Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Key, Chapter 33

The Key
by Eloise Hawking

Chapter 33

     We were packed in the car and off to church within the next half hour.   No one looked their Sunday best today as it was hard getting ready with no lights and no water.  I combed my hair out as best as I could and put it in a high bun on top of my head.   If we didn’t have power, I bet no one else around here did either, so the people at church would be looking a little raw this morning.

     “That looks nice,” Mom said, commenting on my hairstyle.  Within a minute she fixed matching hairdos for herself and for Hope.  When we walked past the mirror on the way to the car I couldn’t help but notice how the three of us resembled each other.

     “Don’t forget to stop at the farm,” I reminded my dad who was driving.  

     We slowed up as we drove by the farm house.  Farmer Richter’s old truck was in the driveway so my dad pulled in.  Farmer Richter spotted us out of his window and came out to greet us.   My dad got out of the driver’s side door and the two met midway through the driveway and shook hands.  They spoke for a minute and then dad turned and waved me to come forward.

     “Go on, Ellen,” said Mom.  “It must be good news.  Farmer Richter is grinning.”

     Farmer Richter did have a broad smile across his suntanned face.  Up close his eyes were gentle and soft brown like the earth he tilled.  

     “Well, well, well.   There’s our neighborhood heroine!” he exclaimed.  “Bandit pulled through ok, but he probably would not have made it unless you had been there to save him.”

     Farmer Richter put his broad hand across my back, giving me a hearty slap.  “Would you like to see him?” he asked.

     I looked to Dad and he nodded an affirmative, so I smiled and followed Farmer Richter inside.  

     “Now Bandit’s a barn dog, you know, belongs with the cows,” he said in his loud voice which had grown accustomed to shouting over tractors.  “This here old boy thinks he’s in the lap of luxury here in the house and all.  Living like a king for the next month he is.”

     I looked to the corner of the living room and there on a heap of soft  blankets and old comforters lay Fangs on his side, with a leg in a cast.  He pricked his ears up and lifted his head upon our entry but did not growl.

     “Now stay calm, Old Boy,” boomed Farmer Richter.  “Ellen is here to see you.”

     Farmer Richter stepped aside so I could get a better look at Fangs.  It looked as though he had been cleaned up.  His fur was fluffier than the matted down mud coat that he had on last evening.  Some of his hair had been shaved away and it looked as though he had stitches above the cast on his left leg.  Fangs looked at me and tapped his tail twice on the floor and put his head back down.

     “……Doc said that he took a good hit alright.  Probably that Justice kid again, that darn punk.  I am going to call him down here so he can face what he did.  Doc says he’s got a gash from the car tire, a broken hind leg and a cracked bone down along is tail.   Vertebrae number twenty-six it was on the X ray, I think, but it will heal,” Farmer Richter went on.

     I hunkered down to get a closer look at Fangs.  He picked up his head real fast, almost as if to snap and say, “Stay away from me,” but our eyes met and he softened.  I held my hand out, hovering it above him, waiting to see if he’d take a chomp or let me pet him.  Fangs tapped his tail three times this time and I rested my hand gently on his head and stroked the soft fur between his ears.  Fangs and I had made peace.  I was no longer afraid.

     As we walked from the house, mother yelled to Farmer Richter that we had a pie for him waiting to be baked and we’d bring it down an hour after the power was restored.  He smiled and thanked us again, shook Dad’s hand and we once again hurried off down the road to church.
     “How did Fangs look, Onion?  Was he all bloody and stuff?” Sam inquired.

     “No, he was all cleaned up and had a big cast on his back leg and some stitches.  Farmer Richter says he cracked his 26th vertebrae.  That must be down by his tail, but he wagged it just fine.  He even let me pet him,” I said. 

     “Yes I believe that fracture would be down by the tail end.  Humans have 33 vertebrae that make up their spinal columns.  Dogs have less,” informed my Dad.

     “You know, I just don’t think I can call him Fangs anymore.  He’s just a normal dog to me now,” I mused.

     “I thought of a perfect new nickname for Bandit,” mother interjected.   We all waited, knowing that this would be a good one.  “I think we should call him Lucky.”

     “I thought you said there is no such thing as Luck,” I challenged. 

     “You’re right,” Mom retorted, “but Fangs isn’t evil after all, Rocky sure was no prize fighter, and you certainly don’t smell like an onion, Onion."

     A smile spread across my face thinking of this dog named Bandit, once called Fangs, now thought of as Lucky.  It was a mismatched nickname, but it fit just fine and I liked it. I felt warm and good and mixed up inside as I thought about the dogs in my life.  

     My most feared and dreaded enemy lived and was much gentler than I ever imagined he’d be.  My sweet, harmless, loyal friend Rocky died on the very same night.  I didn’t understand why things happened the way that they did and life just didn’t seem fair. 

     An unfair life.  That reminded me of Job.  Oh no!  I forgot about the Bible lesson I had for homework this week.  

     “Mom!” I exclaimed, “I forgot about Job.  I can’t remember it all and I have to report to Aunt Elna what it was about.”  

     My stomach started jumping again and I thought a silent prayer that Sunday school would be cancelled.  Aunt Elna had to be at least 100 years old.  She was my mother’s Sunday school teacher.  You didn’t mess around with Aunt Elna.
     “Well, Ellen, let me give you my best 33 second synopsis.  Do you want the kid version or the adult one?” said Mom.

     “Kid version,” I said leaning forward to concentrate on her every last word.

     She paused a moment, turned in her seat to face me, and then started right in with her teenaged sounding inflections.  “OK—Well, um, there was this guy Job , and he was like, really nice,” started Mother Eloise, pretending to chew fake gum.   “He had a wife, kids, some sheep and a nice house."

    She continued, "One day the Lord and the Devil got into this argument.  The devil told God that people only believed in him and followed him when things were going well, but if bad things happened, they would stop believing.  The Lord said, “nuh-uh,” and the devil said, “Ya-huh,” so they made a bet.  The stakes were high on this bet---like  the whole universe and stuff, so it was a really big deal."  Mom smacked her lips together for extra effect. 

     "First some big storm came and blew Job’s house down killing all of his kids that were inside.  Then a big lightning bolt came down from the sky and fried all of his sheep.  To add to his agony, he got this big red, painful zit things all over his body and no one would let him live with them so he had to go off and live by himself.  Then his wife, who was a big….jerk……told him that it was all his fault and just to curse God and die.  Nice."

     My Dad snorted, but I kept my eyes on Mom.  She went on, "But Job, good old Job, just kept on going.  He wouldn’t curse God, but he sure did keep questioning him.  In fact, he DEMANDED to see God to get some answers, and you know what? God came to Job and answered his questions without really answering them at all."  

     Mother Eloise slapped my forearm playfully.  She finished finished up her summary. "Job believed in God more than ever, and God restored all things to Job and gave him more than he even had before.”  

     Mom exhaled and pretended to spit her fake gum out of the van window.

     “Hey, I want a piece of gum,” whined Sam.
     I think I got it.  I had to keep forcing myself to listen after mother said “blew his house down” because all I could think of  was my tree house.  

     Maybe if I kept praying and believing, would I be like Job and get my tree house back, a bigger and better one than before.  Would God bring back Rocky if I asked him?   Maybe God couldn’t hear me out in the yard this morning and I could try again from church.  That was a good place to pray.  I think God hears people better when they pray at church.  I think the music and the singing gets his attention.

     We pulled into the church driveway and the car climbed the high hill that the church sat atop of.  Attached to the church was a beautiful tower that we called The Lighthouse.  It was a prayer tower of sorts and stood as tall as the highest steeple.  It was designed to look like a real lighthouse, complete with a set of spiral steps that led to the all glass top.  The catwalk actually had seats where parishioners could sit down and look out of the windows in any direction, across the vineyards and orchards and onto the lake.  It was the pride and joy of our church.  The people saved their money for years and years to build it and it brought celebrations among the parishioners when it was complete.

     “It looks like The Lighthouse suffered some damage last night,” Dad said as we pulled into a parking space.  We looked over to see people standing at the base of it, in the yard littered with fallen limbs, garbage can lids, and roof shingles.  It looked as though one of the upper windows was broken.  Several men stood looking upwards scratching their heads.

     “That gust of wind blew right in a line last night,” said Dad.  “It looks like it must have taken down Ellen’s tree house and then blew straight this way and ripped those shingles off.”

     “Are you sure it wasn’t a tornado, Dad?” I asked.

     “It was NOT a tornado, Onion!” yelled Sam who was sitting beside me on the van bench.  “It was the Big Bad Wolf.   I heard him last night when he comed to get me, but I fighted him off with my sword.”

     Sam jumped from the van, energized from all of the storm excitement and went running into the church lobby ahead of us.  We could see him tugging on the legs of friends and neighbors, pointing in the direction of our house.  As we got closer we could hear him doing his best impression of the howling wolf that he fought off with bravery.   

     “wwwwhooooooooosssssshhhhhhh!”  Sam said with swaying hands.
     “Well aren’t you just a sweet little cupcake baked by the devil,” we heard Aunt Elna say.  

     You could tell the woman was counting the days until she got Sam in official Sunday school.  He was still too young yet and hung out in the nursery with the little kids.  If that didn't force her into retirement, nothing would.

     As my parents approached, Aunt Elna looked up and informed them that there would be no Sunday school today because the church was without power and the basement where they held Sunday school classes was too dark for instruction. Children were allowed to stay for the entire service with their parents.

     My eyes widened at the thought of my prayer being answered.  Maybe God did hear me after all.

     “It’s a good day for us to be together,” said Mom and she put her hand on me again.  

     She ushered her family one by one into the pew, my father first, then us kids, then herself.  My two parents always sat like bookends, holding their offspring together.
     The music was already playing.  Today it was the piano, an acoustic guitar and the drums.  The music sounded far away because the microphones and amps weren’t working.   The song was familiar and I seemed to have heard the words somewhere before. The parishioners sang along, without the words displayed on the computerized screen as they usually were. 

     “This was an old one.  It was very popular in the 1970’s.  Many people know this one without a lyrics prompter,” Mom told me. 

     It was a pretty song and it went like this:

To everything, turn, turn, turn      
There is a season turn, turn, turn        
And a time for every purpose under heaven         
A time to be born, a time to die         
A time to plant, a time to reap                                        
A time to kill, a time to heal              
A time to laugh , a time to weep

     I looked up and saw my mother singing.  She turned and looked at me while swaying to the music.  She stopped and pulled me close, whispering in my ear, “Listen to the words.  This song will make you feel better.  Put this one in your heart today.”

     I did listen to the rest of the song.  It was about dancing and mourning, war and peace, and loving and hating.  I think it meant we would experience it all.  Bad comes eventually, but only lasts for a little while and good would come again.  Then I realized it was the exact same thing that Grandpa told me this morning, just in a different way.

     As I glanced around the church, I saw Skippy, sitting on the edge of the pew near the aisle.  He was singing the words, too.  

    I watched him for awhile and noticed that he had the same pair of weird blue shoes on, the same gray stretchy pants, a short sleeved dress shirt, and a tie.  No matter where you saw Skippy, he was always dressed the same.  It looked like he was going to work all of the time, even on Sunday.  After the song, the congregation sat, and I noticed that when Skippy sat down, the leg of his pants rose up a little to reveal that metal pole of his fake leg.

     Question after question flew through my mind:  Why hadn’t I ever noticed this before?  Did the other kids know this, too?  

     Then I began to answer my own questions:  I didn’t notice because I always avoided looking at Skippy when I was at church.  The other kids couldn’t possibly know this secret or they would make complete mincemeat out of the man.  Skippy walked the way he did because he had a fake leg.

     While I was thinking about Skippy, I was looking at him.  He must have picked up my vibe because he turned slowly as if he got the sense that someone’s eyes were boring through him.   He caught me red handed and I could feel my cheeks flush with embarrassment.  But Skippy just smiled and held up his hand and nodded his head as if to say, “Good job, Ellen.”

     “Oh, there’s Mr. Nebauer,” said Mom.  “We have to catch him after church to let him know about Fangs…whoops, I mean Lucky .  God sent him at just the right time yesterday, didn’t he Ellen?”

     I nodded my head yes and then was distracted by my brother’s squirming.  “Gimme that pen, Onion!  I want to write you a letter!  Gimme that paper!” Sam said a bit too loudly for church.

     “Shhhhh!” I said holding my finger to my lips.  “You have to be quiet in church, Sam!”

     Mom looked and me and flapped her hand in a downward motion to show me not to be bothered by him.  I glanced around the church and realized it was extra full with all the kids filling the pews because of no Sunday school.  There was more motion and noise than usual I imagine.  

     Mom handed Sam an offering envelope and a pen and he began to draw big thick swirly scribbles with the scratchy black church pen.

     “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll BLOW your house down!”  he said way too loud. 

     I shushed him again and took the pen in my own hand and began to draw him animals.  First I drew a cat, “Cat!” Sam whispered and clapped, gleeful at some attention.  Next I drew a bunny, then a snake.  Sam would whisper in my ear what he thought I was trying to draw, then squeal with delight when what he guessed came to life one piece of the picture at a time.

     Church was long today, and I had a hard time paying attention.  Pastor seized the opportunity of the recent bad weather and talked about storms and seasons, and reaping and sowing and stuff like that.  I would catch phrases now and again.  

     When I heard Job’s name mentioned I looked up and saw Aunt Elna smile at me.  But truthfully, my brain was on ten year old overload.  So much had happened in such a short time, I was content to half listen, fake nod once in awhile, and chime in on a laugh when the pastor said something witty.

     Mom seemed thankful that I was keeping Sam’s bad behavior at bay.  She reached over, smiled, and patted my leg.  She passed me an empty church envelope with something written on it in her pretty handwriting:  What is the cost of the last word of my favorite book?

     I looked at mom quizzically.  She smiled her crooked smile and turned forward again to focus in on Pastor.

     Favorite book?  Mom liked Steinbeck, but which was her favorite?  The cost?   What did that mean?

    Her puzzle did take my mind off things for awhile and I admit I was thankful for something new to think about.  Suddenly,  after a few minutes of thought,  before my eyes appeared a book.  THE book.  It was resting on the book holder on the back of the pew in front of me, a black leather book with gold letters that read Holy Bible.  Yes!  This was mom’s favorite book!

     I reached out, subduing a smile and gently eased the book out of the slot.  I placed it on my lap and thumbed through to the back end.  At the very end was a map of Israel and a timeline of the Rulers.  I paged back a bit to the Book of Revelation , the 22nd chapter, the 27th verse.  It read:  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.  Amen.

     Amen.  That was it, the last word of her favorite book.  Now what was the cost?  

     My mind raced at top speed.  My brain felt like a super computer trying to put pieces of things together to see the complete picture, just like I was doing moments ago with Sam.  It was just like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle.  It was slow in the beginning, but the more pieces you put in, the less that were left to choose from and they found their places quickly.  

     The cost of the word Amen.  I had heard that somewhere before .  Where?  I almost had it….

     “Onion!  Draw!” Sam demanded.

     I quickly doodled an elephant with its long curled trunk.  I told Sam to make some peanuts to feed his elephant and passed the page back to him.  

     Gray like the skin of an elephant--siltstone.  It was then when it clicked.  The rocks test.  School.  Mom’s assignment.  The cost of rocks and which was the most expensive.  All I had to do was add up the letters in Amen.  Oh boy is she going to be proud of me!

     I only had to make the code halfway through the alphabet because I only had to go as far as N.  I knew A was 1 and that E was 5, so let’s see…….if M equals 13, than N is 14.  

    My mind races with figures.  "Now I have to add that up.  1 plus 5 is 6, plus 13 is  19, so I’ll just think of that as 20 and subtract later…….add 14 more…..that’s 34, now minus that 1 from when I made the 19 a 20 for easy adding…..that makes 33.  

     Wait.  Is that right?  I tried it again by adding the numbers in order:  1 plus 13 plus 5 plus 14---yep, 33.  I tried it the school way, stacking the addends four high and I carried my 1 to the tens column just like I did on worksheets when I had to “show my work.”  33 again.
     My hand was shaking when I grabbed the envelope mom had written on and took the pen from my brother who loudly protested.  “Wait just a minute!” I hissed.

     I wrote:  The cost of Amen is 33 and passed the sheet back to my mother.

     She smiled and tears welled up in her eyes.  She reached out and hugged me so tight, right there in front of everybody in the middle of church.  “You know it, Baby,” she whispered into my ear, “And don’t you ever forget it.”

     Church ended after 75 long minutes.  The congregation was relieved to stand.  I could tell by the way people stretched  their arms and shook their legs loose as they filtered out of the pews and down the center aisle.  

     We made our way down the center of the church to greet the Pastor and wish him a good week.  My family found ourselves meeting up with Skippy.

     “Greetings, McGraw Family!” Skippy said.  It almost seemed like he should have said, “Greetings, Earthlings” because there was such an oddity to his language and his gait that Skippy seemed to be from another world.

     “Did you get the good news about Bandit?” Mom inquired, remembering to use the dog’s given name.

     “Yessiree I did!  And what good news that was!  I stayed with Mr. Richter last night and we were able to bring the dog home as the veterinary clinic lost power anyway.  I went to bed with a clear conscious and a happy heart knowing that there are such good kids in this world—ones willing to stand in the face of a storm to save a hurt animal.  Your bravery yesterday was remarkable, Young Lady."

     I blushed again and looked down so that my teacher would not see the redness creeping  up neck and onto my face.  Dad talked to Skippy as the line bumped and jolted forward.  

     Mom broke her attention away from the men and fished in her pocket for something. She brought her fist out of her pocket and opened her palm in front of me.  There in her hand were some coins.  

     “Ellen,” she said, “I found these in the pocket of your shorts last night along with that apple.  I think you may want to add this to the missions bucket on the way out,” pressing the coins into my hand.

     Our church had a Missions Bucket for spare pocket change.  Parishoners were encouraged to toss spare change in it weekly, and when it filled the top, groups of volunteers came to the church and wrapped it in coin wrappers, totaled the amount, and sent it to a place in need.  On the outside of the bucket the words read, “….for God loves a cheerful giver.”

     Everyone constantly preached to us that a little goes a long way, but wasn't a few coins too little?  I opened my palm to examine the amount and tossed the coins up and down in my hand to separate them a bit. 

     I remembered picking up this spare change sticky with Coke on the floor of the press box when I was on my quest with Emily and Jack.  It all happened less than a day ago, but to me, it felt like ages.   

     There was only  one quarter, one nickel, and three pennies.  Barely a pittance, but if Mom wanted me t………………wait a minute……………….it was 33 cents!  I found 33 cents and had it in my pocket all afternoon yesterday!

     “Mom,” I said wide eyed, “33 cents!”

     Mom closed her eyes, nodded slowly and smiled.  “See, He was with you all along.”

     “Right there in my pocket,” I finished.

     “In both of them actually,” Mom said reflectively.   “You had an apple in the other one.”

     My feet led me to the five gallon bucket that was filled about halfway with coins.  I paused in front of it and felt full up to the top with love, even in of the losses I faced this morning.  My body tingled and felt warm.  

     I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and whispered “Thank you God.”  I kissed the coins in my hand, unafraid of the germs they supposedly held, and opened my palm letting the coins clink into the bucket like raindrops on pond in the park.  And in my head I thought, “Amen.”

Epilogue on the next posting.

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