Stranger

Lily wrestled with what to do. Walk towards the front of the Wal-Mart? What would Brandon do? Darlene stood cross-armed in front of Lily as if daring her to deny hitting the LTD’s massive right door.

Lily felt the morning sun now mocked her. The March wind continued to whip napkins from inside the LTD’s opened door. They fluttered insanely over the black asphalt of the parking lot in ridicule. Lily felt pierced by the contrast of brilliant blue light above and the faded black of Brandon’s AC/DC t-shirt. And the white napkins continued to flutter from the car.

“Brandon, where are my pajamas?”

“I ain’t got’em yet. I left my wallet in the car. I was just coming to get it when I seen this,” Brandon said, staring at Lily.

“Lady, you done got yourself in a mess. What you gone do about our door?”

“Brandon, listen. In short, I’m not going to do anything about your door. I was parked here when you pulled in beside me. As I was preparing to get out, I noticed your girlfriend here and I watched her for a moment before I got out of my car,” Lily said.

“Lady, who talks like you? What kind of person are you who watches people who pull in a parking space they have as much a right to as you?” Brandon interrupted.

“You watched me, lady? That’s kind of creepy. Then you hit my car door,” Darlene said. “You’re strange.”

“I was simply paying attention to my surroundings,” Lily said.

“Don’t sound like it, lady,” Brandon interrupted. “If you’d been paying attention, you wouldn’a hit our car door. Now, what you gone do about it? That’s what we want to know now.”

“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going into the store. I’m sure they have cameras. We can straighten this out. I’ll prove to you I did not hit your car. You are quite mistaken,” Lily said.

“You’re strange, lady. What’re you doing here, anyway?” Brandon said, as Lily began to move towards the store.

“I really don’t think that’s your concern,” Lily said.

“But I’m going inside. I’ll find the manager. I’m sure the store has cameras. That’ll put an end to this foolishness,” Lily said. Immediately she regretted her words.

“Who you callin’ a fool, lady?” Darlene erupted. “I knew you thought you was special when you hit my door with your little rich lady car.”

“I did not call you a fool. I only said this conversation is foolishness. And I’m neither special nor rich. I teach English at Covenant, and I’ve had this car for years,” Lily said in defense.

“I figured you thought you was smarter’n me. That’s why come you hit my car door,” Darlene continued.

“I’m going inside now,” Lily said. She avoided looking at Darlene as she sidled past Brandon, making her way more towards the store, regretting now the great distance with each heavy step.

“You’re strange, lady. We ain’t gone forget about you, believe it,” Darlene said. “We know where you work and what you drive. We been in Glim all our lives. Odds are we know lots of folks at that school.”

Lily continued walking. When she approached the sliding glass doors, she caught her reflection. Neither Darlene nor Brandon was behind her. They had not followed her into the store at all. The Wal-Mart doors slid open. Lily became aware of how hard she’d been walking when she stepped on the filthy gray doormat inside the store. She was suddenly disoriented. Why had she come to the store? She knew she had written on a Post-it items to pick up, but she could not recall any of them. An old man in a blue vest standing by some shopping carts spoke to her.

“Ma’am, may I help you find something?” he asked.

“Oh, good morning. I know this sounds strange, but I cannot remember what I came for,” Lily said.

The old man smiled. “Young lady, you’ll say that a lot more the longer you live.”

Lily turned around and looked at her car across the parking lot. It sat there undisturbed. There was no sight of Brandon, Darlene, or the LTD. Lily walked past the old man in the blue vest. He was talking with another employee about Lily. Lily overheard him say, “Strange folks around here some days.”

But That’s Not It, You See

Saturday morning near 9:30 Lily pulled into Glim’s Wal-Mart parking lot. She needed ingredients for salads, as well as apples and bananas. She had slept well Friday night. She felt rested and her hips did not hurt, as they often did.

March was cool in GA, similar to late fall, but with fewer colors. The sun shone brilliantly in the cerulean sky. Lily liked the feel of the morning spring sun on her skin. She was eager to walk.

She parked at the farthest end of the parking lot from the store. She could then walk the breadth of the Wal-Mart parking lot, feel the sun and the light March wind brush her face.

She shifted the car into park and reached over to the passenger seat for her purse. When she grabbed it and turned to open her door, a massive brown 4-door Ford LTD from the 1980s rocked into the parking space beside her.

A young man and young woman, both smoking, were in the front seats. All four windows were rolled down. Cigarette smoke billowed from the car. The young man driving appeared to be in his thirties. He had brown hair that curled in the back. He was very thin. He wore a black T-shirt with faded raised letters that read AC/DC.

He pulled the massive Ford into the space so quickly that it rocked when he stopped it. He had rammed the transmission into park. He exploded from his side of the car and walked with rigid wooden steps towards the front of Wal-Mart. He appeared jilted.

“The fleece ones!” the young woman from the front passenger’s seat screamed at him. The young man was already several paces through the parking lot.

“Brandon! You hear me?” she shouted.

Lily looked at the young woman from the inside of her car. The woman appeared to Lily to be about the same age as the man, probably in her thirties. She had her right arm thrust out of the right side of the car. She flicked cigarette ashes with her thumb and middle finger. Lily watched ash float across the parking lot before it landed on the asphalt.

The young woman was frustrated, but did not appear to be leaving the car. She inhaled deeply on her cigarette and thrust her arm back out the rolled-down car window, and flicked ash constantly between her thumb and middle finger. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back upon the cracked upholstery inside the massive old Ford.

Lily was unsure what to do. She found it difficult to turn her face away and not stare at the woman and their squabble.

The woman’s right ear had four silver hoops piercing its upper regions, and her black hair was pulled back into a greasy ponytail. Lily thought the young woman was going to fall asleep with the cigarette ash still burning in her right hand hanging from the passenger-side window.

Lily clutched her purse again and opened her car door carefully, trying not to disturb the young woman who seemed to be asleep on the blanched headrest. Lily closed her car door and mashed the electronic lock on her keychain, and her car horn honked. Suddenly the young woman’s head sprang up from the sun-faded headrest.

“Hey lady! You hit my car with your door!” the young woman shouted.

“Excuse me?” Lily said, turning to face the woman.

“You heard me, lady. You hit my car with your door!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I did not,” Lily said.

“You did. I felt it!” The young woman opened the massive door. It squeaked on its hinges and a napkin from the car’s floorboard flew out into the parking lot.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry. But you’re wrong. I was parked here before you and your hus—“Lily said.

“He ain’t my husband, lady. He’s my boyfriend!” the woman shouted.

“Besides, what do you know about it? You think you’re special?” The young woman continued to shout.

“No ma’am. Not at all. I was just saying that I was parked here when you and your, um, boyfriend pulled up and I saw you both,” Lily explained.

“What does this mean, lady, that you saw us both? You think we’re some kind of freaks or something?”

“No ma’am. I just—“ Lily said.

“Why you keep calling me ‘ma’am’, lady? You think you’re special?”

“Of course not. I just came to the store for some groceries. Then you guys pulled up beside me and…”

“And then you hit my car door! Just wait till Brandon gets back, lady!”

“Ma’am…” Lily said.

“If you call me that again, lady, I’m gone show you ‘ma’am’!”

Lily scanned the parking lot for help but there was none. She had parked this far away from the storefront in order to walk and feel the sun and–

Lily swallowed when she saw Brandon walking towards them. His stiff, long, skinny legs made clapping sounds on the asphalt.

“What is it, Darlene? What’chew doin’ out of the car? This lady botherin’ you?”

“Yes she is! She hit our doggone car door, Brandon. She opened her little car door right into my side when I was sitting here. I bet she thought I was asleep. But I wasn’t. I seen and felt the whole thing!”

“Ma’am, I did not!” Lily protested.

“Lady, you have a habit of damaging other people’s cars?” Brandon asked accusingly.

“Sir, as I told your…Darlene, I did not hit your car. I was parked here first and was about to get out when you pulled in beside me!”

“Free country, lady!” Brandon said. “Now what you gone do about the damage? That’s what I want to know.”

“There is no damage,” Lily said, glancing at the massive LTD. But there was damage, a lot of damage. It was not from Lily’s door, but the LTD looked as if it had been used on safari trips.

Darlene stood with her arms folded over her chest. She wore a blue and white flannel shirt, ripped and faded jeans, and low top Converse basketball shoes. The cigarette continued to burn in her right hand.

“Well, lady? How ‘bout it? What’chew gone do to make it right?” Brandon said again.

“Nothing. I did nothing wrong. I did not hit your car, and she knows it!” Lily exclaimed. “I will go see if the store has cameras. That will settle this.”

“You ain’t from here, are you lady?” Brandon said.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Lily said, exasperated.

“You think you’re better’n us, don’t you, lady?” Brandon said. “You think you can just damage other folks’ car doors.”

“This is preposterous,” Lily exclaimed. “I was getting out of my car when you pulled up in that tank, and—“

“We drive a tank, huh? So you figured you’d hit it with your rich car door, is that it?” Darlene said.

“That’s not it, don’t you understand?” Lily said.

“We understand, lady. You hit Darlene’s car door. And you think you’re bettern’ we are, and that you ain’t got to pay for it. But you do,” Brandon said.

“But that’s not it, you see. That’s not it at all,” Lily said.

Lily looked up at the sky as if for answers. More napkins fluttered from Darlene’s open door of the LTD. They danced across the black asphalt parking lot as if in mocking.

(To be continued)

A Candle

Lily rose from her cheap swivel chair. She walked to the rectangle of window and gazed towards the live oak beyond. She seemed fixed upon the outward. The soft early morning light held her. It was impossible to tell if she was listening to her own thoughts or was being scrutinized. Early morning light always held promise for Lily. She could think clearly in the hours before dawn. But as the day grew in noise and bustle she knew she would recede in a type of emotional counterbalance. Had someone entered Lily’s classroom as she stood there looking out, he may’ve pictured a woman contemplating escape or perhaps more.

“My friend, I see you don’t grow slack in keeping your early hours.” Thomas McDavid stood in Lily’s doorway where moments before Desiree Dramal had landed.

“Good morning, Thomas. How are you, my friend?” Lily asked.

“I didn’t pop a single button on my shirt when I dressed today. In short, marvelous,” Thomas McDavid said. “Before I know it, I’ll be able to see my shoes again when I look down.”

Lily and Thomas laughed together. Lily tasted again the beauty of friendship and envied Thomas’ indomitable optimism.

“Thomas, may I ask you a question about history?”

“As long as it’s not a date about when an empire fell or what time of day Oglethorpe invaded Savannah. I weary of how history’s lessons are murdered via banal questions that are nothing but recollections of data.”

“Nothing like that, Thomas. It’s about this town,” Lily said.

“Really. Go ahead, then. I’ve been here since Dr. Smith cut Mom’s umbilical, so I hope I’ll know the answer,” Mr. McDavid said.

“Can you tell me the history of the town’s name—Glim? I thought where I came from in Rook was antiquated. But Glim, it’s not a common town name, I don’t think,” Lily said.

“You’re right, of course. It means ‘candle’,” Mr. McDavid said.

“What makes you ask that, my young friend?” Thomas McDavid said, gazing at Lily.

“My surname is Rood, which means ‘crucifix’. I’ve always laughed at the fact of my last name. My family tree is a long line of Protestants; yet my last name hearkens to a crucifix. I don’t fit my name—historically. Not a Catholic back at least 500 years in my family,” Lily said.

“Glim has you thinking about all of this, does it?” Thomas asked.

“I was just thinking, that’s all. I’m still trying to find my way at Covenant and in Glim, Thomas.”

“Both will benefit, my friend. Study long, study wrong, as some of our older generations used to say.”

Lily looked at Thomas questioningly.

“Perhaps you’re our newest candle, my young friend,” Thomas McDavid said. He smiled and turned to go.

Lily smiled at him. She wished to thank him but the doorway was vacant. Lily turned her eyes outside and squinted. Sunlight fell in dappled patches on the grass, tiny oval pools of gold.

Beauty as Messenger

Beauty as messenger. I’ve taught literature for many years now. I remain convinced that great literature reflects man’s best, noblest, most exalted efforts to express truth beautifully. For some, that may sound sentimental and saccharine. For others, however, Browning’s line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” expresses what great literature aims for, namely, truth beautifully written. Might truth beautifully expressed be a messenger? And why do most avoid contemplating it?

The things in life that mean most to us are oftentimes the things about which most people avoid talking. It is more convenient to tweet or post. Headlines, not history. News is just that—new. We’re a “… and now this” culture, as Neil Postman wrote about. It’s what’s “happening now.” There is no room for the great enduring truths of literature when we can get updates sent to our phones and have news scrolled across the gadgets of our choice. We’re connected electronically but exiled in our souls. Where’s room for truth and beauty? Any room for a messenger?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” still speaks, does it not? Might these words, penned hundreds of years ago, serve as a messenger of that which endures?

This morning driving to work I had the radio on in my truck. The radio DJ was telling of how Tom Petty died this week, and of how his albums are now selling at many times the rate they were when he was still living. I was not a big fan of Petty’s music but I do respect how he labored in his craft. For Petty, it was music. His songs are played constantly because he spoke to the human experience and he tailored his talents to fit the genre of rock and roll. And music lovers continue to respond by buying up his albums and turning up the volume. There’s a message through all this and it’s not just the tunes. It speaks to a longing in the human heart for beauty and for truth. I do not wish to stretch the analogy too far. I would not choose to argue that Petty’s lyrics are great literature. However, Petty’s music has endured because it speaks to people in ways music mysteriously has the power to do. It touches people’s souls. It stirs them. It reminds them of what they value, of what brings joy. And those things endure.

I’ve read the following lines hundreds of times: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). It’s a reminder that we don’t know our end. I doubt that Tom Petty knew last week that he had less than a week to live.

James wrote in similar fashion: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).

Why do I still love teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner? Why do I try to open the Psalms to students who malnourish themselves on intellectual Twinkies? It’s because I remain more convinced than ever that the human soul atrophies if starved of truth and beauty.

I plan to drive home late today. When I do, I will drive north and the sun will be descending over the trees over my left shoulder. When I enter the community where my family and I live, I will wind over hills and cross a lake. On that lake, the sun will place its golden fingers across the water’s surface. Loons and geese will likely be flying overhead. Drakes and ducks are likely to be paddling around and dipping their heads beneath the surface, then reemerging with drops of water on their glossy crowns. And again I will be speechless before beauty. I will be suddenly filled with a message. It’s a message worth telling.

 

The Question of the Theater

“Christ,” Lily uttered.

“Ma’am?” Michael asked. “Ms. Rood, did you hear what I said?”

“Michael!”

“Yes, it is. Are you alright, Ms. Rood?”

“Michael,” Lily said again. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”

“I came to give you a message from Mrs. Wilkins in the front office.”

“What is it, Michael? I apologize. I must’ve fallen asleep or something,” Lily said.

“You were talking, Ms. Rood. You said ‘Christ’ when I entered your class. But no one is here with you. I just came in early to get some assignments. Mrs. Wilkins buzzed me in. You remember, right? I’m going to be out a few days for the fieldtrip with the acting team in Atlanta for theater practice,” Michael explained.

“Of course, Michael. Thank you for that.”

“Are you sure you’re alright, Ms. Rood?

“Yes, fine.”

“Mrs. Wilkins and the bookroom lady are in the front office, if you need me to ask them to get something for you,” Michael continued.

“It’s fine now, Michael. I just…”

“It’s okay, Ms. Rood. I won’t say anything about it. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. The bookroom lady…”

“Her name is Alice, Michael, not bookroom lady,” Lily said.

Suddenly there was a knock at Lily’s open classroom door. Michael and Lily turned their heads simultaneously.

Desiree Dramal stood in Lily’s doorway, arms crossed, causing her breasts to appear still larger, even for her considerable height. Her legs were so long Lily thought they themselves could be characters in a Kafka story.

“I had heard you came to work early, Ms. Rood—and that you often had people in your classroom at odd hours.”

“Excuse me?” Lily said. “This is Michael. He is one of my seniors. He came for his assignments.”

“Of course, Ms. Rood. Not to worry,” Desiree Dramal said, uncrossing her arms and turning her palms upright to assuage Lily.

“What was it you needed?” Lily asked.

“I can see you have someone with you, Ms. Rood. I will return later. Just some unfinished business.”

“I was not aware we had begun any business,” Lily said.

“Michael, could you give us a moment, please?” Lily asked. Michael retrieved a journal and folder from his desk and disappeared.

“Yes, Ms. Dramal. I do come to work early. I did not realize that was worthy of discussion, but I must be wrong.”

“Not to worry, Ms. Rood. I was just sharing some things I’d heard. It doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“What bothers me is your not telling me what you came for. You did have a reason, I assume?”

“Ah yes. My friend Alice…you know Alice up front, right?…she wanted me to ask you if you’d had a chance to read her book on hearing from God. But that’s not what I came for. I was going to ask you if you would help with the spring play. I hear you’re good with working with students and their elocution,” Desiree Dramal said.

“Aren’t you in counseling, Ms. Dramal? You understand why I ask. What do you have to do with theater and elocution?”

“I like to be involved in a lot of things, Ms. Rood. I see myself as a kind of rudder, if you will, steering things…but behind the scenes,” Desiree Dramal said.

Lily felt bile rise in the back of her throat. Acrid. She was close to vomiting. “I will certainly consider it and let the right people know,” Lily said. “Is that all?”

“For now, Ms. Rood. Thank you. I can see that you enjoy working with students and others at many hours, so the theater would be a good place for your talents,” Desiree Dramal said. She slid saurian-like from Lily’s doorway and was gone.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greater

Though March still, Lily felt hot. She perspired easily, especially when distressed. Thoughts of Beth’s and Desiree Dramal’s schemes roiled her emotions. She turned on her car’s radio as she passed Beulah, its white steeple and cross overwatching.

An established pastor-teacher’s voice was preaching from Luke 20. Lily listened to Dr. M____________ read Luke’s gospel:

And in the hearing of al the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Lily turned up the dial. She labored to reconcile these words with her life. Then she turned the dial back down, assured of God’s mysterious providence.

Lily neared her place and thought of her days ahead with her students. She wanted to push them to think through Hamlet’s many struggles to set things right in Elsinore. She wanted them to see how Pip and Estelle had reasons to hope for restoration in Great Expectations. She thought of how she might help with the spring play.

Lily’s drive today, like many, comforted her. Most of the fields were plowed, tilled, ready for seed. As she neared her home, she turned the radio dial up again. She wanted to hear the remainder of the pastor’s teaching.

She decided to drive out to Donald’s farm. As she turned onto the highway that led to Donald’s farm, Lily listened to the pastor: Jesus told his followers that the impostors would receive ‘greater condemnation’. God is not blind, beloved. He is not, as Paul says, mocked. ‘Greater condemnation’.” Then the pastor fell silent as if unsure of whether to end. Finally his voice returned and he prayed.

Lily neared Donald’s farm. As she did, she discovered she had arrived before Donald had returned from the Cup-n-Saucer. She pulled off the highway and gazed over towards his property as if in thanksgiving.

Cross

Lily focused her eyes upon the door of the Cup-n-Saucer. She longed to escape. Walking past the waitress, Lily nodded her head. The waitress nodded in return as if understanding. In the glass window in front of her Lily saw Beth’s orange hair reflected. Beth’s black nails curled as talons and Desiree Dramal’s long black slacks seemed to lengthen and writhe with each of Lily’s footfalls. Suddenly the image of Beth’s beige stationery with B.A. at the top and IT IS NOT FINISHED burned upon Lily’s brain as she heard the glass door close behind her.

“Lily!”

Looking up, Lily saw Alice.

“Hey, Alice. What’re you doing here?”

“A couple of my friends are meeting me here this afternoon,” Alice said.

“I see. Enjoy.”

“Lily, why don’t you—“

“I’m really tired, Alice. Going home now. See you at work, okay?”

“You bet, Lily. You know, I heard you mention coffee when we were still at work but I thought you were just kidding. But my friend Beth called me and asked me to meet our mutual friend Desiree at the Cup-n-Saucer, and—well, isn’t that ironic, Lily? I mean, we could all be together.”

“That is ironic, Alice. See you soon, okay?” Lily heard her own voice and wondered if it sounded cruel to Alice. She liked Alice but doubted her judgment.

Lily drove towards her rental property. She passed Beulah and contemplated its steeple and cross where they looked upon this city of man.