Jackie lived in a dirty, saggy-roofed house with her despair-ridden father, George, and a stray mutt named Spooky. Jackie’s mother died when Jackie was thirteen - perhaps of a crazed and broken heart - when her car mysteriously slipped off a steep embankment ant and crashed into the river. “Probably died quick, when her neck snapped,” the rescuers said.
In a sense, it was a relief. George had never called her mother by her given name, Rachel. Instead, he barked, “Wife! Get me a beer!” Or sometimes it was more of a poke-in-the-gut-growl. “You…wife…fix my dinner so I can go fishing before it gets dark. ” Jackie hated the arthritic way their two hard hearts grated together, leaving little Hansel and Gretel crumbs of volcanic rock in a cinder-sharp, emotionally painful wake.
After Rachel’s death, George retreated like a turtle within a guarded, armored-tank shell. Occasionally he stuck out his turtlehead, blinked tentative and questioning eyes, and scraped toward her with a flat-belly-posture and clawing feet. “Hey Jack – wanna ride in the boat with me tonight? Catch some fish?” Her emotional security meant more than his reputation of demeaning attitudes, and she always declined.
However, she visited the river often with Spooky. They roamed together through tall grasses and under low-hanging boughs, and discussed what it meant to be strays fated to find and befriend each other. “Spook – I’m glad you’re my best buddy. Who needs those kids at school, anyway?” She ruffled the dog’s floppy ears and gazed into his saggy hound-eyes until his tongue bathed her face with baptismal kisses.
Although she’d never visited church, something deep inside Jackie told her there was a God, and that He was a God of hope. She heard it confirmed in the cheerful song of the shallows where babbling water tumbled over rocks smoothed by persistent massage. She saw it manifested in the way the trees draped themselves over the river with protective limbs.
Jackie kept a low profile at school, wearing outdated jean skirts, loose oversized tops that disguised her emerging shapeliness, and roll-top bobby socks with Birkenstocks. She had no desire to run with the fast crowd, or be dubbed Homecoming Queen. Jackie’s teachers saw her as shy and compliant. Her peers saw her as invisible. She liked playing it safe.
Her one-and-only passion, aside from the relationships she shared with Spooky and the river, was writing. A perceptive freshman English teacher recognized her inherent giftedness, and offered her a feature column on the school newspaper’s editorial page as her sophomore year began.
Inspired by this teacher’s confidence and belief in her, Jackie poured her heart out in newsprint. Other students and teachers started to see her in a new light. Eventually her father also began reading the school newspapers during television commercials, ones she left scattered on the folding table beside his frayed recliner.
“Jack – what’s this? You wrote an article … it’s about dogs and cats?”
“The story is an analogy, Dad. That’s just the way I write. You have to read between the lines. It’s actually about relationships between people.”
Spooky always seemed to get Jackie’s drift, and she often tested her ideas on him before settling down to write. One wintry day the two sat hunched together on the wind-swept porch and watched the falling snow. “Hey Spook, is it possible to be intuitively hopeful deep-down, with no evidence that hope even exists, except in nature?”
She was referring to the times they watched water bubble up through the winter ice when lingering down by the river – when white puffs of steam evaporated between the bare tree branches on their way heavenward. Such experiences led her to think there was something more to life, something beyond the obvious. Spooky affirmed her with his usual wagging tail.
“Alright then, I plan to spotlight my next column on hope, and use melted-together-words, like this.” Jackie gestured and spoke dramatically, like an actress on stage.
Mirrors of hope show up … even in the midst of the coldest, harshest, freeze-me-to-the-bone day. A beckoning, fire-engine-red cardinal flits energetically over a crystal-diamond-studded, snowy road … as if to lead me to a path less traveled. The middle of the river insists on giggling-fit-to-split … while its stiff edges lay hard and cold. This kind of hope is a gift, perhaps from God, to define each day-by-day-by-day…”
Spooky seemed noticeably dazzled by this slow-down-your-brain exposition of imagery. “Rrrrrrrr, roof-a-woof!” He knew exactly what she meant.
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