Things have been a bit quiet here lately. That fault is entirely my own. I put together and self-published a poetry collection – The Jubilee – and so my attention has been focused there. Plus life has been rather busy this spring and, well, let’s just say its been busy. A few of you have checked in on me and that means more to me than you know, it really does. There will be more poems soon.
What I have been chipping away at is a story that at this point I believe will find itself a novella. I’ve shared a few paragraphs of it on Facebook, but I’d like to offer the entire preface here as a little compensation for my quietness. I don’t feel like I have to do that, but rather that I want to, because I appreciate you very much. And I also think you’ll like the story. As of right now it is untitled, plus its still rough in spots, which is somewhat how I feel about myself right now.
He’d not felt a woman’s flesh since Sarah died, which was now almost two years. So when Jessie Randall grabbed his bare arm to steady herself (she was wearing wobbly “wedges”) she might as well have hit him with those chest paddles they’re always using on late night medical dramas. He would later tell his best friend, Bo, “She fried my circuits.” Bo would’ve laughed at his longtime friend had he not been so pitiful in his awkwardness after Sarah’s death. Many were the friends who tried to set him up with a stable divorcee or a smart widow. And he went on those dates, if for no other reason than out of gratitude for good friends who were only trying to help. There was just one recurring problem – not a one of those ladies was Sarah. So he’d resigned himself (almost) to the probability that his later years would be spent solo, one shoe always missing the other.
That almost-resignation may have been why he in turn had to steady himself by grabbing Jessie Randall’s waist, an improper move he would have never made in a million years, especially standing in the 15-items-or-less line at the grocery store. But he simply couldn’t help himself. Jessie laughed in the moment free and easy, like a schoolgirl would chasing a friend on a playground. It was a laugh light enough to fly over the fence he’d been building around himself and settle on his shoulder. It did not elicit a laugh in return but rather a wide smile, wide like when Sarah was very much alive, and he was too. “I’m sorry, Jessie. I guess I’m wobbly as well.” She laughed again, free, like before. “Oh, Samuel, you only ask forgiveness when you’ve done something wrong, right?” And with that she grabbed the dozen donuts she’d purchased – six glazed, six chocolate – and walked away. Samuel was so razzled he tried to pay for his groceries with his library card. The cashier, a woman he’d actually been on a date with about a year ago, sighed and said, “C’mon. Wake up, Romeo.”
From that moment on, which most people would say was simply an ordinary moment in an ordinary day, he could not stop thinking about Jessie Randall, who most people knew as Rev. Jessie Randall, the minister at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. In Samuel’s mind, sure, there was an ordinariness to that moment in the grocery store, those kinds of encounters happen every day, yet another thread sewn into the crazy quilt of our humanity. And while Samuel believed in the beauty of the ordinary, he also believed something else too, or at least he had when Sarah was alive. You see, Samuel believed in the gaps, those experiences where the world’s garment gapes and your attention is drawn to something unordinary, something that arrests you and seduces you. Samuel believed what you glimpsed in the gaps could only be described by one word – magic. When Sarah died, that belief almost died, which is to say a large part of what makes Samuel Samuel almost did too. But that moment of getting all tangled up with Jessie Randall in the express lane caused him to wonder if the world wasn’t quite finished with him yet, that maybe, just maybe life still had a trick or two up her sleeve. That’s why he kept trying to draw out that gap, to hold on to the hope of it.
Many stories are set in cities, those big urban hives humming with people. There are probably an equal number set in small towns, those quaint little laps where everybody knows you and your business. But you don’t find too many stories set in in-between places, those bordered collections of people not large enough to get lost in but not small enough to be known in. In-between places carry familiarity, people recognize one another. That’s the kind of place Lee is, and that’s where this story is set. Lee has two excellent high schools, a thriving medical/research campus, a brand new open-air pedestrian mall including a shiny Cinemaplex (14 theaters), strip malls galore, more than enough churches, an aging downtown currently experiencing a renaissance, and gobs of suburbs. Not always, but most of the time you hear people say, “Oh, I love Lee.” People say that and chuckle because they know what they’ve just said sounds more than corny, but that’s alright.
And while many people like living in a place where you can be noticed without being known, the residents of Lee who’ve been there a while have learned that can leave you a little lonely. Maybe even a lot. Because at some point in life you do want to know others and be known in return. So if you’ll listen with your third ear when most people talk lovingly about Lee, you’ll either hear a lightness that comes from having recently moved to town, or you can hear varying tones of loneliness. And although probably hard to prove, that may be why there are so many churches in Lee. There is something about two or three or more gathered together on a Sunday that can make the body feel less alone. And that is not a slight thing, not at all. That’s certainly what Jessie Randall believed, certainly of the reasons she was excited to move to and minister in Lee.
Most of Jessie’s peers at seminary were disappointed when they heard she was headed for suburbia. They all believed Jessie so full of promise, so truly called in the biblical sense. They judged the suburbs as vast bodies of shallow self-preoccupation with no bones of creativity, just same, same, same. They felt Jessie’s gifts were needed on the front lines, where the real need was. They were afraid such compassion would be resisted in a place like Lee, and in turn so might she. If she only had a dollar for every time she heard, “Jessie, the suburbs are sick.” She never let that statement be met with silence. Her singular response was, “I know. That’s why I’m going.” Jessie grew up in the suburbs, she was no stranger to the sadness that often lurks behind cookie-cutter front doors. But she’d also witnessed great beauty and courage in the cul-de-sacs. She didn’t hold the hero’s journey in a wooden way, but she did believe returning to her people, whether literally or figuratively, was a part of her story. So she moved to Lee, that was about two years ago now, right around the time that Samuel’s wife, Sarah, died.
Please forgive me. I haven’t introduced myself. Do you happen to remember those Rankin-Bass animated holiday specials from the late sixties/early seventies? They’ve taken on classic status, making the rounds every December with titles like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman. Each tale is told by a rather generous narrator: Burl Ives as a snowman, Fred Astaire as a mailman, and Jimmy Durante as Jimmy Durante. Think of me in that way. I’ll tell some, then show some, kind of an easy back and forth. If you don’t like that sort of thing then you may not like this story. But I’d be lying if I said no worries, that’s fine, goodbye. I do hope you’ll give Jessie and Samuel and Lee and me a chance.