If ever there was a dustbowl in the states, this was it.
Reverend Tucker would have told you that the little city of Foster was empty enough to be a ghost town. But being the bible believing man that he was he wouldn’t mention the word ghost unless you were a close friend.
Foster was a tiny city. A small dirt road stretched through the center of Main Street, past the barber shop and candy store. It ended many miles from here, but most of the people of Foster had never gotten around to venturing very far away from home.
Each building on the main drag was wooden, squat, and laden with a thick layer of dust. The grocery store had newspapers stuffed in the corners of the wavy glassed windows to keep dirt out. At the end of the little road, right next to the saloon, was Reverend Tucker’s church.
The church was a whitewashed, prim little edifice. A stiff cross jutted out of the spire, marking the place of worship. Reverend Tucker was home today, watching a tumbleweed glide down Main Street on a breath of wind. He rubbed his dark, young face and put his glasses back on.
Out the window of his office---which, it might be added, always smelled like shoe polish---he could see three people sitting on small wooden bench outside the Studebaker building. He smiled. He knew them by sight.
A robust, rosy cheeked woman in a checkered dress was sitting on one end of the bench. She was smiling. Her hands were clasped in her lap, as if she was thinking about something wonderful. On the other end of the bench was a man in overalls and a torn blue shirt. His skin was very dark, his hat dirty and worn. His legs were crossed, the paper rested on his knees, and he too wore a contented smile.
Between the two was a little girl, grinning from ear to ear. Her checkered shirt and tan pants looked like hand-me-downs, but she didn’t seem to mind.
These people, Reverend Tucker knew, were poor. Very poor. They’d lived in Foster, Oklahoma all their lives. The woman’s name was Sadie. Her husband, Dewey, was currently sharing the bench with her. And their daughter, Christina. This he had learned from members of his congregation, but he didn’t know anything more about them.
Christina jumped up as the tumbleweed blew down the street. She clapped her hands together, made a motion to her mother that it was the fifth one she’d seen so far, and sat back down.
Sadie kept smiling, Dewey continued reading the paper, and Christina kept her eyes glued on the street. A hot current of air rustled the girl’s frizzy brown hair and a dirt devil kicked up in the middle of the road. She gazed at it seriously as Sadie looked on and hummed a little tune. Reverend Tucker shook his head and continued writing out his sermon for next Sunday.
The next day, Sadie, Dewey, and Christina were sitting on the same bench again. Christina counted the tumbleweeds, Sadie smiled, and Dewey read the paper. Everyday it was the same. Reverend Tucker would look out and watch them do the same thing at the same time.
He would often stop and observe them, wondering how they managed to look so peaceful and content. He would then glance around at his office strewn with paper, clothes, and books and rest his head in his hands. How was it that his life seemed so busy, and theirs so peaceful?
One day he took a step outside his little church. His black shoes dusted up as soon as he placed a foot on the dirt street. He looked up and down Main Street, studied the small cluster of buildings, and observed the long stretch of open land on either end of the avenue.
He saw Sadie, Dewey, and Christina smile and wave at him. Reverend Tucker waved back and an idea occurred to him. He went into his room and dug through his desk for his camera. It was a big lug of a thing, but it had a little film left in it. He returned outside and crossed the street.
As soon as he walked up to the three people he was greeted with a smile, and a polite “good afternoon.” They held a brief conversation about the weather---which wasn’t saying much. It was always hot and dusty.
“Would you mind if I took your picture?” Reverend Tucker asked.
Dewey shrugged and a wide grin spread across his face. Sadie pretended not to notice the camera and kept on smiling, her eyes looking to the left. But when Reverend Tucker got ready to snap the picture, Christina put on her biggest, toothiest grin.
Reverend Tucker took the photo and thanked them for their time. They responded was a smile. He went back into his church and continued his work. The wooden floors creaked under his feet. He walked into his office and opened the window. The heat was stagnating. Enduring the heat, he decided, for the Lord’s work was a noble thing, so he tried very hard to keep writing his next sermon.
He had the film developed in his camera shortly after that. He taped the photograph of the smiling threesome across the way to his wall. He would look at it when he needed a bit of encouragement. It made him want to smile, too.
The years went by, and Reverend Tucker continued to give sermons and preach to the tiny congregation of Foster. His smiling friends got older. Christina was nearing young adulthood, her childish face growing thinner and more defined. Her hair was no longer frizzy, but slicked to the back in a French braid. Sadie and Dewey had long since gone gray.
Reverend Tucker remembered the day well when Dewey and Christina seated themselves on the bench in front of Studebaker’s, but Sadie didn’t come. He thought it grossly irregular to see one empty spot on the bench. Christina and Dewey remained seated and talked, pointing to the church, to the barber shop, to the empty street. They seemed sad, although they still smiled.
When weeks passed and Sadie wasn’t seen sitting on the bench anymore, Reverend Tucker heard the news from a member of his congregation. She had died. From then on he kept an even keener eye on the window. Dewey and Christina continued to come, sit, and leave, smiling all the while.
Then came the terrible day when Christina walked slowly up the steps to the Studebaker building and sat down. Alone. Still, she smiled on, as though everything were normal.
But when Reverend Tucker heard that dear Mr. Dewey was passed on as well, he felt a deep sorrow rise inside him. Although he had no personal connection with these people, he felt as if he’d known them. Always happy. Always smiling. Never once had he seen them frown.
What a great inspiration, he decided. What a wonderful example of enjoying the simple pleasures of life. He set it in his mind to talk to Christina the next day. It was time he found out more about her family….what was left of it.
The next day came. Morning rolled by, and afternoon set in. Reverend Tucker sat at his window and waited for Christina to come. Hours passed. She never arrived at the bench. The next day was the same. And so was the day after that. Sunday came and Reverend Tucker discovered the she had moved away. Far away to New York.
Crestfallen, he looked across the street at the empty bench and sighed heavily. His smiling friends had left him. All he had left of them was a picture. It seemed like they had been nothing more than a dream. He struggled on despite their absence, but it wasn’t the same.
A few more years went by, and the Studebaker building was torn down. Every building except for the church was demolished to make way for new houses and shopping centers. As the demolition team was getting ready to raze the Studebaker building to the ground, Reverend Tucker was struck with woe at seeing it destroyed.
On impulse, he ran across the street and snatched a single item off the front porch. Bulldozers rumbled across the old street and loud construction workers hustled to get their job done. Reverend Tucker coughed amidst all the dust and gravel and walked back into his church. After he had closed the doors he gingerly sat the one thing he had managed to save on the floor: the bench. Their bench.
Long after the town of Foster had turned into a hectic flurry of urban activity, the little white church was sandwiched snugly between two big apartment buildings. The small dirt street had been replaced with a busy boulevard. The Studebaker building was gone. In its place was a gas station.
Reverend Tucker sat in front of the church on an old wooden bench, his hair snow white and his skin creased with wrinkles. Happily humming a little hymn, he took an aged black and white photograph out of his jacket. Often he’d wondered why those three people had managed to be so content with sitting on this bench, doing nothing but watching tumbleweeds bounce past. Now he knew. He put the photograph back in his pocket.
And he smiled.
Copyright 2011 Summer Lane All Rights Reserved