May 21, 2015
It was a hard rain, and fast—the sort of pour that early May is known for here. It came from clouds the color of dark smoke that rolled over town like a wave, here and then gone over the mountains. What was left in its wake was the grateful song of a robin from the oak in the backyard, and the sugary smell of wet grass and tilled earth.
And the puddle.
It was not a deep puddle, nor was it wide. Maybe three lengths of my boot and deep enough to reach the second knuckle of my index finger. It lay just beyond the mailbox at the end of the lane, a pothole the rain had converted into a passing mirror of liquid glass.
The mailman had delivered the day’s assortment of junk mail and bills just before the first cracks of thunder. Now that the sun had returned and the robin was singing and that sweetness was in the air, I decided to go check the box. A small boy riding a dirt-road-brown bicycle rounded the corner as I made my way down the lane. He tried a wheelie, barely managing to get the front tire off the ground, then uttered a Yes! as if what he’d just done was almost supernatural.
I gave the puddle a wide berth—I was in blue jeans and flip flops, and didn’t want to risk getting either wet. There are few things in life more irritating than wet cuffs on your blue jeans.
I’d just pulled the mail out of the box (a reminder of the upcoming Book Fair, a ten dollars off coupon for Bed, Bath & Beyond, and the cable bill) when the boy squeezed the brake levels on the handlebars. The bike skidded nearly ten feet on the wet pavement, the last four or five fishtailing, which produced another Yes!, this one whispered.
I looked up. The boy was staring at my feet, where the puddle lay. A soft breeze rippled the surface, and for a moment, however brief, my mind turned to something I’d once heard from an old relative—all mirrors have two sides, she’d said. One side you look at. The other side looks into you.
“That’s a pretty cool puddle,” the boy said to me.
I looked at it and then to him. “Sure is.”
He nodded, and I got the feeling it was the sort of nod that was more the punctuation on the end of a decision rather than an agreement with what I’d just said.
I thought he was going to ride through it. That’s what I would have done at his age. Plus, it would have the added benefit of turning his dirt-road-brown bike back into the red I suspected was underneath. But he didn’t. He threw down the kickstand and dismounted as if from a mighty steed in the Old West.
He walked to me and toed the edges of the puddle.
“You gonna use that?” he asked.
“Mind if I borry it?”
“You can borrow it all you want.”
He nodded and took three kid-sized steps back. Then he ran forward, leaped, and landed square in the middle of the puddle. Water billowed up over his legs, reaching his waist. He lands with a smile that to me is brighter than the rainbow over us.
“Thanks, mister,” he said. “You can have a go if you want.”
He rode off, a plume of road water trailing behind him. I held the mail in my hand and tried to remember the last time I jumped into a puddle in the road after a May rainstorm. Years, probably. Probably long ago, back when I had my own dirt-road-brown bike.
Puddles aren’t adult things. Adults avoid them. They splash and make a mess and get the cuffs of your jeans wet. It isn’t responsible or mature.
Maybe. But then there’s that mirror inside each of us. The one we look into that shows us who we are, and the one that looks into us and shows us who we should be.
I won’t tell you if I jumped or not. Some things need to stay secret. But I will say this—I can’t wait for it to rain again.
May 18, 2015
Next time I won’t order the fish. That’s what I thought after he left. If I would have ordered chicken or steak or shrimp I would have gotten my food earlier, which meant I would have prayed earlier, which meant he wouldn’t have seen me. But he did, and like they say, that is that.
Lunch time for me is a sort of take-it-when-you-can thing that depends on how busy I am and how far I want to drive. Most of the time that places me inside a small restaurant downtown, just a few blocks from my work. Nice place with nice food. Very friendly, very tasty, and very quick.
So. The fish.
An extra ten minutes, the waitress said. “You sure you don’t mind waiting?”
The man came in five minutes later and was shown to the table across from mine. We smiled and nodded like friendly folk do, and I was fairly certain that would be the extent of our interaction. It wasn’t. Because soon afterward my fish arrived and I offered a very silent and inconspicuous prayer.
He was staring at me when I opened my eyes.
“So you’re a churchgoer?” he asked.
“Yep,” I answered. “You?”
“Never,” he said in a tone that seemed rather proud.
I nodded and went back to eating.
“Don’t believe in God myself,” he said. “Just seems like a waste. I guess that means I’m going to hell, huh?”
I’d been around long enough to know when I was being baited into a conversation I really didn’t want to get into. This, I thought, was one of those conversations.
So I just said “Not my call” and raised another bite of fish.
“Not your call,” he repeated. “That’s typical.”
I chewed and thought about the last little bit of what he said. It was more bait, of course. And it was still a conversation I didn’t want to have. But maybe it was now one I should.
“Typical?” I asked.
“Yeah, typical. You people like to use those pat little answers for questions you just don’t know or are just too afraid to face.”
“Like whether you’re going to hell?” I asked.
“Sure. That just bugs me. Christians say that God is love, but if you don’t go along with the program then you get eternally punished. That doesn’t sound like love to me, that just sounds hypocritical.”
I shrugged. “Not really. I reckon God’s spent—what, fifty years or so?—trying to get you to pay attention to Him. He’s arranged circumstances, given you a glimpse of things you don’t normally see or think about, even spoke to you. There’s no telling how many chances you’ve gotten to say ‘Hello’ to God after He’d said the same to you. But you have a choice. That’s how He made you. You can choose to listen or not, choose to believe or not, choose to accept or not. I take it that so far, it’s been not. So if you spend your whole life telling God to stay as far away from you as possible, He’s gentleman enough to do just that when it’s all over. So yes, I suppose if you keeled over right here right now, you’d go to hell. But it’s not me who’s gonna send you there, and it’s not God either. It’s you.”
He looked at me. I looked back.
“Alright then,” he said.
We both continued our meals. Ten minutes later he squared his tab with the waitress and left, pausing at the door to offer me a smile and a tip of his hat.
The waitress focused on me then, asking if I’d like more coffee or just the check. I asked for a check and an answer.
“That fella come in here a lot?”
“Sure,” she said. “He’s the preacher at the church next door.”
“He’s the what?” I asked her.
“The preacher.” Then she smiled and added, “Was he havin’ a little fun with you?”
“Don’t know if I’d call it fun.”
“He likes that,” she said. “Likes finding people who call themselves Christians and tests them. Sees if they know their faith or just accept it. These days we have to be ready to defend it, don’t we?”
“We do,” I said.
And that’s the truth. It isn’t enough to just accept our faith nowadays. We have to stand for it. And this is the truth, too—next time I go there to eat, I’m ordering the fish. Maybe he’ll stop by.
May 14, 2015
In the late springs it was always school and chores after, and when the grass was cut and the garden weeded, there would be time for an inning or two. Then May would give to June. I cannot fully convey just how special that time of year was to me growing up—those few weeks when the air would first warm and then the mountains blossom, and that long string of big, black X’s on the calendar I’d begun in September finally ended. Summer vacation. That’s when the season would really start. That’s when the lot would open.
There were five of us neighborhood kids, and we’d always get together once school was out. There was me and Greg and Chuck and Noel and Jonathan. Sometimes there was a sixth named Duane, but it wasn’t often he was allowed to play. Duane’s daddy was a preacher—not the holy roller kind but something close—and his momma always frowned on us neighborhood kids running around, shooting each other with pretend guns and playing cops and robbers. It was always better when Duane got to play. He was the only one willing to be the cop. It all turned out for the best, though. Duane, he never had much of an arm anyway.
That’s how we measured ourselves back then—by our arms. Not how big they were or how strong, but how far and how fast we could throw a ball. Because let me tell you—back in our old neighborhood, baseball was king and the lot was our castle.
It wasn’t much, that piece of land Maybe half an acre wide and that much long, with a row of big pines marking the left foul line and Mr. Pannill’s house marking the right. The road was our fence.
Come the first day of summer, we were at the lot every morning at 9:00 sharp. We’d play until the sun got too hot. Sometimes Greg’s mom would feed us, and it’d be peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the shade of those pines. Other times, we’d bike it down to the 7-11 and poll what money we had for the biggest Slurpee we could afford. One time Noel said he couldn’t share a straw with all of us, there were too many germs. Don’t you know we let him have it for being such a wuss. Then it’d be back to the lot for more of the same until the sun went down and our mommas started hollering.
The thing about childhood is that you don’t know how special it is until it’s over. All those memories you make will stay in your pocket for the rest of your life, and you’ll take them out from time to time just to handle them and remember. But I think we all understood that back then. I know I did. Even that young and even in the midst of those moment, I knew how special they’d become one day. How long-lasting.
I grew up in that lot. We all played on the Little League teams in town, but whatever we did on the big field didn’t matter. Our reputations—good or bad—were made between the pines and Mr. Pannil’s backyard, and we all knew it. I hit my first home run there, clear to the other side of the road. Broke my first bone in the outfield. I learned about divorce from listening to Noel talk about his parents, and I learned about sex from listening to Jonathan talk about his.
Things like that, they stay with you. They get tucked into your pocket and are never lost.
I learned this at the lot, too—nothing is ever permanent in this world. Even the good things go away eventually. We spent almost nine good summers on that lot and I remember each and every one of them, and I remember how it all began to slowly disappear. Noel moved away. So did Duane, though we never really missed him. The rest of us . . . well, I guess we all just grew up. We got cars and got older. Too old for the lot.
I’ve lost track of most of them now. That happens often in life too, and I think it’s one of the saddest things. There’s now a house where our lot used to be. It’s a nice ranch with a big front porch and flowers planted all the way down the sidewalk, but to me it’ll always be an ugly thing. To me, it will always be the thing that covered over my castle. But I drove down there tonight and just sat. It’s getting on in May and June is right around the corner—just the sort of evening when we’d get together for a few innings. I sat there with the window down and the breeze rustling through those old pines, and I swear I could hear the laughter of five young boys trying to figure out what it meant to be alive. I swear I would hear the ping of the bat. I swear I could hear someone say the next game’s tomorrow.
May 12, 2015I said, “You know Davey, this is why Southerners are stereotyped.”
“Don’t know nothin’ about that,” he answered, “just know I gotta clean this. Gettin’ dark, you know.”
I looked at the sunshine splayed over his front yard and still didn’t know what Davey meant by that. So I said, “Just heard a song on the radio that pretty much summed up what you’re trying to do here.”
“Well, if that song was about some guy sittin’ on his porch cleanin’ his shotgun, then I’d say it’s spot on.”
I nodded and said nothing because there wasn’t anything else to say. So I just sat in the rocking chair beside him and watched his grass grow.
In the country a person learns to decipher the hidden meanings found in the common wave. There are many. Depending upon the angle of the arm and the length of the waggle, a gesture by people from their porch can mean anything from “Stop on in and sit a spell” to “If you don’t keep moving, I’m going to shoot you.”
That’s why when I passed Davey Robinson’s house and observed the angle and the waggle of his wave, I stopped. The invite was there, even if the words weren’t.
I climbed onto Davey’s porch and saw the oil and the rags next to his shotgun. Not an uncommon sight in these parts. We take the second amendment with the utmost seriousness. When I asked what he was doing, Davey simply said, “It’s gettin’ dark.”
Davey’s wife poked her head out of the screen door just then. “Hey, Billy,” she said.
“Afternoon Rachel,” I answered.
She looked at her husband. “Davey, this is the last time I’m going to tell you. Put that stuff away.”
“Almost done,” Davey told her.
“Well, hurry up. Caitlyn’s almost ready.”
“What’s Caitlyn up to?” I asked them.
Davey said nothing. Rachel, however, did: “It’s prom night.”
I looked at Davey and smiled. “You’re actually cleaning your gun for Caitlyn’s prom?”
“It’s dirty,” he answered. “I’d be cleanin’ it no matter what Caitlyn’s doin’.”
“Honey, please,” Rachel said. “Put that stuff away. If Caitlyn sees you, she’ll go bonkers.”
“Gettin’ dark,” Davey said again.
Rachel rolled her eyes and went back inside, leaving the two of us alone on the porch.
“Caitlyn’s going to prom, huh?” I asked. “Seems like just a few months ago she was still running around here in pigtails.”
“Don’t I know it,” Davey said, running a cloth through the barrel. “I enjoyed every minute of it, too. Guess growin’ up was bound to happen sooner or later, though. This prom thing has been goin’ through her mind for months. Wasn’t much I could do about it.”
“Who’s her date?”
“Guy named Kevin. She’s had him over a few times. Seems like a good enough kid.”
“If he’s a good enough kid,” I said, “then why are you out here sittin’ on the porch with your shotgun? I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Davey paused with his rag and said, “Fine, huh? Tell me, what sorts of stuff were you thinking about all the time when you were sixteen?”
I thought about that, then said, “Maybe you’d better load that thing.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Caitlyn came onto the porch just then. Her blue dress shimmered in the sunlight, and Rachel had done her hair up into a bun. I understood then why Davey was so nervous. Caitlyn had always been a pretty girl, but right then she looked almost stunning.
“Hi, Billy,” she said.
“Hey, Caitlyn,” I managed.
“How do I look?”
I had to be delicate here. I couldn’t well gush and say too much, not with her father sitting beside me with a shotgun in his lap. But if I said too little, Davey might shoot me anyway.
“You’re easy on the eyes, Miss Caitlyn,” I said. Davey nodded out of the corner of my eyes, and I let out a happy sigh.
“Daddy,” she said, “what in the world are you doin’?”
“Gettin’ dark,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means,” Caitlyn told him, “but please put that thing down before Kevin gets here. For me, Daddy.”
Kevin pulled up in his parents’ car a few minutes later. He was nervous when he saw Davey and me on the porch. He was more nervous when he saw Caitlyn. By the time the two of them had posed for a dozen pictures for Rachel and left, Kevin had nearly sweat through his tux.
Davey and I watched as they pulled away.
“You know,” he said, “I used to come out here on this porch every evening and call that youngin’ in. ‘Gettin’ dark!’ I’d tell her. Now here she is, going out in that dark. And I can’t call her in. Not anymore. She’s gettin’ older. Becoming a woman.”
“Guess so,” I said.
“But I know this,” he said. “She’ll always be my little girl. And I’ll always be waitin’ here on the porch until she comes home.”
May 11, 2015
It’s May, and that means both good and bad things around here. Good in that the school year is almost over for my kids. Bad in that it still quite isn’t. That’s why my son said something about the happy gas last night.
Here’s where he got that:
He was six when he got his tonsils out. It wasn’t the visit to the hospital that worried him. He was okay with the hospital. And it wasn’t even the pain. What worried him the most was the very thing he most looked forward to.
The happy gas.
It’s tough trying to explain a medical procedure to a six-year-old, especially when the ins and outs are pretty vague to his father. I didn’t really know what tonsils and adenoids were, what function they served, or why they were giving him such trouble. But the anesthesia part I knew.
So I told him he got to wear a mask like Batman did and that the air would smell like cotton candy and he’d fall asleep. And while he was asleep the doctors would do their business and make him better.
“You won’t feel a thing,” I told him. “Promise.”
He didn’t believe me.
Experience had taught him otherwise. He’d slept before, and he’d either done things or had things happen that he not only remembered, but felt.
He fell out of the bed twice. Felt that. Bopped his face against the headboard. Felt that, too. He’s also awakened himself by burping, talking, snoring, and coughing. Sometimes all at once.
No way, he thought, no way, would he be able to sleep through someone operating on him.
So I explained that the happy gas wouldn’t just put him asleep, it would put him really asleep, and that the doctor would make sure he stayed that way until everything was finished.
Afterward, once we were home and he was safely on the sofa with his ice cream, I asked him about it.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I can’t even remember anything.”
And then he said this—“I wish I could have some of that for when I go to school. That way I could just wake up when I got home and I wouldn’t remember any of it.”
Funny, yes. And that definitely pegged him as my son. But he really had a great idea there, at least on the surface. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have some advance warning to the less than perfect things we have to face? And wouldn’t it be great if just before we could put on a Batman mask, breathe some cotton-candy air, and fall asleep through the whole thing?
Yes. It would.
I’ll admit for a while I did my best not to try and poke holes in his Happy Gas Theory. I knew there were some and most likely many. But sometimes we take comfort in those things that aren’t and can never be. That’s what I did while sitting on the sofa with him. I reveled.
But the truth of course was that we had to go through our painful things sometimes. We could slide around some and jump over others, but sooner or later a storm would come that we couldn’t outrun or take cover from, and we were left to stand there in the open under the pour.
Sometimes, that didn’t seem right to me.
It would make more sense to say that if God was there and if God was good, He would take better care of the ones who loved Him. He would make sure our paths were clear. He would prevent the pain and the pour and the doubt. He would take away the fear.
If there was such a thing as everyday happy gas, I thought, then shouldn’t it be God?
Maybe. But maybe that pain and pour and doubt served a purpose that outweighed the need for our happiness. Maybe we needed fear so we could know the value of faith.
I didn’t know for sure, but I thought the odds were good that He’d spared me from a great many troubles in my life without me knowing it. Not happy gas, but maybe something better. And as I looked down and saw my son wince when he tried to swallow, I knew that all the happy gas in the world couldn’t take away all the pain. Some still lingered.
That was true for all of us, I supposed. We were all a collection of bruises and cuts. We all had our tender places.
And I thought that in the end, it was our pain and not our happiness that brought us nearer to heaven.