I was driving along one day not too long ago, when I passed a small carpet store nestled in between several taller commercial buildings. It had been sandwiched there forever: One day you’d expect to find it gone, like a missing tooth. Right out in front was the perfect carpet remnant for the nursery school at my church, sea-foam green and plush, rolled up and leaning against a fence. I pulled over, picked up the rug, checked the price, and walked into the store and gave the man behind the desk the cash.
“This is perfect for the nursery school at my church,” I enthused. The man was middle-aged, plain and so quiet that at first I thought he might be mute. He gave me a receipt, and we said goodbye.
That Sunday, I dropped the rolled-up carpet in the room where the little kids meet. One of the mothers called the next day. She said that when they unrolled the carpet, it had a moldy spot right in the middle, and so she had returned it to the carpet guy.
“No, his accountant wasn’t there. But he’ll have the money by today. Can you pick it up?”
I stopped by the next day. “Hi,” I said to the man. “I’m from the church school. We had to return the green rug, and the woman who dropped it off said you would reimburse me.”
There was a moment’s pause. “Someone already picked it up,” he said.
“That’s not possible,” I explained.
I fished my receipt out of my purse, and held it out to him. He studied it and nodded. “Someone picked it up. An hour ago.”
We both held out our palms, the universal sign of being amiably perplexed.
I was not particularly tweaked at this point: I kept sliding off his surface friendliness into worry, but at the same time I felt that there had been a simple misunderstanding, and we could clear it up, that if you are sincere and rational, and trusting, everything sorts itself out.
I went to a pay phone and called the woman who had returned the rug. “Did you stop by and pick up the money from the carpet guy?” I asked.
“No, I thought you were going to.” I went back to the store.
The man was finishing up some business with another customer, so I waited. This time I noticed how crummy his carpet store was. Dozens of carpets were rolled up, stacked to the ceiling like timber, and the lights were low, like it was a place where bad things go down.
When the other customer left, I threw up my hands again but this time with a faint maternal gesture of displeasure. “No one else picked up the money,” I said.
“Yes they did,” he said. “An hour ago.” Then he tapped his ledger. It was soiled, and filled with tiny words and numbers. There was a pencil notation in the margin that said, “$50.” He tapped it.
“Look,” I said, in my sternest Sunday school teacher voice. “I don’t want to make trouble. But no one picked up the money. And I’d like it. Now.”
He tapped the “$50″ again.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “I’m from a Sunday school. This is for little children.” Then, for good measure, I added, “with asthma.”
He tapped the ledger again, and then waved me away, like a servant, or a bee. I wanted to wail like a child, wounded and self-righteous.
“Hey,” I said. “Buddy.” I had my hands on my hips, and glared, like Dale Evans. I was as furious as I can ever remember being, thinking about the innocent little children at our Sunday school, the asthmatic little children, scampering about on the mold! Thinking about Sunday school made me remember to pray — Help! Help!
I got my answer: Start behaving well, and you will feel better. This is what Jesus would want, and He is there in the rug store. Maybe he was embarrassed to tears, like when your kid has a tantrum in public, which pretty much captures the scene. I stared off at the log-pile of rugs. I was trembling, and you could have opened walnuts with my self-righteousness. But Jesus doesn’t hold this against a person. His message is that we’re all sort of nuts and suspicious and petty and full of crazy hungers, and it all feels awful a lot of the time, but even so — one’s behavior needs to be decent. So I would try.
“We’ve got a problem,” I said. He rolled his eyes. See — that’s where decency will get you, I thought, and tried another tack: “Do you want me to call the police? Huh? How about that?” He waved me away again. The door to the most primitive place inside me opened, then, where the betrayed child lives, terrified, wounded, murderous. And on top of that, I felt a deep, familiar self-loathing, the inevitable side effect of feeling angry, vulnerable and small.
Glaring at each other, I found all that angry energy kind of heady, like a drug.
I stormed home and called one of the men from church, Sam’s Big Brother, Brian. Brian has been helping me raise Sam since before Sam was born, although he is not a formal Big Brother. He’s 45; he does not look the part of an enforcer. He’s owlish and sturdy and enthusiastically neutral, positive, well behaved — not at all a hired-assassin type. However, he was coming by to see Sam that night, and I figured he could help me wrap this all up by dinner.
I explained the whole story to him over the phone and he was flabbergasted.
“How about if I call him?” he volunteered. “And I’ll call you right back.”
Brian didn’t call for half an hour, and when he did, he had been reduced to the same contagious craziness I had been afflicted with.
“He hung up on me twice.”
“How did you leave it?”
“I said I’m stopping by after work today, at 5 p.m., and he better have it.”
I went for a walk: this is what Jesus always did. He gave crazy people some space. He says, “You’re a mess. Go be a mess. We’ll talk again.”
I was still a mess when Brian arrived at our house, at 5:30 p.m.
“God, I wanted to kill the guy!” he reported. “He kept saying someone else had picked up the money, and pointing to his ledger.”
“Did you get the money?”
“No — but he promised he’d have it tomorrow. His accountant wasn’t there.”
I put my head in my hands.
The next morning I stopped by the rug store again. I had said my prayers. I had asked to be respectful, and not to lose my mind again. A balding man with a long ponytail was sitting with the carpet guy at his desk, both of them smoking.
“Hi,” I said, nicely, to the carpet guy. “My friend Brian said you would have the money if I stopped by today.”
He looked at me, and smirked. Then he turned back to his friend, and twirled his finger near his ear, the universal sign of loco. This cracked his friend up.
I fumed, twisting in the wind. “Where the fuck is my money?” I demanded.
“It has been taken care of,” the man said to his friend, who nodded.
I fell right past my fixation with being right, into the dark swampy underside of human discourse. I swallowed a bolus of it, stood there chewing it like a plug of tobacco, and found a weird nourishment. I imagined myself choking the man with my bare hands, but instead, desperate, I grabbed his phone off the desk. And in the most menacing way possible, I started dialing.
I called Brian at his office, while brandishing the phone as if it was a grenade.
“He won’t give me the money,” I told Brian, not taking my eyes off the man.
“Put him on the line,” said Brian. I handed the man the phone. He held it to his ear. Then I heard a voice from the other end that sounded like Tony Soprano. But it was dear churchgoing Brian, saying, “Don’t make me come down there again! You are doomed, if you make me come down there again! Give her the goddamn money!”
The man shook his head, and sneered, “Fifty dollars,” ruefully, like, I wouldn’t normally put up with this shit unless it was way more than $50. Then he opened his top drawer, and took out a checkbook. “Fifty dollars,” he said in a comical voice, as if he were horsing around for a child as he wrote.
Leaving my name blank, he wrote me a check and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said, grimly.
I headed for the bank, which is only a couple of blocks away. I filled in my name, endorsed the check, and handed it to the teller. A minute later, she said, “Oh. I’m sorry. There are insufficient funds.”
I finally laughed, into my chest, quietly. “It’s OK,” I said. I took the check back, and turned away. If you had seen me clutching the blank check, you would have thought it was a hundred-dollar bill she had just given me for being so nice about the whole thing.
I sat outside the bank for awhile. Look, I said to God, it’s to You. Roger? You copy that? Then I sat in the sun and started to laugh some more. Deep inside I felt that I got it, although I could not quite have said what I got. I didn’t get the delicious taste of release I’d been expecting, when a wrong has been righted, but I got something better, a kind of miracle: I stopped hating myself. The carpet guy had cheated me, but he was also an innocent bystander in a very old story: he was the smudged ledger inside me of every time I’d been humiliated, and stiffed.
Well, I said to God, the Eagle has landed. Now what am I supposed to do? After a few minutes, I knew: I got a noodge in my heart to go to the Safeway near the rug store, and buy a bouquet of daisies for the carpet man. One has a moral and spiritual obligation to clean up one’s side of the street. I wrote him a note. “Here is your check back. I am very sorry for the way I behaved. Anne Lamott.”
The carpet store was locked but the dim lights were on. I knocked softly. When no one opened, I tied the daisies to the doorknob using the metal twist that held them, and dropped the check and my note through the mail slot. Maybe this was what Ecclesiastes meant about casting your bread upon the water; it’s so little, usually only crumbs, but how nourishing the casting is.
And then I went home.
I called the carpet guy’s store from my kitchen at 5, for no reason. He answered. “Hi,” I said. “This is Anne Lamott.” There was a silence, loud and dark.
“I got your letter,” he said. “That was a decent thing,” he said. And just as I began to savor his words, he added, “But you behaved badly!”
I had behaved badly? I could hardly believe my ears and the rage started up in me again, but this time it didn’t take over, because something got there first. You want to know how big God’s love is? The answer is, very big. It’s bigger than you’re comfortable with.
“Yes, I know, ” I said.
We’re invited more deeply into this mystery on a daily basis, to be here as one-of; a mess like everyone else, and not in charge. That’s why we hate it.
There was another silence and then we said goodnight at almost the same time.