A Long, Hot Walk in Search of a Story

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

am looking for a story, with not much luck.

It is Sunday afternoon and I have a deadline for this newspaper on Monday morning. Though I am aware that stories cannot be sought—rather, they seek the writer out—I am desperate and continue my search, walking with my husband, Karl, down Emory Place. I stop to show him a regal shop called Bangs and Blush owned by my friends Jamie and Christian. (It’s a hair and makeup agency that specializes in on-location services.) The store itself has high ceilings and beautiful French furniture—and were it not for the fact that I know the owners, a place I would be too intimidated by its elegance to walk into.

Two nights ago I had stopped by around 10 p.m. to pick something up and I asked Jamie, the wife of the duo, if she was not afraid to come here alone at night. For despite the chic grandeur and simplicity of the block, its impeccable neatness and beauty, it is daunting in its isolation during the evenings.

“I don’t even think about it,” she said, brave, hard-working girl that she is. The next day we read in the paper that a brutal beating took place shortly after we left. Appearances can be deceiving.

Now, at 1 in the afternoon, the heat is already scorching my skin and my clothes are getting wet with perspiration, but I soldier on. An attractive couple in a blue Chevrolet sedan slow down and the woman calls out, “Are you hungry or thirsty?”

“Well, in fact, I am both,” I reply, though it hadn’t occurred to me before. She hands me two bottles of cold water and two boxes of sesame crackers on which a note has been placed: “Jesus Loves You! Ask Jesus to come into your heart!” I am deeply touched by this, remembering my high-school days when I would go out on missions for Jesus, such as approaching strangers and asking them if they were saved. After which I would give them a pamphlet by Billy Graham telling them how to become saved. I was deeply embarrassed by doing this but did it anyway because if I didn’t I might go straight to hell and burn in flames forever.

Still, I am touched to the core by this couple’s kindness and their non-intrusive way of spreading the love of Jesus.

We walk on, sipping the water gratefully, toward the library. The difference between the temperature in the shade and under direct sun is amazing, and spying a shady place underneath an elm tree I flop down. “Let’s rest,” I tell Karl, and he sits beside me and lights two cigarettes. Rows and rows of lavender have been planted alongside the sidewalk. I bury my face in it and close my eyes and am transported into another land: a place of blue coolness where there is no summer and no heat. I jump up after a few seconds and begin walking rapidly, as if I have an urgent appointment to get to.

“Hurry up,” I tell my husband, and he laughs, knowing I am unable to be still anywhere for very long.

When we get to the library, two girls of about 10 are hanging off the railing, as carefree as only a 10-year-old can be. One of them asks me what I do.

“I’m a world-famous writer,” I tell them, jokingly.

“Really?” they ask in unison, eyes large.

“No, not really,” I say, a bit ashamed of myself. Undaunted, they ask for my autograph, which I write in their school notebooks.

“To my good friends Stephanie and Nicole,” I write, and they skip gleefully down the sidewalk hand in hand. I remember being 10, when your best friend was the most important thing in your life.

After checking out movies in the library, we stop by Preservation Pub for a beer. A pretty girl with braids I have chatted with a few times before about absolutely nothing—something like this story—tells me she has a job working with elephants.

“I’ve always felt connected to you but I was afraid to talk to you because you might want to write about me,” she says.

“Really?” I ask, becoming less interested in the woman by the minute. Just for the hell of it I ask, “Can I have your autograph?”

“Of course!” she replies, and signs her name in my notebook as if this is the most natural thing in the world to her. Then she asks if we might exchange telephone numbers. “Let’s have lunch sometime!”

“Sure,” I say indifferently. I actually do call her, deciding that someone who works with elephants can’t be all bad. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t call me back, and I wait until I see her next in Market Square and we hug and faun over each other as if we actually like one another.

After going in and out of a few stores, which is torturous for me, we wander toward Fourth and Gill and home. Dusk is falling over the tall sunflowers and makeshift garden planted by the patients of Helen Ross McNabb, across from Friendship House, and the cicadas are beginning their nightly raucous melody. There is a vague crispness in the air and a feeling of something coming to a close and something else beginning. I take my husband’s hand and we look up at the new moon, just happy to be together and alive.

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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