Monty, Jerome, and The Present Giver.
A few weeks ago I flew back to Colorado after the Woodstock Writers’ Festival. I was tired when our plane landed in Denver. There was still another short flight to Colorado Springs and a 90-minute drive through canyons in the pitch dark after that. My visit east, as always, had exhausted me. I get filled up and drained all at the same time. So much love, a sort of overdose of love: my parents, Forrest, all the people in town who I miss or who miss me, or both. It’s a joyful tiredness, and as deep a tiredness as I feel these days.
Our plane landed and all was well. I had an hour to transfer to the little plane that would take us the rest of the way. But when we were all in our seats and traveling down the tarmac, the weather turned. Planes were piling up. The pilots came on and said we’d be able to take off in twenty minutes if all went well. Thirty minutes later he came back on and said we’d used too much fuel sitting there and we’d need to go back to the terminal to get more. When there were no gates to pull into, we sat some more. Eventually the pilots and crew were timed-out. We were asked to get off the plane and reschedule our flights for the following day. It was 9:30 pm by then.
While we were in line to find flights, I overheard another passenger say he was going to rent a car, did anyone want to join him? I spoke right up. “I’ll go,” I said, and jumped out of line. Another young man did the same. Part of me was tentative. I didn’t know these guys but I wanted to get home. We took off at a gallop to get to the car rental place ahead of others. I’d chosen well it turned out. The guy who was renting the car had a Star Account or a Gold Account or whatever they call it, at several car rental places. All he had to do was send an email and a car would be waiting. In the end we jumped onto a Hertz bus to a car. By then it was raining hard, the kind of rain that is right on the cusp of snow. Slick and dangerous. It was a long night already and it was going to get longer.
As we were putting our bags in the trunk, I realized I’d left my backpack on the Hertz bus. I cursed at first, then thought of my laptop and how it was time to replace it anyway. I was so desperate to get home that I said, “I gotta let it go. I can’t handle trying to get it back right now.” Without even thinking about it, Monty, the leader of our trio, took off on foot to run after the bus. He’d told us while we were waiting for our luggage that he’d come home from a California business trip to pick up his wife and kids in Colorado Springs for his grandfather’s funeral the following day. The funeral was in Montana, a 12-hour drive starting in the morning 8 hours later. With all that, he didn’t think twice about retrieving my aging computer.
When we were finally in motion I opened my backpack assuming my computer would be gone but it wasn’t. That’s when I remembered my grandmother’s silver link necklace, earrings I’d bought for myself on Forrest’s 16th birthday, and a necklace that Brent had had made for me when we first met. I carry these and a few other things with me whenever I travel because I can’t bear to lose them. All the cash I’d earned on my trip was in there too.
As we traveled south Jerome and Monty did most of the talking. I sat in the back aware of my choice and the symbolism. Monty had recently retired from the Pueblo City School System where he’d been a superintendent. Jerome had grown up in Baltimore. This had been his first trip back east to see friends. “I wanted ta see my cousin,” he said, “but I don’t need ta see him again. The boy hasn’t changed. Nothin’s changed.” There was a lot of frustration and sadness in his words. Monty and I both wanted to hear more. “What do you do in Colorado Springs?” Monty asked. “I’m a corrections officer,” which caused me to say, “I’m a good girl, Jerome, I swear,” as I patted his shoulders. I always say something silly like that. I want black people to know I understand when I have no clue. As soon as I did it I pulled into myself and thought just listen, Bar, there are things to learn tonight.
Jerome went on. “I work at the juvenile detention center.” He was due at work in eight hours, too. Monty asked what he did there. “I work with sixteen year olds. I like to give them hope. I want to show them there’s more to life than where they came from.” Monty shared some stories about helping troubled students in his schools. I imagined his kids to be better off than Jerome and his friends on the streets of Baltimore but I have no idea if that’s true. Eventually the two of them got to talking about things other than work. “I’m a cage fighter,” Jerome said, “145 pound category.” Monty was interested, so was I. “Sometimes I gotta lose 25 pounds to fight.” He told us how he did it: “I sauna, I sweat, I don’t eat a lot for a couple of weeks before I fight. After we weigh in, I eat whatever I can to build myself back up. I got 24 hours to get ready. I don’t really like the fighting part. It’s the training I like.”
A little over an hour later we got to our cars in the long-term parking lot at Colorado Springs. Monty had to go into the terminal to return the keys, so Jerome walked me to my car and made sure it started. Before he left I got all teary-eyed and said, “You’ve moved me deeply, Jerome. I love what you’re doing with those kids in detention.” He was a fine man who had beaten the odds and I was impressed.
The following day I wrote Monty a thank you note. He wouldn’t let us help pay for the car or gas. I asked him for his mailing address so I could send a gift without knowing what that gift would be. A few days later I sent him a copy of, The Present Giver. This morning when I opened my email there was a message from him.
Bar, your package touched me deeper than you know…
He went on to say he’d torn a muscle at his son’s baseball practice the day before, and that because of his frustration he’d yelled at that son and sent him to bed for some minor infraction a few minutes before he’d opened my package. Without thinking about it, he sat down and read the whole book. Afterwards he went in to his kids’ room and held both of his sons as they slept.
These are the kinds of messages that keep me whole. Monty talked about Forrest in his email as though Forrest were alive. And for him, he is! That’s the miracle of writing. I cried hard when I finished reading his note. Forrest had come back to me for a few brief moments, and I was reminded again that going on an adventure can revitalize me. If I hadn’t met Monty and Jerome that night I wouldn’t know about cage fighting, or detention centers, I wouldn’t know about the streets of Baltimore from a young black man’s point of view, and I wouldn’t have spent a little time as a mom again this morning.
For those of you who are new to my website, The Present Giver is a memoir I wrote. If you want to know more, click here.