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“I didn’t believe in speaking in tongues the first time I saw it, in my aunt’s church basement- scared me to death,” she said. This was the moment I really began giving her my full attention. “The second time I was fourteen, and I said ‘if the Lord wishes me to speak in tongues, I suppose I will become his instrument.’”
One of those early spring days where you forget the air temperature is inevitably higher than the water, when hauling out at the bridge and taking the gravel road to the car sounds better as the sun sets over high limestone ridges than wet-wading back downstream. She had hopped out of the ditch in ratty jeans and watery blue eyes, waving profusely, asking what I’d caught and why I hadn’t kept any for supper. In a square plastic bin on the side of the road rested five plastic milk jugs, two filled with water, three empty. A sixth was propped against the face of a limestone roadcut, occasionally catching a splatter of water emanating from four feet plastic pipe at head height, around which a small dam of cobbles and clay had been constructed. “
“I’m Ann,” she said, sticking her hand out of the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I live in the trailer down at the corner, the one with all the forsythia and quince in front, just me and my dog Gus. Lived their four years now. Grew up across the border near Somerset; I’ve been all around the country from West Virginia to eastern Colorado, hitchin’. Some of those men, those drivers, they’d want me to do things and I’d have to tell them I’m not that kind of girl. I hitch all around now up to town to get my paycheck once a month, but it’s hard nowadays, hardly anyone will stop! I had a neighbor, Frank, and he was good about driving me into town for my paycheck, but he died, so now I have to hitch with strangers and they hardly ever stop!”
“Moved down here after my husband died,” she continued, “my second husband.” He was a mean man. My first husband was a gem, he was a double-preacher, that means his daddy was a preacher, too. My second husband though, he was a mean man, he worked in oil fields in West Africa and that’s where he learned black magic, that’s how he turned the kids against me. I have six kids, all grown,” she said, looking down. “Would you like the gift?”
We were the only two on the road forty minutes outside of town in fading light and it seemed rude not to. So I took her hand and bowed my head as she prayed on the side of the road so that I may be blessed with the gift of speaking in tongues, all the while my cynical side thinking pray for a funnel.
“You got to cleanse yourself with spiritual soap!” she cried, her shoulders relaxing as she finished the prayer. That’s what he says on the television, on the tapes I buy. Pray for him to come dig you a well, I thought. “Do you have a church in town?” she asked.
I thought. I hadn’t been to church since I was twelve or fourteen. When my father was diagnosed with cancer we spent two months visiting various denominations. The last one pulled something like Ann had with the speaking in tongues, my father hauled us out twenty minutes into the service, and we didn’t worry about church any more. “No,” I said. “I’m new to town.”
“Well you need to find yourself a church,” she said. “Wash yourself in spiritual soap! It can be any kind of church, but you need to find one, get right with God. The end’s comin’ quicker than you know, and you want to have your affairs in order before it happens.”
I don’t feel like I was abrupt; I feel like it was getting darker and I still had a couple miles walk back to the car. “I’m so glad I had the opportunity to bear witness to someone,” she said, “to be His instrument, and I hope you’ll think about what I said.” I did. What a messenger, I thought to myself, all the way back to the car. The single thing that made an impression that last time I went to church, at twelve or fourteen, were the two lithe young girls, a couple years my senior at the time, who smiled and said “you can come and sit with us.” That’s the kind of messenger I want. Fifteen years later, that’s still the kind of messenger I want- a nearly homeless seventy year old woman without income, without a car, without running water…isn’t convincing me the Lord works for everyone.
I never did join a church. Two weeks later I did rest a blue plastic funnel on the little dam of cobbles and clay at the edge of the lane. I still sometimes think about Ann Cartwright, especially this time of year when the evenings are cool and redbuds are swelling. Maybe she’s better. Or at least alright.