April McGowan

Snow and the Jack-Man

Yesterday, much to the weatherman’s chagrin, it snowed. Here in Portland, this isn’t a common occurrence–maybe one or two days a year (although last year we had snow for a week). As it doesn’t snow often, our weather folks really don’t know how to predict it well. And yesterday took everyone by surprise. The kids were happy–snow day. Yep, even homeschooled kids get snow days!  But, our cat, Jack, enjoyed it too. He watched the snow come down with intense interest. He did this last year as well, waiting by the back door, watching the kids play, chatting to the snow and meowing at it. When we bring him some, he buries his nose in it and laps at it. He LOVES water, and snow offers him a new form of fun.   Our other cat, however, thinks we are NUTS to go outside in that cold stuff, let alone bring it IN the house.  Normally, Jack is very OCD and dislikes change–but snow is the exception.  It reminds me that even with my schedule and set ways (I am also slow to change) that facing unexpected circumstances not only with acceptance but gusto is the right way to go–rather than the alternative of setting my jaw and being unhappy about the bumps in the road.  Sometimes those bumps can be for our own enjoyment if we let them!

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Worshiping God This Christmas

I’ve been really looking forward to Christmas Eve services at our church.  It’s a time to come together with family and worship God, giving him thanks and praise for the timeless gift of His Son.  It’s a peaceful, quiet time to ponder the mercies and wonders of His love.  God gave us Jesus to bridge the gap of our sinfulness so that we can approach Him.  It fills me with a sense of awe when I think of how God desires a relationship with us.

What does it mean to worship God, and why should we do it?  The dictionary defines worship as reverent honor and homage paid to God.  Our worship shouldn’t come out of a sense of duty, or habit, but come out of love for our creator, who went to great lengths and thousands of years of planning for our redemption through his Son.  What a gift that is.

Jesus is our salvation, sovereign Lord, the King of Kings.  He is also our comforter, companion, shepherd, and our doorway to the Holy of Holies –the  great I AM.  What a privilege for us to be able to go into His presence and worship.  What a blessing it is to thank God for the gift of His son.  And how greatly we are blessed when we stay in communion with Him.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [a] 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

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Short: Second Chances

Second Chances

The cold wind bit into David’s skin as he grappled with his coat collar and maneuvered up the crowded sidewalk. Common sense said to go home and get warm, but it was hard to do that in a mostly unfurnished apartment with a worn out furnace. Besides, for the past two years there hadn’t been anyone to go home to, no one making dinner, no one holding their arms out in welcome to him. The ache it created forced him to sell his dream home and take a job in the city. He knew he would adjust, at least everyone told him he would. But tonight, the night before Christmas eve, when all around him people were making merry and buying last minute presents, the ache fed and grew.

And it waited for him in that cold, drafty apartment.

Just then, a woman hustling four children and more packages than he could count engulfed him like a fishing net. As he untangled his briefcase from their presents, he received five “Merry Christmases” and a candy cane from the littlest girl. They moved on past him, through a river of people searching for that perfect gift, on their way to one party or another. The woman tossed hasty apology over her shoulder as they jumbled their way up the street against the current tide.

David felt a smile on his face and reached up to touch the unfamiliar shape. Despite the cold, it melted away under his fingertips as his thoughts turned once again to his current dilemma. Some days he could convince himself he was simply on a business trip and he would soon take the train home to his wife. The fantasy just wouldn’t hold up around the holidays.

Sounds of laughter pulled his attention to his left, where he saw the well-worn oak door of a local pub. Music and waves of warmth escaped every time someone entered. The heat made it appear inviting, and although it was the last place he should be it was better than facing the ache, so he went in.

The dark and heat enveloped him, and a sinking feeling in his stomach told him to run before it was too late. He stood stiff in the doorway for just a moment and then turned to go. Just then a group entered and blocked his way. A stream of people from outside forced him past the entry and before he knew it, he was sitting in a back booth, hiding away in the dark, hoping to remain unnoticed. A waitress appeared at his table, chewing on a red plastic straw.

“What’ll you have?” She smiled past the straw, revealing a set of perfectly white teeth, center-capped with small diamond studs. Amazed by their sparkle, he couldn’t think of what to order.

“They’re great, aren’t they? My old man got them for me.” Her grin gleamed in the darkness.

What ever happened to giving flowers? “Just coffee please.”

She flashed her smile again and returned a few minutes later with a steaming cup. She waited for him to try it. He did. Steaming was about its only redeeming quality, but it would do the trick.

“Most people order it Irish to cover the taste.” She gave him a knowing wink.

“It’ll be fine.”

Her eyes were skeptical, but when he didn’t change his mind she shrugged and walked away. He would finish his coffee and get out of there as fast as he could. Just as he forced down the last swallow, the waitress reappeared with a tinkling glass of something brown.

“I didn’t order that.”

“No honey, she did.” She pointed to a woman sitting at the bar, but in the haze, he could see little of her features. The waitress leaned down and whispered to him, “Don’t worry, sweetie, it’s only a Coke.”

Even the waitress knew he shouldn’t be here. He really needed to leave. If someone recognized him, he could lose his job. What was he doing sitting in a bar and accepting drinks from strange women? Carrie would laugh if she could see him sitting there sweating. Then again, if she were alive, he wouldn’t be there at all. He reached for his coat and was about to stand when he sensed another presence.

“Hi.” She wore a dark blue professional’s suit and had well manicured hands—he didn’t dare look up to see anything else.

“I hope you like Coke.”

“Uh, thanks.” He cleared his voice. “I’m just leaving, really. I didn’t drink any of it, so why don’t you take it?” He winced at the high, nervous tone of his voice.

“That’s okay.” She slid into the booth, sitting across the table from him. “I actually wanted to congratulate you on your award.”

She knows who I am. With trepidation, he tilted his head to take in her face. She had a tanned complexion, gently angled cheekbones and dark brown eyes.

“Thanks.” He coughed and rubbed the back of his neck in attempts to release the pressure building.

“You’ve come far, David.”

“Do we know each other?” The muscles in his neck knotted tighter.

A crooked smile crossed her face. “We used to.”

His eyes focused more intensely. It couldn’t be. “Rebekka?”

“Hi Dave.”

He never expected to see her again, especially not in the city.

“Bekka, what in the world are you doing here?”

“I live here now. About ten blocks north. I work just around the corner.”

“For how long?”

“A while.” She shrugged.

“You look great.” Great was an understatement. Twenty years faded away before his eyes. He ran a hand through his graying hair, down along his stubbled chin and doubted he passed muster.

“You, too.” She laughed and shook her head at him. “I expected a little surprise on your part, but you look down right shocked.”

“It’s just,” he paused searching for the right words, “I didn’t ever expect you to leave home.”

Her eyes dulled. “Well, things change. It was time to leave.”

“How are your folks?”

“They passed on.”

“I didn’t know.” David’s grandparents died years ago, and there was no one else in town to give him any news.

“It’s okay. Mom got cancer about five years ago, and it was quick. Too quick for Dad. It pulled him along with her. His heart went a couple years later. He missed her too much.”

Until he had lost Carrie, the idea of a spouse dying from grief had seemed foreign. But now, some nights he wished for it.

“I’m sorry.”

“I sold the farm off, and started a new life.”

He nodded, understanding the need.

She took a sip of her drink. “I heard about your wife. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” He cleared his voice. “It’s been hard.” They were three simple words that never could convey how hard it had really been. Over the months, then years, he got tired of explaining his pain. Most people didn’t really want to know anyway. They wanted him to move on, which didn’t make sense to him. Why did it bother other people if he grieved the loss of his wife? That was the other reason he moved to the city—there were less people to disappoint.

She reached across the table and squeezed his hand, holding it tight for a moment before letting him go. He couldn’t remember the last time someone touched him. He searched for something to say.

“So, you come here often?” He heard the empty tone in his lame query as he attempted to change the subject and inwardly winced. Small talk had never been his strong suit.

“No.” She hid a smile behind her hand. “This is my first time. I recognized you on the street and followed you in. Is this your regular hang-out?” He could see from the twinkle in her eyes that she knew it wasn’t. He shook his head anyway.

“You want to get out of here?” She motioned towards the door.

“Very badly.”

“Good. Come on. I have an office party I have to attend. You can be my date.” She was pulling on her coat, getting ready to leave, but David’s stomach clenched around the word ‘date’.

“I’m not much for parties.”

“Come on.” She put her hand out towards him. “We’ll show up, make the rounds and then go some place for dinner. We can catch up on old times.”

Still self-assured, still in control. How did she do it?

“Okay.” He took her hand.

****

David wandered behind Bekka for what felt like forever, nodding and shaking hands with strangers and pretending to be interested in what they were saying. Then she excused herself to her office. When people all about her were stored in cubicles, she had privacy, complete with view. She was doing very well.

“Hey buddy,” a large hand clamped down on his shoulder. “How’s it going?” David drew back, his nose insulted by the dense garlic and whiskey emanating from the wrinkled, over-stuffed suit addressing him.

“Fine.” He tried to back away, but the grip of iron held him fast.

“Good, good.” He leaned over. “So, I won the pool and I have you to thank for it.”

“Pool?”

“Yeah, I bet that she liked men all along. Some of them guys thought she was a man-hater, or it was a race thing, but you’re as white as they come.”

David bent away from the stench. “What did you just say?”

“You know, ‘cause she’s an Indian.” He laughed. “Sorry, I meant Native American.” He mashed a finger up against his lips. “Shush, don’t tell.” He listed to the side, and came aground against a nearby cubical wall.

David, under most circumstances a non-violent man, felt the muscles in his arm tense. He was nineteen all over again and this guy was insulting Bekka. His long dormant anger bubbled close to the surface as his fists clenched. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he couldn’t let this happen, not again. Just as he was about to make a decision, Bekka looped her hand around his bicep.

“All ready to go?”

David was having trouble hearing her with the blood rushing through his ears.

“Come on.”  She pulled him aside, handed him his coat and continued hauling him to the elevator.

A vein pulsed at his temple. “You shouldn’t have gotten in the way.”

“Sure I should have.” She patted his arm. “Where are we going for dinner?”

“What?” He spun on her. “Dinner? I almost clobbered that guy, and now you’re on to dinner?”

“That guy is my boss’s brother. He’s made several attempts to ask me out—all of which I ignored. I like my job. It’s not your place to defend me. So, what sounds good? Chinese?”

David continued to stare at her. “It’s like twenty years ago all over again.”

“So let’s not make the same mistakes. Let’s go have dinner.”

With every blink, his blood pressure lowered. “Okay. Chinese it is.”

As they ate, the years continued to fall away and they were once again best friends, sharing laughs and insights. How he had missed her. He partially listened to her story about a client and thought back on their days together. And what broke them apart. His desire to leave and start a new life, away from his grandparents, and her ties to her farm and her parents were a large part of it. She couldn’t leave them, and he knew it—and he had to leave and she knew it. If only that was all.

“Are you listening to me?” She waved a hand in front of his face.

“No. Actually I was listening to the past.”

“What did it say?” Bekka fiddled with her chopsticks.

“It reminded me how foolish I was.”

A slight smile crossed her face. “No regrets, David. Things work as they’re supposed to.”

“You still believe that?”

“And you don’t? You’re a pastor.”

Dave shook his head at her. “Not any more.”

“You still give sermons.”

“Speeches. Old speeches to new crowds.”

“You won an award.”

He had nothing to say to that. The award was a fluke. He was working as a counselor in a drug rehab clinic. Having thrown himself into his work, he won an award for working with alcoholics in a program for drinking and driving offenses. How could he tell her how little it meant? It was all about the work. While he worked, he couldn’t think, and if he couldn’t think, he wouldn’t miss Carrie. Or their baby.

“It really didn’t mean much to me, I guess.”

“Well, it means something to those men you helped.”

The ache descended over him. “I help them so they won’t climb into a car drunk and run down a pregnant woman on the sidewalk while she’s on her way home.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I didn’t know she was pregnant.”

“Yeah, well, in our society it seems to mean little anymore. He was only convicted of stealing one life, not two. He’ll be out in five years.” He crumpled his napkin on the table.

Bekka reached across the table and put her hand out to him. He stared at it, but it didn’t go away. He relented and put his hand in hers. Being with her brought down all his defenses.

“It’s going to be okay. Some how. Trust God.”

“You can’t say that to me. You can’t.”

“I know it doesn’t make sense right now, but it will. Trust him. Let him take this from you.”

“He’s already taken too much.”

“If you give this to him, He’ll make something good out of it. He’s already using you to help hundreds of men. Keep your eyes open.”

His glance snapped to hers. His grandmother used to tell him that when he was a kid. “Keep your eyes open,Davie, and you’ll see what God can do.”

“What if I don’t want to look?”

“Do you like where you’re at?”

“No.” He didn’t have to give that one any thought. He didn’t like the growing ache or the loneliness that accompanied him everywhere he went. “How do you do it?” She had been through so much. She was the only daughter of a bi-racial marriage. She was the brunt of racism in their small community. She had lost everything she loved—friends, family, opportunity. And yet…

“I pray. I grow. I don’t let the world stop me, because I’m not of the world. I belong to Him. It takes practice.”

“Practice?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should be the counselor.”

“Couldn’t pay me enough.” Her eyes twinkled at him.

“Me either.”

They sat in silence as the waitress cleared the table. “Where do you live?” Her soft voice broke through his sadness.

“Why?”

“I wondered if you’d like to share a cab.” Her eyebrows pinched together, as her eyes tried to read him.

“Sorry. Not far. On Tenth andMonroe.”

“Let’s walk then. I don’t live far from you.”

He helped her on with her coat and paid the bill.

“You should let me pay half.”

“Consider it payment for the session.” Giving her a partial smile, he ignored her further protests. It was the least he owed her. His mind drifted back to the senior dance. The school jock, who never looked at her once until then, wedged in between them and took over their dance. Her eyes pleaded with him not to walk away, but he had. Fear won out. Again. And she had paid. A ring of girls blocked his way to her, but he could still hear the racial slurs, the curses spat at her from a group of angry young men. He could see her terrified look through a part in the crowd, the tears streaming down her face. He should have fought to get to her.

They walked out into the cold and she took his arm. The streets, normally empty by this time of night, were still alive with frenzied last-minute shoppers.

“Ready for Christmas?” he asked, more out of habit than real interest.

“I’m ready. Not hard to get ready, really, being on my own. But I have a wreath and I’ve been invited to Christmas Eve dinner at a friend’s house.”

He couldn’t do much right lately. “Sorry.”

“What for? You don’t know me anymore, Dave. You don’t know if I have a one friend or twenty. Or a boyfriend for that matter. Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m happy.”

“Do you have one?”

“One what?”

“Never mind.” He couldn’t believe he was asking. His mouth clamped shut as if to prevent him from more blunders.

The blocks passed by and they stood at her apartment building. “Do you want to come up for some coffee?”

“No. Thanks. I’d better get going.” He stared down at her, seeing her as the girl he’d let down. Helpless and alone. Abandoned by the person she trusted to protect her.

“What is it?”

He tucked a straying piece of hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry, that’s all. All those years ago. I didn’t stand up for you. I was a coward.”

Her eyes filled with understanding. “You were young and scared. So wasI.Don’t worry, I’m okay.”

“But,” he couldn’t finish his thought. Life wasn’t what he expected it to be.

She took his hands in hers. “Come upstairs. Have some coffee. Don’t go yet.”

“I shouldn’t have let him cut in. I sure shouldn’t have let him take you outside.”

“I’m over it.”

He let out the breath he’d been holding in a puff of frozen steam. “I’m not.”

She looked away, but he tipped up her head to meet his eyes. Tears were there, but she blinked them away.

“I’m so sorry Bekka. I should have been there for you.”

“I forgive you.”

“Things were never the same.”

“No, they weren’t. But that was you, not me. I made it. It wasn’t easy. God gave me peace. Let it go, Dave.” She squeezed his hands. He couldn’t seem to let anything go. He took responsibility for everything. Even Carrie’s death.

He looked out at the snow-covered street, and watched the occasional car drive by. “I was working, you know? It was late and she had brought my dinner down to the church for me. I had so much to prove, so much to accomplish. She couldn’t wait to tell me she was pregnant,” he choked back tears. “We had this really nice dinner and she said she would see me at home. I didn’t even look up when she left. I was so busy with my paperwork. She walked out. There was a scream and the squeal of tires.”

“You were there?”

“I held her until they came to take her away.”

“Davie.” She pulled him close. It felt good to be comforted. He had been alone for so long.

“Spend Christmas with me,” she whispered into his ear, the warmth of her breath wheedling through him, thawing him from the inside out.

He pulled away to see if she meant it. What he saw in her eyes wasn’t pity, nothing close to it.

“Here?” He glanced at her building.

“With my friends. It’ll make them happy to see me out with a man.” She laughed. The same Bekka, straight forward, funny, strong. “They’re always trying to fix me up, but I keep telling them I’m waiting for someone special.” She caught herself and looked away.

“I’d like that.”

She looked up into his eyes. “You would?”

He caressed her cheek with his thumb. “Yeah.”

“Okay. Meet me here at six, we’ll share a cab.”

“I’ll be here.” He kissed her cheek, before heading up the street. When he turned back a moment later, she was still standing there, watching him, a soft smile on her face.

Instead of dreading home, he practically raced the rest of the way. Inside his apartment building, the elevator doors closed, and he watched his reflection in the golden metal doors. There was a silly grin on his face and his eyes, instead of being full of fear, twinkled with something. He drew closer, nose to nose to his reflection, reading the stranger in the door. Instead of the ache, he saw something new. There it was.

Hope.

Copyright by April McGowan 2010

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