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Holy Spirit

The Pencil From Outerspace

snow008

As I tell my friend that instead of feeling God I feel death, he sips his coffee and suggests we take a smoke break outside.

The snow snows harder. It swirls down and is whisked upward and circled round in the parking lot as we take alternate drags from our cigarettes and blow into our hands.

In the past, I was always finding myself in situations where I was helping the desperate and encountering the most bizarre scenes of need. My calling isn’t visiting homeless shelters or going on church mission trips. My life brings me into contact with the most dejected and injured people so I might have to listen to the Spirit in order to stop the suffering of one person, even if only for that brief encounter.

In the snow, I think of how it stays gray here for so long that when it finally snows like this, there’s something hope-filling about it. Tonight the Super 8 next door is filled with sleepy semi-truck drivers and they won’t be on the road for another couple of hours.

Inside, the waitress is annoyed with our schedule: slugging a pot of coffee and sucking down cigs under the small green awning outside that hardly shields us from the winter wind. But she pours me another new cup of the night’s dregs with a smile anyway.

I think I’m just sad. And alone.

We talk about church and God, and somehow we get on the subject of the collection plate. When I think about charity, I know in better times, I could write a check if I had checks. I could cash a paycheck and throw some money in a bucket, but I know that my cynicism about that isn’t just because I feel distanced from the money. It’s because I’d rather know what it means to really feel charity as a transitive verb.

It’s almost four a.m., and the inevitable drowsiness penetrates my caffeinated nicotine buzz.

I’ve got to go.

Praying the alternator doesn’t fail and that I don’t hate myself for not learning how to put on my own snow tires, I tell my friend goodnight.

We don’t promise to pray for each other or hug or shake hands like they do after Bible studies or grown-up Sunday schools.

My old car glides like a boat in a river of winding liquid black and dusty white. The thick, stubby fingers  my father gave to me are so cold that lighting the cigarette is nearly impossible, but I manage and as I inhale, I see the cherry glow in the rearview mirror from the corner of my eye, and from that same corner and that same glimpse, I’m also reminded that I’m prematurely balding. I am twenty-one with the hairline of an old man.

Early morning gray whisps of white swirl underneath the smalltown lamplights. They capture the flakes all pinkish. The old elementary school to the left quietly awaits news of a snow day. My car’s wheels slide over the pavement.

A tall, thin creature in the middle of the road waits for me to stop. From what I can tell, he seems a little too calm to suggest a major problem, but it’s too late for the regular bar crowd to be returning home and too early for the factory workers to be heading toward this end of town. He’s probably drunk or stoned and lost—or maybe just down on his luck without gas.

I press my foot to the brakes. Slowly, the car skids a little, so I swerve just to the right of this unfortunately underdressed person clad in a thin black trench coat, sopping tattered jeans, and sneakers. A dark, shaggy short haircut sticks to a piqued face and bangs hang covering the eyes.

My window’s broken, so I open the door.

“Hey. Thank you for stopping. I’m, um, looking for Pine Street,” she says.

She.

Her lank and wasted young figure stands shrouded in threads of whitefloss jeans and a dingy white shirt. She could be a pencil from outerspace. She could be sixteen, maybe a little older. I can’t tell.

“Get in.”

“Hey thanks. It’s really cold. I was just in Columbus. I just wanted to get to my friends’ house, and I think it’s on Pine Street. If you could just tell me how to get there, I can walk. The last guy who picked me up just dropped me off here.”

God. God. God! This is the last thing I need. A drugged out runaway girl in my car at four in the morning.

Her hands ungloved and head bare and so wet that she isn’t rosy-cheeked from the storm; she is nearly translucent and the bones in her cheeks come to points at the far corners of her eyes.

She calls herself Rebel, and she doesn’t strap herself in.  She pushes aside my CDs and tapes to make a place for herself as a passenger. I grip the steering wheel, too afraid to ask her why she has hitchhiked here or if she has a cell phone and drive toward the north end of town. Her last ride has dropped her off only six blocks from Pine—they must not have wanted to play this game. Maybe he just wanted to stay on 250.

“I didn’t run away.”

“That’s good. So, do you know the address?”

She admits that she doesn’t but insists that she will know it as soon as she sees this crooked tree in the front yard that she remembers from childhood. She used to come here all the time to visit her friend. I drive the length of the road as she presses her face to the glass and looks for the identifying tree as it begins to snow even harder. The tiny orange spindle on my dashboard hovers above the letter E.

I’ve never been opposed to picking up strangers.  There was the man in North Carolina in the parking lot. Instead of asking for a ride, he just stood in front of my car, and took off his hat, placing it on the hood. I took off my shoes, and he proceeded to take his off as well. It progressed in a silent pantomime with our shirts and socks heaped in small, separate piles in the middle of a vacant shopping mall parking lot at 11 p.m., two men undressing in mirrored fashion. He said nothing at all, and I continued the game with him until he dropped his pants to the ground. That’s when I threw my café apron in the front seat and slammed my door shut, drove home, and didn’t tell anyone.

It always turns out to be a gay thing, and it’s too bad, too. I would have given him a ride or bought him a cup of coffee or a hamburger. That’s why I left. He needed something else I didn’t have to give.

She interrupts my thoughts.

“Maybe it’s the next street over. None of this looks right. I don’t see any trees that are the right shape,” she says.

The car slides forward over a sheet of ice when she points to a house with several cars parked outside. No lights shine from the windows, and she says, “Stop.”

Of all the houses on Walnut, she asks me to stop in front of the only one without a decorative pear or shivering dogwood planted five yards from the living room window. There are no trees in the whole yard, just unkempt, sprawling junipers and spindly arborvitaes lining the housefront walkway.

“This is it. The tree must have been cut down.”

She tries the door handle on her side, but it doesn’t work.  I forgot that I have to fix that too. It broke off when it iced last time and Jonah pulled too hard. Broke the whole system.

I ask her if she’s sure if this is the one she’s looking for, wondering if I’m delivering her to a drug den, or if I should call the police.

She nods but hesitates to ask me to let her out from my side. Rips off some paper from one of my neglected notebooks, still damp with snow from yesterday. She finds a pen and writes her name: Rebel. And a phone number.

While the engine idles, sputtering, I think of the faulty alternator and the finicky fuse, reach for my seatbelt, and she attacks my hand with her five bony fingers.

“You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. They are such a deep blue.”

Mashing her thin, pale lips to my face, on my mouth and lingering too long, she tastes like nothing and smells like the gray of old snow and the wet of winternight walking. In my hand, I hold the ripped piece of paper, and she says, softly, as one word,  “thankyou.”

I’m out of the car, and she crawls over a mound of my dirty sweaters, dropping two onto the ground before loping toward the entrance of the house.

God.

Skin

Stage left and out the side door, the front man leaned on a speed limit sign in the rain. It was raining hard and misting intermittently, the drops pouring from his face under the city street lights. I hadn’t quite succumbed to feeling too old to wait around to tell bands I liked their sets yet, so I strategically pretended that I didn’t know who he was. He was just some black man on the sidewalk late at night in downtown Dallas—nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly, I was too old, too married, too over being obvious to be so direct.

So a young wiry early twenty-something beat me to it because he was so nervous that it was hard to tell whether or not he was shivering or trembling in the downpour. By the time I reached him and my chance interview, I could tell that he was looking for more than an autograph because the singer was glancing from side to side, looking for his band mates and finding no escape. If I hadn’t seen him inch toward the pole and look just one more time toward the heavy stage door, I would have given up and kept walking. There was no need to look like I actually cared enough to offer a paltry congratulation; yet I paused because I heard the frantic guy, sucking in air and spitting out his depression, asking his idol for advice about how to keep from killing himself when he felt so low day after day. At that moment, I wasn’t sure who I should pity more: the guy who was being so imposing with his struggles, or the man now unwillingly accountable for choosing the right antidote for his distraught fan.

“Just take it day by day, man—one day at a time,” was the answer, and seeing my husband and me, he told the guy that all he had to do was just make it one more day and turned to address us with thanks in his eyes.

It was still raining, and all I could say was that it was a great show, and we shook hands. He thanked us for coming out before ducking inside.

He didn’t need to know that, to me, it was more than a great show. It was the first time I’d felt like me in months. Even if it were only to last for those three hours, it didn’t matter. In the street, on the way to the car as we walked away from the venue, I felt my skin again. The rain sneaking inside the collar of my jacket, my fingers locked and swinging with my husband’s, my feet sore from dancing through the opening act and the headliner.

At that time, no matter how many church services I attended, I couldn’t sing a hymn without bursting into tears or leaving the sanctuary fuming. I wasn’t sure how long this would last or if it would end, but I kept going anyway, believing that maybe someday I’d feel differently.

But that night at one of those fast food chain music venues, among hundreds of the lost, I felt free, and closer to found than I’d felt for a long time. I’d gone from dry bones to wet, uncovered raw organs, and hit then a plateau. Not even I knew I was healing, and the skin that had been ripped off my back was growing again.

I don’t think I found the answer in the rhythm of the music or that there was some mysterious power in the corporate worship of rock’n’roll in a crowd of too many people high on overpriced beer and other substances. In a way, I felt guilty about knowing that the first time I’d been able to sing a word to God in a year was right after the lead singer of the opening act dropped an enthusiastic “F” bomb into a sentence introducing a song.

Even now, I sometimes wonder if I’m not “Christian enough” because of things like this. I’ve had some people tell me that it’s not that exactly. It’s that I’m not “mature in the faith” enough to be offended or to find such joy in secular music is a sign of being too immured in the world. I don’t know, but I’m more open to criticism these days than I used to be because at the very least, it gives me something to think about. It challenges me. I do know, however, that there are some times when knowing God is there in times of pain doesn’t make life any easier. In those moments, simply knowing that the God of the universe cares and that the injury remains somehow targets every little tangible thing you cling to and it tears it away. All earthly protection from the things that ache disappear. Then, more than naked, you’re rubbed down to pulp or almost burned up and exposed to the Elements right when eternity is too big, too holy, too awesome, and too terrible when contrasted with life here, as is, broken, and unable to return.

That night I needed my skin back, and God gave it to me in a rock hall. That night, there was a young man waiting outside, looking for a way to throw off the desperation of his flesh so he could brush against something transcendent and meaningful.

It’s a funny dichotomy, this dual life. Although I’m not sure how, I know we need our skins just thick enough to know we’re here and just porous enough to know it’s all temporary.

 

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