Present Ghost

Telling stories


fairy godmothers

At the Snack Machine, II


Explaining to my husband how I had seen God wasn’t too difficult.  He’s open-minded and at that time, he was already used to my frequent, fleeting intimacies with strangers.

“She told me I needed to spend more time with God,” I added.

“Well, she’s probably right.”

And of course she was right, even though she didn’t know all the grief I carried with me or that I had been spending most of my long drives to work and class crying and screaming when I was sure the closest car was out of sight.

After she had left and the front desk paged me to tell me that I owed $700 that I didn’t have, I laughed and rolled my eyes, telling God that if He wanted to send me a check along with that half-crazy Pentecostal Christian, I’d really appreciate it. Better yet, God, why don’t you just let the murderer pay for my new timing belt, and then I’ll have something to write home about—something readymade for the inspirational aisle of Wal-Mart.

When I walked up to the sliding glass window, I was somewhat surprised that my balance wasn’t paid and even more surprised when their credit card machine rejected my check card. I had to call my husband to dictate our nearly maxed-out credit card number over the phone.

God, I imagine, has a low tolerance for sarcasm—particularly my brand of dry cynicism. Although I’ve always imagined the great I Am as having a rather outrageous sense of humor, I still don’t see smart aleck one-offs as a favored form of levity in the celestial realm.

In sending my last fairy godmother, He was being rather direct with me. The two other strangers had affirmed the value of my body and my style when I doubted myself, but Christ, through this woman, had publicly declared the worth of my soul when I had come to doubt its maker.

During our conversation, she quoted the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9 to me, and the word peculiar struck me. Most other versions reference our belonging to Him, and though they may be more authoritative translations, peculiar suits those moments when the knowledge of the Spirit passes from one body into another so that we may pass from darkness into light once, and then, again.

My Last Fairy Godmother, At the Snack Machine


Holy things and folk tales favor threes, but I can’t be so tidy by writing about having three fairy godmothers. The third candidate transcends the title, because for me, she acted as neither fairy nor mother: she was more like God, and I met her in the lobby of a car repair shop in Waco, Texas.

A year had passed since I had met the woman in the grocery store. Since then, I’d gotten married and moved an hour away from the school I was attending in order to split the traveling distance with my husband, who was also in graduate school at a university an hour north of where we lived. I told myself that we were decadently poor because we were electing to pursue post-baccalaureate degrees when we were certainly qualified for jobs that would earn us as much money as we make now. We were choosing this. Even though I knew this, that didn’t comfort me when I was cursing and grinding newly hatched roaches that climbed up through the cracks of our kitchen table leaves with my bare fist. If I hadn’t been staying late nights on campus to tutor Japanese businessmen in English just so I’d have enough gas money to make it home, I might not have been able to drop into bed too tired to care about whether or not that something tickling my leg was merely my husband’s long leg hair, or if it were one of the thousands of cucarachas that overran our apartment.

Between us, my husband and I were driving almost a thousand miles a week. To cut costs, we couch surfed in the homes of gracious friends several nights a week through our first year of marriage. We’d pack a couple days’ worth of food, our backpacks for school, and our duffel bags, kiss (or not kiss, depending on how things were going), and say our goodbyes. Despite our efforts to save money, our cars suffered and required more maintenance than we could afford. Only a couple weeks into this schedule, my car broke down while I was at school and I had to stay a couple extra days until I could pick it up from the shop and drive home for the weekend.

As I was thumbing through some women’s magazine in the waiting room of the repair shop, a petite woman walked in with an already-open snack-size bag of Cheetos and a Big Texas Cinnamon Roll in one hand, and a perspiring can of Hawaiian Punch in the other. She selected a seat catty-corner to mine. She set down the punch and Cheetos and tore into the cinnamon roll.

I eyed the snacks, covetous and judgmental, wishing I could taste the sweet, sticky plastic gum of that obnoxious honey bun, or the salty Styrofoam taste of Cheetos—neither item I would ever allow myself to buy.

She caught me.

Seeing more skinny-girl censure than hungerlust in my stares, she said, “You’ve got a cute little figure. I let mine go a long time ago.”

Although I knew I had been judging her junk food, I was truly hungry that day.

“Actually, I was just looking at your food. It looks really good.”

I told her that I commuted a lot and always ran out of food before I could get home because I ate everything I packed and I didn’t want to buy anything. That day, I’d had a brick of ramen, a handful of nuts, and some wrinkled fruit.

“Do you want something?”

Feeling embarrassed, I told her no, and we moved on to talk about Texas heat in July, her concerns for her young daughter, school, and my being a newlywed.

Suddenly, she left the room without excusing herself.

While she was gone, I thought about how her eyes shone a strange celeste, beyond the usual borders of the iris. I couldn’t think of it long, because she returned with another Big Texas bun in her hand.

She held it out to me:

“Take it. Get it away from me.”

If I could have laughed, I would have; but I cried. When I couldn’t stop sobbing, the quiet elderly woman who had been impassively glancing through a stack of Woman’s Day magazines exited the room.

At last I could talk between hiccups and gasps, and I asked her if she’d ever had one of those days that are just so bad that you can’t explain them.

She nodded.

“Well, you just made my day so good that I can’t explain that either.”

“Honey, we all need those days. There’s someone watching out for you.”

She pointed up.

I kept crying and shaking my head in that car care center lobby as I unwrapped the gift and began to eat.

We continued to talk, and she wanted to know if I knew Christ, and if it were personal. I was glad to tell her that I did.

When she believed me, she told me that one day when she was taking a walk, God showed her that His creation was beautiful. She noticed this little purple flower along the sidewalk that was so intricate. She said she’d never thought about how we unknowingly trample ones just like this, never realizing how complex and delicate they are.

“It’s strange, though,” I said. “It’s so much easier to realize when we do that to nature than when we do that to people—and that’s really messed up. It’s much, much harder to forgive.”

Her face changed and she quit talking. I swallowed the last bit of the bun and waited.

After a significant pause, she shared with me that she’d been to prison for 18 years for being an accessory to murder in a gang-related setup.

I didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t wait for me to figure it out, either.

She looked at me directly and told me that I was the daughter of the Living God, and that I might need to spend some more time with Him.

“You,” she said, “are a part of a very peculiar people. Don’t forget that.”

I’m sure I told her I knew that. She told me her name and just when she was giving me her number, the mechanic paged her to let her know that her truck was ready.

We parted, and when I was driving home, I called my husband.

“I saw God today.”

“I said, I saw God.”

“You mean you saw someone who reminded you of God?”

“No. I said I saw God. And she said she’d murdered somebody.”

“Okay. You’re going to have to explain this.”

To Be Continued…

Fairy Godmothers II: Working It

Throughout the rest of high school and all through college, I didn’t attract any more fairy godmothers. By the time I moved across the country for graduate school, I was long overdue for a visit.

One night early in the first semester, a cohort of mine and I were leaving our GA assignments. We were already discussing our insecurities and disappointments about our lackluster prospects in academia. Although he was more insecure about his aptitude for scholarship, he defended the scholar–teacher role.

I divested myself of all defenses when I admitted what no literature major ever should. I am why every college humor Web site earns thousands of hits, and I knew it, and it slipped out: I wanted to write. Still delusional and warily optimistic, I argued that literature programs should value creativity in writing more than they champion dry jousting matches between worn-out historicists and whatever new literary theorem that would-be professors were inventing to stay relevant.

We agreed and argued unnecessarily, exposing our fears of never becoming our idols until he spit it out:

“Well, not everyone can be a Virginia Woolf.”

I admitted defeat there. Standing at the bike rack, holding the crossbar in one hand, I waited but did not expect the force of the next blow. He took me down another step, eyeing the black motorcycle jacket I was wearing,

“Don’t you think you’re trying just a little hard?”

Trying too hard—the words hit me. At 23, I was being called a poser for wanting more and for wearing something that seemed too edgy for a conservative Texas environment.

For weeks, I wore the jacket in rebellion against my fears of letting the venom of his comment sink in. I varied my wardrobe as much as possible to expand the scope of my protest and feigned confidence whenever showing up to mixers and lectures.

When I wasn’t pocketing food and rubbing elbows at department functions, I entertained myself with weekly visits to the grocery store. The trips presented me the opportunity of satisfying my desire for a modest yet private adventure where I could gather observations about Texas produce. I drew my chief excitement from selecting exotic tubers or wild fruit to prepare and eat.

Going to the grocery store also encouraged my wardrobe exercises because I could peruse aisles of foreign foods anonymously while wearing brightly colored semi-formal wear without unwelcome judgment.

red shoes

One afternoon not too far removed from the aforementioned incident of jacket shaming, I ventured to the H.E.B. in a party dress—a faded black A-line littered with cherries and graying tulle. To match, I paired it with red shoes with more glitter than Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.

It was that outfit, exactly, that brought her to me.

No longer alone in the grocery store, I met my second fairy godmother. I was inspecting some cucumbers when I heard,

“Hey! Girl! You, in the dress!”

I turned around. She was petite and carrying a sack of tomatoes on the vine.

“I saw you from over there, and I was like, ‘I have got to tell her. I got to.’ Girl, you are working that dress. Um-hm. With those shoes, too!”

Shocked to receive such loud affirmation in the vegetable aisle of the H.E.B., I could feel myself turning my toes together.

The woman grabbed the attention of another shopper passing by.

“Isn’t that dress cute?”

The arrested customer concurred and I volunteered that I’d had it almost a decade at that point, and that I thought that the black was fading. I didn’t tell her that it had been a dress I bought for a homecoming dance that I was never asked to attend, or that I’d worn it out the night of that forfeited dance to meet my future step family at Bob Evans in Medina, Ohio, just so I could get some use of it. It was, in effect, another attempt at repurposing my disappointment.

That was forgotten that day, because she told me that I was lucky to look so good in something I bought 10 years ago.

I thanked her again for her spontaneous, enthusiastic compliment and walked away stunned so senseless that I found myself dazed in front of a wall of noodles.

An aisle over, a girl on a ladder stocking soups stopped me.

“I love your dress!”

It must be a catching disease, I thought. All of a sudden on my way to the car, I was slinking like my cat used to after we’d shave all the burrs from his fur. I felt naked and stupid for standing out. This grocery store was haunted with an eerie amount of goodwill and I wished I could escape before being accosted again. Despite feeling awkward for drawing so much unexpected attention, it was better to know that being myself wasn’t considered “trying too hard” by everyone.

In front of the cucumbers and to the side of the tomatillos, I wasn’t trying anything. I was working it. Whatever it was, I do not know, but it was enough for me that day to forget that I might not be able to make it as a serious writer or an academic.

A few months later when I was chatting with another colleague, the two of us were recalling our first impressions of each other. She mentioned seeing me at orientation and listed what I’d been wearing: big, yellow hoop earrings, a bright orange halter sundress, and my voluminous red hair pinned high on my head and off my neck in an updo.

“You just came right up to me and were so friendly that I thought, ‘God, there it is. Now, that’s a native Texan.’”

Not being a Texan, I understood the implication: to her, the emblem of my joie de vivre had placed me lower on the intellectual totem poll. I was offended by the suggestion of obnoxious exuberance in my personality and style.

I almost defended myself, having ready at least 5 examples of why I am nothing like the kind of Texas woman she was stereotyping, but I refrained from doing so. Instead, I smiled at her, thinking, “Well, at least I work it.”

The First of My Fairy Godmothers

In a department store formerly known as Kaufmann’s, I met my first fairy godmother. Instead of glass slippers, she gave me tan knee-high go-go boots. If I am to be more precise, she didn’t give me the boots but she affirmed my right to wear them, which is far more important anyway.

My father and I were on our way out from the mall, and as we were passing the women’s shoe department, he told me we should stop and take a look around for sales. During high school, I hated casual shopping almost as much as I do now, so I objected and he insisted and won.

I pretended to be browsing while my dad rummaged through stacked boxes. From a few display tables away, I saw him lift an enormous box and shout, “What about these? They’re a deal!”

When I made my way over to him and opened the box, I started to laugh.

“These? Dad. You think I should get these?”

I couldn’t believe that my dad, the dad who was always pressuring me to start brushing my hair and to find dates for homecoming dances, would encourage the funkier side of my fashion.

“Why not? They’re fun and only 12 bucks.”

Knowing my father, I knew that wearing a comical bargain was fun.

After trying to reject him a few times by refusing to pick up the box, I agreed and found a spot on one of the muted gray lounge chairs stocked with nylon footies at each arm and shoved in each crevice between the seats. I sat next to a big, older middle-aged woman with a mountain of high heels and comfort wedges piled at her feet.

The long fake leather boots intimidated me as I pulled up one of my baggy jean legs, removed a gym sock, and replaced it with one of the shriveled wormy-colored footie socks. Inside, it was cool, and as I zipped up the long side of the boot, I began to feel like I was crossing the boundaries of the Converse, the Nike running shoes, and the athletic sandals territory I’d always known.

And then the zipper stopped mid-calf.

“Look! See, Dad, they don’t fit. Now we can put them back.”

“Oh, come on. They’re fine. Just pull a little. They’ll loosen up,” he cajoled.

It was too late. The fun stopped with the halted zip.

“It’s your fault, Dad! You and Mom did this to me. Both of you have huge calves. I actually like them, but they just don’t fit.”

We began to argue, and when he walked away exhausted with my rationalizing and explosive emoting, I noticed that the woman next to me had been watching us. She was holding one gold sandal and she pointed it at me.

“Honey. Your daddy gave you those calves, and now he’s gonna give you those boots—and if I were younger and I had your calves, I would wear them. Now. Are you going to put them back on and take a look in that mirror over there?”

She wasn’t asking me any questions, so I opened the box and zipped them up again, this time a little faster than before. After I’d gotten both boots on, I walked over to the slanted foot mirror with both jean legs rolled above my knees.

“Now look!” she said. “Just look at those.”

The two of us looked together. She praised me and told me to turn around, again and again.

“You’ve got to celebrate those calves, girl. You look good.”

Dad walked back to me while I was still on parade with the boots, and he was smiling quietly at the triumph. In an uncharacteristic demonstration of verbal restraint, he grabbed the box after I’d put on my tennis shoes again and he took them to the cash register.

At last, when we were finally walking past the Izod, Nautica, and Polo sections in the men’s department, just when we reached the double doors opening to a snowy, gray mid-January, he said, “And they were only 12 bucks!”

For weeks, I excused myself from not breaking them in because of the ice, but eventually I started to wear them with sloppy, ill-fitting vintage dresses I’d found at the Goodwill. There was one tight dusty mauve and cream sheath dress I particularly liked to pair with those boots.

Walking down the crowded halls of the high school in those boots, I forgot my calves and focused on walking, keeping my gait just at the pace I wanted it and even finding myself glancing around to see if anyone else was looking.

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