de(tales): lucky charms
Tania Runyan is a lovely poet. I met her through mutual internet friends, and in person at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I have come to know her better online since, and so enjoy her humor and wit. I hope you'll enjoy this winsome, lucky story.
During the summer of 1993, before my senior year of college, some friends and I took a mission trip to Appalachia. As other teams from our fellowship group prepared to travel to India and Russia, we identified ourselves as the gritty, "share the gospel in our own backyard" group, the ones who would shine the light of hope straight into the dirt-streaked faces of the hollers.
In truth, we were glorified counselors at a Christian camp for local kids. No, scratch that. We weren't glorified at all.
The trip is a smudge of memory. Fitful nights on the Greyhound bus from California to Kentucky. Waiting for a pay phone late at night to talk to my fiancé. The sugary, headachy edge brought on by cases of donated Snapple. I don't remember the names of any of the other counselors and kids, and I don't remember a thing about the curriculum or activities aside from experiencing fireflies, humidity, and terrifying thunderstorms for the first time in my life.
The one real-time scene I remember, the one snapshot preserved from those sweltering, rolling hills? Sweaty, grubby Lucky Charms marshmallows stuck to the face of a child.
The boy in question (Joey?) caused trouble. I don't remember what kind, but he wasn't one of the "easy ones." A shaved head and a sneer. If I knew about his background at all, I've forgotten it. I do know that most of the children attended camp for free, the coagulated meals the best nutrition they'd receive all summer. There was unemployment, alcohol, abuse. Some of the campers were acquiescent to their lot. Some were angry. Joey was one of the angry ones.
One afternoon I decided I’d better take some pictures so I had something to show my friends and fiancé when I returned to California.
“Why don’t you sit on that bench, Joey?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“I want to remember you.”
“Ha-ell no.” Then: "Wait! Wait!" He scampered over to the bench while I advanced the film.
Joey pulled a bag of Lucky Charms out of his shorts pocket and began to pick out the marshmallows. He touched the tip of his tongue to each blue moon, green clover, orange star, and pink heart and stuck them to his face. Soon, he glowed pastel. Marshmallows stuck to his forehead, chin, earlobes, and the crease between his nose and cheekbone.
I didn’t want to ruin one of Joey’s few sweet moments by asking questions, so I lifted the camera.
He tried to sneer but smiled with his eyes, pulling his knees up to his chest so that his big sneakers stuck out over the edge of the bench. For once he was at home with himself, in the center of my viewfinder, forging a positive identity with a face painted with sugar. Click.
For many years, whenever I remembered this picture of Joey, I did the math in my head. When I graduated with my masters, I envisioned a teenager with marshmallows on his hardening cheekbones. When the new millennium arrived, I thought of a young man smirking with blue diamonds on his stubbly face. When my child was born in 2003, he was twenty. Was he in school, working? Or was he, I hoped, sitting on a bench speckled with cereal dust? Eventually, this all became too difficult. I lost track, forgot the years, and just remembered him as forever a troubled boy brightened by a spontaneous moment.
Until writing this, that is. He's 32 now, most likely with children of his own. I pray they are having an easier time of it, chasing after fireflies with bellies full of food.
Maybe I didn’t ignite the world that summer but tore a small hole in a thundercloud to let in a little bit of light. Maybe I watched and listened just long enough to create a moment a boy would remember for the rest of his life: when he felt sweet, loved, and lucky.
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was released in 2014. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod, and the anthology A Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.
(Find her on Twitter here).
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.