The road was swimming in front of me under the monotonous pressure of summer heat. I readjusted the air vents in my car so they would blow in my face and I ran a hand through my sweaty hair. Inside my head, another heat wave was building. I was trying to keep track of everything I was needing to pick up for the next week that we were going to be spending out at Bible Camp. All of the things I was going to need to teach my Bible classes. Books. Games. Puzzles. Clothes. Toothpaste. Everything was crashing together inside my head, sloshing together like my head was a big hot washing machine full of responsibility. There was too much to think about. There was too much to do. I didn’t have time.
It took a second or two for Clara’s question to wait its turn in my brain and finally register.
“What was that?” I turned to the girl sitting next to me in the car.
She gestured out the window. “I said, what does that man’s sign say?”
I glanced over. “It literally says ‘Any Helps’,” I said, dismissively.
“Does he mean, ‘Anything Helps’?”
I gripped the wheel and crept up on the car in front of me anxiously. “Yes. Probably. It probably is trying to say ‘Anything Helps’, but instead it says ‘Any Helps’, maybe it was cut off or something. But… Okay, Clara, do you see his hat? What does his hat say?”
“I don’t know,” she said, still watching the man on the corner.
“Well, it’s a brand of alcohol.” I scratched at my head again. Clara and I have had several conversations about these people that stand on the street corners. The emblem on the man’s hat was simply proving a point I had made in the past. Their situation was complicated.
“Why would he do that? If he really needs help, he should wear a nicer hat…” she thought for a second, “He could dress up a little bit, and maybe make a better sign too. Maybe something that says more clearly what he needs.”
I sighed, frustrated with the length of the light, “He doesn’t KNOW what he needs. That’s part of the problem.” I adjusted the air vent again, in vain. Nothing was blocking out the heat. And the light still wasn’t changing.
“Dad,” she said calmly. “It’s really hot out.”
“Yes. I noticed. It is really hot out.”
The light finally changed and we started to pull away.
I glanced at the man with the sign as we passed by him and continued on. A half a block later I pat my daughter on the leg hoping to change the subject. I said cheerfully, “Do you mind if we go to the candy store first, or would you like to go to the bookstore?”
But her brow was furrowed and she was still staring out the window. “Actually, I would like to go to the grocery store.”
“Oh, can we stop on the way out of town? I thought we were going to get snacks for the drive home.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I would like to buy some cold water so we can take it back and give it to that man. It’s so hot out. I bet he needs water.”
I didn’t say anything at first. I just drove the car. I stopped at another light and this time I was happy for the chance to think about things for a moment.
Clara continued in a dreamy sort of tone like she was talking to herself instead of to me. “Actually, I am going to buy a case of it, and then I can have it here at my feet while we drive around and do our errands and I can pass it out the window to people if we see any of them asking for help.”
I cleared my throat and turned in the direction of the grocery store. “Yeah… Okay. We can do that.”
“It’s just, so hot out, you know. And his sign says ‘Anything’.”
“And you said he probably doesn’t even know what he needs. So, we should think of that for him, maybe.”
“I can’t imagine what it must be like to live outside in this heat without water.”
“But, Clara, you can imagine. You are imagining. That is what this is.”
Ten Minutes later and I was carrying a large package of water bottles out to my car. In my head was a swirling chaos of all the other things I was still needing to do, the things I had to not forget about, the things that I didn’t even have time to take care of anymore. Quietly, I turned the car around and headed back in the opposite direction.
We never did find that man again. By the time we got there, he was gone. She sat with her face pressed up against the passenger side window searching through the trees, examining bus stops, checking parks. Hunting. But we never found him, or anyone else like him. She held a water bottle up against the air vent to keep it cold, blocking it from blowing on herself. But we never saw him. We ran our errands and I started to pull onto the highway.
“Clara sweetie,” I said cautiously, “I’m about to get back onto the highway now. It’s going to take us home. It’s late.”
She was quiet.
“Does that disappoint you?”
“Yes,” she said, not looking up.
A part of me softened inside and then gave up. “I’ll tell you what. Instead of heading straight home, I’ll get off at the next exit and we can detour through town again and see if we can find someone to share our water with.”
“Thank you, Dad,” she smiled at me.
I watched the road. I just drove the car; my little girl was the one actually going places. As I was desperately trying to look away, she was out there hunting. As I was talking and preparing to talk, she was dreaming up ways to do something. I believe our goal in life is to someday leave behind people that live better than we did. And for that alone I am proud.