Earthen Vessels

Earthen Vessels

“Okay, guys . . . let’s just wait ’til the service is over.” Mom – in this context, “Mrs. Rubenstein” – gave all of us the benefit of a moderate, but still quelling, glare.

Connor – tall, skinny, nervous – shuffled his feet. “Uh . . . I’ve only got a couple hours, Mrs. Rubenstein. I’ve got basketball practice at 1:30.”

And you have to eat before then,” my mother responded. “I know – your mom was very specific. But we need to be respectful and cleanup work is going to be noisy. We’ll wait.”

None of the rest of us said anything. I knew better, of course. My mom was fun and irrepressible and I loved her to pieces, but . . . no one was ever crazy enough to give her any shit twice. Not even my new best friend’s Mom, and she was some kinda scary too.

Chase was, of course, listening to the preacher intently. She was always intent, focused. So studious that she showed me up, and before I’d had her in my classes, I’d always thought I was the undisputed head of the brainy girl’s group.

“It is God’s judgment!!!” the preacher thundered. “If He is absent in our time of need, it is our own fault. It is we – we ourselves!!! – who have banned Him from the Public Square!”

A graceful eyebrow rose a millimeter higher on Chase’s forehead. “Heresy, Reverend,” she murmured. “Second Timothy, thirteen.”

She was barely audible – I was standing right next to her, and I almost missed what she said. Naturally, Mom caught it, even though she had to be at least ten yards away. She shot Chase a warning look.

Chase inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“Have we not seen – Have we not witnessed – the signs of the end of days?!!! Behold! The seas rise, and the winds howl! Earthquakes and fires!! And, yes, tornadoes! Nation fights against nation. Brother against brother! The natural against the unnatural!!! Repent!!! Repent, my children! Pray – pray that you may be numbered among the elect!!! For if you believe, your suffering here on earth, even the terrible sufferings of these last few days, will be washed away, washed away in the blood of the Lamb!!!!”

Chase shook her head, its motion almost undetectable. “Forgetting Matthew 24, 34 through 44?” This time, her words were scarcely louder than a breath.

I neither had, nor wanted, Chase’s familiarity with Christian scriptures. I’d made my Bat Mitzvah, but my family wasn’t terribly religious. I studied what I had to study and moved on. My own interests tended to run to higher mathematics, chemistry and the hard sciences. I wanted to be – honest to G-D – a rocket scientist. The absolute last thing I had any interest in was parsing the theological ramblings of a backcountry huckster.

There was lots more of the same, and Chase never lost her intense focus on the . . . sermon? Homily? Tirade? . . . whatever. But the rest of us were looking bored at best. Connor, Jayden, Abby and I were ready to get to work. But Sydney and Makayla were looking downright ill.

I looked at Mom. Was there, just maybe, a chink in her armour? Some indication of discomfort, or at least, at lack of resolve? We should be working. The tornado had ravaged the entire trailer park, and we only had a few hours to help.

But no. She was standing perfectly still, a completely unreadable look on her face, eyes focused on the preacher. Mom’s posture always made her look far taller than her actual height. At only 5’3”, she was the shortest person in our party.

We’d joked about this trip. “Take your daughter to work day” was next week. But in a way, I always went to work with Mom. She taught several classes at my high school, including – most relevantly – an elective course in, of all things, moral philosophy (Yeah. It’s that kind of a school). By mutual decision, I did not take any of her classes. But she had asked for students from her M-phil class to come out on a Saturday morning to join her in some volunteer work. And, since I was her daughter, and some of my friends were going, she’d asked me to come too.

“You know, other girls will get to take a day off next week to be with their moms,” I’d snarked – at home, naturally. Snarking at Mom when she was wearing her “Mrs. Rubenstein” hat was, to say the least, contraindicated.

Mom had laughed at me. “Yeah, for all the good that’ll do them. They're just going to have to make up the work.”

Makayla finally couldn’t take any more. She managed to blurt out an “excuse me, ma’am,” before moving quickly to one of the three portapotties the State contractor had set up at the edge of the site. They were further away from the “service,” and I hoped for Mike’s sake they were far enough.

Mom briefly flashed a look of compassion at Mike’s departing back before returning to an impassive, eyes-front stance.

I thought Syd might follow Mike’s example when the preacher hit a new crescendo in volume and a new low in content, but fortunately it was the finale – kind of like at the Fourth of July, when they finish with a whole bunch of fireworks going off at once. The service was over.

“Okay, everyone.” Mom turned and effortlessly gathered our attention. “We’re going to split up into groups of two. Mr. Strickland will give out the assignments. Gather back here at noon sharp. Clear?” Strickland was the site super from the State Emergency Management Agency.

We all nodded.

Mr. Strickland – a big, craggy-faced older guy with silver and blond hair – assigned all of the school groups to help residents who were sorting through the debris, trying to find and reclaim at least some of what they’d lost. His crews, on the other hand, were doing the bigger jobs – hauling away scrap, putting tarps on roofs, clearing downed trees, dealing with plumbing issues . . . . it was a long list.

I made sure Chase and I were a team. She’d transferred to our school just a couple months earlier, and while we’d become close, she wasn’t tight with a lot of the other students. She gave me a sweet smile when I asked, clearly appreciating my effort to make her feel welcome.

Chase and I, along with Mike and Jayden, were assigned to help some families on the south side of the park, so we headed that direction. I waved at Mom, who gave a brief wave back in acknowledgement.

“God, can you believe this place?” Jayden looked stunned. “I saw it on the news, but . . . jeez, I had no idea, you know?”

“I know, right? It’s like someone dropped a bomb.” I shook my head, causing my hair to get in my face. I dug into a pocket of my jeans, got a scrunchie and pulled the mass of it back into a more practical ponytail.

“Mike?” Chase’s voice was soft. “You okay?”

Mike looked . . . haunted, I guess. And tense. Her arms were wrapped tight, like she was giving herself a hug. If it was supposed to give her comfort, it wasn’t working. “I grew up in a place like this,” Mike said after a brief hesitation. “I know what it’s like, after . . . .” She fell silent.

Equally tentative, Chase pulled Mike in for a one-armed hug. We kept walking, silently viewing the devastation. Uprooted trees, tossed like salad and hurled against houses that buckled like the tin cans they were . . . entire roofs stripped away, exposing every room . . . pots and pans, broken plates, TVs, toys and even toilets, strewn all around. Lives upended.

Coming to the end of the street, we found people – clearly residents – picking through what had, just days before, been what they called home. A man looked at us suspiciously, then came toward us. A couple women from adjoining properties, seeing him move, came over as well.

“We’re busy,” he said gruffly.

I stepped forward. It was my mom’s class, and somehow I felt responsible. “We’re here to help. I’m Sarah, this is Makayla, Jaden and Chase.”

His look remained guarded. “You’re not with the government or anything?”

I shook my head. “No, sir. We’re just students.”

“We’re just trying to help.” I thought Jayden sounded a bit louder and more defensive than was probably helpful.

“Don’t want no charity,” the man said.

“Just folks,” Chase said softly, taking her arm off Mike.

The man’s eyes followed the movement. Carefully.

Mike nodded. “Neighbors. My folks lived in Rockaway when it was hit two years ago. Lost . . . well, everything. Neighbors helped.”

Something in her voice, or what she said, made a difference. The man nodded. “That’s all right then. Thanks for comin’ out . . . neighbors.”

Time to seize the moment. “How can we be helpful?”

“Me ’n my boy’ll be fine,” the man said. “But Mrs. Trainor over there, and Kitty Joe Smiley, I ’spect they could use some help.”

The woman who’d come from the trailer on the left was probably in her mid-thirties. There were a couple kids back at her trailer, being about as helpful as kids ever are. She smiled – tired, but somehow still nice – and said, "It'd be a blessing, it would.”

Mike started forward, stopped, and looked at Jayden. He smiled, nodded and joined her in following the woman. I figured at least one of them would be doing some babysitting – and, knowing Mike, I expected it would be Jayden.

“Tom Peters, I don’t need no help.” The woman who had come from the other trailer was older – 50s, I thought. Maybe 60s. She was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and a shapeless hat covered her gray hair.

The man – Peters, I guess – gave the woman an exasperated look. “Coulda fooled me, Irene, since you’ve pulled me away from my own work three times already. Let the kids help.”

“Oh, fine,” she said, showing a bit of dramatic flounce. “C’mon, then. You will anyways.”

Chase and I gave each other a look.

She smiled.

I shook my head.

We both wandered over.

“How can we help, Mrs.Trainor?” Chase asked when we reached the woman’s trailer.

She gave Chase a sour look and said, “Not sure you can, unless you’re handin’ out miracles. But come along. I’m sure I’ll think of somethin.’”

* * * * *

Two hours later, I was thinking ruefully that we’d been kept pretty damned busy, for all that she didn’t think she’d find a use for us. Mostly we’d been moving bigger things – broken furniture, some tree branches, things like that – so Mrs. Trainor could search for salvageable items.

The damage was bizarre. Even within a single tract, some things were damaged, others were untouched, and still others were pulverized. When we weren’t moving bigger things, Chase and I spent a lot of time trying to find family photos. She’d kept them in a sealed bin, but the plastic had been no match for the twister.

We were just picking up a spray of photos that we’d found out in the street under a mattress when Mom arrived. “How’s it going, girls?”

I was looking at a photo of a much younger Irene Trainer, a husky, bearded man at her side and an infant in her arms. She was young. Pretty. Smiling like a spring morning. I started to cry, and somehow completely forgot that Mom was on duty. “I . . . “ My breath caught, and I tried again. “I . . . Oh, Mom, it’s so awful!”

She walked over, looked at the photo, and wrapped me in her arms. “I know, honey,” she said. “But I need you to be strong, now, okay?”

“That you do,” said a voice behind me.

I pulled free and turned around. Mrs. Trainer looked at me, then held out her hand. When I gave her the photo, she gave it a long look, her face showing a range of emotions too complicated to follow. Then she dropped her hand to her side. “This world’ll chew you up and leave you nothin’ but gristle,” she said. “Youth won’t save you. Pretty won’t save you. Put your faith in Jesus, girl. You won’t see Him much, but He won’t let you down.”

I was going to say something, but Mom touched my arm lightly. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Ma’am. I’m Linda Rubenstein; this is my daughter, the others are my students. I hope they’ve been helpful.”

Mrs. Trainer’s expression didn’t change. Maybe her eyes flickered at Mom’s name . . . but maybe they didn’t. I have been known to be a bit sensitive about that.

But after a moment, she nodded and said, “the girls have been helpful . . . and polite.” It didn’t even sound grudging.

“Good,” Mom said approvingly. “Though, I’m afraid I’m going to have to bring them home now. Several of them have commitments, and I promised to watch the clock.”

Chase shook her head. “I’m staying, Mrs. Rubenstein. Remember? Mom said she’d be by to pick me up later this afternoon.”

“Of course, that’s right,” Mom said. “You sure you’ll be alright?” She sounded dubious.

Chase smiled. “I’ll be fine. There’s . . . well, there’s just lots more to do.”

Mom looked around, taking in the scene around us. “Isn’t that the truth. . . . I wouldn’t normally, but your mom was pretty insistent.” She looked at Mrs. Trainer. “If it’s alright with you?”

The woman grunted. “Of course. She’s helpful.”

I was eager to be gone . . . but I suddenly felt ashamed of my feelings. Chase had to be as uncomfortable as I was, but she wasn’t running back to her very nice life. “Mom, I’d like to stay, too . . . I’m sure Chase’s mom will drop me off.”

Mom looked surprised . . . then pleased. “I take my daughter to work, then she stays late and I go home.” She smiled. “You’re growing up, Tippy.” She looked at us both and said, “Stay together, stay safe, and get Mr. Strickland if there’s any trouble.”

After saying her goodbyes to Mrs. Trainer, she headed off to collect the others.

Chase said, “Mrs. Trainer, Mr. Strickland’s crew brought sandwiches along for everyone. Would you like me to get you one?”

“Don’t want no government handouts,” she snarled, her face darkening.

With far more understanding than I was feeling, Chase said, “they’re neighbors, too, Mrs. Trainer. And it’s your own tax dollars at work.”

“Suit yerself, Missy,” she said. “But I don’t hold with it.”

Chase shrugged and went back to work. After a minute, Mrs. Trainer called over to her, “no reason you should go without. Go on, now.”

Chase turned back with a smile. “No reason for you to go without either, Mrs. Trainer.”

“I got my principles, girl. And my pride!”

Chase added a twinkling eye to a smile that just got wider. “Me, too! And one of my principles is, I don’t eat when my host goes hungry.”

Trainer glowered. “You just made that up!”

“Uh huh,” Chase agreed, cheerfully. “But I like it. C’mon, Sarah – there’s more photos over by the wall.”

Mrs. Trainer didn’t move. She looked surprised, but . . . that’s just because she didn’t know Chase. Chase gave stubborn a whole new meaning.

When we were far enough away from “our host,” she turned her smile on me. “Tippy?”

It was my turn to glower. “Don’t ask. Don’t even go there. She is so dead for saying that in public!”

Chase giggled, and turned back to work. Without looking up, she said, “sorry about lunch. I kinda got my back up, you know?”

That got me giggling. “Wow, that’s a revelation, Captain Obvious!”

Chase was right; there were a lot of photos by the wall, which was cinderblock and had come through mostly intact, in the process catching a lot of material that had been ripped from the trailer. A few minutes later, as I was brushing away some broken shards of something to get at more photos, I heard a cry behind me. Before I could turn around, Mrs. Trainer dropped to the ground beside me.

She grabbed a broken piece of pottery and, for the first time, started to cry. They were hard, bitter tears, and I was completely at a loss for what to do. “Mrs. Trainer?” I asked, hesitantly. “Mrs. Trainer?”

Chase was suddenly there with us. She put a hand gently on the woman’s back and brought her head in close. “What was it, Mrs. Trainer?”

This time, the woman seemed to hear. “My Ella made this for me!”

“Your daughter?” Chase asked, softly.

Mrs. Trainer’s head jerked up and down, somewhere between a muscle spasm and a nod.

Gently, even tenderly, Chase said, “let me help you find the pieces.” I moved to help, but she looked up at me and said, “Hey, Sarah, do you want to find out if Mr. Strickland’s got some glue he can spare?”

I looked at Mrs. Trainer, but she was so absorbed by this loss that she didn’t bark at Strickland’s name. I nodded to Chase, got up and went to find the Super.

He wasn’t surprised to see me – I’m guessing Mom had asked him to keep an eye on us. “Gorilla Glue? Yeah, we got some with us. Handy stuff.” He sent one of his guys off to find some. “You two doing okay?”

I nodded. “It’s . . . harder than I thought,” I said, struggling to come up with the words. “I feel like this is the kind of stuff we see in the news, when they’re reporting on disasters in poor countries.” He gave me a funny look and I paused. “That came out wrong. I mean, I know there’s lots of poverty in our state . . . .” My voice trailed off, and I found myself blushing, feeling like an idiot.

Strickland gave me a kind look. “It’s okay. It does feel like a different world out here. But it’s not – not really. And that’s a good thing to understand.”

The guy he’d sent off came back with the glue. He also gave me a sandwich. I felt sort of guilty about that, but . . . no reason I should pay the price for Chase’s case of the stubborns. I finished it before I got back to Mrs. Trainer’s house.

Chase and Mrs. Trainer had spread out a blanket – it looked like a bedspread – and put all the pieces of pottery they could find on it. The bedspread had been white, once. The pottery all had a deep blue glaze on one side, and a kind of creamy white on the other. Chase was sitting on the blanket itself. Mrs. Trainer was on a small stool, holding what looked like the largest single piece of the pottery, turning it over and over in her hands. At least she wasn’t crying any more.

Chase gave me one of her sweet smiles, and I dropped the vial of glue down beside her. We shared a look of wordless communication. Then she bent down to find two pieces that might be glued together.

I went looking for more.

We must have spent two hours trying to put that thing – a pitcher, apparently – back together. But we were persistent, and Chase has pretty steady hands. When we had found everything that could be found, the piece was probably ninety percent complete.

“It’ll never hold water again,” Chase said, looking at Mrs. Trainer. “But it is still the work of her hands.”

The poor woman took the vase, cradled it to her chest, and wept. We sat with her, and both of us were crying too. Crying for everything that had been lost, but would never be found. For all the things – and all the people – who were broken beyond repair.

Through my tears, I saw the flashing lights of a police car moving slowly up the main road that led into the trailer park. Three long black cars were following slowly in its wake.

Mrs. Trainer stood up, clutching the pitcher. “What’s that?”

“Looks like the Governor’s motorcade,” I said.

“What in the name of the darkest devil heart is she doin’ here!” Mrs. Trainer’s voice was a hiss. “Come to gloat, has she!” Before we could say a word, she stormed off, headed back toward the entrance to the park.

Chase and I looked at each other in surprise, then chased after her. She was faster than she had appeared. Still, we caught up with her halfway up the street. She continued marching forward, her face a rictus of anger and disapproval.

“Mrs. Trainer,” Chase said urgently, “She's the governor. It’s her job to come here, when bad things happen”

I certainly didn’t vote for that witch. I don’t know anyone in this park who did!”

“It doesn’t matter which way folks voted,” Chase said, her voice low. “It’s still her job. She’s doing everything she can to help. The tents you’re sleeping in . . . the contractors . . . the food and medicine . . . .”

Mrs. Trainer cut her off. “Help?” She was incredulous. “She brought this on us! Her and her unnatural son!”

My eyes widened in horror.

The motorcade stopped, not thirty feet from where we were standing. Mrs. Trainer continued her righteous march, but even Chase didn’t follow her now.

“Chase?” My voice had a distressing tremor.

She shook her head, looking like someone who’d just taken a punch to the gut.

An aide jumped out of the front seat of the lead SUV and opened the back door. Governor Hobson stepped out, appropriately dressed in jeans and a heavy coat. For once, sensible sneakers replaced her signature pumps.

Murderer!” Mrs. Trainer screamed. “You did this! You! You brought the Lord’s judgment on this place!”

The governor’s security detail was out and moving to intercept. I heard a sound behind me, and found that a crowd had gathered. The mood was ugly.

While my attention had been diverted, Chase had raced forward to Mrs Trainer’s side. The woman was still screaming, but Chase got in front of her, shielding the governor. “NO, Mrs. Trainer!” Her voice was low, but urgent. “Don’t do this. Even St. Paul teaches that we should respect authorities.”

“St. Paul!” Mrs. Trainer shrieked. “Talk to her about St. Paul! He’d have something to say about that so-called ‘trans’ son of hers!”

Finally, the Governor spoke, her voice cool. “I’m familiar with the passage, and I’m not especially moved by it. Chase, would you kindly come away? You're making the security detail extremely nervous.”

Trainer’s eyes focussed intently in Chase. “You know her?”

“Of course,” Chase said. “She’s my mother.”

Trainer staggered back. “Spawn of Satan!”

The crowd behind began to murmur. A few cried out, and the governor’s detail started to look very worried indeed.

Chase cocked her head, then looked at the pitcher the woman still clutched like it held her heart. “Jesus said, you will know them by their fruits. Was all that work the fruit of evil?”

Mrs. Trainer stopped. She looked at the pitcher, then back at Chase.

The crowd grew quiet, watching Mrs. Trainer.

“You defiled it! I oughta break it again!” But her voice was low, choked with pain and filled with doubt.

“Please, Mrs. Trainer . . . just think about it.” Chase was standing incredibly still, but her eyes were pleading her case.

The silence held . . . but the tension was almost unbearable.

I was shaking.

“I oughta — but I . . . I can’t do it!” Mrs. Trainer turned, her face a mask of grief, and started hobbling back down the street, holding tight to the broken pottery we had so carefully repaired.

As she approached the small crowd, her neighbors parted to let her pass. But Mr. Peters stepped forward and took her by the arm. “Come on, Irene,” he said. “Let me take you home.”

People gave the governor’s group a few more looks, most of which were suspicious. But at least a couple looked thoughtful. Then they, too, turned and headed back to the places that had been their homes.

I turned and started walking to the motorcade. Chase had been so amazing — so brave! I wanted to give her a hug.

She was facing her mother, her back straight. The governor reached out and placed her palm on Chase’s cheek, a look of infinite love – and pride – on her classic features. “Let’s go, daughter of mine. Or have you seen enough of my job today?”

The End.

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