Every Sunday they piled like sardines into that decrepit old VW bus. The ping of its motor had the sound of a dying man's breath. As it pulled out of the gravel driveway, the sardines all waved a cheerful goodbye.
I ignored them as I did every Sunday, flipping over a page of the newspaper I'd stolen off the driveway of a house a block over. I sipped at my coffee and studied the want ads, determined to find something that I could do.
I wished again I had that stupid paper saying I'd graduated from high school. For fifty bucks I could buy one, but I never had the dough when I needed the paper, and when I didn't need the certificate, it seemed like a waste of good money.
The want ads consisted of the same old jobs: dishwasher, security guard, busboy, fast food jerk...all of them minimum wage and going nowhere.
For a moment, my mind drifted back to when I was sixteen. I'd thought life was all guaranteed promise. The leaves in the trees towering above me had been green as ten-dollar bills. I'd envisioned those bills just falling down, dropping into my hands.
My eyes looked up at the Elm tree above me. Its bark ridged in gray-brown looked grayer each day, and its pointed, slightly rounded leaves were shot full of holes, tattered, like old rags hanging on a clothes line. When had everything changed?
I was still sitting there, holding my mug full of cold coffee when the neighbor's VW clattered over the gravel. The doors on it were bolted shut, too badly dented to open and close anymore. The kids all oozed out through the windows and took off running. They were laughing and talking, as unbothered by life as a recently hatched butterfly trying out its shiny, new wings.
Their father headed over. In his hands were two glasses and a pitcher of lemonade, the ice cubes still swimming around in circles from the sugar being stirred in.
"All right if I sit down?" he asked.
It was the trailer park's bench I was sitting on. I couldn't refuse, even if the lemonade weren't puckering up my mouth for a taste. I held out my hand when the man offered me a glass. I hadn't realized how hot it had gotten. The icy feel of the glass in my hand made me think of summer picnics and happier times.
"I guess you know I'm the pastor at the Crossroads Baptist Church down on 4th," he said.
I shook my head and started sipping faster. I had no intention of hearing a sermon.
"I saw you thumbing through the want ads, and I wondered if perhaps you'd be interested in helping us out."
I handed him back the empty glass and started to shove off, but he was filling it up again. I pushed back down and wondered how I could leave without being rude.
"We need someone we can trust to do janitorial work around the church. We pay better than minimum wage. Any chance you might be interested?" he asked, studying me.
I felt like saying, "Hallelujah!" but then I remembered what he didn't know."I don't have a high school diploma," I said, handing him the empty glass.
He paused a moment to fill it up again and handed it back over. "You don't need a diploma to push a broom or change a light bulb. I think most people get that certificate to feel good about themselves. Funny isn't it that we think a piece of paper can tell us what's inside a man."
The guy was getting too preachy for me, but if he had a job, I guessed I could listen.
"Only problem," he said, "is that you'd have to come to service on Sundays because there's a heap of work to do just before and after our Sunday meeting. Would that bother you too much?"
I gulped, but I shook my head and finished the lemonade.
I started working at the church the next day. Reverend Bill was a good man; I discovered that right away. He didn't get all hard-eyed with money signs in his pupils when he became my boss, and he didn't do a lot of preaching at me, either. I started liking the inside of that church, even when the Reverend stood at the pulpit and talked about how God cared all the time.
Every so often the Reverend offered me a book to read, but he didn't force it on me when I told him I wasn't interested. When he handed me a paper about night school, and I turned away like it wasn't any big deal, he never spoke of it again.
I pocketed that paper, though, and that night I read all about the night school and how I could earn my high school diploma. I started thinking about life again, and how maybe somewhere there were trees that weren't dying.
I remembered how I'd once thought that money would fall right into my hands even if I did nothing to earn it, like golden leaves on an autumn day. But it never happened that way. I knew that now. I also knew that things could be different if I wanted it enough. I had a steady job, and a place to go where I felt good about myself, especially on Sunday when the Reverend talked. And there was a promise in the paper that he had given me, a promise that the future could be whatever I chose. I decided that I'd go see what night school was like. How could it hurt?
Maybe I could still find me some of them trees with trunks, strong and wide, and bark with that rich coffee brown of patterns that you figured you could read if only you knew how. And I bet them trees would have velvet leaves, all perfectly shaped like little hands -- childrens' hands -- still open and full of wonder.