There are miracles, even here

In chains, in hollow depression, in fierce loneliness.

In too much work, and restless 3 AMs

In addiction, in discontentment.

In shopping carts with broken wheels.

and weak shower heads.

There are miracles, even here.

In the scorching heat, in the bitter cold,

In the blazing fires, in the angry storms,

In unexpected bills, in ungrateful kids,

In needle pricks, in bad diagnoses,

There are miracles, even here.

Just look.

Close.

Enough.

IMG_9818

Advertisements

She drug the mop over the sticky floor,

and I stood there behind my register in my Chick-fil-a uniform—chicken breading smeared my black pants.

Her bleach blonde course hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail behind her tanned, but weathered face. A spray bottle hung in her left pocket, and as she mopped, she sloppily sprayed a table with the bottle, wiped it with a dirty towel.

“Hi Marlena!” I greeted her from behind the counter after my last customer walked away with his chargrilled sandwich, no pickle.

“Hi honey!” She beamed.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’ll be great once the truck guy gets here. It’s Thursday, you know.”

“Our truck guy?”

“Yes, girl. Have you seen him?”

I laughed. The “truck guy” as she called him was a hit among the single (and not single) women who worked at the mall. He appeared every Thursday, armed with chicken, waffle fries, cheesecake, and other Chick-fil-a essentials. One of our employees, sometimes even me, helped him unload the truck and load everything into our freezer. I’m not gonna lie…his green eyes sparkled every time he said, “here, let me help you with that box.”

“Marlena, I thought you had a husband. Why are you worried about the truck guy?” I asked her.

“Oh you talking about Wes? Yeah, I do, but he aint worth much. Doesn’t hurt to look, does it honey?” She winked.

I laughed again and then thought of my own boyfriend and how awful things were going. I was 17, he was 18, and he had just moved away to college, nearly four hours away.

“May I get a number 1 with coke and extra Polynesian sauce?” the red-haired woman with the small…what was that? A cross between a rat and dog poked its head out of her purse. “And an extra fry for Scrappy,” she said. Scrappy, yes he was, I thought.

I punched her order into the register, and I noticed Marlena straightening our chairs in the lobby. She was hanging around so she wouldn’t miss the truck guy.

The customer and the rat dog walked away and I said, “Hey Marlena, my boyfriend just moved away. Should I break up with him?”

She frowned, her bluish gray eyes squinted a little.

“Honey, do you love him?”

“I don’t know. We’ve been together since I was 14.”

“Well, if you don’t even know if you love him, and you’ve been together that long, I’d get rid of him. That’s what I did to my first husband. Well, my second and third one too.”

“First, second, and third? Marlena, how many times have you been married?”

“Well…” she picked up a crumb off the table, dropped it on the floor and swept it up.

“How many? Tell me.”

“Nine,” the sheepish word escaped from her mouth, and she looked like she wanted to stick it right back in there.

“Marlena, are you kidding me? You don’t look that old!”

“I’m telling you honey, when I get tired of them, I toss them. Life’s too short.”

“Wow,” was all I could muster.

Right then the truck guy walked up to the counter with his paperwork, and Marlena’s eyes lit up. She patted her hair down, and I swear, she batted her eyes.

“There he is” she mouthed to me. I smiled, as I vowed to never take her advice.

 

 

The four of us pulled into the campground, welcomed by an eerie feeling. The accommodating pictures on the website — the luscious green woods and the thriving camp fires — seemed to have been replaced by broken down 1940s campers, scattered trash, clothes lines sagging under the weight of laundry from the Cretaceous Period, a meteor shower of stray cats darting from site to site and, of course, No Trespassing signs.

“This can’t be right,” I said to Jesse, who nodded.

“Should we check in? Or just leave?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“This place is weird,” David, 14, piped up from the back seat. “What’s up with all the cats?”

“Let’s just drive around and see if it gets any better,” Jesse, the optimist, said.

As we drove deeper into Camp Backwater, we saw travel trailers, pop-ups, and live-in year-round campers scattered about. Paint peeled from the small houses sitting between them. A cat streaked in front of our car and disappeared.

“This is nothing, and I mean nothing, like the website said it was,” I said. “And it’s not cheap either.”

Though the primitive amenities of the state park down the road now seemed like Shangri-La compared to Camp Irregular Heartbeat, we decided to check-in and make an adventure of it.Maybe I could jumpstart a murder mystery.

The lady with brown hair and grey eyes peeking out behind wiry glasses at the desk seemed nice enough, until she delivered the worst news David, and his 10-year-old brother, Kevin, could ever possibly hear, “No WIFI for your devices.”

As we cleaned up the trash left from the previous occupants of our campsite, a large, yurt-shaped man shuffled over, shoeless, dressed only in his boxer shorts and what looked like the T-shirt Sonny Corleone must have been wearing at the toll booth.

“Hi! I’m Chris! Welcome to the suburbs! Don’t mind the cats. They’re mine. I’ve lived here for over a year. If you need anything, let me know.” Like what? A bell?

A teenager, who seemed to have already dipped heavily into the catnip, sped by on a bike and exclaimed, “I’m too blessed to be stressed! What about you?”

“Might want to stay away from him,” Jesse muttered to the boys as he put a spike in the ground to pitch the tent.

A couple with a small child and a baby pulled their SUV into the site next to us. The baby crawled around in the dirt, while the dad burned through the data minutes on his smart phone, Googling “campgrounds near me.” They left in seven minutes.

I decided to walk to the bathhouse. The sanitation grade was ‘C’ for cruddy and a blue leatherette front seat from a car sat in the middle of the floor, seatbelts dangling. A cat was curled up ontop. As I was in the bathroom stall, the cat nuzzled my legs. “Oh, this isn’t weird at all,” I said to the cat that meowed loudly.

That night our fire wouldn’t start. Jesse could make cement blocks burn, so if he can’t get a fire to start, there’s a problem. He dumped an entire bottle of lighter fluid onto the wood. It would flare for a few seconds, then go straight to tiny puffs of smoke. He marched down to the camp store and asked for a refund on the $10 pile of wood. That didn’t burn, either.

Our “neighbors,” led by Chris, drank late into the night, singing the lyrics they could remember to the country songs they thought they knew while the cats meowed in harmony by our tent. Shadows passed by every few minutes and Kevin said, “Mom, can I sleep with you?”

In the morning I said a thank you prayer that we all survived. Then we went to a Walmart across the road and bought a board game called “Stuff Happens.” In it each player rates cards from 1-100 on tragic things that might happen to you. It could be as simple as “Lose a Toenail” or as serious as “Lose an Eye.” The other players guess the rating of each card and if you are close, you get the card. The person with the most cards at the end is the winner. I looked through the cards to see if “Stay at a Creepy Campground Infested with Cats” was one of the options.

It was 87.

Elizabeth

She feels most whole at church on Sundays with grandma Hattie. Amazing Grace trickles through the room as the organist plays and the choir sings. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me… She stands up, then sits down, and the preacher says, “God is good!” and the congregation says, “All the time.” The smell of the church—almost a rusty mist—lingers through the air. Of course, the church was built in 1902, so it’s seen, and been, and stayed. The cross in the front—wooden—stands majestic behind the preacher who tells a story before he says, “Open your Bibles to John chapter 5.” Elizabeth’s twin sister, Anna, slumps lower in the pew, and definitely doesn’t reach for a Bible, and Elizabeth thinks, Anna is so rude. Grandma Hattie passes peppermint flavored certs down the row, and everything is OK on this chilly January morning inside the warmth of the church. The words of preacher Jimmy make her heart slow and the moments savory, but then she notices Anna on her phone and sighs. I will enjoy this. This is my favorite place to be, Elizabeth thinks, and she believes that.

Image result for church

In between ice cream and frozen peas, Anna heard the familiar tune blaring deep from the bottom of her purse.

She was hung over from the night before and trying to grab a few groceries for dinner tonight, and the blaring ring tone made her cringe. It better not be Robert, she thought.  Fumbling, she pulled her phone out of her purse, while her five-year-old son wrote his name, “Issac” in the frosty glass door of the frozen veggies.

It was dad. She smiled. Lately dad was so much smarter than he used to be. Funny how that happens. “Hey dad,” she said.

“Hey hun.” Uh oh. Immediately she sensed “the tone.” Not the “you’re-in-trouble-tone,” that she remembered so well from her horrific teenage years. But the “something-isn’t-quite-right-tone” which immediately sent another wave of nausea through her stomach and caused her knees to buckle under her body weight. Her son looked up at her, holding up his hands, red and icy. “What’s up?” Anna asked.

“Well…” he began “I thought I better tell you that Sissy died today. I found her in the flower beds. At first I thought she was just sleeping. I went ahead and buried her. Just thought you should know.”

“Awww…well, she was old…” Anna stumbled on her words. She never particularly liked the cat. The mushy hairballs, annoying mewing, and white hair all over my black pants never exactly improved her quality of life. Even though she didn’t care for the cat, a twinge of sadness pierced her. The white ball of fluff had been there. Really been there for almost as long as she could remember. Sissy had wandered into their lives in the spring of 1994.  Anna and her twin Elizabeth were in the fifth grade and they lived in a wooden A-frame house nestled deep in the mountains of Ohio. It was not uncommon for people to drop dogs and cats off on the side of their windy road. Normally, her parents would call the humane society, but this particular cat stuck with her family. Sissy’s low maintenance, stay-out-of-my-way-I-will-do-my-own-thing personality probably increased her chances of a home.

A year later Anna found her guarding a fluffy orange kitten. For weeks, Sissy wouldn’t let anyone near her baby. She drug him around and hid him in tight places like window seals or in piles of winter jackets. Eventually, she awarded the family visitation rights. He became an easy-going, energetic ball of orange which earned him the name Tigger.

Hanging up the phone, she began aimlessly wandering around Harris Teeter. “When are we going to leave?” Issac whined.

“Please chill,” she said a little too abruptly and then silently reprimanded herself.  She pushed the grocery cart through the coffee aisle. Her temples ached. How much had she drank last night?  Five glasses of wine? Six? She needed to slow down, but Robert stressed her out so much.

She remembered Sissy perched on the porch railing, glaring at everyone who walked by, analytically criticizing the world. Then she would drag dead chipmunks to the front porch welcome mat, causing Anna and Elizabeth to scream in disgust. Sissy would sit up straight, proudly licking her paws. “It’s the way she shows us she likes us,” mom would say. Sissy lingered throughout their lives, playing a small role, but a constant role. She was there. Anna realized this through old pictures of birthdays, graduation parties, and holidays where Sissy was in the background, perching proudly. She may have kept a low profile, but her presence comforted. She observed every step of their lives, while perched on that porch rail in those Ohio mountains. Anna missed those days.

So even though she was at least fifteen years old, and lived a long full life, Anna cringed at the thought of dad finding her in the flower bed. A tear slipped from her eye; She tried to catch it but it was too late. “Mommy! What’s wrong?” Issac asked, now hanging from the cart.

“Mommy’s fine honey. Sometimes grown-ups get sad.”

“What are you sad about mommy?”

“A cat,” she replied, wondering how silly how silly she sounded. Issac looked puzzled.

Finally, with a full cart, they headed to check out our groceries, but not after Anna grabbed two bottles of merlot for the evening. Her phone blared from her purse again. This time it was Robert.

 

Love Poem No 5

We watch the stars tonight.

They burn fiercely

against the black canvas.

 

“Look, the little dipper,” you say.

“Which one?” I ask.

You laugh.

 

We sit beneath the magic.

Two humans, wondering,

pondering for answers.

 

Our faces lost in the blackness,

Our eyes twinkle.

The frogs croak. The crickets chirp.

 

I lean my head against your chest.

You rub my hair.

You feel like home.