Tatsuro Kiuchi for Reader's DigestI heard this story from a girl I’d met in New York City. The girl told me that she had been one of the participants. Since then, others have said that they had heard a version of it in some forgotten book or been told it by an acquaintance who said that it had actually happened to a friend. Probably the story is one of those mysterious bits of folklore that emerge from the national subconscious every few years, to be told anew in one form or another. The cast of characters shifts; the message endures. I like to think it did happen, somewhere, sometime.
They were going to Fort Lauderdale— three boys and three girls—and when they boarded the bus, they were carrying sandwiches and wine in paper bags, dreaming of golden beaches and sea tides as the gray cold of New York vanished behind them.
As the bus passed through New Jersey, they noticed Vingo. He sat in front of them, dressed in a plain, ill- fitting suit, never moving, his dusty face masking his age.
Deep into the night, outside Washington, the bus pulled into a Howard Johnson’s, and everybody got off except Vingo. The young people began to wonder about him, trying to imagine his life: Perhaps he was a sea captain, a runaway from his wife, an old soldier going home. When they went back to the bus, one of the girls sat beside him and introduced herself.
“We’re going to Florida,” she said brightly. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“It is,” he said, as if remembering something he had tried to forget.
“Want some wine?” she said. He smiled and took a swig. He thanked her and retreated again into his silence. She went back to the others, and Vingo nodded in sleep.
In the morning, the girl sat with Vingo again, and after some time, he told his story. He had been in prison in New York for the past four years, and now he was going home.
“Are you married?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” she asked.
“Well, when I was in the can, I wrote to my wife,” he said. “I told her that I was going to be away a long time and that if she couldn’t stand it, if the kids kept askin’ questions, if it hurt too much, well, she could just forget me. I’d understand. Get a new guy, I said— she’s a wonderful woman, really something—and forget about me. I told her she didn’t have to write me or nothing. And she didn’t. Not for three and a half years.”
“And you’re going home now not knowing?”
“Yeah,” he said shyly. “Well, last week, when I was sure the parole was coming through, I wrote her again. We used to live in Brunswick, just before Jacksonville and there’s a big oak tree just as you come into town. I told her that if she’d take me back, she should put a yellow handkerchief on the tree, and I’d get off and come home. If she didn’t want me, forget it—no handkerchief, and I’d go on through.”
“Wow,” the girl said. “Wow.”
She told the others, and soon all of them were in it, caught up in the approach of Brunswick, looking at the pictures Vingo showed them of his wife and three children—the woman handsome in a plain way, the children still unformed in the cracked, much- handled snapshots.
Now they were 20 miles from Brunswick, and the young people took over window seats on the right side, waiting for the approach of the great oak tree. The bus acquired a dark, hushed mood, full of the silence of absence and lost years. Vingo stopped looking, tightening his face into the ex-con’s mask, as if fortifying himself against still another disappointment.
Then Brunswick was ten miles, and then five. Then, suddenly, all the young people were up and out of their seats, screaming and shouting and crying, doing small dances of exultation. All except Vingo.
Vingo sat there stunned, looking at the oak tree. It was covered with yellow handkerchiefs—20 of them, 30 of them, maybe hundreds, a tree that stood like a banner of welcome billowing in the wind. As the young people shouted, the old con rose from his seat and made his way to the front of the bus to go home.