By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Other drivers at All-Right don't last as long as Ellen has. Ellen wonders if the repetition of always driving the same shuttle in the same circle over and over each day bores the younger employees. Ellen says she doesn't mind it. She celebrates her anniversary with All-Right each year, bringing in cake and cookies or candy for the other drivers and employees.
"I just give them out and say, 'Happy anniversary to me!' " she says.
Her supervisors rave about her. Her customers like her. Her kids are proud of her.
"It's such an insignificant job she has, but she has made something out of it," says her son Derek. "I don't know anyone else who has made something out of something so simple." His mother is so extroverted, jokes Derek, "it's like a disease."
The job helped. And church. Ellen still sings and plays the organ at the tiny Apostolic Bible Center. The pastor who insisted she come play died a few years back, and Ellen sang at his funeral. But although he is gone, Ellen still comes to services. Even now, the small congregation of about 30 people waits for her to show up before they even get started, and when she plays the organ, her old high school friend Enid from the youth-rally days sits next to her and plays the piano.
The Apostolic Bible Center is different from the days when Ellen stood in front of 7,000 people in Wyoming. But she likes it that way. It's more intimate. More real. Ellen says when religion isn't done right it can smother you. She says she'd rather be open, like a flower, to flourish into whatever God wants. At church when Ellen plays the organ, her rich, throaty voice carries farther than it needs to in the tiny one-room storefront. Almost louder than when she sings on the bus.
The church and All-Right Parking merged like melody and harmony to form a song of grace. It's not much, Ellen knows, to drive a shuttle bus around an airport each day. There isn't a lot necessarily to that. But it's been something for her. And sure, she's played in places lots bigger than her tiny church. And maybe once she dreamed of playing in someplace even bigger, like the Music Hall. But for right now, at this time, it's enough for Ellen. More than enough, really.
"I have come through the valley of the shadow of death," says Ellen. "When you come through a real bad experience, every day is wonderful. Even when my knees hurt or my head's hurting, it's just a privilege to be out in it."
It's been raining hard all day like it's never going to stop. The sky is the color of a bad bruise, and the bus smells like the inside of a pair of old galoshes. The doors keep sticking whenever Ellen stops to open them. But she's the only one who doesn't seem cranky.
"How you doin', ma'am?" Ellen asks a brunette who's trying to board with too much luggage.
"Terrible!" spits the woman, dragging a suitcase behind her.
"I know," Ellen says, shaking her head.
A man gets on and comments about the rain.
"This ain't bad," he says to no one in particular. "In Atlanta they got a joke that if a pigeon flies over Hartsfield Airport and pees on the runway, they shut it down for two hours." Another man who hears the joke laughs. Ellen just keeps driving.
On one trip back to the parking lot, she's got only two passengers. They're both middle-aged women with short auburn hair. They complain about the rain. But when Ellen starts her singing program, they chuckle out loud.
"Do I have any cowboys? Any cowgirls?" Ellen hollers, as if she were asking a crowded arena instead of just two women on an airport bus. One of the ladies says she grew up in Abilene and does that count? Yes, Ellen says, and she breaks into Patsy Cline's signature song, "Crazy." She sings loud and hard so the ladies can hear her over the hee-haw of the windshield wipers. When she's finished the women clap.
Ellen pulls into the city economy lot and asks where they're parked.
"It's the ruby-red Buick over there," says the cowgirl from Abilene, pointing.
Ellen pulls as close to the car as she can. One of the women says thank you and gets out. But the cowgirl from Abilene just stops and stands in the stairwell of the shuttle. She looks at Ellen like she doesn't know how to put what she wants to say. So she just says it.
"We've just come back from a funeral."
Ellen immediately brings her hand to her chest. "Mercy!" she says. "Was it your mama?"
No, the woman answers. It was a niece out in Las Vegas. She was only 42 years old.
"We buried her yesterday," she adds, standing on the steps shifting her weight. "And you brought me home with a smile on my face instead of tears."
Ellen smiles. She thanks the woman in a gracious voice. Then she watches her turn and get off the bus to dart through the rain to the Buick. Ellen shuts her bus doors and shakes her fist triumphantly.
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