Thursday, March 5, 2015

Babushka

Dave sat at the stoplight, corner of State and Southeastern. He watched three guys loitering on the stoop of a squat building with the words “Puff n Chew” painted in crooked letters on its cinder block wall. Dave guessed it was a tobacco shop and checked his door locks.

He looked in his rearview at the old woman he’d passed a

block back. The sidewalks were piled deep with snow so she walked in the street. “Walked” might be an overstatement. Her legs seemed not to know each other: one step with the left leg, then a pause and her right leg took a turn. Left. Right. Left. She stopped, took a little rest, and took a few more steps. She wasn’t gaining much ground.

Dave checked the outside temperature. Twenty degrees and the sun was low and red in the evening sky. He looked to the mirror again. 

The old woman was still a half block back, moving slowly. Her head was covered with a scarf and on top of that, a hoodie sweatshirt. Even from a distance, Dave could see her dark blue sweatpants stuffed into the tops of white athletic socks. She wore battered tennis shoes that looked a couple sizes too big, the kind with Velcro straps, no laces. She carried a canvas bag that looked full and heavy.

Dave tried to think of a reason not to back up. The stoplight was still red, should be turning green any second now. This time of day, he'd expect to see cars coming up from behind. It was rush hour, after all. He looked in the rearview. State Street was deserted. No traffic at all.

The stoplight turned green. Dave didn't move, looking at the deserted road behind him, deserted by all but a little babushka in oversized shoes, in the cold and walking in the street. The stoplight stayed green. Dave sighed, lowered the passenger window as he put the truck in reverse.

“It’s kinda cold out there,” he said. “Can I offer you a lift?”

“Oh, thank you, Jesus,” she said, and climbed slowly into Dave’s truck, as if it hurt to move. “I been walking for a long time and it’s cold out there. Let me put this seat belt on. I don’t want you to get arrested.”

Dave gave her time to get hooked up and checked his mirrors again. Still no cars back there? When she got snapped in, Dave pulled out through the light, passed the vagrants at the Puff n Chew, and drove north on State toward Washington.

He looked while trying not to be seen looking. Her face was furrowed and weathered, her cheeks ruddy with the cold, her large nose webbed with thin red veins. Her glasses had thick plastic rims and her eyebrows seemed to have been drawn with some kind of grease pencil. As far as Dave could tell, she had no teeth.

“I’m Dave,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“You never know when you’re going to run into an angel,” she said.

Dave took his eyes off the road long enough to look over at her. Her eyes held straight ahead as she fiddled with her bag. She must be thanking him for the ride and didn’t hear his offer to exchange names in pleasantry. He let it go.

“So where do you work?” she asked, glancing around his truck.

“Downtown,” Dave said. “I work with people who make medicine for people with cancer.”

“I know. God blesses you for that,” she said, looking straight ahead. A deserted street, her odd response to his offer to trade names, and now “she knows”?

“So, where you coming from?” Dave asked, keeping the conversation going. “It’s kind of cold to be walking in the street.”

“It’s not where I’m coming from,” she said. “It’s where I’m going.”

“Okay,” Dave said. “Where are you going?”

She gave him directions. Turn right on Washington, pass the railroad overpass, then take a left on Gale.

“Are you going home?” he asked.

“Oh, no. I’m going to a friend’s house. I’m going to pray with him. Then I’m going back where I came from.”

“Are you walking? It’s going to be dark soon.”

“I don’t mind walking,” she said. “It’s good exercise.” Her Velcro-strapped shoes looked worn. “But I’ll take the bus. I have a dollar. I’ll be fine. I pray for other people, but God always seems to take care of me first. Here! Turn here, right after the overpass.”

They drove down Gale, the road pitted and pocked and cratered by a hard winter.

“Keep going past this house,” she said. “A little farther. A little farther. Good. Here is fine.”

Dave looked around. “By this alley? You want me to drop you here?”

“This is where I need to go,” she said.

Dave reached into the console. “Listen, I know you said you've got your bus ride covered.” He pulled out a ten and said, “Would you let me give you a little something to help with the trip?”

The babushka took the ten and stuffed it in her pocket. “God blesses you,” she said, and opened the passenger door.

He tried again. “My name is Dave. And yours?”

She stopped and this time looked at him full in the face. “I told you that you never know when you’re going to meet an angel.” Dave was starting to think she was not thanking him for the ride.

She climbed out and turned to face him. Her eyes were large, owl-like, behind her thick lenses. Her face spread into a toothless grin.

“You’re not going to forget me,” she said, and closed the door on his truck.

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