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The Strawberry Blond by Edward J. Austin
published in Volume 1, Issue 4 on September 15th, 1994

She moved into the pagoda bus-shelter where I had stood alone. She moved slowly, casually, as if she'd just returned from a summer stroll down a shady country lane. She wore a bright yellow dress and held her belongings--a purse, two magazines, and a small, cordovan portfolio--as a school-girl might, with both arms and against the cushion of her abdomen. But she was no teenager. Rather, she had that young office-girl look about her: too much make-up beneath the cheekbones; long, slender nails, darkly painted to hide the plastic; and strawberry blond hair that had been whipped and sprayed into broad, staunch curls.

The nails got to me, though. More than the dress that held her closely and reached to mid-calf. More than the mature hips and abundant bosom. Even more than the pleasant, but mildly vacant expression of her face. To me, to a thirty-two year-old Indian with a freshly recreated life, the nails shrieked accusations of affectation and superficiality. They overwhelmed my thoughts, as well as my libido.

I leaned against a large, brass banister that surrounded the three glass walls of the structure, and I held a grocery sack containing canned soup and Wheat Thins, herbal teas and toilet bowl cleaner. The sweat from my four-mile hike after work--first to the hair-cutter's, then to Bag-N-Save, then to the bus stop downtown--had soaked my shirt, except for the tops of my shoulders. And the residue from the haircut, the sharp-edged clip- pings, dug into my neck where the collar rubbed my skin.

I felt conspicuous and uncomfortable. Then, I thought about the strawberry blond and her airs. She looked cool. But I knew that farther down, beneath the burden of her costume and mask, she was languid from the heat. I thought about her nails once more, then, about her hairdo, which hadn't budged under the humid breeze. I thought about the make-up, and her panty-hose--intended to add color where there was none.

A put-up job, I told myself.

Quickly, irrefutably, I judged her scope and dimension. I scanned and reviewed her future and past. She became a character in one of my stories:

          
          Pretty, but slightly overdone, I thought.  Probably aged
     twenty-nine to thirty-two--although her face looked five years
     younger.  Most likely spends her day on the telephone, or
     directing company visitors.  Does minimal typing and has
     moderate difficulty with the office software.  Enjoys flirting
     with the unattached men of the department, but has a
     semi-employed boyfriend named Bruno--or perhaps ZACH--
     whose principal pastimes are flexing his muscles in the mirror
     and adjusting the carburetor of his pick-up.  (Which he
     can't seem to get quite right.)  She wishes that life
     was easier for her eight year-old son and herself, but
     is determined to hang-on until Mr. Right comes along to
     fix it all--to make it wonderful.
  

She'd sat down on the wooden bench that was behind and to my right. The bench, in its shallow glass alcove, was a favorite spot of Omaha's drunks and transients--especially during the chilly months, since its doorway faced the south and the shelter was partially warmed by a quartz heater. She sat very properly, with her head held high and her spine perfectly aligned. She sat near the edge of the bench, and I assumed that it was to limit the area of contamination.

I turned my head, and crouched behind a wall of phony indifference. I stared in the opposite direction and pretended to be deep in thought, pretended to be hard-hearted and streetwise, pretended that my shell was impervious to the effects of light, sound, and time. But I listened.

I heard her sigh and place her things on the bench, then, she crossed her nyloned legs and smoothed the fabric of her dress. I heard the clasp of her handbag open, then, the rustle of paper money being removed and folded into her lap. I heard her sniffle, and afterward, the sound of cosmetic containers jostling as she dug for a tissue.

A bus roared away from the corner preceding ours, and I was forced to turn toward her as I checked its number. She sat primly, with her pale hands clasped atop her knees. Her smile was pleasant and seemingly carefree--the pretty little smile of one whose people have seized Canaan--but I deliberately avoided eye-contact. Still, I felt the heat of her attention on the left side of my face. And as I sought the number of the approaching bus, I imagined the sound of her snippy voice as it sighed, then, wondered aloud why she had to be stuck in the same enclosure with a sweaty Indian.

I gave her a stern glance, then shifted the weight of the sack from one thigh to the other. At least I'm not drunk and hustling you for change, I thought. Like that other life, I recalled, when I was so desperate for sweet oblivion that I might have considered the odds of a successful downtown purse-snatch. Then, I wondered whether she had ever felt hopeless, lost, and alone. Not because Bruno--or ZACH--had laughed at the outcome of a box-perm, but because of something real.

The bus slowed to a crawl as it neared our corner, and when neither of us stepped out to the curb, the driver mashed down on the throttle. The diesel's belts shrieked and the eruption of exhaust blew a fierce cloud of grit from the gutter.

"Oh darn!" she cried.

Her volume was feeble compared to that of the bus. And as the engine rattled windows in the next block, I turned and flashed her my favorite maintenance-man expression: one containing exasperation and incredulity. The same one that I sometimes give to barefoot co-workers who've locked their shoes in their filing cabinets, or to obese dietitians who've lost their money in the candy machines.

She leaned forward and watched the bus halt at the next corner, then, made two tiny fists and brought them down meekly against her knees. "Oh darn!"

I could just imagine my Dad's reaction: (Doubled over and laughing.) "Did you see that silly bitch? She sat on her dead-ass while the bus went by! Then, when it's a mile down the street, she looks up and says (imitating a squeaky white woman), 'oh darn'. Lord A' Mighty! That bitch is crazy!"

"Was that a fifteen?" she asked me.

A charming voice, I thought, and imploring eyes. The air of glib self-confidence that she'd arrived with suddenly evaporated. She became girlish and helpless. "No," I told her, wearily.

"Oh, good," she said, smiling once more.

Well, that was simple, I thought. The Earth had been righted; bliss restored. I wondered what her response might have been had I said, "Oh? You wanted that one? You just sat there like a lump." But, I guessed that it would have ruined her evening. I imagined her telling Bruno as they lay in bed: "I had a wonderful day, but a sweaty Indian ruined it all by being mean to me."

I placed my sack on the ground and folded my arms across my stomach. I felt the roll of flab that had never gone away, despite gross malnutrition and radical loss of muscle-mass. Then, the back of my neck began to itch and I couldn't scratch it. Self-consciousness and the dread of hearing another disparaging comment in my mind kept me frozen. Quickly, I wondered if the white chickens were ever curious about the effects of the barnyard on the black ones--or the red ones.

On the bench, the woman uncrossed her legs, releasing a distinctly feminine scent. Then, she turned sideways and began tapping her finger-tips on the glass of the alcove.

Outside, stood a pair of very fat, very black, women; each wore outrageously printed shorts, sleeve-less tops, and tired canvas slip-ons. They spoke with grand emphasis, often standing with hands on broad hips, seeming to swell even greater as they struggled to make a particular point, or rhythmically swaying in soulful agreement, as they matched one another's body language. And near the knee of one, stood a beautiful, honey-brown baby girl that looked to be only a couple of years old. The baby smiled, extravagantly, at the strawberry blond, then giggled and hugged her mother's knee.

I watched the blond lean farther, nearer to the glass and the child, seemingly indifferent to any loss of dignity. She tapped the glass and waved playfully, then made smooching sounds. And the baby moved closer, as well, smiling joyously, displaying a pair of bright, white teeth in front. She released her mother's leg and rapped against the glass with a chubby fist, giggling, trembling, and rolling her head in wild circles. And the blond leaned even closer, laying down on her left elbow.

Unexpectedly, the baby kissed the glass, then burst into laughter.

Still on her side, the woman looked over her shoulder and smiled at me. I couldn't help but smile back. I was swept-up by their emotion. So enamored were the pair, that they made me forget myself and own mask. I forgot the silliness of my face and my body, my fear of rejection, and even my initial lust.

The baby moved to within inches of the glass wall and placed her flattened palms against the surface, then, she grew quiet as the blond met the hands with her own. The gesture reminded me of the end of visiting-hour up at the old county jail. Prisoners and their girlfriends would end the session with their palms pressed against the Plexiglas window, as if the intensity of their emotion might somehow alter the physical reality. And I would stand there--sitting wasn't allowed during visiting hour-- in my concrete cubicle, groping at conversation with my Aunt Bernice or a buddy that I'd talked into coming for a visit.

Both looked up at the mother and smiled, who continued an animated conversation with her friend. The baby slapped at the back of her mother's knee, demanding attention, and the woman reached down and fanned at the area with her fingers, as if shooing mosquitoes. Then I watched as the blond sat-up and began searching the bottom of her purse. Part-way, she looked over at me--evidently aware of my attention--and said, "This purse is a junkyard. I find everything but what I'm looking for."

I nodded my acknowledgment, then, began to wonder how much farther from the truth my assessment would find itself.

She produced a black felt-tip pen and began sketching a face on her left fist. She stopped between work on the eyes and nose and lips to show the baby, who now divided her interest between the puppet-in-progress and frustration at her mother's apparent lack of interest. When it was finished, the blond worked her thumb as the puppet's mouth and tried to entertain the child. But the baby just frowned and turned away. She threw her arms around her mother's legs and rubbed her cheek against the outside of her mother's thigh.

The blond returned the pen to her purse and didn't try to regain the child's attention. She just smiled, wistfully, and said, "My two year-old is the same way. It doesn't take much to distract her. One minute she's interested, and the next, she isn't."

I nodded in agreement. Although I didn't know much about two year-olds, I recognized a profound statement when I heard one. Then, I chuckled to myself as I repeated it inwardly: One minute she's interested, and the next, she isn't.

"You only have the one?" I asked her.

"No," she said, exhaling simultaneously. Then, added proudly: "I have five."

"Wow!" I said, astonished. And at the same time, I heard my Dad's comment: "Oh, Lord! That bitch stays pregnant. 'Better have three jobs."

"They must enjoy the hell out of having you for a mother," I told her. "Do you do this puppet-face thing for them?"

"Yes," she admitted, guardedly. "But not too often. They live with their father."

"Oh," I said.

"But I see them pretty often," she added. "Just not as often as I'd like to."

I could tell that she was trying to put a brave face on what must have been flashing memories of a bad situation. I thought that she must be re-living those scenes, even as she spoke. I knew that the sights and smells and sounds must have strained at her emotional flood-gates.

I looked at her and simply said what I thought and felt, in spite of the scant body of evidence. "That's real unfortunate. I think they're missing out on one hell of a mother."

She sat up very straight, then softened her posture. Her eyes thanked me--even before the words escaped her lips. Then, she told me that it was the greatest compliment that she'd ever been paid.

I considered telling her of my foolish assessment, but knew that it would only be a demeaning distraction. She sat for a moment, staring at her hands, and I looked at them, too. Suddenly, they seemed unlike those of the mannequin that I'd presumed them to be. I now saw the bone and veins and tiny pale hairs. I saw freckles and delicate folds of skin around her joints.

Then, feeling more at ease, I said, "So...uh...did they pop out two or three at a time? Because you really don't look old enough to have five kids."

"Thank you," she said, demurely. "My oldest will be sixteen in November. And my baby is almost twenty-seven months. It seems like all that I've ever done is raise kids. But now...."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to make--"

"--That's okay," she interrupted. "I was just thinking of how strange it all feels. One day I'm a mother with five kids, and the next...." She paused and carefully smoothed her dress, then, turned toward me with an incredulous expression. "It feels the same way every morning, now. Like it all might have been a dream, a beautiful one. Or that all this," she said, gesturing at the world, "might be just a dream. A nightmare."

I nodded in agreement. But I might have just as easily said, "Yeah, I understand, I've been there." I wanted to hold her and tell her that it would all get better, but I didn't know that it would. I only knew that it could.

"I have this problem with depression." She said it stiffly, and I knew that it must a part of her therapy. "It ruined my life--at least, the parts that I loved the most. It turned everything sideways. It got so that I couldn't even get out of bed. There was just no reason. Then, I went to the hospital, and when I was finally getting better--really better--my ex-husband just said, 'You have to move out'. And that was it."

She sat quietly, but I knew that she was grappling with anger. Anger at her body-chemistry, her ex-husband, the way that words can't be taken back. But mostly, anger at the anger.

She sighed, as if to say, Oh, well, then continued. "Now I've got an apartment, a roommate, and a job at an art-supply store. But it all seems so unreal."

"I know," I said. Then, I told her a little bit about my own experiences with hopelessness. I told her about the chemicals, the immorality, and the danger. I told her that I'd lived that way for twelve years, that I'd pissed away everything that most people hold dear. And then, I told her about the specter that had come for my mind--and how my brain became the only thing that I'd ever wanted to save.

She listened, quietly, then smiled. The connection was intangible, but there, none the less.

"Um," she began, "I'm sort of an artist. Would you like to look at a few sketches? I've always toyed with the idea of becoming a commercial artist, and then my sketches became a part of my therapy. Now I'm a little more serious. And I just like to get other people's opinions. These are me, kind of naked expression."

And I said, bawdily, "Naked, you say?" "Oh, quit," she said.

She opened the portfolio and produced a thick pad of pencil drawings, and I liked them. To me, they were beautiful, and I told her so. Then, I added that art was all magic to me, that I didn't know good technique from bad, and that earning money with art was a hard hustle. I wanted to tell her that the world was full of talented people, and that the difference lay in dedication and work-habits. But it would have been too much, too soon.

"What do you do?" she asked.

"I'm a maintenance man."

"You mean, like with mops?"

"Well, sometimes," I said, smiling. "Actually, I spend most of my time working on lights, paint, and plumbing. But, I work in a nursing home, and mops are a part of it, too."

She touched her forehead, then said, "Boy, I don't think that I could work there."

"Maybe not right now," I told her, "but when you're better, it might be a good thing. Helping people who desperately need it, does wonders for the soul--and mind. It helps diminish self-centeredness, if you let it. But more than anything, it helps me put my problems in a Lifetime perspective."

She began to tell me about her grandmother, who'd gone to a nursing home, but I'd turned toward the No. 15 as it lumbered up the hill, raising a cloud of dust. She looked, then stood and said, "That's mine."

She grabbed her belongings and began to move past me, but at the doorway, she stopped. "Thanks for talking to me," she said. "I don't know why I told you that."

Ordinarily, my response would have been a glib one. I might have referred to my 'honest face' or 'my powers of seduction'. But I didn't want to demean the depth of our connection. "Keep doing it," I told her. "It's good for you."

She smiled and moved to the open doorway of the bus, then she turned and waved before disappearing inside.

After she'd left, I got to thinking about a conversation that I'd had with my boss, Bill--who also happens to be an important Teacher of mine. I'd told him of some minor repair that I'd made to a resident's wheelchair, and then of the lady's effusive thanks. I'd told him that there must be a million little things that people do for others that they're unaware of, yet, they may have one hell of an impact. And he agreed. Then, he told me that it really doesn't take much effort.

Little things. Like saying that we like one another when we do, or seizing the opportunity to find out.

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