what changes everything
They are inside the gas station maybe 5 minutes. The girls and I wander in while father and son linger at the pump, and then they follow us in, more efficient, by far, than we. Early morning, and ours is the only vehicle left at at least eight nozzles, though the three dusty spaces beside the squat little building are taken, maybe by the three attendants sitting happy at the counter inside.
One child hungry, possibly hypoglycemic, we fumble in front of a rack of donuts in cellophane packages. The plastic crackles as each of our children select a snack. When it comes to lumps of fried, chocolate-covered sugar, what goes for one goes for all. So we don’t notice the woman at the counter until one of the The Three picks up a microphone and pleasantly requests of the empty store will the owner of our vehicle please move it; someone is blocked.
“Well, clearly that’s us,” Kevin says, and gestures toward the kids, reaching for their packages, moving toward the front.
But Riley misses the gesture and looks blankly at us, having slid the donuts into the pocket of her hooded sweatshirt. For an awkward moment, we blink at one another, trying to decide if she put the donuts back or—What did she do with them? We need to go, we need to go; someone is blocked, we’re thinking, but we don’t want to walk out without paying for the donuts. Kevin finds his voice. “Where are your donuts?” He asks, finally, and Riley slides them out of her pocket and puts them in his hand, and the whole knot of us moves to the counter. And that’s when we see the woman, and all I can remember now is her steel-gray hair and that sneer on her face.
“Are you the owner of that vehicle?” She growls, pointing an angry finger toward the doorway.
Kevin nods, placing the cellophane packages beside the cash register. She doesn’t give him time to speak.
“We have been sitting out there for ten minutes and we can’t get in our out,” She says, and her voice sounds upbraided, aggrevated-red, like her cheeks.
“Oh no,” I say, surprised, wondering what kind of car she could possibly drive not to be able to navigate around us.
The cash register beeps as the attendant keys in the snacks, and the woman turns on her heels and pushes the door open. “That’s just…” she mutters, throwing a hand in the air, but I can’t hear the rest.
Kevin apologizes to the attendant at the register as he unfolds bills from his wallet, explaining that the station had been silent and he’d seen nowhere to park. She tosses a hand down and says, “Don’t worry about it. And if you’re still celebrating, hope y’all have a great weekend.”
“Every day is worth celebrating,” Kevin says and smiles as the kids grab up their donuts from the counter and we quick-foot it out the door, the bell jingling over our heads.
The woman is nowhere to be seen, but I catch sight of their camper the minute we step outside the building, an old hulk of a thing with grass-green stripes. Somehow in those last minutes at the counter, maybe even while that woman had pointed toward the door, the man driving had managed to maneuver around us to the other side of the bank of pumps. Now he stands on the step outside the driver-side door, wild-eyed, and I can see that he’s been waiting for us.
“HEY,” he yells, jabbing a finger toward Kevin, knife sharp. “You the piece of crap who owns this car? You think you’re the only one in a hurry, don’t ya? I’ll tell you what, you don’t think about nobody but yourself, do you?”
Kevin looks at me and then opens his mouth to say something, maybe to apologize, but before he can speak, the man continues, addressing Adam.
“HEY, son, how does it feel to know your dad is a good-for-nothing piece-of-crap”—and there were words now that I won’t even write–“who doesn’t give a crap about nobody but himself? And you and you and you, how does it feel,” he says, jabbing his finger in the air. I look at him only the once, because the mama bear in me is starting to howl, and he crossed one line too far when he started talking to our children. I remember the dirty cap on his head and the way his hair shot out from the sides, gray and wolfish; I remember his beard and those crazy eyes looking ready to pop out of his head, that’s it. All I can think is get the kids in the car, get the kids in the car. Zoe has a hand on Riley’s back, pushing her gently to the car and away, and Kevin wraps an arm around Adam’s shoulders, guiding, turning him toward the car. The man stands on that step just a few feet away, spewing more and more meanness.
“Go ahead,”–foul foul foul—he yells, “just get in your car and leave.”
I don’t know what he wants Kevin to do, and with all the yelling, there’s no space to tell him we’re sorry we were in his way, that we made him wait, that we had no idea he was even outside the station.
“You folks have a blessed day,” Kevin says, low, so low I’m not sure the man even hears with all the sickness falling out of his mouth, tainting the air, slapping up against our hearts.
Kevin takes his time climbing in the car—too long for me, actually–folding in those long, lean legs, settling into the seat. He’s calm like the glassy ocean at low tide, still. I can’t even glimpse the ripples in his soul where this man’s anger fell rock-hard. He looks over at me, pressing his lips carefully closed, and inhales, turning the key in the ignition, and it’s then I can see it’s taken his strength to manage not to sling hurt for hurt.
“It’s a good thing he stayed on that step,” I say, quietly. “Because if he had moved even an inch toward our children…”
“I know,” Kevin says, knowing for me and knowing for him the difference between resolving not to participate in hatred and protecting the innocent.
We drive away stung, having lived under grace so long we’ve not thought much about the world without it.
“I really don’t like it when people are rude,” Riley says, simply.
“What the heck?” Zoe says, looking back toward the gas station. “That guy is crazy.”
“The truth is, whatever he’s angry about has probably very little to do with us,” Kevin says. “He’s hurting somehow–an illness, maybe, or a relationship that’s broken. We should pray for him.” He turns his head just slightly toward the backseat where Zoe sits. “You gonna pray for him?” He asks her.
Hurt people hurt people. It’s something a friend said recently that God slipped right into my heart.
Zoe slides down in the seat, looking baffled, and I don’t blame her. As we drive off, all I want is to get away from that vile man, and in my fuming heart, all I can imagine is me jumping up and down in front of him, shouting how dare you, my own finger staccato on the ends of blunt accusations. And yet you think you’re better than him, Spirit says–Lord, thank you that I am not like that man, right?, and this while pressing holy into me the fact that Jesus would’ve figured out a way to love that man, has infact already loved that very man to death. I loved you at your darkest, He gently reminds, and all that’s left for me is to confess it out loud.
“I’ll pray,” I say, because what else can I possibly do with the knowledge that I am so much not like the Lord I serve? I bow my head, and I’m thinking that we’ve just seen what the world would be apart from the God-with-us coming of Christ. If we all got what we deserved, there’d be nothing but jabbing fingers and condemation for every last one of us.
So I bow my head, and right there as we move through interstate traffic and Kevin changes lanes, I ask for blessing for the man who surprised us with his slicing anger, for the healing of his wrecked heart, for a better day than he had at the start. I ask for the likeness of the Savior who loves that man and also me. I confess that I’m not better at all; I give thanks for the vastness of Love; I ask forgiveness that I am repulsed instead of drawn to a man so parched of mercy. In that man, I confess, I have seen the shadow of my own human nature. Have mercy on me; a sinner.
“What he said is actually true,” Kevin would later say, quiet, looking intently at our children gathered safe around the table. “I am a selfish man who often thinks only of himself.” I want to interrupt, to say no, because I know the gentleness of those hands, the tenderness of that heart. I gather up the man’s sacrifices as love. But in the wake of ugly accusation, I have realized the same truth myself, that the enemy’s assessment of my flawed, sinful heart is accurate, but only painfully so if I fail to recognize the real gift of grace. “But Jesus claims me,” Kevin says, folding his hands in front of him, “and that’s what changes everything.”