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.
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.
“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.