Hello From an Old Friend

Erin McGraw


The impulse comes over me when I’m bored and out of sorts. Paul would say that it’s Satan at work in me. Since I know what he would say, I don’t tell him.

Looking up Marla from high school leads me to Jody, posing with two kids and a car. Her husband works for Union Carbide. Reading about her reminds me of Lisa, living in Mobile now. She has a picture of a magnolia on her web site, and her husband works for the state.

Idaho is too far from Florida for me to go to reunions, but using the Internet is almost as good. In emails I don’t have to explain that Paul surrendered to the call and is a preacher now. He was at Allied for five years. We lived in a two-story house with rosebushes when he came to me and said he wanted us to pray. We’d been trying for a baby. I thought, why not?

He said, “Lord, if you are calling me, I will come. Janine and I will serve you.”

I dropped my hands and stared at him. We went to church twice a week and he taught Sunday School, but a lot of our friends did that. None of them were talking to God about service.

Outside, a jay squabbled at the top of its lungs. Paul took a few minutes to find the right words. “Sometimes at work I’ll feel everything fall away. Or rather, I’m the one falling. I’m dropping and dropping, and there doesn’t seem to be any bottom, and all that’s around me is God. What is that, if not a call?”

His face was soft, and I could see the fear there, and who knows? He might have been right. The stupid jay made it hard to think. “I’ve never heard a call, but maybe that’s one,” I said. Nobody asked what I’d heard: a bird jabbering outside a window.

When I got pregnant a month after Paul quit his job to go to seminary, he told me this was God’s reward to us. I still won’t say he’s wrong.

God proved to be a fruitful giver, providing us with six children as Paul’s ability to feed and clothe them dwindled. “Couldn’t you at least have been called to a nice, big TV church in Houston?” I asked when we moved from Eagle to Blackfoot. He looked hurt. His sense of humor had been the first casualty of the call, while mine sharpened right up.

The pictures of Suzanne and Colleen and Annie, who’s now living in Connecticut where she says she can’t get used to the winters, show women who have kept their figures and their faces. Their husbands have, too. Occasionally their posts or web sites will thank God for some blessing, but mostly they’re busy chronicling those blessings, which sometimes include skiing.

There is nothing wrong with going to the Internet and looking up the lives of my old friends. No sin there. But I’m left queasy with resentment. Sometimes I write to them, subject line “Hello from an old friend,” and hear back “How wonderful it must be to live such a faith-based life. I envy you.”

Paul has taken to saying, “What have you thanked God for today?” instead of hello. The kids make up answers when he’s not around. “Thank you, God, for giving Dad bad hearing so he can’t tell I’m watching rap videos.” “Thank you, God, making it rain so I didn’t have to rake.” I laugh. Be honest: I encourage them.

I have exhausted my list of girlfriends before it occurrs to me to look up Richard. He existed in that zone that comes before dating, when boys and girls look at each other with terror. Our little Jonathan, age 12, is there now. Maybe it was watching him that made me go to Google, chasing the other kids away from the family computer that the church is still unhappily paying off for us.

Most of my searches take a little while, especially when I have to hunt down married names. But Richard Volking comes right up, over and over, with images. He is an architect. He is famous.

He has a house in Barcelona and an apartment in New York, and is married for the third time. In one picture his wife is kissing a cat, which makes me like her. One child from each marriage: three little saplings in a row.

I rewrite my message over and over. “What a pleasure to see your success! Our old days in Cool Springs must seem far away from you now. I just wanted to reach out and say hello, and send blessings.” The last two words are Paul’s usual sign-off.

There is so much to do. Mary’s homework, Esther’s soccer practice, visits to Mrs. Berry and Mrs. Polkman. Cookies for the soccer team, the children’s choir, Jonathan’s home room. In a typical week I make eight batches of cookies, and Paul and I are soft as bread dough.

By the time I get back to the computer I was almost not thinking about Richard.

“You’re right—those days do feel very far away, and so I’m especially glad that you reached out. I haven’t been back to Cool Springs since Mother died, but I remember it clearly. The long willow branches hung like a girl’s hair. No willows in Barcelona.”

I skim the rest. Esther asks if she can have a cookie, and I say roughly, “Take them all.”

Paul is late home from church, and when he finally gets in, his mouth is full of words. His blessing before dinner clocks ten solid minutes. He wouldn’t feel the need to voice so many thanks if he had prepared the food congealing in front of him. “For the blessings of Esther’s soccer team’s win. For Jonathan’s home room teacher, Lord, we thank you. Our hands are your hands in the world, Lord, our faces your face. Bless our hands and faces.”

He lifts his eyes and smiles. Wordless, I smile back. The lasagna is a mouthful of rubber.

Now that Paul has gone to bed, I stay up and look at the computer’s screen saver for a long time: a picture of a seagull and “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” Josh set it up to please his father; I’m pretty sure there was another one he shared with his siblings that had a different quote. When the computer came into the house Paul blessed it, asking that it be used to serve and praise God. I am willing to think that looking up cookie recipes or helping Mary with a history paper are both service and praise.

In the kitchen, I splash ice water on my face, which is God’s face, over and over. It’s supposed to keep us from crying. It’s done it before. “Dear Richard, I pray that God will continue to send blessings upon you, your work, your children and your wives.” That ought to do it.


Erin McGraw is the author of six books of fiction.  Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, STORY, The Kenyon Review, Allure, and many other journals and magazines.  She lives in Tennessee with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins.