The Weather in Omaha

Gloria Ballard

     
   

            I don’t much care for you. I’ve seen you drive by and look at my car, which is just parked here in the shade, not bothering anybody. You must take this way as a shortcut just like everybody else on your street, because I see you go by here in that blue car every day. Sometimes two times a day. I see you look at my car every time you go by, like you think it’s dirty or something, like I don’t get out and clean the bird shit off the roof every afternoon at two o’clock. I don’t care for you or anybody who don’t think I’m a woman who knows how to keep a nice car. It’s a Toyota, just like yours, just smaller and older. But it’s clean. You can’t say it’s not clean.

            I see you jogging by here, too. Not every morning, but some mornings. You act like you have to get someplace fast, like somebody is chasing after you. You run with that baseball cap down over your eyes but I see you look at my car then, too, and you think you’re doing it on the sly, but I see your eyes shift over to where my car is. That day you put up your hand and waved when you went by, like you wanted to be my friend or something, didn’t fool me. Just because I raised up my fingers over the steering wheel and maybe made it look I waved back, that didn’t mean nothing. It was a reflex. I still don’t care for you. My guess is, you don’t know anything about somebody chasing after you. Not in the way it would hurt if you got caught.

            You dress funny. The shoes you wear when you’re running by my car are just like mine. Nikes. But you wear those baggy shorts and that same t-shirt most of the time, and then you have the nerve to look at me like maybe I need to go change my clothes, like maybe I don’t go to the ladies room at the Exxon down on the highway and change into my other clothes and wash out my shorts and my t-shirt every other day. I know how to stay clean. That’s the reason I keep my head shaved off, so I don’t have to fool with hair.

            Some days you walk by here with that man. I know he’s your husband because you and him, you walk by without talking. If it was not somebody you lived with day in and day out you’d be talking more than you do. He’s been your husband a long time, I bet, and you don’t have that much to say. If that makes you happy, fine. But maybe he don’t care for you, either. Think about that.

            I know where you live, too. I have to drive down that street with all those big houses to get to this park, and one day I saw that man you walk with out in the yard. He was cutting the grass and didn’t even look up when I passed by, even though I’ve seen him drive by my car, too, and look at it like it maybe was a broken down piece of crap. But I had a daddy one time, and he taught me how to take care of a car. I lift up the hood and check the oil at least one time every week, and every time I get enough extra change to buy a quart of 10W-40 I buy one and put it in if I don’t have to buy gas first.

            You must think I’m ignorant because you looked surprised that day you saw me reading the newspaper. But I read the newspaper every day. I like to keep up. They don’t deliver the paper where I live like they do to your house every day. I have to go get it. It’s still dark in the mornings when the man throws the papers on that street. But it’s a good time to get out and stretch my legs. Sometimes, when I walk down the sidewalk, one of those papers in the plastic bag will get in my way, and I have to move it. I don’t move it from the same place every day, and some days I walk all the way down to the end of the street before I have to move a newspaper.

            I used to read the want ads to see where they needed somebody to be a short order cook or maybe a counter girl at the Mapco. But I quit reading the want ads because I’d go see about a job that was in the paper, and nobody ever wanted a girl who was baldheaded, like I am. Or somebody who wouldn’t give an address that had an actual house number in it.

            So now I don’t read the want ads much, but I read everything else there is. I like to keep up. I read all the stories, all the ads, I even read the weather map that’s on the back of the Local News section. They call it local news but they put the weather for a lot of other cities on that map, and I read that, too. You might be surprised to know that in Omaha, the weather is a lot like it is here, only it’s colder in the winter time. So I’m headed to Miami, where it don’t get cold at all. I’m leaving this place just as soon as I get enough gas money to get me there.

            And you think I don’t have money already? I’ve been saving up ever since I got here. That man in Omaha let me have some money out of his wallet before I left, that money that was folded down deep in that little hidden pocket, where he never looked. But that money ran out and I had to start finding some more money, and if you think it’s easy you should try finding money in a place where people are so careful about what they drop. Yesterday I was getting my breakfast at the Foodland and was in line to pay, and that girl in front of me with that pink suit and that blonde ponytail dropped a ten-dollar bill on the floor, right there at my feet. She didn’t see it. I bent down to pick it up, but right then she stuck her foot out with that pointed shoe on and set it down on top of the money, then reached down and picked it up herself. She stared me in the eye like I was the devil, or something. I can tell you I’m not the devil. I was raised in church, and they taught us hell was a place where you would burn up forever down there with Satan. That man up in Omaha, he was Satan, and I thought I was in hell the whole time he was there. It’s a wonder it’s so cold in Omaha in the winter, it got to be so much like being in hell.

            We had a nice place there after I fixed it up. I know how to fix up things so they’ll be nice, and I took all my stuff and moved into that man’s place and cleaned out all the roaches so I wouldn’t have to look at them when I was in there fixing dinner. I like things to be clean. He didn’t care about that. He just wanted me to be there when he got home, and if I wasn’t he’d just sit there and wait with his hands loaded. And when I did come in, his hands would go off, and next thing I knew I was waking up laying on the mattress on the floor, and it was so cold I could see little bumps starting to stick up all over my skin, all around the places that wasn’t bruised, anyway. We had us a blanket, but he would take it and throw it across the room, where I had to get up to go get it. It was hell and I don’t see how it was always so cold.

            But I’m headed to Miami, because the one thing that man didn’t bother with was this car. I kept it nice there, too, and checked the belts and changed the blades on the windshield wipers, just like my daddy taught me. One night when that man was sleeping off his party he let me have the money out of his wallet and I got some of my clothes and put them in a little canvas bag and I got my key from out of the macaroni box where I kept it, and I tiptoed out. I got in the car and rolled it down the hill a little bit before I turned it on. That man was sleeping off a big party, but even when he was sleeping I knew he could tell if I wasn’t there. It was like he could smell it or something, like maybe I’d left in a smoke cloud and it was about to burn him up. I shut the door good and turned on the car when I got to the bottom of the hill and headed on over to I-29.

            I got me a map in the next big place that I could stop. Kansas City. I got a map so I could see where I was going, and I saw that I could ride on the freeway all the way to the end of Florida. When I get to Florida, that man won’t ever find me. And I have to get there soon, because this is just Tennessee and it’s getting cold here, and I have enough sense to know that you can’t sleep in a car with the heater turned on. That was another thing my daddy taught me. He said that was what happened to Momma, that she rolled up the windows and turned on the heater and didn’t have the sense to get out of the car. Can you believe that?

            I’m headed out just as soon as I can find some money to put some more gas in the car, because now all the money I find I have to use it to eat. I don’t eat but one time a day, maybe two times a day on Sunday if I can get over to the shelter on time. But over at the shelter they don’t like to see someone come driving up in a car, especially a car as nice as mine is. I walk up to the door and they look at my car and then they look at me funny, like they think I’m trying to steal food out of the mouths of little babies. But just because I keep my car nice and I keep myself clean doesn’t mean I don’t like to eat something every day. So I use the money I find to buy dinner sometimes at the Burger King down the street.

            Back in Omaha, after Momma didn’t have sense enough to get out of the car with the heater running, I learned how to cook from my daddy. He was the one who taught me to be the lady of the house, he said fourteen was not too young to learn how. He would come up behind me while I was standing at the stove and put his hand on my shoulder and reach over and lift up the top of the pot to see what was cooking, and tell me I was doing a good job. Sometimes he would rub my back or hug me tight from behind to tell me it was a good job. After awhile when I was eighteen I got tired of all the hugging from behind and him bothering me with his beer breath in the middle of the night, so I took the key to this car, which was the one my Momma didn’t have sense enough to get out of, and I drove over to live with my girlfriend. But her Momma didn’t want me there long because she didn’t like my daddy coming up to her house to drag me back home again like he did. So I got a job at the Wal Mart and another one at the Molly Maids and moved into my own place, one that my daddy didn’t have a key to.

            That’s where I met that man, at the Wal Mart. He came up behind me when I was straightening the men’s underwear shelf one day and told me I should meet him for a drink after work. I told him then that I didn’t drink and he said that was fine, that he would have a drink and I could have a Pepsi or anything I wanted. So I met him at the Grillhouse and I had my Pepsi and a steak dinner and he had four Bud Lites, and we left and went over to his place, even though I told him the smell of beer makes me sick.

            So I had a regular man after that, just like you. I fixed up my place real nice and I cooked some and he would come by when I wasn’t at the Wal Mart or cleaning somebody’s house. He would bring me a six-pack of Pepsis and bring himself a six-pack of Bud Lites and we would watch TV until he said it was time to go to bed.

            Then they let go some of the Molly Maids, and I didn’t have enough money to pay rent, and that man said for me to live at his place. So I moved my stuff to his place and cleaned out the roaches and cooked and kept myself clean and made us a nice home. The man acted like he liked it so much he didn’t want me to leave, and when I went to my shift at Wal Mart he would follow behind me to see that I got to where I said I was going. Then when it was time for my shift to be over he would come back and follow behind me to go home. Sometimes he would see me walking out with my friend Carmen and when we got back to his place he would ask me what we talked about, and if he didn’t like what I told him I had to call in sick until the swelling went down. After awhile they told me I called in sick too much and they were sorry but they had to let me go, they needed somebody they could count on.

            But you’re wrong if you think you can’t count on me. I can do just about anything that needs doing. I can wash windows, I can rake leaves. I’ll even get up on that roof up there on top of the second floor and clean out the gutters if that’s what someone needs me to do and will loan me a ladder and pay me something after I’m finished. I’m on my own, and I don’t ask anybody for anything. But I’m headed to Miami where it’s not so cold and I won’t have to stay in the car with the heater running, and I’m leaving here just as soon as I find enough money to get me there.

            I bet you are one of the ones who want to see me gone already. You sure come by here a lot, and look at me like you think I don’t have a home or something. But I’ve got a home, just like you. It has four walls and a floor and a roof. It has heat and air conditioning. Wall to wall carpets. I keep the windows clean, because I like to see out. Sometimes I put a Kroger bag up to the window so I can have some privacy, like when I brush my teeth.

            But most times I like to sit and look out the windows, and when I do I like the windows to be clean. I want to be able to see when that police car pulls up beside my car and that man gets out with that blue suit and those shiny badges on and walks over here with his hand on top of that holster like he’s God’s gift, or something. He asks me what I’m doing here and I tell him about one time a week that I’m not bothering anybody, just sitting here. He just looks around at my things in the back seat and sees how clean I keep my car, then he goes on off. Last time he tried to tell me where I could go to find a place to sleep at night, but I told him I’d already been to see the place and it was not a place I’d want to lay my head down, even if it is bald. I told him that with those beer-smelling blankets they have at that place, it was no better than Omaha. He didn’t ask me did I need a gallon of gas to get the car started again. I don’t need his help or anybody’s. Yours either.

            When I get to Miami, I’ll go to the Wal Mart and get a job, and this time I won’t let some man with beer and dope and big hands talk me into going with him. I’m on my own, and I aim to stay that way. I might like to grow my hair out again and maybe people will stop looking at me funny. And I can have a place and fix it up like my Momma taught me how to do before she sat in this car with the windows rolled up and the heater running. You can count on me. I’ll have friends in Miami and we’ll come to my place and order pizza and Chinese and rent movies and watch them on my big-screen TV just like you. We’re not so different, you and me. I bet you like those romantic movies, too, where they live in a nice place where it’s warm all the time, a long way from Omaha.

     
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Gloria Ballard enjoyed a long career in journalism before becoming a freelance writer. She teaches creative writing in the Community Education program at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, Tenn., writes a garden column and travel features for the newspaper, and leads writing and gardening workshops in the Nashville area. She was a participant in 2004 at Sewanee Writers Conference, and is working on a novel. “The Weather in Omaha” is her first published short story.