By Lisa Piazza
The woman behind me is desperate. Her voice is pill blue. Cup of water clear. She whispers into her phone: Send my medicine. Then again, each word punctuated with a swallow. Each word a dose she doesn’t have.
Outside the shuttle, the desert rolls by: mesas, saguaros. Everything is brown, red, gold. Dry heat, blue sky. Later: clouds, then rain. A rainbow. But we’ll be at the airport by then.
After two minutes, the woman tries again. Send. My. Medicine. Overnight it. Is she calling the same number? A son? A daughter? Spouse? She leaves the same message, then, at the end: Please, when you get this… her voice is the thin rustle of pine needles. Her voice is a dry tumbleweed.
I give her my “it’s okay” smile. My “don’t worry” nod. Back in the classroom, my students name all my looks. But it’s summer now; this isn’t my classroom and the woman isn’t my student so she ignores me. She’s older than I am, wearing slacks and a sleeveless blouse. Her hair is white. When she boarded, she looked at me in the middle row then chose a seat in the row behind. The only other passenger is a young guy in his twenties with his earbuds in, mouth open, eyes closed. We are two hours from the airport.
How many times will she call? Who will get the message and will they respond? None of this concerns me and yet—
Why do you care so much? That’s what my students say when I stop a story or a poem we are reading to ask them questions. When I take my glasses off that’s what they call my “time to discuss” look.
The woman whispers again. Please, when you get this…
I scroll through the photos on my phone: sunset over Zion’s Cathedral Mountain, sunrise over Checkerboard Mesa, hearts in the slick rock, branches like dried bones. Petroglyphs. I have already decided to project them on my wall in September as a first assignment. Spirals in red rock. Human figures. The squiggle of a snake. But what do they mean? I can hear the kids ask already.
Pictures as language. The necessity of communication. Story, I’ll say and raise my eyebrows. They’ll give that look a name; I’ll cross my arms and they’ll name that one, too. I’m imagining a future studying the past, crafting the lesson in my mind when the shuttle suddenly sputters and the driver pulls over to the shoulder of the highway.
The woman behind me lets out a small gasp.
The driver says: Well, folks. Luckily another shuttle’s behind us. Won’t be but a few. He hands out bottles of water from his cooler. The sleeper wakes up, gulps his down. I press mine to my head. The woman holds her phone out like a walkie-talkie, repeating her message: Please, when you get this…
Her voice is the crumble of sandstone.
Her voice is a dust cloud.
It feels like my job to reassure her – if only because I’ve been listening to her repeated calls. I want to narrate a version of her future that makes everything okay: yes, your daughter will get your message. She’ll call your prescription into the nearest pharmacy. It will be ready by the time you land.
But who knows? I am about to say something conciliatory, at least, when the driver slides open the door. Might as well stretch your legs. Stand in the shade, though. Don’t want anyone fainting from the heat. Ha ha.
Outside the warm air soothes. I lean against the bus and kick at the sticks on the side of the road. I could pick one up. Scratch my own message in the shoulder of the highway: Please, when you get this…But what comes next? Who would read it? And when?
In the end, it’s the young guy who helps the older woman. He takes her arm as she gets out of the bus. Stands with her on the side of the road, shaded by the shuttle. There’s an app for that, he tells her. You can get anything anywhere anytime now. See? Pulls out his phone and brings something up on the screen. I want to lean in, learn more. But it feels intrusive to finish something I’ve never started.
When the next shuttle pulls up, the two of them get on together. I am outside, alone in the desert sun. I stand there long enough for the new driver to ask: you getting on? And I remember then that I am flying home, back to the fog of the Bay Area, where graffiti art replaces petroglyphs and concrete stands in for sedimentation. Back to my apartment – silent, still, empty. To a stack of final papers I never graded and an unopened book a student loaned me to read. I will start the new school year as the same old person: meaning well, seemingly well. Learning like the rest of them how to read the signs before it’s too late.
On the new bus, the woman’s voice is soda sweet: she’s found her pills. They were in the side pocket of her carry-on all along. I would ask for one to see me through, too. But—
The bus glides onto the highway and I am back to staring out the window: mesas, saguaros, the gold of the desert soothes me. Dry heat, blue sky. Later: clouds, then rain. A rainbow I’ll never see.
Lisa Piazza is a writer, educator and mother from Oakland, Ca. Her stories have been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize.
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