Red, Red, the Bloodred Kiss
By Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Two 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 more.
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 that woman.
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.