Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Atta Boy, Part 3

If you're catching up:  Part 1 & Part 2

She looked at him, puzzled. She pushed the doorknob until it clicked shut. She sat in the chair. He could see the wheels in her head working, guessing. Dread disease? Pink slip? Midlife urge to chuck it all? She studied his eyes like a doctor checking pupil dilation. 

He went on. "I could get called today. Elder Sperry is in town, you know. Interviewing for the new stake president. I have a feeling I could be called in."

By now, her jaw hung open. She looked as if she remembered something from far away and long ago, something like faint warning bells he had set off back in their dating days, warning bells she should have heeded, warning bells that, at this moment, clanged like fire alarms. She looked away at the far wall, rose slowly from her chair and reached for the doorknob. Looking back at him one last time, she opened the door and left the room. 

Latham stared at his typewriter. She needs some time, that's all. Let her get used to the idea. 

Just as he finished a new paragraph, she poked her head in the doorway again. "What kind of people are they calling in for interviews?" she asked.

"Oh, bishops. High councilors."

"But you haven't been any of those."

Latham's hands froze over the keyboard. "Gosh darn it, Ada! I've got work to do!" 

She disappeared. 

So, it was going to be one of those days, was it? His woman thought he was a fool? And this was the woman he depended on and loved, in spite of having to part curtains of her drying hosiery in the bathroom?

If he was a fool, then what of all those premonitions? He hadn't asked for them to wake him up at four in the morning, to sneak up on him as he leaned over to tie his shoes, to breathe down his neck as he stood before his bookshelf, fingering the spines until he found the book he wanted. What was he to make of thoughts that whispered to him, Maybe you shouldn't start an article right now because you won't get to finish it very soon.

Huh? Where did all this come from?

Why would his mind play tricks on him like that? Why would God send premonitions that were useless and cruel, actually? Why would Erval see greatness in him that wasn't really there? Why would they call only bishops and high councilors and not him? If God wanted him, He could bypass a little protocol. Was anything impossible for God? 

Ada appeared in his doorway again. "Lois Kilby's on the phone."

Latham slunk to the kitchen, despairing. Elder Sperry would never get through to him today. He held the phone to his ear. Sister Kilby's thin little voice came over the line. "Could you please come and have a look at where this water's comin' from?" she pleaded.

Latham hung up the phone with the frown of a man who just learned his car was $3000 sicker than he thought. "I don't know why I should worry myself about the water on Rut Kilby's kitchen floor when Rut himself isn't home to worry about it."

"Oh?" said Ada. "Where is Rut?"

"Off at Mugly's. She says they're barbecuing a billy goat."

Ada's eyebrow shot up. "People do that?"

Latham nodded his head slowly. Nothing Rut did surprised him anymore. "And Lois can't get him there because Mugly's phone is cut off again. Oh, what's the use of all this? I go out there every month and they stand on their little trailer steps and they look so sincere and tell me, 'We're planning to come to church next Sunday. Sure thing. Oh, yes, we'll see you there.' And Sunday rolls around and where are the Kilbys? Sitting in the row next to us? Sitting in any row at all?"

"Coming in late?"

"Hah! They're too shiftless to even come late! And there I am, the chump that believed their promises for the 473rd time."

"How much water are we talking about here? Where's it coming from?"

"I didn't ask. I didn't think. Why would I? I'm Mr. Oops, remember? I'm the husband that doesn't know an elbow joint from an elbow ache. I'm the guy you've told," he imitated her high voice, "'Please, Lat, don't patch that nail hole.'"

"OK, maybe these people deserve you. They make promises they don't keep, so God gives them a home teacher who can't help them." She beamed over her own logic.

He looked at her miserably. Then he lapsed into her voice again. "Please Lat, let's just call somebody who knows what they're doing."

"That's it!" She snapped her fingers. "Why don't you call Erval, Mr. Fix-It himself. He'll know how to help the Kilbys." 

Latham just stared at the phone. Would it ever ring for him today? Would it ever ring and not be the Kilbys?

"Never mind," said Ada. "I'll call myself. I've got to ask Ruthalin something anyway."

Latham unfolded himself from the kitchen chair. He shuffled into the living room, fell back into his La-Z-Boy and stared at the ceiling. By now, he couldn't even remember what Elder Sperry looked like, even though he had seen the man's picture dozens of times. 

"Uh-huh… . Really?" said Ada, in the other room. "I see. Well, yes, I know, uh-huh."

She poked her head into the living room. Holding her hand over the receiver, she whispered, "Guess what Erval's been doing today? Waiting by the phone just in case Elder Sperry calls!"

Latham sat up in shock. They couldn't want Erval! What about his own premonitions? What about Erval kidding him that "it's gonna be you, Latham. You watch out"? After good buddy Erv's gentle kidding, Latham couldn't take it if he had to watch Erval walk up to the stand tomorrow, grip the pulpit, and pause to take control of his emotions. He couldn't take it, watching all of Erval's ten kids troop into the office with the president's big desk where, with a ceremonious laying of Elder Sperry's hands on Erval's head, they would watch their father become the new stake president. Why, the room wouldn't hold them all. That was one reason to reject Erval right there!

But what if it was Erval? Who would Elder Sperry and God like better? Didn't DeVere W. Sperry have something like ten kids himself? Yes, Latham had seen the picture in the magazine, published when the man first ascended to his position: the wife with her new perm; the handsome older sons in their blazers; the thirteen-year-old son trying to change a smirk into a smile: the older daughters, their souls aged from washing loads of dishes and braiding many, many heads of hair; and the youngest daughter, her hand resting on her father's knee, her smile revealing a corn row of baby teeth.

Somehow the photo looked so right, so authoritative. So much like Erval's family photo, with its fresh-scrubbed, frame-filling look.

That would impress Elder Sperry. Not that he'd see the picture, but he'd hear about all those kids. It'd come out in the interview. "Ten? Why your wife's got her ticket to heaven for sure!" he'd tell Erval.

And Erval'd get the job, because he was so right for it. He'd get the job, all because of his wife's willingness to be pregnant for 64 percent of their sum total married life, so far.

And what had Latham's own wife done to distinguish him? Well, after two kids, she had told him it was fine for him to have his premonitions of six children, but he wasn't the one throwing up here.

But now he saw that he'd been had. His phone hadn't rung yet. It might be ringing at Erval's house now.

No. Wait. 

It couldn't be. His wife was tying up Erval's line just now, talking to Erval's wife. "Yes, the store in Brandywine said they sell it, but not in bulk." 

Suddenly, Latham's mouth stretched into a villainous grin. He'd make sure Erval never got that call. He'd drag him out to Rut Kilby's house where Elder Sperry could never find him.

He rose up from the chair and walked to the phone. He twisted the pushpins in the bulletin board while Ada finished talking to Erval's wife.

Then he took the phone.  He composed his face. He cleared his throat. He licked his lips.  "Hello, old buddy," he said. "Whatcha up to today?" 

©  2014 Kristen Carson

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'Atta Boy, Part 2

Missed Part 1?  Catch up here.

Picking up the shirt he had discarded across the bed, he buttoned it so rapidly, his fingers felt scraped and raw. With one last zip of his fly, he flew out the bedroom door and to the top of the stairs. He was just ready to come down when his wife stared up at him from the bottom.

"That was Lois Kilby."

"What did she want?"

"She didn't say. She just asked for you."

Latham had a dark feeling about this. He trudged back to his room and sat on his bed. It probably had to do with the emergency room. He didn't have time to run off to emergency rooms today.

Like most men of the Boxford Ward, Latham was assigned a roster of families to visit each month, to "home teach." Other men got the kind of families whose houses smelled of Sunday pot roast and fresh-baked rolls, the kind where the mother neatly folded her apron and beamed over her whole brood as they gathered for the official monthly visit.

But no, they gave Latham the Kilbys, with a waifish, undernourished mom who flipped light switches as if she expected that small act to burn down their trailer.

Other men got families with scrubbed children, who answered your questions about how school was going.

But Latham got the Kilbys, whose sons walked, wordless and sullen, through the living room, regarding him like a big, greasy engine block ruining their mother's couch.

Other men got families with fathers that figured their taxes in long-form and fixed their roofs before they leaked.

But no, Latham got James Rutherford Kilby, non-Mormon husband of Lois Kilby.

And on the day that they handed him the Kilby's address on a little piece of paper, Latham Runyon girded up his courage and set out to pay his respects to the head of the Kilby household. He wound his way through Pine Meadows, dodging the stares of children out on their bicycles, of young men leaning into their open car hoods. Peering at the numbers tacked on the trailer prows, he finally found #44 and faced two men, sprawled in lawn chairs beside the puny metal steps that led to the front door.

Latham had swallowed hard as he got out of his car. He looked at the scrawny blond man. He looked at the beefy one with the shiny forehead and the lumberjack beard. He looked at the cans of Schlitz on a rusted metal table between them.

"I'm looking for James Rutherford Kilby," he said, fighting down a crackle in his voice.

The big bearded one looked at the scrawny one. "Ruthe'ferd?" He shook, seized by a big, sinus-clearing snicker. "That yer real name, Rut? Ruthe'ferd?"

"Shut up, Mugly." The blond one scooted forward in his chair.

* * *
 Rut was good for three things in this life:

He could guzzle beer, he could tinker with his candy-red Honda and he could … well, Lois Kilby turned up pregnant last year — surprise!— and out came Rut's first daughter.

In truth, it was the ugliest baby Latham had ever seen, with jowls roomy enough to store softballs. But he chucked her little double-chin anyway because God had sent him over to be nice to the Kilbys.

Maybe God thought Latham, of all the men at church, might understand Rut Kilby best. After all, Latham too had spawned his own surprise offspring. It happened about ten years ago. Ada had barely sent the youngest of their two daughters off to first grade when she got the news and wept all weekend.

And Latham had once owned a noisy little Yamaha back in the summer after graduation, although Ada and grad school convinced him to give it up.

And Latham had tossed back a beer or two himself back in his pre-Mormon frat-boy days. Perhaps God knew that Latham would not only pity Rut's soul, but his tastebuds, too, for if there ever was a lawnmower beer, Schlitz was it.

It was a peculiar friendship. Home teaching always was. Normal friendship grew like a pot belly, fed on things too good to pass up. Like with Erval. Latham and his good buddy Erv sat for hours, asking each other questions like, "If God is omniscient, then how can we be free to act?" Or, "Were the fishes and the loaves invented on the spot, or were they matter borrowed from somewhere else in the universe?" 

"Uh-oh," their kids would say. "The dads are playing Stump-the-Rabbi again."

With Erval, there was a give-and-take. I borrow your ladder, you borrow my book. Memorial Day at your house, Fourth of July at mine

But with the Kilbys, it was just give and give and give. Call people who don't call back. Care about people who don't care back, not even about themselves.

And now, today, when Latham prayed nothing would come between him and his phone-that-might-ring, the Kilbys rose up before him, needing … well, who knows what they might be needing? It could be anything from baby aspirin to bail money. 

This was a test. He knew it. God was watching him. God was saying, Why should I give you the big jobs if you won't do the small ones? 

And with that, Latham Runyon got up from the bed and clumped down to the kitchen phone. 

He lifted the black handset and stuck his finger in the first hole.

He paused a moment, just to feel the phone vibes. Anything coming through on this line? Anything quivering with portent? 

Was God still watching? 

Probably. He swung the dial around and put his finger in the next hole. 

When he had dialed all the numbers, he leaned back against the counter and watched the second hand on the clock over the fridge. 

Busy signal. Latham dropped the receiver into its cradle, quickly before the busy tone snickered, Just kidding! and Lois Kilby's tired and breathy little voice suddenly said hello. 

He heard the back door close. In came Ada, shuffling new mail in her hands. "Get hold of the Kilbys?" she asked.

"Couldn't get through." He tried hard to look sorry about it.

He walked back to his desk, settled into the chair and wiggled his fingers over his Selectric keyboard, waiting for the next sentence to clack out. 

But nothing came.

And no wonder. It had been a hard morning for a thinking man. Interruptions, distractions—how was he ever going to get this textbook chapter written?

He sat back in his chair. The window before him revealed, beyond the crew-cut edges of the shrubbery, a world lazing its way to lunchtime. The tall oaks across the street waved as if unimpressed by the breeze that pushed against them.  A piece of white fuzz, bobbing along like a tiny visiting spaceship, rode that same breeze past the crabapple branches.

He swiveled in his chair. He looked across his broad desk. Beyond the messy part, with the pencil can and the stapler and the yellow legal pad awaiting his jottings, it looked not much different than Wylie Siltman's desk. Latham could almost see somebody like a young Divins, sitting across from him, with his pretty fiancee, eagerly awaiting his wise, stake-presidential advice.  

"Now, when Sister Runyon and I got married …" 

He sees Divins reach over to the arm of his sweetheart's chair and squeeze her hand. 

Pressing his templed fingers against his chin, he looks straight into Divins' eyes and carries on. "Sister Runyon and I made the decision that we'd have a weekly date, without fail." 

Divins and Sweetheart look into each other's eyes. A shy smile spreads across her face. 

Latham goes on. "It doesn't have to be …" 

Just then, Ada burst through the office door. "Well, look what came today!" she said, plunking herself down in the spare chair. She straightened out the folds of the letter in her hand. 

Latham quickly put away his templed fingers and his wise face. He grabbed the folder on his desk and lifted his reading glasses up to his nose.

"Do you remember my old roommate Helen?" said Ada.

"Mmm." Latham frowned at the folder as if pinning down a thought blown wild by the gust of Ada's interruption. 

"They're coming here!" She squinted down at the letter, mumbling its handwritten words: "'Baltimore … Washington D.C… seeing the sights. Philadelphia around the fourteenth. Love to get together… .' But of course! What day is the 14th?" She got up and squinted at the calendar on Latham's wall. "That's a Thursday. I don't see why not. I'm sure we could go out to dinner or something. What do you think, Lat?"

Latham looked up from his folder. "A Thursday?" His mind raced. But what if the call came today? His life could change in a minute. Suddenly, that calendar would overflow with meetings and church visits.

And weren't all the stake presidency meetings on Thursday nights? How could he tell his own new high council, "Sorry. Can't be there. Friends in from out of town." Obscure friends. People he barely remembered and whom, if he never dined with again, he would not miss. 

"Latham? That Thursday looks good to me. Shall I call her?"

He looked at the calendar again. Why couldn't that call have come already? How much patience could God wring from a man who only wanted to know what was about to happen to him? 

He looked at Ada. "I don't know."

"What? Why don't you know?"

"I'm not sure what I've got going then."

"But there's nothing on your calendar here." 

Latham peered at it over his half glasses. He might need a bigger calendar. He might even need a big spiral-bound date book like his wife's.

She gave him The Look. Oh, but he knew why all her little piano students faithfully practiced their lessons! Under Mrs. Runyon's Look, one's intestines shifted around like cats in a burlap bag.

"Latham, don't you like Helen and Bob?"

"I like them fine."

"Then what's your problem going to dinner with them on the 14th?"

"Nothing! I just don't know if I can or not. Now, I've got work to do, Ada."

She stared, the letter hanging from her hand. Then she left the room.

He turned back to his typewriter.

But he couldn't work. 

He rose up out of his chair. He stepped into the hall and opened the front door. Then he burst out of the house and into the August heat of the day. 

It could be the last great thinking walk of his life, if that call came today.  He circled the block, plucking a leaf or two off the neighbors' hedges, staring back at small dogs yapping from behind picket fences. He nodded to men pushing lawnmowers, to women standing before their flower beds with their hands on their hips, to Pete Haffner, standing in a little pile of sawdust, peering up through his safety goggles. 

He returned with arcs of sweat seeping through his shirt. And in the cool murmur of his house, as he approached his study, he glanced down the hall where his wife stood in the kitchen. 

"Lois Kilby called again," she said.

"Did she say what the problem was?"

"Something about water on the kitchen floor."

Latham frowned. That should be simple. Let Rut crawl under his kitchen sink and ruin his pipes himself.

Ada stood at his study door. "Are you going to see what you can do to help the Kilbys?" 

"I don't know, Ada." 

There was The Look again. He forged on, in spite of it. "I don't know if I will have time to get to it today," he said.

"What is this 'I don't know' business? How can a man not know his day is free when there's nothing on his calendar here to say it isn't?"

Latham sat back in his chair and studied the visible will working itself across his wife's face. The last thing he needed right now was a wife glaring at him, her dark eyebrows raised in puzzlement, her arms folded in a way that said, you're not the man I thought you were. The last thing he needed was a wife who could say so to Elder Sperry. 

Latham sat there, squeezed between that big, empty space on his calendar and the nagging little secret that ate at him like a chigger under his belt. 

He would have to tell her the secret. 

"Come on in, Ada," he said, motioning her to the spare chair. "Shut the door."
©  2014 Kristen Carson

Part 3