FAITH, HOPE AND GERTRUDE
Gertrude never really fit in with her sisters. It started the day the triplets were born: Faith and Hope were identical. Gertrude, fraternal. Their family sometimes referred to them collectively as The Pair and the Spare.
Faith and Hope married young: Faith at eighteen to a construction contractor, Hope at twenty to an attorney in a rural Louisiana town. Big shots, both. Gertrude never had it that easy. Her name was the issue. Her sisters, blissfully unaware of how their names shaped their lives, how much grace the names Faith and Hope carried, were destined to be Little Ms. Peachblossom and Little Ms. Sunny Funflower, respectively, and later Most School Spirited and Most Courteous, respectively. Then, as adults, Junior League Treasurer and Girl Scouts Council President, respectively.
Before she graduated high school, Gertrude interrogated her mother: Do you know what you have done by naming me Gertrude? You have stunted my success. CEOs have certain traits in common. Have you ever heard of a 5' 1" CEO? You haven't, Mother, because short CEOs don't exist. Just like CEOs named Gertrude don't exist. I may be 5'10", but my name has essentially made me 4'8" on the success ladder. This is your fault, you realize.
Her mother just chided her, told her Gertrude was an Old German name meaning "strength," reminded her she had won the pumpkin decorating contest in 3rd grade so her name couldn't be all that bad.
Gertrude met Johnny on a Monday night in Surprise, Arizona. Gertrude was a thirty-two-year-old motel night manager. (See, Gertrude, her mother had said. You're a manager. Your life isn't that bad.) Her shift had just begun when she caught sight of a scrawny kid lounging by the pool. No one lounged by the pool at Surprise Motor Lodge. For one thing there was no water in the pool. For another, the motel never had more than two guests on any given night. The motel's owner, Mr. Charles Brown, had been on the verge of going bankrupt when he'd asked Gertrude to take over night management and try to spruce the place up a bit. So far, Gertrude had succeeded in unclogging the toilet in room C5.
Gertrude made her way over to the kid to tell him to scram, but as she drew closer, she realized this boy was essentially a man. Cheekbones protruding a bit more than they should made him appear hungry. Sunbaked skin stretched taut over thin limbs. Bushy hair in dire need of some Head and Shoulders. Dingy backpack. This man, she thought, is a wanderer.
Gertrude stood at the door of room C5; she watched as the man dropped his backpack on the chair next to the cot (you couldn't exactly call it a bed).
What's your name? she asked, offering him a warm can of Pepsi.
Johnny. He accepted the drink.
I'm Gertrude. Where you headed, Johnny?
Johnny hesitated. This woman couldn't be much older than he was—eight years max—but he suspected she'd want to call his mother the minute she walked back to the front desk. Finally he said: Alaska.
On foot? Gertrude questioned incredulously.
Sometimes I hop trains, ferries.
Johnny your real name?
Johnny was too tired to lie. He had been drifting a long time. If she called his family, she called them. John, he finally told her.
And your last name?
Gertrude balked, her cracked voice like a parrot's: Your name is John Johnson?
I know, I know. Johnny shook his head. Who names their kid John Johnson, right? It's like Donald Donaldson or Frank Franklin.
Or Richard Richardson, she finished.
Johnny chuckled: Redundant.
Gertrude stared at John Johnson a few last seconds, ruminating on his name, his hiking and hopping trains to Alaska. Finally she gave him the key to C5, asked him not to tell Mr. Brown about the free room.
Johnny stared at the door a long time after she left. He appreciated the cot, the hot shower he would take later, Gertrude's insistence that he spend the night in a room. But he was concerned this type of coddling might make him want to stay another day. And he knew he couldn't stay. He had miles to go, miles, miles to go.
Gertrude was standing outside room C5 when Johnny stepped out into the morning sunlight. Her mascara had smeared an inch or two below her eyes, betraying her exhaustion. Johnny wondered how long she'd been there. And why.
Thanks for the room, he said, because he could think of nothing else.
Gertrude exhaled deeply. With nothing in the vein of a "Good Morning" she picked up their conversation where it had been left last night: Your mother name you?
Nonplussed, Johnny eventually nodded.
I've thought about you all night. Your mother's basically put up boundaries around your life. Redundant. Bland. Boring. Claustrophobic boundaries. That's why you got that pack on your back, John Johnson, hopping trains to get some place like Alaska. That's why I ended up here in Surprise, Arizona. Just to see.
Johnny stared at Gertrude so long his shoulders began to ache under his pack. He had never known anyone able to voice out loud what he had been feeling his whole life. Finally, after deciding could trust her, he offered her the only thing he had to offer: I'm headed to hike the Alaskan Stampede Trail; live off the land for a while. Just to see.
Sweating under the solid eye of the sun, Gertrude thought about Faith and Hope, about their manicured husbands, manicured lawns, manicured dogs, manicured nails. She thought about the dirt caked under John Johnson's fingernails, and how, when she had passed him the can of Pepsi, the tips of their fingers had brushed together. She had blushed. A thirty-two-year-old night manager blushing. This morning, she was a thirty-two-year-old woman yearning for the Alaskan wild. Gertrude surprised herself, reached up to sweep a brown curl out of Johnny's eyes.
Michelle McMillan-Holifield studied creative writing at Delta State University in the Mississippi Delta. Her work has been included in or is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review, Found Poetry Review, poemmemoirstory, Silver Birch Press's Nancy Drew Anthology, and Windhover among others. She is an MFA Candidate at the University of Arkansas/Monticello.