There was this time when I was in college and working at a local outlet mall around the holidays so everything in my memory is a blur of gift wrap, cinnamon scented candles and rude people. But there was a Dairy Queen at the entrance to the mall and so almost daily, I ran through the drive-through for something – a burger, or a blizzard. I’d sit in the parking lot and eat and watch the traffic and try to find a Zen place before entering the fray.
There were plenty of people to watch and even though I wasn’t yet aware that this quirk in my personality that made me a serial observer would one day serve me well as a writer, I was already practicing my craft. I loved to imagine who the people were and what their lives were like, and most of the time I was absolutely certain of my deductions.
As I said, I was very young. Things and people seemed more cut and dry, black and white, good and bad, to me then. My own life experiences were fairly limited. They say to write what you know and I was filling journals with childhood memories, bad poetry, and romantic notions, but not much else. Not because I didn’t know anything else, but because I couldn’t write everything I knew. To write everything I knew meant to expose the addictions, abuses and broken places in my family and community, and I wasn’t interested in those kinds of betrayals. To write everything came at a cost that was too high.
And then I saw her. The Dairy Queen.
On the sidewalk, she sat like a squat toad under a bundle of brown clothes that obviously didn’t fit her. Her gray hair was thin and pulled hard off her face into a tight knot at the back of her head. Her face was hard and tight and dark from the sun. Her jaw was set in that strange angle of those without teeth and her eyes were slits, suspicious and mysterious and somehow threatening. I saw her in great detail because I’d pulled into the drive-through line and my car was stopped directly in front of her. I couldn’t ignore her. I couldn’t stare at her. She made me nervous and I remember checking to be sure my doors were locked, as if she might suddenly jump up and hop in my car.
My entire reaction embarrassed and shamed me, the girl with a journal full of sweet, clean little girl stories. She held a cardboard sign, you know the kind. I wish I could say that I clearly recall what it read but you can guess: Homeless. Need food. Please help.
I won’t lie to you. I wanted to look away. I felt I had no idea what to do. Except, I knew exactly what to do, but was afraid to do it. When I look back on this memory I realize that feeling visits me frequently in my writing choices and that’s a strange realization. We’re presented with choices in life and in our work and we can look away and make excuses or we can have the courage to act, to take a hard look and know something for what it is, to name it and face it. Maybe it’s not the same, altogether, but there’s some essence of dignity that comes in being honest with ourselves, with others – with our readers.
The everything that I knew – all the things I couldn’t honestly write about yet - told me that if I rolled my window down and gave the Dairy Queen a twenty dollar bill, she wouldn’t use it to put food in her belly or to take a cab to wherever she could sleep for the night. She drink it. Or worse. It would be taken from her. The everything told me to pull out of the drive through line, park my car, and speak to the Dairy Queen. And for some reason, I did. For some reason, that particular day, I was prepared to meet her. Whether she was prepared to meet me was a different story and that’s what I’m really getting to here, but let me explain.
When I reached out to take her hand and introduce myself, she looked frightened. And honestly, angry. My hand was empty and she was looking for that twenty from my wallet. But I gave her my name, instead. She did not give me hers. I didn’t mind. I’d already named her, anyway. Then I told her that if she would wait – go inside and have a seat where it was warm – I would buy her a meal, run to the grocery store to get her a few things, and be right back to call her a cab to take her to the local shelter for the night.
I will never be sure that she wanted – or needed – any of the things that I offered. She never thanked me. She never spoke to me, at all, in fact. She looked completely stunned and even more than that, annoyed. But she didn’t turn down the free cheeseburger. I paid for her meal and left her sitting in a booth while I ran to the nearest grocery store and filled two bags with cans of soup, peanut butter, nuts, crackers, tuna and a few chocolate bars, because I thought they would make her smile. The everything I knew told me that what she wanted me to come back with were alcohol and cigarettes, and chocolate would go unappreciated. But it also told me that it had been a long time since someone tried to take care of the Dairy Queen, who might not even still be waiting in that booth by the time I hurried back. And more than anything I could give her, maybe the most important thing was that I return.
Truly, I hadn’t expected to find her there. By the look on her face, she was as surprised to see me. I gave her the bags of groceries and told her a cab would arrive any minute. And I left her there.
I wish I could say that things ended with some kind of miracle. I wish I could say that it was a transformative moment in my life and that I was a better person for having met the Dairy Queen. But the truth is, I already knew her. In fact, I often wonder if I conjured her out of the everything inside myself.
I was ready to meet her that day and I meet her every day since I started to write. Through so many of the characters in my work, I hear her so clearly, all the things she didn’t say to me that day, years ago. All the everything she embodied and I was afraid to expose. I imagine what she saw when a young, well-dressed woman approached her and naively assumed her needs, then ran off to try to meet them with a few bags of groceries and a cab to nowhere. And I try to give to her what I couldn’t give that day – nor to my own dark and silenced stories – I try to give her the chance to speak. For in her silence, at the cost of a little humility, she gave me the gift of my own voice.
Where did you find your voice? We'd like to hear your story.
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Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.
Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.
She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.