Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Assignment, Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

Claudette’s Kitchen was packed with the usual morning coffee crowd when Ken and Barbara and Nancy and the kids stepped inside. The room was filled with the faint aroma of fresh-brewed Folgers and lively chatter. Every face turned and stared at the newcomers and a sudden hush swallowed the room. Claudette burst from behind the counter and nearly toppled Nancy with a lurching hug. And with that the reunion was officially on.

Ken and Barbara and the kids stepped back as cheers erupted and the swarm of celebrants leaped from their seats and encircled Nancy. People hailed and peeped and pawed at her and she blushed and glowed in all the fuss.

That’s when Buster Mack walked in. Or better put, when he squeezed in. The doorway was barely wide enough to frame him.

Buster was an enormous man with a chest as big as a burning barrel. He was pasty-faced with flappy jowls and beefy forearms and hands the size of frying pans. His dusty-looking gray chin stubble put him somewhere in his early 70’s. Like an overloaded freight train, Buster swayed from side to side when he lumbered in, and the jubilation in the air instantly evaporated at the sight of him.

“Where’s the preacher?” he growled with gravel in his voice.
Chloe ducked instinctively behind her mother’s leg. Ken collided with her as he vied for the same spot.

Twenty sets of eyes fixed on Ken. Buster followed their trajectory. Sucking and wheezing, he puffed out his chest, dangling his log-sized arms over sagging pecs. His big round belly draped over a king-sized Silver Crown belt buckle. He swaggered toward Ken, his arms jerking and his huge carcass tottering loopily like a drunken man toeing a traffic cop's chalk line. He halted when his belly pressed against Ken and he pulled a soiled kerchief from his back pocket and dabbed his sweaty forehead. His hair was dimly red and mostly gray, his globular, beet-like nose webbed with tiny blue veins and riddled with rosacea. Buster eyed Ken darkly.

“Let’s go!” he barked, thumbing toward the doorway.

Ken anxiously scanned the premises looking for Harley Phipps. He caught Harley nodding reassuringly at him. He remembered him saying on the phone it was miraculous that a job had even come up in Elk Creek. Ken looked at him with baffled eyes, as if to say, “And this is your miracle?” He was thinking it would take a bigger miracle to survive Harley’s miracle.

Ken had the look of a man under arrest. Sliding away with Buster, he paused and turned toward Barbara and the kids. She stood frozen, hiding the children behind her. Ken glanced downward, tensely studying the black and white checkered floor tiles and looking pathetically acquiescent. Buster nudged and belly-bumped him to the hole he’d come in through.

Outside in the gravel parking lot, Ken trudged beside Buster to a rumpled green Ford pickup truck that was parked and idling. Markings on the vehicle read: Elk Creek School District.

“Get in!” Buster commanded. Ken lifted a stiff leg and reluctantly pulled himself into the cab.

The truck dipped and rocked when Buster plopped himself on the driver’s seat. “Lemme see yer CDL!” he demanded without looking at Ken.

“What’s a CDL?” Ken inquired.

“Ya don’t know what a CDL is?” Buster fumed, still looking straight ahead. “How in heck ya think yer gonna drive a school bus without a CDL?”

Ken couldn’t answer.

Buster roiled in his seat like he’d been shot. “Dadgum that blasted Harley!” he blurted, slamming the palm of his hand on the dashboard. “I knowed it!” He flung the driver’s door open, tumbled out and stomped toward the cafĂ© entrance. But just before opening the door he halted, did an about-face and clomped back to the pickup. The truck shook violently when he threw himself inside and slammed the door shut.
Buster’s face flushed red and furious like a bull’s snout. Glowering, he threw the gearshift into drive and the truck pitched forward. He whirled the rig onto the empty highway, wheels screeching, and zoomed off without uttering a word to Ken.

Ken had no idea what was going on or where they were going. But wherever they were heading, he was sure he didn’t want to go there with Buster.

“Can’t hire ya without a CDL,” Buster muttered.

Ken was afraid to repeat the same stupid question about what’s a CDL, so he kept his silence.

Buster rolled his eyes and puffed his cheeks, hissing through clenched teeth. “He’s pulled this on me before. I shoulda seen it coming.”

“Done what?” Ken pried. He had a sick feeling that this had something to do with him.

Buster exploded. “Dumped a no-good driver on me! That’s what he done! All them Phipps is thatta way! They think they own this town! They don’t have no mill no more. They don’t have no more moo-lah, but they still think what they says goes round here.”

Buster drove on for half a mile or more, hissing and breathing heavily. He turned off the highway and pulled onto a gravel yard surrounded by Cyclone fencing. Three flat-nosed yellow school buses were parked on the lot, shining brightly alongside a drab gray Quonset hut.

“Why are we here?” Ken asked, stumped.

“This is where I’m gonna learn ya to drive school bus,” Buster replied brusquely.

“But you told me…,” Ken objected.

“Never mind what I told ya!” Buster snapped.

“This wasn’t my idea!” Ken continued. “It was Harley’s idea.”

Buster leered at Ken. “That’s why I’m gonna learn ya how to drive a blasted bus!” he hollered. “Cuz Harley don’t think I can! Don’t ya see? He thinks we’re both dumb as two flat rocks. And I’m gonna prove him wrong. Agin!”

Buster fastened his jaw and gritted his teeth. “Like I says, I done it before, an' I can do it agin.”

Glaring at Ken through slanted eyes, Buster sized him up like a barroom brawler stares down a challenger before throwing a punch. “I got less than a month to whup ya into shape,” he seethed. “An’ I’m gonna do it!”

Ken reeled at the thrust of Buster’s threat. His mind scrambled to find a fast way out. “But I can’t even drive a stick-shift!” he bayed.

Buster let out a rolling belly laugh and Ken felt himself wilting inside. “Harley done give me a mama’s boy!” Buster blurted. “But don’t fret, son. It ain’t that hard, and I can learn ya.”

“Thanks anyway,” Ken said, shaking his head. “I think you’d better find somebody else.”

“No way, no how!” Buster barked. “Harley picked hisself a fight with me and I’m gonna finish it! He’s the one that stuck you in the middle o’ all this, not me. So don’ go bailin’ on me, preacher.”

Buster held out his big paw for Ken to shake. “I can make a champeen bus driver outta ya, boy. Shoot, ya shoulda seen them other fool preachers Harley sent me. Take Preacher Joe. Fine feller, but nuthin’ but a nitwit when it came to drivin.’ That dope nearly knocked down the barn backin’ in the bus. But I figered if I can learn him to drive, I can learn a chimpanzee. I can make a champeen outta a ol’ chimpanzee!”

Buster chuckled at his clever elocution.

“I won that one on ol’ Harley,” he continued. “Preacher Joe made a fancy driver after all. Ol’ Harley’s still tryin’ ta git me back fer that one.”

Ken looked woefully at Buster’s outstretched hand. “I don’t want any part of this,” he said.

“Whatcha skeered of?” Buster gibed.

“I’m not going to be the rope in your tug-of-war with Harley,” Ken replied tensely. “You’re trying to use me to prove him wrong.”

Buster dropped his hand and slit his eyes, sizing Ken up for another jab.

“Okay,” he said, “go ahead and quit fore ya git started. See what other jobs ya can find roun’ here. Nuthin’. That’s what yer gonna find. Then ya won’t hafta worry ‘bout provin’ nobody right but yerself. How ya gonna do that without no work? The way I see it, ya got yer own provin’ to do. Ya gotta prove yerself to yerself and nobody else. I heard ya say it, ya don’t know howta drive a bus.”

Buster’s eyes hardened and his jaw stiffened. He stopped wheezing. “Ya wanna learn er dontcha?”

Ken could feel himself caving in. He loathed his ineptness in the manly art of driving. He felt himself shriveling inside, as he did when his dad was swearing at him after he had hit the brakes too hard and when Fritzy had ignored him all weekend after his backing-up fiasco.

“Harley can’t learn ya no-how,” Buster continued. “Only me, that’s who can learn ya. But ya gotta rassle them alligators that’s in yer head, boy. Them critters is meaner than any ol bus’ll do ya. An’ I can’t help ya with them. Ya gotta rassle ‘m down yerself.”

Ken ran through his mind how Harley had claimed that this job was a miracle, something on the order of the Red Sea parting. But it now felt like Pharaoh’s army was barreling down on him.

Buster watched him squirm. “What’s holdin’ ya back, preacher?”

“I don’t know,” Ken tottered. “Proving Harley wrong is no way to prove myself. I don’t feel good about it.”

“Then let Harley prove his own self right!” Buster snapped. “Don’t mean ya hafta be wrong so he can be right, neither.”

Buster sat behind the wheel sucking through his teeth, looking straight at Ken through squinted eyes.

“What do you have against Harley?” Ken prodded.

“What he got agin me?” Buster countered. “He started it, not me.”

“And you think he’s dumping me on you?” Ken asked.

Buster narrowed his eyes again at Ken. “Well, look what kinda driver he gimme.”

Ken conceded by saying nothing.

“Ya wanna stay thatta way or ya want me to learn ya?” Buster was smelling blood.

Ken sat staring through the windshield. “I want to drive,” he said, surrendering.

“Prove it, prove it ta yerself, preacher,” Buster pressed.

“All right,” Ken felt himself crumbling inside. “When can we get started?”

Buster’s eyes rounded and brightened like shiny red apples. “I got some papers in the office fer ya ta fill out. Come on.”

The truck teetered as Buster swung his husky frame out of the cab. He plodded to the building and unlocked the door. Inside his unkempt office, Buster yanked open a drawer in a standing file cabinet and rifled through its innards until he found what he was looking for. “Here ya go, take this and fill er out,” he rasped. “But don’t waste my time doin’ it now. Fust I gotta show ya what yer gonna be drivin’.”

Ken glanced at the form in his hands and read its heading: Commercial Driver License Application.

A winning grin stretched across Buster’s doughy face. “Ask me agin what is a CDL an I’m gonna revoke it before ya even git it!” he cackled.

Ken followed Buster outside to the parking lot. The buses were parked side-by-side. Each one looked worn but tidy. A chrome crown emblem dotted the nose of each one, and the backs of the buses sloped roundly like the backside of a bald man’s head.

Pausing in front of the row of buses, Buster’s eyes caressed his cadre. Ken had never paid attention to the lines on a school bus, but something about those buses caused him to pause and appreciate their good looks. They had a shape all of their own, like a VW Beetle is classic in form. They looked downright venerable for school buses. And they were obviously in good repair. Each had a set of headlights rimmed with gleaming chrome frames that looked like happy, eager eyes. Even while parked, they looked animated, like big shiny yellow caterpillars on wheels. They were likable-looking machines.

“Ya know what them is?” Buster asked, still gazing on his gems.

Ken checked himself from stating the obvious. “Something special, I can see that much.”

“Them’s a piece a history, that’s what!” Buster blustered. He glared at Ken, defying him to contradict his claim. It was a stance he was apparently ready to fight against the whole world to defend.

“Them’s Crowns!” he went on. “Ya can’t hardly find ‘em no more, and I got me three ‘n ‘em. Best dern buses ever made on earth."

Buster gazed sternly at Ken. "Ya know what that dang-fool GE outfit went ‘n did?"

He didn't wait for Ken to guess. "They went 'n bought up Crown Coach an’ then quit makin’ ‘em cuz they wasn’t sellin’ fast like all that tinny trash that’s runnin’ round out there these days.”

Buster widened his eyes and whistled like a teenage boy ogling over a pretty girl. “Them Crowns is some gussy ol’ gals,” he hooted. “But ain’t it a shame, now they’re crushin’ ‘em fer steel. Makes me madderna wet hen jis thinkin’ bout it. But there’s nuthin’ I can do bout it, sep I take good care a the ones I got.”

Buster pointed at the bus on their far left. “That’s what ya’ll be arunnin,” he announced. “Mabel is what’s she’s called.”
“She’s got a good ol’ Detroit diesel in ‘er an’ a ten-speed tranny,” Buster continued without looking at Ken. “A '86 model, the newest one on the lot, an’ she’s the easiest one on a greenhorn driver. She’ll be nice to ya.”

“Ten speeds!” Ken gasped. To his ears, ten speeds sound like ten lashes.

“That skeer yah?” Buster chortled. “Shoot! Just let ol’ Buster learn ya what ya don’t know how. I can learn a ape howta run one of them ol’ babes. Just ya wait. I’m gonna do ya like a man, boy. Bout time ya growed up, anyhow.”

Buster spun around and bumped Ken with his belly. “Let’s take er fer a spin,” he bellowed.

Climbing aboard the bus, Ken noted the size of the steering wheel, about as big around as a hula-hoop. Buster plopped onto the driver’s seat, his vast girth rubbing against the wheel. Ken sat behind Buster, leaning over his shoulder.

“Okay, ya ready ta lissen?” Buster asked, turning the key. But he didn’t crank the motor.

“Yes, I’m ready,” Ken said.

“Listen to that,” Buster directed. “Whatcha hear?”

“Nothing,” Ken said, confused.

“Good,” Buster responded. “That’s what yer sposed ta hear fore ya fire up a diesel. Hear that? Nothin'. That’s cuz ya gotta wait fer the glow plugs to heat up. Ya gotta turn the key an’ watch the ‘wait ta start light’ go off on the dash. Wait ten seconds or so fer it to go off an’ then crank ‘er on up.”

This made no sense to Ken.

Buster twisted in his seat and tilted his head toward Ken. “That’s yer first lesson in drivin’ a bus.”

“I don’t understand,” Ken replied. “Listening to nothing is my first lesson?”

Buster tossed his hands up in feigned exasperation. “How ya gonna hear me when I tell ya sumthin’ if ya can’t even lissen ta nuthin’?”

Ken held his tongue. Buster’s line of reasoning was way out of his range.

“Best thing fer ya ta know fore ya go drivin’ a Crown is nuthin,” Buster continued. “That’s why I told ya, jis sit n’ lissen ta nuthin’ fore ya go crankin’ the motor up. Ya can’t know that ya don’t know nuthin’ unless ya know howta listen ta nuthin.'" 

Buster's stern gaze zeroed in on Ken again. "I seen them show-offs sittin' their skinny rears behind the wheel of this ol’ beauty with all that razzle-dazzle, an’ they wind up baffled by their own bull. What they don’t know is they don’t know nuthin.’ If they’d jis sit n’ listen ta nuthin,’ I could learn ‘em sumthin’.”

Ken kept his silence, but he felt a peculiar dawning that Buster’s strange logic somehow made sense. The “wait to start” light went off on the dashboard and Buster noted it.

“See here,” he pointed. “The light don’t go off till ya listened ta nuthin’.

Buster turned the key and the motor started clacking and whizzing, winding into a high-pitched drone. “It's a good thing ya told me ya don’t know nuthin’ bout drivin’ a bus! If ya told me ya know’d howta drive un, I’da told ya fergit everthin’ ya think ya knows. We’d be startin' all over till ya really know'd ya don’t know nuthin.’"

Buster paused to let that idea sink in before continuing his discourse. "There’s a sumthin’ else ya gotta stop knowin'."

“What’s that?” Ken shouted above the motor’s noise.

“Lemme ask ya another question,” Buster hollered. He didn’t wait for Ken’s response. “Can ya drive one a these?”

“No,” Ken assented.

“That’s what ya gotta stop knowin’!” Buster barked. “If ya don’t know nuthin, ya don’t know ya can an' ya don't know ya can’t, neither. But ya already got yer mind made up ya can’t. How’m I gonna learn ya how when yer mind’s made up ya can’t?”  

Ken’s head was spinning. “Are you saying I can, even if I haven’t?”

“No, I’m sayin’ sumthin’ in yer head’s sayin’ ya can’t, even fore ya tried it!” Buster barked back. “What I’m tryin’ ta tell ya is stop lissenin’ to yerself an’ start lissenin’ ta nuthin’ so I can learn ya sumthin.'”

Ken gave up trying to follow Buster’s philosophy of driver education. He was simply swallowing it.

“Are ya lissnin’ ta nuthin’ inside yer head yet?” Buster asked, seriously.

Ken nodded.

“Then put this idea in yer head an’ give it a home!” Buster insisted. He stared at Ken with hard-boiled eyes. “They’s sumthin’ bigger’ ‘bout bus drivin’ than jis drivin’ bus.”

Buster studied Ken’s face to see how this impending revelation was registering with him. He was wearing a picture-perfect know-nothing look that won Buster’s confidence.

“Here’s how ya gotta look at it,” Buster went on. “Ya ain’t gonna jis be drivin’ bus round here; yer gonna be takin’ kids ta school and home agin. It’s more’n runnin’ a machine. It’s helpin’ them kids git smarter so they can git a better life. That’s what them show-offs don’t never git. But it’s what ya gotta git fore ya ever turn this here key. When that gits all lit up like a lightnin’ bug in yer head, that’s when I’ll learn ya howta drive bus.”

Buster pushed in the clutch twice and worked the gearshift with a quick flick of his wrist. “We’re headin’ out on yer run,” he hollered above the whining motor. “Fust ya gotta see where yer goin’ fore I show ya how to git there adrivin’ this old Crown.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Assignment

Chapter Eight

In Elk Creek, opinions and rumors are roused and doused in unremarkable places like Claudette’s Kitchen. The conversations that ensue there are considered public domain, belonging to no one and belonging to all. As Elk Creek’s uncontested mayor for who-knows-how-long, Harley Phipps knew that Claudette’s was the hub-of-the-wheel. It was the standard spot for townsfolk to conjoin their communal sufferings and celebrations. Unless, that is, your personal standards allowed for a beer along with your burger, in which case Johnny’s Tavern was the local draw.

But Claudette’s was a no-alcohol-serving establishment, and she made this plain to thirsty customers by placing a placard on the glass entry door: No Booze Sold Here. Her stance had been brought on by all the havoc her deceased husband Milton had caused her by his routine drinking. No disrespect to the deceased is intended in the telling, but it would help you to know the unhappy history of how Claudette’s Kitchen got started.

Milton was a stringy, backslapping country boy who had never managed to grow up. In Elk Creek, you have to work hard at not being liked, but he managed to do it. Sad to say, it was just the reverse of what he was really after. Milton craved inclusion. But in the balance, he was more annoying than likeable. He had a droning nasal voice and a stock of tired potty jokes that made him giggle and snort every time he told them. Besides being a regular imbiber, Milton was also a notoriously lazy worker at the mill, always among the first to be laid off during low production periods and one of the last to be rehired after things had picked up again. All of his backslapping was barely epidermis-deep. Most days he wore the skittish look of a junior high school boy who had gotten picked last in gym class.

But Milton had a surefire equalizer. His wife’s fabulous Southern-style cooking was his meal ticket for toadying himself among the big boys in town. Whenever Milton got cheerily drunk down at the tavern he also got highly hospitable. He’d haul a couple buddies home, unannounced, for a meal. Stumbling into his castle in the wee morning hours, he’d go into his macho mode to show off to the boys. Rising tall on his toes, with a shaky swagger he’d bark after Claudette who was sleeping in the bedroom. She would gradually trudge out in her bathrobe and hair curlers, yawning and droopy-eyed. Thick-tongued and flappy-lipped, Milton would jaw at her, “Woomun, whup up sumpin fer ma boysss!” He’d cock his pint-sized fists so she’d know he was ready to do grave business with her if she didn’t hop to it.

The two were childless and Claudette was not disappointed by this point of fact. As a matter of fact, she herself was still a child when she had married Milton, who was fifteen years her senior. She was only fifteen and had half-mistakenly figured him to be her meal ticket out of poverty. Claudette was half-right because Milton did take her out to Oregon where his cousin Buster had assured him he could get a job in the mill at Elk Creek. She was also half-wrong because, as it turned out, she was his meal ticket.

Claudette mined riches from her own childhood poverty. Back in the Ozarks, her mother had taught her and her eleven siblings how to raise a prolific garden and how to make mouthwatering meals from bare necessities. With no mouths to feed other than hers and Milton’s and his inebriated mates’, Claudette found time to perfect some delectable dishes from her native cuisine. Her unwanted guests were treated to the glories of chicken gumbo, pulled pork, corn pudding, sausage jambalaya, fried okra and the like. 

Even the benumbed taste buds of plastered fools savored her artistry. “Milton,” a boozed-up pal would point out, “you should charge money for a meal like this.”

It was a common refrain, and eventually the light went on in Milton’s mind. The right idea had luckily landed in the right place. He announced to Claudette that they were going into the restaurant business. She would do the cooking and he would handle the business side of the stick.

Milton found an old rundown diner-on-wheels in Portland and had it hauled to Elk Creek. It was the first time Claudette had seen such lift in her husband’s step. Together they slaved away, cleaning and fixing it all up. Milton even stopped drinking during the daytime. After the business had opened its door, the bar stools and the booths were nearly always full. Claudette’s Kitchen had literally gotten started in her own kitchen – out of the mouths of drunken fools.

A few years into the enterprise, Milton got a notion to expand the premises. He simply built around the old diner, keeping the bar and swivel stools intact with all their classic charm. The restaurant kept operating while it was being expanded. And Milton had actually wielded the business side of the stick very well.

But after a time Milton’s old ways crept back over him. He got lazy again. He hired a bookkeeper and a few waitresses. Claudette managed the cooking and the inventory. Milton’s business stick kept getting shorter until all he had to do was man the cash register. He rewarded himself for his work with generous helpings from the till. His old urge for inclusion also got a hold on him. When a customer ordered a beer with a meal, Milton happily joined in. Even if he or she hadn’t ordered alcohol, Milton’s social tendencies kicked in and he sidled up beside him or her, especially if it was a pretty her, and he served up his beer-breathed potty jokes. Business gradually got almost as bad as his breath.

With a wad of big-dollar bills in his pocket, Milton started taking frequent overnight “business trips” to Portland, but he always came back home with nothing to show for his efforts. Claudette was not fooled. That’s when she took up smoking – to calm her nerves.

On his final overnight escapade, Milton did not make it back to Elk Creek. He was driving drunk when he crossed the center line on the winding road home, smashing head-on into an oncoming log truck, which killed him on the spot. One of Milton’s old drinking buddies, Gilbert Hawkins, was behind the wheel of the truck.

That happened in September of 1964, about two years before Patty passed away. It was her father’s first funeral – a baptism by fire because of all that he and Jeannette were going through with Patty’s illness and because he wasn’t sure of Milton’s eternal whereabouts. As usual, the service was attended by nearly everyone in town, followed by a procession of log trucks clattering up the road to the cemetery, blasting their air horns. Milton had finally gotten the inclusion he’d been craving.

Claudette felt more angry than sad after Milton’s death, and she felt guilty for feeling that way. She closed the restaurant for a few days to consider her options. Realizing she had none except for staying put, she figured if she had to run the business alone, she would run it her way. The first thing she did was put up that sign on the door: No Booze Sold Here. If it cost her business, she reckoned, it was a price worth paying.

The next move Claudette made was showing up at church the following Sunday morning. She hadn’t been to church since her wedding day back in Arkansas. But she’d been brought up that way, so it wasn’t hard to find her way back. On Sunday mornings she stuck another sign on her glass door that read: See You In Church.

Gilbert Hawkins felt bad knowing his friend had died at the grill of his own truck. It wasn’t his fault, but he felt guilty about it anyway. At the funeral, he saw Claudette sitting up front dressed in black and wearing the same blank, weary look she wore when she had to get up in the middle of the night and cook a meal for him and Milton. His conscience gnawed at him over that, but he wasn’t a man of words and he didn’t know how to work up an apology. Figuring he would show her some respect by dropping in for breakfast, Gilbert stopped at Claudette’s Kitchen one Sunday morning and he saw her sign. He wasn’t a church-going man, but he decided to give it a try himself.

The sad news of Patty’s illness was a distress jointly shared among the church’s members. Her struggle was everyone’s struggle and fervent prayers for her went up every Sunday morning. Claudette did not know about Patty, but she felt the heavy shroud of grief as soon as she walked into the building. Moments later Gilbert took a seat in the back row directly behind her. He didn’t sense the sorrow in the air. He only felt conspicuous. 

A woman with a round, kindly face noticed Claudette and went to her. Clasping her hands, she soothed, “It is so good to see you, honey.” It was Viola Chalmers.

When the songs started everybody stood. A pale little girl in front of Claudette kept turning around and smiling. She was holding her mother’s hand and she kept twisting her frail body around to sneak looks at Claudette. Her bright blue eyes laughed and sparkled. Perhaps it was the magnifying power of Claudette’s thick glasses that enabled Patty to see the vast emptiness in her puffy eyes, or maybe it was just a certain kind of knowing that people said Patty possessed. But with her own eyes resting on Patty, Claudette sensed her heart filling with a laughter that she hadn’t felt since she herself was a little girl. Who knows whose arms reached out first, but Claudette and Patty started squeezing each other while people all around them were singing “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms.”

It was a joyous reunion that recurred first thing every Sunday morning when the two of them laid eyes on each other, and it continued until Patty was too ill to come to church anymore. Claudette claimed she knew that God gave her the gift of hugging the first time she hugged Patty. It was a gift she kept on giving long after Patty died.

Like the town itself, Claudette’s Kitchen lost its luster through the years. With the local economy declining, business was too poor for refurbishing it. The old, original checker-square floor tiles had warped with countless washings and a footpath had been worn around the center table. But it wasn’t dumpy, just high-mileage. It matched its simple surroundings and the townsfolk who remained in Elk Creek.

The long table running right down the middle of the restaurant’s floor was a change Claudette had made shortly after Milton died. Recalling his public rendezvous with ladies in private booths, she pulled out the tables and arranged them in a straight line. No more cozy chats at small tables. She wanted all of her customers to be seated at the same table and included in the same conversation. Like almost everyone else in Elk Creek, it was the kind of inclusion she craved.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Assignment

by Jim Morud

Chapter Seven

An old black dial telephone was ringing stridently when Ken entered the front doorway of Nancy’s home. He stepped into the living room looking for Barbara and called out, “Hello?” Nobody answered.

The phone kept clanging. No answering machine had yet cut in to stop it. Whoever was calling apparently knew Nancy didn’t have one. The ringing went on and on. Something’s urgent or someone’s mighty persistent, he thought. The relentless ringing spurred him to go searching and calling out from room to room. Through a kitchen window he finally spotted Barbara in the backyard pushing Chloe on a swing and Aiden splashing around in a kiddy pool. Nancy was relaxing in an Adirondack chair under a patio umbrella.

The ringing continued. Ken rushed back into the living room and picked up the heavy receiver from its cradle. The coiled cord stretched just far enough from the clunky phone to allow him to sit on a brown-leather wingback chair beside it.

“Hello!” Ken commanded, putting an abrupt stop to the annoyance.

The voice on the other end sounded startled to hear another voice. “Harley Phipps here.”

Realizing his tone had probably sounded harsh, Ken came back softer. “It’s good to hear from you, Harley," he said, affecting a nicer tone. "This is Ken Langston. Hold on, please. I’ll get Nancy.”

“No, I called for you, Ken,” Harley objected. “I told you I’d be calling about your compensation.”

Ken sank further down in the chair. This was the call he had been dreading.

“I’ve got some good news and some even better news for you,” Harley continued.

“Oh?” Ken squirmed.

“Yes, we had a prayer meeting this afternoon at the church and we all came up with the exact same number on your salary,” he announced.

Ken sunk a little lower, the sticky leather pulling wet hairs on the backs of his legs.

“We agreed to give you the highest salary we’ve ever given a pastor before," Harley announced. "We know the Lord is in this because we all agreed to it.”

“Well, thank you, that is good news,” Ken ventured, uncertain that it really was.

“And here’s the clincher,” Harley chimed in. “A job came up for you today right in Elk Creek. It’s another miracle.”

“A job?” Ken queried. “What kind of job?”

“Driving school bus,” Harley replied. “I came across Buster Mack down at Claudette’s Kitchen over lunch today and he told me one of his drivers won’t be back this year. Buster’s head of the motor pool and he does all the hiring and firing down there. I told him about you and he said to have you come by the shop in the morning, ten o’clock.”

A sick feeling crept over Ken. He held the receiver in front of his face and stared at it, grimacing.

“Ken, are you still there?” Harley called.

“Harley, I’ve never driven a bus,” he spluttered, rising from the chair while stretching its cord to the limit.

“Well, have you ever pastored a church before?” Harley prodded.

“No, I haven’t,” Ken answered, lifting the phone from the table. “I have been trained to be a pastor, but I have no idea how to drive a school bus.”

“If you can pastor a church, you can drive a school bus,” Harley asserted. “Or maybe it’s the other way around. But either way, it’s just hauling people from one point to another and putting up with them along the way.”

“I’m not sure I see the connection,” Ken replied.

“It’s what Pastor Joe Bledsoe told me,” Harley explained. “He drove school bus when he was pastoring here twenty years ago. Used to be, when the mill was still operating, pastors got a steady job there. But after it closed down they took whatever they could find. Joe came here from the city, and he didn’t know anything about driving trucks or buses either, but he learned how. He used to say he learned more about pastoring a church by driving that school bus full of kids than he did in Bible school.”

Harley’s “miracle” had the punch of a putdown to Ken. He felt cornered. So he tried his only way out. “I’m a licensed real estate agent,” he submitted.

“What are you going to sell in this neck of the woods, foreclosures?” Harley pressed, his quiet voice rising to the ire of the affronted. “There’s plenty of them here in Elk Creek, but peddling repossessed homes won’t exactly ingratiate you to the people who are losing their homes. And besides, people aren’t moving to Elk Creek anymore. They are moving from Elk Creek, unless they’re looking for cheap rent in the trailer park.”

Ken was getting the impression that Harley had more backbone than his bowtie betrayed about him. He was a small, thin man who knew how to have his way with people. He clearly had a big deposit of grit tucked beneath his humble bearing. 

“I’m not going to twist your arm, Ken,” Harley insisted, his voice sliding to genial again. “But jobs don’t grow on trees in Elk Creek. If you don’t take it, Buster will have it filled by tomorrow afternoon.”

Ken heard the commotion of the kids scrambling into the house. Barbara came in following them and she noticed Ken talking on the phone. He looked at her with bewildered eyes. She tilted her head and gave him a quizzical look.

“Who is it?” she whispered.

Ken waved her off. “Harley, can I call you back?... Good. Give me your number.” He pulled a pen and a sticky pad from a drawer and scribbled Harley’s number. “Okay, I’ll get back to you after I’ve talked it over with my wife. Good bye.”

A late-afternoon wind was whipping through Eugene when Ken and Barbara stepped outside and started walking through the neighborhood. Tree branches hanging over sidewalks rustled and creaked above them.

“My first thought of Elk Creek was right,” Ken pronounced, pacing too swiftly for Barbara to easily keep up.

She trotted silently alongside him, sensing he was about to drop a load off his mind.

“I will die on the vine up there,” he went on.

“What’s going kill you?” she asked.

“Maybe I’ll get run over by a bus.” he answered facetiously.

“In Elk Creek?” she wondered.

“Or maybe with me behind the wheel, somebody else could get run over,” he added with mock laughter.

Barbara pulled Ken’s elbow to a halt on a sidewalk beside Pioneer Cemetery. She stared up at his face, registering her confusion without saying a word.

“Harley Phipps called and said he got a job for me driving a school bus up there,” Ken muttered.

Barbara balked at the thought of it. Ken’s driving was definitely dubious and she knew it was a big sore spot with him. Like each of his apprehensions, it had a storied history sprinkled with humiliating little incidents. A notable example came to mind. The day they brought home their new van Ken scraped its passenger side entering the garage. The side mirror went with it. But most of the damage was sustained by Ken’s male psyche, which had taken an unforgettably disastrous hit on a camping trip with Barbara’s parents shortly after they were married.

Barbara’s father, Fritz Beckelmeier, was a man’s man if there ever was one. A big, barrel-chested, thick-necked man, “Fritzy” owned a ready-mix concrete company with a fleet of cement mixers and dump trucks. He nearly lived behind the wheel of his jacked-up, four-wheel-drive Dodge Ram pickup truck. He was an expert outdoorsman, and he was in command of his rig on any kind of off-road terrain. This was the picture of a man that Barbara had grown up admiring.

Ken, on the other hand, had not gotten his driver’s license until he was nineteen. He had flunked the driving test twice before he finally passed it. This too had a story behind it. When he was fifteen Ken got his driver’s permit. One day he was practice-driving in the neighborhood with his dad riding along beside him when he came to a stop sign and hit the brakes too hard, hurtling his dad, who was not wearing a seat belt, onto the dashboard. He hurt his elbow and he cussed a blue streak at Ken. Bailing out of the car, he hollered, “I’ll be damned if I’m riding with you!” He slammed the door and stomped away, leaving Ken to drive home unassisted and illegal. He drove in a slow crawl back to the barn. It was his sophomore year in high school -- the same year his parents divorced. Ken's mother eventually taught him how to drive in the local grade school parking lot.

Ken had never even pushed a clutch before the camp-out. He’d always driven automatics. So when he and Barbara and the in-laws were setting up camp and Fritzy asked Ken to climb inside his rig and back the camping trailer into their site, he froze with fright. To Fritzy, it was a behest of honor to his new son-in-law, a nod to prove his mastery of this manly art. To Ken, it was a pending nightmare akin to showing up naked at work. Not even Barbara knew of his secret shame, or she would have rescued him from certain doom. But there was no dignified way out and no waking up from this living nightmare. Inevitably, Ken’s nakedness was soon in plain sight of the whole family.

No one paid attention to him wobbling like a wet noodle toward the truck. At first, nobody minded that, once he had climbed inside the cab, it was taking him forever just to crank the engine. Fritzy had positioned himself behind the trailer, waiting to spot-signal Ken so he could properly align it on the parking pad. When he finally turned the key, both truck and trailer jerked backward and Fritzy jumped to the side. Inside the cab, Ken sweated profusely. He did the same thing twice more before he heard Fritzy bellowing, “Push in the darn clutch before you turn the key!”

By then, Barbara was watching with clammy dismay. Ken shoved in the clutch, turned the key and the diesel motor rattled to life. Not knowing how to release it, Ken popped the clutch and the truck and trailer shot backward. Fritzy leaped for cover in a patch of Oregon grapes, and the tandem turned and twisted and then jackknifed next to a picnic table.

Fritzy was still scrambling to his feet when Barbara ran to Ken’s rescue. Swift as a firefighter, she climbed aboard and shoved him aside and commandeered the driver’s seat. She cranked the engine and pulled the rig out of its contorted mess. After lining it all up again, Barbara slowly guided the whole business backwards, turning her head from side to side, sharply eyeing the side mirrors while making tiny adjustments at the wheel to stay in line with Fritzy’s spotting. As she snugly parked it into place, she nodded at Ken and whispered, “Done!”

Ken was undone for the rest of the weekend. He couldn’t bring himself to look Fritzy in the eye for shame, and Fritzy couldn’t bring himself to look Ken in the eye for befuddlement.

Through the years, Ken had a few more mishaps behind the wheel, but nothing major. He was cautious enough to stick with automatics, which kept his life a lot less traumatic. And Barbara couldn’t imagine him ever again driving a vehicle more complex than the family van.

“I don’t suppose you have to take the job,” she assured him. Ken stood staring at the ground.

“Did he offer you a salary?” she asked, scraping for some positive news.

“I was afraid to ask him how much,” he somberly admitted. “He wants me to meet the bus-boss tomorrow morning at ten.”

Dark clouds were swirling overhead and a few hard sprinkles splattered on the street. The wind was blowing stronger and the damp-dirt smell of a summer storm was in the air. Ken took Barbara by the hand and guided her onto a pathway in the cemetery. “If it gets wet, I know where there’s a storage shed with an overhang,” he shouted above the wind whisking through the trees. They started in a dash, Ken pulling Barbara by the hand to help her keep up with him.

The rain cloud suddenly burst and giant drops pelted down so hard and so heavily it was deafening. The wind whipped the rain sideways. They were drenched in no time, but it was a warm rain and so they gave up the run. Ken’s green running gear was plastered to his body. Barbara’s sopping blonde hair went brown and stringy and her pale-blue tunic draped her torso like a flimsy wet paper towel. She shivered when the wind gusted. Ken pulled off his soaked shirt and tugged it over her head. Straightening it around her, he drew her into his arms and squeezed her closely against his bare chest. He snuggled his mouth close to her ear, whispering tenderly, “I’m sorry I keep dragging you into my messes.”

“What mess?” Barbara shouted under the roaring storm. “Wherever you go, I’ll go, like your own right arm.”  

Ken held her in a swaying embrace, the wind howling and the rain whirling all around them. “You think you could teach me how to drive stick-shift?” he implored laughing.

“Done!” she sniffled, burying her face in his chest with her tears falling awash in the rain.

The storm passed and Ken and Barbara strolled back to Nancy’s house on wet and steaming streets. After changing into dry clothes, Ken phoned Harley to let him know that he and the whole family would be there in the morning. Overhearing his conversation, Nancy chimed in saying, “Oh please, can I come too?”

“Did you hear that?” Ken asked Harley. “Nancy wants to come with us.”

“This is delightful news!” he cheered. “I haven’t seen Nancy since Fred’s funeral. Tell her I will inform the entire church of her coming.”

Ken and Barbara were sitting on a sofa in the living room that evening, his arm draped around her shoulders, when he asked her, “What changed your mind about going to Elk Creek?”

“Oh, it’s a long story,” she answered drowsily. “Really, it’s lots of stories.” She hefted the church’s three-ring notebook from the coffee table and plopped it on Ken's lap. “See if you can find a story in there that suits you. I’m going to bed.” Rising, she leaned over and pecked his forehead. “Good night. I love you.”

“Thanks for the walk in the rain,” he said, gently squeezing her hand. “I love you too.” She wandered off to their bedroom.

Ken opened the notebook and thumbed through a few pages. He wondered what Fred might have written and he guesstimated where his letter would likely fall in the order of pages. He guessed wrong, landing instead on a letter written by Joe Bledsoe.

“Well,well, it’s Joe, the bus driver,” Ken mused. “So, what’s he got to say for himself?”

Perusing Pastor Joe’s letter, dated October 5, 1990, Ken got pulled in by his candor:

After finishing Bible school, I came to Elk Creek thinking I was called to be a pastor, but I am now leaving convinced that I am not. I am an evangelist at heart. I discovered my true calling here, and that occurred in an unlikely way – by driving a school bus. As the Scriptures say, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, and learning to drive a school bus was His perfect way for me to discover how weak I am and how strong He is. It was a troubling discovery for me, but driving the bus was a picture of the ministry God was preparing for me.

It started out with some much-needed practical lessons. I had never operated a vehicle with a manual transmission, and driving a big bus was not an easy way to start. At first, I gave my boss, Buster, fits, grinding gears and twice backing the bus into the garage door. He probably had never seen a clumsier driver. He got really mad at me, but he didn’t give up on me. I sometimes wondered if the Lord was thinking the same about me as a pastor. And I wondered the same about this church, especially when you saw that I was a better evangelist than I was a pastor. Rather than voicing your disappointment in me, each of you encouraged me in the way that I should go (possibly hoping I would go soon).

My heart came alive when I was driving that bus because it put me in touch with kids who needed Jesus. And He needed to get me into the right vehicle for going after them. For me the right vehicle was not a church building; it was a bus.

I also concluded that, as long as I was occupying the church pulpit, I was standing in someone else’s spot. That’s when I realized I had finished my short assignment at Elk Creek and that the Lord was moving me on from here. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be who I am and for putting up with me while the Lord worked in my weakness to prepare me for my unique calling.

Ken set the notebook on the coffee table and closed his eyes. “Father,” he prayed, “I’m climbing aboard the bus.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Assignment

by Jim Morud

Chapter Six 

It was easy to feel at home in Nancy Stevenson’s little brown bungalow. Built in the 1920’s, it was tidy and modestly arranged with period-friendly furniture. Its silky cream-colored maple floor and maple wainscoting gave her living room a mellow, homey look. Simple and yet refined, Nancy’s domain matched her demeanor. 

Chopin’s piano composition, Nocturnes, was playing softly on audio-surround when she settled into an overstuffed chair across from Barbara with a creaky wooden fan slowly whirling overhead. Her long-haired cat, Helga, lay curled up like a furry pillow on the sofa. Barbara’s gaze had drifted to two large paintings hanging on a side wall, one showing three children frolicking in ocean waves and the other showing an elderly couple holding hands and walking along the strand at Oregon’s Cannon Beach with its celebrated Haystack Rock rising from the surf in the distance. Both were Nancy’s own works. Her gentle, artful eyes were now resting on Barbara.

“Every painting tells a story,” Nancy stated, noting her fixation.

“Do you know the people you paint?” Barbara asked.

“Most, but not all,” she replied. “But if not, I ask for permission to take their picture for my photo references.”

“So how do you know their stories if you don’t personally know them?” Barbara asked.

“I don’t know their stories – not, that is, as they might tell them,” Nancy replied. “I tell a story as I see it, and my medium for telling it is paint. If you had seen those same people on the beach you probably would have described them differently than I. And you certainly would have painted them differently. But whether you paint a story with words or with colors, you are telling a story in a way that only you can tell it.”

“And what about the color purple?” Barbara asked. “You were about to tell me how you came to like purple.”

“I was leading up to that,” Nancy replied. “There is a story behind that too.” She lifted the hefty notebook from the coffee table, turning and peering at its pages through half-moon reading glasses.

“Here it is,” she announced. “This is the letter that changed my mind about the color purple. But before I show it to you, may I tell you a story?”

“Sure,” Barbara said. She had sat often enough with Nancy to know that she had already weighed what she was about to say.  

Nancy paused, closing her eyes to absorb a shimmering movement – allegro in the music. “I will try to keep this short,” she continued, opening her eyes. “Have I ever told you how different Fred and I were when we first married?”

Barbara shook her head attentively.

“We were just out of Bible school and we were deeply in love,” she resumed. “Suffice it to say that we were more different than we knew. When we came to Elk Creek those differences suddenly popped out in plain view.”

Barbara smiled and nodded with understanding.

“I grew up in Seattle,” Nancy explained. “I was a big-city girl. We lived in a large, red-brick house on Queen Anne Hill with a splendid view of Puget Sound. My father was a prominent corporate tax attorney. My whole extended family was socially-connected. We were high-church, but I had never heard the gospel until as a girl I attended a Youth for Christ rally with none other than Billy Graham speaking. That’s when I welcomed Christ into my heart. From that point on, Jesus was very real and personal to me. The most evident difference He made in me was my turn from utter self-absorption to being other-oriented. I used to throw some nasty tantrums when I didn’t get my way.”

Barbara flashed a smile as she pictured Nancy throwing a tantrum. Its sheer absurdity struck her as comical. 

“But the more I responded to the Lord’s way with me the more I wanted to know Him,” she continued. “My parents appreciated the changes in my behavior, but they didn’t really understand the reason, and so I became the family rebel when I insisted on going to Bible College in Portland rather than going to the all-women’s college that my mother and my two sisters had attended on the East Coast. Mother was aghast at my educational preference, but surprisingly, my father stood up to her. More importantly to me, in doing so, he was also standing up for me. This was a major miracle in my life and probably in his too.

“Fred, on the other hand, came from a broken home. He grew up in a small timber town called Coquille near the southern Oregon coast. His father was a mill worker and an alcoholic. Fred was hastening along in his father’s footsteps when he encountered Jesus. His life changed dramatically.

“Shortly afterward, Fred came to the college. He was a year behind me in school but four years older than I in age. I had never personally met a man so vibrant in his love for the Lord. He was daring and outgoing and he took the campus by storm. He had the same kind of charisma and zeal that I had seen in Billy Graham. He rallied other students to join him in reaching out to strangers on the streets and bums on skid road. I admired Fred from a safe distance, but I was shy and self-conscious. I avoided the bandwagon because I was afraid my fear of talking openly about the Lord would expose me as a real phony.”

That admission brought another smile to Barbara’s face. It was a laughable thought to her. Nancy Stevenson, a phony – nothing could have been further from the truth in her estimation.

Nancy paused, calmly taking in another shining moment in the music – adagio – which had now slowed to an easy gait, and then she went on. “One Saturday evening my friend, Charlene, coaxed me into going along with the band to downtown Portland. I had heard all kinds of interesting stories of people on the streets accepting the Lord and I wanted to see it firsthand, but with emphasis on seeing it. I only wanted to watch.”

Nancy laughed out loud. For such a soft-spoken person, her laughter was bubbly. “Oh my, was I in for a night! We assembled in a city park and Fred told us to pair up, guy-girl. At first I felt annoyed with him for ordering us around like that. I wanted to stay with Charlene. But after everybody had paired up I felt like the wallflower that nobody had asked to dance. I was the last one standing with Fred after everyone else had gone away. Then he looked at me so sweetly and he asked me, “May I have the pleasure of your company this evening?”

“Ahh!” Barbara cooed. “He was such a kind man.”

“Yes, I thought so too,” Nancy agreed, her green eyes sparkling. “But we hadn’t even taken two steps when we heard a loud scream coming from a corner of the park. A man then dashed out of the darkness and bolted across the street, and we kept hearing a horrible moaning coming from behind the shrubs. I was so scared I wanted to run the other way. But Fred ran to see what was happening. I was afraid to stay there alone, so I ran after him.

“It was such an awful sight. An old man lay on the ground bleeding. His clothes were rumpled and soiled and he looked to me like a wino. But Fred knelt down right beside him. He was shouting at the top of his lungs for help. Meanwhile he pulled open the man’s shirt. Blood was gushing out of a deep slash in his abdomen. Fred pulled off his own shirt and pressed it against his wound. He kept praying and pleading, ‘Don’t die, sir! Jesus is with you! Please don’t die!’ I was crying and praying frantically too.”

Nancy’s eyes were watery and her voice was slightly cracking. Barbara moved beside her and gently squeezed her. Helga jumped off the sofa.

Collecting her composure, Nancy continued, “His eyes were just bulging with fear. I’d never seen such a terrified look on anyone’s face. Fred just held him in his arms as if he were a small child. His blood was drenching Fred’s clothes, but Fred kept urging him to cry out to Jesus. The man was getting weaker and weaker, but I heard him say it, ‘Jesus, please save me!’ It was only a whisper, but right then I saw a peacefulness wash over his face. A police car then rolled up, followed by an ambulance.”

Nancy looked at Barbara and took a deep breath, fanning her face with her hands. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “I’m sorry this is taking so long.”

Nancy, I’m listening,” Barbara assured her, grasping her hands. “I want to know about this.”

“Well,” Nancy continued, “Fred and I ran to a department store and he bought a new shirt and trousers, and then we drove to the hospital. But we were too late. The knife had sliced his liver and had cut an artery. He had lost too much blood and he died before we got there.

“Fred later found out that his name was Marvin Neffendorf and he had been staying in a ramshackle apartment. He didn’t have a living relative. He was also a World War II army veteran. He had landed at Normandy during D-Day. I think he was a forgotten war hero, and he nearly died alone.”

She let that thought linger before continuing. “Fred made arrangements with the Veterans Administration to conduct Marvin’s funeral at Willamette National Cemetery on Mt. Scott. He had never led a funeral service before then. Besides two army soldiers, we were the only people at the gravesite. It was cold and windy and it was raining sideways up on that hillside. We sang Amazing Grace and Fred read the Twenty-third Psalm and he preached a beautiful little sermon to me. One soldier presented us with an American flag, thinking we were family, and the other played Taps. The soldiers left and then Fred and I stood there getting all sopping wet and crying for Marvin, a man we never even knew. And that’s when I knew I would go anywhere with Fred.”

Nancy sniffled and blew her nose into a kerchief. “At least that’s what I was thinking before we got to Elk Creek,” she chuckled.

Andante – Chopin was strolling right along.

“To Fred, Elk Creek was like coming home again,” Nancy went on. “It reminded him of his home town. In those days, the saw mill was running day and night and Fred just loved the smell of sawdust in the damp air. I remember the morning we arrived in Elk Creek. When he got out of the car Fred took in a deep breath and he had this great big delectable smile on his face. He told me it reminded him of how a clean, wet dog smells after a bath. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“To me, the whole town smelled nauseous and his dog analogy sounded disgusting. I told him so. He looked jolted when I said it. That was my first clue that we held some widely-divergent opinions.”

Barbara found it hard to picture Nancy telling anyone so. To her, she was the embodiment of grace – with her every hair and every thought and every word always in its proper place. She wondered if Nancy was even capable of having an argument, certainly not starting one. But she liked what she was hearing, and her eyes widened with interest.

“I detected a tinge of hurt in his eyes and he stared at me so seriously,” Nancy continued. “He told me sawdust also smells like jobs for supporting families and schools and churches and whole communities. Fred was very protective of his roots, as I found out, and he drew the line right there.”

Barbara felt a slight letdown upon hearing the earnest outcome of that exchange, but she held her interest. “So how did you two wind up at Elk Creek?” she asked.

“The short answer is Fred needed a job,” Nancy replied. “We had just learned that I was pregnant, which explains why I felt so nauseated. Fred felt we couldn’t afford to wait for a church to call him. He heard about a job-opening at the mill in Elk Creek, and because he had done mill work in Coquille, he knew he could earn a living.

“We got there just before church on a Sunday morning and we decided to go to the first church we saw. As you may know, there are only two churches to choose from in Elk Creek. It so happened that the Community Church was in between pastors and  they were planning to have a ‘sharing’ service that morning. But Fred stood up and offered to preach. He was always ready to preach. The people were cheered by his message and before we knew what was happening we were getting a grand tour of the parsonage.”

“Viola at your service?” Barbara asked with a lilt in her voice.

Nancy giggled, nodding. “The weather was just awful that morning and  the parsonage looked drab, almost gray. I did not feel inspired to live there. Viola gave us a long history of every room in the house. To prove how well-built it was, she placed a golf ball on the floor and she was proud to point out how it didn’t budge from its spot.”

“Nor has Viola budged from that demonstration,” Barbara interrupted.

Nancy snickered, and then she caught herself. “I shouldn’t laugh,” she said. “Viola really means well. I came to deeply love and admire her. I must tell you more about her, but first I’ll show you what I found out about that purple house.”

The heavy notebook was lying open on her lap and Nocturnes was now swinging slowly – lento – like the fan whirling overhead. “Here,” she said, handing the book to Barbara. “I think you should read this yourself."

Barbara began reading silently while Nancy stepped to the back door and let Helga outside.

June 13, 1967
Pastor Charles Faubion

To our beloved family at Elk Creek:

     Jeanette and I realize that during our three years of ministry among you we could not give to you as much you have given to us. We hope you do not feel short-changed by us, but as you all know, we really needed your help. You gave to us when we had nothing but our tears to offer you in return. Losing our only child, Patty, was and still is the most painful episode of our lives. Without your love and support it might have been unbearable. 
     I have been asked to write this letter for posterity’s sake, as previous pastors at Elk Creek have done before me. With respect to the godly men who have laid the foundation of this fellowship, I feel like a small boy standing on the shoulders of giants. Even so, to future pastors of this church, I offer you our story:
     Patty was five years old when she died last year from leukemia. She first showed signs of her sickness shortly after we had come to Elk Creek two years earlier. When tests confirmed that she had cancer, we were devastated. We began taking her to the Children’s Hospital in Portland for treatments, which sometimes meant weeklong stays. Most of the traveling and overnight stays fell on Jeanette. We took turns, but my second job at the mill kept me from going as often as I wanted to go. It was hard on all three of us.
     That is when the saints at Elk Creek took turns loving us. It would take a whole book to tell all that everyone did for us, so I will give only a sampling in this letter.
     Harley Phipps is in charge of payroll and scheduling at the mill. Although I had no seniority, he let Jack Stone switch shifts with me. I went to working day shift and Jack went to working swing shift. That was better for me and my family. On days when I had to go with Jeanette and Patty to Portland, Jack worked both shifts and he worked it out with Harley for me to get paid for his working my shift. 
     We were served meals almost daily for nearly two years, not only by our church members but also from strangers and people in the area who don’t go to church at all. Somebody had secretly coordinated all of that help, and we know who you are, Alma Fitzgerald. I am convinced that the ladies of Elk Creek are the best cooks in Polk County.
     Gilbert Hawkins kept us supplied with firewood, split and stacked, for the winter.
     There were days when a hug from Claudette Marley was all we needed to make it. Patty loved Claudette’s hugs. She used to say it felt as if Jesus were hugging her when Claudette hugged her. I felt the same way.
     Despite her illness, Patty was a bright and happy child. She had learned to read simple books by age four. Her favorite book was Mr. Pine’s Purple House.

Barbara looked up from the page smiling. She had read that book when she was a little girl. It was one of her favorites also.

     Purple was Patty’s favorite color. She loved purple dresses and purple hats and she even had a purple teddy bear. Her bedroom was decorated all in purple. Mr. Pine lived in a neighborhood where all of the houses were painted white. Because they all looked alike, he couldn’t remember which house was his, so he painted his house purple. The parsonage was all white, just like Mr. Pine’s neighborhood. It had never been any color but white, and that was not likely to change. But Patty prayed out loud in church one day that God would let her live in a purple house like Mr. Pine’s.  
     Toward the end of her fight, Patty spent longer and more frequent periods in the hospital. After one particularly hard stay we got the surprise of our lives one day when we came home, especially Patty. You guessed it. The parsonage had been painted purple! Patty was so delighted that she started squealing and jumping up and down in her purple pajamas, flapping her hands the way little girls do when they are too happy to stand still. Jeanette and I just stood there crying for sheer joy.
     I know that Hank and Viola Chalmers take seriously their stewardship of the parsonage, and they had kept it painted white for good reason, but they seemed to have found a better reason for painting it purple. They painted it purple for the same reason that they had built it – to honor God and to love people.
     The following Sunday morning everybody came to church wearing something purple – hats, dresses, blouses, shirts and socks. Harley wore a purple bowtie. Patty started squealing and jumping again when she saw everyone dressed in purple and Jeanette and I couldn’t hold back our tears. I really lost it when Hank hung his Purple Heart and ribbon around Patty’s neck. Do you know how good it makes you feel to see other people loving your child like this?
     We may never feel so loved again as this, dear friends, but we do want to love others in our future assignments as we have been loved by you during our time in Elk Creek.

Thanking God for you in all our prayers,

Pastor Charles and Jeanette Faubion

Nocturnes had come to its ending and the rickety fan was swirling warm air around the room when Nancy returned. The notebook lay open on Barbara’s lap and she was sitting quietly, looking pensive.

“So the story inspired you to live there,” Barbara said softly.

“In all honesty, at first it was simple necessity that inspired me to live there,” Nancy replied. “You see, I had had the idea that when Fred came to Jesus, he was destined to move up in the world, not to go back to his humble beginnings. And Elk Creek wasn’t exactly Queen Anne Hill. My two sisters had each married into affluence, much to my mother’s delight. She carefully avoided mentioning my whereabouts to her friends. But God had other plans for me.

“So there I was, pregnant for the first time, far removed from my life and family in Seattle, and living in a dreary little town by no choice of my own. And then one rainy day – exactly which one, I can’t remember, because almost every day was rainy – I was bored, and so I sat flipping through this notebook and I came across Patty’s story. After reading it, it dawned on me that, even if I hadn’t chosen to live there, I did have a choice about how I would live there. I could tell my own story.”

The cat was at the door again, meowing to get back into the house. “Excuse me,” Nancy said, rising. “Oh, it’s gotten so warm in here. Can I pour you some iced tea?”

“Sure, I’d love some,” Barbara said, placing the notebook on the coffee table. Helga ran in and sprang onto the sofa.

“Painting was my only getaway,” Nancy called from the kitchen. “I’ve always loved to paint and I wished I had more time for it. Well, I had lots of free time after coming to Elk Creek. So one rainy day I decided to paint the parsonage.”

“You did?” Barbara’s eyes widened.

“I meant on canvass,” Nancy laughed. “I’m not that ambitious.”

“What color did you paint it?” Barbara inquired.

“Just a minute,” she replied. “I’ll show you.”

Nancy walked into her studio – an enclosed window-wrapped porch – and she gathered four small paintings. She returned and set all four on two easels for Barbara to see. One painting showed the parsonage painted yellow like a daffodil. Another depicted it in copper red. A third had it in a soft pastel green. And the fourth was painted with a gentle lilac-purple. Each painting appeared to have been done in spring. Irises and lilies were in bloom beside the porch, and each rendering made the parsonage look gorgeously quaint, like a vacation cottage for a queen.

“What a difference a splash of paint can make!” Barbara marveled.

“Yes it can,” Nancy agreed. “Now, look at each painting and give me one reason why you would choose to live in each house. Don’t tell me why you wouldn’t want to live there. Tell me why you would want to live there. I asked myself the same question after I had painted each of them.”

Barbara stood and studied the paintings. “Okay,” she said. “I would pick the yellow one because it reminds me of a sunny day, and I’d probably forget what that looks like if I were living in Elk Creek.”

Nancy smiled. “That is quite true.”

She pointed at the green parsonage. “I like this one because it is so normal-looking and it blends well with its natural surroundings.”

“And why is looking normal important to you?” Nancy probed.

“I’ve never liked standing out in any way,” she replied. “It’s why I liked living in our housing association. Our house, the neighbor’s house and everyone else’s house look basically the same – only they are painted in different shades of beige. I felt comfortably anonymous living there.”

“I see,” Nancy said, lifting an eyebrow. “And were you allowed to choose the color of your house?”

“No, just different shades of beige,” she replied.

“So you didn’t really have a choice?” Nancy inquired.

“No, I chose not to have a choice,” Barbara said. She sensed that Nancy was going somewhere with her line of questioning.

“Okay,” Nancy continued, “and what about the red house?”

“I would choose this one just to be rebellious,” Barbara admitted. “I’d paint it red just to tweak Viola and her rules.”

“What rules?” Nancy probed.

“When she was showing us through the house she made a big point of it: ‘There’s only one rule!’” Barbara quoted.

“How many rules?” Nancy asked.

“One…,” and Barbara’s sentence trailed off.

“Did she say anything about the color of the house?” Nancy asked,

Barbara paused before speaking. “You mean there is no rule for the color of the house?”

“Not that I can remember,” Nancy said. “I can only remember one rule.”

“No more holes in the walls,” Barbara uttered.

“Did Viola tell you why she doesn’t want any more holes in the walls?” Nancy asked.

“She said she doesn’t want them to look like Swiss cheese,” Barbara answered.

“I suppose she also boasted about how Hank had built the parsonage single-handedly,” Nancy added.

“Yes, with some help from herself,” Barbara said.

“Well, he literally did build it single-handedly!” Nancy exclaimed. “You see, Hank had only one arm – his left arm. He lost his right arm during the war. That’s how he got his Purple Heart. Before the war he was a carpenter, and he was right-handed!

“Hank and Viola were engaged to be married before he went off to war. She came from a poor family of fourteen children. Hank promised to build her a home after he returned. When he came back without his arm, it meant he had lost his means of making a living. She kept her promise to marry him, and he vowed to build her a house. But to do so, he had to teach his left hand to do what his right hand had done, although he never could saw or hammer or drill fast enough to make a living at it.

“After they moved to Oregon Hank went back to dairy farming as his father had done. He never liked it, but he always worked hard at it. And he kept his promise to Viola. He built her a home, but with her help. You see, she recognized that he had lost more than his arm in the war – when he lost the skill of his right hand he lost a piece of his manhood.”

“She told me she did the heavy lifting for him,” Barbara added.

“Yes, she did. But she didn’t make him feel the lesser for it. More than that,” Nancy added, “she was his right arm. Viola stood by Hank.

“The funny thing is that you couldn’t have found an odder-looking couple than Hank and Viola. Hank was thin and wiry and he stood about nose-high to her. But I think she made him feel taller than he looked. They really loved each other. And, oh, how Viola grieved when she lost her Hank. He got kicked in the head by a cow he was milking and he died a few days later. Forty years have gone by since then and she still honors him by preserving his handiwork. That’s why she won’t allow any more holes in those beautiful wooden walls.”

Barbara took the painting of the purple parsonage from the easel and held it in her hands. With the fan still creaking overhead, she quietly studied it.

“Why would you choose to live in that one?” Nancy softly inquired.

Barbara kept her silence for a few moments. “Patty’s story,” she finally answered. “She painted her own story there. Hank and Viola painted theirs. And you painted yours. I suppose I’ll paint mine too.”