a year of stories - fire - 8 of 52 / by Carey Pace

*This post is part of a collaborative project - a year of stories shared by a group of 15 photographers every Monday in 2016.  Please visit Renee Bonuccelli after you read this post to continue the circle.*

I had thirty minutes to be at the school to pick up the kids. In a stroke of luck, I hit the jackpot. At least what can be considered a jackpot at Walmart -- an empty conveyer belt at the registers. Even better was that the cashier of the empty belt was a very friendly lady I've chatted with many times since moving here. I quickly began to unload my buggy.

In an attempt to make warm conversation I said "now, if I remember right, you live about an hour away. Did you have any trouble making it here to work during the recent bad weather?" I knew from our previous conversations that she's a talker. She's worked for Walmart for 26 years and I've never met someone who loves their job or their employer more. She answered with all the various details. She has a lot to say and she speaks quickly. I have to stay on my toes to keep up. She references places around Martinsville like I should know them, and I just nod along despite feeling slightly clueless.  I always intend to look up these names and places when I get home but I never seem to remember.

Somehow though last Friday (I really don't have the vaguest notion how) the conversation shifted to a topic that I don't believe she anticipated and I certainly didn't expect. She told me that day about how she had a first husband.

Every time I've spoken with her these last months she's mentioned her fiancé. I feel like I know a lot about him. She's consistently vocal about her firm faith in God and I've always sensed that despite what would seem trite words, she truly knows the roots of what she speaks. She's always mentioned her fiancé is a "God fearing man". I've wondered what kind of man would be drawn to a woman like her -- one who evangelizes confidently from her cashier position to the myriad folk who pass through her line; one who almost seems to speak of nothing else.

Friday, as she touched each item I placed on the belt, she told me that the first man she'd ever been with, whom she had loved since 8th grade, whom she had been married to for 28 years, left her at 48 years old because he'd had an affair. And he'd been having that affair for a long, long time. He'd lied to her about where he worked. He'd lied to her about what the place was about.

She had tears in her eyes and her nose ran. She had a roll of toilet paper on the counter to blow her nose. It was a strange thing to notice because that is how I grew up. We never had a box of tissues. You just carried around a roll of toilet paper. It would tear up the skin on my face, but that just was what it was. It was all I had.  

"I thought I had married a God-fearing-man. Instead I married Lucifer. I was sleeping next to Lucifer for years and I didn't know it."  She spoke with conviction.

The whole time I didn't know what to say. The whole time I didn't know whether this was happening for HER or for ME. Was I supposed to DO something with this? Or was I just supposed to be there, to be a calm presence, to listen? Was God trying to speak to my own heart through her words and her wounds? I felt almost panicked, not having time to think through all the options and what the one very right thing to do could be. I wish I could say I chose out of wisdom, but that's not true. I chose out of exasperation. I just tried to listen. To affirm her. To tell her I was sorry. So very sorry that it happened to her and she'd had to live through that.

"They say a burned child fears fire. That's the truth." she said.

"Not nobody, no woman who hasn't been through what I been through that can understand the pain of this."  

"I lost my momma and my daddy eleven months ago. That's a lot for someone to go through in a few short years. Now I don't got my momma to hold me and rock me like a baby to help me get through something."

"I love my fiancé. He's a good man. He's a God-fearing-man. He treats me good." She grabs her left hand with her right and turns it back and forth.  She points to the humongous set of rings on her finger and looks up.  Catches my eye.  "But he's still a man."

She's not rushing into this new marriage. It's been five years but she's still wounded.

I didn't know if I should hug her. I hugged her once before. I wrote about that too if you remember. And in the end the moment never seemed right, so I didn't. I wish I had. 

"You're a nice lady. You're such a nice lady" she said to me.

I told her I'd see her in a week. "Lord willing." she replied.

*This post is part of a collaborative project - a year of stories shared by a group of 15 photographers every Monday in 2016.  Please visit Renee Bonuccelli after you read this post to continue the circle.*