First published in Belle Reve Literary Journal
She raced up the back stairs to their second story apartment. It was Friday and Talent Roundup Day on the Mickey Mouse Club. She ran home from school every day for her favorite television show. Friday’s show was her very favorite, but she jerked to a stop on the landing that held the entry to their place. The door was open. No one should be there. Mama was at work. She couldn’t move, didn’t know what to do. And then, through the screen door, she saw mama breeze into the kitchen.
“Baby, why are you just standing there? Come inside.”
“Are you sure? Is there a criminal with a gun in there making you act like everything’s okay so I’ll come in and be captured, too?”
“Good gosh, Zuzu. Get in here. Where did you get that imagination? Never mind. I know.”
Mama laughed and didn’t look afraid, so Zuzu went in the apartment.
Mama said, “I have a surprise for you. My sister called and Phoebe wants you to come over for the weekend.”
“My cousin Phoebe?”
“Yes, baby. What other Phoebe? Now, you should change clothes, just clean school clothes. I’ll brush your hair then. I’ve already packed a little bag for you.”
“Why are you home?”
“Sissy called and wanted you to come over this afternoon so you’d be there the whole weekend. I don’t know what they have planned. I got permission to run home and get you on your way.”
“You’re going with me?”
“Then you’re going to drive me.”
“Zuzu, we need to get started. No, I’m not driving you. I’ll explain when we get in the car. Get moving. We’re in a hurry.”
Zuzu saw the little red bag on her bed, so it must be true. She decided to leave on her skirt and just put on a clean blouse. She was in the fifth grade. She could make fashion decisions like that. Mama came into her room as she was fingering the last button. Mama took a hairbrush and clip from the bag.
“Let’s make a nice, neat pony tail.” She brushed Zuzu’s hair gently.
“Will I ever have pretty, brown hair like you?”
“You have beautiful hair, baby. It’s distinctive. People notice you.”
“Yeah. ‘I’d rather be dead than red in the head.’ I don’t like getting noticed like that.”
“You look beautiful. Let’s go. Here are four quarters to put in your purse.”
Once in the old car that mama called The Rocket, Zuzu asked.
“If you’re not going to drive me, but we’re already in the car, how will I get to Arkansas? Is Uncle Walter picking me up?”
“You’re going to have an adventure, Zuzu. I can’t take off long enough to drive you over and get back to work, so you’re going to ride the bus.”
“These buses go across the bridge?”
“Oh, not city buses. You’ll ride a Greyhound bus. It’s simple. I’ll get you settled at the bus station; you’ll board the bus; and Uncle Walter and Phoebe will be waiting for you when you get off.”
Zuzu fell silent trying to decide what she thought about everything mama just told her. When they walked into the downtown bus station, Zuzu knew that the feeling in her stomach was fear. The room was bigger than even the cafeteria at school. There were doors and counters on both sides of the room. On the left was a section of little doors, maybe four levels tall. It reminded her of their cubbies in kindergarten except these had doors and they looked metal. At the far end were big windows and glass doors. But most of the room was filled with wooden pews like in church except without the cushions. Mama held Zuzu’s bag in one hand and Zuzu’s hand in the other. They went to a counter where mama bought a ticket and traded the overnight bag for a different ticket. Zuzu couldn’t stop looking around.
“Put these in your purse and pay attention, baby. Let me tell you what will happen.”
They walked out the glass doors to what looked like a bus parking lot.
“Zuzu, there will be an announcement over the loudspeaker inside. A man’s voice will call out the name of the town you’re going to – Marked Tree. Then he’ll say what lane the bus is in. See those big numbers? It will be one of these.”
Back inside, mama settled her onto a bench a few rows from the doors.
“This is hard. It hurts my butt.”
“Well, you won’t be here long. Now, listen. I can’t wait with you, but you’re very responsible and this will be easy. You just sit right here. Listen for the announcement and go to your bus. Uncle Walter will be waiting when you get there. And don’t let go of your purse. I need to leave. Can you do all that?”
“I guess so. I am very mature.”
Mama kissed her twice and hugged her. “I love you, little Zuzu.” Then she walked quickly across the big room and out the front door. Zuzu fiddled with the handle on her pocketbook and wished she was home watching Talent Roundup Day. It was the best day of the week.
“Don’t stare at me.”
The old lady sitting katty-corner from her on the facing bench was speaking to her. Zuzu hadn’t noticed her, but she would have been hard to miss. Her hair and skin were all so pale that she appeared ghost-like. But you couldn’t miss the brightly flowered blouse and coordinated red stretch pants that strained around her abundant thighs. Now Zuzu stared.
“I told you not to stare.”
“I don’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
“Was that your mother?”
“Why did she call you a zoo?”
“It’s Zuzu. It’s my nickname.”
“Well, that’s crazy.”
“Sort of. Mama said that daddy’s mother insisted that I be named a certain thing from her family. Mama said it was terrible, but that daddy would do anything his mother told him to. She said he’d drop dead if his mother told him to. He did drop dead, but mama said it was from shame. I never understood that.”
“You have a lot to say, don’t you, little girl?”
Zuzu’s head snapped to the left. There was an announcement on the loudspeaker. She squinted hard as if it would help her understand, but it didn’t work. The words were a mumble-jumble. She looked to the old lady questioning.
“I don’t know what he said either. I can never understand. My son always gets me when it’s my time to board the bus. Where are you going?”
“Marked Tree. It’s in Arkansas.”
“I don’t think he said that.”
“Where’s your son?”
“Somewhere over there, maybe at the lunchroom. He’ll stay over there as long as he can before putting me on the bus. He’s sending me to my daughter’s for a while. He wants to get shed of me.”
Lunchroom. That was the only part that stuck and it sounded good. Mama rushed her out so fast that she didn’t get her after-school snack. And she had money clanging in her purse. This wasn’t so bad. Zuzu started making the circuit around the big room looking for the place that had snacks. She crossed from her seat to the wall to her right and started down the outside aisle. Sometimes there were packages or grocery sacks of belongings or smelly foods so she looked down a lot while still looking for a door to a food place. A colorful poster on the wall caught her attention. It must be someplace you could go on a bus. It was a beautiful, white church with big, double doors and a tall spire. There was a park in front of it with sidewalks and grass and trees and happy-looking people. In big letters at the bottom of the poster, it read NEW ORLEANS. Maybe she’d get on a different bus and go there and go into the church and become a nun and live a life of poverty and devotion. Well, maybe just devotion.
She stubbed her toe on something and stumbled.
“Watch where you’re going, brat.”
He had a beard with maybe food bits in it and he smelled bad. His eyes looked red and crazy. He might be a demon sworn to kill would-be nuns. Zuzu moved away quickly and quietly. Did she hear him growl? It was the first time since she’d entered the bus station that she’d been scared. She didn’t see any signs of a lunchroom either.
“Clarence, come back here. Oh, shush, baby baby.”
The mother looked like her high school baby-sitter, but there were three children she was trying to manage by herself. One was in arms and crying; another was holding onto the bench and enjoying the delight of taking steps while his mom tried to keep a hand on him. Clarence, who was probably closing in on three, was trying to get away. Zuzu scooped him up.
“It’s all right, missus. I’ve got him.”
The young mother had tears in her bleary eyes and looked as if she’d collapse if someone said boo.
“I’ve got him,” said Zuzu. She liked little kids a lot. “I can sit with you for a while. Do you have a toy or a book I can help him play with?”
“No, I just have diapers and bottles for the two little ones. I didn’t think it would be this hard. Ain’t never had to do this before.”
The loudspeaker man made another unintelligible announcement. Zuzu frowned again and looked to the young mother.
“Where are you going?” the young woman asked.
“Marked Tree. My rich grandparents have a plantation over there. They have a mansion and lots of servants. When I get there, I’ll be sort of like a princess, but I don’t mind helping you while I’m here – before I become a princess.”
“I don’t think he said Marked Tree. Is it in Mississippi? That’s where we’re going.”
“No ma’am. I’m going to Arkansas to the plantation. I thought I’d be gone by now.”
Zuzu grappled with wriggling Clarence. His face and hands were dirty, but Zuzu knew better than to ask for wipes. His mother fished into a diaper bag for a bottle of formula and calmed the baby with it. The middle child found his mom’s purse and started digging in it for playthings.
“You’re a good little girl to help me, and I thank you,” said the frazzled mom. “You listen up close. Don’t you never get with a boy in that way. You know what I mean. Don’t never start having babies like this from thinkin’ you gotta let him have his way or he’ll leave you. He’ll leave you anyways. My man married me when I first got knocked up. I had to drop out of school and everything. Never got to go to no proms or nothing. And now he’s gone to the Army overseas, and I’m goin’ to his parents. They say they’ll help us since I’ve birthed their grandbabies – one after the other whether I wanted to or not. I only pray that he comes home alive and not in a pine box. I think he went into the Army to be free of responsibility. If he dies, his folks will likely kick us out. It’s a bad end for some fun in the back seat. You’re a pretty girl and boys are gonna come after you. Listen to this lesson.”
Another mumble-jumble announcement blared across the big room that the worn out mom seemed to understand.
“That’s us.” She started reaching for children and their immediate bags.
“I can help. My bus isn’t here yet.”
Zuzu picked up Clarence who still wanted to escape and she grabbed the diaper bag. Mom had the other two, but looked as if she was moments from going up in smoke. Zuzu followed her out the big doors to a proper bus and watched them loaded in. How would that mom, just a girl, manage? Zuzu watched the bus back out of its place and drive out into the city She wished she’d gotten on board to help with the kids and go on to a new life. She’d help raise that girl’s children and open a prestigious school where she’d have all the children reading by age four. They’d enter college by fifteen and she’d receive many, many awards for her amazing work. The smell of gasoline fumes brought her back to reality. She looked around. Where was her bus? When would she leave for her Arkansas family? No other buses slid into their parking spaces. Zuzu went back inside. She first stopped at the place her mom had originally placed her. The ghostly old lady was gone. For the first time, she noticed an enormous clock, but she hadn’t seen it before so the time meant nothing. Thinking about school dismissal though, it looked late. And she was hungrier than before.
There it was. Down there, very far, on the left. “Diner.” That meant food. Careful not to trip on any of the other characters, Zuzu entered the diner and shook her purse to hear her money jingle. She sat on a stool at the counter. It was a lot like the drugstore counter around the corner from the library where she walked on Saturdays when her mother worked half-days. She read at a high school level so the menu was a snap.
“May I help you?”
“I think I’ll just have French fries. That’s all.” It would cost a quarter.
The French fries were hot, freshly made, and special good. Zuzu dumped a plateful of ketchup on the saucer to amply coat her snack. She alerted to another announcement.
“Sir, what towns did he say? Did he say Marked Tree, Arkansas?”
“Nope. No Arkansas towns. How long have you been waiting? Where are your parents?”
“My parents are in Europe in hiding. I shouldn’t say, but they’re royalty. You won’t tell, will you? I’m supposed to go into hiding with a humble family in small town Arkansas. It will keep the assassins from finding me. Did the announcement say Marked Tree, Arkansas?”
“No. You need to finish up and move on, little girl.”
It had been such a long time at the bus station. Zuzu was embarrassed at his reaction. Did she not look like the daughter of royalty? Of course she did, but he was a problem. He might tip off the assassins. She scarfed down all of the fries and left the diner. She finally admitted to herself that something was terribly wrong.
There was still the nice, pink-faced man at the window where mama bought the tickets for Zuzu and her little red bag.
“Sir, do you remember me? My mother bought a ticket earlier for me to go to Marked Tree, Arkansas.”
“Yes, pretty girl. I love redheads. Why are you still here?”
“Oh gosh. I can’t understand the announcements. When is my bus going to leave?”
“Little lady, your bus left an hour ago. There’s not another one until the morning.”
Zuzu choked. “Gone? But I’m supposed to go to Marked Tree. How can I get there?”
“I can’t help you, little girl. I can only give you a telephone call. Should you call someone?”
Call someone. Go tomorrow morning. How could she know what to do? She was only in the fifth grade.
“What’s the big street out there?” she asked the man at the window.
“Where’s Madison? That’s where my mother works.”
“It’s a block over that way.” He pointed toward the back of the bus station.
Zuzu knew she was so very alone, but that was the direction toward salvation and comfort – mama
As the sun stole toward her back, Zuzu walked one block east, then south, then tuned east again on Madison. She knew that mama’s insurance company was just the other side of the big hospital on Madison. Her feet began to hurt and her confidence seeped away. Zuzu passed the big hospital and doctors’ clinics. She was finally at the insurance agency where mama was a secretary. She gratefully entered the building and recognized Thelma, the front-office receptionist. She wanted to throw her arms around her, but didn’t.
“Hey, Zuzu. What are you doing here?”
“I need to see my mom.”
”But she’s been gone. All afternoon. She had the day off.”
Zuzu took a breath. “Then may I use a telephone? I need to call my Uncle Walter.”