I remember church as a young man. I would be forced to wear my finest clothes, my mother called them my "Sunday best". They itched and wiggled upward into places they should never be. She would comb my hair the same way that my Grandpa always did and make me wash my face three different times. Then right before we left she would have me blow in her face to make sure I didn't have bad breath.
She would walk to the kitchen and grab the dish she had made the night before, then we would leave. I tried to walk normal but my fancy pants always seemed to think that they would look better in my armpits rather than on my hips. I would walk beside Mama, sometimes holding her hand, sometimes not. She always looked her best on Sunday mornings. She would wear her best dresses and shoes and hats. She looked so different from when she wore her worn work clothes with her hair pulled tight on top of her head.
I remember one Sunday more than any other. It was when I was eight. It was hot that morning and my fancy shirt was making me itch in places I could never hope to reach. I kept squirming in my seat, trying to make the itching stop, but it didn't help, all it did was upset Mama.
We always sat in the middle pew on the right side. After service Mama said she needed to speak with Pastor Jones before we went over to the potluck. I waited in our pew.
It was then that I Mrs. Brooks and Miss Stodarm came walking down the isle. I ducked down so that they couldn't see me. Mrs. Brooks was a cheek pincher and I didn't want any of it. When they got closer I heard them say Mama's name.
"Did you see that little boy of hers, squirming in his seat? You would think she would teach him manners, especially for a house of the Lord. Absolutely frightful." Miss Stodarm whispered to Mrs. Brooks.
"What do you expect? She can't even dress presentable for church." Mrs. Brooks made a noise like Mama made when she found mistakes spelling mistakes in the newspaper. I stayed quiet and didn't get up off of the floor until I heard the heavy doors at the front of the church close behind them.
I sat in the pew and thought over what they had said about Mama and her dress. Mama had worn her best spring dress. Little yellow flowers in a sea of early morning blue. I thought it was pretty. It wasn't stained or torn. I sat there quietly thinking it over until Mama came back.
"Mama can we just go home?" She got down on one knee and looked at me, the way she did when she thought I was sick. Then she placed her hand on my forehead to see if I was running a fever. When she was done, she didn't say anything, just offered me her hand and we walked home.
On the way home, I watched Mama. We didn't live far from the church so we usually walked. Mama seemed just fine, she smiled and held my hand and even pointed out a blue jay to me. She had been a lot happy since we received a letter telling us Dad was coming home, but she was usually happy.
"Mama, don't we dress presentable for church?"
"Of course we do, Honey."
"Is that why you make me where these itchy clothes?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"Someone said we didn't dress right for church."
"Why did she say that then?"
"I'm not sure. Some people dress up for church in order the impress each other. We don't. We dress up to show God that we are thankful for all that he does for us and for all that he gives us. We also dress up for church to show God that we respect him. We don't dress up for the other people at church, we dress up for God."
"God cares about what we wear?"
"No. Not exactly. If we came to church in stained up work clothes, God wouldn't care, He would just be happy that we came. But since we don't have to wear stained clothes, we don't."
"What about what they said, though?"
"Their opinion holds little weight in God's eyes. You'll understand when you are older. For now, remember, God isn't worried about what we wear or what others think of us. He only cares about the choices we make and how we treat others."
I haven't been to church since Mama died. Until today. This isn't the same church, or the same people, but it feels the same. I didn't sit in the middle this time, I'm in the very back. I was late, but I'm here, and I brought my son with me. We're both dressed in our "Sunday Best" and they still itch terribly. But God doesn't care if we squirm a little, or if our clothes aren't the best ones here. He only cares that we came, that we listen, and that we care. I'm glad we came, I'm glad my son come with me. It's been a long long time.
It was the hottest day so far. My brand new pants suit slowly sealed itself to the inside of my thighs. Things just didn’t seem like they could get any worse....until I missed my bus. I made it to the bus stop just in time to is making a right hand turn two blocks down. The next one wouldn’t arrive for another fifteen minutes, at least. I leaked frustration as if it were sweat.
An older man, probably in his mid-fifties, sat at the far side of the bench. He was handsome given his age, his hair brushed back, proudly displaying a modest dusting of gray hair. He wore a simple button down blue shirt tucked into pair of navy blue jeans. He leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees. He appeared to be staring intently across the street at yet another corporate office building.
“Miss the bus too?” He seemed surprised by my question. He looked at me and I noticed his beautiful blue eyes. He smiled at me, not really a full smile but one of slight amusement before answering.
“No not at all. Just taking a minute to contemplate something.”
“You chose the bus stop as a thinking spot? Don’t you think that’s a little odd?”
“Perhaps. I’m not from around here. I find the city a little grating and noisy, to be honest. But my daughter once told me that the bus stop was the best place to think about anything and everything. So I thought I would give it a try.”
“Well, when you miss the bus you certainly have a lot of time to waste.”
“Waste? I don’t think that is what she meant, but I suppose it’s a possibility.” We lap into an awkward silence. He settles back onto his knees, staring at the building across the street, his hands clasped in front of him as If he were praying.
“My name is Joan.”
“George.” We shake hands.
“So, why don’t you just ask your daughter what she meant?” He turns away from me, dropping his hand as though I’ve burned him, and turns his attention to the sidewalk under our feet. A large crack runs between his worn work boots, stretching all the way to the street. A dark blotch stains the cement under his left boot. His shoulders sag as he stares at the round.
“I can’t. She died.” He returns his attention to the building across the street. “She loved this place. This city. I never understood it. Her fascination with the people who live here.”
“Did she live here?”
“She was here for school. Creative writing major. She said she wanted to be a publisher until she became an author herself.” He let out a little chuckle before continuing. “She was always scribbling something or another down when she was growing up.” He smiled at me.
“So you came here to think about her?”
“Yes. And no. I want to understand something that she told me in her last letter home. She wrote that she had come to an understanding with our world. She wrote that the world was normal and beautiful and perfect, yet strange and broken and ugly. Two days later we received a call informing us that she was in the emergency room, fighting for her life. I never got the chance to ask her what she meant.”
“What happened to her?”
“Cops said it was a mugging gone wrong. They said that she tried to fight back when the mugger accidentally shot her.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss. Are you any closer to understanding what she meant?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’ve got it figured out but then I get to thinking that she could have meant something entirely different. What do you think she meant?”
I look at the building across from us. It’s not beautiful, but it isn’t ugly either. It looks like a lot of other building in our city. Colorless and flavorless. It’s all sleek lines and perfect edges. A model of symmetry. The sky is bright blue overhead, with a scorching sun, so hot that it has left dark wet stains under my arms. A slight breeze blows an old grocery bag through the gutter.
I don’t know what she meant. What is ugly today might be beautiful tomorrow. A person I may have ignored today, I might introduce myself to tomorrow. And what would have changed?
Why was I on this bench, late for the bus, talking to a stranger about his dead daughter? I was sure I would make it when I had left the office.
“I have no idea. Maybe she meant that different people see things differently.”
“Perhaps you are right.” He sounds unconvinced but nods and smiles at me anyway. Just then, the next bus pulls up to the curb. The door slides open with a squeal. The hinges could use some oil. I rise from the bench and tuck my purse under my arm.
“I hope you figure out what she meant.” I smile apologetically.
“It was nice talking to you.”
“Same here.” I climb the dirty steps into the bus and pay my fee. There’s a seat open by the window. I take it. As the bus pulls away, I look back at the man to see him bent forward, his hand pressed to the stain on the sidewalk. She must have been shot right there, at the bus stop. I wonder how long he will stay there. I wonder how long her words will haunt me.
Every great story means something to someone.
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