Ruth couldn't believe it. Fifteen minutes she'd been waiting in front of the school, and Dewayne, her son, was nowhere in sight. She threw her car back in gear, jerked out into the road, and slammed her foot on the pedal. He'd done it again.
She sped across town, fuming, until she saw the line of people that started a block from Joan's house. Ruth slowed, trying to spot Dewayne, then circled and came back when she didn't see him. She pulled up to the curb in front of the house, ignoring the "No Parking" sign stuck into the yard. She climbed out, slammed the door, and marched up to the house.
"There's a line here, miss," someone said behind her, but she ignored it.
She stalked across the porch and banged on the door. Inside, someone said, "Not yet." She knocked again, louder. The same voice answered, more firmly this time, "We're not ready." Ruth let her annoyance overwhelm her long enough to reach a brash hand to the doorknob, and open it. She was greeted by Joan.
"Well Ruthie! Come to see the miracle?"
Ruth's rage stuttered momentarily when faced with Joan's smiling face. Ruth surfaced long enough to ask, "Is Dewayne here?"
"Is he?" She looked around. "Oh, I guess he is." She led Ruth through the house, through the living room and to the back, where the Door was. The line stopped outside on the porch, and picked back up at the Door. There were only four people there, though. A man and a woman were standing, with an annoyed patience, as though they wanted anyone who saw them, especially any divine beings, to know that they were being patient. They were watching an old woman stare through the window in the Door. Dewayne was behind them.
"Would you like to see it? You could cut in line," Joan said, conspiratorially leaning in.
"No, thanks. We've got to get back. Are you about ready, Dewayne?" Ruth said.
Dewayne turned, his smile fading.
"I haven't seen it yet," he said
"Well that's too bad. We're running late as it is," Ruth said, patiently.
"But I'm almost there!"
"Plenty of time for that later. Now we have to go."
"Just five more minutes!" Dewayne pleaded.
The old woman at the door turned at the sound of Ruth's voice, and the man behind her took that opportunity to edge up behind her. Everyone else was staring at Ruth.
"It's worth the wait," Joan said. "Just a few minutes to see a modern day miracle."
"Thanks for watching him, " Ruth said to Joan, taking Dewayne's hand.
"Any time," Joan said. "You should drop by yourself. We could catch up on old times."
"Sure," Ruth said. She left, dragging Dewayne behind her.
Ruth avoided looking Dewayne in the eyes until her anger passed. They weren't the eyes of a ten year old. They were his father's eyes, dark brown, and buried under thick glasses like rich soil covered with water. It was hard for her to think of him as so far removed from herself. He was growing up and away from her, and he was putting on weight like he could smell a long drought ahead. He had the same dusty, brown hair she’d hated every time she caught a glimpse of it on herself in a mirror, but on him it looked fine. His face always carried a determined look of intense concentration, and it was a rare moment when she could break the spell life seemed to have cast on him, and make him laugh. He tended to take things very seriously, and hold a grudge, which was perhaps the only other trait he got from her.
“How was school?” Ruth asked, nosing the car away from Joan's house.
"Look, I'm sorry, okay?. I know you don't like Aunt Joan—"
"Aunt Joan?" Ruth cut him off.
"She said to call her that. Cause you and her were like sisters."
"Phfft," Ruth snorted. "Cousins. There's a difference. And I don't dislike Joan. What I don't like is you lying to me. Telling me you're going to be one place, and not being there."
"Sorry," Dewayne said. "But if I told you I was going to see the miracle, you wouldn't let me."
"Oh good plan. And you shouldn't use that word so lightly, just cause everyone else does," Ruth said.
Dewayne was quiet. Ruth pulled out onto the highway, heading towards home.
"They're real," he finally said.
"Anything's real if you want it to be, or if enough people tell you it is," Ruth said, keeping her eyes firmly on the road.
That night after supper, Ruth was going over Dewayne’s homework with him when the phone rang. It was Joan.
“It’s a mad house over here, Ruthie,” she said. “They just keep coming. I swear, the lord works in mysterious ways.” Ruth heard a chorus of ‘amen's’ behind Joan. She looked at Dewayne and rolled her eyes.
“I'm sure you're managing,” Ruth said.
“Barely. You know seeing you this afternoon made me think about how long it's been since we’ve gotten together. I mean it’s just not right, us hardly ever even seeing each other. If you’re not doing anything tomorrow evening, I thought you might drop by for a little family get together.”
Dewayne was eying her like a cat watching a can opener.
“Yes, you know Aunt Sophie came by the other day, to see the miracle, and she said that she was in the turning lane on Highway One for twenty minutes, and then spent another half hour in line before she finally got close enough to the house to catch my eye. And you know,” her voice deepened as though she were telling a secret. “When she came inside, all those people that were waiting started grumbling and saying she was cutting in line, old as she is and all. It's just sad.”
“Yeah,” Ruth said.
“So,” she continued, satisfied with Ruth’s agreement. “Billy and I decided that we would have a night for family viewing only. I mean if our miracle can’t help my family who have done so much for us, then how can it help anyone?”
There was a silence that Ruth felt obliged to fill.
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” she said.
“Well great, we’ll expect you two at four then. On Friday. We’ll eat here.”
Ruth hung up without answering. She looked at Dewayne who was studying her questioningly.
“Your dearest Auntie Joan is having a reception for us heathens tomorrow night. Do you want to go?”
“Can I see the crosses?”
“I don’t imagine you could keep from seeing them, around here.”
The reporters showed up the next day during Ruth's shift at the IGA grocery store. There were three of them. As soon as they stepped inside, Cathy, on register two, broke out her lip gloss and started smearing it on, hoping they'd see something they liked in the reflection, Ruth thought. They all came through Ruth’s line, though, each with a coffee, a couple donuts, and the elder seeming of the three bought a bottle of Mylanta antacid. Over their shoulders, Ruth could see that Cathy was about to burst.
“Good morning,” Ruth said.
“Morning,” the first one in line said. "Say, have you heard anything about these crosses?”
Ruth rang his purchases up.
“Crosses? You mean the one at the First Baptist Church? What, did lightening hit it or something?” She resisted the urge to glance at Cathy.
“No, the one over on, what was that street Ted?”
“Elm Park, I think,” the older one said. The first one dug some money out of his wallet.
“Oh, the First Baptist Church is on Killough, maybe it’s the Assembly of God that’s on Elm Park, I can’t remember. Why, what happened to it?” Ruth said.
“Well, apparently people have been seeing crosses in the window of a house over there,” the first one said. Ruth handed him his change.
“Huh,” Ruth said.
"Heard anything about it?"
"I think I heard something. Didn't they figure out that it was just a trick of the light?"
"May-be," he said, drawing it out into two words. "But a lot of people seem to believe it."
"People will believe anything."
"Very true," the older man said. The rest paid and Ruth watched them walk out.
“What’s up your butt, anyway?” Cathy said. “Making fun of them like that. You just better be glad they didn’t figure it out. It’s not every day we get reporters in here, and they were from Channel Eight, I bet.”
“Cathy,” Ruth said. “You take things too seriously.”
Ruth watched the reporters driving away, out the stained and streaked store windows. Outside, the traffic in front of the IGA was heavy. Cars were lined up, waiting to turn down Elm Park Road, the street Joan Elders’ house was on, the street that was now blessed with constant lines of traffic. It was only a few blocks from the IGA, which helped explain the influx of pilgrims she’d had to face all week. Some of them actually called themselves that; pilgrims. It made her think of John Wayne movies, where pilgrims were people who wandered into the wilderness with some dumb dream, unprepared for reality, and ended up being killed.
Behind her she heard a scratching noise, like mice chewing through a baseboard. Ruth turned and saw that Mr. Childers was slowly counting out his change. His arthritic fingers clawed through the stained nickels and pennies.
"Morning Mr. Childers," she said, scanning his soda. The old man always bought the same things; a can of Coca Cola, and half a dozen candy bars.
"Seen that news van outside," the old man said. "Heard them reporters talking about the crosses."
"Yeah, I guess there's nothing much going on in the world today."
The old man laughed.
“You know,” Ruth said, hurrying through it before her better judgment stopped her. “Calvin Taylor, the carpenter? He says it’s just a trick of the light.”
"Don't say?" Mr. Childers said.
“He told me it was because of the type of glass in the windows, that the light came through in an angle and made it look like a cross.” Cathy was glaring at her. It felt sort of like being stared down by a bunny.
“I heard it was three crosses,” the old man said, holding up three fingers.
“One or three, it doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “He said it happens all the time. He said once these people thought they could see the ghost of their dead cat in their back door. Some people just don't have sense enough to know any better,” she finished.
"That's true, that's very true," the old man said.
Ruth presented him his bill, and he paid and made his way to the door.
"If Calvin Taylor said that," Cathy said, "he was probably drunk."
Ruth watched Mr. Childers before replying, wondering if he'd make it through the automatic doors before they closed.
“Cathy, everyone who doesn't agree with you is either a drunk or an adulterer,” Ruth said.
Ruth pulled onto the two lane Highway One and watched the cracked, fading parking lot of the IGA shrink in her rearview mirror until it disappeared. It was almost enough to make her go back, just so she could drive away again.
The next morning Dewayne chatted nonstop about Joan and her crosses. She dropped him off and drove moodily to work, and buried herself in tedium until her lunch break. She usually packed a sandwich or something or other with her, and spent the hour reading or just staring at the wall, but on Fridays she wolfed down her food and used her break to run to the bank and deposit her check, usually with bill collectors on her heels. On the way back from the bank, she suddenly found herself with nothing to do, and her mind began to wander back to the evening ahead of her. Joan would be her same old, bubbly condescending self, and Ruth would be miserable.
She looked up and noticed that she was passing the park. When they were in school, she and Joan used to sneak over to the park when they were supposed to be studying at the county library next door and hang out with boys. But it had always been more fun with just the two of them. She chuckled, remembering one time in particular. Joan had snuck some booze out of her parents' house, and shared it. It was the first time Ruth had really gotten drunk. Her normal life was so puritanical, she hardly even knew what 'getting drunk' meant. It was like pregnancy or sin, a sort of meaningless watch word that hung over her head like the clouds. Joan had drank so much she vomited right on the daisies. Ruth had held her stomach until the next morning. The memory hit her like a drunk driver sideswiping her mind, and she pulled over and stared. It surprised her because she didn't realize she had any good memories of Joan.
In grade school, Ruth watched from around the shoulders of the other kids while Joan was always the first to incite the boys to play ‘you show me yours, I’ll show you mine’. In junior high, Joan had dated only football players, whereas Ruth felt she couldn‘t get a date if she paid for it.
And in high school, it was always Joan in the middle of the huddle of cars and cigarette smoke while Ruth sat at home, lost in her own world of ‘keeping busy’, as her mother called it, watching TV, studying. But she knew about every drunken grope, every dance snuck out of early for a back seat fumble, she knew everything Joan did because Joan told her. Three, four nights a week, sometimes every day, Joan would call Ruth and spill secrets of her adventures, always saying things like, “you know that Tommy Washington? Well he stuffs his pants.“ Or, “you know if you go swimming afterwards, you won’t get pregnant?“ Ruth had what Joan called, 'a good personality'. She was 'sweet', and 'dependable'. And somehow in the middle of it, they were each about the only friend the other really had. Ruth wouldn’t betray her, and Joan knew it. So Ruth bided her time, waiting for it catch up to Joan, but it never did.
When they graduated, Joan went off to college, just long enough to blow all of her family’s money, while Ruth sat at home and got left with a son by a man who made her feel wanted, for the first and only time in her life, by something outside herself. But then along came Joan again, returning home failed and disgraced and eating it up. At least with her around, no one took the time to gossip about Ruth’s bouncing baby indiscretion. It was a blessing, they said. At least she won't be alone. No, Joan’s indiscretions had always and would always outshine any of Ruth's, and for that, perhaps, she was glad.
Ruth pulled up to Joan's house and was surprised to see that the usual "No Parking," sign had been replaced by a new one. It said, “MIRACLE CLOSED TODAY PLEASE COME BACK TOMORROW.” It was hand painted, but with some attention to detail. Beside it, Ruth could see muddy tire tracks in Joan's yard, and a path of footprints that used to be Joan's front yard. The ruts stretched through several nearby yards back to the last street.
Joan's husband Billy opened the door after Ruth’s reluctant knock with a staged pride that reminded Ruth of what a door man must look like. He was a small man, a pompadour over five feet tall, with dark hair and eyes that were almost unnoticeable against the background of his pockmarked, white face, and he was wearing a clean white shirt and khakis. He ushered Ruth and Dewayne inside, Ruth carrying a covered dish which she sat on the dining room table.
“What’s this?” Joan materialized out of nowhere and rolled the Saran Wrap off of the top of the dish like she thought there would be Gold inside.
“Green Bean Casserole. I thought you probably didn’t have time to cook much, lately.”
“Well that was very thoughtful of you,” Joan said. “And you look so nice, Ruth! I can't remember the last time I've seen you in a dress. And Dewayne is just so handsome. Mother is here already, and Uncle Daniel. Go have a seat in the living room, I’ll take this in the kitchen and be right out.” She picked up the dish and whisked it away.
“Probably going to dump it out,” Ruth whispered to Dewayne, but he was too excited to respond.
The living room carpet was a deep red and the thing Ruth had forgotten about it was that all the furniture matched. There weren’t two things in Joan’s house that didn’t match, except Ruth and Dewayne. They stepped inside and were immediately greeted by Joan’s mother, and Great Uncle Daniel, two relics who were sitting on a plush couch in the middle of the room. Ruth's own parents had passed within a year of each other when Dewayne was a baby, and Ruth didn't see the extended family much. There was another couch against the wall, and Ruth led Dewayne to it, smiling at Tammy and Daniel. They sat in silence for a second until Joan reentered the room, licking her teeth.
“That casserole is wonderful, Ruth. I had a little taste, I just couldn’t help myself.” There was another knock at the door.
“I’ll see who that is,” Joan said and fluttered off.
“She's so nice,” Dewayne said.
“She’s a changed woman,” Ruth replied.
There were ten of them, along with Ruth and Dewayne, and Joan and Billy, when they sat down to eat. Dewayne whispered to his mother that he didn't know most of them, and Ruth told him it didn't matter because he never saw them anyway. None of them seemed to notice how early it was to be eating, they were too excited. There were a total of three green bean casseroles, two potato salads, and a chicken Joan had ordered from the IGA deli earlier that day. When she brought it out, she smiled benignly at Ruth, as though thanking her for it. Joan had broken out the wine glasses, and everyone made a big show about commenting on the wine, though Ruth figured none of them could tell it from grape juice. They ate quickly, almost too excited to speak. Joan’s crosses were the biggest thing to happen in town that anyone could remember.
After they were done eating, everyone sat around, chatting about the weather, about school sporting events, about anything that wouldn’t imply the obvious desperation in all of them to see the miracle. Ruth even found herself caught up in it, dragged along with her son’s enthusiasm.
“You know the other day,” Joan began. Everyone grew quiet instantly. “This old man came to my door. His son had driven him all the way here from Mississippi, just to see the miracle.”
There were several nods and Ruth even thought she heard an, 'amen.'
“The thing was, he was wearing these dark glasses, and by the way his son was leading him around, it occurred to me that he was blind.”
“Well I’ll be,” Daniel said.
“But he had his son lead him to the door, anyway. After he looked, his son asked if he saw them, and the old man said he hadn't seen them, but he could feel them. Feel a warmth from them. It was really the most wonderful thing.”
This time Ruth knew she heard amens.
“Said he could feel warmth, huh?” Ruth said.
“You know, it’s the strangest thing, and it just occurred to me now, but when I saw them I felt something like that too,” Joan's mother said.
“Really,” Daniel said, intrigued, and they all made a show of discussing this in a scientific manner, comparing their experiences and what they‘d heard, working themselves up to the point where one of them would ask to see it, as they now all knew that Joan wasn’t going to offer a viewing unless one of them took the first step and embarrassed himself. Finally, it was Dewayne who couldn’t stand the waiting.
“Can I see it?” He asked.
“Sure. Right this way,” she said and walked off. Everyone waited long enough to seem disinterested, and then rushed Dewayne in front of them.
“Here it is,” Joan said, sweeping her arm towards the Door. It was white. The top third of it was taken up by a window with an arch on top. The rest of the Door was covered in raised squares that formed slight pyramids. The glass was cloudy and thick, like a troubled mind. Nothing outside could be seen through it except the vaguest hint.
Dewayne stepped up and looked through the glass, timidly.
“Let me turn on the outside light,“ Joan added. “It’s getting late.”
She flicked a switch beside the door and Dewayne looked again. He was silent for a moment, then he exploded with an, “I see it!” Everyone gasped.
“What do you see, dear?” Joan said.
“Three of them. Three crosses. One of them is big, it’s closer. In the middle. The other two are farther away, and smaller. They’re lined up beside each other.”
“Do you see anything else?” Joan asked.
“Wait, I don’t know, let me see.”
“Is there anyone on any of the crosses?” Joan's mother asked. Everyone looked at her for a second, and then turned back to Dewayne, expectantly.
“I can’t tell,” Dewayne said and Ruth loved him for that, for not saying he did, just to please them. “But it’s all red, they’re all red.”
“Blood!” Great Uncle Daniel said. Joan clapped her hands once and everyone rushed forward. Dewayne stepped back and went to Ruth, smiling. She walked him back into the living room.
“Aren’t you going to look, Mom?”
“Maybe later,” she said.
"You should go, Mom. While you've still got a chance,“ Dewayne said.
"Someone else can go ahead," she said.
"No, no," Joan said. "It's your turn." She pushed Ruth towards the door.
Ruth looked at the faces of her family, all of them gawking and miserably desperate.
"Don't be afraid," Joan said.
Ruth studied Joan. She was actually afraid, she didn't know why, but there it was. She didn't know if she was afraid of seeing something, and feeling foolish, or seeing nothing and forever having to face her son knowing that he'd willed himself to hallucinate. Or maybe that would happen to her, too, maybe they'd convince her she'd seen God in a stained glass window. Maybe He was there, and she couldn't see it. Dewayne was behind her, pushing her. She stepped up to the glass, put her face right to it, and looked. Everyone was quiet, waiting, and she just kept looking. Finally, she remembered the other people in the room, and stepped back. She was quiet for a long time.
An hour later, their enthusiasm hadn’t even begun to wane, and an hour after that, Ruth had to step outside to take a breather. The night had settled in. She sat on the step to the porch that so many had walked in the past week, and didn’t think of a thing. The crickets were out, rubbing out a soft tune and occasionally she could hear cars pass by on the highway. At the edge of the yard she saw the outline of the "Miracle Closed" sign. It made her laugh and as she shook her head, the door behind her opened and Joan stepped onto the porch and sat down beside her. She had a sweater laid over her shoulders, and was rubbing her thin, tanned arms.
“It’s chilly out, tonight,” she said.
“Guess I don’t notice. I’m built for chill, anyway,” Ruth said.
Joan laughed and let it flutter away before speaking again. “You’ve got a wonderful son there.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good to see you’re feeding him regularly.”
Ruth laughed, despite herself. “He takes after his mother.” She said softly.
“Ahh Ruthie, you were always so hard on yourself. I used to try and try to get you to go to parties, but you never wanted to. By the time we graduated, I started thinking you just didn’t like me.”
“I was never much for parties,” Ruth said.
“I was never the sit at home type,” Joan said, smiling.
Ruth was silent.
Joan licked her lips slowly. “I wish you had come to a few, though.”
"Nobody wanted me at any parties," Ruth said, smiling.
"I did," Joan said. Her voice faltered off. Ruth noticed Joan scanning the ravaged lawn, which was now nothing more than a muddy parking lot.
“Do you hear from his father much?” Joan asked.
“Not a bit,” Ruth said without hesitation.
“Do you want to?” Joan asked, hesitantly.
“Not really, no,” Ruth said, more softly this time.
Joan nodded. “I’ve often wondered,” she stopped and looked at Ruth. “How do you do it? How do you manage?”
Ruth shrugged. “I make due.”
Joan nodded again. “You know, I've always been a little jealous of you."
Ruth laughed loud, and then looked at her in shock. "What the hell for?"
"You always seemed so together. It never mattered to you what people thought or anything. You just kept on plugging. When we were younger, I always sort of felt like I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, and you were always so stable. The calm center of the storm.”
Ruth studied her.
“I mean, you know when I went of to college?” She stopped.
“Well I didn’t actually go off to college. I mean, there was a college there, but I didn’t go to it.” She laughed. “I ran off with this guy, this kid; Ben. And when Dad found out, he hunted us down and convinced me to come back. Which wasn’t hard to do, you know, things weren’t going very well.”
“I didn’t know that,” Ruth said.
“No one did. We were going to get married, and have kids, and all that. We were still kids, though." She stopped and glanced at Ruth, who was studying her curiously. "You know, when we were kids, you were always the wild one. Do you remember that time you sprained your ankle falling out of that tree by Johnson’s pond?”
Ruth stared at her in amazement. “No, I don’t, not at all.”
“Remember? There were vines hanging from it, and you wanted to swing out from the tree and drop into the water, but I wouldn’t do it, so you went first to show me there wasn’t anything to be afraid of. And you swung out, but you let go too soon, and you dropped to the ground instead of in the water.”
Ruth laughed and Joan suddenly joined her.
“I had to practically carry you home, you were crying so badly. I thought you were going to die, I was so scared. And after that every time you’d try to get me to swing, I wouldn’t even touch the vine.”
They laughed again.
“Yeah, I do. You know I’d forgotten all about that,” Ruth said.
“Yeah, we used to have a lot of fun when we were young.” Joan stared ahead of her, lost in thought. "I miss that. When we got into high school, everything changed."
"Yeah, I guess it did," Ruth said.
“We’re having the door replaced next Thursday,” Joan said, not looking at Ruth.
“What?” Ruth said, staring at her.
“We can’t stand it, there are just too many people coming here. We can’t have a normal life like this. A Baptist church in Mississippi is giving us two thousand dollars for it.”
“Are you serious?"
"We'd have given it to them for free. Paid them to take it, really."
They were both silent. Finally Joan stood and patted Ruth on the shoulder. “Well,” she said. “I’m neglecting my guests. I’m glad we had this talk, though. Maybe we can get together some time soon, and have lunch.”
Joan walked to the door then stopped and turned back towards Ruth. ”What’d you see, Ruthie?” She asked.
“Nothing,” Ruth said, suddenly embarrassed. “Just a porch light through fancy glass. I tried, though. I really did. Maybe I'm just too much of a sinner."
"Why do you say that?"
Ruth didn't answer. Instead, she said, "I always thought you were pretty together. You seem to be doing all right these days."
"It's nice of you to say, but you don't mean it," Joan said.
"You always have been so worldly."
"Well," Joan said. "I guess that tells you something about the world." She turned to the door again.
"How about you?” Ruth asked quickly. "What'd you see?"
“I'm not sure. At first, I knew it was a cross. More than I knew anything. Then it was three crosses, then there were people on them. But it also looks like a porch light." She paused. "I think, whatever it is, it's done some good, though." She went inside.
Ruth sat on the porch for awhile longer and listened to the crickets dance in the muddy ruts in Joan’s yard. After awhile, she went inside to collect Dewayne.
“I’ve got your casserole dish,” Joan said as they were walking out. Ruth stopped and let Joan catch her.
"How about we get together next week," Ruth said. "Have lunch or something."
Joan's face spread into a smile. "That would be wonderful."
"I'll be at the store, just drop by sometime around noon, and we can go," Ruth said.
"Did you see them?" Dewayne asked as they walked to the car.
"Yeah. I did," he said.
"Well, I can sort of see what you were saying about how they could just be a trick of the light. I mean, I don't think that's what they are, but I see what you mean."
"That's all I ask," Ruth said, squeezing his shoulder.
As they drove home, Dewayne's chattered, drawing Ruth into talking, and finally laughing. He was really a funny kid, she realized not for the first time. Smart, and warm. She was lucky.
CL Bledsoe is the author of two poetry collections, _____(Want/Need) and Anthem. A third colleciton, Riceland, is forthcoming later this year. A chapbook, Goodbye To Noise, is available online at Right Hand Pointing, www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe/ and a mini-chap called Texas is forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press. He has fiction most recently in The Pedestal and Johnny America, and his story "Leaving the Garden" was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 by Story South's Million Writer's Award. He is an editor for Ghoti Magazine, http://www.ghotimag.com
© 2009, CL Bledsoe
© 2009, CL Bledsoe