Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Unexpected Neighbor” Luke 10:25-37
Louella Fletcher could really tell a story, and she had been spinning them all afternoon. Bob said a prayer and bid her goodbye. Louella walked with him out to the porch. As the sun had dropped, afternoon flurries had intensified into huge, fast-falling flakes. A smooth blanket of snow surrounded the house, and Bob’s Subaru was shrouded in white.
“Say, Bob,” Louella said, holding onto his arm, “Maybe you should have dinner with us and spend the night. We’re awful remote, and I don’t like the look of this.”
Bob thought about Marge and Paul back home, waiting dinner for him. He remembered his meeting, first thing in the morning. “Thanks, Louella, but I’ll be ok. I’ve got all-wheel drive.”
Louella looked as if she was on the edge of another story or a word of warning, but she shrugged and gave Bob a hug, “You take care now, pastor. Be safe.”
Bob inched along, wipers thumping, defroster rushing, headlights barely making a dent in the snowy darkness. He hesitated at the pointy corner where the main road swept to the right and the seasonal road climbed to the left. The main road was likely to be better driving, but the seasonal road shaved a good ten miles off what was proving to be a long, slow trip. “O, what the hay,” Bob said, “I imagine the Subaru and I can handle a seasonal road.” The car slowly toiled up, up, up, to the top of Hotchkiss Hill.
At the summit, Bob felt a surge of relief that soon shifted to concern. He had never noticed how sharp the descent was, no switchbacks, no guardrails, and certainly no lights way out here. Feeling like a kid on a carnival ride, all fear, butterflies, and acid reflux, he steered the car onward. About half-way down the slope, building speed, deepening snow, and an unfortunate tap on the breaks got the rear end of the Subaru slaloming back and forth. “Sweet Jesus!” Bob prayed as the car spun out of control, down into the dark, headlights flashing past huge trees. With a grinding thump, the Subaru scooted off the road and into a ditch. The rear end settled against a big white pine with a bone-jarring crack. The wipers stopped, the defroster fell silent, and the headlights went dark.
Bob thanked the Lord he was still alive and fished out his cellphone. His joy at the digital glow gave way to disappointment—no signal. Bob fished a headlamp, two handwarmers, and a granola bar out of the glovebox. He opened the warmers, gave them a shake, and slipped them into his gloves. He strapped on the headlamp over his hat. Then, he turned up the collar on his coat and stepped out into more than a foot of snow. The temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. He debated turning back to Louella’s, but if the Subaru couldn’t handle the snowy track, then his boots surely wouldn’t. It was miles and miles to town, but if he was lucky, someone might come along and help.
Petey Freudenberg was on his way home from a day of meetings at the DEC. The ranger was more at home in the woods than in an office. He resented days like this, hours spent listening to policy wonks who wouldn’t know a mink from a fisher. As Petey’s headlights swept the darkness ahead, he glumly thought that this would be the last day he could get away with taking the shortcut on the seasonal road. It would be impassable in a matter of hours.
Not too far from the bottom of Hotchkiss Hill, Petey saw the willow-the-wisp of a headlamp, dancing along the shoulder. “Durned yuppies,” he muttered under his breath, “Come up here from the city and think they’ll have a little fun snowshoeing through a blizzard.” This imbecile took the prize, even gave him a big wave and a yell before Petey dropped the truck into low and surged off up the hill and into the night.
By the time Rhonda LaMott came along in her rig, Bob’s headlamp had failed, first growing slowly dimmer and then blinking out entirely. His trail boots really weren’t meant for this sort of weather and his feet were wet and numb. He brushed the snow from his coat and hat and ducked his head against the weather.
Rhonda had just finished plowing at the QuikMart. Folks had been resistant to a woman clearing snow—said it wasn’t ladylike. But Rhonda was good and incredibly dependable. She was headed home for the evening, but she would be back in town first thing to clear away the drifts. Rhonda was thinking about hot chocolate when she caught a glimpse of something moving on the shoulder. It was big and lumbering through the snow. A moose? A man?
About fifty yards past it, Rhonda slowed to a standstill and eyed her rearview mirror. A woman on her own in the middle of the Hotchkiss bog wasn’t safe. She checked her door locks and peered into the dark. Whatever it was, it was bellowing now and running in her direction. “Jeezum Crow!” Rhonda cursed. With her heart rising into her throat, Rhoda slid the rig into gear and sent up a shower of snow as she floored it, not daring to look back.
Now Bob was really worried. His boots squelched with melted snow. At this rate, he might have to walk all night to make it to civilization. He quickened his pace, fished the granola bar from his pocket, and took an incredibly stale bite. At the top of a rise, Bob paused and patted his breast pocket for his phone. He never did find out if he was back in range. Bob turned out every pocket with the sickening realization that his cell must have fallen out when he ran after the plow. He squinted back down the road and cursed his stupidity. In Bob’s overactive imagination, he saw headlines, “Local pastor freezes to death in November blizzard” or “Winter storm claims victim” or “Local church mourns pastor.”
About a half mile down the road, Bob stopped, pushed his hat up, and cupped his hands behind his ears to listen. There it was—jingling, like Santa’s sleigh or something else, something that told him that he was out in the middle of a full-fledged snow emergency: tire chains. He strained his eyes in the dark and glimpsed two dim beams, slowly growing brighter behind him. He heard the chugga, chugga, chugga of a big diesel engine. It was now or never. Bob took a deep breath and stepped out in the middle of the road with his hands up.
Bob had never met Chester Perkins, but he had heard stories. No one was certain exactly where Chester lived, but he was definitely off the grid. Some said he was an anti-social hermit. Others thought he was related to Big Foot. Everyone agreed that he smelled bad. Chester had seen the reflective gleam of a tail light in an empty car in the ditch at the bottom of Hotchkiss Hill, and he’d been prowling up the seasonal road in his rusted-out F-350 ever since. Maybe someone hadn’t had the good sense to stay put and wait out the storm. Chester thought about the three toes he had lost to frostbite in the big storm of ‘93. Some poor fool might need help.
The F-350 creaked to a stop about a foot away from Bob, who wasn’t certain which would be worse, getting run over or dying from exposure. Chester opened the truck door and shouted through the gap, “What are you waiting for? Get in!” While Bob’s numb hands fumbled for a grip on the passenger door, Chester kicked it wide open. He reached out a strong arm and hauled Bob up onto the bench seat.
Bob didn’t know what the source of the odor was, but it smelled bad in the truck, like dead things, body odor, and bean burritos. As Bob gagged and struggled into the seat belt, Chester passed a jar. “Drink that up, son.” Something fiery and potent, maybe moonshine, blazed down Bob’s throat and kindled warmth in his chest.
Chester pointed to Bob’s sodden boots. “Get those off,” he ordered and then passed Bob a furry pelt that looked suspiciously like it had come from a large dog. “Wrap your feet in this.” Bob did, his feet looking white and waxy in the dashboard light.
“Alright then, eat this.” Chester handed Bob a tough, salty chunk of jerky. Bob briefly wondered what sort of meat it could be but figured it was safe when Chester broke off a big hunk and began gnawing on some himself.
Chester dropped the truck into first and they crept toward town. “Where to?” he wanted to know.
“If you could take me to the manse at the Presbyterian Church, I’d be so grateful,” Bob answered, still finding it hard to believe that he just might make it out of this alive. They rode on for a few miles in silence.
Chester gave Bob a sidelong glance, “Man of God, huh? I never been to church.” Bob wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Certainly, if Chester had ever come to church, it would have been an unforgettable occasion.
With a sweep of his arm that took in the wind, snow, night, forest, darkness, Chester said, “This is my god.”
Bob nodded, thinking that Chester’s god had almost gotten the better of him that evening.
Maybe it was the moonshine, or the warmth of the animal skin on his feet, or the chugging of the truck that did it. Bob’s head fell to his chest, and the next thing he knew, they were in town, parked in front of the manse. Every light in the house was on, and Bob could see into the kitchen, where Marge looked like she was shouting into the telephone.
Bob pulled on his boots and turned to Chester, “I think you saved my life. How can I ever repay you?”
“No trouble,” Chester answered, “but it wouldn’t hurt if you promised to never do that again.”
“I promise, I really do,” Bob answered, shaking Chester’s grimy hand and knowing the grace of miraculous second chances and improbable saviors.
Chester chugged off into the night while Bob waved from the top step. Marge opened the front door, “Thank God! You’re home, Bob! We’ve been worried sick. Who was that?”
Bob reached an arm around Marge and watched as taillights disappeared at the end of the block. “Marge, that was a neighbor, a true-blue neighbor. Thank God, indeed.”