A Short Story
I spent the evening afraid of his face. Brother Hendricks wore the pits and the furrows of his adolescence; his sons had that sort of pomegranite acne that might have made lesser young men more recluse, but they plunged into the fray without apology – basketball players, musicians, bearers of girlfriends to the dances and the sort who sported thundering GTOs and Chevys in the church parking lot. I couldn’t have been much more than four years old, and Brother Hendrick’s hardened, scarred melancholy was more than just troubling. I found it frightening. If Frankenstein had been across the room, piling mashed potatoes on his plate at the pioneer day celebration, I could not have been more petrified, but he wasn’t across the room. He sat down opposite my mother, just across the table from us, and I couldn’t take my eyes off his face.
“Is that Jimmy?” he asked.
“Yes,” my mother responded. “He’s a little bashful tonight.”
The sudden attention, the sure knowledge I had been caught staring deepened my horror and I ducked down into my mother’s side. His voice was a deeper baritone flavor, exactly what I would have expected. It felt like a probing voice, a voice that wanted answers.
“How is Debbie?” my mother asked.
“Fine. They’ve settled in. They have a place in Boise.”
“Wonderful. Wonderful. She was so fun to teach.”
My mother, when she was talking, was at peace. She poured her soul out there before herself–transparent, unadorned, blending in with the more measured souls of the faithful in the joy of the evening, a church summer party. There were brown pyrex dishes full of corn on the cob in front of us, shiny with butter. It was all beyond festive, and I was hungry, but all I really wanted to do is go home and be free of Brother Hendrick’s face.
“Debbie was a handful,” Brother Hendricks said.
“I thought she was so sweet.”
“Sweet,” Brother Hendricks, “sweet..”
“She almost had me arrested coming back from Mexico a few years ago. I mean, not really. I love the girl, of course, but ‘sweet.’ No. That isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.”
On the stage to our left, ‘Brigham Young’ stepped up to the microphone, wearing costume-shop sideburns, a tail coat, and holding a gray bowler hat in his hands. This was Bishop Thornton. He was aware the effect would be comic, and he appeared to enjoy it, even as we were all aware that the laughter must accrue to Bishop Thornton’s account and not Brigham Young’s. Bishop Thornton was a district attorney by trade and his teenage daughter had made it clear he was capable of locking me up in an iron cell for the slightest infraction, so you have to be careful laughing with, or at, the Bishop as well. Still, I felt my mother chuckling at the spectacle.
“If we could have the young bucks,” Bishop Thornton began, “come in from the basketball court, we can begin.”
At this request, Brother Hendricks looked suddenly concerned and stepped away from the table. This allowed me to follow his ugliness and his worry across the room in search of his sons. As he settled back into the table, his sons Hal and Brett alongside him, he fixed his sad eyes directly upon me again at the last moment. I burrowed back into my mother’s side.
“Jimmy’s been very shy lately,” my mother says. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
This sudden attention felt like a second blow and I burrowed harder into her dress belt.
“Do you know who that is?” my mother whispered.
“It’s Brigham Young. Look.”
I was not up to this. The burden of pretending Bishop Thornton was Brigham Young felt like the final humiliation and I dropped down to the floor and under the table.
“Jimmy, come up here. We’re about to say the prayer.”
Underneath the long table, the saints were less imposing: they became a band of pedal-pushers, sneakers, women’s nylons, and men’s somber wingtips. They were a village of knees in slacks. Not having to measure their faces felt like a relief. It seemed more than reasonable to spend the rest of the evening here.
“Brett,” my mother said, “could you fish him out for me?”
The powerful legs of a high school senior closed around me and I felt hands on my neck collar, dragging me up onto his lap. As I re-emerged, heads began to bow around me.
“Our Dear Father in Heaven,” Bishop Thornton began, “we thank thee O God for this beautiful meal, and for these brothers and sisters here today in this part of your vineyard and for all of our friends here from the Arroyo Vega Ward and for..”
Brett Hendricks was holding me too tight. I knew that Bishop Thornton was capable of long prayers, of praying longer than I could breathe. I squirmed, and the grip got tighter. Next to me was Brother Hendricks pock-marked face and I feared that if I thrashed around too much, side to side, I would bump right into it. I tried tapping politely on the teenager’s wrist. The grip got tighter and he buried my arms and hands under his.
“Let me go,” I whispered.
“Shhh,” mother said.
He locked my arms with one hand and then used his other hand to muzzle my mouth and nose.
“..and we thank thee, O God, for the gift of health, for so many children born here, so many little ones, for the breath of life.”
Suffocating, I summoned up a great wad of spit and let it go on Brett Hendrick’s hand. This worked. I slid down into my sanctuary under the table, aware that there would be hell to pay when the prayer finished, but glad to be out of Brett’s grip, even if he was kicking me softly, every few seconds. It was a controlled, deliberate scrape by his enormous tennis shoe. It seemed be saying, “I could kick you hard, against the wall, kid.”
After the prayer, after Brett wiped my spit back on my shirt, after the scolding, after mother settling me back into my chair, Brother Hendricks leaned over and looked pointedly at mom.
“Like Debbie,” he said. “Sorry to say so, but exactly like Debbie.”
Mother answered with a puzzled upward slant of her shoulder. “I don’t know what got into him,” she said.
Something told me Mom had not consigned me to outer darkness, that she wasn’t entirely accepting of Brother Hendrick’s judgment. She squeezed my knee and smiled at me. “Let’s get you some corn, Jimmy.”
My abiding problem remained Brother Hendrick’s face. If I thought he looked sad, and mean, before dinner, merely worrying, I found him even more obscene, eating, and elbowing his wife, and laughing with his sons. My tantrum had given him some relief. He was not the only parent with a troubled child. I couldn’t be certain, but I believe he said, “well, at least Debbie didn’t spit on people.”
“Oh now, Bruce,” mother said. “He’s not that bad. Something scared him, I think. Or he’s tired.”
“Well,” Brother Hendricks said, “take it from someone whose little hellion flew the coop at 19, you need to break them young.”
Mother laughed. At parties, you simply couldn’t darken her mood. She had a twinkle in her eye. “We’ll put the little pirate in the brig when his father gets home.”
“Where is Harold?”
“Everywhere,” mother said. “Phoenix. St. George. Salt Lake. He usually plans one sales trip this time of the summer.”
“We live in a strange ward,” Brother Hendricks said, “three lawyers, fourteen dentists and two salesmen.”
Brother Hendricks leaned over the table towards mom and lowered his voice. “The gospel,” he said, “is easy if it’s always a one way conversation. These dentists preach to a captive audience. Try selling paper to Safeway. That’s the lion’s den.”
“Harold has stories,” my mother said.
“I bet he does.”
After the table cleared, the curtain rolled back on stage, revealing a painted, panoramic backdrop of the Salt Lake Valley with an infinite train of pioneer wagons winding off towards the horizon. Brigham Young entered from stage left and appeared to survey the countryside, and then he stepped up to the microphone. I could tell Bishop Thornton had shifted from the comic, cordial Brigham Young to a deeply solemn version. He appeared emotional just contemplating the song he was about to sing — “Come, Come Ye Saints.” His wife started in on the piano and I could sense a deep reverence falling over the audience. You could hear the sincerity in the Bishop’s voice. He was scaling back the opera and just reverencing the words, and the memory of our collective ancestors making the monumental journey across the plains, burying some of their children along the way. On the second verse, two ranks of Mia Maids stepped onto stage and began singing with him. On the fourth verse the deep rumble of a men’s chorus joined in. My mother’s eyes were moist, and I could sense that Brother Hendricks was clenching his jaw. When the music came to a stop, any sort of noise, even the scrape of a chair, would have constituted a crime.
The silence was honored and Bishop Thornton gave us a pastoral smile. “Shall we all sing it again together?” he asked.
Down from the stage came the bevy of pretty Mia Maid girls, handing out a single sheet with the lyrics to everyone in the audience. I could not yet read, but I knew the first line, “Come, Come, Ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear,” and I was anxious to join in. The spell of the music had softened my fear of Brother Hendricks and I was looking forward to redeeming myself. The piano began the refrain, and the Bishop waved us all in together on the first line of the hymn, which Brett Hendricks sang, loudly, lustily, above everyone else, as follows: “Come, come ye saints, there’s toilet paper here.”
Family piety is a strange thing. It’s one thing to go before the Lord with your own sins and inadequacies; it’s quite another to worry about the sorts of blasphemy a teenager can make public on your behalf. Brother Hendricks did not take this well. A chair clattered to the floor. An adolescent was removed from the room by his ear. The assembly was an odd mixture of scandal, praise, reverence, and something like relief. (I wasn’t the only one with a beef against Brett Hendricks.) And it all took place to music. Once a hymn starts it simply can’t be stopped. Only an earthquake or a tidal wave could stop congregational singing once it begins. But this time, everyone could hear, or could imagine hearing, underneath the music, (“all is well, all is well”) the muffled imprecations of Brother Hendricks in the parking lot going full black beard on his son. I’m reasonably certain I could hear the words, “what were you THINKING?” and “is there anything in that brain of yours, my little man?”
When the hymn came to a close, when the Hendricks returned to their seats, mother leaned closed to me and whispered, “what’s wrong, Jimmy?”
Who can say where our spiritual instincts come from? Who can really know if there is some divine spark that matures in us, or whether we just sop up the conventions of our tribe, but I simply could not bring myself to say, “Brother Hendricks scares me; his face scares me.” It seemed unworthy, particularly after a hymn.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Can we go home?”
“Home? We haven’t even had dessert.”
So that’s where we found ourselves. Eating dessert across from a sullen Brother Hendricks and a puffy eyed Brett. They had changed places and Brother Hendricks was directly across from me. I concentrated on eating the strawberry short cake slowly, on examining it as though it were a model ship or a jig saw puzzle to avoid having to look at him.
Dessert, for mom, was a ruse. She would be the last one to leave the building. She had a rare capacity for genuinely visiting with almost anyone, above or below her station. She was an artist, and I think she saw people something like the colors beneath a tide pool. Everyone was a smooth, iridescent stone of one sort or another. This might account for why we sat across from the Hendricks, a family my father would have avoided. I can recall aching for Dad’s presence about then, because he would have restored some frame, some order to his impossible picture: Frankenstein eating shortcake on one side of me and Snow White on the other, marveling at the enchanted forest.
The piano announced the beginning of another song. A few of the primary children started in on “I am a child of God.”
“Jimmy knows this one,” mother said. “We should have had you sing.”
The cold spike in my stomach produced by this suggestion wouldn’t have been fear of performance. That would be bad, all right, but getting out there and affirming very high-minded things about my celestial origins—it just felt false. I was a child of God? The kid who couldn’t even look at Brother Hendricks because I thought he was ugly?
“I am a child of God.
His promises are sure;
Celestial glory shall be mine
If I can but endure.”
“Wonderful,” Bishop Thornton said, from the microphone, “this has been a beautiful evening, brothers and sisters, and if you’ll just indulge me, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s about a man named Ephraim Willis. Ephraim was a cooper and a wheelwright. Ephraim traveled all the way across the Atlantic to be among the saints in Nauvoo, Illinois and then on the great trek to the Salt Lake Valley. Ephraim’s wife died on the journey from England. His oldest son died of consumption before arriving in Nauvoo. He lost twin daughters on the first leg of the journey in Bloomfield, Iowa. Bitten by a snake in Mount Pisgah, he lost a leg and endured an amputation along the trail. By the time he reached Ft. Kearney, the Willis family had been whittled down to three, from seven. They were emaciated, cold, fearfully short of food and supplies and when they emerged from a bout of congestive fever, Ephraim woke, blind in one eye and complete devoid of family. ALL of his children were gone. There in that forsaken place, it would have been easy to give up, to curse God and die, but Ephraim hobbled up from his bed and began walking west. A year later that man walked into the Salt Lake Valley, and after recovering, he even went back to mend wheels and help others across. He later re-married and was blessed with five sons – one of which is the great grandfather of that gentleman right over there..”
Bishop Thornton walked across the room and put his hand on the shoulder of Brother Hendricks. I looked up. Mother squeezed my forearm. Brother Hendricks was biting his lip. A tear was working its way down his cheek.
Bishop Thornton considered the room. “But that was over a century ago. It’s 1964, isn’t it? We send men into orbit. What’s the point in talking about broken wagon wheels and children who died on a walk 1300 miles long? Why talk about pioneer women who died in child birth? Why depress us, Bishop?”
He paused to look around the room.
“Why do that?” he asked. “Why do that?”
“BECAUSE,” he bellowed, “you’re on the same journey! And some of you, SOME OF YOU, aren’t going to make it. You need to endure to the end, brothers and sisters. ENDURE TO THE END. The Lord didn’t say it would be easy. He said it would be worth it! How many of you are Ephraim Willis and how many of you are Stevey-take-it-easy? How many of you hobble back on the trail to help others and how many of you sit in your living room and adjust the air conditioning?”
The Bishop hovered over Brett Hendricks, who still looked puffy-eyed, but vaguely alarmed now, as though he might be called out specifically in these remarks. The Bishop stared down at him, took a deep breath, and then tousled his hair. It looked something like a man forgiving an Airedale for chewing on the couch.
Much later in life, I would conclude I spent most of my childhood feeling something like an Airedale messing with the wrong chew toy and then pretending I wasn’t an Airedale, but an actual child of God in training. How could I hobble, one-eyed and one-legged into the Salt Lake Valley? How could I ever be someone quite like my mother, who had a knack for seeing fine jewelry in the meanest sort of gravel and slag?
But in the car that night, she turned to me, and she said, “Jimmy, be honest with me. What happened tonight? That wasn’t like you.”
“I just thought..”
“You can tell me.”
I breathed deep. “His face.”
“The man across from us.”
“Brother Hendricks? What about his face?”
“He looked mean.”
“I don’t think he’s a mean man. He was angry at Brett for–”
“It’s just. The marks. The lines. The creases.”
“What about them?”
“I don’t know. It just scared me.”
“His face, the look of his face, scared you?”
“Yes! It was scary. Like a bad movie or something.”
She sighed. “Well, it’s not a bad movie. It’s just Brother Hendricks. Some people have problems. Some people have what they call handicaps, and we never make fun of handicapped people.”
“I wasn’t making fun of him. I just wanted to go home.”
“Well, we can’t always go home either. Sometimes we have to stay and help. Did you hear that story by the Bishop? Wasn’t that amazing? Losing your leg and your sight and still helping people?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
And there it sat, as she started the car, my mother’s marvel at the world, her charity for all of its creatures, and my peevish, sticky selfishness – two different kinds of beings talking to each other, talking past each other, riding home with the loneliness born of seeing things differently.
I was an Airedale. She was a child of God.