tagNon-EroticHow Big the Ocean?

How Big the Ocean?


"Just don't—"

"Screw it up again?" I nearly yelled into the cell phone. I wasn't angry; it was just hard to talk over the crying in the backseat. I actually laughed.

"I didn't mean that," Helen answered in a wounded voice. "It's just that you can be so . . . so . . ."

"Flighty?" I offered, accompanied by a snort. I turned my head and told the two girls back there to pipe down, but that had no effect at all. You can't reason with a Siamese cat being subjected to something it didn't choose.

"Sandra!" Helen said. I always knew when she'd had enough. She called me Sandra rather than Sandi.

"I'm just kidding you," I responded. "I know you've pulled strings—yet again—to get me this job interview. I think the world of you for doing this, and I promise I'll get there on time . . . if I can."

"S-a-n-d-r-a . . . are those children I hear crying in the background? Have you gone off track again?"

"Sorry, hon, gotta go. I think my exit is coming up." I shut down the phone and argued with myself on whether this was the exit for the Siamese rescue center. It was, but I hadn't decided that in time, and now I'd have to go to the next exit and turn back. And I was already running late for getting to that interview. Darn!

It was great that Helen had gotten me this interview. She'd always been the steady one. We'd been inseparable through seminary, where we were both preparing to be ministers of education, but then Helen had sailed steadily toward the harbor, and I'd had to row double time just to stay on the surface of the water. "You'll never make it anywhere, if you don't apply yourself and find good jobs in churches," Helen had constantly said. And she was right, I hadn't gone anywhere.

Helen had moved up quickly in her jobs—saved souls and gathered accolades. She even drove a nice big black Buick. And I had yet to be placed in a church job at all. I was a failure as a Christian. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's right when I was being anointed, and taking care of her short-circuited my first—and only—church appointment. As hard as Helen had tried to help get me into church positions since my mother passed, I was still on the outside looking in.

Helen would have had a fit if she'd known that I had agreed to get these cats to the Siamese rescue center on my way to this job interview Helen had gotten for me in a big church in a university town. But the center was on my way—well, not more than fifty miles out of the way—and we were coming on to Christmas. This was high season for placing cats in homes. These little girls in the backseat needed every opportunity possible to find a home by Christmas.

As it turned out, either my maps weren't too helpful or I was busy cajoling the cats when I should have been looking at the road, because it took far too long to find the rescue center, and then I had to move my old rattletrap beyond its endurance to make the university town in time. I headed for the center of town, knowing the church was near there, and after circling around for a while, I found, by driving right up to the edge of it and running out of road, that they had bricked over their main street to make a nifty walking mall.

I never asked, but Shantay must have really thought I was a sight when she came upon me as I sat there in my dusty Civic, watching the minutes between where I was and where I needed to be fritter away, where the asphalt was divided from red brick by a couple of metal barriers. I was looking bewilderedly at the flickering fairy lights in the trees on the pedestrian mall in the waning light of day when Shantay hefted her ample bosoms on the passenger windowsill and scrunched her ebony face down to where she could look me in the eye. Her hair radiated in gray and black wisps from a wrinkled, expressive face that managed to display humor and slight concern simultaneously.

Sensing her presence, I looked up into the face of a woman who looked just about as far down on her luck as possible, and every good intention I had of making that job interview in seven more minutes was shattered when she put on a sympathetic expression and said, "You all right, honey? Do you need help?"

She was asking me if I needed help.

Shantay—who had been quick to tell me that was her name—was wheezing so hard when she asked this that I was bewildered at how she could help me. From what I could see, the only reason she was half standing was because she was propped against the side of my car. And yet she seemed to be genuinely concerned about me.

I told her what church I was looking for, and she wrinkled up her nose but did turn and point up the hill behind me—where the church quite obviously was perched.

"Thanks," I said. "But why the hesitancy?"

"Not my first choice of churches," Shantay answered through hard breathing. "I used to sleep up there under their portico, but then they put in steel grates to keep us from doin' that. Usually sleep over by the library now. There's room over there, if—"

"No thanks," I answered. "I have a room reserved for the night. In fact—"

It was an instantaneous decision, one of those flighty acts of mine that always sent Helen into mumbling and grumbling. But it was getting dark, and I suddenly wasn't so sure I wanted to work at that church anyway.

It was getting to where it was decidedly cool at night even here in the South—we were entering the Christmas season, and Shantay was looking pretty delicate despite her massive bulk. So I told her I'd love to share her graciously offered space with her, but I already had two rooms reserved down at the Days Inn, and I couldn't see why either of them should go to waste, so why didn't she take one of those rooms for the night and, if she would, perhaps she could come to dinner with me—that I really hated to eat alone.

Shantay said nothing when I went into the motel office, praying all the way that they had two rooms available, which they did. I got the impression while we ate that evening at the Red Lobster restaurant attached to the motel that it had been some time since Shantay had gotten a good meal.

I wasn't dumb enough to think Shantay didn't understand I hadn't really reserved two rooms at the Day's Inn or couldn't eat a dinner alone. But she handled it just right. She was a real Christmas gift to me. She was a great conversationalist and could conjure up a basic truth faster and clearer than anyone who had taught me at the seminary. She was always ready to laugh even when she knew it would finish off in a painful cough—a cough I had heard too often before and knew where that would lead too soon. I wished that everyone could face the inevitable as well as Shantay was doing.

We got into talking about Christmas and Christmas gifts, and I asked her what she had always wanted and never gotten. She sat and thought and chewed and coughed for a long minute.

"Well, you know," she said after the coughing fit had passed, "I've had about everything I needed in life. But if I had a choice of a Christmas present, I do believe I'd ask to see the ocean. I've never seen that and I'm told it's just over yonder. And I'm told it's pretty big. Yes, I think I'd like to see the ocean before I die."

I didn't like the look she gave when the subject of death came up, so I quickly said that I had never seen the Atlantic myself and had, in fact, left the Midwest with the intention of seeing the eastern shore and was just then on my way to getting that done.

Toward late afternoon of the next day, Shantay and I pulled up next to the sand at the poorer end of Virginia Beach. Shantay was a lot weaker by then than she had been the previous day, and I now understood why I had thrown that wheelchair into the trunk of the Civic back in Indianapolis after looking after Mrs. Bates to the end rather than leaving it behind as the neighbors had suggested.

As I wheeled Shantay out onto the sand as far as the wheelchair could go, she was giving off little clucking sounds and an occasional "Oh, my." It eventually got dark enough that we could barely see the water, but still Shantay sat there and stared out to sea. After a long stretch of silence, she gave a larger sigh than normal, trailing off into a disturbing cough, and allowed as how it was a very nice ocean but not quite as big as she had thought it would be. The deep smile lines on her face, however, belied any disappointment she might have expressed.

I was able to find a small rundown cottage just off the beach that, along with a few others, rented by the day. Shantay died three days later, but we had managed to get out on the sand every one of those days.

I called Helen to tell her I was sorry I had missed the job interview but something had come up and I hadn't made it there.

Helen wasn't too pleased at first. She said she knew I'd missed the appointment, because she'd talked to the minister at the church. She lit into me something fierce—the usual declarations of how I was just floating around and wasting my life on minutia and had wasted all that training to be a minister to people and how it was impossible to understand how the two of us could have turned out so different.

In the end, though, she sighed and said, "Reverend Claxton said they'd hold the interviews open if you could make it in the next day or two. I told him how good you'd be in the job—and that's the truth, Sandy. You'd be such an inspiration and a rock for people to cling to if you'd just settle down and apply yourself. And the reverend said he could hold off on a decision for two days. So, could you—?"

"I'll do what I can to be there, Helen. And again, thanks for trying to help me." I felt myself tearing up when I clicked off. Helen was such a good soul, and she was trying so hard with me. I knew I was a major disappointment to her. I just couldn't help myself.

It took all of the next day to make final arrangements for Shantay. While I was packing to leave, I heard one real corker of a domestic fight going on in the cottage next to ours. I can't say I was surprised. The young couple and their two toddlers had been in the cottage when we arrived, and they obviously had not been having a pleasant vacation. The man was a drinker, and the woman had skittered around like a frightened rabbit for days trying to keep the kids quiet and out of his way. But even when she had taken them out on the sand and settled them into making sandcastles, he would weave his way out there, scream at her about something that hadn't been done right, and set both kids off before returning to the cottage, jumping into his Camaro, and roaring off until late in the night.

When I carried my bag out to the Civic to leave for that interview in the university town church, his Camaro was kicking up dust once more, and it was loaded down so heavy I could tell the man didn't intend to come back. I was just closing the trunk when the woman staggered out of her cottage and collapsed into a weeping heap on the steps. She looked beat up pretty bad.

As I walked over toward her, all I could think of was that I wasn't going to be making it to that interview in time. In spite of all the good intentions in the world, I had once again proven to be a big disappointment to Helen.

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