First published in China Grove Magazine
As Opal Pratt pushed her grocery cart to the Piggly Wiggly exit, she saw the clump of other shoppers bunched up and staring outside with exasperation. From the sound and scent, she knew before she saw it that another fall downpour was gracing the parking lot. The left side of the wide set of doors was crowded intermittently with shoppers running in, wet and yelling, from the outside. Opal never understood why the yelling was necessary, but obviously it was. She was too far back in the outward-pointed group to get out of the store easily, so she waited. Every few minutes, one or two shoppers in her group became either brave or impatient and made a dash for their cars. More yelling. A man and woman two shopping carts ahead of her laughed loudly and made a run for it. Opal saw something small, a paper of some sort, float out of their basket as the couple sprinted through the exit. The gust caused by the opening doors gave flight to the paper that crash-landed just three feet from Opal. She looked around and, seeing no one reach for it, Opal picked up the glossy, folded paper. She shoved it inside her quilted car coat for protection and stepped through the doors into the partially flooded parking lot. She didn’t run, yell or laugh.
Getting her grocery bags from the old Chevy and into her modest house was a messy business. She was soaked; the bags were wet; and her shoes sank into the mud. Opal remembered the song lyric, “It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud.” That songwriter surely never sank into that gumbo mud. It was no treat at all. She left her sloppy shoes on the porch and got the saturated paper sacks into the kitchen just before they disintegrated. She removed her coat for drying and the glossy paper fell to the floor. Opal tossed it onto the kitchen table and went to her bedroom to dry off and get a fresh housedress.
It didn’t take long to put away her meager load of supplies. She shopped weekly, but it didn’t take much to feed one person. She poked up the fire in the living room to chase the damp chill and sat at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee. She was ready. First, she wiped her hands on her sweater, then smoothed two small wrinkles on the pamphlet.
Visit Greece. That was the headline that screamed at her from the floor at Piggly Wiggly. The cover photograph mesmerized her. Sapphire-tinted water lapped upon a silky, sugar white beach, which gave way at its back to rocky hills robed in pine and palm forests, and dotted with white adobe houses. It looked like paradise. The clear sky was just one shade darker than the sea. She read the words.
Come to Greece – the cradle of civilization. Experience the beauty and culture of Greece, the mystery and romance of its nearby islands. Walk the beautiful beaches surrounded by endless panoramic views and magnificent sunsets.
Opal read on. She learned that a Mediterranean climate meant mild, damp winters and hot, dry summers. She read about good food and an easy-going lifestyle. She saw pictures of pretty people shopping in a city. She read about ancient ruins and there was a photograph of the Parthenon. There was a mention of smaller islands where the only transportation to the mainland was a once-a-day ferry.
Opal read the brochure five times and stared at length at the pictures. There were more pictures than words. When it was time to fix supper, she propped the pamphlet against the rooster salt and pepper shakers, started away, then returned to the table and scooted the little arrangement far to the opposite side to ensure against dinnertime splatters. She stared at the cover photo throughout her meal. How amazing that there could be some place that looked like that. Opal finally forced herself away from the table to clean up supper dishes and greasy pans. Turning on the living room radio for her evening shows, Opal’s mind kept drifting away, far away.
Opal had been in bed for an hour when she gave up, threw back the covers and hefted her ample body up from the bed. First, she went into the spare bedroom that had belonged to momma and daddy before they passed, one and then the other, leaving her alone. She rummaged through the chest of drawers that she’d never cleaned out. She finally found the magnifying glass that momma bought when the print in her Bible got too small. Barefooted, she crossed the cold floor and went into the kitchen, flipped on the light and sat at the table to open the pamphlet to her favorite picture. It was the one where you could see the water and beach, but you could better see the little adobe houses. Opal flattened the brochure on the table and leaned over, holding the magnifying glass to examine each white house. It was a strain to see any details since the picture was of the whole scene, not the little, foreign houses – the likes of which she’d never seen in Warren County, Mississippi.
She fetched her dictionary from a table in the living room. It was the one her parents bought her when she entered high school. Almost to the kitchen table, she turned back and took a ballpoint pen from the drawer of the telephone table.
Back at the old, oak table in the kitchen, Opal found the word she sought: a-do-be A kind of clay used as a building material, typically in the form of sun-dried bricks
“A house made out of clay,” she said out loud. “Whoever heard of such? Except for the three little pigs.”
She took up the magnifier again to study the clay houses. She felt exotic just knowing what adobe meant. And there it was. That one. Opal made a small, but distinguishable mark beneath the house she’d selected. Satisfied, Opal was ready to return to bed. She decided to leave the magnifier on the table, but took the pamphlet with her. She looked at the pictures one more time before placing it on the bedside table and turned off the lamp.
Opal dreamed that night that she was sitting in her front porch rocking chair. She was looking toward the highway, but couldn’t see it. Instead, a satin beach stretched out from her porch steps to the spot where an azure sea languidly stroked the shore. A barefooted woman walked slowly along the sand carrying a grocery bag. Opal woke up smiling and read the brochure all over again before getting out of bed.
More rain lurked just out of sight and allowed a dismal, gray mantle to hang over that part of Warren County to foreshadow its approach. Puddles dotted the porch yard, and ruts in Opal’s lane brimmed with water from the previous day. The planks of the porch floor held the musty smell of sodden wood.
Opal didn’t care. She sailed cheerfully through her daily chores with the radio turned up loud. As she worked, she sang her favorite songs as they came on. Occasionally when a truly favorite song played, she halted in mid-step, threw her pudgy arms wide and belted out a line or two. It made her laugh. The chill, autumn day didn’t exist in Opal’s world today. The glossy pamphlet was tucked in the pocket of her dress and, with everything Opal did, she imagined doing so on a Greek island.
She looked at the clock, anxious for the grammar school to let out. Her young friend Billy lived just down the road and frequently ran to Opal’s when he got off the school bus. If it didn’t start raining again, he’d probably come down. Billy would be the first to hear her news. She paced to and from the living room picture window looking to the highway for the big yellow bus until she finally saw it and nearly clapped her hands for joy. He’d likely be here within thirty minutes. She removed the brochure from her pocket, took it to the table and once again propped it against the salt and pepper shakers. He’d be sure to see it there.
Opal opened the door almost as soon as Billy knocked. “It’s getiin’ cold out here. It’s not gonna ice this soon, is it?” Billy properly hung his coat on the rack and went to the fire to warm his backside.
“Come along to the kitchen,” said Opal. “I’ll get us a snack.”
Opal gathered a plate, soda crackers, the peanut butter jar, a knife and napkins before heading to the table. Billy had turned his chair sideways to look at her and start telling about his day. Opal set down her supplies on the part of the table that would turn him toward the brochure, but as soon as snacks were set, Billy helped himself and started smearing on peanut butter. Opal grew impatient. In mid-sentence about the test he struggled with that day, Billy spotted the inviting color picture.
“Wow, what’s that?” Billy automatically reached for the pamphlet, but Opal called him to halt.
“Don’t touch it. Wipe your fingers first. Don’t you go getting peanut butter on it.”
Obediently, Billy swiped his hands across the napkin or maybe his pants leg and grabbed the brochure.
“Visit Greece,” he read. “That’s some pretty scene. Is it a foreign land?”
“Yes,” said Opal. “It’s not an island itself, but there’s a lot of water on most sides of it and there are small islands around it.”
“Where is it?”
“Out on the ocean.”
“Which one?” Billy tried to read fast through the brochure.
“I don’t know yet.” Opal impatiently reached for the little treasure, but Billy was scrunched over it, studying words and pictures carefully, so she restrained the urge.
“Well, these are right pretty pictures, Miss Opal. Why do you have this?”
Opal paused for effect, brushing cracker crumbs from her lap. She slowly lifted her gaze to Billy. “Because that’s where I’m going.” Opal retrieved the brochure from him and unfolded it to her favorite photograph. “See that little house right there? The one that I marked with a pen? Well, that’s where I’m going to stay. That one or one like it. They’re adobe. That means they’re made of clay. Fancy that.” She sat back and waited for him to react.
“Miss Opal, you’re taking vacation? You’ve never taken vacation before. Hot dog! When are you going?”
“I don’t quite know when yet. I’m not sure I know how. I’m going for sure, but there’s things I need to find out first.”
“Seems like it must be a long way off, Miss Opal. How would you get there?” Billy slipped easily into Opal’s exuberance like a well-tailored jacket.
“On a boat I’m sure. Get the magnifier from the other side of the salt shaker. See, look here. That’s a big ship, and on the back of this,” said Opal flipping over the pamphlet. “It says Cunard Cruise Lines. That’s who made the brochure.”
“Looks awful big to come up the river to Vicksburg,” said Billy.
“I know it does, but we can’t really tell from the picture. Maybe I’d have to take the bus somewhere.”
“I know! Do you have an encyclopedia? We can look up some of the stuff you need to know.”
Opal shook her head and slathered peanut butter on more crackers for them. “Momma said the only book we needed in this house was the Bible and then the dictionary they got me.”
They fell silent until she turned over the brochure again. pointing to the back.
“Sure, I’ll write Cunard and ask about a ticket and such. The address is right there.”
“We could do something else, too,” offered Billy. “We could go to the school library tomorrow and look up some stuff. Mrs. Hawkins runs the library room and she used to live in Jackson, so I bet she knows lots of things and where to find them in books.”
“I can’t go to your school, Billy. I’m not a child or a teacher or anybody’s mom.”
“It don’t matter.”
“Yes, ma’am. I know, I know. But the important thing is we could go. Nobody would care, and Mrs. Hawkins is the one to see. She’s real nice. You come to school when they let us out. We can see Mrs. Hawkins, then you drive me home.” He jumped up excitedly. “I’ll go home now and tell mom that I’ll be late and you’ll carry me home.”
“I just don’t think it’s right for me to take up the librarian’s time.”
“Too late.” Billy grinned. He was already snagging his jacket from the coat rack. “I’m going home now to tell mom, and you’ll have to come to school cuz if you don’t, I’ll have to walk all that long way home.” He ran out the door laughing and let it slam behind him.
Opal watched him run down the lane, playfully hopping over mud puddles. She almost smiled. She knew he’d tricked her, but for now it was all right.
Opal pulled into the grammar school’s small parking lot. She hadn’t been back here since her eighth grade graduation. Her parents were so proud that she was going on to the county high school. Momma stopped schooling at the eighth grade and daddy surely hadn’t even gotten that far. Opal enjoyed her quiet years at this school. A yellow bus full of chattering children was pulling out the other driveway. She saw Billy waiting for her at the front door and she parked her car.
“I knew you had to come,” Billy laughed. “Let’s go.”
The library room wasn’t large, but shelves full of books lined the walls and a few other loaded bookcases stood alone. Two children’s tables with chairs were in the middle of the room. To the far side was Mrs. Hawkins’ desk and, not far from it, was an adult-size table and six chairs. Opal remembered the good, but musty smell of so many books lined up together. She remembered sitting at one of the small tables reading the Betsy, Tacy and Tib books. She loved them, but didn’t take them home because momma thought books were foolish. So Opal sat in the library for a few minutes before and then after school to read the stories of the three little friends in olden times. In the books, their families gathered around the living room piano and sang and laughed. The little girls went on adventures together. They wore pretty dresses and tied back their long, curly hair with beautiful ribbons. She wished she had one of those families, the pretty dresses and ribbons, and the friends. Opal loved this room and those stories. Now she was glad she’d come here with her friend.
Billy marched right up to the librarian’s desk.
“Mrs. Hawkins, I’m Billy Jamison and this is my friend Miss Pratt. I’d be obliged if you could help us a bit.”
“Certainly, Billy. What may I do for you?”
“We’d like to find out some things about Greece.”
“Grease? Like your mother’s bacon drippings?”
“No ma’am. Greece, the country.”
“I see. You’re writing a report?”
“Not exactly, but could you help us?”
“I’d be glad to. What do you need to know?” Mrs. Hawkins looked from Billy to Opal and back to Billy who seemed to be in charge.
“Well, ma’am, we need to know where it is, how far away it is, how somebody gets there.” He looked at Opal who finally spoke.
“We’re also not sure what language they speak.”
“All right then,” said Mrs. Hawkins. “I think I have some resources to help with those questions. If you’ll be seated at the grown-up table, I’ll locate some things.”
Opal watched as the librarian looked for book titles. She was about Opal’s age, but dressed cityfied and didn’t seem to have any gray hair yet. What she did have were kind eyes. Mrs. Hawkins picked one book, then another, then called for Billy to get the encyclopedia volume that she indicated.
Once seated at the table across from the pair, Mrs. Hawkins selected a book and flipped through the pages until she reached the two-page spread that displayed a world map.
“Here we are. Here’s the big Mississippi River running down the middle of the United States. About here,” she said pointing her finger, “is Vicksburg on the river. We live just east aways of Vicksburg. Now, let’s look all the way to the eastern seacoast across the Atlantic ocean, and over here in Southern Europe is Greece. It’s one of the Mediterranean countries.”
Opal looked deflated. “I never thought it would be that far.”
“Miss Pratt, we can get a pretty good idea of the distance – say, from New York to Greece.”
She sent Billy to her desk for a ruler and reminded Opal of the long-forgotten legend on the map that gave an equivalent inches-to-miles calculation. She placed the ruler on a line from New York to Athens and did a quick equation.
“Now, this is a rough estimate, Billy, but it’s about 5,000 miles.”
Opal covered her mouth and looked away. Once again composed, she asked “If a person was going to take a cruise ship to Greece, would she get on the boat in Vicksburg?”
“I know the ships you refer to, and they’re too large for even our big river,” said the librarian. “Now let me think.” She looked back at the map concentrating on the east coast. “I’m nearly certain that a person would board a cruise ship on the east coast. For a voyage of that distance, I believe it would likely begin at the port of New York City.” She tapped her index finger on the big city.
“Why would you go all the way up there to go over there?” Billy jabbed a finger at the spots indicating New York and Athens.
“The big shipping lines only dock at certain cities,” explained Mrs. Hawkins. “I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ve seen newspaper pictures of famous people boarding ocean liners in New York. I think it would be there. It’s a very big city.”
“It’s a long way to New York, too, isn’t it?” asked Billy.
“I’d guess 1,000 miles,” said Mrs. Hawkins quietly, sensing the disappointment sitting across the table from her. She answered the next question before being asked. “I’d guess that a person going to New York would take the train from Jackson. Well, first that person would take a bus to Jackson. It would take – oh, I’m not sure – a couple of days on the train to reach New York, and then there would likely be an overnight stay before boarding the ship. I don’t know how many days it takes to cross the ocean. Altogether, it’s a major journey.”
Opal stood up abruptly. “Thank you kindly for your help. We’ll be going now.”
“But what does all that cost?” asked Billy.
“That’s enough. We’ll take our leave now. Thank you Mrs. Hawkins.”
Opal touched Billy’s shoulder. He rose. She stopped as they neared the door. “I forgot, Mrs. Hawkins. Do they speak English?”
“Some might, but I’m afraid the country’s language is Greek.”
Once in the car, they drove halfway home before Opal spoke.
“I can still do this. I’m going to Greece.”
“Meanin’ no disrespect, but you don’t even like to go to Vicksburg. Could you really take all those buses and trains and a big ship and travel for days and days before getting anywhere? Could you?”
“You’re just a child. I’m an adult, one who’s not getting any younger. Maybe I deserve an adventure. Maybe I really can run off to Greece and maybe not come back.”
Opal turned onto the driveway that led to the Jamison place. It was neither well kept nor pretty, but that wasn’t any of her business. Billy told her to stop, that he’d walk up the drive. He got out of the car with a serious look on his young face. He said that he’d see her tomorrow, but it sounded more like a question.
At home, Opal sat at the kitchen table with the magnifier and the pamphlet. It was showing evidence of being lovingly handled. Opal read the text twice and once again intently studied each color picture. There was a clutch in her throat. She wanted it more than anything she’d ever wanted. She’d never wanted much, but she needed this. It was late, but she put on a pot of coffee and took some out to the front porch. She pulled her sweater tighter and held the mug in both hands to warm them. The night was still but she heard no waves beating on faraway shores. As the hours ticked away, she consumed the whole pot of coffee, rocked and worked on a plan.
Early the next morning, Opal bathed, dressed and drove to the grammar school before any yellow buses arrived. She remembered teachers and knew that Mrs. Hawkins would be there early preparing for the day. Her plan was to ask the necessary questions and leave before any children, mostly Billy, saw her there. Opal found her way quickly through the halls without attracting attention. People didn’t usually pay attention to her anyway. She entered the library room and saw Mrs. Hawkins methodically sorting materials into folders in a file cabinet. She was surprised when Opal spoke her name.
“Mrs. Hawkins, I apologize for interrupting your morning, but I need to ask your help again. If you don’t mind.”
“No need to apologize. It’s Miss Pratt, isn’t it? Please, let’s sit over here. What may I do for you?”
Well dressed, poised, educated, probably happily married, probably with children, unafraid, Mrs. Hawkins was someone Opal might have liked to be. But she wasn’t going to Greece, was she?
“I should have said more yesterday. You see, I have some money set aside.” Opal hated lying. “I plan to go to Greece, but I don’t know how much of my money it will take. Can you tell me how I’ll find that out?”
Mrs. Hawkins took it all in. She saw the sweet dream and would take no part in diminishing it. The disappointment would not be on her shoulders.
“I think I can find telephone numbers for you to call. You’ll need to use these to ask about fees and the length of time for travel. Lodging and food will be extra,” said Mrs. Hawkins. Cautiously she added, “I’m sure you know – pardon me for mentioning it – that these telephone calls will incur costs on your phone bill. Will that be all right?”
“Oh, of course. That will be fine. I’ll just need to know where to ask about these travel prices.”
Mrs. Hawkins went in search of the numbers that Opal needed. She had some telephone books and also called a long-distance operator for the Cunard Lines’ number. She presented Opal with that number along with ones for the train and the bus.
“Miss Pratt, these should get you the information you need, Greece looks quite exotic and interesting, doesn’t it? Please, if there’s ever anything else I might do for you, do contact me. I’ve put my telephone number on this sheet, too.” Mrs. Hawkins took the liberty of patting Opal’s hand. It embarrassed Opal.
In fact, Opal knew little about long-distance phone calls. She sat at the telephone table in her living room with the list of numbers in front of her. Next to the phone numbers was the smudged brochure.Two hours later, after difficulty getting through to the right person and pauses between calls to calm herself, Opal had the bad news. Bus, train, and ship altogether would total nearly $400. She didn’t know how to estimate hotels and meals, but it mattered little. She only had $10 saved. The ship would land at the port of Piraeus, Greece near Athens. How would she get to one of the islands where she could live the idyllic life she imagined? She cleared her throat and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. She would not cry. There must be a way. She only had to think.
Opal almost dropped the glass when the answer came to her. She’d sell the house and land. That would surely give her enough money to get to Greece and live modestly, the only way she knew, for a long time. Once there, she’d get a job if necessary. She hadn’t talked to her former suitor in some time, but he’d wanted to sell her place when they married, if they married. Lemuel would know what price she could get.
The call didn’t go well. Lem acted surprised, then laughed when she told him that she might sell her place.
“Why the tarnation do you want to sell? You finally gettin’ hitched?”
“No, Lem. I may move away, and I’d need to sell.”
“You going to live with your aunt?”
“No, I’m just going away.”
“Girlie, you’ve never gone anywhere in your life. You’ve lived in that little house since the day you were born and the house looks like it. Even at church you sit in the back just next to the door. Practically with one foot on the lawn. You might as well stand in the parkin’ lot and listen. That’s how much you’re afraid of people. Where do you think you’re goin’, anyway?”
“It’s not important. I just need to know what you think I can get for the house and land.”
“That old house won’t bring any kind of price. Might as well just doze it down. The land – not even two acres – you might get $2,000 for the whole deal — if you’re lucky. Prolly not.
“Now, Opal, it ain’t none of my nevermind, but I think this is one of your hair-brained make-believes. Because we once courted, I’m gonna give you good advice. Don’t throw away what you got. It’s your security until you decide to partner up – if you get asked again. Stay put. Get busy in the church. Do somethin’ real.”
“You still have a very fine opinion of your own . . . opinion,” Opal sputtered. She hung up loudly.
“Do something real.”
Lem’s know-it-all words stung like salt in a cut. He didn’t know everything. Opal slammed out the front door and stomped down her lane toward the distant mailbox even though she’d already checked it. She turned the pamphlet back and forth and around and about in her hands as if saying a rosary. The wind kicked up and ruffled her hair. The dark clouds were settling earthward to present another storm.
Engulfed in her own storm, Opal paid no mind. She stomped on, muttering aloud about how Lem didn’t know anything. Never did. If he’d ever been right, they might have married. How dare he speak to her with such brutality! In mid-twist of the brochure, a strong gust ripped the paper from her hands. No, she shouted, and ran awkwardly after the brochure. It floated, skimmed the earth and took flight again. Opal followed. It touched down. Opal lurched toward it, touched it with her fingertips, tripped and went down hard on her knees and hands. The once-glossy brochure soared again and Opal watched it go.
Thunder grumbled in the distance and the rain began as Opal walked slowly back to the house.