I look out my office window this morning and see a rusty, mud-streaked old pick up truck with a creaky-looking camper on the back stagger and wheeze its way into the church parking lot. Such sights in the church parking lot rarely portent good news, and this particular appearance will prove no different.
A broad-shouldered middle-aged man ambles up to the path and into the church. I greet him at the front door. He’s wearing a black cowboy hat, a dirty denim jacket, and a big pair of grubby riding boots. The smell of manure is almost overpowering. He has a grizzled salt and pepper beard and when the smiles he directs my way is full of gaping holes where teeth ought to be. “Hi there, my name’s Sam,” he says. “I’m in a bit of trouble, and I’m wondering if you might help me out….”
I sigh, inwardly. Someone’s always in a bit of trouble.…
Unsurprisingly, Sam wants gas money. I figured as much when he rolled into the parking lot. He’s trying to get to Saskatchewan for a job as a ranch hand. My first inclination is to just fill up his tank and get him on his way as quickly as possible. But I have (slowly, intermittently) learned over the years that stories matter, that every human being who crosses my path is carrying a unique and complex set of burdens that I am only given brief glimpses of. I might be the only person who asks Sam about his story on today, this week, this month, this year…
I ask him if he wants to sit down. He prefers to stand. “Tell me a bit about yourself,” I say.
The story that unfolds is predictably depressing. There are the familiar contours of addictions, poverty and relational dysfunction. There are also a few surprises along the way. He tells me of the funeral he just came from in Edmonton. The funeral of his fourteen-year-old son. The boy had a bad liver from birth and there were multiple complications during a transplant procedure. He had been physically and mentally disabled since then, and had been living in a group home since he was seven because Sam couldn’t care for him. Sam had scraped together enough money to leave his home in BC to come to Edmonton for the funeral. His ex-wife had left him not long after the boy had to be institutionalized. Couldn’t cope. Guilt, sorrow, confusion, anger… The whole works. “Where is she now?” I asked. He shuffled his feet and looked away. “Last I heard she was on the streets of Edmonton,” he said, “doing things that nobody should have to do… Selling herself for crack cocaine… I don’t know what happened to her… She was a beautiful person, not just on the outside but on the inside, too… She was a wonderful mother… I don’t know…” His voice trailed off.
“Do you have other kids, Sam?” I asked. “Yeah, two daughters,” he said, looking vacantly past me. “They’re in foster care, right now… I spent some time in prison… I caught someone doing something to my girl that wasn’t right, and so I beat the hell out of that guy… I’m not proud of it, but I did it…. I need to get a job so I can get my girls back… I need to get back on my feet… I don’t like this begging and bumming… I used to have a house and a job and some horses… and then it all fell apart.”
I look over at his truck. There’s an old woman in the passenger seat. “Who’s that?” I ask. “Aw, her, that’s my step mom. She’s crazy. I picked her up on my way down from Edmonton… She’s on disability, but she can’t live alone any more… She almost burned her house down by leaving the stove on… Went to her house last week and it was covered in black mould…. All her real kids want nothin’ to do with her, so I’m stuck with her… I gotta get her to Saskatchewan so one of her relatives can put her in a group home or somethin’.” I look back at her. Her head is back, mouth wide open. I think she’s sleeping. “Where have you guys been staying?” I ask. Sam points across the road to the casino parking lot. We’ve been staying there for the past few days while I try to get some help. I been all over town, every church and agency, but nobody will help. Some tell me I should sell my saddle to make some money… How the hell’m I supposed to work if I got no saddle?!”
I look at the camper on the back of the truck, covered in rust, windows smeared with grime and dirt. I try to imagine Sam and his mother sleeping in there, night after night, stumbling around the prairies, trying to catch a break. I bite my lip.
“Well, Sam,” I say, “why don’t we see if we can get you on the road.” “That’d be great,” he exclaims, a toothless grin spreading across his face. “The faster I get on the road, the faster I can get to work and get rid of my step mom!” I cringe a little, but soon we’re on our way to the gas station across the road.
We stand there together, filling up his tank. My mind drifts, as I stand there with Sam. I think of the other run down vehicles that I have stood beside at this gas station over the past few months, the other stories that people tell me as I’m fuelling them up, sending them on their way. I wonder if any of them made it to where they wanted to go. I wonder what the world looks like, sounds like, feels like from inside broken down pickups with beat up campers. I wonder how many of the stories they tell me are true. I wonder if it matters.
I think about the lives and stories of the people who drive them, about how so often their lives look and sound just like these trucks—beat up, ugly, dirty, barely holding together. I wonder how these vehicles, these lives stay on the road when the load is so heavy and awkward, when the vehicle barely seems roadworthy…
“Say, would you mind grabbing the fuel nozzle while I get my camera?” Sam asks. “I wanna show you something.” I continue fuelling up his truck while he rummages around in the cab of his truck. He returns with an old digital camera. “Look at these pictures,” he says, grinning like a little boy. “Just keep clicking that button to the right, and look at my pictures.” I look at the camera. They are pictures of Sam on his horse. There are mountains and rivers and trees in the background. Sam is smiling in many of them.
“You look like you know how to handle a horse,” I say. “Yeah,” he says. “I sure love horses.”
The truck is fuelled up, and Sam is on his way. He extends a dirty hand in my direction. “Thanks man, I really appreciate this. And whenever I’m in this area, I’ll be in church for sure!”
I smile at Sam. I glance back at his step mom in the passenger seat. I think she’s sleeping again. I think about the long road ahead for them. I hope that it takes them somewhere better than where they are now. I hope Sam gets a job. I hope he finds himself on the back of a horse again soon.
I look back at Sam and shake his hand a little more enthusiastically. “Sure thing, Sam. I’ll see you then.”