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Not Now

A short story about a North Carolina country woman who takes a bus into a better, brighter life — but one that lasts only for a day.

It begins on the bus, on the brink of everything possible.

Not in the red tarpaper house in Morgan Village where your husband works at the furniture plant and you keep house and raise chickens and children and sometimes work at Morgan’s yourself, not making furniture but in the cafeteria cooking and serving, just like at home.

Not in the bedroom where you made all those babies, and where you made this new red dress, pumping the treadle on that old Singer to make it go. The bedroom where every Saturday before you go to town you bring a pan of warm water to wash with — a bird bath, you call it; a whore’s bath, your mama used to say. The bedroom where getting into this red dress takes a stout girdle, an 18-hour longline bra, and — almost — a shoehorn.

Not in the mirror as you put on your lipstick (Avon Red Velvet) and check your wig (midnight sable), hat (a red straw Juliette cap), and clip-on earrings (the bird’s nest ones with fake pearls the kids gave you for Mother’s Day).

Not in the kitchen where your least girl, the only girl still home in a house full of boys, is washing the breakfast dishes before she gets on with the cleaning. Such a pretty girl, nearly 14, and a hard worker. But her time’ll come and she’ll find some man and get married and go off just like the other two girls, even though you’ll warn her just like you did them.

Not in the living room where the oldest boy still at home has the three youngest lined up on the couch playing I Spy With My Little Eye to keep them out of the way, and because they’re bored, he tells them how one time he played with Grandma Calloway and she said, “I spy something starts with a A,” and after they guessed and guessed every A word they could think of, she cackled, held up an orange from the fruit bowl, and said, “Ha! It’s a airnge!”

Not on the front porch as you holler, “Bye!” and tell them to mind their daddy, who’s down in the garden turning over the ground, getting ready for planting, unconcerned with you leaving, unconcerned with you at all since he took up with that strumpet down the road, thinking he’s getting away with something, thinking what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Not when you walk real slow and careful on your new red high heels through the gap in the hedge, down the rock road, over the bridge, past Morgan’s, and up the hill to the highway to wait by the TB hospital for the bus to Asheville.

Not when you walk real slow and careful on your new red high heels through the gap in the hedge, down the rock road, over the bridge, past Morgan’s, and up the hill to the highway to wait by the TB hospital for the bus to Asheville.

Not when you climb on the bus and make your way to a seat without seeing a soul you know, nobody to talk your ear off, nobody wanting anything from you.

Not when you’re sitting on the sticky black vinyl, red leather pocketbook on your lap, eyes glued to the view, smelling sulfur and exhaust through the open window as the bus pulls away, leaving the sanitarium and the plant and Black Mountain behind.

Not when you pass through Swannanoa, Azalea, Oteen, down Tunnel Road past Buck’s and Wink’s and Babe Malloy’s, the drive-ins where the teenagers — yours included — go of a Saturday night to check the drag, which means they’re seeing who-all else is out and about for them to get in trouble with.

Not when the bus goes in the dark hole of Beaucatcher Tunnel and comes out in the light of downtown Asheville and stops finally at the station. You wait until everybody else has stood up and walked forward before you stand, smooth your skirt down like you have all the time in the world, and make your way to the front of the bus.

Only then, when you stop for a minute on the top step, looking out at the city like a movie star holding still to have her picture made — only then does it begin.

Now you’re Ava Gardner and just like in “Mogambo” it’s jungle hot already and bound to get hotter and sweat trickles down the middle of your back and out from under your sable hair and you don’t care because sweat makes Ava glow.

Now you are young and beautiful and rich in the city and you walk through Belk’s and Bon Marché and Winner’s proud you can buy anything you want because your money is your own and you earned it.

Now, after hours on your feet, you try not to think about how these red high heels you had no business buying are murdering your bunions, and you walk back to the bus station, go into the women’s restroom, pay a nickel to get into a stall, and put each foot – shoe and all – in the toilet and flush and flush because the cold water feels so good and walking in wet shoes will stretch them out and those toilets are cleaned twice a day and who cares what people think.

Now, you decide to eat a pimiento cheese sandwich at the Woolworth counter instead of going to the Grove Park like Ava would for chicken salad with walnuts and grapes — lady food like you read about in the paper and never had growing up in the country. After lunch you walk up and down the streets looking in the store windows, noticing people noticing you. You are a star, but a humble one who doesn’t want to call attention to herself, a star who wants to be like everybody else for just a little while.

Now, as the tall buildings begin casting shadows across the city streets, you try not to think about the 4:00 bus you need to catch so you can get home in time to fix supper.

Now, you try not to think about changing out of your town clothes into one of the sleeveless muumuus you wear around the house, dresses that make you look like a sack of flour and have pockets full of safety pins and buttons and matches and hard candy, the muumuus you make from cotton remnants bought on sale at the dime store.

Now, you limp back to the station, climb aboard the bus, and collapse on a seat in the very last row. Being a star is exhausting.

Now, you watch the bus fill up with strangers and realize you are no longer Ava Gardner. No, now you are Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” royalty hiding among the riffraff, a runaway princess having a big adventure all by herself. You sit up a little straighter and smooth the red skirt over your thighs, aware that some of the other passengers are sneaking looks, and you wonder if they have divined your secret. The door closes and the bus rocks a little as it pulls out of the station. The city flickers past, you are still free, and there is still a long, long way to go.

Pamela Duncan lives in Sylva, North Carolina, and teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University. She was born in Asheville and grew up in Swannanoa and then Shelby, North Carolina. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s in English and creative writing from North Carolina State University. She is the author of three novels: Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award finalist; Plant Life, winner of the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction; and The Big Beautiful.

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1 thought on “Not Now”

  1. Loved this story! How many times have we all imagined a day like this for ourselves? I read Plant Life years ago (a gift from a friend who was acquainted with the author) and really liked it a lot so I’m glad to see this story here.

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