Sunday, July 20, 2008

Crime, Punishment and a Heart on Parole

by Zinta Aistars

That sick feeling when you see the red-blue lights flash in your rearview mirror, nothing like it. And the truth of it was—I’ve been a lead foot most of my driving life, only recently reformed. Higher insurance premiums didn’t do it, point systems didn’t matter, and the element of danger of driving at high speeds only added to the seduction. I loved driving fast, simple as that. Higher fuel prices didn’t slow me down, I’m almost ashamed to admit; I am now a bit bratty with enough zeros on my paycheck that, blush, the gas pump takes no bites out of me, in spite of my 110 mile commute each week day. What had slowed me down, at long last, was concern for the planet. I slowed down out of love for Mother Earth. I was a good driver now, even ponderously slow on the road.

But this was dirty play. I so rarely now drove through downtown Kalamazoo since taking on a job in Grand Rapids, 55 miles north of this southwestern Michigan town, that I had forgotten the usual speed traps. Trap, indeed. Coming down Westnedge Hill just outside of town was coasting down a steep hill with an illogical 30 mph speed limit on the down slide. It was impossible to do without standing on the brakes all the way down. And I was riding my brakes. Just not standing on them. The speed limit was installed, I was convinced, for no other reason than to keep the local authorities’ treasury comfortably full.

Rain spilled in my car window the moment I rolled it down. Pulled over in a nearby parking lot, I didn’t mind that the young officer had to stand in the rain while I rummaged through my wallet and glove compartment for license, registration, proof of insurance.

“M’am, do you know how fast you were going?”

His face was emphatic enough. But my pride would never allow me to plead or make my case or ask for leniency. Right now, it was all I could do not to cry, and I was damned if I was going to let this blue man see it.

“No,” I said, pulling my license out of my wallet and handing it over. And I didn’t care. There was no lesson here to learn that I hadn’t learned already.

For years now, my license had been clean. All the points wiped off long ago, and I’d been proud of that. At least when I was pulled over in the past, it was for some respectable speed—105 on the interstate, 60 through thick downtown traffic as I dodged traffic and swerved in and out of packed lanes with glee. I had to admit, there were times that I missed driving that way—the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of the dodge rushing through my body.

Rain slashed across my windshield. I closed the window while I waited for him to write up the ticket. Every day, driving to work, I set the cruise control at the precise speed allowed. At times, even lower. Good for me, good for the environment. This morning, it made no sense to set the speed, and my mind wandered to the chores of the day, a too short weekend to accomplish all that needed to be done when my work week was spent in the office, on the road, sleep, back on the road again. Certainly the long commute had taken a large bite out of my free time. It was difficult to keep up with my friends. My social life was suffering. If I made time on an occasional evening to meet someone for dinner or a drink, to stop by for a visit, it meant getting to bed late and fighting sleep on the road the following morning. The job, sure, was a good one, and the pay had quickly gained the steely hold of golden handcuffs as I put myself on a mission to pay off the debt accrued over the previous, far leaner years. No luxuries for me, only pay pay pay, keeping my eye trained on the goal of eventual freedom and independence. Every payment and extra payment I made now gave me a surge of hope and pleasure, drawing the future I wanted one step closer.

Now this. I flipped the ticket over when he handed it to me, saying something about lowering my speed category to the lowest one—was I supposed to be grateful?—to see the fine I now owed: $110. Unabashed tears streamed down my cheeks to match the rain streaming down my windshield as I pulled back out onto the road, and he back to his trap, waiting for the next feckless prey.

Two points, I repeated to myself, wiping my stoopid tears away with the back of my hand. Now that the officer could no longer see me, I let them fall, let them stream, snuffling like a child. Two frigging points to stay on my record for three more years. Derailed from my dogged efforts to clean my unclean life, leaving all the dirt and trash of the past far behind. Pay the debts, clean up the garbage, throw out the trash. This was more than paying off debts and cleaning up points. I was working hard to clean up my future. I wanted the future to be as different from my past as it could possibly be. For too long, I had lost hope there would be one. My strength and confidence had taken blow after blow on so many fronts. It was all I could do to even know the shape of hope again.

Okay, yes, this was a pity party. I was working to hold back the tears as I neared my mechanic on the other side of town. It was too shameful to walk in to Otto Kihm with my eyes all red-rimmed and weepy. Not that they would mind, those grease-stained boys. I’d been taking my cars to Otto for twelve years. It meant something for me to say I trusted a mechanic. But every time I sought out a second opinion at another garage, they always came in at less, and, more importantly, at better quality. Today was just about an oil change. And I knew, with my employer’s discount, I could get one for half the price in Grand Rapids. But loyalty toward me built my loyalty in return. Trust was something far too scarce in my life these past years. The last man in my life had the cleanest, softest hands I’d ever seen on a man. But he had cheated on me so many times, each time asking forgiveness, only to plow that same row again, that trust was now a word I’d deleted out of my dictionary. So back to a mechanic that told me the truth, and had proven himself trustworthy over the lifespan of five cars. I was this close to declaring my love, grease and all.

Hoping my eyes weren’t noticeably red, I went in to drop my keys on the counter. The short walk from car to office had left me sopping, so if my tears had been momentarily dried, at least the rain running down my face and dripping from my hair would disguise my recent personal storm. Bob’s face lit up in instant recognition. Wasn’t that worth twice the price? That kind of smiling sunshine on a rainy day?

“Hey, Zinta! Long time! Now that you have that new Honda …”

“Yeah,” I nodded, pushing my keys toward him. “So is it okay to go ten thousand miles before an oil change? I have this nifty little indicator on my dash telling me my oil life is still at 15 percent …”

“Sure.” Bob smiled brightly, waving away my concern with a grease -blackened hand. Black smears crisscrossed his blue shirt. He was boss here, but that didn’t keep him from poking his head under the hood. Which is why I liked him. Nothing arrogant about him. Even his voice was soft, shy, kind. No, that wasn’t the only reason why I liked him.

“Those Hondas go forever,” he went on. “And you’re putting on highway miles, anyway. So how’s that drive to GR? Tiring of it yet?”

“Not at all. Well, not much. Mostly, it gives me time to gather my thoughts—“

“Come up with some new poetry, maybe?”

There. That’s why I like Bob. He is a mechanic who reads and loves poetry. How kewl is that? How many grease monkeys know Rainer Marie Rilke? But we’d talked poetry before, and when I tested him on Rilke’s gender—those who didn’t know poetry inevitably made the mistake of thinking the German poet was a female—he passed the test and even quoted a few lines. This is why I am loyal to Bob, why he may be the only man on the planet that I trust today. I even see his eyes flick to the book I’ve set on the counter while we talk, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, his mouth pressing into a line of approval and interest.

He makes time in their busy Saturday morning for my oil change, and I start to move toward the waiting area with book in hand to pass the time when I see that every chair is already taken. But one. Between two big-bellied dudes. I suppress a wince. No way I am squeezing into that tight fit. I look back out the window onto the street. I’ve often walked downtown from here for a quick breakfast while my car is in the garage, but the rain shows no sign of letting up. Indeed, it is pouring now, great sloppy buckets of it, and I want to cry again. Silly. Tears for rain. But I can feel waves of weeping held back inside, held back too long, and I wish for a dark corner somewhere, hidden, so that I can wail out my misery.

I glance back at the bellied dudes. No.

Stuffing my book into my bag to protect it from the wet, I head out into the rain. This is not the best side of town. On a Saturday, everything around here is closed. Only place open is a lone Mickey D’s two blocks down, the one where all the poor saps go, the homeless who have begged just enough for a hot cup of coffee. The Gospel Mission is kitty corner from this fast food joint, and they come over in a steady stream of the hapless and hopeless.

Well, at least I will belong, I tell myself, and I jog across the street. In moments, my hair is as wet as if I’d just stepped out of a shower … into another shower. My T-shirt glues itself to my skin. My sandals slosh in the puddles I can’t seem to avoid. I’m not at all hungry, and the food this sort of place sells, frankly, makes my stomach roil, but the hot java would be good.

I stand dripping in line, waiting for my turn. As expected, I am surrounded by the despairing. Long, tangled beards, torn shirts, hoisted plastic bags of who knows what gathered treasure along roadsides, stained trousers and patched jeans, dirty feet peeking out of battered sneakers. I keep my eyes to myself, pay my buck and six cents for coffee, and turn to find a place to sit, sip and read in silence. But in back, there are more of them, and I wouldn’t mind the filthy clothes so much, but the sullied man who sits down in the booth next to me is having a loud and animated dialogue with his invisible friend. I try to lose myself in the pages of my book, but his diatribe about the approaching days of the end of the world is distracting. He admonishes his unseen companion to hand over his soul and do it now before it is too late. Amen, Lord, amen! Oh, Jesus, he wails, and throws his head back, his arms upward to greet the Lord he seems to already see in His second coming.

I sigh, pick up my book, my bag, my coffee, and get up to look for another place to sit where heaven is not so near. I don’t want to be saved now, I want to wallow. The booths and seats are all full, however, the rain driving all sad souls inside. Ah, no, a booth in the corner, facing the mechanic’s garage. Perfect. I squeeze by and in, plop down and keep my eyes on the garage for a familiar Mecca. Traffic splashes by, unseeing to what is here, speeding, yes, speeding, with no one to stop them. Why did I have to be so unlucky this morning? I ponder, prying the lid off my coffee. It’s searing hot and I want it to cool quicker. I spot … is it a small black hair? on the rim. And suddenly, just like that, trigger hair instant, I am weeping again.

For speeding tickets and wasted funds that could have gone to better purpose. For the loneliness of a rainy morning in a seedy fast food joint. For all the meanness inflicted on me by uncaring hearts that make me feel, at least this morning, that I may never recover from so many broken places, that as soon as I think myself clear, someone or something will pull me over again and hand me a reminder. Pay. Keep paying. For your own far too many sins. For your far too expansive foolishness. For your stupidity in trusting the untrustworthy. For failing at all that matters. Pay. For debts accrued over years and years of struggle, most of which came to nothing. Pay. Keep paying. There is no end. Change the oil, and in ten thousand miles, you will have to do it all again.

My heart is too tired to complain at the counter. I shove the tainted joe away from me, open the book in front of me, but stare out at the pouring rain. Across the street, in no rush or effort to evade the open sky, another homeless man wanders, his arms waving in great gestures. Now and then, he stops, and it is clear that he sees someone standing before him, although I see no one there. He nods his head in agreement to some tidbit of conversation only he can hear. His hands go up in a gesture of acknowledgement. Perhaps on this soaked morning, he is less lonely than I, having found conversation with a companion who is endlessly fascinated with all that he has to say. I watch him for a long while through the rain, wondering at the wisdom he is surely passing on to his imagined companion.


I realize then, I’ve said the word aloud. Which doesn’t make me stick out from this crowd at all. I fit in. I am the brat, the spoiled brat, and I know it, have no argument against it, not one point in my own defense. The hard truth is that I am now in a place in my life where I can pay the $110 fine and not even feel it. Write the check and forget it. All too well, I remember the time when that kind of money meant groceries for a month, even more, for myself and my children. A ticket like this, unforeseen, would have meant near impossible struggle to create out of nothing nutritious meals for growing bodies. A small miracle, and maybe not so small, that my children had grown up healthy and strong and bright in spirit and mind.


But I wept nonetheless, the tears raining down from my eyes and plopping onto the open pages of my book. It was a book that had instantly nailed my attention to its true tale of a man whose mission had become to build a school for poor children in Pakistan, repaying kindness when he had entered the town lost and worn, dirty and tired, from a failed mountain climb. The townspeople, who had never seen an American, surrounded him with care. Food, hot tea, warm blankets for a bed, and human kindness. When he saw later that the town had no school, that the children knelt in the dust and scratched numbers and letters with sticks in the dirt, even as they had no teacher, so hungry were they to learn … he promised to return and build them a school. Even though he himself had no money. He had the faith and the will, and he created the opportunity. While his own government fought terrorism, real or imagined, with the violence of war, he fought with kindness returned.

From my rain smeared window, I could see my blue car pull back out into the parking lot at the mechanic’s. Ready. I could go back now. I could go back to my life.

Stuffing my book once again into my bag, leaving my undrunk coffee behind, I ran back out into the rain. I jogged across the street toward the gesturing man. He didn’t notice me standing in front of him, his eyes still trained on the face of his invisible friend. I wondered at all these invisible poor that walk our streets as I rummaged in my bag, rain spilling into it. Those we can see, if only we would look, and their many unseen friends to ease the loneliness. We all needed someone to talk to. Someone to hear us, to notice us when we cry.

I stuffed the wad of bills into his hand, holding it still for a moment in mine. “You can buy yourself some hot coffee over there,” I said, nodding my head to the Mickey D’s behind me. “And some food for you and your friend. Get out of the rain for a while.”

I glanced back again just before entering the dry lobby of Otto Kihm. He was still standing there, in the rain, both arms raised to the wet heavens.

No comments:

Post a Comment