Peace is what my mother insisted that I find in life. Living on the road had curbed my ambition, but I had to admit I had grown tired of it. I had a longing feeling for the peacefulness of a daily routine. I found that peace in the small southern town of Athens, Georgia. I had only been in town a few short days when an elderly lady offered me a unique perspective on life that had too often gone unseen. Her name was Peony Clover, and she was Athens’ admirable meter maid.
My name is Jace Dacey, and I am a lonely singer, songwriter, and hell-raiser. I came here because I wanted to pay off some debt, work on some new songs, and try to settle my momentum to a more peaceful pace of life. I found a great spot downtown that serves coffee and booze and has a good view of the pedestrian street traffic. I grabbed a coffee and settled into a booth with an open window to the street. I was looking for musical inspiration among the scurry of the students, homeless, and businesspeople walking by. Pedestrians clung like lizards to the cooler sides of shaded buildings as they moved about the sidewalk. Amid the cacophony of their varied paces was one passerby who possessed a step more measured and meaningful than the others. She caught my eye.
A big straw hat covered her head and shaded her face. She wore shorts, a blue polo shirt, and white tennis shoes. She was sweating, but I could tell that the heat did not bother her. I watched her as she inspected each parking meter and conferred with her wristwatch. A man from a shoe repair shop called out to her, and she waved back at him with a smile. This was routine for her, and she seemed so content in this ritual. I thought about all the people going about their daily duties in the little towns around the world. Then I thought about this woman’s tiny routine, lost among an endless world of others just like it. I wondered what the world looked like through her eyes.
I didn’t dwell on that for too long before I finished my coffee and decided to walk around the college campus. Surely, I could find inspiration there. The campus was like a painting, frozen in time and eternally inspiring. It made sense that people came here for peace of mind and inspiration. I was lost in the beauty of the world until I suddenly became a witness to its cruel reality.
“I saw you! Who do you think you are!?”
Looking ahead, I saw a young lady wearing a big faded t-shirt and the meter maid from earlier. It looked like they were having a disagreement.
“Honey, I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do,” the old meter maid replied to the young lady.
I was still approaching, but I watched curiously as the girl in the big t-shirt put her phone in front of her face and turned on her video camera. She continued speaking, phone in one hand, orange parking ticket in the other.
“I saw you, though. You went to that car and put money in their meter and walked right up to mine and started punching in your little ticket machine!”
“No. No. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I…”
“Well, that’s fine that you’re sorry, but can you please explain to me why you put money in the machine for that car, but not in mine?”
The meter maid sadly looked down as if she had nothing else to say.
“Can you please explain it to me? Explain to me how I get the treatment this person received.”
“Honey, I don’t care who drives ‘em. You just…”
“Oh, I know you don’t care!" she said to the meter maid. "Stay away from this lady, right here! Look out for this lady, Athens! She's out to get you!”
A big white pickup truck with huge tires was approaching the scene. A bunch of boys yelled out the windows and from the bed as the truck passed by.
“Get a real job!” I heard among their clapping, yelling, and laughing. The truck continued on down the street and disappeared.
By this point, the pace of my heart and steps had quickened. I knew I should intervene. Another man had arrived as well, and I thought he might stand up for the old meter maid. He watched and listened to the argument for a moment before getting into the car next to them without a word. He pulled away with 30 minutes left on his meter. By the time I got there, it was too late. The meter maid had turned and begun walking away. The girl in the big t-shirt was shouting and started walking after her. I put myself in her path.
“You’ve made your point.”
I looked down at the girl in the big t-shirt. Her eyes were hidden behind large aviator sunglasses that sat low on her small nose. I noticed the perfectly manicured eyebrows that emerged from behind her sunglasses and used my imagination to interpret what was unseen. She said nothing as she put her phone down, returned to her car, and aggressively drove away. I turned to go after the meter maid, but she had disappeared beyond the corner of the next building. I rounded the corner and saw her sitting on the steps of a large government building, smoking a cigarette. When I sat down near her on the steps, she maintained her composure as if I weren’t there.
“What’s wrong with these kids?” I said.
She paused for a moment, puffing on her cigarette. She dragged it across the step between us. I thought she might not be in the mood to talk, but she eventually broke the silence between us.
“I grew up in this town. There were always lots of good folks around. There were always some bad apples too, I suppose.”
“I can’t believe she treated you like that.”
The meter maid smiled as she looked ahead toward the street in front of us. I saw the wrinkles of her years and her yellowed teeth. She finally turned to me and shrugged, then smiled at me through a raspy laugh. She looked so resolute and content.
“Hope her day gets better,” she said, ending the conversation.
She stood up and walked down the street toward the orange-colored light of the early evening sun. I watched her as she zig-zagged between the parking meters. She put change in a couple of them as she eventually worked her way over the horizon created by the roll of the road. I watched her walk into that sunset until nothing was left to see but waves of summer heat that rolled across the asphalt in her wake.
The next day I went to the parking office downtown. I had nothing better to do, and I spent the rest of that day and night thinking about the meter maid who seemed so unfairly treated by the girl in the big t-shirt. I walked up to the counter in the small government-funded office space. The obese lady behind the counter wore a blue polo like the one worn by the meter maid and a nametag that read,
“Pataya, 7 Years of Service."
“Can I hep’ you, sir?” she greeted me.
“Hi, yes,” I replied. “I met one of the meter maids on the street yesterday. She wore a straw hat. Is she in today?”
“What ‘chu want wit Ms. Peony?” She answered guardedly.
“Well, I saw this girl being rude to her on the street yesterday, and I feel really bad. I just wanted to see if she was okay, I guess. I don’t really know her, but I think she was very unfairly treated.”
Pataya stared back at me cautiously.
“Well, Ms. Peony ain’t gonna be in today."
"Oh. Okay. Well, could I maybe come back tomorrow?" I countered.
"She passed away last night, sweetie.”
I gasped, “Oh my god! I am so sorry.”.
I felt like I had just learned that my grandmother had died. I could feel my heart pounding through my chest and my hands were trembling.
Pataya now had a tear in her eye as she searched for words to explain. I don’t think she knew what to say. She laid a newspaper on the counter in front of me. A quarter-page of the obituaries section was devoted to Peony Clover. I read the headline:
“METER MAID, PEONY CLOVER HAS PASSED”
There was a photo of the woman with the same wrinkled smile that I remembered, and my quick scan of it picked out that she had been found dead at her home in bed. They suspected that she had died of complications brought by an ongoing heart condition. There would be a graveside service in two days. I looked back to Pataya, who had descended into tears.
“Ain’t no one in this town as nice as Ms. Peony. She was so kind. So, so kind.”
“I don’t know what to say. How long have you known her?”
“Known her since I started…”
I heard the door swing open behind me and felt a brush of air as someone approached the counter. It was the shoe repair shop man from yesterday.
“Tell me it ain’t so, Pataya!”
“I’d say good mornin’ to ya, Sam. But it ain’t so good a mornin’ at all.”
“I just saw her yesterday. She seemed her normal self. Hurts me that she’s gone. Lost us a good one.”
“I know, Sam. I know.”
Sam seemed like the type of light-hearted person who always searched for a way to make a joke.
“Guess that’s good for you folks. Probably a good thing for the parking revenues!” He laughed. “Bad for the community though. She was an angel. An absolute angel.”
“I know. I know.” Continued Pataya, with tears running down her chubby cheeks. “Jerry’s always gettin’ on her, you know. The other meter readers come back with twice as many tickets as her!”
Pataya smiled and laughed through her tears, and Sam joined her.
“He’d ask her how that was, and she’d just smiiiiile.” They laughed again.
I felt like a misfit among these people who had known her for years, but yet I understood their pain.
“Do you mind if I take this?” I asked Pataya, as I held up the newspaper.
She waved her hand at me and smiled as she responded.
“We got plenty, sweetie. I’m sorry you couldn’t see her today.”
I heard her telling Sam about my visit as I exited the stale office. I felt bad that I didn’t know this woman, and I felt bad that I didn’t have more to say yesterday. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves to each other. I wondered if the girl in the big t-shirt or the boys in the big truck had read the paper this morning.
On the day of the graveside service, I wondered if it would be appropriate that I attend. I wouldn’t know anyone there, and they say that funerals are for the living, not for the dead. I decided to go anyway. There were very few people there. I felt a bit awkward being alone, but I waved to Pataya and Sam. The funeral director named Sue called everyone to the graveside to begin the service. Many people tried to huddle under the white pop-up tent to hide from the heat. Being the youngest of the group, I decided to stand just outside of it to allow room for the older folks. Next to me was a very short older lady with short pepper hair and round tortoise-shell glasses. She told me that she worked at the credit union, and her name was Debbie. Before the conversation got any deeper than that, funeral director Sue announced that we would begin and introduced the Pastor named Bubba Blabla. Another middle-aged man stood near the two of them, and I gathered that he might be related to Peony in some way.
“Good Morning,” Began Pastor Blabla. “Thank you all for coming today.”
He continued speaking as he opened his old leather Bible. He spoke in a thick southern accent and had a thin combover. Beads of sweat had formed on his pink scalp and they shimmered in the sun. He did not take long with his sermon or his prayers, and he introduced the middle-aged man as Peony’s only son, Hank. Hank looked solemn but not all that sad. When Pastor Blabla finished, most had wet eyes as they turned to converse with one another. Debbie turned to me to pick up on our conversation, and I saw Hank turn to funeral director Sue.
“How did you know Peony?” Debbie asked me.
“Well, we were acquaintances,” I said. “But she was a very nice lady. How about you?”
“I’ve seen Peony almost every day for many, many years,” she said with a warm smile. “Every morning, she came to the credit union. I always started my day by making sure I had plenty of rolls of change ready for her.”
“Wait, she came in and withdrew several rolls of change every day?” I interrupted.
“Oh, yes,” Debbie replied. “I have no doubt she spent more putting change in people’s meters than she collected in tickets. She was a kind and generous woman.”
“That’s really sweet,” I said. “She must have had other jobs than the meter maid though. Paying for everyone else’s parking doesn’t leave much left for her.”
Debbie looked deep in my eyes as if she had something she wanted to say.
“No. She was Athens’ meter maid. She’ll be missed.”
Debbie looked at me for a moment longer and thanked me for coming. She then said that she wanted to speak with some of the others and politely excused herself. I decided to walk around the people for a moment and make my way to the casket. I started toward Pataya and Sam, but they were having a serious conversation with another man from the parking office. He had a stack of envelopes in his hand. Sue and Hank seemed just as distracted with each other and didn’t notice me as I passed by them on my approach to the casket.
I heard Sue say, “That’s it. It’s all taken care of, but there’s nothing else.”
Hank seemed distressed.
“I knew she’d do something like this, I just knew she would,” He said.
“She was truly selfless, all the way to the end,” Sue said diplomatically.
“She was something,” Hank sighed.
I had just made it to the casket when I heard a loud gasp. All those within earshot and under sixty turned toward Debbie, who was with Pataya and the others. It looked as though the man from the parking office was showing Debbie the stack of envelopes. She had her wrinkled hand over her mouth, and I could see that she had tears in her eyes. Pataya cheerily made her way toward the casket and stood next to me in the hot morning sun.
“Am I allowed to know what that’s about?” I asked.
Pataya had big tears in her eyes but not the same ones I remembered from yesterday in the parking office.
“Ms. Peony never cashed a paycheck. Not one. She joked with me once that she’d won it big on the lottery a while back when I asked her why. I never paid much attention to it until Jerry, our supervisor, showed us all the checks she never picked up. Musta' been hundreds of thousands of dollars from over the years that she never cashed. Trouble is, now they are trying to figure out what to do with it all."
Pataya giggled before taking a deep sigh, "A sweet, sweet lady, she was. Too good for this world. But she’s with all the other angels now.”
She moved her gaze from the casket toward the puffy white clouds in the sky. My eyes naturally followed hers’ toward the world above, and my mind wandered in thought. I felt both impressed and saddened by the thanklessness of this lady’s life. The burden of demonstrating humility and selflessness while finding peace amid the chaos of life, now weighed heavily on our shoulders. Her role, for all those years as Athens’ meter maid, now seemed immense beyond measure. Are we capable of emulating the legacy of this selfless civil servant? I thought to myself.
The puffy clouds cast a cool and comfortable shadow over the casket laid out before me. In that moment, I realized I had found what I had come to Athens to find. I had found out how to live a peaceful life. I found inspiration for a new song to write. I looked at the casket before me and felt tears rolling down my face. I knew that I would soon find some money to put toward my debts. I had a suspicion that Athens would be enjoying free street parking for a while, and the girl in the big t-shirt would soon find her parking ticket had been forgiven.