He had calloused hands, colorful grammar, and a pickup held together with baling wire. He was my new companion.
Homer Giles, Home Teacher03051_000_013
The doorbell was ringing, and it was jolting me out of bed. There’s nothing I hate more than that—being awakened roughly, abruptly. I pulled on my bathrobe and answered the door. It was my quorum president, President Mecham.
“Sorry, Tom, did I wake you?”
“No, no, it’s time to get up anyway. Come in. Here, let me move that newspaper. Well, President Mecham, what can I do you out of?”
“Heh, heh, I like that, ‘What can I do you out of?’ That’s good. Say, I know you’re new in the ward and all, but we need an extra man now as a home teaching companion.”
Home teaching brought up a lot of memories: visiting inactive members; people not home; hearing a sister crying in the kitchen while her husband tells us not to come back; getting lost finding the address; interrupted television watching; rain; cold; inactive companions (“Can’t make it—I work nights”); personal priesthood interviews (“I don’t know if they have family home evening—I guess so.”).
“What do you say? You’ll be getting a good companion.”
“Yes, he is a very active member. Well?”
“Okay.” I didn’t even try to sound enthusiastic.
“Good, good. You’ll like him.”
While I was waiting for my new companion on the appointed evening, I heard this terrific rattle coming down the street. I tensed all over, hoping that whatever it was, it wouldn’t stop at my house.
The beat-up blue pickup drove by the house. I relaxed. Then it stopped and backed up slowly. I tensed up again and Homer Giles backed his 1951 truck up the driveway.
He was six foot five inches tall, most of it legs; he was slim and blue-jeaned, full of cowboy shirt and boots. He had rough hands.
“Yes.” I couldn’t make that sound enthusiastic, either.
“Pleased to meet ya. I’m Homer Giles.”
“Pleasure is mine.”
“Well, what say we get going? Got a little lost coming out here.”
“Would you like to take my car … maybe?”
“No, no; no need to put yourself out. I know the way there and all. We’ll take yours next time. Hop in.”
I started around the passenger side of the truck.
“Ah, you’ll have to get in this side. That side is wired shut.”
“Oh.” I slid in. The cab smelled warmly, strongly of barnyard, milk long past being fresh, and hard work. The stuffing was coming out of the seat. The right door window was cracked. There were chains on the floor and I was sure that I could see the driveway through a rusted hole in the floorboard. The windshield was pitted and it looked as if someone had run the wipers without the blades.
“She’s not much, but she’ll get us there.”
“Oh, I hope so.”
“What say we have a prayer before I crank her up?” After a unique conversation with the Lord, Homer cautioned, “Hang on now—the clutch is going out, so she jerks a little.” It was an understatement.
We exchanged life histories and he tried to prepare me for the first visit. “McMillens is good people, but with him driving a truck an’ all he don’t get much chance to come out to church. Good man, though. Got a slug of kids. A kinda wild bunch, but good kids. Gene says they like to visit with us, so we mostly see how they’re doing and encourage them to come to meetings.”
Sister McMillen was slightly pretty and child-weary. She was cradling a smudgy cherub in her left arm.
“Hi, Ester. Howya doin’?” Homer boomed.
“Hello, Homer, won’t you come in?” The house seemed to swell with sounds of television, laughter, arguing, complaining, and music. “Find a place and sit if you can,” she smiled. Homer moved a pile of unironed clothes, and I sat on some kind of a stool. Sister McMillen shifted the chubby infant to her right side.
“Good to see ya,” Homer shouted above the din the seven children were making.
“Good to have you here, Homer. Always appreciate you comin’ over.”
“How’s the family? Everyone healthy?”
“Oh, yes, yes, thank goodness.”
“Gene still drivin’ the same route?”
“No, he’s changed jobs now. He’s driving for a different outfit—says he’ll get every other Sunday off.”
“Great, that’s wonderful.”
“He feels really bad about not coming out to church like he wants to.”
“Oh, don’t let that worry you. He told me he’d start coming when his shift changed. He’s a good man.” She smiled warmly.
Homer told me all seven names. We talked on awhile, saw a child’s missing tooth, a painted cast on a broken arm, a homemade and ragged haircut on a child that had moved, the bulging muscle of a six-year-old. Things quieted down and we heard a beautiful prayer by a pretty little girl named Susie.
“I really appreciate you people coming by. It means a lot to all of us here.”
Ester was crowded at the door by the children. Brother Giles shook her hand warmly.
“I don’t know how you do it, Ester, but you do a good job. Give me a call if you need anything. Say hello to Gene for me.”
“Bye,” all kinds of voices rang out.
“Bye, bye. See ya now.” We climbed into the pickup.
“Quite a brood eh?” Homer shouted above the roar of the truck.
“Yes, a nice family.” Brother Giles nodded in agreement.
“Next one is a single girl, going to school here. You’ll like her; she’s a pretty little thing.” He explained further as we went up the stairs to her apartment. “She writes poetry. Good stuff. She’s read a couple of them to me. I’d like her to marry, though. She could starve to death trying to make a living on poems.” Homer had what many would call a missionary knock.
“Oh, hello, Homer, come in, come in,” she had a voice to match her daintiness.
“This here is Tom Allen. Brother Allen, this is Kathy Jones.”
“A rather common name,” she smiled.
“I keep telling her some people thought Joseph Smith was a common name,” Homer said as he sat down. “Well, Kathy, you won any contests lately?” Homer laughed.
“Oh, no, no.” She turned to me on the sofa. “I win one poetry contest, and he thinks I do it on a weekly basis.”
“Have you ever been published?”
She turned serious. “Almost a couple of times, but nothing to rave about.”
While I was trying to figure out what that meant, Homer interrupted.
“Come on and read him my favorite one!”
“Homer, you are embarrassing me!” She turned to me again. “It’s not my best.”
“I’d like to hear it.” I was serious.
“Okay, just a minute.” She returned, paper in hand.
“Kinda leaves you hanging up there, huh?” Homer sighed.
“Yes, it does,” I said.
She was lonely; she talked on and on, not boring me, but she conversed as if starved for it. She had several questions on doctrine, and Homer’s knowledge of scripture was surprising. His looks somehow didn’t give the impression of a scripturalist.
She offered us fudge and Homer loaded up his pockets for the kids. She wanted Homer to say the prayer, and it was tender and touching. She was misty-eyed when we left.
I caught my pants on an exposed cushion spring getting into the truck.
“Ah, you gotta kind of be careful there, Tom,” Homer grinned. I didn’t think it was so funny.
“Next gal is Birdie Jane Mortensen. Some people say she’s made of spit and vinegar,” Homer laughed again.
Birdie Jane lived in an older, dark brick home with climbing roses and vines along the front. It was sunset, but she hadn’t turned on any lights. Birdie Jane was slim, with fierce blue eyes, white hair, and large ears. She wore a long print dress with a clean apron of printed roses. When Homer greeted her, I took it she was slightly deaf.
“I’m just fine, Brother Giles, just fine.” Her voice was amazingly young. “Who’s he?” She glanced my way.
“Oh, this is my new companion, Brother Allen. He’s new in the ward.” I nodded at her. She just stared back.
We entered the simple front room. It was bare except for the sofa, the rocking chair, and a small lamp. The wooden floor reflected worn cleanliness rather than wax. We sat in the sofa—the springs had long since collapsed. Birdie Jane sat herself in the rocker.
“Can’t hardly see ya, Birdie Jane—why don’t you turn on some lights?”
“There’s the lamp,” she nodded. It didn’t help much.
“So the other fella took off, eh?”
“No, no, he just moved outa the ward.”
“Didn’t like him much. He’d just sit there all the time with a silly grin on his face.”
“That’s what you call a nervous smile, Birdie Jane,” Homer said.
“What’s he got to be nervous about?” I was starting to feel empathy for the former home teacher.
“Didn’t cotton to him much. Kinda small, sneaky-eyed.”
“Oh, he was all right, Birdie Jane. Don’t be hard on him now.”
“Didn’t like him nohow.”
“How ya feelin’?” Brother Giles was forcing a smile.
“Fine, fine, how’s yourself, ’n Mary, ’n the kids?”
“Oh, they’re all fat and sassy.”
“You got any kids?” She was looking through me.
“No. I’m not married.” I’m sounding apologetic, I thought. Birdie Jane stared at me for awhile.
“Now don’t start on him, Birdie Jane.” Homer paused for a moment; somewhere between instinct and thinking, he turned to me. “How about a drink of water, Tom? Don’t get up, Birdie Jane, we can get it. You stay right here.” Homer obviously knew his way around the house, and he just as obviously had something on his mind.
In the kitchen he spoke louder than usual, glancing back at the rocker and Sister Mortensen as he opened the cupboard door. “Here’s a glass for you, Tom.” Where the food should have been there was a salt shaker, an almost empty ketchup bottle, and some broken pieces of uncooked spaghetti. He glanced at me and shook his head.
“Yessir, this here is well water. Want some ice cubes?” He walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. There was a dried black banana, an open can of tomato sauce, and a box of baking soda. He searched the freezer compartment. No ice cubes. Nothing else, either. “Yessir, this water will spoil you. You start drinking this stuff, and that city water will start tasting like a swimming pool.” He shook his head again. We went back to the front room.
“Birdie Jane, you ever get that mixup with the social security straightened out?” Homer was leaning forward and speaking softer.
“Yes, I did. Finally got her going again. Paid all my debts. I’m debt-free now.”
“It’s a good feelin’, ain’t it?”
“Yessir, I don’t owe nobody nothin’.”
“When’s the last time you ate good, Birdie Jane?”
I was surprised. I thought Homer would use a little more tact than that. She stopped rocking.
“This afta’noon … Homer.”
“What did you have?”
“Don’t meddle, Homer; it ain’t your place to meddle in my affairs.”
“I ain’t meddlin’, Birdie Jane, but I’m concerned, real worked up about ya.”
“Don’t shame me, Homer.”
“No shame meant, Birdie Jane, no shame. Just lookin’ out for you. We take care of our own.”
“You’ll shame me.”
“No, ma’am. But I kinda get the feelin’ you paid off your bills, lights, gas ’n so on that sorta piled up during this mixup you’ve had. And then I was kinda figgern’ you didn’t have enough left to buy some fixins for supper. Right?”
Sister Mortensen answered too quickly. “I don’t owe nobody nothin’.”
“That you don’t, woman, but what do you plan on eating between now and the next check?”
“I’ll get by.”
Homer took the toothpick out of his mouth and studied it. “Birdie Jane, you’re a good woman, but this here is a different time we’re livin’ in. I know you’ve always paid your way and you’re not beholden to no one. But the Church is all set up so we won’t be loners. We have to help one another. The way society’s set up now, it’s hard for a widder woman to make her way. And you ain’t no spring chicken, either.”
“I’m all right.”
“Yes, you are, but you’re going to starve to death just to be debt-free! You need food. Now let us bring you some over. Now hear me out. We’ll bring you somethin’ to tide you over is all, okay? You’ve worked at all kinds of welfare jobs—the cannery, the farm—you’ve told me so. You’ve always been the first to help others that way; now you have a right to that. There’s no need to feel ashamed.”
“Just the same, I won’t take it.”
“Would it be different if they send over the Relief Society president?”
“No, don’t send her over here.”
“Well, how’s about the bishop? Could he take your order? He’s a good man.”
“I know, I know he is. He’s a good boy.”
“We’ll talk to our quorum president, President Mecham. He’ll contact the bishop tonight, okay?”
She looked off to the other wall. “I don’t want you putting the bishop out none. He’s got things to do and this ain’t no emergency.” She was rocking faster now.
“Well, it’s still early. We’ll be back tonight after we see what President Mecham says.”
“Like to give this place a blessing before you go?” she asked. She couldn’t kneel, so Homer and I knelt on either side of the rocking chair.
She struggled up to see us to the door. “Goodbye, Homer.” She nodded slightly in my direction. Ever so softly she patted Homer’s arm as she shook his hand.
We started out for President Mecham’s house. For the first time all night Brother Giles wasn’t talkative. All the way there I was thinking. I noticed no bumps, no noise, no cold. I just thought, and looked out the cracked window of Homer’s pickup at the dark and passing night.