A Little Goodwill

A Little Goodwill

1920 1280 Nathaniel Lee Hansen

Mara worried that her younger brother’s wedding might be a harbinger of bad times. It’s not as if she hadn’t warned him, though. After all, could she really have said nothing when her brother wanted to marry a woman who obviously had undergone breast augmentation, a woman who had once operated her own porn website and performed “exotic dancing” at several gentleman’s clubs, a woman who was now an enthusiastic (and amazingly simultaneous) convert of vegetarianism, Greenpeace, and non-denominational Christianity?

Over the phone two months earlier, Dan had told her how Leslie (formerly “Candy Sparkles”) had donated all of her website revenue to the church, Greenpeace, and a vegetarian restaurant on Hawthorne, with the majority going to the church.

“She’s practicing a more holistic kind of Christianity,” Dan had said, sounding tired. “Treating the creatures and the planet with humility and respect.”

“I can respect the good works, but doesn’t it bother you just a little that she’s—”

“That she’s what?” His words rose in pitch.

What had she been trying to say? Mara was no Puritan, religiously or sexually, having had three different live-in boyfriends in the last five years: a Wiccan, a Baha’i, and a Buddhist. “Why not go back to Renee?” she remembered finally asking. “I liked her. Leslie is frighteningly bubbly.”

He exhaled so loudly that Mara yanked the phone from her ear.

“These conversations go nowhere.”

“Sorry. I don’t want to see you get burned.” She had lamented Dan’s conversion three years ago, although she was thankful he hadn’t become one of those stereotypes who displays “Sodomy is Sin” signs or who walks around Pioneer Square peddling tracts. “You really feel all right about the wedding?”

“I love her. Can’t you understand?”

“Of course I can understand—it’s just that . . . never mind.”

“Look, I don’t want another argument. Please, sis, just give her a chance.”

“I’ll try.”

Now standing at the front of the “worship center,” a large triangular-shaped room with brightly colored banners draped from two of the three walls, Mara felt mostly comfortable in her strapless buttercup bridesmaid’s dress. Mara was already mentally elsewhere, though she knew her body would mechanically turn at the appropriate times. Her feet weren’t too sore yet, probably unlike those of the other bridesmaids who had elected for higher heels. This didn’t even look like a church to her, with its rows of magenta-colored padded chairs linked together. No stained glass. At least the pianist playing “Pachelbel’s Canon” on the black baby grand was

good. From somewhere nearby, where from she couldn’t exactly ascertain, cold air was blowing and causing goose bumps on her bare arms. Luckily, the top of her dress was adequately padded to prevent more embarrassing protrusions.

She watched as Leslie—her sable hair in an elegant French roll, her tall frame clad in a thick-strapped white dress—proceeded up the aisle. Leslie’s dad, shorter than Leslie but with a nicely trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, escorted her. Mara was particularly amazed, however, by the way in which Leslie’s dress somehow contained her ridiculous chest.

Dan, she could see, standing as he was to her left, was absorbed. His lower lip fluttered—he appeared ready to laugh or cry. She knew he was happy; she knew that look, so she was willing herself to be happy for him.

As Leslie embraced her dad and then her mom, who was nearer her height, Mara remembered the hug from the “bachelorette” party last night at Leslie’s apartment, the most PG-rated party she had been to since fourth grade.

* * *

“Lord Jesus, we pray your blessing on Dan and Leslie.” There had already been variations of this prayer, and Mara wasn’t certain as to who offered this version. She was the red-headed personal attendant—but was her name Jenn or Robyn?

“Yes, Lord,” other women affirmed quietly.

“We just ask that you would empower them to live even more for you, that their marriage would be an example to others,” continued Jenn or Robyn.

Mara shifted on the sofa, its leather creaking. Everyone except Mara had her eyes closed. Leslie, in jeans and a ruffled lavender blouse, sat in the matching brown leather chair next to her. A faint smile was visible, a smile that projected sincerity and contentment.

The eight women, counting Mara, made up a kind of circle, seated on the sofa and chairs, and with the exception of Mara, of course, all of them attended New Waters Community Church, the same church where Dan had met Leslie during a singles’ Bible study outing at Mt. Tabor Park. And for the last twenty-seven minutes, these women had been praying extemporaneously, with Mara being the only non-prayer.

“Father God, use them to be salt and light in the world, that others might see Christ in them.”

Again a soft chorus of yes’s.

Mara was positive that was Kayla—short strawberry blonde hair, one of the other three bridesmaids.

When will this end? Mara wondered. That was her prayer. Through an open window traveled the hissing sound of bus brakes: it was the number eight—her ride home.

Not that the party had been entirely a holy-roller affair. After the rehearsal dinner, they went out for gelato, then a movie at the Hollywood Theater. A new modernization of As You Like It. Then back at Leslie’s apartment they played Catchphrase, which hadn’t been too bad, it having been the most comfortable part of the evening—she was quick at giving clues and answering them. Now Mara was sitting through the wrap up, wishing she had begged out before the praying started.

“And we pray all these things in Jesus’ name,” said Susan, one of the bridesmaids.

An almost unanimous Amen followed.

“Girls, I need to get some rest,” Leslie said. “But this has been great. So much fun.”

Everyone stood, but since Mara was closest to Leslie, she was the first to get a hug from the bride-to-be.

“Thanks for coming, Mara.” Leslie said, pulling her close in a hug. Surprised, Mara didn’t at first return the hug, but then she did so, though the duration seemed too lengthy. She felt Leslie’s chest pressed against her, and she could smell the buttered popcorn from the theater.

“See you tomorrow,” Leslie added, finally releasing her. Something about her smile seemed difficult, as though there were something bothering her.

But Mara didn’t waste any time, instead telling everyone goodnight and grabbing her purse.

Out on the sidewalk, she breathed in the late June air, walking past the closed stores that she enjoyed frequenting. She would have to wait for the next bus, which wouldn’t come for another twenty minutes, by her calculation. Beside the metal bus sign, she thought about how much older she felt. The other women involved in the wedding—the bridesmaids, the personal attendant, the two vocalists—were clearly in their early twenties, and at thirty-four herself, Mara felt out of place beyond just the religious differences. Dan was three years younger than she, and she wasn’t even sure how old Leslie was. She wondered how she would get through the wedding, especially because she currently had no boyfriend with whom to dance or complain. Her two Siamese cats, Louise and Edith, occupied her house, but one didn’t bring cats to a church wedding, not even in Portland.

* * *

Two weeks after the wedding, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Mara was strolling down Hawthorne from the Powell’s Books to the Starbucks. She planned to ignore the people with clipboards who would surely be canvassing the street for some cause, be it environmental, political, or social, sometimes a mix of the three.

“You have a moment for pot?” A young man asked, his hair in dreadlocks, his yellow

plastic clipboard extended.

She never knew the proper response, so she had stopped saying anything, instead looking through the person. She turned to her right, and beside the next storefront, a pizza place, stood Leslie, clipboard tucked in her left arm. Mara pivoted, but Leslie already saw her.

“Mara!”

No escaping.

Leslie was dressed conservatively: tan slacks, black sandals, a black blouse that wasn’t actually too taut.

“What are you doing down here?” She briefly smiled at passersby.

“I was at Powell’s. I’m on my way to Starbucks.”

“I’ll join you.” Leslie beamed. “I can take a half-hour break any time, that is, if you don’t mind.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Mara saw a middle-aged man do a double-take on Leslie as he passed by. “Sure,” she said flatly.

“You find anything good?” Leslie picked up her coffee.

They sat at a small round table beside the front windows.

Mara wondered if Leslie expected her to say that she had found some good Christian fiction instead of what she had been browsing: literary fiction, art magazines, and tarot card books. “There’s always good stuff, but I didn’t buy anything.”

“Dan says you’ve always read a lot. I admire that.” Her voice sounded more subdued.

It was almost too much for Mara to hear a compliment from her. She lamented his conversion to Christianity and his marriage to this woman, this woman who so clearly was his

intellectual inferior.

Leslie twirled the ends of some of her hair. “Mara, I know you don’t care for me very much.”

At this statement, Mara nearly dropped her vanilla latte on the table.

“I don’t want tension with my only sister-in-law.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” Mara asked, her words sounding more confrontational than she’d intended.

Leslie leaned her arms on the table. “Look,” she continued, “I wanted to talk to you before the wedding, but I couldn’t. I was afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“Don’t take this wrong way, but you don’t know what it’s been like trying to leave behind my past, the things I’ve done.”

And the guys you’ve done, she thought. “He told you how upset I was about you two getting married, about your past . . . employment?”

“Yes, he did. If it was my brother in the circumstances, I’d be upset, too.” And here she took hold of Mara’s free hand. “I can only live in the now and for the future. To be a godly woman, a good wife, a good sister-in-law.” She let go of Mara’s hand.

Mara thought she was in a scene of some bad movie—how many people were watching them? She leaned back in her chair, and as she did, a leg creaked and then cracked. The chair toppled over with Mara in it and then dumped her onto the floor. She gave out an “oh”—landing on the floor, the back of her head hitting the tile that was softer than she expected. Instead of losing consciousness, she felt blood speeding to her face.

“Are you okay, Mara?” Leslie knelt beside her.

With her elbows, Mara pushed herself upright before standing. “I’m fine.” She brushed down her dyed blonde hair.

“Sorry about the chair,” said a dark-haired barista sporting a silver septum ring. She pushed over a chair from a nearby table, and whisked off the broken chair.

Mara sat down, surveying the shop: no one was looking at her, although everyone probably had when she fell. Across from Leslie, who seemed to be thinking about what she was going to say next, Mara sensed anger surging inside. If she hadn’t come in here with Leslie, none of this would have happened. She was trying to refrain from saying something rude, especially because Leslie had started opening up. But it was awkward—she wanted out.

“You sure you’re okay?” Leslie asked.

“Why are you giving me this guilt trip?” Mara asked, lowering her voice, glancing around the shop. The only other people were a few tables away.

“I’m not trying to.” Leslie shook her head, and Mara took that as a sign of frustration. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“I might answer, and I might not, but go ahead.”

“Do you know what it’s like to walk down the street, see men who watched you dance naked, see them undress you with your eyes, even when you’re fully clothed?”

The question was a surprise. “No.” Of course she’d noticed guys ogle her, but what would that be like? She squirmed. Creepy guys. Seedy clubs.

“I made poor choices, but my past is continually stalking me.”

Mara sipped her latte. An apt personification of an abstract concept, she thought. A fresh expression.

“I’m just asking for a little goodwill, please. I don’t want to be your enemy.”

These statements grated on Mara, but she was trying to listen, to give her a fair hearing.

“I shouldn’t be dumping all this on you.” Leslie folded her arms across the table again, her head tilted toward the outside. “I’m sorry.”

Was there a sheen in Leslie’s eyes? Mara had to admit, while looking at Leslie during this awkward pause, how vulnerable she was acting. In fact, Mara thought that Leslie was actually quite pretty—her face especially, the soft, slightly rounded cheeks.

“I should be getting back to work,” Leslie said, picking up her clipboard from the window ledge. She smiled, but Mara knew it was forced.

Leslie dropped her cup in the black cylindrical garbage can and then headed outside, clipboard under her arm.

Mara watched her glide down the sidewalk and pause at the crosswalk. Other people passed in front of the shop’s large windows, and two guys dressed in jeans and t-shirts stood behind Leslie. The yellow walk signal switched on, and Leslie began crossing the street, the two guys walking a few feet behind her. They nudged each other and pointed at Leslie’s butt and legs.

Abruptly, Mara stood, half-aware of what she was doing. Leaving her latte on the table, she stepped out into the sunshine and jogged across the street, the “walk” light having already switched off, the orange “don’t walk” light flashing frantically.

Ahead, the two guys followed Leslie, and Mara weaved through the people to catch up to them.

“That’s Candy all right,” one of the two guys said.

“C’mon, Candy, give us a show,” the other guy said.

Leslie was walking briskly, probably trying to ignore the guys.

The three of them soon reached the next intersection, Mara right behind them.

Leslie turned around, her clipboard hugged against her chest. “Please, leave me alone.”

The guy on the left put his hand on her side, and Leslie flinched and closed her eyes. Meanwhile, people continued streaming past in both directions around them.

“You shouldn’t be doing this work,” the other guy said, pulling down her clipboard.

And both of them roared.

Anger again surged in Mara, reaching its apex in a sudden moment. She rummaged in her purse, and her hand closed around the small bottle. With her free hand, she tapped the shoulder of the guy on the left. He turned around. “Hey, one for each of us.”

“I wouldn’t be caught dead with a creepy piece of shit like you,” Mara said in a loud voice. Snickers from people passing by. “What a sorry-ass excuse for a guy.” Mara smiled a ridiculously wide smile, and her hand shot forward, positioning her bottle of pepper spray within inches of his face.

“Okay, lady, we get the idea.” He said, stepping back slowly.

Mara followed him, the bottle upright, her finger poised on the pump. Don’t call me lady.

He stumbled around on the concrete, losing his footing and bumbling out into the street. A dark green Subaru station wagon honked. He staggered onto the sidewalk, and she knew people were definitely watching.

Mara turned toward the other guy, but he was already speeding away. Her shoulders were tense, and she tried to relax.

Leslie stepped within arm’s reach of her.

Mara zipped the bottle back in her purse and exhaled. She felt shaky. What have I just

done? she thought.

“Thanks, Mara,” Leslie said while lightly touching her arm. She looked as though she might cry.

Mara blurted, “You’re welcome,” sensing that the words didn’t sound right. “I’ve never done such a thing,” she added, brushing away loose strands of her blonde hair. “I just want you to know that.”

“I’m glad you did though.”

“I mean,” she started, glancing past Leslie and then focusing on her eyes, “whatever Dan told you, I’ve never made a scene quite like this, at least not on Hawthorne anyway.”

Leslie smiled and shook her head.

“C’mon,” Mara said, “I’ve had enough of this street for today. Have you?”

“Definitely.” Leslie tucked her clipboard under her arm.

“I didn’t finish my latte. I think I need another one.”

“You really think you need more caffeine?”

This time, Mara laughed. “It’s not a question of need, of course. It’s a want and a need.


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Nathaniel Lee Hansen

I’m a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. My chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian, was published by Spoon River Poetry Press (2014). My work has appeared in Christianity and Literature, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Blast Furnace, Driftwood Press, Whitefish Review, The Cresset, Midwestern Gothic, and South Dakota Review, among others. I currently serve as an assistant professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. I also edit Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and direct the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. When not writing or teaching, I run, read, play piano, listen to music, and play disc golf. My greatest joys are my wife, my son, and my daughter. I was born in southern Minnesota, but while growing up, I had little interest in the Plains and opens spaces. A stint at a rural state liberal arts college in southwestern Minnesota, as well as grad-school stints in northwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota, altered my interests. @plainswriter, plainswriter.com, & www.facebook.com/plainswriter

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