A New Coat on a Cold Day

An acid wind bit through my jeans as I waited for the crosslight to turn green on Frederick Avenue. A black man, several inches shorter than me and a few decades younger came up and stopped beside me. As we stood there, I remarked, “Not much fun standing out here today.” He looked at me out from under his hood, hesitated, then looked back toward the sidewalk, “No, it’s too cold.”

I guess his neatly trimmed goatee helped keep his chin warm but that wasn’t enough for this type of weather. The wind chill was below zero and neither of us was dressed for distance in this temperature. I was only crossing the street from Firestone to Penney’s but he had come from back up the block.

I took another look at the red fleece jacket he was wearing over his gray hoodie. It was ripped in several places across the upper right side, slashes that had frayed with wear. I couldn’t imagine being out in this wind with a ripped jacket. I wished I had brought along one of the extra six coats that I had at home in my closet so I could give him one.

The light changed and we walked quickly across the five lanes. The thought forming in my mind struck me as a bit odd and I left it alone until we got to the grass strip between Frederick and the mall. A few more steps and the urging was too strong, I had to speak. I slowed my steps and looked over to him on my left side. “Would you like to have a new coat?” I asked him.

We both stopped and he looked at me as if unsure whether I was about to rob him or try do something even more sinister. I saw him glance briefly at my jacket. “I’d be happy to buy you a new coat if you’d like to have one,” I clarified. I don’t think he could tell that it was more than an offer; it was a plea. The sight of him walking around in a minus-something wind chill in a tattered jacket made my heart ache.

Again, though, he declined, “No, I’m okay. My other coat’s in the washing machine. I’m good, really.”

“Well, I’d be happy to buy you one if you’d like to have it,” I repeated, one last time.

“No but I appreciate you asking. Thank you.”

We parted ways a few steps later as I headed toward the north entrance of J. C. Penney’s and he continued on around the west side of the mall. I had no idea how far he was going on this bitter day but I was glad that I only had a few hundred feet to go. I saw him walking past the corner as I reached for the door.

After returning the defective gloves I’d bought the week before, I walked around the store, looking at the coats that were on sale. Leather coats, wool coats, synthetics with thick quilted linings. I thought about how much warmer every one of them would have been than his two layers of worn fleece. “Heck,” I thought, “with these sale prices, I could have gotten him a really nice coat for less than a hundred bucks.”

I have no idea whether or not it was pride or suspicion or something else entirely that led him to decline my offer. Regardless of his response, I was very glad that I had responded to that quiet prompting of the Spirit. But it also made me sad.

Sad to think that pride could keep a man cold on a day like this. Even sadder to think it could be that kindness is so unusual in that young man’s life, and maybe in many others’, that a kind offer seems dangerous, a threat of some sort. Maybe, if we all worked at it for a bit, we could change that, at least for those who share our steps from time to time.

H. Arnett


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A Casual Glory

It’s about as plain a sky as you’ll ever see. Only the slightest hint of pink just above the ridge over toward the east. That shifts to a bland paleness with a bare suggestion of blue that stretches up then as far as the eye can see, especially when the eye is looking through a window. From this angle, I see only a single small cloud, grayish blue, moving quickly south beyond my view of black branches.

The longest slender branches shift and shudder in the wind, its cold sendings suggesting this would be a wonderful day to stay inside with a good book and an even better cup of coffee.

But our days are seldom arranged by the weather, only influenced by it to some degree. I will wear a good coat, warm gloves, and hope that my walks outside are short and quickly to the point. I will try to carry a smile and manage a friendly voice, be kind to strangers and pleasant to friends.

In the midst of this minor resolve, almost suddenly now, I see the orange burn of the coming sun in the slight dip of the ridge. In a just two minutes, its flaming rise will run to red and be too bright for unshielded eyes and I will have to lower the shade.

My day is no longer plain, nor is any day that the Lord has made. It is not our seeing that makes the substance though our believing does shape the perception.

This will be a good day.

H. Arnett

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Fine Dining in Arkansas

Finding ourselves on the road in Arkansas on Valentine’s weekend, Randa and I decided to do our traditional steak dinner out away from home this year. Since we would be with a houseful of family on Valentine’s night, we thought we might as well celebrate our romance a night early.

As I was checking into our hotel in Clarkesville, I asked the manager/dude/guy at the desk for a reference. “Is there a good steak house nearby?” I queried as I filled in the license plate number on the form.

In a relatively decipherable Middle Eastern accent, he replied, “There is not a steak house but there is a good restaurant just across the highway; they have good steaks. South Park Restaurant.” He pointed to the Wendy’s sign visible through the plate glass of the lobby, “Right behind Wendy’s. You will see it, no problem.”

Randa and I unpacked the car, turned up the thermostat in the room and headed over to South Park. The parking lot was about three-quarters full, a good sign I thought, considering that it was already after eight o’clock on a Friday night. We walked in, picked out a table near the unlit artificial fireplace and took a seat.

Not too much later, our server appeared. She was a pretty young thing, trim and nicely dressed with her hair neatly styled, makeup tastefully applied. And then she smiled and asked what we’d like to drink. I’ve never seen that much black in someone’s mouth unless they were eating licorice. I should have taken it as an omen.

I don’t mind local color, in fact I usually seek it out for my routine dining experiences on the road. But my palette wasn’t quite ready for this picture. The stocky teenage girl in a flannel shirt, the seven-foot-tall thin man in a wheelchair, the Far Side family in the booth next to us, the teenage boy with slicked-back hair, the middle-aged man who was strikingly overweight and walked with an almost-collapsing limp. All of that is just folks being who they are and I’m okay with that. We see the same sort of clientele in northeast Kansas and southwestern Kentucky.

And it’s not that I’m just too darn snooty, either. I’m from Kentucky, remember? I understand the frustration of trying to overcome ubiquitously reinforced stereotypes.

I deliberately ordered black-eyed peas and enjoyed them even though I correctly figured they’d be cooked to mush. I was even tolerant of little Miss Black Teeth forgetting to bring my slaw or Randa’s coffee. Soon after I gently and politely repeated the coffee request, she plopped a half-gallon carafe on the table. All of that, okay, I can consider the location and take it in stride. But the steaks, now that’s another matter. Those were the primary focus of our Valentine’s celebration.

I would like to give the benefit of the doubt and say that at some point, our ribeyes may have been decent cuts of meat. After all, some poor bovine creature gave up his or her life for that meal. Sacrifice acknowledged, that much fat and gristle in one piece of meat indicates an animal that was both indulged and abused; it was never a good cut. On the positive side, it was cooked pretty much to the degree that we requested. That completes the list of positive aspects. Its drab color and questionable texture did not build up unrealistic expectations and folks, it did not disappoint. I’m not sure if the meat was freezer-burned or just cooked in rancid grease but it was not palatable. In fact, I’d have to say it was just plain nasty. Absolutely the worst steak I have ever tasted and I’ve eaten meat that was kept in a freezer for five years or more.

In spite of the food, service and ambience, we still left a ten-dollar bill on the table. It wasn’t a tip; it was benevolence. And it was also obedience to the Lord: “Bless those who despitefully use you.” Even in our disappointments, we have opportunity.

H. Arnett

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I’ve Felt Worse…

“I tell you I’ve fought tougher men,
but I really can’t remember when;
he kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.”
–Shel Silverstein A Boy Named Sue, as recorded by Johnny Cash

Well, folks, this wasn’t the week I expected to follow such a wonderful weekend. Randa and I had traveled over to Little Rock and met up with three of my sons and their families at the home of my youngest son who is about to deploy to Afghanistan. We had a terrific time visiting there, enjoying one another’s company and an incredibly beautiful day of weather on Saturday. With sunny skies and seventy degrees, we entertained ourselves in mid-afternoon with a round of Frisbee golf and fun in the park. The seven grandkids had nearly as much fun as we did.

Randa and I headed home Sunday morning and almost made it in ahead of our most recent winter storm. We hit a few patches of very light sleet beginning just south of Kansas City, then light to moderate snow at the city’s north side. By the time we got to the south edge of Saint Joe, the snow had started to pack and the cars had started to slide. We barely managed to skirt around a series of wrecks by taking the shoulder for just a bit up to the I-229 exit and made it home around eight Sunday night. Looking back, the storm was a bit of an omen.

I made it in to work Monday but felt like a bag of dead mice all day. Headache, congested sinuses and perpetual post-nasal drainage. Monday evening’s supper consisted of a peanut butter sandwich and a few Oreo cookies. I probably could have had pizza and jalapenos; the end result would have been the same. Starting shortly after bedtime and continuing on a fairly regular basis throughout the night, whatever went down came back up. I’m sure I’ve been sicker than I was then but, like that boy named “Sue,” I really can’t remember when.

If we were to call that first round of vomiting just a light tremor, the final round at about five the next morning was somewhere in the neighborhood of 8.4 on the Reichter Scale. On the third and subsequent trips, I was so lightheaded I thought I’d pass out before making the six steps from the bed to the bathroom. I can still feel the tsunami moving from one side of my head to the other.

For the past two days, I’ve been flat on my back except for necessary trips which required some semblance of vertical. Over the past sixty hours, I’ve ingested one-and-a-half bowls of soup, half a dozen crackers and enough OTC cold and flu meds to stock a small warehouse. Randa faithfully kept me supplied with cracked ice the first day and then succumbed to her version of whatever this is on the next day. Today, we’re like a pair of crippled mules trying to help one another through the fence.

There are times when the duties of love overwhelm its dangers. That’s why the God Who Loves Us did more than face our diseases. He himself bore our sins. And overcame.

H. Arnett

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Ten-Dollar Mules and a Hundred Dollar Coat

I grew up reading Dick Tracy in the comic strips, reading spy novels and, once we actually got a TV, occasionally watching movies about detectives and spies and other shadowy figures. To me, the absolute epitome of sleuth, sophistication and steel cold nerves was the black fedora and matching trench coat. Plus, in the bitterly cold winters of the netherworld, there is nothing that rivals the double-breasted trench coat for stylish, well-dressed protection from sub-Arctic wind chills. Church, weddings, funerals, state galas and diplomatic soirees, you’d have to go full-length brushed cashmere to top the black trench coat. And with the cashmere, you lose the steely-nerved effect.

So, when I saw a like-new double-breasted black trench coat at the Goodwill store about fifteen years ago, I snatched that thing up like a duck on a June bug! I didn’t care that it was a size or two large for me. Then, I went straight to Penney’s and bought myself a nice black fedora. When the wind turns to the north and I must go forth in a well-dressed state of affairs, I bring out the black.

Yesterday was such a day. With the wind chill barely above zero, I didn’t think I was overdoing things.

I came home from the office needing to get to Saint Joseph as quickly as possible. I had to go by the drug store and out to the mall and then to the grocery store before heading over to Legends Bar & Grill for my Thursday night trivia contest as the rookie member of the defending champions, Sons of Answerarchy. I was in a hurry but there were a couple of things I had to get from the bedroom upstairs to take back to town with me.

So, I switched out my casual dress loafers for my Wal-Mart special camo-colored “mules” before heading up to walk on the new carpet. In case you’re like me and a couple minutes behind the current phraseology, “mules” are quick slip-on shoes that have a completely open back in them. I keep a pair for “indoor use only” to help protect the carpet and my noggin from not-so-subtle reminders from Randa. “Don’t forget to put your other shoes back on,” she called in a smirking voice as I darted up the steps. “Hah!” I thought, like I’d do that. Again, this quickly after accidentally wearing them to the elders and deacons meeting on Sunday afternoon…

My next memory of that conversation was twelve minutes and ten miles later as I was crossing the Pony Express Bridge and happened to notice that my feet felt unusually relaxed and comfortable for a drive. Yep, sure ’nuff! At the opposite end of the black fedora, well below the black trench coat with the stylish flap across the back and the belt across the middle: camo mules. I laughed so hard I almost thought it was funny. Actually, it was a comical dilemma.

I didn’t have time to go back home and get my errands done. Really, it wasn’t that hard a decision to make.

So, five minutes later, I walked right into to Rodgers’ Drug Store, head held high, daring anyone not to look me in the eye. I had to ask for help to find the Blistex that Randa needed and then stepped up to the counter and asked for her prescriptions. Got ‘em and left promptly, not daring to look behind me.

Next to Sears to return the Dockers socks that looked great in the package and had the elastic qualities of your usual piece of cold spaghetti. As soon as I put on the first pair, they felt as loose as your big brother’s jacket. They started sagging down by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs. I walked across the parking lot in my very comfy mules and stepped up to the first register in the store, which happened to be in the tools section. The young man quietly and quickly completed my transaction, somehow keeping a straight face the entire time. I thanked him in my best Jimmy Cagney voice and then asked him, “Where are the men’s shoes?” He pointed, “Back there in the left corner.”

I could handle walking in and out of the drugstore, walking across two parking lots and through Sears on an early Thursday evening. But there was no way I was sitting in a bar for two-and-a-half hours wearing a black fedora, trench coat and camo-colored house shoes! I don’t always drink humility, but when I do, I prefer less than Dos Equis.

H. Arnett

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Be the Blessing

As I look out the window by my computer screen, my view consists of two halves. The low ridge defines the cut point, an almost perfectly horizontal line. Below that line, everything is defined by darkness, a black screen in which only the lights of passing cars can be seen, along with the round points of yard lights scattered in the distance. If I move my head from left to right, a couple of other lights show up from behind the blocking of the huge branches of the old maple tree at the low edge of the yard.

Above that dark line of the ridge, black forms of tree trunks and branches interlace in stark silhouette against the dawning sky. They weave and sway, pushed by a bitter wind sent from the north. Beyond them, a backlight of rose sets beneath an icy blue. Just in the time of writing these words, the hues have paled to pink and powder. In this fraction of an hour, the light has risen higher and higher. Already, dim forms begin to show in the shadow of the ridge: near buildings, seams of snow running the ditches and banks.

In a little while, the lights will flicker and dim to darkness as the greater light of day shapes the morning. In this peaceful forming, in this silent shifting, we move from rest to labor, giving ourselves to the work of this day, to the lives that we fill. Even in the stinging cold and aching wind, we may send good into this world. We were made for this purpose.

H. Arnett

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Jalapeno Jam

I guess it was some time after the Maytag repairman died of loneliness that the company manufactured our refrigerator. We’ve had one of his brethren out to our place three or four times in the past four years.

A couple of times, the refrigerator side had quit staying refrigerated and there’s just something about warm milk and melted margarine that frankly seems a bit unappetizing to my spoiled tastes. Pun intended. The cold-water dispenser only dispenses cold water in the winter but that turns out to be a malfunction of design, rather than performance.

According to the manual, it’s only intended to cool the water to fifty degrees, which hardly qualifies as “chilled” to my expectations on a hot summer day. I can’t help wondering if they actually designed it that way or re-wrote the manual rather than replacing several thousand defective cooling units. In any case, I’m sure the company’s market researchers realized that labeling the device a “Tepid Water Dispenser” would have a chilling effect on customer demand and so they decided we’d rather have them lie to us and call it a “Cold Water Dispenser.” They knew we weren’t going to read the manual before we purchased the refrigerator and it never occurred to me to ask the salesperson at Lowes, “What is the actual temperature of the water that emanates from the Cold Water Dispenser during the summer months at our latitude?” Next time, it will.

The current issue is from a rather opposite direction; lately we’ve been finding frozen foods in our refrigerated section. Carrots, salad and one other thing of greater concern: the little jar of jalapeno jam that we brought back from New Braunfels, Texas. For the first month of its residence here at our place, the jam had the same jalapeno-ey green color that it had in Texas. Now, it’s sort of a milky looking color, somewhat resembling a lumpy mayo-mustard concoction. But… and in this case it’s a very important little conjunction… it still tastes like the stuff we loved in Texas!

There are things in which appearance is not only an important point, it’s the whole point. Art, hairstyles and portraits come to mind. In others, it’s not quite as crucial. Fortunately for me, that includes Randa’s devotion to me. Admittedly, she does like the fact that I bathe regularly, comb my hair and usually keep my beard trimmed. Even more fortunately, I know that God does not judge us based on appearances.

We might have more in common with a jar of jalapeno jam than we realize.

H. Arnett

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