On the Way to McDonalds

 Published in Christian Educators Journal, Vol. 41 No.2 (December 2001)

I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Tom about it, though I knew how he’d react — shake his head, smile indulgently.  My sister, Frances, on the other hand, would be completely empathetic, so I’d call her first.  For me, nothing’s ever done until it’s talked out.  It was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” things – if I didn’t know better, if it hadn’t actually happened to me, I’d think it was made up.  I just had to share it.

Janine and I were coming out of Winners, loaded with packages.  We’d had fun shopping together, spending some quality mother and daughter time. It doesn’t happen often enough now that I’m teaching full-time.  Janine’s a sweetheart, fun and thoughtful, not too rebellious yet.  So far, her most outrageous prank has been dyeing her hair blond!  I can live with that.  We were going to deposit our bags in the car over in the McDonalds parking lot, and then stop there for some early supper.

We heard the commotion before we saw it.  Hooting and yelling.  A teenage boy screeching, “That’s telling her, man.  Let ‘er have it.  ‘Bitch’ is right!”

As we rounded the corner of the building, the car in the drive-thru lane spun away, a spiked-hair silhouette still hanging out of the rear window, jeering, and waving both arms wildly.  Then we saw what had triggered the outburst.  In the parking lot an enraged man was shouting, “Give me the keys, bitch.  Now!  Jesus Christ, you stupid bitch, hand ‘em over.  Don’t make me take ‘em off you.”

He was a big man.  He towered over the woman, threatening her without even touching her, cursing violently, completely oblivious to us.  He wore a brown leather jacket and looked quite clean-cut.  His racy black sports car, (I wouldn’t have a clue when Tom asked me the make), was parked right next to our Honda.  Janine and I froze, the vicious words barricading our way.  Two grey-haired matrons, exiting McDonalds, paused for a moment to stare, then hurried to their car.  

The woman was backing away from him, one hand hovering placatingly, the other hand clutching a set of keys.  A purple shirt, tucked into tight jeans, fit snugly over her plump figure.  Her long, bleached-blond hair was almost as white as her fleece sweatshirt.  Her tone was pleading.  With a final ugly snarl, the man ripped the keys from her hand, flung himself into his car, slammed the door, and squealed off.  Sobbing, the woman stumbled away, heading for the east entrance of the mall from which we had just come.

We went to the Honda and put our stuff in the trunk.

“I need to sit down a minute,” I told Janine.  My fingers were trembling on the steering wheel and my heart was pounding. 

“That was scary, wasn’t it, Mom.”  Janine’s eyes were huge and serious.

“It was!  He was losing it, all right.  It’s sad how some women live.  If any guy ever treats you like that, you leave.  Don’t put up with that kind of abuse for a minute.   I think he had too much to drink.  She didn’t want him driving.”

I could see Janine’s lashes blinking back tears, and I knew I couldn’t just let it go at that.  I couldn’t just pass it by. 

“Let’s go and see if she needs help,“ I said.  We drove to the Bulk Food Barn entrance where we had seen the woman enter the mall.  “Stay in the car.  Lock the doors.  I’ll be right back.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just see if she needs a ride somewhere.  Or if she wants me to call the police.”

I strode through the mall, searching for blond hair or a white sweatshirt.  I didn’t see her.  I wondered what I was doing, getting involved.  People are so crazy nowadays.  Maybe the guy would come after me if I helped her and he found out my name or where I lived.  Or, more likely, she’d go back to him, and they’d laugh about what a stupid busybody I was, sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong.

I checked the washroom.  There was a pair of shoes and jeans in one of the stalls, but I didn’t hear any weeping or snuffling.  I was losing steam.  At least Janine could see that I had tried.  I went back to the car.

“Couldn’t find her,” I reported.

“There she is!” Janine cried.  Sure enough, the woman was coming our way, scanning the parking lot warily.  Almost simultaneously, I saw the sports car – cruising the lot some distance away.  I rolled down my window. 

“Excuse me,” I called.  “We saw what happened at McDonalds.  Are you OK?  Do you want a ride somewhere?”

She, too, had spotted the car.  She hesitated a moment.

“Yes, please,” she said.  She opened the back door and got in.  The three of us sat in silence as the black car left the parking lot and turned right on London Road. 

“I don’t think he saw you,” I said.  “Where would you like to go?”

The woman gazed at me blankly.  Her eyelids were pink and puffy and her mascara was smudged.  Her mouth was rimmed with splotchy patches. No external bruises, but obviously a wounded soul.

“I don’t know.” 

“Do want to call the police?”  I asked.

“No.  No, I don’t want to do that,” she stammered.

I looked at Janine, perplexed.  I wanted to do the right thing, but what was it?

“Well, we were about to go to McDonalds for supper.  Why don’t you join us and then you can decide what to do,” I offered.

She nodded meekly.  At close range I saw how young she was, in her early twenties, maybe. 

While we waited in line, she pulled herself together a little and told us her name was Christine.  The guy was her boyfriend.  They’d been living together for about nine months.  He had a temper, she admitted, but only when he was drinking.

We shared our French Fries and chatted a bit – about my teaching job at Lindsey Christian School, about Janine’s role in the drama production at her high school.  But when I broached the topic of the police again, or a women’s shelter, Christine still hedged.  She didn’t want to do that.  She had a good friend, a childhood friend, that maybe she would call.  Then she eyed me intently and remarked, “I don’t think you remember me, do you?  I think I know you.  Did you ever teach Vacation Bible School?  At Bethel United?”

Indeed I had.  About seventeen years ago.  The summer after my first teaching job.  I recalled crafts in the gym and snack-time on the lawn.  Red Kool-Aid and crumbly crackers every day.  Singsongs in the sanctuary.  Rainbow rays of sunlight slanting through vibrant stained-glass windows and glinting off dark pews.  I didn’t remember her, though.

“Yes,” she said, more animatedly.  “I must have been around seven or eight.  We lived on Dunlop Street, you know, right there by Bethel?  I loved the singing.  Dare To Be A DanielWe Are Climbing Jacob’s LadderJesus Loves Me.  There was some play about goats and sheep, too.  I don’t remember what it was about anymore, but we made these cute little sheep by winding this fuzzy white wool around black wooden spools.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  Janine said,  “Mom, can I have a sundae?”

“Sure, honey.”  I gave her some money and turned to Christine.  “I’ll just be a minute. I have to visit the ladies’ room.”  I would steer her into a decision about what to do when I came back, I thought.  But when I returned, Janine was sitting alone, swirling her dessert.

“Where’s Christine?”  I asked.

“I don’t know.  She wasn’t here when I got back.”

We left.  She wasn’t in the parking lot, either.  “Do you think she’ll call her friend?” Janine wondered.

“I don’t know, honey.  I hope so.”

I called Frances as soon as I got home.  “I’m still shook up,” I told her.  “I was actually scared to go to my car!  I didn’t know what to do. The guy was ready to explode!” 

Frances sympathized.  “I know.  You can’t help but think: ‘What if it that had been Janine?  What if it had been me?’  You did the right thing, trying to help.”

Predictably, Tom couldn’t fathom how worked up I was.  He laughed good-naturedly about the “rescue”.  “People fight all the time.  A little on the dramatic side, aren’t you?  That’s where Janine gets it from, I suppose.”

It took me a long time to fall asleep that night.  Janine hugged me extra hard before she went to bed, the day’s initiation kernelled in her fervent embrace.  A fire burned bright in my heart casting lingering shadows of meaning over the event.  Maybe Tom was right.  We’d accomplished nothing really.  Still, it felt like we had.  A victory, of sorts.  A stop on the way.  A reunion to remember.  Songs in a sanctuary.  White wool wound on black spools.

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