Vashti looked up at her mother with big forlorn eyes and her lower lip began to quiver. “Oh, child, just stop that. Ain’t nobody gonna hurt you,” her mother told the three-year-old. “Bathroom in this bus is tiny and they’re always God awful.” Tamika emitted a heavy sigh. “Would have been so much nicer in that big old handicapped stall in the Greyhound station but it can’t be helped now. Come on, I’ll help you,” she ended, reaching her arms down to her little girl while shaking her head and smiling.
“You boys stay out of trouble and keep reading, you hear?” she demanded of the twins in front of her.
“Yes, Mama,” they said together, Aziz giving his brother Arsu a sidelong glance.
“Mr. John? I hate to impose but could you please watch my boys for me? I know they’re going to behave like little gentlemen but it might help them some if they know somebody’s watching over them, if you know what I mean?”
“Uhm, not a problem, Tamika. I know exactly what you mean and I’ll keep an eye out for trouble.”
“Thank you, John. Come on, little buttercup,” she said, carrying Vashti in her arms back towards the motor coach’s lavatory.
When Tamika disappeared into the lavatory Aziz asked John, “You really like to read?”
“Sure. It’s a great way to learn things. This book is about a farm family in Iowa about a hundred years ago,” he said, holding up Some Luck. “Dad’s a World War One veteran. No cars to speak of in 1920, ’21. Even though it’s fiction it can teach me a lot of things about what life was like back then. I’ve also got an Abraham Lincoln biography and a whole bunch of O. Henry stories in my bag.”
“Oh who?” Aziz demanded.
“O. Henry. He was a really popular writer in the late eighteen-hundreds. He died in 1910.”
“So like almost the same time as that Iowa book you reading?” Arsu asked.
“Yeah, that’s right. There’s one story in here, The Ransom of Red Chief, you’d probably like. We can ask your mom if I can read it to you after she comes back. After,” he iterated.
“You could read it to us now,” Aziz cajoled.
“I don’t think so. I don’t want your mama mad at me. You better read so’s I can tell her that’s what you were doing while she was gone; alright?”
“Yeah, okay,” Aziz acknowledged. “We’ll read.”
Tamika came out of the tiny bathroom and settled Vashti back in her seat. She leaned over conspiratorially and asked John, “How were they? For real.”
“They were fine,” he whispered back. “We had a little conversation at first but I told them I didn’t want you mad at me so they’d better read. I did tell them I’d ask you if I could read them an O. Henry short story, The Ransom of Red Chief?”
“Oh! I remember that one! I liked that story. You really wouldn’t mind reading it to them?”
“No, I like to read aloud.”
“Okay. Well thanks for watching them,” she said into his ear. “You’re good people.”
After retaking her seat, she said aloud, “Were you boys good for Mr. John?”
“Yes, Mama,” Arsu assured her. “We been reading. Mr. John has a story he wants to read to us, don’t you, Mr. John?”
“I do. Just as soon as your mother says I can.”
“Well that sounds lovely. Tell you what, you boys read for thirty minutes and then we’ll let Mr. John read to you for a bit. We’ll count that towards your time. If…”
“Alright!” Aziz exclaimed. “Oh, wait a minute. If what, Mama?”
“If you diligently read for another twenty minutes and don’t jab or poke or talk to each other. That clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Aziz answered just as Arsu said, “Perfectly clear.” The boys then made a big show of opening their books and reading.
John smiled, slid baby Frankie, Walter and Mama Rossana along with the rest of the Some Luck panoply of Iowans into his bag and took a fat hardback, The Complete Works of O. Henry, volume one, out. He smiled at the title, The Complete Works which was one of two volumes so obviously not the complete, complete works. Checking the table of contents, he found Red Chief and read the story twice to himself as preparation for reading it aloud to Tamika’s children. When she said that the boys could put away their books she asked John, “Mr. John? Would you mind reading to us now?”
“Not one bit,” he replied. “I’d be delighted.”