“Know where you’re going?” Lee asked. He had added a tougher tone to his voice and nearly tacked the words little lady to the end of his question.
He then ran up and touched her on the shoulder. On second thought, touching her wasn’t the best of ideas. Who responds well to being grabbed by a strange man from behind?
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Lee,” he said. “Sorry.” Why was he so out of breath? He needed to get out more. “I was asking if you knew where you were going.”
“Not quite,” the woman said, “but I’m fine by myself.” She turned to leave, the stuff in her hair clattering like bones cast in a basin. Odds and lots.
“Well,“ Lee said, “I’m from here.” It felt weird to say that again. Was he really? Could he claim to be a part of the very soil of a place he’d left so long ago?
“You are?” she asked. Then shrugged. “So’s my friend. What of it?”
“Friend? You’re here to see a friend?”
“Yeah. I… yeah. You said you’re from here?”
“Yup,” Lee said. “Well, I was from here. Originally. I’m not anymore, kind of like you, but…”
“Why’d you leave?” she asked.
“Family baggage,” he said. “Sometimes a prophet’s unwelcome in his hometown.”
“Vagabond,” she said. “I get it. I’ve been wandering my whole life.” Her shoulders relaxed, she smirked. Was she letting her guard down?
Lee tried again. “Listen, you going to Karma? Let me at least walk with you. The only lady I know here is super sick and…“ He couldn’t. He couldn’t talk about it to someone that wasn’t his uncle. Too deep, too fresh.
“Sick?” she asked.
She wasn’t looking at him so he played it off. “Yeah,” Lee said, “with some…yes. Forget about that, look I… can I at least walk with you a little while?”
She was quiet. Had she noticed? At this point, he wasn’t very good at controlling himself. The car ride there had nearly unmade him.
Lee said, “I don’t really have anyone else.”
She hadn’t noticed. She’d been busy thinking of the last time she heard those words “super sick” in person, of the smell of sterilized equipment and the sound of ruffling charts, the taste of crappy chocolate milk – a taste like someone had powdered chocolate scratch-and-sniff stickers and stirred them dispassionately into pasture-fried two-percent milk. She thought of the touch of thick graphite under her fingers as her little girl thumbs rifled through those enigmatic charts, searching, searching.
Lee wiped his face and said, “I can’t see her right now. Can I at least walk you to Karma?”
“Her?” Maya asked. “You make it sound like you’d rather see her than me if you had half a chance, whoever this her is.” She gave him the tiniest of shoves.
“She’s my mom,” Lee said. “You could come see her with me?”
Then she turned and then she noticed the redness in his eyes. You can’t quite hide the redness. “Already asking me to come see the family?” Maya asked. “Gee, kid, you move fast…”
“Not like that. I mean maybe like that,” Lee said. How could he save this? He just wanted— “Nevermind. Let’s walk.”
She shrugged and said, “Sure.”
With the golden light of the morning to guide them, they moved through the heart of Joplin and Lee’s curiousity got the better of him again. “What brings you to town?”
“Art,” Maya said. She sniffed.
“Yeah,” Lee said. “There’s a growing undercurrent of art in Joplin, I hear…”
“Not like that,” she said and the slightest twinge of sarcasm entered her tone. “Old fart art. Stuff for old rich ladies like me.”
What a weird thing to say. Lee asked, “You’re rich?”
Maya scoffed and said, “I’m old.”
“If you’re old, then I’m having my midlife,” Lee said. “Miss…”
“Maya,” she said. “And thank you.”
Lee couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.
“Lee. It’s really nice to meet you, Maya. What artists are we talking about here? Rembrant? Banksy?”
“Rembrant and Banksy!” She scoffed.
“Those are the only two I know,” Lee said. “And Picasso melted clocks, right?”
“Dali. And only on the canvas. No, I’m here for Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings and Langston Hughes’ poetry, among others,” Maya said. “There’s a weird convergence here…”
“Between people like Benton and Hughes,” Maya said and her tone grew super excited. “It’s—“
“Who’s that? I mean, I’ve heard of that writer before, but…“
“You’re from here?”
“Like I said, I was.”
“And you’ve never heard of Benton? The Muralist?”
“Oh, yeah, old guy. Painting in city hall. Sure – third grade field trip.”
“I was going to say. I thought they promote him like Hershey promotes chocolate.”
“They do, but honestly, Maya, I’ve never heard the words ‘art’ and ‘Joplin’ used side by side this often until now, so no. I spent more time learning CSS in high school.”
“What about the words ‘treasure’ and ‘Joplin’ used together?” She eyed him and then looked off into the distance. Something was stirring in her. Something that had been asleep. “Forget about it.”
He had no idea how to react to either of those statements. Was he supposed to be excited and rub the genie’s lamp?
Or was he supposed to call the police and walk away?
When he didn’t react, she said nothing more. And then more nothing. And the silence grew into a wool-woven veil between them as they walked.
“Whelp, Maya, what do you do?”
“Retired cryptologist,” she said. “Not programming.”
“You seem young for retirement.”
“It’s my field, not my body, that’s dying.”
“I thought encryption was needed more these days, not less?”
“Again,” she said as if tired of explaining it to yet another fool. “That’s computers. I’m talking hidden transcripts. Art history. Symbolism. Treasure maps and old ciphers. So yeah, came here for old-school crypto. To finish what I started with one friend and by meeting another friend neither of us have ever seen in person.”
“How’s this second guy a friend if you’ve never met? Sounds like a murder mystery waiting to happen. I’ll be your bodyguard!”
She snorted. “I may not do crypto for programs and web encryption but I at least know my way around video chats, champ.
“You’re pretty cute for a fossil.”
“Geologically… speaking? I give up.” He blushed.
This was going about as well as the last time he asked a girl to a dance, and that had been over a decade ago.
“Tell me about your friend,” Lee said.
“Well if you keep walking with me, you’ll meet the first one,” she said. “This other guy I’ve never met is interested in the same stuff as me.”
She smiled and said, “Why I’m here.”
“Getting nothing out of you, am I?”
She shook her head and the windchime hair made some clinks.
“They have great chili cheese fries,” Lee said. “You know… if you’ve never been or whatever or want to go or whatever.”
“I’m awful at this, huh?” Lee said.
“Yeah. You are, or whatever,” she said. “I’m already going to Karma, remember?”
“I forgot,” he said. And he wondered if he stared at that star-spangled head covering for long enough, would it break out in constellations? Would he see the future of the world in the thing hanging from her head? Or at least would it shine until he knew the future of his family?
“It’s okay,” she said. “This is where the first one’s at anyways.”
“First one?” he asked.
brought to you by the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau
written & directed by Lance Schaubert
produced by Carrie Puffinbarger