Freedom’s Just Another Word

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Nadine’s in a world of trouble now. You might think what she did was stupid, and it was, but you can’t say what you’d do in her place. She can’t say herself what came over her; she panicked is all, had to get free of him. The one who came up on the porch wearing his Smokey Bear hat, and read her rights, he’s already gone back out to prowl around looking for other people to arrest, she saw him leave. Now there’s only a big man about to bust out of his green uniform; he’s behind the counter, trying to finish his overnight shift, ignoring Nadine, acting like she isn’t even over here cuffed to this hard metal chair that is itself bolted to the shiny tile floor, waiting for what comes next. It’s bright in here, too bright, and the tiles reflect the light back up. Like being beside water in the bright sun.

Nadine knows it’s over, she’s done for. That cop with the bushy eyebrows and the Starbucks cup is dead and that can’t be changed. CPS has her kids, and she’ll probably never get them back. She has this flash vision of some fat foster mom with a hairy mole on her lip bringing them to visit her behind bars. It breaks her heart and she starts crying.

She leans her head back against the painted cinderblock wall and takes a deep breath. The radio behind the desk chatters— all those different voices of John Law, across the city, talking to himself on the radio. The big policeman takes a hit off a bottle of flavored vitamin water, twists the purple cap back on, wipes his mouth. He’s just popped some popcorn, or somebody has—the aroma fills the room. Her tummy gurgles low. She’s so exhausted she’s dizzy, but she can’t fall asleep. She’s thirsty, her tongue sticks pasty to the roof of her mouth. She wants to ask the cop for water, but she doesn’t. She keeps her eyes closed, hears and doesn’t hear the sounds of the cop station around her.

 

The cause of her trouble has always been money, or the lack of it. She used to console herself when she saw those women scooted all straight-backed up to the steering wheels of their SUVs—looked like something Maddie might draw, colorful elephants cruising through the Kroger lot with craning turtle necks holding up the pretty little heads of soccer moms—that money isn’t real life; it’s a fantasy, a false buffer against the patient and changeless reality that is pain and suffering and the inevitable: death. Money is an invisibility cloak that people who have it throw over reality, but that doesn’t make it go away; it’s still right there, walking beside you, staring at the side of your face while you aren’t looking back.

Getting your arm crushed between a car door and a tree before having it mashed off your shoulder will quick yank that veil away, sure. But so will the slow gnawing of cancer. Money can’t get you free; money can only put up a screen to make you think you’re free. Lots of things can tear that screen down. And the thing is, someday something will.

Some consolation that is to Nadine right now, at thirty-three—same age as Jesus and Alexander the Great—her life is over.

This particular trouble started for Nadine over a year ago, in June, when she decided to splurge and go see her sister down in Buford, just this side of Atlanta. Her policy for a long time—at least since Rory’s dad went to prison for cooking meth—was that staying home is what keeps you out of trouble. They needed to get away, she needed a break. Now, looking back, she thinks if she’d just lived by that rule—stay home—none of this would have happened.

On that Saturday morning, she and her oldest Bennie loaded Maddie and baby Rory into their car seats, and hit the WV Turnpike, headed for Georgia to spend a week there and call it a vacation, as they didn’t have money for anything else. The van wasn’t in the best of shape even then, and her pulse could never quite settle as she willed it mile after mile to behave, to keep running, to get them to her sister’s. She’d been aware of the dark blue car for a couple of miles before it finally forced its way between her and the car that had been tailgating her and hit the flashing lights. It took her another couple of miles to get across the heavy traffic and into the narrow emergency lane.

She put down her window and waited. Cars whizzed by, trucks roared up and clipped the air beside the van with such force it felt like they could suck her right back out into traffic. Bennie fished around in the glove box and found her registration, and an old GMAC insurance card, long expired—she’d told them to go fuck themselves after they raised her premium from $67.00 a month to $89.00, not because she’d gotten a ticket or had a wreck but because her credit was bad, and they had the balls to write her a letter and tell her as much. She told them on the phone that they were worthless money-sucking parasites, and they’d never get another cent out of her. And they didn’t.

The old expired insurance card was better than nothing at all. She handed it out with her license and registration to John Law, who didn’t look much older than her Bennie. He had a blond crew cut and sunglasses. His nose was pink and splotchy where it had burned and peeled. His lips were tight around a big dip of snuff, and he hid his eyes behind those mirrored glasses. Trying for all he was worth to look intimidating.

She said to him, “Officer, you plucked me right out of the flow of traffic. I was staying with traffic to be safe.” Which was true. Nadine was not a speeder; it made her a nervous wreck, this traffic. She’d gotten herself into a kind of convoy of cars approaching Charlotte; the car in front of her and behind her hadn’t changed for ten miles or more. Everyone was going her speed. He pulled her over because she had West Virginia plates, plain and simple. They both knew it.

The officer hunched and looked at Bennie. He said, “Who’s traveling with you?” God, she had to get a fresh cop, acting like she and her babies really might have been running meth.

She shook her head. “My family.” She said, “You know good and well everybody was going the same speed I was.”

When the cop peered in at Bennie, he raised his hand a few inches from his Eastbay catalogue to make a little wave. In this close space, his hands reminded her of a puppy’s paws, how they’re too big and he’d have to grow into them. Bennie was fourteen and already six even. His feet were size eleven. He was going to be a big man like his daddy.

“Keep your hands on your lap, son,” the officer said.

Bennie’s eyelids drooped. He let his hand drop like a beanbag back onto his knee and sat motionless, staring straight out the front. Poor people get the same sinking gut that criminals do when they see John Law coming, Nadine figured.

“We’re going to my sister’s in Atlanta,” she said. Hot exhaust blew into the van. Her children were being poisoned where they sat. The officer peered in back at Maddie and baby Rory. They were strapped into their car seats, making owl eyes at him.

“I was staying with traffic,” she said. “You plucked me out because of my tags.” Traffic was back up to speed right now, pounding relentlessly behind him, his blue sleeve flapping in its wind.

“Who,” he asked, “do you have in the car with you?”

“Are you on crack?”

“Answer me.”

“My family,” she said. “My children.” She wanted to be home, back in the little house she rented on the hollow off Davis Creek. How she missed Davis Creek right then. It was their sanctuary, their little smelly place of safety. She wished they’d never ventured this far away from it. She wished they could all just be there together. They could have spent this money on a good dinner and some movies from Hollywood Video, and still had some left over to help with bills.

He stared at Bennie again for a long instant. Bennie had his head shaved, which made him look like a basketball player most of the time, because he was a basketball player, but right now, looking at him as John Law might be, she could see how he could look like he’d just busted out of juvie. Like trouble.

“Stay here,” the cop said, and he disappeared with her license and registration. And the bad insurance card.

Nadine turned slowly to Bennie and said, “When the Law has you pulled, you don’t ever make a sudden move.”

Bennie was outraged. He said, “I didn’t do nothing.”

“You didn’t do anything,” she corrected.

He growled in frustration and banged his head against the headrest. A truck plowed through the air just feet from her open window, rocked the van. Diesel wind blasted in. She put the window up to wait.

Rory shit his diaper in one noisy blast. Maddie started laughing at the sound. Bennie imitated the wet burst with his lips, which made Rory join into the laughter, cackling his little baby laugh. Maddie tried to imitate the sound of Rory’s shit. Bennie did it again, and the two in back laughed so hard they started gasping.

John Law was back in his car writing. His blue and red lights flashed away in her rearview mirror. The smell of Rory’s shitty diaper filled the van. That baby wasn’t anything like Maddie had been; he could play with his diaper drooping full of shit and never give it a second thought, squish his ass down in it to ride his scooter.

“My god,” Bennie said. “Rory, you are funky.”

Maddie and Rory laughed until John Law appeared back at the window. When Nadine put it down for him, they went silent and stared at him again. Trucks blasted hot exhaust into the van. John Law gave Nadine the copy of her citation, and started telling her what her payment options were—just like any other transaction.

The paper was shiny and slick on the printed side. The fine was $150.00. She didn’t have that much for their entire vacation after gas.

Nadine said, “Couldn’t you just give me a warning?” She said, “I was staying with the flow of traffic.”

He said, “Drive the speed limit and stay safe.”

His job out here was nothing more than to rob travelers with strange tags, bring in the cash. A low-paid bandit for the state. She said, “I was trying to stay safe, god damn it.”

“Have a good afternoon,” he said, and he flew from the window.

Bennie said, “Rory’s got to be changed.”

She had two diapers a day for him, and no money for more. Last night she’d flipped through Bennie’s Eastbay catalogue. He had circled four pairs of basketball shoes. The Nike Hyperdunk 2010s were $124.99, and the Reebok Zig-Slash were $99.99. These shoes looked to Nadine more like black moon boots than basketball shoes. He also had circled some St. Patrick’s green Adidas AdiPure with black stripes that were only $89.99. The ones he’d made repeated circles around for her to see were black and red Nike Air Max Wavy, and they had been marked down from $79.99 to $59.99.

She knew the cheapest shoes weren’t his first choice; he was trying in his way. The high school coach had approached him about playing on the high school’s JV team and he was only in eighth grade. He deserved some good shoes. It broke her heart, seeing those cheap shoes circled over and over like that.

She said, “Let me get us out of all this traffic first. Then I’ll change him.” By which she meant, let’s get all the way to Buford and get all the use we can out of that dirty diaper.

After that she tried to stay at the speed limit of fifty-five through Charlotte, but traffic ripped and weaved around her until only a few miles after she’d been pulled over, she was back up to almost eighty, trying to keep someone from ramming her right up the ass.

 

A month after the vacation at her sister’s, Nadine’s hours got cut because Harcourt & Pritt couldn’t fill all their beds. She put in a request to work overnights so she could make some of it up with a shift differential, but no one was giving up any shifts. She called and cancelled the cable. She was getting mail from Charlotte lawyers—speeding in Mecklenburg County? We can help—not to reduce the fine, but simply to keep the points off her license for a reasonable fee, which she was sure would be way more than the $150.00 of the ticket and the court costs, and she couldn’t even pay that. Damn them all; what a fucking scam.

One day in August, another letter came in the mail informing her that the PTO had voted to have all the children wear uniforms and that she could purchase acceptable ones at Wal-Mart or Target or Burlington. “I’m not wearing a damn uniform,” Bennie whined. “Why they making us wear uniforms, like we’re jailbirds or something?”

Maddie was on the floor with her arts and crafts case spread all out, drawing pictures. Rory was scribbling with Maddie’s colored pencils. Maddie said, “I want a uniform.” Rory agreed in his garbled baby talk that he did too.

“They want everybody to look the same. So rich kids don’t look any different than poor kids.”

Bennie said, “So poor kids don’t look like gangsters.” He said, “Rich kids won’t get their uniforms at Wal-Mart.”

Rory stood up and bent over for another pencil. Nadine caught a whiff of him. He needed a diaper change.

Her last paycheck was $920.39. Her rent was $760.00, which left $160.39 for the month. She got some groceries: rice and dry beans; chicken legs and thighs were on sale so she bought them all to stuff her freezer full; two cases of Ramen noodles, a big box of Quaker oats, and three gallons of milk—Bennie could drink a gallon in two days by himself if she didn’t hawk over him. After that, she had $60.15 to buy gas for the month. She couldn’t buy any uniforms anywhere.

“Maybe I could home school,” she said to herself.

Maddie said, “I want to be home schooled.”

Rory babbled his agreement.

Bennie said, “No way.” He said, “I don’t want those broke ass old pants they have at Burlington. We’re going to Target for mine. Or Old Navy.”

 

In October, Nadine got a letter from the State of North Carolina Department of Transportation:

 

Effective 12:01 a.m., 11/01/2010, your North Carolina driving privilege is scheduled for an indefinite suspension in accordance with general statute 20-24-1 for failure to appear… During this suspension, you are prohibited from driving a motor vehicle in the State of North Carolina.

 

She laughed aloud. Fine, she thought. Fuck you. I won’t drive in the State of North Carolina. She crumpled the letter and threw it away.

The van was hemorrhaging oil now. People stopped at lights to tell her that her motor was smoking, as if she couldn’t see it right there in front of her face. But it kept running.  A good van. She felt a genuine gratitude and affection for the poor old thing. It was her freedom, that van, what kept her mobile, and, sure, she was thankful for that. The kids weren’t getting sick. They were as strong and resilient as mutt dogs, like poor kids usually are. That much was a blessing too.

Her hours stayed cut. She fell further behind on the bills. She got one cash advance, and then couldn’t pay it back. Gas went up to $3.22 a gallon, and she could barely keep fuel in the van, much less buy the one quart of oil it was bleeding into a black patch of dirt in front of their house each week. She mixed water into the milk to make it go farther. Bennie said, “This tastes like piss.” She said, “No, it tastes like water.” But he kept drinking it. The landlord dropped by some plastic that she and Bennie stapled over the windows, and she was thankful he did it while she was at work, so the matter of rent didn’t have to come up. She blocked off the back room by nailing a blanket over the door so they wouldn’t have to heat it. They blocked off the upstairs with plastic. They lived in the living room and her bedroom, the four of them, stayed close to the space heaters. It wasn’t so bad; it was cozy. They played games and sang, and watched the two channels of fuzzy TV they could still get. Cops was one of the shows they watched. Maddie and Rory called the show “Bad boys, bad boys,” and cheered when it came on.

They had some Ramen noodles and frozen chicken left from her last check and they still had heat. She didn’t have any money, but she still had $60.00 left on her overdraft protection at the bank. That would feed them until she got paid again at the beginning of November. North Carolina could go fuck itself, she wasn’t paying them a damn thing; she daydreamed about writing them a letter telling them as much. That would feel good.

She could have written them a letter that would have shamed them. She wasn’t stupid, and she’d done some writing, had even taken a creative writing class one semester during her two years over at State. She’d hated it. All those little kids with money sitting inside those comfortable walls talking about subtlety and insight, using words like epiphany and aha. They hadn’t liked her story about the guy who made babies he didn’t help care for and cooked meth in his grandmother’s basement, and saw his best friend get shot dead by John Law, and then went to prison while the Law had his grandmother’s house torn down and put a lien on her property to pay for it. “It’s too much,” they’d said to her. “It’s too sensational.” The teacher had said, “It’s like trying to carry an iron safe in a canoe.” “But it really happened,” she’d said. “That’s not the point,” the teacher had told her. All the students who had written their little boyfriend/girlfriend/coming-of-age stories had looked at her like she was stupid. What the fuck did they know about her world outside those walls, where people didn’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for epiphanies to pop like soft little orgasms inside their heads—out in her world it was all wild and violent change. She’d dropped the class. One semester after that she’d run out of money for classes anyway. Who was she kidding. Writing a letter wouldn’t do her any more good than writing a story. She had more immediate things to worry about.

 

Her October paycheck was $772.00. That’s what had to get them through November. Her choice was to pay the rent, or buy food and gas so she could keep getting to work. She could look under the van and see oil dripping steadily from two different places now. When she drove, smoke streamed white around the edges of her hood like a steady smoldering fire under green leaves. The other day she drove to the library in the rain to drop off movies. Walking across the parking lot she noticed the oil path she’d left on the lot, a steady string of little rainbow explosions, kaplow, plow, plow, leading right to where her van was parked. When she came back out and the oil rainbow had swirled from under the van all the way to the silver Nissan beside her. The tire treads were smooth, and metal shined through in spots, some places even splitting off in little wiry threads. The next day, driving the kids to the Y before school, her hands trembled. She knew it was only a matter of time and they’d be stranded. She gripped the wheel and pressed lightly on the gas, and willed the van along.

That night the mail had three bills: car insurance of $89.00 three times over, plus an unspecified reinstatement fee (her inspection sticker was four months past due, which she had to take care of before this, but she knew the van wouldn’t pass without work, which she couldn’t afford); a cut off notice from the phone company if she didn’t get them their $124.00 immediately; the electric bill for the last two months of $170.93. Her heat was electric, she had to figure something out there. There was also a letter from the West Virginia DMV. She tore it open and read:

 

Your privilege to operate motor vehicles in West Virginia will be suspended effective December 1, 2010, at 12:01 a.m., because North Carolina has filed with DMV the following non-compliance citation:

            citation no: 3E43418                                      date of citation: June 23, 2010

            court telephone no: (704) 686-0600                offense location: Charlotte

The reinstatement requirements listed in this order may change without prior notice. Any fees owed to the state in which the citation occurred should be paid to that state.

 

They were all in cahoots, the fucking bastards. North Carolina had to have the $150.00, plus a $100.00 late fee, plus whatever court costs would be, and now West Virginia had to have $85.00 from her, and she had to go to the DMV and prove that she was in the United States legally. Plus another $50.00 to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, for whatever—pay some alcoholic to prop himself up in the middle of the road on a stop sign. The kids were all out front playing. Maddie rode her bike around the house, counting the laps to Nadine every time. She rode by, barely keeping her balance. The bike was too big. “One hundred and forty three,” she said, which was a skip of about six laps. Rory sat on his yellow school bus scooter with handles on top and kicked it up and down the sidewalk. His little legs straightened behind him like a swimming duck’s feet. Bennie was slam-dunking a volleyball on the low basketball rim down by the road. He looked up at her and shouted, “What’s for dinner? I’m starving.” Rory echoed, “I’m starving.”

Inside Nadine boiled the last three packets of beef Ramen noodles, only using two of the flavor packs because Bennie was starting to act like the taste made him gag. She had chicken thigh meat she’d boiled and frozen, which she thawed and chopped up and mixed into the noodles for some protein. She went to the front door and hollered that it was dinnertime. Rory lunged sideward off his scooter and rolled in the grass. He pushed himself up and ran for the door. Bennie walked. Maddie was around back on her bike. It was dark outside now, but they were way out Davis Creek, with no one else around, except this family of inbreds a ways down who shied off to themselves like a pack of raccoons. She and the kids were safe out here. She could gather them in and close the door; they had food; the heat was not cut off; she had four diapers left for Rory: at least for this night, everything was okay.

 

On December 1, she got her November pay, which was $662.17. She made out a check for $100.00 to AEP, put it in the envelope that came with the last cutoff notice, which asked for the $392.20, past due right now, and told her she had another $173.43 on top of that for November. The $100.00 would keep them from cutting her off. She’d worry about the $465.63—and whatever they used for December; they could block off her bedroom and all just stay in the living room and kitchen to keep it lower—when her next paycheck came.  She wrote out a check for $400.00 to the landlord, which would bring what she owed him down to $2,640.00, and keep him from throwing them out.

Maddie and Rory were watching Dragon Tales on PBS, the fuzzier of their two channels. The sound was good, but Nadine could barely make out the shapes of the dragons sometimes in all the crackling snow. The kids didn’t seem to mind. Bennie was outside in the cold shooting hoops on the low rim. Nadine didn’t have any stamps to put on the bills. When she deposited her check on the way home, she had kept out a five-dollar bill so they could have a special evening. She and Bennie loaded up Maddie and Rory. Bennie’s face glowed red from running in the cold, he wafted the smell of boy sweat and cold and grass into the van. With his face all chapped, his wet blue eyes looked like an angel’s. His nose ran. He snorted, wiped with his sleeve, snorted again.

They drove out the hollow, and out Davis Creek. They went into the South Charleston Kroger and found that Totino’s pizzas were on sale for $1.00 apiece. Bennie grabbed the supreme, and Maddie picked pepperoni. Nadine slid out a plain cheese for her and Rory to share. Bennie said, “We should get a movie tonight.” The other two cheered. In the van Nadine fished around in the console and they all dug under the seats, and they found enough coins to add to her $1.00 and change to get a non-new release at Hollywood Video. Even Nadine was excited. At least for tonight things would be okay. They would eat pizza and watch a movie.

They spent over an hour inside the Hollywood Video. Maddie was dead set on getting Air Bud, which she’d seen from the library probably seven times already. Bennie refused to consider Air Bud. Hetried to be mature about it, offering to watch My Dog Skip with her again if she had to have a dog movie. Eventually they all agreed on Independence Day, which neither of them seemed all that excited about, but at least they could both live with it.

The Hollywood Video was right beside a Starbucks. In line, they could smell the coffee.

Bennie said, “Those cappuccinos smell good.”

Nadine said, “They cost four dollars apiece.” She saw through the window, John Law pull up beside her van and get out. He was a big man—fat—with dark hair and bushy eyebrows. He paused and looked at her inspection sticker. It was bad. She remembered that she didn’t have a license anymore. Her heart started racing.

“Damn,” Bennie said. “Four dollars.”

Rory grabbed a fat pickle in a packet of brine from the candy stand. “Mommy,” he said.

She watched the cop walk into the Starbucks. He turned at the door and looked at her van again.

Bennie was telling Rory to put the pickle back and Rory was whining. The woman in front of them got her videos handed around to her and went out the door. Nadine put the video on the counter.

“Is this all?” the register girl asked.

“Yes.” Nadine watched the parking lot.

“Twelve dollars,” the girl said.

“For one movie?”

“We aren’t renting anymore.”

Only then did Nadine notice all the signs. This Hollywood Video was going out of business. They were selling off their inventory. They couldn’t rent a movie here.

“Come on,” Nadine said, as she picked up Rory.

“What about a movie?” Bennie asked.

“I want a movie,” Maddie said.

“Get to the van this minute,” Nadine said. With Rory dangling from her arms, she burst through the door and ran across the parking lot. He did a singsong, “Woah, woah, woah,” with her every jolting step. She put him in the side door and told him to get in his car seat. Bennie started to strap Maddie in, but Nadine said, “She can do it. Get in.” He did. She saw the cop at the door, coming out with his big cup with the cardboard ring around it for holding hot shit. He looked right at her and she looked right back at him. She suddenly got an urgent need to pee. He gave her a nod and a friendly wave of his arm, indicating that he wanted her to wait for him just a second, no big deal. Her heart jumped and pounded. She started the van and ripped out of the parking space. As she veered, out onto old 60 and gunned it for Montrose, she saw him hurrying to his car, holding out his coffee so as not to spill it.

She flew through South Charleston, running lights. The van motor started clicking and she could smell the oil burning. She got to Davis Creek before John Law’s lights came blaring in behind her. She’d driven this road a couple times a day for several years now, and that was her advantage. She knew the curves, and she cranked into them tight as a NASCAR driver. If something was coming the other way, they’d just all be dead, but she couldn’t stop now. She had to get them back to that little house, where they could be safe in the living room, eat pizza, and watch TV. Curve after curve, she took, the van went swaying and listing like a boat in water, and she kept control. John Law’s lights would disappear, and then swing back in behind her on a straight stretch, come up fast and hard on her ass. His blue and reds flashed and his siren wailed. There’d be others on the way by now, but they had to come out this same road.

Bennie stared straight out the front window, his head back against the headrest like an astronaut, his eyes set and scared. The dollar pizzas slid across the floorboard in their slick plastic bags and fell into the van’s door well. She didn’t chance a look back at Maddie and Rory. No one said anything. Even Rory seemed to understand how important this situation was for their family. Nadine took a tight curve. The yellow curve sign said thirty was the maximum safe speed, but she took it as sixty, using the entire road and both gravelly berms, and kept control, and punched the gas as she entered another straight stretch. The engine clicked hard, but dug in. Two more curves and they’d be at their hollow road.

John Law’s lights didn’t appear behind her. In her rearview, it was just dark now.

“I think I lost him,” she said into the van. No one said anything in response.

She turned on their road, and drove at a normal speed. The van engine clacked even louder. Smoke poured from under the hood. It would carry them the rest of the way to the house. After that, who knew? They were almost there. Her heart was filled with love for the old van. Such a good van, getting her free of John Law in his fast car. Fuck him.

She and Bennie ushered the little ones into the house. Bennie microwaved the pizzas while she paced and peeked out the front door. The pizza smell filled their plastic- and blanket- shrouded living room.

John Law did not come.

As her breathing and heart rate calmed, she began to feel a small light inside, a little glow of happiness; there’d be hell to pay for running, but tonight they could have their pizza and be safe here together in this hot little room. Eventually she sat on the couch beside Bennie, and ate a chunk of Rory’s pizza.

 

Now here she is in the jailhouse, handcuffed to a chair that is bolted to the floor. Last night, after they ate the pizza and tried to watch some fuzzy TV, she and Bennie put Maddie and Rory into their sleeping bags, and the two little ones colored until they fell asleep in the middle of scattered crayons and coloring books. Bennie went into the kitchen, sat at the table, and flipped through his Eastbay catalogue. His legs bounced up and down on his toes, which, he did that all the time anyway. At one point he said, “Guess I won’t be playing JV ball.”

A little after three in the morning—Bennie was still in the kitchen but he wasn’t making any noise; the other two were asleep, and Nadine had dozed in and out sitting on the couch but was awake—John Law came with his bright lights up the hollow road. Four State Troopers spread their cars in front of her house, shined their lights like it was a gangster hideout. One of them walked around her van looking at it. She didn’t see the one with the bushy eyebrows. He was a South Charleston city cop, not a state cop.

Then John Law was at her door. A young man with a military crew cut and razor rash on his neck. He asked her name. He told her she was under arrest and read her rights. Bennie stood watching in the kitchen door and the other two didn’t even wake up that Nadine saw. One of the cops got on his cell phone and said, “Are you on call?” Then he said, “I have three minors over here. How many have you had?” Then he said, “I’m sorry about that. We’re running the mother in. You need to come get these minors.”

Nadine tries to remember the charges now. It was all so strange and dreamlike, though it only happened a couple hours ago. Failure to something or other, some kind of endangerment, a couple other charges. Those other charges didn’t stick in her head because he’d lead off with the biggie: manslaughter. She’s charged with manslaughter. Driving her down here, the cop told her the car had rolled, clipped a tree. The man’s arm had been smashed and torn from his torso and he was dead. The cop said to her, “He has a wife. One kid. Seven years old. That’s a crying shame isn’t it? Such a waste. And for what?”

The first thing Nadine felt when he said this to her was rage. She didn’t ask the Law to come racing after her. He could have just given someone her license number and gone on drinking his goddamn $4.00 coffee. All she wanted was one more night of peace and freedom with her kids.

Then she cried because a man was dead and it was her fault, and because she had lost her kids probably for good this time.

Sitting here, she sees her future: prison time, kids gone. This is when the realization descends on her. Those kids will be taken care of. Maybe they’ll be all kept together. Some kind soul will step up and offer to buy Bennie his basketball shoes.

It’s not her responsibility anymore, making those hard choices to keep them fed and warm. This is her freedom. For the first time that she can remember, she’s truly and utterly free. John Law had to die for it, she had to lose her kids—which is tearing her up inside, the image of that fat foster mom and not her giving them their cereal in the morning—and that’s a hard price to pay. Such a hard price.

Hard as the price is though, she’s out from under. It is all out of her control now. All she has to do is sit back and let it happen. They’ll bring her some breakfast. Her kids will be eating somewhere, eating real food. So this is what freedom feels like. God she feels so light, she’s never felt this light before in her life; if she weren’t chained to this chair she feels like she could float up and bounce along lightly against the drop-ceiling tiles.

Her body goes limp. The smell of buttered popcorn and the sound of John Law chattering to himself over the radio swirl all around her. She takes a deep breath, keeps her eyes closed, and smiles.

Originally published in  Fiction Fix, issue 13

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An Atheist and a Saint

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“You don’t believe in God?” I ask my girlfriend Liz.

It’s a legitimate question in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city whose population of Baptists is on par with Salt Lake City’s Mormons. Finding an atheist who is out around here is like spotting a yeti.

We approach the one traffic light on the way back to Liz’s apartment from the college where she teaches economics. It is dark out, almost ten at night. She’s hunched forward in the dull orange glow of the streetlight, hugging her coat closed. Without saying a definite yes to my question, she makes it clear. She turns her head down in the cold car as if laying it on a pillow, the bottom half of her face disappearing into shadow.

“Is that a problem?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Should it be?”

I begin to wonder why it is not. Though I left the Baptist faith of my childhood, I do still believe in God. What will it mean for our relationship that she does not?

We just came from a Richard Dawkins lecture at her college, which had been billed as a discussion of his book The God Delusion. Dawkins did not, however, spend the forty-minute talk arguing against belief in the supernatural, or some kind of divine reality. He had his rifle loaded for a single deity. Dawkins, a small, mild-looking man with a smooth British accent and ironic tone, stood at the lectern with a wry smirk and insulted Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. He ended his rollicking diatribe by calling God a “megalomaniacal meany.”

Of course, Dawkins knew he was only a few short miles from Fundamentalist Christian Liberty University, where all philosophy courses are apologetics classes. He also had to have seen the rows of Liberty students—whole classes complete with teachers—who are unmistakable around town in their unofficial uniform of J. Crew khakis and polo shirts. They took notes feverishly, flipped through books and Bibles, scrambled and shoved to line up at the microphone when he finally opened the floor for questions.

The Liberty students hit Dawkins with all the classic argument for the existence of God. They had a zeal and blustering pride typical of youth. Each kid appeared certain that Dawkins would cave before his or her argument, the old atheist would be publicly put to shame (or possibly even converted?) and the student would be the Young Champion of the hour. A seasoned professional, Dawkins slew these college kids one after the other, never flustered, never without a hint of a grin, never raising his voice.

For over an hour Liz and I watched students scramble up and down the aisles, flipping through their apologetics books, coached and goaded by their teachers. Eventually Dawkins stopped impugning the character of God and instead insulted the intelligence of anyone ignorant enough to associate with “that school on the other side of town.” The argument broke into little swirling eddies, none of them going anywhere. The undaunted kids were still lining up to get at him as we slipped out and made our way back to Liz’s apartment. Several times in the evening, I had noticed Liz nodding her agreement with Dawkins, and so I asked her about her unbelief.

I had just that week pulled the novel The Plague off my shelf and started reading it again. It had been twelve years since I’d last read it, and I was having a far different experience with the book this time around. At the time of the Dawkins lecture, this question was already in my mind: Why do I have such an affinity for Dr. Bernard Rieux, the protagonist of this novel? And why do I, a believer, feel such a sense of communion with the atheist writer Albert Camus?

 

In the early chapters of his phenomenology of religion God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal writes of two basic human reactions to the idea of an Ultimate Other, however that is defined across religious traditions. These reactions he calls ambivalence and resentment. Though expressed in different ways, these are the reactions of believer and non-believer alike.

For the believer, according to Westphal, ambivalence begins with the awakening to the ontological poverty of the believing soul. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times as a boy: “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” From our earliest years in Sunday School we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra which only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before God. Stickers are popping up in car windows around town that say NOT I, BUT CHRIST—the website advertised below the message without intended irony was at first http://www.falwell.com, and has since changed to http://www.trbc.com. A perfect example of this very ambivalence.

I, the believing soul, am drawn to God, to the All, but at the same time I am repulsed because of what it means about the nature of my own existence: when faced with the Ultimate, non-contingent reality, I experience what Westphal calls a deficiency of being, a realization that my very existence is small and worthless by comparison. At the same time, God holds out to me the only chance at giving my small, weak existence any real meaning. Could I be anything but ambivalent? Like someone standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Westphal writes, or a toddler standing before a huge dog, I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as has often been noted, is a good example of this kind of believer’s ambivalence. Milton, a Protestant who opposing King of England, could not help feeling sympathy for his rag-tag band of fallen angels as they stood in defiance of the Dictator of all creation—for whose ways Milton had ostensibly set out to write a defense.

Nonbelievers experience ambivalence as a longing for something beyond material existence: for love that is truly love and not simply evolutionary impulses designed to propagate the species; for life to make some kind of sense; for existence to have real meaning. It is what Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” calls an “appetite for the absolute and for unity.” The absence of an Ultimate Other leaves a longing in the unbelieving soul—St. Augustine’s restless heart and Adrienne Rich’s lament about being an ice-fast rowboat gazing out at winter’s red light, with its own small gift for burning.

The ambivalence I’ve been talking about is rather self-centered. I don’t mean this in a negative way necessarily. I cannot not be at the center of my experience of the world, and therefore it is that experience which appears ultimate to me; I do however mature to realize that other individuals are at the center of their own experiences and, if I mature properly, I also realize that their experiences are no less important than my own.

This growing up does not make the ambivalence go away however. I suffer. I see loved ones suffer, and understand because I too have suffered, and I grieve for them. I learn to empathize with the suffering of complete strangers. At this point ambivalence shifts from its focus on the self in relation to God, to God in relation to humanity–the problem of evil and suffering. Particularly the suffering of children. The result is what Westphal calls resentment. This reaction is at the heart of the problem of evil, the reason many raised within a faith tradition turn to Atheism, and the central question of theodicy: If God is all-powerful, and all-good, then where does evil come from? At some point in her life the believer thinks, if I were God I would have created a world not marked by struggle and suffering, a world without blood and brutality. Surely God, being all-powerful, could have done better than this. It is a complaint about the way God is managing things: not only is someone other than me in charge of things, he appears to be royally fucking things up.

In The Plague, Camus’ protagonist Dr. Rieux echoes the bitter cry of Ivan Karamazov when he says, “until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” The disease ravaging Oran is no respecter of persons, and it tortures and destroys innocent children along with everyone else. Dr. Rieux is not equivocal about his conclusion: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in him?”

As a youth, I heard more than one preacher quote Ivan Karamazov when he said if God is dead all things are possible, then point at the moral freefall of American culture as proof. Not only is this interpretation based on a questionable definition of morality, one focused almost entirely on sexual conduct and not on how you actually treat others (I had an African-American friend once lean over to me while we were listening to one such sermon and whisper, “Ask a black man how much worse things are.”), it is a total misunderstanding of Dostoevsky’s point. Camus understands that Ivan’s denial of God is far from a triumphal shout, because having a God who gives meaning and purpose to life is far more appealing than being able to misbehave without fear of punishment. Ivan is crying out that if God does not exist all manner of horrors are possible. Dr. Rieux looks around, sees that all manner of horrors are possible, and concludes that surely God must not exist.

Camus is known for his paradox of the Absurd, which is based on a dualism: we love and cherish life and existence, yet life and existence are marked by suffering, meaninglessness and ultimately death. It is absurd. The logical conclusion is nihilism and the only relevant question left is, according to Camus, why not just kill yourself and be done with it. Although Existentialism has gone out of fashion and become a sort of cultural joke, existentialists’ issues have not gone away.  The unbelieving side of resentment is simply the reasonable assumption that if there really is a good and loving and all-powerful God the world would not be as it undeniably is.

 

Liz works with the Lynchburg Neighborhood Development Foundation, an organization here in town whose work is among the poorest neighborhoods; at her job she champions service learning, teaching her students by taking them to work with community leaders in these neighborhoods on real economic problems. Her students must come face-to-face with the disenfranchised, know them as individuals, and treat them with dignity and respect.

In The Plague Dr. Rieux might choose meaninglessness, but he also refuses to follow it to Camus’ logical conclusion. He still behaves as if there were meaning to life. Throughout the plague he pushes himself to his physical limits combating the illness. He slaves with the devotion of Mother Theresa to alleviate suffering. He says that though he does not believe, he does feel he is on the right road in fighting against creation as he finds it and he believes we should “struggle with all our might against death.”

If you watch the man’s actions, it looks for all the world like a fitting answer to the bumper sticker: What Would Jesus Do? This. This is what he would do. But why? Why does Dr. Rieux persist in doing good when he honestly believes there’s no meaning to it? I think Miguel De Unamuno makes the distinction that answers this question. Psalms 53:1 says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God…” Another phrase I heard countless times growing up. In his classic Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes that it is a true statement, the fool hath denied God in his heart; but, he goes on to write that one who denies God in her head because of despair at not finding him is not who is being described in this passage of Scripture. For Unamuno, a righteous and good person can conclude in his head that there is no God and remain righteous. But it is the wicked and foolish one who concludes this in the heart.

This head-heart distinction goes down easily for a boy who grew up in the Baptist church hearing preachers talk about people missing heaven by eighteen inches—the distance from the head to the heart. What is astonishing here is the radical change of paradigm, the tectonic shift of categories.

To Evangelical Christians, a heart knowledge of God begins with an emotional response to a call, a moment of contrition in which Jesus is asked to enter one’s heart. What follows this conversion experience in the believing soul is a matter of debate (when I was in seminary it was called the Lordship Salvation controversy). In this tradition, it is the Atheist—the one who says in her head there is no God—who is the fool. Unamuno stands this interpretation on its head, and I think rightly so. A character in The Plague wonders aloud to Dr. Rieux if it is possible to be a saint without believing in God. Unamuno’s answer is an unequivocal yes.

What would Jesus himself say to this? Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21) and Jesus says to him, “Ye must be born again.”I know the story well. But going back to it, I notice the shift in Jesus’ own words from belief in him to actions: “For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light…But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.”

I looked back over the rest of the red-lettered portions of the New Testament, to see what Jesus has to say. In Matthew 21, he gives the parable of the two sons. The one son says to his father, “Yes I will do as you ask,” then does not; the other son says to his father, “No, I will not,” but then goes and does as he is asked. Jesus is quite clear that the son who says the no and does the yes is the one who is truly righteous. In light of Unamuno’s words above, this parable could be seen as Jesus’ approval of a man like Dr. Bernard Rieux. What might make easy-living Evangelicals a little uncomfortable here is that once the dust settles on these new categories, if an Atheist is in, who might be left out?

This discomfort will not be alleviated by flipping forward to Matthew 25 and read what Jesus says about those who will be blessed and those who will be damned. Here he does not mention a conversion experience of any kind, or the keeping of rules. He doesn’t mention belief at all. He does speak in specific terms about blessing for those who have struggled against real, physical human suffering, and damnation for those who have not.

Liz considers all this talk of blessing and damnation so much poppycock, and so would Dr. Rieux; however, Camus has embodied in Rieux what he considers to be the only course one who longs for meaning yet sees none can take: hold out for meaning in the face of meaninglessness by sheer force of will. Act. Act and the action itself will create meaning. Not any act will suffice though. In his 1957 Nobel Banquet Speech, Camus’ call was to “fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.” But in an absurd world void of meaning, is it not just as much poppycock to call for action of any kind, much less one kind over another?

Here we return to the unbeliever’s side of ambivalence via the Stoics, who would rather cut off their feet than admit they need shoes. Camus refuses to take the Stoic’s way.  He has the integrity to admit that his heart longs for the Absolute, even while his head will not allow it. Even if his reason gives him no comfort, he still refuses to lop off his desire in order to make the denial of its object more convenient. His position is not so far removed from Unamuno’s “transcendental pessimism,” in which, after conceding that the evidence of reason is not enough in itself to justify belief, he concludes, “Let life be lived in such a way, with such dedication to goodness and the highest values that if, after all, it is annihilation which finally awaits us, that will be injustice.”

 

We awaken and discover ourselves dropped into existence in media res, and it is impossible to lift ourselves above the flow of history to get a universal perspective. Like it or not, we are contingent; we owe our existence to something other than ourselves. Whatever we believe that something to be, we feel ambivalent toward it.

Even though the concept of evil is debated, there is no disputing the existence of suffering. Our natural reaction to senseless suffering—the suffering of innocent children—is anguish and rage. Our options are clear. If we act, our actions create meaning. The way I see it, being contingent as we are—and therefore being incapable of creating anything ex nihilo—the meaning we create with our actions is in reality a reaching down and drawing on an Ultimate meaning, an Absolute. God. The ability to create meaning through moral action is what Nicolas Berdyaev calls the Freedom of the Spirit, and he says it is clear evidence that humanity bears the divine image.

More poppycock Liz would say. That doesn’t bother me. In a later discussion of the Dawkins lecture, she told me that she was put off by his comportment: he was smug, cocky, derisive of anyone who disagreed with his position. For example, when someone mentioned the fact that Antony Flew had backed off of his own Atheism, Dawkins said it was a pity; Flew was old and losing his faculties, but he “once had a fine mind.”

It’s impossible for me to say what Dawkins is like as a human being. He’d stepped up to preach his atheism in Lynchburg, Virginia. The fact that he preaches with evangelical zeal leads me to think his opinions are not simply a result of his disinterested study of the empirical evidence. I know that isn’t the case with Liz; she grew up being told by her Southern Baptist classmates on Georgia playgrounds that she and her entire family were going to burn in hell because they hadn’t asked Jesus into their hearts.

I think Rieux appeals to me so much because, whatever his stated belief, he is good. He acts as if there were meaning even if his reason tells him it isn’t true. Liz is good also, good and compassionate and fair. She lives her life according to a high moral code, and she is interested in justice, but not without mercy. These things I know about her. She doesn’t need a bracelet on her arm to remind her how Jesus would handle a situation; she has the moral compass in her heart.

When I asked her that night whether or not she believed in God, she finally said, “I don’t see enough evidence to justify belief.” Fair enough. I do see enough evidence to justify belief, and I am a believer. As much as my head might spin in disbelief, unbelief is simply not a living option. Yet the senseless suffering of innocents fills me with anguished questions for and about God. I struggle with the problem of evil–every honest apologist knows in his or her heart there is no final answer that can satisfactorily put this question to rest.

What do I do then? I strive to act with integrity, to live simply, taking only what I need and no more than my share. I endeavor to deal compassionately with others, trying to understand them as human beings with dreams and desires no less important than my own for their being different. I fight against injustice, suffering, and death wherever I find it.

This is Liz’s position as well. And this is why, driving back to her place after the Dawkins lecture, I was comfortable with her answer. While our heads disagree, our hearts are in perfect harmony. She stands on one side of the question of God, and I stand on the other, but we are looking in the same direction with a deep and human longing, a longing that rises from a shared place where sorrow and comfort mingle and flow regardless of belief. We are standing close together. In fact, we are so close we could easily lock arms.

 

“An Atheist and a Saint” was originally published in Rock & Sling.

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