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June 1, 2007

1721 words

FIRST DANCE

 

"Be-bop ‘til you drop" read the flyer posted on the bulletin board beside her locker. "Retro Sock Hop to feature music of the 50's and 60's. Come enjoy fave hits by Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and others...." Sasha closed her eyes and let her mind drift back in time to when she was a little girl, back to the days when life was sweet and good...before her father left in search of a life with no responsibilities. I was only four then so Daddy swung me in the air more often than my feet touched the floor. Whirling in a circle was such a glorious feeling. I felt safe and secure and exhilarated all at the same time.

Even now, twelve years later, the memory still evoked peaceful feelings of contentment in her heart, despite the reality that neither she nor her mother had heard from her father during the last ten years. The last postcard had been postmarked Maui, Hawaii, and said simply, "The surfing here is awesome!" with a picture of palm trees on the front.

Sasha’s mind skipped ahead in time to the present. That cute boy with the red hair in my home room.... What would it be like to dance with him?"Hey, Sasha!" Jenna barreled down the hallway, stopping just short of Sasha’s book bag. "We’d better hurry or we’ll miss the bus!"

Reality crashed through her thought process like the Maui surf hits the island’s edge. As Jenna took off again, Sasha began walking. She quickened her pace as she neared the filled buses. The bus drivers were completing their safety inspections in preparation for departure. Lucky for me that Jenna came by. She saved me from missing the bus and having to wait two hours for Mom to get off work.

Once seated, Jenna proceeded to describe her entire day to all who would listen. Sasha placed one ear against the window, and nodded her blonde head at appropriate intervals as the bumps of the bus lulled her into a relaxed slouch.

It was hard to pay attention to Jenna when her mind insisted on thinking about the dance. The boy with the red hair...freckles scattered across his nose...what would it be like to be held tightly in his arms? Will he ask me? What if no one asks?

Today, at lunch, she had finally gotten the nerve to ask him whom he planned on taking. He had said he had not asked anybody to the dance yet. *****

The following Friday, the day of the dance, Sasha felt the inevitable had happened. All the girls had dates for the dance–except her. Maybe I’m fat. Or it could be because I have braces on my teeth. That’s it! Nobody wants to ask a fat, metal-mouth to be their date for the school dance. So should I skip the dance? Riding home on the bus that afternoon, Jenna said, "Sasha, maybe Robbie would go with you!" Robbie?

Sasha had never considered this possibility. A year older than his sister, Jenna, he deigned to talk to Sasha only when food was present. He would appear like magic in the kitchen while they waited for a pizza delivery. After swiping a plateful of the hot, fresh pepperoni pizza, he would park himself on the living room couch to eat. As each girl arrived for Jenna’s ritual weekend sleepover, he would tease her mercilessly until she escaped upstairs, pizza in hand.

"Robbie? Go with me? Tonight? Maybe I should just skip the dance." Sasha frowned with exasperation, her voice harsh as she answered Jenna.

"Oh, Sasha, NO!! That would mean not getting to wear your soft blue poodle skirt and sweater that match your eyes!"

The white poodle, dressed up with pink bows and leash, had a sparkly rhinestone eye to match Sasha’s favorite hair barrette. Creating this skirt for the dance had occupied every Saturday afternoon for the last month, the most extensive mother-daughter project Sasha and her mother had ever attempted. Jenna has a point. Mom and I did work hard to have my skirt ready in time. Well, it’s either skip the dance or go alone. Mom said it was called "going stag" in the old days.

Oh, what to do? The dance is tonight. If Robbie is to be my date, I’ll have to ask him now.The bus stopped in front of her house. She had to make a decision. Sasha blurted out, "Well, I don’t want to go with Robbie! All he’s ever done is annoy us!"

Jumping up from her seat, Sasha propelled herself off the bus without further comment, biting her lip and frowning. I’d rather go to the dance alone than deal with Robbie’s teasing. If I missed a step or he didn’t like my clothes, I’d hear about it all evening!

*****Sasha arrived at the dance five minutes early and was amazed at the transformation wrought by her classmates that afternoon. The decorating committee had outdone themselves. The stage was covered with balloon orbs of multiple hues. A 1950's era jukebox was connected to large speakers in each corner of the large room. The refreshments table was decorated with 33 rpm vinyl records. Ribbons strung from the ceiling dangled 45 rpm records at intervals across the open "dance floor" area. A few tables at the back to provide seating gave the only hint as to the usual purpose of this area of the school.

Scanning the crowd of students gathered in groups here and there, Sasha soon located Jenna and her date. They were hard to miss. Jenna had a scarf tied into a large bow on her bouncy ponytail of dark hair. It matched her pink poodle skirt and sweater, identical to Sasha’s blue outfit. Jenna’s date, Jake, had his hair slicked back and wore a button-down shirt and dress slacks with pointy-toe shoes he had rented from the costume shop. They had already claimed the table closest to the front with prime access to the refreshment table.

As Sasha sat down, Patrick, the boy with the red hair, stepped out of a group of students at the refreshment table. Sasha noted that Patrick’s blue jeans and white shirt made his hair look twice as red as usual. Otherwise, he looked the same as any other school day, but her stomach still flip-flopped as she said, "Want to share this table with us? I’m sure Jenna and Jake won’t mind. You can dance the first dance with me."

Sasha tried to relax as she waited for the dancing to begin. Patrick had chosen to roam from one table to the next but did agree to dance the first dance with her.Why do I feel so nervous? I’m going to have the partner I have been dreaming of.As the first song began to trickle out of the oversized speakers, Patrick and Sasha met on the dance floor. Still nervous, Sasha was grateful for the upbeat tempo that required them to dance separately. Concentrating on keeping her feet in time with her arms eased her nervousness somewhat, freeing her mind to observe others. Why is Patrick watching the couple on the other side of the room? That girl’s good! She dances much better than I do!

Her earlier nervousness sashayed back to tango with embarrassment.

Would he rather be dancing with her? Does he think I’m not good enough? It’s obvious she has danced a lot more than I have.With no apparent warning, Sasha raced off the dance floor, down the hallway towards the restrooms. Jenna and Jake, checking out the refreshment table, felt the rush of air as she whizzed by them.

"What’s wrong with her?" asked Jake.

"I don’t know," replied Jenna. "She just left Patrick out there on the dance floor, wondering what’s happening. Look at him. He doesn’t know whether to go after her or keep dancing."

"Maybe she’s sick or something. Go check on her, Jenna."

Distracted by Sasha’s hasty departure, Jenna had not noticed Robbie entering the dance floor through the side door. Neither did she see his face contort with concern as he noticed Sasha fly out of the cafeteria. Thus, she was quite surprised to see him chasing after Sasha in the hallway. As Robbie reached out to grab her friend’s shoulder, Jenna stood still and watched with fascination. One more corner and Sasha would have been able to flee into the girls’ restroom.

"Talk to me, Sasha! What’s wrong?"

Sasha caught a glimpse of Robbie’s rugged, suntanned features as he spun her towards him. His face mirrored uncharacteristic compassion as he realized Sasha was crying. Relief mixed with the frustration of her earlier emotions as she cried out, "Leave me alone! Let me go!"

Robbie held tight as Sasha flailed helplessly, tears streaming down her face as she tried to free herself from his grasp.

"Sasha, you almost ran into me! Tell me what’s wrong." Robbie spoke soothingly as he refused to let go. Gradually, Sasha calmed down and confessed that she had caught Patrick watching another girl. She also admitted, between sniffles, her fear that she wasn’t any good at dancing.

"You dance just fine, Sasha! Come back to the dance and be my partner."

Sasha considered his words. This was a different side of Robbie, one that she had never seen before. She couldn’t help but be intrigued.

"Okay, Robbie," Sasha replied. "I need to apologize to Patrick, though, for running out on him."

"I’ll meet you at Jenna’s table," Robbie suggested.

Sasha gave her face a quick wash in the restroom before returning to the dance. As she entered the cafeteria, Jenna and Jake were entertaining Robbie as they waited for her. Patrick and the unknown dancer were nowhere to be seen. I guess they left together. Well, at least I don’t have to apologize to Patrick now.

Sasha was surprised when she enjoyed the remainder of the dance. Somehow it didn’t matter anymore that the other girl was with Patrick.Dancing in Robbie’s arms feels just like dancing with Daddy. I never thought I would feel so peaceful and contented with Robbie. I’m so glad that I came...that he came.... Maybe he will kiss me goodnight....

March 1, 2007

1855 words

(Submitted to Living Waters Publishing Company, 12-30-07)

 

TATER TORNADO

 

The tornado ripped through the county of Coffee, gale force winds and pounding rain evidence of its intention to wipe Ozark off the map. Hiding in the shelter of the storm cellar, Thomas "Tater Tom" Grishum watched through the peephole as the barn disintegrated into irregular pieces as the twister sucked it up. Potatoes flew through the air, hurled like missiles from within. Terrified and amazed at the same time, he saw pieces scatter as the tractor bounced across the farm, after being dropped from the cyclonic winds.

He wondered about his son. Is he okay? Where is he? What will I do if I lose him, too? He’s our only child. Unbidden, the heated conversation that allowed last night’s chicken dinner to turn cold came to mind.

"No way, Dad. I’m not helpin’ ya dig those blasted potatoes another year. Mom’s been dead fer three years now. It’s time I follow my own dreams."

"Where will you go, Son? That truck o’ yours ain’t got many more miles left on it. What are ya wantin’ to do that you can’t do here?"

"I’m goin’ into the city ta study computers. I want ta learn how ta program ‘em and make ‘em do what people want ‘em ta do. It’s gettin’ ta where even a farmer’s gonna need ta know how ta use a computer. I don’t mind doin’ ya bookwork for ya, but I’m packed and ready ta go and I have a room waitin’ for me at the college. Ya can come see me after the taters‘re dug up."

Yeah, farm work nevah had been his cuppa tea, as Peony Lou always said. I nevah realized how much he hated plowin’ a field or diggin’ potatoes. He refused to stay even one more night. If he had, I wouldn’t be worryin’ about him now.

The high winds bounced around the countryside, sucking up bits of trees, buildings, and personal belongings, then dropping them in their wake. Oblivious, Tom continued his review of the night before, losing track of time. Haunting memories played in his mind, as persistent as the rain and wind. The dreams that had tormented his night were still vivid.

I was more lonely last night than ever before. How could they both abandon me like that? Peony Lou begged me not to go to the fields that day. I should have stayed with her, but it was planting season and all I could think of was my potatoes. Could I have saved her?

When golden fingers had streaked the pinkish dawn sky, he’d slipped out to the barn. There was no indication then of pending storms. The beckoning farm duties provided a welcome relief from his failed attempts to sleep, alone in the big house, with memories of his family in every room.
The coroner said the heart attack dropped her to the floor. When she fell over the washtub, she twisted her leg bad and snapped the bone in her arm as she landed. Maybe if I had been there....I’ll never forget the sight of her twisted, broken body and her sightless eyes, laying there on the kitchen floor with supper boiling on the stove. That was the worst evening of my entire life. What was the woman doin’? Tryin’ to wash clothes and cook dinner at the same time?

A sudden series of noises distracted him. Peering out, he saw his white-haired neighbor running towards the house. He realized the winds had lessened dramatically. Flinging open the cellar door, he called Pete to shelter, momentarily suspending his reveries.

"Thomas, it’s bad...my whole house is gone, just like your barn....I was under the grain bin, tryin’ to fix a hole that kept leakin’ my grain out. I guess the good Lord didn’t want me yet because the grain bin and my barn didn’t get touched. I watched my house disappear in a matter of seconds, right before it moved on to your barn. I know we had words after Peony Lou died, but I had to make sure you were all right."

Listening to his neighbor’s gravelly voice, Tom was touched by the sincerity of the man’s tone. His clear blue eyes reflected his concern for Tom. Pete’s mention of the Lord, though, shut Tom’s brain down, rendering him mute.

Where has the Lord been these last years as I've struggled to recover from one disaster after another? Where was He when my "Sweet Pea" was dying? Why didn’t He help her live instead of taking her away from me?

As Pete’s eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the storm shelter, he noticed the glazed, vacant stare in Tom’s dark, brooding eyes below the thatch of brown hair. "Talk to me, Thomas. What’s wrong? We go back too many years and I know you too well. What is it?"

Tom thought back to the storms of life he and Pete had weathered over the last four years. First, the barn collapsed and had to be rebuilt, then the well caved in. A few months after the new well was completely dug, the roof rotted out on the house. They’d had no idea the worst was yet to come and that Peony Lou would die within the next year.

As the winds abated, Tom wandered out to the yard and fell to his knees with grief. He wasn’t ready to talk to Pete.

I’ve lost too much already these last years. Now, I lose my barn and tractor, too? Hands raised to the heavens, he cried out in anguish, "Whhyyyy? What next?" He held his head in his hands. I can’t handle any more, God. Please let my son be okay.

Sprawled in the mud, Tom hung his head and thought of that first harvest after Peony Lou’s death, when his heart was still raw.

It was endless weeks that I endured neighbors traipsin’ through my house, bringin’ homemade bread or pots of stew their wives made. Why couldn’t they understand I just wanted my "Sweet Pea" back? Nobody could cook as good as my Peony Lou.
His brusque, almost hateful, terse replies had sufficiently scared them all away, though, over time. Thus, when the tractor quit just before harvest, Tom wasn’t sure if anyone would be willing to help him. Burying Peony Lou had depleted their remaining savings. The amount had been meager after all the repairs necessary during the year prior to her death, and his "Sweet Pea" deserved the best he could give. It appeared that the prize-winner potatoes would rot in the ground that year. None of the neighbors ever came by anymore, except Pete.

It was Pete who came to my rescue each time, Thomas realized. Pete helped me to rebuild the barn. He helped me dig the new well, and repair the house. He even loaned me a tractor when I had no money to make repairs on my own. If it wasn’t for Pete, I wouldn’t have been able to salvage any of my crop to store in the barn. There wouldn’t have been any potatoes planted these last few years.

"Thomas!"

Pete’s voice sounded miles away to the grieving man, soaked to the skin and sitting in a puddle.

"Thomas, come back to the cellar. It isn’t safe to be out."

Tom slowly rose and, stumbling, made his way back to the six-foot-square dirt room under the ground. He accepted Pete’s hand to steady himself as he stepped through the opening. Voice shaking, he told Pete, "The tornado is the final strike. I can’t handle any more. I thought the barn was sturdy enough to withstand anything, but it’s gone. First Peony Lou, now my barn."

"Thomas, we built that barn as sturdy as we could make it, but there’s one thing stronger than anythin’ man-made. It’s not for us to know why God would allow the storm to take your barn, or my house, but we know that He will never leave us. He is evah-present, even in our times of trouble. It isn’t a coincidence that your small, red-skinned, "new" potatoes became State Fair prize-winners the year after Peony Lou died. Them havin’ fewer eyes than any other potato in the state of Alabama is a gift from God, a gift that allowed you to get top-dollah for all your potatoes these last coupla years, so you could get your tractor fixed and put some money away agin."

Pete’s right, Tom thought. So far, no one has been able to grow my special style of potatah. The extra money has been a blessin.’

Pete’s company proved cathartic for Tom as they discussed plans to rebuild. When the rain and wind stopped and the sky cleared, they exited the storm cellar in the waning afternoon sun. They splashed through puddles as they dodged tree limbs, sections of buildings, and personal belongings never seen before.

Tom closed his eyes as the emotional pain intensified. Other people suffered losses, too. Are they all right, God? Did anyone die? I know how much it hurts to lose someone you love unexpectedly. When he opened his eyes, he noticed a basket of colored eggs sitting before him. On closer inspection, he realized little trinkets or messages were attached.

At the top of the pile, a blue egg with a tiny carved wooden cross attached bore the message, "I died for you."

Beneath it, a yellow egg with a heart of red proclaimed, "I love you."

Next, he picked up a pink egg that stated, "Your sins are forgiven."

An orange egg commanded, "Do not be afraid."

A pale lavender egg promised, "I will never leave you."

The last egg, colored green, asked the question, "Who Am I? Do you remember me?"

Holding that green egg, Tom experienced a feeling of peace he had not felt in years.

I understand what Pete was trying to tell me now. Hope in Christ allows him to see new life with the dawn of each new day. We are not alone.

Throughout the following week, neighbors offered assistance to remove the scattered debris. Volunteers arrived to gather bruised potatoes for donation to food banks. No one ever mentioned the basket of eggs. Who brought it?

Seven days after the twister struck, a hard rain hampered cleanup all day. During the afternoon, the sun popped out, followed by a rainbow.

That’s the answer. God placed that basket on my property, by way of the tornado, with its egg messages intact. The basket of eggs and the rainbow both are signs of His love.

Oh, God, please deliver my son home safe and sound. The rain and the sun will bring new crop growth from the winter ground. Allow me to give my son the same.


Late that night, Tom’s son returned home, pleasantly surprised by the change in his father’s demeanor. As the spring storms and flooding receded, so, too, the storms of life in Coffee county regenerated. Family relationships strengthened in the wake of hardships shared and newfound faith in God, shared through Christian love by those who assisted them to rebuild.

 

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