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Continuing Education

Writing: “Untitled” by Christine Olivera

October 20, 2011

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie in green pastures:
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’ sake.

Righteousness.

“Do you know what that means?” Kya asks, her voice fuzzy over
The 1,000 miles between us.        

“I think so. Do you?”
“Yep. Do you want me to tell you?” she asks.
“Yeah. Tell me what righteousness means,” I say.
“It means that you’re good and you do the right thing.”
“It does. You’re right.”

Though I walk through the valley of shadow and death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

She says crisply.

Thou preparest a table before me in thy presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.


She struggles with the last part; it takes her a few tries to get through it.
“I get a piece of candy when I do it perfect all the way through,” she says.
“That’s nice,” I tell her and squirm in my chair.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table huddled around a tiny cell phone. The part I’m supposed to be talking into is only about three inches from the part I am trying to hear her voice through. Free long distance on a cell phone. It costs twenty bucks to do the same with a comfortable, normal telephone.

Instead I’m holding this miniscule one between thumb and forefinger; it looks like that awesome digital watch my Dad got for his birthday from my step mom in 1984. It reminds me of a chocolate dipped graham cracker, about exactly that thickness and weight. It makes me wish I had some of those right now.

“So, Kya, how’s school?”

“Okay. We went to the library. And we had outdoor recess today.” I picture her in her pink snowsuit. She continues, “It was in the aboves, so we got to go out,” she offers reluctantly. “So do you want me to say the rest?”

I don’t, but I tell her that I do.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me for all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

The End.

“Wow. That’s amazing. That was a very good reading.”

“Yeah,” she says, “it’s painted on the wall at church. Do you remember when we read it, at, you know,” she whispers.

“At your dad’s funeral?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, I remember that.”

Three weeks earlier I had been with my seven-year old niece in Fairbanks. We had pulled into the parking lot last. We’d gotten a little lost in the ice fog on the way there. It was 3:00pm. The sun was going down fast. The parking lot was full of trucks and a few cars, all of them running in neutral, vacant. A sea of ghost cars idling away. A stagnant haze of exhaust hung heavy and thick in the form of ice crystals that singe the lining of your nose if you inhale too deeply and too quickly. A desolate and beyond inhospitable place. A church parking lot slash ideal setting for zombies to appear. By then I knew it was unavoidable, this very unnerving practice of leaving your car running while you grocery shop, or say, attend a funeral service. Your car will literally freeze in less than two hours if it’s turned off and not plugged in. We made it in with enough time to see people we had just met a few days before, to hug them awkwardly and pretend we understood their grief.

Poster boards with photos of Dustin were displayed up front with his urn and flowers. A large heart made of white roses with a jagged line of red roses running through the middle of it diagonally, like it was broken, leaned on a tall tripod. It was a little top heavy and I worried that if bumped, or even gently caressed, it would topple over. A slide show of images with Dustin shone on the wall between two stained glass windows. One side depicted a sunrise, the other, a stand of bare trees on a hillside. Both looked as if they had been put together by a smallish child. “Dust in the Wind,” the one hit wonder by Kansas, played over the sound system. This went on and on, three times through at least and finally the music was turned down as the pastor came forward to begin the service. It opened with The 23rd Psalm. Kya sat between her year-younger cousin and her father’s fiancé, Kelly, robbed of the title Widow by six months. They each held a single red rose. The rest of Dustin’s family sat on the other side of the isle.

It was impersonal and contrived. The pastor seemed smarmy and predatory. He gave Kya a shiny gift bag someone had given him for Christmas the week before – probably with a bottle of something. The bag was tall and narrow. He told her it was a gift for her and she looked disappointed to find it full of candy canes. Trickster. He told her to give them to people who were feeling sad about her dad, and to tell them that he is with God now and so it’s all okay. Then his cell phone rang. He managed to work that embarrassment into a strange and disturbing metaphor about how we never know when God will call.  A few minutes later when Kya was up front reciting a poem she had written about her dad and the morning-time and birds, the phone rang again. I think it was to the tune of Disco Inferno. The pastor had a hard time getting the phone out of its little leather hip holster, as he was sitting down now and his fat belly completely covered it up. When the service was over, “Dust in the Wind” started up again and everyone went out to the hall to eat meatballs and cookies. I had a cup of coffee and watched the poisonous fumes bellow forth from the fifty six vehicles (that I could count from the window) staying warm for their drivers and passengers, who were at that very moment inside with me, mingling with far too much cheerfulness to be genuine and having no intentions to leave any time soon.

I found Kya in the children’s room all by herself. She struggled to get into her gear, the full snowsuit, fur lined boots and parka that she wears from October until April. Her fancy new dress was all bunched up under her armpits, caught on the bib of her pink snowsuit. She was staring at the mural on the wall, straining to decipher the cursive writing. The year before, at her mother’s funeral, we had sat on the floor and played math and spelling games. Today, we decoded the curly words set to an image of Noah’s Arc as I knelt to help her tuck her dress into her coveralls.

“That one’s a T and that’s an L,” I told her pointing to the looping dark blue paint.
“The Lord is my sh… my shep-” she looked up at me for help.
“Shepherd,” I said quietly.
“What’s a Shepherd?”
“It’s a guy who watches over a flock of sheep.”
“So, I’m like a sheep?”
“Sort of,” I told her.

And we stood there and read through it.

That night we drank tea, watched Hannah Montana and played Scrabble, just the two of us. She beat me. 

Now, we speak on the phone because that’s as close as I can get to her. It feels wrong.

When I put down the phone I look up “righteousness,” just to be sure.