Being married to a saint isn't what it's cracked up to be.
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Lisa Samson is the author of over twenty-five books, including the Christy award-winning novel Songbird. Her novel, Quaker Summer was Christianity Today's novel of 2008. She is coauthor with her husband, Will, of Justice in the Burbs.
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The Sky Beneath My Feet
By Lisa Samson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Lisa Samson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJesus Fish
Every once in a while, I glance at the rearview mirror and see my own eyes staring back at me. It's disconcerting. I'd forgotten you were in there.
And then, blink, she's gone again.
Or I am.
Maybe it's the eighties music on the radio, or the breeze coming through the old VW van's rolled-down window, the warm sun on my bare arm. Maybe it's idling on the curb out in front of the high school, waiting as the kids tramp past in twos and threes, their backpacks slung over their shoulders. I don't know what summons her up. The old me. My former self.
The hatchback pops open behind me. Without a word, Eli shoves his bike in, cocking the front wheel over the backseat. He slams the hatch and comes around to the passenger door. Some passing girls call out to him and wave, then he slumps into the seat, pulling the door shut.
Unlike his older, bookish brother, who speaks with equal parts fear and condescension whenever the subject of public school comes up, Eli wouldn't have it any other way. He likes it. He's even popular.
"So what's wrong with your bike?" I ask.
Eli doesn't answer, doesn't even acknowledge my presence. He just reaches for the radio and changes the channel. "How can you listen to that stuff?"
"Hey, you don't know what you're talking about. My music's cool again."
He flicks his hand in the air, beckoning me to drive.
"What's that?" I ask.
"What was that thing with your hand?"
"What, this?" He does it again with an impish smile. "That's called a gesture."
"I'll show you another gesture if you keep it up. I'm your mom, not your taxi driver. So what's wrong with your bike, anyway?"
"Don't let the people at church catch you making rude hand gestures," he says. "Or the people on the road, now that we have the Jesus fish on the bumper."
"I told you the fish was ironic."
"Sure it is." He glances over his shoulder. "I bent the back wheel again."
"Again? You weren't doing tricks, were you?"
"Tricks?" He smiles at the word. "Yeah, I was doing tricks."
"Is that not what they're called? I can't keep up with the lingo."
"Don't try," he says. "I don't want to have the Cool Mom."
"Too bad." Reaching in the door compartment, I pull out my white plastic shades. "You already have the Cool Mom, so deal with it."
"Right," he says, dragging the word out and smiling at his reflection in the window.
"And stop admiring your own reflection."
On the verge of his sixteenth birthday, my younger son is becoming a narcissist. Born with the kind of languid masculine grace that pairs well with the square-jawed facial symmetry and thick, black hair he inherited from his dad, Eli is growing into his looks. He's handsome, in other words. Which explains both the girls waving to him from the sidewalk and his indifference to them.
"Try to be nice," I'm always telling him. Only, to be charming, Eli doesn't have to tryand consequently, he doesn't. Even at his surliest, Eli tends to get his way. That's not how the real world works, I try to tell him. But all he has to do is look at Rick's example. Whether he tries or not, everything works out for my husband.
Not that I have a problem with that. Except when I do.
At York and Ridgely, we get stuck at the red light. Eli looks around, realizing we're not heading straight to the house. "What's the deal?"
"I have a couple of errands to run," I say. "You remember the Shaws? No, of course you don't. They moved to Virginia when you were seven or eight"
"I remember," he says. "Mr. Shaw had a silver Porsche."
Yes, he did, but that's not how I want a child of mine recollecting people. "They're coming over tonight. Your dad sprang it on me this morning, even though he's known for days"
"I'm not gonna be there. I already told Damon I was coming over."
"Well, you can tell Damon ... no, never mind. You made your plans, that's fine. You shouldn't have to drop everything at the last minute."
"What are they coming for, anyway? You haven't seen them in years."
"That's a good question, Eli. That's a good question."
Eight years ago Jim and Kathie Shaw moved three hours down I-95 to Richmond, saying they would keep in touch. At the time, the Shaws were probably our closest friends, Jim being one of the few people Rick could talk to about his job without fear of being judged. Once they left, the most we ever heard from them was a card at Christmas. It was a wrenching break, especially for Rick. And now they're suddenly on our doorstep again? I don't know what to think.
"So have you thought about what you want to do for your birthday?" I ask.
"It depends," he says. "Are we going to be here or out of town?"
"Your dad has the whole month of October off, and we thought we'd take a little vacation. Maybe we could go somewhere for your birthday."
"Somewhere closer," I say. "How about D.C.? We could see all the sights."
"That's not a vacation, it's a field trip."
When Rick came home from the staff meeting over the summer announcing his four-week vacationa sabbatical, he called ithe dropped the whole thing in my lap to plan. Figuring out where to go and what to do, scheming a way to get the boys out of school for a week or two without looking like delinquent parentsit was all up to me. Never mind that I hadn't known far enough in advance to put money aside. Never mind that Eli's idea of fun was visiting his cousins in California (something he's only done once before) and my eighteen-year-old, Jed, responds to every idea I come up with by saying, "Sure, fine, but you'll have to go without me."
Nobody wants to do what I want to do. Nobody can agree on anything else. And if I don't come up with something for them allfor my husband and my two teenaged sons, the men in my lifethen they'll blame me for having failed in my most basic, primal duty. I just can't win.
"You know something" I begin.
But Eli's not paying attention. He's already fished his iPod out of his jeans pocket and plugged the earphones in. He can't sit for five minutes without playing on that thing, and I've resigned myself to it. Now he taps his thumbs on the screen, absorbed in some game. I know better than to mess with the radio dial, though. He likes to blanket himself in white noise.
We pass a Greek diner, then a cluster of fast-food outlets. We pass the bowling alley and the office my childhood doctor practiced out of, then the Timonium Race Track and State Fair Grounds. I've never been to a horse race there in my life, or to Pimlico either. We pass gas stations and car dealerships, the sticker prices rising like mercury the farther north we get.
In the parking lot at Giant, Eli announces he'll stay in the car. Big surpriseI didn't see that one coming. With the door half open, I check my shopping list one last time to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Mussels and scallops, Rick's favorites. When you're entertaining a Porsche-driving lawyer and his Ivy League wife, you have to keep up appearances. Not that I care about that sort of thing.
"Am I forgetting anything?" I ask aloud.
Eli looks over at me, but he isn't listening.
I'm positive I'm forgetting something. Maybe. Maybe not. I always feel like I've forgotten something.
* * *
On my way inside the grocery store, I say a little prayer. Not a pious prayer by any stretch.
Please, Lord, don't let there be anybody from church here.
Confession: There are things you want to do in private, anonymously, and grocery shopping is one of them. When your husband works at a church of thousands, you're likely to be recognized in the most inconvenient places.
As I'm peering through the frosted glass at the seafood counter, I hear the screech of grocery cart wheels over my shoulder, followed by the high-pitched voice signifying the fact that, no, I have not found favor with my Father in heaven.
I put my smile on before turning. "Hi, Stacy."
"Hi yourself, Beth. I was just thinking about you." Stacy Manderville pulls to a halt next to my cart, her elbows propped on her own cart's handle, giving my shopping a once-over before continuing. "Got some big plans or something? I thought you'd be getting ready for the road trip."
"Not until next week," I say.
"The whole month of October, huh? What are you going to do with yourselves?"
"I have a few ideas."
"I bet you do." She looks me over now, blinking a few times, probably trying to imagine the kind of ideas a pastor's wife can come up with. But then Stacy knew me long before I was a pastor's wife. We were in high school together. That was before Stacy married into the opulently wealthy Manderville clan. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"You wanted to talk?"
"About this vacation of yours. A month is a long time."
"The timing couldn't be worse," I say. "Autumn is my favorite season. With the leaves changing and the weather turning cool, our little neighborhood"
"There's always Florida."
I wish we didn't work for such an affluent church, full of people who go wherever they want on vacation and stay for however long they want. Stacy married a doctor, so I'm sure it makes perfect sense to her that we'd pick up sticks and spend a month on Miami Beach. Sometimes ministering to the wealthy is counterproductive to attaining the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Even if they do cut your husband loose for a month of paid vacation.
I mean, why are we having trouble raising twenty grand for the Habitat house we're cosponsoring with our sister church downtown when the parking lot on Sunday mornings is clogged with Mercedes and BMWs and Volvo SUVs, not to mention several Jaguars? (Okay, I can't help loving the Jaguars. But still.)
"Why do you have that funny look?" Stacy asks. "Did I say something?"
"What? No. Sorry, my mind was wandering. We have people coming over tonight and it was short notice. You remember the Shaws? They used to go to the church ..."
Her eyes study the ceiling for a memory. "Doesn't ring a bell, but the place has gotten so huge. I remember when it was just starting out. I think there are more people on staff now than were even attending back in the good old days! Anyway, here's what I wanted to show you." She digs in her capacious purse for half a minute only to produce a set of keys attached to a bright yellow floaty. "Here they are. And here you go." She hands them to me.
"What are these?" I ask, turning the floaty over in my hand.
"You know we have a house in Florida," she says. "It's not a mansion or anything, but it's right on the water. Beautiful stretch of beach. I already e-mailed you all the details. Do you ever check your e-mail, girl? I was starting to wonder."
"I don't understand."
"What's to understand? You have a month of vacation coming, and I have an empty vacation house on the beach. I don't care if you do like it when the leaves turn and it gets cold. When was the last time you had tan lines, Beth? And I'm not talking about on your arms either. You can go down there and soak up the sun and forget all about Lutherville and the church and the fact that we're not in high school anymore. Let your hair down and have some fun. Surprise that husband of yours."
"Are you serious?" I ask. "Stacy, this is too kind."
"It's not. You're my best friend, Beth. Of course I want you to have fun."
I wince a little at hearing her describe me this way. We're not that close, not really, but her voice sounds sincere. And it's such a sweet gesture, even if I'm ninety-nine percent sure Rick won't go for it. If nothing else, he'll object to taking the VW all the way to Florida with its broken air-conditioning and its crank windows and no power steering.
"I can't accept this," I say. "It's very sweet, but"
"I'm not taking no for an answer." She tucks her hands into her armpits so that I can't hand the keys back. The yawning opening of her purse lies between us. I could toss them right in.
But I don't.
I mean, why shouldn't we?
* * *
The Jesus fish is my own fault. I'm a Christian, but not that kind of Christian. Not the in-your-face culture warrior. Not the sort to plaster bumper stickers all over my car. I don't drive like a Christian, after all, and when I'm speeding or cutting somebody off, the last image I want to leave them with is that shiny faux-metal fish. But I shot my mouth off about the stupid fish and hurt the feelings of one of my study group ladies. You know the kind: she forwards e-mails to everyone in the group about liberal conspiracies and tries to sign us all up to march in front of clinics and boycott Hollywood and invest in gold.
But she's a sweet person who just never got the memo that God wants to save all types of people and not just her type. She can't imagine a decent, churchgoing person having any view other than her own. So she heard my offhand joke about the sort of people who slap Jesus fish on their minivans and she stored it away. By the time it got back to me that she was offended, I'd forgotten I ever said anything.
I went to her, because that's what you're supposed to do. I apologized. I managed to get through it without an implied reprimand too. Nothing about how she should have come to me directly and not told everybody else how upset she was. The next Sunday she presented me with the fish.
"What does she expect?" Rick asked. "You're not putting that thing on the car."
"I think she misunderstood the reason I was apologizing." I started to laugh, but Rick was still angry about the fish. Finally he gave in. "She's crazy, I know. But if I don't put it on ..."
"I don't care what these people think about us," he said, though we both knew he did.
"When Pete Waterhouse had to shave his head, you and some of the other guys shaved yours too," I reminded him. "In solidarity. This is the same kind of thing."
"That was cancer. This is narrow-mindedness. I don't want to reinforce this kind of thing."
"What about your T-shirts?"
Rick had a closetful of kitsch T-shirts emblazoned with breathless religious slogans, most of them freebies from church-sponsored activities. "That's different. I wear those ironically."
"Right," I said. "And the fish will be ironic too."
Only nobody told the fish. Now, as I push my basket across the Giant parking lot, watching the Jesus fish glint in the afternoon sun, the fish looks awfully sincere. Earnest. He shines evenly in the sun, without so much as the hint of a wink.
Eli doesn't get out of the car to help with the groceries, naturally. Until I pop the hatch, he's not even aware of my presence. Eventually he does glance back, but just to make sure I'm not interfering with his bike. The rear wheel is distorted by an aggressive, curb-shaped bend. I fit the shopping bags in where I can, then slam the hatch.
Ordinarily I'd leave the basket in the empty spot next to the VW. But the Jesus fish is watching, so I walk it all the way over to the carousel.
When I get behind the wheel, I set my wallet on the bamboo shelf underneath the dash. (I refuse to drag around a purse because I like them too much. Get on the popular purse train and you never get off.) Eli takes no notice until the big yellow floater on Stacy's keys catches his eye.
"Those are the keys to a beach house in Florida. How would you like to go to Florida for your birthday? The house is right on the beach."
He pulls the earphones out of his ears and sits up straight.
"For real," I say.
He slumps back down thoughtfully. "Florida, huh. Cool."
I'm not immune to the boy's charm, oh no. I put the plastic shades back on.
"Who's the Cool Mom now?"
* * *
The traffic on the way home is heavy and my luck is such that I seem to catch every red light. Eli's headphones are still dangling, still hissing his unattended music, while he contemplates the beach house keys in his hand. He sniffs the plastic floaty, trying to catch a whiff of salt water. I can tell the idea intrigues him, which is good. If the birthday boy's onboard, Rick will have to go along.
Stuck at the light, I start thinking of ways to say thanks to Stacy. I never would have expected something like this from her. And now that I know she thinks of me as her best friend, maybe when I get back I'll need to pay more attention to her. Maybe a girls' night out.
The light changes and we get a few cars ahead. It turns red before I can clear the intersection. On the grass verge next to us, there's a group of people gathered. On top of the noise of the radio and the traffic around us, they add another layer: chanting voices. Even with the window down, I have to pay attention to make out what they're saying: "End the war, end the war, we can't take it anymore!"
Some are standing and waving hand-lettered signs that say HONK FOR PEACE. Others sit in folding lawn chairs, shading themselves under wide-brimmed straw hats. They're an unlikely group of demonstrators, mostly plump, gray-haired white people with sun-pinked skin. Despite the signs, nobody is honking. The drivers all around seem, at best, indifferent.
Excerpted from The Sky Beneath My Feet by Lisa Samson Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Samson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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