Billy Coffey submitted this story to me awhile back. While it is longer than a typical blog post, I honestly think it’s one of the best things I’ve read from him – and I’ve read quite a bit – an entire unpublished book, actually. (Jealous much?) Anyway, I decided this was too good to pass up, so I have decided to post the first half of the story today, and the conclusion next Monday.
It was not merely a bench, it was my bench, and someone else was sitting in it. Someone whom I was sure did not appreciate my bench as much as I did, and surely could not. The bench, my bench, was in the park in nearby Waynesboro. It was in a particularly peaceful spot along the banks of the South River, where the water became tired of flowing fast and shallow and decided it would be better to go along slow and deep.
The grove of pines that surrounded my bench offered little in the way of shade but plenty in the way of privacy. It was not a new bench, nor was it particularly well made. The seat held a perpetual dampness due to the rotting wood, and whenever I sat I had to be mindful of the rusty nails that jutted up from the surface. When the city decided to fix up the park a few years ago, my bench was overlooked. No fresh paint, no new nails, no sturdy seat. I supposed they simply forgot it was there. Which to me meant that the bench really was mine, as I was the only one who would have it.
I went to the park that morning a few weeks ago with no serious business to tend to other than to enjoy a respite from the demands of everyday life. I timed my arrival just after the morning joggers had left and just before the lunchtime picnickers arrived. I never liked going to my bench with people around. They might see me and wonder where I was going, and they might get nosy enough to follow. As planned, the parking lot was empty by ten o’clock. Satisfied that no one was about, I grabbed my hat and a loaf of bread for the ducks and started out.
As I neared the grove of pines that hid my bench, however, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t alone at all. Amid the idyllic sounds of crunches and quacks and chirps I heard someone humming from the far side of the trees. I stopped for a moment to listen, then crept forward and peeked through the limbs.That was when I saw that someone was sitting on the bench. My bench.A little girl, blonde haired and skinny. Her feet swung back and forth beneath the rotting wood of the seat in an awkward cadence as she continued to hum an indecipherable tune, pausing only to take a breath to blow bubbles with her gum. I eased away, wondering where her parents were. No one else was around.
I decided that patience would be the best way to handle the situation. I would bypass my bench temporarily, stroll down to the picnic pavilion, and wait for her to leave. No child can sit in one place for more than ten minutes unless it’s in front of a television. So I slung my loaf of bread over my shoulder, took two steps, and landed on a large and noisy twig.
She wheeled around in mid-bubble, her long hair following close behind. Her legs froze in a scissor, and she greeted me with a strange combination of shock and amazement.
Then she smiled. A big, toothy, Christmas morning smile. I smiled back. She raised the fingers of the hand the gripped the back of my bench and waved. I waved.
And then she screamed.“I knew you’d come!” she yelled, her voice cracking with excitement. “I knew it I KNEW it!”
“Pardon me?” I asked.
She turned fully around and raised up on the back of my bench. Her smile grew wider. My eyebrows furrowed more.
“I knew you’d come,” she whispered.
“How did you know I would come?” I asked.
“Because,” she announced, as if that one word would make everything clear.
“Because why?” I persisted.
“Because that’s how it works,” she answered, raising the palms of her hands in a how-do-I-know gesture.
“Because that’s how what works?” I asked, thinking that this was beginning to sound a lot like an Abbot and Costello routine.
“Prayin’,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She took a deep breath and exhaled like a frustrated parent trying to explain the plainly obvious to a child. “Last night I prayed that God would send an angel to me at the park, so I came here to wait.” She paused, then leaned farther over the back of my bench. “You are an angel, right?”
My first reaction was to laugh, and I almost did. But then I saw the expression on her face had turned from joy to disappointment. Something was obviously wrong with this child, and laughing at something she said wouldn’t be very appropriate. Or helpful.
“Does your daddy know you’re here?” I asked.
“Don’t you think he’s worried about you?”
“I told him I was going to a friend’s house,” she answered, slowly chewing her bubblegum. Watermelon, by the smell of it.
“How long have you been sitting here?” I asked.
“All morning,” she said.
“How long were you going to wait?”
“Until you came.” Then, “You are an angel…right?”
I looked around again and still found no one in the park, not even a police officer I could pawn her off on. I gazed into her innocent eyes. They gazed back.
“Of course I’m an angel,” I said.
“I knew it!” she sighed. “I’m sorry I kinda doubted.”
“That’s okay,” I said, moving to my bench and sitting beside her, “I get it all the time. My name’s Billy.”
“I’m Jordan,” she smiled. “Guess you already knew that, huh?”
“Sure,” I answered, though I was beginning to feel as though I had just taken the first steps upon what was surely one of the straightest roads to hell.
“Want some gum?” she asked, holding out a half-chewed package.
“What’s that for?” she pointed.
I looked down to the loaf of bread on my lap. “God wanted me to feed the ducks while I was here,” I said, suddenly very uncomfortable at how well and how easily I could lie.
“Where’d you get it?” she asked.
“I brought it with me.”
“Yes.”“You mean,” she said, eyes bulging, “Jesus made that bread?”
I looked down at the bread again. Fittingly, the big red letters spelled out WONDER.
“Absolutely,” I answered.
Jordan began to swing her feet back and forth again, studying me. “Are you sure you’re an angel?”
“You don’t think I am?” I asked.
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I don’t know.”
We sat in awkward silence for a few moments and watched a family of ducks that waddled nearby. Finally, she asked, “Do you know why I prayed for God to send you down here?”
“Well,” I said, not sure what to say next, “God didn’t get real detailed. He just told me I needed to come see you.”
Jordan gave a satisfied nod, blew another bubble, then asked, “Are angels smart?”
“Sure they are,” I said. Then, catching myself, I added, “We, I mean. Sure we are.”
“So if I asked you some questions, you would know stuff?”
“Shoot,” I said.
Jordan looked down, as if embarrassed by what she was going to say. “Well, I guess I just want to know what heaven’s like.”
The question took me by surprise. Heaven? All I could think of was the streets-of-gold, mansion-in-the-sky description. That may not appeal to a person of her age. But what else could I say? That heaven is where God lives? True, but not very descriptive. That heaven is paradise? That sounded a little better, but what is paradise to a kid?
“It’s sorta like every day is Saturday,” I said.
Jordan offered a small giggle and nodded. “Good,” she answered.
(to be continued next Monday)
Visit Billy at What I Learned Today.