A Light on a Dark Street

Claire shivers. She has stood on her front step long enough now that the damp, morning air has settled on her shoulders. She doesn’t even remember how to dress for a run in this cool weather. She considers going back inside to get a hat, but when remembering the chaos within, decides against it. Despite the guilt for leaving her husband to tend to their five children, Claire knows she must somehow force herself off her front steps and onto the sidewalk.

Taking a deep breath, she tries to resurrect her old self, the woman that used to run 100 miles a week with no problem. Now it’s been over three years since she’s run after anything other than a defiant, squealing toddler. Trying to get her out the door this morning, her husband told her she has nothing to lose. He was wrong—If she discovers there is no longer a runner inside her, that she has officially become just a mom, she would lose plenty.

running-573762_1280Setting off down the sidewalk, she feels sluggish and considers turning back with each step, but once she reaches the first avenue intersecting her street, she starts to gain momentum—her breathing evens out, establishes a familiar rhythm, and she starts to smile. Her lungs welcome the clean, cold air as her eyes flit to the right and to the left. There isn’t much to see other than the houses lined up on both sides, and she wonders what’s going on inside.

As she enjoys a perfectly timed deep breath, she thinks of how her husband is doing at home.

***

The bacon has come to life as Brad frantically searches for the lid to the frying pan, while one kid hangs on his leg and the other screams in his arms. His third born stands at attention and repeats a word Brad should have substituted with crap as the grease spots stain his church clothes. He should have known better than to get dressed before he cooked breakfast. He is just desperate to cook a meal that will impress his wife when she comes home from her run. She deserves to jump one less hurdle to get all five kids out the door in time for church. Brad is beginning to think that perhaps helping with breakfast was not a wise choice.

Within minutes, the kids are seated and eating. Feeling accomplished like he has just summited Mount Everest, Brad swipes a piece of bacon from Number 4’s plate. The feeling of triumph quickly shifts to trepidation as he turns around to see what he’s done to the kitchen—there’s that word again, slipping out rebelliously between his lips. He immediately pictures Claire in her church clothes on her hands and knees anxiously cleaning up this mess and shouting out orders for the kids to get their shoes on. It seems all he did was add one more hurdle for his wife to deal with.

He sighs and gazes across the street to Allen’s immaculately shoveled driveway.

***

houses-691586_1280Allen woke up looking for a fight. He can’t believe it’s Sunday already. Even though the days seem to pass slower than his days recovering in a Vietnam medic tent, Sunday always sneaks up on him, waiting to break his heart all over again.

Each Sunday, he rises at 5:30. He’d give anything to sleep until noon, wasting his life with pointless sleep is his only aim. Too bad his damn wife made him wake up before the sun on their first day of marriage, and sixty years later, he can’t even manage to sleep until 5:31—another reason his life is the epitome of misery.

He slogs out to the living room and lowers himself into his chair, careful not to look at the ostentatious floral ottoman sitting next to it. He stares at the floor for a few minutes before he musters up the resolve to look outside. The street is always so quiet on a Sunday morning—no doubt due to all the Heathens that Allen was sure surrounded his home. There’s that Claire running by, or was it Clara or Carla or Mary? He didn’t care. It’s no wonder her kids are always running wild: she shouldn’t have the time to go for a run when she’s got a zoo to feed at home. It’s so typical of a mother nowadays to avoid housework—all those women care about is how they look and how much money they can spend. Allen’s wife was never like that. She cared about everyone’s happiness but her own. He shudders at the idea that perhaps this is why she is not with him anymore.

If she was still here, sitting on that God-awful ottoman she just had to have, he would most certainly already be in his church clothes, eating one of her famous omelets. She would be eating her toast as they discussed the kids and grandkids. She would laugh and roll her eyes when he dropped a forkful on his tie, and then she’d scold him for swearing. He’d grunt–and take her for granted, like he always did. Then they’d go to church, hand in hand. She would smile and greet everyone in the building, as he found their spot in the pew—the same every Sunday. She was there for God and his people. He was there for her. That’s just the way it was.

Allen sighs, trying to deny that he misses church, and gazes over at the house of that lowlife, Tom.

***

Yep. It’s official. Jordan has been yelling all morning. She yelled at David when he woke up too early. She yelled at Charlie when he spilled Cheerios, and just to make things fair, she yelled at Sara when she emptied all her toys onto the floor.

womanShe walks over to the window to breathe and refocus just as Claire runs by. She would give anything to have a little time to herself—even if that time was spent running. She hates running—of course—probably because Tom did. She used to be friends with Claire, but now she can’t help but hate her…and her family. They are happy and it disgusts Jordan. Every Sunday, they flit off in their minivan, perfect clothes and perfect hair, to worship a God that seems to have completely disowned Jordan.

She quickly busies herself with the dishes to get Tom out of her mind, as her three children wreak havoc on the living room she just picked up. She ignores it all and escapes into her head, repeating her mantra, You can’t break. You can’t break. You can’t break. This has been her mantra for the past 10 months—the longest 10 months of her life. She finds it disgusting that after nearly a year she still expects Tom to walk through the door, as if he might miss them or something.

Her hand is warm and wet with blood as she bends down to sweep up the glass. Her daughter is crying and the boys are simply staring at her, with worry and fear in their eyes. She doesn’t know what triggered her to throw the plate at the wall. She must have learned that from Tom, too.

Sensing their judgment, she screams at her kids to get out of the way, shaking and wracked with hatred for her life.

She finally broke—10 months was all she had in her.

***

Claire practically skips into the house, feeling reborn. She barely made it thirty minutes—her legs, chest, and arms burning, and yet she knows it is the start of something great. Her skip slows, however, as she is welcomed by a thick, reeking fog inside her home. Bacon. Unmistakable.

Her firstborn crawls to greet her, still in her pajamas. Claire tries desperately to stay upbeat as she glances at the clock—one hour until they need to leave.

“Brad!” she calls out.

Coming around the corner, Brad explains, “Honey, I’m so sorry. Breakfast took longer than I thought it would and the kids are just wild this morning.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. I was only gone thirty minutes,” Claire mumbles as she picks up the youngest and hustles upstairs to get her dressed.

***

“Mom, maybe we just shouldn’t go to church. Amy isn’t even dressed yet.”

“We are absolutely going to church! Get your shoes on!” Claire glances around hurriedly, counting her children, “Everyone get your shoes on; we have five minutes!”

Knowing he can’t be of any help, Brad has been sheepish since Claire returned from her run. He has learned through the years that once his wife becomes more efficient than an Olympic speed skater, it is best to just stay out of her way rather than try to help.

“Brad! Are you even going to help me?”

Brad tries to be the calm one, “Yes, of course. What do you want me to help with?”

“Obviously put Sam’s shoes on!”

***

No one is more surprised than Claire when they manage to back out of the driveway at 10:08 which should put them in the church parking lot at 10:28.

traffic-light-876055_1280With the kids chatting and smacking one another in the backseat, Claire sighs heavily, already mentally repenting for getting so frazzled and angry at Brad.

She glances over at him, so focused and intent upon the road, but she doesn’t know how to make the first move. She is so good at acting like a complete basket case sometimes–She wonders how annoyed Brad is, since she manages to drive herself crazy. He probably would rather I not talk for a bit, she thinks. As this thought crosses her mind, she sees Brad’s mouth twitch ever so slightly when he pulls up to a stoplight.

She pretends not to notice and intently watches the red glow in front of them, but when she feels Brad’s hand in her own, she knows that all is forgiven and settles a little more comfortably in her seat.

***

As Claire sighs at 10:08 and glances over at her husband, she is too distracted to notice Jordan peering from her living room window. Jordan will never know that her name is on a post-it by Claire’s bed, reminding her to pray for Jordan and her children every night. Claire will never know that as she rushes off to church every Sunday, drowning in stress and sin and family tumult, Jordan grows in curiosity about her God and what he might have to offer a single mom with three misbehaved children.

***

Brad is busy trying to convince himself to forgive his wife and himself for a fight that has become too common. As he drives by house number 1204, he does not even consider that past Allen’s freshly shoveled driveway is a man who desperately misses his wife, and his wife’s faith, which always kept him going. Brad does not know that underneath Allen’s constant irritable comments about him and his family, is a man who enjoys watching them pile into their van every Sunday, because it reminds him so much of a time past, when he was happier. Brad will never consider that perhaps his family’s imperfections will lead a grieving old man back into a church, where he will find peace and joy once again.

***

couple-1845334_1280Instead in their humble faith, Brad and Claire enjoy a quiet moment with their fingers entwined, despite the ruckus stemming from the backseat, as they press on in raising five more lights in a dark world.

***

You are a light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. ~Matthew 5:14-16

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Dress Shoes and Loneliness

It strikes her as odd that he is always alone. He walks by her house every single day at the exact same time, always on the opposite side of the street, like he has some sort of aversion to her sidewalk and prefers Carl’s, even though Carl’s aversion seems to be with shovels. That fact always makes her roll her eyes as soon as she gets through waving amiably to Carl—she just can’t get over his laziness. What she probably doesn’t realize is that Carl can see her loose eyeballs from across the street; she has yet to fool him.

She figured once winter descended upon the neighborhood, she would stop seeing the walker, but the only thing that changed beside the color of the ground was her inability to see his blue suit jacket beneath his bright red coat—making him look a lot like a cherry flavored mushroom.

Prior to the addition of the coat, the man never seems to change clothes. Normally, this would cause her to make all sorts of assumptions about the character of the man, except for the fact that he dresses like the sidewalk demands his best—black tie not optional so to speak. No matter the temperature, a blue suit jacket is always draped around his small frame with a black and white checkered button up peeking out from beneath it. She would generally be quite irritated at such a person’s lack of fashion sense, trying to blend navy and black–it’s practically sinful. However, to her surprise, and a bit of dismay, the walker manages to pull it off.guy-690751_1280

His faded blue jeans lower her estimation of his social class just a bit, but what really concerns her is the shoes he chooses to sport—black, lace-up dress shoes; the light from the sun glints off them like they are made of diamonds. It unnerves her. She has no idea where the man lives or where he is going, but she often considers meeting him on the sidewalk on any afternoon and explaining to him that his feet would thank him if he bought himself a proper tennis shoe. She refrains from doing so, as it is rarely received warmly when Alice generously offers her two cents.

menswear-952833_1280Besides his peculiar clothing, Alice notices very little about the man, except the fact that he is very little. Everything about him seems little except for one noticeable protrusion. She has deduced that he is not walking to lose weight, as months into his routine, his stomach still pretentiously overhangs above his belt—perhaps he simply carries a basketball under there.

Despite this annoyance, the man is very small. His eyes sit close together and rest on the bridge of his nose as if someone had once taken a vice and squeezed his face together. His head sits like a marble upon his thin, protruding shoulder blades, like a sucker on a stick. His short arms swing at his sides in an unnerving fashion, almost like they are detached from his body—Alice thought that perhaps there is no room for his arms since his stomach is taking up so much space on his torso.

He never got anywhere too quickly since his legs seem about the length of a small child’s, although the man does not seem to be in any hurry. This also unnerves Alice, such a curious creature should find another sidewalk to tread upon for she is downright tired of wondering about him.

At the very least, he could consider walking on her side of the street once in a while. Her side of the street had a better view anyway, and the children never trampled her lawn on their way home from school like they did Carl’s. Alice has considered all sorts of scenarios as to this man’s motives. He is not dressed appropriately to simply be out for a daily exercise routine. He is not walking to town to run errands as his return trips never reveal shopping bags. He is not going to visit someone—she has no evidence to support this fact other than she is just certain of it. She has also decided he is unmarried, since she assumes a woman in his household would never allow him to put on such miles with a shoe like that.

She often wonders if he has someone to make him dinner. Always an excellent cook, Alice considers maybe that person should be her. Shortly after this thought surfaces, however, she quickly dismisses such a ridiculous notion. She is sure he would not even thank her for going through so much trouble. She has no evidence to support this; she just knows it. Despite the fact she always dismisses this making-him-dinner notion, it never fails to return a few days later, only to be dismissed again with a bit more vehemence.

***

It was a Tuesday, another ordinary day. Alice awoke at 5:30. She had never awoken any later or any earlier since the birth of her first child, who decided early on in his life that 5:30 was the new 7:30. He never thanked her for spending so many dark, lonely hours entertaining him when the rest of the world was sleeping. She determined long ago he never would thank her. Alice read her paper and sipped her coffee until 7:00. She did not like coffee; it always gave her a stomach ache. She only drank it because her husband never enjoyed it without her enjoying it too. It never mattered to him she was faking it. He never thanked her for sitting with him every morning of their 40-year marriage drinking a beverage that, to her, tasted a lot like cough syrup blended with motor oil. She determined long ago he never would thank her.

After she’d showered, Alice messed with her gray hair for over thirty minutes, demanding that each strand find its correct location like a mother demands for a chore to be completed. Once satisfied, Alice headed for the door to embark on her weekly grocery run. As she reached for the door handle, she hesitated for just a moment—a hesitation entirely invisible to someone who does not know to look for it.

She barked at the deli attendant as he dilly-dallied with her ham and turkey. This was a weekly routine for Alice and the deli attendant. The fact that he never served her any faster was more of an act of will than it was his old age, which Alice never failed to mention. He was sure he was not more than three or four years older than her. Spending a few extra minutes with her was so worth it when he had the pleasure of witnessing her haughty little tantrums as she huffed away from him—skirt hiked up so far he could see the top of her pink socks, which landed immediately below her knee.woman-441415_1280

Never taking his eyes off the cracks in the sidewalk, the walker was venturing across Carl’s driveway when Alice arrived home, slightly later than usual thanks to that damn deli attendant. She eyed him suspiciously in her rear view mirror—the way he meandered really unnerved her. The way his head bowed low to the ground when he walked reminded Alice an awful lot of the way she walked the aisles at the grocery store. She did this to avoid speaking with anyone, as she really saw no purpose in conversing with a stranger. He was unlikely to meet anyone else on the sidewalk in the middle of winter, so she wondered why he walked that way.

She briefly considered walking across the street and confronting him. He ought to know the irritation he was causing her. As she reached for the door handle, a familiar hesitation occurred—one that no one knew was there but her. She took a deep breath, glanced across the street to the walker who had just reached the corner. Pushing away the urge to follow him in her ostentatious 5th Avenue, she removed her two bags of groceries from the backseat, walked into her silent house, and sat down in her recliner.

She could still catch glimpses of the walker’s head between the trees as he wandered down the street. She watched him until he was no longer in sight, and with a significant amount of disappointment that no one knew was there but her, she continued with her Tuesday and went to unpack her groceries.

The Woman in the Corner

She sat alone at the smallest table in the place, furthest from the door.

 

She looked cold, although he wasn’t sure why, since it was roughly 95 degrees outside.

 

Her frail, white fingers wrapped around her coffee cup, each collecting its share of the warmth.

 

cornerHe thought he saw a tear slip into her cup, dissolving as if it were just another granule of sugar, but he could not be sure.

 

“Robert, wake up, man. You’ve got a customer!”

 

He didn’t realize until his manager spoke that he had been entranced by this woman since she entered the cafe.

 

He wondered what her story could be as he went to take the order of a family he had not seen before, although they were pretty typical of the families he waited on: two frazzled parents, two unruly children, no order whatsoever.

 

His eyes were still on the woman despite the task before him, “What can I get ya guys?”

 

“Johnny, tell the man what you want. Johnny! Tell the man what you want.”

 

“Pancakesssss!! With chocolate chips!”

 

Robert was pretty sure he had never had a customer so excited about pancakes. As the children ran off to shake the gumball machine in the corner, he focused back on the mother, convinced she had aged at least three years since she entered the cafe.

 

“Ma’am? If you’d like, I can leave out the chocolate chips, and blame it on the cook.” The last thing this woman needed was her children to consume more sugar.

 

She placed her clammy hand on his forearm, “That would be lovely. Thank you.”

 

He wondered if the dad had a pulse as he went to place the order behind the counter.

 

“Sir…”

 

Immediately, he recognized her subdued, shaky voice. He cringed, but turned around with a smile.

 

“Yes ma’am?”

 

“Can you get me some more coffee when you have a chance?”

 

Her politeness almost irritated him, although he could not say why.

 

“Of course. Are you planning to order any food? I can bring you a menu.”

 

“Just the coffee, for now, thank you.”

 

He was eager for this woman to leave the cafe. She set him off-balance somehow. He felt like perhaps he should say something to her, but he could not reckon what a lonely woman could possibly need to hear from a 16-year old drop-out.

 

She asked for six more refills and he waited on eleven more customers before she decided to leave.

 

He was eyeing her as she did it, although he was eyeing her most of the day. She hadn’t looked up from her coffee much, but before she threw her change on the table and grabbed her sweater to leave, her eyes drifted away from her coffee, scanned the restaurant, stared intently at a woman with a young boy, and then she sighed. He could feel the weight of her sigh from across the restaurant as he scrubbed a table that had just been occupied by a slovenly man, who was a heart attack waiting to happen.

 

She withdrew from the restaurant slowly, if not reluctantly. She stopped unexpectedly and whispered something to the mother and son before she exited out the back. He watched her walk around the corner, eager to detect what kind of car she drove, but she was out of sight before he had the chance.

 

Her sigh stayed with him for the rest of the day, making him feel weighted, sluggish, somewhat lifeless.

 

As he counted his tips that evening, hopeful he had made enough for a pack of beer, a group of his friends walked in.

 

“Dude! It’s like you live here! Come with us to Julie’s party tonight. She promised us a whole lotta dope and her parents are outta town.”

 

“Dude! Keep it down, will ya? I’d like to keep this job,” Robert replied as he scanned the area behind him to see if anyone had overheard. “I’m good for tonight. I’m just gonna head home.”

 

“Wow, man. You sure have been keeping it squeaky clean since you left Lincoln High. I thought once you were outta school, you’d party more.”

 

“I don’t have the luxury of partying, Sam. I’m all I’ve got to count on.”

 

“Suit yourself…”

 

The gang, as if they were one person, turned to leave, but not before they knocked a bottle of ketchup off the table, making sure it landed in just a way that it sprayed all over the side of a booth.

 

“Jackass,” Robert mumbled as he grabbed the nearest rag to clean up the mess.

 

***

 

Robert had only been working at the cafe for 6 weeks, but his manager seemed to have some faith in him–she might be the first person who ever has. Today would be the first morning he will open the cafe on his own.

 

It is a drizzly morning and the sun has not yet pulled over the horizon. He fumbles with the keys in the yellow glow provided by the streetlight, throws open the door, and gropes for the light switch.

 

As soon as light floods the booths in front of him, his eyes drift to the table in the back. A day later and he can still feel the presence of the woman in the corner. He regrets not making her a plate of food, even though she didn’t ask for it.

 

cornerIt has been a busy morning. He was determined to get the place in proper shape before his manager arrived, and once he flipped the sign on, the rush was intense. He is so relieved to have Liza to help him serve today. She only works part-time, but the days she is with him are always better.

 

“Robert! Grab the customer in the corner, I’ve got a mess back here!”

 

His cheeks immediately react to the sound of Liza’s voice. Robert, calm yourself, dude. She’ll notice, he thinks as he grabs his pad and makes his way through the crowd to the corner.

 

He really was not expecting to see her. While he fell asleep last night, he wrote her story, and determined she was some sort of hippy bum just passing through town. All the air in his chest leaves him at once when he accidently lets her eyes lock on his.

 

“Hello.”

 

There’s that weak voice again. Robert notices his hand is shaking as he reaches for his pen.

 

“Will it just be coffee again today?” he asks, diverting his eyes. .

 

“Actually, I think I’ll take a menu.”

 

He backpedals away from her as quickly as possible, fully aware he has been rather rude.

 

“H-hey Liza?” Robert waits for the rush to pass before he bothers her.

 

“What’s up, Robert?”

 

The way she nonchalantly speaks to him, without even looking up, reminds him she is not interested.

 

“Um… would you mind taking over the customer in the corner?”

 

“Why? Aren’t you mostly done with her? She’s just sipping coffee now.”

 

Robert grapples for a believable excuse, “I know, but she just kind of, bugs me,” he is irritated that this is the best he could come up with.

 

Liza slaps a hand on his shoulder as a sarcastic smile plays across her face, “You’re a big boy. I think you can handle it.”

 

To Robert’s dismay, the rest of the day is rather slow. The heart attack comes in again and seems to order double from the day before.

 

Liza leaves at noon.

 

His manager leaves at two, the slowest time of day, to get a haircut.

 

Now, it is just Robert and the woman in the corner.

 

He pretends a table near her needs to be wiped.

 

“Can I get you anything else? Your coffee must be cold. Do you want me to top it off? We’ve also got some really good smoothies. I could whip one up for you.”

 

He is trying to make up for his previous brusqueness, but he still feels like he is failing somehow. When she looks up at him she is coming back from somewhere else, as if her mind has taken her a long way from the cafe.

 

“Oh. Uh… no thanks. I’m good.”

 

“Are you…uh… waiting for someone or something?”

 

“Yes. How’d you know?”

 

“No one hangs out in here this long for sheer joy, that’s all,” he tries to smile.

 

“I hope he’ll be here soon.”

 

As he walks away, he can’t shake the feeling that her hope is dwindling, despite what she said.

 

This time, when she finally decides to leave, he follows her out the door.

 

“Ma’am!”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Will you… will you be back tomorrow?”

 

Her face puzzles at his question, “I don’t know. You’re probably getting sick of me, and you have to admit, I’m not the world’s best tipper.”

 

She turns to walk away but he is suddenly grabbing her arm, more forcefully than he intends, “I just… I just think you should come back. Maybe the person you are waiting for will come tomorrow.”

 

There’s that sigh again, it comes from a place within her she buried long ago, “Maybe you’re right.”

 

He fights the urge to run after her. Yesterday, he hoped to never see her again, but today, he just knows he is supposed to help her.

corner

Robert can’t sleep that night. He tosses. He turns. He rewrites her story. He no longer wants her to be a hippy bum. He isn’t even sure what a hippy bum is anyway. Instead, he decides, she is a kind-hearted woman, beautiful at one time, but is down on her luck, hoping for something good.

 

***

 

He can’t believe his manager let him open again today. She either really has faith in him or she doesn’t care a bit about her livelihood. He considers it has to be the latter, rather than the former.

 

Liza wouldn’t be in today. That means he won’t have to try to impress her with his magnificent waiter skills. Unfortunately, that’s all he had as a way to impress her.

 

The rush from yesterday is just a memory–today has been excruciatingly slow. The manager keeps Robert busy by giving him useless tasks. Fill the ketchup bottles. Order more sauerkraut. Wipe all the chairs down.

 

He is happy to be kept busy because every spare moment he has is spent staring at the corner, then the door, then the corner, then the door. She has to come in today. He deserves one more chance to get a backbone. Just one more chance….

 

The bell above the door finally rings at half past 3, but he doesn’t immediately turn around. He has managed to convince himself she isn’t coming and he doesn’t want her to.  

 

“Excuse me?”

 

He doesn’t cringe. He doesn’t backpedal. At the sound of her muted, nearly inaudible voice, he turns with joy.

 

“Yes! Hello! What can I get you?”

 

“I think I will try one of those smoothies afterall.”

 

“Excellent choice! What kind?” Robert is worried his enthusiasm might scare her away.

 

“You pick. Whatever you like best.”

 

Five minutes later he brings her a watermelon smoothie. It is the only watermelon smoothie he’s ever been aware of, so he thinks maybe it will be new to her, too. He is surprised to see she has taken a seat at the counter.

 

“You’re shooting for a different view today, huh?”

 

“I guess I could use some company, maybe a distraction. I hope you don’t mind. You don’t seem all that busy today.”

 

“I don’t mind a bit. I’ve been bored outta my mind all day.”

 

Silence hangs in the air like stale smoke.

 

He clears his throat as she sips her smoothie, “So… who is it then that you’re waiting for?”

 

She seems caught off guard by his question, nearly spilling her smoothie, “Oh. Um. Just an old acquaintance.”

 

“You seem pretty determined to see just an old acquaintance.”

 

At this, her eyelids flutter and her eyes become teary. Crap. You made her cry.

 

She doesn’t speak for a long time, but finally, “Sometimes you just regret something so deep within your soul you are not even sure it is worth it to keep eating, keep fighting, keep living. I swear not a soul would notice if I killed myself.”

 

Her head bows and she inhales sharply as she realizes what she’s said, panic has crept into her voice when she speaks again, “I am so sorry. You didn’t need to hear that. Please. Oh, I’m so sorry.”

 

She frantically digs in her purse for a couple bucks to throw on the counter. One dollar. He had to speak if he was going to speak. She digs. He begs God for words. Two dollars. Think, Robert, don’t let her leave. Don’t let her leave. Three dollars. Crap. Speak!

 

She turns suddenly to leave, the stool beneath her screaming for attention, when his words spew from his mouth like fire, “I would notice!”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“If you killed yourself. I would notice.”

 

“Oh, honey. You are so sweet. Please don’t think this is your chance to save a suicidal lunatic. I’m not going to actually do it. I don’t have the guts.”

 

“It’s your son, isn’t it?”

 

She takes a step away from him, then another, until she runs into the pop dispenser.

 

“What’s my son, now?”

 

“That’s who you’re waiting for? Your son?”

 

She sighs heavily, this time with surprisingly even more weight and power than the previous times, “Oh… wow… how did you know that? Do you know him?”

 

corner

The hope within her voice is almost too much for him to bear; he senses, yet rejects, the urge to run. Her green eyes pierce through the hole she left inside him. The word, long forgotten, surfaces from his soul like a fish rises from water, unannounced. His lips move before his mind comprehends the repercussions, and in an exhalation, this abandoned boy utters a single, foreign word,  

 

“Mom…”

 

He swears that for that one moment her eyes change color, as her cracked lips begin to quiver.

The space between them, dramatically smaller than it has been in years, feels impassable and ominous–neither of them move. Robert feels like a magnet: one side of him wanting to run to her; the other side, to run away.

 

She takes a hesitant step toward him, full of hope; the color has drained from her face and her tears seem to have dried up, as if his news is a drought to her soul, instead of the other way around.

 

“Robert…”

 

He is not sure if she has actually said this or if his name caught in her throat. Either way, the presence of his name on her lips makes him nearly crumble.

 

“Mom…”

 

“Robert… can you forgive me?”

 

He frantically grapples to find the answer he has been searching for nearly all his life. Did she deserve to be forgiven? Her should be ready with an answer, now that he is finally staring straight into her eyes, the exact same shade of green as his. Does she deserve it? Does she deserve it? Does she deserve it?

 

Her eyes are searching, begging, darting back and forth. Her hands are shaking so much he thinks maybe they have detached from her body. This is when he finally speaks, quietly and desperately unsure of himself, “Of course, mom, I forgive you.”

 
They both lose track of time, space, reality when they finally embrace at the end of the counter. Tears fall from his eyes for the first time since he was 7, when she walked out of his life. Their hug encompasses nine years of missed hugs, missed opportunities, missed love and when they eventually let go, the evasive answer Robert has been searching for becomes overwhelmingly apparent: Yes, she deserves a second chance, and so does he.

A Room of Lying Shadows

Her breath caught sharply in her chest. The old grandfather clock in the corner of her dining room had just chimed once again–3:00 am. One more hour had passed since she had moved. She was not sure how many hours she had been there. Maybe only two… but perhaps much more than that.

 

She forced her eyes to move off the bed and look over her quaint bedroom. The moon cast a lonely shadow throughout, causing her belongings to bend and twist in an intolerable mixture of the shadow and the tangible. She enjoyed looking at the jewelry box in the corner, least of all. He had given it to her on their 35th anniversary and she had always cherished it; of course now it seemed to mock her in the faint moonlight, its shape sickening.

 

She lowered her gaze once more to the frail body lying in her bed. She did not need to check to assure herself, she knew it no longer embodied life. The strange form before her and the belongings around her were all that remained of 78 years together.

elderly

She briefly allowed her thoughts to wander to the neighbors. Once word of her dark, lonely night in a room with her dead husband got out, they would be all talk. They had always been all talk–assuming they understood her life. She could just imagine what they would say about her. The teenager in 1504 would call her a “creepy, old lady” to his friends, and the chatterbox gossip in 1512 would pretend to pity her but call her a “sad, pathetic old wretch” when she was alone with her friends.

 

It should be her lying in that bed. Everyone assumed it would be her. But it was him. The man she thought couldn’t die was just that.

 

“Lily… Lily, c’mon! Go out wit’ me jus’ once. I’ll  git you some iced cream. Your favorite… Rocky Road.”

 

“Carl, I’d rather eat dirt then eat iced cream wit’ you!”

 

“Aw… c’mon now…ya know that ain’t true. I seen the way you were lookin’ at me in schoo’ yestidee.”

 

“I’s lookin’ at you wit’ pity, Carl. Tha’s all.”

 

“I saw a who’ lot mo’ then pity, Lily.”

 

Her eyes crinkled at the faded memory. He started chasing her in the 4th level, but she held him off all the way until the 8th grade when he quit to work on his daddy’s farm. She couldn’t remember why now. Everyone told her to play hard to get, so that is what she did. Now that it was over, she could have added four more years to her life with him, if she’d played easy to get instead. He had her all along, anyway.

elderly

He was all she had. She didn’t know where she would go now. She could not remember the last time she swept the floor, made dinner, or washed the bedding. A woman like her couldn’t possibly get along alone. Maybe if she prayed hard enough tonight, the Lord would take her home too. The remainder of her years without him seemed unbearable.

 

She tried to calculate how many years she must have left of her life, although technically her life was lying in the bed in front of her. She was 96. No one lived until 100 nowadays. She would surely be taken before then. Four years. The irony of the significance of that number before their life together and after their life together failed to make an impression on her.

 

“Four years without you, my love,” she whispered into the shafts of silver light.

 

Her heart flitted with hope when she thought it might be shorter than that. Her breath was short now and she could hear her heart pounding in her ears all the time, drowning out all logical thought. She was aware of the weakness of each beat. It used to scare her, but now she relished the thought of death.

 

“How could you do this to me, my darling?” she imagined briefly that his hand moved in the direction of hers, shaking her head at the foolish turn her thoughts were taking.

 

The world outside her shades was beginning to lighten now, and she could hear the birds chirping in the Spruce tree at the corner of their lot. He had hated that tree, every year having to trim it back, trying desperately to control his world.

elderly

“We have no control…” she said this to no one in particular; she certainly did not want him to hear her, still following the habit of being his optimism.

 

She desperately wanted to not see him in the light. It would be all too real in the light. His lips would be blue and his face ashen. The warmth of her hand would no longer be enough to conceal the coldness of his.

 

She must get up. She must make herself move…pick up the telephone…call the police…

 

“Um…hello. My husband has passed away. Can you come retrieve him immediately?”

 

It would be easy. Pick up the phone. Pick up the phone. Walk away from him and pick up the phone.

 

It took her a moment to realize the phone was ringing now. The silence of her husbandless home had enveloped her eerily, so her ears did not immediately register sound.

elderly

She tried reaching for the receiver without taking her hand from his, the weakness of her body failing her. She still felt his hand in hers even after they were separated. Reaching for the telephone was an act of heroism while the stiffness of her body and desolation of her heart worked against her.

 

“Hello,” her voice came out in a whisper.

 

“I woke up worried about you. Is everything okay?”

 

The voice, at first, seemed unfamiliar and distant.

 

“Mom, are you there? I’m worried about you. Please tell me you’re okay.”

 

Ah, it was Carol. How could she have forgotten Carol? The only thing that remained of her life with his, their daughter.

 
Perhaps, there was hope after all.

Entombed in Indifference

When the time came, he was certain he would not care. It was undeniable. He had never cared. This would not be any different. When they told him the last day of his life the corners of his mouth jerked faintly, the only indication he’d ever given for a smile. He found it slightly humorous how they looked at him in disgust, some in pity, as if he cared. He really never troubled himself with anything at all. It would be a relief. The last day. On the day they stopped his breath, he would finally breathe.

 

He was shrouded in indifference; like a tomb it had settled its weight upon his soul, becoming more and more oppressive as the time passed.  It was an indifference that kills–literally. He never remembered, at any point in his life, really being sad or angry or happy, as if he had a thing to be happy about. All he recalls is indifference–absolute hollowness.. The hardship he experienced just made him harder, and the few who tried to help him–well, they generally withdrew with their spirits broken. He was void, void of anything, like a vacuum. When he finally found a place he belonged, his family of haters, the Bloods, they called him The Vacuum. He was pretty proud of that nickname. In fact, it continues to be his only source of pride.

 

He had, of course, been called other things throughout his life, particularly toward the end of his freedom: a monster, a wretch, a villain. His favorite was vicious, heartless piece of crap. That one was really meant to get to him, so he relished it the most, imagining the satisfaction on the face of the daughter of the dead man as she pictured him shuddering from her harsh words. Oh how they all thought he’d care, care about something. He didn’t. His lawyer had begged him to “pour out his soul” to the jury in an apology for his actions. Pour out his soul. In order to pour out your soul, you have to have one. His lawyer, Mr. Trayton, was a pretty respectable, powerhouse type of guy, but when he said that to him, he was sure some fear flooded his eyes. Fear was always showing up in the eyes of those who neared him.

 

His only complaint would be the amount of time between his conviction and his death. It was an endless, infinite, brutal amount of time. He would sit in solitary, staring at the wall, hoping for the days to pass. There were no clocks within 100 yards of him, but he was sure he could hear the seconds ticking by, slower than the life of his boss ebbed away. That damn boss of his was a tough one to kill, like a coon.

prison

***

 

Solitary. It is an emotionless man’s worst nightmare. The Vacuum not only lacked emotion, he lacked imagination. Therefore, he often felt his sanity dripping away like the leaky faucet in his cell. When the guard would bring by his meal three times a day, he tried desperately to get him to stay longer than the four seconds it took to feed him. Farmers allotted more time to feeding their pigs than the guards to feeding him.

 

“Where’s your tray?”

 

“Why don’t you come get it?”

 

“If I come get it, you’ll spend the next month recovering.”

 

He always reveled in the guard’s attempt to intimidate him.

 

“I’ll take my chances.”

 

“I want to see your tray up here within 30 seconds or I will beat you bloody, you scumbag.”

 

“Now that’d be a sight to see.”

prison

The Vacuum held his breath as the guard trumped back down the hall, his lack of power infuriating. When The Vacuum realized he had given up and wasn’t coming back, his face fell. He loved interacting with the guards, like when he would trip kids in Kindergarten, just to get the teacher to look his way. No one ever looked his way. He didn’t care. He never cared. The indifference just bred within him–a fungus–growing in the shadows of his soul.

 

***

 

He remembers reading “The Crucible” in high school. He can honestly say that is the only piece of writing he has ever enjoyed, since he’s never been able to read on his own. “The Crucible” was a decent unit, though, because the class read it together and listened to it on tape. It fascinated him– the way normal human beings can turn on one another with no remorse. It made him wonder how anyone could expect him to have remorse, when the most respectable of people don’t seem to have it.

 

The desperation of those on trial made him laugh. He was constantly trying to stifle his laughter in the back row, earning dirty looks from the teacher every few minutes. At the end of the play, his teacher explained to the class how each of the guilty were killed. He will never forget Giles Corey, a kind, elderly man who tried to protect his wife but got them both killed instead. Giles was pressed to death. With each stone laid upon his chest, he was expected to confess to witchcraft, but instead simply said, “More weight.” Eventually the weight of the boulders crushed him. The Vacuum still probably thinks about Giles at least once a day. He is Giles. The weight of his indifference presses in around him, but he just smiles and says, “More weight.”

 

The only real difference between him and Giles is that Giles was innocent.

 

***

 

Three days. Three days left of his life. Then, it would all be over. His soul and his body would finally become one–dead. In just three days. He did not think he would care. As the day got nearer, the emotions began to scream inside of him, like choked, tortured beings. He did not recognize them at first. He did not understand where they came from, always assuming he’d been born without them. They were getting louder.

 

His fear was like night, when it is so dark that you’re not sure if your eyes are open or closed.

 

His remorse was like a knife–the harder he tried to pull it out, the deeper it penetrated.

 

His grief was like quicksand, when you’re whole body has succumbed to its might except your mouth and nose.

 

His loneliness was like a scream, muffled yet strong, fighting to the surface, impossible to ignore.

 

“Where’s your tray?”

 

“I… I wanna know what my…my rights are.”

 

“Your rights?”

 

“Like I get a last meal…Do I get anythin’ else?”

 

“You can request visitation from a reverend. He will bring you the Holy Bible, which I’m sure you will find a way to burn. You are welcome to write letters and send them to whomever you choose. I doubt any recipient will open them.”

 

“A reverend?”

 

“You know, like a pastor? Idiot.”

 

His words came out like soup, hot and slow, “I would…I would like to maybe talk with one of them.”

 

“You’re kidding?”

 

He could still hear the guard’s laughter when he reached the end of the hall. The Vacuum’s skin was itchy. He felt like stepping out of it and leaving it in the corner.

 

***

 

The Vacuum had given up talking to a reverend. He had 24 hours left. The knock came after his evening meal had been picked up. He sensed the height of the moon and the thick, Louisiana night air.

 

“Step back and hold your arms out,” the guard harshly announced his presence.

 

The chains on his body felt heavier than the chains around his soul as he padded down the hallway to an inky, cold room. A small man stood in the corner with his hands folded in front of him. Perhaps, it is Giles Corey, coming to take me to Hell. The Vacuum considered this absurdity for a moment before he was forced into a chair by three men. The men did not leave, but stepped back into the shadows as the small man stepped into the dim, yellow light.

 

He stood there for an uncomfortable moment, looking down at The Vacuum. Instead of sitting down in the chair across from him, the reverend removed the chair and brought it to the same side as him, now both their backs were to the guards.

 

Idiot. Thought The Vacuum.

reverend

The reverend’s voice was muted and warm, “Can you tell me your name?”

 

“You know my name. I’m notorious.”

 

“I would like you to tell me anyway so we could get properly introduced.”

“I’m Giles. I don’t give a damn what yer name is.”

 

“I’m Simon Paltron.” The Vacuum was immediately irritated the way the small man acted as if he did not even hear him.

 

“I said I didn’t care.”

“I heard you,” The Vacuum’s muscles settled slightly into the chair. “Do you know Jesus, Giles?”

 

“I know he is a friend of morons who have nothin’ better to do than believe in fantasy.”

 

“If you truly believe this, why am I here?”

 

The Vacuum was unsure of how to answer this question. He was not sure there was an answer. His emotions. They were eating him from the inside out. He thought perhaps a reverend could smother them once and for all.

 

“I…I guess… I’m feelin’ things I ain’t never felt and I know you dudes’re trained in stuff like that.”

 

“What have you been feeling, Giles?”

 

“Just stuff.”

 

“Perhaps, you feel pain? Remorse? Sadness?”

 

“I guess.”

 

“Did you know it doesn’t have to be this way, Giles?” The Vacuum hated the way the small man kept using his name.

 

“Doesn’t have to be what way?”

 

“You don’t have to be in pain. You can find freedom.”

 

The Vacuum chortled as he looked around his world of stone, which would soon become a world of darkness.

 

“Giles, will you do me the courtesy of listening to a Bible verse for one moment?”

 

“I guess.”

 

“I will read from 2 Corinthians 3:17, ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’”

 

“Sounds like crap ta me. I don’t know no Lord.”

 

“Giles, He knows you. He is waiting for you to confess your sins to Him. He wants you to join Him in heaven tomorrow night.”

 

“Why the hell would He want that?”

 

“He created you. You are His child.”

 

“I ain’t never been no one’s child.”

 

“You have always been His child and He will always be your Father. If you die tomorrow night without repenting, you will spend eternity separated from Him, in Hell.”

 

“Sounds good ta me. I deserve Hell.”

 

What the small man said next took The Vacuum by surprise, “Yes, you do deserve Hell and so do I.”

 

For the first time, The Vacuum took his eyes off the table and glanced at the small man, whose green eyes gazed at him with something unrecognizable. It wasn’t pity or hatred, the looks he was so familiar with. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it unnerved him in the same way his emotions were tearing at him.

 

He expected the small man to go on, but instead Simon just sat back in his chair and surveyed The Vacuum. The Vacuum looked straight across the table at the wall on the other side of the room, he observed a spider making his way toward the vent and tried to focus on it. He could feel the small man’s eyes on him; his skin was itching again; he wanted to wipe that look off the small man’s face with one effortless motion of his arm. One hit–that is all it would take for such a small, fragile creature. One hit and he wouldn’t have to take any more of this.

 

Suddenly, the small man spoke, startling The Vacuum. “Giles, do you mind if I pray for you?”

 

“I don’t believe in prayers.”

 

“That’s okay. I will believe enough for the both of us.”

 

What the small man did next almost pushed The Vacuum over the edge. He scraped his chair against the stone floor, the sound echoing up to the corners of the room, and put his hand upon The Vacuum’s forearm.

 

His hand was soft and clammy; it had a slight tremor to it, perhaps due to fear or old age. For the first time in his life, The Vacuum hoped it was old age and not fear. He touched him in a way that signalled to The Vacuum that he did not see the chains on his body. He saw the human being under them, maybe he even saw his soul, too. The Vacuum knew this was nonsense, but the warm touch of the small man’s hand was seeping the logic away from him.

prayer

As Simon began to pray, the prisoner noticed the way he lowered his head and closed his eyes. The Vacuum did the same, not wanting to look stupid. He could no longer see Simon, but he could picture the words bumping against his skin and landing upon his clothes, becoming part of him. Words like forgiveness, heart, love, nearness, peace, and acceptance. These were the types of words The Vacuum always repelled like an alcoholic repels self-control. He didn’t understand everything Simon said, but Simon’s voice had a language of its own. His voice was tranquility; the meaning of the words hardly mattered.

 

For 8 long years, The Vacuum had only thought about time, in a place where seconds acted more like days. During Simon’s prayer however, The Vacuum forgot the existence of time. Simon perhaps prayed until morning, maybe it was only a few minutes. The Vacuum devoured his words the way an orphan does attention. Simon spoke and The Vacuum drank and drank and drank, his words more like water than sound waves.

 

When Simon began reading from the Bible, The Vacuum began to rock back and forth, slightly, swinging to the melody inside his body. His emotions had quieted; his hatred had shriveled like a flower without nourishment; God’s peace breathed into his hollow, desolate soul.

 

***

 

Simon’s voice had gained strength and passion by the time he said, “In Jesus’ Holy name, Amen.” He had moved to a kneeling position beside the prisoner’s chair.

 

Amen echoed throughout the room and throughout the prisoner’s body–he did not look up; he did not open his eyes; he did not cease rocking back and forth.

 

Both of Simon’s hands were on him now and the silence was creating something inside the room. Simon’s voice was gone now, but it was God’s who continued to speak to the prisoner.

 

Eternity passed through the room when the prisoner finally spoke, now even the guards bowed their heads.

 

“Jesus, fergive me. I need lots of healing. I’m a nasty, gross sinner, but I want a Savior. I didn’t know you died fer me. I woulda confessed long time ago had I known that. I want to see you–man to man– tomorrow night. I ain’t got nothin’ to hide. I wanta fergive myself. Please, Jesus, I need you. Please come into my empty stuff and get rid of the hate and the monster–replace all that with yer love. I need you. I need you. I need you. I need you.”

 

Like the loathing used to pour from him, those final words continued to pour from the prisoner’s mouth as the tears, the first in years,  poured from his eyes. Simon allowed it to continue for some time, then, he stood up, placed his hands on the prisoner’s shoulders, and whispered into his ear, “The Lord forgives you. The Lord loves you. You can rest comfortably in this inarguable fact.”

 

***

 

After more prayer and Bible reading, Simon finally stood back to allow the guards to transport the prisoner back to his cell. Simon had laid the Bible into the prisoner’s hands urging him to read it throughout the night and gain all the knowledge of the Lord that he could.

 

“I ain’t able to read,” the prisoner admitted for the first time in his life.

 

“With God, all things are possible. Believe in Him and He will show you the way.”

 

The prisoner immediately missed Simon’s eyes, the moment he turned from him to float out of the room.

 

“Hold up a sec,” he said as he turned toward the small man. “Simon,” the prisoner paused insecurely, “My… my name is… is… Thomas.”

 

Noticing the sudden change in the man’s eyes before him–like a veil had been pulled away, Simon replied, “It is remarkable to meet you, Thomas.”

Living Outside the Cocoon

She will never forget the first time she heard his name. She was 12 years old, and had seen on the news that the Americans were celebrating his birthday. They all looked so joyful and she became immediately curious as to why this man’s birthday was so important. It took her weeks, but she finally gained enough courage to bring it up to her father.

 

“Papa, who is Jesus?”

 

“Silence, my child. Where did you hear of that name?”

 

“I saw it on the news, Papa.”

 

“My dear girl, you are to never watch the news. It is breaking the Islamic code for a young lady to poison her mind that way. The Americans are ignorant. That is all you are to understand about them.”

 

“I know, Papa. I’m sorry.” She felt a desperate urge to try one more time, “But, who is he?”

 

“He is a prophet that we are to honor. Nothing more. Nothing less. Now, be quiet and go help your mother.”

 

A prophet that we are to honor. Nothing more. Nothing less. Dilek had always trusted everything that her father told her, but she couldn’t help but wonder why she had never heard of Jesus. If he was nothing more than a prophet, she should have learned about him in her study of the Quran like she had of Harun, Ibrahim, and Adam.

quran

***

 

She is a little girl again. Her hijab is hanging in her bedroom, and she is free. A song is playing that she has never heard before, “Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright…”

 

As the music fills the room, she lies on her stomach staring at a dazzling light, like a star. The star is blotted out by the shape of a cross. It casts a shadow on the porcelain figurines below. There is a small baby in a manger and a woman in blue standing above him. A man is standing next to the woman reaching down toward the baby.

 

She awoke to the sound of gunfire in the distance. She looked out her bedroom window, which faced south, and saw flashes of light. When she listened intently, she thought she could hear the sound of hatred being hurled back and forth between the Americans and the rebels of her own country.

 

Her eyes settled closed once again and she tried desperately, yet unsuccessfully, to recreate her dream in her subconscious.

 

***

 

As Dilek neared adulthood, she was becoming more and more conscious of her loneliness, her emptiness. Every morning when she would dress in hijab, it felt like crawling into a cocoon that nothing and no one could penetrate. She would talk with her mother and sisters throughout the day, and sometimes her girlfriends would come over to visit, but what no one could see was that she never smiled. She was pretty sure her mother had also found rest in perpetual sorrow.

 

Each day, she would watch her mother’s eyes very intently as they worked endlessly on chores, attempting to detect a smile. Sometimes, to test it, she would even tell her mother a joke. She waited for the corners to twist upward, pulling her mother’s naturally round eyes into a tighter oval shape, but she never saw it.

 

No one ever smiled. Except her sisters, who seemed to be oblivious of all emotion. She constantly fought a thought she knew was like a malignant cancer to her faith. Perhaps, the women were forced to wear hijab so everyone could ignore the fact that they were miserable.

muslim

As Dilek walked to the market the morning after the dream, she could not erase it from her mind. It wasn’t the strangeness of the magnificent figurines or the unfamiliar music that had struck her hardest, however. It was the appearance of her face in the dream. It had such a ridiculous smile plastered to it, that Dilek, now quite distant from the dream, wasn’t even sure if it was her face.

 

***

 

“H-Hey Ma?”

 

With a sigh, her mother clatters the dishes into the sink with significant exaggeration. “Yes? What is it?” Her mother had always been a brusque woman.

 

“Um…Have you ever heard of Jesus?”

 

Fear immediately replaced irritation in her mother’s eyes as she rushed toward her daughter, grabbing her by the shoulders.

 

“Sh, my child, you must hush. Why on earth are you asking me such questions?”

 

“I just… I was wondering why I have never been taught anything about him.”

 

“You are a woman, Dilek. Your duty is to your father and then to your husband. You are in no position to wonder.”

 

“But…”

 

“Enough. We will speak no more of this. Jesus is nothing.”

 

Her mother hastened from the room like she were afraid of catching something contagious, as if curiosity could kill.

 

***

 

Dilek walked to the market every morning. She was the best at getting the most for the small portion of money her parents were able to set aside each day for the evening meal.

 

Crossing the path of American soldiers on her journey was so commonplace that she barely noticed them anymore. The hatred and disgust flowing from them was so oppressive that she never even bothered to look up when she would see camouflage approaching.

 

It had been months since the dream, and thoughts of Jesus had been pushed to the back of her memory. She considered bringing him up to her best friend for awhile, but the way her parents reacted to her, made her scared.

 

She lowered her eyes to their usual position as she approached some American soldiers. The rocks below her bounced to the rhythm of her step.

 

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

 

The blood rushed to her head and her hands began to shake as she slowly lifted her eyes from the ground. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed soldier was standing before her holding a pice.

 

“I think you dropped this, miss.”

 

Oh, Dilek, move. Move your hand. Take the coin. Walk away. Move, Dilek. Move.

 

“Um…. Th-th-thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome. God bless you and may Jesus keep you safe.”

 

As he turned away, she finally gained enough courage to look at him directly. A piece of silver hung around his neck and it tossed a glimpse of light back toward her, the shape of it was unmistakable, a cross.

20160405_093009

***

 

God bless you and may Jesus keep you safe. God bless you and may Jesus keep you safe.

 

The words had been a constant echo in her mind for some time now. Everywhere she went, she looked for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed soldier. She knew he would tell her of Jesus. She just knew it.

 

She had ruthlessly battled vicious thoughts against her Islamic faith for what seemed like an eternity. If her parents found out the things she was thinking, she would most surely be shunned, maybe even killed, if the Taliban heard of it. She thought if she could just satisfy her curiosity, things would be better.

 

Today, she would rush through the market in order to have time to go to the local library. She made sure to wear her most respectable looking hijab, so no one would suspect her of wrongdoing. Women were not supposed to read, or wonder. Her father, however, had taught her to read when she was very young, before the Taliban. “A book can take you away from here, my darling,” he had said with tears in his eyes, causing her to wonder what could be so bad.

 

She knew she would find Jesus in the Holy Bible. People reacted to this book in the same way they reacted to Jesus’ name, with terror. The clerk eyed her intently when she brought it to the counter to check out; she was so thankful the librarian was a woman, one of the few that still worked outside the home.

 

As she handed it back over the counter, the librarian whispered, “Be careful,” and held the book for a second longer than was necessary.

 

“Yes, ma’am” Dilek responded as she rushed out of the building.

 

On her way home, she kept checking behind her, convinced she had heard the footsteps of the Taliban on her heels.

 

***

 

She read. All day and all night she read about the man named Jesus. She read of his life, his death, his resurrection. She even read of his return–despite the storm of fear that it created inside of her.

 

She had to read beneath her blanket using a flashlight she had borrowed from a friend, being careful not wake her siblings, but for three nights, she never blinked, she never questioned, she never tired. The words of Christ were feeding her thirsty soul and slowly filling up the emptiness she had grown used to.

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She made sure to continue in her sorrow during the day, so no one would sense the joy that was growing inside of her.

 

On the fourth night, she cried. Her tears poured out of her from a place much deeper than her emotions; they came from a place she was unaware of until this Holy Bible worked its way into her hands.

 

“Jesus, I-I can’t. Help me. Please. I’m Muslim. Allah is my king. Please. Jesus. Don’t take me away from Allah.”

 

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Dilek had quieted herself enough to think reasonably and all she thought of was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

 

Dilek had lived in fear all her life–fear of failure, fear of suicide bombers, fear of death. The Islamic life she lead was a prison with guards who forget to feed the prisoners; she was starving for freedom. She knew all that mattered was Jesus. With Jesus, she would welcome the death that was sure to follow.

 

She could hear her mother moving around in the kitchen when she finally whispered, “Jesus, I love you. I’m yours. You have saved my life. Please, be my Christ forever.

 

***

 

As she walked to the market that morning, she no longer looked over her shoulder, and when the American soldiers approached, she walked boldly passed them, checking each of them top to bottom for a silver cross.

 

The Savior of the world loves her. The Savior of the world will come for her. She has nothing to fear. She was so grateful that Jesus had pursued her heart, tormenting her until she finally succumbed to her curiosity.

 

With an elusive smile on her face, she was weeding through the fruit at the front of the store when it hit her. First, she smelled it, like smoldering meat; the flash of light that came next was so intense it knocked her from her feet; the sound deafened her instantly, transporting her to another world, one of total silence. Finally, the pain overtook her, startling her, even though she had been expecting it. As her life ebbed away, peace enveloped her and her grimace slowly altered into a smile because of what she now knew to be true: Jesus was coming. 

 

 

One Dollar

Embarrassment. Sheer, unequivocal and painful embarrassment. He remembers when he was 6 or 7, his mom, drenched from head-to-toe in evidence that she just rolled out of bed–bathrobe, slippers, and curlers protruding from every inch of her body, trudged into the school cafeteria to deliver his sack lunch. Looking back on that now, as a 36-year-old failure, that was nothing.

 

The first time he had to beg, it wasn’t so bad. He wasn’t even aware at the time that he was begging. His wife had spent three painstaking evenings that week cutting out coupons–save 20 cents on a pork roast, buy one box of diapers and get a dollar off the second, 15 percent off a loaf of bread with a purchase of some bagels. When she came home from the store, he expected her to be triumphant as she delivered the precise amount of money she had saved the family. Instead, she slammed open the door, bags of only essentials hung from her hands, wrists, and forearms. When she heaved the pile onto the countertop, he noticed she was crying.

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“What’s going on, babe?”

 

“One of my coupons didn’t go through,” he could tell she was still holding back tears despite the ten minute drive home she had to collect herself. “It would have saved us a whole dollar on milk.”

 

“Maybe the milk you got didn’t match the coupon.”

 

Before he was even finished talking, she had the receipt and the coupon out in front of him. “Look! This is the milk I got and here is the coupon,” she sniffed. “It totally should have taken off the dollar.”

 

“Okay, you’re right,” he was backpedaling, painfully aware of his wife’s temper, which had become increasingly shorter in the past few weeks. “But really, honey, is it that big of deal?”

 

As soon as this question fell out of his mouth, he regretted it. He knew what she would say next and it was the last thing he wanted to hear, “Yes. It is a big deal. We need that dollar.”

 

She had ground beef frying in the skillet fifteen minutes later when he left the house, one kid hanging on his leg begging to go along while the other screamed below her feet, disgusted the food was getting more of her attention.

 

He arrived at the store at ten minutes past six, the peak shopping time. The parking lot was as full of cars as his mind was of worries, and it took him four minutes to find a spot. He peeled himself off the seat and walked slowly, with his head down, into the store. He was not looking forward to this. Perhaps, he could just walk the parking lot until he found a dollar, fallen listlessly from someone’s careless hands, stuck under a car tire, forgotten. His wife would never know the difference.

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“Hey! Jeremy! How’re you, man?”

 

The greeting came from behind him and he thought briefly about walking faster. He didn’t recognize the voice, so it wouldn’t be that big of deal if he offended the guy. He couldn’t stop his people-pleasing self from turning around, however, and pasting a weak, yet convincing, smile to his face.

 

“Hey, Paul. I’ve been fine. How ‘bout yourself?”

 

“Man, I didn’t have a chance to tell you before, but I’m so sorry you lost your job. Karen and I were really sweating the layoffs, but I squeaked by, just barely. It was a tough month for everybody, though. Are you guys doing ok?”

 

This was his chance. He could pour his heart out to this guy he barely knew, a colleague, an old colleague that is. He could tell him that he has not been able to find a job for 8 months and he’s got four young kids depending on him. He could tell him his wife is substitute teaching whenever she can, but he can sense her disappointment, even when she is turned away from him, and he feels like she is always turned away from him these days. He could tell him he bought a new house almost a year ago to this day, and they are going to lose it. The foreclosure notices are rolling in faster than his Camaro, sold months ago to a guy that was his friend before he became broke, rolled down the highway. More importantly, he could tell him that he is at the grocery store to get a dollar they owed him, one dollar–he used to throw away dollars like they were gum wrappers.

 

Instead, he widened his smile and lied, “Yeah. It was pretty rough there for awhile, but we are doing fine…getting back up on our feet.”

 

“That’s great, man. I’m glad to hear it. Take care.”

 

As he watched Paul walk away, he fought the urge to throw his 1989 Pontiac keys at him. Stupid idiot doesn’t even know how lucky he is, of course, neither did he one year ago.

 

He stood in the customer service line for what seemed like an eternity, the coupon in one hand, receipt in the other. He reviewed the coupon many times as he inched closer to the counter. Man, this would be even more embarrassing if he had the coupon wrong.

 

“How can I help you, sir?”

 

He fought the urge to run, “Yeah. Hi. Um…my wife was in here earlier this evening and this coupon didn’t go through. I have the receipt. I think you guys owe us a dollar.”

 

“A dollar?” The clerk asked him with her head bowed as she reviewed the coupon. It was the tone of her voice that made him flinch. The she laughed, “I suppose your wife is crazy thrifty and made you drive all the way back down here saying, ‘It’s the principle of the thing!’ All the while you are probably thinking that it costs more than a dollar to drive to the store, huh?”

 

As he walked away from her with his hard fought dollar in hand, it struck him as both funny and demeaning how absolutely incorrect her assumption of his situation was. He was somewhat thankful that he didn’t appear poor to the untrained eye. He was pretty sure she would not joke with him like that if he looked poor.

HOMELESS

All of that happened 18 months ago, and he’d give anything to have a dollar. Now, he knew the corner of State Street and Interstate Avenue was busiest from 7:30 to 9 in the morning while Expressway and 3rd Street saw a lot of action once school let out around 3. He has let his beard and hair grow long so the Pauls of his old life will not recognize him when they pull over with their sad eyes and their handful of change. Although, he doesn’t remember the last time he made eye contact with anyone. He has grown accustomed to staring at the cracks in the sidewalk and his ability to cry seems to have dried up with the love his wife used to have for him.

 
Embarrassment. That is the worst part of it. He knows what people think about him. He used to think the same thing about the bum on the corner. The only problem is, he is not a bum. He’s a father, a husband, a man. At least, he used to be all of these things, but perhaps even these drifted away with his last dollar.