We staggered off the Greyhound bus the early evening of December 23, 1959, hungry, tired, and irritable. Nine cramped hours covering 150 treacherous miles in a blustery snowstorm from Oklahoma City to Bartlesville, will do that to you, “Don’t worry, folks,” the bus driver reassured us more than once; “Restaurants will be open, and your connections are waiting.”
Hundreds of nervous travelers jostled each other in the bus station waiting room; the public relation attempt was a lie. The smell of wet wool, stale perfume, body odor and desperation filled the air. Ticket windows were closed, hand-lettered signs read, “All bus traffic east, or west, cancelled. SNOW.” The café next door was dark, vending machines unplugged. Old folks, nursing mothers and cranky kids claimed the green fake leather chairs that ring the hall.
A man in a pearl-gray Stetson, overcoat wet, a death grip on a brown paper sack in his hands, announces, “Store owner locked everthing up tight. Six bucks fer baloney an’ loaf of bread, but my young’uns gotta eat.”
A thin fellow in a hunter’s jacket, his too-large cap riding his ears, chimes in, “Me an’ the missus walked ten blocks in freezin’ wind, snow up to our hind end, lookin’ fer grub. Ever eatin’ place closed. Electric power lines down. Nary a car in sight.”
My gut has long forgotten the bacon and eggs I’d gobbled down ten hours earlier. A cold, miserable night awaits me, I fear. Two guys at my left elbow, give me the eye. I wear Marine Winter Greens with Ike jacket and barracks hat – a piss cutter we call it. I’m in transit from Marine Barracks Oxnard, California to Marine Security Guard School, Washington, D.C. My uniform earns me a half-price ticket.
The tallest of the two men who eyeball me asks, “Where ya stationed?”
“Nope. A hired, professional killer. Who’s starving.”
His buddy says, “They don’t let homos in the Army.”
“Hell, that’s all California is, ain’t it?”
I laugh. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you. But your wife or sweetheart better watch out. I like girls.”
I don’t add that last week I let it slip to a barracks gossip that I’m a novice at sex. Within an hour, 3×5 cards on all four bulletin boards announced, “Corporal Peterson’s a virgin.” When I pulled the blanket back on my rack that night, hundreds of fresh cherries stained my mattress.
My two companions saunter off. A woman in a red coat and blue bandana tied at her chin comes up. “You Army?”
“No, ma’am. Marines.”
She smiles. “I can’t tell one branch from the other.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“My husband and I would be honored to have you as our guest at our church’s potluck dinner tonight.” She had me at potluck.
* * *
After a three-block walk through drifting snow and howling wind, I join twenty, maybe twenty-five, folks in Fellowship Hall, decked out in green and red decorations, a tall Christmas tree, dominates the stage. My host and hostess, Bernie and Aurora Spenser, and their thirteen-year-old-daughter, Sephora, introduce me as military from California. The pastor asks God to “wash away the sins of those gathered here this evening, especially our service member guest.” If sin equals sex, aren’t I sin free? After a mournful “Blessed Assurance” and a weak version of “Little Town of Bethlehem” and three more prayers, potluck is served.
I scarf down two pieces of fried chicken and orange Jell-O with raisins. A man in a Santa hat comes up. “You Army?”
“The one with that sings about Montezuma?”
I nod, “Where’s that?”
“Chapultepec Palace. Mexico.”
“We fight there?”
“Years ago.” He nods and walks off.
“California, huh?” This from a small blonde in tight red sweater and white slacks. Things are looking up.
“See any movie stars?”
“Did you try my scalloped potatoes?” She ladles a big helping onto my plate. To show she’s wife material, right? Her smile shows bad teeth. Any dentist’s here tonight?
An older lady sidles up, “My grandnephew, Billy Smith. He’s in the Air Corps. Lives in California. Riverside. You know him?’
“No ma’am. California’s a big state.”
“Still, folks oughta get acquainted with one another.”
* * *
At eight thirty, a deacon gives the closing prayer. Folks clap my back, wish me a Merry Christmas, and hope I’ll give my life to Jesus. I button my overcoat for the walk to the bus station. Bernie Spenser says, “Why don’tcha spend the night with us? There’s no place to sit at the bus station, much less bed down. Morning, we’ll drive ya to the station in time fer yer bus.”
His wife, Aurora agrees, “We’d be pleased to have you.” Make the most of every opportunity, I always say.
* * *
At the Spenser’s, teenaged Sephora pours hot chocolate; her mother cookies. A stereo plays Christmas tunes. A fairy tale scene. I let Sephora beat me in Chinese Checkers, but in the second game, I trounce her. She flounces off, mad, long legs and thin arms. Ol’ Bernie pours three glasses of wine. Booze didn’t have the hold on me it would in later years, so I pass. Bernie smiles and downs my glass, then switches to cocktails.
Maybe twenty minutes later, waving his glass like an orchestra leader’s baton, his red face inches from my nose he says, “I’ll bet ya a million bucks them Iowa farm boys beat the snot out of that Commie loving California team in the Rose Bowl, New Year’s Day.” I hadn’t thought about the game until then.
“I hope that’s your last drink,” Aurora says to Bernie.
“Stop naggin’, woman. Yer wonderful Jesus turned water into wine. A drink or two never hurt no one.”
“Slow down, is all I’m asking. No reason to get ugly.”
“Treatin’ me like a boy is what’s ugly. I pay the mortgage ‘round here. I’ve had it with yer naggin’.” He lurches off. Minutes later a car spins down the driveway into the snowy night.
Aurora, her face pale, says, “He gets mean when he drinks lately. Didn’t used to.”
I didn’t know then that personality change while drinking was a symptom of severe alcoholism, so I just mumble, “No problem.”
She tries to smile through her tears, “I’ll show you to you room.” A wood burning fireplace. A picture window looking out on a snowy yard. An artificial Christmas tree with blue bulbs gives off a blue haze. I’m one tired Marine, so the bed along the wall grabs my interest. I strip down skivvies and under shirt, wash off in the half-bath and crawl under the covers, ready to cop some zees. A knock on the door. Aurora.
“You under the covers? It gets cold here when the fire dies out.” She lays a blanket on the bed, “Sorry you saw Bernie’s bad side.”
“No sweat. It happens.”
“Where you from originally?” She wants to talk.
“Missouri Ozarks. Yellowbird.”
“Don’t know it. I’m from South Dakota. Sioux Falls, Came here to work for Phillips. Food services.” She’s a waitress for Phillips 66 refinery?
She sits on the edge of the bed. “Bernie’s a good provider. He drinks more since Phillips let him go. Works for the State now. Money’s not as good, but steady.” She pauses. “My daddy was a drinker, too.”
“Must be tough on you.”
She nods.,“I get upset when Bernie drinks so much. Does that make me a bad person?”
“Not in my book. You’re a fine lady.”
She laughs. “I needed that, even if it’s not true.” She leans back, her robe-clad legs almost touching my chest. She smells like roses.
“You have brothers and sisters?”
“A bunch, An older sister raised me after Dad died.”
“I’m sorry.” Is she crying?
“I’m the oldest girl – three younger brothers. We exchange cards at Christmas and birthdays. That’s about it.” She sighs; “I miss talking to someone with Bernie out of it so often.”
Maybe I’ll get lucky tonight. Please, Lord.
“Mom? You here?” It’s Sephora.
“Yes, dear. We’re talking. Come join in.”
Damn. My dreams ruined by a teenage girl.
Sephora crawls up next to her mom. “Is Daddy okay?”
“Yes, dear. I called Uncle Ted. Daddy’s with him. He’ll bring him home in the morning.” It’s quiet except for snap of the fireplace. Flames flicker. The wind in the chimney moans. My eye lids are heavy.
Sephora starts talking, “I tried out for cheerleader. Daddy said I shouldn’t prance around in front of strangers. Switched to Debate. Made me quit that, too. I was the only girl in the class.”
“I know, dear. A girl’s reputation is her treasure.”
“Wish I had a sister.”
“I know, dear.”
“Why don’t you and Daddy have a baby?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“That’s what you always say.”
I fear a family feud is brewing, “What’s your favorite subject in school, Sephora?’
“Math, I guess.” After a pause, “I hate Phys Ed. Everyone laughs at my skinny legs. I’m flat chested, too.”
“That’s enough,” her mother says.
I speak up. “You have pretty hair, Sephora. Doesn’t your name mean beauty in Greek?” I read that when I was looking for places Embassy Marines serve.’
Aurora says, “See? Don’t judge yourself by what others think.” She ignores this and tells about her mistreatment at a slumber party. I can’t fight sleep any longer and doze off. When I come awake, Sephora’s wrapped in the spare blanket, her head on my chest. Aurora lies on my shoulder, her lips look inviting in blue light.
I kiss her, lightly. Her eyes pop open. We kiss. My heart beats fast. I’ll carry her to the sofa in the living room.
When I move, Aurora squeezes my hand hard, without letting go. She shakes her head no. After a minute or two, I can breathe again. Aurora shakes Sephora awake. ‘C’mon, girl. Bed time. We’ve kept our guest awake long enough.” At the door she looks back, then disappears down the hall.
* * *
Aurora fixes breakfast eggs, cereal, and toast. It’s just her and me. Sephora’s still in bed, I guess, “Thank you for last night,” she says. My body goes tense, but I don’t speak; “We could have done something we’d regret.”
I almost say, “Not really,” but don’t.
The dishes are about finished when Bernie and Ted come in. Bernie heads straight for bed. Ted will drive me to the bus station. At the door, Aurora hands me a paper sack; “Sandwiches for your bus ride.” Then, she hands me a small package, “Merry Christmas, Open it now, please.” As I tear off the paper, Sephora comes up, in pajamas. I unwrap Old Spice Shaving Lotion.
Sephora screams, “That’s for Daddy, Mom!”
“It’s not Christmas yet, dear. I’ll buy him another one.” I thank Aurora with a hug and follow Ted to his car. Snow’s piled high along the streets. Traffic signals are out. Wind blasts make the car shiver.
“See any movie stars?”
“Jane Russell showed me her tits. Marilyn Monroe asked me for a date”
“Guess I had that coming.”
A block before the station, Ted stops because snow piles block our way. I shoulder my duffel bag. Ted and I shake hands.,“My wife’s nephew, Jack Carrol’s a Marine. Stationed at El Toro. Ever get down that way?’
“When I do, I’ll say ‘Hello.’ From you.”
In the station, the guy behind the glass says, “Hurry, and ya can catch the bus headed south.”
I climb over the fat lady in a mink coat to my seat. The bus groans out past snow piles. I smile. Bartlesville’s in the snow treated me fine. Good fried chicken. Hell, I even slept with a mother and daughter. That ought to give me barracks cred, right?
A former Marine who served at American embassies in three countries, Pete’s work has appeared in over seventy-five publications including The Ravens Perch, Dead Mule of Southern Literature, Annals of America and Stoneslide Collective. His novel, “Leave the Night to God” (Pact Press), is scheduled for release in 2022.