It was a bad time for his wife to phone. The zone managers were there for a quarterly meeting and David was giving the presentation.
“Excuse me,” his secretary said, “I hate to bother you, but your wife is on the phone, and she says it’s an emergency.”
“Thank you.” He picked up the phone. “What’s up?”
She sounded upset. “When we got home from shopping today, I found out that Scotty had stolen a toy. It was one of those He-Man figures he likes so much.”
“Kim, I’m in the middle of an important meeting. Can’t this wait until I get home?”
“When will that be?”
Kim paused. “Are you really going to stay home tonight?”
“Oh, no, I guess not. I’ve got to go home teaching. But as soon as I get through with that, we’ll talk about it, okay?”
She sighed. “Do you want me to handle it, David?”
He sensed the tension in her voice. It had only been two nights ago that they’d had a long talk. “Sometimes I feel like I’m raising this family all by myself,” she had said.
He’d promised to do better.
And now this.
The zone managers were staring at him. “Kim, look, I’ll take care of it tonight, okay? I’ve really got to go now. Bye.” He hung up.
“Anything wrong?” his boss asked.
“Not really. Family things.”
He continued with his presentation.
“So, from what you say, the Dallas office needs some help,” his boss said.
“Yes, the Texas office is one of our focal points on this project.”
That night it took him much longer to home teach than usual. When he finally got home, Scotty was asleep. The stolen toy lay unopened on the living room table.
“When are you going to talk to Scotty?” Kim asked as they got ready for bed.
He was going to say in the morning, but then he remembered he was scheduled to fly to Dallas in the morning. “I’ll be gone tomorrow. I guess it’ll be the day after next.”
“I guess I should’ve scheduled this in advance, right?”
“What do you want me to do? Dallas is important to the company.”
“David, you said you’d handle this.”
“Well, how long are we going to keep the toy? Two weeks? A month?”
“Kim, I’m doing the best I can.”
They both turned silent and went to bed, but he couldn’t sleep. At one o’clock he got up and went into the kitchen to have graham crackers and milk.
A few minutes later she came into the kitchen. “Mind if I join you?”
“Nope.” He slid a pack of graham crackers over to her.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. I deserved it.”
“I love you,” she said.
“And I love you, too.”
“If you want me to,” she said, “I’ll go with Scotty tomorrow and take the toy back.”
“I think it’s something I need to do, Kim. I’ve just been sitting here thinking. When I was a boy, I stole a watermelon from a neighbor’s patch.”
“You never told me about it.”
“I’m not proud of it.” He paused. “My father found out.”
“He taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. And that’s what I need to do for my own children, to pass on that lesson.”
She touched his arm. “You will,” she said. “I’m going to bed. Are you coming?”
“Not yet. I need a few more minutes to think, okay?”
She kissed him goodnight and left.
He thought back to the way it had been.
His father was a hard-working man with a face that seemed to be made of leather, not given to much talk, without even a high school education, a diesel mechanic, one of the best. He had trouble reading, and his wife, late at night, had to read updating specifications to him after the children had gone to bed. But one night David had overheard them, his mother reading parts numbers and procedures. Sometimes his father would stop her and ask a question, and then she would begin again.
There were nine kids in the family. While he was growing up, his parents never owned a piece of land. They moved every six months. During the spring and summer they rented a place out in the country, where they could raise enough food to last them through the winter. In the fall they moved into town near where his father worked, so they’d be able to save money on gas.
He remembered the day his parents found out he had stolen a watermelon. The information had come from one of the boys who’d gone with him that night.
“Your mother says you stole a watermelon,” his father said.
“It’s wrong to take something that don’t belong to you.”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You gotta make it right.”
“Take the money you’re saving for a bike and buy a watermelon and take it back to the man you stole from.”
He remembered again his pain in knowing the bike he’d hoped for was even further away from becoming a reality. “Why? He’s got plenty of watermelons.”
“When you do wrong, you got to go back and make it right. That’s the price you have to pay. And that’s not all.”
“You’ll have to work for the man, too.”
“Until he says you’re even. You’ll work every Saturday weeding his watermelon patch.”
David would never forget the day he walked slowly up that dirt road, pulling his red wagon. A large watermelon, the biggest his father could find in the store, wrapped in a towel so it wouldn’t break, jostled its way up the hill behind him.
Old Man Thompson is what all the kids called him. He was a man who lived alone and kept to himself and yelled at anyone who got on his property.
With all his heart David hoped Old Man Thompson wouldn’t be home. But as he approached the place, he could hear the sound of someone chopping wood. He went out back of the house to where the sound was coming from. There, beside a huge woodpile, stood Old Man Thompson.
David stood there for several minutes watching that great bear of a man splitting logs. It seemed to David that one blow was all it took from his axe for any log to become kindling wood. David wanted to run away and hide, but if he did, he knew he’d have to face his father about it.
A few minutes later, sweat glistening on his face, Old Man Thompson stopped to rest, looked around, and spotted David. He scowled. “What are you doing on my property?” he said. It sounded almost like a growl.
“Mr. Thompson, I stole a watermelon from you.”
Old Man Thompson’s eyebrows rose like warning flags. “You stole from me?”
“Yes sir. My dad made me bring a watermelon back. Here it is.”
Old Man Thompson looked at the watermelon in the wagon. “It’s not as good as one of mine.”
“No, but it’s store-bought. I paid for it myself, with money I was saving for a bike.”
It didn’t seem to matter much to Old Man Thompson about the bike. “If you’re done, then get off my property.”
“My dad says I got to work here every Saturday.”
“What could you do for me?”
“I can weed your watermelon patch. My dad says I have to.”
Old Man Thompson spat. “Well, I suppose I can find some piddling chores around here for you to do.” He paused. “How many days you gotta work?”
“Until you say we’re square.”
“Come along, then, and I’ll show you what needs doing.”
He worked four hours in the hot sun. His hands hurt and sweat poured down his face and he knew it wasn’t fair. Other kids stole watermelons and nothing happened to them.
At noon Old Man Thompson came out and looked at what David had done. “You missed places. I’ll have to go over it myself and do it right.” He paused, looking up at the sun. “Go home now. It’s too hot to do much now.”
“Do I have to come back?”
“I s’pect you better come back next Saturday.”
And so David spent his Saturdays weeding at Old Man Thompson’s.
“It’s not fair,” he complained to his father one day. “He’s got more than the price of a watermelon out of me already.”
“Don’t complain to me. It’s between you and him.”
“But what if he wants me to weed for him for the rest of my life?”
“Then you’ll do it.” his dad said.
Finally, after three Saturdays, Old Man Thompson said, “I guess that’ll do. You don’t need to come back anymore.”
David started for home. “Boy,” Old Man Thompson called out.
“You probably don’t know it yet, but you got yourself a good father. Don’t you ever disappoint him again.”
David didn’t understand why Old Man Thompson said that until years later when his father finally told him he’d talked to Old Man Thompson first and arranged the whole thing to teach his son a lesson.
It was a lesson David never forgot. It made him an honest man. Not only that, it had been years before he could stand the taste of watermelon again.
David looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was 2:30 in the morning.
He sighed. The cycle was completed. Now it was his turn to teach.
Except the store Scotty stole from was not much like Old Man Thompson, and child-labor laws and insurance made it unlikely Scotty could work there.
And he was supposed to be in Dallas by noon.
The alarm went off at seven. Kim shut it off.
“David, get up. Your plane leaves in an hour.”
“I’ll call and see if it will matter that I go Thursday, instead. From what I know from our previous conversations, they may be happy for a day’s delay.”
“But Thursday we’re supposed to have lunch together.”
“Would it work just as well for you on Friday?”
“Well, actually, it would, but why?”
“If I can, I’ve got to take Scotty downtown.”
Scotty walked slowly up to the store manager’s office, timidly holding the He-Man Figure. David went with him part of the way and then told him he was on his own.
It was an impressive office, especially to a nine-year-old. “Mr. Billingsley will see you now,” his secretary said.
Scotty tip-toed into the large office. Mr. Billingsley looked up from the report he was reading. “Yes?”
Scotty was near tears. “I took this.” He gravely handed the He-Man figure to Mr. Billingsley.
“You took this from our store without paying for it?”
“Do you know how many people work in this store?”
“Two hundred and eleven. When you take things, it’s like taking money away from them so they have less to feed their families. Shoplifting is a very serious thing.”
“I’m sorry.” Scotty brushed aside a tear.
“I think you need to work to make things right.”
“Outside the store. Picking up trash. Every Saturday morning.”
“But for how long?” Scotty asked.
“I’ll tell you when it’s enough.”
Scotty nodded his head and started to leave. Mr. Billingsley came out to meet David.
“Scotty,” David said, “you go and wait in the hall. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Thank you for seeing us, Mr. Billingsley. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
“And how long before you want me to tell the boy he’s done enough?”
“That’s going to keep you tied up for that time too, won’t it?”
“Yes, I’ll be here every Saturday with him.”
David walked out into the outer office. Scotty was looking very sad.
“First we have to go buy some trash bags, and then you’ll start picking up trash around the store.”
“Will you help me, Dad?”
More than anything he wanted to say yes, but he didn’t. “You have to do this yourself. When you make a mistake, you have to make it right again. I’ll stay in the car and give support, but you have to do it yourself.”
“For how many Saturdays?”
“Until Mr. Billingsley says you’ve done enough.”
When they got home, Kim had a message for him. “Your boss called. He said they’re getting things ready for Dallas and want you to call about something. I guess they thought Thursday was just as good?”
“Yes. I called Dallas and our office. Everybody thought they needed another day anyway.”
He smiled. “I learned something today, Kim. Maybe I’m not as good at being a father as my own dad was, but at least I tried. You know what? It felt good.”
“I think you learned something else, too.”
“Dallas will still be there on Thursday.”