True Story


My little writing office is downtown, and I’m so glad because writing a book tends to land me for days in the recesses of memory. When words are coming, my thoughts teeter more on the inside of the chapter than they do on the outside where actual other humans live in the present tense.

Today the sky is all blue, and the wind makes the trees do a tiny shimmy. I’m wearing my boots and a sweater. My words hit a slow spot, so I decided to take a walk for coffee, and the walking trail is right outside here. It’s a short walk to one of my favorite shops in town.

I walked on the backside of the Walton Art Center parking lot, where apparently something huge is happening, and I had no clue. There’s an outdoor stage, and many businesses in town are setting up shop. I had never seen so many porta-potties.  “Ah,” I remembered, “It’s Bikes, Blues, and Barbeque this weekend,” when the ground rattles under hundreds of thousands of motorcycles descending in such a consuming herd that the whole town claps and has to get slobberknocked to live through it.

There were a lot of convicts in striped suits helping with set up, and if I were a jail bird, this is the job I would want, too, a taste of summer on the edge of fall, the blooms, how the passenger train blows through. I wonder if in their work and in the wind that blows on us all, do they forget their sentence for a minute?

I haven’t mentioned my book in a while, how I pushed my deadline back a few months for our move. Until last week, since June, I have only worked on one single chapter. I worked until I hated it. I couldn’t seem to get it right. It fell flatter and flatter with every word. It took these months to learn some deeper things, to know that I hadn’t been trying to tell the real story at all. I had no idea that I was trying to make it more beautiful. I was writing something into my story that wasn’t true, and when I saw what the story really was, the life came back into my words.

It’s weird how we do that sometimes. We live thinking we’re doing perfectly well, thinking the sky is all blue, but really we’re just ignoring the shadows. Really we’re like the jailbirds who forget to look down at the clothes on our backs.

It’s easy to see when others do it, like when someone is consistently manipulative, but you can stand back from it enough to know that she has no idea she’s doing it. Sometimes we’re just not ready to acknowledge what we are, the beauty or the darkness. Sometimes the blind spot grows over the whole vision.

The coffee shop was throbbing with conversation, and right by the train tracks were three of the sweetest young girls at a picnic table, their Bibles splayed and journals stacked high. I could hear one talking from the next building over. She said, “I mean, they are almost there. They’re just this close. I just want to scream that all they need is Jesus, and then they’ll get their acts together!”

I wondered what act of togetherness she meant. I wondered if years from now she’ll lean on the very girls she had deemed not close enough. How close to Jesus is she now, with that beautiful skin, not a wrinkle of suffering about her?

On my way back to the office, there at the corner along where some snacks will be, a man stopped his conversation, saw me walking close, and had a switch happen in his eyes, a head cock, a hunger, and a smile crawl up the side of his lips. The air gathered up around him as under blown wings, and he stepped toward me like how a raven does on the dead. The fight in me doesn’t ask my brain the right thing to do sometimes, so I stepped toward him, too, and looked him right alive in the eyes. I am still learning how to say that I am no prey. It was only noon.

On a normal occasion that man may love his mama and be good at taking out the trash. He probably makes a mean funnel cake or bag of popcorn, whatever, but today he craved something else. Next Monday he’ll put on his work pants and go on like a thousand lifeless ghosts had passed him by. There’ll be not so much as a memory of me, not even the flash of light from my eyes.

But that doesn’t make his story true. That doesn’t mean I didn’t see black wings, that I haven’t memorized his face.

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