I know I shouldn’t be so touchy, but I couldn’t believe the way the guy came and put his hand on my shoulder like that.
It was Brother Angelo. I was there in church sitting on the front row with the other deacons, and he came up before the meeting started and put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t like it. I mean, dad puts his hand on my shoulder and that’s okay, but when one of these older guys at church does it it makes me feel small.
But he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Russell, I need some help digging out some rose bushes this Saturday, and I thought you’d be just the guy to help me. I’ll give you two bucks an hour.”
Now two bucks is a lot of money for a thirteen-year-old kid. So I couldn’t turn it down. Besides, Mom was having a little trouble making ends meet since dad left and they got divorced. So I said I would.
I thought that was what dad would have done if he’d been in my shoes.
That Saturday I showed up at his place at nine. He was already out there and the sweat showed through his shirt like it was really hot. But it wasn’t that hot. He was just out of shape.
My dad would never let himself get that way, I thought. He was always strong and fast and he could play tennis better than anyone else at his gym. And Brother Angelo was just an old truck driver who probably couldn’t catch a baseball if it was a thousand dollar bill.
But he was paying two bucks an hour, so what did I care?
While he worked—he had an axe and I had a shovel—he kept talking to me like he was writing a history or something.
“Russell,” he said, “how’s school been for you this year? You’re in the seventh grade, aren’t you?”
“Russell, what’s your favorite subject?” (I said lunch, but he didn’t hear me.)
“I’d be happy to give you a hand repairing that old chain link fence in your backyard for your mother.”
All the while he was sweating and grunting every time he swung the axe. Then he would put down the axe, head on the ground, and lean on it and breathe hard and wipe his forehead with the back of his hand, then wipe his hand on his pants.
My dad would never let himself go like that.
Later in the week he came over and showed me how to take new wire and work it into the holes in the fence. It really wasn’t too hard, and I said so. “This doesn’t take any special talents to fix this fence,” I said. “I’ll bet I could have done it myself; I just never got around to it.”
He just smiled and I saw how one of his front teeth was broken and wondered about it but had the manners not to ask what had happened. “I’m sure you could have done it by yourself,” he said, “but it sure makes work go faster when you have someone to do it with you.”
I nodded and he grinned and picked up his tools and said, “See ya,” and left.
I thought how he was a nice man, but dad would never have to fix a fence like that. When he was home from the office he had better things to do with his time so he would hire some guy like Brother Angelo, who probably didn’t have any college and might be a little short of money, to do it for him.
The next day Brother Angelo came up behind me in church again and put his hand on my shoulder again. It was a heavy hand, and I knew who it was without looking up.
“Hi, Russell,” he said. “I noticed your mom hasn’t been driving your car lately. So I asked her and she said I could come help you fix it up if you wanted to. How would this Wednesday evening be?”
I just shrugged—as much as you can shrug with a heavy hand like that on your shoulder—and said, “Yeah, I guess we could.”
I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t know much about cars and wasn’t sure I wanted to learn. I’m more interested in biology and basketball. But we needed the car fixed.
That Wednesday before he got there mom came in from hanging out the wash in the backyard about the same time I came home from school.
“Hi, mom, what’s for supper?” She told me, then I said, “Oh, I’d better hurry. Old Fat Angelo is coming at five-thirty to help fix the car.”
Mom kind of raised her eyes from where she was sitting and looked at me a long time. Mom never did say much since dad left; she always seemed sad and quiet. But we had some good times and it wasn’t like she was an old grouch or a hermit or something. She just didn’t seem as happy as before.
Finally she said—so softly that I really had to strain to hear it—“Russ, ‘Old Fat Angelo’ is our brother and he has done more to help us out since your father left than almost anyone else.”
So I laughed and said I didn’t mean it (but I really did) and asked again about supper to change the subject.
I just didn’t see why the guy couldn’t take better care of himself. I knew he was getting older—his kids were all gone and everything—and his wife had really gray hair—but that didn’t seem to be much of an excuse.
We had barely finished eating (we ended up having bean and bacon soup and toast) when we heard a knock at the back door.
Mom answered it and smiled at Brother Angelo like she didn’t want him to know she had been feeling sad. “Hello, Brother Angelo,” she said, “why don’t you come in and have something to eat before you get started.”
He laughed real loud (I’ll bet you could have heard it across the street) and then he shook his head. “No, Sister Watkins, I just need Russell here to help me.” Then he looked at me with a big smile and said, “Evening, Russell. Guess I’ll see you in a minute.” And then he turned around and went out to open up the hood of our car.
“Mom,” I said in kind of a whiney voice (the one that usually works), “I don’t want to go out there and get all dirty. He knows how to fix it and doesn’t really need my help.” I twisted up my face to emphasize my point.
But Mom just sighed and sipped a spoonful of soup. “Russ,” she said, “if the man is going to spend some of his time helping us out, the least we can do is spend some of our own time helping ourselves.”
And when she said that I felt ashamed. Dad would have just laughed at my whining, and would have messed up my hair and said, “Ah, just go play basketball,” and I would have laughed then too and said, “No, you’re right, I should help.” Dad knew how to get me to do things and feel good about it at the same time.
But dad wasn’t there—and mom wasn’t dad—but I needed her too. So I was ashamed because I knew I was being selfish and didn’t really care.
So I went out to help. It was really kind of fun. He showed me the different parts of the engine and explained how they worked. I don’t remember the details, but it was nice to get an idea what all that engine jazz was for.
When I went back into the house he came with me. He stood there in the doorway and said to my mom, “Helen, I’ve noticed you’ve been getting up early on Sunday mornings to take Russell to priesthood meetings. If it’s all right with him, why don’t I come by and pick him up, and then you and Ruth (that was his wife) can come together when it’s time for Sunday School?”
Mom smiled and looked at me and I knew the ball was in my hands. I didn’t know what to say. Brother Angelo was an all-right guy, but he was old enough to be my grandpa, and besides, I noticed he had a bad habit of being late. Dad and I had never once been late from the time I started priesthood until the time he left home.
But I couldn’t say, “No, mom, you take me so I won’t be late and so I won’t have to ride with an old man who tries too hard.” She would have been really disappointed if I had done that. I know dad would have been too. So I just tried to smile and said yes.
But the idea of riding with him really bothered me. He was starting to do some of the things my dad used to do—and I didn’t need that. I still had a dad.
He picked me up early that next Sunday morning. I couldn’t believe it.
It was about a twenty-minute ride to the church house, and I didn’t have anything to say. I thought I could just sit there and stare out the side window until we were there. Then I would ride home with mom after Sunday School.
But he wanted to talk. He asked me questions like how was school going and did the car work fine now and how did I enjoy passing the sacrament.
Then he was quiet for a little while. But not too long. He started talking about my dad. He said how I seemed to be a lot like him and how that impressed him. “Your dad is a good man, Russell,” he said.
“I know,” I said, “he’s the best.”
“Yes, I think there’s something to that.”
Then Brother Angelo looked at me (we were at a light) and smiled so that broken tooth showed and so his eyes crinkled. “I remember a good time your dad and I had at the welfare farm last summer. We were down there cleaning the stalls where the cows get milked. It was hot out and the flies were buzzing all over the place. I think we spent as much time brushing them away as we did cleaning out the muck in those stalls.” Then the light changed and he pulled away and stopped talking.
But not for long.
“Yes, that was a good time. We laughed and sang together and told stories and laughed some more and then we talked about you. I think you were a foot shorter last summer, weren’t you. He’s really proud of you, Russell. He said you’re the best son he’s ever had.”
And then we both laughed, because I’m the only child my parents were able to have and because I knew that was something my dad says sometimes. Brother Angelo didn’t say any more.
But I wanted to talk now. “Did you know my dad very well?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said and laughed again. “When you were younger we served in a Sunday School presidency together—it was called a superintendency then. Then I was released and he was made superintendent. Over the years I guess we’ve been kind of busy. We haven’t seen much of each other except at church.” Then he told me more about the summer before at the welfare farm, about how a cow had gotten loose later in the afternoon—and about the yelling and hooting he and my dad had done to get it in.
I could just see them out there together. Brother Angelo with his potbelly and my dad all lean and tall chasing a cow across the yard. It was a funny thought.
Then we were at church but we were still early. He looked at me and said, “Russell, you’ve got a dad to be proud of.” His eyes were a little wet and I was feeling kind of funny, too. A lump came up into my throat and all I could do was nod. I knew he liked my dad, too, and I thought maybe he really cared about mom and me. It gave me odd feelings that I didn’t really know what to do with, but I knew they were good.
He started to heave himself out of the car. But he stopped and looked at me again. “Oh, by the way, Ruth is going to invite your mother and you to dinner sometime next week. Would that he okay?”
I nodded and coughed and wiped my eyes so he wouldn’t see. I was thirteen and I don’t know what I had to cry about.
Maybe dinner over at the Angelos’ will do mom some good, I thought. Maybe she won’t seem quite as sad for a while.
Then I smiled at him and he put his hand on my shoulder and we went in to priesthood meeting together.