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Volume 14, Issue 5: Pictura

The Widow's Mite

Douglas Wilson

The snow came in off the lake overnight and covered the town deep. I woke up about four in the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing the shopping center parking lot just beyond my motel window. I was staying at a Comfort Suite in the Upper Midwest—doing my work as a sales rep for a medical supplies company. That is what the business card said, but as far as any casual observers were concerned, I was just another road weasel. I had been planning to drive my rental car to all the metropolitan hospitals that day, a challenge under the best of circumstances, and so as I stood in the window watching the snow come down, presenting quite a formidable challenge to the plows, I quietly extended my stay here for another day. Maybe two. When this kind of thing happens, people are late. Meetings get cancelled, and back I go to the Comfort Suite. But I was all right. Worst case scenario, and I would still be back home two days before Christmas.

Three hours later I walked into the breakfast area downstairs and fixed myself a bowl of corn flakes that I got from one of those glass containers with the lid sloping off at forty-five degrees. When I got back to the table I tried to imagine the containers as daring men wearing their hats at rakish angles. That amused me for thirty seconds or so. Then I ate my cereal and flipped in a perfunctory way through the USA Today. Processed news to go with the food. The coffee was not great, but it was still good and hot, which made up for the greater part of the problem. I'm not a coffee snob from Seattle anyway. When I was done, I refilled the cup and just sat at my table looking around the room. Even at the earliest reasonable departure, I still had another forty-five minutes to kill.
I had been in a thousand places like this. The wallpaper was a rough brown texture, with a cross hatch pattern in it, and in the corner was a pseudo-fireplace with some pseudo-logs in it. But the gas was real, and I could feel the heat from the flames where I was sitting. Over the fireplace was a perfectly sentimental painting, and two-inch white baseboard ran around the room. A small Christmas tree was set up in the far corner across from the fireplace, with decorations on it that looked homemade. As I worked my gaze around the room, I found myself looking again at the options for breakfast. There was a small selection of donuts, some muffins, a plate with three apples and two bananas, and a basket filled with Pop-Tarts. Next to that was a white toaster, the coffee machine, and then two decanters with orange and grapefruit juice in them respectively.
But there were a few striking differences. One of them appeared in the door—a short woman with a round pleasant face came bustling into the room with a rag in her hand. She said good morning to me and began straightening up the breakfast counter. I just sat, nursing my coffee, and watched her fuss over the counter. When she finally turned to go, she asked, very cheerfully, "Did you find everything you need?"
"Yes, thanks," I said. I must have said something else because she immediately took the cue and became chatty. She had brunette hair that framed an olive complexion, and I soon found out that her name was Marilyn. Her brown eyes were filled with early-in-the-day excitement. She rambled affectionately on about this and that, and it struck me that this was her domain. She was as pleased as any woman could possibly be about her job, thankfulness coming out every pore.
"We had a wedding in here last weekend," she said.
"Did you really?" I said.
"The groom was a friend of my nephew's. They was having a terrible time finding a place. I think he drives a truck for Mayflower. But I says to my nephew why not in our little room? It's real cozy. He checked with our manager, and he said sure. It was a real sweet time."
I just nodded politely, astounded at the thought of a wedding in this room and simultaneously amazed at this woman's cheerfulness. This was the kind of built-in-a-week building where the walls probably moved in and out with the guests' breathing at night. It was very clean, but low-end materials were in evidence everywhere. And here this woman was, as pleased as anything over her responsibility for four hundred square feet of it. She picked up a few things from one of the other tables, straightened out a few knick knacks on the mantle, and then headed out of the room.
As I looked at her leaving her little breakfast nook, I felt a strange sort of compassion come over me. I don't know how to describe it, but the only other times I have felt it were on those Sunday morning occasions—and I know this sounds strange—when I have seen women, alone and dressed up for church, walking by themselves to worship somewhere. I don't know exactly what it means, but I felt exactly the same way again.
Two men interrupted the strangeness of my mood by coming into the room and noisily working their way down the breakfast counter. One was gray and professorial, but on the dour end of things. The other, his apparent assistant, had an expression that looked like nine miles of bad road.
"How's the coffee?" the professor said to me.
"All right," I said. "I've had better, but it's decent."
Both of them groused their way through the selection of food and finally sat down two tables away from me. They made no effort to keep their voices low, and it soon became apparent that their poor attitude was at least in part the result of having their flight cancelled the night before because of all the snow. Then they had to settle for this particular flop house because all the hotels near the airport were full up because of other cancelled flights.
Marilyn came back in again after a ten minute absence, and was just as cheerful with them as she had been with me. "Did you find everything you need?" she asked, with just the same voice inflexion she had used before.
"No." One of the men said. "I need breakfast. I've seen better food at a junior high cafeteria."
"I am very sorry," she said. "I try to keep everything fresh—I stop in at a twenty-four hour place every morning on my way here. If you are staying another night, I would be happy to try to get something more to your liking tomorrow morning."
"No, we are leaving this morning. We'll make do."
She bobbed her head up and down winsomely, apparently unaware of how rude the men were being, and then disappeared.
"See," one of them said. "This is a perfect illustration. This was just the point I was making in my talk at the Kuyper lectures at the college yesterday. The lordship of Christ extends into everything."
At this last comment, my head did not exactly swivel around to stare at them, but this was only because I am a highly trained sales rep, accustomed to hear all manner of outrage without any visible changes in the countenance. But for all my impassivity I now made a point of hearing every word. I sat sipping my coffee with the inscrutable expression of a mandarin potentate. Not that they sip coffee.
"Set aside the absurdities for moment—like how buying Pop Tarts at the grocery store every morning has anything to do with freshness. The problem is deeper than this; it is systemic." He looked around the room and waved at everything I had previously noted. "Look at this schlock," he said. "Our culture, if you want to call it that, is on its last legs." His eyes came to rest on the painting, which he had apparently not noted before. He stared at it malevolently for a moment and then turned back to his breakfast. He sliced his apple into four quarters—which was not easy with a plastic knife—and took a bite. As he ate, he continued to bellow in a learned fashion about the various shortcomings he saw around him. "Take this apple, for instance." It was half gone when he got to this. "I have no complaint about how God made apples. But this tastes like styrofoam in a naugahyde cover. There has to be a reason for this, and it no doubt involves chemicals, warehouses, and freezers. And apples harvested two years ago."
His eyes wandered back over to the breakfast counter. Above the toaster was a laser-printer sign that said "Complimentary Continental Breakfast: 6:00 am to 9:00 am daily. The professor snorted. "Continental?"
The assistant grinned briefly, starting to enjoy himself. "It is being served on a continent." Marilyn came back in right then, and both men laughed out loud. I was feeling pretty defensive for her by this point and was preparing to say something if anything else happened. But Marilyn just flushed mildly, efficiently emptied the trash, and went back out again.
The professor continued. "You see how the issues of lordship need to extend to everything. Movies, agriculture, motel construction, painting." With this, he glared above the fireplace again. "We cannot neglect anything. But the realm of aesthetics in our day is on life-support." After twenty more minutes of this kind of thing, the two men both stood up and went back to their rooms to get their luggage. I noticed that neither one of them cleared their table. Before I headed back to my room to pick up my briefcase and customer files, I poked my head into Marilyn's little work station that was fifteen feet down the hall. "Don't worry about those two," I started to say. She just laughed and waved me off. "When you work in a motel like this you meet every kind of human creature. I'm just glad they ate something."
I had a good day that day—the snow stopped and the highway crews were on top of it—so the next morning I was able to check out. I had good reason for thinking I could get all the hospitals on the south side and just hit the road back home from there. When I turned away from the main desk, I saw Marilyn inside the breakfast nook. I stuck my head inside the door to visit for a minute and thank her. "Did you decorate that Christmas tree?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," she smiled. "Makes it homey, don't you think? My daughter teaches second grade, and she had her class make decorations for me. They was real sweet when they all came over."
We chatted for a moment, and then I turned to go. At the door, I stopped to make a note in my appointment book to ask my wife to send Marilyn a Christmas card. Then with a bag in each hand, I turned backwards to push the door open with my back. The last thing I saw was Marilyn filling up the Pop Tart basket, wiping each package off with her rag before she put it in.

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