Red, Red, the Bloodred
By Walter Wangerin, Jr.
weeks ago I sat in the crowded holding area at one of the gates at Houston
Intercontinental Airport, waiting to board my flight home. First dribblingly, and then wondrously in so
public a place, laughter rose up by the door of the jetway. It became a loud, footstomping hoot.
I glanced up.
Two young women were rooting through
the enormous purse of the third, an older bonier woman who was obviously
nervous, obviously the traveler of the three.
“Where you got them Tums?” cried a younger woman, her face and her full right
arm deep inside this purse. “You know
you need—Whoop!” she shrieked. “Lookee here!”
Laughing, laughing till tears streamed
from her eyes, she drew forth and held up five magazines, a sandwich wrapped in
wax paper, earplugs, small cans of juice, an umbrella—and a new package of
underwear entitled: Three Briefs.
“Mamma!” she cried. “Oh, Mamma, what you want with these?” The older woman looked baffled. The younger one laughed with a flashing affection. “You got plans you ain’t tol’ us about?” Maybe the two young women were daughters of
their more solemn elder, maybe her granddaughters. “Honey, it’s the Tums’ll do you most good.” She dived into the purse again. “Now where you got…Oh, Mamma. Oh, Mamma.”
She whispered with suddenly softer wonder: “Look.”
This young woman had a magnificent
expanse of hip and the freedom of spirit to cover it in a bright red skirt,
tight at the waist, wide behind, and tight again at the knee. She stood on spiky heels. Fashion forced her to walk by short wobbly
steps, oddly opposite her amplitude of hip and cheek and laughter.
“Oh, Mamma!” Suffused with gentleness,
she pulled from the purse a worn leather-bound Testament and Psalms. “Mamma, what?
What you thinkin’?” The two women
exchanged a silent look, each full of the knowledge of the other. The generations did not divide them.
“Well,” said the older, bony woman, “you
found the nourishment, but you ain’t found the Tums.” With a bark of laughter, Young Woman in Red
hundered down into the purse again—tottering on her tiny heels.
At the same time there came down the
concourse an old man so gaunt in his jaw as to be toothless, bald and blotched
on his skull, meatless arm and thigh. He
sat in a wheelchair, listing to the right.
The chair was being pushed through the crowds at high speeds by an
attendant utterly oblivious of this wispy, thin, and ancient passenger.
The old man’s eyes were troubled, but
his mouth, sucked inward, was mute. His
nose gave him the appearance of a hawk caught in a trap, helpless and resigned.
Now the attendant turned into our gate
area, jerked the chair to a stop (bouncing the skeletal soul therein), reached
down to set the brake, turned on his heel, and left.
But the brake was not altogether set,
nor had the chair altogether stopped. It
was creeping by degrees toward the generous hips of the woman whose face was
buried in the generous purse of her elder, giggling.
The old man’s eyes—the closer he
rolled to this red rear end as wide as Texas—widened. He opened his mouth. He began to raise a claw. He croaked.
And then he ran straight into the back of her knees.
Yow! Up flew the great purse, vomiting
contents. Backward stumbled the young
woman, a great disaster descending upon a crushable old man.
At the last instant, she whirled
around and caught herself upon the armrests of the wheelchair, a hand to each
rest. Her face froze one inch from the
face of an astonished octogenarian. They
stared at one another, so suddenly and intimately close that they must have
felt the heat—each must have smelled the odor of the other.
All at once the woman beamed. “Oh, honey!” she cried. “You somethin’ handsome, ain’t you?” She leaned the last inch forward and kissed
him a noisy smack in the center of his bald head. “I didn’t’ hurt you none, did I?”
Strangers were strangers no
longer. Suddenly they were something
Slowly there spread over the features
of this ghostly old man the most beatific smile. Oh, glory and heat and blood and love rose up
in a body dried to tinder.
And the young woman burst into
thunderous laughter. “Look at you!” she
bellowed. “What yo wife gon’ say when
she see my lipstick kiss on yo head? Ha
ha ha!” He reached to touch the red, and
she cried, “You gon’ have some explainin’ to do!”
That old man closed his eyes in
soundless laughter with the woman—two made one for a fleeting moment.
So did the elderly woman, who still
hadn’t found her Tums, laugh.
So did I, surprising myself. So did a host of travelers who had been
watching the episode with me. We all laughed, gratefully. We, in the brief event and the silly joke of
wives and kisses, were unified.
It wasn’t the joke, of course. It was goodwill. It was spontaneous affection. It was the willingness of a single woman,
wholly human even in the public eye—in risk and under judgement—suddenly,
swiftly to love another, to honor him, to give him something graceful without
hesitation or fear, something free and sweet and durable. But she gave it to us all. I won’t forget her. I beg God, in such revealing moments, that I
might be a generous and good as she.
There was a sanctity in the kiss of
And in this: that the man was as white
as the snows of Sweden, and the woman as black as the balmy nights of Africa.