The year expired with a final gasp of well-wishing by millions to whoever else would listen. It expelled bursts of burning color into the sky, decorating black cities across the globe with dancing displays of light and crackles and booms. Today, the empty lungs of the New Year attempt in inhale enough breath just to get up and resume life again. The cares of the upcoming new work week begin to seep into my dreams at night and just a little even during the day. The taste of cheese and wine fades as the morning treats of more cheese and eggs and tea and coffee arouse me to the gray, barren winter morning. My warm robe covers a tired body as the smell of soap washes life onto my face. Then the aroma of coffee lifts my spirit a bit. The kazoo-like cacophony of curious strutting bands in Philadelphia twangs out of the TV speakers. The New Year begins, while thoughts of suffering or even dying friends remind me that no, the new year will not be happy or prosperous for all. Only assurance of eternity with the risen Jesus--who punched death a knock-out blow--can provide that.
Mom and I walked up to the shiny glass meat counter of the small grocery store in town. Behind the counter, three men, dressed in white shirts and pants and wrapped with white aprons, all were busy chopping, weighing, wrapping and taping packages of meat. Mom began her order: four Delmonico steaks, something about chicken, and chipped beef. I looked eagerly at Tony, the owner of the business. He presided behind the counter. His shiny black hair and smiling face always made me feel good. Sure enough, he looked at me and invited me back behind the counter. I pushed open the forbidden door to a storage area, walked a few steps around to the backstage area of this production. I stepped onto the floor covered in sawdust. Then, in a ritual not unlike a Mass where Tony was the priest, he lifted me up onto the altar of a butcher block where I got to sit and watch. There, on the stage, I looked out at the customers smiling at me, a six year old kid, and feel immensely important under their gaze. The smell of fresh meat under the thump of cleavers made this all so fresh, productive, and exhilarating. Out in the aisles, I could see women in trench coats with purses on their arms picking through cans on shelves, looking at prices and carefully deciding what to put in their little carts. The roll of white paper next to me spun out a smooth sheet that Tony tore off with a rip. He spread it out on the counter where he carefully placed the steaks, glistening dark red, and wrapped them in perfect tightness and folded order, secured with a strip of masking tape. On the package, he wrote with a black marker that I could smell from my distance. "Anything else Margaret?" he asked and she said "That's all. Thanks." He lifted me down, and I slid my feet along the sawdust one last time, just because I liked the feel of it, and out I went, back off the stage into the store.
The cold dawn air squeezes through the woven wool blanket that wraps him on the grass floor. Children can sleep through anything. But the automatic shivers refuse to let him sleep any longer. In the dark hut, he sees through a gap in the cloth door. There, in the sky towards the east, he sees the color change from dark ink to a more intense blue. He decides to get up, fumble around for his longer pants on the floor and pull them over his skinny legs and bony hips. He finds the long-sleeved cotton shirt, dirty but warm, and pulls it over his frame. He slowly, carefully, steps over the grass floor, each step crackling and causing the others to turn in their places. Slipping through the doorway, he walks out onto the grassy path and makes his way down to the beach. The tide is thankfully low, exposing the bounty of things it deposited over night. The sea slaps against a few nearby rocks, but is otherwise calm as a lake. The salty stench of drying seaweed fills the still morning air. Happily, he seems to be earlier than the scavenging birds that will soon be picking over the morsels, too. He finds a few crawfish, then a conch with meat still in it. Some seaweed will be useful to keep his insides moving. With a basket of finds in his arm, he proudly goes back to the hut where he can show his waking family what he got to start the day.
We eased through the peeling white picket fence gate. The yard was a knot of wild growth--former beauty according to a plan, but now, like unruly children, was having its way. We pulled the iron knocker on the little stucco bungalow and let the metallic thump announce our arrival. We could hear her chanting as she approached the door in a sing-song voice that could annoy or bring a smile to my face, depending on how I felt about the piercing tone. She struggled a to pull the big old door open, but soon enough, there she was in her bright glory thrilled to see us. She pulled us in with the force of her command. Inside, the smell of oldness could not hide the aroma of something cooking in the kitchen. The cozy house was crammed with a lifetime of possessions that seemed to have doubled since her sons and husband left years ago. But the focus of her life, and most interesting to us, was the paintings everywhere. On the dining table, one lay on its back, resting from her exhausting application of impasto piles of acrylic paint. More canvases stood on the buffet and hung on the walls. She directed us into the sun room where we were guests to the multitude of works both complete and in-progress. Here she was, in the final chapter of her life--alone and filling her days with beauty that she created with her hand from visions in her mind of the world around her. And soon, she would see it all more clearly when she joined Jesus in heaven where she would receive a welcome greeting.
I awake, as I usually do at the nagging of my bladder, at around four in the morning. Only this time, the harsh cutting stench of skunk fills the air. For a moment, in my cloudy confusion, I wonder if the creature had broken into the house. Shaking off that nonsense, I just groan inside. I do my usual windmill move to throw myself from my back to one foot landing on the floor next to my side of the bed. Landing successfully, I stagger out of the room and down the hallway, left hand feeling the wall along the way so as not to slam into a door jamb or worse, hurl down the stairway opening that gaped ahead on my left. The smell in the hallway is a little less intense as my brain quickly computes that the rodent's vile emission must have occurred a little while ago. Into the dark bathroom, I take care of the real reason for my nocturnal journey, trying my best not to let my brain start processing a million thoughts and sequences. I desperately hope for another two hours' sleep. I stagger back down the dark hall, find my side of the bed, and gently ease in to avoid disturbing my sleeping bride of three decades.