In the downstairs of a dirty, smoke-filled house I once heard this wedding toast from a man I will call “Harvey.” Serving as the best man in his ex-wife’s wedding, he pronounced, “George, I can think of no better man to raise my children.”
The threads of half-morality in this proclamation confused me about as much as the genetic puzzle of blonde-headed children who made up the wedding party.
You may think that people like this don’t exist, but they do. They live at my dining room table. Harvey, from the wedding party, and his cohort “Lyle,” a shorter Georgia man who limps because some sort of Caterpillar machinery once ran over him, have frequented our family’s home for years. They fix our cars, scrap our metal, and make us laugh till our insides shake. They love sweet meatballs, and I make extra if I think the men, and sometimes their families, will stay longer. I’ve written about them for years, for their sheer color. And because sometimes, I just need a good, human surprise. Who says missionary work has to be dull for the missionary?
The two men are among the few people I encounter who enjoy acting as muses. They aren’t too proud or suspicious or self-image-protective to be written about.
“When you write a book,” says Lyle, “Make me bigger than Harvey.”
Harvey and Lyle have about 18 teeth between them and, in the eyes of God, roughly 10 wives. God knows the circumstances in which they lost them, both the teeth and the wives.
In fact, when Harvey and Lyle first met, they pulled knives on each other down on Liberty Street. But they called a truce when Harvey needed to drive down to Pennsylvania for some cheap cigarettes. Now travel buddies, the two men have a stronger friendship than they had before the fight.
While they are not persons I long to emulate, I have more affection for this duo than some Christians of my acquaintance might think advisable. But they can tell stories as no one I’ve ever heard. In their company I have lived the process C.S. Lewis outlines in The Four Loves:
“The truly wide taste in humanity will … find something to appreciate in the cross-section of humanity whom one has to meet every day. In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who ‘happen to be there.’ … They are themselves, odder than you could have believed and worth far more than we could have guessed.”
The people “who happen to be there” will catch you by surprise.
A few weeks ago I offhandedly told a cashier at the local grocery store I felt nostalgic.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No,” I clarified. “Nostalgia’s good.”
“No it’s not,” she said.
I had forgotten, again, that not everyone’s memories are sweet chronicles of swing sets and pink birthday parties.
The woman fished for a good memory from childhood. She cited the time her father took her to a haunted house where she saw Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Meyers. “Freddy Krueger waved to me,” she said fondly. “But we got home too late that night, so my dad never took me again.”
The people who “happen to be there” can furnish some paradigm-enlarging tales. As a good friend of mine says, “We are all stories of potential redemption. It’s the details that are fascinating.”