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written by: Dawn DeBraal
Dooley Bradford sat in his beat-up Ford 150 pick up at the stop and go lights of two intersecting highways, he was on his way to “church.” His wife religiously attended the Good Shepherd Baptist Church every Sunday while he went down to the corner tavern. Knotty’s was owned by Alan and Bertha Church. It was his joke on Sundays, to kiss his wife of twenty-seven years on the cheek and head out for services. While Vera, went to Good Shepherd Baptist Church to pray for her husband, Dooley would go to Knotty’s, knock down a few little brown ones and a couple of beers. He left the house for about an hour before his wife went to church and came home about an hour after she did. He didn’t like his wife to know about the shame he felt watching her leave and come back from church while he sat at the tavern. This made him feel a little guilty. To commandeer that, he’d leave before she left and come home after she came home.
When they first got married, Dooley went with her to Good Shepherd, but after she miscarried their fifth pregnancy he was done with church and he was done with God. Now at fifty-six years of age, he was done paying homage to the one who wouldn’t allow the most steadfast Christian woman in the county, to carry a child to term, while known drug addicts and underage teens were spitting out babies left and right. Dooley was mad at God for what they were denied, the blessing of children. It wasn’t so hard now that neither of them was of the age for childbearing. Those first fifteen years of marriage likely broke their spirits, at least it did his. Vera was a God-loving woman. In fact, it’s what her name meant, Faith in God or something like that. He hadn’t looked it up in a long time. But he knew she was all that. God wasn’t as reciprocating to the woman Dooley loved. He’d be damned to sit there in church on Sunday mornings praising the One who refused to answer their prayers. Not one of those babies survived. Not one. It devastated them each time their dreams died. After a while, they just couldn’t bring themselves to try anymore. It was too painful to get their hopes up.
Dooley watched as an ambulance made the left-hand turn and drove past him. No lights no siren, just an ambulance. Suddenly the word BEACON jumped out at him, and he could see a glimpse of his future, everything slowed down while pieces of information were being received by him. He was coming back into the fold. The Lord showed him a sign that he cared and still loved Dooley even though he had rebuffed Him long ago. Dooley felt as if he had suffered an epileptic attack, his whole body went rigid and then collapsed on the seat. Every movement around him in slow motion was a warning. He could see the light changing to yellow and the cars slowing down on the other highway. He could feel the panic rise in the body he had to get back into, his earthly shell. The light was going to change green soon, people would be stuck behind him. He wasn’t going to die here! Not when the good Lord had given him a vision into his future. The light turned red for the other highway and turned green for his highway. He came to and drove through the intersection following the car in front of him. He felt so strongly about his vision that he found himself turning around and heading back to his farm. He would not go to his church today, he would be going to Vera’s, Good Shepherd Church. God had shown him his death today and given him a vision. He was to bring himself back into the flock. He was acting on behalf of the Good Shepherd who had called him by name today and showed him the way, the light, the beacon!
Vera stood on the porch watching Dooley’s truck pull up the long dirt driveway. The dust followed him out of the truck as he screeched to a halt.
“Dooley? Are you okay?” she called out. Dooley ran around the front of the truck.
“Gimme a second, I’m taking you to church today.” He said hurrying into the house to change into his suit. Vera could have been pushed over with a feather. Dooley? Taking her to church? It’d been well over a decade since he’d done anything like that. Vera walked around to the passenger side of the Buick and waited patiently for her husband. She put her purse in her lap and folded her arms across the purse and bowed her head in prayer. The Lord had worked some kind, of a miracle in her husband. Dooley came rushing out carrying the suit coat with him, throwing the coat over the seat he started up the car. Vera just looked at her husband.
“Did you have a stroke?” she was dumbfounded. Her husband was going to the tavern as he had for hundreds of Sundays, but today he didn’t go, he chose to drive her to church, instead. They were almost late in getting there. Dooley with Vera smiling on his arm walked in just at the congregation was starting the first hymn. Everyone stood as Dooley tucked his wife into their spot, the fourth pew from the back on the left. Vera smiled knowing he had remembered. She opened the hymnal and joined in singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Joyce Handel played the organ pulling out the stops on the last stanza, the congregation's tone grew louder to match the booming organ. Dooley knew the hymn by heart, didn’t need the hymnal. His full baritone voice singing out.
“Leaning, leaning, Leaning on the everlasting arms. Leaning, leaningggggggggggggg. Leaning on the everlasting arms.” At the end of the hymn, the congregation sat down. Preacher Taylor came up to the pulpit asking the congregation to turn to Luke 15: 8. He read the parable of the lost coin. A woman who had many coins searches high and low for the one that was lost, rejoicing when she found it. Dooley knew it was not a mistake that he had come here this day for this sermon. God was leading him. He was almost breathless in his emotion. Vera could see what was happening to her husband. She put her arm through his. Dooley grabbed her hand. He closed his eyes and listened, no he felt, the sermon moving through his body. The experience was similar, to the one this morning at the stoplights. He was being molded, changed. There was nothing he could do about it but go with it. During prayer time they prayed for Mrs. Johnson and her child Matthew. Mr. Johnson died a few years back leaving Mrs. with a young boy she was trying to raise on her own.
“Mrs. Johnson is in need of healing prayers her cancer has returned.” The congregation moaned. Everyone fervently prayed for Mrs. Johnson. The pastor asked people to sign up to bring them dinners. On the way out, Vera signed up for that very night. Dooley and Vera stopped on the way home for groceries.
“Dooley, what’s gotten into you?” Vera asked him. She was not used to seeing him in his suit.
“What do you mean?” Dooley kept his eyes on the road. He didn’t feel comfortable sharing his story with his wife, not just yet. It was still so new for him, and he hadn’t been able to put it into words. What had come over him when that ambulance went by, the BEACON, the light, the message, his name being called. He couldn’t tell her. “What are you going to make for the Johnsons’ tonight?” he changed the subject. Vera sighed, she was not going to question the change in her husband, it was for the better. He hadn’t been in church in so long. It felt good to sit with him today. Vera cooked up a wonderful casserole. Dooley offered to take it over and check on their neighbor. Vera was supportive of that. She never liked illness, not since taking care of both of her parents up until the day they died. She didn’t like being around it. If reminded her of their deaths. Dooley put the warm casserole in the front seat of the truck and drove the half-mile to the Johnson place. He got out taking the dish wrapped in a towel. The Johnson boy was about thirteen. He answered the door by opening it and indicating Dooley could put the dish on the table. He offered his hand to shake. Dooley snickered a little and shook his hand.
“Is your Mama awake?” Dooley asked, the boy shook his head no. “Alright. Turn the oven to 350 degrees to reheat. Understand?” The boy nodded, “yes.” Dooley felt odd leaving the little kid with a sick mother. When he got back home, he told Vera how the boy never said a word.
“I should have told you about Matthew. He hasn’t talked since the day his daddy died. That’s been years now.” Vera offered. Dooley shook his head, couldn’t quite get the kid out of his mind. It had to be scary by yourself with a sick mother. Dooley went back to Chambers garage, where he worked as a mechanic on Monday. He would have liked it to be his garage but never made enough to buy Tom Chambers out. Tom had long ago retired, and let Dooley rent the garage for next to nothing. Tom liked to come down and hang out with Dooley as he worked on the cars and sometimes help with customers. Tom couldn’t work anymore but he couldn’t sit home and do nothing either. The arrangement suited them both. After three in the afternoon, Dooley spied the Johnson boy walking by the garage on his way home from school.
“Matthew, you want a ride home?” Dooley shouted. The kid shrugged and ran to the garage. “This will take me a minute to finish, and I’ll drop you off on my way home. That there’s Tom, he’s the boss.” Matthew nodded and Tom pulled on his hat like he was saying hello. Then Tom said he was calling it a day.
“Nice to meet you, Matthew,” Tom said as he limped out of the garage.
“Ever see a carburetor before?” Matthew shook his head side to side. Dooley with the patience of a saint explained the whole workings of the carburetor. Matthew seemed to soak it all in. The kid was no dummy, he just didn’t want to talk. Dooley folded up the shop for the day, Matthew climbed into the Ford and Dooley took him the rest of the way home. Another neighbor was there dropping off dinner, coming out of the house. Mrs. Johnson wearing a scarf on her head trying not to look like what it was, the kindness of strangers helping this woman stay alive. Mrs. Johnson held up her finger to Dooley and stepped back inside. She came out with Vera’s baking pan, the dishtowel folded inside of it. She thanked Dooley as she handed over the pan. She was surprised to see Matthew get out of the truck.
“I see you got a ride.” She said to Matthew, she looked at Dooley.
“I was coming this way, it’s on my way home. You know I live the next place down. I offered him a ride.” Dooley interjected. “I showed Matthew what a carburetor was and how to install one.” Mrs. Johnson looked surprised.
“Thank you for taking time with him, Mr. Bradford. His dad knew his way around a car.” With that statement, Matthew perked up watching his mom.
“Dooley, please, call me Dooley,” Dooley told her he would take the pan back to Vera, he also told her that he would keep an eye out on Matthew.
“Any time he wants to learn about cars, or get a ride home, just stop into the shop. If that’s alright with you.” Matthew looked at his mother smiling when she agreed to the arrangement.
“Matthew wash up for supper now.” Matthew walked inside the house, nodding at Dooley which he took to be a thank you.
“Boy doesn’t talk much it at all, does he?” Dooley questioned.
Mrs. Johnson told Dooley how Matthew hadn’t talked much since his Dad died years ago. There was no reason that he couldn’t speak, he just chose not to. Dooley went home feeling happy. He found a way to reach the boy that day. He felt he could get Matthew talking again through the building of car motors.
The following Sunday Dooley was waiting for his wife in the car. She came out amazed to see him sitting and waiting to drive her to church. She couldn’t get over the change in her husband. She signed up for a couple of meals for the Johnsons, that week. Being a neighbor made things easier, and she could tell by the way Dooley talked about the boy he wanted to help him. Almost every day last week Matthew stopped by the shop, learned something from Dooley and got a ride home. Dooley was animated when he talked about Matthew. Part of Vera felt sad that they never had a child to share these experiences with but grateful they were given a chance to experience it now. After a few months, Matthew started to talk to them a little. He rode his bike over with the dishes Vera had left for them for meals. Dooley would talk a little with Matthew and put his bike in the back of the pickup driving him home. Doing what Mrs. Johnson needed doing in the way of home repairs or what was on her list. That day after dropping Matthew and the bike off, Dooley walked up to the house and asked Mrs. Johnson if he could take Matthew fishing. She smiled shyly when she saw the hopeful look on her son’s face, nodding yes. On Saturday morning Dooley picked Matthew up and they headed for the river. Dooley had an old canoe in the back of the truck. He had packed a picnic lunch. They launched the canoe in the river. Dooley threw a life preserver at Matthew.
“Put this on. Can you swim?” The boy nodded in affirmation. Dooley showed him how to bait a hook and throw the hook toward the bank on a casting rod.
“I’ll do the first one, from now on you have to bait your own hook.” Dooley chuckled. Soon his bobber went underwater.
“Got one!” Dooley shouted as he set the hook and reeled a nice sized bluegill into the boat. He showed the fish parts to Matthew and was going to throw the fish into the pail. Matthew put his hand on Dooley’s arm shaking his head no. Dooley understood. He let fish go.
“I don’t like these little panfish that much anyway. River gills are so small, not like the ones in the lake. Let’s just catch ‘em and let them go.” Matthew caught his first fish. Dooley showed him how to take it off the hook and throw it back into the water. While waiting for a bite, Dooley casually asked Matthew how he was coping with his mother’s illness. Matthew said it was easier now that Dooley came into his life. He could find times during the day he could forget about his mom and her illness. The church stepped in taking turns at driving his mother to radiation treatments, and chemotherapies. Except for a few of the ladies, the meals they brought were pretty good. Dooley laughed at that one. He was amazed at what he had missed out not knowing this boy when he surely needed a father figure in his life. They bonded over cars and fishing. Matthew was no longer the shy boy he’d known a month ago. He now spoke freely with Dooley. When Dooley got Matthew back to the Johnson house Vera was sitting out on the porch.
“Matthew, honey, your mama went to the hospital. You are going to spend the night at our house. I’ll take you to see her tomorrow. Just grab some of your things.” Matthew dragged his arm across his face without saying a word went into the house packing an overnight bag. Dooley looked at Vera, she hung her head, it was bad. Mrs. Johnson was probably not coming home again. Dooley asked Vera what were the plans for the boy. Vera said they would talk about it later. After Matthew was tucked in bed. Dooley and Vera talked quietly out on the front porch. They whispered to each other as the swing creaked back and forth with their movement.
“Dooley, I want to talk to you about us fostering Matthew, when the time comes.” Dooley looked at Vera in surprise.
“Aren’t we too old?”
“We aren’t adopting a baby we are asking to foster a young man.” Dooley wondered if there were a family out there who wanted the boy. Part of him was hopeful to foster Matthew. Vera pulled out pamphlets she had gotten from the courthouse that day. They would need to go through interviews and physicals and background checks but given Matthew's age, they might be able to keep him until he became an adult. Dooley quietly thought about what she was saying to them. Maybe it was their time to share love with a youngster who needed a home. It was almost too much to hope.
Mrs. Johnson didn’t come home from the hospital. Matthew’s custody was turned over to the foster-care system to determine the best placement for him. A couple who already had the licensing had taken Matthew into their home. Matthew still stopped by the garage and Dooley found small odd jobs for him to do. Matthew was learning a lot about the workings of a motor. The Turner’s were nice people. They were the folks who assumed custody of Matthew while the county determined where he should be placed. Dooley was hopeful after talking with the social workers about Matthew coming to live with him and Vera. Matthew had spoken up, showing a preference for staying with the Bradford’s. The ages of Dooley and Vera were against them, and Dooley’s Sundays of going to “church” came out in the interviews. But he had given that up months before and was a solid church attendee since his “reformation” experience. Eventually, the county came around to Matthew’s wishes and Matthew came to live with the Bradford’s. No one would say they had an easy go of it. The Bradford’s had never had a child. A teenager had moved into their home. It took some getting used to and restrain on everyone’s part establishing new routines. They needed to get Matthew to school on time and help him get his homework done. Dooley drove Matthew to school each day dropping him off before going to the garage. Matthew walked to the garage after school where he worked with Dooley for two hours and rode home with him. Vera would have supper waiting for them. They started to feel like a complete family. Weekly check-ups by the social worker garnered support for the Bradford’s to continue to foster Matthew. Matthew’s grades were coming back up a little, thanks to Vera’s nightly instruction, he would pass the eighth grade this year.
The Bradford’s had Matthew for two more years. Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, the foster system sent a letter that Matthew would need to move to a different home, at least on a temporary basis. The foster care system was not an adoption. They had used up the maximum amount of time having Matthew in their care. Matthew was put in another foster home in the county. They allowed him to keep his job with Dooley. Matthew had gotten quite proficient in small mechanical jobs. He was saving money for college. He worked nightly with Dooley after school and on the weekends. Matthew didn’t like the new place as much. Dooley told him to hang in there. It was a couple of years he’d be eighteen and no one could tell him what to do, ever again.
On the second Sunday, Matthew was no longer at their home, Dooley kissed his wife Vera on the cheek.
“I’m going to “church”.” He said to her. Vera was disappointed but not surprised. Dooley was extremely angry at the system. She was going to keep praying that after the time they were to be apart, the foster system would place Matthew with them until his eighteenth birthday. Dooley started down the road in his pick-up truck. He missed the boy. He still saw him after school and on Saturdays, but it wasn’t the same as having him under their roof. He was shocked when he saw Matthew with a bag over his shoulder walking down the road. He didn’t look like a boy anymore he looked like a half-grown man. Dooley pulled over. Matthew got in the truck putting his bag in the back.
“Where, are you going?” Dooley asked him.
“I want to stay with you and Vera, Dooley,” Matthew said quietly.
“That can’t happen right now, son. We need to take you back.” Matthew folded his arm over his face and tried not to cry. He was going to be sixteen soon. As Dooley headed for town, he kept telling Matthew they could see each other during work hours after school and on Saturdays. The plan was to wait out the time that the foster care system would make Matthew eligible to be back in the Bradford house, then he could ride it out until he was eighteen.
“Matthew, you know we love you and you are welcome any time. Just because you have to sleep at another house doesn’t make our feelings different. As soon as the foster care system says you can come back, you have a place. Matthew knew all of this. He kept nodding his head. He was too upset to talk to Dooley. He knew it was the way of things, but that didn’t make it any simpler of a wait. Dooley pulled up to the intersection of the two highways, the one where he’d had the epiphany years ago. Something stirred in his stomach. He watched the ambulance come through the intersection taking a left-hand turn. Things started to slow down. Dooley knew this was it. He calmly put his hand on Matthews’ arm.
“Matthew don’t question me. Just get out of the truck and wait on the sidewalk. Hurry now.” Without question, Matthew got out of the truck and stood on the sidewalk. The ambulance passed Dooley. “BEACON AMBULANCE SERVICE” written on the side. It made Dooley chuckle. The beacon wasn’t God’s light coming down, it was the name of the ambulance service! The light turned green. Dooley followed the car in front of him. He entered the intersection breathing heavily, this was the vision. It was coming, he could feel it. An SUV slammed into the side of the pick-up truck caving in the passenger side, tipping the truck over and pushing it onto the other highway. Matthew screamed from the sidewalk. Dooley chuckled again. It hadn’t been God calling him, it was Matthew’s voice he had heard, now the sound of a grown man’s voice. His interpretation of the vision was flawed.
“Dooley!” Matthew screamed, dodging the cars he reached the pick-up. Cars around them stopped the traffic around the accident. The SUV driver called 9-1-1 screaming he didn’t see the light change it was in his eyes. He was following the ambulance who was transferring his mother to a hospital. Matthew climbed onto the passenger side of the truck.
“Dooley!” he shouted. Dooley knew his number was up but didn’t want to scare the boy.
“Matthew, I’m here. Don’t worry everything is going to be alright. Keep calm. Tell Vera what happened and that I love her. I love you too, boy. Thank you for letting me into your life.” Dooley felt the same electrical shock he’d felt in his vision years ago. He knew it was his soul leaving his body. He was grateful to the Good Lord for allowing him to experience being a father in the last years of his life, he was no longer angry at God and knew that Matthew would take care of his wife. Dooley called out to Matthew. “Take care of Vera for me? Ok? Son?” Matthew promised he would. The ambulance arrived, Dooley was already gone.
Matthew had to stay with the new foster home, now that Dooley was gone. On his eighteenth birthday, Matthew aged out of the foster care system. He took his bag of things and walked all the way out to Dooley’s house. He knocked on the door. When Vera Bradford answered the door, her face beamed. She wrapped her arms around her son and welcomed him home.