Thanksgiving is two days away. I used to hate Thanksgiving. Hell, I hated anything to do with holidays. People act all nice, they dress up, they act like family. The next day, they go back to the way they were. Mean, selfish, two-faced. When I was a kid, that’s what Mondays were like. Hallelujah, praise God on Sunday, then everybody back to normal on Monday.
I used to think I got nothing to celebrate on holidays, except maybe a good bottle of Jim Beam. Yeah, Uncle Jimmy was my Santa Claus.
Last year, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, Brother J came by the parking lot we hung around in. J’s a good guy for a preacher. He doesn’t shove his book down our throat and he doesn’t pray for us until we ask for it. At least not out loud anyway. He just brings us some food and blankets and he always brings something extra for the kids.
I have a kid. Yeah, Cassandra. The nurse said that’s a big name for a tiny baby. I told the nurse her heart will be as big as her name. They took her away from me when I tried to off myself. I heard she’s somewhere in Wisconsin. They would’ve given her to her daddy, but I didn’t know who he was.
Anyway, last year Brother J said that we should come by the same parking lot on Thanksgiving around noon. He said his friends had some Thanksgiving food they wanted to share with us. We weren’t surprised. Church people always come around here during the holidays.
I was glad it was Brother J. Some of the other preachers come around and make us work for our food. I been saved and baptized three times already – just for some decent food.
So I showed up at 11:30. There was Brother J in his white van, and then a lot more cars showed up, all fancy. A bunch of guys set up some tables, and the ladies dressed the tables up real nice with red plastic sheets.
Then the food came out. Metal trays with slices of turkey and cranberry. Lots of plastic bags with bread. When they brought out the trays of gravy, my stomach growled. There must’ve been at least a hundred pumpkin pies. I decided right then and there, I would get baptized again if Brother J asked.
We got in line, like we do at the shelters, at the churches, in the parking lots, wherever there’s free food. And as we were moving along, a very shiny navy blue car parked nearby. You could tell it was high class. On the hood there was the silver circle with an upside-down Y. Some guys around here wear big chains around their neck with that silver circle.
Out of the car came this tall skinny blond lady smoking a cigarette. She reminded me of a country western singer, like Bonnie Raitt. Her blond hair was messy and she walked gutsy-like. She was kind of old in my opinion, but I could tell she wanted us to think she was young. She wore a black leather jacket and tight black pants.
Brother J went up and hugged her, but no one else had time for her. The guys avoided looking at her, and the ladies all of a sudden had a lot to talk about. I been on the streets long enough to know she was bad news.
I moved along in line and filled my plate. “Thank you, sister.” “Praise the Lord.” “I am blessed.” I knew the score.
The skinny lady sat off on the side, next to Uncle Joe on a bench near the bus stop. Uncle Joe was busy dipping his bread in his gravy. The only place left to sit was on the other side of Uncle Billy, so I squeezed in next to him.
The lady said to Uncle Billy, “Would you people be here if we didn’t have any food?” Just like that.
Uncle Billy didn’t look at her and said with food in his mouth, “Of course, ma’am. We come here for Jesus.” He finished his last piece of bread.
“Liar,” she said, and Uncle Billy nodded while he looked ahead, “Yes, ma’am.”
I wished I was invisible. I just started on my turkey and wanted to get to the pie. Uncle Billy took his last bite of his pie, burped from deep down, stood up and walked to Brother J. I was on my own.
“I’m Janet McKitch,” she said, as she moved closer and stuck out her right hand to me. No one ever wanted to shake my hand before. Ever. I didn’t want to start with this crazy lady.
“What’s your name?” she said, with her hand still in front of my face. I finished my turkey, wiped my mouth with a piece of bread, and rubbed my hands on my jeans.
“Chantelle,” I said and touched her hand with two fingers.
“Shake my hand, Chantelle,” she said and grabbed my whole hand.
“So why are you here this Thanksgiving?” she asked, getting right to the point.
“I got messed up and I’m hungry,” I said, looking at her hand holding mine. “What’s it to you?” I still didn’t look her in the face.
“”Chantelle, we all get messed up,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am.” I said. I knew how to act when the church people start talking. Just agree with them. That’s what they want.
“Chantelle, look at me,” she commanded. I pulled my hand away slowly and looked her in the eye.
“Chantelle, my family got a lot of money,” she said, as she lit a cigarette. “My uncle abused me, I got kicked out of St. Jerome’s, and I ran away from home three times. My folks took me back every time, but they acted like I was a Jezebel. I smoked pot every morning in my bathroom before I went to school and could drink any guy under the table. I slept with men I met at clubs and put together some great parties.” She seemed real proud of herself.
Then she threw her smoke down, and as she put it out with the toe of her fancy cowboy boot, she said quietly, “I’ve had two abortions and most people try to avoid me. Even the nice folks here think I’m way out there. Chantelle, I got messed up. I know what that’s like.” She looked at me like I should give her an award.
I got pissed. “Lady, you have no idea. No idea. I came out poor. You understand me? I never had a chance! I couldn’t run away from home because outside was worse!” I said, angry at this lady who had no idea what real messed up was.
I stood up and glared down at her. “Lady, I’m black. I was raised in the projects. I didn’t make it past ninth grade, okay? What the hell makes you think you can compare yourself to me? Go back to your family! At least you have one. My mama’s living with a guy 15 years younger than her and I don’t know who my daddy is. My baby was taken away from me and I didn’t know who her daddy was! I do tricks for drugs! You think you’re messed up? You don’t know! So don’t compare yourself to me! Lady, go back to your family and take your stinking food with you!” I threw my plate on the ground.
I could feel everybody looking at me. The lady was looking at me, too. She stood up and put her hand on my shoulder. I shook her hand off.
“My name is Janet, Chantelle,” she said. “Janet. And you’re right. I was an ass. I’m so used to being a bitch that I forget how to act with regular folks, nice folks like you. I’m sorry. Really. Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Replace your pie? I know a place with real homemade restaurant pie.” She looked down and my plate and smiled.
Now I was real embarrassed. I just made a scene in front of Brother J and my street neighbors with a lady who was just trying to make conversation. I could either continue yelling at her or let it go. “There’s pie on my shoe,” was all I could think of.
“Yes, there is,” she said and we both giggled, then laughed – a lot. I picked up the plate and she helped me clean up the mess. As we were bent over, she said, “Don’t look now but we have an audience. Just ignore them. Pie?”
I nodded and followed her to her car, looking at the ground the whole time. The first thing I noticed about her car was that it was messy inside. The second thing was that it smelled like smokes. But after I rode in it for a couple of minutes, all I could think of was that I could sleep, right here and now. The seat was real comfortable.
At the restaurant, she said I should order the turkey lunch, and I did. I figured she could afford it. She ordered the same thing.
The lady kept talking about herself while we ate, like she wanted me to know just how bad she could be. She told me things I would talk only talk about when I was drunk. As I mopped up the last of my gravy with a spoonful of mash potato, she said, “One more thing than I’ll shut up.” She pulled up her left jacket sleeve and there they were — the same tracks that tattooed my arm. And if that wasn’t enough, she pulled down the neck of her sweater and showed me a tattoo of a scorpion on her chest.
“Chantelle, I wasn’t just messed up,” she said. “I became evil. I worshipped the devil. I thought he was my only hope. I tried to commit suicide three times so that I could be with satan.”
I got scared. I mean I tried to off myself, but I never made a deal with the devil. At least I didn’t think so.
“What happened?” I asked, thinking maybe I should have stayed near Brother J. I didn’t want to spend time with a devil lady, not even for food.
“I found Jesus,” she said simply, and drank some coffee. I don’t know why but I wanted to hear more.
“I followed this john to Shreveport,” she said. “He told me to follow him in my car. I did whatever he wanted. I just wanted some H, some meth. He won some money. The drugs kept me in a daze and I was happy. After a couple of days, the money dried up and he left. Left me with the motel tab. I was pissed. I drove back to Dallas that night.”
“At about 4 in the morning, my car made weird noises and starting jerking. I pulled of the highway and drove towards a small town. I parked off on the side and slept it off. This old guy with a white ponytail knocked on my window and said, “Lady, you okay?”
“Do I look okay?” I yelled at him. “Let me show you something,” she said to me and pulled a picture out of her jacket pocket. She handed it to me.
I looked at this picture of a punked out chick. Her hair was real black, her lipstick was black and she was sticking out her tongue and sticking up her middle finger. Her fingernail was painted black. She must have had ten earrings in each ear, and she had a silver stud in her tongue.
“I bet you wouldn’t know me,” she said. “Back then.” I gave her back her picture.
“Anyway, I was ready to bite this guys’ head off. Then he said, ‘Need help?’ So I opened the car door and said ‘this piece of crap died on me.’ And he said ‘I got a buddy that can help, but it might be hard cause it’s Thanksgiving.’ “
“I had my guard up,” she said. “He was standing next to his Harley, and I’ve known a few bikers. When they’re mean, they’re real mean. I’m always surprised when they’re nice. Something told me this guy was nice, so I got behind him on his bike and we rode to his friend Wayne’s house. Wayne came and towed my car to his garage. He messed around under the hood a little, and told me he had to order a couple of parts cause he didn’t work on my kind of car very much. It would only take a couple of days.”
“I said okay, and Wayne said I could stay with him and his old lady till then. Let me tell you about Wayne. He had tattoos up and down his arms and a crew cut. Ex-Marine and tough talking. I figured he was my kind of folks so I agreed to stay with him. His old lady was different, right out of a Betty Crocker cookbook. Sweet-like.
“Annie, his wife, had a turkey in the oven, and it was probably the best smelling turkey this side of the Mississippi. When we sat down to eat, I was ready to dig in and Wayne said, ‘Let’s bless the food’ and I thought, ‘What a waste of time.’ Then the guy started thanking God for all kinds of things, like his garage, his house, his family, and then for me. Wayne called me a blessing. Of all things, a blessing. Never heard that before. ”
“I didn’t say anything, just started eating. They talked about everyday stuff, like their neighbors and his customers. It sounded like a lot of gossip to me. But not really. They were saying nice things about people. Just making talk. They never asked me any questions and I never gave them any information. They let me sleep on the couch.”
“You sure you want to hear all this?” she asked. I nodded, eating the best tasting pumpkin pie ever.
“On the second night, a bunch of friends came over and I thought, ’oh good, a party.’ I was ready for some action. But they brought bibles and sat around talking about God. They prayed off and on, and this one guy would start a Jesus song every now and then. I sat next to the wall and didn’t say nothing. It was interesting, though, like watching a movie or something. I could just watch it and not have to do anything.
“Then Wayne said, ‘Janet, is there anything you want us to pray for you?’ I thought he was nuts and shook my head. If he only knew.
Then he said, ’Well, let us know,’ and they went on with their business. They started praying about releasing. They released the Holy Spirit in their house. I didn’t know what they meant. Then they prayed about releasing people from bad habits, from doubting themselves, from fear, from sickness, from “the enemy.” When they said the enemy, I knew then that I wanted out of satan’s clutches. Just something about the way they said it. I closed my eyes and kept saying to myself, ‘Release me, please release me, release me, oh please release me.’ Then people were putting their hands on me and praying all kinds of things.”
“The weird thing is that I didn’t feel this whole thing was weird. It felt kind of good actually. I remembered when I was a kid and I would fall asleep in my mommy’s arms. So safe. I felt safe.”
“We just talked that night. I told them about me, all kinds of things, the abortions, the tricks, everything. And they didn’t judge me. Wayne just kept saying, ‘Jesus loves you. Trust him. Let him have his way with you. It was two in the morning when they left. By the time I drove away from Wayne and Annie’s I knew. I knew Jesus. My private Jesus, not just a church kind of Jesus.”
“That was five years ago today. Nothing happened overnight for me and you’re probably thinking I’m not a good example of a Christian. But look at this,” she said as she held up her old picture, “and look at me now. I don’t do drugs and don’t do tricks. I got a boyfriend I who wants to marry me, and I am nice to my momma and daddy. It took a while for me to learn to read the bible. But I like it now. God talks to me that way. I talk to him all the time and he tells me that I’m still a work in progress. That’s good enough for me right now. At least I know I’m on his radar screen.”
“So you see, Chantelle, I know what messed up is. And now I know who Jesus is. He’s hope and love all wrapped up in one. I think everybody is messed up in some way and he’s the only alternative to being messed up”
As she drove back to the parking lot, she lit another smoke and said, “Chantelle, talk to Brother J. He’s a good guy.”
When I got out of the car, all I said was, “Thanks . . . Janet. Thanks for everything.”
She said, “No, thank you, Chantelle. You’re a blessing to me. Happy Thanksgiving.”
I did what she said. I talked to Brother J. A lot. I started hanging around wherever I heard he was going to be. His wife started picking me up so I could help them do their rounds in the streets.
She helped me clean up. The tracks on my arms are just scars now. Every morning I wake up in my own bed in a tiny room in a home for folks like me. I like reading the bible when I have my morning coffee. The lady at the home found me a job in a restaurant. I get free food there and gained 15 pounds. I’m saving up for my own apartment.
I’m working the dinner shift at the restaurant this Thanksgiving, but I plan to drop by at the parking lot first. I’m hoping to see Janet. I haven’t seen her since last year. Brother J said she got married around Christmas and that she’s doing just fine. He said she always shows up at Thanksgiving and this morning I came up with a plan to talk to her.
At first, I was going to ask her “Why are you here this Thanksgiving?” like she asked Uncle Billy last year. Just a joke. But I already know the answer to that one.
Instead, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to walk up to her, in my restaurant uniform and with a little more makeup than I usually wear, and say, “I bet you don’t know me no more.” I hope that makes her smile.
– November26, 2009, Thanksgiving