Sandra Fox Murphy
Opal climbed, step by step, onto the Trailways bus that appeared to consume each passenger as if it were an ancient whale in the Mediterranean Sea. The late morning air in Palestine wilted the essence of the cottonwoods in summer’s brutal humidity of east Texas. Opal wore her cotton shirtwaister, the one she had bought at the Grand Leader department store, the one with the pink flowers all over. It was her favorite, having softened over the years with each washing. Her hair’s errant curls were peppered with gray and gathered on top of her head, and at the last minute, as she’d left the house, she had added her pearl necklace because a lady of 62 ought to leave the house looking proper. Years ago a nice lady she cleaned house for had given her those pearls. Missus Elder had said that she owned more jewels than she could ever wear and she had told Opal, then a young woman, that the pearls would be lovely with her cotton dresses.
“A girl named Opal should have some pearls. They’ll light your face, just like that smile of yours,” Missus Elder had said.
Opal pulled herself up the top step of the bus, holding tight to the chrome bar. Her vigor was not what it used to be all those years ago when she had picked cotton all day in the east Texas sun and watched the glistening young men working the fields with her, before Missus Elder had given her an indoor job. Aside from the bus driver, Opal saw only a young white man, scruffy and bearded, sitting in the first row of seats and a young woman near the back of the bus, her two young sons swarming around her like busy bees.
Opal smiled at the young mother as she walked to the back of the bus and took the seat behind the young family. The humidity of the day seeped through the open bus windows, holding her in place and loosening her hair from the tortoise shell hairpins. She pulled her embroidered hankie from her handbag and blotted her forehead. Opal had settled into her seat, her satchel tucked next to her, when she caught sight of bright, white eyes watching her beneath the bar at the top of the seat before her. Just as suddenly as she had seen the child’s gaze, the boy’s face vanished.
She was on her way to Tyler to visit her
daughter and grandbabies. Opal’s son, who lived with his family in the house next door to hers, had bought her the bus ticket. She had not seen her daughter for almost eighteen months, and there was now a new granddaughter, Ruby, born only two months ago. Ruby had two older brothers and Opal was eager to see her grandbabies again.
A movement pulled Opal from her thoughts and, again, the young boy in front of her caught her eye, his skin like a cup of coffee and his buzzed hair sparkling with the sunlight mingling with drops of sweat on his scalp. He was eyeing her; those probing wide eyes the color of mahogany and framed by lashes fit for a lass. The child’s eyes latched onto her own gaze. Unflinching. He said nothing, but watched her intently as the bus bounced toward the north on the country road. His brother chattered away as he sat next to his mother, but the young boy in front of Opal stared at the old lady in the seat behind him. Opal would look away from the boy and watch out the window as the tall pine trees passed, broken every few miles by fields of cotton or beans, sights she found comforting. But it was August and the crops were turning brown, some already harvested. Her eyes always returned to find the sweet scamp watching
her, his face gleeful and probing as if he were full of questions but afraid to ask.
The man up front got off at the next bus stop, but the young mother stayed. Over the next two hours, as the bus churned on toward Tyler, stopping at a small town along the way where an elderly white couple boarded, the young boy continued to gaze at Opal and then
would disappear behind the seat for a few moments. Was it a game he played?
Despite the scented talcum Opal had rubbed onto her skin before she dropped her satin slip over her shoulders that morning, she felt the bead of sweat gather at the nape of her neck and tickle her spine as it fell. It was indeed summertime, she thought. She had smiled at the young boy; only once did he return the smile, then disappeared again as if embarrassed he had revealed his teeth. Once she jolted awake after dozing off only to see the boy still peering. After all this reverence, Opal felt akin to him, but never was a word shared.
The bus rolled into Tyler and slowed to a stop at the bus station. Opal gathered her satchel and disembarked from the now empty bus. As her foot left the bottom step and found firm ground, the boy with the shining smile and mahogany eyes, a child who appeared to be about five or six years old, stood waiting for her.
He looked up at her. “I love my two grannies.” He gazed again, as he had on the bus, and Opal smiled at him. “I love you too,” he said. “One day I will marry you, and, to be certain, I am going to be a preacher.”
“Oh, my,” said Opal, surprised that he’d spoken, and when she blinked and looked again, he was gone. She never saw him again.