As I shuffled around in the hard-backed seat, trying to find a comfortable place in the coal-smoke filled cabin, my mind wandered back to the events of the last few days. There I was, poor little Zoey, the one they all said would never find a man or amount to much, riding on a train across the country to meet up with the man who was now my husband. Our wedding just days earlier had been a quiet one. His family and mine didn’t make it; the first because they thought I was a bad choice for their boy and the second because they were just too dirt-poor to get there. We were there, though, and that was all that mattered to me. 1942 would be a year I’d never forget.
I thought about him as I adjusted my gloves and loosened my coat collar a little. It was getting pretty stuffy in here. He was just the man of my dreams; taller than me, good looking enough for this plain old girl, and with the kind of complexion that made you think they’d designed the colour of cream based on his skin. And he loved me; he loved me enough to spend three days travelling to see me after he got off the ship that brought him back from the war. He said while he was lying in foxholes all he could think about was the girl back home who he should have told he loved. So he came home, and he told me, and he asked me. Two days later he had to go on one of them special troop trains that carry the boys from all over to all over, but he asked me to meet him near the port before he sailed off one more time.
The ticket collector came through yelling “Tickets!”, because that’s what ticket collectors yell. I had mine, crumpled up in the top of my glove, but I had it. And then I didn’t. I swear I’d have pulled the carriage car apart if someone had just handed me a crowbar. The ticket yeller kept yelling “Ticket!” and I hoped that would someway make it appear but it didn’t. He said “Ma’am, if’n y’all aint got no ticket then y’all caint ride this here train!” He was from even further South than me but I know the way of it with Southerners so I said: “Sir, I’m looking just as fast as I can. Now you be a gentleman and just be a mite patient and we’ll have this sorted faster than you can chew tobaccy.” He grinned at me and shuffled off to yell for more tickets. He was so loud I reckon they’d a-heard him in Kingdom Come, and he was so fierce I reckon they’d a-hidden there, too.
I never did find that ticket again and the ticket yeller never came back. What I did find was the exact place I was meant to meet my husband and there he was, standing as proud as can be, waiting for me. I’d had some times when I got scared that he wouldn’t be there. I tormented myself with thoughts that he’d a-thought better of it and just shipped out. He didn’t, because he really loved me, just like he said he did.
Up here in the North things is different. People still look twice before politely looking away but no one says: “Hey, Sarge, is that there yo’ nigger wench? Kin I borry her fo’ a spell?” No one calls him ‘nigger-lover’ and no one says I must’a trapped that white boy with a conjure. No one except his folks, that is, and they’re back South.
It’s different now, of course. It’s 2008 and we’ve got our kids and their kids, who’re in a college where colour isn’t a crime. We’ve had a good life. I look at him and even through all the lines I still see the boy who came back for me, not once, but twice. Sometimes we laugh about that ticket and what might have happened if I got let off the train because of it. I think God just puts the right people in each others’ way when He wants to get things done, because when I saw my husband board the ship I opened my purse to get the address of the place he’d rented for us and guess what I found? Money. More of it than I should have had. And then it dawned on me that I’d forgotten to buy a ticket in the first place.