Friday, February 26, 2010

Like Salt to French Fries

I live to hear the words, "Can you fill a food order, please?"  In my mind, I see myself going down into a lunge.  Left knee touches the ground.   Right arm comes back like I'm starting a lawn mower.  "Yesssss!"

I run up the stairs, two at a time, to the top floor.  I stand in front of the shelves and fill old grocery bags with pasta, peanut butter, soup, and fruit cocktail.  I can't stop grinning 'cause this makes me happy.

It was almost four years ago.  I was headed to BB&T.  I watched my feet on the sidewalk.  "Step on a crack, break your mother's back."  After awhile, I looked up and instead of being in front of the bank, I was in front of a building that said loving in big letters and furniture in little letters.

I reckon it had something to do with Isaiah 58:7.  It'd been on my mind for almost two years.  "Share your food with the hungry.  Clothe the naked."  Stuff like that.  The words were a shish kebab skewer that poked me right under the ribs every time I heard or read them.

I'd been praying.  Waiting.  Looking for a burning bush.  All of a sudden, there it was.    But it wasn't burning, and it wasn't a bush.  It was Christian Help, Incorporated, founded in 1975.

Every Tuesday, more often than not, I drive down Grand Street to town.  I look through the blue part of my windshield.  "A parking spot right in front would be awesome, God."  Usually it's there.  Especially if my trunk is full.

I walk in the front door and say, "Howdy," to whoever's at the front desk.  Used to be Glinda, before she had a stroke and went to assisted living.  I always hugged her and whispered into her steel-colored curls, "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?" 

She'd cup one of my cheeks with her cool, dry hand and smile up at me.  "Good to see you, girlie."

I love 'em.  All the ladies.  I'm going on year four of volunteering and they've put in twenty five or more.  I work two to three hours a week.  Some of them are there every day.  They're all in their seventies, at least.  And Spud, who moved here from Jersey, to live with her daughter?  She's ninety something.  Looks like a grey-haired Jack in a deck of cards. 

There's Rose and Annie.  Sis and Carol too.  Ethel and Erlene come on Tuesdays, like me.  Glory hallelujah when Ethel brings one of her cakes.  Thank you, Jesus when we have a pot luck lunch and Erlene brings her sauerkraut with little, tasty shreds of  pork. 

I love the shining, antique faces of the ladies.  The way their eyes and teeth flash white when I spring through the doorway of the clothes sorting room.  Their smiles say they're as glad to see me as I am to see them. 

I've seen staff come and go in four years.  That's the nature of Americorp Vista, usually paid a pittance, workers.  But Cheryl, the executive director, has been there since before me.  God bless her 'cause running Christian Help requires managing chaos.  Reassessing the greatest need, the greatest good, Monday through Friday, plus the first Saturday of the month.

Cheryl's radiant.  Maybe she goes to a tanning booth.  Or she could be part Native American.  Just between you and me, I think it's 'cause she loves the Lord.  Moses glowed when he came down from the mountain of God, you know.

I stopped asking the younger volunteers why they're at Christian Help.  Usually it's 'cause they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Now I just smile real big and say, "Welcome!  We're so glad you're here." 

One time a handsome guy, who filled out his t-shirt sleeves, asked me why I volunteer at Christian Help.  I'd been waiting for this.  For the chance to give the reason for the hope I have.  I had paragraphs prepared but they evaporated.  "'Cause I love Jesus."  My voice sounded tiny.  He looked at me, head tilted.  "Cool."

To me, serving, volunteering, whatever you wanna call it, is like that line in the Jerry McGuire movie.  It completes me.  For years, I went to Bible study every Friday morning.  Learned all kinds of neat stuff.  But one day, someone's opinion changed my life.  "Bible study is all well and fine, but sooner or later, you have to start doing what Jesus told you to." 

I think serving is to life what salt is to french fries.  I understood that the  first time I filled an emergency food order.  It was a religious experience.  Spud's the unofficial queen of the food pantry, but she wasn't there to hear me say, "I'm doing it.  I'm feeding Jesus' sheep."

I sure hope I'm still driving down Grand Street to town, to Christian Help, for another couple decades.   After that, much as I love to hear, "Can you fill a food order?" or, "Can you help someone with an interview outfit?" what I long to hear is, "Well done, good and faithful servant."  But not yet.  Not 'til I'm at least as old as Spud.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Best Part Is Jumping In

They say it's gonna be a scorcher today.    Wanna go swimmin'?  I know the perfect place.  The water is so beautiful, it looks toxic.  Like a cocktail of Midori and Blue Curacao.  Sort of like if you mixed a blue raspberry and a lime Slush Puppy.  And the water temperature's just right.  Not so cold that your heart stops when you jump in, but not so hot that it's not refreshing.

The best part is jumping in but first, you have to climb the rocky, dry path that looks like peanut butter fudge.  Be careful though.  Watch out for the pull tabs.  They'll slice your foot right open.  Make you bleed like a stuck pig.  Just take turns--lookin' where you're goin' and lookin' down.  A tetanus shot might be a good idea too.  In case you get cut.  Or bit.

See, there's this place at the bottom of the hill, before you take the secret turn up to the swimmin' hole.  The property looks like a farm 'cause there's a split rail fence and a barn.  My girlfriends and I always stop to see the guys who live there.  They're wild.  Cute too.  In that I'm-bad-and-I-might-just-ask-you-to-be-bad kinda way.  They live life more outdoors than in.  Up at the swimming hole.  Camping out in the woods.  Hunting. 

They took us in that barn once and I saw one of the scariest things ever.  Saddest too.  They had a pit bull in there.  Back before it was cool.  Before Michael Vick got caught.  They couldn't let it out 'cause it was crazy vicious.  It'd kill anything with four legs. 

It was the guys' fault.  They made the dog that way.  Made it hate all animals.  They'd take a rag and use it to pick up something dead.  Then they'd beat the tar outta the dog with it.  They started small and worked their way up.  Squirrels to possums to groundhogs.

The dog got out once.  Killed a goat.  After that, they had to chain the dog inside the barn.  They put one of those super mean collars on him with big spikes that dug into his neck if he made a wrong move. 

I never did understand why the dog hated the animals the boys beat him with.  Why didn't the dog hate them?  Heck, why didn't we?

The wild boys were the ones who showed us the swimming hole.  We'd heard about it but didn't know where exactly it was.  All we knew is you cross the bridge from West Virginia to Ohio.  After that, you go right and the turn up the mountain was somewhere near an Esso station. 

We passed the Esso station and that's when we saw the boys.  Sittin' at a picnic table out in their yard, in the shade.  Suzy pulled her car into their driveway.  We sent Laura Jane out to ask for directions.  Boys'll tell her anything.  She was in a white bikini and blue jean short shorts.  The car windows were down so Suze and I could hear everything.

Laura Jane ducked between the top and middle split rail and then sashayed over to the boys.  The biggest one said, "Well, well, well.  What have we here?  I seen that same sorta swing on a back porch once."

From the car, we could see Laura flash her Ultra-Brite smile.  She flipped her almost black, bra strap-length hair and said, "You boys know where the secret swimming hole is?"

"You mean the filled-up strip mine?" the youngest one said.  I thought he was good lookin.'  Kinda reminded me of John Denver, only smaller.

It seemed to me like the rest of the boys got tense.  Their eyes were all squinty.  Like they were miffed.  Little John Denver ignored them.  He smiled up at Laura Jane, then stretched out his arm and pointed towards the woods.

"See that rusty oil drum over yonder?  When y'all get to it, keep your eyes  peeled 'cause the turn's right beyond that."

The biggest boy shoved Little John.  "Ah man!  Why'd you do that?  We don't want no girls up there."

"Says who?" Little John said.  He turned back to Laura.  "I can take y'all up there, if you want."

John Denver's name was actually Danny.

"Why's it called the strip mine?" I said from the back seat.

"'Cause that's what it used to be,"  Danny said.  "When there was no more coal, they flooded it."

He turned back to look at me.  "Wait 'til you see it.  The water's the coolest color ever."

Danny led us up the peanut butter fudge path.  Held back brambly branches so we wouldn't scratch our shaved that morning legs. 

All of a sudden, the trail ended.  We stood at the edge of a sandstone cliff, twenty or more feet over the opaque and aqua water.  The Mountain Dew in my stomach simmered.

I peeked over the edge.  "How do you get down to the water?" 

I can't believe I asked that.  I slapped my hands over my ears 'cause I didn't wanna know the answer.

Danny snorted.  "You jump, silly."

I pursed my lips and swallowed the jawbreaker-feeling lump in my throat.

Danny took a step towards me.  I blinked.  And then, before I knew it, I was hurtling through the air.  Beside Danny.  I backstroked, over and over.  Trying to . . . I don't know . . . save myself?  Make it back to the cliff's edge?

Then I hit the water.  My eyes and mouth slammed shut.  I felt my hair float above me as I sank.  I opened my eyes and looked up and saw the light through the teal murk.  I pushed water down to get up.  To the light.  To the air.

I broke through the water's surface like a baby being born.  I whipped my head around, trying to locate Suzy and Laura Jane.  They waved from way up there.  My legs fluttered under me like beaters on a handmixer.  I cupped my hand and circled it over and over, towards me.

"Come on!  Jump in!  The water's awesome!"

I looked around for Danny.  He was floatin' on his back.  Grinnin' up at the blue, clean slate of a sky.  I stretched out and did the same.  Filled my lungs with little puffs of air so I could stay on top of the water.

This place is so great!  Everyone should know about it.  Well . . . maybe just the people I like a whole lot. 

So, wanna go swimmin'?  I know the perfect place.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Prince of a Guy

Some gal wrote a book that says every girl wants to be swept off her feet.  Rescued.  A bride.  But I never did. 

There's a picture of me when I was little.  In a dress-up wedding gown.  At a toy ironing board.  My mom must have made me do it.  Must've tickled me at the last minute to make me smile like that.  That was never my dream.  I was like the dentist elf in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.  I wanted to be in-de-pen-dent.  I didn't need anybody.  Least, that's what I used to think.

Martin Luther King introduced me to you.  See, his birthday was on a Monday.  That meant an extra night to get dolled up, belly up to the bar, and shake a leg.

I always told my girlfriends, "You'll never meet Mr. Right in a bar."  Like I knew.  Heck, I could practically count the dates I'd been on with five fingers.  For some reason, guys seemed to be scared of me.  Maybe 'cause I could hit hard and burp long and loud.  That's what happens when you grow up with three older brothers.

But I wasn't with my girlfriends that night.  I was with my buddy, Dave.  We were both on the prowl for guys to dance with.  He and I spotted you at the same time, through a Kool and Camel haze, through the Purple Rain. 

You had a puffy half smile.  Lips like Angelina Jolie before anyone knew who she was.  And a pencil-thin moustache.  Your eyes were the color of Kraft caramels but I couldn't tell 'til we slow danced.  Your hair was almost ebony and looked like it had been curled around a popsicle.  You were dressed up.  Had a skinny leather tie on and everything.  Dave and I thought that was neat.  Way better than a t-shirt and Levi's.

I wrote my phone number on a Dolly's cocktail napkin with a chubby, aqua, Maybelline eyeliner.  Tuesday day and night came and went.  Then Wednesday day.  I was looking up your number in the phone book when you called.  My heart forgot to beat, then remembered.

We went out a couple of times and I decided you were some kinda fairy tale prince.  You opened and closed doors for me.  You always smelled nice when you reached across to buckle my seatbelt.  I liked the citrusy freshness of Drakkar Noir as it came off your warm golden neck in waves. 

You picked McDonald's cups off the sidewalk and put 'em in garbage cans.  Helped little dowager-humped ladies cross Walnut Street.  You did what you said you were gonna.

But then you didn't kiss me on the first date.  Or the second.  I got to thinkin' maybe you weren't a fairy tale prince.  Maybe you were just a  . . . .  And then you did kiss me, and once again, my heart forgot to beat, then remembered. 

It was cold in the hallway of my third floor, over Rite-Aid on High Street, apartment.  I was leaning against a door frame and you were saying maybe we should see . . . Then the warmth of you pressed against the warmth of me and it was so very nice I thought my knees would give out, right then and there.  It was just like the ketchup commercial said.  You know . . . anticipation. 

You coulda asked me anything  and I woulda said yes.  But you didn't.  'Cause you're a gentleman.  That's what happens when you grow up with four older sisters. 

You wanted to marry me even though I wanted to leave West Virginia and never come back.  Even though I didn't want kids.  Even though I didn't need you.

We closed our eyes and stabbed a map and that's where we moved.  In Cincinnati, I worked and you worked.  Then I said, "Well, I reckon I can have one baby.  For you." 

A couple years later you made me cry when you said, "I wanna move back to West Virginia."  And I said, "Don't you remember me saying I'm a big city girl?"  You held my face in your hands and said, "If you hate it after a year, we'll go someplace else."  I knew you always kept your promises, so I said okay. 

Not long after that, I decided the first baby needed company.  Then a few years later, I got the notion that you should have a son.  Funny thing.  The way having kids can stir up things inside you. 

When my childhood caught up with me, you held the sharp shards of my broken littleness in your hands.  You didn't flinch.  Your eyes didn't bug out.  You said, "There, there.  Everything'll be all right."  And it was. 

And then one day. when I was all alone in our hundred year old house, I held my thumb and pointer finger in front of my eyes.  They were almost touching.  And I whispered, "This much.  I might just need you this much."

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Coldest I've Ever Been

The coldest I've ever been was not December 27, 2009 when I sat watching my husband officiate the Music City Bowl.  Sitting for three hours inside the Tennessee Titans' stadium in a windchill of 17 degrees makes a body cold, to be sure.  But I've been colder.  In the 70's.

In the 70's, I liked to hear the WKEE dj who lived inside my clock radio say, "Cabell County" in the list of school cancellations.  I'd hit the "off" button and roll over and dream about . . . What was the oldest Partridge brother's name?  Not Danny. The other one.

The smell of Maxwell House would waft under my door and I'd know Dad was up.  I'd slide my feet into slippers and slip my arms into my robe, and join him in the kitchen.  He'd look up from his dippy egg and smile.  "Gonna sleigh ride?"

I'd smile back.  "Yep."

I'd open the cabinet over the stove and survey the collection of cold cereal--Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops.  Usually I picked Cheerios.  Added a teaspoon or two of sugar and a big pour of milk. 

Dad would push his chair back from the table and carry his dishes to the sink.  He'd run water over his plate so the yolk streaks wouldn't turn to Super Glue.  Then he'd pat me on the back, always too hard.   I'd arch to soften, or avoid altogether, the blows.

He'd put his cheek to mine, his Abe Lincoln beard scratchy.  My nose would wrinkle with the combination of his morning and Maxwell House breath.  My mouth was full so I'd make the brusha-brusha-brusha motion with my hand.  He'd cup a hand, breathe into it and smell.  Then his eyebrows would go up.  "Right."

Before he left to walk to work, he'd come back in the kitchen and exhale in my face.  Colgate breath.  Minty fresh.  Much better.  My mouth was still full so I gave him a thumbs up.

After I slurped my sugar and milk dregs, I'd put my bowl in the sink.  Then I'd start collecting.  Socks, long john bottoms, jeans--two pair. Long john top, turtleneck, sweatshirt.  Hat, scarf,  gloves.  Baggies and rubber bands--one for each foot.  The baggies were key.  They kept the feet dry.  Wet cold is way chillier than dry cold.  If your feet were dry, you could stay out at least an extra hour.

Next stop was the basement, for boots and coats--always my brothers.'  My coat and boots wouldn't fit over all my sleigh riding gear.  I'd root through the shoe pile under the stairs, looking for the Scotchguarded, stubby-toed hiking boots with red laces.  Geof's arctic parka was my #1 coat choice.  The fur trim almost always kept the snow spray off my face.

Into the garage.  More choices.  I'll take the . . . silver disc and the  . . . newer Flexible Flyer.   All set.  To the cemetary.  No need to tell Mom.  It's where I always went when it snowed.

It was the best of snow days.  It was the worst of snow days. 

The snow was the kind with a crisp, like potato chips  top.  Like it had snowed, then drizzled,  then froze.  If I was super careful, I could walk across the top and not fall through.   The trick was weight distribution.  You had to center yourself over your feet.  If you dug in a heel, ka-runch.  You went crashing through. I could go six or eight steps without a breakthrough.  

Us neighborhood kids had anticipated this cold snap.  We'd prepared for it too.  After school the day before, some of us had tromped over and used a chubby stick to jam the water pump at the top of the hill where the road goes down to the giant open Bible made of granite. 

The day before, it had been almost 40.   The water had flowed willingly.  Today it was not even 20.  The water refused to flow.  Instead, it looked like a solid white paper towel tube coming out of the forest green, cast iron, goose-necked faucet.  The road looked like the powdered sugar glaze on my mom's Bacardi rum cake.  Shiny.  Slick.  Speedy.

I smiled and rubbed my gloved hands together.  It's gonna be so fast.

After inspecting the faucet, I walked back up to the top of the hill where I'd left the sleds.  I picked up the reins of the Flexible Flyer.  Sitting, or on my belly?  On my belly.  I trusted my hands more than my feet when it came to steering.

I pulled the sled three feet back from the edge so I could get settled before I . . . on your mark . . . get set . . . went.  I eased my Michelin-man self, belly down, onto the Flyer's slats.  I put the reins under me so they wouldn't get caught beneath the runners.  I put my hands at opposite ends of the guide bar.  Before I geronimoed, I pulled my muffler over my mouth and nose 'cause I hate freezin' cold snow powder in my face.  Hate it!

When you ride a roller coaster, you're scared in the line.  At least I am.  Then, you're scared as your car climbs the first hill.  Least I am.  No turning back now.  And then you're at the peak and your stomach jumps up to keep your sternum company.  Then all h-e-double toothpicks breaks loose.  Speed.  Wind.  Adrenalin.  Bugs.  Fear.  Joy.  It's over?  Already?  Let's do it again.

Not this time.  I hunched and scooted and jerked my way to the precipice.  I paused to look at the gleaming ribbon of silver.  I considered the way it snaked to the left, halfway down.  Wonder how the Flyer will steer on ice? 

"Cowabunga!" I shouted to the edges of winter as I oomphed myself from flat to steep. 

It happened so fast.  I didn't even get to enjoy the stinging, alarming velocity before the pain, the burning pain, set in.

The steering of the Flyer on ice?  It didn't happen.  The ice flung me down the hill so fast that by the time I approached the bend and needed to steer, it was too late. 

The Flyer slammed into the curb and stopped.  I, however, kept going.  Across the crispy, like the top of creme brulee but cold not hot, snow.  The parka's hood flew back.  The scarf protecting my face abandoned ship and the sandpaper-rough ice crust razzed my face. Took off a layer of skin on my right cheek and jaw. 

I don't know how long I laid there, motionless, like one of those baby harp seals whose eyes say, "Please don't let mean, greedy men kill me."

After awhile, the burning on the right side of my face turned to stinging.  Then it prickled.  Then it itched.  Isn't this what they say frostbite feels like?  And then people's toes and fingers fall off.  Is my cheek gonna fall off?

I lifted my face off the ice layer.  My eyes got big when I saw the pink print it left.  I rolled onto my back with a groan.  My neck and shoulders ached from the Flyer's violent kiss with the curb.  Wish the snow was soft like it usually is.  Like when you lay down to make snow angels. 

When I opened my eyes again, my stomach was rumbling.  And I was so cold.  A jarring shiver started in my gut and shimmied up to my teeth, making 'em clack.  Sounded like the Mexican Hat Dance.

I squinted at the sky.  What time is it?  I shook my head to ease the crawling of my face skin but it didn't help.  I reached a glove up to scratch it and felt a tearing.  The fibers of my scarf had mated with the beginnings of the scabs on my cheek.  My face would not surrender the scarf without more pain.  More blood. 

My breath caught.  I sniffed.  My lower lip trembled.  I'm gonna be ugly.  The salt from my tears insulted my abrasions.  It'll probably leave a scar.  I've not been loved yet and I probably never will be now.  I'll have to become a nun like Sally Field or Maria, in The Sound of Music.  The wimple will cover the thickened, angry pink skin.

That is, if I don't freeze to death first.  After all, this was the coldest I'd ever been.


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