All Stories, General Fiction

Tender Kentucky by Emma Dahlsten

Carrie tilts her head on the back of the vinyl seat on Bus 109 and breathes deeply for the first time in two weeks. The collar of her pressed white uniform is smudged with day old makeup and tears. Her shifts at Memorial Hospital are becoming longer and her patience shorter for the everyday cold and flu vaccinations. She lets her head roll until the tip of her nose touches frosted glass. Her eyes flutter open to see a man in his seventies, draped in loose cotton, stare back at her and wave. The man gives a one-toothed grin and turns his back, shielding whatever sits behind his tall frame. She allows her eyelids to become heavy and falls asleep to the soft lull of the bus’s engine as it trucks through Louisville, Kentucky.

“Carrie?” The bus driver asks, gently nudging her shoulder.

She awakes wearily and is greeted by Darrin’s warm smile.

“Now I know you like riding my bus, but I do believe you may have stayed on a little longer than you bargained for today.”

Carrie shifts her weight and presses a hand to the now ice-cold window. She looks to Darrin and then back to the blackness of the outside. The silhouette of her fingertips make the window look like stained glass.

“Where are we?” She asks, trying to sound sweet, yet bold.

“Well, we’re about a mile back from where you normally get off. I’d offer to take you back, but they’ve been on me about getting this bus back to the station on time. You have anyone you can call?”

Carrie presses her lips together and feels the heat of her breath on her chin as she exhales.

“I’ll be all right. Only spent sixteen hours on my feet today, what’s another hour?” Carrie replies, looking at Darrin’s furrowed brow.

“You sure? There’s a payphone just outside this bus stop. I’ll wait while you call if you’d like. I don’t like the looks of the night at this hour.”

Carrie lifts her slight frame and feels her bones adjusting to being upright once again.

“Really, Darrin, I’ll be all right. Gotta keep you around. You’re the one bus driver that doesn’t let anyone take coins out of my purse when I doze off.”

“Alright now,” Darrin replies, “Just know I better see you on this same route tomorrow. You workin’ another long one?” He asks.

“It’s my day off,” Carrie replies, smiling, and letting that thought carry her feet to the front of the bus and down the steps.

“I’ll see you Tuesday!” Carrie waves as Darrin shakes his head and gently closes the doors.

Carrie takes a moment to adjust to her surroundings. She pulls her lightweight knitted cardigan closer to her body. Kentucky turned to winter overnight and she is not prepared. Not that she ever was, but at this moment, she curses herself for not believing the attractive weatherman on the channel five news. Her white stockings keep her calves from greeting the November wind too harshly, and her nurse’s shoes are made for walking, so she deems herself half lucky. Carrie slips her hand into the pocket of her starched dress and rubs two dimes together. The phone booth in front of her has a dim overhead light. It looks sad and lonely but also gives her space to avoid the cold. She repeats Richard’s number in her head and walks slowly into the booth. Her cold fingers feel warm against the metal dimes as she pushes them into the slot. She prays while the phone rings and is not surprised when a nasally voice answers.

“Hello?” a woman replies. A voice Carrie recognizes all too well.

Carrie carefully places the phone back on the receiver without saying a word. She hoped Nancy wouldn’t answer, but a part of her knew that she would always be the only woman to answer his phone line. She shoves her hands back into her uniform and heads in the direction that Darrin pointed. She feels silly for oversleeping but welcomes this time of solitude. She has now lived in Louisville for six months. It is just enough time to become an overworked ER nurse and a mistress to the head doctor. Well, maybe not anymore. She feels tears sting the back of her eyes for the second time today and forces them back. If Richard wanted to break things off for good, then he would not have offered to take her out later this week to talk about things. She follows the road and feels the concrete push harder on the soles of her feet. She finds a small rock to kick just a few feet in front of her. She keeps her chin down, kicking the rock when she notices the streetlamps becoming further apart. She has been walking for about a half-mile and still does not recognize the empty buildings around her. She looks over her shoulder and notes that the road looks identical to any other paved street she has walked on since moving to Kentucky.

Carrie opens her purse and counts her money. Two quarters, a dime, and one penny. She considers turning around and walking back to the payphone to call one of her friends from work but cannot remember any of their numbers from memory. Her watch reads midnight and she can feel the glare of the moon reflect a slight glow on her porcelain face. Richard always tells her she reminds him of the glass dolls his mother keeps polished and stored in her china cabinet that are beautiful, yet fragile. Her eyes are full, and her lips painted a perfect crimson. Every morning she carefully winds her strawberry hair into a top bun and fastens it down with a few barrettes, and sometimes just a pen if she is in a hurry. She carefully unclips her hair and lets her thick curls wrap around her neck and shoulders like a blanket. Her teeth begin to chatter, and her only hope is that she is headed in the right direction down the flat paved road.

Carrie begins to hum an old tune her father taught her when was younger. She continues to kick the small rock when she kicks it too far. She loses it in the pitch black of the space between the streetlamps. She raises her chin and shudders when she sees an outline of a shadow. It appears small, but too distant to make a real guess. She crosses the street and begins to hum a little louder. If she doesn’t raise her head to acknowledge whatever it is, maybe it will just go away. She glances to the empty fields surrounding her and sees nowhere that would conceal her small frame. There is a pond a few hundred yards away, but her best guess is that it is frozen and if not she would freeze before being able to walk and get help. She watches the shadow out of the corner of her eye become bigger. It is definitely the outline of a man, or possibly two women huddled together. Should she call out a warning? Start talking crazy so they may leave her alone?

The shadow is now only a few yards away. The man is walking slowly and in no particular direction. If he has seen her, he does not let on that he is making any moves to approach her. Carrie moves her feet as fast as she can, but the cold has forced her to slow down. She breathes deep and feels the pang of winter and terror residing at the back of her throat. She walks through the light of the streetlamp and into the darkness, the exact time the figure enters the same dark space. She feels his presence overhanging like a large canopy. She can see the next streetlamp in sight; if she runs now she can catch the light. She begins to jog as they pass each other on opposite sides of the street. He does not walk to her side of the road but stops and she can feel his stare on her back as she runs into the yellow hue of the streetlight. She does not know what forces her to do it, but she turns around to see where the figure has gone.

“Miss?” A deep voice echoes somewhere from the darkness of the road.

“Miss, I don’t wanna scare you. Just wonderin’ if you had some change you could spare? I could play you a nice song if you like in exchange? I just need to make it to the payphone to call my daughter. Please.”

Carrie’s breath stops. She is torn between the sincerity in the man’s voice and her father’s words ringing in the back of her mind. Always put yourself first Carrie. If a man does something you don’t like, put yourself first. Remember how strong you are. Putting herself first meant running and getting the hell away from this man. But a part of her stayed glued to the concrete road. She felt her legs heavy and her heart hurt for the ache in this mans voice. A pain she felt deeply but could not understand why.

“I’m gonna stay under this light here Sir. I don’t know what it is, but your voice is making me go against my better judgment. I’m gonna leave some coins right here on the ground, okay? You can come pick them up. But come slow and I’m gonna step back here so don’t come too close.” Carrie replies to the man as she slowly places a quarter and a dime on the ground where she is standing.

“Alright, I’m going to start walking toward you. I promise I’m a man of God and wouldn’t do nothing to hurt a lady. Especially a nurse. I believe in the work you do, and you’re being a kind soul to help me out.”

Carrie watches his movements and true to his word he moves leisurely. Her heart beats through the fabric of her uniform. She tightly twirls a loose thread at the bottom of her pocket and can feel the pressure in her fingertips build. Maybe he thinks she has a knife? As long as she makes her pockets look bigger, he has no idea what she may be capable of. She backs further from the light as he slowly approaches and for the first time she can make out his features. Her back foot weakens as she notices he is the same man she recognizes earlier from the bus. His beard is gray and hangs down to his chest. His hair is long and pokes out like thin pieces of fine wire. He is draped in brown cotton down to his sturdy boots and Carrie realizes that this man is strong but tranquil. All the fear begins to leave her body and curiosity sets in.

“What are you doing walking these roads so late?” Carries asks the man as he bends down to pick up the change.

He smiles to reveal his one tooth, “You know, I could ask you the same thing?”

“I overslept. On the bus, I’ve been working all night. I like to walk though, it gives me time to think and I like the quiet.” Carrie replies, unsure of why she is telling him that last part.

“I see that. I do believe I saw you from the window earlier.” He replies.

Carrie suddenly remembers he was shielding something. However, maybe not intentionally now that she notices he stands a little bit above six feet.

“What was it you were standing in front of?” She asks.

The man grins and winces as he bends down to sit on the curb.

“Ah, you must be talking about ole girl here.”  He twirls around a woven purple strap to reveal a black case.

“This is my Trombone. Call her Ms. Fitz. She’s real smooth and keeps me company on cold nights like tonight.”

Carrie watches as he gingerly opens the case. She wonders what her father would think of her standing in the middle of the road at night talking to a black man playing a strange instrument all alone.

“I thought you had to call your daughter? Isn’t it a little late to play that?”

“Just need to give these knees a rest. There’s never a bad time to play. And from oversleeping on the bus, I’d say you could use a little break as well. You don’t have to sit next to me, but do you mind if I play a little?”

Carrie glances toward the opposite end of the road. It is darker, but she could still see the man and she is interested to hear what he might play.

“Alright, but I’m going to sit over here. And just a song or two, seeing as I have the day off tomorrow.”

The man nods and unhooks his case. He carefully picks up the trombone and uses a small velvet square to clean the brass. He licks his lips and inhales deeply before pressing his mouth to the instrument.

Carrie closes her eyes as a strong tune emerges from the darkness. Soulful jazz flows through the coldness and warms Carrie from the inside out. She lets her mind wander to the waves of the rich and deep vibrato. She opens her eyes to watch the man with his eyes closed become one with the trombone. He looks younger and blissful. She immediately recalls her younger self, sitting by her father’s chair as he sipped whiskey neat and played jazz from the record.

“What is the name of that piece?” Carrie asks the man as he finishes.

He replies loudly, “Why, Miss, “Tenderly! Don’t tell me you’ve heard it? Although I wouldn’t be too surprised. Just tell me you like it!”

Carrie smiles, “My father used to play that on the record player. It was one of his favorites.”

“It’s a favorite of a lot of people. Have to say Ella Fitzgerald does my favorite version though.” He says, laughing and rubbing the smudges off his instrument once again.

Carrie smiles, “We played it at his funeral a couple months ago. I never knew why he liked it so much, but I never thought it’d follow me all the way to Kentucky.”

He looks up from his instrument and into her face with a sincerity that makes Carrie look away.

“I’m sorry to hear that. A relationship between father and daughter is a real strong one. Important too.”

Carrie picks herself from the curb and walks closer to the man.

“My names Carrie,” She says, extending her hand.

“Names Charles,” He replies.

Carrie notices the difference in their tones. Her pale skin compared to the richness of his palm.

“You play beautifully.”

“Thank you, Carrie. Do you mind if I give you something?”

Carrie nods her head, “Sure.”

Charles reaches into his satchel and takes out a small origami bird. He refolds one of the wings and hands it to her.

“For you,” he says.

Carrie takes the delicate paper bird and holds it closer to her face to inspect.

“It’s beautiful, Charles. Although I’m not entirely sure why you chose to give me this gift?”

Charles clasps the locks on his case and slowly rises from the curb. He closes his satchel and slings it over his shoulder.

“Just a little something to remind you that even though things may look small and breakable, they can be much stronger than they appear,” he says, and begins to whistle as he walks and disappears into the darkness of that long Kentucky road.


Emma Dahlsten

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5 thoughts on “Tender Kentucky by Emma Dahlsten”

  1. This story for me was a brilliant read. It builds and holds the fear for a young woman who has to walk home through the dark streets late at night. However, regardless of her predicament, she is offered help by the bus driver which she stubbornly declines. I react by saying, you shouldn’t have done that. The tension is built by our perception of a big bad world where every midnight shadow is a lurking evil waiting to pounce. However, this story finishes leaving me feeling there is a lot of kindliness and goodness in people after all, and that not everyone turns into a nasty bad wolf in the dark. Well just maybe! She hasn’t got home yet.


  2. Smart people rightfully fear people who lurk in the shadows. I was attacked once by such a person, so I say nobody’s guilty of being a jerk when they greet such a person with suspicion. It’s much easier to be highhanded when you have the home field advantage; it’s more difficult to view how you come off if you do not, cannot, or will not alter the context of the given situation, and have a look through the other person’s eyes. Tension, not resolution, drives your good piece of work. Moreover, the suspense lingers…Maybe the Good Wolf has set me up…Maybe he will take his real shape when he doubles back and meets me around the next corner.


  3. Hi Emma,
    This was a very visual piece of writing.
    As everyone has mentioned, the ending leaves you wondering.
    Both characters are brilliantly drawn with just that bit of mystery at the end.


  4. Wow. What a story! Carrie is pretty smart in my opnion and I don’t think she’s paranoid at all. You have to be careful in a new place and at night. It’s really cool how she helped the guy out but did so on her terms and he turned out to be pretty cool. She played it all just right. This is just excellent. Thanks so much for sharing!


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