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.”

1 comment:

Ira Swanson said...

Another wonderful chapter. I remember similar feelings of being set up by in-lawas..the manly test. Also, great photo, looks like some great work from your oldest. Angela enjoyed the sketch.

Your friend,

Ira P. Swanson