I’m used to the phone ringing at odd hours. Or at least as used to that as you get. Nothing about the sacred call upon a minister’s life for vocational work completely smooths over untimely interruptions. If the call comes at 2 a.m., I probably won’t smile and murmur, “Oh, thank you, Lord; someone needed me in the middle of the night.”
But this call came a little later in the morning. Those quiet first few minutes at the office are when I map out my day. They are important, but never guaranteed. In fact, I had just walked into the office when my assistant said: “There’s a call for you. A guy named Ralph? Says you’ll know him from the store. He sounds pretty worked up.”
I knew immediately who to picture. Ralph is a retired auto worker. Now, he pulls part-time shifts at the old store. What you’d have to understand is that there isn’t one regular, nor any employee, of BubbaDoo’s who is a member of the church I serve. They are an outpost in a community not far away, though, so I stop in just often enough that I know a lot of them.
“Preacher … I’m sorry to call you this early. But you gotta get over here quick! The tornado got Stephanie’s place real bad.”
“She OK?” I asked reflexively.
“Shook up. It didn’t hurt her. She and her dog got down in the bathtub and watched the whole thing lift off ’em. Husband wasn’t home. He was gone for work, but he’s back now.”
Stephanie, Marlene and Sissy are waitresses at BubbaDoo’s. In Atlanta, if you called them anything other than “servers,” it would be archaic. But out here, if you said that word, folks would look at you like you were from another planet.
Long before QT ever installed a hot-chocolate machine inside one of their stores, and well before Buc-ee’s ever sketched out a picture of its beloved beaver, there was BubbaDoo’s. The food-service component of the gas station evolved by no one’s plan, really. But over the years, it became a thing. Now, it’s more like a legitimate restaurant that runs inside an old general store. The food isn’t great, but the culture is.
The waitresses are the center of that universe. Sissy has been there the longest time but can mess your order up with the best of them. The other two have been there for years themselves. But it’s these younger women that stir the proverbial drink. They are gifted with personalities that endear themselves. If the regulars would hang out for a half-hour or so sipping coffee and gossiping, it’s probably Stephanie and Marlene that cause them to stick around for an extra hour or so.
If the regulars would hang out for a half-hour or so sipping coffee and gossiping, it’s probably Stephanie and Marlene that cause them to stick around for an extra hour or so.
I arrived at the store less than a half-hour later. But I had no idea where to go from there. It’s not like I had ever been over to Stephanie’s place. “Just head out that way,” Mickey said as he gestured left out of the old asphalt parking lot. “Go a quarter mile until you see a left at a big, yellow house on a little hill. Probably be an old horse grazing up by the fence about now. Turn there, and her place will be a little piece up on your right. It’s a small gray house.”
Then, he added one more thought. “Once you take that turn and start head’n out her way, you’ll see the damage starting. You can’t miss it.”
A quarter mile doesn’t give you long to consider things. But on the way, I had a few thoughts. Mostly, “God … prepare me for what I’m about to walk into. Give me strength to be what they need.” That gave way to musing on the notion that in the country, “You can’t miss it …” is the kiss of death. You always end up missing a turn. Then, it dawned on me that Mickey hadn’t even given me a name for the road I was to turn on. I thought: “What if I don’t see the yellow house? What if there’s no horse just standing there eating at some random moment?”
I know what you’re thinking, but GPS has its limitations in a place like this. And these were no kind of directions. Yet a quarter of a mile up the road, I could see a small rise, and atop it sat a big yellow house. A chestnut mare lifted her head with blades of grass hanging out of her mouth, as if to indicate I needed to turn there. She stood near the fence right at the intersection.
A swath cut through the trees off to my right nearly as soon as I started up the road. Simultaneously, I had two reactions. On the one hand, the larger picture looked as though someone had taken a huge paring knife and sliced a gap for as far as the eyes could see. What had been thickly forested had been interrupted by an unthinkable force. The other thought was that, at ground-level, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Trees lay broken in two. Some twisted violently before they snapped.
I pulled up to the ruins of a small gray house. There stood Stephanie and her husband, “Catfish,” whom I recognized from some pictures she occasionally posted on social media. Some people also call him by his given name, Ron. When I stepped out of my car, her beautiful face contorted almost unrecognizably. She was stunned and grief-stricken. Still a little in shock, which seemed understandable.
We walked toward one another, and she melted into me. For some reason, it flashed through my mind that this was the first time I had ever even touched her. Her shoulders shook up and down as she wept convulsively. I held her, and this tall woman had never seemed so small. Her husband came over, and I reached out to shake his hand.
Instead, he joined Stephanie in my embrace. Now, I just held the two of them wordlessly. After a silent eternity, he offered: “She told me you’d be here for us. I don’t know how, but she knew it.” A longer while passed quietly. This was one of those seasons of time where words were going to fail anyway.
“She told me you’d be here for us. I don’t know how, but she knew it.”
Eventually I asked, “How long has this been home for you?” Catfish spoke first. “House has been in my family for 85 years. My grandparents lived here. Then, my aunt and now us. We’ve been here nine years.”
We stared at the mess where only the day before their home had stood. Now, they were picking through the rubble and pulling out clothing, photos, trinkets and the like. Finally, I ventured: “What do you need? What have you figured out will help you at least for right now?”
Stephanie grinned a painful smile. “I just can’t wrap my head around it yet. I don’t know.”
In return, I said, “‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly understandable answer.” Because when something of this magnitude happens to us, she’s right. We don’t know things for a bit. Eventually, it all becomes a little clearer.
We stood together for another few minutes, just taking it all in. In time, they told me stories of things that had happened there. They told me the basic layout of the house. Who slept where if company visited. They managed a joke about who was the messier one of the two, in better times. The location of the kitchen table, the very heartbeat of the home “… was right about there,” Ron said, pointing.
“I have people, and I have resources. We’re not far away,” I offered after a time. “Nothing is too small, and don’t go making any assumptions about what’s too big, either. I mean, I can’t fix all of this for you. But if you give us a chance, we can at least help you carry the load.”
They both managed a little smile that was partly polite and partly genuine. They both hugged me again. I wanted to stay, and I also didn’t want to be intrusive. It pained me to do so, but I got in my car, knowing I’d be back soon. On the drive home, my tortured mind wondered what that specific misfortune must truly feel like. I hurt for them in my bones, so much did I pity them.
Then, I felt one more thing. It seemed a bit indulgent, but I smiled. There was something Ron had said. “She told me you’d be here for us.” Now, I knew what I was. I had become the de facto chaplain of my chosen family at BubbaDoo’s. Said another way, what I felt was the privilege of being on a terrible journey with some people who in that moment needed God’s hope to be embodied.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
A chat with Mickey at Bubba-Doo’s about whether I preach the gospel or not / Opinion, Charles Qualls