- The Black Saint and the Best-Selling Writer
When I first saw the “ABSTINENCE = FREEDOM” sticker on Jackie Story’s van, I wrote it down in my notebook, but I didn’t ask her about it. I wrote down “Scooby van,” too, and “light blue” and “rust.” And when I got home that night I opened my laptop and wrote from memory that it cost Jackie $85 to fill the tank, and that she had to fill it often, and that she was having to turn down friends when they asked for rides home from church because she couldn’t afford it anymore, and that that’s not the kind of person she wants to be. [End Page 34]
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I wrote this story: Jackie went to San Juan Motors, a used-car lot up the street from her church, to trade the van and sign a contract for a white Ford Escort station wagon. The guy who sold it to her went to her church. He said to her, “I’m going to put a brand-new radio in it just for you because you are so terrific.” On the way home, she picked up one of her sons from church and another from school, and every time anyone opened the car doors the tuner would reset to the left-most position on the dial and the speakers would scream with static. The radio slid right out of the dashboard and onto the floor whenever she accelerated from a full stop. Then, a week later, the wagon broke down in front of the Hobby Lobby and Cracker Barrel on a parkway in the suburban Northland of Kansas City, three and a half miles from her house.
Jackie was the main character of a book about a mixed-race, inner-city Pentecostal megachurch that I never wrote. Several times a week I would follow her around, scribbling notes in a narrow notepad, asking her questions, trying to find a story and a shape to her life that would fit me and the rest of the world. She didn’t have time to be without a car. Her two youngest sons, P. J. and Jonathan, were starting public school after years of home schooling. Cameron, her second oldest, was eighteen, jobless and carless, and he still expected her to provide everything he needed and most of what he wanted. She worked as a part-time hospice aide, did some sporadic work as a model and ran an as-yet unprofitable business venture that she described to me as “kind of like a direct-marketing business opportunity, except we sell phone service, and everybody needs that.” Even when her car was working, she felt like she needed an extra hour each day and an extra day each week—a “Smonday,” as her pastor liked to say. Without a car she had to take the bus everywhere, had to hoof it an hour and a half in both directions, on a hilly stretch, just to catch the nearest ride. It had been hot that fall, too, with a couple of days in the high 90s. At times it seemed like more than she could handle. When she felt overwhelmed, she said, she imagined herself a Sherman tank, slow but relentless, and strong—just like the motivational speaker had said a year earlier in a speech at a business conference she had gone to in Anaheim. It was the climax of his pep talk, the highlight of the whole convention, when he marched back and forth across the stage, imitating a tank, and the crowd went wild, knowing they had what it would take to make their prayers come true. I’d been around Jackie long enough to know that her prayers were for easy money and for the time it would buy. Jackie wanted to give every waking minute to her sons, to [End Page 36] her brothers and sisters at her church, to herself and to God. But so long as she was poor, she had to trudge through life, and trudge harder still without a car.
I offered to...