by Judy Richardson
Emma pushed open the door to the university bookstore and paused, allowing her eyes to adjust to the artificial light. Shades on the far wall dimmed the sun. Inside quiet and calm blended with the ticking clock and buzzing lights. A clerk perched behind the counter, scribbling in a ledger.
“I guess it’s just us,” Emma observed. “How about this weather—almost seventy degrees!”
The clerk did not look up. “Wouldn’t know. I’m stuck in here.”
And now for the next thirty minutes, As The World Turns.
Emma smiled. “My mom likes that show too. And she just bought a Zenith like yours.” The TV looked like luggage, with the carry-handle and controls on top.
Now the clerk glanced at her, tapping her pencil. “Do you need some help?”
“No, thanks.” Emma stepped to the counter and read the nametag. “Mrs. Lane. I just need some supplies.”
“Well, help yourself. I’m here. Until five.” Setting down her pencil and pushing the ledger aside, Mrs. Lane turned her attention to the soap opera.
Emma shrugged. This Friday afternoon was meant for browsing, touching spines, and reading book titles. A grouchy clerk could not quash her spirits.
The store was small. From wherever she stood, she could see the counter—and hear the TV blaring. She pulled five blue books from a stack and then selected several plain yellow pencils. The brightly colored ones imprinted with University of North Carolina at Greensboro cost an extra five cents each.
“Can’t afford to be fancy,” she whispered.
She wandered into the smell of new books—paper mixed with ink and glue. Half-listening to commercials about Niagara Starch and NuSoft fabric softener, she located the American Literature section. “O’Connor, Welty, and McCullers,” her American Lit professor had advised, “are representative women’s voices in post World War II Southern literature.” Emma needed a sense of the South. Tangled in her Pennsylvania roots, she often stumbled on expressions and sentiments that befuddled her.
“Okay,” she murmured, pulling A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories from the shelf. “I’ll start with you.”
The soap played on. “He said something about not wanting her to have Thanksgiving dinner alone…”
Thanksgiving dinner was six days away. She would miss it because her father wouldn’t pay for her trip home this close to the end of the semester.
“And I gave it a great deal of thought, Grandpa…”
The woman’s voice went silent, followed by Walter Cronkite booming, “Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade…
“The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by the shooting…”
“Oh, no.” Emma rushed to the front of the store, pressing A Good Man, blue books, and pencils to her chest. “CBS News Bulletin” was flashing in white letters on a black screen. The soap opera reappeared.
“Oh! Don’t change the channel!”
“I didn’t. I can’t imagine…” but Cronkite was back on the air, interrupting Mrs. Lane.
“There has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy…he was wounded…driving from Dallas airport into downtown Dallas along with Governor Connelly of Texas…”
“Well, that’s good news.” Mrs. Lane spoke over the broadcast.
“…taken to Parkland Hospital there where their condition is, as yet, unknown…”
Emma froze. “What? What did you just say?”
Mrs. Lane swiveled to stare at Emma. “I said that’s good news.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.” Emma released her bundle; the book met the counter with a thud. Pencils spilled and rolled before she could scoop them back into a neater pile.
“You’re a Yankee, aren’t you? Southern girls don’t speak like that to their elders.”
Now Eddy Barker of KRLD reported live from Texas. “…as you can imagine, there are many stories that are coming in now as to the actual condition of the President. One is that he is dead. This cannot be confirmed…”
“He can’t be dead—how terrible.”
“Down here we didn’t like him.”
They forgot each other, both listening to details.
Eddy switched back to Walter. “No word as yet…we are waiting…scanty reports… We have just been advised that blood transfusions have been administered…shot by an assassin at Elm and Houston Street… Going to a Dallas luncheon, the President was going to address…there were concerns for his safety…
“Father Hubert has administered the last sacraments to President Kennedy…confirmed President Kennedy is dead…at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”
When they heard “last sacraments,” Mrs. Lane broke their silence. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
“Bad rubbish! What a horrible thing to say.”
“Well, that’s what some of us believe.” She turned the volume down. Walter continued talking but not to them.
“Mrs. Lane, he just died. Can’t you let him rest? Just for a day or so?”
“Besides,” Mrs. Lane went on, “you’d think he would have known better than to ride through Dallas all fancy-dancy with the top down.”
“He wanted to be near people, be part of things. That’s why we liked him.”
“Maybe that’s why you liked him. And just what ‘things’ besides ruining the country?”
“A lot of people I know in the North loved him.”
“So why are you here in Greensboro? Don’t you have colleges up there?”
Clenching her fists, Emma tried for an even tone. “Tuition is cheaper here.”
“I suppose you’ve got a lot of Catholics up there. We’re mostly Baptists in the South.”
“Our neighbors are Catholic, but my family is Protestant. My mom says Kennedy listens to the Pope, not the country.”
“What do you say to that, Miss Know-it-all?”
“That the Pope listens to God, so what’s the problem?”
“It’s not wise to put anyone in between you and God. That’s the problem.”
“Don’t you at least like Jackie?”
“I should say not! Do you know what she said when they interviewed her? About whether she would attend the inauguration? She said, ‘I don’t know—when is it?’ Can you believe how stupid that was?”
“That was a joke. Her due date was right around that time. She meant human life is more important than even the President.”
“Well, maybe so.” Mrs. Lane nodded. “You’re a smart aleck but you’re smart too, aren’t you? John-John’s life is more important. So sad that she lost those babies.”
“She’s a gracious lady. I’d love to be like her.”
“Well, you’ve got a long way to go. Your parents would be ashamed if they knew how you’re sassing me.”
“My parents would definitely agree with you, about me and about Kennedy. That doesn’t make you right, though.”
“It doesn’t make me wrong either.”
“You’re insensitive. Most students would be appalled to hear you’re glad JFK died.”
“Huh. Most students act so superior. They sashay in here, ignoring me. That’s why I bought this TV, to keep from being bored and angry at them.”
“We’re not all like that. I have to work to get through college.”
“So you work, do you? What’s your job?”
“I serve in the dining hall, supper tonight. My shift starts soon.”
“What’s your plan after college?”
“I’m applying to the Peace Corps.”
“Mercy! And go off to some dirty little country? You already have everything here.”
“I do have a lot, but so many in other countries don’t.”
“I suppose. Young people think they can change the world.”
“JFK was going to help us do that. But now—I can’t even think about it anymore.” Emma’s hand rested on her supplies. “Anyhow, how much for all of this?” She was almost out of the store and the argument.
“Let’s see.” Mrs. Lane jotted numbers on scrap paper. “Flannery O’Connor, huh? You know she’s a Catholic too?”
“You’ve heard of Flannery O’Connor?”
“Of course. I’m not ignorant. Comes to four dollars and fifty cents.”
“Oh! I didn’t mean—” She caught herself and tried again. “I didn’t know she’s Catholic, only that my lit professor recommended her. But I don’t have enough for everything, so I’ll just buy the blue books and pencils. I’ll put O’Connor back on the shelf.”
“I’ll shelve it. That’s my job. Too bad you can’t afford it.” Mrs. Lane was packing the materials into a brown bag.
Emma handed over the money. “Well, someday I’ll be able to buy any book I want.”
Mrs. Lane jerked the cash register open. “I’m sure you will. When you’re older and wiser.”
“What’s my age got to do with this?”
“Back to being snotty now?”
“It came out wrong. My mother would slap me.” Tears streamed down Emma’s cheeks.
“For goodness sake. Don’t cry. Here, have a tissue.”
“I loved him but I guess you have a right to your opinion.”
“Indeed I do.” Mrs. Lane handed Emma the bag. “I am sorry he died, just like I would be if anyone else died. But I’m also sorry he was the President.”
Walter Cronkite was still on air; he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He looked as if he had not slept for days.
“I didn’t mean to be rude. I just—have to go.” Emma stumbled out the door. The afternoon sun had lowered. A student brushed past her, crying. “He’s dead. What are we going to do now?” Emma, shivering, did not respond.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing