform shoes, she tottered toward the convenience store entrance. She dug into all her pockets finding just enough cash to buy a cup of coffee and a pack of roasted cashews. Protein, she thought scornfully. She loaded the coffee with creamer and sugar.
The clerk behind the counter was a middle-aged woman. At least 35, Amanda thought as the woman looked at her suspiciously. Amanda glared back at her and then dropped into the grimey plastic covered booth near the front window to drink her coffee and eat the nuts. The place was busy, so thankfully, Amanda found the woman’s attention waned as a steady flow of customers came and went.
Max headed south. The maps Andrew marked rested on the seat in between Lily and him. He slowed to 35 miles an hour as he entered Trenton. Trenton was his hometown even though the family place set smack dab between there and Pembroke to the north.
The acres were contiguous back then, sprawling out in such a way that there were portions both in Christian and Todd Counties. Today those acres remained in the family, but the vast land Andrew and his two sons, Brad and Bobby Lee, farmed included several thousand more acres. The land they farmed no longer formed a continuum, presenting challenges that taxed man and equipment. Agriculture represented big business in the world so Max was proud of the fact that one of his sons and his grandsons continued to work the Carnes’ land as a family.
Max wondered as he had many times since he had retired from the day-to-day routine: Did he miss farming? At times he did, but he talked the talk with Andrew and the boys. Plus there were his coffee buddies, guys who had grown up on farms like he had. Most of them he had grown up and gone to school with. They debated agricultural issues among other things. Their coffee meetings tackled two of the conversational taboos, politics and religion; they purposely steered clear of sex. Top all that with having never really left the farm and he was satisfied.
The old high school where Max and five of his six brothers had graduated sat just past the downtown section of town, across from the Baptist Church. His brother Ed, the only Carnes brother not to graduate, joined the army when he was a junior at Trenton High School, went off to fight the Japs and never returned. Ed was the impetuous one. Born the fourth of seven sons, Ed fought to stay up with the older ones and ahead of the younger ones. Max remembered his younger brother as the first to act on a dare.
Youthful escapades played through his head and he chuckled out loud. There wasn’t an act too perilous Ed wouldn’t try. It was a wonder he lived through them. Except, of course, he didn’t survive, Max acknowledged somberly; a Japanese bullet at Guadalcanal ended Ed’s earthly life. He hoped to meet him in heaven some day but worried Ed hadn’t chosen that direction. Years of Sunday school and church hadn’t rooted in Ed’s life. A wave of sadness washed over him. It had been years since he had grieved for his lost brother.
Max glanced back and forth as he crept through the old town. Even with all the changes, it never failed to remind Max of times gone by, hard times but still good times.
He glanced over at Lily. She was sleeping. Sleep came as a blessing sometimes. Lily calmed when she slept, but Max longed for his chatty, sharp-witted wife who tried not to sleep when he drove on long trips, “to protect them all”, she said. Ah, but that was then and this is now. Once again he shook off the self-pity that dogged his footsteps these days. They were traveling together again, that was sufficient. Max focused on the road, admiring the languid roll of the land between Trenton and Guthrie. What had Robert Frost written? Ah, yes, he thought, “and miles to go before I sleep.” He wondered, how many miles he had to go, realistically. One of his grandfathers died in his thirties; the other one at seventy five. His Daddy had lived to be eighty two years old. Max was five years beyond that. Still, aside from his broken hip, he hadn’t spent anytime in the hospital in his whole life. He’d come a long stretch down the road of life, but there were still miles to go. Enough for this trip anyway, he prayed silently.
“Uh, where is this place?” Lily asked in a tiny trembling voice, “Where are you taking me?” Max had stopped at the 3-way stop outside Springfield when Lily stirred in the seat next to him. Her head bobbed this way and that trying to find some anchor of familiarity. She clutched her sweater around her and began rocking slightly. At times like this Max usually could find some familiar point, but they were outside the realm of sanctuary. He fumbled through the maps and withdrew the photograph. Handing it to her, he said,
“Lily, remember? We are going to the ocean, to the beach.” He wasn’t sure this would work, but he glanced heavenward and breathed a silent prayer, “I’m floundering here, HELP.” Lily practically snatched the picture from him, but he felt her calm slightly as he negotiated the right turn. Moments later a sideways look told him she was studying the picture carefully.
“Would you like to stop, Lily?” He asked once she settled. She might not need to, but Max did. This was more excitement than an 87-year-old bladder could handle. For the first time, he considered that restroom and gasoline breaks might prove a little challenging. It would be best to try this close to home, not that he had any intention of going back. Without waiting for an answer he pulled into a gas station-food center on his left.
Max paced nervously outside the Ladies’ Room. She’d been in there for several minutes now. He couldn’t help but worry. The attendant assured him Lily had not emerged during his brief time in the Men’s Room. Glancing at his watch and the door, he stewed over what to do. If the clerk got a break in the seemingly endless trek of customers, he would ask her to check on Lily. He toyed with the idea of opening the door slightly and calling her name. Not forty miles from home before potential disaster over-took them. No! He scolded himself. They were going to the ocean. He turned and set out to get the female attendant.
Just as he did the door of the Ladies’ Room opened. Lily emerged, clasping the arm of a very young, rather disturbing looking girl. The look on the young woman’s face was a mixture of bewilderment, disgust and panic. Frail as Lily was, she virtually dragged the child forward. Lily was grinning. Max smiled himself uncertain what to say. It had been months since he had seen her grin, let alone interact with people the way she seemed to be with this rather bizarre looking child.
“Oh, look, Greta, that man, he’s our driver, look; Sir, what is your name?” She squinted at Max, but went on without waiting for a reply. “Look who I found, my sister Greta. I didn’t think we’d see her until the beach, but here she is. She has always loved cotton candy, but I can’t believe she’s wearing it! Greta really knows how to have fun.” Lily clutched tighter on the child’s arm while with her free hand she patted the mess of purple and pink hair that spiked out in a hundred directions from the girl’s hair. The young woman’s expression reminded Max of his third grade teacher, Miss Sellers, the afternoon Bailey Johnson and he found her smoking a cigarette behind the girl’s outhouse. Malicious denial with an element of shock glared at Max as she worked to break loose of Lily’s grasp.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here. I tried to help her in the bathroom. She had a little trouble ge…; oh, never mind that. All of a sudden she’s calling me Greta and talking about going to the beach. You,” She pointed her finger at Max, “need to watch her closer. She could get into real trouble.”
Max grimaced. He found being scolded by a mini skirted teenager with pastel hair, both irritating and amusing. This child obviously was sorely lacking in manners and a quick look told him, basic hygiene. Still she had helped Lily and in spite of her insolent mouth she deserved to be thanked properly. He wondered if her parents lived nearby. Did they let her out of the house looking like she did? He hoped not.
Max took Lily’s hand and led her to the single front booth, motioning the young woman to follow. Once he had Lily seated, he spoke to the girl who did indeed have cotton candy hair. He mused that Lily had pegged that one right. Her hair looked every bit as sticky as the sugary treat. What he could not understand was why Lily thought this gaunt, dirty child was her long deceased sister. Years of good upbringing and natural politeness won over a dozen other parental based disciplinary actions.
“I want to thank you for helping her in the restroom. My name is Max Carnes and this is my wife, Lily. She gets confused at times.” Actually most of the time, Max reflected, but no need to dwell on it with this vagabond. He paused, collected his manners and said, “I am truly sorry if she caused you any inconvenience, but I would like to reward you for helping her. Kindness should not go unappreciated” What was he saying? The sooner this child was out of there the better.
The girl looked baffled and leery, as if the word kindness held some darker meaning. She stepped back a couple of steps, practically colliding with the newsstand next to the door, as her ankle turned and one of her five inch platform shoes turned outward from her ankle. Ouch! Max thought. She recovered quickly continuing her backward movement to the door.
“Naw, that’s alright. I’ve got to catch a ride and get going,” she waved her hand slightly, but there was a slight quiver in her nonchalance. Max couldn’t disguise a startle. Catch a ride? To where? With whom? Do modern parents let their teenaged daughters catch rides? He didn’t think so, at least not ones who cared or knew where their daughters were. Max looked at her face; it was a study of practiced disinterest. For the first time, he glimpsed beneath the mask. It wasn’t the mask created by heavily applied cosmetics, but the one that feigned detachment. In that brief flash Max saw weariness, fear, and evidence of tears etched into the multiple layers cosmetics. He must have been staring, because she snapped at him suddenly.
“What are you looking at? You folks give me the creeps. I am so out of here!” She turned toward the door.
“Wait!” Max said impulsively, “Are you hungry? It’s the least we could do. Please join us.”
She turned still clothed in haughtiness, moved back to the booth and sat next toLily. Lily immediately clasped hold of her arm and murmured, “Greta.”
“Whatever!” The child managed to say, but Max noticed a glimmer of softening.Eighty-seven years had taught him a multitude of things; one thing for sure, this kid was in trouble.
Over lunch he watched the girl. She, with pointed prompting, introduced herself as Amanda Smith, probably so he wouldn’t start calling her Greta, too. In between the gulps of food she was consuming in huge chunks, she said she had encountered unexplained difficulties traveling to Knoxville and was stuck. Her eating slowed only during the times when Lily grabbed her arm. He noticed she was left-handed. For some reason, that endeared her to Max. His brother Ed had been a lefty. Max ordered coffee for himself and ice cream for Lily. His lunch at the farm still lingered.
By the time Amanda had consumed two cheeseburgers and a large order of French fries with a chocolate milkshake and a large coke, Max made a decision. It wasn’t rational and it wasn’t safe, but not much about this trip was.
He pulled Amanda aside and asked if she would join them as far as Knoxville and help him with Lily. Amanda feigned a “you have got to be kidding” look, but she was listening. He could not fathom what was going on in her head. When had kids become so rude? He hadn’t noticed this before. He waited for her answer; finally she shrugged and walked over to Lily, allowing Lily to pull her to the car. She looked at Max before climbing into the back seat of the Buick and pointed her index finger at him. He bristled instantly. His mother would have snatched his finger from his hand if he had acted that way.
“Believe me, Dude; you’d better not try anything. I am going to be watching you all the time.”
Dude? Max thought as he buckled Lily into her seat. He was unsure whether he should feel annoyed or flattered. He chose annoyed based on her jabbing finger. Before buckling himself in, he turned to respond to Amanda’s remarks, unsure if he should choose a defensive approach or an offensive one. Would it be: “Young Lady, I assure you, you are perfectly safe with me?” Or “Now look here, you spoiled brat, settle down or you lose your ride.” Neither was forthcoming. The child was sound asleep.
Two miles down the road so was Lily. Max shook his head. With both sleeping beauties momentarily out of commission, he was free to cut loose. So out on the open road, Max picked up to 55 miles per hour and ignored the cars that rode right on his bumper and then leapt around him at the first straightaway. Max hadn’t driven this far in years. The roll of the highway made him long for that 1939 yellow roadster he’d bought for his bride. Now there was a car, he thought. Top speed was fifty miles an hour, but with the wind in their hair, it felt like eighty.
Would Lily remember that? He doubted it. She appeared to be living during a time he knew very little about, a time before they met. Her mind seemed to have retreated to the early and mid 1930s. The Stanton family had been living on the coastal area of Georgia. Her dad was one of the lucky ones during the depression years. He worked for the railroad. Max met Lily on the train.
With those thoughts Max lingered a while in the past. He thought about how Lily had entered his life. Those were the days! The thought of the roadster and those departed times before he went to war lifted his spirits. Max began whistling as they sailed along.