Evan Mason sat in the back seat as Gladys Hatfield dropped the Ford Crestline into first gear, revved the engine, and lurched along the circular drive that serviced the all-in-one train depot and bus station in Chicago Pointe.
Today was Saturday, and Evan would soon be on a southbound bus headed for Laurenville, Illinois to stay with his grandmother for the summer. The thirty-three-year-old woman riding shotgun was Lila Mason, Evan’s mother. On Monday, she would be in New York City for a week of training. She had worked as a clerk in the Chicago Pointe office for two years and now had a shot at becoming an agent for one of the biggest insurance companies in the world.
“Okay, Lila,” Gladys said, as she double-parked near the main entrance to the station. “I’m going to drop you here. I’ll park somewhere around the corner and wait for you.” Gladys jumped from the car, opened the trunk, and with little effort hoisted the overstuffed suitcase and plopped it onto the ground.
Gladys was a large, sturdy woman. She wasn’t what one might call homely, but she had a crooked smile and her features were plain and asymmetrical. Her lips and fingernails were painted a ruby red and her dark auburn hair was piled up on her head in a massive layer of sweeping curls. A stiff northerly breeze was blowing, but her hair remained steadfast as she went about her business.
Not long ago, Gladys had discovered the magic of those aerosol cans that had made their way from the battlefields of WW II, where they were used to dispense insecticides, to the dressing tables of women around the world. Only instead of DDT, they now were filled with a flowery smelling lacquer, a few layers of which could transform the flattest of hairdos into a high rise bouffant of staggering proportions. Gladys Hatfield had certainly done her part to keep the hairspray companies in business.
“You got a big kiss for your Aunt Gladys, Evan?” She beckoned him around to the rear of the car. He knew what was coming and tried to brace himself for the trauma that would ensue. She pulled him to her bosom, enveloping him in a fog of lavender perfume and talcum powder.
He was light-headed from lack of oxygen and the sheer devastation of the moment, and when he saw the two huge, over-puckered lips coming in for a landing, he was certain things were going to end badly. Fortunately, the sharp, instinctive reflexes of youth took over. He gave a quick twist of his neck and the two ruby red marauders landed three inches off target, splashing down high on his cheek, just below his right eye.
Gladys stepped back to arm’s length. “You have a good time down south, and don’t you worry about your mother. I’ll be watching over her. She’s going to do just fine in that new job. I just know it.” She reached into her purse, pulled out several folded bills, and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “Take Grandma Bea out for a soda. Go see a movie. Buy something for yourself, whatever tickles your fancy. It’s our little secret.”
“Thank you, Aunt Gladys. I—”
“Hold still, honey.” She yanked a flowered hanky from her pocket, wrapped it around her index finger, wet it with her tongue, and executed the dreaded lipstick erasure. Later in life, Evan would have Freudian nightmares related to that moment.
Incidentally, Gladys wasn’t really Evan’s aunt. He called her that because Lila had always considered her one of the family. It made his mother happy.
Gladys lit a cigarette and slid behind the wheel. “See you in a bit, dearie,” she said to Lila, the cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth as she spoke.
“Shouldn’t be long, Gladys,” Lila said, looking at her watch. “If the bus leaves on time, it’ll be pulling out in the next fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t rush. I’ll be across the street at the drugstore. Alvin is there today.” She gave a little wink as she popped the clutch and humped her way down the street and around the corner. Gladys wasn’t the best of drivers.
“I hope you remembered everything, Evan. Did you pack your books and the card for Grandma Bea?” Lila said.
She reached for the suitcase, but Evan rushed over and picked it up.
“I can carry it,” he said. “Do you want to hurt your back again, right before your trip?”
“Well, if you’re sure you can manage it,” she said. “I don’t want you to rupture something.”
He rolled his eyes and said, “Please! I’m not going to get a rupture.”
They walked toward the waiting bus, Lila checking the list she had taken from her purse.
“Okay, do you have your good jacket, your extra belt, and—”
“Your new sneakers?”
He looked down at his brand-new Keds. “I’m wearing them,” he said, shaking his head in mild disgust. “We went through that list an hour ago. It might be a little late now, don’t you think?”
“Don’t be a smart aleck, dear. I could certainly mail those things to you, now, couldn’t I?” She snapped the clasp on the large purse she was carrying and pulled out two comic books. She handed them to Evan, then snatched a brand new brown leather wallet from the side pouch. “Your money is behind the little window compartment. Now, make sure you tuck this deep into your pocket so it doesn’t fall out,” she said as she demonstrated the prescribed tucking technique. Evan took it and jammed it into the hip pocket of his jeans. “And I hope you brought your harmonica. The people on the bus might enjoy hearing you play. Music helps pass the time on a long trip, you know.”
At Lila’s suggestion, Gladys had given Evan a top of the line harmonica for his last birthday. Evan had plenty of musical talent. His father had begun teaching him to play the piano when he was just four years old. Evan’s cognitive skills and tonal awareness had been uncanny, especially for a child his age. After his father’s death, Evan’s interest in music had waned. Lila hoped the harmonica might rekindle it.
“Got it right here, Mother.” He pulled the instrument from his pocket and waved it to allay any doubt.
They sat on a bench in front of the station and watched as the driver tossed the bags into the cavern under the bus.
Lila lit a cigarette and took a couple of puffs. “Evan, you know, I don’t like the idea of leaving you with Grandma Bea all summer, but I hope you understand, it’s important for both of us that I get this job and get off to a good start. It can mean everything to our future. Aunt Gladys offered to help out, but you wouldn’t have been happy staying with her, would you?” She took another puff on her cigarette.
Evan looked at her and gave another roll of the eyes.
“I didn’t think so. You’ll have a good time at Grandma’s. She loves you a lot. She’ll be grateful for the company,” Lila said.
“Mother, it’s okay. You know I have a lot of friends in Laurenville, probably more than I have here. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Everyone headed south may begin boarding. Please be sure you have your ticket and all your belongings. Once we leave the barn, we don’t look back!” the driver said as he began to assist people onto the bus.
“Now remember what I said. You give that driver a good up and down inspection as you board, and when you get off at those rest stops, you make sure you keep him in sight all the time you’re there. When he gets up, you follow him. The bus can’t leave without him,” Lila said.
“What about when he goes to the restroom?” Evan said.
“Very funny,” she said and mashed the half-smoked, lipstick-smeared cigarette into the ashtray beside her. Lila didn’t have a robust sense of humor. “Now, get over here and give me a big hug.”
“I’m going to miss you, Mom.” He patted her on the back as they embraced.
“And I’ll miss you. You’re the best son a mother could ask for.”